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Not Good Men


Now then, we're going to kick off today's "Lost Cause" episode with a story about family that is not a family story. As such, listeners with small children are advised.

JAY: (ph)I remember getting new hush puppies. And me and this kid named Henry, this little Chinese kid named Henry decided that we thought it was maybe possible that we could dig to China. And so we dug a 4-foot hole, and I ruined my shoes, my brand-new shoes, and got beat, you know, for it.

LINA MISITZIS, BYLINE: When Jay came home with mud on his new shoes, his dad was furious.

JAY: My mom interceded, tried to stop my dad from beating me. And I remember getting up at like, 6 in the morning the next morning, and scrubbing my shoes, trying to get them clean, and so proud of myself and, like, presenting them to my dad like, a cat presents a dead mouse, and, like, presenting them to him like, look, I - look what I did for you.

MISITZIS: One night, Jay was upstairs with his sister when he heard shouting downstairs.

JAY: It wasn't unusual for us to hear shouting, and screaming, and throwing things, and breaking things. And this night was no different than many, many, many other nights. And I don't remember gunshots. The first thing that I remember is my dad shouting on the phone, some (bleep) broke into our house and killed my wife - and just shouting that over and over again. Some (bleep) broke into our house and killed my wife.

MISITZIS: Jay's memory of the murder is just this - shouting, a phone call to the police and a lot of blood in the kitchen.

JAY: And the first thing that I did was run to my sister, you know, screaming and crying. And I was trying to protect her. And I walked out to see if I could figure out what was going on. And she was laying there, and there was just blood everywhere. And he was shouting into the phone. And I was so terrified of him and the situation, I just ran back into my sister's room and didn't leave.

MISITZIS: Jay later found out that his father had stolen a gun from the neighbor, and then used it to shoot and kill his mother. His father was sent to prison, leaving Jay, suddenly, without any parents. At 8 years old, he was an orphan.

JAY: When you're 8 years old, you know something's missing, but you don't know what it is, you don't know how to, like, explain it. You don't know how to live with those feelings. You just - and then it just becomes your reality. And then that's just what it is.

MISITZIS: Jay went to live with his grandparents. Like any 8-year-old dealing with that kind of loss, Jay started to act out.

JAY: And I would steal everything, everything I could get my hands on. Watches - I definitely stole a watch and I got busted for it. And money, I would steal money, and then hide it under rocks so that I could find it later. I'd be like, oh, look. I found money on the ground, but it was really money that I planted there, like, six hours earlier. By fourth grade at the earliest, I had already begun to master the art of eliciting sympathy from anyone that I could get it from - attention, and sympathy, and manipulating people to feel bad about me, whether it's just to, like, get a cookie or, like, affection. I was a little, manipulative monster. I was a bad kid.

MISITZIS: The only adults Jay looked up to were his mom's two brothers, Uncle Brian (ph) and Uncle Lee (ph). He was always trying to impress them, listening to the music they listen to, showing off when they would come over. His uncles were tough guys, not the kinds of role models most parents would want for their kids. But to Jay, they were nearly perfect.

JAY: Their biggest fault was that they weren't around enough.

MISITZIS: There was Brian.

JAY: My uncle Brian is a pretty complicated figure. He was probably selling cocaine, definitely using a lot of cocaine.

MISITZIS: And Uncle Lee, who went by Panhead because he drove a 1957 Harley Panhead motorcycle.

JAY: Long beard, Giants' fan for life, always wore a Giants' hat with two braids coming down the front of his shirt, black T-shirt, kind of a belly, bluejeans, Red Wing boots, uniform.

MISITZIS: Uncle Lee wasn't the type to step in, even when Jay started using drugs and got kicked out of college. He was a biker, and he had a troubled history of his own. But he was also Jay's uncle, the guy he looked up to most. So when Jay was in his mid-20's and started wanting to know more about what had happened all those years ago, he went to his Uncle Lee. And Lee had a story for him, one he'd never heard before. Lee said that one day, soon after Jay's mom was murdered, he was approached at a road stop in California with a proposition.

JAY: So these four, tough outlaws start walking towards my Uncle Lee. And they're clearly coming to him. He knew that it was possible that his life was in jeopardy. He knew that. And they walked towards him, not making eye contact, kind of kicking the dirt a little bit. And said to him, hey, Panhead, we need to talk to you. They walked around the corner of the bar. And my uncle had a bottle of Jack Daniels in his hand, and he gripped it, ready for what was about to go down.

And they just said, we heard what happened to your sister, and he want you to know that we have guys on the inside that'll take care of your brother-in-law for a carton of cigarettes. My uncle's response to them was, hey, this is not a decision I can make on my own. I need to talk to my brother. And so they said, well, you just let us know.

MISITZIS: Uncle Lee called up Uncle Brian. They agreed to meet at a diner called the Nut Tree.

JAY: And they're sitting across from each other. And, you know, Brian without a doubt, feels responsible, like, that he didn't do enough, and he feels this weight.

