“Say that again,” I told him.
“I said, ‘If you want money so goddamn bad, go get you some.’ Go dig up some of that money in the basement if you want money so goddamn bad, goddamn it,” he snapped. The old man snapped, barked, hollered, and yelled a lot. His volume knob never seemed to go below 8.
“What money? You’ve got money in the basement?” I asked.
“Hell, yeah, I got money in the basement. Buried in the wall behind that big old clown painting of your mother’s. Been there for years.”
I just stared at the twisted up old fuck, that knot of wasted human life just too furious to do anything other than rage. And drink. And use drugs. And fuck around on the mother. My old man was quite a guy in quite a few ways, but money-stasher was a new one on me.
“How much money are we talking about?” I asked.
“Twelve fucking thousand bucks,” he answered. “You little shit.”
“You have $12,000 buried in the basement? What the fuck for?”
“So you, your retard brother, and that nightmare corpse of your mother’s upstairs couldn’t never get your greedy fuckin’ paws on it.”
“So why are you telling us now?”
The old man clamped his mouth shut, his face collapsing around the toothless hole.
“Seriously, old man. Why are you telling us now?”
“I got my reasons.”
“Such as…? I mean, how long have you been sitting on this little stash of cash?”
“Long enough,” the old man answered. “And I got my reasons. That’s all you need to know.”
And, yeah, we found the money. Down in the basement in a hole in the wall behind one of the clown paintings the mother had done in her paint-by-numbers days right where the old man said it would be. Or, rather, what was left of it—a rotten, rat-shredded, moldy wad of slimy scraps and fiber. If you ever want to know what $12,000 looks like, do not ask me. All I can tell you about is what $12,000 looks like after my retard drug-addict old man hides it in a wet, dirty hole in our cellar’s wall and doesn't tell anybody about it for ten or eleven years. That’s not all we found, of course, but finding those sludgy lumps of cash pudding was awfully disappointing. The mother had died, chocked to death in her slum-queen’s bed on a chicken bone, and this was very much more disappointing than that. We never told anyone she'd died because, really, who would care? She’s still up there rotting away, though, in case any of us wants to visit with her for awhile and that doesn’t help the generally odiferous nature of our home much. I think the old man thinks she’s still alive.
Toby stood there for a moment looking at the money-slop and the rest of it; then he just bolted upstairs. I mean, he spun around and he was pounding up the steps and the next thing I heard was his heavy boots thumping across the floor above and the meat-sounding smack of his close-fisted blows to the old man.
“You stupid, worthless piece of shit,” Toby’s voice, though muffled, was clear and the space between each word was filled with the sound of another blow. “You…insane…piece…of fuck…shit.”
Stuff like that. I couldn’t hear much of anything from the old man, but that was not in any way unusual. I can’t remember the last full sentence I heard him speak aloud before tonight and I’d stopped reading his little notes years ago. They didn’t make sense anyway when I did read them. “Cancer dog at the back door,” I remember one of them said; “Claws and beaks are all you eat,” was another one. They were like fucked-up fortune-cookie fortunes or something.
So, I just stood there in the basement leaning on my shovel, listening to my brother beat the crap out of our father, and staring at all that ruined money and the skeletonized remains of one of my childhood classmates. Sierra Lebonowsky disappeared when we were in the 8th grade, her folks moved away a few years later, and she slipped away from my memory. But I instantly recognized her sweater; it was not a particularly noteworthy sweater other than that I remembered it as hers. A cardigan thing with a belt, it had a geometrical pattern in gray and cream colors. I could see her wearing it while she waited at the bus stop in the morning, steam from her warm breath pluming away from her mouth. Obviously synthetic, it hadn’t deteriorated much in eleven years. Sierra had, but the sweater hadn’t.
Toby came stomping down the stairs from behind me.
“Asshole cocksucker,” he announced. “Fucking useless perverted toothless piece of shit.”
He was talking about dad.
“What’s he doing?” I asked Toby.
“Fucking bleeding, man,” Toby answered. “Sitting there in his fucking Laz-ee-Boy recliner, crying like a bitch, and bleeding.”
“Did he say anything?” I asked.
“How the fuck should I know?” He answered my question with a question and I hate that.
