A few years ago I wrote this book entitled BLOOD. I recently received my 12th rejection. I have decided to serialize the book here, a chapter at a time, on no certain schedule but as I feel like it. I hope what few people visit here enjoy. Please do comment and criticize. My feelings don't get hurt, so be brutal.
(By Barrot Rendleman) Rights Reserved
The road lay out in front of him like a long, grey ribbon settled lightly over the stubborn, pock-marked landscape, a swollen coda of the Appalachians fifty miles to the east. It curved and pitched out of the foothills carrying him through a sort of no-man's land between the new highway and the town where he lived, flowing through the earth like a slow moving river gliding over the gently sloping relief of the land, dipping up and down, through and over, going nowhere in a stasis of thoughtless motion where he could have been anything and anywhere. A barge over an asphalt stream searching out mystery and gravity. Something to fill this newly discovered ring in the seemingly endless void of freedom and loneliness and humanity. A small section of the world where secrets remained so. Where words and the flesh and the heart weren't so pressed against time and eyes and the dark, arduous universe outside it. Then the road flattened out and the earth seemed to open up. The houses began to cram together and there was no mistaking who he was or where he was or where he was going. It was like the land itself had tossed him out. It seemed harder to take a step, broken out on the surface. It was hotter. Had it not been noontime the blanket of trees that spilled out from the hills could have afforded him some shade. As it was, the sun was high in the sky, pitched dead center of the scar the road cut through them, and it was merciless.
He was headed home, though in a long, meandering effort. He didn't want to go home, but he was hungry and he was tired. His thoughts' randomness had coalesced into thoughts of his mother, the two of them in each other's arms at the hospital and her relative silence ever since, and it made him want to lay down and sleep.
He had spent the last few days he had been out avoiding being at home with her. He was just walking, trying to work off some of the strange energy he had in him. Trying to push against the claustrophobia that had been working on him for the year past. Walking the neighborhood, the town, just to check that they were still there, as if they should have changed during the time he was gone. But everything was the same. After a couple of days he felt silly for thinking it should have been any other way.
He walked along weaving back and forth in the road humming and stepping slowly. Acutely aware of the houses and their windows. Cars parked in driveways. Painted wooden roosters on sticks, arms pinwheeling in the breeze. Yard gnomes. Trashcans. They took the place of timelessness. They substituted feet on the ground. Still, he thought, it was better than where he had been.
It was an unfamiliar room and he had no memory of being brought there. There was something wrong with him. His mind moved slow and his eyes wanted to remain closed. He sat on a black imitation leather couch, his feet stretched out across it. One arm was wrapped around the back of it and he leaned on his ribs into the stiff naugahyde. He had the same shirt on he put on that morning. Ruddy mottles of blood splattered across the front had dried into a field of stiff purple blooms. The blood on his hands had begun to flake off except for the ridges around his fingernails and the spiderweb of creases in the skin where it still clung in dark hashes. He could smell rusted metal. An itch on his upper arm was swollen and painful and when he lifted his shirt sleeve he could see that he had been injected with something. Whatever it was was strong and he decided to let his eyes close for just a bit longer.
At first he didn't recognize it as his own name. As a name at all. Just another voice in the distant collage of white noise that faded in and out of his foggy non-sleep.
His eyes shot open and the light rushed in like a murky wave. Sounds were sharp. He rolled his eyes around in their sockets trying to clear away what felt like a thick layer of oil. He swung his legs around off the couch and his arms fell down to his side. Pain ran up his hand and when he looked at it he saw they were crisscrossed with a dozen small gashes and splits that were now leaking a clear fluid poked through with blood. They called his name again and his hand involuntarily shot up into the air and he barked out some unintelligible squeak. Once he was able to clear his eyes and he realized he was awake, he saw his mother and a policewoman standing in the open berth of a set of large doors with a doctor pointing him out on the couch across the room. The two ladies walked across the carpeted floor, his mother slowly and weakly, the cop distractedly. She was looking over a clipboard and eyeing random parts of the room. His mother was crying, or had been, but trying to compose herself. He wasn't able to connect the events earlier in the day with where he was at that moment and he thought it was strange and a bit irritating she was so upset. She was wearing a green windbreaker and the tight jeans she wore when she went out and he felt maybe he had interrupted something. He became immediately aware of how he must look, the blood and all drugged up, and the cops were involved. He was overcome with an urge to cry and he had to fight it, but once she sat next to him on the couch and he felt the warm touch of her hand on his knee and she asked him if he was alright in that sweet, gentle voice there was no fight left in him. The tears came steady and hot down his cheek and made her cry. The cop stood back with a look of mild irritation while mother and son wrapped their arms around each other and let it out.
When she left he dropped back into the soft cushion of the couch, and watched her. She tried to stop crying. The impatient, patronizing look the cop gave them when they finally pulled apart closed them both up quick. This uniformed stranger had no business being a part of this. Neither of them, mother or son, said as much but they both knew the other was thinking just that. They were family. He thought she did real good too. She told him to not be scared and if he needed anything she would get it for him and she'd be praying for him and to just do whatever the people there told him to and he'd get out real soon and she loved him. When she left she never turned back and he didn't want her to. The cop was watching the whole time and he knew if she turned they'd both start crying again and fuck this cop. Instead she just walked and the farther she got the shakier she got and he could see her convulsing just slightly trying to keep her sobbing under control. There was a buzzer and the loud chink of a bolt drawing back in the tall, double doors and she pushed one of them open and walked through.
"Can you find your way back?" the cop had asked her. She didn't answer, just walked away, and Henry was proud of her for that.
"Stand up, Mr. Pupp," the cop said once the door swung back and the bolt slid back into place.
Her look had drained of it's condescension, but the impatience stayed and was enlivened with a fresh dose of disgust that Henry figured cops must learn the first day of training. It was their universal fuck-off sign, an attitude that could only be perfected with the security of having a gun perpetually at hand.
Henry rose from the couch and steadied himself against the rush of blood and the thinness created by whatever it was they had injected him with. The cop reached out and grabbed his shoulder to help steady him. He looked up from his feet and tried to focus on the back wall and felt weak all over again. The harsh cut of the florescent lights seemed to make everything jump back and forth, dim in and out in choppy spasms. The sound of talking and walking and half-dead shuffling came from every angle, both conceivable and not.
"What they gimme," Henry said trying to get his eyes to focus steadily on something.
"I don't know. Probably a sedative," the policewoman said placidly.
"I think they gave me too much."
"You'll be alright," she said, and went on pulling him slightly to get him moving. "What we're going to do now," she continued officiously, "is to go downstairs and process you."
Henry looked up at her, his eyes large and weaving. He didn't like the sound of being 'processed.' The officer looked at him, almost pityingly, then composed herself.
"You're under arrest, Mr. Pupp," she said as if to clarify why he might be lead away by a policewoman. "You're at the juvenile detention center. You will be here until you go to court."
"Then what," Henry asked meekly.
"That's for the judge to decide."
They exited the same way his mother had: through the two tall, steel doors, and he hoped she was still there waiting for him, but she was not. The hallway they walked into was empty, the fluorescents paling from the blast of sunlight coming through the floor-to-ceiling window at the far end. The dark, linoleum floors were freshly waxed and reflected the roadway of pipes and supports in the ceiling, the long tube bulbs burning white dashes all the way down. About halfway down the hall there was the red glow of an exit sign and Henry could see the steel bar release at waist level across it. He thought of running, barreling through the door and not stopping, but then he knew he would be lucky to get ten feet before he fell on his face, much less down a flight or more of stairs. The drugs were too powerful.
The policewoman had him by the arm and she directed him left and into an elevator. She leaned him against the flat, steel handrail inside the elevator car. She pressed the button marked B, and the car whisked into motion. The officer leaned against the opposite wall from Henry and began looking over the clipboard in her hand.
"Is he OK?"
"Pardon," she said, her eyes staying focused on the clipboard.
"Albert. You know if he's okay?"
"The boy you attacked?"
Henry looked down at his feet. He realized for the first time that he didn't have any shoes on.
"I think he's still in the hospital."
The tree was just on the other side of a fence in someone's yard he didn't know. The house was halfway up the hill, it's back shrouded in a tree line as if an avalanche of green had been frozen in place just before the house was consumed. The rest of the property, as much as could be seen from the road, was just grass, perfectly green and trimmed with one nuisance of a dirt patch in the far corner. Near the bottom the land flattened out. The grass thickened where runoff pooled, and there was the apple tree. Two of them, and another Henry thought could be a pear tree but wasn't sure.
