5 years ago
Monday, February 25, 2013
The sun burned through the lazy dimness of the house. Soon it was too hot to sleep. Despite the two cups of coffee, cigarette, and shot of Jim Beam, Briar didn’t have any trouble falling back to sleep, though not for long. Dolly never really rose at all. The cup of coffee she’d asked for still sat on the bedside table. All the steam had risen out of it and the cream had formed a white flower on the surface where two flies had found their death.
Briar’s eyes opened and they burned with sweat. He rubbed them clear and stretched out the pain in his back. He stared up at the spotty, nicotine-stained ceiling of the bedroom and tried to draw a deep breath. His lungs ached from thirty years of Pall Malls, stretching to their maximum at half what they felt they should. He winced at the pain. He knew it was the cigarettes, but thinking of it just made him want a smoke.
Beside him, Dolly snored deeply with the wet crackle of a wad of phlegm caught in her throat. He got out of bed easily as not to wake her. He walked out his aches and pains across the bedroom. The carpet was strewn with dirty laundry and cigarette ashes. He never asked Dolly to clean up, but he wished she would every once in a while. The bathroom was even worse. The washer and dryer were there and in front was a deep, musty pile of clothes whose top layer might get cleaned once a week or so. The toilet and the shower shared the same brown rings which had eaten the bottom end of the plastic shower curtain off into curled, jagged shreds. The walls were swollen, yellowed slabs of drywall with patches of wallpaper clinging and curling here and there. Briar was sure it had been pink at some point.
He pissed into the shallow puddle of water collected at the bottom of the toilet letting the stream drift from side to side to knock off some of the thin, brown film. The room smelled like mold and urine and the thick, candy smell of the open box of laundry soap sitting on top of the dryer. He was struck with the sudden urge to leave. He didn’t want to be here and he wasn’t the kind of man who spent too long lying too himself. He knew it was his duty as a father, but goddamn he didn’t want to do it. His father had been around to set him straight, and he didn’t stick around the house. Sometimes it just pissed him off how he got himself into these situations knowing it would be a mistake.
Briar made his way into the kitchen and found the coffee pot empty. He had emptied the plastic container of JFG making that earlier pot. He went into the bedroom, Dolly still snoring and trying to shield her eyes from the sun with her pillow, and grabbed up her neglected cup of coffee. On the way back through the living room he plucked out the two dead flies and flicked them onto the carpet. In the kitchen he put a small pot on the stove and emptied the cup into it. He turned the eye on high and leaned back against the lip of the sink. His mind was void like only certain individual’s minds can be. Once the coffee started to boil, he skimmed off the cream floating on the surface and poured the rest back into the cup.
He wandered through the house blowing at the steaming cup of twice-made coffee. He stood in the front room staring out the big picture window that looked out into the front yard, the grey/blue scar of road, and beyond that into the neighbor’s yard. He stretched wide trying to work out the last of those aches and pains and was finally able to take down a sip of coffee with a grimace and gagging slightly. He went into the kitchen and killed that with a dollop of Jim Beam. He took another sip and it was better. There was only the slight hint of rancidness under the syrupy sweetness of the sugar and even sweeter sting of the whiskey.
Now there was nothing to be done about it. He was going into the boy’s room. He sipped his coffee in the middle of the room and couldn’t help but be struck by a sense of nostalgia. Not just by the general clutter of the room, or by the musty, lived-in smell, but all of it swirled in together. The random electronic parts spread over the desk reminded him of how there would always be engine parts lying about in pools of grease and gas in the garage as a child. He wondered if Dolly hassled the boy to clean up as his mother had. The pile of clothes under his desk reminded him of the pile that always brimmed out from under his childhood bed, and he thought he could even smell that sweaty, greasy cloud that had permeated everything of Briar’s since he could remember. It gave him a strange, ethereal sense of pride to be able to tell Henry was his father’s child. There were some rough edges he would have to shave off, he thought, but the relaxing, sentimental aura of the room gave him hope. Thinking of his own childhood tendencies, he wondered abruptly where he keeps the magazines.
He checked under the bare mattress, but there was nothing. He set his half-emptied mug on the desk and rifled through the drawer. No tits. No ass. He started to go through the closet, which was in total disarray. It didn't occur to him that he was snooping. It occurred to him that he wasn’t snooping because this was his boy and he had every right be in this room. He dug deeper into the closet through the common detritus of old clothes and shoes and toys he never played with, or had forgotten about long ago. There was a strong smell of isopropyl alcohol and mold that made him want a drink. He was just about ready to give up the search when he found a metal lockbox in the very bottom of the closet. He pulled it out and walked back to the bed and sat there with it. He took another sip of his coffee and the hint of Jim Beam felt good on his throat.
Out in the other end of the house he heard Dolly getting out of bed and he froze for just a second. If she caught him in the boy’s room she’d surely complain. She wouldn’t make him stop, by god, but he’d have to hear her mouth for a bit. Once he heard the shower start up, he relaxed.
The lock on the metal box was busted, picked off judging by the dents and scratches in the tan paint around the hole where the lock should have been, and Briar had only to flip the chrome latch up on the clasp. The lid of the box popped up just a bit from the ill fit of it’s slightly warped frame.
Briar smiled a bit when he opened the box lid. The clutter of the random objects inside reminded him of a similar box he had when he was a child. It was a Tampa Nugget cigar box filled mostly with naked pictures and firecrackers he had stole from his brother along with cigarettes and matches and such. His son’s was different. There were a few strange pieces of jewelry and postcards addressed to people Briar didn’t know. There were matches and lots of those little plastic swords restaurants used to pin down club sandwiches. But buried under all this, set apart by it’s bright green plastic sheath, Briar found something that made his flinch just a bit. A flood of memories came to him, not very good ones, and he had to take another sip of his tepid, laced coffee.
He pulled the plastic square out into the light. It was simple and weightless. It was an inch thick and four inch long box made of transparent, bright green plastic that showed a few plastic pegs inside wrapped in a thin, metal ribbon. It snaked around the little box and protruded one of the corners about a quarter inch through a small slit. Briar flicked it with his thumb and the whole box vibrated with the long, laborious moan that sounded remarkably like a cow. That was, Briar knew, exactly what it was supposed to sound like. It was a part of something much bigger that hurt Briar no matter how much he tried to make it nothing at all. The box had been, at one time, buried in the recesses of a toy he had given Henry when the boy was about five years old.
For a short time, before he had spent his three years in Brushy Mountain, Briar had gotten a good job at DuPont on the maintenance crew, and he was making good money. Sitting on the bed there in his son’s room, holding that little green cube, he remembered that light, joyous feeling that covered him over that day; that big wad of money in his pocket. He remembered how good he felt when the little, freckle-faced girl at the service desk in the grocery store counted it all out to him, in twenties like he asked, in front of all those other folks in line. Walking out of the store and to his truck he thumbed the wrinkled edges of the knot of money with his calloused thumb. He just felt good about it. He had an itch, driving down the highway that day, to go spend some of it. At first, he wanted to get a case of beer; the good stuff. But he knew Dolly’d bitch to high heaven, even though she’d be drinking on it too. Matter of fact, he couldn’t think of one thing he wanted that would elicit some kind of comment from her. Then he saw it. Cutting down the highway in the thunderous racket that was his truck, it popped out of the hillside like a sign from god. EASTGATE MALL... and right there where his eyes just happen to land, right in the center, a toy store. Fortuitous would have been the word to use, had he known it. By the time the idea fully formed in his head, Briar just about missed the off ramp and had to make a quick, jarring cut to the right, through the path of a semi, to make it off the highway.
