The day my sister ran away my dad and I went to the department store and bought an answering machine. This is before everyone had an answering machine. They were expensive. He bought the cheapest one, even though the kid working the electronics department kept trying to up-sell him. Such and such model has more features, the kid would say. Such and such model has two tapes instead of one.
My dad turned his full body to the kid. My dad was shortish with a beer belly, but had this sort of animal energy when he was mad. “If you say one more goddamn thing, I’m going to shove this answering machine up your ass,” my dad said.
Without speaking, the kid led us to the register, rang us up, and we left.
“Did you see the look on that kid’s face when I said that,” said Dad when we got back in the car. “He turned white.” He laughed. “I hate it when they try to get you to spend more than you want,” he added. “Just give me what I asked for, goddamnit.”
He pushed in the cigarette lighter and waited with his thumb on it. In the store he had also bought a pack of Merits and some Hostess Cupcakes. When he got really stressed out he would buy cigarettes, even though he had quit a few years before. He would light one and take about three drags before throwing it out. A few minutes later he’d repeat the process. Lately, our back lawn looked like a graveyard for cigarettes dead before their time.
Dad tossed the cigarette out the window before we got to the street. ‘I shouldn’t have talked to that kid that way,” he said, shaking another smoke out of the pack. “I don’t want to hear you talking to people that way, Sam.”
“Okay,” I said.
We stopped at a red light. He looked over at me, I mean, really took me in.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ve been so focused on your sister.”
“It’s okay,” I said.
“Look, why don’t we go to that game store and you can pick something out. This must not be a carnival for you either.”
I perked up. “Yeah,” I said. “There are some things I’ve been looking at. There’s this guy that makes games named Steve Jackson. His company is called Steve Jackson Games. He made Car Wars, you know that one I showed you.”
“Yeah,” he said, tossing the cigarette.
“Well, he has a bunch of games I want,” I said. “And they are all cheap.” I knew when to throw this detail in.
The light changed.
By the time we got to The Comics Crypt, the pack of Merits was half gone. As we parked Dad said, “Let’s make this quick. I want to get home and get this thing running so I don’t miss a call from your sister.”
“Is she supposed to call,” I said.
“She’s supposed to do a lot of things.”
Fat Charlie Manson and Skinny Charlie Manson acted different when my dad was there. I guess I need to explain them. Both of them looked like Charlie Manson, except one was fat and one was skinny. I don’t know if they were brothers, but they might have been brothers. Fat Charlie Manson was the kind of fat where his belly was just starting to hang over his belt. I remember him always in a mustard colored shirt with a hole adjacent to his belly button. Skinny Charlie Manson wore ripped jeans, a white t-shirt, and usually looked like he had just been electrocuted. When I was here with JPJ they were loud, cussed a lot, and got food from the tavern next door. When my dad brought me in they were quiet. It’s like they could sense the legitimacy of his middle management position and, while they were following their dreams, they acknowledged the betrayed expectation that they would get a good, stable, wear-a-suit-to-work job someday. To my dad they were just overgrown kids, part of a wasteoid generation he had barely aged out of. He stood by the door and rocked back and forth on his heels.
I made my way through the game-side of the store, like I did every time. I knew which section the Steve Jackson games were in, but I always took a full inventory, making sure I handled each game I wanted. I flipped through the greenish hardback of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, lastly flipping to the $60 written in pencil at the top corner of the cover page. I turned over the boxes for Gamma World, and Twilight 2000, reading the teaser blurbs and component lists. Eventually, I made my way to the corner with the Steve Jackson stuff. Several supplements for Car Wars called to me- Truck Stop, Uncle Albert’s Auto and Gunnery Shop catalogues, the bleak apocalyptic cover of OGRE. The game I picked up, though, was Globbo!. The cover was bright and blue, with some simple creatures and the maniacally grinning Globbo itself, sort of a cross between an inner-tube and a gunship. “A peculiar game for two players,” was the sub-title. Sounded about right, all things considered.
Skinny Charlie Manson rang us up. “Globbo,” he said in a funny voice. “Blow up the babysitter.” He snorted. “Let me know how it is, Sam,” he said.
Dad raised his eyebrows a bit.
When we got home dad unboxed the answering machine and read the first few pages of instructions. When it was all plugged in he told me to be quiet.
“I gotta record a greeting,” he said.
I was reading the rules for Globbo! and hadn’t spoken since we got home.
He cleared his throat and held down a button. There was a beep.
“Hello, you’ve reached the Douglas’s. We can’t get to the phone right now, but if you leave a message we will get back to you.” He paused, “If this is Janey, I really want to talk to you. Please leave a number, or just--” He let out a quick sob and let go of the button. After a few quick deep breaths he looked over at me, eyes reddening. “Sorry,” he said. “Sorry, but this is so goddamn hard. Maybe she should go live with your mother in Florida.”
He got up and went into the backyard, grabbing the cigarettes and his lighter on the way. He didn’t mean that last bit he said.
While he was in the backyard chain-lighting Merits, I finished the rule book, which was short and genuinely funny. It was time to call JPJ to give the game a test run. I looked over at the phone connected to the answering machine and decided to use the one upstairs.
Lin, JPJ’s sister, answered. “Your dime,” she said.
“Is JPJ there,” I said.
“Is JPJ here?” she said, drawing out the first syllable of ‘here.’ “Ummmm.”
Lin was in charge because she was seventeen. This was the only reason that anyone would put Lin in charge of anything. She spent most of her time drunk, or high, or both. Their mom, Carol Ann, let her boyfriends stay over. “Better here than somewhere I don’t know,” she’d say. JPJ’s other sister, Rachel, at fifteen, was the total opposite of Lin. She got straight A’s and rarely left her room. I don’t think she had any friends, but she did have a boyfriend who lived four hours away in Hermiston. His name was Duke, and he did rodeos.
“Lin, it’s Sam,” I said. “Just let me talk to him.”
She groaned. “I’m busy,” she said, “but you are a cool kid so I’ll get up.”
