Philip knocked on his father's door armed with a single sheet of paper tucked deep in his coat pocket. For safe keeping, for just the right moment. Philip would, when the time was right, reach into the darkness of his pocket and pull John Cobb back from the dead, the man in his father's story, the man his father had killed over and over again in each retelling.
"Hello, Pop," Philip said. His father leaned on his four-legged walker, scowling, still angry at the indignity of it. He had been using the walker for only a month. He scraped and clopped his way into the kitchen, cutting the corners and dropping utensils into his basket as he went, wheeling around with the intensity of an athlete. "Pretty good with that thing," Philip said.
His father tipped back against the wall, pointing the aluminum legs. "I could button you to the wall faster than you can say, 'old geezer. You little squeak.'"
Philip shot his hands up over his head like a man being robbed. "Whoa, there," he said. Then he turned quickly away, speaking to himself, but loud enough for his father to hear. "Vicious as ever, I see." His father dropped the walker to the floor with a smile.
Philip silently repeated phrases from the letter he carried in his pocket. "I never really believed your story." His mother had written. "I wonder. Did you shoot yourself?"
His father maneuvered around the kitchen preparing dinner, rattling his scaffold and wielding knives.
"You got the gimp thing down," Phillip said, enjoying another small jab.
Over dinner, Phillip brought up the old story. "I remember the time you came home from your last trip to Guatemala. That hole in your leg was as big as a saucer. And ugly."
"Yeah, that was bad."
"That guy. What was his name? John Cobb, right?" Phillip said. Like striking a match.
"Asshole," his father said.
The story. John Cobb had been a business partner. They were at a farmhouse in the countryside at night, waiting. No one there but the two of them. They both had guns. John shot him and he fired back. He heard John yell when the bullet hit him. Then there was more gunfire from people he never saw and he got out the window. He always ended the story the same way, "He's dead. I'd kill him again, if I could."
His father repeated the story over dinner using the same phrases he had used the day he landed at the airport with blood oozing through bandages on his leg. At the first telling Phillip had been ten years old.
"What was the deal about?" Phillip asked, surprising himself, because he had always wondered. His father had made it clear that questions were unwelcome.
"You can't remember?"
"Can't remember the details."
"Kind of hard to believe."
"Well, believe it," his father said, still examining his food. "It was all about money, and he wanted mine."
"What happened to the money?"
"Got lost in the commotion. It was dark, there was lots of shooting."
"How many other guys were there?"
"I was lucky I got out alive."
"So, it was like a jungle outside?"
"Forest. Some farms."
"How far'd you run?"
After a time, his leg healed, but somewhere inside he continued to bleed. The fighting between Phillip's father and mother worsened month by month until the nights were filled with yowling screams of rage and crashing furniture. Phillip spent hours holed up in his bedroom listening to his father tear up the air. Finally, late one night, he ran from the house, in Phillip's mind, transformed through painful enchantment into some fearsome spotted cat, loping away into the night —dangerous, unpredictable, and perfect. Philip felt relieved. And lonely.
"How do you know John Cobb is dead?"
"You didn't see him die."
"He's a dead asshole, and that's the end of it."
"Was your business legal?
"But . . . "
"Drop it!" his father said again, his voice pitched loud and deep, in that commanding way he used to intimidate.
"You can be such a prick! You can't shut me up like that, anymore," Philip said, looking down, avoiding his father's fierce gaze.
Philip leapt to his feet, towering over his father. His father looked up with a familiar calm, the look that said, 'what are you going to do about it.'
"I'm done here with you," Philip said, avoiding his eyes. He turned quickly away and walked out of his father's house, his mother's letter still jammed in his pocket.
When Philip arrived at the door to his own home, he was still angry. He strode quickly through the dark house to his office. The walls echoed back his heavy footfalls, reminding him again how empty his life had come to feel. Ex-wives—fled and disappeared—fast money, lucky investments and meaningless toys. The hard husk left after poison had done its work.
Philip dug into his jacket to retrieve his mother's letter, penned so many years ago and addressed to his father, unmailed and left for Philip to find after she died. The letter was neatly folded, pressed flat and sharp-creased from the weight of gathered years, like heirloom linens waiting to be claimed. "You didn't kill John Cobb. He killed you. And now you're killing your son. Tell him the truth." That's what she'd written. But she was gone and his father still beyond reach.
A few hours of internet search provided a short list of likely John Cobbs. And finally, the web site for a lodge in Guatemala. "Serving nature lovers for twenty-five years," it read. This was him. Philip made reservations for the following week. He printed the webpage and wrote on the top, "Back in a few weeks. I'll keep in touch by e-mail." He circled John Cobb's name, sealed the page in an envelope, addressed it to his father and pulled a duffle bag from the closet.
Philip turned off the rutted road onto poured gravel and ground to a stop under a large palm. The lodge in front of him, a squat stucco box with peeling green paint and wide verandas, was hunkered down low on the bank of the Rio Verdad under the towering mangroves and a pouring rain.
The woman at the door was small, dark-skinned, old, with the face of a Maya. Then, she sloughed the plastic poncho from her shoulders to the floor in a graceful gesture and she seemed suddenly much younger. "Mercedes Cobb. Mucho gusto. You are Philip Tarnoff?" she said, extending her hand. She turned abruptly toward the dining room. "Follow me."
Mercedes wore her graying hair pulled back with an ivory comb. Her face was creased with age. But her long skirt swayed as she crossed the dining room. And when she noticed that her hem was soaked with rain, she lifted her skirt with both hands, shaking it side to side as she walked, tossing small arcs of water over the red tiles. Mercedes led Philip to his room on the second floor without speaking.
He met John Cobb at breakfast the next morning. Philip was the only guest, it being the rainy season and not a usual time for nature travel. Sitting in front of a pitcher of juice, Philip looked up to see a tall, lean man marching to the table with crisp military strides. His silver hair was precisely trimmed and combed to a smooth sheening surface, giving him a distinct air of oily, clean vitality. He wheeled at his chair before he sat. Over scrambled eggs and warm tortillas, he lectured Philip and the cavernous dining room, describing the local flora and fauna, then the history of the crumbling community near the lodge, and finally the virtues of a vegetarian diet. Philip sat silently, the words streaming past him in a powerful current. He watched the way John moved, the swing and thrust of his arms, wondering if he carried an ugly scar under his perfectly pressed shirt.
The morning was sunny, the sky patched with small clouds that would later gather into afternoon rain. The tide had risen, flooding the mud flats at the mouth of the Rio Verdad. Pink, Roseate Spoonbills and Great Egrets in their feathery white plumage were driven into the small trees at the shore.
After breakfast, Philip retreated to the veranda. He leaned into the birding scope as he scanned the riverbanks and trees. When he noticed John standing behind him, he nodded. Dressed in his matching khaki pants and shirt, John stood erect, holding his chin high and his feet planted wide, hands on hips, rocking slowly on his heals, scanning the river and the horizon. Thinks he's the captain-of-the-seas, Philip thought, and turned back to the scope, hunching his shoulders, giving a signal.
"You know, I'm seventy-five years old and I look fifty," John said, talking to Philip's back.
Philip said nothing, hoping he might give it up.
"I'm more fit, too. Bet you've never seen this."
Philip turned to find John gripping the vertical pipe support with both hands, the full length of his body pulled up parallel to the floor, holding himself in this pose on powerful arms that trembled with exertion.
"Never seen this before, have you? Seventy-five, huh? It's the hyperbaric oxygen chamber that does it. Oxygen at high pressure. Sit in that thing every week. Have for years." His breaths came in short, rapid explosions between words.
Philip stared at the old man cantilevered before him with his hands in a white knuckle grip on the vertical pipe. It had to be painful. Philip let the moment stretch out. Let him hang there, he thought. "I don't know what to say, John. You really are something, though. Really. Something." Philip spoke in an even tone, giving away nothing, then turned back to the river, hunching over his scope while John held his pose like a gymnast playing to an audience.
"Seventy-five years old," John said, again.
"Uh huh," Philip mumbled, adjusting his focus on the crocodiles across the river. Another invincible old geezer, he thought, his face reddening. Next he'll want to arm wrestle. A soft thud announced John's release from the pipe, followed by the retreating clomp of long, triumphant strides into the dining room and shouted commands for Carmen, the cook, to clean up the breakfast table. Alone on the veranda, Philip considered for the hundredth time how easy it would be to let this go, to leave the dead in their places.
Later that evening, Carmen served dinner to Philip, John and Mercedes at the long table, then pulled up a chair to eat in silence at the far end. John told tales of the time the river flooded up so high most of the houses were washed away. Not this one, though. "Built solid, to stay," he said. Flooding was on his mind. It had rained heavily every afternoon for many days at the mouth of the Rio Verdad, but even more in the mountains. Large logs had been floating past the veranda all day. Then he talked about the old days, "It was wild in the country. The military was out shooting the peasants. But you could do anything with the business guys, especially if you were a gringo."
Philip listened to his stories of the old days, the wild days. He thought, now is the time.
"Ever been shot?"
Philip's heart pounded, urging him on. "Ever shot anybody?"
"I shot your father." John paused to gauge the effect of his words. "You don't look much like your father. Did you think we wouldn't notice the name? The city? We knew your father a long time. Knew about you." Mercedes nodded. "I'm surprised to see you. Thought your father might come back, at first. But after all the years, figured it was over. Never thought I'd meet you, though. How is Eddie? Still alive? Still an asshole?" Carmen stopped eating, her fork hovering over her plate.
"That's what he calls you. Asshole." Philip said.
"Not surprised. I guess he told you about us shooting each other."
"You stole his money."
"Other way around. Well, he tried to steal the money. That's when he shot me. I shot him." John's jaw was set, his eyes on Philip.
"I don't believe you."
"That's the way it happened," John said, a settled fact the way he said it. "I didn't have him figured for a thief. After he left with his bloody leg, I wired him his share. Minus what I figured was a fair asshole penalty. Few thousand dollars."
"Bullshit." Philip said again, less sure than he acted. He wondered why his father had never told them more about his business, about the shooting? Everything was a secret. And he could be such a prick. The truth was, he didn't mind knowing he'd been a thief. It would be something, something he didn't do grand. Something small and weak.
Mercedes said, "I was there, too. I think he just was crazy over so much money. He was good man before. I think he was sorry to do it."
"He was a thief, Mercedes!" John said.
"You were there?"
"I heard shots and I came running," Mercedes said.
John stood up, pushed his chair back from the table, and walked across the dining room to his office. When he returned, he dropped a bank receipt on the table in front of Philip. At the top, the title line read Banco Central, in ornate letters. Below, he saw the facts: one hundred and ninety-five thousand U.S. dollars, wired to his father. November, 1970. There were official seals and signatures.
"Took me a month to decide. Thought of keeping it. But I didn't want to see him again. Ever. Giving up the money was my guarantee. I sent him a note. Told him I'd kill him if he showed up again. Meant it, too." Mercedes listened with her head down. When she looked up, her eyes were brimming.
This was the truth. What Philip had come so far to know.
"It was a big money deal," John said. "We were all crazy, then. Me and Mercedes, Eddie. Still best not to talk about it. Was a miracle we slipped away without enemies. Except each other, of course."
By the time Philip left the table, he had what he had come for, the truth about his father. Being small. Philip thought, everything is different now.
It rained all night, pounding the roof and blowing up against the windows. By morning, the river was full of tree trunks growling against the lodge. The sun was bright over the heaving swell of the river and the clouds had banked themselves against the mountains to the east. Philip had a date to go bird watching with Javier, John and Mercedes' son.
Javier was a handsome young man with black hair, skin the color of milky coffee, and blue eyes. He arrived wearing a uniform with the insignia of the national park service where he worked as a naturalist. "So, you want to see some birds?" He said. "We've got lots of birds," laughing and extending his hand.
They had been out an hour when Philip noticed the medical alert bracelet dangling on Javier's wrist.
Javier lifted his arm. "I have a condition. " Then very carefully, as though the words were uncomfortable in his mouth, he said, "Compliment C1 Deficiency. If I take certain drugs, then poof. I blow up like a balloon. Explode, maybe." He puffed out his cheeks to illustrate.
Philip reached for the bracelet and read the etched inscription. "Genetic, right?" That was all he could say. He couldn't say the rest, that he had seen a bracelet just like it a hundred times where it hung on the end of his father's arm. "How old are you?" He asked, knowing the answer.
At the lodge, after Javier had left, Philip said to Mercedes, "Does John know that Javier is my father's son?"
Mercedes stared across the table, eyes wide, shaking her head, her long earrings swaying. "No! This is not so. Why do you say such a thing?"
"His bracelet. The disease is genetic. My father has it. Javier's father. Does John know?"
Mercedes sat silently, looking down at her hands folded in her lap. When she looked up, her face was set hard. "You will not say anything," she said. "This was so long ago. Javier is our son."
Philip looked across the table at Mercedes noticing again that she was still a beautiful woman. His father's lover. I will be relentless, he thought. Pitiless. "Is that why my father left? Is that what the shooting was about?"
"Oh, no. No. John does not know. I told your father I was pregnant. We were all good friends then. But so crazy-wild. I loved them both. We felt so ashamed. Some reason Eddie went crazy, tried to steal the money. I think sometimes if he want John to shoot him. He wished to die, maybe. I wonder who Javier's father was. I look at him always to see. But I cannot tell. I did not know your father had this disease."
"Does my father know you had a baby?"
"I wrote the baby died. Please, please."
Philip was silent through dinner. John orated, cursing the pouring rain and the boom of tree trunks in the dark. Mercedes was silent, too, sitting next to John, but keeping her eyes on Philip. Javier was there. Beer bottles collected on the table after Carmen cleared the dishes.
"Tell me again how it went that night. The night you shot each other," Philip said.
"Eddie was a thief." John announced, making a point, turning mean. "Asshole. Afraid to take me on straight. Shot me in the back."
"John," Mercedes said, gently touching his arm.
