THE WINTER SOLSTICE
We called it a phase, no different than his CB Radio, his three seasons’ allegiance to the Buffalo Bills, my gambling, or Mallory’s drinking. Back when Mallory and I squabbled dawn to dawn, I pinned it on him never feeling at home anywhere except that two foot rectangle between his bed and his computer, the only part of his room he kept clean.
Late on the last night we lived together, I went from staring at my ceiling to staring at my pillow and back again. Mallory couldn’t rest if I’d fallen asleep before she did—I’m a relentless snorer—and I’d set my internal clock around her. That night, she wasn’t home, but my schedule is set. Then I remembered the news saying tonight was a full lunar eclipse that would be visible around two A.M.—the first Lunar Eclipse on the Winter Solstice since Jesus times.
EJ answered on the third knock, looking annoyed that I’d interrupted his time on his computer. I thought he’d spit his fangs at me, but when I explained the miracle occurring above our heads, he shrugged and followed me downstairs.
“You hungry?” I said. “I can whip you up a sandwich.”
He shook his head.
“I may have a drink. It’ll make a liar of my World’s Greatest Dad mug, but if you don’t tell, I’ll add another five years to your age and make you legal.” I’d taken to keeping a bottle of scotch on top of the refrigerator as a semi-sweet fuck-you to Mallory. As in, ‘Look, I can have a drink like a grown up and not run to a midnight meeting with a bunch of cookie eating Christians.‘ But also sweet because I meant it to remind her of the good times.
“No, Dad,” EJ said. “I just want to see the eclipse.”
I took a sniff of my scotch and followed the boy out to our porch. By the time I stepped outside, he was laughing, totally unguarded.
“Look.” He pointed to the sky. “There it is.”
It was a cloudy night, and I couldn’t see a star. Then I got the joke. “It’s magical,” I said. “Everything I dreamed.”
“Can you believe we have to wait another two thousand years?” He snatched my scotch and took a quick sip, really no more than putting the rim of the glass to his lips. He didn’t drink, but he wanted to share something with me and against his mother.
I risked a joke. “You know what a lunar eclipse is, right? The sun passing before the moon.” I took a gulp and let it settle between my teeth. “You sure should be looking at it? I wouldn’t want you turn into ash.”
“Yeah.” He tried to laugh, but I’d overreached. “I’m going to turn in.”
“There’s an eclipse. A big useless miracle.”
“I have a game to get to.”
“Game? Don’t you have class tomorrow.”
“Winter break,” he said. “I was off today too.”
“Right,” I said. “I knew, I just forgot. What sort of game?”
He smiled and walked past me. After another minute of sky-gazing, I went inside, took off my slippers, and sat at the table to finish my drink. He’d done this for eight months now. First, he wore dark clothes and red makeup, which is embarrassing, but if he never wants to see a pair of nipples aside from his own, it’s not my concern. Then he spoke with a slight Irish twang—you only heard it on words with long E’s or TH’s but still. Finally he wore a mouth-guard with fangs and called himself a vampire. A phase, I said. A phase.
I fell asleep at the kitchen table and woke up with the sun draped over me. Mallory was making coffee, and it sounded like she was frying an egg.
“Couldn’t make it to the bed?”
“I had to show EJ something.”
She opened the refrigerator, studied it, and slammed the door. “That’s not his name anymore. You know that.”
I put my hands over my eyes and tried to blink myself back to awareness. “You just now getting in?”
“I found an Apartment in Newirth. It’s cheap, an okay neighborhood.”
“Where’s he?” I pointed at the kid’s room.
“Talk to me,” she said. “This is real.”
I rapped my knuckles on the kitchen table. “That coffee ready?”
“It’s rent controlled, month to month lease. You go or I go, but I’ll sue if I have to. I’ll bring up your brother, Atlantic City, everything.”
“All right,” I said. “So go.”
We compromised. For about an hour, I was prepared to be as big a son of a bitch as she figured me to be, but she threatened me with EJ. It was bullshit, but why bring a kid into a fight? He’s seen us bicker, accuse each other of all kinds of marauding, seen her throw a closed jar of pickles at my face, seen me shake her until her eyes went white. He’d seen worse than what lawyers could show him, but why rub his nose in it?