Briar spent a solid half-hour in the toy store trying to find something for his boy. Once he got in there among all the bright colors and happy music and lights and such he realized he had no idea what he was doing. He had no idea what kind of toy his five year old boy would want. He was about ready to tear the place apart when a heavy set girl with bleach-blonde hair saw him sweating with the typical anxiety and had mercy on him. Ten minutes and 35 dollars later, Briar walked out of the place with a barn yard play set complete with little plastic animals and fences and a door that sounded like a cow when you opened it.
He glided all the way home, cranking his favorite radio station up loud enough that it could be heard over the roaring of the engine. He hooted and hollered and sang along proudly whenever a song come on that he knew. When he presented it to his son, Henry took it, smiling wide and bright, and dashed off to tear open the box, which was almost big enough to fit in himself.
A couple hours later, cracking open a fresh can from the new case in the fridge, Dolly yells from the bedroom, half laughing, “Hey Briar, come take a look at this.”
He walked into the room with a smile on his face. Dolly was tapping the big picture window above the bed lightly with her mauve-colored finger nail and a curled-lip smile twisted against her pudgy cheeks.
“Looka that boy,” she said.
It took a minute for Briar to focus through the beer, but as soon as he could, his smile dropped and his face fell beat red. Out in the back yard, Henry was surrounded by his new toy, a ball peen hammer in his hand. It took Briar a second to figure out what was going on. He could make out the horses and sheep and cows and the little lengths of plastic fences, but what was the angled brown thing over to the side. It was the roof of the barn detached and cast aside. He couldn’t say a word, and Dolly just laughed and giggled and pointed at her little boy. Briar’s eyes were locked on the hammer, his hammer, clutched tight in the boy’s hand. He was smiling and staring into his new toy. It was as if Briar’s mouth was locked and the pressure of his anger and confusion were backing up inside, but when that hammer came down and knocked the sliding barn door off it’s screw hinge and flipped it up in the air in fast, floating loops, there was nothing left to be confused. There was nothing left to keep in. Dolly was still giggling and pointing. As soon as the crackling pop of breaking plastic entered his ears, Briar was unlocked. He flung his hand out colliding with Dolly’s shoulder and she fell onto the bed, her beer spilling out over the rumpled sheets.
“‘At shit ain’t funny,” he yelled and tossed his beer onto the dresser top without spilling a bit.
He turned on his heels and thundered out the bedroom door putting a fist into it though it was wide open. Dolly tried to yell after him, but he was gone. By the time she got up off the bed, the sliding glass door was open and he had the gate kicked open.
Henry didn’t notice his father raging like a fireball across the yard. He hadn’t noticed anything but his own joy. By the time Briar was about halfway across the yard, Henry had managed to dislodge a small green box from the inner frame of his new toy and started flipping a small shard of metal that jutted out from it. He finally saw his father coming toward him, and he held up his discovery like a proud trophy.
“I got it,” he said victoriously. “It goes moooooo...”
His excitement wore off when he saw the rage in his father’s eyes. He slunk back from the open hand, his eyes huge and full of confusion. Briar brought it down hard against the side of the boy while simultaneously slapping away the hammer.
Sitting on the boy’s bed, Briar thought of these things. He flipped the green plastic box around in his hand thinking about how numb he was that day. He knew he kicked the boy, but doesn’t remember exactly what it felt like. The boy tried to run back to the house, but Briar kept him to the ground. The boy would get a few steps then Briar would give him a boot that would send Henry rolling, scooting, trying to escape the next one. He picked the boy up, screaming obscenities and slapping his back like the boy was choking, and threw him into the house through the opened sliding glass door. Dolly protested. He was sure she tried to get between him and the boy, but he must have pushed her away because he remembered opening the door to the boy’s room by pushing the boy through it. His hands were numb slapping at the boy curled up in the far corner of the room. He was sure he didn’t actually punch his son, but just slapped him around. He didn’t even remember exactly what it was he said.
The rest of the memory was gone. It ended somehow, but Briar couldn’t remember how. He hadn’t thought of that day in a long, long time. There had been other beatings for the boy’s own good, and for Briar’s own good, and he never really dwelt on any of them. He probably never would have just like you never think about some piece of advice you give or some argument you had with someone, but he found that little box and why the hell had the boy gone out and got it and kept it?
Briar took another slug of his coffee. It was cold and bitterly astringent, but it wasn’t taste he was drinking it for.
Dolly stepped out of the shower and began to towel off. The hot, humid air of the bathroom had opened up her lungs and a not so healthy spasm of coughing bent her over. Thinking she might throw up, she positioned herself over the toilet, but all that came up were the usual dark wads of phlegm that settled to the bottom of the toilet water and set like tiny explosions frozen in mid-blast.
She straightened herself, and as the water in the air condensed and settled on the mirror over the sink and began to run down it, she began to see thin streaks of herself. She finished drying herself and slipped on her glasses. The image in the mirror was clearer, and a slight look of disgust came over Dolly’s face. Her glasses, though she liked them well enough ten years ago when they were new, had too large lenses and were tinted at the top. She thought they made her nose look pinched and shriveled against a face that seemed too wide.
For some reason she could not quite pin down why she thought of Donnie Henneger, her first “real” boyfriend, when looking at her aging, sagging body. Looking over her darkened, wrinkling skin she thought of that summer. It was the hottest she remembered. Southern summers are hot and sticky and torture for the thickest of skin, so this was saying a lot. All that summer Donnie worked at the Bi-Rite grocery store and Dolly would walk there every day to visit him once her grandmother had gone off to work. She remembered the asphalt of the street being so hot under the sun that she could feel the heat coming up through her tennis shoes and burning the bottoms of her feet. Now, in the bathroom, she stared at her feet. Her toes were pushed in to a point and the thin tracks of bones seemed merely draped in the tissue paper skin. There were liver spots starting to form over them. She ran her hand through her stringy, long hair. With it still wet, she couldn’t see the blonde highlights that bitch fucked up over at SimpleCuts last week. She was thankful for that. She needed a cigarette.
She knew the humid air would bring on another coughing fit, so she went into the bedroom and slid a long, thin cigarette from the pack on the dresser. She lit it with Briar’s zippo.
The mirror on the back of the dresser was bigger than the bathroom mirror. Here she could see all her body at once down to the knees. Oddly, seeing her belly and how it crumpled like wadded-up paper that had been flattened back out right around her bellybutton, she thought of that same summer. She thought of Donnie’s halitosis and the soft, loose skin of the underside of his dick and how nice it felt on her tongue. On her daily visits at his lunch break, he would invariably lead her to the small alleyway behind the store where he always tried to coax her too her knees. He was very smooth and very sweet the whole time, but once his dick was out of his pants he was spastic and clumsy; tried to jam that stubby thing in her mouth like a blind man trying to jam home a key into a lock. She didn’t mind really. It made him happy and made her feel grown up. It didn’t taste bad like she thought it would. He didn't spew out cum in a choking jet like she thought he would. It would just sort of be there like his dick opened up and let it all just fall out. Sometimes it filled her mouth and sometimes it was just a little round dribble that sat nicely in the cup of her tongue until she was ready to spit it out. The thought put a slightly amused smile on her face. She thought of the feeling of his hands on her head and the feeling of gravel digging into her knees. Now her knees were knobby. The skin hung on them and were crisscrossed with pink scars.
