Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Death and Life of Gabriel Phillips - Chapt.1


The Death and Life of Gabriel Phillips

FaithWords (November 5, 2008)


Chapter 1


ANDY MYERS DIDN’T want children. That was one of his conditions when he married my mom. No kids. Period. Case closed. You would think someone so adamant about not reproducing would have gone out and had a vasectomy, but Andy didn’t think that way. He didn’t want kids; keeping that from happening was my mother’s responsibility. When she failed, he immediately made an appointment for her at an abortion clinic in Indianapolis. He didn’t ask. He just assumed she would terminate my life before my feet ever hit the ground. She refused. He walked out. And I didn’t hear from him until I was thirteen. I think he sent money to my mother every month, at least while he was able. I’m pretty sure he did. The courts probably made him, and a cop like my dad wouldn’t risk going to jail, at least not over something as insignificant as money.

I guess that explains why I always hated my old man. Despising him was imprinted on my DNA just as surely as my dark brown hair and blue eyes. The girls always loved my blue eyes. More than one lost her moral resolve when I put those baby blues to work. I got my eyes from Andy. I think they may have been part of the hook he used on my mom. I’m not sure. My mom never talked about him that way. For that matter, she hardly talked about anything that happened before she and I moved to St. Louis from her hometown in Indiana when I was really little. I didn’t even know I had my dad’s eyes until I looked into them for the first time ten years ago. There was no mistaking the eyes, even with that thick sheet of glass between us.

I think of that hatred in a different way, now that I am on the other side of the equation, with a son of my own. And I think about Andy Myers a little different as well. You know, life is funny. If my life had gone the way it was supposed to, I wouldn’t be sitting here with you right now. I would be somewhere, assuming I survived as long as I have, but I wouldn’t be sitting on the beach of Lake Michigan, watching my wife and son play in the water and talking to you. When I stand back and look at my family in this place, we look like the happy ending of one of those Hallmark Hall of Fame movies my wife loves to cry through. My life shouldn’t have turned out this way, not that I’m complaining. But it strikes me as sort of hilarious to think that if my father hadn’t walked out on me, none of this would have happened. I hated him for what he did. Who would have ever thought it would have led to this?

It all goes back to when I was about the same age as my little boy. Back then my dad worked as a cop in Trask, Indiana. Believe it or not, my wife and I live there now. We moved there a few years ago, but that’s another story in itself. As for my dad, everyone in town knew him when he lived there.

That doesn’t mean they liked him, but they knew him. He grew up just outside of town, and made a name for himself as the star athlete in the local high school. In a school as small as Trask High, it doesn’t take a lot of talent to stand out from the pack. After high school, my old man got it in his head that a career in sports was in his future. He tried walking onto the Ball State football team, but didn’t make it past the first few days of practice. After Ball State, he tried a few of the local small colleges, without success. Eventually he quit college altogether and joined the navy before the army could draft him. Vietnam was still going on, so my old man figured spending a couple of years on a boat beat getting shot at in a jungle. My dad wasn’t a violent man, but he never lost that star athlete swagger he carried around the high school campus.

I’m not sure why he moved back to his hometown after the navy. I guess there are worse places to live. He met my mother soon after, but that didn’t turn out so well. Around the time the two of them got married, he joined the local police force. No one ever told me why my dad became a cop. I don’t know if a career in law enforcement was his lifelong goal, or if he just sort of fell into it. At this point, I guess it doesn’t matter. All these years later I occasionally hear stories about him, but I think that has more to do with the way his career ended than anything else. No one ever signed off from police work quite like my old man.

I came along less than two years after my parents got married. By then my mother was a single mom. My dad walked out on her when he found out she was pregnant. Now I could understand him leaving if she’d been out whoring around, but my mother wasn’t like that. No, my dad walked out because my mother made the mistake of giving birth to his child. Like I said, Andy Myers didn’t want children, and my arrival did nothing to change his mind. He was gone by the time I was born, and my mom moved the two of us to St. Louis not long after.

