Masks of Morality

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Chapter 18

By the time Bryan was able to work around family schedules and plan their trip, it was late September.

For the first time in Kevin and Keenan’s six-year-old lives, they were flying across the country to meet Grandma and Grandpa Garrity. It had taken Charlotte nearly two weeks to pack, even though they would be there for only a week. She kept putting things in, taking things out.

“Sweetheart, why are you bringing so much for the boys?” Bryan was eyeing the overstuffed suitcases. “You do realize they can’t weigh more than fifty pounds?.”

“This is New England we’re visiting, you never know what the weather could be. The boys need to be prepared,” Charlotte tossed in another sweat-shirt they may ever wear. “Besides, your Dad may take us out on one of his yachts. Even if it’s comfortable inland, they’ll need warm clothes.”

Their flight out of San Francisco was delayed due to heavy fog. Between the delay, overblown post-9/11 security theater act and leaving two hours early to be subjected to such---it was ten hours later when they started to descend towards La Guardia airport.

To Bryan, Charlotte appeared a bit nervous while disembarking. Then it hit him. This will be the first time she’s ever met my family. The first time she’s ever had a glimpse into my fucked-up childhood. How will I feel? Angry at how I was treated as a child? How will his boys be treated?

Clarence Garrity met them at the airport, insisting they not rent a car. He was frail and in a motorized wheelchair. Bryan was shocked to see him this way. Other than the period of time his Dad was recovering from a sniper shot while serving as a US Senator, his memories of him were of a strong, burly man.

The introductions were strained. Bryan and Clarence were awkward with each other. Stumbling for words. And the boys acted as if their flesh-and-blood grandfather was a complete stranger. Not surprising. Because he was.

But when Bryan looked closer, his Dad’s vulnerability and deep sadness were transparent to him. This formerly stoic, cold-hearted, ruthless political bastard was human after all. The way his father looked at his sons broke his heart.

And by God, he could see himself in him. His Keenan looked just like him too. The aqua-blue eyes, dimples, crooked Irish grin.

He had not expected to be moved this way. His family’s turmoil, its past pains points, dropped deep into his gut. His mixed feelings blended together in a rush of heavy resentment. He challenged his Dad’s change with a mistrust he wished he could push aside. For hid kid’s sake.

“Hello, father.”

“Hello, son.”

Silence. The boys clung to their father’s sides. Charlotte nervously placed the novel she was reading into the side pouch of her bag.

Finally, Bryan bent to hug his dad. What started as a man-to-son pat turned into a deadlock. Both of them turning it into a body crushing entanglement bordering on a fear of letting go. And when he looked at his once emotionally detached Dad afterward, he had a tear sliding towards his mouth.

It was as if the reservoir of guilt had been released. The dam broke loose. As if he could finally acknowledge: This is my only son whom I not only let down in the worst way, but have neglected for years.

He turned and glanced at the boys. They both looked scared and confused. “Can I get a big hug from you boys too, hmmm? Come and give your old Grandpa a big hug please,” Clarence nearly begged the twins, holding out his long, thin, shaking arms.

They just stood there with blank stares. Neither moved.

“Go ahead boys,” Charlotte reassured them. “It’s okay. Go…hug your grandfather. He is your daddy’s daddy! He really needs a hug.”

The boys remained frozen. Standing. Still. Staring. Why were they so hesitant?

Bryan took Charlotte aside where others couldn’t hear. He whispered…“Honey, I think they remember the argument we had after the last baseball game. We had shouted back and forth, with the twins in the back seat—about how badly my parents treated me, how they disowned me, threw me out to fend for myself at age eighteen. Kids listen.”

To the twins, their own grandpa was the “bad guy.”

“Well, maybe later,” Clarence said, smiling through his sorrow. “You don’t know your grand-daddy, do you now? We’ll just have to make up for lost time. No rush. Come on now to the car. Do you have all your luggage, Bry Guy?”

Bryan was gazing at his sons, willing them to hug his Dad. While understanding in his heart why they wouldn’t. He too was angry at him.

