Best Kept Secrets

Best Kept Secrets

A Story by M Baker
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The original source for the novella I am writing, "At the Violet Hour." In this short story, we follow Richard Jordan's thoughts on the fateful day of the auto accident that took his son's life.

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He shouldn’t even be here right now, Richard Jordan thought to himself as he slammed on the breaks to avoid hitting the cab that swung out in front of him.  He pressed on his horn but only for a second.  The wan, high-pitched wail from the front of his car simply lingered into the cacophony of mixed noises in the crowded city street.

It was never Richard’s job to pick up his son from daycare.  This task was reserved for the boy’s mother.  But since she returned to her teaching position at the Duke Ellington School, Isabelle has looked to her husband to share in the duties of child-rearing more equitably.  He glanced in the rearview mirror to spy only the perfectly combed auburn locks on the top of his young son’s head.  After a deep sigh, Richard felt his body settle back into the driver’s seat and asked:  “Are you all right back there, Max?”

            Max, who was fastened securely in his car seat, let out a muffled but comprehensible hum as to indicate in the affirmative.  Through the windshield, Richard beheld the typical mid-day sea of congestion and rancor in the form of mostly newer modeled imports idling anxiously on Constitution Avenue.  On the left, in his periphery, he could make out the erect, pallid mast that was the Washington Monument.  He craned his neck and his eyes traveled up the still solidly green grass, not yet robbed of its pallor by the cruel November frosts.  There atop the knoll stood the towering, sturdy monolith, surrounded by the flailing American flags.  A smirk formed on Richard’s face.  The monument spoke to him somehow.  It stood as beacon of virility, and he was proud"damn proud"that it held its rightful place in a world where ancient manhood was being slowly stripped away by the forces of political correctness.  He liked to think that that was why all the tourists came to its base to celebrate, not simply because its namesake was that of the nation’s first president.  No.  Instead those tourists"the soft-bellied drones"were hoping the manful totem would inspire some libertine eruption that would make even Eros blush.  It would set them free from their cloistered lifestyles.  Of course, these hopes were no doubt held in vain.  The doughy, balding fathers positioning their ordinary families in front of the monument for the requisite snapshot and hurrying along to the next site confirmed as much.  If only they could see what he saw.

As Richard’s eyes moved back to the monotony in front of him, he flipped the visor down to block the intense intrusion of sunlight into his eyes.  Squeezing them shut for a moment, he opened them to once again glance into the mirror.  It was at this moment when he realized how much he hated being alone with the boy.  Almost three, Max was learning new words everyday at an alarming rate:  apple, bubble, cuddle, double, eagle.  Most parents would take comfort in this accomplishment, but not Richard.  He knew that one day the mumbled syllables that pass for toddler speech would evolve into more damning words for his father:  abandon, betrayal, cunning, duplicity, egotistical.  And those new words would join together to form questions; not simply the innocent queries children ask adults about the sky being blue or where pets go when they die.  These questions would have the gravity and torturous ferocity of an inquisition.  He could see an older Max now, searing a hole through his father with lidless eyes as he asked: “Dad, who was she?”

Richard worried about this constantly, ever since the first time he took Max over to see her last summer.  Why did he take Max there so much?  What rationalizations drive men to engage in such reckless enterprises?  She always said she wanted a child.  Obviously, like most women, she wanted more than he could give her.  Taking the boy to see her was the only feasible way to give her what she wanted in order for Richard to get what he wanted.  Even if the boy was still so young at the time, he might sometime have a recollection of those days spent lapping up sunshine in Pershing Park and the rendezvous at her M Street apartment.  The human mind is bewildering; it keeps fragments of memory which flare up inside of us without explanation. Richard felt powerless to stop the boy’s mind from doing just that.  

