|Why People Do What They Do By Emilio Iasiello|
I tell her Iâ€™m afraid of sharks. Itâ€™s night, and swimming in water dark as ink instills a certain fear in me. But she knows this already, the way she knows that I donâ€™t like what weâ€™re doing, any more than the fact that weâ€™re doing it. Maybe thatâ€™s why I have such an unhealthy fixation with the movie, Jaws. Iâ€™ve seen it at least a dozen times. It fills me with a perverse fascinationâ€“the deep ocean shots, the music, the gray torpedo frame speeding through the water. Each time I watch the opening sequence, itâ€™s like Iâ€™m the one feeling that first bite; being dragged along; the skin tearing looseâ€“blood spurting, my screams jerked down under the water.
All summer, I have come down to this dock and calculated the possibility of a rogue, nomadic shark swimming unnoticed so close to shore, knifing back and forth in the shallow waters.
â€œThere arenâ€™t any sharks out here,â€ Emily teases, spitting salt water from her lips. Her arms make wide circles as she treads a few feet in front of me, and her teeth gleam white when she smiles.
I inhale the last of the Pall Malls I stole from Bobbyâ€™s pack this morning, and reluctantly release the smoke from my mouth. It drifts away in blue twists, disappearing somewhere over the sand. A faint breeze skims off the ocean, blowing hair into my eyes. To my right, Nobska Lighthouse flickers in even intervals, a throbbing reminder.
â€œNo sharks,â€ she repeats.
I remove my shirt and slip off my sneakers, using the toe of one foot as leverage, then the other. My nipples respond when the air touches them and I immediately think of Emilyâ€™s breasts when I first held them, and of the Pisces tattoo just above her left aureole. For a split-second, I contemplate sliding off my boxer shorts as well, but I know what happens when weâ€™re both naked together.
She drifts by completely at ease in her surroundings. Thereâ€™s an inherent grace about her long, fluid movements I know I will never have. She catches me staring, and splashes water onto the dock.
I clench my fingers tightly. Somewhere in the darkness, a buoy bell rings a lonely, judgmental sound.
â€œAre you coming in or not?â€ That smile again.
Without another thought, I jump feet first.
My best friend, Bobby, and I unloaded trucks at Kappyâ€™s Liquors on Spring Bars Road. Emily worked one of the registers up front. We were all part of the summer help. From time to time, Emily would smile at us while we filled the shelves with large, plastic bottles of vodka and Scotch.
One morning, Bobby nudged me with his elbow. When I didnâ€™t respond, he nudged me again.
â€œLook at that,â€ he said, â€œSheâ€™s checking me out.â€
â€œWhoâ€™s checking you out?â€
â€œThe girl up there. The blonde.â€
I glanced over at Emily, who stood by her register, smiling. I turned to the clock on the wall behind us.
â€œSheâ€™s checking out the time, you mean.â€
â€œShe digs me,â€ he said. â€œI can tell. I know these things.â€
He laughed and we went back to work. We didnâ€™t say another word about it, but the seed had already been planted. I caught her looking a number of times that day, and each time, sheâ€™d flash those big white teeth. Whatâ€™s more, I figured out whom that smile was for, and it wasnâ€™t Bobby.
It went like that for a week, maybe two. We kept stacking shelves, and she kept smiling at us from behind check-out number two. Once in a while, he hit me on the shoulder and motioned over to her. It was something, I tell you, having a girl look at me like that. Then, a few days later when I was taking inventory before the big road race, I decided to ask her out. Who cared what Bobby thought? Something like this happened once in a lifetime if you were lucky. I marched upstairs and found Emily in the break room sipping a soda through a straw. Thatâ€™s when she told me that Bobby had beaten me to the punch. I froze. It was like someone had kicked me where it counted. I just stood there feeling stupid. Her face saddened, her bright eyes softening in the moment. â€œAnother time,â€ she said. Then she reached out and touched my shoulder the way women do sometimes to let you know that they care. The fact remained that he asked her out first, and rules were rules, even if they were unwritten; even if there is no magic between two people. So, I played the good friend. What else could I do? I drove when we went to the movies so they could sit together in the back seat. I pretended to be more interested in the action on screen that his hand disappearing between her thighs. Those nights when she stayed over, I feigned sleep or drunkenness while the box spring groaned rhythmically from the other side of the room.
The thing was, every day at work, Emilyâ€™s eyes followed me wherever I went, whether I was wheeling out a keg, a case of champagne, or if I was just facing down one of the shelves. Sheâ€™d give me this lookâ€“just a glance really, but it told me everything I needed to know.
One night, the three of us got drunk on some Jack Daniels I pinched from the supply room. We drove out to the old Nobska lighthouse on Prospect Road. It was cold, and we took turns passing around the bottle. As it got later, the bottle got lighter. Bobby passed out first. Emily could drink more than any of my friends. I told her this and she laughed. We didnâ€™t say anything for a while, listening to the sound of the ocean against the rocks. Thatâ€™s when I told her about my fear of sharks. She listened to me ramble on, maneuvering her face closer and closer to mine so that our lips barely touched.
A couple of days later at work, she found me in the break room having a cigarette. She handed me one of those coffee table books on the Great White. It was filled with the most frightening and wonderful pictures I have ever seen. She watched my face the entire time as I flipped through the pages, eyes blazing, completely consumed by indecency of it all.