“Did you know about any of this?” I asked him.
“About the money or about Sierra?” Again with the question for a question.
I gently poked her ribcage under the sweater.
“Any of it.”
“No,” he said, almost indignant.
I poked a little bit more.
“Then why did you ask?” I wanted to know.
“Why did I ask what?” Toby was having trouble answering me straight on.
“I asked you if you knew about any of this,” I explained to him. “You asked me, ‘About the money or about Sierra?’ If you didn’t know about this, why did you ask which one?”
“Why did I ask which one what?” This was getting painful.
“Why did you ask me which one—Sierra or the money?”
Toby just stood there, blinking and thinking, while he tried to figure out what to say next. He already knew it was too late and the shovel in my hands was connecting with his nose, splitting it open with a gush of crimson, before he could adequately frame his next question. Toby sat down hard on his ass on the basement floor next to the pile of worthless cash and what was left of Sierra Lebonowsky.
“You fuck,” I told him. “You fucking knew. Didn’t you?”
“Glub?” Toby answered through his already blackening, swelling lump of a nose and the gush of bright blood. “Glub glum glub?”
“Stop answering my questions with more questions, you asshole,” I told him and smacked the top of his head with the flat blade of my shovel. It made a dull ringing sound and vibrated in my hands.
“Ooowww,” Toby moaned and at least that sounded like a statement. My family had a suddenly renewed interest in beating up each other.
I thought about Sierra Lebonowsky for a second. A flood of quick memories followed my recognition of her sweater: Sierra on the school bus sitting next to Debbie Skinner and talking about boys; watching her dance with another boy at a school sock-hop about 6 weeks before she disappeared; Sierra in 5th grade crying when she got 2nd place in the science fair because she had worked on her project entirely by herself and the winner, Mike Tullman, had so obviously gotten help from his dad. I remember thinking it wasn’t fair. I hadn’t gotten any help from my dad, of course, but my project sucked. I can’t even remember what it was, maybe some last minute thing with lima beans or food color or something. I couldn’t believe Sierra had been in my basement this whole time. And I had almost forgotten about her.
Toby was curled on his side on the dirt floor.
“Anything else I need to know about?” I asked him, ready to kick him if it even sounded like he was going to ask another question.
“Nobe,” he straightforwardly answered me. “Nuh-ting else.”
I looked down on the little corpse and damned if it didn’t appear as if there were tooth marks on the long bones of her little legs. The old man hadn’t always been toothless; before the meth fucked up his mouth, he’d had quite a set of choppers.
“You sick motherfucker,” I told him and then, realizing what I’d just said, had to smile a little bit. Fighting wasn’t all this family did with each other.
“Tommy has a girlfriend, Tommy has a girlfriend,” Toby, chanted while he danced circles around his big brother.
Tommy lunged at the gadfly, narrowly missing a grab at the boy’s winter coat.
“Shut up, brat,” the older boy commanded, though futilely.
“Tommy and Sierra, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G,” Toby sang as he dodged a punch-kick combination. “First comes love, then comes marriage. Then comes Tommy pushing a baby…OW!”
Toby rubbed his thigh where his brother’s boot had left the beginnings of a good-sized welt. Tommy was able, in general, to land only 1 blow in every 6 attempts, so he tended to make them count when he could. It was the same strategy their father used to raise his boys.
All the way to their home, the younger boy limped in front of, behind, and along side his older sibling in a manner both mocking and defiant though he made no further vocalization. Tommy scowled, though not at his brother’s teasing. In fact, Tommy scowled because he did not have a girlfriend and that Sierra Lebonowsky specifically was not his girlfriend. Toby’s teasing reminded Tommy of that fact and, since he truly wished that Sierra was his girlfriend, that the two truly were k-i-s-s-i-n-g, in love, getting married, pushing baby carriages, and since Tommy knew that something like that was never ever going to happen, Toby’s teasing ignited a slow red fire in his head and in his heart that, once smoldering, would be hard to dampen. What had started as love was already becoming rage.
“I HATE HER,” he roared at his brother as if that would stop the frolicking.
