By Christopher Lowe
August came full-throated that year. A shambling, sweaty hulk of a month, its air danced with love bugs, their coupling bodies floating through open doors, cracked car windows, mouths left agape for a second too long. Reach out, crush their bodies against yours, but as soon as that pair is wiped on pant-leg or tissue, another set floats past your vision. This was always the way of it in Louisiana, but that year was worse. The heat left us slick and sticky, and though my father had just paid for a new coil for the unit, by mid-afternoon each day our air conditioner stopped fighting the encroaching heat and even our home began to perspire, the walls moist, the windows sheathed with beading sweat, the large slate tiles of the kitchen and hallway a slipping hazard. This inability to hold off a force larger than himself angered my father, though in those days, in the summer of my thirteenth year, many things had this effect on him.
Perhaps not coincidentally, that summer also marked the start of my father’s turn toward aggressive ambition. We’d moved to Bell Lake twelve years before when he accepted the head coaching job at the local high school. I was only six months old then, and if my father was to be believed, I lay on the bench seat of the U-Haul between my parents, crying right until the wheels touched Bell Lake asphalt. Then I stopped, knowing that we were home. He told me this story many times, always keeping a level voice, which seemed odd. Speak those words aloud and you should emphasize that closing phrase: We were home. That was my father, though, always willing to tell a good story, never able to tell it well.
At the high school, he coached his teams to pass only as much as they ran. On defense, they never blitzed, just played a safe high-zone. That strategy earned him winning seasons year-in and year-out, though his teams tended to flounder in the playoffs when safe strategy collided with superior talent. Had Bell Lake’s team not been so abysmal when he arrived, he’d likely have been fired for never taking the next step, for never making the team a true powerhouse, but there was no pressure from the boosters. They were just happy to see a winning product on the field, even if those wins were low-scoring and interspersed with close losses. His teams didn’t win big, but they didn’t lose big, either, and that was good enough in Bell Lake.
That summer, something changed in his mentality. He stopped looking for the stable route, and began to explore something more reckless. There was no debate between me and my mother about the origins of this aggression. We spoke of it in hushed whispers, not wanting him to hear our conversations, not wanting him to turn that hardline jaw and blank stare toward us.
My father had a veteran team, all seniors. He’d made the playoffs the year before, and while his team—in its usual fashion—had not made a deep run, there was budding optimism. There was the promise of possibility.
That summer, my mother worked days as a file clerk at a law office. With my father incessantly watching film on that year’s slate of opponents, I was left to my own devices much of the time. During earlier summers, I’d helped my father with his preparations for the season, scouting opposing teams. He’d taught me the fundamentals of the game at an early age, and as soon as he figured out I had a talent for organization, he started setting me up with a legal pad and game film whenever he could. That spring, he’d even enlisted my help in splicing together highlight reels to send out to college coaches and online recruiting services for some of his best players. I picked the plays, focusing mostly on touchdowns, interceptions, and sacks since those would catch the eye of potential recruiters. Interspersed between the highlights, I included short clips of my father and the assistant coaches talking about their players’ work ethic, their will-to-win, their heart. Everyone agreed that the videos were a success, and I’d anticipated a summer full of preparation for the upcoming season, but once my father’s newfound motivation came about, he’d not asked me to help at all.
After the first weeks of summer came and went without any requests for assistance, I broached the subject with him, asking why he didn’t want me watching film any longer.
We were standing in the backyard, my father swinging an old Louisville slugger into a truck tire that lay in the dirt. It was a workout he’d used for years with his team, though he’d only recently begun doing it himself. That summer, he spent hours thudding bat to rubber, an exercise that would, he claimed, strengthen his forearms and his core.
He wiped at the sweat on his forehead with the back of his hand, took a long sip from his water bottle. “You’re getting older. You need to have a life outside of my team.”
