A son repeats his father's mistakes. The cycle continues.
The Apple Tree
By William Speaker
Dr. Bowman’s new office was freshly painted a bright yellow, almost canary, that she had picked to brighten the room and make it happier. This office had been set up just for her. The only things she didn’t like was that it had two sets of those annoying fluorescent lights and one kept blinking, making a humming and ‘tink’ noise each time it blinked and that the walls were cinder-block. They wouldn’t let her have a lamp, for safety reasons.
“Where were we?” asked the counselor. Dr. Bowman is young and pretty. Most people think that she has that sort of naive approach to counseling. She’s had plenty of experience, but with hard cases like Joe, she often slips into the standard questioning to stay on task. Master manipulators are best controlled with controlled questions, or so she was taught. Sometimes, though, she would have a break through with a patient.
“Last week we talked some about my past, and why I’m coming to see you. I really do want help. I want to break the pattern,” said Joe. Joe was fairly short, balding, and often went partially unshaven. He liked the 5 o’clock shadow look. Walking with a limp made it hard for him to get around and especially hard to sit still for more than a few minutes. And, even though they were new, these chairs were hard and uncomfortable. Between the annoying lights and hard chairs, it’s difficult for patients to concentrate. Facing his past was unpleasant enough, but this environment made it even more so.
“I’d like to talk more about patterns, Joe. Patterns in your life. Patterns that followed your father’s life. I think cycles is a good word for it,” she said. “Why do you think you ended up being like your father?”
“I dunno. I guess it’s just one of those things. All I learned was on my own since my Dad was gone. I never had anyone teach me how to be, how to be an adult, ya know,” Joe started. “I know a lot of people blame their parents for their mistakes. I never wanted to be that guy. I wanted to take responsibility for my own actions. I do. When I make mistakes, I pay for them. But I can’t help but wonder, if my Dad had been around to play ball or teach me how to fish or build models, maybe I wouldn’t have gone the way I did. Maybe I wouldn’t have abandoned my own family, Doc.”
“Do you think your father is to blame?” she asked. “I can say that the environment you develop in does make a big difference on the future choices you make. But, you’re right, there is a point when you need to reflect and take responsibility for your own actions.”
“I guess I have to look at it this way: I am to blame for my son not having me around as he grows up. If he’s good, then I can’t take credit. But, if he’s bad, then it is my fault, no one else’s. So, if that’s the case, how I turned out is my father’s fault. I just don’t feel right placing the blame on him.” Joe continued, “I know I was angry because he wasn’t around. I was jealous of other kids whose dads were cheering them on at ball games and showed up for father-son events. Sometimes my Mom would go with me, but that just made it worse.”
“And that’s why you latched on to the other kids who were fatherless, don’t you think?” Dr. Bowman had been down this path before, but Joe still didn’t seem to grasp the impact his own life and choices will have on his son if he doesn’t take a different path.
“Doc, when I was young, I had no discipline. I ran with those guys because they were the only ones I fit in with. No one else wanted to be around me. We were poor, had dirty clothes, and our water and electric kept getting shut off. I know Mom tried, but life sucked. These guys accepted me for who I was. They didn’t expect anything from me, and they were the only ones who didn’t judge me.”
Growing up without a father, Joe ended up running with the ‘losers’ group in school. They were known for ditching class, smoking, and petty vandalism. No one really had any expectations for them, and the teachers didn’t try to fix them anymore than their absentee parents did. As they got older, their crimes got bolder. Graduating from spray painting bridges and the water tower, they then would vandalize downtown businesses, spray painting, or ‘tagging’ their windows with obscenities, breaking car windows, and eventually graduating to fire. Dumpster fires were the first step, but eventually they’d set cars on fire. In time, they graduated to theft, finding it more productive than vandalism. For some reason, they never were caught.
In his senior year, Joe met a girl. Her Dad had been hired as the school janitor, so her family didn’t have money and that was a plus for Joe. He gradually spent more time with Rita than the guys. Meeting her came at the right time for him. He was constantly on the verge of dropping out of school and his grades reflected this. With her encouragement, he stayed in school and was able to barely graduate, more than the other guys could say.
After high school, Joe got the only job he qualified for, working at the lone gas station in town. It wasn’t enough money, but it paid the bills and with Rita’s tips from waitressing, they were saving for a car. Then, the guys showed up.
“Joe!” exclaimed Eddie. “I haven’t seen you in forever, man. How you been?”
“Hey, Eddie. How’s it going man? Yeah, I know, I kinda got busy with Rita. You know we got married right?” said Joe.
“Yeah, yeah man. I heard that. You still with her? What ya been up to?”, said Eddie. Charlie and Manny were wandering the aisles, looking for snacks. They were always the quiet ones in the group. Eddie was the talker.
Joe started, “We’re fine. She’s a waitress over at Bill’s Diner. Makes good tips. We’re saving for a car.”
“That’s awesome, man.” Said Eddie. “Hey, ya know we kinda stepped up our game. We could always use you if you need some extra cash. You were always good at getting in places.”
When the guys had gotten into breaking and entering, it was always Joe who would do the breaking. Since he was the smallest of the group, he could easily slip through chain linked fences, pet doors, and small windows. He’d go around and unlock the front or back door and let the others in to loot the place.
“I dunno, man. I got a good thing with Rita. I don’t want to mess that up.” Said Joe.
“Well, I have the same number if you change your mind. This is a big one and then me and the guys are leaving town. Need to move on to bigger challenges. Just thought maybe you’d want in on the last one.” Said Eddie.
“What’s the score?” asked Joe.
“Your end. Five thousand. And you don’t have to wait ‘til we fence, you get it that night. It’s a cash job.”
