Fear No More
by Tom Gumbert
“Don’t you lecture me, Goddamn it!” David’s face was red, eyebrows pinched together. He shook his finger just inches from John’s face and John looked around the café, embarrassed by the tirade which had invited the stares of the other patrons. Leaning forward until his nose nearly touched the finger he said in a quiet, even voice, “I’m not lecturing you, Dad, so please calm down and let’s just finish lunch.”
“I’ll calm down when you stop talking like a communist, John David,” his father said.
John picked up his sandwich, a chicken salad on rye, and took a small bite, chewed, swallowed and took another. Washing it down with a sip of water he tried to appear nonplussed, while his father stabbed his sirloin with his fork, sawed a piece off with his knife and shoved it in his mouth. David chewed vigorously, angrily but the act of eating effectively ended the conversation and in his periphery John could see the diners returning to their own conversations, their own company.
They finished lunch in silence and it continued during ride back to David’s townhouse, David staring out the passenger window at scenery over seven decades familiar, giving John time to reflect on the cause of the tirade. It was an honest response to his father’s declaration that he was planning on getting a concealed-carry permit. “Really, Dad? Do you think that’s a good idea?”
That was all it took. John answered his father’s question of “Why shouldn’t I?” with a candid, “Your temper.”
His father’s reaction was a disproportionate outburst. It was a condition his father had occasionally displayed over the course of his lifetime, though it seemed to be getting progressively more intense and more frequent, especially in the past year.
Signaling a left turn, John pulled into the tree-lined entrance and up to the security gate. His father’s townhouse was in a nice area, home to mostly upper-middle income retirees who were still spry enough for unassisted living and wealthy enough to afford the purchase price plus steep fees that ensured amenities in the gated community such as 24 hour security, a nine-hole golf course, tennis courts, heated swimming pool and clubhouse with its fitness center and library.
It was very nice, John had to admit, but it wasn’t home. Home was the house his father built, the one he grew up in, the house a mile away that his father had sold a month after John’s mother had passed.
The decision had dismayed John and to this day he had mixed feelings. His father was still in relatively good health, certainly good enough to get around the three bedroom ranch and when John had inquired as to the reason for the decision, his father had snapped, “It’s my house, I’ll do whatever the hell I want with it.”
John pulled his Ford Focus into the spot reserved for the occupant of his father’s townhouse and waited for David to get out. After a few seconds he asked, “You going in Dad?”
David turned to look at him and John immediately tensed. “Dad, are you okay?”
David looked back out the window, then back at John. “Why are we just sitting here, you going to come in?”
John stared in disbelief. Just a second before, when his father looked at him, it was as if he didn’t know where he was, or maybe even who he was. Now…he shook his head. “I can’t Dad, I have to get back to work. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
Nodding, David opened his car door and slowly climbed out. Once he was fully extracted, he waved excitedly at the man next door before walking over and shaking the man’s hand.
John watched and returned the man’s wave while trying to recall his name. It was Martin, John recalled, though he wasn’t sure if that was the man’s first or last name. He put the car in reverse and backed out of the spot. As he pulled away, he looked back in the rearview mirror and saw Martin drape an arm around his father’s shoulders.
“I’m worried,” John told Amanda. “That look on his face, it was as if he didn’t know where he was, the panicked look you see on the faces of kids at the supermarket who can’t find their moms. This from a man who never showed one iota of fear his entire life.”
“But you said it immediately changed,” she reminded him. “Maybe he was just deep in thought. You did just have a quarrel,” she said in a tone that felt accusatory.
“A quarrel implies two sides exchanging differing viewpoints in a loud or angry manner. This was all him. It was a classic David Westwood tirade.”
Amanda shrugged her shoulders but said nothing and for a moment they chopped the vegetables for the salad in silence. “Do you know if he’s on any medication? Maybe he’s having an adverse reaction,” David suggested.
Amanda set her knife on the cutting board, placed one hand on her hip and tilted her head in the familiar, “Are you kidding me?” pose.
“Right,” John answered. “I’ll check with his doctor tomorrow.”
Her sigh was loud, another admonishment. “If I ask him he’ll tell me it’s none of my fucking business,” he answered in defense of her unasked question.
“Why don’t we invite him to dinner here and maybe a game or two of cards,” she suggested. “You know it’s been almost a year since your mom passed and I’m sure he’s lonely. Maybe if we spend more time with him he won’t seem so strange to you.”
“Right,” he said.
“Friday night, six thirty,” she answered, settling the issue.
Dinner was pleasant enough with Amanda steering the conversation and charming his father as she had always done. At various points she drew John into the conversation, and he was careful to offer an unoffending comment, usually an affirmation of her opinion, before resuming his role as quiet observer.
