Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Knuckleheads


“Hey, knuckleheads, don’t ride in the street,” Monica yelled from the porch. I jumped off my bike and walked it to the curb. Daryl and Keenie continued crisscrossing the empty residential street lined with tract homes. Once on the curb, I rode up the sweeping concrete-gray driveway to where my father and Clete stood in the garage. A 1963 Chevrolet Impala, its windows obscured with brown paper and masking tape, was parked in the interior.

“I’ve fucked over a thousand women,” Clete was saying to my dad, “and every one said thanks after, you know what I mean?” My dad glanced down at me, his face going red. “I’m good. I don’t need General Motors to make me a man. I can paint any car as long as it ain’t moving. I don’t need GM.”

Clete, Daryl, Keenie and Monica lived down the street from us when I was ten years old. I often rode bikes with the boys up down our quiet street. My dad had an uneasy relationship with Clete. They had been hunting together a few times because Clete had a Jeep with four wheel drive. However, he used language that my father never used, and he was not particular keen on having me hear it. So these encounters between the two men were fraught with tension, Clete using his questionable language while my father rocked nervously back and forth on his heels.

“Daryl, get out of the street,” Monica yelled again.

“Hey, Monica, give that shit a rest, huh,” Clete screamed back at her.

She gave him a look. “They’re your kids.”

“Go back in the house and mind your own fucking business.”

Even at ten years old, ignorant about the mysteries of sex and love, I thought Monica was beautiful. She was tall and lithe, like a dancer, with black hair and green eyes. The haunted look in her eyes only contributed to her beauty, and I did not understand what she feared. I just knew that I had a monstrous crush on her.

“Gotta go, Clete,” my dad said. “Take it easy.”

“If it’s easy, I’ll take it twice!” Clete laughed heartily and picked up his paint gun. As we made our way down the street, me walking my bike next to my dad, I could hear the hiss of the paint hitting the car. We walked to our own home seven doors down and across the street.

The next day, I met Daryl and Keenie in the street. Clete was putting the finishing touches on the Impala, which was now an awesome blood red. Daryl was the oldest and attended the neighborhood public school. This was his second year in second grade. He had red hair and an unfathomable number of freckles spread across his face. On his upper lip was a ceaseless stream of green and yellow snot. He once stuck a small stone up his nostril in an attempt to staunch the flow. The snot continued to run and he had to go to the emergency room to have the stone removed. Keenie was a few years younger and blond. His face was always caked with dirt. He also drooled uncontrollably and little streams would run from each corner of his mouth.

We decided to play “Chicken” on our bikes. Daryl had an old Schwinn he stole from a little girl at the park. I had a bike my parents bought for me two birthdays back. Keenie rode around on a plastic motorcycle that Daryl snatched from someone’s trash. The wheels were cracked and one pedal was just a metal bar, having long ago lost the plastic footpad. Keenie could not get enough speed on the cycle to keep up with us, so he usually lagged far behind.

Daryl rode to the far west end of the street while I rode east to where the street curved. We started at Keenie’s signal, trying so hard to reach top speed that our chains slipped and the tires wobbled. Approaching top speed, we hurtled toward each other, laughing. At the last second, I veered off and rode up the driveway becoming a little airborne off the dead, brown grass of the lawn. Daryl kept going. In all the times we played this game, he never veered off first. He was fearless, or just plain stupid.

I slid to a stop next to Keenie. “You’re a chicken,” he said to me, then quickly added so I wouldn’t get mad: “Tomorrow’s my birthday, I’ll be seven, you wanna come to my party?” Keenie always said it was his birthday and then invited you to his party. I didn’t know when his real birthday was, and he never had a party.

“Sure,” I answered, playing along with the ritual.

“It’s tomorrow.”

“I’ll be there.” I looked for Daryl and saw that he had turned around and was now racing back down the street from the east. A black, Ford pick-up passed Keenie and me, advancing toward Daryl who was at full speed flying toward the truck. I nervously glanced at the garage, but Clete was out of sight. The two objects raced toward each other, the monstrous black truck and the streak of red hair. Having nowhere to turn, the truck slammed on its brakes, but Daryl kept coming. He swung to the passenger side of the vehicle and slammed both fists on the hood of the truck as he passed, momentarily letting go of his handlebars. The horn blared and Daryl lost control of his bike, ramming the curb and flying over the front tire to land on his back.

The driver jumped out of the truck, a look of shock and fear on his face. “Did you see that crazy kid?” he yelled to no one in particular.

“Hey!” I turned around and saw Clete coming from the garage, a large caliber revolver leveled at the driver. “That’s my kid.”

The driver backed up against his truck, hands raised in defense. Monica came from the house and ran to Daryl. Clete went right up to the driver, shoving the gun into his face. “Get in the truck and leave before I blow your fucking head off.”

“I was stopped,” the driver insisted.