MISITZIS: Jay found out a family rumor, and if it's true, it means his mother's life could have been saved.

JAY: My mom called my Uncle Brian, and - when my dad left the house, and said, you need to pick up me and the kids. I think Jerry's (ph) going to kill me. And my Uncle Brian was drunk, and she had made that call before. And he was just like, pull your (bleep) together, Glenda. I'm not here to take care of you, and hung up on her.

MISITZIS: Uncle Brian was devastated. He was taking the murder much harder than anyone else, and this was his chance. This was the closest he could come to avenging his sister's murder.

JAY: And they sat from across from each other, and my Uncle Lee told my Uncle Brian what had happened and what the outlaw bikers had offered. And my Uncle Brian said, man, Lee, I don't think we're very good men, but I think we're better than that. And they decided that day not to have my dad killed. And I like that. I don't need to be a great man. I just want to be better than that.

You know, I make a joke about - that, like, so, you know, when people ask me - and it's usually women that I'm dating or their mother's - how did you turn out so good, the short answer is two guys sat at Nut Tree and decided not to kill a dude 'cause it's easy to do things that feel right, you know, that feel right. The hard decisions are when you viscerally want to do something, and you choose not to do it. And after that conversation with his uncle, Jay did slowly start to pull it together one decision at a time.

Not to be a good man, but to be a little bit better than the man he had been before. He even built a life he was proud of. Then one day, he got a call. His father, still in prison, had a lung disease that was going to kill him.

JAY: And he tells me that my dad's dying, and that his wish is to see me and my sister before he dies. It was like, just a slap across the face. I wasn't prepared for it. He's like, too young. I thought that I had time to, like, be ready to be able to go talk to him and, like, find out his side of the story, and to be suddenly told that he had maybe three months to live.

MISITZIS: Jay went back and forth about the decision to go. At this point, he hadn't seen his father in 30 years.

JAY: And I decided that the kind of person that I wanted to be was the kind of person that would grant a dying man his last wish no matter what that man had done. That's the kind of man I want to be. So I decided to go. And we get to the infirmary. It's small, and it's busted, really busted. And this really sweet, effeminate guy comes and leads me into my dad's room. And it's - like, paint peeling off the walls. And it smells just like, old people and sadness.

But there's this little radio that's taped to a rolling cart, like, duct taped to this rolling cart that's in his room. And it's playing John Cougar Mellencamp's "Scarecrow" record over and over again, just on repeat. And I sat there with John Cougar and my dad. He looked defeated. He looked emaciated, and he was struggling breathing. His cheeks were caved in, and everything was a - I don't know if you've ever seen someone struggle to breathe like that. It's just this sort of like, stuttered, belabored, like, sort of (breathing). And it, like, would take him five seconds to, like, take a breath. And I'm supposed to be feeling all these things, and mostly I'm just annoyed.

I'm just, like, he's not even conscious. I'm like, so what do we do? And I, like, reached out, and, like, just, like, touched him with my finger, like, you're touching a snake or something that you're, like, oh, and then pull back really quick.

MISITZIS: And then, with his father lying there unconscious, Jay took his last chance to talk to his dad.

JAY: I'm telling him all those things of, like - of everything that he robbed me of.

MISITZIS: What did he rob you of?

JAY: My mother, my childhood. He robbed me of even early adulthood. I said (bleep) you. You deserve this. You deserve to suffer, and you deserve to have your last breaths be the most painful thing that's ever happened to you. And I (bleep) hate you. And I was gleeful, almost, about it. It was this gleeful anger. Like, I felt so good watching him just barely be able to breathe. Yeah. I was shocked by my own anger. And not only my own anger, like, we all get angry, and usually it feels kind of gross. And maybe it feels like a little bit of a relief because we get to, like, set something out.

But I was getting off on it, like, it felt good to be - to feel hate towards him. And I was just about to leave, and he came to. And he just took a deep breath and said, I'm sorry, and then passed - went unconscious again. And I sat there, and I held his hand for about five minutes and then got up and left. And then he died 12 hours later.

MISITZIS: If the kind of man you wanted to be was the kind of man that would grant a man his dying wish - the truth is you got there, and the kind of man you were in that moment was an angry man who yelled at the dying man on the bed.

JAY: I mean, those things can totally sit beside each other. Like, I think I can totally go and sit with him and, you know, say goodbye, and be angry, and let him know that I'm angry and still have done the right thing. That's the - I mean, that's the thing, right? I don't need to be a good man. I just want to be better than that.

WASHINGTON: Thank you, Jay, for sharing your story with SNAP. It was produced by Lina Misitzis and Julia Dewitt. Now when SNAP JUDGMENT continues, we're running into an arena filled with thousands of cheering fans. And for once, we're going to be too smart for our own good. With SNAP JUDGMENT the "Lost Cause" episode continues, stay tuned.

(MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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