by Robert Kirk Scott
Under the bed, in the dark, he remembered what it had taken to get him here. He remembered leaning back into the scratchy upholstery of the train seat, looking out the window at them, as the train lurched forward, ready to roll south. He didn’t believe they were letting him go. Was he really leaving? He had used all the pleading persuasion that a fourteen-year-old could muster to convince his father.
“Please, Dad, let me go live with Mom in Florida. Please?” Saying this over and over, in a whiny besieging multitude of non-stop relentless pleadings had finally convinced his old man. Chris’s father, never happy to talk about Chris’s mother or their bitterly ended marriage, made it clear he preferred her name never mentioned at all. His father was remarried for eight years and still angry about the divorce. Sometimes Chris saw disgraced betrayal lingering on his father’s face; his pretty high school sweetheart first wife had left him for a younger and manlier ex-Marine from Kansas City.
“It’s not because I don’t love you, Dad, that’s not why I want to go.”
“No?” his father said. Chris recognized a weaker version of that same disappointed look.
“No,” Chris said. “I miss Mom a lot. I’ve only seen her on summer visits for the last eight years. And Jacksonville is such an exciting place; there’s so much to do…” His voice trailed off, for fear his father would think him ungrateful for all the effort that had provided the comfortable suburban home, in the quiet well-heeled neighborhood, in the good part of town.
He remembered the piercing train horn’s scream of escape filtering through the thick glass window. The train pulled out of the Rocky Mount station laboriously slow as if long deliberating its decision to make the run to Jacksonville. Maybe still there were doubts.
Outside on the platform, the three of them were trying to appear enthusiastic at waving goodbye. What stuck in memory was the way his older step-sister’s blouse gapped unbuttoned above her slacks’ waistband. When he pointed to her exposed belly button through the train window, they all laughed together, united this one time as a family should be. A little too happy, he remembered. They were all glad to see me go.
Three years had passed. It was different now.
He was happy enough when out of the house. His initial love for the great Florida city by the river still burned hot. It was still exciting to travel downtown conveniently by city bus from the run-down bungalow his mother lived in with Duke. In the enormous public library filled with infinite fascinating facts, in the riverfront parks – glories to him of the most cosmopolitan scene ever experienced – he lost all track of time. He spent entire Saturdays in the library and dallied in the parks, an escaped prisoner new in love, drunk on “country-come-to-town” feeling.
Unfettered and free in the city’s streets he was a hawk out of the jesses. When he stood at the concrete colonnaded seawall by the river and inhaled the constant dampbreeze off the splashing water, he relished the sense of power and potential that flowed through him. But, there was the inescapable return to the Post Street bungalow, giving a cooldread counterpoint to his sun-warmed afternoons. The thought of going home broke unwelcome into his joy. Then he would linger so long as he dared to, gauging the deadline to the last bus back by the chiming clock in the church tower next to the park until he had to return to his mother’s passivity and his stepfather’s humiliations.
Weekdays at the high school was often a tortured nightmare, filled with tough boys from the west side of town who were masters at bullying him. They learned it from their parents in perfection for generations, until the practice wrapped around their DNA. His gentle nature couldn’t match their cruelty. He couldn’t keep up with them on the athletic field either.
They mocked him mercilessly in the showers after gym class, and in the hallways between classes. When he accidentally stumbled across their private, secluded after-school space in the hedge behind the gym where they secretly gathered to smoke cigarettes, they threatened him outright.
“Look, it’s Chris, the class tomato.” This, from the leader-of-the-pack. The crew of subordinate hoodlums all laughed at the joke. Chris’s face grew hot when he remembered it because he naively took the unfamiliar phrase for a compliment when first heard until he found out what it meant. A tomato tried to pass as a vegetable – but it was actuallya fruit.
“Get out of here, fruitcake. And don’t narc on us smoking, or I’ll beat your ass.” From hoodlum number two. Chris got away quickly, afraid and ashamed, relieved at only getting a warning.
His unpopularity ran further than just the other boys. It wasn’t any better with the girls. Once, late in the afternoon, wandering reluctantly home from downtown, he recognized a plain-looking girl from one of his classes waiting on the walkway by the empty school’s front door.
“Hey, it’s Linda, right? I’m Chris.”
She nodded. “I’m waiting for Jason.”
“You know, Jason, he’s on the basketball team.”
“Oh, yeah.” He looked around the deserted school. “I think everybody’s gone.”
“Do you play on any of the teams?” she asked.
“Well…no. I’m in the band, though.”
“He said for me to wait, he wanted to talk to me.” She bit her lower lip.
He dove head-first into unfamiliar waters. “Do you live here in Riverside? We could walk home together. I live on Post Street.”
“That’s okay. I go the other way.” She looked at him closely, weighed him against Jason, found him wanting. “I think I’ll wait here a little longer, just in case Jason shows up.”
Mrs. Jackson, his English teacher, was nice to him though, even when he blurted out ungrammatically in her class. “Mrs. Jackson! Mrs. Jackson, can I please go to the bathroom?”
“Yes, you CAN, Chris, but you MAY not.”
Mrs. Jackson would sometimes give him a ride home after band practice on those days when his mother forgot to pick him up. He deep-breathed kindness, riding in her big comfortable car, cherishing those moments of peace, dreading the moment he had to leave them behind when he got out.
Nothing he did ever satisfied his step-father. The things he enjoyed only seemed to irritate the man. Chris’s magnets were art and music and reading and crafts; constantly making this and that, cutting, gluing and sewing together mixed media pieces to hang all over the bare beaded clapboard walls of his converted back-porch bedroom. Chris thought it gave his crummy room the air of a downtown art gallery. His step-father looked at these artistic attempts askance at first, then with serious disgust.
