The phone rang.
It’s near noon and I had just returned from class, weary from another all-nighter induced by sadistic graduate engineering professors.
“I just brought Grandpa back from the hospital.”
“I thought he got back two days ago.”
He was supposed to be taking a break from experimental cancer therapy; they were going to start radiation later that week. His prognosis was not good; we were worried.
“Someone broke into his house last night looking for diamonds of all things. Grandpa pulled the gun from under his pillow and the guy took it from him and beat him up with it.”
My thoughts on having a gun in the home were radically altered in seconds.
My mom and grandfather lived in a very small town in Oklahoma called Osage. So small that the only public establishments were two churches and two bars, both equally attended. There was no police station or law for at least ten miles.
The ‘diamonds’ bothered me. He didn’t have any, but Grandpa had shown his silver and gold bullion on occasion to people other than family. Something told me that a perverted game of Telephone lured someone who was no more than two degrees of separation from me to his house at the exact wrong time. Most likely I knew this person.
“Is Grandpa okay?”
“He is bruised really badly on his arm and head, but he seems all right.”
“I’m coming home.”
“No, no, it’s okay, he’s all right, and you’re busy.”
Which was the truth, I was.
“Who did this mom?”
“Grandpa said he was skinny and had a deep voice.”
Skinny, probably a crank addict looking for money, the town was known for it.
“Can I talk to him?”
As Mom gave him the phone, I’m wondering what kind of man could beat up an old man.
“Are you okay Grandpa?”
“Ohhh, that bastard got me good, Dennis, you should see the bruises. But I’m okay.”
“Are you sure? It’s not that far…”
“Yeah I’m sure, you got school.”
We chatted a little more and concluded the conversation.
“I’ll come to the hospital and see you this weekend. And Grandpa, if I find this guy…”
“I know Dennis, I know”
“I love you, Grandpa.”
“I love you too.”
Those were the last words he spoke to me directly.
Later that week
The phone rang.
It’s mom again, and she’s crying.
“Dennis, something is wrong with Grandpa, you need to come see him.”
I finally told my professors what is going on, and find out they are not so sadistic after all. I rushed to the hospital.
I saw the man who had lived a troubled, imperfect life lying in a bed with his eyes closed. Occasional murmurs came from his mouth. My mother was telling him to say hi to me. He managed to utter the last words I ever heard him say,
“That’s my daughter…”
Yes, she was always his daughter. I wondered if he knew I was there. The doctors told us to leave.
I was standing next to my mother as the neurosurgeon tells us that Grandpa had a subdural hematoma induced by the trauma of the beating, and they had to perform emergency surgery to relieve the pressure on his brain. My mother asked what he will be like when he wakes up.
The surgeon firmly replied,
“If he wakes up, ma’am, you have to accept that possibility.”
She’s shocked. So am I. Clearly this man has said this too many times to be truly sorrowful, but he tried.
November 2, 1995, 12:50 A.M.
The phone rang.
I heard my brother Sean’s voice.
“Dennis, you need to go to the hospital.”
I was playing chess with my friend Jason who lived close to the hospital. The rest of the family was home about fifty miles away. We were all tired from the deathwatch; however, my mother wanted to be sure that he did not die alone.
November 2, 1995, 1:05 A.M.
I’m too late.
I was holding the hand of the man who always had Cokes and candy bars in his refrigerator for me when I was young, who had import beer for me when I was in college, who would act like he didn’t know that I sometimes took a pack of cigarettes, who smiled as he gave me twenty dollars for an imaginary date that he knew I didn’t have, who bought my plane ticket home from Germany after I foolishly thought that I could live and work there because I wanted to.
I was holding his hand, and it was turning cold. I let him die alone.
I remembered my last words to him, and promised myself that the killer would soon join my grandfather. I wondered about what kind of animal could kill an old man.
November 2, 1995, 2:00 A.M.
My mother asked me if I was here when he died. I said no. It seemed impossible for her to appear more hurt, but yet she did.
The one time in my life I should have lied to her, and I didn’t.
The phone rang.
My mom told me that someone broke into Grandpa’s house again and ransacked the place. The fool, I thought, he was still looking for the diamonds. He was as good as caught; they said the house was too dirty for prints the last time, which I doubted, but now the evidence was fresh. A little bit of dust, a modem connection to the NCIC database, and we have a lead to my grandfather’s killer.
She asked me to be there when the police came.
The Next Day.
A grossly fat man wearing black jeans, a black pocket T-shirt, an Osage County Police Department baseball cap, a cheap badge, and a gun arrived in his personal vehicle. He had no forensic equipment. We brought him inside. I point out that the cabinet doors were closed before, and now they were open. I reminded him that this was a murder.
He looked at his watch, ignored me and told my mom that he couldn’t do anything. This was Osage County’s Finest in action. I was about to unload on him, but my mom could see it, and gently pulled me away.
I told Sean, and he was as angry as I. We both knew justice would not be served through the system. We both planned for it ourselves. Older people in town gave us tips; some of them were too good to not have been tested. I didn’t ask them how they knew about them.
