Way of the Dog
Clark Rodney moved into Piper Mansion during the summer I walked dogs. Technically, it wasn’t a mansion—a granite three-story colonial with porte cochère and wraparound porch that reminded me of commercials hawking powdered lemonade—but this was Axle Junction. A boil on the wrist of Michigan that hadn’t manufactured a car axle since before I was born, when there was still profit to be reaped from technicalities.
Anyway, a mansion makes for a better story. That’s one conclusion I’ve drawn over the many years contemplating how to tell my son about losing my right eye: he’d show more deference for a mansion. Particularly one built by a titan of the automotive revolution. A man, Archibald Piper, whose hard-knocks fortitude and serpentine cunning transformed a nugget of hardpan into a bustling factory at the turn of the twentieth century. A factory that mushroomed into a town—the spirit made flesh—inhabited by thousands who embodied Archibald Piper’s quest to wed every car in America with a Piper axle. A vision that endured for nearly seventy years, until the morning he plugged his mouth with an heirloom Smith & Wesson revolver and turned his bedroom headboard into a Jackson Pollock.
With this, too, I’d take liberties. I have no idea the make or model of gun, or the room in which he ate it. I have envisioned the firearm as a Ruger 9mm, a Colt .45, a Beretta shotgun. However, it’s the heirloom Smith & Wesson revolver I’ve settled on. Something about the grisly specter of that notched, patinaed cylinder bunching Old Archie’s wilted cheeks. The rosewood grip jutting over the mantel of his desiccated lips. The subliminal poetry of a tycoon put down by a bullet old enough to have been quarried from the very ore as his maiden axle.
The luxury of other people’s histories is that you owe them nothing. Which is why when the day comes for my son to learn about the summer I met Clark—a summer two decades after Archibald Piper’s suicide and subsequent revelation that The Piper Company was bankrupt and its employees’ pensions looted—I’ll begin with what I can’t know and end with what I can’t change, and hope my son recognizes that truth owes no debt to fact.
And the truth remains that at the start of that summer I was what every boy is when in spitting-distance of his driver’s license: a man. All I needed was a car and I’d have the world. I had begun searching for a summer job in April, balking at each dungeon of retail that presented itself in all its minimum-wage, chintzy nametag glory. Then tragedy struck and I glimpsed hope. Amos Pune, a retiree who’d been supplementing his Social Security income by walking the neighborhood’s dogs, suffered a coronary while skinny-dipping in the creek. (“At least no dogs were hurt,” became a frequent refrain in the days following Pune’s waterlogged corpse trawled and buried.) I drew up flyers, adding RIP Amos at the bottom, and plastered them throughout town. By the time school let out, I was raking in more money than in my two previous summer jobs combined. (All cash, because why pay into Social Security when you’ll just die buck-naked mid-breaststroke and leave Uncle Sam to pocket the rest.)
Almost as satisfying as the money was the bliss of lazy mornings in bed with a Discman and car magazines, empathizing with the tortured ballads of Sonic Youth while mooning over my dream hotrod. The morning I met Clark Rodney that fantasy consisted of a crow black Lamborghini Diablo VT souped-up with a V12 nitrous oxide engine, F150 bucket seats, tinted windows, and Alpine stereo system with atomic subwoofers. A genie’s bottle on wheels I could have fantasized about all morning. I would have too, if not for the three dogs waiting for me.
I picked up Flash, Mr. Lomann’s arthritic and yappy rescue Greyhound, whose barking commenced the moment I leashed him. We ambled around the block to collect the Davis’ bulldogs, Rock and Hudson. The four of us set out through the neighborhood. Drifted, really, past trees streamered with crinkled red, white, and blue crepe paper and houses wainscoted with bunting. Fourth of July had found me ricocheting between street parties, sampling from miscellaneous chuck wagon buffets and jockeying for a spot in football games captained by kids who, over the years, had written me off as a runt, dipstick, loser, puny spaz dickhead. I watched from the sideline, game after game after game, praying someone would be summoned by their parents or cripplingly injured, any opportunity to prove I wouldn’t splatter when tackled. My hopes set with the sun, at which point the games disbanded and my classmates, firecracker stashes secured, faded into the night and left me to stare at the sky.
However that was poised to change. By September, I’d have money for a down payment. Not for a Lamborghini Diablo VT, but something with flair and horsepower. Certain to get me from here to there and garner plenty of attention along the way. That’s what I was reminding myself when the double-wide moving van sputtered past me, its filthy exhaust stinging my eyes and sending Flash into a coughing fit. I wouldn’t have given it a second thought had the van not banked onto the private turnoff leading to Piper Mansion.
Sure, I was blown away at learning the mansion had new owners. But it wasn’t curiosity or awe that compelled me to reroute the dogs and hustle after the van’s exhaust cloud. It was money, plain and simple. The adolescent choplogic and barefaced gumption that assured me anyone who could afford that house had several dogs and would gladly shell out triple my normal rate. That I could buy an even more imposing car and never again be relegated to the sideline.
Flash lagged as we neared the turnoff, spittle foaming around his jowls like a milk moustache, though his barking somehow amplified. I steered him and the bulldogs into a shaded grove, knotting their leashes to a tusk of deadwood and then trudging up the gradient. The porch inched into view, its tawny balustrades like nicotine-stained teeth.