Like I said, when I was about the same age as my son, Andy Myers (and if it is all the same to you, I would prefer calling him by his given name. I’ve already called him “dad” more in the last few minutes than I have in my entire life) worked as a cop in our beloved metropolis of Trask. I don’t know if living alone was making him have second thoughts, but he started seeing another woman. He’d been with other women before Loraine Phillips, if you know what I mean, but those relationships were all very short- lived. Loraine was different. His time with her could actually be measured in months, not hours. The way he tells it, they weren’t so much dating as using one another to cure one another’s loneliness. That sounds like a load of bull to me, but, hey, it’s his life. He can tell himself whatever lies he wants. The two of them met in a bar, and they ended up in bed back at his apartment the same night. Again, that wasn’t exactly a remarkable event for Andy Myers. He thought of himself as six feet one inch, 205 pounds of sex appeal. And he had those killer blue eyes. Throw the whole package together, and look out. At least that’s what he says. He seems to think he was really something back in the day. But I don’t think getting Loraine into bed had as much to do with my old man’s charms as it did with her sexual appetite.

After that first encounter, he tried to play the gentleman and begin a real dating relationship with her. But the first time he went by her place to pick her up, she met him at the door wearing nothing but a twelve-pack of Bud and a seethrough gown from Frederick’s of Hollywood and started clawing at his clothes. I’m thirty-two, and it still creeps me out to think my own father told me this stuff, but he did. I guess he needed to. My story doesn’t really make sense without it.

That night pretty much set the tone for the rest of their relationship. They never went out on actual dates. For that matter, they never really had an in-depth conversation, either live or over the phone. They would go as long as two or three weeks without talking, but then she would call and ask my dad if he had time to drop by. He knew what that meant. And he never said no. At times he felt a little guilty about the whole thing, but the sex was good and Loraine never seemed to want much more than a purely physical relationship. Besides, with a body like hers, few men would have complained. Andy’s friends thought he’d fallen into every man’s fantasy: a hot woman, wild sex, and no strings attached. What could be better? He knew the answer even then, although he couldn’t admit it to himself.

Andy didn’t know Loraine had a kid until he’d been with her for several months. The boy was never around when Loraine called, and she kept any signs of him out of view when Andy came by. Her system worked pretty well until the kid walked into the kitchen one Saturday morning. Andy was sitting there, eating a bowl of cereal in his underwear, when the boy came up, stuck out his hand, and said, “Hi, I’m Gabriel. Gabriel Phillips. What’s your name?” Finding a strange man sitting in his underwear in my kitchen when

I was Gabe’s age would have sent me running down the hall screaming for my mother, but the sight of Andy didn’t seem to faze Gabe. He sounded like he was running for mayor at eight years of age. I bet my old man nearly crapped his pants at the sight of him. Then the kid said, “You like Cap’n Crunch, too? It’s my favorite, but my mom hardly ever buys it. Says too much sugar is bad for me. But it sure does taste good.” Andy fumbled over his words and said, “Yeah, they’re real good,” or something like that. He always was a great conversationalist.

I don’t know which is weirder: the fact that Gabe wasn’t scared by a strange man in his kitchen, or that Andy wasn’t scared off by discovering the woman he was seeing had a kid. Neither one makes much sense to me. I guess I should be jealous of Gabriel Phillips since he was the only exception to the “no kids allowed” rule my dad ever made. I should, but I’m not. Not anymore. Andy told me there was a quirky, awkward charm about Gabe that drew people to him. He was a little guy, really small for his age, which he came by naturally—the kid’s dad wasn’t exactly Shaquille O’Neal. Once you got to know Gabe he didn’t seem so small; he almost seemed like an adult. Keep in mind, I got all of my information secondhand several years later, and time has a way of glossing over any faults and amplifying people’s good qualities. Be that as it may, Gabriel Phillips, I am told, genuinely cared about people, especially people others overlooked. People were just drawn to him. Maybe it was something supernatural. I’m not sure. But it sure cast a spell over my old man. Meeting Gabe didn’t make Andy run away. If anything, it made him more of a “boyfriend” than he’d ever been before. He started going by Loraine’s house on a more regular basis.