The last of their suitcases had shown up at baggage claim, and Bryan had them all piled up onto a cart. They followed Clarence in his “wicked” wheelchair as the boys referred to it out to an elevator and down one floor to the parking garage.

The “car” was a wheelchair accessible luxury limo with an attendant to lift Clarence out of his chair. The boys were excited and jumped into the back section.

“Oh check it out! There’s a whole bucket of juice boxes! And some chocolates!” Kevin exclaimed.

“Look, Mommy, something for you and Daddy!” Keenan shouted.

Charlotte looked over and saw a bottle of champagne on ice. Not just any champagne, but Cristal, which Charlotte knew cost hundreds of dollars a bottle. Also, there was a platter of very fancy looking hors d’oeuvres, things Charlotte had no idea how to pronounce, even if she had any clue what they were. And fine china. And silver to serve and eat with.

Clarence smiled, seeing Charlotte’s reaction. “Are the accommodations to your liking, my lady?”

Charlotte couldn’t even answer. She was speechless. She just nodded.

“Permit me,” He lifted the Cristal out of the ice bucket, then loosened the muselet, holding the bottle at a forty-five-degree angle. He struggled while rotating the base of the bottle when his hands and arms started shaking so much, he couldn’t hold onto the bottle. Bryan tried to help him, inadvertently removing the cage so that the cork prematurely popped. Champagne exploded all over the place.

“Now that was more than the standard fs-ss zzz” laughed Charlotte. She was drenched in sparkling wine.

“Oh darn!” Clarence looked almost embarrassed. He was looking more vulnerable and human than ever, and Bryan actually felt bad for him. Clarence recovered and said, “Heck, a little Champagne shower never hurt anyone!”

He reached for a champagne flute, expertly pouring her a glass, despite his still shaking hands. “We don’t want to waste any more of this, now do we?”

He handed the flute to her. His twinkling blue eyes flashing a moment of deep remorse about the past, as he gave her a playful wink.

“Dad!” Are you flirting with my wife?!” Bryan was actually having fun with his Dad. He can’t remember this ever happening. How he can joke through his anger and pain was beyond him.

Clarence chuckled. “It’s a father-in-law’s prerogative, son of mine. And I have a lot of time to make up for.”

“Okay then pour me some bubbly too,” Bryan tried to see his once cold, distant father anew. But mostly what he was remembering was his womanizing. He chased the memories away, and attempted some light humor “You always were a ladies man, Dad.”

“It ain’t over till it’s over” His father switched on some soft music at the same time the boys discovered the Nintendo Wii game system, drowning the tunes out. “I may be an old man in a wheelchair and on my last legs, but I recognize a beautiful classy woman when I see one!”

Bryan reached across to take the flute from his father, images of the beautiful young women he paraded past him as a little boy a repressed memory. He wondered what his boys might think of his Dad overly admiring their Mom. Or if it was a way for him to finally say “son, you really have made a good choice in life.”

The boys were so busy finding buttons to push and discovering what happened when they pushed them that they hadn’t even noticed the rather tipsy emotional Irish family reunion.

Charlotte blushed, “Oh stop it, Clarence. You’re embarrassing me!”

Clarence pulled the bottle out of the ice one more time and topped off everybody’s glasses. “I’m so glad you’re here…Thank you for making the trip. He raised his glass to toast. “To…long awaited family meetings.” He clicked his glass against Charlotte’s, then Bryan’s.

They rode in high-class splendor out of LaGuardia into New Canaan where the Garritys owned a stunning colonial with a mini golf course and two swimming pools, each with a hot tub.

Once off the highway and into New Canaan, Charlotte started watching the scenery that unfolded outside the window. It was like a Norman Rockwell painting. A sophisticated, simple, but classic village with lots of quaint charm.

They passed fine boutiques, coffee shops, antique stores, bistros, and spas. Scenic, winding roads would eventually bring them to the sprawling mansion where Bryan had grown up.

It was late September, and the autumn foliage was good enough to make a postcard photographer drool. “How gorgeous New England is in the fall!” Charlotte was twisting and turning to view all angles from the limo. “How far are you from Manhattan?”

