They caught me fiddling with the mute girl a few days after Miss Truman went missing. We were going at it in the stairwell down by the science lab, I had one hand down her Mickey Mouse panties, the other pulling at my dog. I was about to blow my little white soldiers when Mrs. Carmichael, the school guidance counselor, walked in through the bottom door.
I ain’t messing when I say the old dog played possum right there and then. Mrs. Carmichael smacked the limp slider out my hand. She grabbed me by the scruff of my neck, yelling “Speechless” over and over, and marched me straight to the principal’s office.
The principle sat behind his desk, a bulking bastard of a man with a head like a magic eight ball. Thick purple veins popped and throbbed up his neck, and I stood there, my fly undone and my balls swelling, expecting an ass whooping from the mean son of a bitch. Instead everything was quiet. A heavy, sagging silence hung in the air as he leaned back in his chair and eyeballed me without a word.
Looking back on things, I guess the whole town was quiet then. The teachers and parents and all, I guess they were on edge, what with Miss Truman just vanishing like that. Because one minute she was standing in front of that old blackboard, the prettiest damn lady I ever seen. She was teaching us long division and trigonometry, shadowy curves of flesh winking under her blue summer dress. Us boys, we wasn’t even listening to what she was saying, we just liked the sound of her womanly voice. Yep, one minute Miss Truman was there at that blackboard, and the next it was Mr. Henry and his goddamn yellow armpits.
Anyways, this silence, it got me thinking about the seriousness of the situation. I figured I’d overstepped the mark messing with that mute girl. This wasn’t another fight with them Brewston boys or the time Len Ochs and I killed old Abe, the Home Economics chicken. Those times old Principle Eight Ball yelled so close in my face his liquor breath knocked me on my ass. But now, the way he just stared at me, I figured I was in some serious shit. So when he told me he was calling my folks, I racked my brains ’til they hurt trying to remember my old man’s phone number.
See, my old man, he lived somewhere on the other side of town. I hadn’t seen him much since what he done to Ma with the monkey wrench. That was before Ma got sick. Back when she had her own hair. But then, almost overnight, Ma became a sack of bones. Just a shriveled little skeleton. She would look at you with them sunken yellow eyes and she was too goddamn sick to even speak.
My old man, he knocked Ma around since I was in diapers. Gave her the sunny side of his hand on account of her mouth. The problem, he’d say, was she never knew when to keep her tramp trap shut. But she got it ’specially good with that old wrench. She ended up in the county hospital, and him in the hole for one or two days. Me, they tried to send me upstate to an aunt and uncle’s ’til Ma got better, or at least ’til she could talk again. But I skipped town the morning they came to pick me up. I made like a savage out in them marshlands north of the junkyard, skinning big old snakes and barbecuing woodchucks. Hell, I only came down six days later on account they sent the county sheriff out to get me.
Yep, I ain’t messin’ when I say I could take care of myself, but there ain’t no chance in hell I was giving old Eight Ball Ma’s telephone number. Ma wasn’t fit for scolding me, what with the cancer and all, and she sure didn’t need to hear about what her boy had done. Sure, my old man would be pissed, but I reckoned he’d go easy on me on account of him fixing to get one over on his dying old lady.
So my old man, he turned up to school in his mint blue ’57 Chevy with dual CB antenna on the back. I hadn’t seen him in four Christmases and he had this big old Tom Selleck moustache and tinted Iceman sunglasses. He was offering Camels to the twelfth-grade girls down by the front gates, his naked arm hanging from an oily Grateful Dead shirt, ripped at the sleeves. His muscles rippled, making the tattoo mermaid on his bicep dance in the light, and as he cracked his knuckles, spitting wads of Beech Nut on the school path, he looked so cool I almost forgot that old monkey wrench.
Still, I approached that Chevy as if it was a rattlesnake nest. Climbed into the leather seat tame as a whipped dog. I slinked down on that seat, with them twelfth graders all giggling the way girls do, setting myself for a beating. But my old man just spat another Nut wad on the ground and gave me a big old slap on the back.
