Charlie Bennett is a writer and attorney living in Louisville, Kentucky with his wife and small children. His work has previously appeared in Fiction on the Web, pennyshorts, Yellow Mama, Corvus Review, and The Literary Hatchet. On Twitter @WriterCBennett and at charliebennettstories.wordpress.com
A Father’s Love Removed
She turned the wheel slowly around incessant curves, winding through the hillocky countryside, sibilant tires sluicing water from small depressions in the neglected, pockmarked rural highway still saturated from Sunday morning showers. The sun was beginning to find slanted passage through eastern-retreating clouds so she lowered her sunglasses down from her soft, conditioned gray hair and fixed them over her deep green eyes. She felt ebullient, as she always did on her way to visit the man she called Father.
Her light and salvation had been incarcerated in the penitentiary since 1970 after he’d been found guilty of ordering the killing of eight people over three steamy, bloody summer nights in August of 1969. She knew it was true, what they said he’d done, ordering the killings, but she felt he was only delivering those lost souls from sin and into the hands of God. Father David was himself the son of God, God in the flesh, sent down to atone for the sins of mankind and to save the lost children of the world, such as Julie Tabor. Kicked out of her own home by an unloving dad, Julie had found the nonjudgmental love for which she’d yearned when Father David picked her up on the side of a dusty Eureka, California road in the summer of 1967. She’d belonged to him since—his faithful little girl.
Once each month she drove 200 miles from her coastal home to visit him on either a Saturday or Sunday. They were allowed contact in a small visiting room but there was always one guard in the room and another outside the door. She’d spend two hours with him, each minute preciously enriching but fleeting. They spent some of the time praying together and much of it with Julie telling him about her life in the outside world and Father David giving her advice and encouragement.
He was already in the room waiting for her once she’d finally gotten through all the gates and security measures. He looked more serious and less joyful to see her than usual. They embraced as always.
“Father, what’s wrong? You look sad.”
His long gray hair rested on the shoulders of his light blue prison uniform. His white beard was growing shaggy. She thought he looked sallow and gaunt.
“You think the ungodly, corrupt state has finally subjugated me my child?” He smiled looking into her eyes, her soul, and squeezed her shoulders with hands connected to thin outstretched arms covered in loose, sagging skin.
“Of course not Father. You just don’t look as pleased to see me as you usually do. Is something troubling you?”
“Come, let’s sit at the table.” He led her over to a small wooden table with matching chairs. “I’m getting old dear. My energy level is down today, though you have brought it up tremendously, just knowing you were coming. I didn’t want to get out of bed until the thought of you broke through the clouds.”
She wore orange slacks with a top so closely approximating the slacks you’d have thought she was the prisoner in a standard-issue orange jumpsuit. But she always wore orange, his favorite color, when she visited him—an attempt to brighten his day. She wasn’t without style; in fact, she possessed such sartorial skills and taste that she’d been able to make her living managing clothing stores in high-rent districts on the coast.
“Have you seen a doctor? You need a checkup.”
Julie didn’t have any children. She’d given birth to a baby at 19 but had given him up for adoption when he was two years old, after Father David and other members of his flock had gone to prison and “the family” had dissipated in spiritual dissolution amid heavy drug use, criminal issues and a lack of direction. Some of the other girls had stayed true to Father David for a time but after a decade it was only Julie who remained from the old flock. She alone had continued to visit Father David through the years, seeking his counsel, his love, while giving her love, praise and encouragement to the man she considered her only family member, her only loved one on a lonely planet inhabited by a dominating species that lived on fear, nurtured distrust and elected leaders who encouraged war because they knew the exercise of power would keep the masses afraid and yearning for even more bellicosity. But not David. He’d only told them to love each other. Even when he had Cindy, Carol and Tommy kill those people, it was out of love—to release them from earthly sin and to foster a worldwide penitence. They never talked about the killings. There was no reason for them to talk about it; it had happened, and that was a long time ago in a different age.