There was a short inscription in her handwriting on the inside cover, more of an invitation than a note, and it ended with one wordâ€“fuckâ€“then her name.
â€œIâ€™m not a good swimmer,â€ I say. My hands are heavy in the water, like mallets. They plunk down with every stroke, sending short sprays into my face.
Her body glides by mine underwater. Itâ€™s long, sleek. My skin tingles when we touch. Itâ€™s like she belongs here. For a moment, I canâ€™t see her, and then her head resurfaces a few feet away. She stands in water waist-high exposing her breasts to the night.
â€œCome on over here, itâ€™s shallow enough to stand.â€
I take a deep breath and hold it in my lungs as long as possible. Why do I do the things I do around her? I stretch my arms out and claw sloppily through the waves. When I reach her, she leans over and kisses my mouth.
â€œI love a deserted beach: No one around. The entire ocean to yourself.â€
She looks around at the beach, then the ocean, then up at the dark sky.
â€œLook,â€ she adds, â€œA falling star.â€
She points and my eyes obey the path of her finger. I catch just enough, an orange ember before it extinguishes.
â€œChrist, I could use a cigarette right now,â€ I say.
She laughs. Itâ€™s a sharp sound, like metal on metal.
â€œWhatâ€™s the difference between a falling and shooting star anyway?â€ I ask her.
She laughs again, this time, a little louder. She thinks everything I say is funny, including the thing about sharks.
She grabs my hand and places it against the small of her back. Her eyes find mine and refuse to let go. I feel a familiar tug at my groin.
â€œHold me,â€ she says.
Before I can ask her what for, she arches backward and surrenders her body to buoyancy. Her breasts loll in the tide and her pubic hair breaks the surface like a strip of blonde seaweed.
â€œPerception,â€ she says.
I looked at her curiously. â€œPerception?â€ I ask.
â€œA falling star falls because itâ€™s used up; a shooting star still has fire inside its belly. Reactiveâ€“proactive. Itâ€™s how you see it: Perception.â€
With that, she smilesâ€“like itâ€™s the simplest definition in the world.
I adjust my hands under her arms and drag her slowly along. She closes her eyes and lets the water run past her shoulders and down over her chest. She is not afraid of drowning. She is someone without fear. She coasts easily, her blonde hair trailing smoothly behind.
â€œAre you still afraid of sharks?â€ she asks me suddenly. She keeps her eyes closed. Her face is so relaxed I want to kiss her.
â€œAlways,â€ I reply. â€œItâ€™s good to be frightened of things. Everyone should have at least one fear. Mine is sharks.â€
â€œBut youâ€™re in the water. Youâ€™re here. You canâ€™t be that afraid if youâ€™re in here with me.â€
â€œMore than you know. Itâ€™s like the Fight or Flight Syndrome. Knowing the possible consequences and escaping themâ€”that gives an incident its meaning.â€
â€œThat gives an incident meaning, I like that.â€ She thinks this over. â€œBesides, even if there was a shark in here. Thereâ€™s nothing you can do about it.â€ Then, more seriously, she adds, â€œNot now.â€
I continue to pull her around in a circle. In the darkness behind the tree line, the reticence of crickets interrupts the silence in intervals. Their noise fluctuates â€“ loud, soft, then nothing. Loud, soft, then nothing, over and over again.
Suddenly, Emily sits upâ€”then stands in the water.
â€œWhat is it? Whatâ€™s the matter?â€
â€œLetâ€™s swim to that boat over there,â€ she says.
She points to a motorboat moored about twenty yards on the other side of the small dock. Its silhouette bobs in the distance, its dark bow nodding with the water.
The space between the boat and us is infinite, or at least a heck of a long swim. If there is a shark here, I wonder if I could make it to the dock before I got eaten, or if I could even make it close.
She splashes water into my face.
I rub the sting from my eyes. When I regain focus, she already commands a sizeable head start and is gaining distance. I stand alone, feeling the cold pockets on my legs as I walk blindly in the shallows. I read in the book she gave me that sharks are attracted exactly to the same kind of movements a swimmer makes; that most shark attacks occur in less than six feet of water. They track down their prey, taking them from underneath, and that the pain from even the smallest bite is like lightning searing through your body.
I consider the dark water, the things I canâ€™t see. I know better than to follow her, that someone like me can lure a shark with his erratic motion, but I go after her anyway. By the time I reach the edge, she is already on the boat. The recurring thought of being snatched down propels me onto the boat. My teeth chatter and goose bumps pimple my skin.
â€œYou made it,â€ she says, crawling over to me. My heart pumps steadily against my chest. My breath comes in short, panicked, gasps. She wraps her arms around my neck and draws me in.
â€œMy big, strong hero,â€ she whispers before her lips close on mine. I taste the tobacco on her tongue and relish it. She lowers her hand past my stomach and gropes my shorts. I close my eyes and sigh as she bites my lower lip.
Two days ago, in the supply room, it happened. I was carrying a case of schnapps. I didnâ€™t hear her come up behind me. I didnâ€™t hear anything at all. She must have followed me down the steps. It was like all of a sudden, she was there. She touched my shoulder and I screamed, dropping the case of schnapps on the floor. Bottles of Peachtree exploded when they hit the concrete. Glass and booze went everywhereâ€“my hands, my shoes, all over the floor. The air became thick with that sticky, sweet odor, like blood released into the ocean.
