Authors: Noah Hawley
The Punch: A Novel
Other People’s Weddings
A Conspiracy of Tall Men
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2012 by Noah Hawley
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
and the portrayal of an anchor with a dolphin are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
Grateful acknowledgment is made to King, Holmes, Paterno & Berliner, LLP on behalf of Cinderful Music for permission to reprint an excerpt from “Today,” lyrics and music by Billy Corgan. Published by Cinderful Music.
Jacket design by Gabriele Wilson
Jacket art © CSAmages
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The good father / by Noah Hawley. — 1st ed.
1. Physicians—Fiction. 2. Fathers and sons—Fiction. I. Title.
For Kyle and Guinevere, proof that life is good
He bought the gun in Long Beach, at a pawnshop called Lucky’s. It was a Trojan 9-mm. This is from the police report. The trigger mechanism was rusty so he replaced it, using a kit he bought on the Internet. It was May. He was still living in Sacramento, a squinty kid with chapped lips who spent his days reading about famous murders at the public library. Before that he’d lived in Texas, Montana, and Iowa. Nowhere for more than four months. Sometimes he slept in his car. There was a journey he was taking. Each mile brought him closer to an end.
The Trojan was one of three guns he’d purchased in the months leading up to the event. He kept them in the trunk of his car, an old yellow Honda the police would later find in a parking lot near the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. The odometer read 210,000 miles. He had done a lot of driving in the fifteen months since he’d left college. Sometimes he took odd jobs for cash: day labor, fast food, construction. He stayed off the grid. Everybody said the same thing: he was quiet, kept to himself, a little intense. This was later, after the multipronged investigations, the illustrated timelines documenting his journey, the painstaking reconstruction of each leg. Now there are bar graphs, books in progress. But in the early hours after the event, nobody knew anything. Who was this young man? Where had he come from? They say nature abhors a vacuum, but CNN hates it more. Seconds after the first shot, journalists were scrambling for context, rewinding the tape, analyzing angles and trajectories. Within hours they had a name, pictures. A young man, bright-eyed and milky-skinned, frowning into the sun. Nothing as damning as Lee Harvey Oswald brandishing his rifle, but
viewed through the lens of what had happened, the photos seemed prophetic somehow, like Hitler’s baby pictures. A feral glint in the eye. And yet what could you see for sure? It was only a photo after all. The closer you got, the grainier it became.
Like any event that can be called historic there is a mystery to the details that remains impenetrable. Flashes of light. An echo unexplained. Even now, months later, there are holes, days that can’t be accounted for, in some cases whole weeks. We know he did volunteer work in Austin, Texas, in August, the year before the event. Organizers remember him as a bright kid, hardworking. Ten months later he was working as a roofer in Los Angeles, fingernails black with tar, a skinny man perched on sweltering shale, breathing the smoky air.
He’d been on the road for more than a year at that point. A rubber hobo losing himself in the great American absence. Somewhere along the way he changed his name. He started calling himself Carter Allen Cash. He liked the sound of it, the feel on his tongue. His given name was Daniel Allen. He was twenty years old. As a boy he had never been attracted to the mindless aggression of men. He did not collect toy guns or turn everything he touched into a weapon. He saved birds that had fallen from their nests. He shared. And yet there he was in two-lane Texas, test-firing automatics on a narrow gun range with cigarette butts on the floor.
On clear May nights he would sit on motel-room floors and polish his thoughts. He would handle the bullets, opening the box and letting them crackle in his hand. He was a human arrow racing toward an inevitability. The TV news showed images of politicians making stump speeches in small-town diners and dusty midwestern farmhouses. It was an election year, voters and candidates, pundits and money rushing toward a great democratic surge. Primary season was almost over. Partisan conventions loomed. Sitting on his motel-room floor, Carter Allen Cash fantasized casting his vote with a bullet.
When he was seven he lived for the swing. He would pump his feet and point his heels toward the sky, yelling
. He was a voracious child, unstoppable, and so alive it made everyone around him seem sickly and still. At night he would lie in a tangled heap on his bed, clothes half on, his brow knit, fists clenched, like a twister that had run out of air. Who was this boy and how did he become a man in a motel
room fondling bullets? What made him ditch his comfortable life and embrace an act of barbarity? I have read the reports. I have watched the footage, but the answer continues to elude me. More than anything I want to know.
I am his father, you see.
He is my son.