“Oh, forty miles or so. Not far. Why, would you like to plan a trip into the city one day while you’re here? I can make the limo available for you.”

“I’d love to see it if we have a chance. I’ve never even been to New York City,” Charlotte said.

Clarence raised his eyebrows. “Never? The greatest city in the world? Then you must, my dear. And we will make it happen this trip—”

“You’d think by the sounds of things my wife has been living under a rock,” Bryan interjected. “She’s been to almost every continent in the world, just not everywhere in the States.”

Bryan recognized at once he was defending her because he doesn’t want her to seem low class to his dad. But judging from Clarence’s behavior so far, he seemed truly overjoyed to have them there in his world.

“So…apart from a trip to Manhattan, I have a few plans I hope you’ll like.” Clarence went on. “First off, at least one day out in my newest yacht. It depends on the weather of course, but so far Wednesday is looking to be perfect. I’m docked up at the Yacht Club not too far from our house. And anyone up for some golf? We have my course to ourselves. And my chef will do a few great barbecues out by our pools. We could get in some beach days, too. There’s a beautiful beach just six miles away. The boys will love it. There’s so much to do. I wish you were staying longer. But first, you all must be hungry.”

Bryan could not believe how passionate and family-oriented his father was being…so caring and responsive. He had gone to the beach with his dad as a kid maybe once or twice that he could remember. Clarence Garrity had always been too busy for him. And his mother? Well, his mother

“I sure am hungry,” he said. “Thanks for asking, Dad. How about you boys? You didn’t eat much on the airplane.”

“Well, what do they feed anyone these days anyway, except some peanuts and a purchased FrankenFood snack box?” Charlotte stomach growled. “I’m hungry too.”

The twins said “Me too! I’m hungry!” at the same time.

“Well,” laughed Clarence. “I guess that settles it. Just in case, I made reservations at one of Barbara’s favorite little French restaurants. She was sorry not to be able to meet you at the airport, but she had her regular spa and beauty parlor appointments. She never misses those. She’ll meet us there. It’s family-friendly enough for these two young gentlemen. I know the owners and the chef personally and they are holding the place open for your arrival.”

The limo made its way into the village and parked just outside the bistro. The chauffeur got out and went around to open the doors and hand them all out onto the sidewalk. Bryan was surprised to see his Dad walk on his own, with no need for the wheelchair. As he walked beside his ailing father, he said “So… Pops, you’re not crippled after all!”

“Oh, I can walk a bit. Just not for long.” It seemed like his Dad had something else to tell him, but thought twice about it.

This was not the type of restaurant she and Bryan had ever taken the boys to. Extremely elegant, its bright mustard yellow walls, white table cloths, earthy artwork, and floral arrangements screamed “Caution! No young kids allowed!”

“Geesh Clarence, are you sure this place is okay for our boys?” Charlotte wondered if they would even consider giving the kids crayons and coloring sheets. Or if they would expect them to sit like statues. “I mean, they’re well behaved, but they are, after all, six. They’ll need to be able to get up and play.”

“Oh, no problem,” Clarence assured her. “We’ll be the only ones here. And Ken, the owner, has a surprise for us!”

The bistro made Charlotte feel instantly cozy and warm on this cool New England autumn night. The intricate French décor made her feel as if she were in the heart of Provence. It was the kind of place you instantly knew the food and wine would be spectacular. The kind of place she and Bryan had cut from their budget since the boys had come along.

Barbara Garrity walked in just before Clarence ordered the wine. Although she had never met her mother-in-law, Charlotte knew even before she walked over to join them that this modish woman was Bryan’s mom. Barbara was not attractive in the classic sense. But she carried herself with a certain grace, a sense of confidence.

“Hello, sorry I’m late” Barbara’s hand flew to her just styled hairdo. “I’m Barbara…I’m…She glanced at the twins fretfully. “I’m your Grandma! She sat. No kiss for anyone.

Charlotte found her to be cold but wondered if it might be because she was nervous to finally meet her only daughter-in-law and her grandchildren. After all, it had been seventeen years since she and Bryan had married.

