Read Grist Mill Road Online

Authors: Christopher J. Yates

Grist Mill Road (8 page)



The perpetrator had confessed, the victim had effectively absolved me of blame and so, legally speaking, I was off the hook. And yet, much to my father's chagrin, there was still a case to be heard because I hadn't yet been cleared of any wrongdoing by the second most important authority of the land, the Supreme Court of Public Opinion.

While I rested my fractured skull at home and Mom fussed over me, Sean returned to soccer camp and my father continued his work at the Ulster County district attorney's office, the town of Roseborn began to gather—at supermarkets and gas stations, in hardware stores, diners and bars—to sift through and scrutinize every last detail of The Swangum Shooting.

Dad would arrive home each night in a terrible froth, additional snippets of grapevine gossip having trickled down to him, and although he directed his anger physically at the front door and then vocally at the checkout-line numbskulls of town, I felt that the party his anger was really turning toward was me. But to be fair, the election was fast approaching and the Supreme Court of Public Opinion holds some sway in such matters.

Before too long, every time my father looked at me, I started to see my approval rating dropping. Yes, at the very least I was guilty of stupidity. Hadn't everyone been saying for years that
Matthew Weaver was trouble? How had I gotten myself into such a preposterous situation?

It was now becoming clear that the self-appointed jurors of Roseborn would find me guilty of something—my crime, at the very least, was one of first-degree association—but it was not only the legal opinions of a misinformed public that my father had to contend with, because then opinion became rumor and rumor became lie and soon my father's froth turned to fire.

What in hell's name? It was nothing but a pack of lies to suggest the police had stumbled across the bodies of several dead animals near the scene of the shooting, animals tortured to death and their limbs removed. (In truth, the police may have found some frogs in pickle jars. And I certainly remember us saving a few bones and antlers we'd picked up here and there.) Goddammit, how dare anyone suggest that his son had helped tie Hannah to the tree, this was slander of the worst kind. Are you damn well kidding me? If Patrick had really fired half the shots did these imbeciles not think for one second that the police would have arrested him? Why not ask the girl herself, listen to her own words?

And then, one morning, Joe McConnell, chief assistant district attorney, rising Democrat and, until recently, a shoo-in for election to the New York State Assembly, awoke to discover that someone had tipped a gallon of yellow semigloss all over the hood of his blue Chevy Impala.

Yes, the electorate had spoken. Our motor vehicle was dripping with poll numbers. And it was time for us to leave.

At least that's how it felt to me at the time, a violent shift to the dramatic, our family chased very suddenly out of town by paint, a protest aimed squarely at me and my spinelessness.

Although when I turned thirty, my brother organized a bar crawl for me and a few friends and at the end of the night, I was speaking to Sean about these and other events from our childhood and he told me, over the space of several whiskey shots, that there was more to the story of our leaving Roseborn than I'd ever understood at the time.

And how did Sean know all this? Well, apparently our dad told him everything one night—also in a bar, whiskey also the culprit—after they'd both attended a fund-raiser for Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign.

Sean told me he had long suspected the truth of the matter—from the moment right after everything unraveled a few years after our exit from Roseborn. But I had suspected nothing at all.

Anyway, back to 1982, my father had long remained friends with an old college roommate, another lawyer with a small practice in Portland, Maine, and after a series of increasingly buddy-buddy phone calls, conversations my father strategized as carefully as his electoral campaign, it was agreed that the two of them would join forces.

Which meant that not only was my father withdrawing from the New York State Assembly election but also that he would be switching from prosecution to defense.

I suppose the whole episode had prompted an ethical shift.

Hence, or at least as it seemed to me at the time, my spinelessness didn't just run the family McConnell out of town, it also ran us clean out of New York State, a six-hour drive across Massachusetts and up through New Hampshire, all the way over to the fronded coastline of Maine.

*   *   *

election to the New York State Assembly had, until a certain Wednesday in August 1982, been a near-certainty was not only because he'd been laying the groundwork for years but also, and more important, because my father was so enormously well liked and respected.

Joe McConnell was a smart-yet-approachable man. Joe McConnell had a firm handshake and steady eye. Joe McConnell was both supremely confident and solidly down-to-earth.

These were just some of the tricks of the trade he was keen to pass on to his sons, because a political career wasn't something my father dreamed of only for himself. No, Joe McConnell, son
of a Long Island baker and his German immigrant wife, had a longer-term scheme in mind.

The McConnells were going to be the next Kennedys.

The plan was trickle-down, political empire-building that began with paterfamilias Joe as the capstone of the political pyramid. Next down would come his two fine sons, Sean and Patrick. And after that, his sons would bear grandsons who would also be nudged along the same glittering path. Breed and repeat, breed and repeat, a plan for the ages.

I was five years old when I was presented with my first suit, bought for neither a wedding nor a funeral, but on the occasion of the seventieth birthday of Mrs. Effilinda Scott, a nonrelative but a party grandee and something of a local kingmaker. And wow, you should have seen us, Sean and Patrick in matching blue gabardine. Cute as hell!

Along with the suit came a series of important lessons from my father. Soon my cocktail-sausage fingers had learned how to tie my tie and tuck my shirt and part my hair. Dad showed me how to roll up my shirtsleeves, reminding me as he did, We want to look like we're doers, not bankers or playboys. When we take off our jackets, we roll up our sleeves and get on with things, right?

Dad also gave lessons in glad-handing, oration and debate. Plus guidance on how to treat friends and spot enemies. At weekends we handed out buttons, waved pennants and allowed ladies even older than Effilinda to maul us with their grabby hands. I lost count of the endless hours we spent playing with kids we didn't really want to play with at various fund-raisers, rallies and potlucks.

