The burden of being an only child was even more so in my case, since I was also the only grandchild in both my mother’s family, the Barlows, and my father’s, the Mulcahys. I use the word burden because I was made aware at an early age, mostly from my mother, that I was expected to uphold the tradition of community service common to both my paternal and maternal ancestors. In much the same way, I was expected, once I reached adulthood, to enter the family business, Mulcahy Ford, and eventually to succeed my father as its owner. Mulcahy Ford—and this was the sort of thing my mother, in particular, liked to boast about—had been among the first Ford dealerships in New Hampshire and one of the few such dealerships still in business anywhere in the country to have once hosted a visit from Henry Ford himself.
My mother tried hard not to favor one of my "legacies" over the other, but her natural bias led her to emphasize her family’s altruism rather than that of the Mulcahys. It was my mother’s claim, stated with all the certainty and flair of a TV pitchman, that the Barlows were a family that cared far more about doing good than accumulating wealth. Most of these Barlows my mother talked about were so distantly related that I never knew what she and they had in common except the Barlow name. That never stopped her, however, from recounting how Barlows, as teachers, ministers and social workers, had turned countless ruffians into respectable citizens and helped placed legions of sinners on the road to salvation. No story my mother ever told about her Barlow relatives was complete without some heart-rending account of the poverty endured by this or that Barlow in a lifetime devoted to the performance of good works.
My mother had a tougher time of it when it came to recounting the beneficence of my father’s family since the Mulcahys were known mostly for their singled minded pursuit of wealth. Ever resourceful, though, my mother managed to find a moral equivalency between her family and my father’s by reaching back to that generation of Mulcahys who had been civic benefactors.
I was five years old and just learning to read when my mother lifted me up so that I could trace with my fingers the letters on the bronze plaque dedicated to my father’s great great uncle, Desmond Mulcahy (1849-1905), who donated the money to build the children’s wing of the Sherburne Public Library. I wasn’t much older than that when my mother, in a voice that was hushed and reverential, told me of my great, great grandfather, Cyrus Mulcahy, whose bequest to the Congregational church made possible the church's graceful white spire and the clock that to this day strikes each passing hour. Likewise, she acted as though she was ushering me into a conspiracy when she revealed that Cyrus Mulcahy’s wife, Sarah, was the anonymous donor who set up a scholarship fund for needy students in the nursing school at the county hospital in Guilford.
My mother herself more than exemplified the idea of service to others that she was always talking about. She was tall, but with her upswept crown of auburn hair she seemed even taller when she stepped forward—elbowing somebody else aside if necessary—to chair some committee or to put herself at the head of a volunteer agency. Whenever she did so, which was much too often in the opinion of some people, she would sooner or later deliver a homily in which she somehow lumped together the Barlow family's dedication to helping others, the readiness of the Mulcahys to support worthwhile causes and her own willingness to take on this new responsibility.
My father took a decidedly different view of the family traditions I should uphold. Not for him the Barlow model of selfless dedication to others, nor was he particularly keen in having me emulate those Mulcahys who had so generously shared their wealth. No, the one lesson my father passed onto me about my heritage was his warning that I avoid following in the footsteps of the three Mulcahy relatives, all of them long since dead, whose intemperate behavior had led to the demise of the Mulcahy family’s business empire. These Mulcahy relatives—the unholy trinity, in my father’s words—consisted of my father’s father, Roger Mulcahy, after whom I’m named; my father’s Uncle Lawrence, who was the first Roger Mulcahy’s only sibling; and my father’s older brother, Clyde, who was my father’s only sibling.
It was typical of my parents’ relationship that my mother took the lead in detailing the sins of the Mulcahys while my father reserved for himself the right to contribute accents and emphases as needed. I heard from my mother how the first Roger Mulcahy decided in the 1920’s to sell off huge portions of the Mulcahy family’s woodlands so that he could invest in what he thought was an ever rising stock market. But it was my father who pinned a moral to this tale by quoting (sometimes apropos of nothing) a boast my grandfather was supposed to have made, pre-1929: "I can make more money with one phone call to my broker than I can in a month of harvesting timber."