These memories made her think of her body way back when. Looking into the mirror she tried to see her fifteen year old tits in the flattened, pendulous things that hung halfway down her stomach at fifty-three. She was so small and thin back then. She could have any boy she wanted, really. She remembered how older men used to stare at her wherever she was. She could get any job she wanted by wearing a pair of tight pants and showing some cleavage. Hell, she passed twelfth-grade english just by letting old Mr. Genholder look up her skirt from time to time from his desk. Whenever she didn’t do her homework, she would be sure to ask for forgiveness as the class was letting out and she was always sure to let her thigh run across his hands which were always clamped tight around the arm of his desk chair. These days, her body wasn’t going to get her shit. Her belly jutted out in a swooping arc, and her arms were flabby and covered in little brown dots too big to be confused for freckles, but her legs were still the skinny old chicken legs she had always had. They looked out of place supporting such a bulbous top end. They looked like they should break trying to support such heft. Seeing how her belly hung over the top of her pubic hair, Dolly decided she had had enough of this. She spat out a cloud of grey smoke and stubbed the cigarette in the glass ashtray sitting on the dresser. She fetched her cotton nightgown from the corner of the bed and went out into the kitchen to make some coffee.
The house was getting hot as the sun was coming out from behind the trees and Dolly immediately thought of all the promises Briar had made to get the window unit fixed. She just had to push her man out of her mind. It did no good to be pissed about him anymore.
There was a small, cold pool of coffee settled in the bottom of the pot sitting on the kitchen counter. She rinsed it out and replaced the filter in the machine when the phone rang. She picked it up from the wall mount.
“Hello,” she said, clearing her throat.
The man on the other end asked for Briar.
“He ain’t here, I don’ thank,” she said turning toward the rest of the house and jumped at the sight of Briar standing in the doorway leading to the front room of the house.
“It’s fr you,” she said, and let the receiver dangle from her finger.
He was wearing nothing but his boxer shorts. As he stepped forward, she could see his prick dangling just behind the front slit that pitched open. She wasn’t too crazy about him being back, but she really didn’t have a say in the matter. Besides, he came back with money and the promise of more to come and he gave her a passable fuck from time to time, so she just kept her mouth shut and went on with her life. None the less she thought he was a lazy, mean old man and waited for the day another young, dumb girl would lead him away. Maybe this next time would be the last time.
“Yep,” Briar said into the receiver.
“Briar Pupp, this’s Donny-Ray.”
“Donny-Ray Wilson, Rita’s brother.”
“Yeah, what can I do ya fr.”
He had only a vague idea of who this man was.
“Well, Briar, I’s talkin t’Jim Brown th’other day an he says you lookin fr work.”
“Guess I am,” he said trying not to sound too interested. “Whatcha got’n mind?”
“Well, I gotta house overn Rossville, offa Bakerton I need gutted good so I can get a crew in tharn getter square.”
“You used up all the coffee,” Dolly barked throwing the empty plastic jug across the stove. Briar waved her off and scowled. He missed what Donny-Ray had said about the job.
“What’s that again,”
“You gonna get s’more,” Dolly asked. She was standing deliberately in front of him with her hands on her hips.
“Justa second, Donny-Ray,” Briar huffed and placed the receiver to his chest.
“I’ll go gitcha s’more coffee inna fuckin minute, goddamnit.”
“Now what was that, Donny-Ray? Sorry,” he said into the phone while plucking a pen from the drawer under the telephone.
“Shouldn take morn a week if y’had a helper. I need’er down t’th’wood. If y’leave the copper put I’ll give a five hunnert.”
“Sounds fair,” he said, and wrote 500 across the palm of his hand. Under that, he wrote COFFEE.
“Whar y’been?” Briar said from under the truck. His legs were sticking out and he was laying on a grease smeared plank of cardboard.
Henry stopped short, surprised, and held fast sliding a bit in the gravel of the drive way. He was struck with the sudden urge to run, but thought better of it.
“Explorin’,” he said instead. “Wen over t’Willard D’s. Juss out I guess.”
“That retarded boy,” Briar asked as he slid himself out from under the truck by his heels.
Henry felt a ping of anger bounce through his body.
“The retarded feller upn th’hill thar,” Briar said as he fumbled around in his shirt pocket for his cigarettes.
“He ain r’tarded,” Henry demanded, getting red faced.
Briar smiled and slipped a cigarette in the corner of his mouth that curled under his red cheeks. “Craziern a shithouse rat,” he said and the cigarette bobbed wildly up and down.
“Ain crazy neither. Yr friends ain geniuses,” Henry said.
“Guess not,” Briar said and lit his smoke.
“I’s lookin fr ya t’day,” he said. He rose to his feet and stomped out his boots.
“What fr?” Henry asked.
“I got some work an I need yr help,” Briar said in a tone that sounded like he expected this to excite the boy. He bent over and wiped his greasy hands in long strokes down the front of his jeans.
“I got plans t’morrow,” Henry said defiantly.
“I ain askin ya, I’m tellin ya,” Briar said through a cloud of cigarette smoke. He stood up straight with his chin out. Had Henry known better, he’d have known this was a dare.
Henry said nothing. He just turned and walked into the house.
That night Henry ate a few bites of corn and potatoes in silence then threw himself into his bedroom. The television had been blasting some game show he never bothered to look up at from his seat on the floor. He pushed his food around his plate taking a bite here and there. In contrast, Briar sat up on the bed and shoveled his food into his mouth packing it in between his curled smiling lips. Dolly sat in her recliner with a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other. She had eaten while cooking for the boys.
Afterwards Henry lay in his bed still steaming over the fact that his plans for the next day were ruined by his father. All his thoughts were clamoring around in his head, all bunched up as if his anger were a brick wall and they were all crashing against it. The result: no coherent thoughts could come to light. Henry’s head was a jumble of snapshot memories and fleeting emotions and all bound up by the tether of the loathing of his father. The stranger. The interloper. That no good son of a bitch. While his brain was twisting and turning trying to grab on to something, anything of the day, his body was paralyzed. It was as if all existence had just slipped up into his head, and everything else was left to rot. Once he took notice of himself he realized he was just lying there like a corpse, his eyes staring through the ceiling and his mouth hanging open and drying against his unbroken breath.
He was lulled into sleep.
When he awoke it was still dark and he was still lying in the same corpselike position on his bed. The sleep had passed in an instant, just enough time for the black to fill his eyes, his muscles to go slack and all other things in the world to slip into a silent hibernation. In his confusion he had the slight impression that he had had a nightmare. Something violent and hectic. It wore on him, in his muscles, in the fogginess of his mind. Something to do with the boy.
The two boys had spent the day together, and Henry was happy for it. Ricky’s presence had helped Henry ease away from the dreadful, unexplainable sadness he had felt in burying the thing in the jar. He never really told Ricky what it was he had buried, but it didn’t seem to matter. Ricky still told him that it was good to bury things and be done with them. It was like putting a dirt wall between you and the thing that died so there was no chance of it coming back, which was what really hurt people and made them sad: wondering if the dead will come back, or wishing they would. A nice dirt wall made sure it wouldn’t happen. Henry stared at the boy in amazement after he had said that, and Ricky had to confess that he hadn’t thought of it himself but that it was something his grandpa had told him when his grandma died and he was very sad.
“You like yr granpa?” Ricky asked immediately after his confession.
“Don really know’em,” Henry said quietly.
The two boys were walking up the wooded hill with nowhere in particular to go. Henry just wanted to get as far away from the grave as he could and Ricky was simply following along.
“I gotta Granny comes around sometimes,” Henry went on, “but she ain very nice and she’s always preachin an I git tired of it.”
“She hitcha,” Ricky asked.
“Naw. She ain mean like that. She jus always sayin how me and m’pa’s goin t’hell an ain no good’n’all. She done wrote a book about how she knowed lotsa people goin t’hell an how she saved’em.”
“She’s a writer, huh?”
“Yeah, sold lotsa books th’way she says it.”
“Maybe ya’ll git rich when she dies ‘r somethin.”