So I moved to the apartment for the weeks, and she moved there for the weekends. EJ stayed put so as not to mess up his patterns, which were the patterns of staying in front of his computer and staying a weirdo. But sometimes you love a weirdo.
The first weekend, she took him to Greensboro for Christmas, and the second weekend it was a New Year’s party at her sister’s. By the time I gave him his Christmas present, it was January third, and while he liked what I got him—a bloody video game I’d heard people complain about on the news—I’d forgotten to peel off the sticker, so he saw I’d bought it on an after-Christmas deal at Wal-Mart.
My apartment had plenty of space. Through the windows, you could see into your neighbors’ living rooms, and they could see into yours. It was closer to my business partner Dale Solznick’s house so our meetings became easier, even on the days he had to grab a shift at the bike store. When I came home from my weekends all my liquor bottles would be emptied, and in place of the labels there’d be stickers with AA slogans on them—“And the Wisdom to Know the Difference”, “A Searching and Fearless Moral Inventory.” I wondered if she was drinking my booze, so I loaded up an empty gin bottle with water. That was given the sticker “Fuck You” but the whiskey bottle I filled with tea said “Admit You Have a Problem,” so I don’t know.
At the apartment, my neighbor cried at seven o’clock every evening. He sat down to his computer at 6:45, arms crossed around his chest, and bit his lip. Then around seven, he’d duck his head and start breaking down. By ten after, he’d be a full-blown mess, but by half past, he’d be shoving cookies down his mouth and smiling again. It replaced Jeopardy in my evening schedule—he’d watch his computer, and I’d watch him. We can even time our breakdowns. There’s nothing we can’t work into our schedules.
Dale Solznick came over Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and after we worked, he’d join me on the couch where we watched this man weep. The trade magazines said food carts were the new McDonalds, and we wanted to cash in. We planned to buy out the existing carts and brand them. So same logo on the side, but one does Tex-Mex, one does Chicken and Waffle Fries, one does either Greek or Breakfast Food. Dale wanted one to be pizza, but I said you can get pizza anywhere.
“There’s one thing people hate,” Dale said, sipping a beer nodding toward the neighbor. It was 6:52. “It’s cheap pizza that comes right down your block.”
“What about Chinese?” The man was in position, a sleeve of Oreos by his side.
“Unless you know what you’re doing with any sort of Asian, it’s just duck sauce and rice.”
I took a sip of beer. “Internet TV maybe? Like he’s all invested in a soap opera.”
“Internet TV you can watch any time. Why do it at seven?”
“Here he goes.”
“You’re going to hate me,” Dale said, “but I like this better than your old place.”
“I miss my family.”
“No you don’t,” he said. “You talk about Mallory like she’s a tumor you snipped off.”
“Not her. Him.”
“There it is.” Dale nodded at the window. “A woman left him, and seven o’clock is when they met, when she called. Something.”
“Why the computer? “ I wanted to know like I wanted to know who killed Kennedy and who was Jack the Ripper; I’m curious, but it didn’t matter. It’s the same as watching someone unattractive dance naked in front of the window. But it was something new, happening right in front of me.
I was supposed to have lunch with a maybe investor when I got a call from the school. “There’s an issue with Kaleo.”
“Kaleo,” she said. “Who am I speaking to?”
Jesus, I thought. I’d blocked off the vampire name he’d made everyone call him. Now what’s she think of me?
The vice-principal looked like one of the robots I used to draw as a first grader: one big box of abdomen, a square head, arms bolted to her sides. She lead me into her office, all headshakes and apologies, saying she knew my time was valuable. It wasn’t, but I’d shaved and put on a tie, and I liked the illusion it created.
In the office, I saw EJ on the far side of the room, hands locked across his bellybutton, head slumped low, hair spiked up like an unending middle finger. Closer to the door, by me, was a scrawny Indian kid with a piece of gauze on his neck. Next to him was a plump, bindi-wearing woman with two streaks of red dyed into her hair, her elbow on her boy’s knee. The kid wanted to take her hand and cry away the day, but he wouldn’t with EJ in the room.
I sat next to my son, and for a second I thought he’d sweated off his gloom makeup. But on second look, I saw it was bruising under the eye. I looked back at the scrawny Indian kid. No way, I thought.
The vice-principal explained there’d been a fight. The two had been eating lunch together. “Ankit took Kaleo’s juice and sprayed him with it.”