And not just for sex. He tried taking both mother and son out on something like dates. When Loraine feigned headaches, Andy still took Gabe. They went to ball games, or to the local hamburger stand, or wherever. Andy often said, “I’d never met another child quite like him.” And the first time he said it to me, I walked out on him. The last time they were together, Andy drove Gabe down to Cincinnati for a Reds game. Loraine was supposed to go, too, but she didn’t. I doubt if she ever said why. Maybe she didn’t want to be stuck in a car with the two of them for two hours each way. Or maybe, like me, she thought it a little strange that my dad took such an interest in the kid. Andy wasn’t trying to replace the boy’s father. Gabe already had one of those. I like to think maybe Andy saw in Gabe a little of what he could have had with me, but that’s more wishful thinking than anything else. And wishful thinking only makes things worse, not better.

About a week after the Reds game, Andy was fighting to stay awake while working the graveyard shift. The Trask police force was always woefully understaffed, then and now, which meant Andy had to pull all-nighters at least one week out of the month. On this particular night he couldn’t shake the cobwebs out of his head. It wasn’t just because of the late hour. He’d been over at Loraine’s house right before reporting for duty, and was still in the fog that sleep usually takes care of after such activity. He was so out of it that the police dispatcher didn’t get a response from him until she radioed a second time. “Trask 52-2,” the dispatcher said, “we have a 10-16 at 873 East Madison, apartment 323. That’s a report of a domestic disturbance at eight-seven-three East Madison, number three-two-three.” He switched on the car dome light and fumbled for a pen and paper to write down the apartment number. They didn’t have fancy in- car computers back then.

Andy suppressed a yawn, picked up his mic, and radioed back, “ 10-4, dispatch. Trask 52-2 is 10-8.” 10-8 means “in service.”

“10-4, 52-2 at two-oh-six. By the way, Andy, we’ve had three calls from the same location. You want me to get the sheriff’s department headed that way to back you up?” “Naaaahhhh,” Andy yawned and said. “Let me check it out first. Probably nothing. No sense dragging anyone else out at this godforsaken hour if we don’t have to.” The mic hung in his hand as he stared at the apartment address he’d written down. He cursed under his breath, then said to no one, “Good old Madison Park Apartments. What would an overnight shift be without at least one call from there?” He let out another yawn, arched his back in an attempt to stretch the fatigue out of his body, then started his patrol car. Andy and every other Trask police officer could make the drive to the Madison Park Apartments from anywhere in town in their sleep. Late- night calls came from there at least once or twice a week. The walls were so thin that when someone coughed in one apartment, the people next door shouted, “Shut the hell up.” Most of the emergencies turned out to be nothing more than blaring televisions or couples arguing a little louder than they should. Andy figured this call would be more of the same.

A handful of people milled around under the only working streetlight in the complex parking lot when Andy pulled in. A woman wearing an oversized T- shirt came running over as soon as he stepped out of his car. Immediately she started chewing on his ear. “What took you so long?! I called half an hour ago.” Andy recognized the woman everyone in town called “Crazy Cathy,” although she didn’t recognize him. At least not right off. About a month earlier he’d arrested her for public intoxication. One day around noon she’d gone for a walk down Main Street, bombed out of her mind, screaming obscenities at the lunchtime crowd going into the diner. She was notorious for that kind of stunt, which is why everyone called her Crazy Cathy, although Cathy wasn’t her real name. Even when she wasn’t drunk, she would walk around town, acting all nuts. All the kids in town thought she was hilarious, especially when she’d been drinking. They would yell things at her to try to get her riled up. She died a few years before I moved to town. The way I hear it, she wandered out into the street while drunk and was hit by a truck. That’s not much of a way to die, even for Crazy Cathy. But she was cold sober the night she got my old man out in the middle of the night. At least she appeared to be. She kept yelling at Andy, “I know no one gives a damn about what happens out here. You think we’re all just a pain in the ass.” Her call to the police couldn’t have been much more than ten minutes earlier, but time slows to a crawl when you are waiting for a cop to show up. Andy didn’t try to defend himself. He just kept walking across the parking lot, growing more coherent with each step. There’s something about the gravelly sound of a chain- smoking woman’s voice that yanks you back to reality. “I’m sorry, ma’am. It’s been one of those nights” was all he could say. “Like hell it has,” she yelled back. “You think your night’s been bad? You should have to listen to that kid carry on. He was screaming so loud it sounded like he was right there in my apartment with me. Sounded like something out of that damned Exorcist movie. Kid couldn’t have screamed any louder even if his head had been spinning around. Made my skin crawl. And it wasn’t the first time I heard that damn kid yelling. It gets worse every time he’s here. I called you people about him before. Called last week. But nobody did nothing.”