After several more minutes waiting in the line of traffic, the light turned green.  Richard lifted his foot off the brake pedal, and they started creeping forward again.  Yet his mind remained static, still focused on her and the boy.  Ironically, for all the time spent worrying about this potential showdown between man and child, Richard never once conjured a viable answer for his son.  His eyes moved from the rearview mirror and from the son he so loved yet so feared all the same.  The car was traveling with smooth efficiency now.  Richard was able to increase his speed to about thirty miles per hour.  Just when he was getting into the flow of things, the next traffic light turned yellow, then red.  He slowed to a crawl and eventually stopped.  Then his phone began to vibrate.

“Hello.”  He answered as he brought the cellular to the right side of his face.

“Hi, sweetie.”  Isabelle’s voice always had that tender wanting tone to it, which soothed him even when he resisted it. 

“Yes.  Hello,” he said to her without masking his discontent, then held the phone up above his head and said to Max, “It’s Mommy.”

“Hi, mommmyyyy!” Max squealed in a way that made Richard’s face contort.

“Hi, Maaaaaaaaaaaaaax!” Isabelle replied.

Bringing the phone back to his ear, “Hear that?”

“Yes, I did.” She laughed.  “So how far are you?”

“Still heading out of the city.  About to get onto the highway.”

“Oh, were you late picking him up?”

“I had a few things I needed to finish at the office, but I wasn’t late picking him up.  We just got out of some traffic.”

“Well, thanks so much for doing it.  I forgot all about the planning session the rest of the Theatre Department was having tonight.  I’m so hell bent against having the tenth graders do Les Mis in the spring, but Duncan has his heart set on it.”

“I know.  You told me.”

            “It just seems like awful dreary subject matter for them.  You know?”

            “I agree.” 

            “Well, anyway, I should be home around 8:00 or so.  There’s leftover pasta in the fridge.  Oh, and don’t forget to give Max his animal cracker.  Tonight is lion night.”

            “Mm hmm, I won’t forget.”

            “Well, he’ll remind you.”  The familiar seconds of silence, yearning to be filled with some fruitful conversation materialized and lingered until she said:  “Well, I love you.  See you when I get home.”

            “Love you too,” he said as he ended the call.

At the last stoplight before entering the highway, Richard looked back to his son again in the mirror.  The excitement in Max’s amplified voice when he spoke to his mother was something that still bewildered Richard.  Naturally, he thought, children would be attached to their mothers more so than to their fathers, but Max seemed so reproachful toward his father.  And stoic, Christ, the kid was stoic.  He rarely cried, whined, whimpered, or moaned.  When he wanted something, he’d tug gently at your pant leg and look up at you with those periwinkle blue eyes.  It was up to Richard to interpret the look, and of course he never did so accurately.  He’d get Max a juice, when the boy wanted to be changed.  He’d change his diaper, when he really needed a nap.  That’s how damned stoic the boy was!  He came to you when he needed a nap, not the other way around.  No normal child did that. 

            Isabelle knew everything the boy was thinking.  Motherly instinct, Richard told himself.  On the rare occasion Max would cry"usually after Richard’s failed attempts to appease the boy"Isabelle would scoop him up into her lean, silky arms and rock him ever so slightly like the incoming of low tides.  It worked, always.  Max’s tears would stop, and she’d wipe away their remnants.  She set him down to send him on his way, both sharing an unbreakable look, accentuated by the smiles now beaming from both their faces.  Isabelle would look to her husband to complete the family moment, but Richard only returned her offering with a half-hearted upturning of his lips and a quick departure from the room.

            “Lion night tonight, huh?” Richard asked his son, as they still sat at the light.

            “Lion.”  Max softly replied from his car seat directly behind his father.

            “Is the lion your favorite, Max?”

            “No.”

            “What’s your favorite?”