The phone rattled as she set it down, then, at the top of her lungs: “Juuuuuuustin phoooooone.” She picked the receiver back up.
After a few moments there was another rattle. “What?” answered JPJ.
“Dude, I got Globbo,” I said.
“Sweet,” he said. “Which one is that?”
“The one with the big blobby thing on the front, with the lasers. Steve Jackson Games.”
“Sweet,” he said again. “I’m coming over.”
“Oh you think so?” It was Lin. She hadn’t gotten off the line.
“Hang up, bitch,” said JPJ.
“Make me,” she said.
“I’ll cut your head off and shove that phone down your neck-hole,” he said. Threats were a strong suit for JPJ.
Lin laughed. “Then you’ll go to prison and get ass raped.”
“Better than living with your bitch self.”
“You have to clean the kitchen.”
He hung up, she followed.
We set up in the kitchen. Dad had fixed his message and was napping in front of the TV. The kitchen table was supposed to look like wood, but it wasn’t wood, or at least not the wood it was supposed to look like. It was dark brown. Wood in houses in the ‘80s always was dark brown. Next to the table was a window looking into the backyard. JPJ didn’t ask about the cigarette graveyard.
“So,” I started, “the game is that one of us is the Globbo, and the other one is the kids. He’s like a babysitter for these alien babies, except he tries to kill them. They are locked into this room that they call a nursery, but it’s more like Thunderdome.”
“Rad,” he said.
“Totally. See, the Globbo tries to kill them, but the kids can fight, too. The Biters can chew off a hand, or one of the lasers. If they eat his head they win, and then can go live with the parents.”
“I want to be the Biters,” said JPJ. I was sure he would want to be Globbo.
“Fine with me. Also, if a Biter gets killed it turns into Blips and Yeasts, which can reform into Biters. The Globbo can grow hands and lasers, too. Also, he has a breath weapon that shoots a straight beam.”
We unfolded the map.
Thwick had just hatched. His parent, sensing this, had put he and his siblings in the nursery to avoid their children’s natural instinct to attack immediately after emerging. One or two were easy enough to evade, but a whole clutch was certain death. Besides, who needs all those children to begin with? Better to allow nature to take its course.
“I love you Slonk,” said his mother when they closed the laser gate on the spherical nursery.
“And I love you too, Blerk,” said his father.
They rubbed their antennae together affectionately, which made a clicking noise.
“I hope the baby-sitter arrives in time,” said Blerk.
“The Deliveratid’s pheromones indicate they are on the way,” said Slonk.
Blerk clicked her mouth. “You can’t ever trust the Deliveratid’s pheromones,” she said. “You know they use synthetic.”
“Nonsense,” said Slonk. “It will be alright, my little larvae.”
“You best hope so,” said Blerk, “or you may end up like my other husbands.”
Slonk shifted and smiled weakly. “You are such a kidder,” he said, unconsciously touching his head with his front legs.
Thwick hadn’t see any of that though.
The spherical room had a hexagonal grid pattern on the wall and was bright with no discernible source. The room simply glowed. He heard chattering and gnapping before his eyes became fully accustomed to his new environment. A few feet away, Thwock, his sister, was chewing on Thwuck, their brother’s, leg. Thwerck was behind them biting a low, electrified, wall. Thwack was biting herself.
“Gnap,” they’d cry, and then chomp.
Thwick felt it welling up from inside, the urge, nearly painful, to get his teeth onto something. He started bouncing excitedly, looking for a good target. He could go for Thwuck’s other leg, or try out the wall. He decided Thwack could use some help biting herself, and bounded in that direction.
A crackling filled the room. The laser gate opened and something dropped into the nursery. A shiny, rubbery cube sat motionless at the bottom of the room. The children stopped their biting and watched it. After a very short time they started bouncing and creeping towards it, sure that it would feel wonderful between their teeth.
There was a pop, followed by a long hiss. Then another, and a third. The box began to change shape. It expanded, its flat sides bulging, red hands and laser barrels emerging from seemingly within.
The children stopped, unsure of this new situation.
The box, now amoeba-like, continued to expand until it dwarfed the children. On one bulge, a single speaker started spouting music.
“I see skies of blue and clouds of white…”
Something was rising out of the center, bobbing, like it was struggling to come up for air.
“The bright blessed day…”
It was shaped like a bucket turned upside down, and then they saw it- eyes.
“The dark sacred night…”
Cartoonish, maniacal eyes.
“And I think to myself…”
Happy eyes. And following, a grin.
They lit up. The eyes and teeth. Bright red.
“What a wonderful world…”
The lasers erupted.
By four in the afternoon Dad figured out where Janey was by calling every number in the little red book he found in her room. Her friend Becky lived around the corner and up the hill from us. Dad swore a lot when he found this out and had to go to the store to buy some more cigarettes. JPJ and I were on our second game of Globbo! I won the first one, but this second game he had learned how the kids work and was putting up a good fight against the babysitter.
Brenda, Becky’s mom, had a reputation of being permissive. At a birthday party a few years earlier she raised the ire of everybody’s parents by showing the girls Deep Throat on reel-to-reel. It’s weird that she had it on reel-to-reel and must have taken some work to get it. When confronted she simply said, “It’s best that they learn about these things in the safety of their home, don’t you think?” They didn’t think. Someone suggested that they call the cops because, after all, showing porn to minors is child abuse. In the end, the neighborhood decided to keep it quiet, maybe because Becky’s mom was single and struggled by all accounts. So, Dad was not happy that Janey had run to their house, but at least he now knew where she was. He called over there and ended up talking to Brenda.
“Hi, this is Janey’s dad,” he said into the receiver. “Kathryn’s mom told me she was over
there. Well, you can just tell me, it’s not a secret.”
He was quiet for a minute or so, but I could see his face reddening from the table.
“Look,” he said, “I don’t know what she is telling you, but-- No, no it’s not like that. Of course we did a lot of yelling, wouldn’t you? Well, it was in her room. I don’t care how much it was, when you find that in your kid’s room you have to do something.”
He was quiet again. He wrapped the phone cord in his fist.
