Daddy and Arnold (Charles Bane, Jr.)

Verity La Lies to Live By

RIAN_archive_543_A_battalion_commanderI can tell you this because my father’s gone. I was lawyering in Chicago when I got a phone call that my Dad was dying. The caller told me that my father was afraid I would put him in a hospital and not let him die in his own bed. I wouldn’t have done that, of course, and I took a mud hopper from Midway Airport and arrived at my parents’ home in Springfield a few hours later.
Every man in Springfield is a coal miner, and they’re breathing coal dust from the first time they enter a mine. The dust moves around like on an Etch-A Sketch, until it settles, and that’s where it kills. It was in my father’s brain, and now his heart was overburdened. He stared at me with saucer eyes, and as I’d done in courtrooms dozens of times, I made my gestures friendly and unthreatening. I leaned over the bed, put my hand on his. ‘Daddy,’ I asked, ‘do you want a whiskey?’ He nodded yes.
I fetched the bottle and two glasses. To my father, fancy style. He looked at me warily, while taking a good mouthful from the bottle. ‘I need to tell you something,’ he said.
‘Alright,’ I said.
‘About your brother,’ he said.
‘Alright.’ My brother Arnold died in the First World War. I should say that The Great War cut Springfield’s poor like a scythe. Whole streets were shuttered. My uncle returned and told me about the trenches, and long lines of men who kept their arms raised, hoping to get shot. Arnold, like me, had been determined to better himself: he lived a clean life. He was studious, and would read the newspaper to Daddy sometimes when my father was laid up with blinding headaches. My father would lay in his darkened bedroom and Arnold would fold in just enough light to read single lines at a time.
My mother, after my parents received a telegram from the War Department, stopped leaving the house. Neighbors took her grocery lists. We’d never had a phone, and my mother would sit silent in the parlor throughout the day. My father thought she might go mad, and one Sunday morning he told her to dress nicely, put on her fox stole, and took her to church. They weren’t churchgoers.
‘I found out at church how your brother died,’ Daddy said. I was silent.
‘Arnold and his brigade was ordered over the top by Creighton.’ Creighton was the captain who returned and won election as Mayor. He was the first man—in uniform—to the review stand for the town’s Veteran’s Day Parade. Creighton had a sweet deal: every new business in Springfield received a welcome letter from the Mayor—on his company’s stationary. ‘Do you know how far your brother got before he was machine gunned?’ I said nothing.
‘Arnold was cut in half at the top of the ladder. He fell in two pieces back into the trench.’
I bowed my head.
‘Something else,’ my father said.
‘I was so poor as a boy I had to wear my sister’s dress to blab school,’ Daddy said. ‘I wasn’t ashamed by the dress—just the poverty of it—and I started reading the Bible.’
‘You?’ I asked.
‘I read about Noah and his drunkenness,’ he continued, ‘and I felt better. Here’s a man so drunk he’s found lying stark naked by his sons. So that put me a way above Noah.’
I nodded. I hadn’t expected this. But you don’t know people. You never know people.
‘Bob?’ my father said.
‘Yes, Daddy.’
‘Bob, I knifed Creighton in his office.’ The murder had never been solved.
There was silence.
‘Do you regret it?’ I asked.
‘I regret it wasn’t Woodrow Wilson.’ Then, ‘My step was lighter’.
‘You walk with that step right into heaven,’ I said.
‘I hope there’s not too much light.’