“Naw,” Henry said kicking a rock as he walked, “She done sent us a copy of’er book an wrote on th’inside that’re church was gonna git all th’money an we aught not ‘spect any.”
“That’s shitty,” Ricky said resolutely.
“Yeah, she’s a shitty ol girl.”
Ricky went on to tell about his own grandparent’s and the stories carried the boys up the hill to one of Henry’s favorite spots. The boys talked freely and openly and there was never a spot of contention. As Henry had noticed, there was no darkness between them. There was no vying for space or size, and they were just two people who encompassed the whole world right then.
There was this feeling, this nightmarish feeling as Henry lay in bed. It would not leave him. And worse, it was indistinct. It had no shape or sound, but just a feeling and somehow he knew it had to do with Ricky and Ricky was still up there.
“Where ya gonna stay,” Henry had asked as the sun started to set.
“I don know,” Ricky said, his voice and eyes casting down toward the ground.
Henry didn’t even think about it. It just came out and he didn’t regret it.
“Stay here,” he said with a pop.
Ricky just stared at him. They were sitting on the rounded crown of a lichen-splattered rock at the very top of the hill. You couldn’t really tell it was the top of anything. The trees had thickened and the undergrowth too and the hill just seemed to go on. Henry knew that it would dip down into a valley and into train tracks not too far along, but from the rock, you couldn’t tell.
Henry jumped up to his feet and skittered down the rock.
“Come on,” he said in a very excited voice.
Ricky followed him and the two circled the boulder sticking out of the ground. On the other side, between the boulder and two large oaks that grew like twin baluster, there was a very simple camp. There was a lean-to fashioned out of a canvas tarp and branches with a large swatch of outdoor carpet under it. The tent was tacked up high on the stanchion trees and came down to the base of the boulder. Just on the other side of the trees was a fire pit with a spit over it fashioned from an old grill.
“You can camp out here,” Henry said presenting the camp with widening arms.
Ricky looked silently over the small camp, stooping over a little to look into the tent. Henry saw his apprehension and smiled, for he knew Ricky had not realized the full potential of this place.
“It’s a good camp,” he said optimistically. “I got a bag stashed in that crack in th’rock there. I’ll gitcha a bettern t’mara. Ain nobody gonna know y’up here.”
“That’s cool,” Ricky said meekly, not quite convinced.
“I mean,” Henry went on not letting Ricky’s pessimism perturb him, “I’d letcha stay in m’shed, but m’pa’ll gitcha there. He don't ever come up here, though. I stay up here sometime when I don't wanna be at th’house.
“It’ll be ok,” Ricky said. “I don plenny o’campin before. I like it.”
The boys stayed there all day and Henry left only when he knew he’d get home before dark.
On the bed, in the dark with his body still paralyzed by a strange, formless sleep, he knew Ricky was up there, locked away in the woods, and Henry had that bad feeling. He didn’t think he could wait until morning to go up there, but he wasn’t too keen on traipsing through the woods alone at night either. He was sure he would be able to find the spot, but he wasn’t positive, and he had never tried it before. What would be the point? Was he really going to go running up through the woods because he had a feeling?
Henry tried to force the dream he thought he had into his waking conscious, but there was nothing. Only things from the day before - forced visions - and certainly nothing foreboding or dire. Still, the feeling inside him that burned into his sleepy muscle and bone could not be ignored. He couldn’t turn from it. It was like instinct and instinct had been his saviour on more than one occasion.
Henry just lay in bed. He knew he wasn’t going to go running up that hill in the dark, and he knew he wasn’t going to be sleeping either. That near painful feeling of being awake but still bound by the unquiet sleep hung onto him for what seemed hours. He watched the world outside his room get brighter through the thin slits in the blinds. It felt like a timer, as if he had to have all this confusion sorted out by the time it was light enough outside to make the trip up the hill. Through the brightening though, he felt the imminence of his failure. No matter how hard he tried to give form to his dream, or what could have possibly happened to Ricky during the night, nothing of the jumbled thoughts or wracked body worked out. Soon enough, though hours must have passed, the grey, wet light of morning left him no option. He slid painfully out of bed. He was still dressed. He rounded up some crackers and a block of cheese and a beer out of the refrigerator. He slipped out of the window as quiet as he could with only one thing on his mind. He had to be back by the time his father would be up. Despite the prospect of being late and the wrath that such a thing could incur, Henry didn’t think twice about going. He just went. Instinct. He was very scared.
The sun had not come up but merely teased the earth with a hint of day. The grass and the trees were slathered with a cold grey and the air was magically hovering between water and vapor. There was the sound of cars on the boulevard a solid quarter mile to the east through the woods. The birds and insects sounded timidly, seemingly testing the day before coming out full-force.
Henry squatted in the thick grove of bamboo that grew along the edge of Simpson Drive. He had flung himself from bed this far, but had to rest. His head still swam with the night before. His body still ached. The fear of what he might find up at the top of the hill burned in his chest among the fire of his lungs.
Lights and televisions began to pop to life in the windows of houses as he walked along the street. The vivid, sweeping colors of morning news and cartoons were broken by the hunched silhouettes of people walking out of their sleep. Henry tried to think of these people, normal people, but he could only think of one person. He tried to think of the nightmares these people might have had the night before, but he could only think of one nightmare. He hurried along and finally started his way up the hill through the sparse trees.
He eyed the grave warily. He thought he might actually be able to keep on going without stopping. Then he saw the jar that had been cast aside. He heard a noise he knew was only a bird or animal but made him think long enough to stop, and once he was stopped he was hooked. Caught by a spot of loose dirt upon the earth. He tried to bring up visions and feelings of the thing in the jar, wondered why he had been so attached to the thing that just sat there and rotted and threatened to drive him crazy, succeeded a bit, and fell away from his mind as soon as he thought again of his new friend. Even now, after only a matter of hours of being gone from him, that thing was a memory of long ago. Nothing tangible was left of it within Henry. Even the jar, still lying where it had been cast the day before, was only a dirty glass and not the vessel of a living thing he had taken it to be the day before. He could see the two small indentations by the little grave where his knees had been planted and felt almost embarrassed that he had been caught there by his new friend as if he had been praying for this strange, dead object. He even saw the ruffled swath of ground where he had lain himself out and realized he could not even remember the spell that had put him there. The whole dramatic dead deal was only a malleable memory that he knew would change and flux as he contorted the parts that hurt him most.
Down the hill another car passed along the road and the headlights cut through the burgeoning light of the day. Henry jolted as if he could have been seen. It reminded him of his time constraint and he slowly, reluctantly began to step away from the grave. Something held him there and he figured it was that same something that had mysteriously made that deadish thing mean so much to him. He thought maybe it was the mystery of it. The strangeness of it. Then, finally turning away but needing some sort of finality to move on, he decided no matter what that thing was, it was dangerous and had taken him to a place he did not want to be and it was better left alone. A few more steps and he knew it would not be gone. A few more and only Ricky was on his mind.
He rounded the rock slowly. He wasn’t trying to be quiet or sneaky. He was afraid of what he might find. As he moved along the base of the protruding boulder, his hand drifting over the flaky crust of lichen, his head was filled with all sorts of gory images. Impossible images. He saw the ravaged body left after a bear attack, though there had been no bears around here for ages. He saw his new friend alternately ripped apart and broken up from a beating. He saw him motionless and unscathed accept for the blank death-stare and blueing skin. Oddly enough, he saw him crucified on the branches that made up the tent’s frame. Every gruesome possibility passed through his head. Every situation except the one he found. A boy sleeping, curled up tight under the ratty old sleeping bag and shivering slightly against the lingering cold of the night.
“Come on, boy. Time t’git up.” Briar bellowed from the other side of the door.
