“Hard Men” from How To Be A Man Stories by Tamara Linse.
Copyright granted by Tamara Linse and Willow Words
Left, Tamara Linse. Attributed to Tamara Linse and copyright granted by Tamara Linse. Right, jacket cover of How To Be A Man Stories
Guest Blogger Tamara Linse
Short story: Hard Men
For the hard men who want love but know that it won’t come.
“Shake the Dust,” Anis Mojgani
Anis Mojgani - web logo photo for the piano farm web page.
Johnny Good shot and killed his cranked-out father. The tinny smell of the three shots overwhelmed his father’s chemical odor and the smell of bacon from the breakfast Johnny had made, hoping he could get his father to eat, to stop the obsessing, fidgeting, floor-creaking rounds down the trailer house corridor and back while picking at the sores around his thin-lipped grimace.
Trailer Park in Wyoming.
The way his father had died was not like on TV, one shot and then keeled over, not moving. No. Though Johnny had been aiming the pistol for his father’s heart—his father’s left but his right, next the sternum, above the xyphoid process—his adrenalin and shaking hands made him shoot low the first time and hit his father’s belly. He could tell because that’s where the blood began to seep into the once-white cotton undershirt. His father had looked at him, hands spread in surprise, but then bent his head to the side like he had believed his son would do it all along, like he did when Johnny used to creep out of bed and into his parents’ bedroom after lights-out to ask his father a manufactured question to put off sleep a little longer, just so he wouldn’t have to be in his room alone. Johnny imagined him doing that exact head-tip to his high school students when they missed the question, On the periodical table of elements, what does Gd stand for? This was something Johnny hadn’t actually seen because he wasn’t a junior till next year and so hadn’t taken his father’s chemistry class.
Periodical Table of Elements
After that first shot, his father came after him, hands bared and grasping, so Johnny took a deep breath as adrenalin coursed through him and clenched his hands tightly around the pistol grip to quell the shaking and aimed again and then fired two shots in quick succession. One, at least, hit the target because blood splashed across the microwave and the counter, and then his father went down, first on one knee and then onto his back, and blood gushed out from underneath like water from a hose. The carpet resisted at first, and the blood ran down the sloping floor and pooled under the couch, but then the scotch-guarded fibers gave in and the liquid began to soak and seep. There was so much blood, more blood than Johnny thought possible. His father hadn’t just laid there, though, even as he was bleeding out. He kept trying to get up, his sharp-boned body slopping in the red sticky liquid, his rotted teeth bared, his focus pulling back from Johnny to the middle distance. His attempts got weaker and weaker until he lay there staring upwards, and then he wasn’t staring, though his eyes were open.
Mock crime scene photo of outline of body.
Johnny knew that his father would kill him. His father had killed the pizza delivery guy the night before with Johnny’s baseball bat. His father had used the baseball bat because he’d left the shotgun in the living room and his pistol out in the truck. Johnny had known the pizza delivery guy a little. His name was Don, short for Donavan. A few years older and already graduated. A good first baseman when they were kids. Lived with his mom in one of those apartments above the stores in Old Town. Tall, skinny, and pimply but with a sense of humor. One time, the guy had lent him a pair of socks for gym class. Now, Johnny knew that he shouldn’t have asked anyone to come anywhere near the house, especially for something as stupid as pizza, and he certainly shouldn’t have invited the guy in. He should’ve heeded the signs, that feeling that shit would happen soon, bad shit. What had he been thinking? Don had smiled at him at the door and said, “Johnny, man, you look like crap.” Which had prompted Johnny to go look for another dollar to tip, which prompted him to invite Don in to wait, which prompted his father to launch from the back of the trailer, bat held high over his head, screaming “Fucking agents of change!”
