We drove over four hours to reach Milwaukee. Downtown, Highland Avenue, brown brick building nearly non-descript save for the block letters yelling MEDICAL EXAMINER.
His dad had been a real son-of-a bitch. As a kid, my husband worked on the farm, his dad would call him dumbshit, hit him with a wrench. A childhood of welts, plowing, harvesting family fields. Now an old, lonely man, he’d call my husband, forget our kids’ names. Proud of you, son. Taught you a lot, didn’t I? Family means something to my husband. When Wisconsin police called, we got a sitter, we drove.
When my husband eventually reconciled with his dad, he’d visit our place in Indiana once or twice a year. They’d build things together: chimney chase for our woodstove, a treehouse with four swings. His mom refused to visit at the same time. They’d divorced after forty years. Other women, other bank accounts. He’d called her dumbshit, hit her with his fist. She left Wisconsin, her home state, never wanted to see his face again, but never dated anyone else. A decade after the divorce her visits still included tears, declarations of independence. After one of her outbursts, my husband learned to hide the one photo of his dad before she arrived.
Sometimes, we couldn’t tell if she was more upset by his betrayals or that she’d put up with them for so long. She treasured her photo albums — even held some of her ex-husband’s favorites as hostage during the divorce: one with his arm around Barbara Mandrell, another with his hand on the tire of a rebuilt John Deere tractor. He begged for those photos; she denied having them. She’d jut out her chin, flare her nostrils. He didn’t care about them before, she’d said. Those albums preserved her story: two sons, wife in pedal pushers with a prim, blonde perm balancing the books for the farm. Their tug-of-war dragged the divorce settlement past a year, into their sixties.
His dad kept the family videos, the grainy kind from those recorders you lugged on your shoulder. These were processed, revised, new technology adapting them from reels to cassettes to discs. Each pass trimmed moments, cut them down. He gave copies to his two sons. Toddler faces red after crying, silenced by lack of audio. Smiles forced by their father’s scowl. Tractor pulls with engines rumbling, grinning teenage sons winning ribbons under stern direction. Snippets from cocktail parties: Mom carrying canapes, the old man flirting with gals in go-go boots swinging long, brown hair. Eventually, we sat down, watched them with his mom. The ladies always liked him. She hadn’t fought for the videos; she got copies anyway.
He’d remarried pronto. Tiny brunette who’d inherited family money. My husband wasn’t speaking to him at the time. Mom demanded singular allegiance. If her sons contacted their father, it meant they didn’t love her anymore. He wasn’t invited to our wedding. I didn’t meet him until our oldest turned four.
He bragged this new gal, ten years his junior, was the best thing that ever happened to him. He built her dream house on a hill. A real do-it-yourselfer, he paved the driveway, installed lanterns at the road. Her family didn’t like him; she called them less and less. Out of the blue, she developed some mystery illness. My father-in-law hovered at her hospital bedside, practically banned her grown children from visiting her. When she died, her family petitioned for an autopsy. Rumor had it he’d poisoned her. He’d made her special salads every day for her health; they claimed he added something extra in the dressing. But he ordered the cremation before a medical examiner could probe into this theory and earned the local nickname “Killer on the Hill.” He sold the house soon after, said his retirement accounts needed cash more than he needed a big house.
There’d always been other women. Now, the old man played with a ruthless, double deck for sympathy as the divorced and widowed guy. He drove a Cadillac, talked big about his properties, his tractors, his stocks and bonds. He courted women with businesses, real estate, family inheritance. He bought them dinner, pricey handbags, paid off their Detroit-built cars, and said things they wanted to hear. Don’t worry about the future, pretty lady. I’ll take care of you and your kids. He wooed them with a vigor he reserved for his pursuit of a “catch,” a woman with money in the bank. The first girlfriend we met had been a recent divorcee, a retired teacher, perhaps. She was smart. Took me aside during dinner and with a quizzical look asked, Is he for real? I carried no burden from family allegiance. No. He’s a liar, a hard-heart, and a cheat. My husband sighed, He’s not really a good guy.
In time, his dad’s calls included reports of doctor visits, bloodwork, scans. Nothing strange for an American man in his seventies. He’d thought jogging was for city folk, chose fried chicken and frozen custards for many a meal. He got a hearing aid, avoided cataract surgery, bemoaned his borderline diabetes. That’s when Sharon moved in. A brunette version of my husband’s mom in so many ways: quiet, compliant and ever-smiling. Sharon worked retail. The standing aggravated her arthritis, but he insisted she couldn’t retire. You need the money, Sharon. Our kids received birthday cards, holiday presents. All bought by Sharon. She washed his dishes and his laundry, paid his utility bills and half of the rent. But he refused to let her cook. He had a new rule. I don’t eat food made by people who know me.
Seemed all the successful people were online, so he took classes at the library, learned his way around the internet, how to send email. He regaled my husband with his newfound expertise in investments, his discovery of untapped silver and aluminum mines. If you give me cash, I’ll triple it in a year. He mentioned his ease in winning online poker games. Dumbshits don’t know when to walk away.