I cut my hands picking up the shards. It looked like I was trying to commit suicide. Red flowed down my wrists and everything became dizzy. And then, she appeared, emerging from the shadows with a roll of paper towels, the Kappyâ€™s chevron emblazoned over the left breast of her white work jacket. Without saying a word, she took my hands in hers and kissed my gashes. She licked the blood right off them, her tongue darting in between the separated sections of skin. She let the blood rub against her cheek.
That moment we did it. Right there on the basement floor, amidst the glass and booze and blood. I yanked her skirt up; she popped the button off my jeans. In the pressing urgency of skin on skin, I didnâ€™t think of my best friend once; not even when I groaned Emilyâ€™s name at the end.
Afterward, we stare up at the stars or what remains of them in the night. The salt and sweat cool on our bodies, and our fingertips linger on each otherâ€™s body in places. I kiss the place where her neck touches her collarbone. Itâ€™s cold and salty like the ocean.
She rolls to her side, looking at me.
â€œYou know, there is really nothing to be afraid of,â€ she says finally. Her tone is dull, satisfied.
I want to believe her, but I also want to believe none of this ever happened. Thatâ€™s the thing with fear: You either fight it or give into it entirely, there is no middle ground.
â€œHe doesnâ€™t have to find out. He wonâ€™t, not if we donâ€™t tell him.â€
She slides her body over mine and kisses my neck. I rub her back over and over trying to memorize its contours with my touch. I canâ€™t convince myself I donâ€™t care. Heâ€™s still my best friend even if Iâ€™m not acting like it.
â€œIâ€™ve got to tell him,â€ I say. â€œHe has the right to know. I mean, Christ, look at us. It will make everything better.â€
She pulls away from me and sits with her arms wrapped around her knees.
â€œIt wonâ€™t solve anything. It wonâ€™t make a difference, trust me. Heâ€™ll still hate you. And then what would you have accomplished?â€
She looks out at the ocean. She simply stares as if she sees something. Sometimes, she gets like thisâ€“unreadable in a way that infuriates me to the point of desperation.
â€œIf the situations were reversed,â€ I press her, â€œIâ€™d want to know.â€
â€œIf the situations were reversed, you wouldnâ€™t have me.â€
Her eyes hold a flat, lifeless expres-sion like two small buttons stitched into a dollâ€™s face. It lasts only a second, and then just as quickly as it first arrived, itâ€™s gone.
â€œI didnâ€™t mean that. God, I hate to argue. Letâ€™s not argue anymore, okay? No more fighting. Letâ€™s just be who we are. Can we do that?â€
She scoots back over to me and wraps an arm around my shoulder. Her skin feels snug and sticky against mine, like things meant to cling together. She touches my lips with her index finger.
â€œCome on,â€ she pleads softly.
The Carcharodon carcharias, or Great White Shark, eats twice its weight in food every day. It measures up to twenty feet in length, and tips the scales in the vicinity of four thousand pounds. It malignantly courses through the ocean, searching for territory suitable enough to slake its hunger, moving on only when its supply runs scarce. The white shark pins its prey with its lower teeth while at the same time, moving its head laterally to shear off large chunks of its victim with its upper jaws. The entire bite interval happens in a span of less than two seconds, and if youâ€™re not lucky, it can mean your life.
She pulls my head to hers and our mouths crush against each otherâ€™s in the darkness.
Somewhere beneath the struggles of the ocean, I can hear a shark feed.
Why People Do What They Do
John clutches the bottle by its throat and stares out the window of my apartment in Worcester. He carries himself with the quiet satisfaction of a man who knows heâ€™s dangerous when he has to be. A slight limp accents his walk where a bullet ricocheted off the floor and shattered his kneecap last spring. Looking at him now, itâ€™s hard to believe heâ€™ll be only twenty-eight in August. His face consists of hard planes, a solid jaw line, and a nose that has been broken several times above its bridge. He leans close against the glass and stares down at the sidewalk below. Kidsâ€™ frenzied voices funnel through the torn screen with the Abbot-and-Costello-like banter of â€œSafe!â€“Out!â€ that will signal the end of every stick ball game from now until the end of summer. John keeps peering out the window with a detached look that tells me heâ€™s not really paying attention to the events unfolding in front of him. Then, he turns his back on the whole damn sight and walks over to me.
John takes a short swig before he pours some into his glass. He knows how I feel about drinking directly from the bottle and does this more as an afterthought in deference to me than anything else. When he drinks, he kicks the whole bottle back with one tilt of his head. Itâ€™s scary when he gets like this. Drinking, for him, is like breathing air or fighting. Itâ€™s not something he does, but something he has to do. He finds a distinct strength in it, something that I neither understand, nor want to, for that matter. Even as a kid, he was either scrapping with someone, or stealing booze from our fatherâ€™s file cabinet. The two images Iâ€™ve carried through much of my life are John passed out or John knocked out, but always on the ground, spread-eagled, blood trickling down his chin. The only difference now, is that he no longer takes ice or water with his liquor. He says he wants nothing to spoil the flavor, although the truth of the matter is that he doesnâ€™t want to dull its effects. John is my younger brother, and when heâ€™s mad, he drinks hard.