The boys slammed into the house, dumping their coats and backpacks onto the jumbled pile of clothing, sports equipment, and assorted detritus next to the kitchen door. Walking into the house was walking into a wall of overheated, moist air heavy with the odors of cat-piss, stale cigarette smoke, rotten food, old grease, and unwashed bodies. Those smells were just one of the reasons Tommy would remain without a girlfriend; among many other things, the way those smells clung to the boys was off-putting to their peers. The boys jealously suspected that other households hid secrets just as foul as their own. The only difference, they hoped in their impotent squalor, was that other households merely applied Lysol to the stink with more vigor. And for that, the boys hated those other households and the children reared in those households for having the luck, if not the blessing, of good hygiene and the USDA food pyramid. The boys could have accepted and lived with the foul secrets, for foul secrets were part of all the life they’d ever known, but good food and clean clothes would have made a difference and to be denied such simple amenities infuriated the boys.
“Where’s the fat bitch?” Tommy asked his brother as he looked inside the barren refrigerator.
“Probably stuffing her fat face,” Toby snickered.
“I’d like to know with what,” Tommy said. “And then I’d like some, too.”
“Fat chance,” Toby laughed. “Get it? ‘ Fat’ chance?”
Tommy reached behind to idly swat at his younger brother.
“I get it, asswipe.”
“Got any money?”
“No shit, I wish.”
“Well, shit in one hand and wish in the other. Watch which one fills up first.”
“Quit trying to talk like the old man. It doesn’t fit you.”
“Well, what are we going to do?”
Tommy closed the refrigerator door. His stomach was knotted with hunger and shame, his feet burned in his stinking boots and unwashed socks, his hair hung in greasy ropes across his crusted eyes. He honestly didn’t know how much more of this he could take. Later in his life, Tommy would be sadly surprised to look back and see just how much more it had been.
*To stand there looking at $12,000 and a perfectly good girl wasted like that just made me madder and madder. All those macaroni and cheese dinners right out of the box with no milk or butter; all those rotten socks and gray underwear 2 sizes too small; all those empty Christmas stockings, forgotten birthdays, and that sick fuck upstairs had been sitting on 12 grand, letting it rot away rather than spend a dime of it on his kids.
He’d apparently kidnapped the object of my schoolboy desires and, at the very least, chewed on her legs though I know that’s not all he did, and he didn’t even tell me or ask me if I wanted some. Like I was ever going to get another chance to be with a girl like Sierra Lebonowsky no matter how long I lived. Just looking at her bones wrapped up in the remains of her clothes was giving me a hard-on.
I kicked my brother again.
“You asshole,” I reiterated before climbing the stairs into the kitchen.
I sat down at the table in front of a cold cup of instant coffee. I could see through the doorway, past the dining room, and into the living room. The old man was sprawled on his recliner, blood was trickling out of his mouth, and whether he was alive or dead did not matter to me in the least. I brought the mug to my lips, blew upon the liquid as if it were scalding, and took a sip.
“That hits the spot,” I said to no one. “Nothing like a good cup of coffee to really hit the spot.”
*The hungry boys roamed through the bottom floors of the house searching for something to eat or money with which to buy something to eat. Toby carried the sugar bowl with him, dipping his finger into its hardened, darkened crust and licking up the grains that stuck. Tommy puffed away on long butts rummaged from overflowing ashtrays. If they didn’t find something soon, they’d have to go into the garage and huff gasoline. No matter how hungry they got, a few lungfuls of gasoline vapor put them in a drooling stupor in which food had no place. The headaches could be fierce, but everything was always a trade-off.
They could hear the television from upstairs.
“I wonder if she’s awake,” Toby said.
“Go and find out,” Tommy answered.
“I’m not going. You go.”
“I’m not going.”
If the mother was asleep, they might be able to swipe some food from the debris in her room. If she was awake and saw them, she would either scream at and vilify them or wish them closer so she could slobber upon and touch them. Neither prospect appealed to either boy at the moment.
“Shit,” Tommy muttered as he headed for the garage and the gas can. Toby followed behind, silent and limping.
*I’m not sure how long I sat at the table. The old man never moved and Toby never came upstairs. It could have been hours. It could have been five minutes. I just kept thinking about the money and about Sierra Lebonowsky, about what I could have done with either or both.
