Dams

It had been about six years since I’d last seen Dave when he called me up and asked if I’d help him get rid of some beavers. I met Dave during my junior year of college. He wasn’t in school, but he was a fixture at most of the college parties. He had stories that all the over-protected college kids, hungering for news from the wild frontiers of the real world, were always eager to hear. He loved to talk about the time he fell asleep in a freight train car and rolled out the open door while traveling through a tunnel. One time he came to a party smelling foul and told us he’d gotten picked up while hitchhiking only to share a truck bed with a recently skunked dog.

We started hanging out in earnest once I discovered he was a hunter. He’d party all night and then get up at the crack of dawn, hung-over or still drunk, and go looking for a deer or some ducks to shoot. We’d shared a few beers and soon enough we were sharing a deer stand or Dave’s old, beat up, camouflaged aluminum boat, Dave sucking down Tylenol and Gatorade like there was no tomorrow, usually counting on me to to tell him if there was something he should be pointing his gun at. But for all his hard partying, he was actually a pretty smart guy (not to mention a fine shot). I remember climbing into his truck one morning and scooting a spine-down copy of Moby Dick from the passenger side seat.

He knew I’d done some trapping as a boy, which I guess is why he called me up out of the blue to ask if I’d help him do in some beavers reeking havoc on his neighbor’s ranch. I live in Moscow, Idaho with my wife and our two year old daughter. Dave was living a little ways outside Missoula, Montana, where I’d attended college and where we’d met. I still hunted, if not as much as I’d have liked to, but I hadn’t trapped anything–besides a few grasshoppers with my daughter–since I was maybe sixteen or seventeen. I told Dave as much, that’d he’d be better off getting in touch with someone who was less likely to trigger the damn trap on his own foot.

“Sean,” he said, in a tone I remembered him using to convince me, at two AM on many occasions, to wake up at dawn and go hunting. “I called you, man. I know you’re the guy for the job. Did I mention there’s a hundred bucks in it?” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that a hundred dollars wouldn’t even cover my round trip gas. It told me something about where Dave must be in life that a hundred bucks was still plenty of incentive for a ten hour drive. But there was some hitch in his voice that told me he was less concerned with my trapping skills than with something else, that maybe what he really wanted was some companionship, some time to share the new stories he had undoubtedly been amassing since we’d last seen each other. And I had moved fairly quickly from college to a family and a career as a journalist and as much as I cherished it all, I still had the occasional hankering for the good old days of low-stakes living. So, after checking in with the missus, I told Dave yes, and the following weekend, I drove back through Missoula, past my old haunts, and, following shaky directions out into the boonies, to Dave’s home.

 

Dave had moved about forty-five minutes out of town to a small log cabin with a steep roof and a little porch on which sat an old, green couch which I was fairly certain I recognized from the apartment Dave had previously occupied back in Missoula. It was late fall and pine needles carpeted the forest floor. A pinecone fell and thumped off the hood of my truck. Lodgepole pines stood at attention high up into the sky. I had stared down the long driveways of a number of Dave’s neighbors as I looked for his place; the properties ran the gamut from rusted-car-collecting rednecks to rich retired folks with big windows, SUVs secured behind their gated properties. It seemed a fitting community for a guy like Dave, always straddling the line between high and low societies.

Finally having found his house, I wondered how he’d ever found it, how he’d come to leave town for this out of the way corner of the world. For all his love of the outdoors, he’d also always seemed to love an audience. Walking past his truck, I glanced in the bed and saw the traps he had amassed, a combination of double spring leg traps and conibears. A part of me had given consideration to the idea that maybe the whole beaver thing was a ruse, that Dave was luring me down here for some ulterior purpose, but seeing the jumble of traps reassured me.

I walked up to the door and was about to knock when it opened, Dave grinning at me on the other side.

“Damn, son,” he said.

“Hey, Dave,” I said. He had a thicker beard than last I’d seen him, but aside from that he looked remarkably the same as when I’d hugged him goodbye outside the Union Club six years ago. His eyes were wide and expressive, his shoulders broad, his barrel chest trying to snap the staves of his suspenders. He reached out and gave me a big hug.

“Come on in,” he said and I stepped into his one room home. It was a nice place, if tiny. It almost seemed too quaint, like some version of log cabin simplicity you’d see in Martha Stewart Living. He allowed me a minute to look around, to try and assemble a story of the last six years that had led him away from the city and its parties to living out here, to this sparsely populated piece of the Montana wilderness. The room contained a worn out orange couch to which a cat had at some point taken a clawing to, an old wooden desk and an ancient looking refrigerator and stove. A few plates and cups sat atop the refrigerator and a deer’s head was mounted on the far wall, Dave’s rifle right next to it. In one corner sat a trunk like the kind immigrants might have loaded with all their worldly possessions before boarding boats bound for the New World. Following the rungs of a ladder, I saw a loft and a pile of blankets where Dave must sleep.

“It’s not bad, right?” Dave asked.

“Yeah, not at all.”

“Look, I know it’s tiny. I know you’ve probably got like a ten bedroom mansion or whatever, but–”

“Dave, I’m a freelance journalist. I’m lucky to a roof over my head at all.”

“Okay, sure. I’m just saying, I guess to be clear, that, you know, I’m happy, that I’m not settling for some podunk lifestyle or whatever.”

I nodded. It seemed like Dave had made some assumptions about my life, like the fact that I was married with a single young kid meant that I had hit some high water mark of maturity and stability. It felt like we were getting off on, if not the wrong foot, then the awkwardly positioned one. I threw my hands up in surrender.

“Sorry, didn’t mean to get all aggro on you there,” Dave said, seeming suddenly sheepish. “I’m not saying I always planned on moving into a one room log cabin in the boonies, but I dig it, really, I do.”

“I believe you.”

“Cool.” He stuck his hands in his back pockets. “So, what say you and me go trap us some beavers?”

 

As we bounced up the road in Dave’s old beater of a truck, he told me how he had ended up tasked with trapping a family of beavers.

“It’s a neighbor’s ranch, up the road a ways. His family’s house, which has been there for generations he said, is right along this nice little creek shaded with aspens and cottonwoods. Last month, this family of beavers moved in and started to just tear the place apart. They’ve got something like five dams built up now. They’re even chewing up all the saplings, getting ready for winter. Ted, that’s the rancher, he’s tried getting rid of the dams with a backhoe but the beavers are pretty dug in, just keeping rebuilding the things.”

“So how’d you get to be the resident neighborhood beaver trapper?”

“Oh, we pulled up next to each other on the side of the road one day, got to talking. That’s like the newspaper or bulletin board or whatever of living in the sticks, just seeing your neighbors on the road.”

“And you offered to off his beavers for him?”

“More or less. Good to make friends out here I figure. Might have told a little white lie about my previous trapping experience.” He turned to me and grinned, that same sloppy smile I’d seen hundreds of times back in the day. “Which is where you come in.”

My trapping experience, while not non-existent, was admittedly slim. I’d started out as a kid snaring squirrels until my mom got tired of me bringing home their little pelts to tack up on my wall. I moved onto rabbits, which my mother, who cut them up and threw them in stews, was more appreciative of. In junior high a friend of mine and I built a cage trap out of scrap wood we found in his dad’s garage. I couldn’t tell you what we caught, only that it must have been big because when we checked on the cage next it was in ruins.

“You know the last thing I trapped?” I asked Dave.

“What?”

“A beaver, close to twelve years ago.”

“No shit? See, I knew you were the guy for the job.”

“My friend and I, in high school, we wanted to be all Daniel Boone, trappers extraordinaire, but the fucking Anaconda Company gave a monopoly to one guy to do all the trapping on their land. So, you know, being teenagers, we went ahead anyway, went and got us a beaver in a conibear up in the hills a ways where we thought nobody would notice. We thought we were pretty sneaky, but when we exited the forest service road there was a fish and game guy waiting to bust us for poaching.”

“What happened to the beaver?”

“Oh, they took it from us. Pissed us off to no end. And that was the end of my trapping career.”

“Well hey, look at it this way. This is your second chance to get that beaver. Hell, to get a whole family of ’em.”

“I suppose so.” Dave had certainly not lost any of his boyish enthusiasm. He could have made the plague seem like an exciting opportunity.

Soon enough we turned right under a wooden arch advertising the Little Creek Ranch. We drove up the long driveway to a nice looking ranch house. You could tell it was old but that it had been taken care of, kept up real nice over the years: a little landscaping scattered around, a stone path leading up to the door, double paned windows to keep out the oncoming chill.

Dave jumped out of the truck and went and knocked on the door, but no one answered. He came back and started loading the traps into a duffel bag. He threw a pair of waders at me and said, “Those should fit you,” and then sat on his tailgate and tugged a pair on himself.

We walked around the house and then on down to the creek. It was obvious even from a ways out that the beavers had been busy at work. The scene looked a little sickly, the trees sparse, stumps with the telltale spear shaped tops evident along the bank. It reminded me a little of a haircut I had once inexpertly given my little brother.

“So, Dave. I gotta be honest, it’s been awhile since I’ve been at this. I might be a tad rusty.”

“Sure, I understand. But I’ve been reading up on it too, practicing with logs back at the house. I’m getting real good at trapping logs.”

“Well you’ve got more recent experience than me then.”

“Yeah, but I need somebody to run for help when I get my arm stuck in a conibear.” Out came that wolfish grin again.

We walked about twenty feet up the creek to the first dam. The beavers had created a deep pond, flooding over the creek’s banks into the grass, lending the place a swampy vibe. Dave dropped the duffel bag at his feet and divided up the traps. Then he stood at the creek’s edge, looking out at the dam, at the jumble of saplings, sticks and thicker branches and logs keeping the water on the other side pooled up high. On the far side you could see the beginnings of a lodge. The family was likely in it right then, waiting for night to swim out and resume their work.

While Dave stood their purveying the scene, I walked past him and waded out into the water and up to the dam.

“What’re you doing?” Dave asked.

“I’m going to take off some of these top branches, create a little breach in the dam so the water level drops a little. Let’s the beavers know something is up, that they have to come out and fix something.”

“And then bam, they walk into our trap.”

“That’s the idea.”

“See, you do know your shit.”

Dave waded in after me and we set to untangling the sticks from the dam. Beavers are good at what they do, you’ve got to hand them that. I remember when I was a kid spending half a day trying to dam a creek half this size and eventually giving up in frustration, the water refusing to stay on the other side. We set the sticks into the creek and watched them twirl down the stream, or, for the bigger ones, float aimlessly on the low level of water.

Then I waded back out to set the first trap.

“You want to set the trap about where you think the beaver is going to step up onto the shore,” I said to Dave. I looked over my shoulder and saw that he was still out in the water, staring over the dam at the lodge like he expected the beavers to come swimming out any minute, stop us before we could really get started.

“Sure, sure,” he said distractedly.

I grabbed a leg trap out of the duffel bag and set it about eighteen inches deep next to the bank where it looked like the beavers had been climbing up out of the water. I dug in the bag and found that Dave at least knew enough to include a mallet and a few pieces of rebar. I hammered the rebar firmly into the ground and then attached the trap to it with a good length of wire, the idea being that the beaver gets his foot stuck in the thing and then retreats back into the pond where the heaviness of the trap drags him down and he drowns. Might seem a little brutal, but it’s better than the alternative, which is that the beaver, in a desperate attempt to get out of the trap, chews off its own foot, which it will do.

I turned around to show Dave my handiwork and explain the reasoning behind it only to see that he had crossed over to the other side of the creek and was sneaking up toward the beaver lodge. The water was slipping over the weak spot we’d created in the dam a little faster, which would mean the water level inside the lodge would be dropping, giving the beavers something to be concerned about, reason to leave the lodge.

“Hey, Dave, what the hell are you up to?”

He looked up, seemingly startled.

“I don’t know. I was just thinking how I’ve actually never seen a beaver.”

“Well help me place the rest of these traps and you can see a dead one tomorrow.”

He hesitated a second more, bending over a little to peer at the lodge, like he might be able to sneak a peak of the beaver family through the mud and sticks. Then he stood up and waded through the creek back to my side. I couldn’t remember him ever being that interested in the deer or waterfowl we had shot over the years. I almost made a crack about him getting soft, but looking at the oddly contemplative expression on his face as he waded back toward me, I held back.

We set up a few more traps that day, another leg trap at a dam farther downstream and a few scattered conibears along the half submerged trails the beavers used to navigate up and down the creek. Dave asked the occasional question, but he seemed strangely quiet and spacey, not necessarily words I would usually use to describe the man. He kept squinting out into the water, apparently looking for the wet brown head of a beaver to poke up from the pond it had created. As we laid out the last conibear and the sun started setting, I felt obliged to tell him that beavers are mostly nocturnal.

“Oh, sure,” Dave said, almost like he doubted me. He didn’t take his eyes off the pond.

“You’ll have to camp out here overnight if you really want to see one,” I said. “And I’m getting cold and hungry, so you’d be on your own.”

“Yeah, okay.” He sounded grumpy. He grabbed the duffel bag and said, “Let’s get back to the house.”

 

My wife had never met Dave, but when I shared with her my general reminiscences of him, she said she didn’t trust him to feed me properly and threw a few cans of soup into my bag. But it turned out she needn’t have worried. Dave chopped up an onion, threw a few cans of tomatoes and beans into a pot and added some venison to make a chilli whose aroma quickly filled the cabin and set my mouth watering.

We’d been talking about old times as Dave prepared dinner, the kinds of safe memories, distant from current events, that can always be counted on to get old friends through the night. We were recounting the time when Dave was convinced that his future fortune was in an idea he’d had for a mobile stripper operation, going as far as welding a rough stripper pole into the bed of his truck. Nobody had shown up for the auditions though. I was suggesting that maybe that they were to be held in his garage was a deal breaker when Dave turned from the stove with watery eyes. At first I thought maybe the onions had gotten to him, but then he said, in a very matter of fact way, “You’ll probably call me a pussy, but I am a little sad about the beavers.”

“The beavers?” I said as though I hadn’t the faintest I idea what he might be talking about.

“I know they’re messing up that ranchers land, but I can’t help but feel bad about the traps. What a way to go, right? Just doing your thing, building your house, managing your property and then bam, leg in a trap, you’re drowning. And I mean, a whole family, right?”

“Not to discount what you’re saying, Dave, but if I’m remembering correctly, this is not the first time you have killed an animal.”

He laughed at this. Behind him, the chilli burbled in the pot. He turned around and grabbed a few bowls from the top of the refrigerator. Ladling some chilli into each, he said, “You’ve got me there, buddy. Not the first time, won’t be the last.”

He handed me a bowl and then scooted the old chest over from the corner to act as a table. He sat down next to me on the couch. The steaming chilli in the cold air of the little cabin fogged up my glasses and I took them off to wipe them on my shirt.

“Tell me about your family,” Dave said. He hadn’t said a word about them all night and I was almost beginning to wonder if he knew that I was married, that I had a daughter. I was fairly sure I had mentioned it on the phone, certain I had done so in the e-mails or christmas cards we’d exchanged since last we’d seen each other. I was happy for the diversion from the old stories, which I was beginning to feel we could only get so much mileage from.

“Well, I’ve ben married for almost five years now. Beautiful wife. She’s a copy editor, great cook, loves to hike and ski.”

“She hunt?”

“Nope, not a big fan of guns actually. Makes me keep ’em in a safe in the garage.” I glanced up at Dave’s rifle on a rack on the wall. “But that’s good, got the little one running all over the house these days.”

“And how old is she?”

“Two going on twenty.”

“That is a crazy thing. I knew you’d do it though.”

“Do what?”

“The family thing. Get a real job, a wife, a litter, nice house. Not sure that was ever in the cards for me. I’m too, I don’t know, crazy, or something.”

He spooned a bite of chilli into his mouth. I wasn’t sure what Dave was angling at. I thought maybe he wanted me to reassure him of all the fish in the sea, but it didn’t seem his style to play the pity card, to offer up the hard partier’s lament. He always seemed more assured than that. I tried to remember any girl’s in Dave’s life, but all I could think of was the time outside a bar when a drunk birthday girl had jumped into his arms and he’d just walked off down the block with her. Not exactly a serious relationship.

“Crazy? I’ll tell you what’s crazy. Mortgage payments, credit card bills. You, my friend,” I said, gesturing around the room with my spoon, “have got something a whole lot of guys would kill for.”

“A one room log cabin?”

“Simplicity.”

“Sure, sure, I know that. That was the point, for sure. But, you know, a guy never sees himself where he ends up. Ahead of time that is. Or maybe that’s just me. Anyway, how’s that chilli?” he asked, apparently abruptly done with his original train of thought.

We ate dinner and turned back to talking about old stories. Eventually, I looked out the window and noticed it had begun to snow, the first wispy flakes of the year.

“Well shit,” Dave said. “Won’t be more than a skiff though. Shouldn’t mess things up too bad, beaver wise.”

“Might even help some, covering up the traps,” I added. “You about ready to hit the hay?” I was tired from the drive over and also wanted to get an early start checking the traps the next day.

“Yeah, I could sleep,” Dave said. He dug a sleeping bag out of the chest for me and threw an extra pillow onto the couch. It was cold in the drafty little cabin and I quickly burrowed into the sleeping bag. Dave loomed overhead with his hand on the string for the room’s single lightbulb.

“Hey, sorry about earlier.”

I looked up from the cocoon of the sleeping bag, confused about whatever slight he was referring to.

“I’m fine, really,” he said. “I just don’t want you thinking I’m some sad sack mess living out here in the woods, pining for a good woman to set me straight or whatever.”

“Thought didn’t even cross my mind,” I said, which, of course, was at least a little bit of a lie. Dave was right; I was a family man, I had settled down into the American dream. For all the simplicity inherent in his setup, I wouldn’t have traded it in a million years for what I had going. Some holier-than-thou part of me must have felt a little sorry for Dave: isolated, loveless. Maybe he sensed it.

“Yeah, okay, good,” Dave said and pulled the string, turning out the lights. I heard the ladder creaking as he crawled up into his loft.

 

I woke up early the next morning to the smell of coffee. Dave reached over and handed me a steaming cup and I worked an arm out of the sleeping bag to accept it. It was cold in the cabin. I could see a thin layer of frost on the inside of the window.

“Gonna have to get a little space heater soon I guess,” Dave said, his breath visible in the air.

Outside, a thin layer of snow coated the ground and stuck to the tree branches overhead. But you could tell it was going to be a nice day, blue pawing at the corner of the sky, waiting to be released by the rising sun. The snow would likely be gone by nightfall.

We drove back over to the rancher’s land. There was a truck coming down the driveway as we drove up and Dave pulled to the side and rolled down his window. The truck pulled up to us and a window rolled down to reveal a mustachioed man with a thin beard and small, squinty eyes.

“Hey, Ted, how’s it going,” Dave said.

“Getting a slow start this morning. You getting to them beavers?”

“We set the traps last night. Ought to be full by now. I brought in some out-of-state help,” he said, motioning toward me. The rancher nodded.

“Well you just let me know when you’ve got all the sons a bitches, I’ll cut you that check.”

 

I was still putting on my waders when Dave went barreling down toward the creek, but I caught up with him and told him to slow down, that we wanted to sneak in a little just in case any of the beavers were still active, still considering stepping in one of our traps. It was clear that the pond level had receded a little, flowed out through the break we had made in the dam. The top of the lodge had a little cap of snow like a miniature mountain. But as we stealthily crept up to the pond, I could also see that the first leg trap I’d set was gone, that the wire trailed out into the pond.

“We got one,” I muttered to Dave. We walked down to the set and Dave took off his gloves and reached into the icy water with his bare hands to pull in the wire, at the end of which should have been our beaver. But it seemed stuck on something and after a minute Dave pulled his hands back in, red with the cold. While he blew on them I looked up and over the pond and there, sitting on a log not far from the opposite bank, sat a beaver, his leg in that trap, the wire running into the water below him. Damn thing must have fought like hell to keep from having that trap drag him down, to get up on that log. I tapped Dave on the shoulder and pointed out the beaver.

