His Mama worked nights out at the Walmart, so after dinner he’d been left alone with his Daddy since even before he started school. He held onto memories of her managing an array of pots on the stove as he leaned into the screen door separating their garage from the room that served as kitchen and dining room, the room the Home of his home felt built around. That room was the backdrop of all his family dramas as he aged. His memories didn’t require him to learn new environments, so they were filled with the intimate details of this one; the white paint on the cabinets stained a deeper grey-brown around the handles, the veneer peeled off the shiny round table at the centre of the room to reveal a splintery-grey wood. The screen door in from the garage was replaced several times, but never before it was reduced to a void wooden frame whose angle against its’ hinges revealed the peace it had made with gravity, its’ willingness to succumb to the inevitable. He would review these moments his memory had stored for him without his knowledge decades later when they blossomed in dreams or dropped into conversations before he realized what he was saying. His mother was always busy already tending her mysterious kitchen magicks when he pushed through the door after school and dropped his backpack immediately, and always she could sense an object out of place before his bag even hit the floor without having to turn from her countertop kingdom of stovetop and sink.
“Don’ you drop your mess inta my kitchen!”
As he grew, this exchange about his almost-abandonded school bag and her instinctive verbal reaching out to him became a ritual of greeting. When he had just started his second-year at elementary school, though, and realized that she would never stop punishing him for mistakes he’d not yet made, he could only roll his eyes, readjust the straps of his bag back onto his shoulder, and stomp through her domain into his.
His parents had given over to their only child the room that used to be his father’s ‘office,’ and it still held some of the flotsam of those years. A foose-ball table was pushed against the wall opposite Jason’s bed with a low table designed to hold a television squeezed between them next to his pillow. This bedside table held his collection of collections, each displayed meticulously. His matchbox cars lined up along the same angle, perfectly parallel to each other; his baseball cards slipped into the plastic pockets of laminate sheets held in a row of identical black binders along the back of the table – every one of his treasures displayed so he could see them when he woke sharply in the middle of the night, sweating from forgotten nightmares. His things reassured him then, tethered him to controllable reality against the pull of his subconscious horror.
Every night was the same. He sat down to dinner with his Mama before his Daddy got home. She tried to pry him out of his head with questions about school and his friends. Her work schedule kept her out of the parent-teacher nights at his public elementary school, and since her husband refused to go she didn’t know much about the world her son inhabited during most of his waking hours. His Daddy slid into the kitchen from his job out at the landscape company in the next town about half through their meal, his moody silence smothering whatever conversation his Mama had been able to kindle between them. She left Jason at the table to make up a plate for his Daddy, then left them both in the kitchen to re-emerge ten minutes later in her blue polo with “Walmart” embroidered under her left shoulder. While they finished their meals she made up a lunch for Jason to take to school and a lunch for his Daddy to take the work the next day, then slid whatever food was left from dinner into a Walmart-brand sandwich bag for her own midnight lunch. Jason saw how she shrank next to his Daddy, and admired the size of the man, the force of his presence. His Daddy was his picture of manhood, and he told him stories about his days at school eagerly. He didn’t notice the bored nature of his Daddy’s grunted responses, and he didn’t notice when his Mama finally left for work. When his Daddy left the table he did too.
His Daddy wasn’t exactly a patient man, and when Jason was young he’d as often sit the boy down in front of the old TV set in the living room and pop a movie in the VHS as let him sit on the porch with him and his friends while they drank their beers. These extracurricular lessons gave Jason more knowledge about Rambo, The Terminator, and Rocky than the average seven year old could even hope for, and certainly more than his peers had obtained by the second grade. His extensive knowledge of these forbidden stories made him something of a hero to his class; the girls were both afraid of and drawn to him and the boys all admired him. He was charismatic and smart enough to control them all easily, and charm his teachers into allowing his authority. His status confirmed his already well-formed view of the world: that he was a Hero, and therefore allowed occasional acts of cruelty in the name of Justice. Years ago he’d taken to entertaining himself by narrating his own epic battles against the great enemies of freedom.
