Note: this story was originally published in the East Bay Express on September 15, 2000.
How do you prepare to meet a monster? This question came to me as I found myself crying in the grocery line, drinking more beer than necessary, and having more and more difficulty focusing my thoughts. I had begun to shut down, and I knew why: It was because I was going to meet the kind of person most of us only read about. His name is Kenneth Eugene Parnell, and he is a man who kidnaps children and molests them. In 1972, he abducted seven-year-old Steven Stayner and for seven years posed as the boy’s father. In 1980, Parnell abducted another young boy, Timmy White. He’s every parent’s worst nightmare: a sadistic fuck, the bogeyman. He’s also human: something I hadn’t prepared for.
Steven Stayner’s life changed irrevocably on December 4, 1972. It was a year for famous crooks, with The Godfather winning the Oscar for Best Picture and Richard Nixon en route to his downfall. Vietnam was just reaching fever pitch to the strains of “Crocodile Rock.” Perhaps it was also a year for absences: Heinrich Boll, author of Missing Persons and Other Essays and What’s to Become of the Boy? won the Nobel Prize for literature.
In the safe, working-class Central Valley town of Merced, young Steven Stayner was part of a large family, with two hard-working parents who were known for being strict disciplinarians. It was by most accounts a loving family. Steven adored his father and followed him around like a puppy.
On the day of his disappearance, he walked home from school alone, as he always did. I imagine him in flared pants, a button-down shirt, and, of course, a jacket to keep out December’s chill. I can only think of myself around that same time; I was five. I can remember clunking home purposefully on small legs, a down coat like a teepee around me as I hummed to myself or stopped to grab something shiny from the gutter. I imagine that Steven was the same.
Every day he would trudge down the street alone, though lately he had been disobeying his parents and going to a friend’s house instead of straight home. For this, he had gotten a whupping.
In late November, someone began watching Steven walk home; the watcher watched the boy walk right past his car every day. And thanks to a talkative and nosy postman, the stranger knew that Steven had been spanked recently. He knew that the little boy would be more likely to obey his elders as a result. The man watching Steven could not have been more dangerous, and one day Steven seemingly disappeared off the face of the earth.
Most people who lived in California at the time are familiar with the Stayner story, but as a Midwestern transplant, I learned about it through the made-for-TV movie I Know My First Name Is Steven. The movie (for which Stayner himself was consulted extensively), portrayed Parnell as an uncontrollable pedophile who kept and molested Steven for seven years. After kidnapping Steven, Parnell changed the boy’s name to Dennis, enrolled him in school, and made “Dennis” call him “Dad.”
“Your parents can’t afford you no more,” he told the boy. The sexual abuse was constant as the pair moved all over Mendocino County and other parts of Northern California. The TV movie shows Steven atrophying, slipping into drinking, smoking, and drugs, before he was even out of childhood. In one of the most affecting scenes, nine-year-old Steven sits miserably in front of the TV in a motel room, drinking beer and smoking, as Parnell walks in with a woman. The adults begin to make out in front of him, and soon demand that Steven join them in the bed.
Because the movie was made in 1989, it didn’t include the rest: that Steven was killed in a motorcycle accident not long after its premiere, or that Steven’s older brother Cary would be implicated eleven years later in the 1999 murders of four women in Yosemite. What the film’s epilogue did say, however, was that Kenneth Parnell had only served five years in prison for his crimes, and he was out free and clear.
As I watched that epilogue, it reminded me of a piece I’d seen in Salon, something about one of Steven Stayner’s friends driving by the house of Kenneth Parnell. That house, I now remembered, was in West Berkeley.
So I wanted to find Parnell. I didn’t really know why, or what I would do if I did find him, but I thought I should make an effort to discover if the man who had kidnapped Steven Stayner lived in Berkeley. I decided to contact Mike Echols, the author of a sensationalistic book about the case with the same name as the TV movie: I Know My First Name Is Steven. After some digging, I found Echols, and through him I discovered something that made me gasp: Kenneth Parnell did indeed live in Berkeley, just six blocks from where I worked, and had for fifteen years. Parnell loves to talk to the press, Echols said, and will go on and on about all the disgusting things he likes to do with little boys. All he asks in return is a carton of Pall Malls. Did I want his phone number?
