A short story on a father’s return in a moment of crisis and the power of redemption.
. . .
Dan clutched his bag and got up to leave. He passed empty desk after desk and let out a curse. How come he was the only one still at work? The rest of the team had called in sick or, once the first snowflake had fallen, had sped out of the office like they were all trying to qualify for the pole position at the Daytona 500. Forgive the newbie who got in their way.
But not Dan, he thought. He was the good little solider who had stuck it out through and through and what had it gotten him? What did he have to show for his work? A raise? He hadn’t seen a pay increase in three years. The respect of his boss and coworkers? His boss had just taken a new job and Dan would need to start over again with his third new boss in 18 months.
He grumbled to himself as he stepped outside of his office to brush off the snow. There had to be at least four inches of snow on the ground and more coming. The forecast called for anywhere from 8 to 12 inches of snow by the time the storm was done.
Dan started up his car, jacked up the heater, and got to work clearing the snow off his car. As soon as he had pushed the snow from his front window, more snow fell. It was that kind of day. When he was ready, he pulled out of the parking lot and onto the road for his 40-minute commute home.
While Dan could tell that a plow truck had made a pass on the road within the past 30 minutes, he thought the road could use more work. Dan continued to curse the poor visibility and accumulating snow, but he was pleased to see the lighter-than-normal traffic. He was careful to leave plenty of room between him and the car in front of him.
However, the light traffic didn’t last for long. Dan nervously watched a white SUV get closer and closer to his car. He prayed that he didn’t need to make a quick stop. When the driver got a little too close to Dan’s he liking, he let out a scream. “C’mon guy just because you got an SUV doesn’t mean you get to own the road. I’m going as fast as I can here.”
Fortunately, the driver soon turned off heading in a different direction. “Thank God for small favors,” Dan thought to himself. He let up on the steering wheel and took his time. He prided himself that in five years of making the drive through snow and rain and everything else in between he had never gotten into an accident.
Turn left, turn right
With the traffic getting even more lighter Dan was left to his thoughts. He was careful, but certainly ready to get home and start his weekend. He thought about the list of things he wanted to accomplish over the weekend. He figured that shoveling and clearing out would certainly be a big part of his Saturday.
Dan knew the way home like he knew the numbers of his favorite baseball players when he was a kid: Bob Boone, 8; Larry Bowa, 10; and the main attraction, Mike Schmidt, number 20. He knew the players and their batting averages, where they batted, and even much of their personal history better than he knew some members of his family. In short, he knew the way home. Passing the old farmhouse, he guessed that he had ten minutes left. He just needed to navigate across a couple winding country roads that he knew would be a little slick and he would be home. He’d be able to get out of his wet clothes, get a warm shower, get a cold beer from the refrigerator and watch some college basketball.
He was just about to celebrate a small win, passing a small downhill section without any problems, when he swerved one way, then another, and then went crashing into the woods. He hadn’t been driving all that fast, but it didn’t take much to lose control in this weather.
“Damn it, damn it,” Dan cursed out loud. He tried to open his door, but he was stuck against a large tree. On top of that, when he tried to turn, he felt an excruciating pain in his side. He found it difficult to even breathe and feared he broke a rib.
He tried his phone. Of course, he got no service. He often encountered coverage problems in this section of the road, losing service until he traveled further up the road. To make matters worse, he worried that no one would see him. He couldn’t move forward. He couldn’t move back. The snow was coming down rapidly, covering his tracks. Would anyone see him?
Dan closed his eyes. He needed to get control of the situation. He started to drift off. Sleep would feel so good, but he knew that he had to get control of the situation. “No, got to stay awake, got to fight. C’mon Dan.”
He shook his head once, twice, he was tired, he was in a bad situation, he knew sleep would bring possible shock. He tried to calm himself and looked to the right. He did a double take. He couldn’t believe his eyes. His father was sitting calmly in the passenger seat.
“Some jam you’ve got yourself in,” his father said.
Dan couldn’t really think straight and let out a simple, “What?”
“You sure are jammed in there good, aren’t you?”
“You’re dead dad. You’re dead. I went to your funeral. I must be dead myself to be talking you,” Dan said.
“No, no, no, you’re not dead yet kiddo.”
“Then what’s going on, what’s happening to me? Is there any help coming?” Dan asked.
“I’m here to help you.”
“Just my luck. I’m in a bind. I need an ambulance and God sends me you. God must be a real funny guy.”
“Okay c’mon on now, it’s not all that bad is it.”
A trip down memory lane
Dan was an only child and got along okay with his father growing-up. “The Troubles,” as they both described their situation, came when Dan’s mother started having some problems falling when he was just starting his junior year in high school. His mother blew the falls off to her getting clumsy in her old age. When it started to become a bigger problem, she finally went to the doctor.