An elephantine mover shouldered an armoire up the porch steps, abruptly halting at the door. He craned his head, and I noticed a bald man sitting with his knees crunched to his chest. He gestured with his neck like someone draining water from his eardrum. The mover, peeved, about-faced and galumphed around the side of the mansion.
It was then the bald man started flicking his wrist, and brassy clacks muted my footfalls. The unmistakable snap of a flint-wheel Zippo lid. Unmistakable to me, at least, as it was the very sound that had heralded my father’s nightly Lucky Strike the way the National Anthem did Major League Baseball games. The tempo put me at ease as I stepped onto the porch. The bald man reared his head and I realized he wasn’t a man at all. Head shorn, donning a basketball jersey, he looked like a juvenile delinquent Mr. Clean. The clacking ceased. “Yeah?”
I introduced myself, knitting my dog-walking services and padded rate into welcome tidings.
A puzzled grin wrenched his lips. “You see any dogs?” The boy hopped up and unfolded. Six feet easy, with the chest of a professional logroller. “Got one world-class bitch though. Now you could take her off my hands, I’ll give you all my money in this life and an IOU for all my money in the next one.” He laughed. I stood there dumbfounded, which threw his laughter into a gut-hugging cackle.
“Clark!” A svelte blond emerged from the side of the porch. The mover lugging the armoire trailed her. “For the last time, leave the workers be.” She told the mover where to place the armoire. “Absolutely, Mrs. Rodney,” the man said, scowling at Clark as he angled through the door.
Clark didn’t notice. “Mom, this kid wants to take you for a walk.”
Mrs. Rodney keyed her vexed stare on me. Her face was thin and grooved, like a vinyl record. “You want to take me where now, young man?”
I panicked, registering Clark’s wisecrack in the same breath I was conscripted into it. “Thought you were hiring, ma’am,” I said, groping for a reply. “My mistake.”
The Zippo lid flung open, shut. “That shed. And that shit in the yard you want cleared.” A spiny unrest prickled the air. Never before had I heard a kid curse in front of an adult, no less at an adult, no less at an adult who was his mother.
“You promised your father you’d help.” Mrs. Rodney tugged at the hem of her shirt.
“Just helped you find someone to do it.”
I chuckled. A nervous tic of laughter. Both Clark and his mother trained their focus on me. It wouldn’t be accurate to say it was then I gleaned a resemblance. In truth, they looked no more alike than me and my parents. But in that instant, Clark’s arrogance melding with Mrs. Rodney’s chagrin, they looked akin in the way of the Janus masks in the high school auditorium.
“Three dollars an hour,” she said, her tone abraded. My acceptance bordered on genuflection, even after I realized her offer amounted to a buck less than minimum wage. “Eight AM tomorrow. Dress to get dirty.” I tried to push back, retain my languid mornings. Really, I tried to try but a riptide of thank yous surged from my lips.
“Not that way,” I heard Clark pester another mover as I threaded away from the mansion. “Use the patio door.”
Over dinner I told my parents about the new job. My mother bombarded me with questions I mostly shrugged off. She was less curious than nettled to learn of the mansion’s sale from me instead of her best friend Lucinda, whose husband worked at the county clerk where the deed transfer would’ve been filed. “She’s probably been sittin’ on this for months, angry I didn’t offer her gas money last time we went shopping in Dearborn.”
“Could be she knew enough not to give a damn.” My father sawed into his meatloaf. He was still wearing his overalls, the recycling plant’s earthen funk seasoning our meal, and bayonet lights protruded from his center pocket. “It was gonna happen sooner or later. Couple extra bucks never hurt anyone, that’s the important thing.”
“Must hurt you,” my mother said. “Throwing away money hand over fist on circus lights for a damn casket.” She was referring to the pinball machine crowding his workbench in the garage. My father had salvaged it from the plant’s conveyor belt in January and devoted every free hour to restoring it.
“I earn it, I’ll spend it as I please.” My father dropped his utensils, the knife clanging against his plate. “Wait till I sell it. You’ll be begging me for shopping money. That machine, some moron didn’t know what he had.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” my mother said.
My father’s utensils clanged against the plate and he stalked into the garage. I cleared the table while my mother dialed and upbraided Lucinda, and then slinked into the garage to listen to the Tigers’ game with my father. He was poised at his workbench, screwing in the bayonet lights and tinkering with a labyrinth of gears. I turned on the radio. “Listen to the game in your room,” he said, cautiously rotating a Philips head. “I’m gonna be making a lot noise down here.”
“We’re playing Oakland. It’ll be some ace pitching.”
He put down a Philips head and clamped my bicep, pumping it twice. “Start doing push-ups, you could throw like that, too.” He fished his cigarettes and lighter from his overalls and turned back to the pinball machine.
Upstairs, I salved my ego through a methodical accounting of my earnings, parceling the bills by denomination and ranking them according to crispness. Fourteen bucks closer to the driver’s seat. A prospect that fortified me as the honeyed tang of Lucky Strike tobacco interlaced with the chiseled baritone of the Detroit Tiger’s radio announcer. Power tools cycled in and out, the shrill ruckus overtaking and yielding to the game. My father beached amid the pitcher’s mound and pinball drain.
“Swing and a miss,” the announcer bellowed. “No stoppin’ that fastball.”