He refills his glass and offers me the bottle.
â€œTake some,â€ he says.â€œItâ€™s alright for a blend.â€
I take the Scotch from him and splash a bit into my own glass. Itâ€™s darker than most, almost like a wild honey color. I raise it to my nose and smell. It has a good, strong aroma that reminds me of our dad.
â€œWhatâ€™ll we drink to?â€ I ask him.
He looks at me briefly, and then returns his attention to the window. The children are still out there, only there are fewer of them now. Finally, thereâ€™s one less kid to scream his head off in this heat.
â€œDoes it matter?â€ he asks flatly.
I guess it doesnâ€™t. When youâ€™ve been where John has, doing what he has, what you drink to isnâ€™t as important as what youâ€™re drinking, or how much.
I wince when I see him drinking straight from the bottle again. He glances in my direction, dragging a shirt sleeve across his chapped lips. Then, remembering, adds, â€œSorry.â€
â€œItâ€™s okay,â€ I tell him. He takes another swallow.
John works in a cheap pawnshop down off Flower Street, that is, up until Tuesday, he did. He sat behind a cage and buzzed people in through the front door. The owners kept a loaded shotgun below the counter within reach at all times, â€œBecause in this business, Sweetheart,â€ as John told me one night in his best slurred Bogart voice, â€œYou just donâ€™t know.â€
John has survived two robbery attempts at the pawn shop, one about a year ago, and one just last month. Neither one was successful, but both times the thieves shot him in the process. He has the exit and entrance wounds to prove itâ€“large, fleshy-pink scars that remind you where the living stops and that other thing begins. More importantly, though, Johnâ€™s also been the one to pull the trigger. Iâ€™ve always wanted to ask him what itâ€™s like to shoot someone point-blank in the face, but Iâ€™m afraid to hear what his answer might be. See, my brother is prone to this type of violence. It follows him like a tail of toilet paper he canâ€™t shake off his shoe. He gets banged around from bar to bar only to come up with a fresh set of bruises in the morning. The other thing about my brother is that he always carries out his threats.
Both times, they blamed his drinking. â€œTheyâ€ are the family that owns the shop, Iranians or Iraqis, one of those Middle Eastern people whose quick-mart livelihoods depend on the sporadic traffic of consumerism. Zamir is the bossâ€™s son and a real son-of-a-bitch. Iâ€™ve met him twice and both times he â€œyes-sirâ€™dâ€ me to death, smiling in a way I knew heâ€™d rather slit my throat than shake my hand. He said if my brother didnâ€™t drink as much as he did, he wouldnâ€™t buzz in the â€œwrongâ€ types of people all the time. By this, Iâ€™m sure he means this latest episode as well.
â€œWhat the hell is the right type of person to let into a pawnshop?â€ John asks me.
I shrug. Itâ€™s a legitimate question to which I have no legitimate answer.
â€œIâ€™ve never been inside a pawnshop,â€ I tell him.
â€œSee? Thatâ€™s what I mean. No respectable person goes into pawnshops. Just thieves, sodomites, pedophiles, flashers and drunks.â€
He takes a big drink after â€œdrunks.â€ The Scotch disappears down his throat in a vacuum of thirst and I watch his Adamâ€™s apple bob twice on its way down.
Iâ€™ve never heard John refer to my job at the library as respectable. Mostly, he considers me book-smart in a way he knows he can never be, although heâ€™s tried. Once, he even asked me to bring home a few books on the Civil War, but never returned them. I fooled myself into believing that he was taking his time, absorbing dates and battle names, bits of trivia I know he liked. He is my brother. He deserves the benefit of the doubt. A month later, I found them in his apartment trapped under the missing leg portion of his sofa, right next to a bottle of Old Gran Dad. The bottle was, of course, empty.
â€œItâ€™s not like Iâ€™m allowed to pat them down or anything. I wouldnâ€™t even want to touch half the scum that crawls inside.â€
â€œSo why did he fire you?â€ I ask.
â€œYou really want to know, or are you asking the way a big brother is supposed to ask?â€
â€œI really want to know,â€ I say.
He looks at me through gray, anxious eyes to make sure Iâ€™m speaking my mind and not just regurgitating something I pulled out of one of the self-help manuals on my shelves, Relieving Stress through Meditation and crap like that. Then, he leans forward and puts one hand on the bottle and lets it rest there. I can tell he feels more comfortable when itâ€™s within his reach.
â€œOkay,â€ he says, â€œBut you got to listen to the whole story.â€
I tell him I want to listen. He clears his throat.
â€œThis junkie comes in a few days ago, a real low-life. I mean this guy needs a shower like itâ€™s nobodyâ€™s business. I can smell him through the door he smells so bad. Anyway, he comes walking inside, and right off, I can sense somethingâ€™s not kosher about him. I know these things about people. Itâ€™s my little gift. Some people sense the weather, I sense when someoneâ€™s not on the up-and-up. Remember what Dad used to say, â€˜You spend enough time in the gutter, some of itâ€™s bound to rub off on you?â€™ Well, this is no different. Like the time I fingered Ritchie Cole for smashing the Galanteâ€™s window when we were kids. I just know. Anyway, I swear, as God as my witness, if I had seen the tracks up and down this guyâ€™s arms ahead of time, I never would have let the bastard in. So in one way, it is my fault.â€
â€œWhat was he looking for?â€ I ask suddenly.
