Part Four: The Father
I’d like to think it was out of empathy, but it was more likely self preservation that led to my wife’s insistence on handling the entire drive back home from Caroline’s funeral. Despite my protests, in hindsight it was a wise choice as I remember little of the seemingly endless day that began the night before. Consumed by equal parts of confusion, anger, shame, and of course, grief, I had no business being behind the wheel.
Time passed, first days, then weeks. My tooth was replaced. The bruise along my chin and the gash in my hairline had mostly healed. My ribs were still aching, but experience reminded me that would take a little longer to heal. As they say, after all, time heals all wounds. Yet, it has often been my experience that the opposite appears to be equally as true. That is, it takes time for the deepest wounds to fester and become infected.
I found myself in a daze, with so many questions but nobody to turn to for the answers. I was convinced that Caroline’s husband had turned her family and friends against me, maybe not actively and intentionally, but I couldn’t imagine another outcome following the scene the unfolded on the steps of the church. Likewise, Caroline and I didn’t have any friends-in-common from our period of “doing time” together in a remote town so many years earlier. I thought many times of calling her sister but, in the end, she knew me well enough to understand that I’d never want to create more even drama in such a tumultuous time by making myself the center of attention. I figured she’d call when the time was right.
Instead, the doorbell rang.
I looked through the peephole to find a familiar face, aged only slightly by time but noticeably disfigured by recent grief. It was a face I’d always been happy to see in the past, but under the circumstances the surprise visit suddenly filled me with a sense of caution, remembering the quizzical-yet-ominous look on his face as he followed his son-in-law into the church for his daughter’s funeral. My heart sank and I thought I was going to be sick. Fight or flight. I considered remaining still and silent as if nobody was home, but old habits die hard and I opened the door.
“Hey, Frank,” I greeted him with a jovial tone while extending my right hand. “What brings you all the way up here?”
Frank was always a good ol’ boy, a man’s man of a hardened rancher – part Sam Elliott, part Robert Duvall, but fully authentic. Ignoring my attempt to shake hands, he spoke very directly without the slightest hint of hesitation or emotion, enunciating four carefully rehearsed words he needed to get out, as if they were the last four he might ever speak.
“You killed my daughter.”
He didn’t blink or swallow. Neither did I. My heart stopped beating and my ears began to ring. My head started spinning as my mouth went dry and the only thing I could eventually muster in reply was a series of stunned stutters, “I… Uh… I’m…“
His eyes then threatened to betray his tough-guy facade, the whites turning crimson as he attempted to hold back the tears that were forming along his lower eyelids. He made a pained effort to clear his throat as he held up half a dozen small notebooks of different sizes, each decorated in Caroline’s signature doodle style of colorful polka dots and paisley swirls.
“You took her from me. Twice,” he said. Pressing the corners of the book spines into my chest with enough force to back me into my living room, he continued, “Her mother never even got to say goodbye. I think it’s ‘bout time we had ourselves a little chat.”
“Listen,” confused and overwhelmed, I tried to buy some time in order to, what, exactly? “I’m not sure what Chris told you, but…”
“Aw, Chris is a damn fool,” he interrupted. ”A fool in a lotta pain, but a damn fool nonetheless. He may’ve been out of line at the church and got it all backwards in his head, but that doesn’t mean you don’t still deserve a beating. Then again, so does he,” he said, waving the notebooks in the air, “So does he.”
For the second time in recent history I found myself in a situation where I had no idea what the ever-loving-fuck was happening. Were those Caroline’s diaries in his hand? Was I somehow being Gone Girl’d? I found myself relieved that my wife was safely at work for a few more hours.
Frank nudged his way past me into our home and collapsed into an old leather armchair in the corner. It was the same chair I last saw him in almost two decades earlier when he visited me in a different house in a different town to tell me in no uncertain terms that ‘religion ought to be found not forced.’ It came shortly after I had led his daughter to become a born-again Christian and it was the last time I saw him until her funeral.
“That was a damn long drive,” he said, tossing the notebooks onto the coffee table. “Over eight hours. I almost turned around and went home a bunch of times, but we need to take care of this. For her.”
“Take care of what, Frank?,” I asked, trying to control the obvious fear in my voice.
