In A Plastic Bag In A Shoe Box

This is a 75 word story that was posted 3-21-19 by Richard on Paragraph Planet.

A plastic bag in a shoe box, that’s how he ended up. A petty, mean spirited man his entire life, no one attended his funeral. I was stuck disposing of him. He lived in the desert and I was dumping his ashes near a spinney cactus when a fickle wind blew up, covering me with his final remains. I laughed sadly at the irony. My dad. It was the closest I’d ever been to him.

Storm Clouds

A small group of Minnesota’s criminally insane are housed in a gray, nondescript building on the outskirts of the town of Epps in the northwestern part of the state. It’s flatland soybean and corn fields up there, and I’m getting to know the area pretty well. It makes sense. I’ve been coming here every month for the last thirty three months. It’s where my son Tim has been sentenced to spend the rest of his life. I’m told he’s never going to leave. Just imagining what he’s going through inside those walls causes the storm clouds to start to build in my brain. I close my eyes and do my mental exercises to get myself under control. If those clouds build and explode into lightning who knows what’ll happen? Someone could get hurt, that’s for sure. They have in the past, and it hasn’t been pretty. Thankfully, I’m successful. The anger settles and recedes. I feel myself calming down.

I’ve had a problem controlling my temper my entire life. It started when I was young. If I didn’t get my way, boy, I’ll tell you, there’d be hell to pay. I used to get into a lot of fights. A few times I even ended up in the hospital. And that all happened before I got out of grade school. Fortunately, over time, I was able to change. What happened? I wish I could say that I had a simple answer or a magic formula, but it really just came down to wanting to do more with my life than spend it being a pugilistic jerk who settled his arguments with his fists. My father left home when I was nine, my mom needed me to help her raise my two younger brothers, so one thing lead to another and I just figured out how to control my temper, my anger, my rage. I learned to not let those storm clouds get the better of me. Apparently, I failed to teach my son the same thing.

I pulled into the tiny parking lot and walked to the front entrance. The building is a former grade school that underwent extensive renovation twenty years ago. It’s actually called the Marshall County Prison. My son is housed with a few other inmates in one wing called the Behavioral Study Unit. A team of doctors are analyzing him to see if they can determine why he did what he did. So far they have no answers.

I shoulder my backpack and head for the front entrance. After going through two security checkpoints I’m taken to the nurses office where I met with Connie Greyeagle. She fills me in on the medications they are giving Tim. Nearly three years ago, my son suddenly snapped. He stole a rifle from a neighbor went on a rampage and killed seven people. He was twenty years old at the time. To make a long story short, the doctors think that there was something manifesting itself in his brain that caused him to do what he did. He’s now a risk to society. Medication is one way they are treating him for his violent behavior and mood swings. Connie and I talk awhile and then she ushers me to Anderson Gingsrude’s office, the psychiatrist in charge of my son.

“Hi, Anders,” I greet him and we shake hands, “How’s Tim doing?”

“As well as can be expected.”

The response he gives me is the same every time we meet, vague enough to give me hope without telling me anything concrete. That’s fine with me. At this stage of the game, hope goes a long way. It’s certainly better than nothing. I’ll take it.

Anders is a good guy. Fifty years ago he might have been a cigarette smoking overweight control freak who could have cared less about the patients under his supervision. But that behavior is not acceptable these days. He has the lean body of a marathoner (which he is), and a helpful manner. He fills me in on how Tim is doing, primarily about the team from the University of Minnesota who have developed a rigorous set of tests having to do with genetics and what part my genes could have played in influencing Tim’s violent outburst. Let me tell you, knowing I might have had a role to play biologically in Tim’s killing spree is sobering. It’s something I’m having to learn to deal with and probably will be for the rest of my life. It’s not easy, but I’m doing my best.

We talk for a while. Then he walks me to my son’s room, an eight by ten space made of twelve inch thick concrete, and tells me good-bye.

Once inside I pull up a chair and sit down. Tim’s taller than me by three inches and thinner by fifty pounds. They keep his head shaved due to the tests they run on him, but his eyebrows are still bushy brown and his eyes are the dark amber they’ve been since he was two years old.

“Hi, son,” I say. I watch him carefully for any signs that he recognizes me. There are none. He doesn’t look at me. Or answer me. Or even acknowledge me. Nothing. He sits passively in a recliner and stares into space. Dr. Gingsrude tells me it’s the drugs that do it; they make my once outgoing and effervescent son almost catatonic. “It’s better this way,” the doctor has told me, “He’s easier to manage.” His statement is not easy to accept, but my son is a cold blooded killer who took the lives of seven innocent people. I’m trying to appreciate that, compared to being a violent murderer, him being in a catatonic state is better. It is better, right? I don’t know. All I know is that he is my son and I still love him.

