Wild Kingdom

PAY NOW OR PAY LATER

Days later our father’s bread truck is parked in the yard.  He’s home early.  Outside is warm and bugs scatter like fat atoms across the air.  I’ve skipped out on detention because Rick told me that today our lives may change.  He said be home for dinner but I couldn’t wait.

Once inside, I find our father sitting at the kitchen table nursing his standard 7 and 7.  Our mother, meanwhile, dangles a Virginia Slim over the sink, steadying herself on the sideboard, and though she has stopped her constant dancing, her red hair is dull and out of sorts from days spent indoors.  The vibe is tense.

To avoid conflict, I retreat to the sundeck and pull out a book of knots Rick has lent me and pretend to read in anticipation of this promised new life.

Eventually Rick joins us.

In cowboy hat and fringe he brings home his usual smell of exhaust and swamp.

Our father looks at Rick like an intruder.  Rick goes over to our mother.  “Greetings, mama,” he says and kisses her on the forehead asking what he’s missed.  She smiles and touches his shoulder with a lingering hand of acceptance, informing him we are in for a treat.  “And don’t we know it,” she says.

Apparently our father has made his soon-to-be-famous tuna casserole.  At least it will be once the editors at Family Circle get back to us on that annual cooking contest of theirs.  For the past six months what’s in the mailbox has been the question of the day.

Rick pulls up a chair.

In his best Apache drawl he says, “What’s happening, kemosabe?”

“Crawdad.”  I tip my head.

“Your eyes appear a bit bloodshot.”

I shoot him a look but understand what he’s up to.  He dares to blow our cover whenever he has the chance.  It’s his way of challenging authority.  He winks.

Our father goes to the stove.  On his way he takes Rick’s cowboy hat and tosses it to the floor.  Rick shrugs in indifference.  The old man then divvies out tuna with string beans and Campbell’s condensed mushroom soup, topped with toasted breadcrumbs.  After each ladle he whistles, and he is proud.  But looking at our plates it is apparent to me why it’s taking so long to hear from the magazine:

Picture road kill.

Imagine it baked under a summer sun.

Before grace our father begins, “I had an interesting conversation at Rick’s high school today.”  His voice is that of a scowling elder, informed by a parent/teacher conference earlier on.

Our mother is unusually quizzical.  She asks how it went and when we should expect graduation tickets to arrive.  Caught in the moment, she thinks aloud about the type of dress she should wear for the occasion.  “Heels or flats?” she asks, to no one in particular.  “Maybe it will be a sun hat sort of affair?  I will need a proper purse.”

There at the table we learn there won’t be any tickets or need for a dress, sunhat, dress shoes or purse because Rick won’t be graduating, at least not this spring.  He’s only passing shop.  A remarkable achievement even by his standards.  In precise tones our father asks my brother what he has to say for himself.  “Please,” he says.  “You have our undivided attention.”

Rick is unresponsive.

“Start with the positives and work your way down.  You got an A in shop.  That’s great.  We know you’re skilled there.  But the rest?  Mr. Cromwell, your English teacher, he doesn’t even have a grade for you.”

Arms folded, Rick slouches in his chair.  He’s an impossible read.

Sensing our parents’ growing frustration I kick him under the table.  Rick doesn’t flinch and I am at a loss at what’s going on in that Indian’s head.  I think it’s only the drugs.  He stares as if he can see what’s on the other side of the kitchen walls.  He continues to do so for some time.  This will tick my memory later on, miles from this table, on an occasion when I will understand little about my brother, and even less about our family.  Somehow he is unconcerned with everyday matters or the manners of family.  His world consists only of exit signs.

What our father offers for insight is, “Pay now or pay later,” which is his way of telling Rick the free ride is over.  From here on he will live by new rules.  Rick will finish out the school year and take make-up classes until he completes his work.  Rent is expected at the end of the week, no exceptions.  Of course, he will have a curfew.  “Consider yourself under house arrest,” he says, and begins to eat without prayer.

To break the tension I tap my water glass, announce, “Rick and I are going to spend the summer on Great Pond.”

This pulls Rick slightly back into the world of the living.  He shakes his head.

Our mother reaches for her Gallo.  “Is that so?”

“Watch me now,” I say with supreme confidence, making a sextant with my knife and fork to show how we are going to chart our course.  Arms raised, I trace Andromeda and Capricorn across our smoke-stained ceiling.  The Big Dipper quadrant of cigarette and cooking spots line up under the ceiling fan.  “We’re going to follow the stars everywhere we go.”

