Kenneth C. Goldman One-Time/Reprint Rights
1700 Oakwood Terrace, Apt. 3-G ©2018, Ken Goldman
Narberth, PA 19072 Approx. 2147 words
e-mail : KGOL991920@aol.com
Death Bed Scene
If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself. -- George Orwell, 1984
Man is not what he thinks he is; he is what he hides. – André Malraux
Three things cannot long stay hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth. – Buddha
Ethan Rudley had but one son, that son being myself. Three young wives had packed their bags before the man turned forty, and no other woman appeared during the rest of his life. That was understandable. My mother disappeared God knows where before I’d reached my teen years. I can’t say I blamed Florence Rudley for leaving my father, nor did I hold any grudges against the others who followed her. It seemed a miracle that I chose to move back with him following the collapse of my own marriage. Don’t bother asking why I did that because I’ve asked myself that question most of my adult life. Maybe it seemed the better alternative to being homeless, but not by much. See, my father never shared anything personal, not with anyone, and especially not with me, so I couldn’t tell you whether the man appreciated or even wanted my company. Yes, we were Father and Son by blood, and anyone seeing us together couldn’t miss the family resemblance: the high forehead, the weak chin. Still, no sane person would have called us close.
I knew nothing of what my father was worth. He’d spent many of his later years hauling produce along the interstates, and he disappeared for weeks. Those few times I asked about his savings (because, damn it, I had the right to know), he looked at me like I were some vulture waiting for his corpse to grow cold. By his eightieth year not much love remained between us, and I stopped asking anything my father would consider too revealing. Truth is, I stopped caring where his money was, or even if there was any worth caring about. As it turned out, there wasn’t, not in any banks, secret accounts, or under his mattress. No matter. Had he left me anything of value I probably would’ve given it away. That should tell you where the man stood with me.
Still, there I stood at my father’s bedside during his last moments, hoping for some kind of closure or at least one positive memory to carry with me. It’s sad the way we grasp for the few crumbs life offers us, but Ethan Rudley didn’t even leave the crumbs.
The lung cancer that struck him down at eighty came as no surprise. The man chain smoked unfiltered Camels, often several packs practically every day of his life. His teeth had turned yellow, those few that remained, and he always reeked with the smell of a human ash tray. The final scene at St. Mary’s Hospital proved painful for all the wrong reasons.
After a lengthy silence, my father finally found the strength to ask, “Get me some chicken soup, would you, Aaron?”
Not the stuff of your epic novel or even a shitty soap opera, but I played the dutiful son, tracking down his nurse to fulfill my father’s request. Watching him dribble soup down his chin, I expected nothing more from him than an occasional meaningless grunt, or maybe his request to turn on the t.v. to catch whatever game could replace the need for conversation. But that didn’t happen.
“I’m dying, Aaron. You know that, don’t you?”
I knew that, but I responded with only, “How’s the soup, Dad?”
He ignored the question. “There isn’t much time, and I’ve something to tell you. Just listen, okay? Will you do that for me?” I had no choice, so I nodded. “Do you remember that old cabin you helped me build when you were, what -- fifteen? You used to go there for years to fuck that shrew you finally married. You told me she made you swear off women for all time.”
The old guy was right about my former wife. Eileen was the very definition of a cunt. And of course I remembered building that cabin with him. How could I not, its construction being among the few things my father and I did together. He built that shack so far into the Maine woods you couldn’t find the place with a map. After my marriage ended, I stopped trying.
“I remember,” I answered. “I sawed off the tip of my index finger cutting the floor boards. I took a million drugs to knock out the pain because you insisted on not taking me to the hospital. I’m still taking Tramadol when what’s left of my finger flares up.” I held up the finger whose tip was gone above the knuckle, a ridiculous display because my father remained keenly aware of the incident and didn’t need to be reminded. His lip tightened at the sight.
“That opioid shit made you sleep all day, didn’t it?”
“Sometimes all week.”
“Well, you’re just listening, okay? This is important.” My father struggled to lean forward to make his point, his soup almost spilling from the bowl. “See, I put together a bureau when I built the cabin, and I’ve kept that old cabinet in my bedroom. Its drawers hold three generations of boxers. It’s a piece of shit, I know that. Wobbles like crazy and not worth a dime except for tinder, but it’s important you know what’s inside one of those deep drawers.”
“Besides the boxers?” I managed an unconvincing smile. “Yes, I know that old bureau well, and it is a piece of shit.”
His reprimanding glance told me again to button my lip. Why did I expect this man on his death bed to reveal a sense of humor when he’d never demonstrated one during his entire life? It took a moment, but for some reason my father’s expression softened. Ethan Rudley couldn’t manage a smile with fishhooks tugging his lips, but his scowl disappeared.
“I built a false bottomed drawer inside that bureau, Aaron. Didn’t know if I’d ever have use for it. There’d never been any jewelry or cash worth stealing in our house.” He lowered his voice as if sharing a secret. “Turned out I found a damned good use for the drawer after all, so I made two keys for it. I lost one, but the other’s in my coat pocket in the closet here. I want you to go get it now.”