The next morning, I drowsily shuffled to Piper Mansion. The journey felt longer, the incline steeper. I reached the porch to find the door open. I knocked anyway. When no one answered, I warily stepped inside. Cardboard boxes girded the cavernous foyer. The surrounding walls looked like something out of my history textbook, with a moldering frieze and cornice as antiquated as they were ornate.
“Hello?” Mrs. Rodney appeared in neon-yellow Lycra and a matching headband. Her face was ruddy and the vein in her neck quaked. I thought she was annoyed I’d let myself in, and I sought to pacify her by offering to transport the boxes. “Think those’ll be a bit much for you. Come now,” she said, letting me walk off my embarrassment in circuitous hallways that funneled into a rotunda. A TV took up the middle of the room. There was a workout video on, with a peppy, mop-headed juggernaut tugging exercise cables with both hands. Identical cables lay on the floor, beside a water bottle. We continued out the patio door, onto a deck that overlooked a grassy expanse more like a pasture than a backyard. Five acres minimum, cluttered with deadwood and shrubs. “Clearing this mess will be a big help.” Mrs. Rodney checked her watch. “It’s 8:05.” She bowed her wrist toward me. “Eight. Oh. Five.”
The sun was low and the air already muggy. Within seconds of hauling that first cumbersome branch into the coppices hemming the property, I was basting in sweat and sick of the job. I resolved to work until noon, before the heat became predatory, and then tell Mrs. Rodney I had a dog to walk (which I did, much later in the afternoon). Whether she believed me made no difference, as I wasn’t coming back. I bucked a tree-worth of limbs, my lungs rebelling. Doubled over and winded, I thought was going to pass out.
Snap snap snap.
I saw the Zippo first, and then Clark slouched over the balcony rail. He stared directly at me, eyes steely and unblinking. He held out his hand. I waved back, reeling in my arm as the Zippo moved under it and the blue-orange flame ignited, sweeping his static palm. Horrified and rapt, I stood as motionless. Ten seconds. Ten minutes. Ten hours. I have no idea how long it lasted; for its duration it felt like forever. Just like Clark’s liquid cool visage, unwavering after flame expired. The Zippo’s closing snap rattled through my bones, and he was gone.
At some point, I forced myself back to work. Though no matter how ungainly the branch or how mired the path to the woods, my attention didn’t stray from the balcony for too long. I was scared Clark would return and scared he wouldn’t. Yardwork became an afterthought, so much so that I didn’t notice Mrs. Rodney sneak up on me.
She held out ice water. “I didn’t think you’d make it half the day.” I asked her the time. “Four-thirty,” she said, “but I’ll round it up to 4:35 and we’ll call it eight hours. Come back tomorrow.”
I returned the water but kept my hand out. “Eight hours. That’s twenty-four dollars.”
“Something to look forward to come Friday. More fun to get paid for the full week.”
Leaving the yard, I glanced skyward. At the balcony and windows. I was still searching for Clark as I rounded the mansion, when a sense of unease nailed me to the ground. I was thirty minutes late to pick up the Mitchells’ Golden Retriever. Sprinting away, I prayed they wouldn’t fire me, though the fire consuming my mind was the flame licking Clark’s hand. To this day, I’m not sure he watched me hightailing down the hill. I like to believe he did. That even then he saw something in me.
The Mitchells didn’t fire me. However, the Andersons and Nicholsons did, both patriarchs falling victim to the recycling plant’s latest round of furloughs. My father had delivered the news to them at work and then to me that night, with assurance that his role as executioner had no bearing on their decision. It would be easy to blame this setback on my groggy trek to Piper Mansion the next morning. But that’d be bullshit. It owed no more to the Andersons and Nicholsons than it did my mother’s ravenous appetite for gossip with which to tantalize Lucinda (who swore up and down her husband had been clueless about the mansion’s sale—that, in fact, the county clerk himself executed the paperwork). It was Clark. The certainty my parents would forbid me from setting foot near him had they known about his gutter mouth and pyro tendencies.
My father was operating on the pinball machine’s circuit board when I left for Piper Mansion, his greeting muffled by a network of corrosion. It must’ve been around 7:45 AM, because “Eight oh three” were the first words to penetrate my conscious, Mrs. Rodney’s percussive tone walloping me from my stupor. Easing into the tedium of gruntwork, I snapped branches off the most colossal limbs to ensure a smooth tow across the yard. I was shucking away at the third limb when I felt unnerved. I peered at the balcony.
Kettlebells dangled from Clark’s hands like Christmas tree ornaments. His biceps tremored through alternating repetitions. Ogling him made the branches in my arms heavier, and I hurried to jettison them at the property line. When I looked back, he was gone. My pulse had barely leveled off when the unnerving returned, Clark having swapped kettlebells for a jump rope. The dual thud of his bare feet and whoosh of rope drowned out nature, steadily intensifying to a gale-force pitch before swiftly dying off. The balcony again vacant. Hours later, as I was sticky and drenched, he was back. Zippo in hand.
This routine persisted throughout the week. Clark cropping up on the watchtower of the balcony, hushed and eagle-eyed. Sometimes he’d linger for an hour or longer; other times he’d vanish before my second glance. Sometimes he’d lift weights; other times he remained stock-still. The only consistency was the Zippo in the late afternoon, Clark assailing his palm with that butane saber like it was the workday swansong.
