Friday night, Zach was shooting hoops out at the old middle school. The season was over, and school was just about out for the year. He practiced his foul shots for half an hour, then he tried some jump shots along the wings. Made a few spin moves, to lay some buckets in. Dribbled in figure eights and stood in the middle of the court spinning the ball on his fingertip. Thought it a good night and at dusk, 8:30, headed for home the long way, up and down every street dribbling, waving to a few old folks on their porch smoking cigarettes, to some little kids playing flashlight tag, to a man just back from the war who rocked on his porch and would nod when you walked past, staring off into the distance at who knew what. The house was dark by the time he reached the steps, no porch light, no downstairs light, but he could hear a radio playing somewhere nearby, something country, twangy. He stepped inside and, immediately, his mother called down to him to not turn on the light and to come up the stairs, she needed his help. He let his eyes adjust to the blackness. Put his ball on the chair by the door, took a deep breath, then another. Then he walked up the stairs, which creaked, it was an old, old house. “In here,” Sue said, and he hesitated and thought maybe he should ask what she wanted, but he took a chance and walked into this mother’s bedroom and saw her outline at the window, just to the side. “Don’t turn on that light. Come on in. I want you to sit in the chair right there and listen.”

He did as she said. He sat and listened. He could see her window was up, the half-screen in at the bottom. He had one in his bedroom too, it got so hot by the time May rolled around.

“You been at the ball court?” she asked.

“Yeah. Why?”

“Just wondering. Do you hear it?”

It was the radio she meant, whoever it was playing country. It wasn’t loud, exactly, but it was clearly audible, and the lyrics floated right into his mother’s bedroom.

“Is that Cowboy?” he asked.


Cowboy was a man his mother had been dating. Zach had met him only a couple of weeks before, a short man, not too articulate, balding. He wore a cowboy hat anywhere except inside a house or church. He wasn’t too bright, but he was about the only man around who wasn’t tied up by marriage or a crazy girlfriend. He had a good job—that was the thing his mother most noticed about him, the job. That it had come to this a year after his father had died left Zach sad and a little bit wrecked. That Cowboy could become his stepfather was completely unacceptable. He hadn’t gone to college, and he couldn’t work much these days because his heart had gone bad. He was drawing worker’s comp, which to Zach was no different than welfare, and he despised that, government handouts. “Why in the hell are you dating this man?”

“I’m not. We broke up.”

Zach could see his car now out there at the edge of the yard, in the very patch of gravel where his father used to park.

“The neighbors called to complain.”


“Don’t curse. But I need you go out there and ask him to leave.”

“You can’t do it yourself?”

“He won’t listen to me. It has to be a man.”

“I’m sixteen years old.”

“You’re six feet tall. You tower over him. Just go out there and be polite and tell him the neighbors called, he has to go.”

Zach didn’t argue it. He wished Teddy hadn’t moved away—he’d be much better in a situation like this. He wished, for that matter, that his father were still alive, and that his mother hadn’t started up drinking again and running out to the bars. He was a year away from college, so he could take his mother’s drunkenness and sloppy conversations, but what he didn’t want before he got out was a stepfather, especially one like Cowboy. He stood up and told his mother he’d take care of it.

He stopped off in the kitchen and slipped a steak knife in the hip pocket of his cutoffs, just in case things got physical. He’d never been in a fight in his life, he was always bigger than his friends and somehow he managed to avoid all the bullies who tormented them. He opened the kitchen door and stepped onto the porch and turned to see if the car was still there. Hank Williams was still crooning, if that’s what he did. Hank was okay, maybe the only country star Zach liked. That he was long dead made it a kind of plus, you could master the songs of someone like that, play them again and again and know that that’s all there would ever be.

It was quite dark, and the grass was wet, he could feel it on his ankles and thought he should mow it soon. He got to the gravel and walked up to Cowboy’s car window and saw that he had nodded off, his head tilting forward. He wore the hat.

“Mr. Stringer,” Zach said.

The man didn’t move.

Zach said his name a little more loudly, and Cowboy started and pulled a pistol up and pointed it at Zach.

“It’s me, Mr. Stringer. Zach. Sue’s son. You can put that away.”

He put the gun down and rubbed his eyes. “Sorry, son,” he said.

“Could you turn that music off, please? The neighbors called us to complain.”

“Lord,” Cowboy said. The music cut off. Zach saw it was an eight-track, not a radio. That explained why all the songs were Hank Williams.

“She wants you to leave, too. I’m sorry. But you need to go.”

“You the man now?”

“Excuse me?”

“Man of the house.”

“Well, I’m the only male living inside it, if that’s what you mean.”

“I knew your father.”


“Thought he was a good man. But I couldn’t understand the queer part.”

Zach didn’t retort. Didn’t address the rumors about his father. He’d learned to live with them.

“What do you think about him being queer?”

“I think you should go, is what I think.” Zach could feel the knife in his pants’ pocket. He didn’t think he’d need it, but he was glad it was there.

“All right. Tell Sue to call me if she changes her mind and decides she needs a man.”

Cowboy turned over the engine and backed away. Zach watched him drive down the alley and then stop right between the two houses. Hank Williams came up loud all of a sudden, and next door, the kitchen window slammed shut. The lights were off, so Zach guessed Mrs. Gladwell must’ve been eavesdropping from her kitchen all this time. He’d probably hear about it the next day when he would try to mow the grass. She’d wave to him and he’d have to walk over to her kitchen window and be polite and explain what Mr. Stringer was doing playing Hank Williams in the dark. The serenade shut off, finally, and Cowboy drove away.

Back in the kitchen he drank a glass of milk and ate some chips. This was dinner. He found an apple for dessert and stood there in the kitchen eating it. After a while his mother came downstairs and asked him what had happened outside. He was eating a banana by then. He told her to call Cowboy if she ever needed a man, that that was the message he was supposed to convey. Zach didn’t tell the part where Cowboy called her husband and his father a queer. She asked him why he had a steak knife in his hip pocket, and he thanked her for pointing it out, he’d forgotten all about it. He tossed it in the dirty dishwater and figured if they were still undone by morning it would be the first chore of the day he would tackle. Next would be the lawn and Mrs. Gladwell. After that, he’d look through college catalogs and dream of getting out of this place. He locked his bedroom door when he went to bed that night, something he’d been doing for a while now.



About the Author

Michael W. Cox is the author of two books of fiction, Against the Hidden River (stories) and The Best Way to Get Even (a novel), both from Mammoth Press. His stories have appeared in Atticus Review, Columbia, Drunk Monkeys, Passages North, and storySouth. He serves as creative prose editor for Pennsylvania English and teaches creative and professional writing at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown.


Photo by Nishant Aneja: