The Will To Power

By Elaine Olsen Thompson

In the courtroom my father turned to me, caught my eye, and gave me a little smile. When I think of that smile, I sometimes see the space between his front teeth. One tooth on the bottom leans inward like a kid weary of standing in line. But on that day his smile was solemn with a slight nod of his head intended to help me manage the situation. Sometimes my memory includes the face, but the face, after so many years, has a hard time staying in place. It shatters like the glasses we used to throw against the fireplace. Maybe we did that to shatter memories.

I keep my father's photo, from a newspaper clipping, in a diary along with one of my mother. Her photo is signed, "Love, Ingrid," and was originally given to Daddy. The diary is a gift from Ingrid. "Life slips by, Patricia," she used to say. "We must keep track."

In the black and white photo my father wears Levis and a dark shirt that highlights the white pullet in his arms. A man from the poultry association stands with him, but the camera had been directed at the pullet and the men are a bit out of focus. The caption reads, "Do Happy Chickens Lay Better?" My father thought so.

Courtrooms feel heavy to me-the furniture, the form. The windows could fit in a fortified castle, the judge on a throne. Voices echo ever so slightly and carry extra weight. Going before a judge is like auditioning to go before God.

My father, for the first time in my life, seemed small in that courtroom. He turned to me, searched a moment, and finding me, gave me that little smile. I then watched him stand while solemn words were spoken before the police took him away. I never saw him again.

I pictured my father being electrocuted in a chair with big flat arm pieces and a high back, but my uncle Teddy told me later that he was executed by gunfire. "You must shed blood," he said, "to atone for your sins. That's what most people in Utah believe."

I remember Marcella, the murdered woman, well. She was short and muscular with dark hair. Coquettish, too-or so Ingrid said. I didn't, at the time, know what coquettish meant, but I knew Marcella was different. She drove a small pickup with yellow doors, a green hood, and a beige body, having been put together from more than one source.

My father contracted with Marcella's father to bale our hay. She came in advance to warn us of his arrival and to collect the fee. To me she appeared to have authority as she wrote out the receipt, pocketed the money and got in her little multicolored pickup with crosses and trinkets hanging from the rearview mirror. One of her upper arms had a rose tattooed on it and the other had a small dragon. Bracelets ringed both arms. She often winked at people. She winked at me once and grinned like a worldly woman. Ingrid said she was worthless and a showoff. "We could just as well pay her father. Who needs a little flirt like her to come around begging?"

In anger, my mother's throat constricted so that her soft vowels became harsh and commanding, always a surprise to strangers who had the impression she was sweet and thoughtfully polite.

Ingrid's parents hailed from Germany. They moved to Mexico before her birth, and she grew up speaking three languages, but best of all, she spoke Spanish. She told everyone how much she loved the little farm where she grew up, and she returned there shortly after Daddy's trial. I haven't seen her since.

Ingrid served as Daddy's interpreter when he gave a lecture on raising poultry to the Mexican farm bureau, speaking on behalf of a stateside company that manufactured vents and stuff for farm buildings. Ingrid often said to me, while laughing in her languid voice, "You are a love child, darling, conceived in the Hotel Elcano right next to the Centro Internacional in Acapulco-a marvelously beautiful city." When she said "marvelously beautiful" it sounded like music.

Marcella was killed with an ax that belonged to my father. He had employed it on a Monday to debark cedar posts. He was building a cabana in the backyard to help Ingrid feel at home when he and she sipped margaritas in the late afternoon. The ax disappeared sometime between Tuesday and Friday and was found at the murder scene on Sunday morning. Pictures were in the paper, but I wasn't old enough to read the text. What I know is second hand. It happened fifteen years ago.

Ingrid said that everyone would insult me if I stayed around after Dad was convicted. She sent me to live with Uncle Ted, my father's brother, about a hundred miles away. After I had my first period, he sent me to his parents' place out in Elko, Nevada because he didn't know how to handle such things. When Grandma died, Grandpa sent me back to Uncle Ted because I was dating boys. After the police brought me home one morning, Ted sent me to live with Cousin Edith in Alaska. She was nice.

Alaskans claim that their state is the best place on earth, a gift from God to self-reliant people, all of whom are superior to the softies residing in the lower forty-eight.