“Spilled,” the mother said. “He spilled the juice accidentally.”
EJ went nuts at getting cranberry juice on his black jacket, not so much at the stain, but because the Indian kid said something like, ‘Drink this blood, faggot.’ As they scuffled, EJ bit the Indian kid on the neck, drawing blood.
“Over a juice box?” I whispered to EJ. “Over a juice box?”
“This isn’t right,” the mother said. “I can’t send Ankit to school for fear he’ll be bitten? Animals bite.”
“They ate lunch together,” I said. “That means they’re friends. So they monkey around? It got out of hand, and he’ll apologize. I’ll let him know, trust me.“
“Blood was drawn, Mr. Griffin,” the vice-principal said. “That merits a two day suspension minimum.”
I thought of The Count on Sesame Street, saying, One-a day of detention, Two-a days of detention. I pointed to the Indian kid. “He’s not technically bitten. They’re not real teeth.” The kid scooted closer to his mother. “And look at his face,” I said, pointing to EJ’s bruises.
“Jesus,” EJ said. He said it in his Irish vampire accent so it rhymed with “blazes” and it made me want to smack him.
The vice-principal stood up. “Ankit, Kaleo, go to the cool-down room.”
Cool-down room, I thought. Is that what they call detention now?
“This is a somewhat sensitive topic for us,” she explained when the boys had left. There were other kids involved, but they couldn’t pinpoint who. When EJ bit the Indian, other students saw and started cheering, yelling, ‘They’re kissing, they’re kissing.’ Those were the kids that started hitting them, both of them. The Indian kid got it as bad as EJ, but they mostly stomped his chest and dick. With EJ they went for the face. Our boys wouldn’t tell who it was, and even though the teachers had a solid idea, they couldn’t assign punishment without EJ and the Indian naming names.
“Do you know who these kids are?” I asked. “I know you know, but can you say?”
“We don’t know, Mr. Griffin. We don’t know.” She clicked her tongue and shook her head. “What you need to do, what we all need to do, is to focus on the major picture. What is happening with these boys?”
These boys, she said. But she meant EJ. I told her my wife and I split up, that it was the change in living situation, but I was telling her what she wanted to hear: that there was a reason.
On the way home, he kept his eyes closed. If Mallory and me stayed together, this would’ve been his Station Wagon, but now it was starting to smell like me. Dale and I used the car to deliver the samples we cooked, so it had this unhealthy musk of dough and steak sauce that I could never air-freshen out of the seats.
“He’s littler than you,” I said. “This who you hoped you’d be? Someone who bites small kids for mocking your eyeliner?”
“You’re going to make fun of me?”
I love you, I wanted to say. But right then I didn’t, and he knew I didn’t. It was just a moment.
Dale made us French fries that tasted like fish. “Old Bay,” he said, like that explained something. “You know who it was.”
He meant Tim Buddinger, the third string defensive end. Budinger had given EJ hell throughout middle school and freshman year. Dale’s own kid got swirlied by Budinger and two of his friends. Dale’s brother was a cop and the principal brought him in to talk to a group of troubled kids, Budinger being the queen bee of the retards. He showed them pictures of suicides, kids they fished from the river, driven to despair by bullying. Most of the degenerates shuddered or stared straight ahead. Budinger laughed, making his face like the boys in the pictures. Because Dale’s brother knew what Buddinger had put his nephew through, he had to be held back by the other officers.
“Boy’s a punk,” Dale said. “You going to let a kid like that fag out your son?”
“Did you?” In the last year, Dale’s son has come from being Budinger’s punching bag to being his tertiary friend. Sometimes he’d have to detach Budinger from other kids, EJ included. Once, Budinger bent EJ’s pinkie finger back so far that EJ cried, and he licked his teardrop.
I saw my neighbor, The Crying Man, in the Wal-Mart, his cart full of lonely-man’s groceries: green apples, deli-meat, pasta makings.
“Hey,” I said. “I live across the way from you. I see you sometimes.”
“See me?” He held a pineapple against his chest like a shield. “See me how?”
“As in, I see you,” I said. “What are windows for anyway?”
He looked in my basket. “We’re not supposed to paint.”
“There’s no reason why you should be alone. We play Five Card Stud every Tuesday.”