There was a truck coming. A loud, battered dually with green brush spilling over the sides of the bed. Along both sides of the street was a shallow gully filled with dry grass and cast off weeds and bottles and cans and whatever else people could find to throw out as they drove along. As the truck got closer he was suddenly aware of how suspicious he looked just crouched down in the ditch and decided to take a seat on the edge and let his feet hang. Just resting during his walk. The truck passed a second later, long enough for him to spot the small red dots of apples in the tree across the road and for it to register just how good it felt to sit down. He had been on his feet for hours, carried on and distracted by the thoughts in his head and his new freedom. Only now, sitting down, did he realize the rawness in his feet and the aches in his joints. He kept his head down when the truck passed. There was the indistinguishable garble of music inside the wheeze of the engine, the rush of wind, and the passenger yelled something that only added a high pitch to the breakneck muddle whose passing sucked up all trace of it ever being there.
The road was clear at both ends and there was no movement in or outside of the house. He could see the apples in the tree. His eyes not wavering from them, his legs went into action. They ejected him from his seat, and in two long, muscled strides he was over the fringe of the ditch and loping across the shoulder, the cerise pinpoints bobbing and streaking across his eyes. He launched himself off of the far shoulder of the road and over the wooden fence. It wobbled under him and threatened to dump him, but he regained his balance once his feet were on the grass and, with a short hop, plucked the apple he could see and reach. The limb snapped back once the stem gave and three more fell to the ground. Henry gathered them all up and put himself back in the road. He managed to stuff one of the apples into his pants pocket and a pear's slimmer end into his back pocket. He held an apple in his left hand and after looking around to assure himself his thievery had gone unnoticed he began to chomp greedily at the one in his right, a slight grimace crossing his face when he tasted a bit of the pithy core. Passing a cemetery, he tossed it at the surrounding fence and it exploded when it hit the wrought iron post, a wet patch of fruit glistening against the flat black.
The cemetery was small and very well kept. It stretched a few hundred yards up the side of the hill from the road, each line of graves a steeply cut terrace to create an impeccable staircase of emerald green grass and tombstones. In the middle of it all was a small, one room, brick house. The idea of a picnic coincided with seeing the gap in the chained gate. He pulled the pear out of his back pocket to make himself thinner and slithered his way in. He ascended the closely-mown stairway and decided Eldridge Carp had a tombstone that would make a good backrest and took a seat. The stone to his right was a sleakly polished black hunk dedicated to the loving memory of Daniel Healstone, and Montgomery Shine was buried to the left, his stone much older and starting to chip away at the edges. Henry leaned back against Eldridge Carp, his feet propped out before him.
He only had a few bites of the pear in him before his feet started jerking, that strange energy coursing through them that wavered somewhere between pain and exhilaration. They felt like they needed to run a mile, to pound and stomp and kick or the muscle would pull away from the bone and take off itself. He tried kicking into the ground and stretching and pulling them this way and that, but nothing seemed to help. Taking another pill calmed them somewhat. Henry pulled the two orange bottles from his leg pocket and tumbled them around in his hands. For the past two days he had been telling himself he wasn't going to take any more of them. He had been saying it ever since they started making him swallow them when he was locked up, but he didn't have a choice. Now he did. He didn't have to take them any more. Buspirone and Risperdal. But he still did. Every day. He set the pear on his knee and popped open the lid of one of the bottles and pulled out one of the pills and then the other. One was long and white, trisected, and the other a round, yellow dot. He let them bobble around in his hand and his shaking legs made him want to swallow them. He bit the pear instead.
"What are they?"
"They'll help with your anxiety and your mood swings."
The man sitting in front of him may or may not have been a doctor. Henry was told to go into the room and the man was there with a multicolored folder laid out in front of him presumably from the two-foot stack to his left. The room was a generic, stripped down version of a doctor's office. It had a long, formica counter smooth and clean, with a glass jar of cotton swabs and a box of large latex gloves at one end. The linoleum, checkerboard floors were swept clean. There was a scale in the far corner from the entrance. The room even smelled like the burning mixture of alcohol and room deodorizer that Henry, like most children, associated with needles and agony.
"Sit down," the man had said, not looking up from the file.
Henry took his seat opposite the man, a metal folding chair just like his, a wobbly card table between them.
"Tell me how you're feeling," the man said. He had looked up at Henry for a second then began scribbling something in the file.
He had said it like most people said hello. Like the careless reflex of talking to someone who is bothering you. Henry thought he saw him stifle a yawn. The man stretched his fingers and waggled his pen in between them. It was only after a noticeable second that the man finally looked up at Henry again and with the professional look of exasperation he managed:
"I want to know how you're feeling."
The man wore a brown, rumpled suit that bunched up around his thin arms. His collar was unbuttoned and Henry could see his undershirt stained yellow and brown around it's edges. He spoke in a thick accent Henry couldn't place, but by the tone of his skin and his black, dull hair he figured he was middle eastern. He smelled like sweat.
"I'm fine. I ain sick or nothin," Henry said nervously.
The man, who had managed to straighten himself up briefly, curled back over the open folder in front of him and again looked it over.
"You've been having problems with anger. Striking out."
Henry saw a flash of Albert King's face, bloodied. He heard the wet smack of fist on brutalized flesh. He knew the man wanted a response. He wasn't ignoring him outright. It was just that the man seemed more like a man pretending to be a child pretending to be a doctor.
"No feelings of anger?" the man-child asked.
Henry couldn't figure out why he didn't just get up and walk out of the place.
"Well, I guess. I'm locked up and all."
"How do you feel when you get angry?"
"Angry," Henry said after a moment.
"When you are angry, how do you feel?"
"I feel angry."
"Mhmmm," the man said and scribbled a bit more.
"I think we can put you on a regimen of buspirone for the anxiety, and a small amount of risperdal to help with the anger."
The man wrote out the prescription in a small square of paper and stapled it to the upper corner of the file folder and held it out to Henry.
"Give this to the nurse outside."
Henry took the file and got up to leave, thoroughly confused.
"And Mr. Pupp?"
Henry turned and the man was leaned back in the chair scratching at his belly and his chin at the same time.
"Yeah," Henry said.
"We're going to see each other again in a month. I hope you can be a little more open about your feelings then. I think this medication will help."
Henry turned and meant to say OK, but wasn't sure whether he did or not.
Henry tossed the core of his second apple into the road in time for a passing car to run it over. It hopped a bit off the asphalt as the first tire squashed it and then became embedded into the hot rock as the second tire reduced it to a wet sheet of pulp. There was a twinge of regret that almost made Henry turn around, but he was sure he had done the right thing. In a few days the caretaker would be doing his duty with the lawn mower and all those little pills would be chopped up and in the grass and maybe it will do something for the anger and anxiety of all those forgotten ghosts.
He stopped to go through the busted remains of a television set on the side of the road when he heard the sound of the truck. The cars had been passing and he had not paid them any attention, but this one caught his ear and he even had the thought of how curiously familiar that particular rumbling sounded. It was too late to try to hide. It just took that second and he knew exactly what was coming up behind him. He knew it was a Toyota. He knew it was red and had a rusty old dent in the driver-side door that stretched clear back to the bed and was just about the same height as a fire hydrant. He also knew there was a deer rifle in the back window and one of the headlights was honkered to the left and that old bastard his momma told him was his daddy was driving the fucking thing. But it wasn't just the sound. It was the heat and the smell of the thing. The flash of dull, ruby red.
He hated the sound of his father's voice. It sounded too much like his own, but with years of whiskey and meanness behind it, deep and full of stones and devils. "Aincha s'posed t'be in jail or somethin?"
Henry looked up and down the road and there was nothing. The houses were still and quiet except for the AC units rumbling laboriously to their sides. Even with the truck right next to him running, he could hear a few early evening crickets sawing wood. He didn't expect there to be anything to save him from this, to keep him from getting in the truck and riding away with the man but he looked anyway. He had been hoping to just take a walk, to make a long, slow route through the neighborhood and maybe end up at his friend Willard's house, or nowhere at all. Especially not in that truck. But there was nowhere to go now but up and in. Finally Henry turned back to his father and said, sucking at a chipped tooth in the top of his mouth, "Didn feel like bein there no more," and stood watching his father through the glare of the sun.
"Y'look older," Briar said.
