My father didn’t tell me how to live; he lived, and let me watch him do it.
Clarence B. Kelland
Mother sits, like Buddha, at the center of our universe. Ed
It was almost dark. He was running, over six miles into it now, just under four more to go. His route was smooth, not used much, tree covered and almost perfect for his plan. He had to be to his extraction point by dark and he had just over a half-hour to make it. He had broken down his rifle and stowed it in his backpack and had his pistol in a side pouch so that he could easily pull it if he needed to, if someone came along, which would be just his or her bad luck. He only killed when it was indicated, to quote Jed, but he thought, “Survival is the second law.”
He had on running clothes so that if anyone saw him from a distance they wouldn’t assume that anything untoward was happening. It was the being seen up close that he couldn’t abide, having his face remembered.
The shot had been perfect, just one and all that was needed.
“Dust to dust,” he said, as he’d pulled the trigger.
This run was his second way out, the first having been blocked by police, unexpectedly arriving more quickly that predicted. He always planned multiple escape routes.
The target had been selected by The Committee, and sent to him in the usual way. The details, as usual, were left out. He didn’t question their choice; he just did that which he had agreed to do those many years ago. It was up to him to fill in the details of the how.
“Another criminal gone; another liar; another bastard,” he rationalized.
It would make the news. That was part of The Committee’s objective. They knew that, sooner or later, the legal criminals would get the message. What The Committee didn’t know was that there were the beginnings of a crack in their mechanism, one that would prove to be their undoing.
Walter had talents and killing without being found out was one of them.
His brothers had other talents and stayed where they felt the safest, surrounded by the tribe they were born into.
Walter’s older brother was groomed to be a physician but, interrupted by the war, he had dropped out of school long enough to give the government time to draft him, which they didn’t, and so he’d returned to school. That time around, he studied what he wanted to study, rather than what his parents wanted him to, and he became a lawman. He worked for the Sheriff’s Department, in the county in which he was raised, and excelled at seeing things in black and white. His first day on the job, he was called to the scene of a suicide where a man had climbed into his beater pickup truck, placed the barrel of his shotgun into his mouth, and blown his brains out, distraught over his failed marriage and his failing finances. After a hundred year rain and subsequent flash flood killed 143 people in the Big Thompson Canyon, he worked the body-bagging detail, pulling bodies off of fence posts and out from under rocks. He progressed quickly up the ladder to the position of Undersheriff and it seemed that he had a bright future and would one day run for Sheriff, in the process making his parents happy and proud. He fell in love with a police groupie, and took her a bouquet of roses while she was in the hospital being treated for STD’s gifted to her from other officers.
“I love you. Will you marry me?” he had asked.
“I love you, too. Yes, yes, yes!” She had consented.
They married shortly thereafter and moved to a different county to begin their new life together. Their first child died innocent in her sleep, perhaps not wanting to face what lie ahead, and their second daughter, undamaged at the core, was left parentless after her parents had a little disagreement and her father killed her mother with a shime-waza held a little too long. Walter’s PPK was found at the scene of the killing but no one ever suggested that he had anything to do with the death.
“The Bitch,” was about all that his brother ever said on the subject.
“His brain wasn’t fully formed yet,” is what Walter liked to think.
In prison he became an advocate for his prison mates and a strong critic of the corruption and ineptitude of the commercial prison system, as it become more and more obvious that they failed at reform but excelled at profits derived from warehousing inmates. Serving four-and-a-half years of a twelve year sentence turned out to be less costly than the divorce would have been but, after violating parole by fleeing the state and then using the finger-in-the-pocket technique to recover the stolen belongings of a friend, he was captured and convicted of armed robbery and sent back for another four years.
“He was conditioned by the system,” was how Walter credited him that time.
When his older brother’s daughter was left without parents, his younger brother and his wife, whom he had married the year after her abortion and the year of her high school graduation, applied for guardianship. They were on the verge of being approved when it was made known that the younger brother had a second family living in a town an hour north. His primary marriage survived but the guardianship failed and their niece was shipped off to live with her maternal grandparents; his younger brother’s second family was never heard from again.
“Not fully formed,” thought Walter.
Walter’s younger brother started working as a laborer for a residential builder when he was sixteen. After graduating from high school, he went to college for part of one day but walked out of a lecture hall, embarrassed after having been called upon to speak and not being able to find his tongue. He returned to the building company and never left, finding his tongue and becoming a millionaire in the process.
The construction firm grew and became one of the largest builders of tract homes and subdivisions in the country with its profits being built, partly, on a well-practiced game of bunko where low quality components were switched for the high quality and higher priced ones that were on exhibit in the spec-homes and in the plans that the clients paid for. The cheaper parts ended up being buried in, behind, and below the floors, walls, and foundations of the completed homes, seldom being discovered. Ten percent here and ten percent there was all it took.