Dan came home from school one day early, his track practice had been cancelled because of bad weather, and he found his mom in tears. The doctor had found a tumor in her brain. Dan had never seen his mother cry before. He held her in his arms, but he didn’t know what to say to calm her.
Two months later, she was dead. The tumor had been more advanced than anyone could have guessed.
His father became a shell of the man he had been. He started drinking and forgetting about Dan’s events at school. He got tangled with a bad lot, a couple of good-for-nothing local bullies. And then a year later, he was arrested for homicide in a robbery gone bad at a local pizzeria.
When Dan first heard the charges against his dad, he stood by him. He considered his father a drunk, but he certainly never considered him a killer. Dan couldn’t shake the memory of his father grabbing him by the scruff of his neck as a kid and forcing him back into a local convenience when Dan had pocketed a Snickers bar without paying for it.
Dan’s father, of course, claimed his innocence, but Dan, in time, found his excuses lacking. The prosecution simply had too much evidence against his father, charging him with Third Degree Murder. The police found his father’s fingerprints on the handgun that had been thrown in a local dumpster. Restaurant patrons had witnessed his father and the pizzeria owner the previous day in a loud disagreement. To top it off, Dan’s father was seen running with two other men from the restaurant the night of the burglary.
When the jury came down with their judgement, less than an hour after they first deliberated, no one in the courtroom except for Dan’s father was surprised by the verdict. “I’m telling the truth, I didn’t do it,” Dan’s father said as two bailiffs, a man and a woman, led him out of the courtroom. “You have to believe me, Dan. I’m innocent. I’m really innocent.”
Dan looked down with a blank stare on his face. He didn’t know what he could say. A few weeks later, the judge sentenced his father to 30 years in prison. Dan visited him occasionally, but usually found a reason to skip out, first it was college classes, later he was getting married and had kids of his own. There was always a reason to cancel or reschedule to another weekend.
Dan’s father died in prison eight years later of a heart attack. And now, out of the blue, in the middle of snowstorm, in Dan’s hour of need, his father sat in the seat beside him.
A father’s request
Dan shook his head. He knew this couldn’t be happening in real life. He knew that he had no Earthly explanation. “Why are you here dad? Why now? Why me?”
Dan’s father skipped over the niceties, avoiding Dan’s questions. He shook Dan twice on the shoulder and told him that he needed to pay attention. He asked Dan if he remembered going fishing with him.
Dan looked at his father bewildered, but even his groggy state, he couldn’t prevent a smile from coming across his face. “I loved fishing down by the Gulliver Bridge. I liked that. I liked that a lot. I had my favorite spot sitting on that old stump, you usually stood closer to the bridge, I never seemed to catch much down there, but it always made me feel good inside. Mom would come sometimes. But most of all it was just nice.”
“Yea it was, wasn’t it?”
The two sat quiet for the longest time and then Dan’s father said, “I left you something there, down by the bridge, right by your old spot. Make it right for me. Make it right for yourself, keep some to start that restaurant, you know the one, the one you always wanted to open.”
Dan’s head hurt. He was trying to keep up with his dad. He was getting annoyed and extended his head too far, sending a sharp pain up his side. “Damn it.” He said. “Fishing, make it right, wwha, what, what are you talking about Dad?”
Dan’s father looked at his watch. A move that caught Dan by surprise. Why would they need watches in heaven? “Kid, I got to go, okay. I got to get going, I’ve stayed too long, but remember what I told you. Check out the bridge and your old favorite spot.”
He paused for a second, looked down at the floor of Dan’s car before starting up again, “I’m sorry for how I hurt you. I loved your mom, you need to know that. I loved you too. I never meant to hurt you.”
Dan was shocked that his father was leaving already. He was confused by the whole conversation. “I must be worse off than I originally thought. I’m having imaginary conversations and you’re leaving already.”
“Remember I’m counting on you,” his father said again.
“Dad stay, stay.”
The next thing Dan saw were bright lights in his rear-view mirror. A local policeman in a yellow vest was wading through a waste-high snowdrift, flashlight in hand, to get to his car. Three firefighters were following right behind him. Dan saw more lights from a fire truck and ambulance in the background.
The officer tapped on Dan’s window and told him: “We’ll get you out in a second son. Just hang on.”
Dan felt the pain and exhaustion start to take over. He woke to find himself in the hospital. When his doctor stopped by, she told him that he was lucky to be alive. He had a deep cut and concussion to his head, a punctured lung, two broken ribs, internal bleeding and two very large bruises to his knees, but somehow had made it.
Dan asked if the police or firefighters saw any one else on the scene. The doctor skipped right over his question. “It was a storm,” she said. “You were out there for a good two hours. They only found you because a local farmer saw your headlights through the woods.” Dan spent the next several weeks in the hospital. His recovery took longer than his medical team or he had expected.