Whenever we stood on a platform or walked through town together, it was in a formation that had been drilled into us—Mom on Dad's right, my brother first on his left and then me. When I complained one time about being on the outside, it was explained that it was all about height order, a family triangle with Dad at the apex, and if I ate my greens and grew taller than my brother, I would take his place.

I think I was the only kid at Roseborn Elementary who actually liked the taste of broccoli.

The execution of the plan should have been perfectly straightforward, a timeworn march into power. Sean and I would both go to good colleges and then on to law school. Next we might work in the Justice Department or on a congressional subcommittee, or clerk for the right judge, or become assistant district attorneys.

I knew my chosen path in life long before I understood what it is an assistant district attorney actually does. At a young age, all I understood about my father's work was that he kept the world safe from bad guys—I thought my dad was a superhero. And if this was my father's dream for me then I wanted it too, I wanted it like hell.

Only now the plan had gotten horribly bent out of shape, meaning that, 250 miles northeast of the seat he had earned by dint of his hard work and the power of his smile, my father had to start working all over again. Except this time around, the scheme would require one minor constitutional amendment.

It remains one of my more vivid childhood memories, the moment I learned of my de-selection from The Kennedy Plan. I was sitting on the living room floor playing
when I looked up and saw my brother in his suit for the first time in months. And then I noticed my father, also splendidly besuited, the two of them edging toward the front door. No explanation was needed—I'd been struck from the ballot paper for good, there being some question concerning my suitability for office. But in all fairness to my father, as he stepped out of the house, he did offer me a look of intense consolation, the sort of look you might give a toddler with a hearing aid, or a seven-year-old with only two weeks to live.

Mom let me stay up later than usual that night to watch
. We lay in the recliner together, her filling me in on the internecine squabbles of the various characters. What I remember most about that show, for reasons that will become obvious, was the scene in which two attractive women, one blond, one brunette (Alexis Colby and Krystle Carrington), had a catfight in a lily
pond. I stared wide-eyed at the TV as these vengeful beauties flailed at each other in the shallow waters of the pond, their expensive and low-cut gowns clinging to their numerous curves, the two of them splashing and whaling and sprawling. Yes, that was the moment, snuggled up against Mom's left hip, that my body decided to present me with the very first erotic stirrings of my life. I couldn't have been more horrified had a cat dropped a headless bird in my lap.

I knew pretty much what it was, this stirring down below. For some time I'd heard boys my age talking of similar seismic activity. Jonny the Spin's first erection had leaped unexpectedly from the flap of his pajamas almost two years earlier—in front of his grandmother, as he told it. So the shock I was experiencing wasn't fear of the unknown. No, it was the mortifying thought that my mom might notice my interest piquing. Which meant that, while trying not to move a muscle, trying not even to breathe, at the same time I desperately wanted to leap out of the armchair and run up to my room.

Thankfully, if she did notice, my mom didn't say anything. The fight ended with stern words for both women delivered by a handsome gray-haired man (Blake Carrington). And as the show wound down, eventually so did my first ever erection.

That night in bed, and with some success, I tried mentally to re-create the frisson I'd experienced during the lily pond scene, going over it again and again in my head. Blond, brunette. Brunette, blond. And it was a tough choice but before too long I'd come down firmly on the side of the brunette, an allegiance I suppose I've retained to this day.

*   *   *

they're clever? At least until some point in their lives? And although I wasn't exactly top of the class, my grades at school were decent. I thought maybe I might be an intellectual late bloomer, just as I had been a late bloomer when it came to matters of puberty and height—the broccoli thing having never quite worked out. Plus, I've always been
good at math. Numbers feel right to me. If I can quantify something, I feel I have a better chance of understanding it.

But at fifteen years of age, two years after our move to Portland, I realized I wasn't clever at all. No, worse than this, I was in fact stupid. This became rapidly and dazzlingly clear because, smarty-pants me, I had continued to believe all this time, as I had done my whole life, that my parents were blissfully and ceaselessly happy together.

And they were not.

When, one Sunday afternoon after church, they told me and my brother they were divorcing, the news totally scrambled my head. How could two people so clearly in love,
parents, be splitting up? I had never glimpsed so much as the shadow of a sign, not even for one second, that there was anything but an undying love between them.

Later that day, speaking to my brother about this bolt from the blue, he laughed disbelievingly at me. Are you a dumbass or what? he said. They argue all the time, Patch, right in front of us. Especially since we
 … And then in a rare display of sensitivity Sean put me in a headlock and gave me a noogie instead of finishing the sentence.

It took about one microsecond of reflection to realize what my brother had said was patently true. My God, how could I have failed to notice? The information was all there being fed into me like data, only what came out the other end wasn't just the wrong conclusion, it was a table lamp. A swordfish.

When the day came for my father to move out, I'd been dreading the farewell scene for some time. It wasn't that I couldn't stomach the thought of him not living with us anymore. I could, the idea even held some appeal. It was the thought of the final exchange that made me feel queasy—the handshake, the hair ruffle, the words of wisdom from a man who was running away from us.
Now you look after your mother, boys.

It went as badly as I'd feared. Then it got worse, because when he wound down the window of his car to wave one last goodbye, my father looked me square in the eyes. He didn't actually say
anything but I could hear the words in my head as clearly as if he'd spoken them out loud.
This is all your fault, Paddyboy

And then, following an almost respectful period of solo divorc
hood, my father went and found himself a better family—or that's how I viewed events at the time—a shrewd move, it must be said, because in 1986 my father, by then married to a petite blonde, a tragic widow named Carla, with two sweet blond daughters, Marcy and Steph, was elected to the Maine House of Representatives, 120th district. His wife bore him a son, Joe Junior. I baked him pound cake.

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