What struck Charlotte the most was realizing that Bryan’s parents did not know him—at all. They still saw him as the little boy who had lived in their mansion. That little boy the au pair took care of. ‘That runaway teenager’

They did not know the man their son had become. Nothing about his dreams, what he liked to eat, his business, what made him happy.

But they seemed to make a concerted effort to get to know their only son during this elegant meal at this chic bistro. Over the course of two hours, they learned that Bryan preferred rice over potatoes, fish and chicken over red meat, a latte over tea, classical and jazz over rock and roll. And that he cherished his humble work as a landscape architect and Cal Poly education—regardless of his ultra-rich upbringing.

Charlotte had the tomato tart, then the filet with frites. Bryan had some delicious looking cassoulet dish. There was patè de la masson, steamed asparagus, foie gras, and mousse au chocolate. It was a meal fit for royalty.

“Thank God the limo is taking us to your castle in the clouds! I’ve lost track of how many glasses of wine we’ve each had.” The wine and exhaustion from travel gave her a feeling of floating. Clarence or Ken just kept pouring into their glasses each time they glanced away.

About midway through the dinner, Ken came out with a giant Lego set of the Eiffel Tower. It was already put together, so the boys just stared at it in awe. It took three people to help carry it out.

“Hey Mommy, that’s the Lego set I wanted, but you said it had too many pieces!” Keenan exclaimed.

“More like far too expensive, at a few hundred bucks” mentioned Bryan.

“Oh my, look at that thing!” Charlotte gasped. “I can’t believe how realistic it is…the flag, the elevators, the colors, every little detail!”

“It’s built to scale, 1:300 from the original blueprints,” Ken said.

“Wow!” Kevin shouted.

“Go ahead boys…you can play with it, tear it down if you’d like, make a mess even. I have only your family here tonight, in honor of your visit,” Ken gestured towards the giant set.

The two boys pounded on the Eiffel Tower, which stood as tall as them. Pieces landed all over the floor, and they started building smaller missions around it.

“Hey, did you boys finish your dinner?” Charlotte asked. She knew that now that this masterpiece was out, there was no way of getting them back to their burgers and frites, which she realized must have been prepared specially for them. She hadn’t seen a kids menu. No surprise, in a restaurant this fancy.

“I can wrap up the boys’ dinner if you’d like,” the waiter offered. “I guess our timing was less than perfect. It looks like they’re too excited to eat now.”

“Oh, that would be fabulous, thanks,” Charlotte responded. “No worries. They’re little. It happens all the time at our house. Sometimes getting them to eat is a bite-by-bite challenge.”

The waiter smiled at her and bowed slightly as he removed the twins’ dishes.

Later, riding in the limo towards the mansion, Bryan asked “Why did I not see the check for the meal back there? I was ready to contribute, but I never even saw a check. Was I zoning out or something?”

“Oh, it was taken care of in advance, son,” Clarence said. “Ken has me on a perpetual tab. He knows he will get paid at the end of every month. This was our treat.”

It wasn’t long before the limo stopped at a magnificent iron gate, which reminded Charlotte a bit of the gate at Buckingham Palace. She saw Clarence press a remote control on his seat’s armrest, and the iron gates opened up to a long, winding, tree-lined stone driveway. She could see that Barbara, who drove back separately, was pulling in just ahead in a new Lexus that seemed almost frugal amidst the opulence surrounding them.

As they moved slowly towards the front entrance of the mansion, Charlotte glanced at her husband, the professional landscape architect, and saw that his jaw had dropped. The impeccable, park-like grounds of the property looked as grand as any spa resort Charlotte had ever been to in her life. Trickling waterfalls, at least five of them, magnificent gardens, a carriage barn, even a private duck pond.

“Is this a fancy resort kind of place Mommy? I thought we were going to Grandma and Grandpa’s house?” Kevin asked.

“Oh sweetie, but this is Grandma and Grandpa’s house,” Charlotte was enchanted.

“Hah!” Keenan shouted. “Wow, it looks like a palace! Oh I know, a king and queen must live here!”

Charlotte laughed and reached over to tousle her son’s hair. “It sure does, honey. And soon you and your brother will get to explore it.”

