The burden of proof


The paint I got on my father’s car was a little like the money I stole from his wallet. At least, that’s how I saw it. I had been toying with the idea of asking him for money to buy a scale model of a Messerschmitt Bf 109, but he often didn’t agree with the things I wanted to spend money on, and then we ended up talking for a long time about things that had nothing to do with what I’d wanted to buy, and then he said no. Taking the money saved us both some trouble. Besides, he owed me money for cleaning the pool, but he was withholding it on the grounds that I’d destroyed his drill press.

Actually, I didn’t steal the money. I merely found it. There was a ten tucked away between some receipts. It looked like it had been there a long time, and so I took it. The same afternoon my father arrived in my room. I say arrive because that’s what he did. He didn’t just come in. He made a point of stretching out his entry to make me nervous.

“There’s a twenty missing from my wallet,” he said after he’d looked around and acted like a visiting dignitary. “Did you take it?”

“No,” I said.

It felt good to know that I wasn’t lying.

“Well, how did it go missing then?” he asked and sat down on the chest next to my bed.

He spoke like a mathematician proving a simple theorem.

“How should I know?” I countered.

“Do you think,” my father asked, building out his first lemma, “that it could get up and go off all by itself? Which is more—”

“No.”

“Let me finish,” he said. “Which is more likely? That it got taken out of my wallet or that it got out all by itself?”

“That’s stupid,” I said.

“Where did you get the money for that?” he asked and pointed at the model airplane on my desk.

“I had it.”

He walked over and turned the box the model had come in this way and that until he found the price.

“Twelve-ninety-nine. You had it how?”

“I just had it. I also have money.”

“Okay,” my father said, moving on to his second lemma, “let’s forget the coincidence that you suddenly have money for this on the same day a twenty goes missing from my wallet. Tell me this instead. Who else could have taken it?”

“I don’t know!” I shouted. “I don’t have to know who else! I just have to know that it wasn’t me!”

“But who?” he insisted.

“Maybe the maid took it.”

“She’s not here this weekend.”

“Maybe you spent it and forgot.”

He thought about this for a moment.

“How much money do you have?” he asked. “Right now? In total?”

“I don’t know.”

“You see,” he said, “I’m not like that. I know exactly how much money I have in my wallet at any given time.”

I wanted to scream that he was wrong, that a ten he hadn’t known about was going yellow in a forgotten corner of his wallet, that he was wrong about the very point his whole argument was based on. But I couldn’t.

“If you know all that,” I asked instead, “where’s the twenty then?”

My father remained calm and walked slowly to the door.

“I wish you would just come clean sometimes,” he said. “All you have to do is admit that you did it. It’s not that hard.”

“But I didn’t do it!” I screamed.

That evening he put his head around my door.

“I found the twenty that was missing,” he said. “I’d taken it out in the car. I’m sorry I accused you.”


The next morning I decided to paint my bicycle a different colour. There had been a tin of green paint in the garage for as long as I could remember, and green was as good a colour as any other. I went into the garage to paint the bicycle. I got everything ready—the bicycle, the paint and a brush—but it turned out that the paint wouldn’t work because it was the fast-drying type meant to be used in a spray gun. It started drying on the brush. I gave up. If I remember correctly, I got a little angry too. I hammered the tin shut and began to put everything away. Then I saw that there were green spots on the front left of my father’s car. There were similar spots on the front right of my mother’s car. I touched them but they were dry. I picked at them, but they wouldn’t come off completely, and so I gave up on that too. I threw the paint and the brush in our neighbour’s garbage.

That afternoon my father arrived in my room. He had come down the corridor with long strides, the way he walked when he was angry but had contained himself.

“I want to ask your opinion about something,” he said with near-infinite calm.

“You told me not to have opinions,” I said and looked up from my book. “To think instead.”

“Yes, yes” he agreed, “that’s what I said. I want you to think about something.”

“Okay.”

He sat down on the chest and crossed his legs.

“What is the probability of the following thing happening?”

“What?”

“Wait.”

He took his time to phrase things exactly.

“Somewhere—I don’t know where this happened—but somewhere out there in the world beyond our view, someone managed to spatter the front of my car with green paint. During the last day or so.”

He looked at me as this were a genuine question.

“What are the chances of that?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Why are you asking me?”

“Just roughly,” he said, “what are the chances?”

“Well,” I said. “A hundred percent.”

“What do you mean?”

“Because that’s the sort of thing that always happens to you.”

My father swallowed but remained calm.

“There’s more,” he continued. “Somewhere else, also in that time, someone else spattered your mother’s car with the same paint, on its opposite side. What do you think about that?”

“I don’t think about it at all. You clearly suspect that—”

“Relax,” he said, “relax. Just help me think this through. I’m a little confused.”

“I want to see this paint,” I said.

What I wanted was to get out of my room, out of the steady build-up of lemmas to his final proof.

“No need,” he said, “let’s just do this in our heads. These two events are possible in isolation. Do you agree?”

“Yes—”

“But very, very unlikely together, like this?”

“Impossible,” I said, taking a gamble.

This was not what my father expected.

“What do you mean, impossible?”

“It’s impossible that these two things happened separately.”

“Well—” he said, “impossible is not the word I’d use.”

“But that’s what I’m saying.”

“But you can never know that for sure—”

My farther seemed hurt by my shallow understanding of probability. Watching him argue was like watching someone on a skateboard—there was always something big about to go wrong.

“Anyway,” I said, “forget that. You think I did it, don’t you?”

My father was still thinking of a way to get me to see the difference between being absolutely certain and knowing something beyond a reasonable doubt.

“What?” he mumbled absently.

“You think I did it. That’s what you came here to say.”

My father pulled himself back to a place of cars and green paint.

“I was hoping that you’d have the courage to admit to something you obviously did. Just this once.”

“But you just said that one couldn’t know for sure.”

My father was less swayed by this than I’d thought he’d be. We had clearly arrived at the business end of his argument.

“Let’s stop fucking around,” he snapped. “Did you do it?”

A few minutes earlier I was going to say that I did it, that I was sorry. But now I wasn’t so sure.

“No,” I said.

We stared at one another for what seemed a very long time.

“Let me tell you something,” he resumed. “There are only a few ways in which this could have happened. Other than you, there are only your sister, your mother, the maid, and the dogs. The dogs don’t have thumbs, so they’re out. Your mother didn’t do it and—”

“How do you know?”

“Dammit!” my father exploded. “Why won’t you just admit it!? I know it was you!”

“Because I didn’t do it!” I screamed. “Don’t you think it would be easier to say that I did it and get it over with. You’d be too surprised to hit me.”

“I wasn’t going to hit you,” he mumbled.

“I didn’t do it any more than I took a twenty from your wallet. Remember?”

“I remember,” he said and looked away.

If you accused my father of ten things and one of them seemed to be true, he forgot the other nine that were nonsense. He stopped arguing and went away to think about that tenth thing. Now he forgot about the cars and the paint. He walked slowly to the door and was gone before I could say anything.


Late that evening he sat in his study in the dark. He sometimes did this to listen to music or to think about some problem. Around ten o’clock my mother sent me to check on him. I stood outside the study door and tried to hear myself say that I messed on his car, that I took his money, and that I was sorry. But I just stood there. I stood there and I listened to the whispering rain and the soft folding of his leather chair, and then he was asleep.



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