The pain of being awoken so suddenly from sleep settled into Henry’s chest. It pinned him to the bed, but he knew he had to get up. The sun was up full now and the birds were not holding back. The airy rasp of traffic on the boulevard was steady now. Henry could smell coffee and cigarettes wafting in from the kitchen. He peeled himself out of bed, the thick shell of too little sleep still on him. He nodded through his teeth brushing and wandered into the kitchen where he was dumbstruck by the sight of his mother cooking.
“Y’bout ready,” Briar said coming out of the bedroom with a cup of coffee in his hand.
“Yeah,” Henry said through the haze. “Lemme git m’shoes on.”
His mother was dropping thin, pale biscuits into a paper bag and sucking on one of her thin cigarettes. She didn’t have a pleased look on her face.
“Well,” Briar said looking over his cooking wife and his son slipping on a ratty old pair of shoes. “ain’t this a family.”
Henry ignored him. He was struggling to get his heel to pass over the back of his shoe. He could, on the other hand, hear something being put into the brown paper bag with a little extra force.
“Anything else you gonna need,” Dolly said with more than a bit of ire.
“Naw,” Briar answered, “I think we need t’be gittin on.”
Henry stood and wiggled into the form of his shoes, and the two walked out of the house.
Dolly watched her two men leave out of the driveway and was overcome by the desire to shout. Right out through the picture window at the front of the house, bust it out, and have it rocket it’s way right into that piece-of-shit truck and kill him. Fuck him, she thought. Goddamnit.
She woke up when Henry came through the window. She was so accustom to the sound that it never made her think that maybe someone was breaking in. She wondered if he had been out all night. She thought maybe he had met a girl and was sneaking out to see her. She didn’t really care as long as he didn’t bring a baby home. Beside her Briar snored and stank. For some reason it really bothered her today. It was the dream. Dreaming about Harlen always put her in a fowl mood. It wasn’t her fault, they way she felt, not wanting them to ever come home. It was a shitty morning.
She didn’t remember all that much about the dream. It was always different about Harlen, but in some ways always the same. It was always violent, and she always woke up with that tight, hard pain in her chest. In this dream, she was running. Harlen was in his truck. She could hear it, but not see it. She remembered repeating to herself to not stop running. She didn’t know what was going to happen, but she just knew she could not stop running. Then she was awake because Briar had shaken her, and that painful fear was in her chest. After a minute she was able to calm a bit, because there was nothing to fear anymore. Nothing to fear from Harlen anymore.
Briar wasn’t necessarily riled. He wasn’t pissed. He was in a hurry. He kept yelling out from the bathroom, “You up yet,” and she had no idea what she was supposed to get up for. Her chest hurt and her head was still swimming from the dream, though it was receding from her memory faster and faster. At first she didn’t really even pay attention to what Briar was doing. She remembered that he was going out to do some sort of work. She didn’t think much of that, but soon enough, as her own grogginess faded and was forcefully replaced by the growing agitation in the bathroom, there wasn’t much else she could think of.
“Y’up yet,” Briar said again coming out of the bathroom and setting himself beside her on the bed. He started to put his shoes on.
“I jus woke up,” Dolly hissed.
“Well, come on. I gotta go soon.”
“Why I gotta get up,” Dolly asked.
“I need ya t’fix some lunch fr th’boy an me.”
“We gotta eat, don’ we? Fix some biscuits ‘r somethin.”
It wasn’t that they sounded alike, Harlen and Briar, but it was something in his voice. It was something in his smell and the heat coming off his body. She was transported back to that time and that place. She knew what would happen. She knew it would happen this time, though it didn’t all the time. There was just something in the air that she had felt too many times to deny. But she said it anyway.
“Fix’em yr fuckin self."
Her voice was flat and even and didn’t waiver a bit.
At first, Briar didn’t say a thing. He stopped putting on his socks and there was a slight twitch somewhere in his body that Dolly could feel in the bed springs, but he didn’t say or do anything.
Briar’s hand flew back, open and fast, and the backs of his rigid fingers landed square against the side of her head. A knuckle knocked the ridge between her temple and her eye. The pain flew threw her face and a small, hard rush of air escaped her lips. The room was silent. Dolly had to strain to keep the pain and the fear from making her sob. She swallowed the panic and it sat hard in her gut. Briar stood and she rolled away from him in the bed. Before he left the room he turned back to look at her and she looked at him. Her face was blank and timid. Briar’s curled in toward the center of his face like a child that wasn’t getting it’s way.
“Now I ain’t askin,” he said and stepped from the room.
She rose out of bed and put on her nightgown. The pain in her face subsided, but the anger didn’t. It made her numb and kept her quiet. Her thoughts were low and pointed. Fuck him. She did what she was told.
Now, alone in the house, her house, she was ashamed of herself. Why had she just let him? With all the power she knew she had, why had she let him hit her like that? Let him talk to her like that? Harlen had done the same kind of shit, and he had paid. When would Briar pay? How much more could she take?
The truck rattled down the boulevard, it's monstrous roar echoing off the steadily thickening traffic. The sun gripped every available surface and began warming it against the unseasonable cool in the air. The dingy grey of the morning had burnt away and the azure lingering behind it shown brilliantly now.
Henry sat up leaning against the passenger door trying to ignore his father. Briar could see what was going on. He didn't quite know what to do and wasn't all that sure he should do anything. When it came down to it, he really didn't care if the boy spoke a word. He'd had enough bullshit this morning. He just wanted to do some work and get paid.
Up ahead, Briar could see the sign for the Orange Hut Diner poking out over the highway and got a powerful craving for some bacon and eggs.
"Y'hungry boy?" he asked over the din of the engine, never taking his eyes off the orange and white painted sign that swung slightly in the morning breeze.
When he didn't hear an answer, he turned to Henry. He saw the look in his boy's eyes and the curl in his lip.
"I ast you's hungry, y'hear?"
Henry turned to Briar with drowsy eyes and shrugged. His lips moved like he had said something, but Briar couldn't hear it. Briar turned into the parking lot of the diner anyway and the truck jounced into a space as the engine sputtered to a labored stop.
"Come on, gitcha some breakfast," he said as he slid down out of the truck.
Henry rolled his eyes and unlatched the truck door and slid out and followed his father into the diner.
As soon as he opened the door, Briar let his nose fill with the familiar smell of burned eggs and bacon fat. The same old AM country station was playing and even that same old Conway Twitty song that annoyed Henry so much was playing over the dying speakers planted somewhere out of site.
"Hidy, Briar," the woman behind the counter said as soon as she had seen him.
"How ya doin, Tammy?"
His normal step seemed to magically transform into a swagger as if the swelling of his chest had added weight and he was straining to bear the load. His arms floated up a bit as if he was having trouble keeping them to his side. His walk got slower, his legs sweeping wider and wider. Finally, he extended his hand and Henry peered around him to see who he offered it to.
Shit, Henry thought to himself when he saw Darryl Smith sitting on the very last bar stool, easing away from a plate of eggs and grits to shake his father's hand.
"Howya, Darl," Briar said squeezing Darryl's hand in his and slapping his back with the other.
"Doin fine, Briar. Jus fine."
Darryl and Briar were hometown boys. They had always lived here in town and always would. Everybody knew them, feared them a bit, and there was always competition to see just who was the biggest rooster.
"Gone find y'seat," Briar said to Henry, and Henry went on to get a booth in the back of the room.
"Howya doin, Henry," Darryl said as Henry tried to slip by.
Darryl had a peculiar way of smiling. His upper lip jacked up against his nose as his nostrils flared and crumpled up the rest of his nose. And just so slightly his eyes seemed to cross as if a fly had landed right between them. He looked like a cartoon mouse sniffing out some cheese.