            Max was pawing slowly with the tips of his fingers at the backseat window.  He didn’t answer his father because his mind was elsewhere.  One never knows where a child’s mind may be, particularly a child as young as Max, but Richard could tell it was elsewhere.  He could have left well enough alone and allowed the boy’s mind to wander, but to where was it wandering?  Richard looked to his left to the car sitting next to his.  For a moment, his heart leapt out of his chest.  Inside sat a somewhat attractive woman of her mid-thirties.  This woman’s smooth, tanned arms, shoulder-length jet black curls, and lush red lips reminded Richard of her.  He tilted his head and, with squinted eyes, his mouth fell slightly open.  He was trying to figure out if it was her.  Then, probably as a way of embracing the boredom at the stoplight, the woman turned her head to look out of her car windows.  Her eyes stopped on Max, who was waving at her.  The woman returned his wave with a beaming smile.  She then moved her eyes toward Richard.  She stared directly at him.  For a split second, Richard expected that moment of crushing recognition, but it didn’t come.  It wasn’t her.  The woman gave a brief smile.  Richard smirked and waved his hand to her, but she straightened herself forward again.

Richard averted his eyes back to the intersection.  He tightly gripped the steering-wheel and exhaled the way you do when you just avoided calamity.  What if the face of this stranger sparks a memory in the boy’s mind?  If Richard thought she looked like her, maybe the boy would too!  He couldn’t take the chance of letting the boy’s eyes play tricks on him.  The next thing he’d know, Max would slowly start filling in the blanks of her face in his mind, the way a sculptor coaxes a human form from an inorganic block of granite.  And Max was still looking at her, damn it!  He needed to bring his son back to the conversation.  He needed it more than anything.

            “I bet I know what your favorite is.  It’s the monkey isn’t it?”  He asked his son, almost with a hint of pleading underneath the gruff masculine tone.

            The silence filled the inside of the car.  It was suffocating.  He had to think.  He had to get his son to respond.

            “Is it the monkey?” Richard said.

            Suddenly without prior indication, Max let of a chipper giggle and said, “Mun-kee!  Ooooo, oooo, oooo, ahhh, ahhh, ahhh!”

Richard couldn’t help the smile that came across his face.  He even laughed a little.  His heart was flushed with a soothing warmth, the kind he used to have when his mother gave him hot chocolate on the snow-drifted days of his youth.  What an unexpected response; the kind of response Max usually reserved for Isabelle.  For the first time ever, he felt the sullen boy he brought home from the hospital three years ago was abruptly opening up to him at the mere mention of animal crackers.  How could something so futile cause such elation in his son?  It didn’t matter.  What mattered was that he made his son laugh.  He brought Max’s mind back from the dark recesses where she might reside.  Maybe Max would never ask who she was.  Maybe he didn’t remember her at all.  It was almost a year ago since they’d both last seen her, standing in her apartment doorway with that shattered look of loss in her eyes.  Her cheeks were puffed like bloomed carnations from an hour of sobbing.  Maybe, just maybe, Richard would never have to answer for his crimes, if he simply found out what made his son happy and associate himself with those things.  From here on out, every time Richard sensed his son was inching closer to the truth, he’d wrap himself in a shroud of deception.  Eventually, of course, animal crackers would no longer work on Max.  But that was okay, because there’d be new things: bicycles, baseball games, a car at sixteen, and the first date with a girl.  This was to be the first of many victories over his son.

“So, is the monkey your favorite then?” Richard asked, while embracing this fresh moment.

“No, Daddy.  The mun-kee isn’t the best,” Max said impishly.

“Well, what is your favorite then?”

“The elephant!”

“The elephant, huh?  Why is the elephant your favorite?”

“Because they never forget.”

“What?” Richard said with a startled tone.

“An elephant never forgets.  An elephants never forgets.”  He was singing it.  It was some children’s song Isabelle had taught him when she’d give him the elephant cracker.  But to Richard this wasn’t some innocent melody.  It was a taunt!        

            Still frozen at the stoplight, Richard turned to look out the passenger side window.  From where they were sitting, the intersection about to enter the speed zone of Interstate 66, he saw the serene landscape of the Theodore Roosevelt Island:  its oaks, maples, and hickories having shed half their autumnal coats for the impending winter.  The blending of grey, brown, yellow, and red signified his exodus from the downtown area.  He kept trying to ignore the inconvenience of having his son admire the elephant for its superior sense of memory, but he couldn’t.  He couldn’t relax and enjoy this brief car ride with his son; for he hadn’t cracked the code of how to master his son’s wandering thoughts after all.  Not aware of it, he lifted his head up slightly and tried to catch a glimpse of the steady flow of the buoyantly blue Potomac, but he couldn’t quite make it out.