When the limo came to a stop and all the passengers had disembarked, the boys ran towards the duck pond, yelling “quack quack quack!”

“Mommy, I have my leftover bread from dinner, may I feed the ducks please?” Keenan yelled back.

Charlotte glanced at Clarence for an answer. The attendant was helping him out of the limo.

“What did he ask, dear?” Clarence had been deposited back into his motorized wheelchair to ride the long walkway. “To feed the quackaroos? Well, we don’t usually let…oh dammit, go ahead. Tell them yes! I just won’t let our groundskeeper know. David claims they poop all over the lawn whenever they’re not fed their usual diet.”

“Okay, boys,” Charlotte called. “But stay out of the water, and don’t go anywhere else!”

While the boys ran to feed the ducks, laughing about grandpa’s poop comment, Charlotte went into the house, trailing just behind Barbara. She heard Bryan and Clarence talking behind her on their way in.

“Things have changed, Dad, since I’ve seen the house. It looks so different now…even nicer than ever.”

The way the words “the house” fell off Bryan’s lips made Charlotte shiver with the impersonal tone of it all. “She wanted to shout. “This house! This home! The one you grew up in!” But she kept it to herself. Time enough to let Bryan and his dad work out their history. She decided to let father and son alone a bit. “Hey guys, I’m going back out to check on the boys” She was not sure how safe her little guys were feeding the ducks by themselves.

Clarence was able to walk around the house, slowly. “It’s been a while since you’ve seen it, hey? Sure, it’s gone through significant renovations and additions. The house is now considered a certified energy star home. It’s a “Smart Home.”

That stopped Bryan in his tracks. What? He should have recognized the green design himself. He had been too immersed in the utter beauty of the property itself. Or was it a wine-induced delusion? The landscape architect in him had to admit, his parents’ home had an exceptional design, unrivaled architectural detail.

“Since when have you ever been environmentally correct?” he asked. “I don’t recall you guys ever giving a hoot about going green.”

“Oh, these days we all have to try our hand at the green thing, otherwise the pain in the ass conservationist knock down our plans,” Clarence complained. “Come on, I’ll give you a personal tour.”

Bryan went on with his father, walking through the house. There were eight bedrooms, all decorated splendidly with separate intricate themes. Eight-and-a-half bathrooms. Every one of them gorgeous, marble-tiled, showers, fancy baths.

There were four floors. For those who did not want to climb the splendid spiraling staircase, an elevator was available. Following Clarence around as he pointed out all the features, Bryan thought that despite how magnificent this house was, it was also impersonal. More like a hotel than a home. Had he really grown up here?

Then he realized with a start that the elevator was likely put in for his Dad, so he didn’t have to try to walk up all those stairs.

Custom walnut woodwork and moldings were all through the house, as well as shiny hardwood floors. A two-story vaulted great room with beamed ceiling, a chef’s kitchen with all the best appliances and a breakfast nook, and a huge wood-paneled library.

They walked out to the four-car heated garage. Then out to the large back patio where Bryan could see the in-ground heated swimming pools he remembered swimming in throughout his childhood. The tennis courts were off to the right. Behind the tennis courts, only partially in view, was his father’s mini golf course.

“Hey dad, you must get out and play, what with your own little golf course and all?” he asked. Then it dawned on him his Dad could barely walk.

“Oh, that. You remember my golf course? It’s just a practice course. Do you play?”

“I’ve gotten out there pretty often in the past…but with the kids and my business and all, it’s hard to find the time. I never got all that good at it anyway,” Bryan was sorry he had asked. “I mean, I’ve scored par on some holes, even got a hole in one by accident one day, but really I kind of suck at it.”

“What’s your handicap?”

“My handicap? Couldn’t say. Perhaps it’s my swing!”

But the joke was either lost on Clarence, or his mind was too preoccupied. “Well, then it will be good for you to get out there and practice on my course.” It’s an easy par three, but very well-manicured. It’s better-taken care of than the course I’ve belonged to for a few decades down the street. I should cancel my membership. But you know, country club expectations and all…”

Bryan chose to ignore the country club comment. “So…you…can you play, Pops?”

