A teenage boy watches as his grandfather systematically levels an old cinder-block milkhouse that had stood for years about 50 yards from the Garden Prairie, Illinois, farmhouse where the boy has come to live after the murders of his parents in Chicago. His grandfather has been promising to tear down the old building for years. Why has he chosen today, finally, to do the job? The boy knows. His story, excerpted here, is one of a diverse collection of tales in Faith of a Father and Other Stories, available in e-book on amazon.com, including a father’s life-changing confrontation with the meaning of religious faith, a heart-stopping adventure for a mayfly swarm on a country pond, a famous gunfighter’s familiar encounter with an unfamiliar foe on a hot Kansas afternoon and more.
An excerpt from “The Milkhouse”
I was only 14. Old enough to know what happened. Too young to be trusted with the details, or so the adults thought. All I knew at first was that Mom and Dad weren’t there when I got home from spring soccer practice, and since it was after nine o’clock on a Tuesday, that seemed odd. Not so odd, though, that I couldn’t fix a ham sandwich and take a large Coke up to my room to watch a Jordanless Bulls game. Mom and Dad both worked downtown and often tried to meet each other for the train ride home. Maybe tonight they’d decided on dinner in the city. It wouldn’t have been a first. Since I’d gotten out of junior high, that had happened a couple of times before. I enjoyed the privacy, actually, and the feeling that I was becoming grown up.
But with no call or message by 11, I had to start wondering. I called their offices first. Just voicemail. I hated to call anyone so late, but after a while did try some of the neighbors and Dad’s closest friend from the office. Nothing. Just polite reassurances.
I tried not to worry. I mean what really could happen? A train crash? An accident in a cab? A chunk of concrete falling from a skyscraper?
Hnh. Try robbery, rape and murder.
The phone rang just as I was raising the blanket over my shoulder to try to get some sleep. It was Tom Cisneros, our next-door neighbor. Dad and he played racquetball on Saturday mornings. His voice was strained, but still resonant with sleep.
“Richard,” he said. “Can you meet me downstairs? We have to go to the hospital.”
“Sure.” I tried to sound confident, but I couldn’t hide the uncertainty.
The police met us at the emergency room door. We were too late. Dad had probably died instantly in the alley where he had been shot in the head. Mom was shot once in the chest and had lived long enough to reach the emergency room, but no farther. I felt weak and ill. My head, chest and belly all became light as dust, but even so, my paper-doll legs couldn’t hold me up. They began to shudder and I groped for a chair. Mr. Cisneros grabbed me with both arms and helped me sit. His shoulders heaved.
The officer was very kind and gentle, despite the leather in his voice and his blunt South Side toughness. Mom and Dad had, in fact, decided to get dinner downtown. They met at a little Thai place on Foster, well outside the Loop but a fine enough neighborhood. Still, around 8, 8:30 p.m. on a chilly April night, no one noticed when some guy pulled a gun and ushered them into an alley. For a woman in her 30s, my mom was very attractive. The cop said they thought the guy decided on more than robbery once he got my folks into the dark. Dad was executed with a single shot to the back of the head. Mom was, in the cop’s word, “assaulted” before she was shot.
The guy got away, but Mom had lived long enough to give some description. Basically, a tall, smelly white guy with long, dark hair, a two-day beard and the accent of a hillbilly. The cop assured us they would find him.
And they did.
But not before I would be moved across the state to a farm in Garden Prairie, where I took every chance I could get to crawl into the blackness of a windowless cement playhouse and weep.
Whirrr! SLAM! Whirrr! SLAM! Whi – Aw, fuck it.
They caught the asshole trying to stick up a couple of college guys a few blocks from where he got Mom and Dad. The college guys weren’t smart enough yet to just go quietly. They fought back when he pulled the gun. One of them got shot in the arm, but the other got the bad guy by the hair and eyeballs. They started yelling until there was a crowd and they all held the prick down until the police came.
Prick? Asshole? I don’t know which body part best describes him. Who cares? It’s all the same general area.