            The watchful stoplight overhead flickered to green, and Richard pressed his foot on the accelerator.  As the car arched onto the on-ramp, Richard saw the river:  the dispiriting, flat, and motionless slate in the distance.  Only the dull, flaxen reflection of the lowering sun shimmered on its surface.  The pulsating warmth inside of him dissipated as the song echoed in his head:  an elephant never forgets.  They never forget.  He’ll never forget.  A solitary bead of sweat formed on his temple.  He swallowed hard and blinked his eyes rapidly.  As he pressed his foot further down onto the gas pedal, he suddenly thought he heard his son ask:  “Daddy, who was she?”

            Richard’s head jerked around to look his son in the eye.  He careened feverishly onto the highway, as Max sat there still smiling.  The words, playfully enlisted, reverberated inside his head.  Were they real?  God damn this kid!  This was no smile of trivial jubilation worn by Max.  It was an arrogant, knowing smile.  He’d placated Richard into believing that they could have a normal relationship; that they could share a laugh together.  The kid waited until Richard was at his most vulnerable state to go for the kill.  He’d waited until his father"his own father"had sufficiently let his guard down to ask him about her.  This kid was truly diabolical.

Quickly, he tried to compose himself.  He fastened his face forward to the road.  But just as his head swung front-ways again, he heard the piercing bay of someone laying on a car horn behind him.  There came a violent thrust to the left and Richard lost control of the wheel.  It felt like a Sherman tank traveling seventy miles per hour smashing into the rear driver’s side door.  The panorama of highway and cars spun in front of him.  Richard’s forehead met the driver’s side window with a crack and fury.  His vision blurred, like a flashbulb went off.  Now all that was heard was the squealing of tires atop the ashen concrete and the shrill shattering of glass and crunching of steel.  All motion stopped with a jolt when the iron and cement guard-rail of the bridge performed its task and caught the carcass of the car like a foul ball in a safety net.  There was silence.  Traffic behind them came to a standstill.  The smell of burnt rubber hung in the air around him.  Richard’s head cocked to the left against the spider-web of glass.  Everything faded.

 

What stirred him first from his forced slumber was the kind of smelling salt reserved for the damned:  a revolting mixture of gasoline and blood.  Richard slowly opened his eyes and began to focus.  Once again they were pierced by the setting sun"that f*****g truth.  He could make out the figments of people as they began climbing out of their stopped cars and moving toward the wreckage, cell phones affixed in their palms; some calling 9-1-1, some snapping photographs.  He moved his upturned hand in front of his eyes to block the rays.  Then he instinctually wiped the blood from the gash in his forehead, and it stung like hell.  He must not have been out too long, because there were no emergency vehicles on scene yet. 

            “Hey, mistah, you all right?” the voice of a well-meaning bystander from outside said.  “Don’t worry.  We’re gonna get you outta there.  Anyone else in there?  Are you the only one in the car?”

            It took a moment, but the ridiculous nature of the question finally dawned on Richard.  Of course there was someone else in the car.  Couldn’t this person see him?  He was sitting right behind"      

#

The yellowed and dry grass crackled underneath their feet as Richard, with Isabelle clinging to his arm, walked slowly toward the burial site.  Two solid white chairs sat not three feet from where their son’s casket was to be placed.  They reached the site.  Richard placed his hand on the small of Isabelle’s back to help her take her seat.  It seemed like he needed to ease her into the chair.  Her body was so riddled with grief and limp that she’d fall once she released his arm.  She hadn’t spoken more than three sentences since the day of the accident.  Her beautiful, pink face was now robbed of its vibrancy.  As if each tear she had shed over the past two weeks drained the blood from her face and left it a ghostly white.