“You wanted to see a beaver,” I said.

“Holy shit,” Dave said, following my finger. “Is that our beaver? Supposed to be in the trap?”

“He is in the trap. He isn’t going anywhere, that’s for sure.”

We both just stood there for a minute, contemplating what we might do to finish what the beaver had failed to. Then, without saying anything, Dave stepped into the pond. Taking slow, measured steps, he waded out into the water, his eyes trained on that beaver. I considered piping up and asking him what his exact plans were, but something about the skiff of snow, the cold, and his slow, plodding nature led me to feel as if he knew what he was up to, as if the cold air was aiding in the crystallization of a plan.

As Dave waded deeper into the pond the water rose higher against his waders. It threatened to overwhelm them at which point Dave would be pretty screwed, or at least courting some hypothermia. But then he seemed to reach the deepest point, his next few steps heading slightly uphill. All the while that beaver kept a close eye on him. It never so much as shifted, let alone made as if to attempt an escape. Maybe it understood the fragile nature of its predicament, that if it left the log it would drown.

Dave paused and reached out for a long, thick branch floating nearby. He looked over his shoulder at me and I expected him to be sporting a devilish grin like the ones I had seen innumerable times as he pulled the trigger or gutted a deer. But instead he looked uncertain, maybe even timid. I had never before had to goad Dave into the hunt and it unnerved me a little, to see him so ambivalent about the job to be done. I gave him a slight, reassuring nod and he took a deep breath and then, in one smooth motion, he turned around and cracked the beaver across the head with that branch.

The animal fell silently into the water and Dave dropped the branch back into the pond. It felt oddly peaceful, the whole thing, for what a violent act it actually was. With hunting there was always the sound of the gun or the honking and mad flapping of the ducks.

“Damn,” I said quietly.

Dave waded over to where the beaver had gone under and plunged his hands back into the water to untangle the wire. Then he pulled up the beaver. It was a big animal, likely a full grown male, its wet, slicked-back brown pelt running several hues of brown, its webbed feet, one of them firmly clamped in the trap, dripping, its big rudder of a tail dangling down. Then Dave scooped it into his arms and he cradled it as if it were not a pesky rodent he had just knocked into the frigid water, but a newborn babe. Dave held it so its little nose pressed up above his waders against his jacket.

“Careful,” I cautioned. “You might have just stunned in.”

Dave shook his head slightly at this and continued wading in. Above us a tree branch creaked. A crow cawed out and in the distance there was the rumbling of a truck on the road. Dave emerged from the pond, clutching the beaver tight, squeezing the water from its thick fur so that little rivulets ran down the rubber of his waders. When he got to shore he walked right past me, no eye contact, no nothing, just looking down into the beaver’s little eyes. He walked away from the pond up toward the house and his truck, leaving wet footprints in the thinning snow.

A month later he’d send me a hundred dollar check I never cashed and a little toy purse for my daughter that he’d had made out of one of the pelts. He also included a draft of a memoir he was writing, which he said he’d planned on giving me while I was visiting but had been too chickenshit. I’ve been reading it before going to bed and it’s a lot of fun, reading all of his crazy stories.

But that day, after Dave departed with the dead beaver, I continued on checking the other traps and soon enough Dave rejoined me, seeming a little solemn, his eyes cast down, his shoulders slumped. Between that day and the next we got the whole family, but whenever I think back to the trip, all I can think about is the way Dave carried that beaver against his breast like it was his own child, his breath frosty in the air, ripples of water forming around his steps, water trickling over the stacked branches of the dam. I consider the conversation we’d had the night before, when Dave had asked about my family, and I can’t help but wonder if my old partying buddy wasn’t maybe trying to feel something out, to get a sense, in his own, idiosyncratic way, of what it meant to hold something special so close to your heart.

 

 

 

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Metal

Well, it’s been a half year since I last threw anything up here.  But I’ve been busy writing (and biking down the West Coast).  I also moved to start an MFA program in Missoula, MT.  Here’s a piece I wrote while here.

METAL

Dylan and I met at that old bastion of freaks, the carnival. My dad had just moved the family to town from the big city, was hating pretty much everything about it and here was this dinky little cow-town traveling carnival to reinforce it. It had five or six rides, most of them for sissies, your standard barely-edible, vomit-inducing faire of foot longs, curly fries, elephant ears and cotton candy.

I was ten years old, considered myself a heavy metal hero. In the city, I had had some contemporaries, a whole gang of long-haired freaks to make trouble with, but I had already consigned myself to going it alone out in the sticks, to a life of heavy metal isolation. It was 1992 and I figured there were some kids around still into Poison, probably some Def Leppard holdouts, but I wasn’t ready to lower my standards yet. I probably had more in common with the few kids savvy enough to see grunge on the way anyhow, already raiding their dad’s flannel-wear.

Then I saw this kid boarding the Viking’s Vengeance. He was wearing leather-studded bracelets and I caught the jagged script of Metallica on his t-shirt. So, deciding to investigate, I walked over, handed the carny a few tickets and got on the ride. I sat on the far side of the boat, not ready to cozy up to the kid just yet. For all I knew he could just be some dirt poor kid wearing donated Salvation Army shit. Like those kids in Africa wearing Super Bowl champion shirts from the losing team. I think I was wearing a faded jean jacket I had sharpied metal lyrics onto. That might have been my brief eyeliner phase too. I had long ratty hair, but this kid across the way, I swear to you, was sporting a bowl cut.

I guess we had already started scaring people off by then, cause nobody else got on. The carny set things in motion, got the Viking’s Vengeance in gear, the pendulum swinging. “Enter the Sandman” came in over the speakers. The kid across the way, looking down like he was actually concentrating on the right notes, started playing air guitar, his bowl cut flopping as he tried to headbang. He looked goofy as shit. But I went along with it anyway. I considered myself a drummer at the time, had a miniature set my parents had given me as a consolation gift for dragging me out to the sticks. So I started drumming at the air. The ride was starting to really swing now, cutting through that greasy carnival stench. When that minute mark hit we both sort of lost it, because, come on, that song is a fucking metal classic. The kid finally looked up, caught sight of me thrashing around in my seat, my hair whipping all around me. He raised up the horns and I threw them right back.

When the song ended so did the ride, and we got off, stumbling down the stairs. We eyed each other for a minute. This was 4H territory and we both knew to be suspicious. We were probably trying to figure out if one was making fun of the other. We decided this here was the genuine article.

“You like Metallica?” the kid asked.

“Metallica is God,” I answered.

“I play guitar.”

“I play drums.”

It went unsaid that, clearly, we would be forming a band, the only two metalheads in Dawson County. Then, like one of those fortune cookies where they accidentally stuff two awesome fortunes in there, up walked this hot girl in jean shorts and a faded Motorhead shirt.

“This is my friend,” the kid said. “Mindy.” The only three metalheads in Dawson County. Suddenly the middle of nowhere didn’t look so bad.

“Gordon,” I said.

“Dylan.”

We were off to never never land.

 

Eight years later we were still at it. It was the summer after high school ended. Dylan and I were sitting in our de facto practice space, my parent’s motorhome. We’d essentially been banished there years ago by my folks and over time, to my parent’s relief, I had just moved in. We were in the middle of a, I’m sure, monster riff when we heard a car pull up in the gravel outside. I looked out the little window and saw this guy getting out of a white Kia Sportage. It took me a second, but then I remembered his face. I had met him the night before at a party. He told me he was a DJ and I was drunk so I told him he should be in our band.

“Possible new bandmate,” I said to Dylan as I walked out the door to greet the guy. I remembered his face, but I couldn’t remember his name for the life of me. He was wearing a backwards baseball cap, baggy shorts, and a polo shirt. Not exactly the metal army uniform. He had a pierced ear and a case containing his gear. I turned around and looked at Dylan who was leaning up against the door of the motorhome. He was looking super grumpy already. He’d grown up to be a scary looking fucker. He was over six foot, hair down to his waist, shoulders set wide. Obviously I should have asked before inviting someone to what had been our two person band for the past eight years, but I’d been drunk and I didn’t think the guy would actually show up. Plus Dylan was a solemn, routine-oriented son of a bitch and he’d have instantly vetoed the idea. He was actually supposed to go to the party with me, but he’d been extra moody all week and had backed out last minute.

“Hey, hey, glad you could make it,” I said to the guy. He was maybe a little older, somewhere around twenty-one, twenty-two. I reached out to shake his hand and he tried to do some fist bumpy, hand slappy thing which I totally hated. Which I still do hate.

“Nice earring,” I told him, trying to be genial.

“I pierced it myself,” he said, already trying to show the metalhead how tough he was.

“Come on in,” I said and the guy followed me up to the motorhome. Dylan stepped aside to let us pass, like he was guarding the door or something, which maybe he was. That place was our inner sanctum. Mindy was about the only other person we ever let in. My parents had given up on it as a family vacation mobile.

Both of them just nodded at each other as the DJ walked through the door. At least he didn’t try to get all bumpy/slappy with Dylan.

We all set up inside the cramped confines of the motorhome. I could see the new guy trying to pretend like he wasn’t looking around, creeped out by all the Witkin pictures on the wall: naked hooded women torturing men, disassembled bodies and mutated fetuses. You know, weird metal shit.

He finally got all his cords plugged in or whatever it was he was doing. I’m a drummer. The only thing I have to do is pick up a couple of pieces of wood and hit some shit. I sat down behind my drum set and Gordon leaned up against the counter with his guitar strapped on. We’d been listening to a lot of Carcass at the time, fast, grindcore stuff. So, without any introduction for our new friend, we launched into a song we’d been working on and this guy started scratching along to it. I looked over my crash cymbal at Dylan and I could tell he was already annoyed as shit. But turntable man was in the corner, doing his thing, all focused on his little nobs.

A minute in, Dylan started singing. He’d cultivated this insane growl like he was talking direct to Satan or something. Then DJ dude made a terrible miscalculation. He started rapping along, spitting out this awful, chunky freestyle. Something inane like, “So on a lark, I go into the dark to make my mark.” I gave Dylan a look like, Sorry, I’m only human, I made a mistake. Then I got up and I walked over and unplugged DJ Jackass. We had a real awkward few minutes while he stowed all the shit back in its case, me and Dylan just standing there watching him.

“Faggots,” he yelled at us as he hauled his gear out to his retarded car.

“Says the guy with the pierced ear,” I yelled back.

“Ask me next time,” Dylan said as the guy peeled away.

“You’d have said no.”

“Yeah, exactly.”

 

So we lived in the sticks, right? What do you do for fun in rural America? Anybody, anybody? You drive around on the backroads at night getting drunk on Natty Ice of course. Which is what all three of us found ourselves doing a week later. I guess I forgot to mention how fast I had wooed Mindy after that initial carnival meeting. I think I set some Guinness World Record for fastest wooing. I had walked her home from school, made her metal mix-tapes, given her cheap, pilfered jewelry from my mom’s collection. It was heavy metal puppy love. We used to braid each other’s hair, which, wow, sounds so gay in retrospect, but it was an excuse, in those early pubescent years, to touch some part of her. Dylan was always around, flipping over the tape when me and Mindy’s hands were too full of each other. And boy had Mindy grown up to be a beauty. Not that it was a total surprise; she was already cute as hell when I met her, but she’d turned into a slender metal goddess, bleached hair, long legs, thick eyeliner, wearing these ratty tights under her shorts.

We’d had a few fights over the past seven years, but we were all still together. I figured that was pretty lucky. Metal isn’t exactly the chosen genre of calm, stable people. That night we were all crammed into the cab of Dylan’s pickup, Mindy straddling the giant stick shift.

So, the gravel road, the Natty Ice, our rural lives. We were bouncing along, beer in our mouths and all over the dashboard on account of the rutted old road and the thrashing. We were big into Cradle of Filth at the time and we’d taken to a ritual while driving the backroads, listening to their newest album, Midian. That first track, “At the Gates of Midian,” was this slow, creepy track. It sounded exactly like you’d expect arriving at the gates of Hell to sound, but by the end it was triumphant, like maybe Hell was where you’d meant to land. So we’d go inching along the road, the headlights off, waiting for the second track, “Cthulhu Dawn,” to hit. It was a totally insane metal number, all double bass screeching, an organ in the background insinuating that this was the church of the damned. The second it blared out of the blown speakers, Dylan would flip the lights on and gun the engine and we’d go flying down the road, headbanging in time with the music and the ruts jouncing the non-existent suspension of Dylan’s truck.

We were your prototypical young rural kids, going nowhere but doing so real fast. With some metal on the stereo, my girl and my best friend in the seats next to me and some beer in a cooler at my feet I figured we were golden.

But that night, before the song was over, Dylan suddenly slammed on the breaks, gravel flying, the back end of the truck fishtailing. I thought for a second that maybe we’d almost hit a deer or something, but I didn’t see anything in the headlights. Then Dylan turned off the ignition and stepped out of the truck into the darkness. He walked around to the front and lay down on the hood. This wasn’t totally out of character for Dylan and like I said, he’d been acting extra weird and spacey the past few weeks. I figured he’d been thinking about life a touch too hard since high school ended. His dad died really young, only twenty-four, on an oil rig accident, and I think his mom was growing more uptight the closer Dylan got to that age, like she thought he wouldn’t live past it and had to be a big success before he croaked. Needless to say, she had always been a little hard on him about his musical ambitions. He’d fought hard to escape that bowl cut. I have a theory, likely bogus, that metal was Dylan’s father, that it provided the aggression or competitiveness or whatever it is that father figures are supposed to do for young boys. Maybe that’s just me projecting though. Whenever I saw my dad drinking a glass of wine and doing the crossword, I was tempted to slip in some Cannibal Corpse on the living room sound system, thrash around until he pulled the plug.

Mindy gave my hand a little squeeze, which I knew meant I had to be the supportive friend. Then she climbed over to the open door and stepped out into the dark to join Dylan on the hood. I followed.

“What’re we looking at?” I asked.

“Ssshhh,” Mindy said

So we lay there for a long while, not talking, just looking up at the starry sky. I was into mythology back then in the way that a lot of amateur metalheads are, trying to connect with some higher, darker powers. I looked for some heavy metal constellations in the sky. It took a while, but with a little imaginative stretching, I managed to find an axe dripping a little star-string of blood.

I rolled my head over to tell Mindy and Dylan. Dylan had his hands under his head and Mindy was resting her head against his bicep. I’m not an idiot. I knew Dylan had a thing for Mindy. I’d known it since I met them at the carnival. Before I came along, Mindy was his whole metal world. She’d been a city kid like me before her dad moved her family out to the country when she was in third grade. Pissed about the move and looking for a way to show it, she’d been drawn to Dylan, the weird, wild child headbanging on the swings at recess. Turned out she was made for metal. I sometimes wonder if those two would have made it through the harsh years of elementary school without each other or if they’d have given up, started practicing their moonwalk. But I’d worked hard to win Mindy over. Dylan and I of course never talked about any of this, but I figured he had accepted his relationship with Mindy for what it was. Plus, we were best friends. We were the only metalheads in Dawson County and he wasn’t going to go fucking that up.

Then Mindy grabbed both of our hands and raised them high, like we’d just won something. She let go and hopped off the hood and pretty soon we were bouncing our way back home.

 

Dylan was going to drop Mindy and me off at the motorhome, but when we pulled up we could sense something wasn’t quite right. The door was open and there was this weird smell in the air. We all got out of the truck. There was an axe in a stump because my dad, upon moving to the sticks, had tried his best to become a manly man and started chopping wood for our fireplace. So I grabbed it and started creeping up to the motorhome, the headlights from the truck still on behind me. I thought maybe an animal had gotten in there or something. The smell grew more powerful the closer I got. I could hear Dylan right behind me. I stepped up the little metal stairs all cautious, but then I decided, fuck it, and I went full metal through the door, my axe raised ready to fuck up some giant bear or whatever.

But there was nothing in there. It smelled awful though and when I picked up one of my feet, it stuck to the floor. I flipped on the light switch and holy shit, there was blood everywhere. So then I was thinking maybe two animals had somehow entered the motorhome, had a huge fight, and then limped back into the woods behind our house.

“The fuck,” I heard Dylan say behind me. There was blood on the floor, on my drum set, on Dylan’s amp, the walls, table, cupboards. The Witkin pictures were all saturated on the floor. I walked over into the bedroom and yeah, blood all over my sheets too. Then I turned around and Dylan held up a piece of paper he’d just peeled off the fridge.

“Who’s so hardcore now, fuckers,” it said. Underneath was a big curvy question mark.

Then Mindy, not hearing the sounds of carnage, came walking in the door.

“Oh my God,” she said. “Is this blood?” Then Dylan flipped over the piece of paper and it said, “100% bonafide pig’s blood, assholes.”

It occurred to me then that I was standing in pig’s blood, which in some instances my young metal self might have found appealing, but right then, in my home, I was just pissed and disgusted.

“Okay, out of the trailer,” I said and we vamoosed back out into the night. We all just stood there for a moment thinking about how my parent’s motorhome was covered in pig’s blood. Mindy was holding her shirt up over her nose and I could see her pierced belly button which made me even angrier, because I was planning on seeing a lot more of her that night until discovering that my home had been doused in blood. Then it occurred to me who was responsible.

“Jeremy Keller,” I said. Jeremy was a punk, as in the musical sense, the only one in town actually, which we understood as further irrefutable evidence that punk sucked. At least our tiny town could produce three metalheads. He wore a leather jacket adorned with safety pins and patches and he had this puny mohawk he glued up with red Kool-Aid. I had keyed “metal rules” into the passenger door of his shitty little Hyundai junior year and we’d been at war ever since, letting the air out of car tires, TPing each others’ houses, shit like that. But this was an escalation. In some weird, dumbass way, I was almost proud of the fucker for having the balls to up the ante. Didn’t mean we weren’t going to kick the shit out of him.

“You think so?” Mindy asked.

“I egged his house last week,” I said, which was actually a lie, but I was sure the pig’s blood was his doing and I didn’t want any clear, inquisitive thinking obscuring my vengeance.
“What? Without me?” Dylan said.

“Or me?” Mindy said.

“I was bored.”

I turned and walked to the car and the other two followed me. We piled in and Dylan backed up, turned around and we were on our way.

“The plan?” Mindy asked. That was my girl, wanting things planned out. She was big into plans. Even then she had all these crazy ideas for the future. She talked about the fashion industry, about record labels and venues. Sometimes she said she was moving to L.A., sometimes New York, but I never took her seriously. I couldn’t imagine her anywhere I wasn’t.

“We drive to his house, we fuck him up,” I said. I was big into keeping things basic.

“He lives with his parents still you know,” Dylan said.

“So we knock and ask if he can come out and play.”

 

One advantage of a small town is knowing where everyone lives. Soon we had pulled up to Jeremy’s house which was actually a double-wide. The gutter sagged from the roof, there were blankets over the front windows and a little Weber grill was knocked over, spilling charcoal onto the brown lawn. It was late, but we all piled onto the tiny porch and knocked on the door anyway. Jeremy answered wearing a pair of baggy sweatpants and a black hoodie. His mohawk was red and limp which made him look like a sad rooster.

“What the fuck do you guys want?” he asked.

I answered by grabbing his shirt and throwing him off the porch and onto the lawn, then jumping on top of him and pinning down his arms. Good thing punks are always such scrawny little bastards. Dylan was right there with me, looming over the kid.

“The pig’s blood,” Dylan said, real quiet, which was scary coming from the big guy. Jeremy looked like he was roughly two seconds away from shitting himself. The majority of our feud had happened in the easy absence of the enemy.

“What the fuck are you talking about?” he said. His mohawk quivered against his forehead.

“My RV is covered in fucking pig’s blood,” I said.

“Oh shit, shit, shit.”

“What shit, shit, shit?” I said.

“That wasn’t me, man. Not me. I don’t even know pigs, I mean like, farmers.” Mindy came up then and stood next to me. I was still sitting on the kid, pinning his arms into the brittle grass.

“You know about it though?” she said.