“I just saw the doctor the other day. I have cancer child. It’s spread throughout my body. I don’t have much time and I’ll probably be bedridden any time now.” He reached across the table and took her tiny frail hands into his bearing amateur tattoos of crosses and the words “Son of God” and “Father.”
The oscitant guard shifted in his chair and looked toward the door. She immediately began to weep, her face contorting with grief, unable to shield her face as Father David gripped her hands tightly.
“Now, now child. It is the way of this earthly realm. I am simply being called home to God. This is his plan, to call me home so I can make a place for you. You must try to not let grief overtake you. I know you love me, and I love you, but that’s not going to ever change. I will always be with you and I will always love you my child. Always. You will never lose me. I will never lose you. I know that too.”
Father David released her hands and she covered her face with them and sobbed, shaking uncontrollably, but attempting to keep quiet best she could aside from the sound of mucus. He walked around the table and bent down to wrap his arms around her. The guard generally only allowed a hug upon arrival and a goodbye hug. He said nothing and allowed them to embrace as Julie rose from her chair and hugged Father David, burying her wet face in his chest leaving wet streaks, darkening the prison blue.
“It will be okay child. Follow God as I have taught you. Hear my voice. I will be with you at all times. You must remember that. Do not despair. I love you with all the love of heaven. You are my darling one.”
They stayed like that, silent, squeezing each other, him softly rubbing her back, for a few minutes until he tired in his weakening condition and sidled around to the other side of the table and his chair. She took a tissue from a box on the table, dried her eyes, cheeks and blew her nose.
He shifted the conversation to her job and her cat Izzy. He always inquired about the latest exploits of her pet and never failed to remind her of the family’s loyal calico feline, Albert. Father David always referred to him as “the cutest little bastard.”
Julie held it together until she realized visiting time was nearing the end. She began to weep again. He got up and held her.
“It’s okay my child. You’re going to be okay. We’ll be together again in heaven where his kingdom has no end.”
She looked up at him.
“I don’t want you to come again. I don’t want you to see me so sick. It will only cause you pain and it will cause me pain if I can’t speak to you. I want us to say goodbye now, while I can do it. Do you understand?”
She nodded and put her face in his chest again, sobbing.
“I love you my dear,” he said.
“I love you Father.”
He squeezed her, pulled away and walked out the door.
The guard outside the door escorted him down the hallway, back toward his cell. She watched him disappear down the hallway and around a corner through the door’s window. She wiped her eyes with a tissue as the guard rose from his indifferent stupor to escort her out of the facility. He’d seen it all before and had no regard for the history of the alternatively spiritual or damned. Just a bunch of fucking nutjobs as far as he was concerned. Seriously misled, whacked-out nutjobs.
She drove back toward the coast in the essence of emptiness. Her soul ached in anticipation of the imminent spiritual loss. She felt untethered from the rock, hurtling through space without the benefit of the earth’s gravitational pull. Her worn-out Chevy was a space ship of doom, delivering her back to a world which would now be completely void of love. His love had always seemed the only one true enough to be worth having. What would she do without him? Who would care about her? To whom would she look for love? The clouds moved over and showered a light rain over the last stretch of her trip home.
The votary composed letters to him over the following weeks, pledging her undying devotion and attempting to reciprocate the comfort he’d always given her. She never heard back from him.
She forgot an important inventory review for her bosses, grossly mishandled a disagreement with an employee and watched sales plummet at the store. The bosses called her in for a performance review and expressed concern over her slipping job performance. She explained to them her father was dying. She was emotionally fragile. She would do better. Things were just upside down for the time being. They suggested two weeks off, paid. She was afraid this may be a prelude to them pushing her out, a chance to test one of the sales girls in her position to see if she could handle it. Still, she accepted the offer because she was a dying flame whose oxygen source was choked. She was going to have to do some searching in the midst of her grieving, to decide whether renewal was possible, or whether she should exit this existence, to follow Father David into the unknown. She’d always enjoyed being alone, never really feeling alone because through all that space of those hundreds of miles, he was still there, still on this physical plane with her, their sensual presence with each other not a constant necessity but one they’d learned to store up mentally through monthly two-hour visits. I am still here. You are still here. We are always together. It is only a little air between us. Space cannot affect telekinesis though because its properties are not preeminently governed by physical laws like distance. But death was the grand physical law and the only one that shook her faith in their ability to be together mentally if not physically. She questioned whether these doubts showed a lack of spiritual resolve, but she felt she wasn’t lacking in faith, that she wasn’t worried about her spiritual connection to him but instead her ability to seemingly have conversations with him in her head about all matters, not just spiritual ones. She didn’t know if that required his physical life presence on this planet, in this existence.