Edith had a job with the State Department of Education. The government paid pilots to fly her all over the state so she could evaluate and promote programs subsidized by the federal government. For taking care of Spike, her Doberman, Edith gave me a generous wage that I spent on booze and amphetamines. Spike and I, with our friends, would party for days. Just go and go, no end. I felt invincible. Rugged. I could do anything and generally did, sexwise and otherwise. My father's teeth would come out of their hiding place and smile at me, big teeth, skeletal, like you see at Halloween. We'd break a few glasses even if we didn't have a fireplace, just to hear the sound, feel the power, and declare life meaningless. Sometimes we'd break other things as well or set fires. The rousing intensity, the boozy shrill, the overwhelming intoxication of it stopped my nightmares.

In those nightmares, men had tied my father to the gate at our farm, arms spread eagle. They would make me watch while they tortured him. If I wanted them to stop, I had to take his place. One of us had to die. Waking was a blessing. I'd go around in a daze, entertaining every kind of disabling feeling possible: fear, guilt, horror, anger, depression. But not in Alaska. That is, until Edith caught me doing drugs and placed me in a school for addicts.

Most of the addicted students lived at home, but a few of us lived with Dr. Livingston. In my case it was because Edith was gone so much and didn't trust me anymore to be at home alone. She put Spike in a kennel, which was like prison for him.

Ralph and Twila, two of my buddies, had been committed with me, but they were fortunate to go home every night.

Ralph was a big, good-looking, bisexual nigger with a phenomenal dick (according to him). He said things like, "speaking categorically," or "given these assumptions." He referred to Livingston as, "You the white Doc-ah pre-suuume." Twila kept her head shaved and said things like, "Men are merely sperm delivery systems."

Ralph snorted cocaine. Twila, like me, preferred booze.

Twila called Livingston Big Foot. He was big and loosely put together with reddish uncombed hair and a brushy mustache. The under-hairs near his mouth were dark and always appeared wet. Sometimes they harbored foreign particles, and we speculated on whom he had eaten that day. But his face was round, innocent and smiley. Sometimes I almost liked him.

Livingston talked about Adler and his theory on the will to power all the time. I did as I always did when caught in a tight situation at school. I became a prize student, which, in Livingston's domain, meant that I worshiped Alfred Adler and his theory.

Livingston told me I used drugs and alcohol to gain power, and I said, politely, "Yes, I do." You ass.

Three other students were staying with him at the time. All dudes. We had "situation" conversations at dinner. Doc would set-up a situation, and we were supposed to say how we'd deal with it. The penises all called each other liars, or in denial, and other shit like that, but after dinner, when we were supposed to have a circle-hug, they all acted like they had just found their best friend. I said I didn't want to touch these cowboys. Livingston said, "That's acceptable."

Trouble was I didn't desire to be acceptable.

The guys reached their six-month stay at the school, and we ate buffalo wings and french fries instead of soup that night because this was their 'last supper.' They were ready now, according to Livingston's theory, for the big, mean world and their crucifixion. I finally hugged them. It felt pretty good.

I was alone then with Livingston at dinner, and it scared me. I had never contributed to the discussion thing, which I thought was kid's stuff. In preparation for Livingston's assignment, I tightened myself and kept an angry lip, but he didn't set-up any situations, he asked me how my mother was.

Loudly, accusingly, and with a kernel of terror, I said, "I'm an orphan."

He said, "Oh?" and his bushy brows went into orbit. "I thought your mother lived in Mexico."

"Who told you that?"

"It's in your record."

That made me hot. Stirred up. I thought my head might bust. My body shook. "What else is in my record?"

I heard my squeaky, terrified voice and almost fainted with shame.

He stayed calm, a lumpy, disheveled Buddha. "That your father was executed for murder when you were nine."

I felt strange. Unreal. Or released somehow. The worst thing anyone could say had been said, and I still lived. I breathed. My heart went on beating.

"The record says that you were an excellent student but became incorrigible. Could you tell me about that?"

"I wasn't incorrigible."

"When was the last time you saw your father?"

"In a courtroom."

"Did you know what was going on?"

"No. My father smiled at me. They took him away."

"And you attacked the prosecuting attorney."

"No. That's stupid."

"But that's what you did, isn't it?"