“Shit, I think so. My cousin, Derick, I think he knows you guys, was all pissed about something.” Ah, it all came back to me; that was Mr. Turntable’s name, Derick. I guess Dylan connected the dots too because I heard him murmur something about how I shouldn’t have invited the asshole to play. I ignored him. I decided to let the sniveling punk go so I stood and he darted out from under my legs and scrambled up. I could see him eyeing his open door, but Dylan had placed himself between it and the kid.

“Where’s your cousin live?” I asked.

“In this shitty little apartment complex down off Gable Street. I don’t care if you fuck him up, he’s an asshole.”

“Get in the truck,” I said.

“What? Fuck no. I told you I didn’t do it.”

“You’re gonna take us to your cousin’s, knock on that door for us,” Dylan said.

“Oh, come on guys, this is bullshit.”

“Come on, Jeremy, just do it,” Mindy said. She might have been a metalhead, but she was also a hot teenage girl and you could see Jeremy give in. For added emphasis, Dylan took a few steps in his direction.

The four of us got in the truck, Mindy on my lap so we could all fit. She threw a conciliatory arm around Jeremy which seemed to comfort him a little, but even then I saw him sneak a glance back at his home as we pulled away, the front door still open. I turned up the music real loud just to piss him off more.

 

About fifteen minutes later all four of were climbing the stairs up to DJ Derick’s apartment. Jeremy was sulky, his sad rooster-hawk flopped down toward his nose.

“You just knock for us, kay?” I told him. “That’s it.” He nodded.

We walked up to the door, B9. You could see the lights were still on through the blinds. Mindy, Dylan and I situated ourselves to the right of the door. Jeremy looked at us and I gave him the nod. He sighed and knocked. It was late and real quiet out so we could hear his feet coming to the door. My heart was beating fast. This was the most James Bond shit we had ever pulled. Derick opened the door and his little shit bag of a punk cousin immediately bolted and in doing so kind of forced our hand. So as Derick stood there looking real confused after his fleeing cousin, Dylan and I leapt into action and bowled the fucker over back into his apartment.

Shit got crazy real quick. Derick was short but stout and he threw us off him and went scrambling up against the wall.

“Pig fuckers,” he shouted, just as Dylan launched into his gut. So we three rolled around his apartment, knocking shit over, trying to get ahold of each other long enough to inflict some damage. Derick grabbed at our hair, came away with big clumps in his fist. At one point Dylan flipped Derick over the back of the couch. Derick sprung up and used the momentary barrier to scurry into the kitchen. Dylan and I chased him in there but I slipped on a puddle of something and when I righted myself there was Derick with a big ass knife just a few feet away from my chest.

“I’ll fucking kill you,” he said. Suddenly shit was a little too serious.

“Hey, hey guys, okay, okay,” I heard Mindy say. I’d almost forgotten she was there. Then from below us came a few hard whacks, like someone was banging on the ceiling of their apartment with a broomstick. Dylan took the distraction as an opportunity to hit Derick in the head with a giant pan. The man crumpled, just crumpled. I guess Dylan hit him pretty hard because he was bleeding from the head a little too. But then, while the guy was down, Dylan started kicking him. He wore big boots and he was laying into Derick’s mid-section something ferocious.

“Dylan, stop,” Mindy screamed.

“Whoa, Dylan, dude, he’s done,” I said and I put my hand on his shoulder, which is when Dylan turned to me and punched me hard in the jaw. Then he walked over to Mindy, who was standing by the door, and gave her this huge, long hug. I just stood leaning against the counter rubbing my jaw, Derick moaning at my feet. The TV was turned to the History Channel, a show about World War Two tank commanders. Then Dylan walked out the door.

Mindy and I stared at each other a moment and then she motioned out the door with her head, like I should go talk to him, like, sure, I’d already forgotten that he had just tried to break my face. So I stepped over the wreckage of Derick’s apartment and out onto the landing of the complex. I saw Dylan at the end, just about to head down the stairs.

“Dyl,” I yelled after him and took a few loping steps toward him. He turned to me and the dude was crying. I’m sure both of us had done our fair share of crying to Mindy over the years, sometimes about each other, but I’d never seen him cry before. We were metalheads, we rusted easy. I took another step toward him but he shook his head. My jaw was still smarting so I decided to stay put. Then he walked down the stairs. Mindy came up next to me, wrapped her arms around me and, as we looked over the railing, Dylan got in his truck, started it up, and drove away. A few doors down someone said, “I’m calling the cops,” which reminded us of the guy we just beat up lying on the floor of his kitchen. We took the alleys and the side roads, ended up at Mindy’s parent’s place where we snuck in through the basement window and into her room where we waited for the adrenaline to wear off and for sleep to come on.

 

The next day I called Dylan’s house but his mom said he was not available. When I inquired what exactly that meant, she said, “He doesn’t want to talk to you, Gordon. I’m sorry, honey.” I ran into Jeremy at Subway a few days later and, keeping his distance, he told me that Dylan had picked him up on the side of the road the night we beat up his cousin, insisted on taking him back home. Dylan hadn’t said a word to him, just dropped him back off at his parent’s house. Jeremy said Dylan had a split lip and his eyes were puffy and red.

It was the same drill all week. Not even Mindy could get through, which was when I really started to worry. We went driving by his place late at night to see his bedroom light on, just to confirm he was still in town. And then a week later Mindy got a letter in the mail from him telling her that he was moving to fucking Spokane. When she called his mom, she told Mindy that she had already dropped him off at the Greyhound station, itself an hour drive, last night, that he was gone.

It’s been ten years, but I still expect to hear from him someday. I heard from an old classmate who said he saw Dylan at the grocery store a few Christmases ago, buying some egg nog, but that’s it for first hand information. He said Dylan’s hair was still long, for what that’s worth. I don’t think Dylan was mad so much as scared, although about what I’m still not exactly sure. That he wouldn’t ever make it out of town maybe. Or maybe I didn’t understand the extent of his feelings for Mindy and he was heartbroken, worried he’d never find another girl like her. (I know I haven’t). But fuck this sappy bullshit. This is no way to end it and like I said, I don’t think it’s even over yet. In the spirit of keeping the band alive, I’m gonna end it for now at our debut.

Elementary school talent show, 1993. Our parents tried to talk us out of it. The principal warned us dirty language would not be tolerated. I guess we had something of a reputation, even in the sixth grade. I remember the act that went on before us. Two boys in matching, tucked-in, pinstripe dress shirts, their cowboy boots clicking on the gym floor, arms swinging, belt buckles gleaming, lip-synching Garth Brooks’ “Papa Loved Mama.” All the teachers and the kids sitting on the gym floor and leaning up against the walls loved it, clapping along, whistling and yelling when it was over. This was the audience we had to deal with.

I can still hear that air of silent anticipation and the scraping against the floor as I dragged out my drum set, positioned the snare, the toms, the bass and high hat. Dylan was right next to me, hauling out his tiny amp, plugging in his shitty black plastic guitar, cranking up the volume as high as it would go, which was not high at all, probably dreaming of a wall of Marshall’s behind him. He’d fended off his mother’s many attempts to cut his hair and it was nearly to his shoulders already.

We had been practicing all week, non-stop. I think it was that week that broke my parents, that got us banished to the motorhome. We were going to play our first original song. We’d named our band Pedal To the Metal, titled that first song “Dark Death,” smartly kept that off the official program. We envisioned ourselves as one part Pantera, one part Metallica, thrashy with a little groove. I counted off a few beats and we dove in, our heads banging, hair flying, Dylan howling and growling about how dark it was when the sun didn’t shine, also known, colloquially, as nighttime. I remember Dylan going for that big one string solo and me chipping away at my drumsticks, missing a few swings, cracking my knuckles against the snare rim.

Smart people like to point out how music mirrors the era it exists in, how it swings on a continuous pendulum etc etc. But we were in a musical bermuda triangle. Nothing about metal reflected the world of Dawson County. The closest thing we had to satanism was a wild steer that escaped from a pen and went running down Main Street the year before. But to us, that was the point. We weren’t looking to mirror our world, we were looking to escape it. For a minute, in front of all our peers and teachers, we did just that.

We were furious and awesome and when we were done, there were a few polite golf claps from stunned teachers thankful we had not sacrificed a goat on stage. Then, from the back of the room came the screaming and clapping of our only and most devoted fan, Mindy.

“Best metal band ever,” she screamed. I had brought her a bouquet of limp wild flowers the day before, picked on my way to school. I was mad in love. At the moment, I was glad for my long hair, hiding my blushing cheeks. I looked over at Dylan, raised my sticks, and we took one more bone-crunching crack at our instruments before the principal stepped up to tell us that was enough, the show was over.

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Fights

In front of his father’s store, Maximillian Melrose is playing marbles. He’s good. He knows how to line them up, the perfect flick of his thumb to send his clay marbles with just the right amount of force to knock his opponent’s out of the circle, to win a few more for his growing collection. He’s a small kid, a little on the scrawny side. Brown eyes the color of his favorite marble, yellow hair the same shade as the changing leaves overhead. His opponent is Charley Lewellyn, whose father owns the butcher shop up the block. The kid is built like the animals his father cuts into: large, round, with bulbous rolling eyes following the marbles as Maximillian knuckles down, lines up the shot, fires and wins the game.

“Come on, Max. That’s all my marbles,” he complains.

Maximillian shrugs his shoulders and starts to collect Charley’s marbles. He isn’t mean spirited, but he plays by the rules and so collects his winnings. A pigeon lands next to him on the packed dirt and he turns to shoo it off. When he turns back, Charley’s fist is rapidly approaching his face. Maximillian ducks and instinctively throws out a fist. He feels his hand hit the bridge of Charley’s nose and when he looks up he sees that there is blood streaming from Charley’s face, dripping down among the marbles, inside the chalk circle. Maximillian looks at Charley. The boy’s face is so stretched in shocked terror that his eye sockets threaten to abandon his globular eyes. He throws his hands like a cup under his nose, as if he might save the blood to later return it up his nostrils, and runs down the block to the butcher shop, where his bloody hands and shirt might better blend in.

Maximillian has never hit anyone before. All in all, it seems like a terrifying proposition. Also, in its own adrenaline flurry of a way, it is incredibly rewarding.

 

Jack Melrose is standing at the back of the community center gym, scanning all the familiar faces, when a church choir files in, punching the air in time to the tinny music coming over the sound system. Jack recognizes a number of faces in the crowd: there are parents of kids, now young men themselves, that he used to coach; he sees a few guys he used to fight back in high school, some of them with their own kids in the ring tonight. He can see his ex-wife, Janine, on the other side of the room, doing her best to pretend Jack’s not there, bless her heart.

The choir works their way to the ring and the referees hold the ropes open for them while they duck under and assemble for the national anthem. The last choir member, a big black woman, gets caught up in the ropes and enters head first. The other church folk help her up and then everyone looks to one of the basketball hoops where somebody has duct taped an American flag. A guy on an old keyboard hammers out the national anthem none too gracefully while the choir sings. When Jack looks back down from the flag, he sees a man with wrap-around shades and a big belt buckle putting his arm around Janine. He looks away. He’s just here to see his daughter, Claire, fight.

Jack looks at the night’s line-up again and see that Claire is not up until the fourth bout, so he decides to step outside for a smoke. He’s fishing for his lighter in the hallway when Kevin Lancing walks in, a teenage boy shadow boxing behind him. Jack and Kevin used to fight each other in high school. Jack might have hit him in the groin once or twice. Jack thought he was a prick then and Kevin hasn’t done much in the intervening years to change his mind. Pretending he doesn’t see Jack, Kevin walks right past him and into the gym. Jack can tell it’s going to be another one of those nights where he has to play the part of the ghost, accept a degree of invisibility among what were once his people.

He steps outside and lights up. It’s a crisp night, the air working its way through his ratty old jean jacket. Up the street a line of young people are waiting outside a club, guys with their bare arms folded across their chests, women in their mini-skirts and heels shivering in the cold.

Jack used to take ladies to clubs, way back when. He met Janine in the Twilight Club, yellow and orange neon tubes running along the walls like a bawdy never-ending sunset; he spent all night grinding against her, the sweat from her shaking head, hair cropped short, landing on his tongue. Later, when she heard he used to box, she wanted to get rough in bed. She’d slap him around a little bit, call him weak, tell him to step into the ring, get off the ropes. He’d just lie there taking it, her small handprints on his chest and cheeks, a claw mark or two from her long nails, until she tired herself out, flopped down next to him. The only time a woman’s ever wanted him to be mean and all he wanted to do was make a little love.

He flicks the cigarette butt into the street and goes back inside. Two skinny young boys are battling it out in the ring, swinging like reckless heroes, connecting maybe every tenth swing or so. They’re about the same age as Jack when he started, but even from this back-of-the-room vantage he can see it doesn’t mean the same thing to them as it did to him. Jack had been in it to hurt people.

There’s one more match between two eighty pound girls with braids and too-big headgear that keeps slipping over their eyes, and then Claire is up. She comes into the room uppercutting the air, knocking its featherweight chin around. She sees her father and winks, but Jack just gives her a slight tilt of his head. Janine had called a few years ago, semi-frantic, telling him that Claire had gotten the crazy notion she wanted to be a boxer. Jack had tried to talk his daughter out of it, but he’s pretty sure he wasn’t too convincing. Anyway, Claire is his flesh and blood; she’s stubborn.

Now she’s got bright red shorts and headgear on and she’s ducking under the ropes, prancing around the ring and settling into her corner. Her opponent is a skinny Mexican girl and the second she enters the ring Jack can tell Claire is going to whale on her.

He’s right. Claire straight away throws a hook into the side of the girl’s head. A few more shots over the next two rounds and the ref calls the match. Jack catches Janine across the gym shaking her head, as if she’s disappointed. Jack may not understand Claire’s motivation, but he can’t help but be proud of her. She’s fast, strong. She’s her daddy’s better boxing angel.

Then Jack sees Kevin leaning against the supply closet door, slowly clapping, as if he’s amazed the girl could be any relation to Jack’s sad sack self.

 

Zeek Melrose is sitting on the barstool next to his dad, his chin resting in a little groove in the bar like an icepick holding him to the mountain. A half empty bottle of Vernor’s ginger ale sits next to his chin. Between reading the ticker tape for news of the fight, the bartender is flicking wary glances at Zeek, has told his father this once, just for this fight, the kid can sit at the bar. The rest of the neighborhood kids are outside, waiting on the news, Maximillian already a local celebrity. Zeek’s father, Manny, is talking to the guy seated next to him, throwing mini-jabs at the air, explaining to him what it is that Maximillian, Manny’s kid brother, does to his opponents. Already the bartender has informed them, reading off the ticker tape, that Maximillian has landed a number of steady blows, is handily carrying the rounds.

“I’m telling you, my kid brother, he lays ’em out, just flattens ’em.” Manny throws an uppercut at the man’s chin, stopping just short, causing the cigar smoke and dust to swirl in the air. “They call him Millions for all the guy’s he’ll eventually knock out.”

The bartender slides a glass across the bar and reads off some other sporting news, the men at the bar pausing in their conversations to listen, to maybe see if they’ve won a bet or two.

“Tommy Milton beats his own world record, two miles in 46.26. The Czech-Slovaks beat the Swedes for Olympic bronze. Delaney beats Fitzsimmons in ten rounds.”

The bartender pauses, the long tape in his hands held up close to his face so he can read the small print. “Hey, Manny,” he says. The tape continues stuttering out of the machine, sagging to the floor like a roller coaster track in the making. “Looks like your brother’s done it again. KO’d that Jew, Kliner.”

“What’d I tell you?” Manny says, now addressing the whole bar. Zeek raises his hands, his chin still firmly planted on the bar, and claps them enthusiastically above his head. His father turns to him and scoops him up off the barstool, raising him onto his shoulders. “Your uncle Max is unstoppable,” he says. He starts shuffling around the bar shadowboxing, and his son imitates him, bobbing and throwing punches from his elevated perch so that together they look like a double decker boxing machine, ready to take on any opponent stupid enough to set foot in the ring.

Outside, the local boys join hands, form a ring around the two impromptu pugilists in the

middle, their fists raised. The ringing boys shout, “Hit him, Millions. Send him packing.” The boys duck and weave, throw small fisted jabs, Millions versus Millions, neither imagining he could possibly be the Jew.

 

On the bus ride home Jack thinks about one of his last amateur fights, back when anyone would still have him. He was paired up against a big guy from the cross-town gym, ten pounds heavier and a few inches taller. He was slow though, and stupid. He taunted Jack before the fight, his speech slow and slurred, like he was already punch drunk at eighteen. Jack gave him a long, withering look in return.

“I’m gonna punch you so hard,” he explained in an even-tempered voice, “you’ll find bone shards in your stool.”

The kid had looked back at him, big dumb brow furrowed and said, “My stool?”

“Your shit, man. I’m going to make you shit your bones.”

The kid gave him a look that attempted both, I’m not scared of you, and also, What the fuck is wrong with you? Jack’s pre-fight banter always made his opponents stop for a minute, the adolescent, lip curling swagger momentarily gone from their faces. They were used to trash talk, but they got the sense Jack meant it more, that there was truth in his trash.

In the ring, Jack spent the first round digging his gloves into the kid’s body, making him think that was all he was planning, getting in close for some kidney grinding until the ref would pull them apart. He let the kid deliver a few glancing blows to the side of his head to let him think he had a chance. In the second, he had rabbit punched the back of the kid’s head mercilessly, playing it so the ref was always at an inopportune angle to see him doing it. Right before the bell, Jack gave the kid a quick below the belt jab to send him hobbling back to his corner. Jack took a hit in points for it, but he didn’t care. At the beginning of the third, Jack feinted in like he was going for more of the round one body work and the kid dropped his gloves a few inches. So Jack hit him in the head instead, a long, arching hook that unsteadied the kid, caused him to sway and bend. Bent over in front of Jack, staring at the mat with what was surely an unfocused gaze, Jack had only one recourse, so he hit him again, a blow to the back of the head that sent the kid crashing down to the mat, his gloves tucked under his chest so his back arched off the floor, a crumpled mountain.

Jack continued to stand there, ignoring the referee who was yelling at him to get back to the neutral corner. From the crowd he could hear his father, Zeek, gruff and hoarse from yelling at all the preceding boxers, shout, “That’s how we do it, son.”

“Stay down, motherfucker,” Jack whispered, and then walked off to the corner of the ring.

After the fight, as Jack and his father were leaving the gym, Jack’s hands still wrapped, coach Cliff had caught them at the door and asked if he could talk to Zeek for a minute.

“Whatever you want to say you can say in front of the boy too.”

Cliff had hesitated, looking from son to father’s face, both of them steely, angry about something Cliff wasn’t privy to.

“Zeek, you’ve got to rein in your boy before he does somebody serious damage.” He looked at Jack next. “Son, you could be good, real good, but you’ve got to follow the rules. This isn’t the parking lot at school.”

“That it?” Zeek asked.

“Sure.”

“Thanks, but I’ll go ahead and raise my own damn son.”

Now, back at his apartment, Jack picks up the phone and calls Janine’s house. He knows they won’t be home yet, will have gone out for an after-the-fight celebration, ice cream sundays or pie. When the answering machine picks up, he says, “Hey, Claire, it’s your dad. Good fight, kid. Remember to keep those gloves up, even when you think you’re winning, alright? Love ya. Bye.”

He hangs up and digs into his closet for an old pair of boxing gloves. He doesn’t punch the bag much these days, but being at the fight has got him feeling a little nostalgic, so he puts the gloves on and goes a few rounds with the ancient Everlast he keeps hanging in the corner. Each punch sends a wave of pain up through his wrists, like a telegraph from the past. He is just thirty-eight, but he’s punched enough bags, people, and walls over the years to give him the wrists of a sixty year old.

He’s only been hitting the bag for a minute or two, but he is already wheezing, struggling for air. Then a cough crawls up out of his lungs and he bends over to help it escape. It brings its friends along and he stays there doubled over, alternating short breaths with long fits of phlegmy hacking.