"Where y'been," Henry asked, thinking of how the last time he had seen Briar had been almost two years ago.
"Here an there."
"Here an there," Henry mumbled.
"Yep." Briar looked impatient.
"But not home."
There was a pause and Briar gave the stuttering engine some gas to even it out.
"Here an there," Henry yelled over th'engine, "but not a'home."
Briar nodded and looked around. His arm was hanging out of the window, and the rounded, hammer-curled tips of his fingers tapped at the flecking, worn paint of the truck door.
"Had some things t'take care of," he said absently and finally.
Henry just nodded. He kicked at a mounded patch of gravel on the road side and looked around nervously, but there was nothing coming to rescue him.
"Huh," Briar barked to break the silence.
"Take care things."
"Yeah, I had t'take care a'some shit. You alright with that?"
Henry was hoping his father was going to drive him home and maybe gripe at him a bit for getting into so much trouble, but when he got in the truck and saw the half-emptied pint resting on his balls, he knew that wasn't the case. He would have known it by the shit-eating grin on his face if he ever looked the man in the eyes. Briar Pupp was sort of a tush hog when he was drunk. If you looked him in the eyes there was a good chance of a fight.
"You ain grounded or nothin?" Briar asked once the door was shut and he hammered the old truck back into gear.
Henry just shrugged and kept his eyes forward.
"I ain gonna tell yr momma I done caughtcha out."
Henry kept quiet.
"You c'd say thanks, y'ingrate," Briar said after a minute for a swig from his bottle.
"I catcha out again, though, I'll whup ya m'self."
Briar Pupp was a stout man, his chest perpetually swollen as if armored with boulders. His skin, splotched with irish blood, was criss-crossed chaotically with little scars. His hair was peppered, but still as full as it had ever been, and his nose bent slightly to the left from being broken at the end of Jean Hedger’s fist.
"I ain been grounded. I's jus goin fr a walk."
"Bullshit," Briar said.
He set the green, plastic cap on the bottle and thumbed it down tight. He looked out over the road ahead of him, his lips drawn tight and his eyes squinted as if the moment had just rushed in on him and he was trying to figure it out. It seemed to Henry that his father was one giant muscle. The drink had borne a tumor of a belly that sat like a domed knot above his belt, but the rest of him was muscle and vein and a history of scars and indentions that made him seem almost unreal.
“Y’hungry,” Briar asked.
“Nice t’be able t’eat when y’want, ain it?”
Henry didn't answer. He was glad to be off his feet, but he hated being in the truck.
“Yeah, it is,” Briar said mischievously.
Henry thought he sounded like a kid, jittery and happy, not like a father. He especially didn’t sound like himself. Henry figured he was drunk, but he hadn’t drunk all the whiskey in the bottle. He was too happy. Henry figured he had just gotten started. Maybe he realized his boy had been freed and thought he’d come find him. Have a drink with him. Take him to eat. But Henry was cautious. There was a thin, ominous line where the whiskey and the beer would go sour and then all it took was for the wrong thought to spring up. His head, thin and drifting in the amber drink, would seize up like a motor out of oil. The detour would be taken. His eyes would go wild like some ghost had set upon him. His skin would get uncomfortable and he would get sucked in to some ancient, unspoken riddle he had never been able to figure out. Henry could swear his father actually got bigger when he was mad and drunk. It looked as if he swelled with blood. His muscles got stronger. He was a man built for violence and he was made incontrollable by it. He was relaxed for now. Even happy. But each bubble Henry saw travel up to the bottom of that bottle filled him with dread.
Henry looked back to his left and saw the counselor coming toward him. Jake Castle, but you can just call me Jake. He liked to shake, but his hands were always cold and wet. Henry shoved his hands in his pockets so he wouldn’t have to. Jake Castle ran his hand through his hair instead and broadened his smile as if he was going to meet the boss. Just doin’ the job. He always seemed nervous.
“Last day, huh?”
Henry nodded and shuffled his feet.
“Can I talk to you before you go?”
“Guess,” Henry said quietly. “Ain got much choice.”
“Yeah, guess not,” Jake laughed.
His office was cramped and damp and filled with file folders spilling off stacks set on every flat surface available. His desk was barely big enough to keep the bulky computer monitor, a coffee cup, and a picture of some woman Henry thought was very beautiful.
“You happy to be leaving, Henry?”
The two were sitting very close together and Henry could smell the stale coffee on Jake’s breath.
“How does it make you feel?”
“I mean, how do you feel about going home and back to school next year?”
“I don’t know.”
“Your not worried about it? Maybe a little scared?”
“Ain like I gotta choice. What’s it matter how I feel? I gotta go home, an I gotta go t’school. Don see it much matters how I feel ‘bout it.”
“Your right, you do have to go. But surely you feel some way about it.”
“I ain scared t’go home and I ain scared t’go t’th’school none. They’s all a bunch of assholes anyhow. Jus somethin I gotta do.”
“Do you think you will be getting into anymore fights?”
“I don't think he’ll come back t’school there.”
“With anybody else?”
He only shrugged his shoulders.
“If you feel violent, Henry, you can use the exercises we worked on. They’ll work.”
“If I’s t’do them things y’taught me t’do when I felt mad ‘r I wanted t’hit somethin, I’d be doin it all th’time. I wouldn git nothin else done.”
“How do you think that will go over at home or at school?”
“I reckon I’ll be dead ‘r right back here in yr office ‘r I’ll git along just fine.”
He knew he was being evasive, but there was still truth in what he said. The doctor was always asking how he felt about this or that and Henry wanted to give him a decent answer, but thinking about it just lead to these kinds of answers and he knew they aggravated the shit out of the doctor.
“You don’t think you could deal with your anger in different ways? You don’t think it would be worth it to make a change?”
“Ain no changin th’world, Doctor Castle.”
“Your fifteen years old, Henry. You can make changes now that you won’t be able to make later on in life. You should take advantage of the opportunity you have to get straightened out while your still young.”
“You know what’d happen t’me if I started sayin all that stupid shit y’want me t’say when I’m mad or they’s somebody lookin t’stomp m’head in?”
“Do you really get in that many fights?”
“You ever got’n one?”
“You start sayin all that silly horseshit?”
“No, but I wish I had.”
Henry laughed and slid back in his chair and crossed his arms.
“Was y’fightin’ a girl?”
“All I’m trying to say Henry is that if you don’t find other ways to deal with your anger, you’re going to be spending a lot more time in places like this, and worse.”
“Reckon I will, Doctor Castle. Just like you.”
Briar said something else, but Henry couldn't hear him. He punched the old truck up onto the freeway and it was so loud there wasn't much to be heard but the engine. At one point Briar slapped Henry in the arm asking if he had heard what he said.
"Caint hear over th'goddamn engine," Henry shouted and Briar gave him the appropriate glare and then sat back and drank from a beer that had replaced the whiskey bottle in his crotch.
Henry watched the world go by outside the window in long streaks of city colors. Browns and greys and dingy greens. Shots of blue and white. It was all tucked down below the interstate which ran like an asphalt scar across the valley. Here and there were houses, stained and half broken as houses so close to the highway always are. There was a white house just beyond an exit ramp. It had green shutters and a green tin roof and the screen was off it’s hinges set beside the door. He wondered if anyone there had ever gone outside to investigate a strange noise and found their father passed out on the porch, too drunk to turn the knob and come inside. Have they had to try as hard as Henry has to to wake him up? Did he swear over and over that he was getting up, don’t worry, only to lay there until the sun came up? Did they sit there with him? And off at the horizon where the night sky was forcing out the last of the wispy, orange clouds of day with it’s own purple hue, where some of the richest families of Chattanooga lived atop Lookout Mountain, he wondered if any of those folks had ever watched their mother make ‘dinner’ with a bloody nose at two o’clock in the morning. A meal that never got eaten. He knew the highway ran past a million homes. He knew they were out there and had to deal with their own horrors. He knew there was some kind of beast under each of those roofs. It may be silent, or it may rage. It may leave and never come back or it may hang around relentlessly. Looking over the city like that, Henry shuttered at the thought. Then he looked up and saw a long, monstrous billboard with a curvy, bikini-clad woman cuddling up to an over-sized beer bottle and he wondered how the whole place didn’t just go up in flames.