As she looked through style magazines she began to notice that fashion models always carried the look of misery upon their face. Young and miserable. That covered the psychological targets she figured. Young, because that’s what everyone wished for, and miserable, because that’s the emotion with which everyone in the civilized world can identify. Comfortable, but wanting for something inexplicable which in turn left the misery. She’s got what you want, looks and youth, but you can identify with her because she is still unhappy, like you. Thus, she’s not so out-of-reach, so alien, that you can’t desire to be like her. It finally made sense to her, and it was brilliant. But did that many people really think they’d find salvation in appearance, clothes, style even though the stars they admired who possessed those things in spades obviously weren’t finding it?
During her second week off work she decided to drive up the coast to Xanadu, a wooded spiritual retreat that offered classes in various forms of transcendental meditation as well as other methods of spiritual engagement that would be referred to as new-age in the popular vernacular though a lot of it was stuff Julie had seen back in the sixties, hardly new-age by her personal definition. She needed spiritual healing and thought she’d see what the place had to offer. With Father David now out-of-reach corporeally, she was going to have to contemplate whether she could go it alone or whether there was another path inclusive of the help of others that would entice her to persevere, to keep living in physical form.
Having climbed the dirt path up to the particular cabin the welcome center had informed her would house a meditation class beginning in twenty minutes, she approached the door with hesitation, wondering if she would be much older than the other participants. She soon saw she needn’t have worried about her gray head standing out. It looked to her a roomful of sixties children, still believing in the power to transcend the shit storms of life through spiritual redemption, and not the kind they’d been forced to seek on dressed-up Sundays growing up with their parents in Eisenhower’s proprietary 1950’s.
Either an employee or volunteer handed her a mat and welcomed her with a smile discernible between thousands of bushy facial hairs. His eyes twinkled like only those projecting the soul of a man living life in joy could. She’d seen Father David’s eyes look like that mostly, except for that period before the trouble back in ’69, when his eyes had become beady, obsidian. It was the only time she’d felt she’d ever seen him scared. He appeared terrified for about a month before he’d ordered the killings. He stayed that way until he was taken into custody and then the darkness had receded and confinement brought the magic back to his eyes, the warmth and comfort back to his countenance. He twinkled again, seemingly with an even greater fury than before. Nothing seemed to touch him, as though he was as unaccountable to this world as any outlying body of the universe. In prison, his soul had become free again, like it seemed when she’d met him on the roadside, hitchhiking her way back to San Francisco.
The touch of a hand on her shoulder surprised her as she sat on the mat with her legs folded and crossed in front. She looked up to her left and felt a twinge of pain burn her neck as she recognized a face she’d not seen for decades, one that age had changed in its subtle ways, but not in any cancelling measures. It was Karen, her former sister from the family, one of those who’d stayed true to David for years after his imprisonment but who’d given him up eventually, forsaking him in Julie’s eyes.
“Yes, Julie, it is you! I knew it was. Where are you living now? Have you been here before?”
Julie rose to speak to Karen, out of respect and necessarily so that she wouldn’t strain her neck more than she’d already done. The former sisters caught up on what each knew about former family members before Karen asked her to stay after the program so she could speak to her about “something important.”
