If it please the Court: Your Honors, I stand before you today to tell the story of what happened. My words are not to be offered as any form of excuse, not even as an explanation, but I want to tell you the entire experience as it happened to me. Then, of course, you will be free to decide what you will.
It was the year of a hundred and six consecutive days of rain, and I had lost my daughter to her cell phone. The rain began at the end of summer, but the days were indistinguishable from late fall, each blending one to another in a slurry of rainfall, brightened only by a sunbreak a few minutes each day. The first completely dry day did not occur until December, when we had a cold high-pressure system move in that brought freezing temperatures that turned Swan Lake into a mirror of ice.
People’s moods in Sitka, Alaska, were irritable both during and after the rain. This story starts in September before the darkest of the dark days had hit. This was still during the period of the jokes and well before the deaths and mayhem.
Todd had been asking me about the meaning of the Buddhist concept of “right relationship.” Now, Your Honors, I know you might think I’m already beginning to drift, but bear with me, for this turns out to be one of the more slippery of the foundational stones of the eight-fold path—not that there are any real bodhisattvas in this cast of characters. But there are, as they say, many ways to get lost in this world, and “wrong relationship” is one of the most common.
As you may remember from the previous briefing, Todd lives in my house and has for many years. He was involved in the circumstances of this crime, a fact that I still regret. He and I are both now in our late fifties, and we relate to each other as brothers, even though there was a time when he was my ward, and I essentially had legal custody of him after his parents passed away. Todd rests comfortably on the solidly affected end of the Asperger’s scale. Recently he has been learning to tell jokes as part of his occupational therapy. Joke telling, it turns out, helps create a kind of ready-made emotional relationship for people with autism. They say funny things, people laugh, display emotion and the autistic person laughs in response to the other person’s laughter and presto: without having a clue of what an inner emotional world is like, they have entered into an emotional relationship.
Todd has lived his life with a series of obsessions. He has been fascinated with the patterns on manhole covers and the mechanics of how whales swim across the ocean. He has memorized the populations of all the major cities in the world and knows the make and model of almost every audio recording device ever manufactured. He loves animals and children, and his current interests include Buddhism and telling jokes.
Todd and I were walking back from work. I had walked from the Public Defender Agency, where I worked as a criminal defense investigator. I had stopped off at the jail to see one of our clients who had been locked up, and then I went over to the senior center to pick up Todd from his job in the kitchen. The rain was easing up to a light pebbling on the lake, and a few ducks were waddling in the middle of the street where someone had dumped a full bag of chips out of their car. This was irritating to the drivers along Lake Street but not enough for anyone to blow their horn, because it appeared that most everyone still enjoyed watching the ducks.
“Tell me your joke today,” I said.
Jane Marie, my wife, had been keeping on me to vet the jokes Todd was learning, for since it was known that Todd was telling jokes, people all over town were happy to tell him new ones, and Jane Marie worried some were not appropriate for all audiences and Todd would get himself in trouble. There had been an incident a few years ago when a little girl was crying outside the swimming pool, and she asked Todd if he could take her in to help her change into her suit, and he said he couldn’t and that he was sorry, and when the little girl asked why, Todd explained that the locker room was for women only because, “Vaginas were generally considered private and were only really comfortable being exposed to other females in situations such as locker rooms or some public restrooms.” Well, the lifeguard on duty heard the last of this, and there was a small-town kerfuffle about his choice of language, and Todd couldn’t go to the swimming pool without me for a while, and it caused Jane Marie some heartburn in the joke department.
Todd took a deep breath and straightened his glasses. “A little boy was sitting on the curb in town eating a big handful of chocolate bars, one after another, and an old man comes up to him and says, ‘You know, young man, you really shouldn’t eat so much chocolate. It’s not good for you,’ and the little boy says, ‘I don’t know, my grandpa lived to be one hundred and three.’ The old man said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, did your grandpa eat a lot of chocolate?’ and the little boy said, ‘No but he learned to mind his own fucking business.’”
By this time, we were through the roundabout and to the only stoplight downtown, and the wind was hitting us straight on without obstruction from the east. Todd’s glasses were now a haze of mist, dotted with raindrops. Though we could have crossed without danger to get undercover on the opposite corner, we waited in the soaking wind because Todd honors all laws.
“It’s a good joke,” I said. “If you tell it with anyone under twelve years old around, just change the ‘fuck’ to ‘damn.’ You’ll be fine.”
Todd nodded. He had taken many similar notes and understood the F-word problem.
“Cecil?” he asked.
“What?” I responded.
“Why was the little boy eating chocolate bars sitting on the curb of the street?”
The light changed but just before we stepped down off the curb I considered his question. I never like to brush him off or give him the impression I’m not giving his inquiries full consideration.
“It’s just funnier. I guess.” We hurried across the street.
By the time we got home the house was in a full frenzy of pre-dinner homework bickering: Jane Marie was stirring a pot of boiling red sauce, and Blossom was standing at the head of a bare table staring into her phone.