The scene took him back to his childhood dinners with his parents, Mom carrying the conversation about current events while Dad consumed the bounty she prepared each night. Occasionally, Mom would implore him to tell his father about some small victory he had achieved, such as making the honor roll or earning an honorable mention in the history essay contest. Usually, his father would nod his approval and if he was especially pleased, would reward his son with, “That’s good, John David.”
His mom would wink at him and smile, knowing how much that meant to him. “You know, you learned to crawl going after your father’s shoes,” she used to tell him. “I guess you were trying to walk in them.” Maybe he still was.
“David is everything okay with your health?” Amanda asked, jolting John out of his daydream. The abruptness of her question so startled him that he dropped his fork, it noisily clanging onto his plate before he could retrieve it. Looking up, he met his father’s glare and muttered, “Sorry,” though it wasn’t clear to him whether he meant it for himself or for Amanda’s question.
Returning his gaze to Amanda, his father shrugged. “The usual old man stuff, I guess. Why?”
“You seem a little,” she leaned toward him placing her hand atop his, “distracted at times.” The words came out as a statement born of personal astute observation and John marveled yet again at his wife’s communication skills.
David stared back at her. “Aren’t we all?”
Amanda chuckled, “Oh, absolutely!” before adding, “It’s just that whenever I get a new medication it sometimes takes me a bit to adjust. Sometimes,” she shrugged, “I have physical or mental side effects.”
John watched as his Dad looked away, as if contemplating a response, before slowly nodding his head. “Yeah, that sometimes happens, nothing to be alarmed about, though.”
Patting his hand Amanda said, “Good. Are you on anything new now?”
“That’s between me and my doctor, sweetie,” David said pulling his hand away.
“Sorry,” Amanda started, “it’s just…I mean…well, we love you and worry about you.”
David looked at her, then at John before pushing away from the table, and walking to the recliner in the family room. He sat in silence, his face turned toward the sliding glass doors that led to the back yard.
John and Amanda shared a look in silence. When they had finished cleaning up, John fixed two cups of coffee and took them to the family room. “Here you go, Dad,” he said holding a cup out.
For as long as John could remember, David would enjoy a post dinner coffee while relaxing with the newspaper, or sometimes while watching the evening news. David continued staring out the window and John, sensing his father’s displeasure, took a seat on the couch and placed the cup on the end table between them.
When the network news came on, David turned his attention to the television and without so much as a word or a glance in John’s direction, picked up his coffee cup and sipped as he watched the evening news. When it was over, he looked again out the patio door before jerking his head back toward John and exclaiming, “It’s dark outside.”
John looked out the patio door and then at his father, “Yeah, I’ll be glad when daylight savings time starts.”
David stood, his head oscillating as his gaze went from the patio door to John and back several times in rapid succession. “I-I want to go home now.”
John rose from his chair, alarmed by David’s tone. My God, he’s gone pale. “Dad, are you okay?”
“I want to go home now,” David repeated as he started toward the closet.
“What’s wrong?” Amanda asked, coming in from the kitchen, glancing at John.
Holding his arms out in an expression of innocence, John shrugged. He watched as Amanda went into the living room and helped David into his jacket. Reaching into the closet she pulled out her own and slipped it on. “Come on David, “I’ll take you,” Amanda announced without consulting him and though he knew he’d done nothing to cause his father’s condition, John felt accused.
He was sulking in the recliner, dipping Oreos into his coffee and stuffing them into his mouth when she returned. She eyed the half empty pack and raised one eyebrow but his own icy expression served as a warning and she put her jacket away without comment.
“What do you know about Martin?” she asked as she made her way between the recliner and the television.
His mouth full of cookie, he shrugged and shook his head.
“Apparently he has enamored your father. My understanding is that Martin is some 2nd Amendment advocate and has encouraged David to arm himself. Apparently this encouragement,” she said making air quotes, “has involved sharing stories which have profoundly affected your father.”
John’s eyes followed her as she moved toward the computer at the corner of the room. Rocking forward, he propelled himself from the chair, came up behind her and gently slipped his hand under her shoulder length blonde hair and began stroking her neck. She looked up, forgiving him with her smile before returning her attention to the screen.
Her fingers danced across the keyboard, the cadence sounding a bit like a drum. “Here,” she said drawing his attention to an advertisement in the local paper.
He leaned forward. “Concealed carry instructor,” he read aloud. “Not exactly an unbiased influence.”
“Let’s see what else we can learn about Mr. Martin Leonard.”
“Thank you for meeting us Mr. Leonard,” John said as he carried two cups of coffee to the table in the corner of the patio where Amanda sat waiting.