It helped that this man his father had become was not at all like the father from before. His father used to wear short-sleeved plaid western shirts in off colors with black and navy blue ties and dress pants. He used to shine his brown leather shoes with a horse-bristle brush, ka-shshsh, ka-shshsh, every Sunday night while watching the news. His body used to sag and paunch from his love of butter brickle ice cream and potatoes fried in bacon grease and drowned in ketchup. This was the father who had insisted Johnny and his little brother Mark, whom everyone called Newt, be at the breakfast table promptly at 6:45 to eat the sausage and eggs or blueberry pancakes their had mother cooked. The father who hugged them goodbye when they were little, and then when they were older he ruffled their hair or put his hand on their shoulders before he walked out the door in the morning. Homework right after dinner and before TV, no exceptions. “Five minutes with Darwin is worth five months sitting with a sitcom,” he said, his brow beetled with sincerity.
But now, his father no longer a person but a thing, lying on the floor with its horrid red shadow. The essential element of life had precipitated, evaporated, something. It was there, and now it was gone, and Johnny had seen it disappear. Johnny felt the urge to try to capture it and put it back. What could he use? A blanket, a butterfly net, a turkey roasting pan? He knew it was illogical just as he glanced around the room for something, anything, to contain it.
Drawing of man opening stomach to reveal butterflies. Photoshopped by Christal Rice Cooper
And then guilt made Johnny’s body weaken and twinge. Johnny hadn’t saved him. Up until that very last moment, until he saw the look in his father’s eyes, Johnny had believed that it was possible to pull him out of the clutches of this thing that had taken him over. Had he really believed? Well, maybe he had needed to believe. Maybe not belief but hope against all the odds, against the empirical evidence. All he needed to do was separate this thing, this monster, this demon-possession, from the physical body that was his father. His father was still in there. He was. Johnny had seen him, less just recently, but still there in the small gestures—a certain way of sitting on the couch leaning forward, one shoulder propped higher than the other. The habit of softly closing the door and pushing it until it latched with an audible click when he went to the bathroom. Hooking his keys held with two fingers onto the house-shaped brass key holder on the wall next to the door. When they had lived in the house, the hooks had been attached to a wooden mail organizer.
Newspaper photo to coincide with an article about the temperament of men.
Guilt was quickly replaced by anger. First at his father—but it was all too fresh and there was his father and he couldn’t be angry with his father, only this thing that had overtaken him, and, anyway, anger at his father would bring him to his knees later, much much later. Now, quickly, the anger turned inward. Had he been paying attention, he could’ve sensed it as it shot out of him toward his father and then boomeranged in a wide circle and zeroed in and pierced him cleanly. He should’ve been more prepared, he should’ve thought things through, this could’ve been prevented, it was all his fault. There should’ve been something he could’ve done, or not done.
Stock photo of teenage boy holding gun
He shouldn’t’ve invited Don in—that was for sure. He shouldn’t’ve borrowed the little .38 from his friend Benji, even if those deliberate and soft-spoken guys his father had been hanging out with kept coming around. His choice to stay with his father instead of moving to California with his mother and Newt—would that have made a difference? Would his father still have ended up dead if he’d ran away with his mother instead of staying to try to save his father? He glanced at his father’s body. It looked like that of a starved and beaten dog—pale skin stretched drum-tight over knobs of bones, oozing sores, lips pulled back to show blackish teeth. Yes. His father would’ve died. No doubt about it. Johnny’s presence in the house neither held him back nor pushed him toward the drug. Johnny’s presence had long been irrelevant.
Stock photo of boy holding gun
Now, what to do now? Shifting the pistol to his left hand, Johnny tilted it until he found the safety and with his index finger pressed it on. He stepped over the river of blood and to the couch, set the pistol on an open Sports Illustrated, picked the shotgun up off the cushions, and propped it in the corner made by the couch and the wall. He sat down to think, his knees on his elbows and his chin on the heels of his hands.
Stock photo of boy sitting on sofa. Photoshopped by Christal Rice Cooper.