My father was even more succinct when it came to his Uncle Lawrence. His name for Uncle Lawrence—Uncle Loudmouth—backed up quite nicely my mothers account of Uncle Lawrence’s decision in the summer of l929 to close the Mulcahy family’s sawmill and woodworking factory rather than give in to workers who had demanded a raise in pay. Uncle Lawrence wanted to teach his workers how dependent they were on him, but he undermined his plan when he went around town predicting that his employees, once winter came, would beg him to reopen the mills even if he reduced their wages. This battle of wills between Uncle Lawrence and his workers, more class warfare than a dispute about wages, culminated one windy November evening in a fire that destroyed the entire mill complex.
Uncle Lawrence and his workers spent months accusing each other of having started the fire, but who did what to whom became a moot point once the Depression took hold. Uncle Lawrence was as obstreperous in his personal relations apparently because in l937 he was forced to pay out an enormous sum of money to settle a messy divorce and ended up dying without an heir.
As for my uncle Clyde, my mother talked of how my father had once idolized his older brother. Apparently that was a sentiment widely shared by almost everyone who knew Clyde. Brilliant and charismatic, he was, according to my mother, the Mulcahy best qualified to rebuild the family’s mills. Clyde, alas, died in a boating accident at age 30, also without a wife or an heir. The nature of the accident and its consequences, were such that I could understand why my father used a variety of terms, all indicating some grave mental disorder, whenever he mentioned his brother, Clyde.
My mother, not as blunt as my father, blamed Clyde’s accident on his constant need to test himself. He raced motorcycles, for example, and was taking flying lessons when he died. Even that doesn’t begin to explain what caused Clyde to pilot his speed boat across Lake Winnepisaukee, at twilight and in a light mist, apparently oblivious to the cabin cruiser, quite properly moored for the night, that lay in his path. The collision claimed the lives of a young couple in the cabin cruiser, and since Clyde was in violation of all the rules of navigation (and good sense), it was left to my grandfather to settle the suit brought by the family of the young couple.
My grandfather made good on the law suit, but only by selling off what remained of the Mulcahy family’s woodlands. That action, while drastic, enabled my grandfather to hang onto Mulcahy Ford, the business that he and Uncle Lawrence once thought of as a sideline.
I will concede this much about my father. The misfortunes that beset the Mulcahy family left him grievously wounded, but did that mean he should be forgiven his foul moods and temper tantrums and boorish behavior in general? My mother obviously thought so. My mother, for instance, with little evidence to support her, even blamed the automotive business, with its constant deal making and cut throat competition, for the coarsening of my father.
The automotive business—which my father never objected to, by the way—-was but one thread in my mother’s narrative. In this sense, my uncle Clyde was her primary villain. Clyde’s accident, she maintained, not only put my grandfather in a financial bind but led to the stroke that left him severely disabled. That made it necessary for my father, barely out of high school, to take on the full burden of running Mulcahy Ford. And that, if you went along with my mother’s reasoning, accounted in great part for my father being far more serious and somber than the average small-town businessman.
All of this, doled out by my mother in bits and pieces, was also supposed to explain why my father was so inconsiderate of other people, including, at times, both my mother and me. I was by nature well behaved and quite accepting of parental authority, but I never could figure out why I was expected to observe the rules of common courtesy while my father—his selfishness aided and abetted by my mother—could get away with greeting someone by simply nodding his head and was as sparse as that in passing along a compliment or even expressing thanks.
My father was a big man, with broad shoulders and a barrel chest and a face that became fleshy and round as he grew older, but for a man his size, his facial features were delicate. He had a turned up nose and a tiny mouth, with lips slightly parted, that made him look as if he was always about to bite into a ripe peach. But let someone say something that struck him the wrong way or let someone try to get the best of him in a business deal (and let that happen when one of his salesmen had just lost a sale) and then, from that same tiny mouth, came a fusillade of insults interlaced with obscenities and fervent vows to get even with whoever had incited his wrath.
My father’s harangues were riffs in which he roamed back and forth from whatever it was that angered him in the first place to a grab-bag of grievances that may or may not have been relevant to the point he was trying to make. These outbursts of his invariably included allusions to the sins of his employees, past and present (with special attention to their sexual proclivities), the unwillingness of anyone at the Ford Motor Company to stand up to the United Auto Workers and the success of his business rivals in misleading the public. In later years, he included—with obscenities fore and aft—references to the competition that came from automobiles manufactured in Japan.
