Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Fear Meets Empathy

The sheriff turned off the county blacktop onto a gravel road. The young man in the backseat of the cruiser was both handcuffed and blindfolded. Fearful already, the sound of gravel under the tires put a quake through his body.

Blindfolded or not, Matt Engle sensed the rolling hills and curves as the cruiser traveled about eight miles before stopping. When the car came to a stop the engine was shut off. Night sounds came in through the sheriff’s open window.  He turned toward his passenger.

“Now son, I’m gonna’ get you outta’ this car and walk you a short distance. You are not to speak nor make any move that might cause me to believe that you want to do anything but cooperate. Do you clearly understand me?”

“Yes sir.” Matt wanted to ask what was happening and why he had been arrested but he thought better of it. For now, he would follow instructions.

The rear door of the cruiser opened and he felt a hand on his arm draw him out. Another rested on his head and pressed down gently as he stepped out of the car. Once on his feet, the gravel crunched under Matt’s boots as he was guided about fifty feet from the car.

The hand that had guided him let loose and he heard footsteps on the gravel going back to the direction of the sheriff’s cruiser. A car door opened and closed. An engine was started and sounds of the car faded into the distance leaving only the night sounds of the woods.

The music of crickets played in the darkness around Matt. A bullfrog called out. There was a faint owl hoot from somewhere far off.

With his hands cuffed behind him Matt couldn't remove the blindfold. Then, through the blindfold, he sensed bright lights upon him. A silhouette moved toward him from the lights. The silhouette had a familiar voice. It was his girlfriend’s grandfather.

“Young man, I have some questions for you that have to do with your interest in my granddaughter. All that I ask is that you answer my questions honestly and completely. I will not tolerate any attempts at deception.”

Matt did not immediately respond. Fear sent a quiver through his body.

“Do you understand me, boy?”

The tone of the old man’s voice was calm and even but the words that he spoke clearly imparted his intended meaning. Ashley and Matt had been dating for about three months. She was a high school junior and he was a senior.

“Yes, Mr. Johnson.”

A hand removed Matt’s blindfold from behind him. Ashley’s grandfather, though silhouetted, was identifiable by the car headlights behind him. Matt squinted into the bright lights.

“First let me explain some things to you, son. You see, my wife and I were blessed with five wonderful sons. It took another generation for us to know the pure joy of having girls in our family. They were given to us as granddaughters.” The old man paused and studied Matt’s face. “Now, Ashley’s father, my son, has the responsibility of two other daughters and their mother. Therefore, as much as he is obligated to protect his family, he has less room for risk than I do. You see, son, I’m just a crazy old man in the autumn of a very good life. Are you beginning to get my meaning, son?”

Matt’s mind raced with worry as to what the old man might know of his intimacy with Ashley and what might not have been acceptable to the elders. His first attempt to respond cracked in his throat. He cleared his throat and was successful on the second effort.

“Yes sir.”

“Are your intentions with my granddaughter honorable?”

Matt couldn't lie but he feared telling the truth. Unimaginable fear triggered his bladder to empty. He could feel the warmth spiraling half around and down his left leg under his dungarees. His body involuntarily convulsed with the fear that was tightening around him.

Leon Johnson didn't miss the scent of fresh urine but he didn't let on. He was trying to be patient. He repeated the question but, this time, the words were much more deliberate.

“Are your intentions with my granddaughter honorable? Answer the question, son.”

The three words “answer the question” echoed in Matt’s mind. That was it. All he had to do was answer the question.

“Yes sir, Mr. Johnson. My intentions with Ashley are nothing but honorable. I like her very much. I would never intentionally hurt her.”

Matt thought that the old man’s face was beginning to relax and soften. The two men each gazed into the other’s soul through the depths of the eyes looking back at them.

“Are you absolutely certain?”

“Oh, yes sir!”

The two men, one young and one old, continued to search the other’s eyes. Then the old man raised his right arm in a circular gesture. Five more pair of headlights lit up the night in a semi-circle around the two men.

No less than twelve silhouettes were closing around them now. In addition, Matt heard the gravel crunch under footsteps behind him. Two hands gripped each of Matt’s wrists from behind.

