Tristan Loper CC
It Wasn’t Waylon and Willie
After his father the murderer died, while they were cleaning out his cabin on the North Shore of Lake Pontchartrain, Bobby Paulson sat on the old man’s couch listening to digitized versions of the cassette tapes Dad had made him years ago, after receiving consecutive life sentences. Unlike the slaying of half a dozen men, women, and children in neighboring Slidell during what his defense attorney had argued was a schizophrenic break, these recordings were harmless. The old man offered gentle encouragement, which Bobby had found useful, for instance when he’d taken up rock climbing with a bunch of other white hipsters (yes, that was his demographic) at a gym on St. Claude. You can do it, Dad said. Don’t give up on yourself. Don’t let the bastards get you down.
“Aren’t you going to get rid of those goddamn things?” As soon as she saw the earbuds, Mandi started in, like she knew what her husband was listening to, and it wasn’t Waylon and Willie. Mandi hated Dad, and she hadn’t wanted to come today because she didn’t think they owed him this, cleaning out his cabin. But he’d made Bobby those tapes, hadn’t he, and no one was all bad, so the old man must’ve cared for his family, or at least his son.
“It’s all I’ve got left of the bastard.” Soon, Bobby wouldn’t have that. Like the original tapes, those files would deteriorate, his laptop would crash, he’d drop his phone or lose it down a storm drain, forgetting to back it up, and everything would be gone, so Jesus Christ, Bobby said—he almost cussed her—have a little understanding. “The bastard’s dead.”
Wearing latex gloves, as if Dad’s place would be contaminated with something worse than novel coronavirus, Mandi unplugged Dad’s VCR and dropped it in a bin next to the “ankle iron,” the tracking bracelet he’d worn the last eight months of his life, after his conditional release from Dixon Correctional. She made a gesture, dusting her palms, like she was done with more than that. Out the cobwebbed windows, winter light shone between the pines.
“You’re right.” She smiled. She was wearing lipstick, and she’d done her hair, like they were going out on the town to celebrate. This was the first either of them had left the house in weeks, so she’d dressed up, but it was cruel, petty, and beneath her not to respect the fact Bobby had lost his father, especially since Mom had died a few years ago, too. “The bastard is dead.”
They hauled those bins of crap Dad had left behind out to the curb, so the parish could take them, and Bobby wanted to quit, like he’d given up rock climbing and damn near everything else, college at BU, that internship in Berkeley. As many times as he’d left South Louisiana, in the end, he’d come home a failure. He still had the earbuds in, and he’d gotten to the part where the old man apologized not for what he’d done because he’d never said sorry, not even in court, when it might’ve mitigated his sentence or made a difference to the living, but for not being around when Bobby and his sister were kids. I know I disappointed you. I wasn’t the best father. It wasn’t because I didn’t love you, as much as I could feel that for anyone.
Bobby had set a liquor box of old dishes by the dumpster, so he could open the lid, and he tried to get his fingers, numb from the cold, under the cardboard, to lift. Past the pines, the lake glittered. The weathered shack where investigators had found the bodies was still standing. What had those victims said? Had they fought, pleaded? Stop, they must’ve told the old man. Please stop.
“Do you need a minute?” Mandi was wearing a powder blue vest, a muffler, her breath steaming the air. Last week, Joan had texted, thanked Bobby for taking care of this. Sorry, she’d said, but she and hubs weren’t going to make it from Seattle for the funeral, and who could blame her? But Bobby was miffed. Whatever the guy did, he was still their dad, and this was the least they could do to pay their respects.
Bobby still had the earbuds in, Dad, that smooth-talking psychopath, in his brain.
You can do it. Don’t give up on yourself. Don’t let the bastards get you down.
As he picked up the box, Bobby felt sick. His father’s voice in his earbuds was not helping, and maybe it had never improved anything. Encouraging as those monologues once might’ve seemed, the self-serving cliches were making things worse, and Dad had never cared about Bobby or anybody else. “Please, Dad.” Bobby was shaking. “Please stop.”
Tom Andes' writing has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories 2012. He won the 2019 Gold Medal for Best Novel-in-Progress from the Pirate's Alley Faulkner Society. He lives in New Orleans, where he moonlights as a country singer. His website is tomandes.com.
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