I remembered a quote from John Dryden, “Beware the fury of the patient man.”
Early December, 1995
The phone rang.
Sean said he needed to talk to me.
He approached my mother’s neighbor late at night. Sean was was with my cousin, Mike, and he was drunk. The neighbor was certainly not one of the churchgoers in town, and most of the people that hung out at his place were suspects.
However, we didn’t suspect him because Grandpa had crawled to his door first, and he was the first to give him aid.
Sean told him, “I know you know who killed my grandfather you son-of-a-bitch.”
The neighbor pointed a shotgun at him and said,
“I don’t know nothing for sure, now get off my fucking porch.”
Sean laughed and said, “You’re not going to shoot me.” He closed the door.
Mr. Rogers would never want this man for his neighbor, and I was terrified that he was still my mother’s.
My mother has never heard this.
I saw a woman on TV crying. She had lost her son in the Oklahoma City bombing. Her anguish was real, and she was demanding swift justice.
I understood her pain, but I knew it is not justice that she wanted. She wanted what I wanted. She wanted revenge.
At this time I realize that in almost every case, ‘justice’ is a euphemism for ‘revenge.’
Early January, 1997
After being gone for almost a year on an internship, I’ve returned to graduate school. My brother pulls me aside and says,
“Dennis, I think I know who did it.”
Bloodlust tempered by caution entered my mind. I didn’t like hearing the word ‘think,’ you have to know. He whispered a name, and he was certainly a suspect. He described an unmistakable look of guilt on his face when he met my brother’s eyes. I suspected that at least this person knew who did it, and we could find out. It could be possible only if one question had the right answer.
“Who have you told?”
He said something other than “Nobody.”
I cursed him, and told him to forget it. He objected, he thought the guy was cool. I replied,
“Three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead.” (Ben Franklin was a wise man).
He understood, three people knew already. I told him it’s over for at least eighteen months, minimum, and never speak of it again. There was too much to lose, not enough evidence, and we couldn’t count on an encore performance from Osage’s Finest. I could see that my words hurt him, but they were necessary. I remained patient, and remembered the name.
January 16, 1997
Ennis Cosby was senselessly gunned down while changing a flat tire. The killer was apprehended because he couldn’t keep a secret.
January 17, 1997
Bill had performed at our university the year before; unfortunately I had missed the show. Large poster boards were put up on the walls of the Student Union so students could express their sympathy. I think that I wrote something to the effect of
“Mr. Cosby, I’ve also lost someone to senseless violence, I can only say the pain lessens over time.”
I looked at the words that I wrote, and I wondered if I believed them.
Later that month, Bill Cosby asked the judge to spare the murderer his life.
I was confused. I didn’t understand how he could maintain his values in the face of such a tragedy, but I admired it deeply.
I had returned from another summer in Germany, and was relaxing before starting work. While reading Frank Herbert’s Chapterhouse: Dune, my world was changed and the last vestiges of my anger were quenched as I read eight simple words in the final chapters.
“Revenge is for children and the emotionally retarded.”
My jaw dropped as I put the book down. I thought about Israel and Palestine, and then I thought about the Marshall Plan. I saw which solution worked, and which one didn’t. I remembered creation and destruction parables. I knew then that I was not a child, and I knew that I was no longer emotionally retarded. I was glad that my brother came to me first, and that he told somebody something that he shouldn’t have.
I learned that Frank’s wife had often said those words before she passed away. I realized she must have been a remarkable woman. I understood Bill Cosby’s plea to the judge, and understood he is a wiser man than I.
I told my grandfather that I’m sorry that I can’t fulfill my last promise to him. I’m sure he would have understood.
But I still wondered what kind of person could hit an old man.
Later that month, 2:00 A.M.
I was dreaming in German, and I awoke from it in the middle of the night. I remembered when I returned from there the first time, my Grandpa greeted me in German. I never knew how he learned it.
I missed him and thought about him. And then a key detail about the life of the man who killed him came to me, and I was certain that it was correct. I didn’t know the ‘why’ to my question, but I knew the ‘how.’ For the first time, I felt pity for the killer. Oddly enough I thought about writing my realization as a song. Then I went back to sleep.
July 3, 2002
I had finished the song a few months before, but I hadn’t played it for my family because I hadn’t seen them in person. I visited my brother’s family for the holiday. My mother was traveling; she’ll hear it next.
Late in the day, my body tired from throwing his kids into the pool, I played the song for him. He liked it. He told me that he wouldn’t do anything about Grandpa anymore. He, like me, had found his peace. I didn’t ask him how he came to that conclusion, but I suspected there were two reasons, and they also happened to be the cause of my soreness.
He asked if he could have a copy of the lyrics, and he wanted me to play it again. I gave him a copy. The final verse reads,
“And if you should ever cross my path,
I don’t know that if I would cry or laugh,
Because I can’t imagine the hell you’re in,
knowing nobody loves you like we loved him.”
Note: This story was published previously in Atomica Magazine.
Farewell Reader, have a good day.