Beyond good and bad

Matthew and his brother Charles, eight and eleven respectively, were quietly playing with their tiny trucks on the living room floor. As their father sat reading the paper and drinking his martini, a juvenile tussle erupted, beginning with the usual insistence of ownership over a particular truck.

“Quiet down boys. Be good,” was the request of the impassive father.

“Yes, father.” A duet.

The boys were thus pacified and returned to their mild play. They were taught to always be good, that being bad was a monstrous offense to righteousness and civility that could not be tolerated. To their young minds, father was the paragon of good. Churchgoing, professional, loving in a reserved way, kind to the beleaguered stranger or bereaved widow, a reader, stoic, restrained. The two boys and their dutiful mother lived almost idyllic lives in the tranquil home that father created, until the fateful day to be recounted by yours truly.

That weekend, the happy crew were to descend upon their lake house about a hundred miles away. The two boys dared not fight in the back seat, despite their boredom, for fear of being bad and incurring a less wrathful reproach from father. They arrived, unpacked, the children dutifully helping with the smaller bags, and the repose of a happy weekend, to be shattered, began.

The two boys were playing outside as father and mother reclined in beach chairs and sipped their cocktails. I get the sense that father may be getting a little tight; he had, after all, received some bad news Friday concerning the all-important Johnson account. Matthew, running after a ball, tripped, fell, and scraped his fragile knee. “Oh shit,” he said as he tumbled. Father, near to incensed as he had ever gotten, walked up to Matthew and gave him a hard slap on the back of the head. “That’s a bad word, young man. Don’t be bad.”

“Yes, sir.” Holding back tears.

“Now stop your whining and go play.” Matthew was rightfully taken aback by his father’s outburst, but he followed orders and quickly returned to play.

After a few hours and as many martinis, father announced that it was time to teach Charles how to ski. “Now you all wear life jackets; you too, hon,” said mother after holding back the impulse to protest. The three made it to the middle of the lake without incident, and Matthew was designated spotter and taught the commensurate hand signals. After many failures, and several efforts to instruct the young novice by father, Charles finally made it to the upright position and Matthew was mightily proud of his older brother. Father began to speed up more and more, incrementally, and Charles began, in a desperate and frightened way, to signal for father to slow down.

“Slow down!” Matthew frantically pleaded. “He says slow down!” Father sped up more. “Father, please!” Matthew, balancing as best he could, approached father and tugged at his T-shirt, and father, in a paroxysm of anger, whipped around and punched Matthew in his chest and hollered “shut the fuck up!” Charles in the meanwhile took an aquatic tumble, and father stopped and began to turn around. Matthew, with clear resolve, picked up with an effort a heavy wooden oar they kept in case of breakdowns, and bashed father over the head. The hit was only somewhat hard, but, as father’s equilibrium was hampered, he fell into the water, and, after floundering for a few seconds, went under. Charles, overwrought, as he swam towards the desperate bubbles of father cried out:

“What did you do!?”

“Father is bad,” replied Matthew.

 

 

By HW fitzroy