Dean had never felt his way before. He had been embarrassed on dates as a teenager. He had been embarrassed, by the pre-accident Scott, for his relative naïveté so many times that, had the process not been arrested, it would likely have etched lifelong lines into his self-image. And Scilla, a few times early in their relationship, had certainly humiliated him, mostly when he competed with her around math skills, before he threw in the towel and took a subordinate role to her in this region of intellect.
None of those incidents compared to this nightmare.
He was not able to answer Scilla’s question: ”Is this all true?” Did not know how to answer it because the answer was too easy: Yes. One word, Yes. Knowing the answer was not the hard part. Saying it was. It was all true.
He had ruined the most important relationships in his life, those with his wife and children, by betraying their trust in him.
His only living parent, his dad, was upstairs talking with Maggie’s mom about the old days in the printing business. Ho-hum. He meant no offense to the wonderful old working-class guy, but Dean had so little in common with him that it was scary to think how thinly frayed their lines of communication had gradually become, with every college class, every degree, every meal in a place like L’Olivier or conversation around the arts or current events that Dean shared. His father would have found any of these foreign and rife with discomfort. Each one of these had thinned, and continued to thin, the fabric of those connections.
There was a residual sweetness preserved in the bond. Just upstairs, Dolores, his dad’s Mexican-American second wife, had been laughing with Maggie’s mom and telling stories in English. When they got to one of the punchlines, delivered in Spanish, Dean’s dad and Gene’s mom teasingly objected: Aha! Not fair, out with it in English, if you don’t mind. Por favor.
Then they all laughed. Glasses were refilled. And it was sweet to see them all having fun together. But these were not the people Dean dedicated his daily life to.
The juice, the real love charge, the power supply that sent love rippling through him every day was in the three people whose trust in him had just been torn into pieces and scattered all over the garage floor.
Dean wanted to get down on his hands and knees and collect all the pieces and put them back in place and start over again.
He wanted to find again the deerskin bag on that sheet of paper with Harlan’s name neatly calligraphed on it and leave it there till the boy came downstairs for his breakfast that April morning. Dean could then direct him to the daybed, and tell him that the guest had left something for him. He wanted to sit at the breakfast table and eat his cereal and watch his son unwrap the three little objects. He wanted to go to the kitchen drawer where they kept the household scissors and hand them over to his son with an admonition that he mind the edges and the sharp points as he negotiated the quirky corners of the objects he found in the little leather bag.
And Dean wanted to preserve for Candice those final days of her innocent childhood before she learned too soon (and is it not always too soon?) that adults will sometimes lie to and betray the ones they love. And sometimes more readily than they would their enemies.
Dean also wanted to share with Scilla what he had found on the daybed, and how he had heard Harlan and Blake talk in the middle of the night, that he had heard their voices but he could not make out the words.
But he had done none of this. This was the salient fact of his dilemma. He feared that the reticulate of connective tissue that suspended the family from chaos was not strong enough to receive this fact.
Dean knew, though, as dysfunctional as his psyche felt as he leaned against the fender of Flo and Hank’s van, that he might be able to reinforce that webbing of connection by telling the greater truth, that the reason he had stolen the bag was a simple and ancient one, one known to millions of men and women who have committed far more heinous crimes than his, when they, too felt within them that terrible sense of disequilibrium when facing the loss of influence over their child to forces outside their control.
It should serve to mitigate the pain that the emergence of this drama is actually often a sign that the parent has successfully launched their child. But, too often, this only exacerbates it.
Dean knew this was why he was jealous of Blake. He knew this was why he stole the property that rightly belonged to Harlan. This was the wrong that eclipsed the wrong of Blake stalking him in order to gain access to his son. And it eclipsed the wrong of Gene Cassidy disclosing to all who gathered around the table tennis game the existence of the little deerskin bag.
While Dean did loathe Blake for setting all this in motion, he loathed himself more.
“Dean. Talk to me.”
Scilla drew closer and tentatively touched him on the back. He pulled away from her touch. His body convulsed with reverse peristaltic waves. He wondered if he was going to throw up on his guest’s car. He made a gagging sound and hacked, a sickly sweet drool that he wiped away with his sleeve.
But he had a plan. It was not a highly inventive one but it was a plan for action. He knew what he needed to do. He had only one course of action. There could be no other: Cop to the thievery and the manipulations, and fall on the mercy and pity of those he had wronged. If he kept out of his account that one damning part, his jealousy of Blake, he might be able to tell a version of the story that would not lower him into even greater humiliation, even though to do so would speed the healing. He could not pay that price.
With the simpler confession, he would hope that the three people he loved more than any others had it in their hearts to forgive him. It was time.
After that, he would need to find a hole with a flat rock to cover it, needed to crawl into the hole and pull the flat rock over him. But now: time to fess up.
He turned and faced the crowd. He opened his mouth, but before he could get a word out, Estelle appeared at the door at the top of the stairs.
“Come on, Ward. We gotta go to Grandma’s.”
Dean’s convulsive breathing stopped suddenly when he saw two things. The first was seeing Ward shoot a look at his mom and then back to Dean and then to Harlan, and back to his mom. It was an unambiguous nonverbal communication: Ah, Ma, please don’t make me miss the good stuff. Harlan’s dad is about to get real and I want to be here to see it.
But Estelle snapped her fingers. “Come on. Traffic could be hairy and we don’t want to keep Grandma and Grandpa waiting dinner on us. And I’m sure your dad’s getting antsy out in the car. Come on. Let’s go.”
Ward grudgingly ascended the stairs with a single look back at his friend. Dean saw Harlan roll his eyes.
The other sight that brought him to some stability was seeing Josefina’s thumbs hard at work on her PDA. He had no idea if she was on Twitter or Facebook, or checking celebrity gossip or post-Christmas sales announcements or something else that had vacuumed up her attention in the midst of their drama. There was no way to tell, till she stopped and looked up like a court recorder pausing while a witness fell silent.
Dean immediately got it. He had become a character in the reality Christmas soap opera she was composing for her followers. He found this amusing. But the amusement was like an aspirin treatment for head trauma, better than nothing but certainly no cure. The pain roared back in.
There is nothing left to do, he thought, but go ahead with this confession. He took a deep breath and then he spoke:
“I know I have disappointed some of you. I have spoiled my wife’s Christmas after she worked so ver hard to put on a splendid show. That was not my intent. Please believe me, Scilla. Neither was it my intent to disregard the wishes of Josh and Dewey’s Uncle Burton. I know this is all going to sound confusing, but in a few hours, probably as you talk and piece this together, you will be able to figure out what happened.
“Nor was it my intent to steal the property of my son. I set a very bad example in doing that. Or, perhaps, the property of Uncle Burton. This will all be revealed. It was not my intention to ensnare my little girl and her unwitting friend in my manipulations. But my biggest error was not letting the gift left by this man into the possession of my son. I was afraid. I was afraid to let my son, who I thought was too young, be given something by a man whose motives I knew too little to trust. This one error led to a whole chain of events in which I kept information from my son, my wife, my daughter, her friend. And I lied.
“My only hope is that, once I find a space to retreat to where I might, perhaps, burn off my shame, that those of you who can, will return me to your hearts where I will be forgiven. But right now, I need to be alone. Please respect that.”
Josefina, with her big eyelashes and bee-stung lips, finished off her dictation, aimed her phone at Dean and took a few pictures as he hurried up the stairs, on his way to find that hole with the flat stone cover, that he might scrunch into his shame till he felt once again that he could face the world.
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