The niceties. Where ya been, Dougie? We haven’t seen ya ’round much. Forgeries of long-toothed friendships. Strangers who go way back. Oh, I’ve been ’round. Lotsa time in Alta, taken care of mom, doin’ odd jobs, here and there. Nothing specific. The three of them rounded the bend that linked Rosewood and Almond; Theresa pulled her hood up, crossed her arms and let Rodney do the talking. Interrogation. You still usin’? Some. A lot? Not like I used to. Word is that you took off to Alta cause you knew Causey was lookin’ for ya. Stuttering and stammering. A jolt of adrenaline rattling the cage of bones. Th-that’s bu-bu–bullshit! I d-d-did nothin’. A broken window, at the rear of the garage. Two gas cans, filled. Tools, missing. He didn’t realize, until he got home, that his wallet had slipped out of his pocket as he hurriedly slipped out the window. A threatening phone call. To Causey’s credit, he followed the code of not calling the cops; in Sunnyland, such matters were handled personally, oftentimes with swift acts of violent retribution. Dougie disappeared. He hadn’t been in Alta. His mom passed away in ’77, and he hadn’t seen her since Thanksgiving of ’69.
There were stories all over town, about who Dougie’s father was. The scandal. An unwed teenage mother. An unstable home with an all-American lawn, a father with a drinking problem and a black leather belt that either clung to his waistline or wrangled the blood from his knuckles. Anything that she, her brothers, or mother did. Nothing was right. When he died, she wanted so badly to pretend that he drank himself to death, because that would have made sense. It would have been easier. Instead, he put a thick barrel to his lips and squeezed the trigger in ’56, when she was eleven. Carl, the oldest, held it all in, for months, but started exhibiting some of his behaviors and mannerisms; he privately inherited the bottles from the cabinet, cracked his knuckles frequently, took on a mean-spiritedness that hadn’t been there before. Georgy, the baby of the three, carried on as if nothing had ever happened.
Just as they turned off of Summit, onto Mimosa, Rodney lunged at Dougie, grabbed him by his collar, gave him a spin, and threw him to the ground, where one of the lawns met the street. Sitting on his stomach, he pinned Dougie’s arms with the weight of his knees, forced both of his hands over his mouth. You listen to me, you little faggot. Causey’s in jail, but we all stick together and look out for one another. I oughta fuck you up for what you done. Theresa yelled for Rodney to stop.Two hard slaps to his left eye. You want out of this? You want up? Dougie nodded his head. Rodney slowly stood up, lifted his foot, and stomped on Dougie’s stomach. A sharp pain. Panic. His heart, racing. Dizziness. Get up! We’re walking.
They walked down Briargate, cutting through the blinding darkness of the small stretch of woods that took them to the pale blue water tower that lorded over the modest slab of concrete that was the Hensey Bridge. Down Quail, along Washington Road. Theresa kept her head down, listening as Rodney outlined the details:
His name was Bernie Russell, a long-retired line inspector for Keystone. In his younger days, he served under the 3rd Infantry Division in the Second Battle of the Marne. Rodney had been hired to replace the loose planks of Mr. Russell’s foyer, the previous summer, which lead to a number of other odd jobs. Switching out some old piping in the crawl space, painting the den, stripping warped tiles of linoleum from the kitchen floor.
Bernie was a distant man to the few people who knew him. He was polite enough, and he came through on pay, but he largely kept to himself. Occasional lapses of dark humor. He had never married, nor had children. Friends had come and gone. Baby Pearl, the name he had given to Irene, died just before the Bicentennial. Seven years without his sister. He missed her dreadfully, and he found it harder to remember the time in his life when she was there than it was to imagine her being gone. She was the only one who understood his introversion enough to never question it.
A lonely life where the silence pulsed throughout the house, up the staircase, and through the one bedroom and the attic like a heart palpitation.
The house itself was a museum of his life, better days that had long since passed. A charcoal coat tree next to the door. The narrow hallway that led into the kitchen, decorated by a single wooden stand with a lava-colored lamp on a snow-white doily. Old portraits of mama, papa, and baby Ilene, stained by age with a copper hue. A framed Army of Occupation of Germany medal, a photograph of a stiff young man, the butt of his rifle in the dirt, the long barrel in his grip. Those days when the dead were still dreamers, ornaments for the fold-in lens of a tripod camera.