“I don’t mind.” I hesitated for a moment, then in a rush, before I could back down, I said, “Did I not do a good enough job last year? That St. Aloysius game wasn’t going our way no matter wha—”
“I don’t want you doing that anymore. It isn’t right for you to be working for me like that.”
“I’ve been helping every summer since I was eight.”
“Things change, kiddo.” Those words should have felt comforting, the words of a father gently speaking the truths of the world to his daughter, but there was a brutal finality to his tone that he’d never used with me before.
I told him I understood, and in a way, I did, though I’d not been able to articulate what was changing or how for many years.
I turned from him then and walked into the cool house, feeling myself shift second-to-second, the swirling details of my life coalescing and scattering, re-forming like a swarm of bees, aligning for an attack.
That night I asked my mother to intervene. For weeks she had been waging a silent war against the change in my father’s demeanor. She quit fixing dinner for us, started coming home from work later, spent the hours when she was home on the phone with her sister in Alabama. It was clear she was trying to get my father’s attention, but as far as I could tell, her efforts were fruitless. There had always been the bruises, had always been the shadowy remainders of whatever silent fights they had in their room at night, and while those bruises became more frequent and more pronounced that summer, the conflict between them was still hidden from me. I thought, perhaps, that my father’s new indifference to me might shove this conflict to the side, that if she simply spoke with him about my desire to help, she’d stop her quiet nudges, and he’d stop whatever he did to her when I was not around.
Through the years, I’ve wondered how things might have changed if she had agreed to my request. It could very well have played out exactly as I’d hoped. My request, filtered through her, might have alleviated the strain, released the mounting pressure of their marriage. More likely, I’ve decided, it would have set us on a new timetable, would have escalated things. I couldn’t have known that then, of course. Hindsight is as meaningless as luck, and when I made my request, those forces, luck and hindsight, were not given over to me.
My mother said no. She told me that she did not want to upset my father. She reached out and let her fingertips graze my elbow as she told me that I should work to keep him happy as well.
And so for the first time in my young life, I found myself completely free for the summer. My response to this freedom—typical, I suppose, for a bookish kid—was to hole up in my room reading. I’d rise each morning and take my bike the four blocks to the public library. Bell Lake sits just to the west of the Acadiana bayou country, just at the edge of the flat land that thirty miles away will become Texas, and so biking here is easy but for the heat. I’d pedal fast on those flat streets, working up a sheen of sweat, letting the cold blast of the library’s AC hit me as I went inside. I was quick about my work there, returning a stack of books I’d devoured, getting a new stack, slinging them into my backpack, and before the first gloss of sweat had even had an opportunity to dry, hopping back on my bike and pedaling home. There, I retreated to my room, to the big box fan in the window and the slant of sunlight that filtered through my half-raised blinds. I propped my back against the fan, let it hum against me as I read. This never exactly cooled me. The pulsing churn of air lulled me though, let me sink out of my world and into whatever book I was reading at that moment.
That summer I’d begun to read real novels for the first time. It had started with a Dean Koontz horror novel—government-made monsters, heroic animals—and that had eventually filtered to thrillers, and finally, by August, I was fully immersed in detective fiction. I’d worked through half of Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder novels, had read all of Chandler and Hammett, and had finally settled on John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series. McGee, the rambling, ambling, shabby-boned knight errant seemed like the end-point for my summer. McGee took it easy, sipped his gin, bounced beach girls aboard his houseboat, the Busted Flush. I read those books and felt the thrum of the fan at my back, felt the undulating softness of that warm, moist air, and I began to believe the words my father had spoken. Something was changing within me as well.
The day I met Jason, I rode out from the library a little after nine, intending to go home, intending to take up my spot against the fan. The bike was a ten-speed, one that I taught myself to ride, having only ever been on fixed-gear Huffys handed down from my cousins, brought back from family vacations to Alabama in the bed of my father’s truck. I’d found the ten-speed in a thrift shop that spring, had bought it with my allowance money and spent hours learning to shift gears, my knees, elbows, and palms bloodied from my failings.