My mother and I, fortunately enough, were never the direct targets of my father’s wrath, but I recall my father returning home, his fury undiminished, as he recounted whatever it was that had caused him to explode with rage in the first place. At times like that his voice boomed out and he would often punctuate a point he wanted to make by clapping his hands together sharply, as if he was extinguishing the life of a mosquito. Someone, a supplier he knew, or an employee, was a crook, always had been, always would be, but now—clap—he had caught him. Then, a second later, came a rush of air from his partly-opened mouth, almost as though he was trying to blow away some foul odor.
I managed, at an early age, perhaps as a matter of self preservation, to mimic my father by being as preoccupied with my own affairs as he was with his—only without the anger he so often displayed. While my disposition, generally cheerful and outgoing, may have been more in keeping with the Barlows, I was my father’s match, and more, in the wholehearted dedication I brought to my school activities and boyhood games, whether I was involved in the chess club at the YMCA, the Boy Scouts or the youth fellowship at the Congregational church. I was as serious and purposeful in the long hours I spent on the baseball diamond and basketball court, convinced, against all evidence, that I was destined, at some future date, to lead Sherburne High’s athletic teams to an endless series of victories.
My father wasn’t completely indifferent towards me (nor I towards him) but there was something of a choreographed pas de deux in the way we carefully avoided interfering with each other. He took note of but showed no particular enthusiasm for what I was up to, and I, in turn, treated my father’s business as a matter reserved strictly for adults. Only occasionally did we cross each other up, a notable instance involving another of my boyhood activities, my determination to master the trombone.
I loved the exuberant brassiness of the trombone, but was as fascinated by the mellow, soulful sound that could be coaxed from it by an instrumentalist of talent and skill. More than that, though, I found that I derived immense pleasure from playing a musical instrument that my father so despised. I was endlessly amused—there is no other word for it—that when I went to my room to practice, my father literally fled to his hideaway workshop in the basement, trying thereby to escape a sound he always likened to an elephant farting.
We may well have gone on that way, my father in his world, me in mine (and my mother carefully treading the middle ground between us), but shortly after my thirteenth birthday, I learned what happened those nights, two or three times a month, when my father didn’t arrive home in time for dinner. I knew that my father, on his way home, regularly stopped off at the Elks club for a drink or two so I assumed that on the nights he missed dinner, he probably stayed longer than usual at the Elks. It didn’t take any adult expertise, either, to notice that those were the same nights my mother made sure I went up to my room immediately after I finished eating my diner.
With a tiny bit of sleuthing, I also discovered that my mother would then sit in the kitchen, right by the back door, ready to intercept my father when he came staggering into the house. That put her in a position to hustle him up the back stairs and into their bedroom before he caused too much of a ruckus. My parents’ bedroom was down the hall from mine, right near the opening to the back stairs, and even though my mother was quite adept at handling my father, it wasn’t always possible for her to keep him quiet when he had been drinking. From my room, I could never make out exactly what my father was saying, but I came to recognize the distinctive sound of his voice when he was drunk. It was more high-pitched than usual, with his sentences swooping upward so that he seemed each time he said something to be on the verge of yodeling.
One night my father crossed my mother up by arriving home earlier than usual, but no more sober than he usually was when he came home late. My mother and I were in the dining room eating dinner, but my father made it to the back door and actually lurched into the kitchen itself before my mother was able to get to him. Indeed, in the few seconds that elapsed before she reached him, my father had to grab onto the edge of the kitchen sink in order to keep his balance.
A fastidious dresser, my father was anything but that that night. The top collar of his shirt was unbuttoned, his tie was unknotted and hanging outside his vest, and one shirt tail was draped over the front of his trousers. Even more memorable to me was the pearl gray homburg my father usually wore cocked slightly to the right. The homburg just then was pushed so far back I have no idea how it remained on my father’s head.
In the few seconds before my mother began nudging my father towards the back stairs, he managed to fling out one free arm, and like some orator addressing a crowd, proclaimed himself to be the last of the Mulcahys. Then, even though my mother had begun to move him along—reaching out at the same time to catch with one hand the homburg as it fell from his head—my father came out with a parting comment that was obviously intended for me.