This time fear let his bowel loose into his whitey tighties. His knees started to buckle but, with a steadying hand on his arm, he regained himself enough to stay standing. A key turned in the handcuffs and they were removed.

“I ain't gonna’ need you men. You can go on home now. Thank you for being here, though.”
Without another response, the silhouettes turned back to the headlights. All but Leon Johnson’s vehicle filed out and down the gravel road toward their homes. Leon’s nostrils twitched.

“Did you have another accident, boy?”

“Yes sir… you had me scared half to death.”

A younger man came from behind Matt with the handcuffs and stood alongside of his grandfather. Matt recognized him as Ashley’s cousin. Jeff was about Matt’s build.

“I have some clothes at the hunting cabin that will fit him, Grandpa. He can shower there.”

“A’ight. Matt, we’re gonna’ take you to clean up but you’re gonna’ have to ride in the back of my pick-up as you are now. I am sincerely sorry for the trouble but I just cain’t have you in my cab like that.”

Too embarrassed to speak, Matt nodded. The cabin was just a mile farther down the road.

At the cabin, on Jeff’s suggestion, Matt stripped in the yard. Most of the mess stayed with his whitey tighties. He made use of a garden hose before Jeff showed him to the shower and clean clothing. 

The two men were waiting for Matt in the great room of the cabin when he finished. The ride back to town was quiet at first. Feeling some confidence, Matt broke the silence.

“Mr. Johnson, may I tell you something?”

“You certainly can, son.”

“I understand your desire to protect your granddaughter more than you may know.”

“How is that, son?”

Matt went on to tell the story of his older sister, of whom he had only vague memories. Most of his memories are from what his mother has told him. His father has never talked about her.

Matt’s sister, Jeannie, became pregnant when she was seventeen-years-old. The man was nineteen. What Jeannie said of the incident clearly made it a date rape. She had said “no” over and over throughout the entire ordeal.

Jeannie didn’t tell her parents anything until she realized that she was carrying a child. By then, there was no evidence to bring charges against the man. He denied forcing himself on her.

The young man made Jeannie out to be a slut. He insisted that he was only taking his turn with a toy that had been around for quite a few rides. In fact, he had taken her virginity and much more.

 Jeannie lost the baby in mid-term. She went from being a top achiever in school and extra-curricular activities to a drop-out and began using drugs. It took her eleven months to destroy herself.

At the burial, Jeannie’s father saw the catalyst, in the crowd of mourners that had caused the last year and a half of misery and loss. Some say that it was guilt that brought him there. To Jeannie’s father, in the pain of his losing his beautiful daughter, it was pure and blatant audacity.

Jeannie’s father beat that young man nearly to death right there at his daughter’s burial before she was lowered into the ground. Several other people were injured for trying to stop him. The man did actually die a few days later in the hospital.

Matt lost his father while he served jail time for manslaughter. At the end of his sentence he came back home to continue taking care of his family but he was never whole again. The light was no longer in his eyes. He had given up his soul to avenge his daughter.

The family moved to another state in order to start fresh when Matt’s father returned. They were provided for much better with the father home but Matt never had a father again. His love of life had died with his daughter.

“You see, Mr. Johnson, you didn't need to scare the shit out of me. Whether or not Ashley and I devote our lives to each other remains to be seen. We're still very young. One thing is certain though. I’ll never do anything less than honorable toward your granddaughter or any other woman. I can’t be a part of the pain that I've seen for somebody doing less. I've seen beauty wither and die before it could fully blossom. I've seen a mother go on in spite of the permanent pain of losing her child. I've seen a shell of man, who couldn't protect what was most precious to him, continue in his duties while incapable of joy for his efforts. I've suffered because these were the people closest to me.”

Matt paused. As he continued his words were of empathy and sincere respect.

“Do you believe now that my intentions with Ashley are honorable, Mr. Johnson?”

The old man would not turn his head toward Matt. He didn't want the young man to see his glazed eyes. He spoke softly, yet deliberately.

“I reckon I do, son... I reckon I do.”

A tear escaped down the tough old man’s weathered cheek.

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