*This was written from Paul’s father’s (Jean) perspective in the short story, “Paul’s Case” written by Willa Cather (1905). The original text can be found here.
Jean Cather hurriedly refreshed his bags with clean clothes after returning from his business trip in Cairo and receiving a phone call from his son’s employer accusing Paul of running off to New York City with the payroll that he was entrusted to deposit. Morbidly embarrassed, Jean promised to pay for what Paul had stolen and was in the process of mailing the twenty-three hundred dollar check as he ended his phone call. Jean then phoned the city New York City Police department to make them aware of his situation, threw his worn bag in the trunk of his carriage and sped off to the train station to catch the next train headed for the City.
All Jean could think of along the way was how good it would feel to wring his son’s neck for putting him through all of this effort and disgrace–for running off after Jean trusted him to fend for himself while he was away on business. After all he had done to provide for Paul over the years, he was met with heartache, anger, and embarrassment in return. Paul was quickly slipping from his grip, and Jean knew it. He was often getting into trouble at school, and was suspended for a week for his most recent outbreak of thick-headedness. This, in addition to his other transgressions, made Jean question where he went wrong. Jean greatly anticipated reuniting with his son in New York–enough was enough–something needed to change.
Jean arrived at Grand Central Station at four in the afternoon, hailed a carriage, and headed to the last known address that the bank had given him. Paul’s room at the hotel was still rented, but no one had seen a boy matching Paul’s description for quite some time. A waiter remembered delivering coffee and a newspaper to Paul’s room the previous afternoon and offered to take Jean there, though he was unsure if his manager would allow it. Seeing his disheveled appearance and hearing the timber of his voice, the waiter finally agreed only if he promised not to tell his manager.
The waiter brought Jean up to the third floor of the hotel and unlocked the door. Jean sped past the waiter and startled the maid as she was finishing her rounds.
“Have you seen a young boy recently?” he asked excitedly.
“No, I am sorry, I have not” she replied, unsure.
Jean looked around the room for anything pertinent. It was a grand room with a lavish sitting area and large bed. For as vast of a space, there was nothing of value to him. Short of some theater programmes that he had recognized from the Carnegie theater back home, and Paul’s duffel bag which he had bought for his son one Christmas, there was nothing to suggest where his son was now. As he turned to leave, Jean noticed a newspaper thrown about the coffee table that caught his eye. The heading read, “Denny & Carson Robbed by Degenerate Employee, Father Sent to Collect in NYC.” Jean was surprised that the story had made the Pittsburgh Papers. Denny and Carson must have leaked the story not long after he had left their office. He exited the room almost as quickly as he had come in, thanked the waiter, and made his way to the lobby phones to dial for the police detective he had spoken with earlier.
“Yes, this is Jean Cather, have you heard anything more about the whereabouts of my son, Paul?”
“No, I’m sorry sir,” the detective replied, “but I do have several men out searching the city for a boy that matches his description.”
“I am calling from the Metropolitan on 5th avenue where I was able to find the room that my son has booked. I’ve asked the concierge and some of the staff about my son, but no one seems to remember seeing him, would it be possible to have an officer stationed in the lobby for when my son returns? I wish to keep looking for him.”
“I’ll send someone out straight away, Mr. Cather”
“Thank you detective, I’ll call back in about an hour. If you hear anything, I’ll be returning to this hotel later in the day, please leave a message for me with the concierge at the desk.”
The detective barely had enough time to agree before Jean hung up the phone. With a renewed sense of anger that washed over him like a wave, he rushed outside to hail a carriage. Jean hated the city–he had seen too much of them in his line of work–but if there was one thing that New York was good for, it was its carriage service. One arrived quickly and Jean instructed his driver simply to drive; he needed time to think about his next move. Jean knew so little about his son, it was next to impossible for him to guess where he might be. To Jean, Paul was a dependent, a mouth to feed and a mind to engrain with the importance of a solid work ethic and a natural distrust of bankers, lawyers and politics. Their relationship was anything less than inspiring. In all the years that Jean had wanted Paul to be more like their neighbor’s son–a responsible worker and family man at the age of twenty-one– Jean should have been more like their neighbor–an honest father who raises an honest son. Perhaps then, Jean wouldn’t have found himself searching for a boy he barely knew.
