“Good,” he said, nodding. “That’s how we want it, isn’t it?”
He started taking off his belt.
“I’m going to take the hide off you,” he said.
“No,” I said. “You’re not.”
He paused, the belt half out of the loops. “What?”
“If you come at me with that thing, I’m going to take it away from you,” I said. My voice was trembling and uneven. “I’m going to do it for the time you threw me on the ground when I was little and then lied about it to Mom. I’m going to do it for every time you belted me across the face for doing something wrong, without giving me a second chance. I’m going to do it for that hunting trip when you said you’d slit her nose open if you ever caught her with another man.”
He had gone a deadly pale. Now it was his voice trembling. “You gutless, spineless wonder. Do you think you can blame this on me? You go tell that to that pansy psychiatrist if you want to, that one with the pipe. Don’t try it on me.”
“You stink,” I said. “You fucked up your marriage and you fucked up your only child. You come on and try to take me if you think you can. I’m out of school. Your wife’s turning into a pinhead. You’re nothing but a booze-hound.” I was crying. “You come on and try it, you dumb fuck. ”
“You better stop it, Charlie,” he said. “Before I stop just wanting to punish you and start wanting to kill you. ”
“Go ahead and try,” I said, crying harder. “I’ve wanted to kill you for thirteen years. I hate your guts.
You suck. ”
So then he came at me like something out of a slave-exploitation movie, one end of his Navy-issue belt wrapped in his fist, the other end, the buckle end, dangling down. He swung it at me, and I ducked. It went by my shoulder and hit the hood of his Country Squire wagon with a hard clank, scoring the finish.
His tongue was caught between his teeth, and his eyes were bulging. He looked the way he had that day I broke the storm windows. Suddenly I wondered if that was the way he looked when he made love to my mother (or what passed for it); if that’s what she had to look up at while she was pinned under him.
The thought froze me with such a bolt of disgusted revelation that I forgot to duck the next one.
The buckle came down alongside my face, ripped into my cheek, pulling it open in a long furrow. It bled a lot. It felt like the side of my face and neck had been doused in warm water.
“Oh, God,” he said. “Oh, God, Charlie.”
My eye had watered shut on that side, but I could see him coming toward me with the other. I stepped to meet him and grabbed the end of the belt and pulled. He wasn’t expecting it. It jerked him off balance, and when he started to run a little to catch it back, I tripped him up and he thumped to the oil-stained
concrete floor. Maybe he had forgotten I wasn’t four anymore, or nine years old and cowering in a tent, having to take a whiz while he yucked it up with his friends. Maybe he had forgotten or never knew that little boys grow up remembering every blow and word of scorn, that they grow up and want to eat their fathers alive.
A harsh little grunt escaped him as he hit the concrete. He opened his hands to break his fall, and I had the belt. I doubled it and brought it down on his broad khaki ass. It made a loud smack, and it probably didn’t hurt much, but he cried out in surprise, and I smiled. It hurt my cheek to smile. He had really beaten the shit out of my cheek.
He got up warily. “Charlie, put that down,” he said. “Let’s take you to the doctor and get that stitched up. ”
“You better say yes-sir to the Marines you see if your own kid can knock you down,” I said.
That made him mad, and he lunged at me, and I hit him across the face with the belt. He put his hands up to his face, and I dropped the belt and hit him in the stomach as hard as I could. The air whiffled out of him, and he doubled over. His belly was soft, even softer than it had looked. I didn’t know whether to feel disgust or pity suddenly. It occurred to me that the man I really wanted to hurt was safely out of my reach, standing behind a shield of years.
He straightened up, looking pale and sick. There was a red mark across his fore-head where I had hit him with the belt.
“Okay,” he said, and turned around. He pulled a hardhead rake off the wall. “If that’s how you want it. ”
I reached out beside me and pulled the hatchet off the wall and held it up with one hand.
“That’s how I want it,” I said. “Take one step, and I’ll cut your head off, if I can. ”
So we stood there, trying to figure out if we meant it. Then he put the take back, and I put the hatchet back. There was no love in it, no love in the way we looked at each other. He didn’t say, ” If you’d had the guts to do that five years ago, none of this would have happened, son . . . come on, I’ll take you down to Gogan’s and buy you a beer in the back room. ” And I didn’t say I was sorry. It happened because I got big enough, that was all. None of it changed anything. Now I wish it was him I’d killed, if I had to kill anyone. This thing on the floor between my feet is a classic case of misplaced aggression.
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s get that stitched up.”
“I can drive myself. ”
“I’ll drive you.”
And so he did. We went down to the emergency room in Brunswick, and the doctor put six stitches in my cheek, and I told him that I had tripped over a chunk of stove wood in the garage and cut my cheek on a fireplace screen my dad was blacking. We told Mom the same thing. And that was the end of it. We never dis-cussed it again. He never tried to tell me what to do again. We lived in the same house, but we walked in wide circles around each other, like a pair of old toms. If I had to guess, I’d say he’ll get along without me very well . . . like the song says.
During the second week of April they sent me back to school with the warning that my case was still under consideration and I would have to go see Mr. Grace every day. They acted like they were doing me a favor. Some favor. It was like being popped back into the cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
It didn’t take as long to go bad this time. The way people looked at me in the halls. The way I knew they were talking about me in the teachers’ rooms. The way nobody would even talk to me anymore except Joe. And I wasn’t very cooperative with Grace.
Yes, folks, things got bad very fast indeed, and they went from bad to worse. But I’ve always been fairly quick on the uptake, and I don’t forget many lessons that I’ve learned well. I certainly learned the lesson about how you could get any-one’s number with a big enough stick. My father picked up the hardhead take, presumably planning to trepan my skull with it, but when I picked up the hatchet, he put it back.
I never saw that pipe wrench again, but what the fuck. I didn’t need that any-more, because that stick wasn’t big enough. I’d known about the pistol in my fa-ther’s desk for ten years. Near the end of April I started to carry it to school.
I looked up at the wall clock. It was 12:30. I drew in all my mental breath and got ready to sprint down the homestretch.
“So ends the short, brutal saga of Charles Everett Decker,” I said. “Ques-tions?”
Susan Brooks said very quietly in the dim room, “I’m sorry for you, Charlie.” It was like the crack of damnation.
Don Lordi was looking at me in a hungry way that reminded me of Jaws for the second time that day.
Sylvia was smoking the last cigarette in her pack. Pat Fitz-gerald labored on his plane, crimping the paper wings, the usual funny-sly expres-sion gone from his face, replaced by something that was wooden and carved. Sandra Cross still seemed to be in a pleasant daze. Even Ted Jones seemed to have his mind on other matters, perhaps on a door he had forgotten to latch when he was ten, or a dog he might once have kicked.