“Who says I’m alone?”
I worried I’d offended him, but I thought that might have been for the best. After all, I didn’t play Five Card Stud anymore, and my sponsor told me not to even joke about gambling.
Dale and I went to Budinger’s house that night. I bought white paint because it was on sale, but I saw Budinger had a white car. I worried it was his parents’ car, but Dale said, “Look at the nose,” meaning that it was parked crooked. “That’s not how adults park.”
We put on our hats and snuck up to the car, but I paused when I saw a light flip on in the house. I grabbed Dale by the arm, but he shook it away. A shadow passed over the window. “Not now,” I whispered.
He dumped the paint on top of the car and watched it run down the front of the windshield. That cued me to do the same down the rear window. The shadow at the window disappeared. Dale took a hunting knife out of his boot and stabbed the car door.
“What are you doing?” I said. “Let’s go.”
“Look at this,” he said. “I’m writing ‘rapist’ in the door.”
That did seem funny, but then a woman with spiky, dirty-blonde hair walked out of the house and stood out on her porch. “Is someone there? What are you doing?”
I stood up, giving her a clean look at my face. “Shit,” I said and squatted down again. All the while, Dale still scraped the word in the car.
“Who’s there?” I heard her walking closer to us. “What are you doing?”
Dale stood up and pointed the knife at her.
She put her hands above her head and reeled in surprise. He took three steps toward her, the knife pointed at her chest. She tried moving backward, tripped and fell down. Dale turned around stabbed the hood of the car over and over again. Then he pried open the gas cap and fished out his Zippo from his pocket. He lit it and made like he was going to drop it in the tank, but that’s when she screamed. I screamed too. I thought I was just shouting a sound, but when I snapped it off, I realized I’d yelled his name. He dropped the knife to his side and turned to face me. The next thing I knew, we were both sprinting, our heads ducked. When I slowed, he slapped my back.
“Shave that goatee,” I said. “Second you get a razor in your hand.”
“Bitch was half-blind. She was staring at my ear.” We put our jackets and hats in the trunk.
Dale said we should stop for food to establish an alibi and get seen. When we pulled up to the Diner, Dale grabbed my forearm. “How’d you pay for the paint?”
“Cash,” I lied.
“That’s thinking,” he said. “They say anything to either of us, no problem, we were working together, and I bet you can come up with some reason you bought white paint.”
“Freshen up my Klan robe?”
He squeezed me harder. “But if they catch me dead, no doubt guilty, especially over something like you shouting my name, I’ll talk. And I won’t stop talking.”
He got out of the car, but then I saw I had splotches of white paint on the bottom of my pants and shoes. I tried calling out to him, saying I couldn’t come inside, but he went in anyway, and I sat in the car while he ate.
I missed EJ the next weekend because Mallory wanted to take him to the beach with her parents. “That’s what vampires do on weekends?” I said. “Lay out on the sand with zinc on their nose.” But her parents were all right to me and great with EJ. My Mom and Dad were such bullies, and it’d serve the kid to see that age doesn’t have to turn us into assholes, that it was really more of a fifty-fifty shot.
I don’t know what happened on the drive, but the next day she called me and said she would pay for his dental surgery to make his teeth look like fangs. My thought was to use this whole kid-biting incident to slap the Dracula off of him, make him crack the shades and pour the sunlight into his room. I tried to tell her as much, but I got worked up, and by the end I insulted her mother’s diabetes.
She hung up, and my phone rang two seconds later. I answered ready to yell, or apologize, but it was Dale who sounded quiet, like he was whispering. “The cops came by,” he said. “Said someone bought two buckets of white paint on that same day using our business card. The card’s in my name.”
What if he bit his tongue with those teeth, I thought.
“You said you paid cash.”
“I never said that.” If she finds out about this, I thought, I’m never seeing EJ again. “What did you tell them?”
“Please.” From nowhere, he started laughing. “I just thought you should be warned. If they honestly give a shit, they’ll figure out you have that card as well.”
“But you didn’t say anything, right?”
“That car’s still there, same as we left it.” He was cackling now. “The rapist mobile, with paint and everything.”
“It’s evidence now.”