“My pleasure,” he said to John before turning his attention to Amanda. “Mrs. Westwood, a pleasure to meet you.
John waited until the two had completed their introductory handshake before offering Amanda her coffee. She accepted it and he took his seat at the table between her and their guest. “Nice weather,” he said with a smile, “good to be able to sit outside again.”
Their guest nodded as he sipped his drink, his eyes darting about at the patrons in the immediate vicinity as well as those passing by on the nearby sidewalk. He wore a black windbreaker that appeared to be larger than his body frame required, black denim pants and a ballcap emblazoned with the logo of a local university, with the bill resting on the top of his eyeglasses.
John and Amanda exchanged a glance and it was John who spoke. “Mr. Leonard, the reason we asked you here today is to discuss your relationship with my father.”
“Please, call me Martin, and yes, David’s a good man,” he said nodding enthusiastically before adding, “a smart and willing student.”
“So, he’s enrolled with you?” Amanda asked.
“Yes, David has enrolled in my class and is doing quite well. You must be proud.”
“Proud?” John asked.
“Why, yes,” Martin answered, nodding. “Your father’s taking responsibility for his own safety. While others may choose to hide in their homes or close their eyes to the criminal elements that abound in our crumbling society, your father has taken a stand. He refuses to be cowered, refuses to live in fear.”
He reached inside his windbreaker and both John and Amanda tensed. When he withdrew his hand, it contained a pamphlet which he lay on the glass table top and slid across.
“Fear No More,” Amanda read aloud before flipping it open to peruse the interior.
“Martin, I don’t want to debate the 2nd Amendment and in our society everyone is entitled to an opinion. What does concern me, however is my father’s well-being. I know my father. He has always been a strong person with good ethics and would never intentionally hurt anyone if given an opportunity to think things through. He does, however have a temper, and I’ve recently noticed behavioral changes that concern me. I don’t believe having him constantly armed is the best idea. Besides, he lives in a very safe area with both an excellent law enforcement presence and private security. ”
Martin smirked before sipping his coffee. When he finished he replied, “Even the best law enforcement or private security can’t protect you in your home from an intruder. You have to take personal responsibility for that.”
“He already has that,” John countered. “He has an alarm system and a weapon in his home. He doesn’t need to carry another with him at all times, that’s just not a good idea.”
“So you’d have him unarmed on the streets while armed criminals proliferate our community?”
John waved a hand around them, “I think your viewpoint may be a bit skewed.”
Martin glanced around before answering, “I concede this community is safer than most, but need I remind you that there’s Section 8 housing just a mile away? Do you think you father’s going to stay within the confines of this community? No. He’s going to go wherever he wants, and he needs to do so knowing he can protect himself.”
Before John could respond Amanda closed the brochure and pushed it back toward Martin. “Martin, I understand that our life experiences often dictate our viewpoints. We know about your brother,” she said quietly, “and offer our condolences. But we are concerned about David. We don’t want him carrying a weapon everywhere he goes. In our opinion, it would make him a risk to himself and others.”
Martin frowned and leaned forward, his elbows on the table. His tone was even but his eyes hard. “My brother would still be alive had he armed himself. I’ve made it my mission as a concerned citizen, to spare others the heartache I’ve endured.” He sat back, drew a deep breath and then a long pull from his coffee.
“As my husband said, we aren’t here to debate or judge you, Martin. We thought you might be open to reason and would understand our position is to protect David.”
“My position is to teach him to protect himself,” Martin interjected.
“So he will fear no more,” John interrupted, “yes we’re familiar with the rhetoric, however we want to protect my father from himself and not some imagined threat. We love my father,” he said motioning to Amanda and himself, “you want to score another convert and make a few bucks in the process.”
“That’s not why—”
“Enough,” John said rising. “He’s not going to listen,” he said to Amanda, “and I don’t feel comfortable trying to persuade an angry man who is carrying a weapon.”
Several heads turned and Amanda said quietly, “Honey, please sit down and lower your voice.”
Martin stood. “That won’t be necessary, Mrs. Westwood. In spite of your husband’s desire that I be open minded, it’s clear he is unwilling to do the same. I’m afraid nothing good can come from our continued discussion.” Turning he walked to the door, pausing with his hand on the handle. “It’s a shame. I thought we might be friends since we both clearly care about David.” With a shrug of his shoulders he pulled the door open and disappeared inside.
“Will you sit now?”
His wife’s voice was calm and could detect none of the judgment freely doled whenever she felt he was out of line. He looked down at her and in her eyes saw…empathy? He sat. She slipped her hand onto his lap and gently stroked his leg in a loving, reassuring way. They sat basking in the warm afternoon sun of the beautiful spring day, sipping their coffee until he had calmed enough to laugh at one of her stories.