“Jason struggled through the brush, bleedin’ from en’my fire,” he said aloud to himself late one afternoon as he army-crawled through his parents’ lawn, “when he saw from on-top a hill a line a’ en’my soldiers marchin’ to ambush his comrades.” He laid across a large rock watching a line of ants in single-file determination headed for some bread he had left out last night. “Jason, with no cover at all, completely exposed to the en’my, began firin’ at ’em for the sake of his fellow troops, snipin’ ’em off one by one!” His voice swelled with excitement as he pulled a large magnifying glass stolen from his classroom out of the waistband of his jeans and aimed the sun through it. He giggled as each ant melted under his ray of condensed heat.
Most days his friend Junior from next door would come over after dinner and play Jason’s sidekick in these adventures. Junior had two little brothers, five and three years old, and his Daddy had left right after getting his Mama pregnant with another. She worked at the hospital while he and his next brother were in school and the youngest was at daycare, and was so tired by the time she got home that between making dinner, cleaning their tiny house, and looking after the little ones she barely noticed him sneaking off. Not that she approved of that boy next door. She thought he was a charmer who worked hard to be polite when adults were around, but she noticed something in his eyes she never liked. She felt guilty knowing that her oldest was spending time with him, but more guilty at her relief that she had one less shouting little boy tearing through her house.
When Junior managed to sneak off to Jason’s he was either Robin to Jason’s Batman, or Ivan Drago to Jason’s Rocky Balboa. He much preferred being Jason’s sidekick, but there were afternoons when frying ants didn’t satisfy Jason. He’d wake up every few days with last night’s WWE fight still playing in his head and wait all day to try some of the wrestling moves he had seen. Junior never enjoyed those afternoons much, but he could never say no to Jason. How could he? Jason had access to whole worlds of knowledge unavailable to Junior. Jason had a Daddy. Junior started to adopt Jason’s idea that he was a Hero in a world of inconsequential small-town nobodies, so Junior hung around happily soaking up the attention of this available icon.
Some nights when Junior came home at dark his Mama noticed a shiny blue bruise rising over his eyebrow when she put him to bed. The first time this happened, after she’d stacked her boys in their bunks in the one room they shared, she marched through her overgrown grass and crossed the hedge separating her lawn from her neighbors’. She found Jason’s Daddy sitting on the porch with three of his friends, cracking open beers and flicking cigarette butts onto his lawn. As she walked along their house she saw Jason through the window, sitting cross-legged on the floor, the blue glow of the television reflected on his eager face. He’d cranked the volume up loud enough she could hear machine gun fire and Arnold Shwarzenegger’s distinct accent from outside. None of the men stood as she came around to the front of the house and approached them, they just looked her up and down snidely and smirked at this swollen woman. She spread her feet in a strong stance and asked which of them was Jason’s father. Jason’s Daddy raised his beer can and grinned widely at her.
“You know yer boy’s been fightin’? My Junior’s lying in bed right now with a shiner swellin’ o’er his eye!”
Jason’s Daddy laughed. “Well it sounds to me like somebody oughtta teach your Junior how ta defend hisself. Sounds to me like yer jus’ sore yer boy lost. ‘ts too bad you chased his Pops off ‘fore he could teach the squirt ta’ put ‘is fists up.” Jason’s Daddy’s friends laughed.
Junior’s Mama’s face got so red she looked like she’d been out in the sun for three days straight. “I’ll be talkin’ ta your wife about this, Marty’. Don’ you think I won’. I known Ellen since we was in school and she won’ tolerate yer boy fightin with mine.”
“I don’ see whatchya’d wanna talk ta her for. She don’ fight any better’n yer boy does!” Jason’s Daddy’s friends all laughed again. They kept laughing even as Junior’s Mama turned and walked away. She passed their living room window again, and this time saw Jason pressed against it, his whole face a smile, proud of his Daddy.
When she got back to her house she reached into her freezer and grabbed some frozen peas, then opened the door to her boys’ room slowly to see if Junior was still awake. He sat up while his brothers stayed curled under their sheets, sleeping or pretending to sleep in their bunks. She pressed the bag of frozen peas against Junior’s eye, which was about level with hers while he was in his bunk.
“Baby, what happened to yer eye today?”
“Ain’ nothin’ happen’ Mama. I was just playin’ ‘n’ I fell is all.”
“You can tell me the truth honey, it’s ok. Yer not in trouble.”
“Really Mama, nothin’ happened.”
Junior’s Mama sighed the long, tired sigh of the single mother, the worn out woman, and kept the bag of frozen peas pressed to her oldest son’s eye. They stayed like that for a long time, quietly, until Junior’s small body slackened and he leaned against his Mama. She laid him back on his pillow and walked quietly out of her sons’ room, easing the door closed slowly so the old hinges wouldn’t creak and wake them again.