The driver directed his horse leisurely by Central Park and Jean thought how nice of a trip this would have been under different pretenses–he and Paul never went out together, and rarely spoke. Often when Paul would come home from school or work, Jean would stand at the top of the stairs, exchange a brief greeting with his son, and then return to his study. The boy needed to be strong and independent. Jean was his father, his provider. The trivial sentimentalities of parenthood were reserved for factory-workers and women–Jean didn’t have time to be sentimental. He sacrificed his time in the same way his father had before him–he was the product of a successful businessman, as well as its victim. Jean rarely saw his own father growing up and would often spend time with his mother who was kind though naive. She managed well without her husband; but always seemed beaten down by the weight of time–he had always aspired to be more like his father, and he now realized that that’s exactly who he had become. Paul didn’t have a mother to fall back on.
Realizing the time, Jean instructed the driver to find a pay telephone, he was already late in phoning the station detective.
“Yes, hello again, Detective, this is Jean Cather.” He spoke loudly into the phone to compensate for the boisterous cafe crowd that was bustling behind him.
“Hello again, Mr. Cather. I apologize but I have very little to report to you. The only lead we received was from a host who remembered seeing your son a few days ago after seating him for dinner in the Metro dining room, but we are continuing the search.”
“Thank you for your diligence, Detective. I will be returning to the hotel and staying in my son’s room for the night. Hopefully I will be able to confront him if he returns tonight.”
“I will phone the concierge should we hear of anything else. I appreciate your confidence in us sir, good evening.”
Jean returned to the taxi and told the driver to bring him back to the hotel. Continuing his search for his son would be pointless, Jean had absolutely no idea where to even begin. Better to have Paul come to him.
He arrived at the hotel and spoke with the hotel manager to explain to him their unusual circumstance. Jean told the manager that he would be taking over his son’s room account and berated the young manager for allowing a child to check into a hotel room with seemingly no credentials. Shaken, the manager agreed to Jean’s requests and gave him a spare room key and Jean thanked him.
It was ten in the evening and still Paul had not made his presence known. Having heard nothing more from the station detective, nor from the concierge or police officer in the lobby, Jean thought it best to turn in for the night. Should Paul return in the middle of the night, Jean was confident that he would hear him before Paul had time to realize his father’s presence.
There was a stern knocking at the door the following morning. Jean jolted out of bed still in his clothes from the night before, searched the room haphazardly for any sign of his son’s return and opened the door; it was a gentleman a few years Jean’s senior who looked very worn down and settled.
“Can I help you, sir?” Jean asked, still waking up.
“Jean Cather?” the man asked?
“My name is Detective Louis Porter, we’ve spoken on the phone over the past few days about your son.”
“Yes of course, please come in, Detective. Have you heard anything? I was expecting him to return to the hotel last night, but there still has been no sign of him.”
“Mr. Cather, sir.” The detective paused, “I’m afraid there’s been an accident.” Jean was unsure how to respond, and thought it best to let the detective continue. Seeing this, the Detective went on, “I’m afraid your son was found dead early this morning after being hit by a train in Newark. It seems that he caught wind of you coming to find him after reading the story about Denny & Carson in the newspaper and started to head home. The report we received from the train conductor was that the boy stepped out in front of the train.” Jean slowly sat down and looked up at the inspector with pale eyes as he continued, “I regret to inform you, sir, but it appears that your son most likely committed suicide. I’m very sorry for your loss.”
Jean thanked the inspector for doing all he could, determined not to lose himself in another’s company, and showed the inspector out. Not long after shutting the door, Jean found himself in hysterical fits of rage and anguish. It was unbecoming for men to cry in the company of strangers. So came the final irony. Paul would have rather died than come home again. Worse yet, it seemed it was Jean who had pushed the boy to such limits–he had failed his son; but more than that, he had failed his wife, Paul’s mother.
As he began to pack his things to return home, Jean saw something familiar that he hadn’t noticed before protruding from under the bed–the handle of his revolver, the only thing his father had given him that he had truly cherished. He realized then that Paul had never intended to come home again, and with that, Jean left New York. As the train to Pittsburgh sped through town after town, Jean felt his life melting away as the trees stitched themselves into a green and white quilt through the train window. He found himself at home, lost in all that had once seemed so familiar. The glass castle that he had prided himself in building was now raining down onto him in shards of regret that found their way to his heart and head until his entire body was sobbing in the entryway of his now empty home. He had lost a son that he never knew–a son he never took the time to know.