I was about to pass out. I was in the courtroom again, a kid. I knew. I knew all along. It was like walls closing in and nothing could stop them. The walls came closer and closer. Men spoke. The walls pushed inward, were about to crush Daddy and me. I had to say something. No one else would do it. So, I had to. I chose the man who had done the most talking, who had said things like, "Jealousy," and, "He has a beast in him," while he pointed at my daddy.

In Livingston's presence I tried to stand. Run. Scream and throw glasses. Crush things. Bite someone. Kick walls and bust down doors. I wanted to disappear into the sun and burn to a crisp. I wanted to be gone from there forever.

I stood. Livingston stood with me. His hairy arms came around me like giant pincers holding my body. Slowly, and as if his arms held medicine-a drug of some sort-I became calm, a little like jelly. I began to cry.

He whispered, "It's all right, Patricia. I'm here to help you."

I couldn't stand to cry there in his arms. I broke away and said I needed to go to my room.

I called on my father's teeth that night and his face appeared with a smile, a soft smile. But it vanished, floated apart, little pieces scattering into oblivion, leaving me frazzled and impossibly weary.

At our next dinner Livingston told me that his father spent life in prison. "He was knifed there and died at age thirty-seven. In Chicago. I know how you feel."

I looked at Livingston as if he had turned into Christ, and I had become a believer. I told Twila to stop calling him Big Foot, and she knew I meant it. Ralph heard me, and stopped saying, "You white Doc-ah pre-suuume."

"In our society," Doc said the next day, "prosecutors are rewarded for obtaining guilty verdicts. It's easy to let finding the truth become irrelevant."

"Was your father innocent?" I asked.

"It's problematic. He drove some young guys to the liquor store, didn't know they planned on holding the place up, shooting the proprietor. In the wrong place sort of thing. Thinking he was the Good Samaritan."

"How old were you?"

"Seven. Just a tyke. Didn't understand."

"Too bad. Awful."

"Lots of things we humans do are too bad and awful. In Iran they recruit young boys-ten, twelve years old-to run ahead of the soldiers and explode the mines across the battlefields with their bodies."

"You kid me."


"Who put the mines there?"

"The Iraqis. Or you could say we did-the U.S.A."

"Why are we doing that?"

"We hope they'll destroy each other."

"We're helping them kill each other?"

"That's about it, but the government doesn't talk about that."

"They commit murder and get away with it?"

"You could say that. So, Patricia, when you leave here, how do you plan on conducting your life?"

"I'm going to change the justice system."

He looked at me sideways and grinned as if I were joking. "That's good, difficult, but good," he said, his brows lowering, thinking I guess, and then after that, his mouth pulled down at the edges while he nodded, a wise old Buddha turned serious.

"How about you write a story that tells me how you'd go about doing that?" he said, nodding some more and screwing up his mouth in a satisfied conclusion.

I did what he said. I wrote a story about me speaking in the streets, waving banners and kissing babies; about telling the public that their government keeps secrets and kills people unjustly. I ended with me grown up and wearing high heels, standing in congress and holding a filibuster to change the justice system so that when little kids said the Pledge of Allegiance, they could believe in it.

Livingston liked my story. He patted me and smiled. He needed his teeth cleaned.

The day came when we ate buffalo wings and french fries, and I went home to Spike. When Edith took off, Spike and I went out on the town. A week later, she returned. It took her three days to find us. She took Spike home and sent me to detox.

When I got out of that shithole, she had my things packed, a plane ticket handy and told me that Uncle Teddy had been in an accident and needed me to take care of him.

"How about Spike?"

"Patricia. You are a liar and a cheat. You have no respect for yourself or anyone else. Spike doesn't need a person like you and neither do I. Go see if you can do something worthwhile for your uncle."

"Yeah. I will. Been nice knowing you." Not.

Uncle Teddy sent a friend to pick me up at the airport. I had barely stepped in the living room when he greeted me with, "So, we meet again." He was paralyzed from the waist down and in a wheelchair.

"Yes," I said. "Sorry you're a cripple."

"Always pleasant," he said.

"It runs in the family."

"Sometimes I can't believe it."


"That you're John's daughter. 'Course Ingrid . . . well . . . she was something else."

"Meaning what?"

"Maybe we should start over. Go out and come in again. Let's try being civil."

"Tell me what you were going to say about my mother."

"Not much. Not much to say. She thought America was bathed in money and she was wrong, especially for someone living on a farm with a man like your daddy."