“Well, I guess we have a different opinion about that. When I find coke in my daughter’s room, there is going to be consequences. No, I don’t think it’s harmless. It’s her going downtown to that club. I knew something like this was going to happen. I’m telling you, they are too young to be going down there by themselves.”
“All I know is that a year ago it was horses. That’s what she talked about all the time. Horses and riding lessons and stuff like that, and now I’m finding drugs in her room and tracking her down because she ran out. It adds up, you know. It’s not like this shit is happening out of the goddamn blue.”
He stood, picking the phone up in his other hand.
“You don’t like my tone? Are you kidding me? My tone? Believe me, this is absolutely subdued. My daughter ran away from home and you are talking to me about my tone? Look, I need to talk to her, okay? Can I talk to her now?”
I heard sort of a muffled squawk from the receiver. He slammed it down.
Dad swore his fair share, but this was the first time I’d heard him use the F-word. His face radiated a deep purple, and I could see his jaw trembling. He muttered to himself as he set the phone down on the counter.
“Why don’t you two go over to JPJ’s for a while,” he said without looking at us. We wanted to finish the game, but clearly this wasn’t a time for debate. I started picking the counters off the board.
“You can clean that up later,” he said. “I won’t mess with it, and no one else is going to be here.”
JPJ and I rose like we were trying not to wake a baby, and made our way to the front door.
“Your dad is pissed,” said JPJ when we got outside. We walked over the lawn and through the flower bed to the sidewalk. A light, warm wind blew.
“Yeah,” I said. “He was crying earlier. My sister running away has him freaked out.”
JPJ snorted. “I wish my sister would run away,” he said.
“Both,” he said.
JPJ’s house was in a cul-de-sac around the corner. A wall of arborvitaes on our left blocked our view until we rounded the corner.
“I think you would have won that game,” I said. “It seems like you were using the warp holes better than--”
JPJ stopped. When I noticed, was actually a few feet behind me, just standing there, with an expression on his face I had never seen before. JPJ was a tough kid. He fought, got in trouble at school, hated most people, and loved violence in all forms, unless it involved animals. Right then he looked like he was suddenly a kid a lot younger.
“You okay,” I said.
He nodded towards his house.
In his driveway was a white pick-up truck with the gate down. JPJ’s dad sat on the gate, one leg up, with his arm propped on his knee. He smoked and held a beer in his other hand. He was bald and missing parts of fingers from working at the lumber mill, and his teeth weren’t looking that great either. His white t-shirt was pristine, though, and his jeans were rolled up. I always thought he looked like a cross between Popeye and Mr. Clean, complete with the anchor tattoo.
“Just-in-time,” he croaked at JPJ. That was his nickname for JPJ, because he was a son born after two daughters. It didn’t make much sense.
JPJ didn’t answer, or move. He hadn’t seen Charlie for the better part of three years. No phone calls, either, or letters, or birthday cards, or anything. No one knew where he was. Rachel frequently claimed he was dead, and Lin pretended he didn’t exist. Carol Ann figured he was in prison, but mostly referred to him as “JPJ’s deadbeat father.” But, here he was, very not dead, or in prison.
Charlie slid off the gate onto his feet and spread his arms. “Come give your old man a hug,” he said. His voice sounded like gravel and sawdust.
JPJ moved without will. Whatever mix of emotions that rendered him catatonic were powerless against the dynamic of the moment: a father beckoning his young son into his arms. JPJ may have wanted to turn and run, or melt into the asphalt, but regardless he moved towards Charlie.
When JPJ got to him a shudder passed through him and then he kicked his father square in the nuts.
I laughed and cringed at the same time, both reflexive. Charlie went down to one knee and groaned. He stayed that way for a long time, and then slowly rose.
“I deserved that,” he said. “I know what I’ve done. Kind of glad you did it, really. Now,” he opened his arms again, “how about that hug.”
JPJ collapsed into him.
For a few minutes I stayed back, even considered going home.
“Sammy D,” Charlie said, waving, but holding JPJ against him with his other arm. “Goddamn, you guys have shot up like weeds. How you doin?”
“I’m okay,” I said.
“Where’s your mom at,” he said. “I’d like to take a look at her, know what I’m saying?”
“She’s in Florida,” I said.
“She lives there now,” I said.
He frowned. “Ah, she and your dad split. Shame. She was way out of his league anyway, you know? Needed a real man like me to show her what’s what.” He made little thrusty motions with his hips.
“Yeah,” I said. I didn’t mean it, but I’d never seen an adult do that before.
“Hot damn it’s good to see you boys. Hey, come check this out.” He walked over the passenger side door, opened it, and reached under the bench. He held out a red rag and unwrapped it to reveal a gun. It was metallic grey and had a short barrel. “Got this from an Indian fella in Warm Springs. Won it in a card game. Them injuns don’t know how to play poker, but they think they do.”
“Bad ass,” said JPJ. “Three-fifty-seven.”
“Wanna hold it,” said Charlie.
I did not want to hold it. This was the first gun I’d seen in real life. It made me feel sick somehow.
“Yes,” said JPJ. His dad spun it so the handle was facing out. JPJ picked it up. “It’s heavier than I thought it would be,” he said.
“Don’t point it at no one, less you want to shoot ‘em,” said Charlie.
“I’m not a retard,” said JPJ.
Charlie laughed. “Sassy, aren’t we?” he said.
“What kind of ammo?”
“Hollow point, of course, for when you absolutely must kill a motherfucker dead.”
“Rad,” said JPJ.
“Wanna turn,” Charlie said to me.
“I, uh, my dad won’t let me,” I said. This was the wrong excuse to make.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” said Charlie. “Is that what’s happening out here? Are we raising a generation of pussies? Hell, when I was your age I had three guns, a rifle for hunting, a shotgun for vermin, and a twenty-two pistol just for fun. Not to mention knives. I had so many goddamn knives I didn’t have any place to put the bastards.”
JPJ nodded as his father spoke. He looked like a puzzle piece had just dropped into place.
