The funeral home was closed. After all the gawkers had gone home for the night I came out of my hiding spot behind the metal chairs in the closet. When I slipped back into the viewing room everything was quiet. It was awkward being around other people but yet being all alone. The closed caskets in the viewing rooms were no more inconspicuous than a coffee table in the dull light. The smell of carnations, lilies, and roses barely overpowered the tinge of cleaners. I crept up to the side of my Papa’s casket and grief washed over me shaky and angry like nicotine withdrawal.
The lid was heavier than I thought. As I opened it I worried about it slamming down and someone hearing me. My hands were sweating and slick on the polished pine. My arms shook as I heaved the lid open, and then my body wanted to collapse when I saw his face. His poor frail body wasn’t even a fragment of the giant I remembered. I had to grab my mouth before a sob escaped
When I first walked through the receiving line, earlier in the night, I thought someone was playing a cruel joke. His pencil thin mustache that was usually dark and well cared for was bushy and blonde like sun faded straw. I looked around for a smirking culprit before the memory hit me. I kept it in the back of my mind for all these years because there was someone to help me forget it, but now the secret I shared was mine alone.
It amazed me how many details I could remember of something I wanted to forget. The old withered tables at the jockey lot had the color and texture of paper sacks. Papa was shaking his finger at the seller behind the table like he was about to stab him.
“Who sells a broken toy to a kid? You should feel ashamed of yourself. As a matter of fact I should just shove this thing up your ass. That would be worth the fifty cent you swindled out of him.” He said.
I stared at the broken robot. I knew it was broken before I bought it, but that wasn’t good enough for Papa. It was a little smaller than a bread box, and would probably be hard to shove in the man, but as mad as Papa was I think he might have tried. With a bowed head the man returned my fifty cent then Papa smacked a lamp off of his table.
The other hawkers stared at us as we made our way out of the huge awning that was considered a building. Papa’s unbuttoned jean jacket flapped behind him as a stonewashed cape, and the lining looked like it was made out of the hides of old stuffed animals. I felt a little ashamed and embarrassed as we stormed off, and I had to walk twice as fast to keep up Papa's long stride.
“Let me see that thing.”
I handed him the robot and he flipped it over. He opened the battery compartment, shook it some, and then closed it up again.
“I can fix this. The battery terminal is corroded. We’ll get us a pencil eraser and clean it out. It'll be good as new.”
I noticed the sky was silver with rain and tarnished in spots after we walked into the parking lot. Papa tucked his long legs into his Pinto like a spider hit with water. I threw my haul into the floorboard and Papa lit up a Viceroy.
“What do you say kid? You hungry?”
He reached into the backseat for a Pabst out of his cooler, clicked the tab, and drained half before he even started the car. Foam rested on the mustache of his Nordic blonde beard.
“We'll head over to Hardees. Man over there owes me money.”
We were always headed to a sell, or to see a man that owed Papa money. Even the car we were riding in was a payment Papa collected last week. It didn’t work then, of course, but after a few hours in Papa’s hands anything could work. He pulled his .25, with its holster, out from the back of his jeans and shoved it between the console and the bucket seats. Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger played from the eight-track when he started the engine, and the back end of the Pinto bounced up and down when he drove off the curb.
Hardees’ parking lot was almost empty since it was the end of the breakfast shift. Someone’s cup sat abandoned in the parking space, and after Papa hit it there was a wet spot on the concrete where my door opened.
“I’m gettin a butter biscuit, what you want?” Papa asked.
“Sausage biscuit, with a pack of grape jelly. I’m going to head to the bathroom.” I answered.
He nodded his head and tossed his empty beer can into a truck parked beside us. An old man held the door open for me as he blew the steam away from his coffee. I really had to go. I thanked him and shifted from foot to foot. My brain automatically started a countdown from ten to one, and I new I better hurry.