Three prescription bottles stood atop the stainless steel breadbox on the kitchen counter. A yellow refrigerator. A small rectangular table positioned in the middle. A doorway next to the pantry that led to the basement. The musty smell. Two cracked steps. A cheap plywood hatch that masked the crawl space. A room, caddy corner to the boiler. A red door, locked by a simple patch. Keys that hung by a hook in the foyer. An old man who had the wherewithal not to trust financial institutions. Nobody from his time did. Shoeboxes under the bed, or the the lining of jackets, or behind a locked door tucked in the back of a dark basement.
This is all you, Dougie. There’s something in that room. Something big. I know it! And you’re gonna check it out for us.
He stopped walking. Rodney turned around, stepped towards him, and cracked his knuckles. Dougie started breathing heavily. He couldn’t help. He hadn’t come back to get into trouble. He just wanted to keep a low profile. Rodney chuckled to himself, dusted Dougie’s collar, then grabbed the fabric and pulled him forward. I didn’t ask, you fuck! You screwed my boy over, and this is how you’re gonna make up for it! Why can’t you do it yourself, Rodney? That’s none of your fucking business! Look, you’re gonna do this, and you’re not gonna mess it up—otherwise you’ll never be seen again! Theresa panicked. She started crying and pleaded with her brother to drop it, that they would find another way. His anger grew, and he tightened his grip. If you think I’m joking–
He let go, pointing his finger in Dougie’s face as he slowly stepped backwards. Your doing this! Rodney turned to Theresa, nodded his head towards the end of Cherry, and they walked off. Dougie stood by, stiff as a statue, his mouth agape. Numbness. The thought of being sent away. Something about the darkness, the way that the faint breeze created lost, pleading souls from the shadows of the swaying leaves, was unsettling. Even his thoughts stuttered, mid-sentence.
Every morning, the same routine. A click of the tan knob that brought the radio to a whispering life. He would pull the cast iron skillet from the cabinet beneath the counter, the egg carton from the bottom shelf of the yellow refrigerator, the milk from the top, the bacon from behind the glass jug of orange juice. He’d flip the lights, let out a deep stretch, and the frail bones would yawn. His walk across the kitchen floor was slow, hunched, and weary: the feet-dragging shuffle of an eighty-seven year old man who spent his days wondering if St. Peter had simply neglected to dispatch the angels.
He’d juggle three large eggs in his hand, crack them against the rim of the skillet, slowly watch as the yoke slid through the chasm and form a bubbling pond, and lay the shells next to the sink. A quick rinsing of the coffee pot. Scoops of Sanka formed a landslide at the bottom of the thin filter. Four strips of bacon, spitting grease, sizzling. A spatula coated in egg guts and pepper. The Peoria Journal Star on the table, opened to the classifieds; he hadn’t worked since ’64, but he made it a point to circle his pencil around any job that he felt qualified to do. The years had dulled the muscles in the back, weakened the joints, and had thrown a cloak over his eyesight. The world, once so vivid and pleasing to the senses, had shrunk and the colors bled into the soil, killing the grass and the verve of the surrounding harvest. Autumn weeps into winter, and everything dies as it is wont to do. The cyclical ways of the world, rolling out the seasons and claiming bodies to nourish the roots. The smell of the perversion of coffee. Breakfast, as it always was. Another day. Who would hire such an old man anyway?
By time lunch rolled around, the leaves were raked and bagged; space was cleared for the final onslaught of the season. Bernie dropped the rake between the two welded channels in the garage, huffing loudly as he slowly walked alongside the Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight, running his hand against the side panels for support. He pulled a piece of crumpled yellow notebook paper from his shirt pocket as he made his way up the stone steps and through the back door. Mean little bastard. Kids in packs, like ravenous wolves, on bicycles. Anonymity. Safety in numbers. Every one of them has a parent, who knows a parent, who knows an elderly old man. The threat from Thursday morning was intended as a promise. The thick reading glasses were yanked from the nightstand next to his suede recliner, and he positioned them as he spread his palm across the protruding veins of the paper.
