Peter Pater

by Harlan Yarbrough

Nothing Alice’s father did was unconsidered. The way he chose a piece of firewood provides an example. If he had two or more pieces to add to a fire in their woodstove, he would consider whether they needed maximum heat output immediately or later. Perhaps the rest of the family still slept, a frequent occurrence. Best not to waste heat now, better to make the fire hottest just before Alice and her sisters and their mom got out of bed. So, he would save the smaller and drier pieces until he heard the ladies stirring or thought they were about to come downstairs.

In the spring, he planted their corn—with beans, of course—working out from the center of a spiral, while the neighbors planted theirs in rows. He continued adding to the spiral every week or two from early spring until late June. The younger, more recently planted stalks received plenty of light, because they were on the outside of the spiral and not shaded by the older, taller plants. The older ones, because they were taller, received plenty of light, too. Some years, the earliest ones got killed by a late frost; most years, they survived and provided the earliest corn in the valley. Some years, early frost or cold rain meant no late ears to harvest; most years, Alice’s family harvested corn three or four weeks later than any of their neighbors.

In the summer, Alice’s father was always the first to set a bucket (usually two) beside him in the shower, to catch the water that would otherwise go to waste. Maybe they would have plenty of water in their tanks and be able to keep all their young fruit trees happy and healthy, maybe not.

Alice, nearly thirteen, was almost as prepensive as her dad. Every adult in the valley said she was the most deliberate and observant child they’d known. Many parents wished their kids were more like Alice; a few felt glad theirs weren’t.

The family were not what people called “survivalists,” although they did like to be as nearly self-sufficient as possible—“without going overboard,” as Alice’s mom liked to say. Their property—house, barn, garage, workshop, stable, and pumphouse—was connected to the national electric grid, even though they generated most of their own electricity. Alice’s father had grumbled that connecting to the grid was an unnecessary expense, but her mother had insisted on it.

Excepting corn, they bought all the grain they consumed, including three fifty-pound bags of rice each year. Although they grew most of their own fruit—more all the time, as the young trees matured—they bought exotic and out-of-season fruit from a supermarket or, when they had to drive into the city, from a Whole Foods that used to be a Wild Oats. They didn’t often buy mangoes or pineapples or papayas, but Alice’s mother always had ripe bananas in the house.

“I’ll bet we’ll be able to grow mountain paw paws here within five or six years,” Alice’s father—Pete to his friends—had said several times. He’d begun hunting for a source of cold-adapted varieties and had managed to nurse a couple of avocados through the past two winters, to the neighbors’ surprise.

Peter had earned a degree he’d never used, and he put a good deal of thought and effort into fostering his girls’ academic prowess. All were intelligent, capable students.  All homeschooled, every one was at least a year ahead of her age cohort. Their dad also put thought and effort into ensuring they possessed a good range of practical skills and knowledge. Profiting from his example and support, each of them also developed her own considerable artistic talents without much conscious effort on his part.

Bernadine, Alice’s oldest sister, excelled in music and dance. She played guitar and violin and—as she put it—“played at” clarinet. She had achieved recognition as a dancer, beginning with ballet and then tap, and reaching the state finals in Scottish Highland dancing, her favorite style. She also enjoyed square dancing and never missed the local barn dances, where her dad played his fiddle or—when a particular good visiting fiddler appeared—double bass. All the girls played music, but Bernadine had developed professional-level skills.

Bernadine—Bernie to her sisters—had just begun her third year at the state university. Although aiming for law school, Bernadine was in the process of earning a bachelor’s degree in economics, a subject her father called a “pretend science.”

“Yeah, I know,” Bernadine would retort, “economics was invented to make astrology look good.”

Even though Bernie was working diligently toward her degree in economics, she recognized that a great deal of what she was taught was based on assumptions that were patently false. In order to get good grades, she usually kept her observations and opinions to herself—except to share them with her dad.

“You’re not going to believe this …,” she would begin on her weekend visits or, sometimes, phone calls home.

“I believe it,” Peter would respond, “but don’t you believe it.  You have a good eye for crap. If it looks like bullshit to you, then it probably is bullshit.”