I’ve often wondered how it is possible for me to stand such a cruel life surrounded by such cruel people acting with such cruelty. I search my own interior for that same cruelty and, rather than dismay, greet it with joy when I find it. As fucked-up as the family may be, we don’t get to choose our relatives and I would rather fit in with my own blood than be a stranger in the world. I can’t imagine how lonely it would be for someone to not have blood kin, people who aren’t just like you but are actually part of you and you are a part of them.
We talk about blood a lot amongst each other.
“It ain’t no gaddamn cliché,” the old man used to say before his brain melted. “It’s just true. Blood is thicker than water and thicker than mud and that means they ain’t no kind of binding or any kind of holy oath that’ll put you closer to another human being in this world than the blood you share in your veins. That’s why I married your mother and that’s why the blood inside you boys is holy.”
That last part doesn’t make a lot of sense, but the first part rings true. Even monsters have mommies. Even if their mommies are also their aunties or maybe their big sisters, it still counts.
I remember being real little, just probably 2 or 3 years old because, in my memory, all the furniture and stuff is really big. I remember standing in the hallway and looking into the big bedroom and watching the old man and the mother go at it in a sexual way. Now I know she couldn’t have been much more than 15 herself, but at the time she seemed old as water and about that solid; she was just sort of a wispy, misty old woman even when she was still a kid. It wouldn’t be too much longer before she got real fat but back then she was still just a skinny little thing. She was probably pregnant with Toby though how would I have known? The old man was doing her and it was either really good or it hurt her something bad because she was making all sorts of noises and you know how sex is—sometimes it sounds like people killing each other. I never knew the mother’s mother, the old man’s wife before they had my mother, but I know her name was “Jeanette” because that’s what the old man would grunt when he was fucking his daughter and that isn’t the mother’s name. The mother’s name is Dumpling and he never grunts
“Dumpling” when he’s fucking her. That’s kind of weird, I think.
Anyway, I remember standing there in the hallway and being just a little kid but still having this vision of how we are as a family, how we are like a silver ring or a group of interlocked silver rings and no matter which ring you set to follow out of the group, you always loop back and find yourself tangled up in someone else’s silver ring. That’s the family for sure. The reason the rings are silver is that gold doesn’t tarnish.
The range of her cruelty had been limited by only and both her lack of intelligence and poverty and I thanked heaven every day that she was both stupid and poor.
One of her favorites was to make me wear a dress and watch as she fucked the old man or one of her tricks. She’d stand me on a chair and she’d suck cock and take it in her smelly pussy and her dirty ass and she and the old man or the trick would laugh at me there crying in a dress on the chair watching the mother fuck strange, drunken men including but limited to the old man. She would be drunk, too.
She must have known what she was doing. How else to explain why she’d punish me with bare-bottom spankings while jerking my little prick. She must have known stuff like that would have long-term consequences. Why else would she make me stand naked in the bathtub, flick burning matches at my crotch, and all the while whisper how she was going to cut my penis off and make me into a girl?
Toby was still moaning downstairs. I was sitting in the sick heart of the rancid rat’s nest we called our home and I was just sick of us all, tired and sick and bored and infuriated and deeply saddened by our lives. There I was surrounded by illness, decay, and deviance with a pile of rotten cash and the corpse of my childhood sweetheart down in the basement and I just didn’t know what to do anymore.
The old man was making some choked, wheezing sounds from the living room, so I guessed he wasn’t dead, that Toby hadn’t killed him. Yet. Of course, my own boots felt like having their own chat with the old man, so he was by no means finished with the evening’s entertainment. I was just waiting for him to rise to a suitable level of consciousness so that my efforts could be properly rewarded. In the mean time, sipping my ice-cold coffee, I turned back to my mental family scrapbook.
*We were having one of those father-to-son heart-to-heart talks I’d learned to love so well.
“When the fuck are you gonna get you some pussy, boy?” the old man asked me. “Don’t you like girls? Are you a little faggot? I’m not having no cock-sucking, ass-fucking faggot in my house, you know.”
It was at times like these I wished at least one of the television sets piled in the living room would work. I could watch Dialing For Dollars or The Match Game and pretend the old man was talking to someone else.