“Tim, I’ve got something for you,” I tell him and right then and there begin a one-sided conversation that will last for the next four hours, the amount of time I am allowed to spend with my boy. I take out a floral arrangement my wife Anne has put together. This time it’s a pretty bouquet of yellow geraniums. I set them in the plastic vase I’ve brought with me (glass is not allowed) and fill it with a bottle of water from my pack. I set the vase and flowers on the night stand next to his bed. Next I take out a tin of cookies Jenny my daughter and Tim’s younger sister made for him. This visit it’s chocolate chip, a favorite of his from a time long ago. I offer them to him, but, again, no response, so I set them aside. I take out an ipod and plug it into a small boom box I always bring. I turn it on. I like to play the music Tim used to listen to growing up. He doesn’t acknowledge he hears anything.

Finally I take out the book I’ve brought along and settle in to read to him. It’s book number three in a series by a Minnesota author set in the fictional town of Aurora, about a hundred miles east of where we are right now. All the time I’ve been with him so far, Tim hasn’t responded to one thing I’ve said or done. But that’s okay. He never does, and I’m used to it. I try not to let the sadness I feel get to me. There’ll be time later for that. Right now it good to be with my son. I settle back and begin reading outloud.

In no time at all, it seems, there’s a knock on the door. It’s an orderly telling me my visit is over. “I’ve got to go, Tim,” I tell him, “I’ll be back next month.” I stand up and kiss his forehead. I gather up my book and the other things I brought, put them in my backpack and quietly close his door. I walk down the hall to the nurses’ station where I leave the cookies and flowers with Connie. He’s not allowed to have anything in his room other than the bed, night stand and the two chairs.

“Good bye,” I say to Connie, “See you next month.”

“Good bye, Sam,” she says, “Thanks for coming. He’s the only one around here who gets a visitor.”

I shrug my shoulders. What can you say? I’ll never stop coming, he’s my son. I leave without saying anything.

There’s a truck stop on the interstate a mile outside Epps and that’s where I’m headed. I’m wiped out. I need some caffeine. Plus, I need some gas. I pull up to the pump and start to fill up my little Ford Fiesta. A car full kids pulls in on the other side and one of them gets out and starts filling the tank. A few minutes go by. I’m thinking about Tim and planning my next visit when a commotion startles me back to the present.

An attendant is running out of the station, yelling, “Hey you guys, stop. You didn’t pay for your gas.”

“Screw you, pal,” the kid who was pumping the gas yells back.

He’s starting to get in his car when I step across the island and grab him and jam him up against a concrete support structure. He pushes back, slugs me in the chest and my vision explodes into bright light. Violent storms clouds build exponentially in my brain, billowing and turning black as night.

I react quickly and grab the kid with both hands tightly by the front of his shirt, “Hey, there, pal,” I say, giving him a shake and looking straight into his eyes, “It looks like you owe this gentleman here some money. Give it to him,” I shake him, again. Hard. I can see his eyes roll back in his head. It is at this point, in the past, things could have gotten ugly. I could have gone berserk and maybe even beaten the kid to a pulp. Hurt him bad.

But not now. Now, I get control of myself, grit my teeth and give him a command, “Didn’t you hear me? I said, give him his money.” I am right in his face and emphasize, “Now.” I feel his hot breath on my face. It smells like fear. He must have sensed something in me. Something frightening. I know what he’s feeling. He’s feeling my rage, barely under control. Barely. I’m doing my best to keep it there.

So, he does the smart thing. He pays the attendant and even apologizes to the young man. And to me. “You did a good thing by paying,” I tell the kid after things have settled down, “Make sure you don’t forget next time.”

He blinks and gives me a nod. Then, without a word, he gets in the car and he and his friends slowly drive away.

Later, driving home, I think about my son and how he’s receiving treatment, now, for his violent behavior. I think of how the doctors are studying his genes and my genes to see if there’s any kind of correlation; to see if there’s something genetic that made him do what he did. They hope that that knowledge will help make treating him more successful, and possibly form a foundation for helping others in the future. My fingers are crossed that they will be. It never is far from my mind, knowing that I could have had a role to play in Tim turning out the way he did. The truth? I probably did. I know that. It makes perfect sense. That’s why I see my son as often as I can. I’m his dad, and I owe him that much. Besides, it’s the least I can do. We have a lot in common. Half of him is me, and, it’s not too far of a stretch for me to realize the awful truth. It could easily have been me sitting in there.

Full Disclosure

I have to be honest. Growing up in the fifties my heroes were television cowboys who used guns and rifles to solve their problems. There was no such thing as reasoned discussion among those guys. No way. Got a problem? Let’s meet out in the street. Compromise? No one knew the meaning of the word. Violence was the norm.

I can name a number of politicians who come from that same era. They are egotistical men spewing hatred and malevolence with derisiveness ruling their every waking moment. It’s sickening see and it’s apparent they never grew up past the fourth grade mentality prevalent in the boys back then.

Fortunately, most of us did. But that was long ago, and these days it’s obvious many didn’t – the deed was done and the die was cast. It’s almost as if we’ve reverted back to those my way or the highway, uncompromising wild west days of my youth.

Almost.

In her bedroom, my granddaughter and her friends play quietly with dolls and stuffed animals using their imaginations to create elaborate games usually based on what they observe in everyday life. I listen and hear as problems are solved by talking and reaching a common middle ground. When the girls argue, it’s respectful. You can tell they’d rather solve whatever the issue is between them and keep playing together, than not, and end up alone. They play for hours like this. They’re only seven years old. They’re smart, compassionate and it’s delightful being around them. I can’t help but thinking…maybe there’s hope for us yet.