That evening Jean found his way to the Carnegie theater that Paul always seemed to disappear to, and bought tickets for the symphony in an attempt to understand his son. He sat, fidgeting in his chair before the house lights dimmed, and looked into the more prestigious box seats: at the people sitting in them, some whom he knew, and at the ushers waiting on them. He watched as they served the attendees food and drink, catering to their every whim and wondered how anyone could want to perform such menial tasks. The house lights dimmed and the performance began, and Jean was transcended to a happier point in his life. He recalled the last time he was at this theater, how awkward he felt as he waited for his date to return from the powder room leaving him to stare abysmally at the ornate furnishings of the great hall. She was madly in love with the symphony and taught him to lower his guard long enough to let the music carry him away with her. She was a truly magnificent woman, Edna; and would rarely go a day without causing him to fall more deeply in love with her–she was his reason for living. She was his answer.
The soprano began her musical soliloquy and seemed to mourn with Jean’s soul–speaking directly to him until it was all he could do to maintain his position and keep from crying, still no one knew of Paul, though he was sure that it would be in the papers very soon. “Troubled Teen’s Life Short-lived,” “Father Blamed for Son’s Death,” the headlines might read.
Jean found himself at the theater every night that week seemingly fixated on the cacophony of memories the symphony brought forth in him. Jean arrived early one evening before the ushers were seating their guests and noticed a sign leading to the Hall’s gallery. Inside were dozens of paintings completed by many artists Jean did not recognize. Art had always fascinated him as an idea, but he never considered himself cultured enough to understand its intricate subtleties. His was a brain of finance and business, not of art. As Jean continued through the gallery, he noticed one piece in particular that took hold of him and would not let go. It spoke softly to him though its message seemed mottled and fragile: a lone figure staring out into a dark sea focusing solely on a soft light in the distance. He stared at the painting for what seemed like hours until a flood of visitors seeking a momentary distraction from intermission disenchanted his gaze. Realizing his mistake, Jean returned home and found himself sitting at the foot of Paul’s bed taking everything in: his painted headboard, his wooden bureau, and the now-peeling yellow wallpaper that he and Edna put up themselves once they found out they were having a baby. She always loved the color yellow, because it was joyful, and welcomed in the light, even on the darkest day.
Paul was a constant reminder to Jean of what he once had and how happy they were before it all went wrong. He lost her when Paul was born–there was too much bleeding and the midwife wasn’t able to stop it in time. On what should have been the happiest day of their life, Jean found himself alone with a child, and a house of bitter memories that were once filled with promises of tomorrow. From that moment on, every milestone that Paul made was a moment that Edna wasn’t there to see–every birthday was a reminder of her death, every time Paul smiled, a pang short through Jean’s heart because his wife smiled the exact same way.
In a way, Jean had come to resent his son, though through no fault of his own. Paul had always been fiercely brilliant, even as a young child Paul was always ahead. Yet Jean was never able to fill himself with the immense sense of pride that he knew he should have for Paul, instead he grieved for everything Edna missed.
In a way, Jean had come to resent his son. Paul had always been fiercely brilliant; even as a young child Paul was always ahead. Yet Jean was never able to fill himself with the immense sense of pride that he knew he should have for Paul; instead he grieved for everything Edna missed.
As he sat on his son’s painted bed, Jean recalled how it was Edna who first mentioned having children. He remembered thinking of how grand a mother she would make as he watched her play with the neighbor’s children when they were first starting out; and how proud she was when she was finally pregnant with Paul. She never complained–even in the hottest of the summer months–she was pregnant, she was having a child of her own, and she was happy. Edna lived long enough to hold her son before she slipped away.
Now Jean was alone–his faintest reminder of what he once had was now nothing more than a dream; and he now began to realize what it was that he truly lost. He left the room returning with the revolver he had recovered from his son’s few effects: the revolver, some ticket stubs, the wilted red boutonnière that Paul had frequently been known to wear. Jean stared at the gun in his hand, unsure if it was even loaded, and wondered how it had come this far.