What people buy in pawnshops has always fascinated me. In Cleveland, when I was ten, we lived over one for six months, and even though there were plenty of times Iâ€™d press my face against the glass to look inside, Iâ€™d never actually stepped through the front door. The only thing I can figure is that Iâ€™m attracted to the indecency of it all. Things which were once sacred are surrendered to the sight and indifference of strangers. Itâ€™s like going to an antique shop, or garage sale, or wherever someone takes advantage of another personâ€™s misfortune. Pawnshops are dirty places where you arenâ€™t supposed to go. In this way, I like them.
â€œHe wants to buy a Bowie knife,â€ my brother says finally, pouring more Scotch into his glass. â€œLike Iâ€™m going to sell him that.â€
I perk up a little in my seat.
â€œA Bowie knife?â€ I repeat. â€œWhatâ€™d he want with that?â€
John lets out a sarcastic laugh.
â€œI could just imagine looking the way he did and all. Anyway, this junkie must be coming down off his high or something â€˜cause he starts fidgeting with the buttons on his shirt. Heâ€™s all fingers, if you know what I mean.â€ He stops for a drink. â€œBottom line is, he starts arguing with me because I wonâ€™t make the sale.
â€œHe has the money and wants to buy the knife. He says heâ€™s a big camping fanatic. â€˜Camping, my ass,â€™ I tell him. â€˜Iâ€™ll give you the knife,â€™ I say, â€˜If you can tell me how to scale a fishâ€™.â€
I chuckle despite myself. John looks at me sharply. Itâ€™s important for him to see my eyes when he talks, and I already know this is not a funny story. He picks up the newspaper, looks at it briefly, and then tosses it back on the coffee table. I apologize and let him continue.
â€œYou see what Iâ€™m getting at, Bill? Iâ€™m sticking to my guns. I got conviction. Iâ€™m taking responsibility into my hands like you say I never do. I may be a drunk, but I know whatâ€™s right and what isnâ€™t. Drunks know things even if we never do them.â€
He pounds his fist against his chest when he emphasizes a point.
â€œSo, no way, I tell him. The knife isnâ€™t for sale, at least not for him.â€
He wets his lips with some Scotch.
â€œI mean Jesus; I could just picture what this fuck he is going to do with a Bowie knife. Youâ€™ve seen one, so you know what Iâ€™m talking about. Itâ€™s fucking huge. Itâ€™s got to have a good six-seven-inch blade on that thing. What do you need a Bowie knife in the city for, right? But Zamir hears all the hollering and decides to stick that scrawny neck of his out from his hole in back and get involved. Iâ€™ve told you how Zamir is.â€
I nod and sip from my glass. Zamirâ€™s the type of person you like less and less the more you hear his name mentioned.
â€œSo, the junkie tells him exactly whatâ€™s happenedâ€“I wonâ€™t make the sale. And the junkieâ€™s shaking now, Bill. I mean, heâ€™s really shaking. He canâ€™t keep it together. His hands are jumping all over the place.â€
â€œSo what happened?â€ I manage finally.
He retrieves a cigarette from his shirt pocket. He slaps around his jeans pockets before I toss him my own matches. He lights one and sticks the flame at the end.
â€œSo that son of a bitch tells meâ€“no, he orders meâ€“to sell the guy the knife. How do you like that?â€
I donâ€™t know quite how to answer, so I drink instead.
â€œAfter everything, after the robberies, and his complaints and shit, and all the goddamn crime in this goddamn city, he orders me to sell the knife to a complete freak. And now this guy, Bill, heâ€™s got one of those expressions on his face, like â€˜Iâ€™m going to get you when you least expect itâ€™ looks and Iâ€™m not backing down an inch. No sir, Iâ€™m glaring right back in this son of a bitchâ€™s face, â€˜Bring it on, asshole.â€™â€
â€œI donâ€™t think that was a bright move on your part,â€ I tell him.
â€œWould you can that big brother shit for a minute? This isnâ€™t about me, itâ€™s about him. Him and that goddamn Zamir.â€
He throws back whatâ€™s left in his glass and takes a long drag off his cigarette. He exhales slowly and watches the smoke just barely drift from between his lips. He does this until heâ€™s pinching only the filter between his fingers. The smoke lingers like some distorted halo and he looks for images in its curls. Heâ€™s always liked the motions of smoke, and what the hell, so do I. For a while, neither of us speaks.
â€œIt shouldnâ€™t have happened,â€ he says quietly. â€œBut what can you do about it now?â€
He stares at the newspaper on the coffee table. Although the details are sketchy, the article says something about being at the â€œwrong place at the wrong time.â€ It also says things like â€œheinousâ€ and innocentâ€ words that donâ€™t tell a story so much as paint a picture. The photograph of the eight-year-old girl is really cute. She has long, brown hair and a big smile thatâ€™s missing one of her front teeth. Sheâ€™s the kind of kid that could be your daughter, or your friendâ€™s daughter, or anyoneâ€™s daughter for that matter.
