A Magnanimous Gesture


by Adelaide B. Shaw

The police reached Larry’s cabin three days after the murders. It was a one room affair on a dirt road half-way between Santa Paula and Ojai.  No one knew his address, and Larry had avoided answering the telephone. It was just short of eight a.m.  The fog which settled in the valley at night was still heavy like wet gray wool.  

"We're sorry to inform you that your father is dead,” Sergeant Medina, the older of the two policemen said. “Murdered along with his housekeeper.  Your sister found them.  When she couldn’t reach you she contacted us”

"It was in the papers and on television,” the younger policeman said.

"I don't have a television, and I just read the local paper.  It gives me all the news I need." Larry Chenkowsky eked out a living with a small avocado grove and his paintings of dusty eucalyptus and dry manzanita bushes for greeting cards and calendars.   It was nobody's business but his own how he lived, but he sometimes felt the need to explain, to defend his choices.

Standing inside the screen door, Larry kept his voice steady, trying to blot out the images and the words.  The curses… The blood…

"The police in LA want to talk to you,” the sergeant continued. “As soon as possible."

Larry knew he should ask questions, show concern, but Stanley Chenkowsky wouldn’t be missed by his family.  He pulled back his long sun-bleached hair, forming a ponytail with a rubber band. Must be calm.  Collect his thoughts.        

"How did he die?" he asked, opening the door.

The cabin was uncluttered and neat, except for an unmade camp bed in one corner. Books lined most of the walls.  Both officers perched themselves on the edges of two straight-backed chairs, looking uncomfortable, while Larry sat on a stool before the stone fireplace. Sergeant Medina spoke as if he were reading a newspaper report.

Stanley Chenkowsky, aged 80, of the Baldwin Hills area in Los Angeles, had been bludgeoned to death, along with his housekeeper, Consuela Alvarez, aged 55.  There were no signs of a struggle or forced entry.  No murder weapon was found and no incriminating fingerprints. Except for where the bodies were found, the house was undisturbed.

"The police said your father was a wealthy man," Medina said, concluding his story.  He stood up, handing Larry a piece of paper with the name and number of a Los Angeles detective.  "Call him. And your sister."

***

Larry sat across from Detective Conklin at the South Central Precinct. He had to keep his mind on the present. Speaking earlier with his sister Estelle brought the past all back. Younger than Larry, his sister still harbored ill feelings that he, at age 16, had run away, leaving her to face Stanley alone. That was two years after his older brother Charlie had died, two years after the abuse had begun.

Big, tough, good-time Charlie.  Crazy about football, fast cars and girls. Stanley's kind of boy.  Worked right along with Stanley.  Dead at 20 behind the wheel of a fast car.

Stanley blamed the other driver, the engineers who designed the car, the road, everyone except himself for being too lenient with Charlie. Unlike most parents, Stanley didn’t find comfort in his other children. He saw them as if for the first time, and he didn't like what he saw.  Estelle, like most girls he said, was useless, and Larry, in spite of his large size, was a "pantiwaist."              

"Reading and painting.  Sissy stuff," Stanley had shouted.  When he had later learned that Larry was living in a commune, "Commie fag" was added to the list of name.  Always, all those names.  Larry had tried to reason with Stanley.  He had tried.

“I know nothing,” he said to the detective. “We weren’t close.  His hospitalization for emphysema three years ago was the last time I saw him or my sister.”

Detective Conklin, a muscular man with thick arms and legs, made notes in a notebook. “Why did you go?”

"I hoped for a reconciliation.”

"Perhaps you thought about the money, too.  Did you know he married the housekeeper?  Maybe you killed him because of that."

“No, I didn’t know. I never wanted his money.  I still don’t.”

***

Stanley Chenkowsky’s house was a moderately priced ranch just beyond a more expensive area. The grass and shrubbery were overgrown.  Stanley had thought money spent on gardening was a waste. Larry pushed open the front door. The living room, furnished with thirty year old furniture, had fresh lace doilies and a small artificial Christmas tree. Probably, Consuela's addition to the décor.  