Julie couldn’t clear her mind as instructed during the meditation. Seeing Karen had been the equivalent of pouring an acid mixture into the network of synapses in her brain, a disrupting irritation burning any and all chances at shutting down the firing of neurons across the virulent synaptic highways more serving of resentment, jealousy and contempt. Karen had always seemed Father David’s favorite, the one he sent for more often, with whom he spent more private time. And for what? To have her forsake him in the end? Father David never brought Karen up but Julie could see the devastating hurt when Karen first abandoned him and it didn’t go away quickly, but only slowly gave way to acceptance and an even greater calm.
She quickly put her mat away and waited for Karen outside the cabin. They found a bench under a gangly black cottonwood.
“I know about Father David’s illness,” Karen said. “Someone from the prison found me and called. He’d asked them to get in touch with me, to ask me to come visit him. He wanted to see me before he dies. I told them I can’t do that.”
Julie was stunned. She couldn’t speak immediately. Why would Father David have asked to see one who’d shunned him? Why hadn’t he mentioned this desire to Julie and charged her with finding Karen and delivering this message?
“Why did you desert him Karen? Why did you abandon him?”
Karen looked away, into the trees. “I finally started to deal with the pain we’d caused those people. The family of the victims of those crazy killings. All those hard drugs we were doing led us all into delusion, especially Father David. I finally realized how wrong he’d been. We’d been. I started to deal with the pain the family had caused.”
There was nothing Julie could say in response. She realized she’d never dealt with the pain of the victims’ family members.
“Do you know what he said to me right after the killings?” Karen asked. “I asked him why those people and he said, ‘Because if you’re going to feed in this world, you have to feed on the misery of others and it is not for us to choose those others. It’s just a matter of fate as to who’s put on our plate. We have had to feed the world with those people’s souls so that the world may wake up and ask God for forgiveness for its materialistic ways.’”
They sat in silence for a minute before Julie abruptly announced she had to get back home and took several steps away from the bench before quickly turning to say goodbye to Karen so she wouldn’t be forced to touch her. Julie retreated quickly down the path, straight to her car and down the curving coastline. She played nothing but Simon and Garfunkel all the way home and stopped crying long enough to get a chicken sandwich at Kentucky Fried Chicken which she purchased in the drive-thru and ate on the road, sprinkling crumbs over her chest and lap.
After lunch the next week at work, she received a call from the prison. Father David had died. He’d left his body to her to do as she saw fit. She kept her composure long enough to ask one of the girls to cover for her before locking herself in the bathroom off the stockroom. She closed the toilet lid and sat down, weeping as softly as she could while covering her face with two handfuls of toilet paper. But she couldn’t keep it quiet. There was a guttural moaning of anguish that vibrated her skull and cervical vertebrae.
The strange thing to her was that she wasn’t thinking of Father David. She was remembering Christmas Eve of 1966. Her dad had given her younger sister Tammy the matching necklace and earrings she’d been clamoring for before saying to Julie, “There’s something under there for you too. I don’t know why. It’s not like you deserve it with the bad name you’ve given the family.”
“Now Charles,” her mother had weakly admonished. She’d left the present under the tree and had gone to her room in tears. Nobody had followed her. She didn’t come out of her room until after midnight, when the rest of the family had gone to bed. She grabbed her present and took it back to her room. She carefully unwrapped the gift so as not to wake anyone. An ugly sweater. They knew she hated sweaters didn’t they? Maybe they didn’t. They never listened to her about anything. Nobody had ever listened to her about anything except Father David.
After work she drove home through barricades of concrete and the straight-lined organizational system of an inorganic world unable to see the natural rhythm of the universe. She turned on the radio and during a news break it was announced that Father David had died. They labeled him “the mastermind behind several murders in 1969.”
She wondered if anyone listening was considering what would be done with his body. For the first time it occurred to her his body may simply ascend into heaven, accompanying his soul, leaving no physical remains. He was the Son of God after all. If he didn’t ascend as they say Jesus did, she knew where to sprinkle his ashes. They had a special place in the desert. He’d led her there when she was a girl.
She could still hear his voice absorbed by the desert sand:
“We can only survive by loving one another. We must take care of each other.”