Briar said something else and Henry put his fingers to his ears and shrugged. Briar shook his head and took a pull from his beer and handed the bottle over. Henry looked at it then at his father and took the last little bit while Briar eased the noisy bastard of a truck off the freeway and down the exit ramp. At the end, rather than slow down, Briar pumped the brakes just a bit and yanked the wheel left and squealed the tires into a wide arc that almost put them up on the curb.
The turn put them out on Main Street, a flat dusty field of factories and warehouses that were mostly empty and set to rot and rust in their gravel graves. Briar pulled to a stop at an intersection and looked around. The rumble of the idling engine hammered eerily against the desolate landscape. Across the way, there was a line of men smoking and leaning against a wall, and a few were eating their dinners out of tinfoil while others waited in line in front of a taco truck. Off in the distance, Henry could hear the trucks at the chicken plant revving and braking and slamming their loads down on the dock. Briar pulled forward through the intersection and turned and slowed in front of a strip joint tucked back behind one of the abandoned buildings.
"I ain goin in there," Henry said when he saw his pa leaning over the wheel to take a look at the two trucks parked out front.
"You'll go where I say," Briar said almost absently and pulled past the strip club and into the parking lot of another bar.
Henry didn’t like that distant look in his father’s eyes or the sound of his voice. It was the turn, and it frightened him. Briar Pupp turned on a dime, and not just when he drank. It was as if there was a storm rolling through his head and sometimes the wind cut back across the field. There was a physical reaction in Henry when he felt the shift in his father, the turning, the point where Henry became just another nuisance for Briar to move past. He watched his father’s face contort under the strain of his thoughts as he fought the stubborn wheel to put the truck into a parking spot. He turned back the ignition and yanked out the parking brake and the truck bucked a bit as it stalled. They sat in silence. Briar turned to his son a couple of times as if he were going to say something, but he didn’t. As soon as Henry, confused, raised the lock to get out, Briar blurted out:
“I been locked up too.”
Henry stopped and turned to look at his father.
“I know,” he said.
“I like t’be free t’do what I want, y’know.”
“Yeah,” Henry said, but with a hint of frustration.
“So y’gonna straighten up?”
“Me?” Henry asked, surprised.
Briar stuttered in confusion and looked in his son’s eyes so that it hurt.
“You th’one that just got outta jail, aintcha?”
Henry looked down at his lap and didn’t speak.
“Am I th’one got kicked outta school?”
“Ok,” said a biddable Henry.
“I ain’t th’one gittin sued, am I?”
Briar fumed, his hands gripping the steering wheel tight. He was trying to calm down. His breath hissed across his pursed lips like steam escaping a busted pipe.
“Look, son,” he started to say, but stopped himself.
Henry looked at him hopefully.
“Let’s just go git somethin t’eat,” he said finally.
The Red Lantern was a dark, grease-layered bar that moonlighted as a restaurant during the day to pay the rent. It was a tall, shotgun box coated in decades of just getting by in a part of town that had been in decline for twenty years. Henry and Briar came through the backdoor from the parking lot and the light from the waning sun shot through the smokey air of the place.
"Hey, Tommy Lee," Briar said.
"Briar," the man behind the bar said back.
The two took seats at the bar.
"Whataya have, boys?"
"Bud'n'a coke," Briar huffed.
Tommy Lee looked at Henry. He knew he didn't want a coke. Never did.
"Sprite," Henry said quiet and looked at Briar. He didn't seem to hear.
Then there was a squeal of delight from the kitchen and all three men turned to see. The two aluminum doors swung wide and the round, bobbling form of MayJean Jefferson came ambling out, her hands clasped at her chest and her round cheeks red from smiling so wide.
"Henry Pupp, if you ain't a sight for sore eyes," she said gleefully.
She grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him to. She kissed his hair and drew a deep breath.
"Oh, I missed you."
"Hi, MayJean," Henry said, smiling, unable to hug her considerable size.
"When you git home, baby?"
She held him at arms length to look him over. Her eyes were wide and shining as if she were inspecting a newly won prize.
"Just th'other day."
"You had you a party yet?"
"No ma'am," he said shyly.
"You hungry, chile?" she asked excitedly.
Henry looked up at his pa and Briar said, "Get whatcha want," and Henry smiled at MayJean and said, "Grill cheese 'n fries, please."
"You betcha, hunn," she said and she winked and turned.
Henry sipped at his soda and Briar took a sloppy tug at his beer.
"Damn, Tommy Lee," Brair said. "How long you been payin that ol colored girl t'cook fr ya?"
"MayJean's the best cook in this town," Tommy Lee said, his hands flat on the bar, "and she'll do it fr ten dollars an hour."
"Shit. She ain't sufferin. That's good pay."
"Had a boy come in'ere th'other day. Hadda suit on and handed me a resume."
"Wanted t'be m'cook. Wanted damn $20,000 a year t'flip fuckin' burgers. Thought he was a chef. Been t'school and all, sure, but gotdamn. Come in here askin fr that kinas money."
Briar shook his head.
"How much you make when you was down at Combustion, Briar?"
"Bout that much. Little more."
"You go t'college?"
"Bout tenth grade."
"Exactly. Kids out there waistin time and their parents money in school, come out, and think they can flip burgers for twinny, thirty grand a year."
"Ain gonna happen."
"I tell ya, youngblood," Tommy Lee said to Henry who looked up surprised and uneasy. "you ain't gotta go to college. It's a waste these days. You gotta learn you a trade. All a man needs to do to make a living in this country is stay outta prison and learn a trade."
Henry smiled and nodded and jumped a little when Briar nudged him. He was drinking from his beer and nodding at the bartender to let him know he should be listening.
"People been told so long they gotta go t'college and be a professional somethin'r'other. Now they's all professional what nots and ain't a damn one of 'em can change a tire on their car. Couldn weld pipe t'save their life. What good's it do t'be a lawyer or a architect 'r whatnot y'can't even fuckin find yr way to th'fuckin store without a computer tell y'where t'go.
"Learn a trade, kid. Like yr daddy. Learn it and work hard and keep yr ass outta jail. T'sall a man needs t'do t'git by. Work and keep yr fuckin nose clean.
"See," Briar said as Tommy Lee walked a beer down to Joe at the end of the bar, "That's what I'm talking about."
"Meant what I said about all that trouble."
"I meant what I said about stayin outta trouble, boy. Caint be no more of that shit. Y'got it easy cause yr a kid, but it aint gonna be like that no more. They don't treat you kids like they used to. They putcha in a real jail for too long."
Briar pounded his hand to the bar and Henry sat up straight.
"Don't yeah yeah me, boy," he growled. "I'm tellin ya fr yr own good."
"I know," Henry said shakily. He had to pee.
He watched his mother walking toward him through the glass door to pick him up. There was a guard walking beside her with a heavy, cluttered key ring in his hand and she looked embarrassed. She kept her head low and wouldn’t look at anything around her. The sight tightened up in Henry’s throat and he didn’t want her to be there yet. All of a sudden he was pissed he was getting out. Scared. But then she saw him through the door and that embarrassment on her face dropped into sadness and then curled up and dug in deep lines. She was pissed. She was very disappointed.
“You ready to go,” she asked and wrapped her arms around him.
She let him go and looked him over. Her face tightened back up. “Yeah, let’s go,” she said.
It was fortunate for Henry that he knew his mother and knew she didn’t want to talk. He didn’t think he’d know what to say if she did. He was pretty sure he’d be incapable of saying anything worthwhile. She just smoked her cigarettes and drove and he stared out the window watching the cars pass and the pavement boil in the sun. It was a good thing, really. Usually when she talked, when Henry was in trouble or something, she was sarcastic and mean, trying very unsuccessfully to hide her disappointment in it. Henry just preferred she stay quiet when she was upset.
They passed a school bus. There would be no school for Henry for the year and he’d have to go to a special hearing before he would be admitted next year. All this was well and good with him. He never wanted to step foot back in that school again anyway. He knew what everyone there thought of him. He knew how he must have looked with all that blood all over him, wild and angry, looking to kill. That’s all he’d ever be to them. Just an animal. A beast you ignored and kept away from.
He remembered the time Scott Crabtree had hit him on the bus home one day in third grade and how he just cried and sat there and how everyone looked at him until one day he took his math book and smashed Scott’s nose in. For the rest of the year they wouldn’t look at him at all. Then it started all over with Albert King and he got tired of the faces and how they saw him. He got tired of how he saw himself. He got tired of all the sense and reason being drowned out in anger. He realized that the look you get when they are scared of you is a lot like the look when they hate you and want to spit on you. What was the difference? When they were scared they left you alone.