Thursday night was pizza night in the Allen household. My last appointment of the day was scheduled for eleven a.m., and at three o’clock I would ride the train home to Westport, thumbing through patient charts and returning phone calls. I liked to watch the city recede, the brick buildings of the Bronx falling away on the side of the tracks. Trees sprang up slowly, sunlight bursting forth in triumph, like cheers at the end of a long, oppressive regime. The canyon became a valley. The valley became a field. Riding the train I felt myself expand, as if I had escaped a fate I thought inevitable. It was odd to me, having grown up in New York City, a child of concrete and asphalt. But over the decades I had found the right angles and constant siren blare to be crushing. So ten years earlier I had moved my family to Westport, Connecticut, where we became a suburban family with suburban family hopes and dreams.
I was a rheumatologist—the chief of rheumatology at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan. It was a specialty that most people didn’t recognize, concerned they’d guess with the watery eyes and phlegmy cough of a bad pollen allergy. But in truth, rheumatology is a subspecialty of internal medicine and pediatrics. The term “rheumatology” originates from the Greek word
, meaning “that which flows as a river or stream” and the suffix
, meaning “the study of.” Rheumatologists mainly deal with clinical problems involving joints, soft tissues, and allied conditions of connective tissues. We are often the doctor of last resort when patients develop mysterious symptoms involving most of the body’s systems: nervous, respiratory, circulatory.
The rheumatologist is called to consult when a diagnosis remains elusive.
I was a diagnostician by trade, a medical detective, analyzing symptoms and test results, looking for the most pernicious diseases and intangible traumas. After eighteen years I still found the work fascinating and often took it to bed with me, mulling patient histories in the slippery moments before sleep, looking for patterns in the grain.
June 16 was a sunny day, not too hot but with the threat of New York summer in the air. You could smell the first wisp of humidity rising off the macadam. Soon any breeze would feel like the hot breath of a stranger. Soon you would be able to reach up and smudge car exhaust across the sky like oil paint. But for now there was just the threat, a slight smother, a trickle in the armpits.
I was late getting home that night. Afternoon rounds had taken longer than expected, and I didn’t step off the train until close to six. I walked the nine blocks to our house through rows of manicured lawns. American flags hung from mailboxes. White picket fences, at once welcoming and prohibitive, ran beside me like the sprockets of a bicycle wheel, half seen from the corner of my eye. A sense of motion, of one thing being ticked off, then another. It was a town of affluence, and I was one of its citizens, a medical expert, a lecturing professor at Columbia.
I had become an MD in the era before the HMO, before the nickel-and-diming of doctors, and I had done well for myself. The money afforded certain freedoms and luxuries. A four-bedroom house, a few acres of hilly land with a weeping willow and a faded white hammock that swung lazily in the breeze. On these early evenings when the weather was warm I walked through the suburban quiet with a sense of peace, a feeling of accomplishment, not smug or petty but deep-seated and human. It was the triumph of a marathoner after a race, the jubilation of a soldier after a long war is over. A challenge had been faced and overcome, and you were better, wiser for the facing.
Fran was already working the dough when I walked in the door, rolling it out against the marble countertop. The twins were grating cheese and scattering toppings. Fran was my second wife, a tall redhead, with the slow curves of a lazy river. Turning forty had changed the quality of her beauty from the athletic glow of a volleyball player to a languid voluptuousness. Contemplative and sure-footed, Fran was a woman
who thought things through, who took a long-term approach to problems. These were not qualities my first wife shared, prone as she was to impulse and the full roller coaster of emotion. But I like to think that one of my better qualities is that I learn from my mistakes. And that, when I asked Fran to marry me, it was because we were—for lack of a more romantic word—compatible in the truest sense of the word.
Fran was a virtual assistant, which meant she worked from home, helping people she’d never met schedule appointments and make flight reservations. Instead of earrings, Fran wore a Bluetooth earpiece, which she put in when she awoke and didn’t remove until just before bed. This meant she spent large portions of every day conducting what appeared to be a long conversation with herself.
The twins, Alex and Wally, were ten that year. They were fraternal and not in any way similar. Wally had a harelip and a slight air of menace about him, like a boy who is just waiting for you to turn your back. In truth, he was the sweeter of the two, the more innocent. A miscoded gene had given him a cleft palate, and though surgery had mostly corrected it, there was still a quality to his face that seemed off-kilter, imprecise, vulnerable. His twin, Alex, fair-haired, comparatively angelic looking, had gotten into some trouble recently for fighting. It was a familiar problem for him, starting in the sandbox era as a willingness to battle anyone who made fun of his brother. But over the years, that instinct to protect had evolved into an irresistible need to champion the underdog—fat kids, nerds, kids with braces. A few months back—after being called to the principal’s office for the third time that semester—Fran and I took Alex to lunch and explained to him that while we approved of his instinct to protect the meek, he would have to find less physical ways to do so.
“If you want these bullies to learn a lesson,” I said, “you have to teach them something. And I guarantee, violence never taught anybody anything.”