Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Alex Stewart: The Stranger in the Mirror

I didn’t go to the funeral. I couldn’t. I thought about it as I stepped up to the front door of the house in which I’d grown up. I couldn’t go there and act like I really mourned that bastard. The only regret I had was that it didn’t happen much sooner. 

I fished the key from my pocket and unlocked the door, entering with mixed feelings. I promised myself I’d never come back here. I wouldn't have, while he was still alive. I wish I could say I had some good memories of the place, but any that might have existed were so few and so long ago, they'd ceased to matter.


The letter I'd received from the lawyer representing his estate said I was his sole heir. Everything had been left to me. Still, I was surprised. I'd always assumed he'd leave it all to strangers before he'd leave it to his only child, the son who had been such a disappointment to him. 


I looked around the foyer. Nothing had changed. I ran my hand along the banister at the bottom of the staircase. Except maybe the dust. The old germophobe would have a stroke if he could see that.


I went to the old man’s study. There were two walls of bookshelves--mostly related to his work. There were framed documents, all recognitions of his accomplishments. There were no personal mementos, no family photographs. It wasn't Joseph Sadowski's style.  The only thing that ever mattered to the old bastard was his work. 


I pushed the familiar feelings of resentment aside. I hadn’t come back here to revisit the past. That was the last thing I wanted. The old man was gone now, and truth be told, I was glad.  I would take what I wanted, then instruct the lawyer to dispose of whatever remained and sell the house. The sooner I could leave here, the better. There were no happy memories for me here. I'd grown up with a father who treated me like one of his experiments and a mother who had abandoned me.


Not the sort of thing one wants to remember.


The old SOB always had cash in the safe. That made about as much sense as everything else he did. I paused to recall the combination, then opened the safe and found an envelope that contained a stack of large bills. I tucked it into my backpack and turned my attention back to the safe. You owe me, Joseph. This won’t begin to cover the debt, but I’ll take it anyway. Maybe the sale of the house will compensate me for a lifetime of hell.


There was also a small case containing half a dozen flash drives and memory cards, several DVDs and some handwritten journals. Funny that he'd continued to keep handwritten notes and journals. It was one of his many quirks.


I took out one of the videos and read the label. Boston In Focus. It was a local TV news program. Curious, I slipped it into the DVD player and hit Play. It was the old man, being interviewed by Emma Scott, a well-known Boston TV journalist. He was his usual arrogant, boring self, droning on about himself and his work, until....


"We have the technology to clone Jesus Christ."


Emma Scott was speechless. "I'm not sure I heard you correctly," she said aloud, trying in vain to cover her uneasiness.


"I said, Ms. Scott, that if the Shroud of Turin is authentic, a blood sample taken from it could be used to clone Jesus Christ." He made the statement as matter-of-factly as if he were discussing plans for the weekend. 


“Do you believe in God, Dr. Sadowski?” she asked.


"I'm a man of science, Ms. Scott," he answered. "I believe what I can see, what can be proven."


"And by cloning Jesus Christ—"


"Perhaps then, we would have proof."


***


I leafed through the journals. They were predictable accounts of his inability to understand how mere mortals could not see the magnitude of his genius, of all he had to offer mankind....


My statements have caused a furor that have sent shock waves throughout a cynical world in which claims of cloning human beings have become as commonplace as tales of alien abduction. I am genuinely surprised by the overwhelming—and all too often angry—response. Can’t they see how my work would eventually benefit mankind? Are they really so narrow-minded?


I wasn’t prepared for how the public outcry would impact my life and my work, however. The small-mindedness of the general population always amazes me....


That was just the beginning.  Within forty-eight hours, all but one of my private benefactors have withdrawn their research funding, and I’ve learned that I am being investigated by the FDA. The FDA has left me alone for years, thanks to the large contributions certain congressmen have received from the corporations that bankroll my research. But now, because of one statement I made in a TV interview…I’d forgotten how foolishly sentimental human beings can be when it comes to religion.


Then came the call from my attorney….


I’m a laughingstock.


Less than forty-eight hours have passed since the airing of the World Focus interview.  In forty-eight hours, I’ve gone from being one of the most respected scientists in my field to being the butt of stand-up comics’ jokes and the target of every religious fanatic in the free world.  My entire future is in jeopardy. I’m getting death threats. And now, as if that weren’t enough, the government is investigating me. 