He stared as if searching for something in my eyes, but I had no clue what it might be. Maybe he thought I’d stolen that other key. Who knows what thoughts rattle inside an old man’s brain? I went to the closet, rifled through his coat pocket.
“Found it,” I said. I held up the rusted two-pronged key for my father to see. He nodded but didn’t smile.
“You want to tell me what’s in that drawer?”
“I want you to see for yourself.”
“Have you been holding back on me, Dad? Keeping secret stocks and bonds maybe, hiding how you’ve been stinking rich this whole time?”
“Nothing like that. Just something you need to see -- preferably sober, or not on that damned medication that makes you so dopey.”
“Okay, Dad. But it might help if you’d just tell--”
The old man looked down, stirred some of his chicken noodles, and raised the spoon to his lips. “Damned soup’s gone cold.”
I took the bowl from him just before his head fell back into his pillow. I’d thought he’d fallen asleep, but the heart monitor at his bedside told it different.
Like I said before, my father’s death wasn’t the stuff of novels or heavy drama. He was gone that next moment, and bitching about his soup were his last words.
A church funeral seemed unnecessary. No one who knew Ethan Rudley would have chosen to express last respects they never had. Standing by his casket accompanied by a bald minister who informed me to make the check out to him personally, I muttered some meaningless eulogy intended more for the minister’s benefit than my own. Once Ethan was laid to rest inside Mt. Mariah’s burial grounds, it seemed appropriate to check that old bureau’s drawer to which he’d seemed so insistent on granting me access.
My father’s key opened the only drawer containing a lock, a telltale clue that here something significant lie hidden. The false bottom required only a nudge to pry loose. Expecting some worthless junk the man felt the need to protect, still I couldn’t deny a hopeful anticipation.
The contents? For one thing, an old Polaroid camera, one of those self-developing relics of the 60’s that eliminated a trip to the local Fotomat before digital photography closed that franchise down. Not ancient enough to be an antique, the camera was worthless. But beneath it I found a thick manilla folder.
Hesitating before unfastening the string that secured it, I dared to believe maybe the old man was hoarding something valuable after all, something he had waited until his dying day to reveal. Why had my father been so adamant not to share this mystery with me if it held such importance? A stupid question, of course. This was always his way.
“Okay then, Dad...”
I opened the thick binder, spilled its contents on the bed to discover stacks of faded photographs - probably well over a hundred of them - of maybe a dozen young women. Alone, each lay on my father’s bed inside the old cabin he’d built. He must have taken each woman there...
...to do what...?
It took a moment to notice a similarity in every photo not immediately apparent, although I should have detected it in the women’s faces. They were frightened -- no, terrified. All of them! And the women’s hands were bound to the bed’s posts...
They were cuffed!
Another large envelope was inside the folder, and I tore it open like a mad man. These were newspaper clippings covering many years, dozens of clippings with headlines of missing young women, mostly teenaged runaways or prostitutes, women never found and presumed dead. My mind racing, I grabbed a handful of the photos, studied one after the other in rapid succession, matching each to the newspaper clippings, then holding one photograph to another as if playing some grotesque game of Solitaire. The same women, alive in earlier snapshots, lay sprawled upon my father’s bed, their throats cut and leaking blood through thick crimson slashes. Ethan Rudley had murdered every one of them -- butchered them!
Why would he reveal this terrible secret to me? Was this some mad man’s deranged confession from the grave? Or maybe an unloving father’s final ‘fuck you’ to his equally unloving son?
I rifled through the newspaper clippings again, found the names of the women in the photos. I read several aloud.
“Sharon Waxman...Eileen Cooper...Rebecca Madison...Marlene Deets...”
There were many more, and somehow in some dark corner of my brain I remembered hearing their names, recognized their faces, but precise details wouldn’t come. Still---
I knew them!
Scattering photos on the tattered bedspread in a large fan, I studied the terrified faces of the women whose screams no one would ever hear, then inspected their lifeless remains. Like some child throwing a tantrum, I pounded the bed in a fury of rage and confusion. Many photos fell to the floor, and on my knees, I shuffled through every one them again and again.
“God damn you, Father. God DAMN you!”
One young woman’s photo drew my attention. Yes, she was dead, her throat cut like the others, but that wasn’t what caught my eye. This photo displayed a mistake that so many amateur photographers make, and I noticed the mistake repeated several times in other shots. My father’s finger had got in the way of the lens, and his finger showed in the finished photo.
...except it wasn’t my father’s finger in those shots. The stub of a finger blocked several shots, a finger that appeared amputated above the knuckle. But it hadn’t been amputated. It had been sawed off!
(“That opioid shit made you sleep all day, didn’t it?”)
(“Sometimes all week,” I had answered.)
The women’s names, their faces -- so familiar...
The second key to my father’s old bureau’s drawer, the one he had ‘lost’ -- I found it in the medicine cabinet hidden inside my bottle of Tramadol. And with it, I understood my father’s long held secret.
You see, Ethan Rudley wanted me to know what he knew -- that during all those years his son had been taking those photographs.