“Everybody, in the business, does it,” he had said, to Walter, “We couldn’t survive if we didn’t do it.”
The ruse helped to ensure that his younger brother worked seven days a week and never retired for fear of someone outside the small inner circle discovering the swindle.
“Conditioned by his workplace,” allowed Walter.
Walter often wondered which qualities he and his brothers had willingly accepted or unwittingly inherited from their father. He was a handsome and slightly spoiled man, having been the favored child. I guess it could be said that he was ambitious, to boot, and those ambitions were more than financial. He had been dating one of Walter’s mother’s four sisters and was reported to be in pursuit of yet another sister at the time that Walter’s mother, then sixteen, became pregnant by him.
I know, I know, “Stupid young kids, their brains weren’t even fully formed yet.”
They married, and it wasn’t until years later that his father said, “I’m glad I didn’t marry a pretty woman.”
That statement must have been one of the reasons that Walter’s mother had run off with the plastic surgeon who altered her image and did her breast augmentation. The surgeon, I suppose, must have been pleased with his work and Walter’s mother, perhaps, was flattered that a doctor would want her; or, since the family held the opinion that all professionals were either crooks or quacks, she might have done it just to twist the knife that she’d thrust into Walter’s father’s side. The affair lasted one week and was ended when his Dad heartily professed his love for her and apologized for whatever personal offenses he had committed. Walter’s mother, he knew, was good at hiding the truth, even from herself, but he could imagine that enough honesty might have slipped through her mask to scare the surgeon into being content with the outcome.
“Your Mom was offended when he kept pressing her to try anal sex,” his older brother’s wife had said, long before her choking death.
“He agreed to stop asking her to try it and, also, promised to stop seeing the prostitutes in Denver,” she had added.
The daughter-in-law, whatever her faults, had become a confidant to their Mother.
Walter’s mother was a gun toting, government protesting, Survivalist. She saw chemical mind-control agents being applied to the citizenry in the form of aircraft contrails. She was aware that the CIA was infiltrating the neighborhood. With her friends she plotted how to fortify and then barricade off the Eisenhower Tunnel on Interstate 70 when the time came and, “Oh, it will come.”
She never went to a doctor or a dentist, not trusting or believing in them. She walked every day and was tagged to live a long life. She loved the family from which she came and staunchly believed in her sons and their actions. She told anyone, who asked, that she was part Cherokee while another sister said she was Osage, a brother said he was Mohawk, and yet another relative said there was no Native blood in the family at all. The older she got, though, the more she came to look like the thing she claimed to be; maybe it was the power of belief, or maybe it was true.
One of her older sisters, the one her husband, Walter’s father, was dating when he got her pregnant, was his mother’s mother’s favorite. His mother’s mother would buy new dresses for that sister but make her store them at a neighbors where she would go to change clothes on her way to and from school, not wanting to make the other sister jealous.
His mother said she had a good childhood, growing up on the farm with her seven siblings and dreaming about Sheiks with swords coming for her.
“Wally, you have such cute legs!” is what Walter remembered her frequently saying to him in his youth, just before she’d disappear while sitting there on her chair, right in front of his eyes, no longer hearing or seeing her middle son.
On their regular drives through the western prairie, whenever she would see an abandoned and tumbling down shack, she’d point it out to the family, pause to look and make sure he was paying attention, and then say, “There’s where Wally’s going to live.”
She was a great cook, who always berated her own abilities. She had made corn chowder, tuna puffs, and triple chocolate cake for Walter, and had the food spread on the table, waiting, when he arrived at her door for a visit.
“Wally! I’m so glad you’re home!”
Hugs and kisses.
“I made you some food but you probably won’t like it,” she had said, as she led him to the table.
She didn’t believe in the Church but had found Jesus and became a Born Again Christian and knew that her beliefs were the true beliefs and that everyone who wasn’t saved would go to Hell.
“I would choose Jesus over you,” she had said to Walter when he questioned her about her beliefs while they ate the chowder.
One of Walter’s earliest memories was of his mother rolling around on their kitchen floor, entangled with one of the single mothers who rented from them.
“We were arguing over the use of the clothesline,” his Mom had explained.
The day that Walter’s mother slipped her husband the morphine tablets she stood one up on his father, from a killing standpoint, but still trailed her oldest son by one; they all fell far behind Walter, if anyone was keeping track, but by that time Walter had stopped counting.
Walter wondered, but never asked his mother, if she knew what he had done at his father’s bidding or if that knowledge had died with him.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if she was the brains behind the whole operation,” he said to himself one day, sipping a cold Fat Tire beer, sitting outside of Coopersmith’s.