"I'm fine," Henry said, keeping his distance. Darryl had the annoying habit of clasping onto Henry's shoulder and squeezing until he thought something was going to break.
Henry made a quick bolt for the back of the restaurant.
Darryl shook his head as the boy trotted off, and he turned his attention back to Briar.
"When you gonna come work fr me," he said.
Briar felt the heat rise in his face and was overcome with the urge to push a fist through Darryl's face. He felt that urge quite often. Darryl owned a roofing company right beside the diner. In a place full of retired old men and high school dropouts, he was the most successful person in the room and he took every opportunity to make sure everyone knew about it. That included offering the notoriously unemployed Briar Pupp a job every time he saw him.
"Naw, Darl, I got about all the work I can take right now," Briar said, trying to keep his cool.
Briar slipped into the booth where he found Henry fiddling with his straw. Tammy had already brought him a sprite and he was sipping bits off the top of the cup. The front of the diner was all glass and white formica and full of light, but in the back, as you passed the bathrooms, the glass and plastic turned into a peeling wood paneling darkened by years of cigarette smoke and bacon grease. The only windows were small squares of plexiglass too high up on the wall for anyone to take the time to clean. What light they let in was soaked up by the walls and dark red booths. At the far end of the room there was a false wall made out of pressboard lattice work backed by thin plywood. Behind it was a slight blue glow and the staccato, repeated tap of plastic buttons coming from a small room jammed full of six video poker machines fronted by tall padded stools. The crowded little room was nearly always full with retired and unemployed folks pumping in dollar after dollar in an effort to make a few bucks. Tennessee didn't have a lottery, but they had Annette's poker machines. She payed cash out the back door.
Briar lit up a cigarette and started to say something when Tammy stuck her head around the corner.
"Y'ont some coffee, Briar," She asked. Her voice was high-pitched and sounded youthful and innocent.
"Yeah, gimme a cup," he answered without looking and she set a steaming mug in front of him along with four singlets of half and half.
"Y'ready t'do some work, boy," Briar asked.
"Yeah. You'll git t'break some shit. You'll love it."
Henry gave a perfunctory smile and focused his eyes on some faraway place somewhere between himself and the wall. He ran his fingers across the table. They slid slow and easy across the greasy formica forming strings of dirt that he then flicked off onto the floor. He looked up to see Briar staring at him and tapping just as aloofly at the rim of his coffee cup, his mouth fidgeting between smile and grimace.
Briar slouched back in his seat and pulled long on his cigarette. He knew his son hated him. He could see it in his eyes and the way his body twitched whenever he spoke. Then he thought to himself what he usually thought whenever his mind breached these hard, sad waters. Interestingly enough the thought always came to him in his own father's voice. He thought, He don't hafta like me. He's just gotta respect me, an he's gotta learn from me. And then he thought of something else that always came in his father's voice, for he could remember hearing his father say it countless times. I ain't here t'be yr friend. I'm here t'be yr father. Briar thought how curious it was that those words never brought him comfort when he was a child in his father's house, and it never made sense or helped him to understand, but now it was his reasoning whenever he saw his son's hatred for him. He thought of these words, his father's words made his own in some lost, indiscernible time and saw them as a great, logical answer. It wasn't so much that they made any sense or eased any kind of pain. They were hard, unforgiving words that, if anything, made the pain of being father/son even worse. But they solved the problem. They put father and son in their place and relieved the question of just who was in charge, who's word was to be followed. They just made things easier.
Briar's thoughts drifted from his father's words to the man himself. As his cigarette got shorter and began to heat up his fingers, a vision of the Delbert Pupp formed in Briar's mind. He could see the old, feeble, creased face of his father as it looked before he died. But hidden inside it and totally independent of it in a way that could only be formulated in the mind and never translated outside it, Briar could see the younger man. He could see his black hair shiny and wet with tonic sitting straight and tight against his head and how it came to a slightly off center peak in the middle of his forehead. He could see the high cheekbones and the sun-stiffened skin pulled tight over them and the barely formed wrinkles that would deepen in the years to come. He could see those coal-black eyes. They were large and deep set. You couldn't tell where the iris ended and the pupil began as if they were always dilated. It gave him a wild, on-edge look that made anyone he was looking at on edge themselves. As he took another pull from his cigarette and felt the heat against the tips of his two fingers, Briar thought of his father's hands. He could see the strong, wiry fingers with their bulging veins and scarred knuckles and the way the fingernails curved down against the tips from too many bashes from a hammer or a wrench. At the same time he saw them twisted and knotted with arthritis. The tips of his middle and index fingers on his right hand were stained a dingy yellow from a lifetime of hand rolled Prince Albert. He saw Delbert's strong thighs and the flabby ones, the strong straight back within the slightly sloped one. In all these different versions of his father as the years knotted and curled him and cut deep in his skin, Briar never saw the worry on his face that Briar himself felt whenever he saw the look in Henry's eyes. He wondered if Henry could see it on his. Did it show at all? He tried to harden himself against what he felt. He did it with those words echoing through his head: I aint here t'be yr friend... and it was almost a physical sensation of being pulled up out of his worry and his nervousness. Once he got that steel in his vein, once he felt that heat and let it run out over his body, he could be his father, straight and strong, and teach his boy how to be a man.
The mental image of Delbert Pupp faded once Briar heard Tammy set his coffee in front of him. He reflexively stubbed out his cigarette in the little tin ashtray and readjusted himself in the booth.
"Whatcha wanna eat, boy," He said to Henry who had sat up straight himself. Tammy set down a couple more half and half singlets beside the steaming cup of coffee and pulled the green ticket book from the back pocket of her tight jeans.
"Pancakes and hash browns," Henry asked looking at Briar.
Briar simply waved his hand in agreement and said, "I'll hava coupla eggs sunnyside up and some bacon."
Tammy jotted down the order and smiled at them both as she walked away. Neither Briar nor Henry saw the other watching her walk and jiggle in her jeans.
"So, boy, whose yr new friend," Briar asked turning away from Tammy's ass and lifting his coffee.
Henry took a nervous sip of his soda.
Briar smiled at his son's nervousness, and then let his brow curl and he showed a little teeth.
"Th'boy you let bed down m'shed. Yr new friend."
"Oh," Henry said and tried to think of some sort of lie. "His name's Dicky. He's jus new in town."
"Dicky, huh? Why's'ee sleepin in m'shed? Wars'is parnts?"
"Oh, um, he jus got'n a fight with'is brother. He's gone home now."
"Yeah," Briar said. He looked long at his son and had the faint idea that he was lying to him.
"He r'tarded like that othern y'hang out with?"
Briar could see the anger come up in Henry's face. He could tell the boy was searching for something to say, but there was some fear back there in what might happen.
"I ain got no r'tarded friend, pa. I don told ya, Willard-"
"Oh yeah, Willard. Mike Peevey told me he's dummerna rock. Went t'school with'im and he used t'stink t'high heaven. Ol Mike said he-"
"Mike Peevey's fulla shit! If anybody's retarded its that old coot."
Henry stared hard into his silent father's eyes. He was pissed enough not to flinch no matter what kind of fear filled him now.
Briar didn't know what to think right off. He was surprised at the boy but knew he should do something about the cursing and talking back. But neither one of them really had time to react at all, for as soon as it had been said, there was a round of laughter that rang out from behind the false wall across the room and both Henry and Briar looked over with confused faces. The laughter clamored into a small cacophony of smoker's cough and then, from around the edge of the false wall stepped Mike Peevey himself.
"Shit," Henry whispered quietly.
Briar straightened himself.