“It all sorta takes yr memory,” he told Doctor Castle one day. “Everday is th’ fuckin same an y’know yr gonna have t’take more shit and so what’s th’fuckin point of keepin any of it in yr head. It gits sorta blurry like a dream. People ain really people no more. I mean, y’mighta knowed who they was an all, but now they’s like a ghost an y’know y’can do jus ‘bout anything y’want t’ghosts. Ain nothin real after while. Yr jus floatin on by til one day it’s a bit too dusty an like a dream an it’s a real good idea t’bash that ol boy’s head in. So y’do it.”
“You did it.”
“Yep, I did.”
Henry watched the houses and mailboxes and thick oaks pass by the car window. They were all things he recognized. The two of them had been crawling around this city all his life trying to make one place or another, and nothing much ever changed. The sharp-dressed Farrakhans still sold bean pies and tried to give away their newspapers on the corner of Shallowford and Wilcox while the old men set in front of the barbeque pit in the vacant lot pointed and laughed at them weaving in and out of traffic and almost getting hit. The same rusty boxcars sat crammed together in the train yard under the bridge waiting to be pulled off to Nashville or Birmingham. Then you passed through downtown where the rich folks tried to get richer off the tourists. Then there was the west end of town where Henry lived and it was like a different world.
“What kind of changes do you think you could make?”
“Think I already done that.”
“By beating up your friend?”
“He wasn m’friend.”
“The point is violence doesn’t institute a change.”
“Beating that boy up didn’t change anything.”
“Th’hell it didn’t. Look, Doc, I don’t know where yr people come from, but from where I come from, folks don’t do nothin unless they got to, ‘r they git they ass whupped. That’s jus how it is.”
“But this cycle of violence can’t keep on. Your gonna get yourself killed or in prison. You have to make a change in the way you deal with your anger.”
“I know you tryin t’be real smart about all this. Guess yr jus doin yr job. But we don’t change much. Whuppin that boy change jus ‘bout everthing. I ain gonna hear from him no more. Ain gonna be let back in that school. People gonna look at me like I’s one o’them Johnson boys. Ain much gonna be th’same when I git outta here, but ain nothin really changed far as I go, or anybody else. Guess that ol boy’s gonna be a bit uglier.”
"How was it?" Briar asked.
"Bein locked up."
"It sucked. But they kept us doped up most th'time."
"Damn. My day they jus locked y'up inna room an didn letcha out till supper."
"Reckon they think bad kids is just crazy these days. Hadda go t'meetings an take pills."
"Talk about why y'done whatcha done."
"Gitchr ass whooped?"
"Folks too doped up t'be fightin. They's a few, an they tried t'git me riled up, but nothin ever happened. Then they found out why I's there an they left me alone."
“Y’tellem you’s a killer,” Briar asked and smiled arrogantly as he sipped his beer.
“I didn tell’em nothin,” Henry fired back, hurt.
Henry turned to look out the door at the far end of the bar. It was the only sunlight coming in, like the light at the end of death. Henry itched to run toward it. Out. Away. He reckoned most of them in there probably wanted to. He had spent plenty of time in bars, being his father’s son. He’d sit and watch and wait for his daddy to get his fill, and one thing he noticed was the lack of satisfaction in people’s faces. None of them seemed even remotely fulfilled. No one was settled. They were waiting for something. Even the folks that were in these places all the time were so unsettled. They were waiting for love, or for the drink. Or they were waiting for answers, which seemed very odd to Henry, for he thought the dark, loud, moldy old bars were the last place anything was going to come to light. Seeing these people, Henry couldn’t help but feel pity and disgust. There was some kind of hovering weakness he sensed in them. A weakness no one ever talked about except to disprove it, yet they worked so hard to avoid it, forget it, and anesthetize it. They itched to get moving, yet they wouldn’t leave. They drank and this was the place to drink. They flocked here, lived here, and tossed everything away here and all at the same time seemed so eager to get away. Maybe except for Lenny who seemed content at just sitting in front of the poker machine at the far end of the place and tapping that deal button.
Briar certainly wanted to. Henry had come to realize that that was his father’s main concern. To get away. He always seemed trapped, eager to get out, like no matter where he was it just wasn’t big enough for him to feel comfortable.
“Yr momma doin alright,” Briar asked.
Henry slumped over his soda, a million things flooding his mind to say though he knew none of them would escape.
“She don’t talk much.”
“She’d purty tore up when y’left,” Briar said.
Henry thought he caught a bit of accusation. He started squirming in his seat, a burning itch raising in his belly.
“I didn mean t’hurt any of ya,’ He said uneasy.
Briar didn’t say anything. He finished his beer and Tommy Lee slid him another and he drank the neck off that one.
Henry thought he very well may have wanted to talk to him more, but he wasn't going to give him the chance. Eventually Henry turned back to him and could see that he wanted to escape too. He could see the look in his eye. The shake in his leg. Briar's whole body burned with the want to be somewhere else but some itchy seed of decency Henry was surprised wasn't burnt away already kept him there.
"I gotta pee," Henry spat and slid off the stool.
The polaroids were blurry and discolored, their thin plastic surface cracking from age. Henry had found them in the back of a photo album filled with his school pictures and pictures of his mother's family. There were three of them tucked into the back corner.
The first was of Briar, so much younger than Henry could ever remember him being. He was in a field somewhere, bright green trees and a whitened sky out of focus. His hair was long and full and swept back from his face that sported a pair of aviator sunglasses and a wide, almost childish smile. Gripped in one hand, the butt resting on the crook of his hip, was a deer rifle. The man was thin and young. He seemed happy. He seemed like a stranger. But Henry also thought he was beautiful. He was strong and unbeaten. He wondered if he was going to look like that when he was older. The thought put a smile on his face. He wanted to look like that. There was no hint in this strangely familiar face of the anger Henry felt and that he knew in his father. None of the confusion or fear. He could see why his mother had wanted to be with him.
Briar was older in the next picture. His hair fading already into what would be the greyer patches. It was Henry's birthday in the picture. He could barely make out the 3 in the candle, his name in yellow letters across the chocolate icing. Briar held his boy up, proud, smiling wide, his vein-etched hands gripped tight around the boy's chest and the boy is giggling, eyes squinting under his fat, red cheeks.
And then it is Christmas and Briar and Henry are smushed cheek to cheek in front of the glinting, blinking tree and Henry is holding a Tonka Truck close to his heart. It is his father, not Briar. His daddy. Not Briar. A long gone memory that only faded from the physical plain. Faded from his hand. It lost it's warmth. Had he not recognized the man, himself, Henry could have easily convinced himself these were pictures of someone else. Happy memories of strangers. They already almost felt that way, but there was something remaining in them, in his heart, that would not allow him to refuse the truth of the matter. He loved his father and his father loved him and it was only a cruel, disgusting fate that made it seem otherwise.
"Sugar?" MayJean was outside tapping easy at the bathroom door.
At first he couldn't answer and only grunted.
"Yo foods ready. You ok?"
"I'm fine. I'm comin'."
He gathered a few slow breaths and tried to talk himself into believing the tears were subsiding, but his eyes were still hot, his head thick with lingering sadness. Nonetheless, he hobbled out of the pisser concentrating on standing straight and not crying. Across the way, he could see his food steaming on the bar and that his father was gone.
"Y'ok, boy," Tommy Lee asked when he saw Henry hobbling like he was.
"Yeah," He answered. "Done hit m'knee on th'comode."
"Well, yr pa said he'd be back, and fr you t'eat yr supper."
He managed himself up on the stool and leaned against the bar.
Henry picked at some cheese melted over the edge of the bread. He ate a couple of fries and poked at his grilled cheese. Grease bubbled up out of the toasted bread around his finger and he sucked it off. There was no point in trying. Once the jittery pain in his drug-starved legs subsided enough to walk straight, Henry stood up. He popped a few more fries in his mouth and pushed the stool to.
"Yr pa said fr you t'stay put, boy."
"Y'gonna stop me, Tommy Lee."
"Y'ain't mine," he said and threw up his hands.
