Volume 1: Siblings
By Dane Bahr
See him there. His pale face. His white gown. In that room reserved for the ones acquainted with mindless violence, strange convictions. His face drugged, the face of a father barely alive. This will be the last visage of the day, the remnants of sordid histories born before. By night fall he will be deemed mentally unsound and moved to a permanent location outside of Minneapolis city limits, leaving us to be the ones to explain, fumbling with atonement as we stagger on. The gruesome details have culminated to this, and this horrible culmination has brought our family together again.
My sisters came this morning to be with Mom, flying back to Minneapolis from New York, from Seattle. Today is the first day I’ve seen them all together since the divorce, all of them sitting there in the rigid chairs of Rogers Memorial, dabbing their streaming eyes with tissues, each the child of a father, a woman to a family.
When she arrived at the hospital this morning, my youngest sister, Lucy, looked tired. She’d taken the red eye from Seattle. Her skin was colorless. She hugged me.
-How was your flight? I asked.
-Long, she said. Her blue eyes hard and cold. The eyes of a stranger.
-How’s Seattle? I asked.
She shrugged her shoulders. It rains a lot. She looked around at the hospital hall. Bad paintings hanged on the wall and everything tope. Doctors and nurses walked quickly through the halls. There was a nursing station at the far end and some nurse called for Doctor Nelson.
-Have you talked with Dad? Lucy asked.
-I shook my head, lying. No, I said.
She brought her hand to her mouth and shook her head.
-It’s nice to see you, I said.
She forced a smile and had it been her intention to not cry she failed. She wiped her cheeks with the heel of her hand. When did you get in?
-Yesterday. About three in the afternoon.
-Did you see him?
-You talk with him?
-No. You already asked me that.
She was quiet a moment. Then she said: Has he said anything?
-I don’t know. Mumbling. He mumbles. He’s on a bunch of stuff. He’s on Valium, maybe. It might be Valium. Would they give him Valium?
Lucy shrugged. I think it’s Lithium.
She sighed heavily then crossed her arms over her chest, putting a hand to her mouth and began to cry again. A doctor came down the hallway, doing rounds, a stethoscope slung around her neck. Her shoes clicked softly over the polished tiled floor. Lucy turned and glanced at the doctor then back to me. The doctor entered a room. She said, Mr and Mrs Wattlow, I’m Doctor Tragg. Then the door closed and the latch echoed down the hall and it was very quiet. Lucy wiped her eyes.
-I called the Baudette police, she said.
-What’d they say?
-That it was easy to bring him in.
-What does that mean?
She shrugged. That he didn’t put up a fight, or something. They wouldn’t give me details. You see the paper?
-I saw the Star Tribune.
Lucy’s eyes filled again with tears and her voice labored. It’s in the fucking headlines. She sobbed and I reached to her. She shied away and crossed her arms very tightly across her chest. I saw it in the airport, she said. At one of those kiosk things. They called him a cannibal.
Doomed lives seem to repeat themselves not unlike nightmares. There’s a genesis when everything is innocent, a beginning when not all is bad. When it’s not all choked with torment. I remember certain things about him. Kinder things. Things that at one time proved he was a good father and a good husband and not what they were calling him now. Like for example, he’d take my sisters and me to hockey games at the Coliseum. Dance with Mom in the living room on Saturday nights. Read us Dickens and Twain and Shel Silverstein before bed. He’d take me fishing and show me how to properly clean a trout. And when I start to remember my father for the man he was, I begin to dwell on disparity: the man many think he is since the murder versus the man who taught me how to ride a bike.
In the years after, people would ask me if I had ever suspected anything. I tell them all the same thing: I don’t remember. The exact moment it happened, the specific day he changed, eludes me. There was one day in the fall of ninety-four, though, that seems to remain in my memory, suggests that our father was slipping away. I was alone in my room when he started yelling from downstairs, a deep resonance through the floor, shouting for my friends and me to keep it down. Then a little after Thanksgiving of the same year we began to find notes jammed between couch cushions, clipped to the fridge, scrolled in his hand, addressed to him then signed by men and women unknown to any of us. Odd things like that.