Finally, he sits down on the edge of his bed. After divorcing Janine he had bought a too big bed to convince himself he could still be a player. It overlaps his closet so that the door doesn’t close right and he has to stand on his bed to reach his hanging clothes, which, admittedly, are few. Looking into the open closet, he sees the edge of his father’s American flag, presented at his funeral for his service in WWII, sticking out of a box. He had died during the brief years of Jack and Janine’s marriage and Janine had held onto the flag for a while after his father’s death until one day she had stopped by out of the blue to drop it off. Jack has been trying to figure out what to do with it ever since.

He has attempted over the years to make his relationship with his father into something more black and white than it could ever actually be. His father had brought him to his first professional boxing match as a kid. All the screaming fans, the ring girls, two men slugging it out in a square of light miles away like some far flung fantasy. The referee testing the ropes, straightening his bow tie as if to prove this was a gentleman’s game. He had loved it. He had loved that for once his father seemed to blend in, seemed made for watching boxing, for screaming detailed instructions at the distant fighters. The angry rigor in his voice melting into the air, finding a home among compatriots. The smell of his breath blending with the beer-soaked stands.

His father had bought him his first pair of gloves, eventually brought him to the gym. Even before the gym, Jack used to challenge the neighborhood kids, giving the left glove to his challenger and keeping the right for himself. He’d wallop on the kid until he cried out for him to stop.

Maybe it had all started off as an attempt to please his father, to continue giving him a place in the world where he fit in. Where else could his boozy father get away with the bloodlust he exhibited ringside? Jack was under the impression, substantiated by what he’s not sure, that his father might leave his mother if Jack were to quit fighting. Looking around, he didn’t see much else keeping his father connected to the family. But at some point he absorbed a little too much of his father, crossed a line from sport into life, could no longer contain it solely to the ring. He had started hitting guys whenever he damn well pleased. Eventually, he hit his father, turned on his creator at the dinner table one muggy summer night.

It was two weeks after high school graduation and Jack had by then been disowned by every boxing gym in town, had almost worn a hole in the bag in the basement. He’d taken to fighting tough kids in alleys, kids with street smarts but not a clue how to throw a punch.

The exact remark is long gone, but his dad, drunk, had said something at dinner, a causally cruel aside, and Jack had lunged across the table, socked him one right in the jaw, knocking half the dinner onto the floor. His father set his foot right in the mashed potatoes when he stood up. Jack can still see the shoe print it made, his dad’s big work boots. His dad had stood, calculating his options: his wife, the look of tired terror, of so long spent in the company of her fighting men; his son, in the fighting form to which Zeek sculpted him. He made the right choice, walked out the front door, a hazy crescent moon frowning down.

A few weeks later Jack moved out. He spent the next few years pounding nails and starting bar fights. Years after the fact, Jack will think that what he really needed was to be hit, to have a little sense pounded into him, to knock some of the demons on out. He should have walked into an alleyway punch or two early on. It wasn’t until later, until the wild bar fights when guys would gang up on you, crack bottles on your head, that Zeek finally started to settle down, to know what it was like to crawl into a corner and lick your wounds.

On his deathbed, Zeek had told him he likely deserved more than that single punch, was probably owed a whole battery of them. Jack hadn’t argued.

Jack stands up and pulls the flag out of the closet. Unfurled, it takes up half the room. He looks around his apartment. On one wall is a yellowing framed newspaper article about his great uncle, the boxer, Maximillian Melrose. Jack takes it off the wall and hangs the flag up in its place, hammering nails into its corners, the first third attached to the ceiling, the stars looking down from on high, so that it doesn’t hang onto the carpet. It takes up the whole wall. He thinks that anyone visiting his apartment would think he had a hard on for the United States of America. Then he rehangs the newspaper clipping on another wall. Underneath it his gloves are sitting on the floor. He throws one more soft jab at the punching bag, pushing more than punching. As it swings on its chain, he thinks that his apartment is becoming a miniature shrine to his family’s fighting history, whether he likes it or not.

 

Maximillian walks into the gym, his eyes darting around, his fists clenching and unclenching at his sides. Cigar smoke swirls in the dim light. A couple of guys are lying on tables, their trainers giving them their post-sparring rubdowns. The sweet chemical smell of rubbing alcohol thick in the air. A man walks past him without saying anything, the sheen of mineral jelly evident over a still bleeding cut along one eyebrow. In the corner there’s a group of sharp looking guys playing cards, chomping on cigars and alternately laughing and growling.

Maximillian has been doing push ups in the back of his father’s shop. He does not look particularly strong, but no one would call him scrawny. There is something under his skin now besides just bone. One of the men in the corner notices him and walks over.

“You wanna box, kid?” he says to Maximillian.

Maximillian nods. The guy throws a left hook at him and stops just short of his ear. Maximillian doesn’t flinch; he knows how to play games.

“Yeah, okay, come back tomorrow at noon, we’ll see what we can do.” Then the guy returns to the card game and Maximillian walks out the door, throws a battery of lunging punches at the first tree he sees.

 

Riding his bike home, balancing a bag of groceries on each handlebar, Jack’s right ear starts aching in the February cold. Years ago, he and a group of friends had taken a road trip to Vegas to watch a young fighter, Leon Spinks, newly entered into the ranks of pro fighters after a gold medal in the 1976 Olympics, fight Ali. But they had only gotten as far as Albuquerque before they’d spent all their gas money on beer.

They’d caught the fight at a bar, a huge fifteen rounder upset for a tired looking Ali, and it had put them in the mood for some rough housing. It didn’t take long to turn a few other surly patrons onto the idea. Jack had hit one guy, spun him around onto a pool table, and the guy had come back up with a pool cue in his hand, put it right into Jack’s ear. Even by Jack’s paper thin rules, it was a dirty move.

Now he’s half deaf and the ear aches in the cold. Jack presses a pink, ungloved hand against it. He is biking like this, teetering unsteadily down the sidewalk, when he passes his old gym. He stops out front and peaks in one of the little windows. It used to belong to his old coach, Cliff, a gnarled, punch drunk boxer, a pretty decent prize fighter way back when. Now Kevin owns it and the faded green awning above the entrance says Kev’s Gym. He didn’t change much, added some fitness classes and a few puffs of Febreeze.

When Claire was just born, Jack had started working at the gym, had put in nearly three years, his longest stint of continual employment. Jack was pretty sure Cliff was going to let him take over the gym when he retired, about as close as Jack had ever come to a career plan. He had cooled down since he was young, was helping the next generation of kids figure out the sport. Cliff had been wary of brining him on, but Jack had proved himself, shown that he was tired of being a fuck up, that he was reformed, trustworthy. He was good with the angry kids, the ones with a tough scene at home. He knew where they were coming from, knew how to make sure they kept it clean, channeled all that rage into a proper, fierce game. He had them spar against bigger guys so they got knocked around a little too, to let them know what it was like to get roughed up, to keep them even keeled.

Whatever the name, the gym looks the same to Jack. They’ve got the after-school kids in their now, jumping rope, warming up. Jack can tell even at that age which of the kids might stick with it, which are there because some overbearing parent forced them to go, thought their wimpy child might learn to stand up for himself. On the far wall are framed pictures of famous boxers. Maximillian is up there. Kevin might hate Jack, but he’s still got respect for his great uncle, helps keep his legacy alive, points him out to the kids. Above the little front desk they’ve got self portraits that kids have painted of themselves over the years, done up in thick, psychedelically bright colors. Janine wanted to bring Claire to the gym, but Jack got wind of it and told her like hell his daughter was going to be taking lessons from Kevin Lancing. She told Jack he didn’t get to make those decisions anymore, but she took Claire to another gym anyway.

On occasion, Jack thinks large swaths of his life have been one big misunderstanding. Like Janine thinking he was ready to have a baby with her. But the biggest misunderstanding happened in this gym. Cliff was already outside waiting in the car for a ride home. Jack was just turning out the lights when he heard a sound in the girls’ locker room. He peeked his head in, thinking everyone had already cleared out. Up against the lockers were two teenage girls, in their sports bras and underwear, making out and pawing at each other. He made an involuntary noise, a slight gasp, and they snapped apart and looked at Jack, young does in the headlights. If he had had a chance to say something he would have told them he didn’t care who kissed who. Not like they’d have been the first lesbian boxers in history.

But then coach Cliff showed up in the gym doorway, wondering what was taking Jack so long, and one of the girls started screaming. The other girl took her cue from her girlfriend and started screaming too. Cliff hustled over, saw Jack standing in the doorway of the girl’s locker room inhabited by two half-naked, screaming teenage girls, and he came to a pretty quick conclusion. The girls didn’t do much to dissuade him either.

After that, it didn’t take long for everyone to forget Jack’s recent accumulated goodwill, to remember the kind of jerk he used to be.

The kids are onto running around cones now, dipping under a rope strung across the gym. There’s an overflowing trophy case on one wall and the trophies rattle when the kids go running by. By the front door there’s a young mother with a baby pressed up to her chest. Then in the corner, Jack sees Kevin with a new kid. He’s helping the kid find his fighting stance, pushing at him with one finger until the kid is steady. Then Kevin looks up and spots Jack in the window. He moves quickly toward the door, so Jack puts his feet on the pedals and start biking away, trying not to fall over as the grocery bags sway on each handlebar. He tells himself he’s not afraid, just tired, tired of the past.

 

The trees overhead have lost most of their leaves and the branches rattle in the wind. The men gathered around the makeshift ring are bundled up against the chill. They blow into their cold hands and then part them to yell remarks at the ring. Maximillian is in his corner, a coat draped over his bare shoulders, his opponent in the other corner, his gloved fists sticking out from the loose sleeves of his tattered robe. There is rumor of the year’s first snowfall tonight. The air is dry, some of the overhead leaves are licked with a layer of frost.

Maximillian is toned now; he isn’t bulky, but long stretches of sinewy muscle travel the length of each arm like rope sewn under the skin. He stomps a foot down on the wooden slats that constitute the ring’s floor. They creak and give a little under his foot, not inspiring a lot of confidence. The bout is a pawnshop fight, the winner taking home something he can sell for actual cash. His manager has promised that if he wins this one he can stop fighting for jewelry and antiques, can move on up, fight with the big boys in rings where the ropes are not brittle with the cold.

“What’s with the pillow fight,” an old timer calls out, before the match has even begun, remembering the bare-fisted days.

In the second round, Maximillian delivers a quick jab and then, as his man staggers, a long arching hook, sending him to the wooden floor. Lying on the wood slats, the man’s breath curls out of him as if Maximillian has knocked his soul right out.

Maximillian’s purse for the night is a fine old pocket watch, still ticking. On the back, the initials C.K. have been carved in a fancy script. Later, when he arrives at the pawnshop to trade it in, he will hesitate at the door, change his mind. He will put the watch back in his pocket to help him track the minutes and hours until his time arrives. It will be soon, he thinks. It has to be.

 

Surrounded by a hundred other sailors, Zeek throws a flurry of karate chops at the air, at the imagined adam’s apple and nose of a Japanese soldier. The hand to hand combat instructor at the front of the room is yelling at them to imagine some dirty Jap trying to board their vessel, trying to steer it back toward the states where he will have his way with their women. He tells them first you go with the knee to the groin, then, as your man kneels over, you open palm him in the jaw so his neck snaps back; then come the chops.

“Forget anything you may have learned in the ring, boys, this is dirty fighting. It’s either you or him.”

Zeek’s heavy boots make him feel weighted, impossible to knock over. He abandons the chop, clenches his fists tight so his fingernails dig into his palms, crescent indentations intersecting the crisscrossing lines. He’s been fighting in amateur fights for the past few years, a bout or two in the Golden Gloves, but this is the fight he has been waiting for. He imagines his chest as a punching bag, his heart throwing jabs, the blood flowing freely. He has boxing in his blood. He imagines if Maximillian were still alive, he would show the Axis what for. Throw a pair of gloves on that Hitler, see who wins.

“He’s a slippery son of a bitch, full of tricks, but you hit him right, he’s going down,” the instructor barks. “Put your knee in his balls and he’s not going anywhere.”

 

On Claire’s birthday, Jack finds himself at a sporting goods store, buying his daughter a punching bag. He is checking out an Everlast seventy pound bag, when one of the store clerks, a pimply faced kid, walks up and asks if he is finding everything alright.

“I’m just picking up a bag for my little girl’s birthday,” Jack tells him. Sometimes, in moments like this, he feels like an impostor, playing the part of a father.

“Cool, how old is she going to be?”

“Twelve.”

“Hey, great. You know, we’ve got these big inflatable bags too, with, like, a little clown face on them.”

In answer, Jack pick up the Everlast bag and brushes past the kid, up to the checkout counter. The bag costs what he’d allotted himself for food this week. He’s been on disability for the past seven months after a fall during a roofing job. It’s going to be a rice and beans sort of week.

After paying, he carries the bag to the edge of the parking lot to wait for a bus. He sold his car three months ago to draw out the disability money. It’s a seventy pound bag and, winded and with a slight ache in his forearms, he is reminded, yet again, that he is no longer the athlete he once was. The bus pulls up after a few minutes and he drags the bag up the stairs and plops down on the nearest seat.

An old black man across the way, wearing a beret and baggy trousers, eyeballs the bag.

“You a boxer, my man?” he asks.

“Used to be.”

“Me too, me too.” He throws up his hands, bobs from side to side. “I fought down in Texas. Used to mess people up.” He levels a few punches at the air. “Right jab, left jab, big ass hook. That was my specialty, this mean hook coming in from outer space, heating up on the re-entry, you know what I mean?”

Jack smiles and nods. The guy goes on muttering to himself, throwing mini-punches at the back of the seat in front of him. On his good days, Jack likes to think he is better than this guy, better than hanging onto past glories by a thread. But some days, when he thinks about what he could have been, he finds himself locked into this man’s mindset, reliving those matches, licking the sweat from old fights off his lips.

He has to transfer once more, lugging that bag off and on the buses, before he disembarks a few blocks from Claire’s house. He swings the bag lengthwise into his arms and staggers down the sidewalk. He makes it almost two blocks before he has to stop to rest. His arms ache and the leg he injured in the fall is sore. After a minute, he hefts the bag back into his arms. He can feel his heart bumping up against the bag, breaking it in with a few soft punches.

He eventually reaches the house and sets the bag down on the front steps. It’s the middle of a weekday, so no one is home. From his back pocket, he takes out a card. Underneath a pink curly lettered happy birthday, he has written in his jagged chicken scratch, Figured you might be ready for your own bag. Love, yer Pap. He wedges the card under a corner of the bag and steps back to look at his handiwork.

When he gets home that afternoon, he finds a letter in his mailbox saying that, in a ceremony two weeks out, his great uncle, Maximillian Melrose, is being inducted into the state’s sports hall of fame. He is cordially invited. The letter also notes that Jack’s cousin, Dale, who has never thrown a punch in his life, has been selected to accept the award.

 

On a stained mattress, seventeen year old Maximillian sits in his 9′ x 9′ cell. He has not showered and the sweat from last night’s fight is still tacky on his skin. Unable to sleep, he had replayed the fight over and over in his head, the few punches, the way his opponent, Roger McElroy, had thrown his gloves down for a second, like he wanted to see what this kid, in his first pro fight, had in him. He hears the rattling of keys somewhere down the short hallway. A drunk calls out the word woman, over and over, or maybe it is women, all of them. The first of the morning light is trickling in through a window on the other side of the bars. Maximillian studies his hands against the grey backdrop of the cement floor. They aren’t that big. They hurt. One or two knuckles on his right might be broken, even though he only hit McElroy a few times. Only a few times and the guy didn’t get up, just laid there on the ring floor, one arm tucked under his body, the other with its gloved fist pointing accusingly at Maximillian’s corner. Now Maximillian is sitting in his cell, waiting on the possible murder charges. McElroy had swung, what, one or two times is all? The spectators, not that there were that many, started booing while Maximillian stood in his corner, McElroy’s manager out with the smelling salts, trying to raise his man. Now, a full day later, they are still trying to raise him, and Maximillian hopes to God they do.

He is scared. He wonders if he has somehow been granted some measure of power beyond his control. Maybe he wanted it too bad.

 

Five hundred feet under water, Zeek is watching over a Japanese prisoner, the only guy they had pulled from the water after torpedoing a transport boat. They’ve got the guy locked up in a spare room in the sailors’ cramped living quarters, ready to hand him off as soon as they’re able. A few of the guys had wanted to leave him to the sharks, but the captain had insisted they dredge him out, lock him up. Around one of the prisoner’s legs is a bloody bandage and in his hands, which are chained to a pole, he has a picture, rippled with water damage, of a woman and a boy, framed by cherry blossoms. He is blinking down tears. Zeek, on guard duty and drunk on torpedo juice, is looking at the man and he is silently bawling, his lips quivering from the strain of holding back the gasping sobs. Something has happened to him during the war, some confused crossing of cerebral wires. He finds himself at random intervals with a quickened heartbeat wanting nothing but destruction and then, quickly after, feeling completely and utterly drained, his desire for death a flash in the pan. In the ring, they gave you a break every few minutes, let you go home at night.

“Watashi no kazoku,” the prisoner says. My family.

The silver dolphin patch on Zeek’s sleeve cuff is stained with blood from pulling this man out of the water. Zeek fishes a cigarette out of his pocket, proffers it toward the quivering lips of the prisoner. Then, as the prisoners mouth begins to open, Zeek lunges at him and the prisoner winces, shrinks back against the wall, the picture held tight to his chest. Zeek forces a laugh through the suppressed sobs and wipes at his running nose with the back of his sleeve. Underneath the sea, in the belly of a bullet, he is drowning.

 

Jack is sitting at a table in the corner of the big hotel ballroom, eating rubbery chicken and waiting for the inductions to start. He has been placed, purposefully he is sure, at a table full of sweet old ladies who he’s certain know nothing of his past or current reputation.

Suddenly a familiar sound echoes through the room and everyone goes quiet. It’s an old bell and an ancient man up on stage is hitting it slowly with a hammer, a ten count. The ceremony is recognizing a lot of sports besides boxing, but even so, Jack recognizes some faces in the crowd. The people he knows are easy to spot: they are done up in what passes for fancy attire in the working class boxing world: dress shirts, ironed slacks and backward baseball caps. He spots Kevin again. Before the dinner started Jack had watched him hug what seemed like every person in the room. He had been a used car salesman before taking over the gym and he still has that flashy smile, is still selling himself.

Jack’s cousin, Dale, looks uncomfortable and lost sitting at a table at the front of the room with the other people accepting awards. He is sitting next to Ricky Sinclair. Ricky played football at Jack’s high school, was a star in college. He played a year or two in the pros before he broke his leg and was cut. Jack had fought him in the parking lot once in high school, landed a few good blows that would have downed smaller guys. When the pros let him go, Ricky came back to town and got work in the sheet metal business. Jack sees him limping around town sometimes and thinks about how hard some people fight just to end up a working class stiff.

The ceremony gets rolling and they induct a few coaches, managers and a sportswriter before they get to Maximillian. He’s the sole inductee in the pioneers category. The MC talks about his record, a ridiculous twenty-eight matches, twenty-four wins, three draws and one no contest. Of those wins, all twenty-four were by knockout. Jack knows all this, but he still shakes his head in amazement. He looks over at Dale who is fumbling with a piece of crumpled paper. Jack flips the program open to the picture of Maximillian. It’s a side view of a small guy, twining veins wrapped around bulging biceps, his shorts hiked over his navel, holding out one glove, the other tucked in against his chest. He’s got a crew cut you could saw a log in two on and a tendon worming down his neck like thick rope. Jack looks up to see Dale ascending the steps to the stage. The MC hands over a plaque while a photographer snaps a picture.

“Hey, this means a lot to my family,” Dale says. Jack tries not to snort. Dale belongs to Jack’s mother’s side of the family, the side with no expressed interest in men who make a habit of punching people in the face. “Millions was kind of a legend in the family when I was growing up, so it’s great to see him get recognized like this. I’ve got a cousin in the audience who I know appreciates it too.” Jack blushes at this, an unexpected gesture, and looks down at the remains of the chicken on his plate. He knows that Dale is aware, on some level, of the animosity the general boxing community expresses for Jack, so he appreciates the thought.