Briefly, I considered if Mrs. Rodney assigned him to surveil me as a compromise for the chores he shirked. But even then, on some level, it was clear that between them existed no middle ground. Clark was watching me of his own accord. This, more than cash, was how I justified yo-yoing to Piper Mansion every morning: while I didn’t think he liked me, I was strangely confident he didn’t dislike me, which may sound like semantics but in my world passed for hope—specially the hope I would recruit an ally whose freakish dimensions rendered him—and me—bully-proof.
Cultivating Clark’s interest quickly became my primary job. I did it the way other kids had ginned up my curiosity: I ignored him. For three days I refused to raise my head, even if I heard the groan of free-weight repetitions or the Zippo’s flint-wheel grind. Most of the time I had no idea when I was and wasn’t in the crosshairs of his doughty glare, the Big Brother of looming suspicion impelling me to hustle faster, brook heavier loads. That’s why when the sun mercifully relented on Friday afternoon, timberland shadows hooding the near-branchless yard, I wasn’t entirely shocked to see Clark. Not gawking from the balcony but hovering on the deck.
“Still looks like crap.” He hopped down, stomping pouches of crabgrass and bull thistle on his leisurely approach. “More bush than an orgy at Woodstock.”
“Way more,” I said. My grin went unrequited. Clark surveyed the grounds, his black t-shirt tautening against his gyrating torso. The letters URMPA spanned across the sleeves. “URMPA. That’s a band, right?”
Clark eyeballed his sleeve.
“Goth metal? Pretty sure I have their CD.”
He regarded me with daunting suspicion. “Union River Military Preparatory Academy.”
I right-right-of-coursed him, laughing off my mistake like it was an age-old mix up. While I’d never heard of URMPA, I would’ve had to be catatonic not to know Union River. It was a military base ten miles north. Local news stations featured it each spring when recruiters descended on the state’s high schools in pursuit of “the best and the brightest.” Clark let me brew in silence. I felt his interest waning. For the first time I wondered if he remembered my name.
“I’m a cadet,” he said.
“You’re in the military?”
“Will be that day I turn seventeen.” Clark’s brow dipped, his bald pate like a boulder poised to roll off the crag of his neck. “Three years one month to enlistment.”
Prior to that, enlistment—much like cocaine and serial murder and braised pork shoulder—was a phrase I had encountered frequently on TV and in movies to little effect. But from Clark’s mouth, it struck me as incomprehensible. Actually, it was the opposite: crystallized and explicit. Discharged from the quarantine of G-rated wholesomeness. Enlistment. It was dangerous and admirable, with a face staring right at me. I felt heady, awestruck. “When do go you back?”
Clark straightened his posture. His lips thinned like drawstrings. “Soon. Just waiting out the shitstorm.” He read the confusion in my face, adding, “We had a pussy in the squad. As Squad Leader, it was on me to discipline him. Problem disciplining pussies is they break easy.”
“You beat him up?”
His expression curdled. “What, are you a fucking pussy, too? More worried about him than the squad?”
“No, absolutely not,” I said, adamant.
Clark’s sigh reminded me to breathe. “Only reason I got suspended is cause my dad’s Headmaster. So the rules are even stricter for me. But he knows what it’s like. Three tours in ’Nam.”
“I can’t wait to meet him.”
“He’s living at the Academy. Just til this rattrap comes together.” Clark leered at the mansion. “Anyway, my mom told me to give you this.” His hand floated toward me, my knees buckling at the sight of it close up.
That hand. Rucked and grisly, like garage-sale Naugahyde. Like a taxidermied snake. Like beef jerky cured for eternity on desert stone. Except it was like none of those things. It was like nothing I had encountered before then or have encountered since. A horror no metaphor would adequately capture for my son. Endow him with the very tunnel vision and paralytic terror coursing through me in that instant, preventing me from recoiling before Clark’s opposite hand clenched my wrist.
“Pussies make weak soldiers. Weak soldiers get good ones killed. You’re either telling the truth or you’re a pussy and full of shit.” The Zippo lid clacked. The flint-wheel grinded. “That’s why god created The Pussy Test.” Clark’s voice, its measure and craft, was as natural as the flame’s whisper. “Don’t fight it,” he said, injecting the fire into my knuckle. “Forget it.”
The pain went from excruciating to immobilizing to imperceptible. My body numb.
“Well, fuck me.” He chewed his lip, nodding. “I’d’ve bet money you’d be crying harder than a room full of fat girls on Valentine’s Day.”
The numbness lapsed and I squeezed my knuckle as if its nerve endings were a branch to sever. Clark held out a check. I snatched and folded it into my pocket. “My mom said you can start cleaning out the shed Monday.” I relaxed my gritted teeth to thank him. “A little advice,” Clark said. “You get paid by the hour; take as many as you can get away with.” His smile threw me off.
I reciprocated it all the same, preserving the expression until I made it down the gradient and could safely jam my fist into my mouth to suckle away the burn. At dinner, as a squishy sac ballooned over the knuckle, my mother needled me for gossip about the Rodneys and my father augured additional “shake ups” at the plant in the undertones of a stock trader divulging insider tips. Later that night—as my mother wove the innocuous details I’d provided into a tapestry for Lucinda and my father settled in to refurbish vintage pinball bumpers ordered by mail—I unfolded the check. It was post-dated two weeks and short seven bucks.