John has one, I know. She lives with her mother somewhere out in California. She split with the kid when she thought Johnâ€™s drinking was getting the better of him. For a while, it had, but then he started to recover. Now, he just drinks when heâ€™s mad or depressed. He looks at the photo and I know all he sees is his little girl.
â€œEight years old,â€ he mutters. â€œThat fucker should be shot.â€
â€œWho knows why people do what they do?â€ I say. Again, big brother speak, but this time, he doesnâ€™t catch the tone. Heâ€™s too wrapped up in himself, in his guilt, to think of anything else. Johnâ€™s my brother, but heâ€™s always been one step away from the nuthouse or jail.
â€œItâ€™s Zamirâ€™s fault,â€ he says, grinding out his cigarette into the face of the junkie in the newspaper.
â€œHeâ€™s to blame for all of this. A junkieâ€™s just a junkie,â€ he says. â€œHe ainâ€™t worth shit. But that son-of-a-bitch is in his right mind. What kind of person sells knives to junkies?â€
What kind of person, indeed. More Scotch in his glass.
Two years ago, Johnâ€™s wife found him outside their apartment building, just a crumpled mess on the ground, his shirt torn and bloodied, and one eye swollen shut. His face looked as if someone had taken a piece of pipe to it. No one knew where he was. For six days, he fell off the face of the earth and suddenly materialized like a shipwrecked man on a beach. Even he didnâ€™t know where he went or how he had gotten in such bad shape. The only things he remembered were brief flashesâ€“a redhead, booze, and some small Hispanic playing poolâ€“discarded frames of film that meant nothing on their own, but run together, usually illustrated my brotherâ€™s life in a nutshell. The damage done to him was extensive enough to cause him periodic blackouts from which he still suffers. During that period, I stayed with him every day. John spent three weeks in Saint Vincentâ€™s. His wife only lasted one.
She called me a few days later and told me she was taking Maggie away with her.
â€œWhat do you mean youâ€™re going?â€ I asked her. â€œWhere?â€
â€œI donâ€™t care where,â€ she said. â€œJust away. I need to be away from this place. I need to be away from him.â€
Him, she said, like he was some pedophile, not the father of her child.
â€œChrist, Denise, he needs you more now than ever,â€ I told her, which was the truth. My brother wasnâ€™t doing well at all. For a while, the doctors thought he might have a hemorrhage, or worse, permanent brain damage.
â€œHe should have thought about that earlier.â€
That was it. She hung up. The next time we heard from her was via postcard sent to John from Los Angeles. She neither left a forwarding address nor a phone number, but scribbled â€œAll fine here. Doing well.â€ on it. The picture was an aerial shot of downtown L.A., but the postmark said Nevada.
â€œYou got to put yourself in my position,â€ he says.
John grabs the bottle again and looks as if heâ€™s reading the label. Then, he picks up the glass and looks at that, then the bottle, then the glass.
Iâ€™ve known my brother my entire life. And his.
â€œSomeone ought to kill that son of a bitch,â€ he whispers harshly, and for a split-second, Iâ€™m not sure if heâ€™s referring to Zamir or the junkie.
He tilts his head back and lets the Scotch pour gently out, first in a dribble, then a little more. The hairs on my neck bristle when I hear the dark chug of his throat as he swallows every bit.
As much as I donâ€™t want to believe it, I have a sinking feeling that heâ€™s right.
Not My Child
Charlie White Feather and I sit at a table in the corner, away from the others. We split a pitcher of High Life and a pack of smokes. The crowd is small for early afternoon, but should fill up in no time. The plantâ€™s second shift gets off work at three. When that happens, itâ€™s best to be as far away from the bar as possible. Thirsty factory workers, although good people at heart, have a tendency to be pushy, especially where their booze is concerned. Fights have broken out over the damndest things. If youâ€™ve ever spent twelve hours punching holes in sheet metal, the last thing you want is something setting you off. Hell, last week, Corky Conlon pulled a knife on Kazursky over quarters on the pool table and theyâ€™ve been best friends since junior high. The sheriff took Corky downtown and locked him up overnight. Next day, Kazursky was there first thing in the morning to bring him to work.
Like I said, weâ€™re good people at heart, just donâ€™t touch our last nerve.
â€œShould we get another?â€ Charlie asks, meaning the beer. Heâ€™s keeping me from a hot shower and my couch, so he wants to make sure Iâ€™m as comfortable as possible. For this, he pays for the rounds.
I glance at the clock nestled between the deer and elk antlers on the wall. Itâ€™s two-thirty and my daughter wonâ€™t be home for another half-hour.
â€œSure,â€ I say. â€œBut then I got to run.â€
He flags down Midge and sticks up his finger. â€œOne more.â€
Midge nods. She never writes anything down. She can remember food orders, soup to nuts, as well as how you like your meat cooked. She also knows how to put a name to a face. Sheâ€™s good that way.
Charlie refills my glass, killing the pitcher as I light another cigarette.
â€œSo what is it you want to tell me?â€ I ask.