Richard turned to look back up to the gravel cemetery drive where the mourners’ cars now slowed and stopped.  He stared intently at the great charcoal-colored hearse whose bowels contained the body of his dead child.  The driver, an overweight black man with stern eyes, got out and walked to the back of the car to open the rear door.  The pall bearers, an assemblage of male family members and Richard’s old college roommate, lined themselves behind the hearse, three on each side of the casket as it rolled out of the car.  Richard stood a moment longer, watching as they began to carry his son’s body down the slightly inclined cemetery lawn.  He thought about giving them a smile of appreciation, but decided against it.

A strong, cold wind gusted causing the now bare tree branches to tap into each other in the distance.  The chill caused Richard to purse his lips and force his uncovered, reddened hands into the pockets of his black overcoat.  The bruise on his forehead, still not fully healed and covered with a square bandage, throbbed slightly with pain.  He looked at Isabelle, who stared at the eventual resting place picked out for their son.  She appeared unaffected by the cold.  Richard took his seat beside her, brought his left paw out of his pocket, and placed it on her hard, sallow fist.  Friends, family, coworkers, and general acquaintances filed in and stood behind the two white chairs.

The crackling grass echoed as the pall bearers approached with the solid mahogany coffin.  The men gently placed the vessel on top of the mechanical pedestal, which would eventually send the child to the depths.  Father Muncy stood at the head of the grave, Bible in hand, and prepared to ease the pain with some empty words and sliding of hands in the air.  The priest cleared his throat with a quiet dignity.

“From the book of Psalms,” Father Muncy said.  “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”

Richard looked out across the rolling Western Pennsylvanian hills that were Isabelle’s playground as a child.  Her grandmother’s farm, tucked in a shaded hollow, was visible atop the crest of the hill they were gathered on that day.  The hollow, a place of joy for Isabelle, has long since been as dead as this cemetery.  The dilapidated house, with missing white siding and overgrowth to the windows, was now empty and abandoned.  Isabelle’s grandmother died six years ago and left the land to Isabelle’s ne’er-do-well aunt, who has yet to find a high enough bidder to unload it on.

“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.”  The priest continued.

Isabelle and her mother decided that this was the best place to lay Max to rest:  here in their family plot in this untouched corner of the world.  Richard agreed.  Partly to give Isabelle whatever solace she could have but also because it sure was better than his family plot.  His dead relatives rest for eternity"probably uneasily" just a mile off the Long Island Expressway.  Yes.  It was certainly a magnificent piece of land here.  A stream ran through the farm’s hills.  Richard tried to see if he could make it out, but he couldn’t.  It was too far away.  He thought about the boy and the last time he got a look at his face.  Right after the accident, he’d turned around to look into the backseat.  He saw nothing but a mangled skeleton of crushed metal and torn flesh.  And he remembered thinking at the time about just how stoic Max was right up until the end.  The kid didn’t even have a chance to scream.

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”

Richard could hear the people"mostly women"crying behind him.  He stared at a cadre of blackbirds perched on a naked maple branch.  They looked like bold letters on a page when contrasted to the sunless and cloud-covered sky.  Yes.  This was a good place for the boy.  Only if the child was placed in an area as solitary as this would Richard be able keep his distance.  Sure, they’d visit the site on birthdays and holidays.  Eventually, though, time would pass, and Richard would convince her that the trip was just too far from Washington to come pay their respects on a regular basis.

  “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”

Richard’s lips upturned slightly, and he tilted his head down to conceal it.  He knew he was free now.  Here in this wickedly beautiful land, Richard’s secret would be buried forever.  After all, the best kept secrets are the ones held by the dead.  Besides, he thought, maybe Max was better off not having to grow up with the burden of hating his father for his infidelities.  Richard knew what that felt like.  It wasn’t easy.  There were times, when Richard was a boy, that he hated his father so much that he wished he was dead.  But after wishing it so, he’d feel guilty about it.  He’d torture himself with guilt and confess to his family’s priest that he wasn’t honoring his father.  At least Max would be spared that ordeal.

“And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”  Father Muncy concluded as he made a cross with his right hand in the desiccated and wintry air.  “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen.”

“Amen,” replied the crowd.