It didn’t take long for them to connect the bullet they pulled from the college guy to the ones that got my parents and then to the gun that shot all three people — and who knows, maybe more. But it took more than a year to get the asshole to trial. Grandpa stayed at a motel in Chicago and attended the proceedings every day from jury selection through conviction, a little more than two weeks altogether. He came home on weekends and called home every night to tell Grandma what happened and let her water it down for me. I guess it never occurred to them that I could easily find several accounts from Chicago newspapers on the Internet or wander to the newsstand in downtown Fulton at lunchtime and be back in study hall with a Chicago Tribune before the first bell.
I read all about it. All about the guy’s hard life in Tennessee. The family he’d left behind in a trailer park. The construction job he’d sought in Chicago and the heroin habit he’d found. His two prior convictions and jail time to boot on drug and assault charges. Then how he tried to say he’d just pulled the gun he used on the college kid out of a Dumpster and, no, he couldn’t explain how a thumbprint matching his was found on her neck and semen matching his DNA was found inside her.
Think about it. This is a lot to take in for a high school junior. But that’s the Chicago papers for you. They told it all. Hell, when it happened, they even carried a picture of my parents’ bodies swaddled in white blankets behind the restaurant where they’d had dinner. I guess it’s important for people to read that stuff. God knows I was interested. It made for hours of study and contemplation in the milkhouse.
I almost did get to attend the show in person. I was scheduled to appear for the “penalty phase,” after the guilty verdict came in. I was supposed to tell the judge and jury what it’s like when your mom and dad don’t come home for dinner and you have to move to your grandparents’ farm. I guess people can’t figure that out for themselves. Or maybe they just like to read about in the newspaper. Whatever. I was willing to explain what I could, though I intended to leave the milkhouse out of it. On a damp and shivery Monday afternoon just last month, Grandma and I were all set to drive into Chicago and meet Grandpa at the motel, when he called to tell us to stay home.
The scumbag had escaped.
Geez, I remember thinking. April really is the cruelest time.
Grandpa said the convict was being escorted down a hallway that connects the courthouse to the Cook County Jail when some burly creep with a ski mask and a 12-gauge shotgun banged his female guard on the head, grabbed the guy by the belt-buckle and ran him out to a rental car with Tennessee plates, then shoved him into the back seat and took off. I guess no one expected this guy to have any friends, certainly none who were smart enough to pull off something like this, and it took them a second to figure out what was happening. By the time they’d gotten their heads and their radios and their weapons together, whoosh! Bye-bye, bad guys.
Again, the cops assured us they’d catch him. But when they found the rental car the next morning, burned to a crisp in a remote alley, and traced it to some back-country town where it had been paid for with cash and false ID, we pretty much figured it was going to be a while. Grandpa pulled up stakes at the motel and came home. And you guessed it, I began to yearn for some time in the milkhouse.
It wasn’t easy, though. It never was like I could just wander out there anytime I wanted. The place could be cold and miserable at night, and I always had to be on the watch to make sure Grandma and Grandpa weren’t around to wonder where I was or to wander past the unlocked door. It was almost two weeks before a Saturday morning arrived that I thought was safe. Grandpa was out plowing. Grandma was driving to a garage sale over in Morrisson. The sky was powder blue and the grass Hunter green. In better times, to breathe the air in a place like this on a day like this was to take the measure of God.
“The world is fecund today, and smells it!” Grandpa used to exult. Then, he would mount his tractor in 18-hour shifts to comb and curl the soil as though the rich black earth might end its ovulation at any moment. This year, he was especially grateful for a day like this, for he’d missed more than two weeks of plowing for the trial, and what little help I was able to provide in the dark after school was barely enough to get Nature started — though, I’m proud to say I have become a pretty good plowman in the last year and half or so.
In fact, I ought to be there helping now, but I think Grandpa wants to be alone with this job.
Anyway, there was no exultation in that particular fertile spring morning for me. There are times when the good things in life seem to be there just to mock you. That was how I felt that day. So after the pigs had been fed and I’d dragged a few bales of hay out to the pole barn where the cattle are kept, I took the chance to sneak into my sanctuary.
I knew right away that something was different.