I watched the Caddy pull away and wondered if Eddie was disappointed in me. I couldn't ignore the e mails though and I was torn. The password the e mailer had suggested was my mother's name. How could he know?
I know Eddie always has my interests at heart and I understood his misgivings after what happened with Lena but I had to find out the truth for my own peace of mind. Supposing he hadn't died in Vietnam? Suppose he wanted to find me? That wouldn't be so hard for him to do what with the website and all the bounty hunters on my tail. Was it really beyond the realms of possibility? Or was it just that my wildest dream might be coming true and I couldn't resist a potential Gua trap? Could there be someone out there who was family, related to me by blood?
The ties of blood are strong, I've witnessed it over the past years. But maybe the ties of friendship should be stronger. Eddie had an idea that if not the Gua then it could be a set up by someone connected to Ned. I hadn't seen my step father in a long long time and had no idea if he were even alive. Chances were he was in prison, maybe even in Cook County.
Seems I always have difficulty finding answers to my questions.BR I was hoping that some of those questions would be answered at the Lake that noon.
As I crossed he park I could just discern a figure in an overcoat settling down awkwardly on a bench by the lake. I couldn't make out his features until I got closer. I approached the man warily observing him from a distance before I let him know I was there. If this was a Gua trap I wanted to be prepared and so I kept my hand on my gun all the time.
His hair was the same shade as mine but he was wearing it longer and he was hunched over like he couldn't straighten his back properly. I sat down at the opposite end of the bench and gave the password, "Rose."
"Red," he replied in a deep voice as he turned towards me and focussed a piercing blue gaze on me. He was unshaven but he didn't look or smell like a down and out and his clothes were reasonably clean. I tried to work out if he were good looking enough to be a Gua husk.
I came straight to the point, "What do you know about my father?"
It was uncanny, he looked so much like an older grizzled version of my photograph that a shiver ran through my body. There's an expression about someone walking over your grave-well that's the feeling I had right then. If this was a Gua trick then it was their best yet. He reached into his coat pocket and instinctively I stiffened and clasped the pistol butt in my waistband tighter.
I relaxed when I saw he was holding a battered and faded photograph which he held out to me in a shaky hand. It was of a woman standing by a lake, I couldn't make out her features. The stranger pointed at the woman and whispered, "My wife-Rose."
I was quiet for a few moments not knowing what to say. If he really was my father what was I going to do about it? Take him home to the trailer like an abandoned dog I just found in the street? I did that once and Ned beat me so hard with his belt I had weals on my legs for a week and couldn't play hockey. What would Eddie say? There was something strange about this man that I couldn't quite work out. It wasn't an alien-ness, more a human kind of strangeness. I couldn't feel comfortable with him. No, taking him home would be out of the question.
As I tried to formulate a comment I could see out of the corner of my eye that he was staring at the picture intently as if he were having trouble focussing. I cleared the phlegm from my throat and feeling sick to my stomach asked a question that had burned inside me all my childhood,
"Where were you when I needed you? When Mom needed you?"
"You have no idea how much I regret-" the stranger began as he stuffed the photo back into an inside pocket.
I broke in before he could carry on, anger coursing through me, unstoppable.
"You regret? Have you any idea what we went through? We never had enough money. Endless grinding poverty that wore her down. I hardly went to school after I was 14. Mom married a crook. He beat me, he beat her till she got ill and died of cancer. He turned me into a thief. Where were you when he locked me in a dark basement for a day and a night? Where were you when he forced me to steal cars on a weekend? Where were you when she was dying in pain in a hospital? Where were you when I was hiding in fear for my life in Cook County?"
I clasped my hands into fists, finally letting go of the gun and fought the urge to punch his smug face. His face that reminded me of...of myself. I looked at that face, willing him to look like the evil monster he must be for not coming home to us after the war. But all I saw was sorrow and tears, for he was silently crying.
He brushed the back of a scarred hand across his nose and sniffed. I had no handkerchief to offer him; he was a pitiful sight. I waited, breathing deeply, trying to control my anger, waited for him to speak, to say he was sorry. Then what? Make the past go away? I tried not to think about my childhood. I try to never think about it. So far I had been very successful at forgetting everything before Hannah. It was far too painful to revisit, like an old scar you have the urge to scratch but know you mustn't.
I watched the geese land as one, gracefully onto the still lake. The ripples in their wake continued for more than a minute. I tried to concentrate on their ethereal beauty, they were a reminder of the things in life that lift up one's spirits, as they foraged for fish beneath the surface, their beaks scooping away at the water, cleansing. Then their honking a sound as discordant to the ears as their feathers are pleasing to the eye: pain and pleasure in one package. The stranger had to wait for the noise to subside before he could finally meet my challenge.
"It was a case of mistaken identity. Foster is a common name, and the serial number had been partially obscured on the poor dead guy's dog tags. He was unrecognisable, it was easy for them to mistake him for me. Meanwhile I too was injured-head wound, and lost my memory. I was shipped back here, back east, eventually to a rehab center then finally let loose to go my own way with no idea who I was and an identity they gave me. I had no idea you existed."
He stopped at that point and lowered his head, seemingly too choked with emotion to be able to speak any more.
As for me, I was too stunned by this revelation to do anything at all except stare at the playful waterfowl on the lake.