Sixteen-year-old Zoe had discovered boys, but, like her younger sister Alice, had too much good sense to get caught up in what her dad called “the whole court and spark” culture. Zoe knew a few boys who seemed attractive, and she didn’t mind cautiously timed cuddles, but she found her family and the animals on their homestead more interesting and more fun than the boys she knew. Zoe, like Bernie and her other sisters, found math and science easy, but she enjoyed both more than her siblings and tentatively planned to become a physicist. Alice also found those subjects easy but—also like Bernie—she rarely enjoyed the math. She planned to follow Bernie to the state university to study biology as a pre-med, or maybe pre-vet, student. Nine-year-old Imojen worshipped her big sisters and wanted to “be a lawyer and a physics-ist and a doctor.”

None of the girls had much interest in their dad’s consulting work designing—or, more often, re-designing—companies’ computer networks and server configurations. Peter didn’t enjoy the work all that much either, but it brought in nearly half his income. The rest came from musical gigs and the stories and articles he sold to magazines and newspapers.


The kids had the usual share of bumps, scrapes, and bruises but nothing out of the ordinary—although Peter treated every injury as serious until proven otherwise, sometimes thereby angering one or more daughters and his wife. The girls had the usual supply of hurt feelings, broken romances, and such but generally lived a fairly serene life until Bernadine used her one allotted telephone call to ring home and tell her dad she’d been arrested. She had taken part in a peaceful demonstration against a proposed law that would make private industry tribunals superior to state and federal courts. The federal government had given the city and county an ultimatum: you arrest ’em, or you’ll have the National Guard on your streets doing it for you. Recognizing that the troops would probably inflict more injuries and damage, the local sheriff had deployed most of his personnel and brought in virtually all the protesters.

Peter didn’t feel at all happy to learn that the authorities had his eldest daughter in custody, but he’d said, “OK.  I’ll figure something out, and I’ll be there as soon as I can. I love you,” then gone for a short walk in the woods to think the situation through.

Would it be best for her, to let her experience the whole process of dealing with the legal system as a powerless defendant? He thought not. Should he let her think that’s what he was doing? That seemed gratuitously cruel and unlikely to benefit her. Any kind of conviction might prevent Bernadine from practicing law, so he’d have to make sure she didn’t get convicted of anything, if he could.

Alice’s dad returned to the house and ‘phoned the District Attorney’s office. He persuaded a series of flunkeys eventually to put the call through to an Assistant District Attorney who was responsible for ensuring the protesters got booked into jail.

“Do you have any idea of the legal fights you’ll get into, if you do that? Not only will all your defendants be acquitted, you’ll face charges of harassment and false arrest—not to mention the civil suits. I suggest you think twice before you file formal charges against those people.”

The D.A. ignored Alice’s dad, who immediately phoned Rodney Williams, a family friend and skilled lawyer. The defendant’s dad explained the situation and asked for Rodney’s help. “Yes, of course.  I’ll go down there myself,” Rodney said, “but first I’ll ring a couple of local attorneys in the City. I know two of the three best trial lawyers there, so I’ll get one of them on the case. We want the D.A.—and Bernie—to know she has representation.”

“I’m heading down there as soon as we get off the phone. D’you want to ride down with me.”

“Hang on a sec’,” Rodney said, then spoke to someone in the background. Speaking into the phone again, he said, “Yeah, I don’t have to be in court ’til Thursday, maybe all week. I’ll be ready in an hour.”

“Thanks, Rod. See you then.”

The two men did some social catching-up and a great deal of brainstorming on the three hour drive to the city. When they finally found a parking place and walked into the Hall of Justice, Rodney managed to talk an Assistant D.A. into letting Bernie’s dad accompany them to the hastily-reopened Jail #3 on the 6th floor, a temporary processing center. With more than two thousand arrestees, the sheriff’s department had no possibility of confining them all to cells. Luckily for the law enforcement personnel, virtually all the protesters submitted peacefully to the processing regimen. Rodney, Peter, and the Assistant D.A. entered a large room where a phalanx of Assistant District Attorneys attacked the recently-arrested protesters with threats and enticements.