I remember we went snowshoeing just before Christmas, just Dad and me. We stepped quietly through the woods of northern Minnesota, not saying a word, Dad wordlessly pointing out cardinals, other birds. The trees were bare and there was no wind with a light snow falling and it was all very quiet. It all seemed so normal. Then when we came to the edge of the tree line and Dad stopped and stood intensely studying the empty snowfield in front of us, then he dropped to his stomach and waved me to do the same. I crawled up beside him.
-Look out there, he said. He was wearing a kromer hat. His dark hair flared out in short wisps behind his ears. You know what’s out there?
I shook my head.
-The military’s got some kind of massive bunker under this field, he whispered. He looked around. Some government cover-up. I knew it was around here somewhere. I just wasn’t sure where.
-What do they keep here? I asked. But Dad held a finger to his lips and said shush.
-Keep it down, he said. Then in a whisper, We’ve been trying to answer that same question for years.
-Who’s we? I inquired quietly.
A commercial jet flew overhead, miles above the ground, hidden by the clouds. His pale eyes scanned the sky.
-That must be one of their drones, he said.
After Christmas it got worse. I’d hear him in the other room, muttering, as though his language that of a somniloquy. Mom finally took him to see a doctor and he must have been administered something because when they arrived back home Mom led him by the hand through the front door and helped him take off his shoes, and then without a word put him to bed. She came back down and, in a quivering voice, told us to go outside and play.
And that’s how it went for a while. Dad took his medicine and for years there were neither notes nor incoherent shouting nor conspiratorial prompts and we feigned relief that some cure had been found. He never again took us to the Coliseum and Saturday nights were danceless, but we had our father in some capacity. The medication left him docile and apathetic and his vacant eyes held us nameless, but he was there, physically, at least. When us kids all left for college he started sleeping on the pullout sofa in the basement, claiming the air was too thin upstairs, sometimes emerging only to take his meals. I remember Mom calling and crying on the other end as I listened to the din of music and laughter through my dormitory wall. It was a year of that before Mom filed for divorce. She would later tell me he had begun to scare her.
We learned, after the incident had happened, that he’d quit the medication, believing it was poison.
-They are trying to poison me, is what he had written.
He filled an entire notebook with that one sentence, hid it under the mattress then disappeared for two weeks. Not a word. Mom called, hysterical. We phoned everyone we knew. Nothing. It was an old woman living in Baudette, Minnesota who first reported it to the police. Called, saying there was a loud noise next door. Weird sounds, something like screaming. We heard about it a day later. Heard that the police had found Dad standing over a mutilated body in a room with all the lights on. That he was expressionless and breathing heavily, clutching some blunt object in his hand.
When Lucy arrived this morning she asked if I’d spoken with Dad. I lied and shook my head and told her I hadn’t.
-Does Minnesota even have a death penalty? she asked.
-I don’t know, I said.
-Can they even put to death those types of people?
-I don’t know.
She pulled her cardigan tight across her chest and folded her arms. He didn’t say anything?
I looked at her for a very long time. I could’ve told her that last night, before anyone had arrived, I went to see him in his hospital room. That he sat comfortably on his bed, one leg crossed over the other, like nothing had happened, like he was sitting on the porch waiting for the evening paper to come. That he smiled when he saw me come through the door. That he patted the bed, gesturing for me to sit down beside him, like he was any other father preparing to impart advice onto his son. That in a calm, reasonable voice he said, It’s just the head, Jimmy. It’s not like I took everything. Not that big a deal. It was just the head.
But how do you tell your sister that? How do you tell her the warmth within her father has turned cold? That the man who tucked her in as a child, who read her Oh, the Places You’ll Go, the man who protected her and kept her safe, the one who videotaped birthday parties and Christmas mornings and her practicing pirouettes in the living room, the one who kissed skinned knees and let her shave his mustache as she stood on the counter over the bathroom sink, is now a stranger? A monster.
How do you tell certain things?