She didn’t stop yelling until Andy got to the stairway leading up the outside of building three. He did his best to ignore her. “I’m sorry, ma’am, but you’re going to have to stay down here,” he said to her as he reached the stairs. “Don’t get too far away because I will need a full statement from you as soon as I check everything out.”

Andy went about the business at hand. He went up the stairs of building three in search of apartment 323. Another neighbor waited for him at the top of the stairs. “Oh, Officer, I’m glad you’re here,” the woman said. To Andy, she looked like she may have been maybe twenty. As it turns out, she was a twenty- four- year- old single mother. Seems like half the population at Madison Park has always been made up of single moms. “My son came running into my room scared and crying, which is why I called,” she continued. “I started to go over and knock on the door myself, but I was a little nervous about doing it. I’ve met the guy a few times. Our boys play together when his son stays with him, but I don’t know him well enough to knock on his door in the middle of the night, especially after what my son heard.” “That’s probably wise, ma’am,” Andy said. He felt a little funny about calling someone “ma’am” who looked like she had just graduated from high school. “You said your son heard something that shook him up?”

“Yes, sir. My son, he’s eight. He came running into my room. He was shaking, he was so scared.” “I’ll check it out. You should go back to your apartment, miss. I’m sure everything is fine. There’s probably nothing here for your son to be afraid of, but if there is, I will take care of it. Which apartment are you in, just in case I need to get a statement from you?”

“I’m right next door in 325.”

With that, the woman went back into her apartment. Andy heard the dead bolt turn and the slide of the chain into the extra lock. “These people sure are jittery,” Andy said with a sigh. He’d never seen so many people get so shook up over a blaring television. Calls like this at this hour always turned out to be someone asleep in front of a blaring television stuck on the late, late show. Even before twenty-four hour cable networks, local stations broadcast late into the night, usually filling the dead air with old movies. Andy walked over to apartment 323 and listened at the door. He didn’t hear anything. No yelling. No banging. Nothing. He looked at his watch: 2:17 a.m. All the local stations would have switched from movies to test patterns by now. No wonder it was quiet. “Police department,” he called out as he knocked on the door. No response. He could see a light shining through the peephole. He knocked again, with more authority this time, and called out even louder to wake up the sleeper in front of the television, “Police. I need you to open the door, please.” As he waited for a response, he heard the muffled sound of a man’s voice on the other side.

Andy reached up to bang on the door again, when it opened. A man in his mid-thirties motioned him inside as he continued talking on the phone. “Yes. Yes,” the man said, “thank you, Father.” The man turned his back and continued talking on the phone as though no one else was in the room. Andy took a quick glance around. A brown couch with oversized cushions, along with a ratty recliner, were the only furniture in the room. Andy also noticed the living room didn’t have a television. He looked closely at the man on the phone. He was wearing a faded polo-type shirt and a pair of Levi 501’s, but no shoes or socks. He was walking around barefoot on the linoleum tile of his apartment. “Sir,” Andy said, “I need you to get off the phone.” “Amen. Thanks, Eli. Hey, I gotta go. The police are here now. Thanks for praying. Keep it up.” The man spun around to untangle himself from the extra long cord, then hung up the phone. “I’m sorry, Officer. I was just about to call. You were next on my list. He’s back here.” The man turned down the narrow hall toward the smaller of the two bedrooms. “It happened so fast,” he said with a matter-of-fact tone, “there just wasn’t any time. I ran in there as fast as I could, but by the time I got to him, it was already too late. I just had time to tell him good- bye and then he was gone.”