After a strongly-worded layman’s statement from Bernadine’s dad and more authoritative arguments from Rodney and his colleague, one of the Assistant District Attorneys said, “I’ll talk to the boss,” and hurried away. When the Assistant D.A. returned, he offered to drop all charges against Bernadine and her seven cellmates.  She refused. “You drop all charges against everybody, or I’m staying right here.”

Peter whispered to his daughter, “You can’t afford to have any convictions, if you want to be a lawyer. Maybe you should take the d—”

“No way!”

“But Bernie, we can let Rodney carry on fighting for the rest of them, and you’re in the clear.”

“Dad, none of us violated any laws. They can’t convict us of anything. I’m not going to walk out on all these other people who were standing up for what’s right.”

Her dad understood her point and appreciated her attitude but didn’t want to see her jeopardize the career that seemed to mean so much to her. He turned to speak to the Assistant District Attorney, a small man in an expensive suit. Bernadine interrupted her father and spoke directly to the Assistant D.A., “I appreciate your offer, sir, but I am not guilty of any wrongdoing and I’m ready to say that in court. You can take your deal and stick it where the sun doesn’t shine.”

Peter, who had a reputation for speaking his mind, cringed at Bernie’s words. The Assistant District Attorney’s eyes widened, then narrowed. “My boss’ll make you regret that,” was all he said, before he turned on his heel and left.


“Don’t worry, Dad. They can’t do shit.”

Rodney had joined them. “I think she’s probably right,” he said. “They can probably make them uncomfortable, maybe try to intimidate some of them into a plea bargain, but it doesn’t look like they could find a charge that would get them a conviction.”

“In which case,” Bernadine said, “they’re guilty of false imprisonment. How about you tell ’em they’re about to be charged with that?”

“False imprisonment would be a civil case,” Rodney replied. “D’you know about torts?”

“A little.”

“False imprisonment is a tort.”

“It’s also a common law felony,” Bernadine insisted.

Rodney turned to her dad and said, “I hope I don’t ever have to face her in court.”  Turning back to Bernadine, he said, “Yes, you’re right. We could press charges and bring a civil suit.”

“Let’s do it.”

“Easy for you to say. By myself, I couldn’t file all the paperwork if I worked full-time on it for a month.”

“I could help you.”

“I suppose you c—”

“And my friend Emily. She’s pre-law and knows enough to be helpful. I’m not sure which cell she’s in, but she’s here somewhere.”

“Let me go talk to ’em,” Rodney said and walked off.


Despite the noise of more than a thousand people—even surprisingly cooperative people—in a space with a rated capacity of 426, everyone heard a roar from the street outside and paused. Those who still had their cellphones spread the word: there are fifteen hundred people gathered in front of the Hall of Justice and another thousand at the Federal Building, with more arriving all the time—nearly three thousand people who hadn’t participated in the original demonstration. The mood on the sixth floor became almost celebratory.

Peter worried that the media attention—the TV cameras—that would surely accompany such a crowd would make the D.A. less likely to release the original group. Bernie’s dad imagined the man’s embarrassment at having all the network and local cameras recording thousands of released prisoners streaming out of the Hall of Justice. Peter looked around for Rodney, wishing he would reappear. When he did reappear, the D.A. accompanied him.

Flanked by two sheriff’s deputies and two Assistant District Attorneys, the man stood on a table and waited until the room grew relatively quiet. When he announced that everyone would be released, Peter didn’t get his fingers in his ears quite fast enough. His discomfort from the cheer that went up balanced his surprise at how little grumbling followed the District Attorney’s explanation that the crowd would have to be released in small groups for their own safety.

While they waited, Peter offered to write a check for the lawyer Rod had engaged, but the woman declined and said, “A few hours well spent. I think we’re making history here.”

Nearly two hours later, four deputies ushered Rodney and Peter and Bernadine and her cellmates into an elevator. Bernadine said, “They did that on purpose.”

“Indeed they did,” Rodney replied. “Didn’t you expect it?”


“Oh, maybe so,” Rodney said, “but you didn’t have to antagonize them.”

Bernie’s dad said nothing but thought, I’m not so sure—maybe she did.