As I moved out from the library that day, taking the bike into the street, a gust of cool wind hit me, braced me with shock at its unexpected presence. Without giving it much thought, I turned from my path home and rode into the wind, moving across town until I finally reached the lakeshore. There, on the makeshift beach—dirty brown sand littered with the detritus of out-of-town rednecks—I took up a spot on the slope heading down to the water.
The beach was mostly deserted, and other than a cluster of boys off in the distance, near the edge of the water, I was alone. I took a book from my backpack, lay back against the sand, and began to read, though I found myself glancing to the boys after each paragraph and, eventually, after each sentence. There were five of them, and they were all in my grade at Bell Lake Middle, though I’d never had much to do with them. I was in advanced classes, straight-lining toward college prep coursework in high school, and they were in all the basics. Still, the school wasn’t large, and I recognized them, even if we’d never spoken. They were playing at fishing, casting their lines, reeling in, re-casting, laughing and punching and rollicking the way they did when I passed them in the halls of our school.
Finally, I dropped my book, watching them without pretense. In my back, I felt a tingling vibration, like the hum of the fan, like the burn that lingers after you knock your funny bone. It travelled slowly from the base of my spine up to my neck, a feeling of pain and pleasure and fear for the harm that can be done when the right nerve is jangled. Before I could stop myself, before I knew what had overtaken me, I hollered, “You won’t catch anything like that.”
They turned, startled. One boy—Jason, a pretty decent receiver on the middle school team—called back, “We ain’t trying to catch anything.”
I rose from my blanket, dropped the book, and made my way down the slope to them. “What are you doing if you’re not trying to catch fish?”
Jason smiled, winked at me. He dropped his pole, made a pretend reeling motion in my direction and said, “Trying to catch pretty girls.”
They all laughed at this, but I just blushed, mumbled something about needing to get home. I took to my bike then, not even remembering to grab my book. Months later, I’d pay the library nearly forty dollars from my allowance, penance for never returning that novel, though by the time that happened, this seemed like a small price to pay for some retribution.
That was the night I finally saw my father hit my mother. I’d spent the afternoon back in my room reading, trying not to think about the beach, trying not to think about Jason, but as I moved through the pages of a new novel, I kept thinking of the playful half-smile Jason shot my way. When my mother called me down for dinner – a surprise in and of itself – I’d formulated a plan.
My father was already seated at the table, waiting for his meal, the first my mother had cooked all week. They must have fought about it, because she went all in, frying pork chops, simmering field peas, roasting squash and zucchini from her garden. As she brought the food out, I said, “Daddy, you’re going to have a pretty good receiver next year.”
He’d been sitting with his hands folded in front of him, his eyes tracking my mother as she went in and out of the kitchen, but when I spoke he dropped his hands to his lap and shifted his gaze to me. “Who’s that, sweetie?”
“A friend of mine,” I said. “He’s in my grade, and he’s my friend. His name’s Jason.”
My father drummed his fingers, nearly all of them, on the tabletop. This was a habit of his, one I’d seen many times before while sitting beside him watching film. The only finger that didn’t strike hard against the surface was the pinkie finger on his right hand, which jutted up and out. That finger never straightened fully, but he couldn’t curl it, either. In his playing days, a defensive back had planted his shoulder against my father’s hand, and the pinkie had shattered. My father refused medical treatment for the duration of the season, and when all was said and done, the finger never fully healed because of it. My father never balled that fist, never used that hand to lift things, if he could avoid it. He knew that these actions brought attention to the angled finger, to what he thought of as the fracturing of his career as a player, and so he masked it as best he could.
“Bring him on over one day,” my father said. “We’ll have him some dinner ready, right Susan?” My father shot a glance at my mother, who was still ferrying food to the table. “Could have us some dinner on time if we had company, hey?”