“Okay,” I responded haltingly, knowing that I would be terrified to use it. I told Echols as much. “Oh, he’s only a threat if you’re a child,” the author assured me.
After we hung up, I sat with my head in my hands. I decided to give myself more time to think things over, to sleep on it. What had I gotten myself into? What was I looking for? Then, in a matter of minutes, the phone rang again.
“Miss St. Clair?” an elderly voice on the other end said.
“Yes,” I replied.
“This is Kenneth Parnell. Mike Echols said to call you.”
“Wow. Uh, hi.” I felt the top of my head detach and float away. “Hey, um, I have a carton of Pall Malls with your name on it if you’ll talk to me.”
“Sure,” he replied pleasantly, even rather humbly. “That’ll be fine. Thank you.” We agreed to talk the following week and set up an appointment. I hung up.
That night, I bought the first of many six-packs.
Kenneth Parnell was born in Texas at the height of the Depression to a fundamentalist mother and an alcoholic father. His dad abandoned the family when Parnell was six. After moving with his mother to Bakersfield, he was in and out of juvenile hall for most of his adolescence. According to Echols’ book, Parnell was disturbed from a very early age. He attempted to pull out all of his teeth with pliers as a child (something he now denies) and was diagnosed by more than one psychologist as needing a lot of help.
At nineteen, he was convicted of lewd and lascivious behavior with a young boy. For this he served three and a half years in prison. In the early ’60s he went back behind bars for armed robbery in Utah. Then in 1980 he was arrested for kidnapping Stayner and White. He was never charged with any sexual misconduct with either of the boys, though Stayner maintained that he had been subjected to such abuse. He once discussed being repeatedly sodomized by Parnell with a People magazine reporter: “I had no idea what was happening to me. Parnell wasn’t violent, but he wasn’t gentle either. It was kind of like I was there, and that was that. I cried a lot at first, but that upset him, so I stopped. I just went along with it and waited for my parents to find me.”
I still wasn’t sure whether I really wanted to meet this man, so I decided to start simple. I drove by his house on a quiet street in West Berkeley. I pulled up to the curb across the street. I could see shadowy images beyond his screen door. He was home. I looked on with revulsion and curiosity, the two things that had led me there in the first place. Then, slowly, as I sat in the car waiting, I guess, for Parnell to come out and smoke so I could catch a glimpse of him. Neighborhood kids appeared. It was around 4 p.m., and they began riding their bikes up and down the driveways, across lawns, and to the corner. A toddler struggled up his front steps, where Mom was coaxing him lovingly. I felt such panic, such a need to run up the walk and tell this woman who lived across the street from her. I wanted to yell at the little boy with the ill-fitting bike helmet and training wheels who slowly pedaled past Parnell’s front door, “Don’t ever go near that house!”
Yes, I thought to myself, I will meet him. I needed to know if he was as big a threat as he seemed.
I began to read voraciously about the case, perhaps in an effort to distance myself from the reality of the meeting. I tried to contact everyone I could who had been involved: investigators, lawyers, judges. This proved difficult, especially after Stayner’s brother Cary was charged with the Yosemite murders. Most anyone who had ever been involved with the Stayners had already been hounded by the press, and wasn’t interested in talking after the Yosemite killings. “God, what a family!” my friends said to me, but I found myself rushing to Mr. and Mrs. Stayner’s defense. They didn’t ask to have Steven stolen, and Cary said in a jailhouse interview that he had been fantasizing about killing women since he was very small, well before Steven disappeared. Maybe, I was beginning to think, some people are wired wrong at birth. The Stayner family released a statement through the Merced police, asking for privacy: “Thank you all for your support since December 4, 1972, when you helped look for Steve, your help celebrating his return in 1980; you helped mourn his death in 1989. Now we must ask for your privacy during this terrible, terrible tragedy. The Cary we know is not capable of these crimes. We love you, Cary. You will always be loved by your family. There will be no interviews given. Thank you for your patience.”