“Cecil, will you talk to your daughter?” was my wife’s greeting as I topped the stairs to our living room/kitchen, which looked out over the channel. Blossom did not acknowledge my existence.
“Mi familia!” I said as happily as I could. “Daughter, is there trouble in paradise?”
“Mom is being a bitch,” Blossom said, without raising her heavily mascaraed eyes from her phone, which she appeared to be drumming with her thumbs.
Jane Marie slapped the spoon into the sauce and started to make a move around the stove like a professional wrestler about to climb the turnbuckle to go for a body slam.
“Now hold on . . . every one. Hold on.” I moved in front of Jane Marie to gather her up in my arms. “You are
such a bitch. I knew that the first time I met you.” I kissed her on the lips.
“She can’t call me that, Cecil.” Jane Marie’s eyes were tired and sad, but every muscle in her body was coiled. She was ready to break.
“Listen,” I said, “let me set the table. Blossom, would you please pick some dinner music that will not cause us to slit our wrists, and could we have a meal that does not involve having the police called?” Blossom grunted and sat down and started scrolling through her music.
“You are such a tool,” she muttered.
“Thank you sweetheart,” I said.
The advantage of asking Blossom to provide the music for dinner was she had to place her phone in a cradle beside the stereo system. She chose the Mountain Goats album All Hail West Texas
because she knew I had once said that I liked it, but she set the volume far too high, knowing it would irritate the shit out of her mother, particularly the chorus of “Hail Satan!” in the first song. Jane Marie sat gritting her teeth as I scooped the sauce onto her plate, and I signaled Todd to turn down the volume.
To give a little more background to the tension in our family, about nine months ago a girl from the high school had dropped out and then gone missing. Her name was Melissa Bean. She had twin baby girls. We had known her and had helped her with her children. We still took care of the babies when the grandparents were overwhelmed. Melissa had fallen away in the last few months before her disappearance. She had been sullen and quiet, angry most of the time. “Drugs,” her parents said. She was never home; then there were new friends and strange calls. She was always tired, seemed scared of something but got snappy if you asked her about it. Her mom was worried that her daughter was growing so thin. Finally, after the Permanent Fund checks, our oil money payments, came out she was gone. No rumors. No body. It was a nightmare for Jane Marie and the many mothers of sullen teenage girls.
I was worried about Blossom as well, but I always worried. I’m now a fifty-six-year-old father of a teenager. I’m always tired too. I don’t see any of the obvious signs of drug use. Blossom is smart and bookish. She reads a lot. She makes films with her phone. She stays up late watching movies and talking to her nerdy friends. She likes to argue and cares passionately about the things she likes. The druggy people I knew—and I knew a lot of them—didn’t give a whit about John Darnielle, or whether he sounded better solo or with his band, or if the whole “lo-fi” phenomenon was bullshit or not, but for some reason Blossom did. Now, is she in danger of becoming a pretentious thirteen-year-old hipster? Probably, but Your Honors, cut me some parental slack here. This is Sitka, Alaska, and being a tad pretentious or being a lot pretentious when you are thirteen is a far cry from being a meth head swallowed up by the drug underworld, and preferable to that as well.
But Jane Marie worried about it, night and day, particularly since Blossom’s dear little playmate Emily dyed her hair blue and, in a twist on her best friend’s name, changed her own name to Thistle.
“Cecil, can Thistle spend the night tomorrow?” Calling us by our first names was another new development that drove Jane Marie crazy.
“It’s fine with me.” I looked at Jane Marie and she nodded down at her food. “Is it okay with her mom?”
“Ah . . . she doesn’t live with her mom anymore. She lives someplace else, with another family, I think.”
“What?” Jane Marie put down her fork. “Honey, what happened with Emily?”
“I don’t know. She just moved out. It happens.” Now they were both looking at their food.
Todd asked for some more spaghetti, and I dished him some in silence.
“Blossom . . .” Jane Marie’s voice was starting to crack, “when did this happen?”
“Jesus Christ,” Jane Marie said softly and a tear traced down her cheek.
“Why are you mad at me? I didn’t do anything,” Blossom said.
“No one said you did, honeybunny,” I said.
“I’m sorry,” Jane Marie said. She got up from the table and put her half-full plate of crab pasta in the sink and walked back into the office. John Darnielle and the Mountain Goats were singing “Color in Your Cheeks” as Todd asked if he could have another piece of French bread, and I told him he could.
Your Honors, you know from the previous briefing that I have a criminal history. You know that I am an alcoholic. At the time of this incident I had not had a drink in twenty years. All of my earlier offenses, the offenses that caused me to lose my driving privileges and tarnish my record were all alcohol related. What you may not know is that I was also a child of alcoholics, though my parents were not as extreme or as dramatic in their drinking as I turned out to be. But as a child of an alcoholic, I grew up with a need to please, and a need to try and to set the chaos right, to sweep up the broken glass and smooth over the arguments. Some have suggested that was the reason I became a criminal defense investigator. I don’t know about that, but I’m sure it helped when it came to being the father of a teenager.
Copyright © 2018 by John Straley. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.