"She lives on a farm in Mexico."

"Nah. Not a farm. A resort, maybe. A health place. They have hot tubs and masseuses . . . special diets . . . and a spiritual adviser."

"Our president has spiritual advisers. That's how he makes decisions. He killed a lot of kids too. Has a Readers Digest reading level."

"Where'd you hear that?"

"At school. Tell me where my mother's resort is."

"I don't know. An hour or so out of Oaxaca."

"I'm going down there. I want to see her."

"How are you going to get down there? Thumb?"

"Immaterial right now. What do you want of me?"


"Oh, shit. What-do-you-want-me-to-do? Stand here forever?"

"I want you to shop and cook for me. And keep your dirty mouth shut."

"That's friendly. How do you feel about me being here?"

"Two things. Cook. And don't arouse the police. I don't need your kind of publicity in this town."

"I asked you how you felt."

"I told you."

"You told me what to do. I said, 'how do you feel about me.' "

"Damned confused. I don't know how you could be John's daughter. From the stories I've heard, you're not improving."

"Daddy was executed for murder."

"Your daddy got along with everyone. A nicer guy never existed. And he wasn't a womanizer. He was a scholar."

"Was he innocent?"

"I think about it all the time. The ax. The fingerprints. The woman next door seeing his pickup. Jesus. It's a headache. Did damage to all of us. You, too."

"You're the cripple."

"Your room is the same as before. And I'm sort of glad you're here. It takes effort, but I'm glad. Do you think you could give me a hug or is that asking too much?"

"Yes, too much."

Uncle Ted owned a foreign car agency and garage. He drove an especially equipped car to work everyday. I took a job as a water meter-reader with the city, passed my GED, and enrolled in classes at the university. I had no desire to mix with the local high-school kids. I was hell-bent on finding my mother and confronting her. I studied Spanish, studied the map, and the means of transportation in Mexico. I wanted to know how her voice sounded. Would it be sweet or constricted? Would she be polite or would she try to pull my hair? She always used to yank on my hair.

My other goal was to become a politician. Uncle Teddy had been an aide in the Agricultural Department under Lyndon Johnson, and he liked talking politics with me. "You should join the Green Party," he said. "The Republicans and Democrats have sclerosis. You may not change the justice system or achieve any other goals you're hep on, but you'll have more fun with the Green Party."

"I'm out to change the justice system, fun or no fun."

"It's the best in the world, they say."

"It could be the best and still be rotten. Are you certain Daddy was guilty?"

"No, I'm not. Till the day he went before the firing squad, he claimed he was innocent. But then, as the warden said, all prisoners say that."

"See? They didn't have the facts. All they wanted was a body. I'll tell the public, 'Vote for me. You'll be safer.'"

"Hey, smart-aleck. You'll do well in politics. Join the Green Party."

I graduated from college in three years. Six months later I took a bus to Nogales and a train to Mexico City-one long drag. I practiced my Spanish with the other passengers, all Mexican as far as I could tell. Against the rules in the travel book, I ate food from the vendors who met us at each stop, yelling and holding up their tamales or whatever. Grateful for a sale. Smiling all the time. I loved them.

In Mexico City, I took another bus and landed in Oaxaca. It took a little detective work, but I found what sounded like the farm Teddy had described as belonging to Mom's parents. Granja de Sol, they called it, located on the outskirts of Mitla. I took the bus again, this time with lots of bodies, chickens, and stink. I worried about my wallet, standing on the bus in that sweaty mass, but it survived. At Mitla, I hailed a taxi. As we approached the farm, I considered telling the driver to take me back but sat captured by my plan, speechless.

He drove through the farm gate that could have been on a ranch in Texas and stopped before a grand adobe building. "Wait for me," I ordered.

Inside, no one was at the desk. A woman dusted the elaborate colonial furniture and pretended she either couldn't understand me or didn't know the answers to my questions. In the hall, I walked past Don Quixote, done in a thousand strips of rusted metal welded together to make an artistic likeness. My father's teeth chattered at me, warning me of danger. I hurried through glass doors into a garden and upset a few peacocks. They fanned their tails in display and scolded me. I expected guards to confront me next.

A maid came by with a white headband and a tiny white apron carrying a tray of glasses filled with (my guess) tequila. I wanted to grab a drink and rest in the wrought iron lounge by the pool. "Quieres esa la senora Demming?" I ventured in my textbook Spanish.