Mean little bastard.
He knew the cocky little son of a bitch. He was, in fact, the cocky little son of an alcoholic used car salesman from East Peoria. The drunken fool had sold him his Ninety-Eight, offering peanuts on the dollar for what amounted to the worst sort of trade-down. Diamonds with blemishes exchanged for an imitation leather pouch a quarter of the way filled with splinters of fool’s gold. Hank something or another. The man stunk to high heaven! Stunk like a damn brewery! It was a wonder that he hadn’t been canned, or wrapped his car around a telephone pole by now!
That boy of his, Mikey, was the spitting image; Hank before life got the better of him. Skinny as a rail, but with an athletic sort of leanness to him. Sandy blonde hair that formed waves of calcium over his eyes, his ears, and the back of his neck. A flat, unobstructed canvas of youthfulness. A dresser drawer filled with faded t-shirts: REO Speedwagon, Journey, Foreigner. Strategically-folded Levi’s with permanently dusty knees, holes in the pockets, and tattered fabric at the seams. Mismatched socks. Four Playboy magazines in a ceramic sleeve, taped to the boards under his bed. A window that gazed upon the emptiness of the backyard: unkempt grass, a leaning doghouse with an unoccupied chain on a spike, a clothes line, and a fence plagued with deeply-running veins of rust. A house like all of the others.
As low into the drink as he may have been, Hank was a good father or, at the very least, a caring father. He never drank openly around his son, though he was certainly drunk around him regularly. He never kept beer in the house, but there were plenty of bottles in the cabinets above and below the sink.
The worst thing that he had ever done, that Mikey could remember, was the wreck of ’79. Pee wee baseball practice. A Tuesday in September. The early morning rain made the shabby streets shimmer liked cracked mirrors. The sparring mounds at Oliver Thomas were like diamonds handcrafted from melting chocolate and tins of cocoa powder. The odor of volcanic antifreeze. Smoke. A stiffness of the neck. Gashes. Hank’s drunken curses under his breath. He never once asked if Mikey was okay, or if he was hurt. No, all he did was rub the back of his own neck, wearily laughed, and told him that he’d be late to practice. He never forgot how badly that hurt.
The phone was ringing. Three rings. Hello? Hello, is this Mrs. Hank? Bernie always took full advantage of his age, when it best served him. He adopted a sweetness bathed in questionable senility. This is she. Hello, ma’am. The fury of a strong wind rustled the branches that scratched their tips against the kitchen window. This is Bernie Russell, over on Cherry. The phone cord uncoiled as he sat down at the kitchen table, running his narrow fingers over the pencil marks he had made on the classifieds. Part-time work, unloading freight in downtown Peoria. If provided with enough sick days, he was sure that he could muscle his way through it. I promise not to take up too much of your time, Mrs. Hank—-please, call me Candy. Candy? Interesting name. You know, in my day, you didn’t meet too many girls, or anybody, named Candy. Is that short for Candace? Nope, just Candy. What can I do for you mr….what did you say say your name was again? Bernie. Bernie Russell. Short for Bernard, but everybody just calls me plain ol’ Bernie. He heard a bit of rustling in the background. The muffled sound of a carving knife, like a guillotine, cutting through a head of lettuce, perhaps? Oh? What can I do for you, Bernie? A smirk crept upon his face as he went into detail the events from two days prior. Bike tires ripping across his wet lawn. The taunts of a number of kids, three of whom were faceless, anonymous. Free to go. The fourth, Mikey, had the misfortune of being the wrong son, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and he delivered the parting salvo. Whatcha gonna do, ya old fart? Chase us down and beat us with your cane? Interruption. Mikey wouldn’t do that, Mr. Russell. Please, Bernie. Our boy wouldn’t do that, Bernie. The smirk grew ever wider, a touch of the devil erupted in his eyes. Mrs. Hank, Candy, I’m an eighty-seven year old man who don’t get ’round so good. My mind is gone to mush, but I have my wits about me just enough to know what I saw. Your boy was at Musselman’s Saturday morn, right? She sighed into the receiver that he was. And that was the boy I saw, sandy blonde hair that covered his eyes. He described what he remembered of the other three: a porker whose back poured out of his tight red t-shirt, a small, underweight boy with jet black hair, and another who was too tall for the bicycle that he was riding. She knew exactly who he was describing. She held her hand against the receiver and called him into the kitchen. Yeah, mom? Bernie listened as intently as he could: the did yous, were yous, and were theys. Something that sounded like a scream into the thick of a pillow. ‘Cuz back in my day, you jus’ didn’t do those things. We had respect for our elders. Fuel to the fire. An old man, giddy as a young school boy. She apologized, promised to rectify, wished him a good day, and hung up.
