Just Can’t Seem to Win
A novel by Jan-Ives Campbell
My search for the father I never knew began with the death of my mother. The journey is real, and what I found out about him is true, but the characters are fictionalized. It turns out that you can’t tell a true story without hurting someone, so I did my best to describe my search without reopening old wounds.
“Who are you visiting today?” said the perky woman behind a plastic window within the Naples Senior and Recovery center. She looked at me with a big smile, but with just a glimmer in her eyes that said, “Hurry this up, pal. I have shit to do.”
I blinked at her, slowly as if stepping out of the darkness and into the unforgiving sunlight. My mind went blank. Why the hell was I here? In a Florida nursing home. Stupidly I stared. Her eyes opened wider and she tilted her head as if to say, “Are you okay?” I must have looked crazy, I certainly wasn’t dressed for southern weather. I wore ripped jeans, a thick red and black flannel button-up shirt, and fawn-colored Timberland work boots, two sizes too big that clomped when I walked. I looked like a lumberjack.
“Franklin,” I said. “Thurgood Franklin.” How strange it felt to say his name. I knew it like I knew my own. I had thought it many times, I had even typed it more than once into search engines, but I hadn’t said the man’s name aloud once in my entire life.
“I see. Are you a friend or relative?”
A sudden catch in my throat. A cough. After several more, I recover and say, “I’m his nephew.” That was the truth. “He hasn’t seen me in a while; I’d like to surprise him.” In fact, he had never in his life seen me. “Is that okay?”
She stood up, looked me up and down and said, “I don’t think he’s ever had a visitor before. I see you’re not on the list of approved visitors, but he’s right over there in the main room, so I think it would be okay to sneak on over and say ‘hi’.” She smiled again and pointed to a room around the corner that was still visible from the main desk. “He’s the one with the green blanket on his lap.” He sat in a wheelchair with his back to me looking up at the television suspended in the corner broadcasting a fishing show. I took a deep breath. There he was. That was him.
The woman exited the room behind the window and appeared beside me. “Did you bring enough for everyone?” she said with a smile, nodding with her chin at the Dunkin Donuts bag I held with two hands. It felt heavy and seemed obvious that there were no donuts inside. I chuckled but never took my eyes off him. It seemed ludicrous to me that I would be able to get this close. I graduated high school four years ago and I couldn’t remember a time when there weren’t metal detectors or armed guards at the entrances. School shootings were a fact of life. I guess it wasn’t a problem in old folks’ homes.
I followed the woman into the common area. It was empty except for Thurgood and a bag of bones who stared unblinking from beneath a mountain of blankets in the far corner of the room.
“Mr. Franklin. You have a visitor.” I held the bag tightly as he slowly maneuvered the wheelchair around to face us. I don’t know what I expected. He looked shriveled in his chair wasting away from inactivity. The pictures and the descriptions were not of this person. They were of a man who was nicknamed Thor and with good reason. Once, he had a wild mane of red hair and a body to match. His hair was now faded and white; this pathetic creature before me had been withering for twenty-three years, first in jail and now in this tomb.
I expected a different reaction from him. He looked at me as if I were a stranger on the street. I wanted him to react, to shout out, to clutch at his heart and fall over at seeing the resurrection of the man he had killed more than two decades ago. Instead, he took a deep breath. The receptionist said, “Do you know who this is?” she said loudly, almost patronizingly.
“Yup. This is Anthony. I’ve been expecting him.”
“He brought you donuts.” She smiled and left us alone except for the corpse under the pile of blankets. A fan hanging from the ceiling stirred the air with a slight wobble. With a booted foot I dragged a table until it was in front of him. I sat down across from him and placed the bag on the table with a clunk.
“That for me?”
“You look like your father.”
Was he trying to distract me? To make me feel pity for him? I absorbed his appearance,
faded and withered as it was.
“I could yell for help,” he said.
“It wouldn’t make a difference.”
“Is that why you came? To kill me?” He wheezed. “Maybe you’ve seen too many movies and you think I’ll beg for forgiveness so you’ll spare my life?” A slight guffaw escaped his mouth.
To be honest, I didn’t know why I came. I wanted something from him. Remorse. Empathy. Understanding. Truth? I wasn’t sure, but the only way I would know is through confrontation.
He looked at the floor and said, “I am sorry.” My eyes narrowed. He looked up and into my eyes. The whites of his were bloodshot, but the irises were a crisp blue of the deep ocean. “Not because I care about my life or what I lost. It’s all the hurt I inflicted on everyone else.” Was this it? Was this why I came here? “Go ahead, kill me. Hell, leave me the gun and I’ll do it myself.” His breathing was ragged. The skeleton in the corner coughed.
“I suppose you’ll say I shouldn’t do it because my father wouldn’t want me to throw away my life?”
He laughed. It was a breathy rattle that caught us both by surprise. “Are you okay, Thurgood?” a nurse poked her head into the room. He nodded and smiled a mostly-toothless smile. She slipped away.
“Shit, I could go for a cigarette,” he said.
“Too bad. What’s so funny?”
“Your father absolutely would want you to kill me. He wouldn’t want a score to go unsettled. Neither did I. I guess that’s why we’re here. He would just love that his kid had the balls to take care of the son-of-a-bitch who killed his old man.”
The stories, the recent ones my grandmother, aunt, and my father’s best friend had told me didn’t give me the feeling my father was a vengeful man. But they loved him; they would never speak ill of the dead.
As if reading my mind he said, “He was my little brother, in a sense. I practically raised him. I loved him, too.”
His words filled me with anger. He loved him? I grabbed up the bag. Frightened, his eyes went from mine to it, but he did not move. Resolution to his fate calmed him, but it took an effort. Years of violence and self-preservation was hard to ignore. My index finger pierced the paper of the bag to rest on the trigger of the gun inside. The silence threatened to suffocate us. Finally, Thurgood said, “You never got to meet him. I’m sorry about that.” He stares at the coffee table. “He was excited. Happier than I’d ever seen him.”
“Why did you do it?” I ask. “You say you loved him. Why did you kill him?”
“You really want to hear?”
“He beat the shit out of me.”
I laugh despite trying to be intimidating. The snort just bursts out.
He was right, my father would want me to gun him down. To blast him where he sat. Fire five rounds into his chest, and as he slumped in his chair shatter his skull with the final bullet.
The gun felt light in my hand. It felt good. Right.
And my father, gone for twenty-three years, was telling me to pull the trigger.