"And him," he said, his flailing arm aimed in my general direction, "he’s the least of the Mulcahys."
Right after that I went up to my room and didn’t see or hear from my mother until the next morning at breakfast, when she managed to avoid using the word, drunk, in referring to what I had witnessed the night before. My father, she said, had got carried away at a bachelor party he had thrown for his head salesman. She also prattled on for a bit about bachelor parties, trying much too hard to make it seem as if she felt there was something amusing about such drunken revelry. Then, by rushing off to tend to some household chore, she made herself unavailable to answer any questions I might have about what my father intended with the remark he had directed at me.
Not that my mother could have said anything to diminish in my mind the implication of what my father had said, nor would it have made any difference to me if she offered an apology on his behalf. It was too late for that. By morning, in fact, I had already decided that I would prove to my father (and my mother, too) that I wasn’t the least of anything. I had also concluded that, at some future date, I would make known my intention never, under any circumstances, to become the next owner of Mulcahy Ford.
So began the years when I must have been the only teenager in America whose adolescent rebellion consisted of studying so hard that in a matter of months my B-plus grades became straight A’s right across the board. At the same time, I made up for my limited athletic ability by pushing my endurance beyond anything I ever imagined so that I excelled as a cross-country runner in the fall and as a long-distance runner in spring track meets. By my senior year I was captain of the Sherburne High track team.
The trombone provided me another opportunity to excel. By upping the hours I practiced, I not only drove my father to distraction, but became the only Sherburne High student who was chosen, two years running, to play in the all-state orchestra. I was a fixture in every club and organization in the school, served on the student council, and as its president, mobilized the student body to take up community betterment projects, everything from food drives for poor families to a program that paired students with elderly residents in need of someone to help them with household chores. In another sphere, Scouting, I was so assiduous in winning merit badges that I became, at age 16, an Eagle scout.
Not surprisingly, my father managed to keep well hidden any enthusiasm he had for my accomplishments. His only reaction, to judge from his grousing, was to accuse me of caring too much about being liked and acting as if I wanted everyone in the world to be my friend. I would have thought those qualities were exactly what qualified someone to be a car salesman, but one night—he had been drinking, I think, but was far from drunk—he told me that I reminded him too much of a politician who was out looking for votes. That bit of sarcasm was his acknowledgment—perhaps even a backhanded compliment of sorts—to the news that I had been elected, the day before, to head the student council.
My mother, so assertive in other venues, was much less so in my father’s presence, even though she was obviously cheered by the compliments she received about me from various teachers, my scoutmaster, Cliff Gendron, the parents of my school friends or our minister, Reverend Pritchard. But she was quite careful—even noncommital—about the way she passed on, verbatim, the plaudits I so frequently received. At times like that, my mother struck me as a hostess serving up a tray of carefully prepared canapés only to find that my father, a decidedly unruly guest, responded by upending the tray with a swipe of his hand.
Reverend Pritchard, to quote my father, was a twit, and all he cared about was buttering up members of the finance committee so that they would give him his annual pay raise. (My mother, of course, was a member of the church’s finance committee.) As for schoolteachers, my father was wise to those ass-kissers, too. They were kidding themselves if they thought that saying nice things about his son would get them a good deal on a new Ford. My father always had a few choice words about Cliff Gendron also, wondering how someone classified by the draft board as 4-F because he had flat feet was able to lead Boy Scouts on day-long hikes.
For my part, I basked in the kudos I won and found myself feeling as if I had scored another victory in my unannounced war whenever I saw how discomfited my father was at hearing the kind things people said about me. What a delight it was when I became an Eagle Scout and saw my father fidgeting in his seat while Cliff Gendron, with a catch in his throat, spoke of how being my scoutmaster had been the most rewarding experience he had had in his 35 years of scouting.
Even better than my investiture as an Eagle Scout was graduation day at Sherburne High, when I delivered the valedictorian address and was then called to the stage four different times to receive various awards. Each time my name was called, I thought of my father, surrounded by other parents and forced, therefore, to applaud as long and loud as they did.