Charlie toys with the smokes. He scratches something in the clear wrapper with his fingernail. Charlie is a big man, with heavy shoulders and steam shovel hands. Heâ€™s half-Sioux, so his features are dark and menacing. He has long, charcoal-black hair that runs down just past his the collar of his shirt, but the most notable thing about Charlie if you saw him, is the scar from the bottom of his left eye to the middle of his cheek. He doesnâ€™t talk about it much, but I know it had something to do with his two year stint in the correctional facility upstate. When you look at him, itâ€™s hard to believe that something could make a man of his size so quiet, so much like a child, but I guess everyone has an Achilles heel if you dig deep enough or care long enough to figure it out. Charlie has one. So do I.
Charlie lifts his massive head and stares at me through dark, watery eyes. They shimmer like the black stones in the river we used to fish in near Walpole. I shift uneasily in my chair as my stomach fists itself when I see that look. I know what heâ€™s going to say even before he gets a word out.
â€œMy daughter,â€ he says finally, and completely breaks down.
Charlieâ€™s daughter, Sunshine, had been going to school with my girl, Sara, since the ninth grade.
They shared the same homeroom for four years, and many of the same classes. For two summers, they both worked part time at Leoâ€™s Fashion Warehouse so that during the school year, they could concentrate on becoming â€œinâ€ or whatever it was that high school girls wanted. At night, it wasnâ€™t uncommon for one of them to just show up at the otherâ€™s house, so it wasnâ€™t out of the ordinary to throw an extra plate on the table or remove one depending on which situation presented itself. Sunshine was like having a second daughter, and I know Charlie felt the same away about Sara.
This past year though, something happened. I mean, the two girls drifted apart. Sara ate home more often than not, and I canâ€™t tell you how quiet those dinners were. I looked at Sara and Sara looked at her plate. She said she didnâ€™t want to talk about it. I told her not to worry, that this wasnâ€™t unusual, that things like this happen between friends and interests change.
Thatâ€™s just the way life works out. To tell you the truth, my mind was on too many other things to really give my daughterâ€™s problems the proper attention, even if it did concern Sunny, but things down at the factory werenâ€™t so good. Rumors were circulating about management cutting back one of the three shifts, which meant lay-offs for a hundred men. I had ten full years in. Even so, whenever money was the motivating factor, no oneâ€™s position in the pecking order was protected. Too high up meant you could be replaced with two men at the same salary, and if you were too low, well, who needed you anyway?
Since she hit her teens, Sara became the type that gabbed all night on the phone, but when it came to talking to her old man, it was strictly â€œYes Dad, no Dad,â€ all the way, so Saraâ€™s silence wasnâ€™t my top priority. Maybe it should have been, but it wasnâ€™t. Iâ€™m big enough to admit that.
One day, sometime in late March, I found Sara at the kitchen table in tears. I hadnâ€™t seen her crying like that since she found Maryâ€™s note on the refrigerator door two years ago. It wasnâ€™t much of a note, really, just a torn-out page of the phone book with the words, â€œIâ€™m so sorry. I love you!â€ printed in thick, red marker. She had wedged it underneath the watermelon magnet Sara had made for her in the third grade. A fifty-dollar bill was stapled to one corner. I gave her the fifty, but she just tore it up and threw the pieces at me, like it was me who forced her mother into the truck with the Sears guy. Sixteen years is still too young to find things out the hard way, no matter how grown-up you think you are. Sara didnâ€™t speak to me for an entire week. She needed to come to grips her own way. I didnâ€™t blame her. Who could?
â€œHoney,â€ I said putting my hand on her shoulder. â€œWhatâ€™s the matter?â€
She lifted her swollen face. Mascara ran down her cheeks in muddy trails.
â€œItâ€™s Sunny,â€ she said sobbing, and then something I couldnâ€™t make out.
â€œWhat about Sunny? Whatâ€™s wrong? You can tell me.â€
â€œThis guy sheâ€™s been hanging out after school with,â€ she said.
That was the big deal? A guy? Here I was, expecting the end of the world and she was crying about boys.
â€œHoney,â€ I soothed, â€œdonâ€™t worry, youâ€™ll find someone too.â€
She just cried louder.
â€œYou donâ€™t understand. You donâ€™t understand anything! I wish Mom was here!â€ she wailed, running into her room.
It stung, but there was truth in her words. When it came to important things, nothing I said ever seemed to carry any real weight. It was either too much or too little, but never the right amount. Mary had handled all the minute detailsâ€“the feminine things, the first kisses and crushes, things of that nature. I was strictly there for the big pictureâ€“mortgage, money for new clothes, her college fund. In this way, her mother and I made a great team, but when it came to the day-to-day living, I was out of my element. I walked into Saraâ€™s bedroom and found her face down in a pillow.
â€œSara,â€ I said, but she just kept shaking her head over and over.
â€œYou donâ€™t understand. You just donâ€™t understand.â€
Who knows, maybe I didnâ€™t, but whatâ€™s a father to do? So, I left it alone. I figured things had a way of working themselves out without any interference.
The next day, I had completely forgotten all about it. The plant had posted the cuts and Charlie and I had survived. Sara came home after school, and never mentioned a thing. We sat down to dinner and ate in silence. I even tried telling a few jokes that didnâ€™t go anywhere. Then, she talked on the telephone while I cleaned up. It was business as usual.