“Well, I don’t walk the course anymore. But I can pretty much stand there and swing as well as I could in my early days.”

The property was on a ridge overlooking pastoral landscapes. The fall colors right now, surreal looking. It took Bryan’s breath away, even now after all these years. I grew up here. Yet he couldn’t remember this beauty. He only remembered the pain. Much of it blocked out.

They went back into the house and could hear Charlotte and the boys talking excitedly about something. He followed the sound up two flights of stairs and found them in the playroom.

Charlotte met him at the doorway, her eyes alight with excitement. “Oh honey, the boys will just love playing in this room. God, just imagine having a playroom like this at home! Come in and check it out!”

When Bryan entered the spacious playroom, which was filled with as many toys as one would find at a toy store, he felt…hurt? At the very least, hurt for the inner child in him…but happy for his boys at the same time. Had his parents done this just for them?

When he was a child, his mom had called it the “romper room.” This was where Bryan would be sent with his au pair to get him out of the way for guests during all those elaborate parties his parents threw. Drunken bashes with politicians, captains of industry, movie stars, and other elites. His father’s philandering…

The only attention Bryan got in those days came from his German au pair—a beautiful exchange student with long blond hair and tits like mountains. And that was precious little attention. She’d sit and watch TV. He had to amuse himself. If he asked her for something, she always made it clear that he was a pest and she had better things to do.

There weren’t many toys back then, just a TV, a few trucks, and balls, even though it was a filthy rich household. Now, look at it!

Done up in several hues of blues, the room had shelves upon shelves of organized drawers chock full of things. A huge selection of quality toys including crafts, games, science and building kits, and Legos galore. An entire wall had an organized selection of educational and developmental toys.

In one corner was a giant blue Sully from Monsters Inc. Sully smiled happily at the boys. Bryan was half expecting it to come to life and say “Boo.” In another corner, SpongeBob, as big as an adult, invited them into his goofy arms.

The boys were going crazy. “Wow Mom and Dad, can we get a store like this at our house please?”

“Oh sure, we’ll just need to hit the lottery first dear,” Charlotte replied, staring at the huge stuffies in disbelief.

“What Mommy? Did you say yes?” Kevin’s eyes opened wide.

“Oh sweetie, of course not. We don’t even have the space for all these toys. I was making a joke,” Charlotte walked in a circle in awe.

“Well we can just get a bigger house, and then get a store like this!” Keenan chimed in.

“Money doesn’t grow on trees,” Charlotte began, but then nearly tripped over something. “Oh my gosh boys, look at this!”

It was an entire section of Legos, mostly put together, some half done—Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, Toy Story, Star Wars, Space Police, and more. Who was doing this? She wondered.

She looked up and saw Clarence standing in the doorway. “Oh my,” he said, as if knowing her question. “Our pool boy came in and worked on these over the past week or so. He’s a good kid. Sixteen. Still loves his Legos, big Star Wars buff. So when I told him I had some Lego-crazy grandsons coming he was all over it.”

“Wow! I wish toys grew on trees!” Keenan giggled. “You have lots and lots of money Grandpa! Does that mean you’re a bad guy?”

Clarence looked bewildered.

“Now Keenan,” Charlotte quickly chimed in. “You need to forget that phrase in the book I read to you, saying money is the root of all evil.”

“Money gets a bad rap, son,” Bryan patted Keenan’s curly head. “Money is not evil. And neither is the love of money, if money is produced from love. I say, if handled right? Money is love. And that’s the change we’re making in the world.”

Then he turned to Clarence. “Dad, did you have all this done for our boys?” he asked, awestruck.

“For my grand boys here, sure!” Clarence replied, although his look implied more. “And uh…well…trying to make up for your lost childhood, son.

Bryan tried to sound composed, but he was so shocked to hear his dad say this he felt like coming unglued. “Trying to give back to my inner child, Pops?”

He wanted to cry, to say Dad, it was never anything with a price tag associated with it that I lost as a kid. It was your love!” But the words never escaped his lips. Just as they were never spoken when he was growing up.

Will true words of love be spoken now? Or is this visit merely a money-chasing game?

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