“Bout time you got some goddamn pussy,” he yelled, his mouth pulled back in a snarling smile. “Shit, we was worried you might be turning fag.”
He looked over to them girls and they blushed and giggled some more. He got to choking me in a sweaty headlock then, rubbing his bony knuckles into my skull ’til tears welled up in my eyes, and hollering how we was gonna celebrate.
The old man’s idea of celebrating meant stopping by Uncle Buck’s place before driving round town loaded on cheap booze. Uncle Buck was neither my uncle nor named Buck. He was just my old man’s poker buddy, and we called him Uncle Buck on account of him being round and fat like the old John Candy fella from the movies.
We picked Buck up outside a rotted old house that stood on four concrete blocks. My old man parked in front of a pickup with no wheels and honked the horn ’til Uncle Buck shambled out a door made from chicken wire, juggling a dozen cans of Blue Ribbon.
He squinted from his porch, watching the sun go down behind our old town and shuffled to the curb, cradling them cans like they were his babies. Tufts of rusty straw hair sprouted above his ears and round the back of his neck, but he was bald as a baby’s behind on top and he pulled an oil stained rag from the front of his dungarees to blot his greasy head. He belched and tossed a beer to my old man as I scampered to the back seat.
My old man cracked open the can and spun the Chevy down the road, raking dirt all over the busted old truck, and we were halfway across town when he told Uncle Buck of my Romeo escapades. Uncle Buck slapped his fat wobbling thigh and barked an idiot laugh from deep down in his big belly. He shifted his mass of greasy denim round to get a better look at me and flashed a gummy toothless grin.
“Shoot kid, me and your old man thought you were sissy,” he said. ‘What with them pretty eyes and big red lips. Hell, we thought them lips were red from all the cock sucking didn’t we Jack?”
Uncle buck chuckled and nudged my old man, spilling beer on his jeans. My old man looked at the fat man then. He stared at Buck’s fleshy white face the way he looked at Ma all those nights at supper she forgot her tongue. I knew what that look meant and I held my breath like I did round that old kitchen table.
Little flecks of spit formed at the corners of his tight lips and I got dizzy, sucking air for what seemed like forever. I stared at his taut muscles twitching and flexing until, quick as a snake bite, he grabbed a clump of Buck’s rusty red hair and slammed his face against the Chevy’s dashboard. Buck’s nose splintered and thick gloopy blood sputtered all over the front of the car.
“You talk that way in front of my kid again I’ll break your fucking neck,” the old man said. ‘You hear me you fat fuck?”
“Shoot Jack, I’m just happy for the kid,” Buck said, pinching his nose with the oily rag and blubbering all down his bibs.
“We’re all happy,” my old man said. “You hear me? I said we’re all fucking happy.” And his dry lips curled back, showing his crooked brown teeth.
We drove on, and I ain’t messing when I say something live and dangerous hung over that Chevy. Like the humming buzz of a telephone line, crackling overheard. Uncle Buck sat quiet as a choir boy all the way passed the timber mill and the titty bar and down by Tex Stenton’s hardware store, the flabby arm holding his nose wobbling like Jell-O each time the old man threw the car into a corner, his eyes glistening with moisture under every street lamp we passed.
But by the time we hit the downtown Five and Dime, Buck’s nose was plugged and he seemed eager to make amends. He broke open a little clear pouch he had tucked away safe in his dungarees and poured some white powder on an old Jim Reeves cassette he found in the glove box. He carefully placed the case down by the gear stick, his bologna sausage fingers all fat and delicate, and that little white mountain looking fresh as snow and just about good enough to eat.
My old man reached over to Buck like a broad giving head and snorted half the mound up his nose, slapping the wheel and howling at the sky. Buck couldn’t get the powder up his busted beak, what with the snot and the caked blood, but he went ahead and rubbed it all round his cracked yellow gums, and by the time the Chevy roared up Main Street, they were both jumpier than rattlesnakes in a pickle barrel.