Andy felt like he’d walked into the middle of a conversation. The guy’s words didn’t make any sense and his demeanor just didn’t seem right. At least that’s how Andy remembered it when he told me about that night. He had trouble reading the guy, which set Andy’s nerves on edge. As a policeman, he prided himself on his ability to figure people out in an instant. I never thought he was as good at it as he did. “He’s in here,” the man said as he motioned into a small bedroom. Andy thought it odd that the man wouldn’t move past the doorway.

When Andy looked into the room, the entire floor appeared to be painted red. The room was pretty small, maybe seven feet by nine feet, and most of that was filled with furniture and toys, which made the scene look bloodier than it really was. The remains of a shattered goldfish bowl lay near the dresser, the bottom drawer of which stood open. A small boy, maybe eight years of age, was on the bottom bunk. His skin had a bluish gray tint to it. Even before he got to him, Andy knew the boy was dead. Blood soaked the pillow under the child’s head, with a smear running along the side of the mattress up from the floor. Andy’s feet slipped as he hurried across the room, his adrenaline kicking into high gear. Instinctively, he knelt down beside the child and felt for a pulse in his neck. Nothing. Then he laid his head on the boy’s chest and listened for sounds of breath, but didn’t hear a thing. “How long has he been out?” Andy shouted toward the boy’s father.

“Ten...maybe fifteen minutes. I...I’m not sure,” the man replied. “I don’t know how to do mouth-to-mouth, but I didn’t think it would do any good. I knew he was gone right after I got to him.” The man’s voice cracked just a little as he spoke. He swallowed hard and said, “I just knew he had already gone home.”

Andy shook his head and muttered something under his breath that questioned the man’s emotional stability. He reached under the boy’s body to lift him off the bed and start CPR. As he raised him up, the boy’s limbs hung limp and lifeless. Most of the bleeding had stopped, although a few drips fell from the back of the boy’s head. The pillow was soaked crimson and the boy’s hair and shirt were wet.

“My God,” Andy said as he looked for a place to lay the boy

on the floor. About the only time my old man ever mentioned God or Jesus was when he was really upset. Even then, they were nothing but words, not divine beings. “Holy, holy Christ,” he said as he laid the boy on the floor and squared himself around to try to revive him. He reached under the boy’s neck to raise his head up for the three quick breaths he had only performed on Resusci Anne, the CPR dummy, up until that day.

Only then did Andy take a close look at the boy. He looked him right in the face and it hit him. “Wait a minute. No...Gabe?” he said. Suddenly adrenaline gave way to nausea. A lump of bile hit him in the back of the throat as Andy fought to keep his composure. “Gabe?” he repeated. “You knew my son?” Gabe’s father asked. “How?” Andy kept staring into the boy’s face. “I’m a friend of his mother,” he replied but didn’t elaborate. “How did...” Andy cleared his throat and tried to speak again. I guess in all the excitement he forgot about trying CPR, not that it would have done any good. The kid’s lips had already turned blue and his body was slightly cool to the touch. “How did this happen?”

“I—I...I’m not exactly sure,” the boy’s father replied. “It all happened so fast. My boy had night terrors, and he would wake up screaming all the time. I guess you sort of get used to things like that after a while. They got even worse after his mother and I split up a while ago. I heard him screaming, but I thought I was the one having the bad dream. I woke up just in time to hear him fall. I ran in here, but I couldn’t do anything. I tried. Really, I tried, but I could feel his life slipping out of him, felt his spirit leaving. All I could do was kiss him good- bye and promise I would see him soon. Then he went home.” The boy’s father paused, then said, “Do you know what my son’s name means, Officer?” That last question really got to my pop. He didn’t know what the meaning of a kid’s name had to do with anything, especially with the man’s kid lying dead on a cold, bloody linoleum floor. My old man also found the dad’s lack of emotion rather odd. This was far from the first time Andy had dealt with a family member after a death, but this was the first time he’d seen a parent show so few signs of grief. A couple of years earlier he’d had to break the news to a couple closing in on retirement age that their thirty-seven-year-old son had died in a car crash. A doctor had to come to the house to sedate them both. But this guy was calmer than a televangelist during a tax audit. Maybe he was in shock. Everyone responds to death in different ways, that’s what I think. My old man, he wasn’t so sure.