It took a few minutes of lying in bed and listening to the carpenter bees bouncing off the eaves for the smell to set in. The must and sweat and smoke crept in slowly and Henry felt he was home. It did scare the hell out of him, but it was that kind of fear he could deal with. Those foreign cinderblock walls and plastic sheets were gone. The astringent air and constant mechanical rumbling vanished and now it was just the bees and the stink and the occasional click and hiss of the refrigerator’s condenser. Over it all, of course, is the constant aria of the television and whatever game show or soap opera was blaring through it, but Henry was able to tune it out, to keep with the bees and the warmth and enjoy home. It all meant home. His mama meant home. She didn’t have warm hugs or too many sweet things to say anymore. In fact, she treated him like she might have something that would infect him, or vice versa, but she kept him fed and she did what she had to do. That was more than most did when it came to Henry, and he knew that. That was home. Rain set into the wood. Ragged carpet and curled linoleum. Deena Johnson across the street yelling at her kids or them yelling at their kids. The garbage truck waking everybody on the street at eight in the morning on Thursdays. The smell of the trees and the smell of the dirt. Loud cars and the Birchwood Brothers up on the hill with their go carts and pretty girlfriends. Home. It was the same old world.
The difference was only that he had not been there. He felt the gap of time he had been away, locked up in such strange surroundings. It should have shown. The world should have aged. Then he was let back into life and it had just kept right along despite his absence. That made him feel, somehow, that he had not gone anywhere. It made him feel like he had just been asleep and endured a particularly nasty, tedious nightmare and now he was awake and no one knew what he had gone through. He had to fit right back into place. That thought alone put fire in his shoes.
Henry became acutely aware of his bedroom window. It was easy to see from where he lay in bed. It was his escape hatch. He had become adept at getting in and out of the house through that window undetected and it was a beacon whenever things got too rough at home. Whenever he heard screaming or the crashing of plates or his mind got too jumbled with the noise of the television and sadness and the drunken chaos that was his parents. That window glowed with a light more brilliant than the sun. Deeper than the moon. And he could go, be gone, ease on down the side of the house. Like a cat, dodge stealthily into the woods that ran behind the house and come out anywhere he wanted and do whatever he wanted. The window was freedom, a distinct ticket out of fitting into place.
Set on the pavement, his body got warm and relaxed a bit. He used his thumb to flip out the blade of his pocketknife and he rubbed his thumb across the edge to test it's sharpness. His vision didn't go past that... a sharp blade. It didn't go across the street and it didn't go into the bar. It only included his father's ghost, like a memory, like he had seen blood on the blade and the dead's face merely floated in the murk. He had no idea what he was going to do. But he did see his father going into that bar and he saw his mother and a furious disgust came up in him that killed the pain and stood him up.
Henry walked down Main Street until he came to the first cross street he knew would lead back to his end of the city. Market Street. As he walked he flipped the knife open and closed. Open and closed. And with each step that lead him away from the Red Lantern and Wild Hearts, he felt a bit lighter and a bit wilder.
He knew Briar would eventually come back looking for him, but he wouldn't be there. Fuck him was the mantra that carried him on. It put force in his step. It was thunderous and complete in his mind. Violent and satisfying. Fuck him. Fuck him. It was like a punch to the face. The final word in an argument that had been going on his entire life.
Henry stood in front of the window of the Downtown Market staring at the spread of mannequin heads sporting a rainbow of wigs for sale. He looked over their frozen, painted expressions. The ratty garlands wrapped around the bases of their severed necks. It was like a picture of a dinner party of white girls wearing the bright colored hair of black girls. Those decapitated white faces stared off in every direction as if they were all waiting for something, frozen in an instant of expectation.
The day had seemed to get brighter, the sun needling into his exposed neck. His sore feet had flamed back up, swelling a bit. He was ready to sit on the curb until the anger in him came back and it started him moving again. He thought of his father ditching him, again, and this time to go to a strip joint. There was a flood of hatred in him he could not nail down to one thing. There was his mother alone and the two of them so poor and some vague ideal that this man was supposed to be making it better. The father. He thought of his friend Willard and how he hated his folks because they were always telling him what to do. But they had money. His father was there and he took care of him. Then he thought of his teachers, mostly men, Doctor Castle, the guards in juvenile detention.... a list of despicable, bothersome men... Henry began to feel like he was doomed.
He swung on his heels and began walking fast along the sidewalk. At first he simply held out his hand as he walked and let it bash against parking meters, delighting in the racket the change inside made as they shuttered on their metal posts. Then he put some force behind it and began giving them a good whack. He balled up his fist and tried to take the head of the machines off their posts. That wasn't enough.
"Y'shouldn do that," someone said. A man at a bus stop. "It's illegal," he said when Henry took notice.
The man, old and dark skinned, looked afraid of Henry. He hadn't expected the kid to turn on him like that. He looked wild and angry. The old man thought he might lunge at him at any moment.
"Just sayin," the man said.
Henry wanted to hit the old man. Or hit something. Hit it hard. When the man tensed up and looked like he was ready for the fight, Henry swung around, took two steps toward a black sports car parked on the curb and thrust his fist into the window. It didn't break, but the hard, painful thud of knuckle to glass blanked out the world for just that second. He did it again.
"That illegal too," he croaked through an hysterical throat, and punched a third time.
"Yeah," the old man said nervously and began looking around for help.
The fourth time the window shattered. Henry smiled and an odd chirp escaped him. He twirled to see the man, who stood stunned looking around him.
Henry walked down to the next car, a brown station wagon covered in bumper stickers and crackled, peeling paint. This time he had the passenger-side window shattered in just two hits.
"Oh, lord," the old man said.
Henry didn't let the pain in his hand detract from this happiness. He walked to the next car and took a punch, but his hand skipped off, and he tried again. The glass cracked slightly and he knew the next one would make it explode.
"Hey, you little motherfucker!"
Henry turned without punching. A younger man, dressed in a green jumpsuit, arms full of small cardboard boxes, was walking toward him. Once he saw the shattered glass from the other two cars behind his, he dropped the little boxes and started running.
"Git back in th'truck, boy. I'm gonna take y'home."
Henry hadn't heard the truck this time. The city was filled with too much traffic. As soon as he heard the voice his whole body twitched to run, but then the gravel and the timbre locked them up and he could hardly move.
He was walking now, too tired to run anymore. The man had given up the chase a good mile back, but Henry had kept on for as long as he could just to be safe. His hand throbbed and his legs burned. But deep inside, he still felt a bit of the happiness busting those windows had given him. He had gotten away.
Briar tossed his shirt to the boy for his hand. It was bleeding through a dozen tiny slits across his knuckles.
"I ain goin nowhere with you," Henry said hurt and furious. At first he didn't think he actually said it out loud, but when he saw his daddy's face, he knew he had.
"Don'tchu talk back, boy. I'll stripe yr legs y'don git in."
They didn't say anything the whole ride home. Briar laughed to himself a couple times and scratched at his crotch but didn't say anything to the boy. Henry didn't feel much like talking anyway. His hand throbbed and his head hurt and felt thick like he was sick. His whole body was slowly going slack and he just wanted to get home and lay down.
Briar pulled up in front of the house, not into the driveway.
"Y'ain comin in," Henry asked even though he knew the answer.
"Naw. I don feel like dealin with yr maw right now."
Briar had those faraway eyes. Henry had seen them before. He thought they made his daddy look younger, but they also hurt. Henry had calmed on the ride home. The stark fear that he was in for a beating had helped that, but now he was home and the truck was idling and Briar was waiting for the boy to get out. He didn’t even care enough to whip the boy. His eyes were plotted down the road far off into the darkness beyond the reach of the headlights.
“I’m sorry, pa.”
Briar turned to look at the boy and he seemed to have not understood.
“I’s mad y’left.”
Briar shook his head.
“No y’ain’t,” Briar said. He sounded disappointed and he shook his head.
“Y’ain even been out but a couple days and yr already startin trouble.”
Henry thought his father sounded genuinely wounded and those faraway eyes looked sad al of a sudden.
“I’m sorry, I-”
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” Briar said mockingly.
He pulled a pack of cigarettes off the dashboard and shook one out and lit it.
“Sorriest thing I ever seen,” he said and snapped the lighter closed. “I don't see how y’ma deals with ya.”
Henry looked down at his hands.
“Gone inside,” Briar said impatiently.
Henry slid out of the truck and watched it rumble on down the road, loud as shit, and kept watching until it turned onto the boulevard.
He stumbled out of his room wiping the sleep from his eyes and feeling his way along the wall. He went into the bathroom and peed, failing to keep it all in the bowl as he swayed in the thick leftovers of his dreams.