“That moronic turd tried to drive it once. Started up the engine and adjusted the mirrors, until his mom came out saying he’d kill himself, that he can’t even see past the paint on the windows.” He smacked his lips. “That’s the problem with scaring the Budingers of the world. Trash their car and it’s just another lawn ornament.”
“You saw the kid drive?”
“We could’ve poisoned their dog, and they would’ve left it there until it looked like an old jack-o-lantern.”
“You saw him drive?” I said. “You went back there?”
“Couple times.” His voice had gone low and clipped again. “I’ve been safe.”
“But the mother.”
“Don’t worry about me, comrado,” he said. “Worry what you’re going to tell the cops about the paint.”
I went to my old house. Maybe in the basement, I thought, there’d be some old paint I could pass off as what I bought that day. The basement still felt like me—I doubt she’d even step foot in there except maybe to get a spare light bulb. I sat down Indian-style and put my palms on the cold ground.
Calling him EJ was my idea. She tried to only call him Elijah: never Eli but Elijah. And that was fine, but I shortened it little by little. Elij, I’d say, and he called himself that soon. Then that got stretched into one long Eeej. Around eight or nine, when his teachers wanted to call him something traditional, we went with EJ. Most people thought it stood for Eli Junior but that was his whole name, something we all three created together.
From the floor, the basement looked as big as a ballroom. As a kid, this was his runaway place, where he came when he wanted to be alone. He didn’t know we knew he was here. Sometimes I cracked the door open so we could hear him crying, a thin, spastic whine that connected us to him. We were stealing space from him.
I went into the kitchen. Because Mallory didn’t drink, she splurged for the expensive juice. I mixed her grapefruit with a little seltzer, and it helped settle my nerves.
I walked up to EJ’s room. He’d taken his computer with him to the beach, but all I wanted was his chair and his bed. I put my forearms on the desk, where he’d have to keep them to type. I’m still bigger than EJ although I suspect he’ll hit a spurt soon. After five minutes of staring at his wall, I laid on his bed, and five minutes later, I went back to the desk. There was a steadiness to this, I thought, a seductive pace that made me feel the power of this room. I could see how you could get caught in the dance, three feet to three feet and never quite ending. Then after a half-hour of moving back and forth, I saw a gray box wedged between his bed and his wall. I took it and went down to the basement to find a paint scraper. Finally, I pried it open and found a loaded semi-automatic alongside four spent shell casings.
Just then my phone rang. I answered without looking at the number. “Mr. Griffin?” a woman said. “This is Officer Bethany Doyle.”
I fingered the ridges of the barrel.
“We have some questions about a vandalism and terrorism case.”
“Terrorism?” I said. “Seriously, terrorism?”
She explained the situation, how my name became associated with the case, how, of course, it was just a precaution, but since I bought paint a few blocks away on the day of the incident, they had to make sure. I tried asking questions, but I heard myself making mistakes in real time.
“Did you buy paint that day?” she asked.
“I was going to paint my new place white.” She hadn’t said white, I thought. “Someone told me I couldn’t, so that was that.”
“And you still have the paint?”
I stroked the side of my finger along one of the spent casings. “I threw it away.”
Driving home I thought the cops would pull me over. It’d feel right to swallow this medicine. I wanted to throw paint on some punk’s car, and now I’d have the police pulling me over when I had an illegal gun in my backseat.
Back in my room, I laid on my couch and squeezed the bridge of my nose. I wanted to fall asleep because I still had faith in dreams. But I couldn’t help but think of EJ, cuffs on his wrist, blood soaked through the front of his shirt. I imagined EJ’s brain outside his skull, his blood on the orange lockers, the walls, and the trophy cases.
I sat up and saw The Crying Man at his computer, an orange slice in his mouth like a gigantic smile. It was still a little while before he started his ritual. I went to the refrigerator, took out two chicken boxes, and went down the hall.
The Crying Man answered the door and looked at me puzzled. “Mr. Five Card Stud?” He squeezed his orange slice in his hand.
“I’m working on this new recipe for my business.” I held out one of the chicken boxes. “I need neighbors to try it and give me feedback.”
He took the box in both hands like it was a bomb I asked him to defuse. “You want to come in?”
His apartment was neat, but more picked-up than clean. It smelled like he had a cat, but there was a tidiness that my own place only had when I prepared it for Mallory.