The bathroom door was right beside the front door. By the time I had counted to five I had a good steady stream flowing in the urinal. I saw the set of feet under the stall door when I came in, but I didn’t pay them any attention. After my pressing need was met I noticed an eye peeking through the gap in the stall door and the wall. The feet moved closer to the door and the man sighed loudly.
“Hey mister, you okay in there?” I asked.
There was no reply for a second. One single blue eye peered at me through the crack between the door and the wall. I zipped up and marked the man off as a retard when he finally responded.
“I seem to be stuck on something and I can’t get out of this stall. Can you help me out for a minute son?”
I didn’t want to help the man. He was in a bathroom stall, and he might not have flushed his stink away. I approached the door with some trepidation as the eye watched me tip toe closer. I was a few feet from the door when it sprung open. He grabbed the collar of my coat with one hand as he furiously flung his dick around with the other.
The one memory that still haunts me is how soft the underside of his wrist was against my cheek as he pulled my head closer to him. I punched over and over as hard as my little nine year old arm would let me. He let go of my collar to cup himself and then he fell to his knees in the floor. I got a good look at him as he lay on the ground. His black hair was sprinkled with silver, and the air he wheezed in smelled much better than the sour milk stench he let out..
He was trying to get up and grab me, but I was already out the door. Papa was in the line, waiting on our biscuits. I tugged on his sleeve as he flirted with a woman that was supposed to be filling orders.
“Papa, Papa.” I said.
His lips pursed together when he gave me his stern look. I don’t know if it was the rip in my jacket, or if it was the redness in my face, but after he saw me he immediately forgot what he was doing.
“What happened to you?”
“A man in the bathroom ….” I said and tears welled up in my eyes.
He grabbed my hand and pulled me behind him. When we reached the bathroom door I saw the man through hunched over and hobbling through the parking lot. I pointed him out and Papa blew through the restaurants’ entrance wild eyed like a hungry wolf. The man was in his car before we could reach him. His tire smoke sat in the air for a second like a cartoon thought bubble, and then was gone. Papa jumped into the Pinto and pushed my door open before I even realized he wasn’t standing beside me anymore.
“Come on, get in.” He yelled.
Before I could shut the door we backed out at full speed. The cup crunched again as we reversed back over it. The weirdo’s Cadillac was almost around the corner, and someone blew their horn at Papa as we raced out into the street. I couldn’t tell how fast we were going since the needle on the Pinto’s speedometer was stuck at thirty-five, but papa quickly closed the gap.
The Cadillac made wild turns on every street. Papa punched the gas pedal in one corner and rubbed bumpers with the man. After ten minutes we were deep into the country and surrounded by the dense woods of Honea Path. I didn’t think the weirdo was going to stop. I thought all the little twists and turns he was taking was just to get away from us, but then he pulled into a gravel driveway and the car made a slight skid.
The driveway ended at a railroad tie. A blue and white single-wide trailer sat thirty yards away. The weirdo jerked his car into park and it rocked from the sudden stop. He threw the door open and jumped out to make a run to the trailer. Papa didn’t bother with the extra second of putting the car in park. Instead he floored the gas pedal into the Cadillac’s bumper, which knocked the man into the ground, and crunched his car into the railroad tie. Papa was out of the car before the man could stand up, but the jolt threw me into the floorboard.
When I sat up the weirdo was nose deep in dirt and at the beginning of a boot sandwich. The man tried to get up, but Papa grabbed a handful of his hair then punched him in the temple. It didn’t take but one of those haymakers for the man to be out. Papa yelled something at the lump and punched him again and again. Then Papa reached down and jerked on the weirdo’s pants.
I don’t know what was going through his head, but he didn’t get to complete that thought. I tried to yell out to him when I saw a red haired man run around the corner of the trailer with a length of board. He was aiming for Papa’s head, but papa must have sensed him and turned at the last second. The blow caught Papa in the shoulder. He staggered back, but didn’t regain his footing before the man swung again. I screamed as the board connected with Papa’s head. When he was down and the man gave Papa one last crack in the side.