Bernie chucked, put on his reading glasses, and started flipping through the classifieds again.
And what if I get caught?
Uncle George’s basement was like a wood-paneled Fallout shelter. No windows. Absolute darkness was at the mercy of three light switches, a dimmer by the basement door and a lamp on the nightstand. An ashtray overflowing with half-smoked butts,a thumbprint pressed into the center of a loose mound of ash. No television. The hushed sounds of the television from upstairs vibrated the floorboards. Uncle George ran it day and night, even when he wasn’t home. A part of Dougie felt that he did it out of spite, to make him feel just uncomfortable enough to remember that his occupancy was only temporary; when Dougie asked to borrow the black-and-white 13″ from the kitchen, George bluntly told him no.
You won’t get caught if you don’t go in there acting like a dumbass. Rodney explained the layout of the house. The keys on the hook. The foyer. The basement door next to the pantry. The creaking stairs. The locked door in the back of the basement. The time and place were set. Theresa chewed her thumbnail, looking away from them, dwelling on a split in the wood paneling. Whatever it took to keep her mind off of things.
Rodney was a good brother, in his own way. An anger flowed through him, and he showed little restraint when it came to protecting those he cared about.
When he was growing up, he was the target of countless after-school beatings from the Bogart twins. They’d wait for him, at least once a week,under Mrs. Zobrist’s oak tree, at the corner of (). They did just enough to drive fear into him: a black eye here, bloody nose there. They asserted themselves in the hallways, the locker room, and from their table in the cafeteria. Other kids got it, sure,but not quite as badly as Rodney did.
With time, the beatings made him mean; he spent the summer of ’75, just after his fourteenth birthday, in his bedroom, eating like there was no tomorrow and lifting weights. By that August, he had packed on fifteen pounds of muscle. He had but one goal in mind: take the memories of every beating that he had ever endured, roll them into his fists, and simply lose control. One September morning, five minutes before the bell rang, he followed Tim Bogart into the restroom next to the recess doors. Tim didn’t know what hit him as the sharp end of the pencil went into the side of his neck. He staggered backward, spurts of blood hitting the floor. He slipped to the ground, and Rodney climbed on top of him. Punches cracking the bones of the face; welts, scratches, and busted skin. Rodney pinned Tim’s arms down with his knees, and wouldn’t let up until he was pulled off and dragged to the principal’s office. Rodney slumped into the hard yellow plastic of his chair, rubbing the pain in his knuckles. He closed his eyes, and felt something akin to peace. He no longer cared about the Bogarts.
The door to the basement swung open, and George stormed in. He looked at Theresa, then Rodney, and shook his head at Dougie. Your friends have to go. Rodney stood up and glared at him. Tell me yourself, chief. Okay, get out of here, the both of you. Theresa grabbed her purse from the side of the bed. Rodney took one last, taunting pull from his cigarette and pressed it hard into the ashtray. Now! Theresa hurried up the stairs while Rodney strolled, muttering curses and slurs. The hushed sound of the garage door being rolled up. Without saying another word, George turned off the lights and went back upstairs. Dougie remained on the beanbag, wide eyed, in the darkness.