Next time Junior walked over to Jason’s he heard him narrating another epic battle, as usual starring Jason against the forces of evil. As he pushed through the bushes separating their lawns he saw that Jason had trapped a small mouse under a glass bowl.
“Jason’s evil Communist prisoner still refused to talk, a’ Jason knew he’d hafta’ resort ta’ torture.” Jason intoned in his imitation of the booming narrating voice of movie trailers. Junior knew Jason hadn’t seen him yet and for a moment he wanted to run. He thought quickly about whether he could get away without Jason noticing, but he hadn’t been as quiet as he thought. The next moment Jason looked up at him and grinned the grin he couldn’t suppress when he knew he had complete control.
“I caught us a prisoner Junior, and the bastard ain’ talkin’. Come help me decide what we oughtta do with ‘im.”
Junior tried to not show how impressed he was by Jason’s casual use of a word he’d never heard another kid say. He walked slowly toward Jason, through grass that had stopped tickling his ankles when he crossed the hedge over into Jason’s world. Another stinging reminder of Things A Daddy’d Do.
“Alright,” he said, squatting down on the other side of bowl and looking at the mouse, “what’s the bastard done?” The word fell awkwardly from his mouth and Jason laughed.
“Who cares what’s ‘e done. We gotsta find out whats ‘e know.” Jason slid a steak knife stolen from his Mama’s kitchen from under his shirt. It caught the nearly-horizontal rays of the setting sun as they seeped over the lawn. Junior said nothing. He could hear Jason’s Daddy and his friends all laughing around the front of the house. Jason lifted one side of the bowl and the mouse cowered against the opposite side. Jason quickly stabbed the tip of his knife through the mouse’s back foot, pinning it to the dirt as he lifted the bowl completely with his other hand.
“C’mere Junior, you hold ‘im down while I try to make him talk.”
Junior looked westward desperately, knowing he’d have an excuse to leave as soon as the sun sank below the horizon.
“I don’ know Jason, I don’ think ‘e knows nothin’. ‘e’s so little ‘n all.”
“C’mon Junior, all you gotsta do is hold ‘im so ‘e don’ run off. Unless you’s a Commie bastard too. You ain’, right?”
Junior shook his head and took the knife, sunk into the dirt through the mouse’s back foot, from Jason and held it steady. He felt the mouse pulling at it desperately, terrified and struggling to escape. Jason pulled a shiny metal Zippo lighter out from his back pocket.
“I knew i weren’t wrong about you. Hey, check this out, Junior. I stole it off the table next to my Daddy’s bed while he was sleepin’ this mornin’.”
Thankful for the excuse to look away from his hand on the knife and the mouse struggling beneath its’ tip, Junior looked up at the Zippo as it caught the last rays of evening sunlight.
The last rays of sunlight.
“Aw hell, Jason, the sun’s almos’ gone. I gotsta get home.”
“Pretty cool lighter though, ain’ it?” Jason asked as he took the handle of the knife back from Junior.
“Yeah man. Pretty cool.” Junior stood, brushing the dirt off his legs. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Jason didn’t look up from his squirming prey. “Yeah man. Tomorrow.”
Junior walked back home as casually as he could, pushing down the bile rising in his throat and forcing his legs to move slowly. He heard the click of the Zippo before he pushed through the bushes and the metallic taste of adrenaline filled his mouth. He didn’t try to fight it until after he’d crossed the hedge. He ran over his yard and through the screen door into his kitchen. He leaned against the door and stood panting for several minutes.
“Honey, you alright?” His Mama asked as she walked her mid-pregnancy leaning-back walk into the kitchen, trying not to trip over his little brothers as they played tag between her legs.
“Oh yeah Mama. I’m fine. Tired’s all. I think I’m’a go ta bed early tonight.” He headed through the kitchen and living room and disappeared behind the door to his shared bedroom.
His Mama had noticed the sheen of sweat on his face and it’s unusual pallor. Her eyebrows knit together as she considered what could have caused that fear in her oldest son. Her focus faded quickly though, as one of his brothers tripped her. She flung a hand out to catch herself on the kitchen counter and yelled “Goddamnit – I tol’ you boys there’ll be no runnin’ in my house!”