“God is my strength,” the father went on. “Gabriel means ‘God is my strength.’ His mother wanted to name him Keith, after Keith Moon, the drummer from the Who. She’s a big fan of the Who. The name just didn’t seem to fit. I took one look at him and knew I had to name him Gabriel. It took me a few years, but I finally figured out why. God had talked to me through my son, Officer. Didn’t know it at the time. God was telling me to make Him my strength. Right now I don’t know what I would do if I hadn’t listened.” Andy made a mental note of how the father seemed to keep his distance from the boy. He never moved from the doorway as he spoke, while Andy stayed on his knees next to the body, his pants legs soaking up the liquid on the floor.

As Andy looked down, Gabe seemed much younger to him than eight— younger and smaller. The boy’s mother had once said something about how the other kids picked on him because of his size. Now he seemed smaller still. Andy knew the boy was dead, but he felt a strong urge to reach out and protect him. He grabbed his radio with his left hand, the hand that was covered with blood from the back of the boy’s neck. “Trask dispatch, 52-2. I have a 10-100. Request you get the coroner and Harris County started out here right away.” 10-100 means a “dead body.”

“ 10-4, 52-2,” the radio crackled back. “Are you sure you want to make the call on the body, Andy? I can have a paramedic and ambulance to you in no time.”

Andy paused for a moment. I don’t know what he hoped to accomplish, but he told the dispatcher, “Okay. Do that. I guess it couldn’t hurt.” Maybe he wanted the kid to still have a chance. More than likely, he just didn’t want to be haunted by the “ what-if” questions that follow emergency responders even when they do everything they possibly can. “What-ifs” are about as useful as wishful thinking, but they can sure be hard to shake in the middle of the night. Andy reached over and lightly stroked the boy’s head with his right hand, then stood to his feet. I think it was his way of telling Gabe goodbye. Once the paramedics and sheriff’s deputies showed up, he wouldn’t have another moment alone with the boy. Well, almost alone. The dad was still standing in the bedroom doorway.

“Did you know my son long, Officer?” the father asked.

“No, not too long,” Andy replied as he let out a long sigh. Turning from the boy, he scanned the bedroom. Toys were scattered across the floor, along with a variety of clothes.

Typical kid’s room. The sheets and blankets of both bunk beds were strewn about, which seemed odd if Gabe slept in the room by himself. “Did you stay in this room with your son, sir?”

“No, he’s a big boy. He’s able to sleep in his room all by himself,” the dad smiled and said.

If my old man wasn’t already about to pop, that smile put him over the edge. He couldn’t figure out how any father worth a dime could carry on a normal conversation right after his son died in his arms. “Which bed was your son sleeping in?” Andy asked. He also wondered why such a small room had bunk beds if Gabe was the only child in the house.

“I tucked him into the bottom bunk, but I guess he climbed up on top sometime during the night. You know how kids are.” That’s just it. Andy didn’t know how kids were, but he nodded his head as if he did and kept studying the father. About that time he heard the dispatcher notifying the local ambulance service, which back then was run by the volunteer fire department.

“I’m sorry, sir, I didn’t catch your name,” Andy said.

“John, John Phillips. And you?” he replied with a smile as he stuck out his hand. Andy refused it, using the blood on his hand as a convenient excuse. Funny. I’ve never known anyone who shakes with his left hand. “

“Officer Andrew Myers,” he replied.

“Are you the same Andy Myers who took my boy to a ball game a few weeks ago?” Andy nodded. “Oh, I have to tell you, my son never stopped talking about that game. He had the time of his life. Thank you for taking him.”

Andy didn’t reply. The ball game felt like a lifetime ago. I guess in a way it was, because nothing was ever the same after my dad walked into that apartment. Nothing.

1 comment:

Latayne said...

Powerful! I want to read more.

Latayne C Scott
www.latayne.com