The kitchen table had become nothing but storage space throughout the years: a refuge for homeless groceries, week-old newspapers, Mikey’s school work, and unopened mail. Stacks upon stacks of mail with nary a hint of a small rip. The kitchen counter itself was no different; clean dishes never found their way to the cabinets, and there was always a pizza cutter, caked in old cheese and calcified grease, sitting at the center of a pile of crumbs on the stovetop. Candy had stuck to her protest, refusing to clean it after slicing her hand two weeks earlier. Hank never helped. He was always too tired. She always caught herself wondering, out of a festering resentment, how sitting at a desk, occasionally circling the lot when the odd sucker showed up, could possibly suck so much life out of him. His skin was pale, bloodless; his eyes, always gasping for breath and haunted by jaundice. In the back of her mind, she knew that he likely wouldn’t live long enough to spoil a grandchild, and she wasn’t sure how she felt about that.
Thirteen years of marriage and she felt as though she was in a chained commitment with both Hank and his drinking. She had the bed all to herself, but the thunderous roar of his snoring from the couch in the living room rattled through the hallway and kept her awake most nights. Sex was an obligatory arrangement, a hobby rooted in survival; they wouldn’t speak as they disrobed in separate corners of the dark bedroom, the shades drawn. They’d cautiously pull back the covers, he’d struggle with his manhood, climax before she even had the pleasure to pretend that he was someone else, and then he would kiss her on the cheek, tell her that he loved her, and disappear from her life once more.
Every Thursday night was the same. Mikey would pick at his lukewarm Salisbury steak and the stiff, tasteless peas, huddled and lifeless in their cheap foil bunker, while Hank and Candy treated their dinners like an afterthought from opposite ends of the couch. The lights were faint. The flickering bulb spat choppy gasps of light from the lamp on the end table. Candy would remind Mikey not to sit so close to the television, which he would usually ignore. Every few minutes, Hank would get up and stagger drunkenly towards the old tv to either smack the top of it or change the channel, sometimes both. Worthless piece of shit. That does it! I’m buying us a new one this weekend! He would always say that, but he never did. That ’73 Zenith had taken its share of beatings and verbal abuse. The once-vibrant trim had lost its luster; deep scratches at the base of the antenna. Every sitcom, drama, and film was seen through an obstructive snowfall; the picture melted sideways at the top of the screen.
Mikey, why don’t you tell your father what you did? The moment of reckoning. He probably wouldn’t care. Even if he did, it wouldn’t matter. Mikey sat back on his knees, and looked at her. Why? Because I think he needs to know? Hank’s hand froze, just as he was raising the fork to take a bite. What did you do? Mikey took a deep breath and told his version of the story, one of a crazy old man who threatened him. That’s not how Mr. Russell told it. Well, it’s the truth. A sliver of dark brown meat fell from one of the prongs and hit the carpet; Huck, the family mutt, paced towards it and chomped down. Did you apologize? No. A twisting of his stomach. The taste of bile, the sensation of an amputee dance. A deep belch, followed by a hacking fit. He took a drink, told Mikey to apologize, and he staggered into the kitchen, dropped to one knee, and a stream of pale vomit poured from his clenched teeth. Candy ran in, saw what he had done, and stood over him as judge and jury. One of these days, Hank, this is gonna kill you. You know that? I-I’ll be just fine. He threw up once more, his open palms pressing against the linoleum, his chest heaving, knees rattling. He moaned a few curses, and wiped his mouth; the puddle grew long arms that birthed hands that joined together and formed a stream. He dwelled on it just as a child would a cloud from the peak of an undiscovered grassy knoll. Hank, you know that if you die—I’m not going to die, Candy. She bit into her bottom lip and looked at her watch. 8:29. Such a mess of a kitchen. Well, you sure ain’t livin’ forever and…you do whatever you want. It’s your life. She left him on the floor, apologized to Mikey and told him that it was time for bed. The click of the black plastic knob at the base of the lamp. Two doors slammed at the end of the hallway. The argument of his thoughts. The cadence rehearsing from the faucet. The bold stench of pitched meatloaf, dried eggs burnt to the bottom of the skillet. 9:00. Another day.
I don’t know what to do, Danny. I mean, the kid’s been through the mill and he’s my nephew and all, but—His slender fingers wrapped around the glass and, like a trout begging for the stream, he quickly brought the foam to his thin, dry lips and took a deep gulp. His thinning hairline of black-and-gray,and the pouches of blue, sagging skin that defined the exhaustion in his eyes, betrayed his thirty-four years. He had never felt well.