I can't believe it. I’m going to lose everything.  Everything I’ve spent my life working to achieve is about to be taken from me, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it.  Even my teaching position is lost to me now.


I will never understand how intelligent, educated human beings can allow themselves to be bullied by those right-wing religious zealots.  I hadn’t even said I intended to clone Christ—only that it could be done.  How foolish would it have been for me to state such intentions publicly? And they reacted as if I’d committed a capital crime! I don’t know which I resent more, the criticism or the jokes.


They wouldn’t laugh if they knew the truth, if they knew just what I and my team have actually accomplished. 


***


I was going to dispose of the flash drives and memory cards, but had second thoughts as I took aim on the wastebasket next to the desk. I'd never cared about his precious work, but one of the memory cards had my name on it. I wondered why.


I turned on the computer, the one I'd never been allowed to touch while the old man was alive, then removed that card from the case and put it into the appropriate port on the computer. The files appeared on the monitor almost immediately. I opened them, one by one. It was all gibberish to me. Notes from the old man‘s work. Hard to believe that SOB was a genius, I thought. What does this have to do with me?


Then something caught my eye. One of the files did bear my name. I clicked on it and opened it. At first, it made no sense. Then I saw the words that in seconds turned my entire life into a lie…. 


***


I couldn't even stay in the house overnight. Too many ghosts. Too many secrets. Too many lies. Especially now. Instead, I checked into a hotel downtown—but even there, sleep was impossible. I lay awake all night, thinking, unable to stop thinking about what I'd seen on the old man's computer. Had I misunderstood? I'm no scientist. I don't understand the technical language. But one word kept jumping out at me, a word with enormous implications for me. That one word changed everything. If it was true, I was little more than Frankenstein's monster.


It felt like a cruel joke. But Joseph Sadowski didn't have a sense of humor, not even a perverse one. He was an arrogant man who believed himself to be above ordinary human beings, a man who did not have to respect the law or the rights of others. He had made a marriage of convenience with a woman in whom he had no interest, physical or emotional, while maintaining an apartment he used for sexual encounters with young women he coerced into bed. He thought anyone who opposed his unorthodox experiments was stupid and should stay out of matters they couldn't possibly understand. 


Me? I felt like I was trapped in a bad sci-fi movie. None of it felt real....


***


The next day, I went to see the attorney representing the old man's estate. Rodney Alcott III was a short, balding, myopic man in his late forties with a perpetual twitch. He looked like he'd been gene-spliced with a rat. Maybe he was one of dear old Dad's lab experiments gone wrong. 


I had a hard time following the conversation. I found myself staring, wanting to offer him some cheese. Then I reminded myself that I was the real freak in that room.


“There were no other heirs,” Alcott explained as I leafed through the pages of the will, not really understanding the legalese, not really caring what it meant. The old man could have willed me the moon and it would not have made up for what he'd done to me.
“Your father left everything to you.”


My father. What a joke. “What about my mother?” I asked aloud. “She's not dead—just smart enough to get as far away from him as she could.”


“We don't know if she's dead or not,” Alcott said, tapping a pen nervously on the desk. “But your father had her declared legally dead last year.”


I don't know why that surprised me. “Without being certain?” I asked.


“For estate purposes,” Alcott said.


“Of course,” I said, not bothering to put a lid on the sarcasm. “After all, he only married her for the trust fund. Why wouldn't he rush the death certificate to finally get control of it?”


“I'm sure he loved both of you in his own way.”


I almost choked. “Love wasn't in his vocabulary, Mr. Alcott,” I told him. “If he ever loved anyone, it would have been the bastard he saw in the mirror every morning.”


Alcott tried to stay composed. “The house, the assets, everything is now yours,” he said. He was twitching like crazy.


“Sell the damn house,” I told him, “and everything in it.”


He looked surprised. “You don't want to live there?”


“No way.” I stood up and dropped the will on the desk. “I left there ten years ago to get away from that house of horrors. I don't care if I ever see it again.”


“And the personal effects?” he asked. 