“Well shit, I should put it away before one of these suburban housewives sees and calls the cops.” He took it back from JPJ and wrapped it back in the rag. “Fuckin’ unbelievable. No wonder I left this shithole. Now, let’s go inside and do some catching up, shall we?”
Inside, Charlie emptied his pockets onto the little black lacquer table by the door like he owned the place. JPJ and I kicked off our shoes, one of Carol Ann’s few rules. “Have two jobs and no time to vacuum,” she would say. Charlie walked right across the hall rug with his workboots on, which were caked with I don’t know what. He leaned into the kitchen and then peered into the basement where the TV was.
“Clean as ever,” he said and then stepped to the bottom of the stairs that led to the second floor. “Girls,” he called, “Daddy’s home.” He waited, first with a simile, and then with something less than that.
“I guess they want to play hard to get,” he said. “Typical, am I right?”
JPJ nodded. This uneasy feeling started to creep into my gut. Charlie seemed out of place, like he had walked into someone else’s painting.
“I guess I’m coming to you then,” Charlie said, starting up the stairs.
Lin was passed out on the floor. A half empty bottle of Smirnoff lay on its side next to a stack of Teen magazines. Her boyfriend, Ted, also passed out, was on her bed. He was just wearing underwear.
“Jesus H Christ instead of potatoes,” barked Charlie. “What in the fuck is going on here?” He jostled Lin with the toe of his boot. “Wake up. I said wake up little girl.”
She opened her eyes and blinked a few times. “Daddy?” she said, raising up on an elbow.
“Who the fuck is that in your bed?” said Charlie.
“Ted,” said Lin. “Ted, wake up.”
Charlie squared his shoulders to the bed and loomed over the stirring teenager. His hand balled into fists.
“Ted,” he growled. “My name is Charlie Johnson. Lin is my first born child.”
“Oh,” mumbled Ted. “Um, hi. I mean, sir. I--”
“Shut your goddamn mouth.” Charlie turned his arm out so Ted could see his anchor tattoo. “You see this?”
“I said shut the fuck up.”
Ted was really awake now. He stiffened out on the bed.
“I got this when I was in the Navy, Ted. I did two tours in ‘Nam, Ted. I’ve killed people a whole lot smarter and tougher than you, Ted.” Each time he said ‘Ted’ it sounded more and more like a curse word. “Now you have one minute to get your pants on and get the fuck out of my house before I show you an old Army trick I learned in the Navy.”
I think the last part was supposed to be funny.
Ted scrambled grabbing at his clothes and bolting for the door.
Lin screeched after Ted. “Daddy, I love him,” she wailed.
“Not anymore you don’t,” he said, grabbing up the vodka. He pointed the bottle at her. “Your mother lets you do this?”
“I do what I want,” Lin said. “I’m seventeen.”
Charlie chucked the bottle at her vanity, smashing the mirror. “Wrong answer,” he shouted. “Go in the bathroom and clean yourself up.”
Lin wobbled to her feet.
“Now,” said Charlie after a deep breath, and then almost brightly, “where’s Rachel?”
JPJ and I followed him to Rachel’s door. The sound of the radio drifted softly into the hallway. He knocked lightly, “Rachel, darling, it’s daddy.”
The radio got louder.
“Come on, honey,” he said to the door. “Open up.” He rattled the knob.
“Go away,” Rachel said from inside.
Charlie put a hand on each side of the frame and hung his head. “Don’t be like this,” he said. “I just want to see you. I just want to see my little girl.”
The radio got louder still. Then came a grinding sound as she pushed some furniture in front of the door.
“Well,” said Charlie to us, “she’s always been the tougher nut.” He winked at JPJ. “Let’s go down to the kitchen. I need a beer.”
When we walked by the bathroom I could hear the shower running.
Charlie made us bologna sandwiches heavy on the mayo and mustard. They were good and kind of gross at the same time. He offered us beer, but we both said no.
“Suit yourself,” he said.
He went on a while about when he was our age and how kids were supposed to act and what the hell was the world coming to. When he was Lin’s age he was in a “fucking hell-hole jungle shooting gooks,” a man already. JPJ really wanted to hear more about the war, so we did. Lin made it down after a while and made a bowl of Fruit Loops.
Eventually, we heard Carol Ann driving up.
“Fire in the hole,” Charlie grinned.
Funny thing was, though, she didn’t say anything at all. Not at first anyway. She came in, put her purse by his wallet on the table, and went up the stairs without so much as looking at us. When she came back down, she had changed out of her Arby’s uniform and was wearing a red robe with candy-canes on the breast. She poured a cup of coffee and put it in the microwave. When it beeped, she took it out, pulled out a chair at the kitchen table, sat, and crossed her arms still holding the mug in her right hand.
“What do you want?” she said.
“Is that any way to greet the father of your children?” Charlie said.
“That’s all you are to me, Chuck,” she said. She looked tired, more than usual. It was like he was sucking energy out of her just by being there.
He pulled his cigarettes out of his chest pocket. “Well, I wanted to see the kids. Make sure you were raising them right, and all that.”
“You lost the right to an opinion when you ran out on me,” she said. “And don’t smoke in here. It’s not good for the kids.”
He leaned forward, sliding the cigarette back into the pack. “And I suppose a bottle of vodka at four o’clock on a Saturday afternoon is?”
Carol Ann shot a look at Lin, who suddenly seethed with indignance. “I’m old enough to make my own decisions, “ she said.
“If I hear that one more time,” said Charlie. “I can still turn you over my knee, baby girl.”
JPJ was in heaven. It was like the cat finally came home and the mice were freaking out.
Lin started to scream something, but Carol Ann interrupted her. “You’re not going to lay a hand on my daughter,” she said.
“Our daughter,” said Charlie.
Lin, still drunk, pounded the table with her fists. “Not this again,” she said. “I can’t handle this again.”
“Oh calm down,” said Charlie. “Carol Ann, we’ve got some things to discuss. I’ve been away too long. Shit’s messed up.”
“No thanks to you,” said Carol Ann. “If you want to help, you can start by giving me four years worth of child support. That would be a real shot in the arm.”