 

On the car ride back to Isabelle’s mother’s house, Richard drove carefully.  The sun had set.  And on this moonless night, the winding country roads were dangerous to traverse.  They hadn’t spoken in the pitch black cabin of the car"Isabelle’s car.  His was totaled in the accident.  Only the faint neon green glow from the stereo permitted Richard to make out the silhouette of his lovely wife.  God, she was lovely and innocent.  She looked like she was asleep, with her head turned toward the passenger window.  She could never know the truth.  It’d destroy her.  He had to protect her from that.  He’d make it his life’s mission now"his penance"to ensure her comfort and ignorant bliss for the remainder of their time together on this earth.  He had to repent for something.  He knew that, but he wasn’t entirely convinced that confessing his sins was the appropriate way to go about it.  What good would that do her now? 

            “I don’t blame you, you know?”  She spoke softly in the dark.

            Richard turned his head toward her with furrowed brows of confusion.  “What?”

            “For the accident.  I don’t blame you.  It isn’t your fault.”

            “Well, I…”  He tried to say something.  But in truth, he didn’t know what to say.  It never occurred to him that it was his fault.  It was an accident.  Accidents happen.  He was grasping for something to say, but the words didn’t come. 

            “It should have been me who picked him up.  I should have been the one who picked him up.  I always picked him up.  If I had just picked him up like I normally did, none of this would have happened.”

            “You can’t think that way.”

            “It’s true isn’t it?”  She was animated now.  Her voice was louder but still strained from the weakness in her heart.  She was crying too.  Even in the darkness, Richard could tell that much.  “I’m his mother.  He was used to me picking him up.  I never should have abandoned him like that.  How could I do that?”

            “It wouldn’t have made a difference.  It was an accident!”  He was matching her emphatic pitch now.

“And when I put his seat in your car that morning, I put it behind the driver’s side.  I knew better than that.  I never put his seat behind me when I was driving.  It was always behind the passenger’s side.  That way he could see me.  If it had been in the passenger’s side then he might still be alive.  It’s my fault.  I did it.  I killed him!  I killed our sweet boy.”

            Richard pulled off to the side of the road.  The tires kicked a plume of dust and gravel into the white illumination of the headlights.  He quickly unbuckled his seatbelt and switched on the overhead light so he could see her face.  It was still pale in the dim light, and the shimmering tears flowed down her cheeks.  He reached over and cupped her face in his big hands. 

            “It wasn’t your fault!” he said.  “Do you hear me?  It wasn’t.  It was…”

            He didn’t want to say it.  He didn’t even believe it, but he had to say something"anything"to make her calm down.  He let go of her face and gripped the steering wheel to steady his hands. 

            “It was mine,” he said.  “It was my fault.  I was the one driving.  I should have seen the moving van, but I didn’t.  I was just distracted.”  Richard voice trembled.  Then, he uttered a bit of what he felt was true:  “I was distracted.  Max distracted me.  He was laughing.”

            “He was laughing?”

            “Yes.”

            Her eyes opened wider, and Richard could see a glimmer of rose emerge into her cheeks. 

            “He was laughing,” she said with a sense of relief.  “What was he laughing about?”

            “Animal crackers.  He was laughing about animal crackers.  The elephant…the elephant was his favorite, he said, and he started to laugh.”

            She wiped the tears from the right side of her face and sat for a brief moment.  Only the idling of the engine made a sound.  Then she began to hum the familiar tune softly.  The lyrics rushed into Richard’s mind.  She stopped humming and smiled a little and said, “Yeah.  Yeah.  The elephant was his favorite.  They never forget.”

© 2011 M Baker


Author's Note

M Baker
All Rights Reserved 2011 © M.G. Baker


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Added on March 11, 2011
Last Updated on April 5, 2011
Tags: Guilt, death, paranoia, adultery, fathers and sons

Author

M Baker
M Baker

Raleigh, NC



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Just a run-of-the-mill malcontent and aspiring writer. Those really are one in the same, I suppose. I have hopes of one day completing a full-length novel. For now I am working on expanding several.. more..

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