We can’t recall exactly why Sharon moved out. We bet he insisted she find another job after her heart surgery. Sitting there, in front of his wall of televisions tuned to the news or his computer screen flashing the stock ticker. We need the money, Sharon. We figured her family moved her out.
His father wiped out most of the retirement savings with online poker games and empty mines. Without Sharon, he fell behind in rent. The apartment manager sent him warnings, so he found himself a roommate. Didn’t tell us much about the guy. We figured the roommate must have paid the bulk of the rent since the old man now worked bagging groceries. One day, he petitioned the apartment manager to change his locks. He complained about their refusal. My husband asked why he needed new locks and he hemmed and hawed, admitted he’d kicked the roommate out. The guy was threatening, stealing, had to go. But there was a tone in his voice. We knew he’d left something out, something that probably made him less the victim. He fretted, afraid the guy would return and take revenge. My husband offered to move his father in with us, so he could get back on his feet, feel safe. No. He preferred to sleep in his car until the manager changed his locks.
His father’s behavior seemed strange. My husband wanted to check on him, offered to buy him lunch at one of his favorite chicken places. His dad showed up with bruises on his face, a cut over his left eye. It wasn’t the old roommate, he insisted. He’d been spending more and more time at a casino nearby. Slot machines, people watching. The place is filled with old, sick people, son. People waiting to die. Some woman, someone without an oxygen tank, walker or hearing aid, had been sweet on him, promised him triple his pleasure, lured him to the parking garage where two men then beat and robbed him. I’m fine. They didn’t get much.
His dad’s calls amped up from weekly to every other day. During each call, my husband invited him to move in with us. You’ve got other options, Dad. But he always turned the invitation down. Once, it was a friend with an extra room, next it was a win at the casino. Another time, he declared one of his stocks was ready to go big. Said he had a plan, a good plan, and he just needed us to take away some junk. Take it. I only want what fits in my car. That’s what you can do for me.
My husband worried, offered him money. The old man took it from time to time. And that’s when he mentioned it. Said he’d just sell his guns. Guns? We never knew he’d owned any. Growing up in Wisconsin, my husband had cousins who hunted deer, wore their requisite camouflage, shared photos of ten-point bucks. But my husband’s family, they hadn’t been among them. No, his dad boasted about killing kittens on the family farm. With my own bare hand, round and round in a bucket of water. My husband knew what his father could damage with his hands. My husband didn’t know what his father would do with a gun, so he bought them all.
His dad wouldn’t take a dime for the other stuff he wanted hauled away. Just wanted dinner at a fish fry. You would’ve thought it was all cursed how fast he pointed at each item he wanted gone, his face like a man being relieved of small dogs held fast by their teeth in his ankles. Nothing with any value, just things that make living easier: old dishes, a kitchen table and chairs, outdated lamps. All your stuff will be at our house, Dad. Drive our way when you’re ready to move in. It’s temporary. You’ll get back on your feet like you always do.
We never saw him alive again.
We need someone to identify your father’s body, they said in the medical examiner’s building. They led us to a small office, where we sat, debated whether they had it right, whether maybe his Wisconsin driver’s license had been stolen by his angry roommate, the muggers, a stranger in the casino. And if so, then, where was his dad? Was he beaten and bleeding in some Milwaukee alley while the police had identified this stranger’s body based solely on an ID in a pocket?
The detectives determined my husband’s father had been in an ongoing dispute with the apartment management. He was behind in rent, refusing to pay for new locks, lost keys. He hadn’t sold my husband all his guns. He’d kept one. A simple shotgun. The 12-gauge he’d earned at 18 in the U.S. Army Reserve. He’d taken this gun into the apartment’s leasing office lobby. In the middle of the night, he taped a scathing letter to their locked office door. He accused them of badgering, berating, and price gouging an old man. He sat on the worn lobby carpeting, leaned against the wall of tenant mailboxes, propped the shotgun in his mouth, and squeezed the trigger.
Flesh and blood splattered the manager’s office window, stained the carpeting. His body waited for the manager to arrive, to stumble over him the next morning. She called the police, declared the letter suggested murderous intent. I think he was going to shoot me first. Months later, my husband would receive a letter from the manager requesting the cleaning bill be paid through proceeds from his father’s estate. There had been no proceeds, only debt.
An officer held a photo, explained it was taken at an angle for discretion. It would show only the profile, the side of the face that had not been blown off. He placed the photo on the table and we stared. We stared at the picture of a cold, dead man, his face drained of color and life. At first, it was difficult to recognize the man we knew to be the bully, the braggart, the Killer on the Hill. But then I saw his eyelids, closed and in the shape my husband’s take when smiling, his Norwegian nose and thin, determined lips so like my husband’s. It caught my breath and I grabbed my husband’s shoulder. Oh my god, it’s him. It’s really him. That’s your daddy.
K.N. JOHNSON won first place in Mythraeum’s short story contest for her dark take on the Pygmalion myth. Her story is now in the running for development as a short film. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies A Journey of Words, Polterguests, and Incandescent Mind, the literary journal of Sadie Girl Press. She has served as an Acquisitions Editor for Mighty Quill Books and worked as a local reporter for The Current.