Papa was out cold and the ginger with the board turned his attention to me and stepped over my unconscious hero. I curled up into the floorboard and my chest felt like someone was squeezing the breath out of me. I could hear his footsteps in the gravel. The crunch was crisp, like he was walking on fresh snow. I was frightened. My whole body shook like I had a fever. Then I noticed Papa’s .25 shoved between the seats and the emergency break. I knew it was loaded. My little hands gripped the handle and I cocked the gun like I was turning on the power of a toy.
The ginger smacked the car door with his board. I about shot the gun it scared me so bad. I was so nervous my heartbeat blocked out the sounds of the ginger jiggling the door handle. He smiled down at me through the window and the door groaned as he pulled it open. He hit center in the steel of the metal hood with the two by four.
“Come on out of there.” He said
I pressed my back harder against the floor of the car and cupped the small gun at my side where he couldn’t see it. The ginger jabbed my shins with the board and the rough edges tore a hole in my pants.
“Come on. It’s going to be worse if I have to drag you out.”
I didn’t budge. He jabbed the board at my legs again and I balled up as tight as I could. When he finally reached in to get me he looked like he was moving in closer for a hug. He crouched down and opened his arms up with a snarl on his face. His free hand clamped around my ankle and then I pulled the gun out. He didn’t have but a brief moment to register surprise before I pulled the trigger twice. The recoil was barely noticeable, but the sound of the shots started my ears to ringing. The gun was so close to his head that he just seemed to collapse when the bullets went in him.
Specks of blood and face dripped down my forearm. The ginger’s board had fallen and wedged between the driver’s seat and the windshield. His head bled out onto my broken robot and stained my shoes as I climbed out of the car. I couldn’t budge him from the floorboard, and I had to step on his back to get out the door. I struggled getting him to the ground. With his legs in my hands I leaned back to pull on him harder, but his body barely moved. Little by little I pulled him out onto the gravel, then caught my breath with my hands on my knees.
I touched Papa’s face but he didn’t move. A big red lump grew on his forehead and the thin skin around it was warm. I shook him then petted his beard. His eyes fluttered open and the pupils adjusted to my face.
“Where is that damn train that ran over me?” He asked.
He yelped and grabbed his side as I tried to help him off the ground. I couldn’t help him walk since he was so tall. He rubbed his side.
“Asshole broke my rib. Where is he anyway?”
I pointed to the other side of the car. Papa stumbled around the back bumper to the passenger side and stopped when he saw blood on the chrome runner.
“Well, there won’t be no exit wound if you shot him with that .25. Bullet probably bounced around in his skull like a bee caught between two panes of glass. Let’s get out of here before the other one wakes up.”
When Papa backed up our car the Cadillac dropped a few inches like a hefty family sat in it. The .25 and pool of blood still sat in the floorboard, and the length of board in the backseat. Papa gave me his clean jacket to sit on, and if I hadn't felt the ginger’s arm bone snap I would have mistaken it as a tree root.
Papa never asked me for details, and never registered his car with the DMV. He drove the Pinto in a field behind his house and left it for rust. The weirdo from the bathroom was on the news telling people that an old man and a young kid tried to rob him, and then killed his friend. I helped dye Papa’s hair black. He laughed about it and told me Elvis had blonde hair. He dyed it black because he thought it made women like him more. But Papa was no Elvis. He was a different person after he shaved his beard. He whittled down the thick blonde to a pencil thin mustache and slicked black hair.
Before he took me back to my parent’s house I watched him apply mascara to his mustache in his bathroom mirror. The little curved caterpillar brush combed his mustache black. He changed himself for me so I could live my life without the guilt and spotlight, and I wouldn’t about to let death change that.
I shook the small canister of mascara I stole from my aunt’s purse to expel some energy from my raw nerves. I wasn’t sure how it worked and thought it might be like paint in the can. I unscrewed the little brush and swept the makeup over the old blonde with the slightest touch. A few fine stray lines ran down his cheek. It wasn’t perfect, but it was love.