Of course, I didn’t mention it. Not to my parents or to Mrs. Rodney on Monday morning as she conducted me through the tree line, into a corroded depot stockpiled with old axle parts, and instructed me to chuck it all into the dumpster I’d passed on my slog uphill. And certainly not to Clark when he materialized around eleven AM, jumping out from behind the front porch and spooking an axle shaft clean from my grasp.
“Your face.” Clark almost keeled over laughing, his brawny arms enfolding his bare and sweat-soaked midsection. “I was gonna ambush you last trip, but I held out till you were carrying something big.”
I laughed, too. “Were you hiding long?”
Clark winced. “I wasn’t hiding at all.” He turned around. His back was scratched to hell. Blood dribbled from minute punctures. “I was lying on the brambles. Part of my training program.” He faced me. I spotted a thorn in his shoulder.
“Like lifting weights?”
He scoffed. “Shit, even pussies can bench press their own pussy weight. I’m talking about real training. Like the other day.” He gestured at my hand, smirking. “Less you can’t take anymore.”
It didn’t sound like a challenge so much as a choice between being special or being me. Only after peeling off my shirt and reclining onto the brambles like it was a pool float did I quaver with doubt, Clark’s bleak gaze poring over my wretchedly gaunt physique. Then the agony set in, like waking up on a bed of nails, and I started to writhe. His snaky hand plummeted onto my chest and I went still. “You don’t feel anything,” he said, pressing harder. “You’re not even here. Say that. Say, ‘I’m not even here.’”
I repeated it until I had no voice, which was exactly what Clark was waiting for. He hoisted me off the brambles. “Forty-eight seconds.” He smacked my shoulder. “I’ve seen better. But I’ve seen a helluva a lot worse.”
My back ached, the pain sporadically interrupted by the chilly slither of blood, and I wanted more than anything to do better. To prove I was better. Clark must’ve had the same thought, as he dug into his pocket and produced the Zippo. He gave it to me. I persevered slightly longer than I had initially. Though nowhere near as long as Clark. As if to remind of that, he perched his hand atop the flame for so long the air smelled like pan-fried beef. Clark never flinched.
“I don’t feel anything,” he said, the flame nesting in his palm, his calm like sculpture. “Remember, I’m not even here.”
And yet I didn’t want to be anywhere else. That’s not to say I’d forgotten about the dogs, though business was on the decline. (My father had slashed Mr. Davis’ shifts, taking Rock and Hudson off my roster, and two other families had moved.) Maintaining my dwindling clientele required less and less commitment, which was convenient because I had less and less to offer. Each morning I set out humping flanges and shafts and ball joints, keenly anticipating Clark’s intervention. Some days he appeared before ten AM. Other days he kept me on tenterhooks well into the cooling afternoon. But whenever he showed up, I was ready, affecting courage and grit. Labored pauses before answering questions. Nodding instead of speaking. Never being the first to smile. Acting like Clark in order to be like Clark.
“Navy Seals can hold their breath underwater for two minutes,” he told me the day after the brambles, my tender back shuddering as I leaned forward to watch him dunk his face in a cistern brimming with hose water. Air bubbles capped the surface, painstakingly slow at first and then frantically, like water boiling on a stovetop. Clark jerked back, gasping. “Forty-six seconds,” he said. “Fuck.”
You would think I’d vividly recall submerging my face in that foggy water, the magnifying distress as my oxygen was milked dry. Sure, I can still picture it. Hues faded, textures muddied. Nothing like the dazzling clarity with which I remember Clark’s goading, the radial heat of his splayed fingers pressuring my nape. The ruthless encouragement that billowed my lungs and marshaled an impossible breath.
“Twenty-three seconds.” Clark palmed my scalp. “Beats most cadets.”
I tried again. And again. And again. At least another three dozen times, until I cracked twenty-four seconds and nearly suffocated. Just as I insisted on bettering my handstand time when Clark demonstrated how Air Force pilots train to overcome g-force blackouts, and crawling over fifty yards of jagged rocks in under thirty seconds in the manner of Green Berets.
Training. Over those weeks the word itself was enough to juice me up. Its aura and tenure. The holy provenance of boxers and Olympians and, of course, elite soldiers. The harder the exercise—the deeper the gash, darker the bruise, fatter the swelling, denser the scab it left—the fewer people I believed could endure it. “Comes down to willpower,” Clark explained after, blindfolded and arms bound, negotiating a path through the woodlands to recover a ball joint I had hidden. “The way to tolerate something is to not think about it.”
Or maybe he said that after scattering salt on our hands and topping them with ice cubes, as the burn embedded and the skin puckered. Or after combat training, when he drilled me in bare-knuckling trees he had named Brett and Jason and Todd—the kids at school I most reviled. At some point, lodging toothpicks into my nailbeds became as commonplace as kneeling on uncooked rice. I felt stirred and determined and able. Through it all, however, I never felt special. I stopped wanting to. Everything I considered “special”—the McDonald’s Happy Meal my mother bought me for acing a math test, intact VHS cassettes my father rescued from the conveyor belt’s pulverizing maw—was as tenuous as a firecracker. Training made me feel the opposite of special, which wasn’t ordinary but indestructible.