He ate the fries before the chicken, wiping his greasy fingers on his cheeks. I liked that he ate without shame in front of me. He had salt in the sprigs of his stubble, and I tried to signal him to wipe it away but he didn’t budge.
“Sweet potato waffle fries,” I said. “Once we had this recipe, we knew we had a business.”
He’d just started in on the drumstick when he began staring at the computer. We were close to his crying time but I didn’t know how to leave while we were eating. He looked at me and then the computer, then finally out the window where he could see my living room. “You see me?”
“I’m not crazy,” he said. “Not even depressed.”
“None of my business.” I picked up my chicken breast, licked the skin, then put it back in the box.
“It’s stupid.” He walked over and sat in his computer chair. “My shrink says it’s all vanity. Like I think everything revolves around me.”
“My wife says I have the same problem.”
“I had a sister,” he said. “Younger by four years. And she looked up to me like I was the summer sun.”
Past tense, I thought. His story could go any number of ways, but it ended with her death. Even if she was a runaway, he’d keep her alive in his verbs.
She had mental problems, emotional problems. Nothing severe, but she couldn’t live on her own. I imagined her, pretty enough from the eyebrows to the cheekbones, but with a fat jaw and a forehead a hand too big, so she looked like a cavewoman.
“She got hooked on pills pretty bad. We knew she was strung out, my mother and me, but what can we do? She was under surveillance, just living in her room, coming out to use the bathroom and maybe one meal a day. We’re big people.” He ran his hand over his gut. “But you could see her ribs poke out of her skin the way a heel pokes out of a sock.”
When I was eleven, I ran away. I was half in love with the neighbor girl, a bug-eyed red-head with thick, uneven lips. I saw her with some fleabag biker type, her hand rubbing the crook of his elbow, and it made me understand what I wasn’t. I only ran to a park a couple miles away, but I took the long way, looping around, so I could be away from my house. Two older kids approached me, high school age I’d guess though they seemed older. They kept giving me cigarettes and sips from their bottle. It made me feel grown, back when growing was something admirable.
When I came home, my mother screeched at me. Where was I and who was I with? Was I trying to give my father a coronary? She slapped me in the temples, but it was my father who lumbered into the front room like a bull. He punched me square in the nose, laying me flat. When I got my bearings I saw he was crying, yelling at me, saying he was certain he lost me forever. But he’d set my nose to the right, which made me uglier to the neighbor girl.
“I’d just moved here,” The Crying Man said. “Every long weekend, I’d go back to Jackson to see her, see my mom, see friends. Annabelle, she’s there, but she’s this boulder on my back. Ruined it with a couple of girls I brought home by peppering them with questions.”
She took too much one night. It may have been a suicide said some of the aunts who were worried about her soul, but he didn’t buy it. “Just one night, you forget to eat a sandwich, and that poison gets in your blood.” That came from a grief counselor, I knew, but he took comfort in the words. “My mother asked me to stay with her, be in the same house. I thought that was her religious stuff, like not leave a woman alone lest she get the heebie-jeebies. I said I had a date, but I just wanted to watch a TV show. A dumb one too.”
I noticed he didn’t have a TV.
“If I’d been there, probably nothing,” he said. “When they found her and took her to the hospital they shocked her chest, like five times. For a second, they thought they had her, but it was just the body.”
“When?” I asked.
“Three years ago.” He put his thumb up to the bridge of his nose. “You’re thinking, ‘This pussy’s been crying for three years every night.’”
“Last few months, I’ve been getting spammed,” he said. ‘Every weekday at seven o’clock sharp, they send me this email in her name. Annabel Sanford. The letter was just called ‘Harrison’, which is my name, but she’s the only one who calls me that. I’m Harry to most of the world, and then I see this letter saying Harrison with her name on it. I couldn’t delete it, because it was her. Not her, but her name.”
“What was the email?”
“A bank scam,” he said. “A pecker-grower, whatever, some virus. It says ‘Harrison, you need to do what I did. Harrison, I’m sorry I haven’t talked to you in a while, but I’m so happy where I am. Harrison, Harrison, Harrison.’”
“Block it,” I said. “It’s not your sister, not anyone. Just a computer talking to your computer.”
“But it is someone,” he said, still looking at the screen. “It’s not somebody trying to torture me with her name, but it’s someone trying to sell something. They’ve jammed these numbers and juked the stats, and this guy, whoever it was, matched my name with hers.”