Our father finishes his drink.  “Not now, Jackie.”

“And feast on our slaughter,” I add.

Perfectly cool, Rick reaches into his jacket pocket and pulls out a clove cigarette.  “For what it’s worth,” he says, “my destiny is in Florida.”  He lights.  “JT’s too.”

Stunned, my utensils drops.  His words are that of a misprinted fortune cookie.

“Florida?” I ask.

Our father, not usually generous with consideration when it comes to the whimsical nature of his eldest son, crosses his arms and sips at his new drink as if whiskey was food for thought.

“Why Florida?”  I repeat.

Eventually our father weighs in.  “By all means send us a postcard,” he says.  “Once you have a diploma you’re your own man.  Until then, you need a ticket to ride, Ringo.”

Rick smirks.

Our father then adds, “But I doubt you’ll be going anywhere.”

“I want to go to Florida,” I say, charged by the prospect of this thrilling idea.

“Maybe we’ll all go, Jackie,” our mother suggests in pastoral cadence.  “Our family could use a vacation.”

Before Rick can blow another smoke ring, our father snags his cigarette and drops it in his glass.  He demands my brother sit up.  A smoke cloud floats above his Coke.

About this time during our family arguments is when our father will typically tell me to leave.  After clearing his throat he will point to the door leading to the basement, and I will know what this means.  A talk.  I’ll hit the stairs only to listen in on the back and forth at the bottom of stairwell.  But before leaving, I’ll make it a point to tip my plate and say out of loyalty to Crawdad, “this is slop old man,” then get up from my chair, secretly hoping that my actions will impress everyone, especially Rick.

This dinner, however, I’m told to stay.

“Take note, Jackie,” our father says. “Your brother is heading for certain failure.”

Like me, our mother is at a loss.  She has a puzzled look on her face.  “Buddy,” she says.  “Grades, spades.  Tell me what’s really going here.”

Our father refuses to answer the question.  He remains the only one eating.

“Well look at you,” she says.  “Don’t let us interrupt.”

Between bites his throat makes pained swallows.

At random our mother interjects, “Son…Rick…Crawdad…What your father means…You might want to consider…Down the road…A diploma…Who knows?”

But I know they’re both saying something else.

“Rick,” they’re pointing out, “think about Jackson.  He looks up to you.”

Later, in the basement, Rick is under his pelt.  Standing over his bed I ask if he’d like to smoke some dope or take the raft out for a cruise or maybe shoot BB guns at the oak tree that separates our yard from our neighbor.

“What’s so great about Florida?”  I ask, not knowing exactly what I mean.

Rick sits up.  His eyes look like bruised fruit.  I can see what he will look like in twenty years.  He tells me he has to leave.  He says he can’t stay here, trapped this way – waiting for the trigger.  Like he said earlier, we’ll one day have our own language.  We’ll have a hundred words for kill.  But the longer he stays, the harder it will be to wean from our mother tongue.

“Not to worry, Hippie.  When I come back we’ll gather supplies as well as other recruits.  Then we’ll drop anchor.  Libertas will be our vessel to a new mythology.”

“Out of sight,” I say.

“Man, when we’re done, they’ll build a Pantheon for us, if you know what that is.”

“Really, the Parthenon?”

“Pantheon.  Parthenon.  Whatever.  It will be beautiful.  Frontier times.”

“Like Magellan.”

“You got it, little brother.  We’ll be greeted as heroes in every port.  We’ll lack nothing.  Not mention you’ll have your choice of goddesses.”

My imagination floats from pirates to fire gods to war paint to Miss Godfrey.

“How’s that sound?”

“That sounds amazing,” I say, loud enough for our parents to hear.

“But we’re not cubs anymore.  Dig?”

“Crawdad, I like that.”

I consider what his leaving will mean.  What it’ll be like to have the downstairs to myself.

Instinctively, I jump on him.

“Can I have your records?”

Stace Budzko is published or forthcoming in Versal, Redivider, Upstreet, Necessary Fiction, Hint Fiction, PANK, Hobart, elimae, Los Angeles Review, Night Train, Collagist, Flash Fiction Forward, Quick Fiction and elsewhere. The screen adaptation of his story, “How to Set a House on Fire” was recently awarded Best in Show/Best Overall/Best Drama at Spotlight Film Festival, Chicago International Film Festival, Westport Film Festival respectively. At present, he is writer-in-residence at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston.