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Fall 2004

What Had To Be Done

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Dale told me he was communicating with his dead mother.
He seemed very agitated. "What did she say?" I asked. "Well,
she wants me to kill my father," he said. "Your father is a
nice old man," I said. "He doesn't hurt anybody." "That's
not what she says. She says he killed her," he said. "That's
crazy," I said. "I know your father, and he wouldn't kill anyone,
especially her. He loved her. Anyone could see that. You must
have the wrong number, I mean, you must be talking to somebody
else. Did you ever consider that?" "No, it's her all right. I
couldn't mistake her voice," he said. "Well, what are you going
to do about it? You can't just go and kill your father," I said.
"I wish she would just go away. At first I was glad to hear from
her. I missed her, you know. But then she started telling me
these horrible things. Sometimes I think I'm going crazy," he said.
I told him to go have a nice dinner with his father. He'd see
it was all a big mistake. He agreed, but he said he was afraid
of what he might do to him, because he was under orders from his
mother. I didn't hear from Dale for a while after that. I called
Carla and asked her if she had heard anything. "No, I haven't
heard from Dale, but, you know, I think the old man might have
done it. He was in the war, you know, and who knows what might
have gone on there. Maybe he was tortured, or he could have been
the torturer. He's very quiet, and those are the ones you have
to watch. And, I must say, she was pretty irritating," she said.
"I, personally, couldn't stand her," I said. The whole thing seemed
ridiculous to me, and I tried to put it out of my mind. Morgan
came by and wanted to take me for a drive in his new car, which
looked like a gangster car from the thirties. He was showing off
and showing me what it could do when a police car pulled us off
to the side of the road. "Is there a fire somewhere?" he said.
They need a new scriptwriter, I thought to myself. "No, officer,
I was just showing off my new car," Morgan said. "I've heard that
one before," the officer said. "Still, I'm going to let you off
with a warning this time just because it's such a good looking car,"
he said. Morgan thanked him and drove on very sheepishly. We
talked in whispers as though we were being monitored. "Have you
heard about Dale's problems?" I said, assuming he had. "No, what
problems?" he said. "His dead mother's talking to him," I said.
"Oh, just stock tips and that kind of thing. Advice," I said.
"Stock tips from the dead, sounds like it could be kind of risky,"
he said. "It's just kind of troubling. I doubt that he'll do
anything about it," I said. Just then a stag walked out of the
forest and stood right in our lane staring at us. Morgan hit the
brakes as hard as he could and skidded to a stop just feet away
from the animal. The stag in its majesty showed no fear and refused
to move. We were both trembling and trying to catch our breath.
"Jesus," Morgan said, "that was a close one. What are we supposed
to do now?" "I'll get out of the car and have a word with it,"
I said. "He has a very impressive rack," he said, "and I don't
think it's there for picking berries." "Good point," I said.
The stag sniffed the car and examined it, but soon lost interest and
ambled across the highway. Morgan drove on, even more slowly
than before. Dale called me later that week and said it was done.
I said, "What's done?" He said, "I've killed my mother. She was
always a liar and wanted to hurt both me and my father." I
said, "But, Dale, she was already dead." He said, "Not dead enough."
I said, "Then that's good." "My father doesn't know anything. He
thought she was a saint," he said. "Mum's the word," I said.

—James Tate

James Tate was the author of numerous books of poetry. His Selected Poems (1991) won the Pulitzer Prize and the Williams Carlos Williams Award.

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