By Benjamin J. Gohs
SOMETIMES HE WHISPERED his own name for that was all he chose or perhaps all he could. Whether Curly Parsly understood the implications of that moniker, only the god of his terrible making could say.
Now, I love the man. May sound odd to those who know I tried to kill him. Though they are few. But there was a good twenty year before it come to that. Before the truth came out.
And now I find my days filled with diaper changes, chopping carrot and celery for soup, and entertaining the occasional stranger who believes laying eyeballs on old Curly will—hell, I don’t know—assuage their grief. Though, after this last visit, I been forced to rethink my willingness to entertain.
This letter come of a week ago:
“Mr. Trent, our son William would have been thirty-one today. He is no longer with us. William ended his life on Aug. 19th. He could no longer live with the memories of what that vile man did to him. I don’t know if you can understand how difficult this has been for my wife and I. The years of therapy. The nightmares. The drug use. And now our baby has left us. We ask that you please consider allowing us to meet with Mr. Parsley, at your convenience, as I believe it might offer some modicum of closure.”
How could I say no? That’s a goddamn heartbreak no parent should endure. Sides, what harm could come? They just wanted to see old Curly. Talk, they said. God knows what they could say or he to them, had he the cogency, what might ease their suffering.
But, I suppose, when you spend all your hours living life’s worst possible minute, there comes a desperation which paints itself in the colors of hope. I couldn’t tell them no anymore than I could fathom their arrival so I told them come.
Mr. and Mrs. Darby drove up from Ohio. That’s two-hundred-sixty-three miles of February blacktop I do not envy. I made a place on chance they should choose to stay the night. This house is so big and empty with just the two of us, even with the day nurse. Be nice to have some company.
Made a pot of bean soup the day of. Got to be quite a cook these last few years if I do say. Waiting for the muffins, I pulled up a stool and watched through the foggy glass as our family of pudgy chickadees played at the feeder. Not sure if they were really playing but chickadees never do seem to stay put, always hopping and fluttering. Those bodies impossibly rotund for them little wings. But oh my their singing cheers me and I can’t help whistling back “fee-bee” though I been told not to for it can be confusing. We had one love-starved gal I lured in my folly and she spent the better part of a summer singing without respite in search of her winged lover who, in reality, was a sixty-year-old man of Irish-Mexican parentage. I am not entirely sure what that would have made our children.
I was so hungry I served the Darbys lunch right away. We dined in the family room overlooking the garden, though the view this time of year is but fallow field and a far-off copse of slippery elm gone brindle til the spring. Eighteen inches of snow and the bright reflects nicely through the big bay windows and lights up the house in a way the old brass chandeliers just can’t.
“Thank-you for having us. I know what a strange request this is but you see my wife and I—”
“No. I understand. Truly I do.”
Only the husband shook my hand. His grip cold and unsteady.
“Lovely old house. Has it been in your family long?”
“This the Parsly family home. I am not blood-kin. But, yes, it goes back a-ways. Curly’s great-grandfather built the main structure in, I believe, eighteen and sixty-five with money made off government lumber contracts during the war. Whole lane once was mansions. Only three left now. One’s a bed and breakfast, t’other a museum.”
“Well, it’s lovely. Isn’t it, Mary?”
The wife did not speak but laid her cold eyes upon me and I felt as a child scolded.
“Our place is an embarrassment in their company but the edifice remains impressive in its sheer mode and girth. Missing shingles and shutters abound. Meaning to get the roof looked at but the basement constantly needs pumping and the foundation has to be sured-up ever spring. I guess I been meaning to get to a lot of things. Thought about selling and finding a smaller place but Curly always said he was born here and planned to die here. And though I suppose that’s already technically a fact, I figure it the least I could do.”
“Oh, I know how it is.”
“Listen to me ramble. Spend most of my time alone—well—not talking. So, when we get company, I just gab away.”
“Must have been something to see back in its heyday.”
“How was the drive?”
“Not too bad until we crossed over Michiana. It’s like the danged Yukon up here. Can’t figure how you people do it.”
“Saginaw winters require a flexible sense of humor. And an ample store of whisky.”
Wife didn’t touch her food or coffee or speak at all until after the meal. When I’d cleared the dishes she asked where it was. “It.” How she referred to him. I didn’t know whether he was an it because of what he’d done or what he’d become. I suppose either was, in fact, apropos.
“I can bring him now, if you like. Or we can talk a while. Maybe you all have some questions I can resolve beforehand.”
“How did you come to know Mr. Parsly?”
“Must’ve been about ’93. Rescued me from a life sentence at the Tribune, which my family owned and were obligated for six generations of Trents to operate in various states of fiscal ruination. Hired me on after my reporting helped solve an embezzlement case involving a construction company clerk who stole over a million dollars. She would later blame those mischiefs—including purchase of six horses, a 1989 Fiero GT, and a near life-size bronze statue of an ancient goddess with twelve breasts—on cocaine psychosis.”
“Cocaine psychosis?” Mr. Darby sipped his coffee and considered the words. “How bizarre.”
“Yes sir. What her lawyer called it. Now, the last case we worked together was for a traveling circus with an arson problem. That was bizarre. Fires kept cropping up in sleeping quarters on the train, outside show tents. Elephant died a smoke inhalation. Old Curly narrowed suspects to the three employees with the largest gripes against the owner and he got the culprit to confess. Though he never would say how. Turned out the firebug was one the actors who played a Indian in the wild west show—the lesser mystery solved was the fella turned out to be a Greek. Said he set the fires to get back at the owner for mistreating his wife. She was a tightrope walker.”
“The owner’s wife or the Greek’s wife?”
“Yes sir. The owner’s. Apparently the Greek fellow had feelings for her.”
The husband seemed to be enjoying the conversation but the wife kept glaring and finally come to the point.
“And you were OK with him doing … what he did … for all those years?”
“Curly, you mean? No ma’am.”
“Bullshit. Two a you were in cahoots. Why else would you still be living with him? Couple a goddamned perverts. You like little boys, too?”
“It’s alright, sir. Your wife’s anger is understandable.”
“You don’t know shit about what it’s been like for us. My son is dead.”
“Well, ma’am, maybe not. But I do know a little.”
“Yeah? Whatta you know? Was your child raped? Did he become a junky to deal with the pain?”
“Then don’t tell me you understand. Now either bring that piece of shit out or we’re leaving.”
“I will. But first I think you ought to know the truth.”
“Oh, fuck your truth.”
“Mary, please. Let the man talk.”
“Little over five years ago now, it were. Curly’s out of town on a consultation for a fraud case when a young man come asking for money. Said he had proof of various lecheries, and none too legal. Demanded fifty thousand to go hence. I could not argue with the photos. Nor quarrel with the young man’s grief. Gave him six thousand from the company safe and told him do as he liked—with the caveat he leave me seven days in which to manage sundry affairs.”
“What affairs were those?”
“Three days I squatted Curly Parsly’s basement. Lived on peanut butter bread and well water. He come home night of the third day. Was relighting the furnace when I lassoed his neck with a length of hemp. People pass out so darn quick when properly choked. Never see that in the movies. They struggle and struggle. Curly did not. He went limp right off.”
“Yes ma’am. I Wasn’t prepared for how I’d feel seeing him folded in a pile. Limbs at strange articulations. Like some unnatural, accusing interpretive dance. I didn’t let go for a long time—master and disobedient dog frozen in frustration, I guess you could say.”
“You tried to kill him?”
“Tried. Picture of that child, naked and fearful, should have set me to tapdancing on old Curly’s corpse. But I fell instead to breathing and pumping. And what I woke was something that was not him. No longer guilty. No longer brilliant. No longer Curly Parsly. The monster was dead. Only his skin and bones remained.”
“What did you do?”
“The young man talked to the authorities and others came forward. By then it were too late. Investigation was had. Ruled Curly Parsly unfit for trial due to mental incompetency. Told them it was a stroke. Doctors concurred. Though he had some family around the country, none came. So, I took him in. What else could I do? The man gave me my trade and never a disparagement.”
“And you’ve been taking care of him ever since?”
I told them yes but what I did not tell them was now he spends his days staring off at nothing, or perhaps something no one else can see. And ever on his face a big stupid smile that makes him look like a different person. I don’t think I ever saw, when Curly had his faculties, any semblance of smirk or grin. The man was incapable of mirth.
And now, even when I close my eyes, I cannot rid my head of that smile. Not any more than I could forget that boy. Sometimes I catch a wrinkle or raise of eyebrow, just a flash of the old tenant peeking out from behind a curtain. And I wonder. Wonder sometimes if he’s in there. Watching. Waiting. Grinning so because he’s plotting and can’t not smile over how delicious it’s going to be when he slides his roach belly blade between my ribs and pokes out the light of my heart, or dances to my horrible music as I cramp and bleed from arsenic soup. Or worse, maybe I’d wake one morning in the noose … my bed for a gallows. It’s still my first and last thought daily.
The wife stared at the husband until he spoke.
“Can we please see him now?”
Other side the house, before I even got to Curly’s room, I could hear the nurse struggling to dress him.
“Seems to be the trouble, young man?”
“Mr. Parsly don’t want to change his drawers this fine day.”
Old Curly grunted and swung at her with slaphands and kept on smiling the whole time. I sat the bed and steadied his flailing. He was shirtless. Pants at his knees. Wrinkled neck shiny with drool. How could something so pathetic have done such evil?
“Can we get a towel, ma’am?” I wiped and he closed his eyes and threw back his head in ecstasy like a dog getting his chin scratched. “What’s all the ruckus?”
He warbled his wet gibberish and we helped him off with his pajamas and into a proper shirt and slacks. I sent the nurse to lunch in the kitchen and wheeled Curly to the family room myself and parked him the narrow side of the long trestle table across from our guests.
Their faces drooped in dismay. The fiend dropped into the hole their son’s death had dug them was no longer big enough to fill it. Even at over six feet, Curly was a small man. He was a child dressed grampa’s burdens.
“May I?” Mrs. Darby brought a wallet photo out of her purse. “This is our William.”
I was looking at the svelte blonde in his sailor outfit, trying to remember if he was the one who come asking for money. But it was her tone, the change in her voice from cordiality to wickedness. And then I heard the click.
“Remember him? Remember my boy?” She held the picture up for Curly to see then slid it across the table with an angry flourish. “Look at him, you son of a bitch.”
Curly stared out the window at the frozen nothing and grinned.
I told her go easy but I don’t think she heard through the rage sweeping her mind like an uncoiling spring let go to author what havoc serendipity might allow. I watched to see if he recognized. I watched because I hoped I would not see what it was I saw.
“We don’t want to hurt you.” Mr. Darby waved a handful of silver. “We’re just here about him. So, please, don’t—just don’t do anything.”
We sat in that silent council for some time until the mother went around the table. She had a limp I only then noticed. Slight, but there. Put my hands palm down on the cold walnut to steady myself. A tiny shudder worked its way up the father, subsided and came again. I had a dog who used to do that during thunderstorms. This wasn’t his idea.
When she reached Curly, she struggled to get her nails under the picture and grew redder still each time the photo clicked and snapped against the table’s high polish. Finally, she slid it to the edge and waved it in his face and mashed it against Curly’s nose. “Tell me. Say you remember what you did.”
Curly’s head lolled and he slapped the armrests and jerked and his chair moved under him. I rose but the father swung the gun on me.
“Sit down, Mr. Trent.”
“Sir, I forgot to set the brake. If I could just—”
“Sit the hell down.”
Mrs. Darby asked Curly again and again until it sounded like telling. She shrieked at last and struck his face. The imbecilic smile remained.
“He can’t understand you, ma’am. Please don’t do that.”
But she glared at me and smacked him again. His hands went up at odd angles. They twisted, clutched, and jabbed as if he were picking some elusive invisible fruit. She backed away and put her hand to her chest and limped around the table back to her seat.
“Now may I?”
The mister motioned with the revolver.
“I invited you because I can only imagine.” I pushed Curly to the table and locked his wheels and caught his hands and shushed him until there was peace. “Closure’s important … I know the pain this has caused.”
“Closure?” He laid down the gun and rubbed his swollen knuckles. “Closure is what we got when William killed himself. This? This is about what’s right, what’s proper. He doesn’t deserve to be above ground. Not after what he’s done.”
The misses took her husband’s wrist. “We just want what’s ours.”
“And you’re willing—the both you—to spend your retirement in prison? Won’t undo what’s been done. You’re only but only going to add to your pain.”
“Just do it or I will.” She went for the gun but he slid it out of her reach and told her be still.
Mr. Darby stood and held the piece in both hands and aimed at Curly. “I think you should go now, Mr. Trent.”
I told him I would not. I told him if he pulled that trigger I’d cut him down as sure as god made little green men. And just then the nurse walked in and screamed and ran back down the servant hall and Mr. Darby fired three shots after her.
If it’s one thing this job has taught, it’s that stressful situations turns most people’s brains to mush. Well, the front door slammed and her engine revved and I hoped—for I was too pressed in that moment to pray—that she was not hit.
Another shot was fired when I tackled the husband. Just above our quiet scuffle I heard the steel skitter across the warped oak slats and Mrs. Darby screamed.
“Kill him. Do it, mother. Now!”
I fairly nearly thought I’d broken my hip in the fall but I managed to get him on his belly and administer my preferred method of subduing the ornery and he began to snore heavily. When I peeked over the table, Mrs. Darby was stabbing in the air at old Curly Parsly with her gun hand, evidently working up the courage to pull the trigger. And he was grinning and stabbing back with his empty paws. I coughed one uncontrollable laugh so hard I shot snot down the arm of my new shirt.
“If I stand up, ma’am, are you gonna shoot me?”
“You killed him. Oh my god!”
“No, ma’am. He’s just sleeping.” I held a finger to my lips and we listened to the rasping. “How about you set that down and we talk some.”
“He killed my son. My only son. Oh Jesus help me. Oh Jesus.” She closed her eyes and let out a grunt that turned to a scream and she squeezed and the gun barked and she ripped a hole the size of my thumb in that beautiful hundred-fifty-year-old table and I cried out in anguish for who else would speak for the furniture?
She must have scared herself but good because she dropped the gun and staggered back and grabbed at her chest again and about that time the husband woke screaming as if climbing out of a nightmare.
I slid on my belly under the table and secured the weapon and sat them their chairs. And I thought if the roof had collapsed on that idiotic menagerie, the world would have breathed a great sigh of relief and I with it.
“We can end this of about two ways.”
Mrs. Darby dabbed the inky streams from her sunken cheeks.
“I ring up the sheriff and you all will see outdoors again on the day you’re buried. Or, you gimme your word never to come anywhere near this place again and we call it square.”
“What about the nurse?” Mr. Darby hugged his wife as she wiped her face in shame.
“Well, if she ain’t shot, you mean? She’s a fair woman. She’ll understand your unique circumstances.”
“Fine. We’ll go. But you have to tell how.” Mrs. Darby shoved off her husband’s affections. “How can you care for someone … like him? How can you condone such behavior? Aren’t you worried for your soul?”
“Ma’am, I don’t believe I have rejoinders satisfactory to your questions. It’s something I’ve asked myself many a time over the years but there never once was an answer I could discern. Not one that made any sense as it were. Old Curly was my business partner and friend and he was also a vile criminal what committed untold abominations against the innocent. But he that sits before you is neither of those things. He’s not even the one who hurt your son. He just happens to look like the man who did. And I don’t know a worse sentence—death or confinement even—could rival what you’re lookin at.”
Well, there was no more to be said on the matter. I told them stay put while I called the nurse’s house and thank goodness she had not been shot. I kept the two remaining cartridges and returned the pistol and wrapped some muffins and sent the Darbys on their way.
Those events grew more whimsical in my mind with each passing month. Perhaps I ought be ashamed for laughing now but I am not. About middle of April come another letter from another grieving family and I had to ponder such an undertaking. I am no longer a young man and I don’t bet I could survive another such ruckus unscathed.