Many other people did not want to talk to me, citing past misquotes in the press, or the simple fact that they did not want to think about the crimes again. I had to assemble the facts from what I read. It was like a slow-motion film of a mirror crashing and breaking into dozens of triangular pieces, but the film is being played backwards, the shards rising slowly up off the ground and converging into a cracked set of mottled images. I saw a confused relationship between a boy and his “dad”: a man fatherly one minute, lustful the next. I saw a family left behind: a father crying for the first time in front of his children as they ponder their missing brother. I saw a Christmas gift left under the tree each year for a child who, for all his family knew, might be dead. I saw a post-Parnell Steven, smiling for the cameras with a handsome smirk. “There’s no problem dealing with it now,” he told People magazine, “Parnell can’t do nothing to me now.” But his eyes are blank.
One person was willing to talk to me, and that was Parnell’s appeals attorney, Daniel Horowitz. (Parnell had been tried in Hayward, in an effort to find a less prejudicial jury.) I went to Horowitz’ Oakland office, which sits above the Bench and Bar, a gay nightspot. Horowitz is a character: perhaps Dustin Hoffman on uppers. He has a strong East Coast accent with a social-liberal conscience, but when it comes to his work he plays to win. Parnell lucked out getting him, though the appeal failed because Parnell was just too much of a sonofabitch for even Horowitz to help. We sat in the lawyer’s cluttered office and began talking about the case, though Horowitz cautioned me about attorney/client privilege. He handed me a blue-bound volume of the appeal, People of the State of California v. Kenneth Parnell. I turned to “Facts of Case” and began reading: “On February 14, 1980, Timmy White was attending school at Yokayo School. Timmy White did not return home that day. Instead, he alleges that he was kidnapped and held in a small shack/cabin, by defendant, Kenneth Parnell.”
I asked Horowitz for his impressions of Parnell as a man, not a defendant. He smiled quietly, and told me that he found him to be quite intelligent and likable. Horowitz had even offered to let Parnell work in his office for some extra cash.
“But he’s a sociopath,” I said.
“Is he?” asked Horowitz rhetorically. “I’m not so sure about that. You might be surprised when you meet him.”
He told me he had met Steven Stayner, that Mike Echols had brought the youth by the office. “He was a sweet kid, very sweet,” Horowitz said, adding that Stayner’s parents wouldn’t let Steven get therapy, didn’t want him to talk with anyone about his experience. I had read as much: that his parents forbade him to discuss the sexual aspects of the case with them. I’m not sure which is worse: the abuse he suffered, or the fact that he had to move on with no support for dealing with it. “He asked about Parnell,” Horowitz told me. “He wanted to know if [Parnell] ever thought about him, if he had asked about him.”
Really? Another shard of glass slowly slipped into place.
The big day drew nearer, the day I would meet Parnell. We had agreed to go to an Italian restaurant on Shattuck Avenue. Parnell — or “Gene,” as I was now calling him — was going to have steak. He said there wasn’t anything he wouldn’t discuss with me.
“We’d like to take some pictures, but we’ll obscure your face as best we can,” I told him. “Is that okay?”
“Sure, that’ll be fine,” he replied.
“Great, so I’m bringing a photographer along. I don’t want to meet with you alone. And listen, if you try anything, I’ll squash you like a bug,” I added.
“Oh,” he chuckled quietly, “If I try anything, I’ll be thrown right back in the can.” We hung up, and I was glad that I had asserted myself. Horowitz had told me that Parnell was easily dominated. “If you raise your voice,” he said, “he will back down.”