It had always been his father and him, really. Every family had favorites, sure, but in their case, it was no secret and there had been no apologies. It had been Dad and Johnny and then Mom and Newt. Johnny played baseball and their father came to the games. Newt’s work placed in the art show and their mother attended. Johnny sat on the couch watching basketball with their father, while Newt helped their mother in the kitchen. It was as if their parents were at opposite poles with Johnny and Newt stretched between them, the only thing holding them together. And then not holding them together. There were times that their father was almost enough for Johnny, but then there were other times. He didn’t think to blame his mother, only Newt, and so he and Newt weren’t close. Johnny was also sure that Newt was gay, although the last time Johnny had seen Newt, age 12, seven months ago, Newt was just starting to realize it. Over the course of a year, Newt had become secretive and introverted. Johnny felt bad for all the shit he was going to have to go through, although Johnny had done nothing at school to stop it or to make his brother feel better.
Film clip from THE WALKING DEAD. Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law
The smell from the bathroom, even with the door and the outside window shut and duct-taped, was getting stronger. It was a smell that Johnny would repress until, years later, he would drive windows open by a country trash dump with the ballooning carcasses of dead livestock. The memory of sitting on that stiff couch in the trailer staring at the body of his father surrounded by the stench of the decomposing lye-soaked body of Donovan in the bathtub will force him to stomp on the brakes and wrench open the door and lean out just in time to spew green-yellow bile onto the gravel. But in the present, there is too much of the shadow of adrenalin in his system for his body to give in.
Stock photo of mocked dead body in bath tub. Photoshopped by Christal Rice Cooper
Action. He should be figuring out what to do. He needs to do something. The fact is that he has shot his own father, a once-respected teacher and coach—probably still respected by former students who had moved away and their parents who remembered his knack for communicating the intricacies of valence and chemical structure and his firm but inspiring presence on the basketball court. But Johnny couldn’t think about that now. Not with the man he loved (once loved?) lying before him. In that moment, Johnny was overtaken with tenderness. Daddy tickling his ribs and squeezing his knee as Johnny screamed, “No, Daddy,” in a way that meant, “Yes, Daddy.” Daddy swaying his hips back and forth as he dribbled the ball and gently taunted his son on the concrete pad he had poured on the property of their old house just for that purpose. The story of his father being denied his dream of becoming a nuclear physicist by a small and small-minded college professor. At the thought, Johnny cried fat and sloppy tears. At 15, he had not yet mastered the art of transmuting his pain, not into sorrow but into rage. That would come later, in prison and in a series of menial low-paying jobs. His eyes bathing his face and his shoulders shuddering, he became the 15-year-old boy he was.
Photo of boy crying and holding gun. Photoshopped by Christal Rice Cooper.
And then he wanted to call his mom. No. He didn’t want to call her. He wanted her here sitting next to him, her arms wrapped around him like she so often did with Newt, both a gesture of bringing him into her and of excluding the world, Johnny, and his father. What did he want? He wanted to feel safe—that it was the world that those arms suggested, not the world he had started to realize it was. He rubbed the snot dripping from the tip of his nose onto the shoulder of his shirt in a quick and fierce gesture and then fished his cell phone out of the pocket of his jeans. He flipped it open and pushed and held the number four. Yes, he had programmed her number into his speed dial, but this would be the first time he actually dialed it. Number four was the number of people in their family but also the number he had guessed in a game to see whether he or Newt got to go to the grocery store with their mother one Sunday. He had no doubt that had his father not been standing there his mother would have taken Newt and that would’ve been that, but instead it became a game, something his father was fond of, and so held the true number in his mind, because his father would not cheat, and it was Johnny instead of Newt who got to go. And then his mother, for a reason Johnny never knew and never understood, stopped for a flavored ice at the stand in the park and sat on the benches in the shade of the cottonwoods to eat it. Johnny sucked on the straw of his sour apple ice and ignored the siren song of the slide and swings and the kids screaming to sit quietly next to his mother and feel the warmth of her shoulder next to his ear. From then on, he considered the number four not their family’s but his and hers exclusively, and even though he had never called it, he often flipped open his phone and touched it gently with the pad of his index finger, especially on those nights when his father’s friends were over and he sat in his bedroom ignoring his homework and watching the empty chair that he had propped under his doorknob.