“I’m sorry,” she said, her words surprising him. “I know how frustrating this is for you and I knew that this was a longshot.” She leaned her head against his shoulder. “I shouldn’t have pushed for this meeting. So what do we do now?”
“I guess we just try to keep an eye on Dad—do our best to protect him.”
“I’ll do my best, but you know work can get crazy.”
“We can take turns. Between the two of us, maybe we can figure out why he’s so afraid.”
John frowned. The number on his cell phone was unfamiliar and probably a wrong number. He was going to ignore it, but something tugged at him. He flipped the phone open and brought it to his ear. “Hello?” He brought his hand to his forehead as he listened. “Yes, David Westwood’s my father. My God, where is he now?” He jotted the information on his desk calendar. “Yes, I should be there within a half hour.”
He punched the speed dial number for Amanda as he re-wrote the address on a business card. “There’s a problem with Dad. I’m not sure. The lady who called said she found him wandering in the street and he couldn’t remember where he lived but was able to tell her my number.” He listened as he tucked the business card into his shirt pocket. “No, I don’t think you need to meet me there. Let me get him and figure out what’s going on. I’ll call you as soon as I know anything.”
He pulled into the drive of the home two streets behind the complex where his father lived. A redhead in jeans and a purple t-shirt came out of the house and waited on the porch. She looked vaguely familiar. As he approached, her eyes lit up and she smiled. “John Westwood, class of ’92, I was wondering it was you.”
“Heather McKeever, class of ’91.” He stepped toward her and they hugged. “It’s been what, twenty years?”
“Yeah, I guess so. Wow.”
“So, is my Dad okay?”
Her expression became serious. “He’s at the kitchen table. He seems so—afraid, and lost. It reminded me of Hunter, my sixteen year-old. When he was seven we got separated at Kings Island. He was terrified.”
John nodded and looked toward the house. “I’m not sure what’s going on, but I’m damn sure going to find out.”
“Mr. Westwood,” the doctor started.
“Yes?” John and David answered in unison, then looked at each other, John amused, David annoyed.
“John,” the doctor clarified, “your father has been previously diagnosed with stage four Alzheimer’s. Were you aware of that?”
John’s mouth fell open.
“Clearly not,” the doctor surmised. He looked at the chart, then to David and back to John. Leaning forward as if to share a secret in the small cramped examination room, he quietly said, “John, your father has listed you as his emergency contact. With that in mind, and in light of your father’s advancing disease, I’m going to share information with you about his condition. Your father is now somewhere between stages five and six Alzheimer’s which is considered moderately severe. At this stage he will likely begin to need help with daily activities such as selecting weather-appropriate clothing and remembering the details associated with toileting. He may experience major behavioral or personality changes such as suspiciousness and delusions, and as we saw today, may start to wander or become lost.”
John struggled to remain calm, to keep his head clear and focus on the message but he was seized by fear. He could feel his blood pressure rising.
“John, you’re turning pale. Take a deep breath and exhale slowly,” the doctor said.
John obeyed and immediately started feeling better.
“What’s wrong with him?” David asked.
John smiled at his father and said, “Nothing Dad, I’m fine. Everything’s going to be fine.”
John watched Amanda making the bed in the spare room of his father’s house while he waited for the phone to connect. “Yes, my name’s John Westwood and my father’s doctor referred you. Yes, Alzheimer’s. No, no other special medical needs or conditions. No, just daycare, my wife and I will be here at night and on weekends to care for him. Yes, we understand what’s involved,” he said with a tone that caused Amanda to look at him. He shrugged an apology. “Yes, can they start on Monday? Great. Yes, I have the insurance card right here.”
John stared at his house from his front seat, dreading another night alone. It had been three months since he and Amanda had agreed upon the plan to split time between their home and his Dad’s. Three nights a week one would stay with David while the other went home. He hated it, but could see no other reasonable alternative. Three months felt like three years and he honestly didn’t know how much longer he could continue.
They were doing their best with the situation. He and David had made peace, and intermittently had been able to share old memories and a few laughs. Amanda had become friends with Heather, inviting her and Hunter over for game nights when David was up to it, which was becoming increasingly infrequent. Helplessly watching his father’s mental deterioration was more agonizing they anything he had imagined.
He glanced at the brochure on the passenger’s seat. Would I be a bad son if we put Dad into an assisted living home? Would Amanda allow it or hiring a live in nurse? She’d grown increasingly protective of his dad, taking on the role of primary caregiver and she was good—patient, kind and loving.