I shrugged. “Have a yard sale. Sell all of it. There's nothing there I'd want.” I flipped the will face down and wrote my address in Paris on it. Pay the bills, take your astronomical fee, whatever it is, and send the rest to me at this address. Just make sure I never have to come back here, okay?”


***


I walked alone through the cemetery, not sure exactly where the old man had been buried. It took me almost half an hour to find the grave, even with the directions I received from the caretaker. “I’ll bet you’d be surprised to see me here, wouldn’t you, Father?”  I asked aloud, studying the grave marker dispassionately. “To be honest, I’m surprised to be here. Never thought I’d ever come back.  Sure didn’t plan on it.”


I knelt by the grave. “Thanks to you, I don’t have a family, don’t belong anywhere.  You never even told me who my biological father was.”  I was silent for a moment.  “People like me only have one true parent, don’t they?”


I found it appropriate that the marker bore only his name, date of birth and date of death.  “No ‘beloved husband and father,’ no sentimentality.  I know how you would have hated that,” I said, as if he could hear me.


“So how do I find out where I came from, old man? You destroyed most of your records--and what you didn’t shred, the authorities seized. Anybody who might have known has either been arrested or has dropped off the face of the earth.”  I took a deep breath. “Andrew knew, didn’t he?  Of course—Andrew always knew everything. You let him in on all of your experiments.


“What about Mother—Dorothea?”  I asked.  “Did she know the truth? Would she be able to tell me?”


I stood up again.  “If I were to make any bets, I’d say Andrew was more likely to know the truth.  Problem is, I have no idea where your favorite son has gone.”


I forced a smile. “Hate to cut this short, Dad, but I have no desire to end up a lab rat—and I’m pretty sure if they find me, they’re not going to just let me ride off into the sunset. They’ll probably dissect me to see if I’m really human. No, thanks. See you in hell.”


***


That night, I was on a flight back to Paris. I'd booked a round trip, never having had any intention of staying for more than a couple of days. As the plane climbed high in the sky over the Atlantic Ocean, I found myself thinking about the first time I ran away to Paris....


“Absolutely not!” The old man had exploded when I told him I wanted to be an artist, that I wanted to live in Paris and study art at the Sorbonne. “No son of mine is going to throw his life away on such foolishness!”


Dorothea had tried to intervene. “Joseph, if this is what he wants—”


“This is your fault!” he shouted at her. “Always dragging him to museums and galleries, even when he was too young to understand what he was seeing!”


“He's actually quite talented. All of his instructors think he's gifted.”


“Yes, he is gifted,” he said. For the first time, I thought he might surrender. "He is a genius. He is meant for more important things. Science. He will be my protege."


"I flunked biology in high school," I reminded him. I didn't give a rat's ass about any kind of science. I wanted no part of anything he cared about. Didn't he realize that? I'd spent my teenage years with long hair, riding a motorcycle, smoking pot—anything I knew would piss him off.


"You haven't applied yourself," he insisted. "Your mother fills your head with fantasies."


"I'm going to be a painter," I said, refusing to let him get to me. With or without his blessing, I was going to Paris. I wanted it even more now that I knew how much he hated the idea.


Dorothea came to me later, alone. It was that night I discovered that it was she who held the financial reins in their marriage.  She gave me the money to pursue my dream....


***

Dorothea had been a good mother. She'd loved me...right up to the day she disappeared. 


For years, I wondered if the old man had killed her and disposed of her body. I knew the truth about their sham of a marriage. My so-called father had married her for her money.  He'd married her for a green card.  He had come to the US from Poland with a brilliant mind but no money, no prospects. He was about to be deported when he met her, the shy, plain daughter of wealthy parents desperate to find her a husband.  A deal was made. He would marry her and produce at least one grandchild. He kept his end of the deal, and my birth made him a very wealthy man. Too bad my grandparents—Dorothea's parents—never knew they'd been duped.

I never understood until that day why she left us—left me. Now it all made sense. She'd discovered the truth.

6 comments:

  1. It's a vividly written passage. You really get inside Alex's head here.

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    1. This is why I like writing in multiple first-person POVs. I can really get inside each character's head. And I can do things here that I couldn't do in a book.

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  2. Loved it Norma.. going to read others that I've missed now ✨

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    1. Thank you, Grace! I planned to post every week, but I'm a little behind since my accident. I plan to be back on schedule next week!

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