My mother said nothing, just set down the bowl of field peas with a gentle click. In the years since, I’ve wondered about that motion, wondered if it was the delicacy of the placement that caused it. If she’d slammed the bowl down, shattered it on the surface, would my father have still launched from his seat, pulled his right hand back and swung? Would she have still crumpled to the floor crying while he stared at her, breathing bull-hard? Would I have still stood slowly, still slipped carefully into the hall? Would I have gone red-faced at the surging adrenaline, felt the sharp tingle of selfish possibility, reached a hand to the side of my head, tangling my fingers into the hair until I could pull a hard fistful, driving myself to tears that would not be heard?
My mother was composed when she brought the plate to my room. It was an overloaded apology of food, chicken and squash and zucchini and peas puddling into one another. I’d sat against the fan, letting my eyes move across words, letting my fingers turn pages, though the meaning of what I read passed before my vision like the blurred shifting of bees swarming before their attack.
I closed my book, said nothing to her.
“I brought you some dinner.” She set the plate on the corner of my desk. “You can come eat with us if you want.” She glanced over her shoulder, and as she did, the sharp, dark bruise turned full to me. “Or you can eat in here.”
I looked at her for a long time before opening my book and returning my eyes to it, and though she left the room the same way she’d entered—closing the door with another soft, gentle, constrained click—I felt something acidic welling in my stomach, something inexplicable, governed by a force I could not then and still do not understand, though I have spent these intervening years trying as best I can.
Jason and his friends were fishing again. I didn’t hesitate this time, just walked down to join them at the edge of the lake. They nodded their hellos, though Jason’s eyes lingered on mine, holding contact for a beat longer than was comfortable. My presence was all the invitation they needed to begin showing off. They knocked one another around for a while, punching and grinning through middle school jokes, searching for my approval, I think.
This was new territory for me. When I’d moved into 6th grade two years earlier, the transition from elementary to middle school had been difficult. In the new social stratus, in a world where there was a five minute window every hour for interacting in the hallways, I found myself unable to keep up with my old friends, who took to the flirting and gossiping with a zeal I couldn’t mimic. I’d retreated into my classes. With very little effort, I directed my crushes and attractions to faculty members, to the 30-something Biology teacher whose stubble of beard was still well out of reach for my male peers.
As the boys joked with one another, I reached down and picked up Jason’s pole and cast his line into the water. Though they continued their joking play, I let my line sit with only the occasional yank to move my bait around.
The boys were more surprised than I was when my line bobbed, and I pulled in a fairly decent catfish. As I swung the line in, Jason and the others jumped back, out of the way of the spiny fins.
“Just let it down there on the ground,” Jason said. “We’ll clean it once it’s dead.”
I set the fish down and walked to the little tackle box they’d brought with them. They didn’t have much in the way of gear—nothing like my father’s big, six-tray kit—but there were kitchen shears and a dull-looking fillet knife. I tested the knife’s blade, and decided that despite its dullness, it was flexible enough to work.
I pinned the fish’s tail with my tennis shoe and held its head firm on the ground to keep it from whipping around on me. Using the shears, I snipped the dorsal and pectoral fins. I dropped to my haunches, picked up the wriggling fish, and spread it on the flat lid of the tackle box.
“We usually just let them die,” Jason said, though there was no urgency in his voice. “Ain’t you supposed to skin it first?”
“Not if you fillet them alive,” I said, sliding the knife in at the angle I’d practiced with my father, letting the knife do the work. I moved the blade carefully, shifting directions as I separated the meat from the body. “Main thing,” I said, “is to make sure you don’t rupture the organs. That changes the whole taste of the fish, makes it muddier. A catfish isn’t like any other fish. With crappie or bream, you can puncture something, and it’s just messy for clean-up, but the meat still tastes fine. Catfish are dirtier, though, and because of that, there’s a higher chance that you’ll ruin the meat if you let any of that junk leak out.”
I raised a fillet—a bit ragged from the weak blade but whole. I used the knife to strip the skin from it and tossed the meat to one of the other boys before flipping the fish over and repeating the process on the other side. When I was done, I punctured the air bladder and threw the remains in the water.