His medication was still in the white, crumpled, paper bag on the counter in the kitchen where he had set it when he came home the day before. He dumped the two plastic bottles out onto the counter and let the bag float down to the floor. In the distance of his mother's bedroom he could hear her coughing and he could hear the television. He stopped and looked back through the kitchen and den and into the warped particleboard of the bedroom door. What was there to say? He took his medicine.
She emerged from the bedroom just as he was pulling his toast from the metal box on the counter. The smell of burnt white bread filled the room then was edged out by the stale fume of her cigarette.
"Glad t'be home?"
He looked up at her and thought of the long night before lying in bed wondering why she wouldn't talk to him the whole ride home. He had heard her all night long with the television and he wanted to talk to her, to be held by her...
She made coffee and smoked.
"Quieter," Henry whispered.
She opened the fridge to pull out the slim carton of creamer and noticed the white square of paper taped to the refrigerator.
Henry stopped spreading butter on his toast and looked.
"That's th'doctor I'm s'sposed t'see an m'pills."
"Reckon I gotta take y'there," she sighed, "an pay fr them pills."
"Sorry," he said perfunctorily.
"Hell. Guess it ain't yr fault. Guess I raised y'wrong."
She sifted out two scoops of grounds from the large, red plastic canister and tossed them into the coffee filter with her own particular version of a sigh. He twitched at every little snap the coffee maker made as she slid the filter back into the machine and flipped down the pot's lid and placed it on the warmer. She turned and leaned against the rim of the sink and blew out a blue cloud of smoke and looked at him, her son, as if it were his turn to speak.
"I ain looking t'cause y'trouble," Henry said and even managed a bit of veiled anger in his tone.
"Reckon kids is s'posed to be trouble," she said with half a smile. "Lord knows I was."
Henry went back to buttering his toast. He opened the refrigerator and pulled out a small jar whose bottom was barely coated in the purplish remains of grape jelly. She watched him scrape out the thickening dregs with a look somewhere between disappointment and contempt, though she wasn't necessarily aware she was doing it. But the feelings took over none the less and after a few tinks of the butter knife against the walls of the glass jar, she had to turn away from the sight of him and just stare out the small window above the sink and smoke.
Henry nervously ate his toast and watched his mother wait for the coffee to finish. The early sun thrust it's golden, smokey light throughout the kitchen, and the bright yellow laminate of the counter cast it up onto her skin. He noticed how young she looked. He was struck by a memory long enough ago that he couldn't quite place in a where or a when. There was water. Henry breached the surface long enough to get a glimpse of his mother sitting in a lawn chair in a plot of grass. The water through wavering sunlight across her tanned cheeks. He thought she was beautiful. She smiled and he felt the indistinct, mysterious warmth of beauty overcome him. Then the coffee maker clicked off and the beauty was muted. There were years layered over it. Some of those years had disappeared but left their indelible mark behind. Some of them, most of them, Henry knew nothing about. Years upon years. Enough to wear him out just thinking about it. The smile was gone. The sun and the skin were so different now. He was hit by the scariest feeling, like intuition, he had ever felt in his fifteen long years. Nothing would ever be the same and he could never go back. And above that the feeling that it was all his fault.
The house was quiet once Henry was inside. He had spent a good bit of time just standing in the road watching the street and the neighborhood get dark, fade from grey to blue to purple, the light in his eyes still holding the ghostly image of his father's truck driving off. He went inside once he was satisfied nothing was going to come of him standing out there in the road. All the lights were off in the house except for the blue hum glow of the television in the den. He could hear some game show going on. He wanted to go in there and talk to his mom, but she was most likely asleep. Instead, Henry just went into his bedroom around the corner and tumbled into bed.
Every inch of his body hurt. He felt like he had climbed a mountain and never saw the top. Why didn't he just stay sat at the bar and eat? It made no sense to him, but he understood it perfectly all at the same time. He figured his momma probably didn't even give a shit if the old man went and stuck his thing in every woman in town, but that didn't make it right. It didn't stop Henry from blushing and cringing when he thought about it. It didn't stop him from being pissed off. It was still wrong, he thought, no matter who gave a shit and who didn't. He was trying to stand up to a man he would never be able to go up against. He figured and figured, but the result was still always helplessness, anger and confusion, and guilt.
He felt the jitteriness in his legs. They twitched uncomfortably and no amount of stretching and rubbing made them any better. He regretted throwing away the pills. He needed them bad. They would have shut off his brain and all the horrible tightness he felt would have ebbed. Henry had despised the way they made him feel. They turned him into a zombie, lifeless and bored. But then at night lifeless and thoughtless was all he wanted to be. What was the middle ground? Which was better? Nothing at all or too much? The thought turned like a tornado in his head throwing out faces and emotions and he begged for it to stop. He tried, in effort to divert his mind, to hear the silence, to see the near dark. He tried to imagine sleep, that is to say, peace, as if it were some distant memory he could make manifest by remembrance alone. The more he tried, the more aware he became of the fitful, buzzing universe around him. The ringing in his ears. The creaking of the house The cars on the boulevard....
Out beyond his bedroom door someone won a shitload of money and Henry could hear his ma grumbling about it. Her voice was like a gravel road from the cigarettes and it flapped around like a detuned fiddle from the drinking but he could still hear the soft angelic voice he had always known hers to be under it all and it hurt him to hear it. Absolutely and immediately he wanted to be out there with her, not in his room, but he knew it would just make him feel worse. He knew she wouldn't even look up from her television to see him, and it just made his love for her that much harder to bare. It hurt even to breathe. It hurt to know how all this worked.
To keep his chest from caving in from his thoughts, Henry got up out of bed. He went into the bathroom and fished through the pile of this and that on the shelf in the medicine cabinet until he found an old pair of tweezers. He sat on the toilet letting the street light coming through the window point out all the little shards of safety glass in convenient glints of light. He pinched at them and rolled them through the steady trickle of blood that came through the slits in his fist. He dropped them between his bare legs into the toilet water and the tiny plops were thick and satisfying in the quiet. After only a few extractions, he didn't even feel it anymore.
He remembered coming home one night from seeing a movie downtown with his friend Willard. He came in through the window as usual and made a special effort to be real quiet seeing as this was a time when his father was living at home. The less he was made aware of the boy's presence, the better. He had been home just a minute when he heard his father yell out and his mother say something about it he couldn't make out. He thought they were just fighting at first, but then it registered that that was a scream of pain, not anger. Something more like a woman or the coyote that sometimes came down off the ridge in the late summer. It wasn't a sound he had heard his father make before. Real pain. It wasn't a sound you want to hear in the dead of night. Then he heard it again as well as a thump against a far wall.
Before he even thought about it he was out the bedroom door. Every sound he made, every creak of wood and every breath, was like a gunshot and he was sure he would be heard, but he went on anyway. The house was small, but he felt like he was creeping a mile. As he got closer he could hear heavy breathing and his pa whimpering like a puppy and his ma whispering: "Yup, awww, that's it," like she was coaxing a child into something it didn't want to do.
Henry slid past the coffee table, crawling now, in the den and on back around to where he could see the light coming from their bedroom. He figured it was so bright they weren't going to be able to see him out in the den.
"Goddamnit," Briar said.
Anything that might have held Henry back was gone now and he was determined to take a look.
"Almost there," his momma said.
The dark all around him was thick. He felt a bit nauseous. The idea of getting caught and the sound of his father moaning, it all hit on the intuition that he was about to see something he didn’t necessarily want to.
Henry peaked around the corner of the couch which was right at the bedroom door. He could see the end of their bed bathed in the light of the television and the bedside lamp.
Before he saw his folks, he saw the knife. It was laying on a rag at the foot of the bed in an impressive pool of blood. He stopped his crawl and just stared at the thing. It was one of those old boy scout knives with the empty handle full of matches and tree saws and he could see the compass in the butt of it bobbing back and forth. The blade was red halfway up to the hilt and there were little frills of flesh caught on the jagged back side. The tip was broken off.
Henry stood. His daddy was hurt. His ma was hurt. He came around the table and stood in the doorway and saw his pa sitting on the bed naked, his lap coated in blood and his mother beside him sewing up a long gash in the meat of his thigh with a sewing needle and fishing line. Her hands were bloody. Neither of them saw him there. It was when she had to pull the eye of the fishhook through the skin and jet of blood spat out across his mom's hanging tits that Henry gasped. He wanted to scream but all he could do was suck in a mouthful of air. They both looked up, his ma wiping the sludge from her tits and his pa taking a slug from his bottle.