“Barb!” Duke yelled, personally offended by the creative clutter in the boy’s back bedroom, “Would you PLEASE get Chris to pick up this room. And make the frickin’ bed.” Later, the comments were rougher, with undisguised sarcastic glee.
“Look at all this crap. Fairy nit-shits everywhere.” Duke’s mocking tone was mincing.
His room was his sanctuary, his temple, the space under the bed the holy of holies. In the dark, under the bed, watching the patterns his slowing-down breath made in the dust on the chipped enameled floorboards, he sometimes came close to peacefulness.
He hated it when Duke whistled for him for chores assignment on Saturday when he and his younger step-brother hurried to fall in and stand stiffly at attention; two guilty soldiers caught slack by the commanding officer’s surprise inspection. Was he a dog, bound to come when master whistled? It made him angry, his rage’s secret glowing coal hid under a cold pile of ashes.
But Chris understood the basis for his step-father’s contempt all too well. He wasn’t “Semper Fi” material. Chris’s body was pear-shaped and soft. He wouldn’t wear the “wife-beaters” Duke wore because his breasts looked pudgy and embarrassing in them. Duke took Chris’s soft appearance as an affront to masculine men everywhere. Duke seemed to think testosterone would develop with relentless shaming. His mother usually silently deferred to her husband on the matter. When she did speak, she guarded her words.
“Chris,” she said after one tough dressing down, “I wish you would try harder to get along with Duke. He’s just trying to make you tougher; he wants you to become a strong man.”
He remembered the uncertainty in her eyes when he let that arrow loose and hit the target. But what else could she do? She had willingly acquiesced to her younger husband’s dominance when she cast his father’s ring off and slipped on Duke’s.
He respected her decision to stand by her man. What she appreciated so in his step-father that could produce such loyal fealty baffled Chris. He dared to hesitantly bring it up one evening as they washed the supper dishes together, leaning side by side against the temporarily mounted sink, propped up on two-by-fours. She washed, he dried.
“But he’s so different from Dad.” They both looked through the kitchen window at the cluttered backyard, strewn with projects that Duke began but never finished.
“I know. I don’t know if you’re old enough for me to explain it to you yet.” She looked down to where her hands lay hidden by suds. “The thing is, this is very different from what I had with your father. Look, when your father and I made love it was…gentle and… friendly. With Duke, it’s more passionate, more like… being taken.” The subject made both of them uncomfortable. “Do you understand what I’m trying to tell you?”
He didn’t, not completely. But, before he could ask any more questions, there was a long, exaggerated taunting wolf-whistle from the dining room door.
“Hey, Chris, standing there beside her in those shorts, I can’t tell your legs apart from your mother’s!”
When the beatings started, he was determined to endure stoically. But there was always a point at which the hard crack of the belt against his naked back stripped his pretended dignity away. Then he would dance and jerk with pleadings and pain and start crying despite himself.
“Listen to you,” Duke said, “Little girl tears. Disgusting. A real man wouldn’t cry.” Mercifully, at this point, he usually threw the belt on the floor and left.
Now, in the sanctuary of his closed-in back porch at the rear of the house, he lay under the bed, consoled by dark safety. Anyone who looked in would think the room was empty, he thought. Empty, even with me in it.
He lifted his head at sounds of loud voices. His mother’s scream and the slamming of the bathroom door brought him out from under the bed. He ran down the hall and stood in front of the locked bathroom door.
“Let me go,” he heard his mother yell. He couldn’t make out Duke’s low reply, but it sounded threatening. She sobbed loudly, screamed again. His stomach heaved when he heard her. He beat on the door, desperate to interrupt, to rescue.
“Open the door, Duke! Let her go! Mom!”
“Chris!” she yelled between shrieks, “Help me, Chris.”
He pounded harder. “Let her go, Duke!”
He took a step back, braced his shoulders against the narrow hallway wall, and kicked the door as hard as he could above the knob. The door frame splintered. His mother ran out sobbing.
“You little bastard,” Duke said. “You want a piece of me? You think you’re man enough to tangle with me?” Chris knew nothing at all about fighting. He shrank back. “Here’s how it’s going to go down,” Duke said, looking down and fumbling with his belt buckle, loosening his belt. “You’re gonna march your pansy ass back to that bedroom, and I promise you, this time…”
Chris lunged at the older man, swinging out roundly. He thought: “So this is what it always comes down to. In the end, it’s always this.” He was no boxer, but his atypical ferocity took Duke by surprise. He managed to land the punch. Beginner’s luck.
They wrestled fiercely with each other into the dining room, knocking chairs over, skidding the table across the floor. Duke’s blows against his bleeding lip and nose were nothing against Chris’s resolve not to yield, not to die. Duke could not subdue him. His inevitable post-Corps softening would not trump seventeen-year-old adrenaline. They finally moved apart, panting, stalemate, warily eyeing each other between laborious breaths. Two bucks paused in rutting. The fight was a draw.
“I get no satisfaction from that boy, no satisfaction at all,” Duke managed to say between deep gasps. Then, turning to his mother, “That’s it, Barb, it’s him or me. I get no satisfaction whatever from him. I wash my hands of him. Either he goes, or I do.” His mother hung her head.
“All right… all right… I’ll call his father tomorrow and get a ticket for the train.”
“I mean it,” Duke said. He adjusted his slacks and torn shirt. “I get no satisfaction from that boy.”
And with that, it was over for him there. He bore her betrayal back to his room. He lay on the floor under the bed, his nose plopping drops of blood in the dust and he thought, “Never again. Not for anyone. Never.”
Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing, SNHU Student