On the evening of our “date,” the photographer and I drove to Parnell’s place in a Range Rover. Parnell was seated on his porch, his walker at the ready on the sidewalk. He wore a cap, a flannel shirt, and rather stylish blue Levi corduroy slacks. He had stains on his shirt and pants, and his hands were filthy. He smiled kindly at us, if not a bit uncomfortably and shyly. Now 68, he has a scraggly white beard, big eyes, and a round, reddish nose, with hair sprouting from his nostrils and ears. He is a mixture of ugly and cute, like an Ewok, of which I kept being reminded as I spoke with him. He has diabetes, emphysema, and has had a stroke. As a result of his ailments, there is a daintiness to him: He moves in tiny shuffling steps, and breathes in tiny intakes. He has a round, bald head with brown age spots all over it, though in general he keeps it under a cap. He smells of stale cigarettes and sweat. Unless it was all a big act, at this point this man seemed too disabled, old, and unkempt to trick any child into approaching him. For that, I felt a bit of relief.
We helped him into the car with some difficulty, and then drove toward the restaurant. The silence in the car was awkward. For the most part, I was trying to grasp the fact that there he sat, right in front of me. The photographer and I had decided that we would act “normal” with him, and not openly show any disrespect. It turned out to be pretty easy to do, because Parnell seemed just an old man in most ways. He said “please” and “thank you,” and, so far at least, had not been the least bit obnoxious. After awhile I broke the silence with, “So, you’ve got a birthday coming up.” Oh Jesus, I thought. Dumb. I’m treating him like a child. But he responded kindly. “Yes,” he chuckled. “I’m really getting up there.” He chuckles a lot when he speaks.
More silence; then we arrived at the restaurant. We took seats in the back. Parnell ordered a pitcher of beer and a rare steak: “Just warm it on both sides, please.” The photographer and I were going to share a pizza. I wanted to wait before I got to talking about the nitty-gritty stuff. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to hear Parnell give me the gory details that he reportedly so enjoys telling. I needed to prepare myself. I began by asking him why he would talk to me about Steven Stayner.
“Well, frankly, for the meal, the cigarettes,” he responded.
“Really? There’s nothing more to it than that?”
“Well, not much,” he said. “I get an outing.”
“Why do you think people would want to talk to you or read an article about you?”
“Well,” he replied, chuckling, “they’re always interested in dirt, you know.”
This was the beginning of an evening of short replies to my questions, with breaks to less difficult topics.
“If you had to describe yourself, how would you?”
“Well, ‘He’s getting old.'”
“That’s it? He’s getting old?”
“Right. That’d be it.”
“What do you think is your best quality?”
“Sleep, I guess. Being asleep. That’s my best quality.”
“You think that when you’re awake you’re just a big bastard?”
We covered the bases, to which he replied simply with a “yes” or a “no.” Was he ever molested? “No.” Does he have any contact with children these days? “No.” Has he ever attempted suicide? “Yes.” (At this, the man seemed completely bereft.) “Have you ever felt joy?” I asked him.
“Joy?” he answered solemnly, taking a long time to think. “Not really. I thought joy was a dish soap.”
And so it went. When he spoke, there was something very immature about him, as if he thought that I would take what he said at face value and not question it, no matter how illogical. This childlike quality was mixed with an outright lack of remorse. I was beginning to think that Horowitz was wrong; that Parnell is a sociopath.
“When you were nineteen you abducted a little boy named Bobby,” I said.
“Do you want to talk about what you were thinking at that point?”
“Uh,” he answered, putting down his glass, “the reason I think this happened was, my wife was pregnant, and she was just too big for me, I guess, and I had to find another outlet.” He said this so matter-of-factly, that I responded in kind.
“But obviously, people will say that you are not supposed to just take a child and do that.” “Right.”
“So how do you respond to that?”
“I say, ‘I know I wasn’t!'” He chuckled. Our food arrived. Parnell had some difficulty eating his meat, choking on it a few times. “I’m working on a half set of teeth,” he told me. When I started asking about his time with Steven Stayner, Parnell’s voice lowered, and he pushed his food around on his plate.