Ah, how rewarding, all that applause—and the image of my father joining in—particularly after the incident two weeks before, when the Sherburne High band was marching up Main Street in the Memorial Day parade. The band was playing the Sherburne High fight song as we approached the corner of Main and Masonhurst, which happened to be where my father, having just exited the Post Office, was waiting to cross the street. But because of a holdup in the parade, the band was given the command to march in place. That left me standing right in front of my father.
Here was an opportunity, with my feet pumping up and down, and my right arm whipping the trombone slide back and forth, to serenade, loudly and bumptiously, my father—and that I did, with all the unfettered enthusiasm I could muster. So there we were, at the nexus of Sherburne’s two busiest streets, and with a good sized crowd looking on, a study in contrasts—Mulcahy fils, looking like a half-demented perpetual motion machine, while Mulcahy pere, dressed in his blue double breasted suit (and with his pearl gray homburg cocked slightly to the right), stared straight ahead, doing his damnedest to ignore me as well as the rest of the band itself.
For a moment, it seemed as if my father had indeed stared me down, but then we came to the climax of the high school fight song, when all the band members shouted in unison, fight, fight, fight. For the full effect of this refrain to be felt the trombone section, instruments aimed high, punctuated the fight, fight, fight chant with three staccato-like blasts. Never before had I played those notes as loudly and with such vigor as I did that day, and when I did, a group of my fellow students, standing right next to my father, responded with a loud cheer.
Just then the drum major’s whistle blew, and she lifted her baton in the air, signaling the resumption of the march. That’s when I paused for a second, and in the most obvious way possible, I directed at my father a loud, braying discordant note. It was in its intensity, and all its graceless splendor, a blast that elicited grins from every band member. Even Mr. Stenberg, the band director, who was standing off to one side, and who first winced when I played that discordant note, laughed and shook his head, almost as if to say I could be forgiven this one off-key outburst.
My father, as if to prove a point, never did change his stoic expression throughout our encounter. Having first tried to ignore me, he was apparently too proud (and too rigid) to reverse himself and join in on a a bit of light-hearted street theater. Perhaps, then, it had been a grave misjudgment on my part to expect that my father, even with so many people looking on, could ever express anything more than benign indifference towards me. But what was I to make of my father’s refusal, in the days that followed, to acknowledge in any way our little stand off on Main Street? That I had won, or that my gesture, begun half in jest, had revealed a gap between us that was wider than I ever imagined?
When I entered Colby College that fall, I abandoned my campaign to aggravate my father. The newness of my life at Colby and the friends I made, plus the novelty of living away from home, made me feel that it was time to put behind me (but not to forget by any means) the drunken insult hurled at me five years before.
But that chapter ended, there was still the matter of that vow I had made to myself never to be part of Mulcahy Ford. Since college put me that much closer to adulthood, would my father suggest, for instance, that I spend my summers at Mulcahy Ford, learning the rudiments of his business? And if he did—and I refused—what were likely to be the consequences? It would not have surprised me, in fact, if my father retaliated by refusing to pay my way through Colby.
I had always taken great care, then, even when I was nearing the end of high school and deciding which college to attend, to tiptoe around this issue of my future plans. I need not have been that careful, however, because both my mother and father continued to act as though my career had been chosen for me the day I was born. My father, as usual, showed greater interest in discussing the relative merits of different brands of snow tires, say, than he ever did in where I would go to college or what I would study when I got there. As for my mother, she chimed in with bits of advice from time to time, but I noticed that for all her talk about the Barlows she never suggested or even hinted at a career path that might allow me to emulate the relatives she so admired. In the end, I went off to Colby, mostly because I was encouraged to do so by the headmaster of Sherburne High, an alumnus of the college and a tireless booster on its behalf.
Much to my relief, that pas de deux between me and my father, which did so much to maintain domestic tranquility when I was growing up, seemed to continue when I went off to college. My father didn’t even complain when I returned, the summer after my freshman year, and the summer after that, too, to the job I had had since I was l6, as a counselor at a Boy Scout camp. I even had the notion that my mother may have convinced my father to let me finish college before bringing me into the family business. Or had my father decided, since he obviously felt me to be a lesser Mulcahy, that I was unsuited to be his successor?