Clete cocked the gun. “Get in your car and leave before I fucking blow your head off.”

The driver edged away from the gun and got into his truck. Clete kept the weapon trained on the Ford until it rounded the curve at the end of the street and disappeared. Clete released the hammer and stuck the gun in his waistband. “Dumb ass,” he said. He walked back up the driveway and into the garage.

When I told my parents what had happened, my father told me not to play with Daryl and Keenie again, but a few days later, Daryl showed up at our door. “You wanna come over for Christmas candy?” Daryl asked. My dad was working the swing shift now and my mom was taking a shower. I figured I was safe, so I got my bike and rode with Daryl to his house. We threw our bikes on the lawn in the frosty air. “My dad and Monica and Keenie and me are going bird hunting Saturday,” he told me. “I’m gonna shoot my new gun. You wanna come? There might be snow.” I could not believe Daryl now had a gun. “It’s a .410. My dad had it when he was a kid.”

“I don’t think my dad will let me,” I said with embarrassment.

We stopped at the garage to see Clete who was painting a dune buggy. His face was red and running with sweat despite the cold. The odor of stale beer, cigarettes, and paint made me lightheaded. “Hey knuckleheads,” he shouted over the blaring country music. He lost his balance and fell against the buggy, smearing gold-sparkle paint all over his bare chest. He laughed so hard he turned purple. His body looked thinner now, more wiry. He was a small man, but muscled and hard. He had a number of tattoos, one of which was a naked woman.

“Knuckleheads,” Monica called from the porch. “Come on in.” She opened the door for us and we stomped into the house. Her face looked tired, and she had dark circles around her eyes. The haunted look was more noticeable. We sat at the dining room table and feasted on homemade Mexican sweetbreads and cupcakes.

Clete staggered in and stripped down to his underwear in the living room. He threw the wad of clothes at Monica. “Those need washing,” he said. “How are my boys? You coming hunting with us Saturday, Paul?”

“No, I can’t,” I mumbled.

“Honey?” Monica said from the kitchen.

“What’s up, doggy?” Clete replied.

“My registration for college is due Friday and you said this would be the semester I could start going.”

I glanced at Clete. He was red and he wouldn’t look at her. “We don’t got the money,” he said through his teeth. He playfully kicked Keenie who was hiding under the table.

“But it’s important and you promised,” she whined.

“Yeah, I promised, but I ain’t got the money. So that’s the way it goes.”

“Clete, please. I really want to go. It means a lot…”

“Why?” he yelled into her face. “Why does it mean a lot? I give you everything and still it ain’t enough.”

“No, I want to go to school. I want to get a job.”

“No, you want to fuck yourself a college professor so you don’t have to go with an ignorant redneck like me.”

“Clete, you know that’s not true.” He grabbed her by the neck and pushed her against the kitchen cabinets. I was out of my chair and through the front door in one smooth movement. I got on my bike and pedaled for home.

My mother was sitting at the dining room table when I burst through the door. “Clete is fighting with Monica,” I said. “I think he was going to hit her.”

“Your father told you not to go down there anymore.” My mother saw the fear in my face. “Sit down.” I fell into a chair. Lights flashed in my brain like Christmas tree bulbs. My legs were rubber. “What happens in that house is their business and none of yours. Do not go down there anymore and then you won’t be scared.”

“But I think something bad will happen.”

“Worry about yourself.” My mother continued calmly opening the mail, which included a healthy stack of Christmas cards.

I managed to avoid Daryl and Keenie for almost two weeks. It wasn’t hard because the weather was cold and they did not play outside. The street was lonely and empty. Toward the end of the second week, Clete, Daryl and Keenie drove by with a large Christmas tree on top of the car. I grabbed my bike and meandered down the street in the cold early evening, hiding behind the parked cars until I found a position to spy from across the street. I saw the three of them working feverishly setting up the tree in their living room. As the multi-colored sets of lights twinkled in the window, Clete danced around the room screaming. I could hear Daryl’s hoarse voice trying to out-scream his father. Monica was not in sight. I strained my ears, but I could not hear her voice.

Back at home, I took a bath and prepared for bed while my dad watched a football game in the living room and my mom talked on the phone. Sirens were common in our neighborhood, but they rarely came down our street. When they did, it was something of an event. I heard the long, low howl almost from the time it left the fire station a mile away. When it turned down our street, I heard my father get up and go outside. I quickly pulled on my jeans, tucked in my flannel pajama shirt, pulled on my tennis shoes and ran for the front door.

Down the street surrounding Daryl and Keenie’s house was a swarm of blue and red flashing lights. I followed my father for a better look. Most of the lights were police cars, but there was one ambulance parked in the driveway. Two policemen were wrapping the perimeter of the property in yellow tape and detectives in suits stood around on the driveway and porch. I could see the periodic hyper-white flash of someone taking pictures in Clete and Monica’s bedroom, as if the house contained its own private lightning storm. Faintly behind the living room drapes I could see the lights of the freshly decorated Christmas tree.