“What did you like about him?”
“Well, he sometimes traveled alone.”
“How long did you watch him? Like a month or something?”
“No, just a few days. But as I said in court, or to my lawyer, head been spanked by his father and, uh, he was upset at home about that.”
“So when you found out he’d been spanked, what were you thinking?”
“Well, he was unhappy at home. I might be able to give him a home.”
“Do you think you had a positive effect on him?” I asked.
“I’d like to think I had some effect on him.”
“Do you think you had any negative effects on him?”
“Maybe in the line of smoking, but he sort of picked that up from other boys too, so I’m not altogether to blame for that.”
Parnell shifted in his seat, his eyes flitting about. When he talked, he kept his head down, cap pulled low. His eyes are his epicenter. The emotions he kept out of his comments managed to trickle into the eyes. I thought I saw glimpses of guilt, but perhaps I was just looking for it.
“Do you ever feel guilty about what happened?” I asked him, point-blank.
“In some ways, yes.”
“How do you deal with that?”
“Well, for part of it, I don’t have any regrets. Of course I had some years that I enjoyed being with Stayner. So that’s no regrets.”
“Well, what regrets do you have?”
“Well.” (Chuckle.) “Of course, doing a lot of time, for one, you know, in prison. But then the problems that the Stayner family had.”
“So you think about that?” I said. “That they might have wondered where their son was?”
“Yeah,” he said quietly. “Yeah.”
“Do you think it’s because of your feelings for Steven that you could have understood how they might’ve felt?”
“Some would say that if you were the kind of person who would just take somebody, you wouldn’t feel that way.”
“Pardon me?” He seemed, genuinely confused. “I’m afraid I don’t know what you are asking.”
“Some people would say,” I repeated more strongly, “that if you were the kind of person that could just take a child, then you are the kind of person that wouldn’t understand the pain it would cause.”
“Well,” he answered with conviction, “that wouldn’t be true. You know, whenever Stayner was gone or didn’t show up, I felt just like a parent. I was concerned as to where he was, what had happened to him.”
I wanted to believe him. In some sick way, it seemed that his relationship with Stayner was the closest one Parnell had ever had.
“How did you hear about Steven dying?” I asked him.
“On the radio, sitting in the bathtub. I had the radio turned up so I could hear it.”
“What kind of an effect did it have on you?”
“It had quite a bit of an effect.” His voice cracked. “You know, his wife said, ‘Parnell would never shed a tear.’ But I guess that’s about the only time I’ve cried since I was about nine years old.”
Once more, I wanted to believe him. I wondered how he felt about Steven turning him in. After Parnell abducted Timmy White, Steven didn’t want the five-year-old to suffer the same fate he had. In the middle of the night, Steven escaped with Timmy and delivered him to the police station in Ukiah. Parnell was arrested before morning.
“Do you think what he did was an heroic thing? Or are you still pissed off? You wouldn’t have gone to jail if it hadn’t happened.”
“Well, I figured he did what he had to do, that’s all.”
As we finished our meal, I wanted to ask all the big philosophical questions that I knew I wouldn’t get an answer to — the ones that start with why. So I asked him how it felt to know that when people talk about human “monsters,” they are often talking about people who abduct and abuse children.
“Well,” he replied, “I guess they’re right.” He was feeling more comfortable with the photographer and me, and we were feeling more comfortable with him. There was something so pathetic about him, and yes: He was simple, like a child.
“So,” I continued, “what Echols told me is that I should be prepared for someone who just talked nonstop about screwing little kids.”
Parnell laughed a little, shook his head, and said, “So now you have a different opinion.”
“Well, I was wondering if because I’m a girl or something, you don’t want to be gross.”
“Well, if you want me to cuss like a salty sailor, I can!” He laughed. In spite of myself, I did too.
“Gene, did you ever want to tell Steven’s parents that you are sorry?”