“Where’d you learn to do all that?” Jason said.
“My dad. We go fishing on my uncle’s land in Alabama. He’s got eight or nine acres out past Gordo. He’s got a bunch of bees, farms their honey, but I told him they’re a waste of time. Colonies are dying off at a crazy high rate, and he won’t make his money back in the long run.”
One of the boys said, “Who gives a shit?” but Jason swung on him, gave him a hard thump on his upper arm.
“We need them for pollination,” I said, though I bit back a longer explanation.
“Forget that,” Jason said. “Will you tell us what Coach is like? We’re going to try out for the team next year.”
I hadn’t thought that Jason recognized me. For the last two days, I’d been running on pure adrenaline, the thrum in my back pushing me forward without allowing me time to overanalyze what I was doing. Now, that feeling had worn off, and I wanted to know if Jason was only being nice to me because of my father. I didn’t ask him, though. I turned from them, not wanting them to see the tears welling in my eyes, and for the second time, I pedaled away from them, going hard over the cracked sidewalk, nearly losing my balance as my wheels bounced and skidded over protruding tree limbs, and though I felt the burning of embarrassment, I felt something else, too, a pulsing vibrancy that nagged at my head, that told me that ambition might not be as bad a thing as my mother seemed to think.
My mother towed the line after the incident. We didn’t speak of it, but the meals were elaborate and on time. She sat quietly while we ate the food she’d prepared. Her response to his violence was to move inward, and she did this completely. She didn’t ask me about school, didn’t ask him about his days, either. She studied her peas, ate a quarter of the food on her plate, cleaned our mess, quietly stacked the dishes for washing. When I’d tell her goodnight before moving to my room, she pecked my cheek, but even in that gesture of affection, I felt the distance between us, between who we had been and who we were becoming. In my room at night, I read my books and propped against the fan. In my head, the word Jason Jason Jason Jason Jason Jason repeated unbidden, thrumming in time to the fan until all the rest of it faded, and I could feel the warm comfort the unknown.
The first day of eighth grade was much the same as the first day of seventh grade. I moved through the halls with my backpack hoisted high, my head down. If I passed Jason between classes I didn’t allow myself to know it. Though there was a part of me pushing to connect in a way that I didn’t understand, I made myself revert to what I’d spent the previous years becoming. I went to my classes, did my work, ate my lunch alone in a corner of the cafeteria.
Once fall practice started, we saw less of my father, but this didn’t stop my mother from continuing to prepare the meals my father had demanded. She cooked the meals to his specifications, kept them warm for when he finally came home – nine or ten o’clock each night. One evening, I watched him sidle up to her, lace his fingers around her wrist while he kissed her neck. When he removed his hand, the imprint of his large hand remained, white streaks of pressure from four fingers, the only missing mark that of his ruined pinkie.
Jason wore his school uniform, a green polo tucked into khaki pants. He was waiting for me beside our mailbox, his arm casually draped over it. His limbs were lanky, his features angular, and there was an ease to the way he leaned. I wondered how he made himself that fluid. There was always a jangling edge to my motions, but when he saw me, Jason unfolded himself to full height in a smooth movement. His easy grin spread out, and he said, “Hey.”
“Hi,” I said.
“Waved at you in the hall today.”
“I’m sorry. I guess I didn’t see you.”
I stood a few feet from him, unsure of what to say next. He leveled his gray eyes on me, let them swing down my body in a way that both made me uncomfortable and giddy.
“What are you doing this afternoon?” he asked.
“Want to hang out instead?”
My gut told me to turn from him, to walk into my house without another word, to retreat the way that I had each of the times I’d talked with him before, but there was something different about him being here with me in front of my home. I reached out and took his hand, warm and moist. In the humid afternoon, I couldn’t tell if that sweat was from the weather or his nervousness, and in the moment, I didn’t care. I led him to the backyard.