"Whom do you mean?" she responded. "Mrs. Shultz?"

"Yeah. Yeah. I'd like to speak with Mrs. Shultz. Or, better still, Mrs. Demming. Ingrid Demming."

"I don't know Demming. I'll introduce you to Mrs. Shultz. Follow me."

She opened a door nearby and led me into an office. "Sit down, please," she whispered and disappeared around a partition. I waited, thinking of Don Quixote and the peacocks beyond the heavy adobe walls. I thought about how I would escape if I needed to, and worried about how my heart was knocking on my ribs.

A woman came, business-like, around the partition and leaned against the desk before me. She looked like an aged celebrity, svelte in a beige, sleeveless dress, high collar and with painted toenails pointing at me from out of sandals.

"Good afternoon. I'm Mrs. Shultz. What can I do for you?"

Her voice vibrated tightly like my mother's when angry, but this lady appeared relaxed in the manner of an executive who gladly gives an underling a little time-but not much.

"Hello. I'm Patricia Demming."


Apparently she's never heard of me. "Do you have a daughter named Ingrid?"

"Ja. Who do you say you are?"

"I'm Patricia Demming. I think your daughter is my mother."

"Oh. Maybe. She's not here now."

She appeared nettled and I felt surprisingly at ease.

"When do you expect her?" I said.

"Oh." She looked away, found interest in a bouquet of flowers. "I don't, actually-" She hesitated, preparing a lie. "Ingrid is with the embassy in Costa Rica." She looked behind her. Expecting someone?

A whopper, I thought. What can I possibly do with that?

"No, I didn't know," I say. "Was she once married to John Demming?"

"Demming. Ja."

"He was my father."

She leaned forward and her mouth carefully formed the words, "Too bad about him," but what I noticed was her pointed and very white teeth, while 'Too bad' echoed in my head.

"Too bad? Do you know anything about it?"

She leaned back. "No, dear. I don't. Ingrid didn't say much."

"Did she say he was executed?"

"Oh. I don't think so. What do you want? Are you here to cause trouble?"

I lost it then, almost screamed, "I want to see my mother. Why did she abandon me?"

The executive grandma spoke. Her voice came at me like darts. "She needed to care for herself. Earn a living. Times were hard."

Like a giant wave, my emotions shot up from my body and overwhelmed my thinking. "I want to know what she had to do with the murder my father was accused of."

Grandma remained physically unassailable except that the veins in her throat stood out, filling her tight collar.

"Control yourself, madam. She had nothing to do with it."

"She had . . . had the ax."

"What are you saying?"

Her eyes enlarged. She stepped toward me. She might grab me by the neck.

"She did it," I calmly said. It might have been someone else speaking. I sat startled. Had I become two people without noticing?

Her face reddened. Her forehead showed little bulges.

"How dare you. You get out of here. Out. Out. You . . . you monster. Get out. Burtrand. Burtrand. Escort this woman out."

A young man, blond and as erect as a soldier, came around the partition with his blue eyes zeroed in on me.

"Thank you," I said. "I'll leave on my own."

My voice shocked me-the authority and self-assurance. I remember the latch on the heavy door and coming to Don Quixote again without being conscious of how I did it. I forced myself to slow. I wanted to linger on my grandmother's territory because down the long dim hall, I saw my mother carry an ax through darkness, saw my Daddy's pickup. Heard a young voice screaming in a courtroom as my fists hit upon an immovable man. "Mommy is the killer," had formed in my head, but the only words that would come were, "Mommy, Mommy." 'Killer' choked me, made me pass out and I awoke in the arms of a matron. By then, Daddy was gone

"Don Quixote. You." I pointed at him, jabbed into his metal ribs. "Am I crazy? Fighting windmills?" A chill came through me like an Alaskan storm, but Don Quixote remained enigmatic. "No," I told him. "I saw her carry the ax to the pickup. Then she drove away."

I entered the waiting taxi and told the driver to take us back to Mitla. My head felt light. I might float away. I heard myself say, "It's a beautiful day."

"Si, Senorita. A be-u-ti-ful day."

Back home I received an envelope. I stared at the postmark: Mitla. Energy drained from me as I tore it open and found a photo of my father.

He smiled up at me. His teeth didn't show at all.