“Well, I don’t think they would take it anyway.”
“If you knew they would, would you say it? Do you feel it?”
“I think it’s a little late for that. I hate it, because they’ve had trouble with Steven, [and now] Cary.”
“Cary’s been kinda compared to you.”
“Yeah, well. I didn’t kill anybody, though, that’s one thing. I may be sadistic, but other than that, there’s no comparison.”
“You think you’ve been sadistic?”
“Yes. In some ways.”
Afterwards we helped Parnell outside to smoke. He’s smoked three packs a day for over fifty years, he told us. He smiled and took a deep drag. And now I believed him when he said he had agreed to the interview in exchange for the meal and cigarettes. He is lonely.
We got back into the car and drove to the liquor store for a carton of Pall Malls. When the photographer went inside to get them, I took out Echols’ book and opened it to the pictures of Parnell and Steven Stayner. One photo shows the pair in their landlady’s kitchen. Parnell wears a bad ’70s shirt and hugs a dazed twelve-year-old Steven close, like a father would hug his uncooperative preteen son.
Parnell held the photo in front of him for some time. I realized that he probably hadn’t seen a picture of Steven in fifteen years, perhaps even longer. “It’s been a long time,” he muttered under his breath, staring at the photo. “A long time.” I began to feel uncomfortable for showing it to him, thrusting it in front of his face with no introduction. He closed the book slowly and handed it back to me. “Thank you,” he said, but it was as if to say politely: Don’t ever show that to me again.
That evening, as I lay in bed, I had a hard time banishing the memory of Parnell’s face from my head. I saw his dirty fingers cutting his meat. I saw him light up his cigarette with the same hands. I saw the hands on Steven Stayner. I couldn’t shake the unpleasantness. But mixed in with these images, way in the back of my mind I saw something even more frightening. I realized that I liked Kenneth Parnell.
We had decided to meet again, this time at the Sizzler, but I needed time to process. I was having a hard time describing Parnell to people, and an even harder time describing why I had such mixed feelings about him. No one wanted to hear it. Everyone had the same visceral reaction: “He’s a monster.” Yes, I said, he is. One night I woke up with a start and looked at the clock. It was 3:37 a.m. Usually when I wake up in the middle of the night, my anxieties are right at the surface: bills, loans, relationships. This time was no different; only the anxiety I felt came in an odd flash. Looking out the window into my dark backyard, I was suddenly overcome with the same feeling that a parent must have when her child disappears completely. I sat with it. I could feel it acutely — that missing person feels like a phantom limb, a phantom heart that is out of reach but still beats. How agonizing. I hated Kenneth Parnell.
I spent a week transcribing the interview, and the same question kept coming up. Why wasn’t he charged with sexual assault in the Stayner case? I decided to reassemble more of the “broken mirror,” at least as much as I could. Parnell’s explanation was that the authorities thought kidnapping was bad enough. Perhaps at the time, I thought, kidnapping was a technically more serious crime than molesting children. I decided to turn again to attorney Daniel Horowitz for some insight, and asked him to describe the legal climate regarding child molestation in the early ’80s. Though he couldn’t speak directly about the Stayner case, Horowitz did offer a glimpse into earlier trials of the same nature. “There was at the time a strong sense of what they called ‘protecting the victim,'” he said, though he pointed out that, to his mind, “protecting the victim” was really a smokescreen for blaming the victim. “Rape and molestation victims were seen as damaged goods,” Horowitz recalled. Courts, lawyers, and investigators seemed especially sensitive to the “shame” that seemed to surround such crimes. In the age of Megan’s Law and “good touch/bad touch” education in today’s elementary schools, it is hard to believe that either in an effort to spare young Stayner from reliving his trauma in a courtroom, or because of the state’s own revulsion for trying such crimes, Parnell was never charged with molesting Stayner. The boy’s own family may also have wished not to pursue that line over and over, I read that they didn’t want Steven to speak of it to anyone. Everyone involved, it seemed, just wanted to sweep Parnell’s crimes under the rug.