“Five? That’s huge man. We could get the car and even put some aside for our own house with that kinda change.” Said Joe. Eddie knew he had him hooked. There’s no way Joe would turn down that kind of money.
“And then what happened?” asked Dr. Bowman.
“You know the rest of the story, Doc. I’ve told you before.” Said Joe.
“Tell me again.” She said.
“Two nights later, we broke into Bing’s Warehouse. I went through a high window, after climbing up the scaffolding where they were repainting. And then I fell. Broke my leg and hip. And, they had an alarm installed that we didn’t know about. With one of those motion things. Next thing you know, I’m in handcuffs on my way to the hospital.”
“What happened to Eddie? The guys?” she asked.
“They split. Last I heard, Eddie shot a guard in a robbery up in Chicago. He’s waiting for the chair. The others, who knows?” said Joe.
“Do you blame Eddie for your current situation?” asked Dr. Bowman.
“Nah, it was my choice. I did it. I paid the price. But my kid, he shouldn’t have to pay, ya know?” Rita was pregnant with their son when Joe was arrested. He was already behind bars when his son was born. After a couple of years, his wife stopped coming as often. Months would go by between visits. “At least she got remarried after she divorced me. Little Robbie’s got a step-dad who could raise him, I guess. Maybe he’ll turn out better than me. But still, I can’t wait to get out and spend time with him before he gets too old.” Joe said.
“Let’s stop here. You’re making good progress. I want to talk more about your father and his life; how it affected you when we meet again next week. Okay?” asked Dr. Bowman.
“Sure, that sounds fine. I’ll think about it and see what I can come up with. See you next week, Doc.”
The yellow paint had faded; the gray carpet frayed at the entrance to the office. Dr. Bowman wasn’t so young anymore, but she was still sharp as a tack. All these years later, she still wasn’t allowed to have a lamp in her office. “Those damn lights,” she said, “One of these days I’m going to change it myself. The humming and blinking gives me a headache.”
“I can change it if you want, Doc.”
“You know I can’t let you do that,” she replied, “Besides, we’re here to talk about you, not fix my lights.”
“Okay, fine. So, what did you want to talk about, Doc?” After a week absence there was always the hope that Dr. Bowman would forget. She wasn’t that young; a person could always hope that senility was setting in. Looking around the office, the faded yellow paint had begun to curl and chip in places. And the arms of the chairs were worn. One was taped with duct tape to keep people from picking at it any more than they had already.
“Let’s talk about your father. Last week we touched on this subject but we didn’t spend time exploring how you feel or what the impact was when he went to prison.” She said. Dr. Bowman had a way of leading the conversation, yet it was hard to tell if she was looking for a specific answer or just wanted to explore the subject matter.
“I know I saw my Dad some when I was really young, but by the time I could remember anything, Mom had divorced him and stopped taking me,” he said. “I guess, since he was in jail, he didn’t have any rights to see me or something. So, how could I blame him. It’s like blaming something for not existing. He wasn’t there. I didn’t have a dad. Stan was okay at first, but once he and Mom had a kid, I wasn’t really part of the plan anymore.”
“Your step-father didn’t abuse you, he just pushed you to the side, right?” she asked.
“Yeah. I mean, I get it. I was someone else’s kid. I wasn’t his responsibility and my Mom was just trying to move on and have a happy home. He provided for us; food and clothes and a place to live. But, with each new kid I faded more into the background. The more trouble I got into at school, the less they seemed to care. After I was kicked out of school, Stan blew up. Said if I didn’t need to be in school, I should get out and be an adult.”
“How old were you when he kicked you out? Seventeen? That’s young but not so young. I have lots of patients that have been living on the street since they were fourteen or fifteen.” Dr. Bowman replied.
“I know. And by then it didn’t really matter. I was so far gone. Hanging with the wrong crowd. Vandalizing, breaking into cars, stealing shit. I was progressively getting worse. I got a thrill from it. Those guys made me feel like I belonged. I had a family and they were it. No one else seemed to care anymore. Mom didn’t even…”
“Your Mom didn’t what? Finish that sentence.” She said.
“Mom didn’t try to stop him from kicking me out. She didn’t say anything. I haven’t talked to her since that night. And, I have only seen her once. In the courtroom. She came alone; sat in the back. I saw her wipe her tears when I was convicted. I know I disappointed her.”
“What happened to your father? You said you were hoping to go live with him when he got out. Tell me about that.” She asked.
“He was supposed to get out on my fifteenth birthday. I think Stan was looking forward to it as much as I was. He just wanted me gone. I know I caused him a lot of grief. The day before my birthday, when I got home from school, I remember my Mom was in tears. Stan was white as a ghost.”
“The prison called while I was in school. They found my Dad in the shower. He’d been stabbed. They think it was either drugs or revenge for something. I dunno. They never really had an answer.”
“So, your father died the day before he was coming home? How do you think that affected you?” asked Dr. Bowman.
“Doc, my whole world fell apart that day. Everything I had hoped for was taken away. That’s when I started skipping class and hanging with the loser crowd. That’s when the life I know began.”
“Robbie, I want you to know, I knew your father. When I first started working here, he was one of my patients. Normally, I would never talk about what any patient said to me, but I think in this case, you should know. Your father talked about you in every session. Getting out and making up the years with you was all he seemed to care about. His biggest worry was that you would turn out like him. He wasn’t into drugs or gangs; he helped other prisoners who couldn’t defend themselves. That’s what got him killed. He made mistakes. But he was a good man who loved you very much.”
Through his tears, Robbie said, “You knew my father? I did turn out like him. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, does it Doc?”