Coming in from the dining room area was a thick-set man of medium height, in his early fifties, wearing a navy pin stripped suit. "I'm Roger Fishbourne, your father's attorney and executor of the will.  A terrible business.”

Before Mr. Fishbourne could repeat any details or express condolences, Larry asked, "What happens now? To the money, I mean?”

"Can this be Larry concerned about money?" Estelle asked as she came through the door. "You've changed your tune, and Dad’s ashes not even cold."   

"You haven’t changed,” Larry said, “same acid tongue, same phony concern for the old man.  You don't have to pretend anymore"       

Estelle, dressed in a suede jacket and jeans that emphasized her thinness, lighted a cigarette and looked around for an ashtray. From the kitchen she got a short heavy pewter mug.

"I'm not pretending, Larry.  We made peace years ago.  He changed over the years.  Sure, he could still be a bastard, but something changed.  Maybe his illness, maybe his age, maybe Consuela changed him.  There were times when you could talk to him.  You should have tried harder.”

“Yeah, O.K. He had his moments,” Larry conceded. “when he talked about his construction business, building it up from nothing.  Determined, going without so his men could be paid.  I admired him for that.  He did what he wanted.  Why didn’t he allow me to do what I wanted? If he had changed so much, why did he leave nothing to his children? We didn’t measure up.”

Estelle shrugged an answer. “Have you looked where the bodies were found?”

Larry grimaced, turning to Mr. Fisbourne. "Can we get on with this meeting?"

"You need to decide what you want to keep,” the attorney said.  “Everything will go to you, the house, the contents, the money."

"But Dad left everything to Consuela,” Estelle said.

Mr. Fishhbourne explained the law. When testator and beneficiary die together, it is assumed that the testator died last.  With Consuela having died first, her bequest would go to the testator's heirs, as if Stanley Chenkowsky had no will, and his children would share equally.

 "I never expected any money,” Larry said.  “When I was young I hoped for some love and respect.  I never got that.  Give the money to Estelle.  She’s been waiting.”

 "You think you're so pure because you live off the earth,” Estelle said.  “You can’t believe I’ve gotten over the past.  I admit I was hoping his estate would go to us, but I haven’t been conniving for it.  I visited because he was our father.  Sure he was mean and tight and hit us, but…my God, Larry.  How you love to nurture your hate. Forget the past. Dad would have given you money, if you came around."

 "And give up my life. The price was too high."

 Mr. Fishbourne, looking like a parent with recalcitrant children, interrupted.  "Perhaps we better continue this tomorrow in my office."     

***

Sitting behind a mahogany desk Mr. Fishbourne looked more in his element than the previous day.  His office on Wilshire Boulevard was a corner one, with views looking north toward the mountains, which at 9:00 o'clock in the morning, were obscured by low lying clouds.

"I'll try to be brief," he said, passing two sheets of paper across the desk to Larry and Estelle.  "After the mortuary is paid, estate taxes and legal expenses, you will each get about $800,000.  That’s a list of your father's assets."  He went on to explain probate, the forms needing to be signed and his duties as executor.

Estelle asked several questions, but Larry remained silent. "Larry, say something. You could do a lot with your avocados with that money.”

"Give my share to Consuela’s family,” he said. “Dad didn’t want us to have it.  You're deluding yourself if you think he changed.  He was mean right to the end.”

"Saint Larry," Estelle said.  "Above it all.  You didn't care what happened to me. I had looked to you for protection, but you were gone.  When you ran away he started hitting me more.

"I did what I could," Larry continued.  "I made that phone call and sent money to Mom when I had extra.  I couldn't stay and I wasn't coming back."

"And I’m supposed to be forever grateful for that one call to a social worker.” Estelle jabbed Larry in the arm. “Sure, the hitting stopped, but life was hardly Norman Rockwell.  He still yelled and was still tight.” She pushed back her chair, as if to distance herself.  "I did what he wanted. Did chores, was quiet and stayed out of his way.  It was only after Grandma died and left Mom that $30,000 that she felt she could leave. It was two years of walking on egg-shells. It would have helped to have you there. You could have made a few concessions like I did.”