We were sitting together on the old tire, sharing Jason’s earbuds and listening to music I didn’t recognize when my father walked into the backyard.
“Who are you?” my father said.
I stood. “This is Jason. He’s the receiver I was telling-”
“Go inside,” my father said. He closed the distance between us before I could respond. His four-finger grip on my shoulder burned.
I walked to the backdoor, the thundering of blood in my ears blocking out my father’s loud voice, blocking the precise nature of what he said to Jason about his home, his daughter.
He came to my room after. I was leaned against the fan, though I hadn’t turned it on. He stood in my doorway a long time, looking me over.
“What were you doing with him?”
“We were listening to music.”
“I know…” he began, but he trailed off. He shook his head, reached up and held the top of the doorframe, twisted at the waist until his lower back crackled.
“We were just listening to music,” I said.
“That’s what you said.”
“He’s just my friend.”
He walked slowly across the room, closed his hand around my wrist, his fingers grinding skin and bone. “You were born sick,” he said. “Just like your mother.”
I closed my eyes against the pain, thought of the pulse of the fan, the scattered formation of my uncle’s bees. After a time, his grip slackened, and he left my room.
Seated together at our dinner table, my mother’s eyes settled on my wrist. With an unbidden theatrical flourish, I aimed the bruise at her, willed her to see it, to understand what was happening.
One summer while visiting my uncle, I walked with him to his hives, and while he talked absently about them, I reached a bare hand out to the swarm, let them cover my skin. My uncle told me to keep very still, and for a time, I did, but then, with precision, I curled my hand into a fist and felt the stinging begin.
At the dinner table, my father did not seem to notice my mother’s expression or the brazen cant of my darkened wrist.
My father was asleep in his recliner when I went to bed. I sat against the humming fan. I did not read, and I did not sleep. It was very late when I heard the gentle click of the backdoor. I turned and looked out the window. My mother walked out to the old tire and picked up the Louisville slugger. She hefted its weight, tested the swing. She’d played softball in college. That’s how they’d met. My father the football player, my mother the catcher. When I’d played as a child, she taught me the correct pivot, how to redistribute my weight in the correct fashion as I brought the bat through the air.
As she came inside, I moved into the upstairs hallway, positioned myself at the top of the stairs. I heard a dull metallic thunk. Was she tapping the bat against the refrigerator? The countertop? I do not know, though I’ve tried to consider the timbre of that thunk, have tried to reason my way to the correct answer.
I do know that as she left the kitchen and moved to the hallway, she dropped the tip of the bat to the tile floor. As she walked, a slow grinding of metal against slate filled the silence of the house. First, the grind of bat on tile, then a soft click of the tip dropping to the grout between the tiles. Grind. Click. Grind. Click. I sat on the top step and closed my eyes.
Downstairs, my mother must have thought I was asleep.
When I opened my eyes, my mother was below me in the hallway. She was letting the end of the bat tap the glass of our framed family pictures. She moved along the line, letting the bat settle against each one. Finally, she turned to the living room, dropped the bat to the floor again. Grind. Click.
From my vantage point, I could see only the back of the recliner, a faint outline of my father’s balding head. He was tipped back. His mouth must have been slack in a silent snore. As my mother moved out of view, she lifted the bat, and I wondered if this was what the bees felt before they stung. My mother held the bat, but this would be my attack, the sinking of my stinger in flesh, the separation of violence from my body. I would leave my stinger in him, and I would bleed out here from the wound I’d given to myself.
The bat’s arc was fast and sudden, and surely my father did not see it coming.
CHRISTOPHER LOWE is the author of Those Like Us: Stories (SFASU Press), You’re the Tower: Essays (Yellow Flag Press), and A Guest of the Program: Stories, winner of the 2017 Iron Horse Literary Review Chapbook Contest. His writing has appeared widely in journals including Third Coast, Bellevue Literary Review, Brevity, Fiction Southeast, and War, Literature, and the Arts. He teaches in the MFA program at McNeese State.