It wasn’t just the exercises. It was my father’s abrupt pause from screwing in pinball flippers, his attention diverted to the ripening bruise along my forearm. It was my mother’s precarious inflection when asking how I shredded my back. More than anything, it was coming across a football game between classmates who had shunned me on the Fourth of July, taunting them to let me play and then brutally tackling anyone stupid enough to run toward me. It was the way one kid could barely look at me as he limped home. The way the kids on my team high-fived me. Kids who probably didn’t know my name but would never again call me “runt” or “spaz” or “dickhead.”
I was still feeding off that rush when I got to Mr. Lomann’s the next day. His brow became as corrugated as his aluminum siding and he pointed at the titanic welt crowning my hand. I told him I tripped while doing yardwork.
“Let me see.” He yanked my hand, appraising it. “Doesn’t look like a fall.”
My parents had readily swallowed whatever half-baked excuses I fed them. Having never been second-guessed, I was flustered. “I fell into some bushes. Think there was poison ivy or something.” Mr. Lomann looked me dead-on. I didn’t blink. He released my hand. I’m not sure if he believed me or simply cared more about getting to the airport on time. He was visiting his brother in Wisconsin and had asked me to feed and walk Flash while he was gone.
“One more thing…” Mr. Lomann whistled for Flash, who trotted to the door wearing a Twizzlers-red leather collar anchored by a beeper-like gizmo. “This is to keep him from yapping his head off while I’m gone,” Mr. Lomann said. “Zaps him when he gets loud. Only needs it inside the house.” He counted out thirty bucks, scrutinizing my welt as he handed it over. “Be more careful.”
I sometimes wonder what would’ve happened had I told Mr. Lomann the truth. Would he have lectured me? Driven me home and made me tell my parents? Smuggled me into his car and raced to the nearest mental asylum? Of the countless the scenarios I’ve envisioned, none conclude with Mr. Lomann saluting me. It’s not his fault. Few people would understand, I know, which is why I’ve never wasted anyone’s time or sympathy. Why I’ve never disappointed them with my dearth of shame and remorse. Needless, that’s how the Mr. Lomanns of the world would sum up my behavior that summer. How my son might, too. Unless he beheld his father as the sniveling puke of existence that I was. Then he’d accept that my time with Clark was anything but needless—that it couldn’t be needless because it taught me necessity.
The morning after Mr. Lomann, I arrived at Piper Mansion to find Clark roosting on the porch rail. I was surprised to see him up so early. Even more surprised to see him smiling. “My dad called,” he said. “I’m going back.” My vocal cords bound into a slipknot. I managed to ask when. “Tomorrow,” he said, smacking together his hands.
I felt lightheaded. “You’re leaving tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow I do my song and dance for the Disciplinary Committee. ‘I’m so sorry and it was a mistake and I’ve grown so much from the experience.’” He made a masturbating gesture, sound effects and all. “Come on. I want to show you something.”
I followed him inside, through the obstacle course of hallways, trying my damnedest to emulate his enthusiasm. Clark led me into the kitchen, where I spotted his Zippo on the otherwise empty table. For a millisecond, intoxicated on ooey-gooey pubescent soppiness, I was convinced he planned to give it to me. A symbol of my growth and his pride. Of our friendship.
“It’s on the table,” I said after he passed it.
Clark looked stumped. “Oh, yeah.” He grabbed the lighter, carving his thumb over the flint-wheel. There was no flame. “Needs lighter fluid.” He pocketed it. “Basement’s this way.”
Descending the rickety stairs, my disappointment compounded. I wanted to ask if the Academy allowed visitors, but the question itself felt like a concession. I was still mulling over what to say, how to coax out an iota of validation, when I caught sight of the moving boxes. Stacked and unopened exactly as they had been upstairs. Clark rearranged the piles, ripping through a box marked Clark Senior.
“Check this out.” He whipped around, leveling a murky blade inches from my jugular. “This is my dad’s. From ’Nam.” Clark fastened the knife at its ends. The hilt was scored with tally marks. “See that? Forty-two.”
“Dead Charlies.” He looked solemn but honored.
I asked if I could hold it. He was thinking it over when concern flickered across his face. A moment later Mrs. Rodney shouted his name. He quickly concealed the knife away and barricaded the box behind the others.
“Clark?” Mrs. Rodney managed the steps gingerly, hoisting a laundry-wrapped hanger. Inside the plastic was a charcoal suit with epaulettes and gilded buttons as thick as the pegs above my father’s workbench. A pair of ivory-white gloves drooped from the breast pocket. “What are you boys up to?” Her perturbed stare roved between Clark and me.
“Nothing,” Clark said. “You get the fluid?”
“I’ll give it to you later.” Mrs. Rodney glanced at me, frazzled.
“He doesn’t give a shit.” Clark extended his hand, fingers wangling a voodoo motion. “Now!”
Mrs. Rodney withdrew a black tin from her pocketbook and Clark wrested it free. As he filled the Zippo, her countenance ossified. “You should get back to work,” she said to me, her tone creaking and gaze averted.
I ferried scrap metal for the rest of the day. Clark never came out. Before heading home, I stopped at the mansion to wish him luck. Mrs. Rodney met me at the door and explained that he was busy preparing for tomorrow. I turned to go and she summoned me back.
“The lighter, Clark explained why we gave it to him?”