My own strategy during my time at Colby was to delay as long as possible any hint that I had decided to attend law school. To allay still further any suspicions about my career, post Colby, I became an economics major. It so happened that I enjoyed economics, but it also enabled me to talk about business cycles and supply and demand curves with the air of a young man who sounded as though he was preparing himself to take over the family business.
But then, near the end of my junior year, this quiescent issue about my future suddenly flared up. At Colby, I had formed, with four classmates, a jazz combo, one good enough so that we actually played a few dates at colleges in Maine and New Hampshire. A bigger break came our way when we were engaged for the summer to be the "band" at a resort hotel in Bar Harbor, mostly because our trumpet player, Billy Killane, was engaged to the daughter of the couple who owned the hotel. I called home rather excitedly with the news and was explaining to my mother the competitive advantage that came from the Billy Killane connection, when my father picked up the extension. My mother took a moment to fill him in on what I had told her, and my father, as soon as she finished, directed a question at me.
"So that’s it?" he said.
"Is what it?" I said, answering my father’s question with one of my own. His response was to up the ante with a question that was more direct.
"You’d rather earn your living tooting on that goddamned silly horn of yours?"
I could tell from the upward sweep of his question that my father had been drinking. My mother more or less confirmed that when she broke in on the conversation before I could answer.
"Harold, I’m not sure tonight’s the time for you get into something like this," she said.
"You stay out of this," my father told her.
"For God sakes, it’s only a summer job," my mother replied.
"She has a point," I said, "it’s only for the summer."
"Don’t try kidding me," he said.
"Harold, I’m going to repeat myself," my mother said. "Perhaps this is a talk you might want to have some other time."
"No. There’s a family business at stake here, or maybe there isn’t. And if that’s so, why should I be busting my ass trying to hang on to it."
That was undoubtedly the time to announce my plans about law school, and to inform my father, politely but firmly, that he was under no obligation to hang onto his business on my account. Or was that an explanation best left to a night when my father was sober? The decision was made for me by mother who abruptly announced, "We’re hanging up."
There was a click from her phone while my father began ranting about how he wasn’t paying Colby a lot of money to educate someone who was only interested in playing in a dance band, but then his phone was abruptly cut off, too, no doubt by my mother.
The next day my mother called and said that I had picked a bad night to announce my news.
"Does that mean what I think it does?" I asked
"Yes," she said, "but I’d prefer not to discuss it. I learned a long time ago that I wasn’t going to get anywhere with your father if I simply told him to lay off the booze. With him, all that would have done is make him go in the opposite direction."
"Are you saying it’s become worse?"
"No," she said, "he keeps things under control most of the time, but lately it doesn’t take as much to set him off, drunk or sober. There are the usual tantrums, loud and senseless, but he broods more and seems always as though he’s as mad at himself as others."
My mother had never been that candid with me so I, in turn, decided that it was time for some candor on my part. She should know, I told her, that I had no intention of joining Mulcahy Ford. Then, as if that was a bit too blunt, I apologized for not telling her before now.
"You thought it would be easier if your father came to that conclusion himself, didn’t you?" she said.
"I never gave him any reason to think that it was my life’s goal to be the owner of Mulcahy Ford."
"It isn’t as though he’s failed to notice," she said.
"I bet he has," I said, "particularly on those nights when he isn’t feeling any pain."
"My advice to you is to let things slide for now. What’s the sense of forcing the issue? As I said before, that’s usually counterproductive with your father. Besides, he may yet decide, on his own, that he doesn’t even want you to be his business partner. But if and when he comes to that conclusion, you can be sure it will be the way Harold Mulcahy likes to do things—on his own schedule and on his own terms, too."
My mother proved remarkably prophetic about my father’s propensity for keeping to himself his thoughts on this matter. He never mentioned it again in the few brief phone conversations we had during the summer, or had my mother intervened, extracting a promise from him to leave the issue unresolved until a future date? My own instincts were to follow my mother’s advice, though I intended, when I was home for Thanksgiving, to tell my father of my plan to attend law school.