Forcing himself to open the car door, he trudged toward the house. He’d eat a quick dinner, most likely something from a can or perhaps microwavable, then change into jeans and tackle some yard work. When that was finished he’d read for an hour or so, then try to sleep, which he was finding increasingly difficult.
As his hand reached the door knob his cell phone rang. Switching the door key to his left hand he retrieved the phone from his front pants pocket. “John Westwood.” His body went rigid. “Yes, is he alright?” As he listened, he felt the blood drain from his face and he became lightheaded and dropped his keys. “Shot? Who was shot?” John abruptly sat on the doorstep and put his head between his knees. He took three gulps of air and tried to remain calm. “So, all you know is that someone was shot at my father’s townhouse and the police are requesting me, is that correct?” He wiped the sweat from his palms on his pants leg and tried to keep the tremor from his voice. “Yes, perhaps that would be best.”
John threw up into the bushes beside his house. He pressed his palms against his eyes and tried to stave off the rising fear. Behind closed eyelids he saw Amanda on the floor of his father’s home, a small round hole in her forehead just above her eyebrow. His body shook with the force of silent sobs.
The police cruiser rolled up silently and a solemn looking officer called out, “Mr. Westwood?”
John wiped his face on his shirt sleeve and nodded. The officer got out and opened the back door. John walked to the cruiser and climbed in. No one spoke.
Groups gathered on the lawns adjoining and across from his father’s townhouse, which was delineated by crime scene tape and a conglomeration of emergency vehicles. As John was let out of the cruiser he noticed a van with the markings of the local news station driving toward them. His head swiveled in an attempt to see Amanda or his father and his failure to do so increased his dread.
Instead of going in the front door, the officers led him around back toward the walk out basement. As he rounded the end of the unit his eyes fell upon paramedics frantically working on someone on the ground. His legs felt rubbery and his step faltered.
“Whoa, steady,” the officer said, grasping his shoulders.
He bent at the waist and supported his weight with his hands just above his knees. He closed his eyes and drew in several deep breathes before looking up. The yard was cluttered with boxes and old furniture and he remembered that Amanda had arranged for Hunter to clean out the basement. One of the boxes lay on its side, with photo albums spilling onto the lawn near a toy rifle—from his seventh birthday! Had his Dad kept that all these years?
Amanda’s voice washed over him in a wave of relief. She stood just outside the basement door and his legs found purchase and he ran to her. She had her arm around a woman whose face was buried against Amanda’s neck. “My God, are you alright?”
He could see the tears on her face but she gave him a quick nod. He looked around, “Where’s Dad?” Before she could answer he looked toward the paramedics. “Oh, God.”
“He’s inside. The police are interviewing him,” Amanda whispered.
John’s chest tightened, and he found it difficult to breathe. He looked back toward the paramedics who were moving a prone figure to a gurney, then at Amanda.
The woman, hearing the activity, looked toward the paramedics, her face streaked with tears, her mascara running down her cheeks.
She moved past him without comment, but the police officer intercepted her before she reached the paramedics who were moving the gurney toward the waiting ambulance.
“I’ll stay with her,” Amanda said, “go inside and check on your dad.”
His movements were stiff and slow as he entered the basement. A small cluster of men stood near the stairs and he could hear the shuffling of feet upstairs in the kitchen. As he approached he heard his father’s voice, “John David!”
The men parted and he could see his father sitting on the stairs, wringing his hands. “He shot him. Why did he shoot Hunter?”
John was about to ask who when he heard footsteps at the top of the stairs. “Make way,” the officer in front called and John helped his father from the stairs. The group moved into the center of the basement as three men descended the stairs. Flanked by officers and hands cuffed, Martin Leonard kept repeating, “He broke in and was robbing them. He had a gun. This was justified. As he passed, John noticed the polo shirt he was wearing bearing the “Fear No More” logo.
John embraced his father and whispered into his ear, “Don’t worry, Dad. I love you and I’ll always be here for you.”
About the author:
I live near Cincinnati, OH with my wife Andrea (Andy) in a log home overlooking the Ohio River in an area that was an active part of the Underground Railroad. Operations Manager by day, I have been writing for over a decade.
My publishing credits include, “Write This,” “Black Heart Magazine,” “Down in the Dirt,” “See Spot Run,” “The Vehicle,” Inwood, Indiana’s “Harvest Time,” “Milk Sugar,” “The Wayfarer,” “Rathello Review,” “Stirrings,” “Meat For Tea:The Valley Review,” and I co-authored the anthology, “Nine Lives,” which was published by All Things That Matter Press in March 2014. I am currently submitting my novel.