After the ceremony is over, Jack doesn’t stick around to talk or be talked about. He grabs his coat off the back of his chair and heads for the door. Stepping outside, he lights up a cigarette and then he hears his name called out behind him. It’s Dale, just stepping through the door, the plaque tucked under his arm.

“Hey, cuz. You should take this.” He thrusts the plaque Jack’s way with both his hands. They are small hands, from the good side of the family. “We both know it makes more sense than me holding onto it.”

Jack switches his cigarette into his left hand and takes the plaque with his right. It’s lighter than he expected, a piece of wood with a metal plate on which Maximillian’s picture and accomplishments are printed. It’s the same picture from the program and Maximillian looks even sharper on the metal.

“Thanks, Dale. I appreciate that.”

“Sure, no problem. I guess I’ll see you around.” They shake hands and then Dale ducks back inside. There’s a light drizzle falling, but Jack doesn’t feel like going home yet, so he walks out into it, thinking maybe there’s somewhere out there that might still have him.

 

Today, the residents of Shelby, Montana would sell you the shirt off their back for the right price. Everywhere people are selling something or other: candy, ice cream, buttons, miniature oil derricks, surplus tickets to the big fight. It is the Fourth of July and little pockets of dust keep exploding as boys throw firecrackers into the street. Men have set up booths with hand painted signs, their fingers sticky with melting ice cream, their voices hoarse from hawking, one-day-only entrepreneurs.

Having scared off any willing competition at home, Maximillian is headed on a barnstorming tour out west, offering five hundred dollars to any man who can go more than four rounds with him. He was passing through Montana when word reached him that it seemed likely the fight up in Shelby was actually going to come off. He’d talked his manager into a few day holdover to watch Jack Dempsey defend his title against Tommy Gibbons. Where this tiny little oil town, spitting distance from the Canadian border, ever came up with the promised $300,000 is anybody’s guess.

Maximillian navigates his way through the crowd, past all the hawkers, and hands the man at the gate his ticket. The sun is out in force after days of rain and the newly cut wood of the stadium is bright and reflective, glowing with Shelby’s hope. The colossal stadium has been built on the outskirts of town, but, in an effort to cover the promised sum of money, the organizers have priced the tickets beyond most locals’ budgets. Add that to the on and off again news of the fight itself–which scared more than a few out of town spectators from making the journey–and the stadium is barely populated.

As Maximillian sits down, the second of the two warm up fighters is crawling out through the ropes, just now revived from his second round knockout. Looking around, Maximillian thinks it is certainly one of the more diverse fight crowds he’s ever seen. There are some slick city folk, wearing suits despite the sweltering heat, but there are also a number of farmers and other working men, some of them done up in their only suit, threadbare and marred with patches of dirt and oil, some of them in wide brimmed hats and muddy boots. Near the ring is even a section inhabited by a group of Indians, a number of them in their full war regalia like they might jump in the ring to do battle after Dempsey and Gibbons are finished.

The stadium is so new that the smell of the pine boards is still fresh. Maximillian takes in a deep breath, the smell of near beer, sweat and pine mingling, but then he starts coughing, a hacking cough that causes a few nearby men to scoot away. He sits up straight again and throws a hand up to say he is okay. It had rained for days before the match and although the sun has largely dried everything out, Maximillian picked up the cough while waiting out the rain in his cold and damp hotel room, a rickety two story affair likely thrown up just in time for the fight.

Suddenly from outside the stadium there is the sound of creaking metal and then a great crashing, followed by a dustbowl, at the center of which is a mob rushing in, gatecrashing locals who had been priced out of their own town’s crowning moment. Maximillian keeps a wary eye on them, but they seem satisfied to be inside and soon enough dissipate into the stands, which even with this injection, are still not nearly full.

Dempsey enters first, flanked by a crowd of men, bodyguards, supporters, and his manager, Kearns. Dempsey looks like the Hollywood hero he has become: dark wavy hair, firm jaw, swarthy complexion. He hasn’t fought all year, but it doesn’t show in his broad, toned shoulders, his strong arms and legs.

Gibbons is up next, the underdog with only a few men escorting him into the ring. A mangled ear, a nose which has been hit a few times, he’s got fifty fights in the past four years to Dempsy’s meagre four. Once he is through the ropes he jumps around giving the mat a good testing, making sure these cowboys and farmers know what taut means. The two fighters saunter to the center of the ring and put their gloves out and flex their muscles while the cameras flash all around them. The movie men are scattered half way up the stadium bowl on their parapets, hunched over like vultures hungry to capture the action for posterity.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” a man with a megaphone says from center ring, and then introduces each of the fighters with their respective titles.

The fight itself is worthy enough and goes all fifteen rounds, Shelby having gone through so much trouble to make it happen, it’s the least the boxers can do. Gibbons works at Dempsey’s body while Dempsey throws solid punches toward Gibbons’ head. But in the end, Dempsey, mobile and able to shake off the few solid hits Gibbons manages to land, keeps his title by unanimous decision.

Maximillian is happy to have seen it, Dempsey fighting so rarely. Watching the fight has made him hungry to get back in the ring himself. He is certain he’ll get his crack at the big boys soon; they’ve already turned down offers, the story of the two men he put in temporary comas scaring off his possible competition. But soon Maximillian will be a known contender and the champs will have to fight him or lose face.

But today, on this rare occasion, he is just a spectator. Shuffling out the gates, his throat coated from all the kicked-up dust as the spectators file out, he buys a bottle of water from a boy already hawking them at half off.

Within a few hours Maximillian boards a train to continue his tour out west. He sweats through his bedsheets and twice wakes himself up coughing. But never does he consider stopping the tour, stopping the fights. He keeps his money all through California and Texas, is never knocked out even though he feels weak, sometimes dizzy, after he throws a big punch.

Shelby, on the other hand, gives in almost right away, goes broke the minute Dempsey leaves town.

 

Jack has been at the bar for maybe an hour when Kevin walks in with some other men. Maximillian’s plaque is on the bar next to Jack, reflecting the dim light. Jack has never been much of a drinker and is nursing only his second beer. He used to think it was a challenge, to see how mean he could be sober. To get drunk off his own venom. But those days are gone.

Watching Kevin and his cohorts settle into a booth in the corner, he thinks that maybe it is time to try something new. He is tired of being a ghost. He has a few guys he hangs out with, rough bachelors he knows from past jobs, but he wouldn’t really call them friends. He thinks about the boxing years, the screaming people surrounding the ring, the rowdy socialization. He decides there’s no time like the present. He gets up, tucks the plaque under his arm, and walks over to where Kevin and his friends are just settling into the booth.

“Kevin,” he says, throwing a hand up in a wave.

“Hey, Jack,” Kevin says, flat, not trying to hide the fact that he would like Jack to go away, that he is not in the habit of talking to apparitions.

“Great ceremony, huh?” Jack motions to the plaque in his other hand. “My old man says Millions was a helluva boxer, one of the greats.”

“He was.” Kevin looks past him to the bar.

“Let me buy y’all a pitcher,” Jack says. He is keen on doing this, to start something rolling.

“Look, Jack. I’m just trying to catch up with some old friends here, okay?” He looks at the other guys assembled in the curve of the booth. Absent glasses of beer, they look into their laps, drum the tabletop with their meaty fingers.

“Why you got to be like this, huh?” Jack wants to know. He wants Kevin to tell him what exactly he ever did to him. A couple cheap shots twenty years ago, so what?

“Don’t you have some little girls to be touching or something?”

Okay. Jack will leave, all right. This was the wrong idea. Not the first time Jack has miscalculated in his life. But then something moves in his belly, a skittering like long nailed paws on a linoleum floor. It builds until it feels hot, full of friction. It puts down roots in his gut and it throws out tendrils in every direction. It branches out into his arms and shoots into the tips of his fingers which spring open, the plaque clattering onto the table so that Maximillian is looking up into his great nephew’s clenched jaw, into his narrowed slits of eyes. It pulls the emergency brake on Jack’s original intentions, flips things right around, the smell of something burning in the air. For the first time in a long time, Jack wants to punch a man in the face. It feels pretty good.

“Outside,” Jack mutters.

“Get real, old man. I’m not fighting you in the parking lot.”

Then Jack slaps him, open palmed, right in the face. Kevin stands up real quick, but the table is bolted in place and it’s a tight fit between the booth so he bangs his knee in the process, wincing.

“Outside,” Kevin hisses.

Jack grabs Maximillian, his new guardian angle, off the table and walks toward the front door. He recognizes the sound in the bar. It’s a fake silence, everyone sipping on their beers, pretending not to watch. The bartender is moving a bottle cap around the bar with his pointer finger, making sure the men exit out that door.

In the parking lot, Jack sets Maximillian on the hood of a car. It’s still drizzling out. Jack hears the shuffling of feet as Kevin’s posse arranges itself behind their man. Right now he is feeling, however inaccurately, like he could take them all on. He thinks of his daughter, how he will show her that her old man can still hold his own, that even if they won’t let him in the ring, he hasn’t forgotten how to throw a punch.

He turns around and Kevin hits him in the mouth. He can feel his lower jaw shift to where it shouldn’t be. He tastes a little blood trickling onto his tongue. He looks up and sees Kevin has his hands dropped at his side, as if defense hadn’t even crossed his mind. In the bar window behind Kevin there’s a neon sign throwing a smeared red light on the ground at his feet so it looks like he’s standing in a pool of watery neon blood. Jack’s bad ear is ringing, as if sounding the alarm.

“What? I thought you were the king of fighting dirty. Come on.”

Jack lunges with a right hook, but Kevin leans back and Jack almost topples over with the airy follow through. Jack’s brain tries to tell him that Kevin owns a boxing gym, that Jack throws a few punches at a bag once a month, but it’s drowned out by the sound of the blood hammering between his ears. As he rights himself Kevin lands another blow on the side of his head and his brain goes sloshing around on the suddenly turbulent sea inside his skull. Then Kevin slogs one into his gut and Jack hits the wet pavement, one hand to his belly, the other to his head. He sounds like a broken vacuum trying to suck air back into his lungs.

“Stay the fuck away from my gym,” Kevin tells him. “You got yourself in this shape, now stay there.” Like Jack is a fucking dog. Kevin shakes out his fist, spits to the side, and then turns his back on Jack and walks back toward the bar.

Jack releases his stomach and throws a hand up on the hood of the car to hoist himself up off the ground. Maximillian is still sitting up there, poised for the fight, gloves at the ready. Jack picks up the plaque and hurls it, tomahawk style, at Kevin’s back, letting Millions, the real fighter in the family, finish what Jack had just barely managed to start.

The plaque hits Kevin solidly in the spine and he arches his back upon impact. He turns around, one of his friends already holding open the door, and looks at Jack, an angry sneer curling his lips. Jack balls his fists up again, ready for round two, even though he was clearly not prepared for round one. But instead, Kevin bends down and picks up the plaque off the ground. He looks at it, then back at Jack, then snaps it in two on his knee. The thing is just cheap particle board and it splinters easily. Even the metal sheet with Maximillian’s face on it cracks in half. Then Kevin lets each piece drop to the ground and with his friends all in tow, walks back into the bar.

Jack stands there for a minute, pretending like he has options. He has never been much good at playing dead. He wipes at his mouth with the back of his hand and it comes away with a thin streak of blood. He holds it out from his body and the drizzle slowly washes it away. Then he goes and collects Maximillian from the pavement. Even split in two, like a good boxer, he hasn’t put down his gloves.

Jack tries to slot the two pieces back together, the before and after, but it’s too jagged a break, he can’t make the thing whole again.

 

From his bed Maximillian can see Pikes Peak, the rest of the Rockies huddled around it, the snow covering their slopes like white beards for the pierced through clouds. Little flecks of blood dot his sheets, pulled up to his chin. He is twenty-two and dying. His doctors had told him to come here, to the Modern Woodmen Tuberculosis Sanatorium just outside Colorado Springs, to seek out the dryer air, to rid himself of the tuberculosis woven through his lungs. The sanatorium has done its best, but the rest, the good food and pure air have not been enough. In a last ditch effort, Maximillian has also thrown his money at an additional laundry list of cures. Gold and copper salts sit on his bedside table. A week before, at the advice of an old Indian woman, he had eaten a wolf’s liver boiled in wine. But now he is drowning in his own fluids, his lungs turning to dust in his chest. He should have quit a year ago, at the first hint of a chest cold in Shelby. But he was stubborn, kept fighting anyone who stepped into the ring. He returned home to keep training, to breathe in the damp gym air, his manager trying to finally get him a championship fight.

After just two rounds in his last bout, a match up with a respected negro fighter, he could hardly breathe, had barely managed a draw after six rounds. He had felt apart from his body, numb. The only way he had been able to tell that his fists were still closed was by feeling for the little clump of hair he had balled up inside his glove, loosened from the leather by his sweat.

He coughs, small dots of red spittle landing on the sheet, his teeth stained from the abundance of fluoride in the local water.

When Maximillian dies a week later, a pair of boxing gloves and an old pocket watch within reach on the bedside table, his hometown newspaper, in a particularly grandiloquent obituary, will write, “Thus ends the meteoric career of a boxer who was denied the right to hold a championship by a grim working of fate.”

Absent an oracle’s view, it will make no mention of the long lineage of fighters that will come after him, swinging, mostly missing.

 

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Oh Canada

Most of his son’s team is staying at a chain motel on the outskirts of town, but Manny had opted for a little hotel closer to the rink, a cheap, drafty place with a stained toilet and non-matching bed sheets. Abstract paintings of red smeared paint above each bed try to give the place some class, but they look too much by splashes of blood, like the hotel has only framed a murder scene. Manny’s son, Danny, is clearly upset. He had begged his dad to let them stay in the pricier motel, but Manny had assured him that the hotel would be cool–he had actually used the word “retro”–that its downtrodden good cheer would be ample replacement for the swimming pool and arcade of the motel.

“Plus, you’ll get to sleep in an extra fifteen minutes because we’re so close to the rink,” he’d said, but Danny had just fidgeted in his seat and stared out the window at the passing mounds of snow, rolling hills somewhere underneath. When they’d passed into Canada and Manny had started to sing an off-key, fragmented version of Oh Canada, Danny had not joined in.

Now Danny is calling from the bathroom.

“Dad, it smells really bad in here.”

Manny hefts his son’s hockey bag off his shoulder and joins him in the bathroom. A strong, acrid smell of bleach greets him.

“That’s just the smell of clean, son. It means they’ve cleaned it for us.”

Danny looks at his father, dubious, his little mouth flatlining, his thumbs sliding in and out of his empty belt loops. He keeps looking at his father until finally he says, “I have to pee.”

Manny backs out of the bathroom and sits down on one of the beds. He unzips his son’s overstuffed suitcase and starts unpacking it. Danny’s mother, Elise, packed it and it has roughly double the necessary items. As Manny sifts through it, he remembers how she had packed for their honeymoon in Hawaii, how she had brought two skirts for every day they’d be there.

“The Hawaiians are very into their skirts,” she’d told him. “I don’t want to be underdressed.” They’d divorced three years later, two years after Danny was born, and when Manny was digging through the closet he’d found a box of those skirts, untouched since Danny’s birth. They were too cute, too fun for the professional woman she had become. At the bottom of Danny’s suitcase is a Calvin and Hobbes collection and Manny opens it to see that Elise has written a little note in her neat cursive:

Thought you might need some Calvin and Hobbes to keep you company. Play well. Be nice to your father.

The insinuations are clear: that Danny will be bored, that he finds it difficult to be cordial to his father. Danny comes out of the bathroom and Manny throws the book on his bed.

“Your mom sent that for you.”

“Oh, awesome,” Danny says, smiling for the first time the whole trip.

 

They pass the rest of the night with Manny watching grainy sitcom reruns on the old wood paneled TV and Danny reading Calvin and Hobbes, occasionally snorting with laughter. Eventually, when it has been some time since the last giggle, Manny looks over and sees that Danny has fallen asleep on top of the covers, his shoes and jacket still on. He turns off the TV and wrests Danny’s shoes off his feet, unzips his jacket and worms each of his arms out, Danny stirring a little, his eyelids fluttering. Elise packed a pair of jammy pants, but Manny leaves them folded in the bottom of the bag and slides the covers over his son, still in his jeans and t-shirt.

He sits on the edge of the bed for a minute watching his son sleep. Danny has always had a pinched look when sleeping, as if he is considering complex matters in his dreams. But who’s to say he’s not. He is certainly smarter than Manny was at his age, although sometimes Manny thinks maybe he is mistaking his son’s brooding demeanor for a grumpy precociousness.

Manny knows that he himself was a late bloomer, that he began to give a shit about adulthood a little later than some. He didn’t understand that the world wouldn’t wait for him, that he would be thrown into adulthood sooner than expected. Now he wonders if maybe he should have shaken off his adolescent tendencies a little sooner. He thinks that had he put a little more time into planning out life, he’d be better off.

Manny was an only child, but his parents had substituted siblings with dogs and he had grown up surrounded by rescue shelter mutts. He had dropped out of college after his first year and started working at a veterinary clinic. He had met Elise there when she brought in her dog with a ruptured disk. After surgery there was a long rehab period for the dog and eventually Manny was taking the dog for walks with Elise late at night, the animal supported with a sling around its back legs, looking back at them impatiently when they would stop to kiss and the sling would go limp. A year after marrying Elise, Manny had opened up his own clinic, state of the art place, all the amenities rich people want for their ailing animals. He had been trying to keep up with Elise, who went from the freewheeling girl he had married to a young professional overnight. He had thought they had some time still, a few years to mess around, be stupid young people in love.

If he had bothered to look around at the changing demographics of the city, he would have noticed that the last rich people, the kind that have thousands to spend on momentarily prolonging an animal’s life, were just leaving, heading to the other side of town or farther, to the suburbs. He would probably have done better opening up a small, shoddy shop in a strip mall, dog bones strewn around the waiting room floor. Maybe if he’d had a loyal customer base, some reliable clients up for the drive across town, he could have survived. But as it was, the place went belly up, right around the time Danny was born. Elise divorced him six months into his humiliating year long stint as a manager at a mildewy pet shop in the mall. She found out that he had been sleeping with one of the cashiers, a nineteen year old girl who during sex would make noises disturbingly similar to the parakeets scattered throughout the shop. The fact that he has rebounded a little, working now as a vet at one of the new clinics that helped put him out of business, has done little to help Elise change her view of him. Danny has absorbed more than a little of her sentiment.

When he is sure the kid is soundly asleep, Manny puts on his jacket and shoes and slips out the door. He saw a bar down the street when they were driving in and he figures he’ll grab a drink, see if Budweiser tastes any different in Canada. He locks the door behind him and turns to see a woman down the outside walkway, fumbling with her keys, listing from side to side in high heels. She is wearing a pair of khaki business pants and a loose fitting dress shirt. He walks down the hall and as he gets nearer she drops the keys and bends unsteadily to retrieve them.

“Need some help there?” Manny asks her.

“I think I can manage,” the woman says and she picks up the keys and jabs them at the door until they slide into the lock. She turns toward Manny, bumping the door open with her shoulder. “Thanks though,” she says, smiling with her whole mouth, her tongue pressed up against her bottom teeth, and then she tips herself into her room and shuts the door behind her.

Manny walks down the icy stairs, strewn with rock salt, to the parking lot and then along the street in the direction of the bar. He passes a little strip mall, half of the stores empty with realtor’s signs in the window, big banks of dirty plowed snow taking up parking spaces in two corners. One of the stores is a tanning salon, the image of a sun superimposed over the Canadian flag, which makes Manny laugh. He remembers that at some point he is supposed to turn, right, he thinks, but he can’t remember for sure. A few more blocks and he thinks maybe he has missed the turn. The streets are deserted, no one to ask for directions. The sky is a murky haze, the moon occasionally glowing through the shadowy clouds. He crosses the street and then decides to cut through an alley. When he turns into the alley, he sees a teenager standing on his tiptoes, spraying a large swath of paint across the brick wall. The teen is dressed all in black, a hood pulled up over his head, a partially unzipped backpack slung over one shoulder. Manny shifts his weight and his right foot crunches through a thin ice pocket and the teen turns, startled.

