My old man is breathing hard, trying to explain things to my mother, but it’s clear she’s not interested in his reasons for being late or the excuses for the blood on his knuckles. She sets the food on the table. Hands him a plate.
“Before it gets cold,” she says, bows her head, prays to herself.
My father turns to me, he’s past praying. Past Jesus.
“Used to be a boxer, y’know?” Throws a combination in the air. Jab. Jab. Then the big southpaw hook coming from way back. “Still got it, too.”
“You missing something up front?” I ask.
He runs his tongue along the inside of his mouth. “I’ll be damned. I don’t know when that fell out.”
“Does it hurt?”
“It’s a tooth. Ain’t like I lost a finger.” Looks down at the roast beef in front of him, forks a bit, regards it. “Damn.”
My mother has checked out of the conversation. Has checked out of dinner. Has checked out of the house. She stirs her coffee. Keeps her head down.
“Anyhow, I’m givin’ it to this sonofabitch real good. Got him knocked down on the ground so I start kicking him. Whhhaaap. Whhhaaap. Right into his ribs and he’s lookin’ up at me and he’s sayin’—‘Naw mister, you got it all wrong. Just wanted a cigarette. Didn’t mean anything by nothing.’”
My old man cuts up his roast beef. Small.
“But now I know I’ve seen this prick before and if it wasn’t him, it was his goddamn brother or his cousin or some other sonofabitch that looked just like him or kinda like him and I remember feeling back then that I didn’t like him, and he ain’t done anything but make it worse since then.”
I nod and look away, hoping he’ll stop. Pick out details I’ve long stopped noticing. The color of curtains. The way the living room clock has frozen. The look on my mother’s face.
“You gotta figure a kid like this gets his ass whooped by an old man like me, he’s got two things to choose from. Now he might take it like a man and let it all be settled. But more than likely he’s going to round up some of his cousins and his brothers and he’s going to come after me the next time he sees me.”
“Or someone who looks like you.”
“It’s a jungle out there, buddy. Gotta be the lion or else…”
“That’s what you always say.”
“It’s the truth.”
“That’s what you always say.”
He winces with the first few bites of roast beef. “This meat is pretty tough, don’t you think?”
“Maybe your teeth are all loose,” my mother says.
There is tension in their stares. Burning. Silence.
And then there is a knock on the door.
My father pushes away from the table. “Now who the fuck is this?” Disappears through the living room towards the front door.
“Meat’s good,” I say.
She sighs. “He expecting filet? Then he needs to earn filet money.”
I strain to hear the conversation at the door.
“Fourteen?” my father asks.
“What do you mean critical condition?”
“Severe head trauma,” the other guy says. “They’ve got him hooked up to machines at the hospital to keep him going.”
“Is he gonna die?”
“I don’t make those types of decisions, but I’m afraid you’re going to have to come with me.”
“I’m eatin’ dinner,” my father says. “I’ll come in tomorrow.”
“Don’t tell me it’s not possible,” my father’s voice drops an octave, loses its cool. “Don’t tell me what I can’t do.”
“You can either come nicely or we can put you in bracelets. It’ll be easier for everybody if you just cooperate. There doesn’t have to be a scene.”
“A scene? You come to my goddamn house, my castle, tellin’ me some fourteen year old boy ain’t feelin’ well and you think it’s me that’s making a scene?”
“We’ve got witnesses who…”
“Sonofabitch attacked me.”
“Get a coat. It’s cold.”
He makes noises in protest, but no words I can understand until, “Fine, I’ll get my goddamn coat, but I want you to know you’re ruining my goddamn dinner with my wife and my kid. I hope you’re happy you sonofabitch.”
Stomps back through the living room, emerges in the kitchen, looks at us, shakes his head.
“What have you done?” My mother asks.
“Nothing. Not a goddamn thing.”
“You beat up a fourteen year old boy?” She points her fork at him.
“There’s no way he was fourteen. They’re lying. Fourteen? Shit, that guy was at least twenty. Easy. Believe me, I know what a fourteen year old looks like, I was fourteen once, I’m not dumb.”
“You want me to go with you?” I ask.
“No, boy, you stay here and protect her. One of his cousins or brothers or whatever might come by lookin’ for trouble.”
“They’re probably at the hospital,” my mother says. “Worried that he’s going to die.”
I can’t read the look on my father’s face. He might be concerned about the kid, too, or he might just be pissed at my mom for saying anything. He takes his coat from the peg on the wall.
“It’s a goddamn jungle out there,” throws his coat on and storms out of the room.
“That’s what you always say,” my mom whispers.
“You have to be the lion,” I say under my breath.
Mark Raymond Falk lives in West Texas. He splits his time cattle ranching and
writing. His work has appeared in Plots with Guns, Powder Burn Flash, and the
forthcoming anthology Florida Heat Wave being published by Tyrus Books in
August of 2010.