“We’ll get to that,” he said. “Have you got any coffee?”
“I’ll make some,” I said as I closed the front door behind me, making sure not to lock it.
I made my way across the living room and into the open kitchen, a sort of “great room” divided by a long island bar. The silence behind me was deafening as I began fiddling to make a fresh pot of coffee. “It’s good to see you, Frank. I’ve still got a picture of that trail ride in Montana.”
Silence. But, as I held the carafe beneath the faucet, I heard a bar stool slide out on the wooden floor.
“Ya know,” Frank said from behind, “when drugs really started rolling into our town I always said that if one of my girls overdosed on that shit, I’d waste no time in finding their dealer and shooting them dead.”
Who wouldn’t? I thought to myself.
“Then I’d find their supplier, and so on, working my way up the chain. I’m sure somewhere down the line I’d get taken down by the cartels, but at least I’d get a few licks in,” his tone getting darker. “At least someone would pay for bringing harm into my family.”
“Is that what you’re here for, Frank?” I asked as I began pouring the water into the coffee maker in the corner. “Vengeance?”
Months of agony erupted all at once, “You got her addicted to that poison, you son-of-a-bitch!” He threw the journals across the room like lopsided frisbees and they ricocheted off the cabinets hanging on either side of me, above me, and against my back. His voice raised into a raspy crackle, “You put the damn needle in her arm in the first place! She went from being a professor to calling herself a ‘depraved wretch’ and disowning her own fucking family because of your bullshit!” There was a thundering crash as what must have been both of his fists slammed down hard on the countertop, shaking the entire kitchen.
I froze in place, silent, but no longer afraid. I had no valid argument to make. After all, he was right. It was the same conclusion I had come to on the car ride home. For weeks I tried to trick my conscience into believing that, if not me, it was only a matter of time before some other self-serving zealot crossed Caroline’s path and lured her into the den. However, such self-serving logic wouldn’t obviate Frank’s original point and he would have simply been standing in someone else’s kitchen at a later date. There was no argument. He was right.
“You’re right.” I said, still unable to move. “You’ll get no argument from me. You’re right.” Of course, back at the time it wasn’t my bullshit, I was just a messenger, sent by God to save the lost. But, from what? Bullshit, indeed.
Silence. Nothing but silence, not even the shuffle of clothing against the bar, or creak of weight shifting on the stool, just… silence. Honestly, at that point, I was ready for whatever was coming. I waited for what seemed like hours, expecting to hear the tell tale click of a revolver’s hammer being advanced. I couldn’t bring myself to turn around. If he did it, I figured, at least I wouldn’t have to muster up the courage to do it myself.
“Yeah, I figured you’d already sussed it all out,” he sighed, his voice calm again. “So let that be your punishment, I guess. For the rest of your life. You can live with it, if you can. Not sure I could. Maybe you’ll learn something.”
Now it was my turn to be silent. I was speechless, my mind reeling.
“Jess stole those journals from their house a couple of weeks ago,” he spoke in nearly a whisper, changing the topic a bit. “Toward the end there, I see that you made it out alive, eh?”
“I’m not sure what you mean,” finally turning around but still managing to avoid eye contact by staring at the colorful notebooks on the floor. “Are these her diaries?”
He nodded, “You should read ‘em.”
“I don’t think that would be appropriate.”
“Might be instructive,” he said. “Might help others?”
“There’s nothing in those that I don’t already know, Frank. I’ve seen it 1,000 times. Girl grows up, girl meets boy, boys introduces her to the invisible man in the clouds, girl is never the same again. I did this shit for a living, remember?”
He shrugged, “Was Caroline your first?”
Suddenly unsure again of what we were talking about, “Wait, first what?”
“Conversion, salvation, your very own recruit.”
“She was, yes.” I handed him a cup of coffee. Black.
“Any of your other little recruits take a handful of pills? End up in a pine box?” His eyes teared up. “Leave a note for their family?”
Finally, confirmation. It wasn’t an aneurysm. Trying not to let Frank see me cry, I walked out on the porch. And overturned a glass table, sending potted plants everywhere. I felt trapped like a wild animal. I just wanted to be alone. Luckily, I wasn’t.