“Oh, shit,” the kid says.

Manny throws up his hands to show he is not a threat, but the kid bolts anyways, dropping the can as he tries to shove it into his backpack. His footsteps crackle on the ice and packed snow as he runs down the alley and around the corner. Manny steps up to the wall to see the work he interrupted. It’s a sloppy tag, a kind of angular cursive, barely legible. Manny puts his fingers up against the wall and they come back faintly red tinged. There had been a time in Manny’s youth when he had invented his own tag, gone around his neighborhood and his middle school throwing it onto street signs and desks with a thick black sharpie, as if he were living in some big city, as if you didn’t still have to stop for cattle crossings right on the edge of town.

He picks up the can from the ground and turns to the opposite wall, still blank. He shakes the can and ponders what to do. He looks up and down the alley, pokes his head back out into the street. No one. He laughs, his breath escaping in puffs. The idea that he is in a foreign country briefly crosses his mind. But a kinder, benevolent foreign country, he thinks. What the hell, he figures. He decides this calls for something ridiculous, something immature. He approaches the wall and with a shaky hand he scrawls USA RULZ, going back to put in the periods–no need to be grammatically incorrect. He’s an amateur and doesn’t know how to hold the can, how to control the flow, so streaks of paint drip down the wall, give the graffiti a horror movie vibe, scrawled by an advancing zombie horde marking out their territory. He takes a step back to admire his work. He pops the collar on his jacket and turns around in a slow circle, bobbing his head, feeling, even though he knows it is illusory and fleeting, a little young, a touch of rebellion in the crisp night air. He has felt this before–although he might not recognize it–in the throes of the parakeet girl, in that other last ditch effort at youth.

He walks around for another fifteen minutes, still holding the can, but he can’t find the bar and his toes are getting cold, so he gives up, heads back to the hotel. Danny is still asleep and the heater has give up its clunking, mellowed out. Manny places the spray paint next to the coffee pot and crawls into bed.

 

In the morning, while they eat in the hotel’s attached diner, Danny says, “I woke up last night and you weren’t there.”

Manny, a piece of pancake in his mouth, says, “Yeah, I went for a walk.”

“You shouldn’t leave me though.”

Manny looks at his son, at his pale face, a dab of syrup on the tip of his nose. He sounds like his mother sometimes, like they have some kind of mind-link that allows her to occasionally inhabit Danny in order to scold Manny for his shortcomings.

“Come on, eat your breakfast, we gotta get to the rink, kid.”

Danny stabs at a sausage link, which squirts off the plate onto the table, where he leaves it, opting instead for a bite of pancake.

 

The rink is old and and rickety, but it has a sheet of ice surrounded by boards and that’s all the local Canadian team needs to kill them. Danny’s team manages a single point, the puck slipping in after an ugly scrum in front of the net. The other team figured out pretty quick that Danny’s team’s goalie couldn’t stop anything raised off the ice, so they threw one puck after another sailing into the net. At one point a kid form Danny’s team managed to get his stick stuck in a gap in the boards.

Manny sat in the bleachers watching. A single large heater hung from the ceiling, blasting a few overheated spectators and leaving everyone else out in the cold.

“Hey, Manny,” a man says to him halfway through the first period, when the game still looks possibly manageable. “Craig, Josh’s dad,” the man says, extending a hand, which Manny shakes. “Missed you at the motel last night. You guys get in late?”

“No, we’re staying at a little hotel closer to the rink. Save a few bucks,” he adds and instantly wishes he hadn’t, making himself sound cheap. Really, he was mostly trying to avoid this, this forced parental bonding. Bad enough to be stuck in the bleachers with the parents all week, he doesn’t need to be stuck poolside too, roaming the halls with ice buckets, dodging kids playing hall hockey with rubber balls.

“Well hey, the kids are all going swimming tonight, some of us are ordering pizzas. Danny’s invited, if you want to come hang out. Free of charge.”

“Yeah, great, thanks,” he says and turns his attention back to the game to see the Canadian’s score their third goal, the Canadian kid down on one knee, raising a gloved fist in the air. Manny boos quietly under his breath.

The second game of the day is against a visiting Canadian team from a small town up north and while less of a wholesale slaughter, it is by no means even a semblance of a victory for Danny’s team. Manny tries to keep an eye on Danny, to comment on his performance after the game, but it’s hard, all the kids out there chasing the puck in identical outfits. When he does pick him out, he thinks how eager he seems to be out there, how hard he chases after the puck, even as his team sinks farther behind. Some of the kids start half-assing it, but Danny keeps after it, chasing the pucks into the corner, swinging wholeheartedly on the rare occasions when they get near the other team’s net.

Manny hopes Danny’s performance bodes well for other aspects of his life, that he keeps this kind of against-the-odds energy up. Manny gave up years ago, he knows it: when the going got tough, he got tired.

 

After the game, out in the parking lot, Danny asks if they can go to the motel tonight. “Everyone’s going to be at the pool and they’re getting pizza and stuff.”

“Yeah, maybe. We’ll see. Let’s get back to the hotel and get you showered first, alright? You stink, kid.”

On the ride home, Danny tells him about how all the Canadian’s cheat and play dirty which is why they win so much. Manny wants to tell him that they also live and breathe the sport, but he is almost heartened by the kid’s inability to see the game for what it is. Maybe he takes after his old man a little after all.

 

At the hotel, Manny cranks up the heat while Danny gets in the shower. A clanking rumble comes from the vent and the room momentarily smells like burning. He turns on the TV and dozes off. Danny wakes him up a few minutes later, dressed and with a clump of intrepid soap suds still clinging behind an ear.

“Daaaad, wake up. Can we go to the motel now?”

Manny blinks away the grogginess and says, “I’ll order us a pizza here, how does that sound?”

“Dad,” Danny whines. “Come on, the whole team is there.”

Manny considers giving in. The kid’s face is pitiable, so disappointed, his lips puffed out in a frown, but then he thinks that if he gives in now, he’ll always give in, become that pushover dad who caves at the hint of a teary eye. He has watched parents tell their children that their dog will be okay and then a week later it is dead; who does that benefit?

“Sorry, buddy, I’m exhausted. Hard work watching you skate all day.” That was supposed to be a joke, but it falls dead before Danny, who flops down on the bed, arms splayed out, ready for the cross, to be a martyr for children robbed of pool party fun everywhere.

“Oh, come on, we’ll get some pizza, watch some TV, it’ll be fun.”

Danny shakes his head back and forth on the blanket, leaving a wet streak from his still damp hair.

 

With the empty pizza box folded in half in the trash and Danny asleep with the Calvin and Hobbes book splayed open next to him, Manny notices the can of spray paint still sitting next to the coffee pot. He wonders if his scrawled national pride is still on the wall or if a proud Canadian shop owner has already power washed it away or painted over it. He thinks that maybe if it is still there it could use some touching up. He pauses and considers the absurdity. It is stupid, but when was the last time he got to willfully do something stupid? He has done a number of unintentionally dumb things over the past decade, but he misses the implausibility of youthfully dumb arrogance. All day long at work, notwithstanding the occasional dumb dog talk, he must be serious.

Things have been so dull lately that if he doesn’t do something new he might very well die of boredom. So he grabs the can off the counter, puts on his jacket, casts one more look back at Danny, and then quietly lets himself out of the room.

 

The wall is as he left it, the dripping red USA looking like the bloodthirsty country much of the world believes it to be. He traces his hand along the letters as if the paint might still be somehow wet. He shakes the can. A car drives by in the street and Manny looks down, hides the can against his other leg. Thinking back on the trouncing Danny’s team received that day, he starts writing HOCKEY above the RULZ; if his son’s team can’t actually rule, he can at least give them this. Maybe he will tell Danny about this years from now, his father’s daring weekend graffiti career, his attempt at retribution for the drubbing by the Canadians.

He’s on the K when suddenly the wall is lit up with the glare of car headlights. Before he can even think what to do, the door is slamming and a man is walking toward him, saying something, but his words get caught in the light and thrown against the wall, shattering in the crisp air.

Manny is remembering now that part of being young and reckless is getting busted. He and Elise, both of them twenty-eight and married just three months, had been busted smoking a joint in an alleyway once after a movie. They had run, Elise still clasping the joint in her fingers, and the cop had not given chase, had let the newlyweds enjoy their few months before it all started to go wrong. Maybe the cop knew, maybe he sensed that their time was already short.

“Hey, asshole, that’s my wall you’re defacing,” the man says. He’s a big guy, backlit with the headlights, his upturned hands out at each side.

Then Manny is running. Or at least he is slipping at a high velocity down the alleyway, the hard packed snow and ice pockets causing him to stumble. Then, only a few yards from where he started his escape, he falls, and the man’s knee is instantly against Manny’s spine, his hand on the crown of his head. Manny’s chin makes a small dent in the snow. Manny cannot believe this is actually happening. Of all the dumb ass things he has done, this is a new low. He has a vision of Elise driving up to take Danny home, of the court date to make sure he doesn’t get to see his kid anymore. Then he is flipping over off his stomach, the can of spray paint still in his hand, his finger on the trigger and he lets a stream of paint fly into the man’s face, across his beard, slashing like a wound along his neck and down his jacket. The man reals back, letting go, and Manny flees, runs like a man with everything to lose.

 

As Manny climbs the steps back at the hotel, two at a time, he feels invigorated, the adrenaline still pumping, his hands shaky against the stair railing. He had run faster than he knew he could, down side streets and through alleys, hopping a tall metal fence through a yard stacked full of rusting barrels. At one point he had heard a siren somewhere in the distance, imagined the police lights spilling over him at any minute. He feels as though he was being tested, as if something wanted to see how much life he still had in him. Some, he wants to say. Definitely some.

Then there in front of him, coming up the other staircase, is the woman from the night before. She is in her business attire again, a sharp red blazer and billowy khaki pants, teetering unsteadily on black heels. She gets to her door just as Manny is walking up.

“You again,” she says, her mouth gaping like she can’t believe it. “You stalking me?”

“I’d ask you the same thing.”

She turns her attention to the door and to her key. She jabs at the door with the key as if fending off an intruder and then looks helplessly at Manny.

“Keys and alcohol and me don’t get along.”

“Please, allow me,” Manny says. He steps forward and after a moment’s hesitation, she hands him the key. He opens her door, the shaking in his hands beginning to subside. The woman steps into the room and turns to Manny.

“Thanks,” she says, taking the key from the door. Then she shuts the door, the room still dark. Manny cocks his head, shrugs and then turns to walk to his room. Then the door pops back open a crack and the woman’s face appears. “A nightcap?” she asks.

 

Digging two little bottles of alcohol from her purse, she pours each into the thin plastic cups provided by the hotel. She adds a splash of water to each from the bathroom faucet and comes back out and hands a cup to Manny. He is fairly sure that the top button of her blazer has been undone, a sloping V of pale skin evident in the dim light from the bedside lamp. She sits on the twin bed opposite him and sips slowly from her drink, her bottom teeth rubbing against the plastic. She has shoulder length brown hair, a sharp nose and big, partially hooded eyes which stand out as the only possible bashful thing about her.

“So what brings you to the world class Budget Inn?” Manny asks, trying to break the silence.

“Business,” the woman says. “A business conference. A business conference run by a bunch of old alcoholics.” She smiles at this and sways forward. “And you?”

“Hockey. Tournament.”

They both take another sip of their drinks. Out in the parking lot someone starts shouting at someone else. Manny notices the red light on the bedside phone is blinking to indicate she has a message.

“You have a message,” he says, nodding toward the phone.

“Been blinking since I got here,” she says and then she places her drink next to the phone, leans into Manny and kisses him, lazily, like they have known each other a long time. She runs her tongue along his top teeth.

“Right?” she says and Manny slides a hand behind her, under his shirt and onto the bare skin of her back. She arches at his cold hand, her nose mashing against his. And then they are lying down, the woman on top of Manny, biting his lip. She unzips his jacket and unbuttons his shirt, pawing at his chest hair.

Her ass beneath the khakis is soft. Elise had a thing about keeping her ass toned and Manny had always felt anchorless when he was on the bottom, nothing to dig into. He works his way up her back to her bra strap and works to unfasten it. He realizes the last time he likely did so was in the break room of the pet shop, the muffled sounds of barking dogs and mimicking birds on the other side of the door, the easily excitable girl pressed up against the employee lockers, the rich smell of Hot Pockets and animals thick in the air.

The woman has a hand on his belt buckle and her mouth around one of his nipples when suddenly from the hallway there is a terrible sound, the sound of a young boy screaming. Manny frees his hands from under the woman’s shirt and pushes himself half upright so she slides down a little, landing between his legs.

“Daaaaaaaaad,” the boy is screaming, and it is his son. “Daaaaaaaaad, where are you?” he is shrieking and Manny can clearly see his son’s face, the red of the back of his wide open mouth, the spreading blush of his forehead as he expels all his oxygen.

Manny looks up at the woman and she tilts her head and opens her mouth but doesn’t say anything. He scoots out from under her and jumps off the bed to the door, flings it open and runs down the hall toward his screaming child, his loose belt flapping, a sheen of saliva around his left nipple. A few other doors are open, a head or two poking out into the hallway.

“Danny, Danny, Danny, I’m right here, buddy.”

The boy shuts up right away and Manny scoops him up against his bare chest, even though he is too old to be carried, and walks back through their still open door. He deposits Danny on the bed and then closes the door.

“What was that all–”

“You can’t leave me alone like that.” The boy spits when he says it, so angry.

“Danny, I was just next door.”

“I had a bad dream.”

“Come on, Danny, you’re eleven years old.” Elise has not remarried and, to Manny’s knowledge, hasn’t been active in the dating scene. He almost wishes she would find a man, get a male presence in the house to toughen up Danny a little. Manny hates to see him turning into a momma’s boy like this.

“So? You can’t leave me.”

“Dude, I’m not leaving you, ever, okay?” Manny is trying to figure out what this is, if this is some kind of abandonment issue, if his son thinks he might actually walk out on him for good some day. He is almost touched; honestly, he wouldn’t have thought the kid cared that much.

“Where were you?”

“I was saying hi to a friend,” Manny says and then before Danny has time to probe further, to ask why his shirt is unbuttoned to the Canadian cold, he says, “Come on, we’ve got another big day tomorrow. Let’s get back to sleep, okay?”

Danny eyes him warily as if he might split again at any moment, but then he crawls back into bed and turns over, away from Manny. Manny sits there for a minute more, looking at the huddled form of Danny under the blankets, thinking what a wild night, that if he keeps this up he’ll be in jail with limited child visitation in no time. He licks his chapped lips and can still taste the woman, her drunk tongue. He eyes the door and shakes his head.

He bends down to take off his shoes and notices a thin red slash on his jacket, a battle wound of paint as evidence of the crazy night, already seeming like it must belong to some other man.

 

The next day’s games go much like the first. This Canadian team isn’t even as good as the ones the day before, but still they throw the puck into the back of the net with regularity. Manny wonders why they couldn’t have gotten some other teams from the States up here. Get some North Dakota kids to play maybe. Manny sits up high in a corner of the bleachers and none of the other parents try to talk to him. He has succeeded in creating a barrier, in making it known that he is not one of them, even though he too has spent his weekend watching his kid skate back to center ice, over and over. The Canadian team is starting to look a little bored.

Manny considers the long drive back home tonight, getting in late, Danny knocked out in the passenger’s seat or maybe lying stretched out in the backseat, a sliver of drool lit up by passing headlights.

During the second and final game, a new set of parents comes to occupy the bleachers. Manny watches them sit and huddle in little groups, parental cliques, keeping each other warm, styrofoam cup coffee steaming in their hands. Manny starts feeling antsy and bored and contemplates moving a couple rows down, saying hi to one of Danny’s teammates’ parents, maybe that guy Craig, but then he thinks better of it. He’s not ready to make that move yet, down a few rows and into another world. Maybe he should try faking it sometime though, as a test, see how well he can pull off a facsimile of chummy parenthood. Might make things easier.

Manny watches as one more parent climbs into the stands, sitting alone under the heater. The man turns and Manny sees that there is something wrong with his face, some accident or birthmark, a faint, scrubbed, red gash streaked across one of his cheeks, his beard, trailing down his neck and disappearing down his shirt. Then he realizes that it is paint, spray paint, and then he looks down at his jacket, at the matching slash of red as if his body picked up the wound where the other man’s body left off.

The man turns back around and Manny quickly takes off his jacket, reverses it, and slides it back on. Then he walks down the bleachers, keeping his head low and slightly turned away, and then he walks quickly out the door.

He wanders around the parking lot, wondering if he can go back inside and then decides he can’t. He stands there for a minute watching his breath, blowing out steadily until he feels lightheaded. So he sits in the car with the heater on, listening to the radio, which is all classic rock and country up here, little flurries of static punctuating the music. He considers the likelihood of that man being a parent of one of the kids and realizes in a small town like this it is actually very probable, almost assured. Manny thinks he should have picked a bigger city in which to start his new crime spree. He dozes off for a while and wakes up to the twanging guitar of an old country song, something about a guy’s mother and freight trains. He checks the clock and realizes that the game is likely just about over, the clock ticking off the final few minutes. He decides to venture a risk back into enemy territory and walks across the parking lot and into the arena.

He keeps his distance from the bleachers and squints to make out the scoreboard at the other end. When the red bulbed numbers come into focus, he sees that Danny’s team is still losing, but that the score is 6-3, that they have tripled their previous best of one goal. Then he wonders who scored, if maybe Danny managed one. Danny will never forgive him for missing it if he did. He should ask one of the parents, just to be safe. He cautiously walks back toward the bleachers, keeping an eye out for his newfound enemy, but he doesn’t see him.

Manny sits down next to Craig and says, “Hey, there. I had to step outside to take a phone call and looks like I missed all the action. Who put the goals in for our boys?”

Craig looks at him a little sadly; yesterday he was willing to help him integrate, but already today he is just feeling sorry for Manny, for his lackluster parental performance. But he throws him a bone anyway.

“Danny got one. Puck squirted past the defense and Danny just burst right past them, skated it all the way down and deeked out the goalie. Pretty sweet.”

“Oh, that’s great, great.” Then Manny looks up just in time to see the slash of paint on the man’s neck as he sits down next to them, two coffees in his hand.

“Hey, Manny, this is Josiah. He’s got a kid on the local team.”

The cop hands off one of the coffees to Craig and then extends his hand to Manny. Manny shakes it and tries not to tremble as he does so.

“Glad we could give your kids a few points before the weekend’s over,” Josiah says.

“Yeah, thanks,” Manny says. “Helps the kids feel good you know, a few points in the last game.” Manny feels some perverse urging to ask Josiah about the red smear on his face, to hear the story from his point of view, to listen for embellishment. But he bites his tongue, watches as Danny’s line jumps on the ice, Danny seeming newly energized, skating hard, digging a puck out of the corner and throwing it into the center of the ice where one of his teammates attempts a one-timer but fans on it. Manny fingers the seams in his inside-out jacket and pulls the zipper up tight against his chin. Then the buzzer mercifully sounds and Manny jumps up, clapping.

“Hey, alright,” he says. Then, looking down at the two men, he nods and says, “Good game, good game,” and then hurries off in the direction of the locker room, to urge Danny, who is still shaking hands with the other team on the ice, to quickly take off all his gear, to help them get out of here as soon as possible.

 

Danny is wearing his medal around his neck. They took last place by a wide margin, but every team got a medal of some sort and Danny is holding it up in front of his face as they walk through the parking lot, looking at it, pleased well enough, his breath blanketing it in white puffs. Manny has his son’s bag slung over his shoulder, the reek of two days worth of skating escaping through it into the cold air.