The Coyote

It was a lazy Saturday morning in Brentwood Estates. Roland Hathaway sat in his silk bathrobe in the family room, reading the Wall Street Journal and sipping his cappuccino all the while eyeing a nearby hot buttered croissant. Life is good, he was thinking to himself.

He casually looked out the second story window into his manicured backyard, and that feeling of goodwill disappeared in an instant. “Jesus Christ!” he yelled, slamming down his paper. “Ellen, come in here. Quick. It’s a damn coyote.”

His nine year old son and eight year old daughter ran to see.

“Look, Dad,” Lyle pointed, “It’s got something in its mouth.

“Ew. Yuck,” Emily said, covering her eyes and, then, unable to help herself, looked again.

Roland’s wife hurried into the room. “A coyote? Where is it?”

Roland pointed out the window, “Right in our backyard. Damn thing. Call animal control. Now. It’ll probably start killing everybody’s pets.” While his wife excitedly peered into the backyard and didn’t immediately respond to his orders, he barked more loudly, “Hurry up. Now! Chop, chop!” He clapped his hands together.

Ellen fought back an urge to tell him off, but didn’t when she noticed the kids were watching them. She took a deep breath, gritted her teeth and said, “All right. I’ll get my phone.”

Outside, oblivious to the commotion in the Hathaway house, the lean coyote trotted quickly through the pristine backyard, avoiding the swimming pool and tennis court. He knew he’d ranged too far from home, but he’d had to. He was on a hunting trip for his mate and their three young pups. The rabbit he’d killed was his reward, much needed food for his hungry family. But the smell of humans frightened him. A few miles ahead lay the rolling hills that marked the edge of the Minnesota River Valley and his home territory. He trotted faster, the rabbit secure in his mouth. He was never coming back. The human scent scared him too much, so he’d stick to hunting in the river valley. That was his home. That’s where he belonged.

Ellen took her time walking to the front hall desk where her phone was charging, thinking, to hell with Roland. She leisurely unplugged it and did an unhurried search for a number to call. While it rang she walked to a side window and looked outside. She saw the coyote trotting across their lawn and smiled, thinking what a beautiful animal it was. You didn’t see them too often around the suburbs. Well, never, actually.

Watching the coyote triggered a sudden, unexpected connection. It was deep and sensual, something she hadn’t felt in a long time, not since she’d been a young girl growing up on her parent’s farm in central Minnesota. Back then, whenever she’d seen a coyote it had made her happy. Many in her part of the state wanted to kill them on sight but not Ellen. She was drawn to their graceful beauty and wild spirit. In fact, at one time she’d wanted to become a wildlife biologist and study animals, like coyotes, and find ways to help them survive and flourish and live in harmony with humans. That was before she’d met Roland. Back then…well, back then he’d been different than he was now.

A voice spoke over the line, interrupting her thoughts, “Animal Control. May I help you?”

Ellen didn’t have to think. “Oh, it’s nothing,” she responded, politely. “Sorry to have bothered you.” She hung up and watched as the coyote gracefully leaped their property line fence and disappeared from view. “Be safe,” she whispered.

From the family room Roland yelled, “Ellen, damn it. Did you call somebody yet? It’s getting away.”

Ellen sighed and took a moment, reliving another memory: The time she’d seen a female and two pups running along a gravel road when she’d been riding her horse. The mother had looked back once before leading her young ones into the protection of the underbrush. To this day, Ellen would swear she and the female had made eye contact, a primal bond forming between them, just before the family had disappeared from view. It was a moment she’d almost forgotten about until now.

Making herself return to the present, Ellen called back, “Don’t worry. It’s taken care of.”

“Good. Now come join me for a croissant. They’re delicious”

Ellen sighed again, in no mood to hurry off at his command. Instead, she continued looking out the window, thinking back to when she’d been a young girl living on the farm, back to when she’d had a connection with coyotes and a sense of wildness in her heart. Where had it gone, she wondered, that wildness? Could she ever get it back?

A few minutes later Roland yelled, “Ellen, what are you doing? Get back in here.” But he had no way of knowing his wife couldn’t hear.

“Dad, look,” Lyle suddenly exclaimed, pointing out the window. “It’s Mom.”

Roland hurried to his son’s side and looked. His mouth gaped open in dismay. He watched as his wife walked calmly across the lawn to their property line, where she paused only a second before nimbly climbing the fence and continuing on through their neighbor’s yard.

“Where do you think she’s going?” Lyle asked, watching in wonder.

Roland stared out the window, speechless. Finally, he shook his head, utterly perplexed, and whispered, as if to himself, “I haven’t a clue.”

Ellen was smiling. She had the sun on her face, the breeze in her hair, and she was happier than she’d been in a long time. As she walked she kept her eyes peeled, looking past Brentwood Estates toward the forested hills of the distant river valley, hoping to catch a glimpse of the coyote. Just once more, Ellen thought to herself, walking faster before breaking into a spirited trot. Please let me see that beautiful wild animal just one more time.