Mr. Fishbourne, turned from one to the other, like a referee, ready to intervene should the exchange become physical.

"He came at me again with the buckle end of his belt," Larry said.

The hammer had lain on the workbench in the basement, where Larry was building a painter's easel.  Stanley, angry over some transgression, had his belt out and swung the buckle repeatedly across Larry's arms and shoulders.  Bigger than both of his sons, Stanley's voice boomed across the basement, deriding Larry for his lack of ambition, for his lazy pursuits of reading and painting, for not doing something that would bring in money.  Picking up the hammer, Larry held it above his head.  Father and son looked at each other, arms held high, each ready to strike.  Larry ducked to avoid the belt, then tossed the hammer across the basement away from Stanley and ran out.

"I almost killed him.  If I had stayed I would have killed him the next time he came at me.  Two days later I left."

"Maybe you killed him now," Estelle said.

Larry hesitated before answering.  Stanley crumpled on the floor… Consuela calling… No one would understand.  He didn’t understand himself.  "Believe what you want," he said. He turned to Mr. Fisbourne.  "Can you do what I ask, give the money to the Alvarez family?"

“I’ll collect the assets and draw up the necessary papers.  I think there's a sister in Mexico."

"The police don't need me anymore,” Larry said.  “I'm going back to Santa Paula. I don't want anything except to be left alone."

* * *

The April sun beat down on Larry's bare back and arms, darkening his skin a deeper brown. He was clearing the ground of weeds between the rows of avocado trees. Stopping every few pulls of the rake, he thought about Mr. Fishbourne's recent letter. He had located Consuela’s sister and would prepare the necessary documents. Consuela had seemed like a sensible woman, Mr. Fishbourne had written. She had calmed Stanley. Given enough time Stanley might have become a likeable man.

Not so likeable that he didn't scream at Larry last November, a month before the murders. "Get the hell out of my house.  Ingrate.  Commie fag."

In Los Angeles to meet a publisher about his paintings for a calendar, Larry had given in to an impulse.  He found himself driving to his father’s house as if being sucked there by a vacuum. When he pulled up at ten p.m. Larry went around to the back where he saw a light.    Consuela, a short woman, thin and wiry, with long dark hair plaited into a single braid, spoke in a whisper.  Stanley was dozing.  While Larry waited in the kitchen, Consuela made tea. Still the same kitchen, only older.  More scratches on the maple table, a wheeze in the refrigerator, chipped cups over 20 years old.  The newest object was the red tea kettle.

After 30 minutes Stanley awoke.  In between bouts of coughing he started shouting. "Who needs him?  Who needs either of them?  Did I tell you about him?   Ran away, he did.  Fuckin' kid.  Took $100."

"Hello, Dad," Larry said from the doorway to Stanley's bedroom.  It had the close, fusty odor of old age and illness.  Stanley, propped up by several pillows, had shrunk in size. His skin lay loose on his bones.  Deep lines cut through his cheeks like grooves in weathered stone.

Consuela fussed over him, giving him water, brushing the hair from his face.  "Be nice to your son. Forget the past.  Didn't you say he pay back the money?"

"Isn't she something? Always telling me to be nice.  I guess I've been nice enough to her. She's been around longer than any other housekeeper.  We’re getting married.  She still doesn't believe me. What do you think about that?"

Larry remained in the doorway, listening.

"When I die, I'll leave everything to her.  That'll fix both of you. Your sister makes nice-nice, but she doesn’t fool me. Sure I give her money sometimes. I’d give you money, too, if you’d come see me.” Stanley paused to catch his breath, coughing a couple of times."You don't give a damn, do you?"

"I did once," Larry said in a flat tone, determined not to be affected by anything Stanley said, "when I was young.  Then I realized you would disapprove of anything I did if it didn't agree with your choices.  You wanted me to be like Charlie, go into construction.  I tried to please you and got a job.  The florist's job was sissy work you said.  Not the kind of job Charlie would take. Flower Boy you called me.  I was never what you wanted and because I didn't give in, you beat me."