Step-by-step back to full health
When he was finally able to leave, Dan couldn’t hold in his excitement. He found himself happier than he had been in a long time. He was still stiff and walked with a slight limp, where he banged up his knee in the crash, but he was glad to be alive. In the week after he came home from the hospital, Dan took it easy. His wife and kids enjoyed having him home. He spent his time reading emails from his work friends and watching television.
One day, late in the week, while his wife stepped out to run an errand and the kids were still in school, Dan stepped outside for a short walk. On a lark, he headed toward the Ford River to Gulliver Bridge.
In the weeks since his accident, he couldn’t get his dad out of his head. He wasn’t sure what to expect, but it felt like the right thing to do. His dad had been so adamant in his deathbed dream or whatever it was that he saw in the woods that night that he felt an obligation to make a trip to the bridge. If nothing else, Dan viewed the trip as penance for skipping out on his dad so many times when he was in prison and a chance to enjoy the warm Spring day.
“This one’s for you Dad,” he told himself.
Dan walked tentatively through the grass, trying his best to avoid the muddy spots. While he walked, a movie real of childhood memories came rushing back: the many times his father and him talked about life, the time he fell into the river, and even the spot where he took his wife, Joanie, and asked her marry him.
He passed the curve in the river, Gulliver Bridge up to his left and found his old spot near an old oak tree. He stood with his back to the tree and thought of all the times he visited this very spot. He looked out over the river, wishing he had brought his fishing rod.
He would come back another day, but for the time being, he looked down a few feet away to the old stump that he used to sit on while he fished and kicked the dirt. His boot hit something metallic. Dan didn’t recognize the sound. He kicked the stump again. There was definitely something metallic just below the surface. He leaned over and started to dig at the dirt and grass behind the stump with his hands. His eyes widened when he saw an old metal box, just a little bigger than a cigar box.
He pulled the metal box out and immediately saw his name scrawled on the top in his father’s bold distinctive handwriting. He shook his head, this couldn’t be real. With nervous hands, Dan opened the box. He found a folded manila envelope filled with three thick stacks of hundred dollar bills, several pictures of Dan as a baby, a safe deposit box key to the local bank, and a letter.
Dan pulled the letter out and started reading.
I hope this letter finds you filled with good health and happiness. When your mom died, I got messed up with alcohol, but you need to know I never meant to hurt anyone. I’m so sorry.
I’m sure you have questions. You need to know that I did not kill Mr. Lombardi. I was in the wrong spot at the wrong time. I got messed up with wrong crew. I made the mistake of hanging out with Jim Thompson, his brother Jake and his mob friends. Jim had the idea one night after we picked up dinner to rob the restaurant. I tried to talk him out of it, but I couldn’t stop him. The next thing I knew he pulled out a gun. He must have been casing the joint, because Mr. Lombardi had quite a big stash of money on him. Anyway, I tried to stop Jim, but he was a bigger guy. We struggled and the gun went off. Mr. Lombardi toppled over and died instantly.
I went immediately to the sheriff with information on Jim’s crime ring, but he didn’t believe me. Jim’s brother gave him the perfect alibi. It was the two of them against me, a down-on-his-luck drunk. The funny thing, I never pulled a crime until after I was arrested. When I was out on bail, I hatched my plan. I stole the loot that Jim had stolen from the Lombardis and others over the years. I thought I’d get away with a few hundred dollars, maybe a thousand if I was really lucky. It totaled more than $125,000. Jim had been busier than anyone had ever known, robbery, theft, drugs, kickbacks, you name it. Anyway, you’ll find it all in my safe deposit box.
I need your help. I need you to make things right for me. Most of Jim’s victims got their money back thanks to insurance, but Mary Lombardi lost a husband and Julia Lombardi lost a father. I need you to return the money. I’m sure they both could use it.
I want you to do one more favor for me. I’d like you to keep some of the money for yourself. I’d like you to open that restaurant you’ve always talked about opening. You’ve always hated your job. This is your chance to start something new, something that you love. It’s your chance to make your dream come true. I always wanted to help you, now’s your chance.
I’m sorry for the pain I caused you. I love you and I know that I’ll see you again one day in the future.
Dan put the letter down. He stared straight ahead. He wasn’t sure if he should laugh or cry. He sat there for the longest time until tears filled his eyes. He’d give all the money in the world away to have his father back, but he was still glad to have this little part of him.
The story made no sense to him. He wondered how the metal box came to be hidden at his favorite fishing spot, but he felt happy knowing that his father had been telling the truth. He felt happy knowing that he was right to believe in his father all along.
After a long time sitting under the oak, Dan wiped the tears from his eyes and stood up. He knew exactly what he was going to do: he was going do exactly like his father had requested.
Of course, he was going to leave the driving to someone else.