We decided, my brother and I, to kill our father. We decided this for no other reason than to satisfy our own curiosity, to see how much shame, humiliation, disappointment a man can take before he crumbles.
Mine would be the more involved and arguably more crafty method, a steady accumulation of academic and professional achievements designed to lull our father into a false sense of paternal victory. For twenty-three years I would cultivate a Good Son image, excelling in school, graduating at the top of my class, landing the esteemed job and handsome salary. Then—this is the good part—in the midst of success, at the height of our father’s pride, I would emerge like an awakened sleeper cell to deliver the psychological karate chop that is the incarceration of his youngest, most promising son.
My older brother has never been one for premeditation. His weaponry in our joint patricide would be sustained aimlessness and wandering ambition. There would be the meandering career path with pit stops in culinary arts, the army, and, much to our father’s bafflement, motorcycle racing. Then would come the shotgun marriage—rather predictable in my opinion—followed by the conception of grandchildren whose inclinations would be to destroy their grandparents’ furniture and houseplants.
But my brother’s latest coup, I must admit, is more clever, more ingenious, more sadistic than all my years of calculated cunning. Our seventy-one-year-old father has said that his only wish is to live long enough to see his youngest son get out of prison. And now, inexplicably, his oldest son has been arrested.
I expected the circumstance of both his sons being locked up to leave a visible dent in his exterior. His arms, his entire lower half, somehow, seem weighed down and his eyes are hooded, but otherwise he looks the same as when he visited last month. He’s more resilient than I thought.
“I don’t understand your brother,” he says. My father and I are standing in line for the microwave, cold vending machine sandwiches in our hands. At the front of the line a Hispanic woman heats baby back riblet sandwiches, one for herself and for each of her four children. I point to the wrapper on my hamburger. “Look,” I tease. “Mine has a ‘hearth-baked’ bun.”
“I just don’t understand it,” he says again. “He saw what happened to you. He was sitting right there in the friggin courtroom when the judge gave you twelve years. I could understand him screwing around with another woman, but with a sixteen year old?”
The symmetry is beautiful, cruel: I look at pictures of kids; my brother sleeps with them. It’s the kind of thing that makes a man question every move he’s ever made as a father.
“I heard his mug shot made the six o’clock news.” A friend who saw the report said they mispronounced our last name.
“Jesus,” Dad says. “I hope like hell your grandparents didn’t see it. That’s all they watch is local news.”
I tried to imagine what my brother might have looked like in his portrait of shame, what expression he might have worn, but I can see nothing beyond his close-set eyes, blue-gray like our father’s, receding hairline, and button mushroom nose. In my own mug shot I had looked like a predator, someone’s creepy uncle with hard candy in his pocket.
“I don’t get the draw,” he continues. “I honestly have never understood the appeal of these young girls. How does a sixteen year old satisfy a man? She has no experience.”
The Hispanic woman at the microwave is soothing her son who’s burned himself on a freshly-nuked sandwich. He’s ten and wears a diamond stud in one ear. He dries his cheek with the bottom of his shirt revealing brown smooth belly. He has an outie. I look away.
“Well, you don’t know necessarily that she wasn’t experienced,” I say.
“No, not necessarily. You never know nowadays.” He tears a small vent in the corner of his sandwich wrapper. “But that doesn’t make it right. And you certainly can’t make the girl out to be a hussy in court.”
“No. Certainly not.”
By the time we’ve heated our food and reclaimed our seats the visitation room has filled considerably. My father and I slide our chairs over to accommodate a mother and her incarcerated son. Spring Break is here. School’s out, and the seats and aisles are crawling with children. A nearby TV blares cartoons, the newer more modern kind with anatomically unrecognizable characters, muted palettes, and hard edges that have never known the finesse of human hands. The flashing screen, the high octane children, my brother’s arrest—it’s exhausting.
“So how is he?” I bite into my burger. The hearth-baked bun sticks to the roof of my mouth.
“Scared. He called me right before they arrested him, talking all sorts of nonsense.”
“What kind of nonsense?”
“Oh, that he didn’t know what was wrong with him, or why he keeps fucking up. He said he thought about ending it. He’s afraid they’ll kill him if he goes to prison.”
A memory surfaces: My brother and I are sitting in his truck in the courthouse parking lot the day of my sentencing. He’s loosening his tie, laughing even as he wipes his eyes, saying that they got the wrong brother, that he was the bad one, that it should have been him they sentenced to twelve years.
“He’ll be fine,” I lie. “If I can survive, he certainly can.” I reach out to take the empty Ruffles bag from my father but he pulls back, says he isn’t finished with it. He folds it in half, quarters, eighths, unravels the whole thing and begins again.
“You and your brother are polar opposites. He’s a lot like me when I was his age, a bit of a smart ass. He’s liable to react if someone gets slick with him. You on the other hand take after your mother. You’re passive. You leave things lie.”
“How is she, by-the-way?” I called her last night. We talked about the books we were reading, she a history of gardening, I A Short History of Nearly Everything. For fifteen minutes we talked literature, relentlessly, fearful of pauses.
“Your mother’s pretty messed up right now. She doesn’t know if she can go through it again.”
He balls the bag into his fist. “I can’t help but think this is God’s way of paying me back for all the rotten things I’ve done in my life.”
“Nonsense,” I tell him. “That’s not even biblical.” He allows me to take the crinkled chip bag and drop it in the trash pail behind my chair.
At three o’clock the officers announce that visitation is over. My father and I brush the sesame seeds from our laps and stand. His cheek feels cool and rough pressed against mine. We hold on a little longer, a little tighter than usual.
Strangely, just as he and a small group of other visitors are preparing to leave, flashing lights appear in the prison parking lot. An ambulance. The room strains its collective neck as a gurney rolls past the windows, a black inmate lashed to the board. In our quiet wonderment the only sounds heard are those of muffled cartoons. Minutes pass without movement. The building, the entire compound has been locked down for this unexpected medical emergency. From where I and the other inmates stand segregated beside the vending machines awaiting strip searches, I can tell from his posture that my father is impatient to get on the road. The drive back to Dallas is four hours. Finally the radios give the all-clear. Children wave good-bye to their daddies one last time before heading out. The daddies smile, wave back, look away. One confused toddler cries into his mother’s neck.
The last I see of him is the back of his head moving doggedly toward the gates, his silhouette burning red, blue.