"Yeah, I punished you.  You deserved it."  Stanley coughed several times, but pushed Consuela away when she offered him a canister of oxygen.  "Hard work it cost me to get my money.  Too hard to waste on sissy stuff like painting.  You should have taken over the business.  Instead, I had to sell it.  No, you got to live in the hills like a hippie.   No sense you had as a kid.  No sense you got now.  You're still a commie fag."

Stanley coughed some more and Consuela pushed Larry out of the room.  "I don't think he mean everything,” she said back in the kitchen.  “He talk about you sometimes.  Not angry talk always.  Sometime he wonder why you don't come. If you come, he say he give you money, like Estelle.”

 "I don’t care about his money. He doesn’t want me.  He wants another Charlie.”

 "Maybe you come back in the morning.  It will be better in the morning."

"It will never be better."

He had left then, and had not told Estelle of his visit.  Apparently, neither had Stanley nor Consuela.

 ***

From Mr. Fishbourne's office Larry looked down below at the gleaming glass and steel  buildings along Wilshire Boulevard.  The bells on St. Basil's Cathedral up the street rang out, beckoning the faithful to Lenten lunch services.  It was the time of prayer and penance and atonement, a time of new beginnings.  Larry had just signed the documents giving his share of Stanley’s estate to Consuela’s family.

"You enjoy playing the martyr," Estelle said. "I know you would never have asked for his money, but now that you can have it without asking, why not take it?  Why such a magnanimous gesture?  Why give it all away?" 

“I told you.  I never wanted his money.” All Larry had wanted was that he and Stanley would come to some point where there was respect and peace.  That this had never happened on one of his infrequent visits was a disappointment that Larry would try to bury and be as detached as before.

“Are you sure you won’t regret this later?" Mr. Fishbourne asked.

“He won't have any regrets," Estelle said.  "To have regrets you have to have some feeling, and Larry doesn't feel anything, no anger, no love, no greed.  He's all dried up like those manzanita bushes he loves to paint.  He won't admit to anything, not even hate."

***

On the first anniversary of Stanley's death, Larry sat in the late afternoon sipping a scotch on the porch of his cabin. The fog descending down the hills came in giant bands like rolls of unfurling carpet. The future was somewhere in that fog. 

The investigation of Stanley’s and Consuela's murders had become a cold case. Larry’s life was routine again–tend his trees, do his books, paint.  Nothing had changed, except that he, contrary to what Estelle thought, did have regrets. For Consuela’s death he felt a deep, black sorrow that shrouded his movements.  Consuela, had she lived, would have deserved that money.  Her attentive care of Stanley was genuine, but she had interfered. 

On another impulse, Larry had gone to visit Stanley again.   Maybe Consuela had softened him.  It was the season for peace and good will.  Maybe Stanley would listen now.

 It was nearly midnight when Larry reached the house. "I know you need help," he had planned to say.  "I know it's hard for you to spend money, and you expect your children to help,” he would say.  “I’ll help, but not for your money.  For some peace between us.  For a truce, I’ll help." 

Stanley was awake, Consuela said.  "I think he happy to see you."

"Another visit.  And so soon.” Stanley said.

It was a calm enough beginning, but "Commie fag" soon came afterwards, and the name calling escalated.

"I didn't come to fight," Larry said. "I came hoping for some sign, not of affection, but at least of recognition that I have a right to live any way I please.  I'm your son.  Your other son, the one who's still alive.   Why do you make me hate you?”

When he turned to leave Stanley’s bedroom, Larry felt a sudden sharp pain as a short heavy pewter mug grazed his left shoulder.  It hit the floor with a clang, causing another nick amidst the old scratches and gouges.

A wedding gift his mother had said, part of a matching pair, and the only quality objects remaining from the wedding.  Worn and broken items had been replaced by something cheaper, or not at all.  No frills for Stanley.  Frills cost money, and money doesn't grow on trees, Boy.  Lazy bum.  Slacker. 

