Tough Hombre: (A Short Story)
It was a good thing Fernando Packwood was comfortably self-employed as a hat maker. Otherwise he could have been out of a job. He was driving over to his twelve-year-old son, Manny's school, again, to talk to the principal about the boy's fighting. It was the third time that month.
The principal was a balding, portly little man, with the complexion of rye bread. The father and the administrator shook hands, smiled, and shook their heads in shared exasperation. The receptionist was told to hold all calls for a half an hour. They went into his office, where Manny was already seated. The door was closed.
Fernando Packwood glanced a dagger at his son; but Manny seemed to be intently focused on his fingernails. The two men sat and the principal talked. The father heard but did not listen, allowing the familiar diatribe to wash over him like a wave. Throughout, though, his posture and body language were perfect. As were his facial expressions and vocalizations. The concerned father: truly taken aback by his son's behavior, since Manny had been raised better than that; embarrassed and apologetic; completely sincere in his assurances that would correct Manny, straighten him out, make him see the error of his ways, iron him out into the honorable little scholar-citizen that the blue blazer-wearing P.W. Pickwick Academy deserves.
It was only twelve-thirty in the afternoon, but the principal thought it best that Mr. Packwood take Manny home for the day.
On the ride home, Manny sat there, rigid, with his nails digging into his palms. He braced himself for it. It never came. The "I'm so disappointed in you" speech never came. The Mexican pride stuff never came. The part about how he, Manny, was squandering opportunities that his grandfather, Diego, ---who had smuggled himself into America illegally to give his family a better life---could not have even dreamed of---never came.
Fernando Packwood glanced over at his son, grinned, and turned on the radio to a classical music station. He whistled along.
They did not go home. They stopped at a Carvel Ice Cream parlor. Mr. Packwood got banana splits for them both. They took them around back and sat at one of the tables. Due to the time of day and day of the week, there was not an abundance of people around. They had a sufficient level of privacy.
When they were about halfway through, Fernando Packwood put down his spoon, wiped his lips with a napkin, and said to his son, "So you're a tough hombre, are you?"
Manny shrugged, not knowing what to say to that.
His father looked down and stirred the rest of his ice cream blob with his spoon. "By the way, son, did I... uh, ever tell you how I met your stepmother?"
Before Manny could say no, Fernando Packwood said, "You know, the woman who lives with us? The woman you call 'Theresa,' instead of 'mom,' like I've asked you to?"
Manny shook his head. No.
He told the story.
He had had a BFF, a man called Don Swenson. They had met in the military and served together in Desert Storm, Operation Enduring Freedom, and the like, through the nineties and early two thousands. They had formed the classic Brothers-in-Arms bond.
After they left the service, they had even tried going into the haberdashery business together. That hadn't worked out, but there were no lingering hard feelings. The two remained close as ever; they were each Best Man at the other's wedding.
One day Fernando Packwood sat his friend down at the back booth of a coffee shop, and confided to him, "My wife's having an affair."
"Do you know who it is?" Don Swenson said.
"Some guy named Dale Lawson. Works in her law firm as a paralegal." Fernando said that he had learned everything there was to know about the man because he hired a private investigator.
Since they were a couple of men, former soldiers, territorial, hyper-masculine types, there hadn't been much talk of feelings or vulnerability or anything fluffy like that. There had been a lot of talk about defending what a man owns.
The plan had been to go to the man's apartment, one evening while Dale Lawson was out, and lie in wait for him there. When Lawson got home, Fernando and Don was fall upon him, "teach him a lesson," as they say, "scare him." The private investigator had also spent a good deal of time tracing Lawson's movements, mastering his daily routine.
So it was, one evening while Dale Lawson was out, that they went to his apartment building. They stepped into the outer hallway and went over the ringer wall. They saw Dale Lawson's name on one of the slots. They rang many bells at the same time, and waited for someone, anyone, to wordlessly and anonymously buzz them up.
They took the stairs to the man's fourth floor apartment. Fernando gained them admittance with the key that the private investigator had had made.
"Come on," Fernando said.
The door was closed and the light was clicked on.
The place was completely empty, bare. Nothing on the floors, nothing on the walls. No furniture or personal effects of any kind.
"Are you sure this is the..."
The ice pick shoved up through the base of the skull and into the brain, killed Don Swenson before he could finish the thought.
There had been no Dale Lawson, of course. Fernando Packwood had rented the apartment with that fake name. The man having the affair with his wife had been none other than Don Swenson, himself.
Manny was holding together admirably, Fernando observed. No visible signs of losing it. Pretty tough for a twelve-year-old. Unlike most bullies---And Manny was a bully---he had an inner core of true strength of character.
"There's a lesson in all of this," Fernando said to Manny. "Here you have this guy, a friend of mine, willing to go with me to confront a guy, scare him, teach him a lesson by beating him up, maybe put him in the hospital. And why, to help me?
"No, it was because he thought that his married lover---my wife---was 'cheating' on him with yet another man. But he pretended to be outraged on my behalf. He was avenging himself because, in his mind, my son, it was he who had been the aggrieved party. You see that's the way his warped sense of justice worked."
Fernando stopped and waited.
Manny asked the question he was expected to ask. "How did you meet stepmother, then?"
"Oh, uh," Fernando shrugged, "she was his wife; she was Don Swenson's wife. She helped me bury him. And then we buried mommy."
Manny Packwood no longer got into fights. He no longer sassed his teachers. He studied diligently and got the grades his intelligence merited. He no longer called his stepmother 'Theresa,' as he had done previously. Although he could never actually behave warmly toward her, he was civil, and, on a stretch, polite. He called her 'stepmother'; and that was probably about the best anyone was going to be able to do with that.
He graduated valedictorian of his high school class. Not only did his resume for college feature elite SAT scores; it was also stuffed with extracurricular activities (student body president, captain of the debate team, chess club, etc.); and he always looked for ways, outside of the schoolhouse, to "give back to the community," as it were.
Harvard had been glad to get him---on a full scholarship, of course. He didn't let up. If it were possible, he drove himself even harder: heavy course load, extracurricular activities, and community service. At the end of four years he sailed to the highest of the Latin honors, summa cum laude.
He thought about becoming a priest. But he ultimately decided that would be too obvious. He went off to Oxford in England, and enjoyed the same spectacular academic, extracurricular, and civic success.
He became a sociologist. He lectured widely and published prolifically. He garnered visiting professorships throughout Western Europe, North America, and Australia. His students loved him. His peers revered him and tossed him a boatload of academic awards and honors.
He became a Catholic for the confessional privileges, which he exercised daily. He was like a mad gardener, constantly on the look out for weeds that might erupt on his soul. His civic engagement never flagged. He was always winnings awards and special recognitions for having raised the most money for this cause or that cause; for giving 'til it hurt of his time and own money to ease the plight of this underprivileged group or that underprivileged group; for doing everything in his power to cast a revelatory spotlight on this issue or that issue.
One day God called him home to lay down his burden. Like a prizefighter who cannot leave his stool to answer the bell for the final round, one morning Manny Packwood failed to answer his alarm clock.
He was found eight hours later, in bed, alone and childless, on his stomach, having passed away from a heart attack, bleeding from the eyes...
He was forty-seven years old.
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