Charlie sneered. “Always about the money with you, isn’t it? Money, money, money.”
“Which you’re never going to give me.” Carol Ann uncrossed her arms, took a sip of coffee, and set the cup on the table. “Let’s just cut to the chase, Chuck. It’s always the same with you, so can we just skip to the part where you make promises and get to the end where you disappoint everyone.”
Right then Lin, who had been steadily turning green, threw up vodka and Fruit Loops all over everything.
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” howled Charlie. He stood, sending the chair backwards onto the floor. “I’m goin’ for a walk. Pull it together, Lindsay. Come on Justin.”
JPJ socked me in the shoulder. “Come on.”
“When I was your age,” Charlie started as we crossed through a little bike path to the cul-de-sac behind JPJ’s cul-de-sac, “on a Saturday my dad would get me up around five and we’d drive up to his spot on the foot of Mt. Hood. We never saw anyone there. We’d unpack the rods and lawn chairs, and then he’d take a six pack of Coors out of his little cooler and put it in the river to keep cold. We’d have jerky and beer for breakfast while we cast our first line. That was the best time, boys, up there on the mountain. I remember the clean smell of the water and the forest. You’d see deer and sometimes a bear.”
“Should have brought a gun,” said JPJ. “I would have shot a bear.”
“Ah, too much hassle. They’d always be across the river. Have to have a license to hunt bear anyway. Nah, fish were easy.”
“Don’t you need a license for those, too?” I said.
“Yeah,” said Charlie. “At any rate, we’d have trout for lunch. He’d make a fire and cook it like the Indians did. Best goddamn meals I ever had in my life, before or since.”
Our neighborhood was circular, for the most part. If we kept going the way we were going we would go around, then down the hill, turn by Kyle’s house, pass mine, and turn again to get back to JPJ’s.
“I got to thinking the other day,” said Charlie, “that you were missing all that. Fishin’ and huntin’ and goin’ to Pendleton for the goddamn rodeo. This isn’t a good environment for a young man. This,” he made a sweeping motion with his arm, a trail of cigarette smoke following, “this is all flower beds and Tupperware and houses too fuckin’ close together. Man can’t even stretch his legs out. It’s hell’s what it is. It’s cancer. This is what you get when women take over. You get station wagons and fuckin’ Bunko games. You get the goddamn suburbs.”
He stopped like he was stricken and half collapsed on the curb.
“Ain’t no place for a boy to be raised,” he said. JPJ sat down next to him. I stood behind them, I wasn’t sure where I should be.
“Justin, you’re going to be seeing a lot more of me. Yessir. I intend to correct some of the wrong that’s been done to you. I bet you never been fishing.”
“No,” said JPJ.
“What about you Sam? I don’t suppose your old man takes you fishin’?”
“No,” I said.
“That’s what I thought.”
“My grandpa took me surf fishing once,” I said.
Charlie beamed, “Well I’ll be dipped in shit. That’s fuckin’ fantastic. You like it?”
“I got seasick,” I said.
He twisted around to look at me. His mouth just kind of hung open, like a dog that smelled something gross.
“That’s okay,” he said. “That’s okay, you can’t get seasick on the shore of a river. I’m here to save you boys, and none too soon. Justin-time, right?” He elbowed JPJ who then elbowed him back.
“What about Rachel and Lin,” I said.
“What?” said Charlie. “Shit, I never said I knew anything about raising no girls.”
We stayed on the sidewalk there a few minutes while he smoked another cigarette. Across the street a guy came out and started washing a boat in his driveway. Blue lightning was painted down the side. It looked fast. The guy took off his shirt and his belly was big and fuzzy. He reminded me of a dwarf.
“Jesus,” said Charlie. He stood up and flicked his cigarette into the street.
We got moving again and made our way around the next corner. Charlie was going on about rabbit hunting in Eastern Oregon. Fishing was one thing, but hunting didn’t sit well with me. When you catch a fish you are sort of tricking it. It’s like a game. Shooting a rabbit with a rifle didn’t seem fair.
As we rounded onto the next street, Charlie swatted me on the chest.
“Ain’t that your old man?” he said.
Dad stood in the driveway of Becky’s house with a black duffel bag. He wore blue sweats and a white polo shirt.
“I brought you some things,” he shouted at the house. “I just want to drop them off and talk a minute. Please.”
The way he said ‘please’ seemed to stab at Charlie.
“The fuck is he doing?” he said.
With all the tumult caused by Charlie’s return, I forgot about Dad and Janey. I guess Dad didn’t like being hung up on.
“My sister ran away last night,” I said. “She’s in there, I think.”
“Well I’ll be goddamned,” said Charlie.
We crossed the street to Becky’s house, which was tan and brown and had a matching recliner on the front porch, for some reason. Skinny yellow windows hung on either side of the door, but they were bumpy and frosted so you couldn’t see in. There were more windows on the second floor, but the blinds were drawn. It was a Tudor, this house. I knew because those kinds of houses make up the medieval cities in D&D, and just about any other fantasy setting. The second floor stuck out, sort of looming over the porch.
“Jerry,” called Charlie, sticking out his hand. “Goddamn, it’s been a long time.”
Dad started and, switching the bag to his other hand, shook. “Hey, Charlie, hi.”
“Good to see you, chief,” said Charlie. “Your boy told me you and Sal split.”
Dad set the bag down. “Oh, yeah,” he said. “Well, I was just more man than she could handle, I guess.” He laughed, but it wasn’t his usual laugh.
Charlie threw back his head and cackled at the sky. “Don’t I know it, brother,” he said. He took out his pack of cigarettes and shook one out. “Care for a heater?” he said.
Charlie handed him one and shook out another. He pulled his lighter out of his pocket and lit it halfway between them. They both leaned in and puffed off the flame.
“Hey, you still down at the rail yards?”
“Yes, actually,” said Dad.
“Well shit, ain’t you seen my application? I’ve applied twice now.”
Dad smiled and set the bag down. “I’m plant manager, not HR.”
Charlie snorted. “Well, don’t a plant manager have some say in who works in the goddamn plant?”
“No, actually. I mean, I do the office staff, but production is all through Ed Corbin. Did the mill shut down, or something?”
“Nah,” said Charlie. “I’m still there. Pay’s better for welders over where you are.”
Dad nodded. “You know how to weld then?”
Charlie held a hand to his brow to shade from the sun. “How hard can it be? Just like caulking, right? I can squeeze a caulk gun; I can squeeze a welder just the same.”
“Well, there’s classes, see?” said Dad.
“Course there is.” Charlie said. “Classes for every goddamn thing these days. They wanted Sally to go to childbirth classes for our second. Our second.” He blew smoke out his nose like a dragon. “If that ain’t ass backward I don’t know what is.”
JPJ furrowed his brow, but only for a second. No one else noticed.
Dad smiled. “It’s mostly for safety. I don’t suppose it’s too difficult.”
“Damn skippy it ain’t. Well, who I gotta talk to down there to get on the crew. I’ll do graveyard if I have to. I don’t mind that at all. Kind of like it actually.” Charlie took deep drags off his cigarette, not the shallow greedy puffs my dad did.
“Glen Barrett is the head of HR,” said Dad. “I could ask him about your file.”
“I got a file?”
“Maybe something like that.” Dad flicked his cigarette away.
Charlie tilted his head and squinched his face up and then looked at the cigarette burning in the street. The low, surging sound of a passing plane descended on us.
Charlie pivoted to face the house. “A file, huh?” he said. His thoughts seemed to be transitioning. “Your boy says you have a little domestic problem.”
Dad shifted and ran his fingers through his hair, then he laughed. “Oh yeah, it’s nothing. You know how things are. Girls.”
“Ran away, huh?” Charlie said. “That’s what girls do, right? Boys want to kick your ass, but girls, they run and hide, and lie.”
Dad glanced at me from the corner of his eye. I looked at my shoes.
“I’m just bringing her some things,” said Dad. “You know, it’s not a big deal. Like a sleep-over.”
“How long you been standin’ here, Jer?” Charlie crossed his arms.
Charlie cupped one hand on the side of his mouth and cleared his throat. “Brenda,” he shouted at the house. “Brenda, this is Charlie Johnson, and you have about five seconds to open that motherfuckin’ door for this man, or I’m gonna kick the son of a bitch in myself, and you know I will do it.”
One of the upstairs windows slid open. “Charlie?”
Charlie grinned at Dad. “That’s what I thought,” he said quietly. Then louder, “In the flesh. You’re bein’ rude to my friend here. All he wants is to talk to his goddamn kid.”
“Charlie Johnson, this isn’t any of your business,” shouted Brenda, “so shove off.”
“Shut your whore mouth, woman, fore I shove it full of somethin’.” Charlie cackled again. He started cackling after everything he said.
“Jesus, Charlie,” said Brenda. “I’m gonna call the cops.”
“Call the fuckin’ cops,” said Charlie. “Hell, gimme your phone, and I’ll call ‘em.”
“Look,” said Dad, “this isn’t necessary.”
Charlie ignored him. “You’re time is almost up, Brenda.”
“You don’t need to do this,” said Dad.
“Fuck off,” screamed Brenda.
“Oh, that’s it.”
“Charlie, really, you don’t--”
Charlie walked past my dad, across the lawn, and up to the door. He clenched his cigarette between his teeth and balled his hands into fists. He lifted his right knee to his chest and kicked out, hitting the door with the heel of his boot.
“I said…” wham “...to open...” wham “...the goddamn...” wham “...door,” wham.
With the last kick the frame cracked along one side and the top corner of the door gave.
Dad put his hand on Charlie’s shoulder. “This isn’t necessary, man,” he said.
“Stop,” wailed Brenda. She opened the door. “For Christ’s sake.”
Charlie straightened up and winked at Brenda. “Nice to see you, B.”
“Fuck off, Charlie,” she said, tying the belt on her robe.
“Love you, too, sweetheart.”
What’s weird is she didn’t seem mad. She seemed irritated like Princess Leia was with Han Solo, like mad, but more just for show.
Charlie stepped to the side and aimed both hands at the door, palm up. “She’s all yours.”
Dad scratched the back of his head. “Uh, thanks,” he said.
“Just check that file for me,” said Charlie, walking back across the lawn. “Come on boys.”
“Sam wait--” Dad stopped. He looked at Brenda, and then at Charlie. “Where--I mean-- Just be home by six, okay?”
“Okay,” I said.
We went the rest of the way around the block, passing the Cliftons, then the Staffords, then the Bucks, Moray’s, Angie’s, Kyle’s cul-de-sac, and finally my house. The Stormbridges were on the corner at the mouth of JPJ’s cul-de-sac. Muriel stood in their window overlooking the street. She always was standing sentinel up there. She eyeballed Charlie with her arms crossed. He waved her the bird.
All the way down he was talking about “that’s how you get things done,” and “don’t ever let a woman…” etcetera. JPJ kept his eyes on the ground, but Charlie was too wound up in his own thing to notice. I felt the storm underneath. When JPJ was like this there was always a storm underneath.
“Still smells like puke in here,” said Charlie when we got back to JPJ’s.
“You don’t have to stay,” said Carol Ann, back at the table with a cigarette. Frank sat next to her, leaning forward.. His silver hair swept back over the collar of a maroon dress shirt and he spun the too-big gold ring on his finger. A white sports coat hung on the back of his chair.
“Hello, Charlie,” he said, standing and offering a hand.
Charlie stopped in the doorway to the kitchen. “Who in the fuck are you, grandpa?”
Frank smiled through Charlie’s reaction. “I’m Frank. I’m Carol Ann’s friend.” He held his hand out still.
Charlie acted like he was going to pass out, buckling comically at the knees and putting the back of his hand to his forehead. “Jesus, please Jesus, tell me you are fucking kidding me right now.” He steadied himself on the back of a chair. “How in the world can things get so completely fucked up in such a short time?” He sat. Frank dropped his hand.
Carol Ann rolled her eyes with true fatigue. “Look, Charlie, this is my house, and I’m not going to tolerate--”
Charlie snapped out of his act. “No, darlin’,” he said. “This is my house, remember? You live here because I let you live here.” He thumped the tip of his first finger on the table for emphasis. “My goddamn house.”
“Well,” said Frank, easing into his chair, “that’s why Carol Ann called me over. See, I’m a realtor. Retired, actually, but I can still make this real simple. I intend, you see, to buy this house from you.”
“We’ve wanted to for a long time,” said Carol Ann, “but I didn’t know how to get a hold of you.”
“We,” said Charlie. “We’ve wanted to?”
“Yes,” said Frank.
“Wait a minute.” Charlie pointed at Carol Ann and then at Frank. “You are fucking him, aren’t you? You are fucking this old man, aren’t you?”
Carol Ann didn’t flinch. “Justin and Sam, why don’t you go upstairs.”
“Do what your mom says,” said Charlie. “This won’t take long.”
So we went. You’d expect JPJ’s room to be messy, but it wasn’t. He wasn’t much into action figures, but what he did have tended to be GI Joe. A few stood in front of his ten gallon fish tank, brandishing their weapons. Like his room, the tank was tidy. A golden angelfish named Rambo and a host of neons surged to the top of the tank when they saw him. He sprinkled some food in from the yellow Tetra bottle and then watched them peck at it.
“You okay?” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, but that’s not what he meant.
“Your dad is--” I struggled for a word, “intense.”
He smirked. “Yeah.”
“Wanna run a mini adventure?”
“Your books are at your house,” he said.
“I don’t need them,” I said, tapping my temple.
“So are my dice. I left them there earlier.”
“We can manage,” I said.
Grom of the Winterwolf Clan, usually a two fisted drinker, stooped in the far corner of The Wobbly Wendigo, at the edge of the firelight. Turnton lay further south than he usually ventured, but the unusually cold winter had pushed the kind of things he made his living on south until the thaw. It’s hard to do anything, including evil deeds, when one is frozen.
The bustle of the public room did not fit his demeanor, or the cold. The drink and the warmth of the fire worked on the inhibitions of the patrons and the barmaids alike. Open flirtations and bawdy gestures led to cheer, and cheer led to bigger bar tabs. The tide of women to and from the bar formed a roiling sea of revelry. On any other evening Grom would have planted himself like a great rock in the tide. One aspect of the proceedings resonated with him, though. Soon his thoughts drew together around it, coalescing on a singular desire.
The urge to be out upon its cold glassy blackness filled him in a way that the ale, or the barmaids, could not. At sea, things were clearer, driven by necessity. Keep the ship afloat. Navigate to the destination port, or any port if need be. The crew, bound by common interest, looked beyond differences. Any other way would lead to watery death. Seafaring coursed through the Winterwolf Clan’s very blood and Gorm was deadly with any blade, which was nearly as important. Yes, the sea called to him.
“Look what we have here,” a voice croaked in the light of the fire. “A barbarian.”
“Blech,” another spat.
Two men stood over Gorm’s table in filthy hides, smoking through thin pipes no doubt pilfered from wood elves. Gorm eyed some other out of place items: a dwarven pendant, the hilt of a gnomish dagger, and the wine-horn of-- a barbarian!
“I smelt him before I saw him,” said the first.
“Me, too,” grunted the second. “Smells like fish.”
“Rotten fish.” The first on glanced over his shoulder. “Hey boys,” he said. “Looks like we got a fish-eater here.”
Two tables of men, all equally dirty and disheveled, left their drinks and made their way across the room. They bore the same relics of treachery and murder as the first two.
Gorm upended his mug of ale, drained it, and placed it carefully on the table. He then planted his palms and pushed himself to standing. As he rose his full size caught the rogues off guard. He was indeed massive- nearly eight feet and seemingly only a slight less broad. His red beard fell to his belt and the worg-hide cloak he wore gave him the air of wild bestialtiy. At his full height Gorm seemed to grow still, and a soft golden glow enveloped him. This was the Weird Way, taught to his tribe by elder bone-throwers as a way to ward off and intimidate enemies, much like the tricks played by prey animals to give them precious seconds to escape their predator.
Gorm spoke, his voice overwhelming the din of the public room. “I am Gorm of the Winterwolves, Warrior-scout, and Master of Warhavok. I have come to this village to enjoy a stay from travel, and the local wares. I have passed through this way before, but never have I witnessed this disregard for those born as I.”
“So,” he said as he heaved a great silver axe onto his shoulder, “I deduce you highwaymen are not from here, and remain against the will of the commoners, who too tightly cling to their blessed hospitality to expel you. If you were in Skraggarfell you would have surely been poisoned the first evening, as it is not dishonorable to poison rats.”
The first man, the apparent leader, spoke up, “Now I won’t have you calling me men vermin--”
“Silence,” boomed Gorm, causing the audience to cower, another trick, this of the voice. He brought the axe down and hewed the table in two. “You have found me contemplative, and I do not wish to take your lives this night. Continue on your present course, though, and I will see to it that it leads you to your ancestors.”
The barkeep, a wiry old fellow in a stained apron, stood calmly with with both hands on the bar. “I’d do as he says,” he said and then began to wipe the splinter of the split table from that side of the counter.
“And when I return this way, or if I ever cross paths with your lot again, you will meet my hammer as well as my axe. Now, go!”
The men scrambled out the door, into the night.
Gorm returned his axe to its holder and retrieved a gold crown from a satchel on his belt. He flicked it to the barkeep. “For the table, and a room,” he said.
The barkeep nodded and pointed to the stairs.
As Gorm trudged up the stairs his thoughts turned inward once again, to the sea.
“I thought you’d kill ‘em,” I said.
JPJ shrugged. We hadn’t heard anything from the kitchen for a while. Shouting echoed up the stairs earlier, but now it was silent, and that was sort of worse. JPJ gazed back into the fish tank. He had one of those plastic diver things in it hooked to the aerator. It would sink to a treasure chest and then slowly rise, only to plunge back down a minute or so later.