Charlie told me about the phone calls a few days later over beers at Nellieâ€™s. We had just pulled a twelve-hour shift, the upside for not being deemed expendable. I was feeling pretty good despite the long hours. Earlier that day, I had spoken with Jim Murdock in Supply about buying his â€˜89 Shadow for Saraâ€™s eighteenth birthday. It was going to be a surprise. I was going to clean up the engine block, adjust the odometer, change the breaks, and replace the tires with four brand, spanking new radials. Then, I was going to leave it for her with a fat red bow in the driveway so sheâ€™d find it when she came home from school. We hadnâ€™t been getting along too well since the Sunny incident. I mean, she seemed a bit more reserved with me than usual. Maybe I was just making mountains out of mole hills, I donâ€™t know, but I wanted to give her something that would really catch her off guard, something she would never expect from her old man.
â€œWhat kind of phone calls?â€ I asked him, lighting a cigarette.
â€œStrange ones.â€ His voice had a distinct edge to it. He drummed his thick fingers nervously on the tabletop.
â€œYeah, but what kind? Hang-ups, heavy breathing, what?â€
Charlie clenched and unclenched his fists. His fingers were thick, muscular, scarred from filleting trout on the weekends. He grabbed some peanuts from the wooden bowl. They looked pathetically small in his hands. He held one in between his fingers and squeezed. The peanut made an awful noise, like a neck snapping in two. He ground the remains over the table. Then, he grabbed another and did the same thing.
â€œI donâ€™t know; thatâ€™s the thing. Someone asks for Sunny and when I ask who it is, they hang-up. Or he does at least.â€
â€œJesus, Charlie, what you got there is a nervous kid afraid of a girlâ€™s father,â€ I told him. â€œOr a prank caller. Hell, we used to prank call girls all the time. Itâ€™s nothing to lose sleep over.â€
He shook his head. He pulled on his face with his hands and rubbed a palm over his chin.
â€œI know a kidâ€™s voice, and this wasnâ€™t some scared teenager, Stan. This was different. It was a manâ€™s voice. I never heard it before, but Iâ€™ll never forget it. Slippery and cold. The kind of voice youâ€™d half-expect a lizard to have if it talked.â€
â€œYouâ€™re sounding paranoid now,â€ I kidded him. I didnâ€™t like where he was going with this. He was really shook up.
Charlie scrutinized the room for a minute, then inspected the grease under his fingernails.
I wanted to ice down the situation a little. â€œA big half-breed like you paranoid over a stupid voice.â€
â€œI am paranoid,â€ he said. â€œSheâ€™s my only daughter. You know what itâ€™s like to have a daughter.â€
Then, he showed me something. He opened his flannel shirt to reveal a big bone-handled knife strapped into a leather shoulder harness. It looked old and mystical, with odd bits of turquoise on the hilt, something you might see a chief give his bravest warrior in an old western.
â€œJesus, what the hell are you going to do with that?â€
â€œAnything it takes. The Sioux have a saying, Stan.â€ He mumbled something I couldnâ€™t understand.
â€œWhatâ€™s that supposed to mean?â€
He didnâ€™t respond. He just caressed the bone handle with those large fingers of his, mumbling something over and over in his fatherâ€™s native tongue.
The pictures arrived shortly after, the same day Sunny didnâ€™t return home from school. They were in a blank manila envelope wedged between the screen and front doors of Charlieâ€™s house. They werenâ€™t flattering, I can tell you that. The most decent one of the bunch showed Sunny with this fat hairy guy in a less than favorable position. He could have easily been Charlieâ€™s or my age. Neither one was wearing any clothes.
No one could find Sunny. She had gone to school like always, but then disappeared shortly after lunch. No one knew what happened. No one had seen her, could remember seeing her. One minute she was there, the next, she was gone. Just like that, no explanation, no reason.
The teacher told the principal, and the principal phoned Charlie at work.
I was there when he got the call: His face drained of all color and he slammed his fist through the dry-wall. He didnâ€™t even bother to hang up the phone before busting out of there. The receiver just dangled on its wire, some manâ€™s voice on the other end calling out, â€œCharlie? Charlie...you there?â€
Sara was a complete wreck. She didnâ€™t go to school for three days. She said she was terrified and I didnâ€™t blame her. Once, when I was sixteen, a kid from my school disappeared. No one knew where he went. Kidnapping was eventually ruled out because a ransom note was never sent. Everyone figured him another runaway. The police found him a week later down some ravine near the reservoir. Apparently, he had taken a spill when he was drunk and broke his neck.
Iâ€™ll never forget the anxiety it caused the town: No one trusted anyone. Parents shuttled their children back and forth to the school. People whispered suspiciously about one another, even in the daylight. It was like fear had put its own personal touch on everyoneâ€™s shoulder.
Charlie wanted to see Sara. He said she might know something the police missed, anything, no matter how insignificant it might seem. I told him how two detectives had already grilled her for a couple of hours, but he begged me. Those powerful hands of his, hands I had seen crush menâ€™s faces with one punch, pleaded for five minutes of her time. Sara said she didnâ€™t feel like speaking, but this was important, I told her. After all, this was Sunnyâ€™s father, my friend.
â€œThereâ€™s nothing I can tell you,â€ she said.
â€œPlease, Sara? Anything. Any detail. Who she was seeing. Who asked her out? Anything at all.â€
* * *