Afternoon gave way to evening. Coffee gave way to scotch. Words can not express the complexity of emotional shifts over the 16 hours that followed the doorbell ring. Confusion. Grief. Anger. Fear. Anxiety. Despair. Understanding. Forgiveness. Friendship?
After the fireworks settled down and my wife joined us for dinner, we spent the final hours of the night on either side of a fire ring staring up at the stars, neither of us being much for the indoors.
“Listen here for a second, I’m only going to say this once,” Frank announced, slightly slurring his words as he swirled the remaining ice in his glass. “It’s not our fault. Not really, at least. You were both just dumb kids trying to make sense of things. I don’t blame you. I blame Jesus. I blame the church.”
He hadn’t come to kill me. He’d come to console me. And seek camaraderie.
“I appreciate that, Frank.” I took another sip of scotch. “But, the fact of the matter is, you were right before. I’m the one who bottled it all up and gave her a taste. Got her hooked.”
“Nah, don’t be so hard on yourself. She loved you, she looked up to you.”
“Yep, and that’s what makes it worse, a thousand times worse. There’s a responsibility that goes with that sort of trust. It’s a deadly game.”
The problem wasn’t that I stole her magic feather in Memphis. It was that I convinced her that she needed one in the first place. On a cliff. Twenty years earlier. The problem was that she believed me. Hell, she believed in me – just as most born again Christians hold their “spiritual mentors” in some sort of category of enhanced godliness. (More on that later…)
“Carrie mentioned some of your writing,” he said, pointing toward what I imagined to be the stack of notebooks sitting on a shelf inside. “I found your stuff online.”
Suffering from a lifelong fear of rejection and growing sense of insecurity, I just looked back at the sky.
“A repentant man is a powerful force, son,” his voice like something out of an ad for cowboy boots. “Maybe something good will come out of this all one day.”
I shrugged off what I misunderstood to be a veiled compliment.
“For her,” he said, more forcefully, an order, “just as she wished there in her last diary entry,” he said pointing toward the journals once more.
I nodded. “For her,” and raised my drink to the sky, suddenly glad I wasn’t standing, probably lacking the motor skills to do so.
We clinked glasses one last time and Frank made his way back inside to the guest room at the end of the hall. Moments later, even from outside I could hear that the house was filled with noises I’d last heard atop a cold mountain as his daughter and I laid awake, laughing. How could such a noise could come from a single human? The result of a colt’s hoof square to the bridge of his nose in his youth.
As Frank snored down the hall, I stayed awake with Caroline once again, eventually thumbing through her private journals back inside in the big leather chair she once helped me pick out for my first house. What began as an embarrassing indiscretion of half-drunken curiosity ended as a series of sobering revelations. The diaries were the documentation of slow-boiling delusion. Not the flippantly excused kind that comes from an unexplainable genetic chemical imbalance somewhere in the brain, but a mental illness made to order, the logical result of embedding oneself in a cult-ure of indoctrination and selficide.
In her final journal entry (and apparent draft of her suicide note Frank would later tell me), she asked that her journals be given to me because, “he’s the only one who might actually understand what I’ve been going through and the only one who might be able to put any of this insanity to use to keep others from the same harm.”
By the time I finished the last journal, I had already come to the same conclusion as Caroline’s father. Despite his later drunken graciousness, Frank was still right in his initial assessment – I killed Caroline by placing the needle in her arm in the first place. Of course, I’d never even be charged as an accessory, because, well… Jesus. Yet, it was even deeper than that, much more complex than I had imagined.
Prelude To The Next Chapter: I’ve struggled for weeks now, deciding on how I might ethically share the private thoughts of a troubled friend. Although I was not given permission by Caroline’s family to share her story, I was given permission by Caroline herself in her final entry, a directive of sorts that I’ve struggled with how to best fulfill by honoring her both in life and death.
Long story short, I’ve been grappling for over a year now over how best to use her story to turn a tragedy into some sort of, what… teachable moment? Not only does the whole thing feel grotesquely exploitative and voyeuristic, it would be deeply lacking of any context and relevance to anyone other than those who were part of her closest circles. I’ll get to the next chapter involving the journals soon, but for now, I just wanted to put everyone’s mind at ease – I might be an asshole, but I’m not that big of an asshole. I’m doing this because Caroline asked me to.