“He told me about his training.” I modulated my voice to imitate him. “The way to tolerate something is not to think about it.”
Color imbued her cheeks and her mouth slackened. “That’s right. We all get tested. Remember that. You, me, Clark. Everybody. Sufferance is our protection.” Mrs. Rodney rubbed my shoulder, irritating a bruise. “We’ll be home by one. Come by then. You can work and get your paycheck.”
Plodding down the hill, I felt mired and restless. I stopped at the Lomanns’ to feed and walk Flash. His barking commenced the moment I unstrapped his collar. For once, I welcomed it. White noise divesting my thoughts from Clark’s departure and my budding anxiety that once he left, I’d relapse into my former self. The farther we walked, the more apparent the solution seemed: the way to prove I could withstand training once Clark left was to train without him while he was still there.
That night I skulked into the garage in search of my father’s Zippo. The pinball machine caught me off guard. It looked spectacular, unrecognizable from the heap he’d brought home. Something worth begging for quarters over. My father was listlessly buffing it, his concentration monopolized by the Tigers’ game. For a moment, I forgot why I went in there and asked him if I could play.
“Tomorrow.” He slapped a round socket in front of the machine. “I’m picking up the ball launcher. Consider this thing yours until I sell it.” The offer riled me, its condescension and charity. I zeroed in on the lighter, perched atop his cigarettes. “No-hitter through the fifth,” he said. “Nine strikeouts. Last week this kid was pitching in Double-A.” The game announcer called a line drive up the foul line. “Foul!” my father yelled, and as he gaped at the radio I filched the Zippo off his workbench. The ball hooked into the stands. He sighed with relief and I drifted toward the door. “Where you going? No-hitters by no-namers are once in a lifetime. I got a double-shift tomorrow and I’m staying up.”
I remained at my father’s side, latching onto his cheer and disquiet. His vainglory and supplication. His palpable anticipation in the bottom of the ninth, two outs and two strikes, the stadium on its feet—summarily obliterated as the ball thundered out of the ballpark on a game-tying home run. The Tigers lost in extra innings. I don’t remember that minor league ace’s name. I doubt anyone does.
What has stayed with me from that night is the reflection of my naked body in the bathroom mirror: contused knuckles; lacerated torso; gouged legs. Palm flexed and flame kindled. The heat beveling into my skin. Singed flesh adulterating the potpourri’s balm with a gamey funk I can taste to this day. How deeply I examined that throbbing wound., like a palmist transcribing my own future. The promise it foretold. That nothing was beyond me.
I hardly slept. Car magazines and money-counting bridged the hours before sunrise. Perusing the classified section, I focused on ads for Jeeps and Land Rovers, cars designed for off-road terrain. I circled a dozen, pining to show Clark both the cars and my engorged hand. His return to the Academy wouldn’t be a loss if I could drive to Union River. Meet his squadron, who would know about me. The civilian from Axle Junction gutsier than them.
Lucinda came by at ten to pick up my mother for their monthly day-long window-shopping spree in Dearborn. Alone, my antsiness grew unbearable. I didn’t make it to eleven before dashing to the Lomanns’, unleashing Flash’s collar and piloting him on a walk that was really a gallop. He seemed bewildered, hesitantly sniffing his food and maintaining his distance afterward. I checked the clock. It was almost twelve. Clark would be home soon. Gone soon. My anxiety redoubled. Whatever benefits I had dreamed up regarding his return to the Academy vaporized.
I gave up on Flash and bolted to Piper Mansion, at first pacified to spot Mrs. Rodney’s car in the driveway, and then dazed by the sonic boom of Clark’s scream. Crying ensued, followed by louder screams. Eavesdropping from the porch felt sinful and absconding felt impossible. I barely rapped the door before it launched open, Clark glowering in that charcoal uniform, his pupils a bloodshot tracery.
“Fuck this place,” he said. “Fuck these worthless pieces of rat shit.” He stormed downhill. I followed. Mrs. Rodney shouted at us, begging Clark to come back, to be reasonable. He didn’t turn around, but I did. Long enough to absorb her puffy eyes and full-throated despair. To believe the worst had transpired and that I could comprehend it.
Clark wended across side streets, his reticence as difficult to match as his stride. His temples pulsated. His swiveling neck veins bulged. Cars slowed to rubberneck. A SUV honked twice, the way drivers thanked soldiers for their service.
“Asshole,” Clark said.
“He thinks you’re a—”
“I’m not talking about him, Einstein.” He scowled at me. “My asshole scumbag fuck father. That pussy I beat up, his pussy parents threatened to sue the Academy. They were at my disciplinary hearing. Got me publically expelled for conduct unbecoming of an officer.” Clark interlaced his fingers and squeezed them as if fusing his hands. “Just to keep his job and that crap house.”
Blood gushed to my head. My vision blurred. It was the wickedest story to ever cross my ears and I couldn’t help but share in his wrath. I cursed, I shouted, I flipped off the next car that double-honked at us. We neared my house. I told him I’d grab money and we could go somewhere.
Clark’s gait flagged. “Your parents home?”
“My dad’s at work, mom’s in Dearborn.”
Clark wandered the ground floor of my house as I dialed the pizzeria. I braced for him to rag on the plastic-covered sofa or gawky family portraits. He was staring at me when I hung up, grinning like he’d just told himself a joke.