We sat in silence for a further five minutes whilst we both calmed our minds. I was trying to fight a sense of seething injustice. If what the stranger said was true, it meant he had lost over 30 years of a life that should have been his and I had lost out on a father for no reason whatsoever outside a bureaucratic bungle. My mother need never have married Ned and we would have been like your regular american family. I might even have had brothers and sisters. I would never have had to turn to crime as a way out. A childhood free from pain was hard to imagine, but how close I had been to it if this man was who he claimed.
With my gaze still fixed on the geese interacting with their goslings, I finally managed to ask him, "What made you remember?"
"I volunteered for regression therapy two years ago. I was in and out of Psych wards for more years than I care to remember, I'd be ok for a while then the nightmares would begin. I was diagnosed with PTSD and regression was suggested. I had run out of all other options, I was desperate for some sort of help."
I was suspicious still, my paranoid radar alerted me to the fact that my real father had gone to Nam without knowing my mom was pregnant so how did he know about me?
He did explain that. He said that he had contacted Uncle Harry during the time I was first on the run. It seemed to make sense. And as I had surmised he found the Paranoid Times and e mailed Eddie through that. It had taken him a while to gather up the courage to do it and he was unprepared for having a grown up son. And a grown up son on the run from the law; a convicted murderer must have given him pause. It was gutsy of him to meet me, I realised that much. From his point of view this meeting was as much a risk for him as for me. Still I could hear Eddie's voice in my head nagging at me-this could be a Bounty hunter. They have all sorts of tricks for catching you unawares especially when there's such a big reward on offer.
His story was plausible and the photo could be my mother, and he sure looked like an older version of the man in the photo I owned. And then there was the fact he looked a bit like me.
Still there was one very vital question I needed to ask him that might give me my proof.
"What do you want?"
"A home. A family. Everything I lost restored to me."
There was anguish in his voice like I never heard. I briefly wondered what Eddie was thinking about this until I remembered I had switched off the phone and stuffed the earpiece in my pocket. I hoped my paranoid friend wasn't getting too worried about me being out of contact for so long. If this man was acting then he was an Oscar contender for sure. He certainly seemed full of regret-and bitterness too. Who wouldn't be bitter in such a situation? was this what war did to people? I know my life had been torn apart but I still had that time with Hannah to give me strength. And in spite of all my set backs I still had faith in human nature, still knew who I was and what I had to do. I had goals.
Here I was sitting beside a shell of a man who had no past and not much of a future. In fact no future if the Gua succeeded. What could I do to help him? Even if he was the man who gave me life, he wasn't really my father. A father takes you to the ball game, shoots hoops in the yard, shows you how to hit a puck well, takes you to the movies, watches TV in the evening with you and helps you with your homework, lends you his car for a special date, teaches you how to shave and knot a tie.
I never had a father.
Yet his words touched me in an elemental way. Home. Family. The restoration of things lost. Weren't those my desires too? This stranger and I had too much in common.
"I can't give you that. I have no home, no job, no family, not even a good reputation. I have nothing but my spirit, my will to fight and win this war. I can't return the time you lost. I can't even be the son you want me to be. I don't even live like ordinary people. I have only one friend and he is crazy. I was married once but she is dead, killed by the gua. And I really doubt I will ever give you grandchildren."
"You could tell me about your mom, about Rose"
Yes, I agreed I could do that and that alone for, although we were both desparate souls, plants torn up by the stem and thrown asunder to be blown in the dust, we had nothing to connect us but our tie to this long dead woman.
So it was that for the next half hour I tried to recall her, tried to describe her to this man I did not know. This man who shared a history with her, my dear mother. as I spoke I warmed to the subject and I feel guilty that much of it I invented because in all honesty my attempts to erase my childhood were succesful. The more I tried to recreate her, the more elusive she became. I hope one day, if we ever meet again, he will forgive me for that deception.
When my story was finished he was quiet for a while, digesting the information I had given him, filing it away to linger over in private.
"I'm sorry," I told him, "but there is no more I can do for you. I can't ever accept you as my father, I can't take the risk."
As he stood stffly he nodded his understanding and thrust his hands deep into his coat pockets. Instinctively, I stiffened and clasped my gun again, not wanting to be caught off guard in a vulnerable moment. But rather than offer a threatening move, he merely limped away, a pathetic old man with nothing. After a few steps he paused and looked back at me studiously. "You are a son any father would be proud to have," he stated quietly and simply.
Of course I felt guilty then-who wouldn't? I tracked him as he passed by the lake, off up the inclined pathway and through the trees towards the exit, still on my guard. Sometimes I hate the person I have become.
I sat on that bench for a further hour at least watching the geese and thinking about the stranger. I hadn't even asked him his name. I thought long and hard about how my life sucked. How I couldn't even offer hope to an old infirm man, how I had completely lost my ability to trust people. There was, in fact only one person I trusted in the world. I trusted Eddie like no other person, trusted him with my life and my sanity. He would always be there for me no matter what. And he would always forgive me for the person I had become. I knew that when I finally got back to the trailer, Eddie would be there.
And he would understand.
"Strange friend," I said, "here is no cause to mourn."
"None," said that other, "Save the undone years,
The hopelessness. "Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the widest beauty in the world,
Which lies not in calm eyes, or braided hair,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For of my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which mustr die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled."
Wilfred Owen. Strange Meeting