Photo of teenage boy holding cell phone. Photoshopped by Christal Rice Cooper.
But now he pressed and held the button and it rang once, twice, three times, a fourth, and then someone picked up. “Hello?” It was his mother’s voice, but in it was all the distance between Wyoming and California, all the distance that had always been in their lives. Had she looked at the caller ID and seen his name and still her voice sounded like this? He couldn’t breathe, much less talk. No air came in and he couldn’t force any air out. She said again, “Hello?” This time her voice was quieter, an extended echo of itself, like her mind had moved on and wasn’t even in the thing she was saying. It had moved on to what she would be doing in thirty seconds or that afternoon or on the weekend. Perhaps she would be making corn-flake pork chops for supper? Maybe they were going to that café on the beach to play sand volleyball? Her mind had skittered past the existence of whomever was on the other end of the call. Johnny couldn’t take it anymore. He flipped the phone closed, tossed it onto the couch next to him, and laid back against the cushions with such force that the couch thumped against the wall.
Photo of boy crying, leaning against wall. Photoshopped by Christal Rice Cooper
After the months of gathering evidence, Johnny will be tried as an adult for double murder and sentenced 25 to life in a maximum security prison. While in prison, he will learn that the world is as hard a place as he suspected. He will not be able to go to his father’s funeral, of course, and he won’t be able to go to his mother’s funeral (breast cancer) nor his brother’s funeral (AIDS). He will be released on parole after 22 years on good behavior. Once he is out, he’ll find the world a confusing and unstructured place. He will never marry because he cannot bring himself to trust anyone to live in the same space he does. And of course he will die alone, like we all do. But he doesn’t know this, sitting here on the couch. In his mind, he is not a criminal, a person flawed and innately dangerous. That will come later. Sitting on the couch, he is a sophomore in high school, a member of the honor society who likes to play baseball and hang out with friends in the gym at the rec center, who has his eye on a girl who likes to wear purple capri pants and whose thin shoulders are striped with multiple pigtails, who looks forward to someday maybe being a teacher like his old man because it seems like a cool thing to do. Even these last couple of months has not taken that away.
Newspaper image to coincide with story of youths in jail.
It remained for him to decide what to do. The most logical thing was to run. Was it really his fault? Any one of the guys who stopped by the house could’ve done it. The cops had arrested his father enough times to know about that. And Donovan decomposing in the bathtub—it was logical that Johnny’s father had at least arranged it, as he was the one who knew about chemistry and that industrial-grade lye stolen from the high school AP lab would do the trick. Would they think that his father had killed Don? The baseball bat had been tossed into an open field, so no fingerprints or blood to point one direction or another. He could wipe down the gun and walk out the door, shutting it behind him so hopefully no one would smell anything for days, giving him a head start. He’d take the bike because they’d trace a car and the money his father had in his wallet for his next buy and some food and water. It would just take a couple of days to bike to the cabin he’d once gone to with Benji, an old broken down thing way off the beaten path. He’d stay till he ran out of food. That would give him time to figure things out.
What was he thinking? This wasn’t a cop show. He had killed his father, and if there was one thing his father had taught him, it was that there were no shortcuts. It didn’t matter if you tried to get out of things, to find a way to skirt your duties—you would face the consequences. If you stole candy at in the grocery line, it didn’t matter if you quickly stuffed it into your mouth. You had to tell the manager and then work there after school every Tuesday for a month to learn the value of what you had stolen. If you didn’t study for the algebra test, your grade would reflect your efforts. But if you did what was right—put in the time on the court practicing your jump shot or in the library reading the history of the Trojan War—the world was such a place that you would be rewarded. No. Better to stand up and take it, to face the problem head on and take the punishment as a man would. It didn’t matter what his father was now—what mattered was what he had been and what he had taught Johnny to be.
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