Mike Peevey was a short man with a tight, distended belly swollen with beer and bad food. His hair was short and prematurely grey and along the left side of his head, ragged, reddened scars cut lines in his hair. The scars fanned out from a central pit on his cheek. His wife had shot at him in the face with a 20 gauge shotgun loaded with birdshot for coming home late, drunk, and on her birthday. She wasn't too sober herself, so the wall caught the brunt of the blast, but the point was made.
"Fulla shit, huh," Mike Peevey said coming toward the table.
"Calm down, Mike," Briar said.
Henry tensed and slid back just as far as he could in the booth.
At first Briar thought he would just say something shitty and go on. He'd be surprised if he didn't. After all, all those boys in the back room heard what Henry said, and after being shot at by his wife and being caught driving drunk so many times he couldn't drive any more (and that is quite a feat in this town not to mention he was a truck driver by trade), ol Mike Peevey had to save any bit of dignity he could scrounge up. Once he had crossed halfway across the dining room Briar could see Mike wasn't slowing at all. The red was getting deeper in his face. His look was getting meaner. Henry couldn't get any further back in the booth. Briar rose up out of his to meet Mike just a few steps away from the table.
"Now hold on, Mike," Briar said, trying to keep calm and unmoved.
Mike didn't step aside or slow a bit. He seemed aimed to walk straight through Briar to get at the kid. At the last minute, Briar put out a stiff hand that landed square into the middle of Mike's chest. He stopped and seemed to see Briar for the first time. His look was confused and wild. He was trying to think of what to do.
"Y'better teach that boy some manners, Briar, er I'm gonna," he said.
"Don'tchu go at m'boy like that, Mike. I ain't gonna letcha on'im."
"I ain't gonna stand no talk like that, Briar. I mean it." He tried to step around Briar and got a quick look at Henry's fearful face. It seemed to invigorate him and he tried a third time to get around Briar's hand.
Briar grabbed his shoulder and put him right in front of him.
"N'calm down, Mike. He didn mean nothin by't."
By this time, the other men from the back room had come out to see Mike and Briar square off. Nobody from up front had seem to notice what was going on despite how loud Mike was talking.
"I'm tired o'people shit-talkin me, Briar. I ain't gonna stand fr it," Mike said and tried to slip around Briar once again.
Briar felt his hands slip from Mike's shoulders and thought for a minute he would get past. Out of reflex, Briar balled up his fist and pushed it hard into Mike's gut. His belly was hard, like a rubber ball overfilled with air, and Briar felt a sharp pain run up his arm. Mike heaved over and braced himself in Briar's arms. The men behind him found it hard to stifle a laugh.
"N'goddamnit, Mike. You ain't gonna git at m'boy. I'll beatcha right here in fronta everbody for I letcha touch'im, y'understand."
Now a few of the folks from up front had come around to the back to see just what was going on. Darryl slid through to the front of the group just in time to see Mike land a punch across Briar's chin.
"Oh goddamn," Darryl said as Briar stumbled back a step. "Ain't as fast as'ee use'ta be, huh?" Darryl elbowed Tammy, who stood next to him and she scowled.
Briar steadied himself against the table. Henry reached out to help him stay on his feet, and Briar swatted back at him to keep him away.
"Goddamnit, Mike," Briar said wiping away a small trickle of blood that oozed out of his lip, "I ain't gonna take it easy on ya like yr wife did."
Tammy instinctively stepped forward to try and break up the fight. She had the sort of pissed off look a woman only gets from years of working in bars with these boys late at night. Darryl grabbed her by the arm to stop her. She looked back at him with an even harder scowl and he just gave her that moronic smile.
Briar stepped forward and Mike took another swing at him. This time Briar was ready for it and dodged it. Once Mike took a step back and Briar could see the fear in his eyes, he made his move. He made three quick jabs with his fist that dotted the side of Mike's head. Three bulbous welts raised almost immediately. Once again Darryl had to restrain Tammy. Briar stood ready for Mike to take another swing but he only lunged forward. Briar lashed out with another punch that landed solidly in Mike's stomach. It gave such a hard, thick sound that people in the crowd visibly cringed from it. Mike dropped to his knees and then bent over on his hands trying to catch his breath.
Briar stepped out of the way, toward the crowd, and Tammy stepped over to him.
"Aww," Darryl said, "he's alright. It's justa lil' blood now. He's a big boy."
"Keep it up," Briar said wiping away the blood, "an I'll whip yr ass too."
Darryl stepped in close to Briar and their eyes locked.
"Try it, old man," Darryl said.
Briar was ready for another fight, his muscles relaxing and his fingers curling when Tammy cried, "Henry honey?"
Both Briar and Darryl turned toward the booth expecting to see Henry sitting where he had been. Instead, he was standing in front of Mike, who was knelt on the floor with his hands on his thighs holding him upright as still as possible but trying not to fall onto the steak knife Henry was holding pointed at his throat.
"Henry," Briar said in an uncustomary meek voice.
The boy didn't move. A small drop of blood rolled down Mike's neck.
"Boy, put that fuckin knife down," Briar said trying to get into the boy's head. He could tell Henry wasn't there.
"Henry," he shouted, and Henry jumped.
The knife opened up a small slit along Mike's throat. It wasn't much more than a scratch, and just a few little droplets of blood welled up to the surface, but everyone jumped.
Henry looked up at his father and saw the stunned look in his eyes. Those eyes relaxed and Henry saw a faint smile curl up his lips. Mike had relaxed just a bit and put his head down. Without even looking away from Briar, Henry kicked Mike in the stomach. His hands slipped down off his thighs and he had to catch himself before he fell face-first into the floor.
"Henry," Briar growled.
Mike was on his hands and knees just in front of Henry who looked down at him then back up at Briar. A wide, childish grin spread across Henry's face. He looked back down at Mike and kicked again. This time the end of his shoe bashed into Mike's mouth. Immediately blood jetted out onto the floor pock marked by the jagged edges of broken, yellow teeth. Henry kicked again into Mike's chin. Mike tried to scream but there was just the low gurgle of blood and spit and Mike fell to the ground. Henry would have kicked again, but Briar had grabbed him and started walking toward the front of the diner.
"Got damn, boy," Briar said.
The truck sped along the boulevard roaring against the morning. The sun was high in the sky and there were no clouds.
"Y'laid that boy plumb out," Briar went on.
Henry stared down into the floorboard of the truck at the wet tip of his shoes. There was blood splattered up his leg to his knee; bright red and already drying to a crust around the edges.
"We'll be lucky he don't show up at th'house with'is brothers, but damn you licked'em good."
The rough riding truck jostled the boy in his seat, but his gaze never left his foot.
"Don't worry about ol Mike, though. I can handle him."
The truck pulled to stop at a red light and the roar of the engine dulled a bit.
"I wanna go back," Henry said quietly.
At first he thought Briar hadn't heard him, but finally he said, "What?"
"I wanna go back."
"Where," Briar said. "Home?"
"Naw. Back t'th'restaurant."
"Th'fuck you talkin about, boy? We cain't go back."
"I wanna say I'm sorry."
From behind them a car honked it's horn for Briar to take the green light. He waved them off and then threw the truck into gear and went.
"Yeah," Henry said looking up at his father in disbelief. "I didn't mean to hurt him that bad."
Briar looked at his boy with huge, befuddled eyes.
"Got damn, boy," he said. "You cain't whup a boy like that and go back and say yr sorry!"
"Hell, Henry, that's juss common fuckin' sense. Y'disrespect th'man. Hell, y'be doin th'same t'yrself."
Henry looked down to his shoe again and kept quiet. He didn't understand and he had the feeling that he never would.
"And doncha say nothin t'yr ma 'bout this neither," Briar said opening the engine up as he pulled onto the highway.
The house was a squat, rundown box set between two larger remodeled houses with bright green lawns and light blue for sale signs. It seemed as if all the dirt and dust and age of the two flanks had run off and settled between them in the form of a hut. The yard, nothing more than a 20x10 patch of dirt, sloped toward the front sidewalk and years of neglect and run off had left it hard and washboarded. Briar pulled the truck up in front, the big tires chirping off the curb.
"Well, let's go take a look," Briar said slapping the shifter into neutral and giving the parking brake a yank.
The empty house magnified and echoed their footsteps. The carpet had been pulled up and they walked across the dingy, stained remanence of old glue and rotting wood. The wallpaper drooped in ragged strips from the drywall underneath. Briar wrinkled his nose at the brown and black spots of dead cockroaches. He walked from room to room nodding his head ceiling to floor with a look of disgust tinged with slight approval at a job he could get done and paid for with relatively little hassle.
Henry followed behind his father with a blank, downcast expression on his face. Briar looked back at him every now and then. He tempered those small pinpricks of sadness for his son with a well-practiced disgust for his weakness. Had he handed out such a vicious beating, especially as a kid to an adult like Mike, he would have been shaking with excitement. He would have exploded with the delight of his own strength. What was wrong with his boy that he wouldn't be the same way? The only thing he could give the boy was a quick, unequivocal scowl he never noticed anyway.
"We gonna be able to lick this one purty quick," Briar said as if oblivious to his son's torment in order to wake him up, to change his mind and get him going.
Henry simply nodded his head without looking up. Briar wanted to slap him, but decided not to. Instead he walked back out to the truck, pulled two sledgehammers out of the bed and went back into the house putting one head down at the boy's feet.
"G'on," Briar said, "take it up. We're here t'work, not pout."
Briar felt cheated, almost. He wanted to be proud of his son, but the boy wouldn't let him. The boy had stood up for himself. He went after somebody who actually deserved it, sort of. He wanted to tell the boy it didn't matter how much trouble it caused. No one was going to call the police. There might be a fight on down the road, but nothing legal. He should feel good about it. People would look on him different now. That's how you got respect. But the boy just wouldn't let him. He just wanted to pout and feel sorry for that son of a bitch he just whooped up on. The man was threatening him, for Christ's sake. It amazed him that his son had got to be as old as he was and hadn't figured these things out.
Henry wrapped his hand around the butt of the sledge and looked up at Briar.
"G'on," Briar repeated, but Henry just stared up at him like he was being talked into something he wasn't sure he wanted to do.
Briar picked up his sledge, and tapped the separating seam of the drywall with his free hand.
"See that," he said, and Henry nodded.
"Don hit thar. That's th'stud'n we just wanna take down th'drywall. Y'gotta hit b'side it."
To illustrate his point, Briar heaved back with the sledge and sent it through the wall. Henry smiled a bit, albeit nervously.
"Thought y'd like that," Briar said and nodded toward the wall.
Henry picked up his sledge and heaved it back. Briar gave him one more approving nod, and he bashed his own hole in the rotting drywall.
"Wooooo," Briar squealed and took a one-armed, hooked swipe at the wall to bring the rest of the panel of drywall crumbling to the floor. "Feel good, don it?"
Henry shrugged, the residue of his confusion and sadness still hanging about, but he couldn't pull the smile off his face. He let the sledgehammer rest on the ground.
"Hell no, boy. We gotta take all them walls."
Briar could see a spark ignite in the boy's eyes and he started to tilt the handle of the sledge back and forth.
"You get on that'n and I'll take out this othern," Briar motioning to opposite walls of the room. "Ever gits his wall down first gits t'watch the othern clean up."
Henry took up his sledge and heaved it full-force into the wall before him and almost lost the hammer in the crumbling drywall. The head went through the opposite wall and got wrapped up in some wiring. He jerked the sledge back out and stood a minute thinking surely he had done wrong by pulling out the wiring. He jumped at the crash behind him and saw Briar had his first section of drywall nearly down. Henry forgot about the wiring and went back to his demolition. The two answered each other swing for swing. Henry soon forgot all about his father, swinging wildly into the rotting wall pulling out it's multicolored innards with the heavy sledge. Grunting wildly together they traded licks to the wall in front of them. Henry would hear the metallic tang of his father's hammer striking solid and he would tear wildly through his wall wanting to hear a tang of his own. He wanted to feel the stinging vibration of the sledge hitting something too solid for it to tear apart. His mouth became coated in drywall dust and it clung to his skin. He spit cloudy globs into the breached walls. Even the sweat that ran off of him in a torrent was cloudy white. He pulled up the collar of his shirt around his nose and when it wouldn't stay put he took the shirt off and tied it around his face and Briar followed suit. Before long just busting up the drywall wasn't enough and he tried hard to bring out as much wiring and piping as he could. Anything not wood was his victim.
Within the hour the front room, the largest in the house, was cleared of it's dilapidated plastering. To Briar's surprise only one wooden beam had been cracked by one of Henry's wild swings. The boy sat in the corner of the room panting and massaging a soar bicep. Both had forgot about the contest.
When Briar cracked a beer at noon he didn't think twice about handing one over to his fifteen year old son. To him, then, they mauled their way through half a day of work and the beer would help relax their sore bodies. The front room was gutted and the kitchen was well on it's way.
"Ain't no shame in whatcha done this mornin, boy," Briar said at half-beer.
Henry looked back down at his feet like before and let the red, white and blue can go slack in his hand. The blood on his shoe was covered in white and brown dust. The blood itself was all but visible. He shrugged.
"Ain't no shame in a man protectin himself."
Henry wasn't sure that was what he had done. He sipped his beer.
"That whatcha done t'that feller in school?"
Henry looked up at his father. It was the first time he had mentioned his fight with Albert King. A tiny sizzle of fear came up in his skin.
"I guess so," Henry said.
"Guess it was a long time comin, though."
"I knowed his daddy growin up. They's a bunch o'mean sumbitches."
"I hurt'm purty bad."
"Shit," Briar said through a grin. "I betcha did."
"It ain funny."
"Don't git yr panties in a wad, boy. I ain sayin its funny. I just know you can whip some ass when y'git pissed is all.
The two were sitting on the front porch of the house eating the biscuits Dolly had made them that morning and washing them down with cold beers Briar had brought along. It impressed Henry how much better beer tasted when he was hot and sweaty and sore.
"I ain so sure its a good thing," he said though he liked the fact that his father thought he was tough.
"How y'mean," Briar asked.
"Ain so sure fightin good's a good thing. Seems t'cause a lot of trouble."
"Boy," Briar said in all earnestness, "look at me."
Henry turned to him and both took a swallow from their cans simultaneously, pulled back the corners of their mouths against the cold and the bitterness and wiped their dirty faces with the backs of their hands.
"There's always gonna be trouble," Briar went on pensively. "Y'always gonna have to fight. I don't care watcha do there's always gonna be somebody in yr way or tryin t'take whatcha got and yr gonna have t'fight."
Henry nodded, though inside he tried to refute such an idea.
"Whatcha think happens t'a'feller caint fight or decides he ain gonna fight?"
Henry shrugged his shoulders and sipped at his empty can and then crushed into a warped hourglass.
"Well," Briar said as if he was just then searching for the answer. "They turn out like ol Mike Peevey there. You rather been on th'ground bleedin this mornin?"
"Huh," Briar asked elbowing the boy.
"Damn right y'don wanna. You fight and y'fight back. Ain no shame in that. Ain nothin wrong with it."
Briar pulled the last bit of beer from the can and crushed it and tossed it into the yard.
"Come on," Briar said pushing himself up onto his feet. "Let's git this kitchen knocked out and I'll take y'on over t'Mike's house and you can tell'im yr sorry."
They both laughed.
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