“Your ass,” he said. “God, I hope those aren’t hemorrhoids.”
My enlarged hand settled on the enlarged bump at the rear of my shorts. Flash’s bark collar. Clark plucked it from my hands, inspecting the black box and tracing his finger over the dual metal prongs. I related what Mr. Lomann had told me about the device.
“No shit,” Clark said. “I want to see it in action.”
“Come with me to feed him later. Doesn’t take much to get him barking.”
Clark squinted. “Not on him. On you.” He strapped the collar around my neck. “Training never stops.” His tone, its familiarity, calmed me. To hell with the Academy. We, the two of us, comprised an elite unit. The collar’s stiff prongs jabbed my Adam’s apple. “Say ‘asshole,” Clark said. I did. Nothing happened. “Louder. Lieutenant Rodney Clark Senior is a fucking asshole.”
I opened my mouth. “Lieutenant Rod—”
“Lieutenaarch.” The shock muzzled me. I tried again and the pain intensified, like sipping water through a live wire. “Rodchh…” My eyes teared. I went to dry them and Clark batted away my hand. His grainy fingers traveled along my face, wicking away the moisture. I blinked through the haze and then Clark was all I saw. His dogged aspect a breath’s distance from my face and closing in. I tasted his lips.
I jerked my head. “What are you doing?”
Clark shut his eyes and came at me again, his tongue a battering ram against my mouth, his hand cupping my groin. I kneed him in the stomach and yelled that he get off me, the collar’s wattage truncating my consternation.
“I knew it!” he said. “You are a pussy!”
I unstrapped the collar, wheezing. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Like this isn’t exactly what you wanted. Only now you don’t know what to do with it.” “I don’t…I wanted us…”
“Exactly, because that’s what a pussy is.” Clark was fuming. “Cry to your parents about it. Turns out, pussies get free tuition.”
I won’t pretend Clark’s life unfurled before me right then and there, or that I even deciphered the true cause of his expulsion from the Academy. Even now, I can’t gauge the torrents of lighter fluid expended on that family’s drought of sufferance. The infernos cultivated one flint-wheel spin at a time in hopes to cauterize what couldn’t be bled out. But at that moment, bottled by Clark’s heft and zeal, his unmarred hand as menacing as his scared one as he clasped my head, I feared absolutely nothing. He wrestled his tongue into my mouth, flogging it back and forth, and I counted. He unzipped his pants and I counted. He helmed my face to the kinked nub beetling over his fly and I counted. Counted and counted and counted, reaching an infinity secluded from his engorged penis and gruff moans.
So far away I never heard the door open. Never heard my father’s clunky paces. His war cry. Only when Clark detached my mouth from his crotch did reality lose its camouflage, and I saw my father plant his foot and cock his hip and swing a coiled-steel rod, Clark nimbly dodging its path and withering to the floor. His deformed hand feebly shielding his terror-ravaged face, that was the last transmission my retina processed before the pinball launcher skewered it.
“A freak accident,” my father told the EMTs. “The spring mechanism backfired,” he told the ER doctor. “I traded shifts so I could surprise him and we’d finish it together,” he told my mother, which may be why that part of the story never changed, even after he moved us to Ann Arbor days before school started, perfecting the tragedy for neighbors and coworkers who couldn’t possibly have whiffed rumors of a police investigation and Children’s Services visits triggered by my head-to-toe examination at the hospital.
Odd as it may seem, this isn’t the part I most dread telling my son. It’s the next part, when he’ll inevitably ask what happened to Clark and I’ll have no answer. That it would be almost two years later, while my mother and I battled over my refusal to check off the box marked “disabled” on college applications, when Lucinda called. A new family moved into Piper Mansion, she told my mother. Large and friendly, the children capping their sentences with “sir” or “ma’am.”
I know what he’ll assume. That had I glimpsed the man Clark became I wouldn’t have been the father I was. A father who berates his wailing eight-year-old for surrendering his new baseball glove to bullies. A father who, profoundly unsettled when his thirteen-year-old boy gets cut from baseball tryouts and bitches that the coach was unfair, belts his son the way you startle someone plagued by hiccups. A father who dislocate his son’s jaw for penning a college scholarship-winning essay about his disabled father.
And then he slugged me back. Closefisted and rabid. Popping my nose like a champagne cork and swelling shut my good eye. The pride I felt in that moment. The relief. Never again did I lose sleep over his well-being. Because a boy able to hit his father is a man willing to hit anyone. He’ll either appreciate that or he won’t. Then again, maybe it’s not something he can hear from me. That it’s a cruel truth he’ll discover once he begins paying the restitution of fatherhood and accepts that if he doesn’t teach his boy resilience he’s teaching him failure.
There are still days I believe he might call. If and when he does, I’ll offer no apologies. No self-recriminations. I’ll simply ask him to hear me out. Remind him who he is. Who I made him to be. That I did it with these two hands.
Douglas Silver’s fiction has appeared in New England Review, Crazyhorse, Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row, Cincinnati Review, Electric Literature’s The Commuter, and elsewhere. An Elizabeth George Foundation grant recipient and former writer-in-residence at the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, he lives in New York City where he serves as executive director of Gotham Food Pantry, an organization striving to eliminate food insecurity throughout the five boroughs. Read more at www.DouglasSilver.com.