I never got to make that announcement—or to judge how my father would have reacted—because exactly one week before Thanksgiving Day itself, at l0 o’clock in the evening, my mother called to tell me that my father had been killed in an automobile accident. She managed, before completely breaking down, to explain that my father had crashed into the abutment of a railroad bridge spanning the highway leading into Sherburne. It had been raining in Sherburne all day, and then, as the temperature dropped and the rain turned to sleet, roads had iced up. My father, driving back to Sherburne from the town of Glen, six miles away, had apparently lost control of his car as he was driving down a steep hill, just before coming to the railroad bridge. My mother took some comfort in what the police had told her, that my father had more than likely died within seconds of hitting the abutment.
I left Colby at once and arrived home three hours later to find that my mother was being consoled by Reverend Pritchard and the young couple who lived in the house next door. My mother couldn’t say enough about how kind the police chief, Oscar Laflamme, had been when he came to tell her about the accident.
Later that day, after my mother and Reverend Pritchard and I had returned from meeting with a funeral director, I received a call from Chief Laflamme. He first expressed his condolences and then apologized for having to intrude, but he wanted to know if I could come to his office so that he could give me his official report on the accident.
"Ordinarily, I’d drop in to see you folks at home," he said, "but I figure it might be easier on your mother if you came here instead."
I had no idea why the chief needed to go over the report with me just then, but since several of my mother’s friends were visiting with her, I drove to the police station. When I was shown into Chief Laflamme’s office, I thanked him for being so considerate towards my mother.
"I would have done the same for anyone," he said, reaching across his desk to shake my hand. "But I have to say that I always liked your old man. He wasn’t the friendliest guy in the town, but with Harold Mulcahy you always knew where you stood. He was a straight shooter if there ever was one."
As soon as I sat down, Chief Laflamme, broad-shouldered and jowly and with his sparse gray hair arranged in an elaborate comb-over, reached into the top drawer of his desk and took out a manila folder he placed in front of himself.
"I was actually on my way home" he said, "when I spotted your father’s car. It’s a good thing I did, too, since it was such a nasty night, with so little traffic, it might have been some time before anyone else came along."
"It was that icy?" I said.
"Yes and no. The temperature was bouncing around, just a bit above freezing, just a bit below, depending on where you were. So we had a mix of rain and a bit of snow on the road. Of course, there’s that steep hill near the Sherburne line. That tends to ice up earlier than other parts of the highway."
"I hope he hadn’t been drinking," I said.
"Not that the medical examiner could tell."
"That’s a relief," I said, "particularly for my mother."
"But that’s not the entire story," he said, placing his right hand on top of the manila folder. "We got one option here where the road was covered with ice, your father wasn’t exceeding the speed limit, and he was sober. In other words, it was an accident he couldn’t avoid."
I wasn’t sure what Chief Laflamme was getting at, and when he continued with his explanation of the accident, he wasn’t any more understandable.
"Then there’s the other version," he said, patting the folder with his hand. "Let’s call it option two. The driver is still sober, but he’s traveling at a very high speed, and the road, while wet, is not icy. He doesn’t lose control of the car at all. In fact, halfway down that hill, it looks as if he veers off to one side, almost as though he’s taking dead aim at that bridge abutment."
"You make it sound like suicide," I said.
"You got it," Chief Laflamme said, sounding as if he were a game show host congratulating me on a correct answer.
"So which of the options, as you put it, is the official report?"
"Let me tell you something. The official report is what I say it is. The medical examiner has his say, of course, but everyone knows I got there first so it’s what they hear from me that carries the most weight."
"I hate myself for asking this," I said, "but what, exactly, are you getting at?"
"Let’s begin with this point. I’m quite sure you and your mother want everyone to think this was an accident. I say that because most families—and believe me I’ve dealt with a lot of them on things like this—hate the word suicide. Point two. As of now, you’re the new owner of Mulcahy Ford. Point three. It so happens my son Henry, who’s a contractor, has been having a tough time of it lately. Business is slack and yesterday he told me his pickup’s about to give out on him. You beginning to get the picture now?"
I needed a few seconds to absorb what Chief Laflamme was suggesting, but even that slight pause seemed to test his patience.
"Hey, it’s your choice. Push me on this and people are going to hear about the trajectory and speed and tire tracks and anything else that says your old man held the wheel steady in order to hit that abutment. You can argue back, but who the hell do you think people are going to believe, you or a cop who knows goddamn well after 30 years of police work the difference between a real accident and one that isn’t."
"Tell me," I said, "do you think it was a suicide?"