His father had talked to him only once in words directly intended to educate and guide him but those words had been too few and too meaningless to have any impact on Walter’s outcome. His father had told the story of how he’d felt social pressure to drink beer before the legal age but had deceived the people putting pressure on him by secretly pouring the liquid on the ground rather than drinking it. He remembers the story of his father being pressured to hunt deer and how his shot hadn’t killed the doe and how the brown eyes had looked at him when he finished the job with his knife. He remembers the advice about being certain, and careful, if he became involved with a girl. There it was: One afternoon drive in his dad’s truck, one hour, three stories, and thirty-some years ago. How his father did have impact on his son was through his actions and by what he said tangentially.
“You were left by the milkman,” his Dad frequently quipped, smiling as he said it.
“Was that hint?” Walter sometimes thought, “What’s real?”
What sins, or crimes, if you prefer, Walter’s father had committed were not all known to him but some of them were.
There were the obvious, common ones, which were known because he had been caught; like speeding tickets, building code violations, and tax evasion. And then there were ones you just had to form your own opinion about.
Walter’s father, the son of merchant, had followed in his father’s footsteps and owned a musical instrument store in the early days of the marriage to Walter’s mother. Walter didn’t know if his father’s father had laid the path that his family followed so it was, perhaps, a slight divergence from his life’s teachings when, one evening while Dad and Mom were at a movie, some rags which had been tossed in a corner, spontaneously combusted and burned the music store to the ground. With the insurance proceeds, his father had barely been able to purchase a filling station with a convenience store, a single-family house, and a 24-unit apartment building.
When Walter was a young boy, at the age of seven, his family sold the filling station, store, and apartments and moved to the home he loved. From then until the day after his high school graduation, he lived in the foothills woodlands and shrublands of the northeastern slope of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, in a house nestled on a couple of acres of land that backed up to the Roosevelt National Forest. Out of his bedroom window, he could hear the rushing waters of the Cache la Poudre River, when it wasn’t frozen over, and the sound the wind made as it blew through the Ponderosa and Lodgepole Pine, the Quaking Aspen, Narrowleaf Cottonwood and Peachleaf Willow. He was born with a stutter, easily shy and with a fear of the dark. By the time Walter was in his mid-teens, he had been schooled out of his stuttering, had walked alone bare-handed and bare-chested out into the midnight darkness of the wilderness, challenging the darkness and conquering his fear, but still tended towards shyness. Walter had ridden bulls in rodeos, skydived, camped out in the wilderness for extended periods on his own, learned to shoot, eaten rattlesnake that he’d killed with a stick and his bare hands, and become an accomplished and recognized athlete.
When the weather was inviting, friends of his parents would gather for barbecues, beer or wine, and sit around the plank table behind the house and talk. The men’s talk would inevitably lead to the corruption of politicians and the government, the crookedness and deceit of businessmen, especially professionals, the ruining of the country, and the unfairness of life. All of this was said in the face of knowing that most of the men sitting around the table were guilty of the same offenses that were being protested so, perhaps, it was the magnitude of the accomplishment that made them take exception to the acts by others.
When the conversation around the picnic table eventually turned to, “We should hire an assassin to take out those people that we know are crooked but who are too well connected to get punished,” and then to, “Why don’t we just train someone?” just as Walter was walking by, all heads turned towards him.
Walter heard what was said, and he saw the smiles aimed at him, but he never, really, thought it through; he just wanted to be accepted. Perhaps without either one of them consciously knowing it, his father had passed on his way of living to his son, who had willingly received it.
All those years later, when I knew him, Walter was just starting to try to understand whether he had lived his life the way he had in an attempt to pay homage to his father and earn his love or if he had been paying dues to society to atone for his father’s sins. Either way, he knew that he had not been living his life; rather, he had been living the life that his father wanted for him.
Walter knew that what happened in the first seven years of his life hadn’t, necessarily, determined what had happened in the rest of his life but he also knew that in the first seven years his mold was cast, in the second seven years it had hardened, and by the end of the third seven years, his form was pretty much set. He was well beyond the age of twenty-one, over twice that age, by the time he started to feel that he wasn’t living an authentic life. He remembered all the sins that he had committed but he felt neither guilt nor pride in the work he’d done at The Committee’s bidding. What he did feel was tired and angry; tired of living a life that had been programmed into him, and angry at what had been done to the child that he had once been. His anger was aimed at himself as much as it was at anyone else. Walter wondered why people have to learn obliquely, through metaphors and parables and then why, in his case, it was taking so long.
What he couldn’t yet admit was that he was seeking unconditional acceptance and, since he hadn’t received it from his parents, he had been seeking it from others. What he didn’t understand was that he could only receive it from himself.