Things were looking A-Okay between Buck and the old man then, and we tore that Chevy around town, whooping and hollering like dogs in the night. They worked their way through that little bag of white stuff, and my old man tossed me a can of Blue Ribbon while Buck turned the radio dial to Big Bill’s WRYK. They got to reminiscing over an old Hank Williams song and the more powder they put away, the looser they got with their tongues.
My old man eventually got on to his pussy stories and Uncle Buck giggled like them girls back at the school gates. He was half way through one of his old favorites when Buck started slobbering and yelping, excited as a puppy dog.
“Hey Jack, hey Jack,” he said, bouncing around in his seat. “Why don’t you tell the boy about us three Jack? Tell him about me and you and Deb Truman!”
“Why don’t you shut that damn slack mouth of yours Buck,” my old man said, and the flatness in his voice reminded me of the air sometimes, when it gets to being still and heavy right before a thunder storm.
“Aw c’mon Jack, the kid’s alright! Tell him what we did with little Miss Truman. Up by the marshes Jack.”
My old man’s hands gripped the Chevy wheel so hard his knuckles turned white through his hairy tattooed skin, and the way his face got hotter and hotter, I couldn’t help but picture all them shades of purple rising up in old Principle Eight Ball’s neck.
“What was it you said Jack?” Buck rambled on, his flat face drawn tight in concentration. He was working himself into a frenzy, so damn excited he couldn’t get the story all pieced together in his dumb head. His eyes were scrunched tight, his pea brain scrambling and hurting as he clicked his fingers, trying to remember.
“Ha, that’s it Jack!” he said, and them eyes burst open with idiot clarity. “You said the little bitch choked to death on your big old dog!”
My old man slammed the brakes so hard them white and red cans shot right passed Buck’s head, knocking the Jim Reeves cassette on the floor. He cut the engine and the Chevy sat still right there in the middle of the street.
I looked around for anyone passing by, anyone that could stop what I knew was about to happen, but the street lay quiet in the night. Half a mile up the road, a beat up, golden jalopy screamed from the 76 gas station and disappeared into the dark. Across the street, through the window of Hank’s barbershop, empty chairs lay waiting for morning, when the room would fill with cursing and laughter, and clouds of cigar smoke. Next door to Hank’s was a ladies boutique, selling dresses and coats and fancy hats. The name Wendy’s, spelled out in cracked looping lettering, was painted in fading yellow above the door, and a dim light shone over the window display like a halo.
“Aw you sure are something else Jack!” Uncle Buck said. “I know you was just kidding me. You was just teasing wasn’t you? It was that brick that did it. It was that big old boulder that—”
The meaty whomp of my old man’s fist against Buck’s jaw echoed down the empty street. A low guttural whine came from the fat man. He slumped against the Chevy door and my old man was round the front and there to greet him with another fist.
He opened the door and Buck’s lard-ass body crumpled to the curb. I once seen an old revival tent sermon on TV where some preacher man went around touching his congregation on the head and the crazy bastards all dropped to the floor, their bodies writhing around like they was being electrocuted. This old preacher, he said these fellas was blessed, that they had God’s angels inside them. I ain’t messing when I say that’s how Buck looked then. Touched by an angel. His dumb mouth gargled and frothed over my old man’s engineer boots and his eyes rolled back in his head. My old man pulled his boot back in disgust, then, as if changing his mind, thrust it forward into fat man’s nuts, and Buck flopped and jerked like a fish out of water.
Beer sloshed around in the pit of my belly, bile rising in my throat. I’d seen about as much as I wanted, and I forced my gaze on the soft, warm glow of Wendy’s display window. Under the fuzzy light, three ladies stood in patterned summer dresses. Pretty plastic ladies with painted on eyes that couldn’t really see and painted on mouths that never spoke.
Over my shoulder I could feel my old man tearing into the ragged lump of flesh and bones. I could hear him panting and snarling with feral ferocity.
I bit my tongue until the throbbing in my mouth matched the old man’s heavy panting. The Wendy’s ladies watched from across the street, their red lips shut tight, their eyes wide and unblinking. As the thuds and grunts from behind filled the warm night air, I stared into them eyes—watching, listening, ever silent.