“I’m talking to you, boy,” he reminded me. “I’m talking to you, you little faggot no-pussy-getting boy. Jesus fuck Christ, I had kids in school when I was your age.”
I was 15 then, which meant that if the old man was telling something even a little bit truthful, he’d been since he was 10 or 11 and that seemed almost reasonable.
“I reckon you know what pussy is, don’t you?” he asked while peering at me. I think he thought he was making a joke. He was drinking something white and caustic out of a cracked, milky ceramic coffee mug in between hitting his glass pipe. They’d just invented crack and the old man loved that shit. “I mean, you seen pitchers of pussy, ain’t you?”
I’d indeed seen pictures of pussy and I’d seen the real thing between the mother’s legs and was still confused how the one could look so tantalizing and beckoning and pink while the other looked dark and ravenous and foul. I kept that thought to myself.
“Do I have to go out there and drag some pussy in here for you?” he asked but I was pretty sure the question was rhetorical. But, thinking now, perhaps it wasn’t. “Do I have to go out there and buy some fucking pussy for you to stick that little wizzer you call a dick into? Do I have to hold it for you and push your bony ass up and down, up and down?”
That was a thoroughly ugly thought and I pushed it quickly from my head.
“I know girls,” I said in a moment of weakness.
“You know girls. I’ll bet you know girls,” he cackled. “But do girls know you? Huh? Do the girls know you?”
I know I blushed. I hated myself for doing it, but the old man had me pegged. Sure, I knew girls from the neighborhood and from school, but not a one of them even looked at me. How could they with me in my dirty clothes, dirty hair, and smelling of this madhouse reek? How could I even approach them? I wasn’t totally resigned to a sex life of the mother’s intermittent blowjobs delivered while she wheezed and pinched my nipples until they bled, but I was getting there. I wasn’t happy about it, but that’s what resignation is all about; I’d give up even the hope of happiness and holding hands and sharing sodas and making out in the back seat of parents’ cars and resign myself to the fully awful sexual ministrations of the mother. She’d flop over amidst the filthy detritus of her bedclothes and hiss.
“In mah ass, boy,” she’d rasp. “Stick that dinker of your’n in mah ass.”
And I would.
*I could hear Toby start to stumble up the stairs and I had no idea what his intentions might be. I could hear the old man starting regain his senses in the living room. I wondered which one I’d have to beat senseless first.
When he made it to the kitchen door, Toby leaned against the jamb, blood dripping down the front of his shirt.
“Whadda gonna do now?” he asked me around the mess on the front of his face.
“You’re asking me?” I answered and felt good to give him a question instead of an answer.
“Yuh. Whadda gonna do?”
“Well,” I said and raised the coffee to my lips. “I’m going to sit here until the old man wakes up enough so’s I can go back in there and kick the shit out of him all over again. You got a good start, brother, but I’m going to finish the job.”
“Buh whadda gonna do den?” His busted nose sure made him talk funny.
“You know, I’ve been sitting here thinking about that. Maybe I’ll call the cops and they’ll throw us all in jail where we belong. Maybe I’ll take some of that $12,000 and go to El Paso.”
“Bud thad muddy no good,” he answered me for once. “Ain’d no good fer nuddin.”
“Well, dear Toby, we’re aren’t much good for ‘nuddin’ either.” I was wishing the mother was still alive so I could upstairs and kick the shit out of her, too. “So, I guess it sort of works out the way it was supposed to work out. Maybe I’ll join the army and kill people legally. You might want to try it yourself.”
“De arby?” he moaned. “I d’wanna go inna arby.”
“Okay. No army for Toby. Maybe you could be a cop. You’ve got the temperament for it.”
“I don wanna beeda cob,” he moaned again and I think he may have been crying. It was hard to tell.
The old man was stirring in the living room. I heard him fall out of his chair and I got the beginnings of a plan formed. I stood up to go back in there and stomp his head open, grind what was left of his evil brains into the scarred woodwork of the dirty floor and, if I still felt like it afterward, I would walk out the door and keep on walking and never come back. I felt the intense need for new blood in my life and I figured it was about time to spawn. I was going to look for some pussy. Some real pussy.