“It’s a machine throwing spaghetti on a wall, hoping a few strands stick.”
A new message came up in his inbox. He took a sharp, surprised intake of breath like he was about to sink his head underwater. By the clock on his screen, it was still three minutes early, and he shook his head before either of us spoke. “It’s nothing,” he said. “Someone from work.”
But I was thinking of his gasp when he thought it was his sister showing up early. When EJ was four or five, I was making him breakfast one Sunday morning. I used to take breakfast seriously on Sundays. I thought of it as a type of church. Mallory threw that back at me a long time later when she dried out and leaned on Christ for help. But I meant it as a time away from time, a pocket to ourselves on a Sunday morning.
I was chopping up honeydew and that sweet acid smell along with the squish of the pulp in my fingers was making me sick. Mallory stood next to me, keeping one eye on EJ and one on the used cars in the classifieds. Then she decided to take a bath.
He was playing with some hand-me-down army men with detachable limbs, mashing them together, eating some dry cereal that I’d laid out for him. I’d been teaching him to read by showing him words in the sports page during football season. If I asked the right questions, he could match the words with the helmets.
‘Hey buddy,’ I said, ‘what time do the Dallas Cowboys play today?’ I looked to see if he would point to the starred helmet on the page where they showed the matchups. ‘You hear me, kid? I asked you a question.’
He unscrewed one of his soldier’s heads and put it between his lips.
‘Don’t put that in your mouth?’ I heard myself getting angry before I felt it. ‘Spit it out.’
He leaned his head back.
My hand darted out and smacked a mostly empty carafe of wine left over from last night. It smashed into the stove, shattering and making an ungodly sound. EJ gasped, just like The Crying Man, and the soldier’s head got lodged in the back of his throat.
He fell off his chair and was on his back, turning red. You can’t do the Heimlich to kids because you’ll crack their chest, so I popped his lips open and stuck my finger down his throat. At first, I could only feel his tongue, as soft and giving as the honeydew. After a minute, I knew Mallory was behind me, naked and drenched, but I don’t know how I knew—I never looked away from the kid’s face once. I thought I was going to have to cut open his windpipe like they do on TV, but then I felt it. It was just with edge of my fingernail, but the next try I pinched the plastic between my fingers and took it out.
We told the doctor it couldn’t have lasted more than a minute. They said he’d get his color back, but when they took him away, he still looked like a blanched root.
It’d be fine, they said, but he lost some air to the brain, and they wanted to make sure there was no damage. It’d be fine, they kept telling me. It’d be fine, and they were right, or at least more right than wrong.
But I remember the once a second beep of his monitor, the little speck of green flashed every time he beat his heart. Mallory had her head nestled on the curve of my shoulder and neck, her arm around my side. She heard the glass smash and figured I hit it in frustration at seeing him choke. That’s what she still believes. And now, a decade later, I have his gun in my car.
“I’m going to jail soon,” I said.
The Crying Man looked up at me and away from his computer for the first time. His eyes were rimmed pink.
“They think I terrorized a woman. Put a knife to her in her own house.”
“I don’t—.” He swung his head back from me to the computer to me again. “I think I’d like you to leave my apartment now.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, nodding to his computer. “About your troubles.”
“I very much want you to leave right now.”
From where I stood, I could see his computer screen. The cursor on his email kept flashing like a metronome, like the heart monitor, like my father’s fingers drumming his dram glass as he waited for me to come home. But what if he never comes back? I thought that during the long day in the hospital. It was the only thought that could scare me off my guilt. He’s never coming back, I whispered to myself with every beat, because I didn’t believe it. Surely, he would live. That was still one devil we could outmaneuver. But like this man, like my father, like any of us who deal in memory, I had to confess what I knew. People don’t come back, and they wouldn’t recognize us if they did.
WILLIE DAVIS of Whitesburg, Kentucky is the winner of the Willesden Herald International Short Story Prize judged by Zadie Smith and the Katherine Anne Porter Prize judged by Amy Hempel. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Guardian, The Kenyon Review, storySouth, At Length, and Urbanite Magazine among other places. He recently received a fellowship from The Kentucky Arts Council.
Read more work by Willie Davis:
Story in The Guardian
Story in The Kenyon Review