"He shot you in the back?" Philip said, trying to make sense.
"Yeah. Eddie shot me in the shoulder, in the back. Then I shot him."
"You're a liar, John," Philip said, softly. "A liar!" He then exploded, surprised by his sudden anger, the truth falling into place. "It's been bothering me. My father was shot from behind. I saw the wound, the scar. Small hole in the back of his leg, ugly, ragged exit wound in the front. Shot from the back, John!"
"Please stop, you two. Please stop."
"Like father like son. Full of lying stories. I know the truth; I was there." John said to no one in particular. To everyone.
"No!" Mercedes said. Javier was frozen in place.
"Let's see your scar," Philip said. This was the real story. "Let's see it." John didn't move. "I thought not. What's the rest of the truth? Who stole the money? Let's all tell the truth, now." His anger rumbled its demands and Philip release himself to it. "Now I'm the one with something, the truth. How's it feel? Huh? You grabbed for the money. You shot my father. It's like HE said."
"My father must have had some big truth on you, too. That why you sent him his money? You're the thief, the coward." The words tasted good in his mouth.
"Shut up. I'll slap your scrawny little face, boy!"
The booming, threatening voice. The voice. "Try this, prick," Philip said.
"No!" Mercedes leaned into the table.
Philip's body felt like steel. He had a weapon. "Hey, Javier." He turned on the son, aiming at John.
"No! Don't do this."
"Hey, Javier. Your bracelet? That disorder?"
"That's the same thing my father has, same bracelet . . . you were born seven months after he left . . . " Philip blurted out the jagged fragments of rage. There was cold pleasure in the words. Pounding with the truth, aiming for the groin.
Mercedes' cheeks were lined with tears, her face slack. "Oh, please," Mercedes said, standing.
John stood, too. He stared silently into her eyes. Then John slapped Mercedes so hard she staggered to catch her balance. Mercedes stepped back, reclaiming the space, closing again with her husband. Javier held his place, lines marking his forehead like sudden cracks in a fragile vase. John's face glowed red, twisted. Mercedes slapped him, not hard, but sharp, to bring him back. The lodge creaked with the press of the flooding river and downed giants moaning against the walls. The air was heavy with collapsing illusions.
"Jesus," Javier said in a low voice.
John strode through the room, knocking bottles and dishes to the floor, overturning chairs, ranting in cannonades of rage, his face turned to the heavens. Suddenly he grabbed a storm lantern from the shelf and Mercedes and Javier shrieked in unison. He thrust the lantern high over his head then flung it down onto the table where it burst in a spray of kerosene. Before they could reach him, John had opened a cigarette lighter and held it above the table.
"Burn it up! Why not? I don't care. Shit. I knew, I knew, I knew. I didn't believe. I should have killed him!" He threw the lighter. A vapor of flame flashed over the table then quickly leapt to the ceiling. Javier found an extinguisher in the kitchen and attacked the flames. Mercedes leapt onto John, her legs wrapped around his waist, her fingers dug into his face, her mouth an open blast of pain as the two of them toppled to the floor, locked together by a mysterious force that filled Philip with awe and then shame. John Cobb released himself to the night in unearthly screeches that rent the air.
Philip looked on silently, invisible to them, now. Shards of their pain, flung off the fray, struck like shrapnel. Their spent words still echoed in his ears as he turned to leave. "You loved him? . . . Our son . . . Father!. . . . You tried to kill him . . . You lied . . . " No one noticed when Philip walked out the door, the wreckage of a family mounting in his wake. Gunshot would have been less cruel, he thought, as he fled into the storm, pursued by the pained voices pouring out behind him. There was a cold stone where his heart had been.
It was a long, wind-tossed drive to the capital. Philip arrived at the airport, headed for anywhere. After five days in Costa Rica, he flew north again. Then north again on a long winding bus ride. In a pueblo in the mountains of southern Mexico, Philip found himself standing in the back of a cathedral long ago taken over by local Maya. Candle and incense smoke hung thick in the air. The floor, emptied of its pews, held a patchwork of families sitting on brightly colored blankets spread over a carpet of pine needles. Philip saw a boy with his father and a shaman holding the father's hand, his fingers resting lightly on the wrist, gauging complex messages of the pulse. The shaman's gaze was cast inward, his head lowered as he leaned close to whisper in the father's ear. The son's eyes never left his father's face.
Philip found an internet café. He thought of his father's old wound and the scar he had become, healed over into a hard, white anger. Philip lay his fingers gently on the soft flesh at the inside of his wrist, feeling for an echo, gauging rhythm and strength. The soft throb of his heart felt like a sign. Philip typed into the email window: "Dear Pop: It's been raining a lot and I've traveled a long distance. By the way, it's not the same John Cobb. Be home soon. Your Son, Philip."