Larry picked up the mug with his right hand just as Stanley let loose with another string of invectives.  "Commie fag.  Lousy son."  Larry held the mug above his head, the way he had held the hammer years earlier and turned to re-enter the room.  There was going to be no more name calling.

Consuela yanked on his left arm, pulling him into the hall.  "What you do, Mr. Larry?" He shrugged her off, but she came after him again, grabbing his shirt.  "Stop, Mr. Larry."

Not this time. Consuela wasn't going to stop him.  He spun around, trying to push her away, the hand holding the mug, swinging wildly with no intended target, but finding her left temple. Her legs buckled, pitching her forward.

"What's going on out there?"  Stanley sat up, his skinny legs dangling over the side of the bed.

"This is for the commie fag."  Larry hit Stanley's head with the mug.  "This is for the sissy. and the flower boy."

He held Stanley's sagging body with one hand and swung the mug with the other.  Each time he raised his hand he saw the leather belt, the buckle glinting as it reflected the light while it sliced through the air, cutting across his back.  Each time he heard the whack and crunch of the mug he felt the buckle rip through his thin cotton shirt and dig into his flesh.

"This is for all of me," he finally said, letting Stanley's body drop to the floor, the mug still clenched in his hand, the fingers white from squeezing the handle.  His hand throbbed from the pressure.  He stepped into the hallway, stopping at Consuela's body.

"You were wrong, Consuela.  He wasn't happy to see me. I would have helped, but he was too hard.   How did you stay with him all these months?"

Larry bent low to feel her pulse, to hear her breathe, but heard only the wheezing refrigerator and the creak of a floorboard where he knelt. In the kitchen he realized he still held the mug.  His fingers cramped around it like a claw, and he could not pry them loose until he placed them under hot water.  One by one he forced back his fingers as the hot water loosened his grip and washed away the blood.

Moving without haste, he dried the mug and placed it back on the shelf. Taking a towel he wiped everywhere he had touched, polishing the way he would in his cabin, concentrating on the cleaning and nothing else.  Thinking would come later.

 He stepped out the back door into thick fog, smelling like rusty iron.  He mechanically drove through it, hearing only the sound of the engine and the swish of the car wipers, swishing mile after mile, swishing through the fog.  By instinct, he turned onto the dirt road, knowing its curves and twists by the familiar crunch of gravel, reaching the cabin just before dawn.  He had slept then, well into the afternoon.  Rising, he burnt his clothes and slept again for two days, ignoring the telephone.  His mind had remained in the fog, rendering him incapable of thinking about his father until the police had come to his door.

Twelve months later, he thought of nothing else.  The images gushed forward, like a broken water main; he was drowning in them. He ached for Consuela and her family.  For Stanley, he wasn’t sure how he felt.  In killing his father he had killed the opportunity for a reconciliation. With Consuela’s influence, it might have happened. What he had done was to give in to his anger.  No different from Stanley.  Like father, like son.  Hit. Lash out. Walk away.  For how long could he walk away from the truth?  A truth he had realized months earlier. His actions had resolved nothing. Giving the money to Consuela’s family was not a magnanimous gesture, but a pay-off to ease his conscience.

He took a long swallow of his drink and looked at the encroaching fog. Fog in the valley was something he had to live with. So was the truth. He reached in his shirt pocket for his cell phone. With no hesitation he quickly dialed a number.  Detective Conklin would be surprised.  Over a year ago Larry had memorized that phone number, as if he knew he would use it in the end.


BIO: Adelaide B. Shaw lives in a small rural community in New York State.  Her stories have been published in several literary journals, including The Toronto Star and The Writer's Journal, both contest winners, American Literary Review, Green's Magazine, Sunscripts, The Villager, Reader's Break, Dogwood Tales, Housewife Writers' Forum, New England Writers' Network, Emrys Journal, The MacGuffin, Griffin,  The Country and Abroad and in Loch Raven Review  In addition to writing fiction, Adelaide writes haiku and other Japanese poetic forms, such as tanka and haibun.  Her collection of haiku, An Unknown Road is available at www.modernenglishtankapress.com