“Justin, come down here son,” called Charlie from the kitchen.
I followed JPJ down the hall. Rachel’s door remained sealed and Lin lay passed out on her bed.
The adults in the kitchen were already staring at the door when we showed up. Frank held a folder and Carol Ann looked somewhere between tears and rage. Charlie sat with his hands on his knees and his elbows turned out to either side.
Charlie spoke first. “Justin, we’ve been talking and, well, I want you to come live with me and Sally for a while.”
Everyone looked at JPJ. I think his mother was holding her breath.
“Who’s Sally?” asked JPJ.
“Oh, she’s my wife. Your step-mother, I guess,” said Charlie. “You’ll love her. She’s already a mom, so she knows how to do all that stuff already.”
“She has a kid?” asked JPJ.
“We have kids,” said Charlie. “Two, actually. There’s Timmy, he’s my oldest, almost three. And then there’s Summer, who is eleven months.” Charlie smiled as he talked.
JPJ didn’t move, but I saw something behind his eyes. I don’t think anyone else noticed, which is crazy because it was massive.
Charlie leaned to one side and got his wallet out of his back pocket. “I got pictures,” he said. “Here’s Sally. Looker, ain’t she? And here’s Summer, just born. Here she is at two months, see that smile, and here at six. Here’s her and Timmy in the kiddy pool in the yard. Here’s Timmy on Christmas morning. Got him that GI Joe hovercraft. He loves that shit. And here he is after he caught his first fish. I helped, of course. Look at how proud he is.”
JPJ picked each photo off the table and studied them. He held the one of Timmy and the fish for a long time.
“That’s your brother,” said Charlie. “Er, half anyway. And sister. They’d love to meet you. Timmy says he wants a brother. It’d be like Christmas in July.”
“It’s August,” I said.
“Figure of speech, dude,” said Charlie.
Whatever it was building behind JPJ’s eyes, sadness or anger or indignation- whatever it was, it burst.
He cried. Not a sniffle, or a try-to-hold-it-in type of cry, but a sob. A wail. Great bulbous tears rained down his face, which had gone all hot and blotchy looking. Snot came out, too, in thick rivulets. He wasn’t the tough kid trying to be whatever type of man he could cobble together in his imagination. He was a kid, a baby. He shook and balled up his fist and punched a hole in the wall. Not satisfied he grabbed up the pictures and tore them to shreds, screaming sounds that weren’t words, but that no one could mistake the meaning of.
The adults shouted things, the kinds of things you’d think they would shout, things that were way too late to matter. Carol Ann and Charlie reached for their son simultaneously, but before either could get to him he bolted out of the kitchen, through the hall, and out the front door.
“Justin,” called Charlie. “Goddamnit--”
“Let him go,” said Carol Ann.
“What the fuck you mean? See, that’s your problem, you let these kids do whatever the hell they want.”
“Just think how he feels,” said Carol Ann.
“How the hell am I supposed to know how he feels?” said Charlie.
Carol Ann rose and slammed a fist on the table. “How do you think he feels? What did you think? Did you think you’d pull out those pictures and he would fall in love with the people who have had his father for the past three years? Can you just, for once, try to imagine what it’s like to be someone other than you?”
Carol Ann turned to me. “Sam, Justin trusts you more than anyone in the whole world. Go out and find him. Bring him home.”
I nodded, but it turned out that JPJ hadn’t gone anywhere.
He stood in the kitchen entry, one hand holding a rag, and the other the gun that had been wrapped in it.
He pointed it at Charlie’s heart.
“Oh my god,” said Carol Ann. “Oh my god Justin, put that down.” Now she cried, too.
“Justin,” said Frank, “think this through.”
“Shut up, grandpa,” said Charlie. “Stay out of this.”
“I’m trying to help,” said Frank.
“I’m good,” said Charlie.
That was the point, right then, that’s burned into my mind. All of us frozen, right there, forever.
“JPJ, don’t,” I said. “Let’s go. Let’s go to my house, JPJ. We can go to The Crypt. My dad will take us. We can get Warhammer. I promise we can.”
“Yeah, let Sam’s pansy ass dad take care of you,” said Charlie. “It’s like having a mother and a father all in one.”
“Shut up!” said JPJ.
“Don’t talk to your pa like that, boy,” said Charlie.
“Why don’t you care?” said JPJ.
“Shit,” said Charlie, standing. “You think I never been on the business end of a pistol before. I doubt you even know how to use that. Not like anyone around here ever taught you.”
JPJ put his other hand on the butt of the gun, like they do in the movies, aimed the gun a foot or so to the right of his dad, and fired through the china cabinet.
“Get out of here,” said JPJ to Charlie. “Get out of here and don’t ever come back. You’re dead.”
Charlie opened his mouth, but then just let out a breath. He swept the torn up pictures from the table into his hand, and stuck them in his pocket. He nodded at Frank, “Pleasure doin’ business with you.” Then to Carol Ann. “Good luck with these kids. You need it.”
He passed by JPJ and I. In the hall he turned and held out his hand. JPJ put the gun in it.
“If you ever pull a gun on a man, be damn sure willing to use it,” he said, and then walked out the door.
Janey came home that day. She seemed okay and even came with when Dad took JPJ and I to The Comic Crypt.
“Second time in one day,” said Fat Charlie Manson. “Lucky us.” When he said nice things it never seemed like he meant it.
Dad let me get Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play even though it was sixty dollars. I was delusional with excitement. JPJ high fived me. He was still upset, but had gotten his game face back. Dad bought him some comics. I guess he saw through JPJ like I did. Janey mostly rolled her eyes at things and huffed.
We stopped and got Coney dogs for dinner.
When we got home, JPJ and I went into my room. He rolled-up a new car for Car Wars while I read the rules for Warhammer. Janey and Dad talked downstairs. Later they started screaming at each other and then the front door slammed. Dad came upstairs.
“Janey’s gone again,” he said.
“Let her go,” I said.