“What’s the situation?” one of the cops taping the barricade asked an older detective in a gray sports jacket and yellow tie. He had just exited the house and was rummaging through the front seat of his unmarked car.

“Lady blew her guts all over the bedroom,” he answered.

“Merry fucking Christmas,” the tape cop said.

“Yep.” He found a clipboard under the seat and went back to the house.

That night, I could not sleep. The lights from passing cars on the street outside my window made strange, film-like frames on the wall. Then rain came with a vengeance, pounding on the roof and cascading in streams down the windows. Thankfully, there was no thunder, just water from the sky in rivers down the walls of my house, soaking the earth.

It took Clete thirty-six hours to get in touch with us. I answered his phone call, and my heart slammed into my sternum and stuck there aching.

“Is your daddy around?” he asked over the line. “Put him on.”

I handed the phone to my father. When he hung up the phone, he turned to my mother. “He wants me to come down. And he wants me to bring Paul.”

“Suicide,” he laughed. “Wasn’t like her.” We stood in their bedroom. Clete wore rubber fly-fishing pants and a flannel shirt with silver paint stains. In his hand was a long, wooden-handled wire brush. There were huge, brownish splotches and splatters all over the bedroom wall and a large, red stain on the bed. Clete stood there in his rubber pants which ended in rubber boots, scrubbing the huge stains and most of the paint off onto the plastic sheeting covering the floor. “Tore up all the carpet,” he said. “Blood soaked through and stained the sub-flooring.”

I gripped my father’s hand so tight my nails dug into his freckled skin. He did not seem to feel it. The room was harshly cold and brightly lit, reeking of ammonia and Ajax.

“We are so sorry, Clete,” my father said.

“Don’t be sorry.”

“Well, I wanted you to know our thoughts are with you.”

“I’ve said it before,” Clete continued, oblivious. “I’ve had over a thousand women. But I loved only one, God rest her soul.” He struck out savagely at the stains. They dissolved slowly and ran in red rivulets down the wall and into a puddle.

“Sorry,” my dad mumbled again. He pulled my hand to go.

“Kids nearly stopped it, you know.” He quit scrubbing and stared at us as if we were transparent. “Yeah. Two seconds earlier she wouldn’t have pulled the trigger. She used Daryl’s .410. Even small bore shotguns make a hell of a mess. I bet the kids startled her. She was here with the butt of the gun resting on the bed and the barrel in her stomach. I think Keenie screamed and startled her when he walked in. Yeah. That’s what happened.” He went back to scrubbing the wall.

When my father and I left, Daryl and Keenie were watching cartoons on TV. They did not answer our goodbyes.

Two days later was Christmas Eve. My parents were locked in their room wrapping presents when someone knocked. It was Clete. I got my father and he came to the door, but did not invite him in.

“Wanted to wish you and yours a Merry Christmas,” he said. He looked nervous and scared.

“Good to see you, Clete. Merry Christmas too, if that’s possible.” My father rocked back and forth on his heels.

“Yeah, listen, we’re pulling out. Montana, maybe. I’m about nuts, you know, and I can’t get the blood out. It just won’t come out. The bedroom is ruined. She really did a number on us.” He ran his hand through his greasy hair. “I’m sorry we never had no funeral, but that is probably the way she’d want it.”

“Well, Clete, it’s your choice.”

“No, no, she made the choice for us. She deserves what she gets you know,” he said, his voice rising. “I buried her at the Mission. Grave is in the directory. Could I ask you to throw some flowers her way once in a while?”

“Ah, yeah, sure,” my dad stumbled. “My father-in-law is buried there. We go all the time.”

“Great, great,” Clete said, sounding relieved. "I’m so sorry to impose you know.”

“No, no, it’s fine.”

“Listen, can you make the flowers, whatever they are, you know, carnations, roses. Can you make them red? Just red. No other colors.”

“Okay.”

“Merry Christmas, man. You’re a good friend.”

“Merry Christmas, Clete. Good luck.”

It took the police almost a full week to get around to interviewing my father. They stayed almost two hours. My father told them what he knew of Clete, how he had been fired for fighting with other workers at GM. The detectives seemed to trust my father. They talked about the circumstances of Monica’s death, how her arms were not long enough to reach the trigger of the shotgun with her stomach pressed against the barrel. They tried to explain to my dad about bullet trajectories, blood spatter patterns, and homicide.

By the time the detectives started putting the pieces together, the Christmas tree I watched them put up was stuffed in the trash can, ornaments and all, and set out on the curb for the after-holidays pick-up. The garage was padlocked. The front door stood ajar, creaking on its hinges. Cats roamed in and out of the house and although the valuable stuff was removed, some of the furniture, including the bloodstained mattress, remained. Ghosts haunted the place, but the knuckleheads were gone.

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