Then from the opposite end of the parking lot he sees Josiah exit the arena, his son in tow, carrying his own bag. They both walk toward the center of the lot, toward their prospective cars. Manny tries to think of a scenario to stall their meeting, considers faking like he left something inside, but nothing really comes to mind, the chill air somehow making the collision seem inevitable, freezing them on their current trajectory.

Their cars are actually next to each other, but each of them had come at the two spots from different directions so the driver’s side doors are on the same side.

“Headed back home?” Josiah asks, the cold rosing his cheeks the color of the faded red streak in his beard. His son throws his bag in the backseat and then gets in the passenger side. Manny sets Danny’s bag on the ground and fumbles with the keys in his cold fingers, trying to open the trunk.

“Yep, long drive, late night.”

“Well I’m glad the team could make it.” Manny manages to get the key in the lock and opens it, throwing Danny’s bag in. “You’re not ever up here for business or anything are you? I feel like we’ve met before.” Manny opens the car door, a hint of heat still trapped in the car from his first escape. He hits the button to unlock the passenger door and Danny opens it and gets in the car.

“Nope, nope,” Manny tells Josiah. “First time up.” He sets one foot in the car.

“Huh,” says Josiah. I don’t know then.” Danny cranes his neck across the seat dividers and looks up at the two men.

“Dad, why is your jacket on inside-out?” Danny says.

“What–”

“Holy shit,” Josiah says. “No god damn way.” Manny ducks into the car and tries to slam the door, but Josiah puts his shoulder against it. “Get the hell out of the car, man. You owe me some–” Manny kicks the car door open all the way, throwing Josiah against his own car. Then Manny is hurtling out of his car, ramming his head into Josiah’s gut, feeling the air leave him in one large forced exhalation. He stands up quick, just as Josiah is lowering his head, and he clips him on the chin. He can hear Josiah’s teeth clatter together, brittle from all those Canadian winters.

Then Manny is in his car again, the door slamming, somewhere Danny’s presence like a faint recollection. The frozen gravel spits into the air as Manny peels out of the parking lot, zipping past a few other clusters of parents and their boys, loading up their gear, headed home to warm showers, hot dinners, layers of blankets. His breath is fogging the window and as he leaves the parking lot he reaches up with his jacket sleeve to wipe away a space to see through. Then, reasserting his presence, Danny raises his arm too and wipes another another viewing hole into the passenger side of the windshield.

Manny looks over at him, at his son with his hand balled up in the sleeve, wiping in an increasingly large circle. He reaches over, his eyes still on the road, and puts a hand on his son’s shoulder.

“Okay?” His son sits back in his seat, his sleeve damp from the window. Manny glances at him, taking a corner too fast, and Danny nods. “Alright, between you and me, right? Just you and me?” And again Danny nods and then there, maybe, Manny sees the thought of a smile somewhere in his son’s eyes, in a twitch in his lips.

“USA hockey rules,” Manny says, holding up his hand for his son to slap.

 

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Three fights

My great, great uncle, Charley Kemmick, is imprisoned on possible murder charges after his first professional fight

 

On a stained mattress, sixteen year old Charlie Kemmick sits in his 9′ x 9′ cell. He has not showered and the sweat from last night’s fight is still tacky on his skin. Unable to sleep, he had replayed the fight over and over in his head, each punch, the way his opponent, Dick Moore, had thrown his gloves down for a second, like he wanted to see what this kid had in him. He hears the rattling of keys somewhere down the short hallway. A drunk calls out the word woman, over and over, or maybe it is women, all of them. The first of the morning light is trickling in through a window on the other side of the bars. Charlie studies his hands against the grey backdrop of the cement floor. They aren’t that big. They hurt. One or two knuckles on his right might be broken, even though he only hit Moore a few times. Only a few times and the guy didn’t get up, just laid there on the ring floor, one arm tucked under his body, the other with its gloved fist pointing accusingly at Charlie’s corner. Moore had swung, what, one or two times is all? The spectators, not that there were that many, started booing while Charlie stood in his corner, Moore’s manager out with the smelling salts, trying to raise his man.

Charley is scared. He wonders if he has somehow been granted some measure of power beyond his control. Maybe he wanted it too bad.

 

I got punched in the face in high school

 

Middle of class in high school. I lean in to crack a joke to this tough guy next to me and end up getting a little too close to his bad day. He puts his big hands around my throat for a second or two, then he takes one of those hands back, curls it into a fist and puts it into my face. I go ahead and lie down on the floor. This is funny, I think. Say something to the rest of the startled class, to the terrified teacher, that will clearly show this can be a joke. But, also, man, my face hurts. The kid throws his hands up, says he’s cool and calmly leaves the room. I manage a soft, muttered, Wow.

He disappears from class for five or six days, coming back in the final weeks of the school year. On the last day of school, he drops a note on my desk that says I owe him some lost days, like he really missed out on the wealth of uncomfortable knowledge that is high school health class. But we’re seniors, so I don’t know exactly when he expects me to get them to him.

 

My son, sometime in the future, will hit a man in a Denny’s

 

When my son is thirty-seven years old, he and his wife and their son, my grandson, will be eating at a Denny’s. They will be eating there because they are on a long road trip, going to a new uncertain mid-West home, and it is the only non-fast-food place at the highway pull off. Their kid loves it, the tackiness of the place. They have deprived him, despite my admonitions, of America’s middle-class delights.

A drunk guy at the booth in front of them will turn around. He will be wearing a trucker’s cap and taped together glasses. He will have a patchy beard and a space in his bottom teeth that looks too wide for a gap, too narrow for a tooth. He will tell my grandson to quit kicking the booth. Okay, son, settle down, his father will say, but this will not be enough. The man will have all kinds of things to say, about my son’s parenting, about the notion of children in general. Okay, okay, yep, my son will say, already collecting their coats, ready to move onto the next truck stop town. But then the man will put a hand, complete with a purpled dead thumbnail, over the booth onto my daughter-in-law’s shoulder. My son will pick it up and remove it.

In turn, the man will take a big, drunken swing and before his hand can even reach him, my son will hit him back, on the side of the head, his fist sliding along the mesh of the man’s hat onto the back of his head. Then, when my son turns away, he will see his kid, blank faced, his hands at his sides, his arms straight as a board. He will have terrified his child, introduced a new violent uncertainty into their family. But then my grandson will nod, just one up and down of his little square chin, as if he is letting his father know it is okay, on occasion, to let someone have it.

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No Place

No Place

 

Up in front of the entire class, Zach finds that he can’t speak. All his classmates are looking at him, waiting for him to tell them why he has missed so much school the past few weeks, even though they already know. He opens his mouth and he can feel his tongue moving, but it is not moving to shape any words; it is quivering, shivering really. His tongue is cold and it presses itself against his back molars for warmth, for calm.

“It’s okay, Zach,” says his teacher, Mrs. Orlowski. “We can just go ahead and wait or. . .”

But Zach shakes his head. He hasn’t said a word about his dad to any of the kids in the room, but he knows that somehow they all know and so he might as well just say it.

So he looks away from his classmates to the floor and wrests control of his tongue just long enough to mumble, “My dad died.”

Then he starts crying in front of everyone, which is awful.

 

The following week, Zach is hunched over his desk, his pencil making small jerky motions across a piece of paper as he shades the bubbled dome of a UFO. Written on the whiteboard at the front of the classroom are a number of multiplication problems. Mrs. Orlowski’s wide hips brush up against stray papers as she walks up and down the aisles. Stopping next to Zach’s desk, she opens her mouth as if to say something, but Zach pays her no attention. He reaches for an eraser to wipe away the places where his hand has smudged the drawing. Mrs. Orlowski moves on without saying anything, shuffling her feet along the thin, well worn carpet.

 

Hunched down in his ratty brown jean jacket, Zach peers out from the chokecherry shrubs during recess. It is early November and most of the leaves have fallen from the branches, but there are still just enough to conceal him. Peering between the branches he can see Lindy on the blacktop, looking for him, spinning around and then marching off to one corner or another of the playground. She has been relentless in her efforts to console him after the death of his father. She is in the other sixth grade class so her attempts to be his new sad-eyed best friend are limited to the encounters before, between and after the classroom. She has pierced ears and blond hair, a small nose and blue eyes. Today, she is wearing a skirt with pastel yellow leggings and because it is Friday, and her mother allows it, she is wearing lipstick. Zach has noticed she has a tendency to rake her bottom teeth over her top lip which smears the lipstick into little jagged peaks and makes her look ferocious in her attempts to hold his hand, to hug him, to tell him things about her own dad.

Zach’s mother cuts his hair with scissors and a razor from a kit with a pair of sheep on the front. Despite her best efforts, it is a little lopsided. He shakes his head to clear his uneven bangs from his eyes, or, more accurately, from his over-sized glasses. His pants, hand-me-downs from an older cousin, reach to the tops of his ankles and are threadbare in the knees. His shirt is for a baseball team from Atlanta, where his cousin used to live, that Zach knows nothing about, and from under which his rounded belly protrudes. His mom told him that clothes are clothes and they have less money than they used to. Before his dad died he was not sure Lindy knew he even existed.

When the bell finally rings Lindy does one more full circle scan for him and then marches back indoors with all the other kids. Zach, licking the dripping snot from his nose, hesitates a minute more, just to make sure she is really gone, and then untangles himself from the shrub. He picks a crumbling leaf from his hair and follows the last stragglers inside.

 

After school, Zach stuffs his things in his backpack, throws on his coat, hat and gloves, and hurries out the door. He is two blocks away when he hears footsteps crackling in the dry leaves behind him and he turns to see Lindy, her cheeks red, her chest rising and falling. The peaks of her lipstick reach toward her nostrils. She is trying to make it look like she has not been running to catch up with him, but Zach can tell.

“Hi, Zach.”

“Hi.”

“Can I walk home with you?”

Before last week, Zach had never seen Lindy on his walks home and he has a sneaking suspicion that she does not actually live down this way, that after he turns off on his street she doubles back along a side street and walks home. In answer, Zach starts walking again and Lindy joins him, walking close by his side, close enough that she could, if she wanted to, suddenly grab his hand. It makes Zach nervous. A crow caws from a power line above and normally Zach would caw back at it, just because, but now he can’t because Lindy is here. This has been happening a lot lately, this feeling that he can’t do all the things he normally does, that people are expecting him to be some other way.

“How are you?” she asks.

“Fine,” Zach mumbles.

“Do you miss your dad?”

Zach doesn’t say anything to this, just kicks at a rock that goes tumbling into the street and down a sewer grate. Undeterred by his silence, Lindy continues.

“I can understand that you must be really sad. My dad, well, he’s my step-dad, but he’s basically my real dad, he said that your dad was still pretty young, like only fifty, and that it was weird that he died.”

Zach starts walking a little faster, but Lindy matches him. They are coming up on the bridge over the irrigation ditch, its water gone for the season, plastic bags and other garbage half-buried in its sandy bottom. A pink Barbie car juts out from one bank as if it got stuck trying to tunnel through. Last week Zach thought he saw Lindy coming and he hid under the bridge. Spidery webs of dust, dirt and decaying plant life hung from the cement girders. Old swallow nests were caked onto the beams, feathers protruding from their holes. He stayed there until he felt safe, which took a long time.

“If you want to talk to me about your dad, or if you’re feeling bad or anything–”

“I don’t walk to talk about–”

“You can kiss me too if that’s a thing that could, like, help you forget your dad.”

Zach stops walking and looks at Lindy. Her cheeks are so red that they almost match her lips, a single red smear that covers half her face. Little dull golden globes dot each of her ears. She stares back at him, her wide blue eyes looking wet, cold and metallic. Zach suddenly brushes past her and jumps down into the ditch and starts running, the silty bottom making him stumble as he races away.

 

Before he got sick, Zach’s dad was in the process of converting their single car garage into a basement lounge. The garage is accessible down a steep driveway that plunges under the house and is only reachable from the main floor by a long set of stairs. When his dad had cut all the boards and hauled them down the driveway, Zach had collected all the sawdust into a giant pile and dug tunnels through it until it collapsed. His dad had blown the sawdust out of his hair and off his clothes with compressed air. “I’ll huff and I’ll puff,” he had said and Zach had had to try hard to keep a smile from parting his lips.

Now the room is still only half finished and insulation hangs from between two-by-fours like lolling tongues. There is a big stack of dusty sheet rock in one corner and wiring hangs from an unfinished electrical socket. But early on, Zach’s dad had moved the TV and a couch down into the room and now it is Zach’s de facto headquarters until dinner every night. On a protruding nail above the TV he has stuck a crinkled poster of an orc, pulled from Dragon magazine, a crude axe in its hand, slime dripping from its open mouth. Still bundled up inside the partially insulated room, Zach’s fingers mash buttons as he tries to operate a Super Nintendo controller with his gloved fingers.

Then there is a knocking at the garage door window and Zach turns to see his best friend, Tyler, breathing on the glass and scrawling, Let me in, in the momentary fog. Zach hits the automatic garage door opener and the gears of the door start up. Ducking in, Tyler appears on the other side wearing big baggy jeans and a No Fear shirt with a shattered baseball bat on the front. He’s not wearing a coat and his arms are pale with the cold, but on his head is a hat with dangling cloth pieces hanging from its pointed top. Taking it off, he turns it upside down and starts twirling it so that the pieces spin like helicopter rotors. He maneuvers it over Zach’s head and then sputters, “Mayday, mayday, we’re going down.”

Tyler is in middle school this year. Zach thought for sure that Tyler would make new friends, that he would forget about him, but he hasn’t. At the funeral, Tyler had stood next to him while everyone came and hugged Zach, but Tyler had just stood by, knowing Zach didn’t want all the hugs, never trying to hug him himself. Now, he tells Zach about how lame all the seventh graders are, that nobody plays D&D, that they’re all into pussy games like Magic. He says the only cool kids all smoke cigarettes after school, but that makes them stupid, so it’s hard to say if there’s anyone really worth being friends with.

A few leaves blow in through the open garage door onto the square of orange shag carpeting that Zach’s mom put over the cement last week.

“Close the door, dude,” Zach says.

Tyler hits the button and the overhead gears start churning.

“You still haven’t beat this?” Tyler asks.

Zach has been on the last boss of Mega Man X for months, since early summer, before his dad was even sick. But every time he gets close, Dr. Vile deals him one more blow and finishes him off. Tyler has offered to do the deed on multiple occasions, but Zach has rebuffed him, insisted that he could do it himself. The game has almost become like a ritual, the only constant throughout his dad’s sickness.

“Hey, is your mom home?” Tyler asks.

“No, she’s still at work.”

“I wanna show you something.”

“What, your nuts?”

“Gaywad,” Tyler says as he jumps up and presses the garage door button again, moments after it finishes shutting. It opens a foot off the ground and Tyler lies down on the ground and rolls his skinny frame under it and then motions for Zach to do the same. But Zach waits for the door to open another two feet before he bends over and exits. .

“Come on,” Tyler says and starts around the side of the house to the backyard. Zach follows him to the base of a tall elm tree and then Tyler tells him to stay there as he throws his arms around the trunk and starts climbing.

“I’m not catching you,” Zach calls up to him.

Tyler wiggles himself out onto a branch overhanging the apex of the roof and then drops down onto one side. Zach backs up a few feet and cranes his neck so he can still see his friend.

“Seriously though, I can’t catch you,” Zach says.

Tyler, now sitting with one leg on each side of the house, just waves his hands, motioning for Zach to back up further. He throws his left leg over the side of the roof so that he is now sitting on the apex, both feet pointed down the steep roof. Then he stands halfway up into a crouch.

“Dude. . .” Zach says.

Putting his weight forward in the direction of the roof’s edge, Tyler starts half running, half tripping down the roof, his head stuck out over his stumbling feet, his arms flailing at his side. In front of him stretches the gray slate of the sky, trees with leafs hanging by a veiny thread, a few billowing cumulus clouds capped by their thin pileus cousins. A few more tumbling steps and then Tyler bends his knees and leaps from the roof.

Zach screams, “No!” but there is no bone crushing crash, no pile of limbs splayed out on the backyard lawn. Tyler does not hit the ground. Instead, he stays at the level at which his feet propelled him from the roof, up there with the aluminum sky behind him. He is flying, sort of. More, he is floating, but either way, he is in mid-air, unconnected to the roof, to earth, his gangly limbs swimming through the chill air.

 

Hours later in the garage, staring at the paused screen of Mega-Man X, Zach is still remembering the scene in fragments: Tyler hovering over the yard in a crooked cross-legged position, his palms up on his knees like a guru, his baggy jeans hanging off him; Tyler catching a leaf as it twirled past his floating self. It had been too surreal to remember in whole, too much bending of the rules for one afternoon’s worth of memory. Tyler retrieving a Nerf football stuck in the tree from the summer; the worn out tread of Tyler’s sneakers as he ran above Zach’s head as if on an invisible treadmill. Zach had ventured one or two questions, had at one point jumped to try and drag his friend back down, but mostly he had let Tyler do the talking. He had let Tyler tell the story, to explain the personalized absence of gravity from his life in a way that made it seem a little less extraordinary, a little, if not a lot, more believable.

The entire time Tyler had been floating up in the air, paddling around and talking, Zach had been formulating a question, something about the far reaches of space, about Tyler’s estimation on the limits of his newfound ability. But just when he was near to asking it, to figuring out what it was he was trying to get at, they had heard Zach’s mom pull up out front and Tyler had descended back to the ground, spread his arms out, and taken a deep, mildly disoriented bow.

Then somehow, not for the first time, a blurry memory of Zach’s father is inserted into the picture like a piece of the puzzle crammed where it doesn’t belong. His big feet under the green hospital sheet; all the tubes disappearing into his body like some kind of invasion, like the routes of advancing armies.

Then, thankfully, Zach’s mom pops her head into the room.

“Hey, buddy. Dinner’s almost ready, come on up.”

 

Dinner is more casserole, which it seems like they will be eating forever. It is all leftovers from the people who gave them food when his dad was in the hospital. On the kitchen counter, photos of Zach’s dad are splayed out in a collapsed tower; they’ve been like that for weeks, neither Zach nor his mother gathering them up, putting them back in the shoebox they came from. A few weeks before he had died, they brought the pictures to the hospital and Zach’s dad had dug out one of himself as a baby, a toy hammer in his hand. He said that this was how he always wanted to be remembered, industrious and diapered. Even that had made Zach’s mother cry, but she had also been smiling, the tears running down her cheeks into her open mouth, her tongue licking the salt off her lips.

Zach pushes the microwaved casserole around his plate, separating the various ingredients with the tines of his fork.

“How was school?” his mother asks him.

“Fine. This one girl keeps bugging me about Dad though.”

“How so?”

“Like she’s trying to be my friend now, just because of Dad. She’s annoying.”

“Well, I’m sure she means well. It’s not easy for people to figure out, you know. One of the secretaries at work baked me a cake. How much sense does that make?” Zach looks down at his plate and pushes the food around a little more, dragging a noodle from one side to the other. “Would it help if I talked to her parents?”

Zach’s head shoots up.

“No!”

“Okay, okay.”

“I’m not hungry. Can I watch TV?”

“Alright,” his mother says and Zach pushes his chair back from the table. “But first, I wanted to ask you something. I got a call from your teacher, Mrs. Orlowski, today. She says you’ve been having trouble in school.”

“No I haven’t.”

“Well, she says you haven’t really been doing your work, that you’ve been drawing a lot.” Zach fidgets in his chair and looks around the room. His mother sighs. “It’s my fault too though, okay? I haven’t really been paying attention to your schoolwork. So from now on, team effort, okay? You do your part, I’ll do mine.”

“Okay.”

“Alright, go watch your TV shows.”