"Well, as I say, the temperature was bouncing around and—
"But if I cooperate, the hill was coated with ice."
"So much ice I’ll tell everyone I fell on my ass three times just getting from my car to the accident scene. And I’ll put out a report with all the data that proves it was absolutely an accident. I’ll put it in capital letters if that’s what you want."
Chief Laflamme then buttressed his argument by telling me a bit more about his relationship with my father.
"I’ll tell you this. Your old man was a lot more understanding about this stuff than you are."
"The one thing I’ll never believe about my father is that he would have given in to what you’re proposing."
"Your father was a different guy when he found himself in a jam," he said, a smile on his lips. "He might bitch about it, but he understood what was best for him. That’s how Henry got the job of renovating your father’s office. Then there was the night I stopped your father and he couldn’t stand up, let alone walk a straight line. Henry found himself with a new truck after that one."
"Maybe this is a good time to announce a change in policy at Mulcahy Ford," I said. "No more freebies—and no chance you’re going to find the owner in a position where he has to buy his way out of a jam."
I began to get up from my chair, and Chief Laflamme, somewhat surprised, said, "I hope you realize what you’re doing."
I didn’t answer as I turned and began walking towards the door. Chief Laflamme, sounding like a merchant who’s about to lose a sale, called after me, "You’re never going to collect a dime from any insurance company once I tell them there wasn’t any ice on the road."
From the sound of Chief Laflamme’s voice, I sensed that he was ready to lower his asking price to a small discount on an engine tune-up for his son’s truck. He had also miscalculated on the insurance angle since life insurance ranked high on the long list of my father’s dislikes.
After I returned from the police station, and after my mother’s friends had gone home, my mother and I sat at the dining room table, having a cup of tea.
"Now that it’s quiet and we won’t be disturbed," she said, "I want to know exactly what the chief had to say."
I began to tell her that it wasn’t clear, given the weather conditions, just how icy the road had been, but before I had a chance to explain any further, my mother cut me short.
"Forget all that," she said. "I want to know one thing—yes or no. One word answer only, please. Was there booze involved?"
"No," I said.
"So it was the icy road that did it then," she said. The certainty in her voice told me that she would be immune from any gossip Chief Laflamme intended to spread about my father’s accident.
My mother’s spirits were lifted at hearing that my father had died sober, and that allowed her a moment later to launch into her tale of how difficult it had been for my father to deal with the heartbreak and tragedy that had overtaken the Mulcahy family. She hadn’t got too far before she agreed with me that both she and I, tired by our long day, very much needed to get some rest.
Chief Laflamme, as promised, told The Sherburne Enterprise that while alcohol was not a factor in my father’s accident, my father was driving well in excess of the speed limit. He then made a point of saying that the the roadway, while covered with slush, was not icy. I can only assume that the chief saved all those details about trajectory and tire tracks to spice up the gossip he spread about my father’s death. I say that because so many of people I met over the next few months acted as though my father had not lost control of his car the night he died.
Oh, nobody ever uttered the word, suicide, but in the year it took to sell Mulcahy Ford, I had plenty of customers ask me, with their voices lowered, whether my father had been ill. They expected me, I think, to say, yes, and then tell them something about how my father, just a few weeks before his accident, learned that he was suffering from a terminal illness. Not once, however, did I say anything that gave a sliver of legitimacy to the story spread by Chief Laflamme. As the chief himself noted, nothing I said was likely to stand up to his expert opinion. Then, too, I was willing, as a matter of principle, to live with the consequences of having rejected the chief’s offer.
The sale of Mulcahy Ford would have gone more quickly if my mother hadn’t insisted that the new owner agree to retain the Mulcahy name, at least through her lifetime. That condition also drove down the price we finally received, but my mother, with the proceeds of the sale of Mulcahy Ford, was able to live out her life in comfort and to establish the Barlow/Mulcahy scholarship, which awarded a sum of $5,000 each year to the Sherburne High graduate who had already demonstrated a commitment to serving others. Every June, until the year she died, my mother would attend the Sherburne High graduation exercises so that she could personally award the scholarship, but before presenting the award, she always gave a short speech in which she reminded everyone of the tradition of community service that was a hallmark of both the Barlow and Mulcahy families.