"Goddamnit," his ma said right as his pa hissed: "Sumbitch," and pushed himself up off the bed.
He came stumbling toward Henry, blood pumping out from the half-sewn gash in his leg and streaming down through the forest of hair on his leg. Henry wanted to move but he couldn't. Briar came barreling toward him. The first step shot blood out onto the carpet and the second sent a scar of wet across the dark plywood of the bedroom door. The third step shot blood across Henry's face. When he was in reach Brair lifted up his gashed leg and planted his foot square in the middle of Henry's chest. Before the boy even hit the floor he slammed the door and Henry could hear a muffled "Motherfucker"...
Henry was lost in the thought. With his sock he was rubbing tiny spots of blood into the linoleum. He set the tweezers on the edge of the sink beside him and wiped away the thin rivulets of blood that spread across the ridges of his hand. When he shut the water off on the sink there was only the sound of the television and the night's silence. In some kind of alternate universe that was the bathroom and the silence, the memory and the television, all in one spot both inside and outside his mind, came a vacuum of loneliness. It emanated from a dark center inside him Henry could not distinguish. It was the thin, fine line between this and that. Henry thought, sadly, that it was the thing that made him him, and not them. He looked in the mirror, but he could not see it. No trace of this gigantic universe. He could see his big, dark eyes. He could see the long, girlish lashes that swooped out from the thick, reddened rims of his eye lids. He saw his small, fleshy ears. He could even see his anger and his sadness twitching so delicately just under the skin of his cheeks, but he couldn't see the bit of dark where it all came from. He couldn't see himself. Only parts he knew came from other people and other times. But then he couldn't see his mother either. He couldn't see his father or anyone. Not anymore. He could see an echo of them, mother and father, in the things he did, the way he acted, the way he spoke or kept quiet. But that strange bit of space where the thoughts came from remained hidden. Not this or that but something else. There was a time in his life, he could remember, when the mysterious hidden origins of the world around him made him feel secure. It made the world around him feel magical and out of his hands, divinely taken care of. But now he felt like he needed it. He needed some sense of substance to the reality of himself. Over the past year, with all the drugs they had fed him and all the danger Doctor Castle had told him was eminent, he felt that Henry Pupp was falling away. The changes in his mother, the coldness and the distance, made it feel as if she was slipping away too. The only thing that remained the same seemed to be his father. He desperately needed some glimpse of what was really him amid all the rubble left over from the past. He needed it for some kind of idea of what to do. How to feel. But there were only the echoes. There was only the fading, changing pieces left over from the slop of blood and tears and the ragged exhaustion of drugs and incarceration. Henry had begun to think, to worry, that this rubble and these pale echoes were all that there was.
Oh baby, it's so good t'hear yr voice.
How y'doin in there?
Alright, I guess. Cain't really sleep much.
They ain't messin with y'too hard, is they?
Naw. It's alright.
I can't wait til y'git home.
It's gonna be a long time.
I know, baby, but don't you worry.
You gonna come visit me?
I will if I can.
Y'can if y'wanna.
Yr daddy says I shouldn.
He says y'need t'do yr time on yr own. Says them boys'll make fun of ya if I come up there.
But I want y't'come visit.
Maybe I will.
I hope y'do, but don't bring pa.
I don't think he'd come no how, Henry.
You jus do what them folks tell ya, an don't cause no trouble.
I mean it, Henry. You'll have t'stay in there longer y'git t'actin up.
I won't ma.
I love you, Henry.
I love you too, momma.
He sat for a minute on the couch facing the television, but his eyes were on her. She sat back in the recliner with her legs propped up on the ledge that came out from the front of it. She had a can of beer in one hand and a long, thin cigarette burning in the other. She didn't even seem to notice he had come in the room. She smoked her cigarette and sipped her beer, made her beer face, and licked her lips.
"I seen y'thar," she said through a cloud of smoke.
"Where y'been all day?"
"I been around, mama. Pa came an took me t'supper."
She turned to him quick and said, "Y'saw yr pa?"
"Yup. Went to th'Red Lantern."
She looked away from the television and around the room like Briar was there and she just hadn't noticed.
"Whatcha do t'yr hand thar," she asked.
"Nothin. Just scraped it up a bit."
Henry felt like he was in a dreamworld. The television put out a blue light that didn't really brighten the room but made it a different kind of dark. His mother sat back in her chair talking to him out of the corner of her mouth. But he felt like he could hide too, like there was two kinds of dark in the room and Henry and his mother existed in each separate from the other. His mother in the blue, false moonlight bubbling out of the television screen and he in a deep black that got pushed back and hid somewhere where waiting could be done. Waiting and bubbling. A dream state of two people in two different worlds all in the same place and the same time. None of that blue television light touched Henry at all, just like his mother's eyes, but it poured all over him just the same. He felt like he could move all around that light she was in and never be touched.
"You still love pa," Henry asked with needles to poke through that bubble.
She didn't answer at first. She drank. Henry guessed that was about the most honest answer he would get. He felt her dark growing and his shrinking back.
"Yeah, I love yr pa," she said absently.
"If he came back t'live here, you'd let'im?"
"Why," she asked taking her eyes away from the screen. "He say he's comin back?"
"Then why y'askin?"
She settled back into her chair.
"You don't want yr pa't'live here?"
She sounded hurt, or maybe unsure.
"He ain't a nice fella, ma."
"Well, he ain't like they is on the TV, but he takes care ya. An me."
She sounded to Henry like she was getting scared, thinking uncomfortable, worried her bubble was thinning out.
"And," she went on, "if he wanted t'come back her t'live, yr damn right I'd let him. It's his house too."
As soon as she said it his head twisted around. All the things his father had ever done came back to him all at once. Every time he hit his ma or he heard him yelling and throwing shit or walking out or coming back drunk and then it wasn't just his daddy but she was a part of it too. Every time she took him back or put ice on his hand after he punched a whole in the wall or tried to put a hole in him or comforted him while Henry went off to bleed in his room. He saw Jim Young leaving all sweaty out the back door. Henry could hear the racket of Briar's truck and smell the stale beer and whiskey and motor oil trapped in it. His hand started to hurt. He could hear the television and smell the cigarettes and Busch Lite and that sweaty old recliner and soon enough his dark wasn't enough. He kicked the coffee table and the magazines and the ashtray fell off onto the floor.
"Goddamnit," she screamed and jumped in her chair.
Henry expected her to get up and whip his ass, but she just sat. Her eyes were big and her thin little cigarette flapped back and forth with her heart. She didn't say a thing. He stood and faced her flat like he was going to come for her. She just sat like a dog who doesn't know if your going to whip it or not.
"YOU JUST GONNA SIT THERE," Henry screamed.
She didn't say anything. Henry felt the dark around him explode and take over the whole room and there was nothing but him and this scared old woman. He wanted her to talk, to cry, to do something to show she saw him. She just sat. A bit of ash fell from the tip of her cigarette.
"YOU JUST SIT THERE AN WATCH YR TELEVISION AN DON'T GIVE A SHIT WHAT HAPPENS, AIN THAT IT!!"
He kicked the table to the side and walked over to the television. She just watched and sank back in her chair. There was a frozen fear in her he had seen in her when his daddy was on her. He felt a sickness in his belly. He felt like he had been punched.
"YOU JUST GONNA SIT," he screamed and grabbed the TV by the sides. He tried to pick it up to throw it but it was too heavy.
"No," she gasped and looked like she was about to get up.
"Fuckin shit," Henry hissed and pushed the TV off its stand. It hit the ground and there was the crackle of glass and a loud, electric pop. The TV was dead.
"Now whatcha gonna do, y'bitch."
The words came out of his mouth and fluttered around the room. There was a powerful fear in both of them and it held them in their spot for an eternity and then the dark came in on them, sucked right up into their skin.
"Ya little shit," she hissed and came up out of her chair.
Henry tried to dodge her, but the television was between his legs and he tripped as she lunged forward and her hand came to his face and helped him to the ground. He stood immediately and planted a fist in her belly and cursed her in some language that had never been spoken before. She screamed and fell and Henry ran. He stopped just at the other side of the kitchen and watched her get up on her shaky legs. "I don ever want that sumbitch t'come back," he shouted, "an you shouldn neither."
He ran back to his room and slammed the door. He waited for her to come and really give it to him, and he would have let her, but she never came. He didn't hear a thing from her until he heard the television come on in her bedroom.