The last time I saw Kenneth Parnell, I called him beforehand to confirm the appointment. “Hello, Katy!” he said. He told me he had been to the emergency room; his back was out. “Gosh, Gene,” I said, “We can put this off for a few days.”
“Oh, no, no. That’s fine. Pick me up at six, then?”
“See you then.”
At six, he sat on his porch, smoking. I sat next to him, admiring his rosebush. “I prune it every year,” he told me. “The blossoms change color depending on how long they’ve been on the plant.” He went into more detail about the flowers, coaxing me to smell them. I did, and they were odorless. They also had black spot and loads of ants. “Take one, please,” he told me, smiling. “Oh, that’s okay, Gene. I’d probably poke myself on a thorn or something.” We got into the car, Parnell scuttling along with a certain giddiness. He was glad to see me. His caretaker came out and waved good-bye to us. It was as if I were taking Grandpa on a day trip.
In the car, and then at the Sizzler, there was no longer any awkwardness between us. We chatted and made small talk. Parnell ordered his usual rare steak and a beer. He smiled a lot, made some cute jokes about the food. I asked him if he wanted to clarify anything he had said before, and if anything had come up for him.
We ate some more, and then I began asking more questions: “Did you try to have Steven help you take another child?”
“Yeah, at one time. But he didn’t want to go for that.”
“Was it someone you had picked out at a mall or something?”
“I don’t remember; it might have been the park. He just didn’t want to do it.”
“What kind a person do you think [Stayner] was?”
“Well.” He paused, “I just really don’t know how to describe him. He’s a picky eater, I know that.”
“What were some of his faults, besides being a picky eater?”
“Well, as he got to be a teenager, he did some changes, what with marijuana and things like that. At least he stopped there, as far as I know.”
“I guess I’m curious about what your day-to-day life was like,” I said.
“Well, it was pretty hectic. Of course, I had to work, and I had to [commute] a long distance. So I’d just come home and get something together to feed us.”
“So you’d make dinner for him?”
“Did you like being a dad?”
“Yes,” he replied quickly, and began eating a chocolate sundae.
“What kind of story do you think I’m going to write?” I asked him. He smiled sheepishly and chuckled.
“Well, I think you’ll probably be objective, mainly. But I don’t think you’ll do much personal commenting.”
“You don’t think I’ll do much personal commenting?”
“No. More on the objective side.”
“My story’s pretty much about meeting you and hanging out with you, so it will be personal.” We sat for a while in silence, eating our ice cream. Then he added, “I don’t think you’ll offer any opinions as to what you think about what I have done. I think you’ll leave that to the reader.”
“Hmm.” I said, “I guess what my story is about, Gene, is my impressions of you before I met you, and then after.” Parnell smiled modestly.
“Well,” he chuckled nervously, “I can imagine all kinds of ‘befores,’ but, uh …” he trailed off.
“Did you really cry when Steven died?”
“Did you really consider him to be your son?”
“Yes. You don’t live with someone for seven years and just, you know, have no feelings.”
“Do you think you did what was best for him?”
“Well,” he answered slowly, “yes and no.”
“What did you do that was good?”
“Well, I thought he was in too strict a family, as far as family life. So for that part I thought he was better off, you know, being with someone else. But.” He paused. “Of course I wasn’t exactly an angel, the way I treated him sexually. So there’s two sides.”
Yes, I thought to myself, there are two sides to every story.
It was time to wind things up. We headed for the parking lot. A woman with two small daughters was leaving too. The girls were blonde, and dressed up as if for some special occasion.
“Here,” the mother said, offering to hold open the door for Parnell and his walker. “Let me get that for you.” Parnell scooted into the car and soon we pulled up, for the last time, to the curb in front of his house. “Good-bye, Katy,” he said to me, not making eye contact. Kenneth Parnell inched his way up his front stairs, and disappeared behind his screen door.