Zach jumps from his chair and goes into the living room and turns on the TV. He plunks down in a beanbag chair two feet away, but he can’t focus on the shows. All he can think about is Tyler, jumping off the edge, refusing to fall. Between the two of them, Tyler has always been the one geared toward varied accomplishments. He was the sixth grade spelling bee champ, a little league pitcher; he played the piano in the talent show and knew all the different parts of the engine that time the car broke down when they were coming back from a camping trip. On those rare occasions when they could find enough other kids for a game of D&D, Tyler was the Dungeon Master, the world and all its possible rules clearly mapped out in his head. Through it all, Zach had sat in the bleachers and in the audience, had accepted Tyler’s often times harsh penalties as Dungeon Master. But this time, Zach decides, he is going to make Tyler share his secret to success.

He hears his mom go upstairs and then he goes back into the kitchen, grabs the phone and calls Tyler.

 

In the morning, Zach sits at the kitchen counter drawing pictures from a National Geographic about the Milky Way. He is trying to draw the galaxy, but he is having trouble getting the swirls just right so that they spin out from the core in even measure. His father had been reading the magazine in his final month in the hospital and one day, just a few weeks before he died, he had handed it over to Zach.

“Hundreds of billions of stars,” his dad had told him. “Who knows what’s going on out there.”

In his last month, when he was at his sickest, Zach’s dad had taken a turn toward the interstellar in his limited conversations with his son. Zach listened intently, but he also understood it for what it was, an attempt at deflection from the obvious sickness here on planet Earth, from his father’s yellow skin, from the needles taped onto the backs of his hands.

But now when Zach sketches out galaxies, spaceships and other galactic venues, he imagines something slightly different. His dad had been emphasizing the unknown and so Zach imagines a place where they don’t know his sadness, where maybe there is not a public rule book for how to act in the aftermath of a dead father. Lately, the unknown seems more appealing than here, where everyone thinks they know.

Around noon his mom tells him that she has to run some errands, that she’ll be back around two o’clock. Zach gives up on the Milky Way and goes downstairs to play Mega Man X, to be killed by Dr. Vile again and again. Finally, Tyler’s head pops up in the window of the garage door and Zach opens it for him.

“Ready?” Tyler asks.

“Yeah.”

As they walk around to the backyard, Tyler starts explaining it to him.

“Okay, so it’s actually really easy. You know that part in the Wizard of Oz, where the girl is all like, ‘There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home?’”

“Yeah?”

“It’s like that. She was totally sure she’d end up at home. You just have to think like that about flying.”

“But didn’t she have magic slippers?”

“No, they were just a placebo.”

“A what?”

“It’s like a pill. Never mind.”

Tyler is always making things seem easier than, in Zach’s estimation, they really are. Tyler once sat Zach down at the piano to try and teach him to play and couldn’t understand why Zach’s fingers couldn’t move the way his did, why Zach couldn’t pick out the corresponding notes when Tyler hummed them.

In the backyard Tyler starts climbing the tree. Zach watches him ascend and thinks that this could be the first step toward, if not a distant galaxy, then some other new territory. Yesterday, Tyler had tried to make it seem knowable, but Zach cannot shake the feeling that it is still a mystery.

From a low hanging bough, Tyler motions for Zach to follow him. Zach bear hugs the tree, little flakes of bark scraping off as he worms his way toward the lowest hanging branch. He pulls himself up and starts climbing slowly up the tree, testing each bough before putting his full weight on it. A minute later Tyler gracefully swings out from a higher branch, but when Zach reaches it he hesitates, staying near the trunk where the branch is at its thickest and sturdiest.

“Come on,” says Tyler. “You can’t fly if you can’t even jump onto the roof.”

Zach edges out onto the branch and then makes an awkward lunge toward the roof, his hands and feet flailing, looking for purchase. He lands on all fours, scraping his hands on the rough shingles, and slides down the roof a little before stopping himself.

“Graceful,” says Tyler. “Okay, so here’s what you do. You don’t think about it a bunch. You just do it. Watch.”

Zach looks on as Tyler bends his knees and walks down the roof, the shingles crunching a little under his feet. As he gets to the edge of the roof, Zach notices something he didn’t see the first time, the way Tyler bites the tip of his tongue and lets his eyelids droop a little. It is a kind of relaxed fearlessness that Zach has seen before when Tyler is standing on the mound sure he can strike out the next batter. And then Tyler just steps off the roof, sinking a bit like in an elastic cloud before finding his footing in the air. He leans back and puts a hand on the roof to spin himself around to look at Zach.

“See? Easy.”

Zach stands up. Out front he hears a car and he waits to hear if it parks in front of his house, but it keeps going down the street. He can see all around the neighborhood from here. He can see the mailman fishing in his bag as he walks between houses. He looks down over the neighbor’s fence at their dog and it starts barking up at him. The gutter is full of leaves. Zach’s breath is coming out in little white puffs so that from a distance he might look like a miniature chimney shivering on the roof.

“There’s no place like home,” Tyler says.

Zach takes a first hesitant step and then another, walking toward the roof’s edge, trying to keep his head up, his breathing steady, his courage unwavering. Tyler scoots to the side to give him room.

Zach gets to the end of the roof and boldly places a foot out into the empty space and then suddenly, despite his best efforts, he sees himself plunging down to the ground, his limbs, all of them, cracking like dry twigs, necessitating a trip to the hospital, to that all too familiar place, his mother standing over him, another of her men stuck in a hospital bed–and he draws his foot back in, as if he was just testing out the water and it proved too cold.

“Come on, man,” Tyler says.

But Zach just turns around, walks to the overhanging tree branch, and works his way back down to the ground.

 

At school on Monday, as Zach works on a spelling assignment, Mrs. Orlowski leans down close to him and says, “Thanks, Zach,” but he doesn’t stop or look up.

At recess, he is sitting on a swing digging his shoes into the gravel, when Lindy comes up to him. He sees her coming but he doesn’t run for the chokecherry bushes or push off from the ground to start swinging. It is a Monday, so Lindy’s lips are absent their Friday brightness, but she has instead covered them in a thick layer of gloss that Zach thinks makes them look like plastic.

“Why did you run away from me on Friday? I was trying to be your friend.” Zach lets his eyes dart across her face, from her forehead, to each cheek, to her chin, but he doesn’t say anything. “Weirdo,” Lindy says and then she walks off, her mittened hands balled up. Zach picks up a handful of gravel and then lets it slowly drain from his fist.

 

That night, when Zach’s mom comes home from work, he sits up from the living room floor where he was reading and says, “Hi, Mom.”

“Hey, honey. Give me a sec, okay?”

She goes into the bathroom and Zach can hear her start the bathtub water running. It keeps running for close to an hour, which he knows means, from the time a few weeks ago when he put his ear close to the door, that his mom is crying. Knowing that his mom is crying, even though she is doing her best to hide it, makes him start to cry. On numerous occasions Zach has tried to comfort her and each time he just ends up crying with her, which makes him feel somehow worse. He is old enough to understand that his father was something else to his mother, that they have each lost something particularly different.

When his mother finally comes out of the bathroom, her eyes red and a towel wrapped around her, she finds her son balled up on the couch, a wet pillow over his tear streaked face. She walks over to the couch, cradles her son’s head against her chest, and cries with him, which is about all she has managed to come up with in the way of consolation.

 

During dinner the doorbell rings and when his mother answers it is there elderly neighbor, Shirley. She has frizzy purple hair. In the winter Zach’s dad had always shoveled her walk for her. Zach watches them from the table and when his mother comes back she puts a stuffed envelope on the table.

“Coupons,” she says. “She gave us all the coupons she’s cut out.” She wrinkles her brow at her son and then puts her fork down and laughs, one short, Ha! followed by a long sigh.

 

That night, Zach digs out a comic book from his closet that his father gave him during the early stages of his cancer, when he still spent time at home, when he was newly bald. He had told Zach that his father had given the comic to him and that even though it was worth a lot of money, he wanted Zach to have it. The comic is all about Superman’s father, Jor-El, and how he saved his son from dying with everyone else on Krypton by putting him in a spaceship and sending him to Earth. Zach has been reading the comic over and over, watching as Jor-El puts his child into a spaceship and sends him out into the cosmos, where he will be a hero, where he won’t watch his father die.

But now, lying in bed and reading it again tonight, Zach thinks that really, they sent him to a place where he would always have to be fighting, where bad guys would be constantly picking on him. Jor-El had saved his son from one dying planet so that he could save, over and over again, another.

Zach turns over onto his back and absentmindedly starts picking his nose. He wonders if maybe escape is futile after all, that wherever he could fly to might not be that different from here, that there are some basic rules that apply everywhere. Maybe, he thinks, if he is stuck here, he should start trying to change how here is.

 

At lunchtime recess the next day, Zach walks up to where the grass meets the blacktop. Lindy is sitting on a bench surrounding an old tree, a group of her girlfriends huddled around her. He has come to her, which is a first, and he can feel the difference, the tables turned. It feels good.

“Hey, Lindy,” he says, waving her toward him.

She stands up slowly and walks over. Behind her, the girls go quiet.

“What?” she says, cocking her head and planting a fist on her hip. She has her hair pulled back in a ponytail and it hangs sideways, frayed at its end.

Zach doesn’t say anything, just waves for her to follow him as he walks up the playground, toward the school. He steps with an awkward but determined gait, as if he is trying to keep up with someone with much longer legs. When they get to the corner of the building, Zach pauses and holds up a finger. He scans the playground diligently, his eyes darting back and forth. It feels different having Lindy follow him at his behest. Even if she is still doing so out of pity, Zach has taken the initiative, is calling the shots. He is working to cement this dynamic. He spreads his feet out in a display of confidence, but he keeps his eyes scanning the blacktop, sneaky.

“What are we doing?” Lindy asks.

“Go, go, go,” Zach suddenly says and slips around the side of the building and starts running up the sidewalk, Lindy following behind in a huff. The path slants up and the windows to the classrooms are soon at eye level so that Zach has to duck under them. He motions for Lindy to do the same and they duckwalk until they are clear of the last window.

“Zach, I’m going back to the playground unless you tell me what we’re doing.”

They turn around the corner so that they are now at the back of the building. From here, the roof is only seven feet above ground level. Zach leans up against the school, the cold brick digging through his jean jacket. The school is designed in a U-shape–first through third graders on one side, fourth through sixth on the other–so that an open courtyard, stretching out behind Zach and Lindy, fills the hollowed out space, classroom windows on each of its flanks.

“Remember how you said I could kiss you if it would help me feel better about my dad?”

“That was before you were a weirdo.”

A V of geese goes flying overhead, honking, but Zach resists the temptation to honk back.

“Lindy, please? I’m really sad.” Zach stretches out the word, making it into an airy plea. If he has to play this card, he will, but not for much longer. Lindy looks at him, at his lopsided hair, at his too big glasses, at the shimmer of snot on his upper lip.

“Okay, fine, but only one time.”

“Okay, follow me.” Zach turns and starts walking down the slant of the courtyard, leaves sloshing around at his ankles.

“Why can’t we just do it here?” Lindy calls after him. Zach squeezes in between two thick bushes, their gnarled branches exposed, and huddles against the wall.

“Come on, right here,” he says and Lindy reluctantly joins him, kneeling down, her arms folded over her chest. “Okay, you have to close your eyes.”

Lindy frowns at this, but she does it. Her eyes closed, Zach jumps into the bush and, in a flurry of scrambling grasps and lunges, uses its twisting branches as steps to the low-level roof, pulling himself up onto its tar paper surface. Lindy has her eyes open now, wide open.

“Zach, what are you doing? I’m gonna tell the lunch ladies.”

“I’ll jump.”

“No, Zach, don’t,” she whispers, her voice trembling. “You’ll commit suicide.”

Zach backs up so that Lindy can only see his top half. He steps on a flat rubber ball and momentarily stumbles but then catches himself. He raises both his hands up high in the air, in the pose of a champion. He opens his mouth in the biggest smile he can manage.

“Zach, really, please. Your mom told my dad I was being mean, but I didn’t mean to be.” He can hear the fear in her voice, but he doesn’t reconsider. If Superman’s life is full of this, of people trying to stop him, that’s fine–at least no one ever tells him they’re sorry his dad died. And in the end, doesn’t Lois Lane fall in love with him? He can hear his classmates in the distance, the shrill whistles as the teachers keep them in line.

Then, Zach backs up to the other side of the roof. A crow lands along the edge and watches him. Lindy has now taken to calling his name, over and over in a shrill scream that sounds as angry as it does frighteningly sad. Then, dropping his hands to his sides as if they are the signal flag at a racetrack, Zach tears across the tar paper. The crow flaps away into the cream colored sky and Zach launches out over the edge, over his name howling from Lindy’s lips. There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.

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Forgiveness

Revisiting an old story from college, with a different twist.

 

On Ted’s basement wall his parents have one of those plugged-in pictures where it looks like the waterfall is actually flowing. I have been watching the back-lit rush of the fake water for what seems like an eternity. This is what happens when I am stoned. But then someone falls down the stairs, shaking me out of my trance and reminding me that all around me the party is raging. Re-entering the world, it seems like the muted Daft Punk thumping from upstairs could be a soundtrack to outer space, where I am orbiting, trying to make sense of this strangely familiar scene back on planet Earth. I wander up from the basement and see that Jeremy is working on his first mistake of the night, making out in the corner of the living room with his ex-girlfriend, Cassidy.

I lean on the back of the couch for a minute, watching Jeremy run laps around Cassidy’s mouth with his tongue. I take mental notes so I can tell him in detail, the next morning when he asks, how much he fucked up. He’s got a bottle of Corona in one hand and he’s running one of his fingers up the neck and into the mouth of the bottle, over and over. He’s an unconstrained pervert which is why we all like him so much. Last year he signed everyones’ yearbooks with a drawing of a hairy ball sack.

When I push myself off from the couch my shirt comes away covered in dog hair. I can see old bottle caps and napkins in the spaces between the couch cushions. Ted’s house is a bit of a shit-hole which is why we party here so much and probably why his parents are gone so often, so they can escape the filth. Some kid who I don’t know suddenly comes bolting up the stairs and runs through the living room, causing the CD player to skip.

“Hey, watch it Big Foot,” someone yells. The same kid comes back out a minute later with a bag of Doritos and tip-toes exaggeratedly through the room before taking the stairs back down two at a time.

I wander into the kitchen to see if I can find Ted. He’s not in there, but Alex is and so I grab a beer and start talking to him about how stoned I am, which is generally what I talk about when I’m stoned. Alex is something of a weed connoisseur, or at least he thinks so. He’s got some ancient High Times magazines in his closet is all.

“Where was the pot from?” he asks me.

“From Frank’s pocket,” I tell him. “A little baggy in Frank’s pocket.”

“No, I mean, like from up north, Mexico. . .?”

I know what he means but I like giving him shit. I’m about to tell him it was from the town of Dimebagsville when I see, through the bobbing bodies, that Sally Lapito has just walked in the front door. The last time I saw Sally, and the only time in the past decade, I was finishing up a plate of nachos at the mall food court and I looked up just long enough to see her walk past and into the Victoria’s Secret. I knew it was her from a picture in a yearbook that I had seen. For a split second I considered following her into the Victoria’s Secret, but instead I licked the cheese from my fingers, got up and left. Over the years, my friends, who felt the need to keep me updated, had informed me that she had turned into a babe, which wasn’t surprising. She was beautiful even in fourth grade. I distinctly remember, which is rare these days because of the pot, the shade of pink her nose would turn in the winter cold. She was so cute that one day, to let her know how I felt, I threw a rock at her and took out her left eye.

Her parents yanked her out of the school district, sued my parents, etc. It was about as awful as you’d expect, but honestly, like most dumb things I did ten years ago, I don’t think about it much these days. If you asked, I’d say I feel bad, but that’s about what you’d expect, right? I’m not at asshole, just a stoner who’s missile of love connected a little too directly.

But now, seeing her across the room like this, I realize that the reports of her womanhood were grossly underreported. She is divine, good looking in a way that most high school girls haven’t figured out. She is full of her beauty, like she breaths it in and has come up with a way to indefinitely hold her breath. She had almost white hair in grade school, but it’s gained some color so it’s light blond now. She’s wearing a pale blue spaghetti strap top and you can tell that her arms and shoulders are strong. There’s no bones sticking out, no ligaments rising to the surface. Too many of the girls in our school–good looking ones–are so obsessed with being skinny that they leave nothing to the imagination, like they’re so desperate to be known, they’ve given up anywhere to hide their secrets.

It seems like Sally might have seen me when suddenly this girl named Megan comes tearing into the room all wild-eyed. She’s one of those skinny girls who wears thick eyeliner to try and give her some substance. She darts her head from one side to the other, then she pukes all over my shoes.

“Oh, you bitch,” says Ted, who is suddenly in the kitchen. Megan lurches up and slaps him and he spills his beer all over the floor. “Okay, time for you to leave the party,” Ted says and he grabs her by the arm and she starts thrashing and they dance right out the front door like that. Because Megan is normally pretty good looking and Ted is normally pretty desperate, I would not be totally surprised to see them making out by the end of the night.

But right now, I have vomit on my shoes. And then I remember Sally. I look around but I don’t see her anywhere. I decide first things first and I sit down to take off my shoes and then, seeing that the puke has seeped through the mesh of my sneakers and into my socks, I take those off too.

“Bitch puked on your shoes,” Alex says.

I throw one of the socks at him and say, “Thank you Captain Obvious.”

I pick up my shoes and hold them out in front of me like toxic waste and maneuver myself through the kitchen, down the hallway, and into the bathroom. I close the door behind me and throw my shoes into the bathtub. The tub is grimy and there’s caked on mildew on the hot and cold knobs. A bar of soap in one corner looks to be mostly a ball of tangled hair. I turn the water on and place my shoes under it, letting them get nice and soaked.

Then I hear someone open the door behind me and I turn to see Sally walk in. Up close she is, of course, even better looking. But up close, you can also see her glass eye. It’s not the kind of thing you could pinpoint at first, just some small irregularity. Not necessarily a flaw, more like the moon in the bright summer sky, a faint abnormality you get used to real quick. Or it might also be that the eye is so perfect, like it’s been stripped of all the imperfections that nestle in the nooks and crannies of the rest of the body.

“Oh, sorry,” she says. I quickly look away from her and back to the shoes. I think that maybe there is a chance she doesn’t know who I am. “Are you taking a bath?” she asks.

“No, I got, well, someone else got some vomit on my shoes,” I stutter. It is one of the rare times I wish I were not stoned.

“Oh,” she says and then she sets her purse on the counter and digs out a tube of lipstick. I focus in on the shoes, on the water swirling around the rubber soles. I grow so intent on the shoes, trying with all my strength not to turn around, that I think I can see water going into each individual hole in the mesh. I hear Sally behind me smack her lips together.

“Alex.” That’s my name. Oh shit, that’s my name. I turn my head and Sally takes two steps toward me so that she is suddenly towering over me. I stand up and realize she is an inch or two taller than me. I look at her, trying very hard not to put any undo attention on either of her eyes, but I’m sure I fail. The lipstick is a dark cherry, nowhere near the innocence of her cold, little nose, and she has on these golden earrings imprinted with the pattern of a feather, or maybe it’s a leaf. I catch the faint whiff of cigarettes.

The water is still running, sloshing over my sneakers and down the drain. I can hear the Beastie Boys start yelling about girls in the living room. Sally takes another step toward me so we are incredibly close. I know it’s lame, but I swear the glass eye is somehow staring me down. Ten years with basically no contact, and now this. Then she leans in close, so that her mouth is only an inch from my ear. Her bangs brush against my forehead. One of her earrings dangles in front of my nose. It’s a leaf, definitely a leaf.

“I just want you to know,” she whispers. I can feel every tiny little hair in my ear stand up at attention. My penis stirs to life. “That I haven’t forgiven you and I probably never will.”

Then she steps back, turns around, grabs her purse and leaves. I sit down on the lip of the bathtub and breathe in deep and hold it, like I might get stoned on the confused sexual tension left lingering in the room. I stay that way for a long time, letting the air slowly leave through my nose. I hear what sounds like the crumbling of plaster out in the hallway. Then I throw one leg over the bathtub and then the other. I take my shoes and place them on the bathmat. Kneeling down underneath the faucet, I let the cold water run over the back of my head and down my spine.

 

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