“I can’t abide this shit. I can’t and I won’t.” Desmond, my mother’s new boyfriend, jabs his oily knob of a finger into my forehead. His breath is coming in rapid little spurts, a sign, I have learned, that his anger is one notch away from becoming physical. “I don’t think you want me to hurt you but if that’s what it takes then that’s how it’ll be. Now put ever one of them tools back where they go and get your sorry ass out of here.” Desmond slams his hand on the workbench. The several pairs of pliers and screwdrivers I’d laid out jump off the particle-board counter.
When I don’t move, Desmond steps in close. I can smell the scorched wheel-bearing grease spattering his hands and forearms, feel the burn radiating from his shaved head.
“Looky here, boy” he says. “When I tell you to do something I mean it. Now get busy.”
I angle around him and reach for the nearest pair of pliers. He waits until I slip the silver handles into their pegboard rings.
“Soon as you’re done,” he says, “I need your help. So hurry it up.” With that he is gone.
I think of my mother while pegging the tools. Think how she is a lousy judge of men, always has been. My own father, before he died, was a drunk and a crook, always plotting how to get something for nothing. Cheat, steal, con, it made no difference to him. He got shot dead nine years ago in the parking lot of the Rocket Launch B&G. I was six years old. But as young as I was I had seen enough, had lived through enough of what he called discipline to keep my distance from him. I was glad he was gone, felt like whoever done the shooting done us a big favor.
I enjoyed the freedom while it lasted. Then the parade started. Most of the men my mother brought home disappeared after a night or two. Some made it a couple weeks. The only halfway good one she hooked up with was here four months before she got bored and ran him off. And now it’s back to the likes of Desmond.
“If you were flesh and blood I’d shoot your ass,” I hear him yell. “Turn you into a human colander.”
I’m sure he’d like to shoot me, too. He’s said so. But right now I know his threats are directed at his truck. It broke down yesterday. The left front wheel locked up when he pulled out of the yard for a trip to Billy Morrison’s place the other side of Pomaria. He never made it to Billy’s. Didn’t even make the hundred or so yards to County Road 2 that runs past our singlewide.
I know he buys drugs from Billy because he once told my mother, “Billy got a new shipment of roxies in this morning. I’ll stop by on my way home tonight and see what I can get from him.”
If pain pills and whiskey were a planet, you could look through a telescope and see seventy, eighty percent of the people who inhabit this holler orbiting in its gravity. It has been this way as long as I remember.
I slide the last screwdriver through its double-ring holder just as Desmond yells, “What the hell, Donnie! Ain’t you done with them tools yet?”
When I step from the tool shed into the yard I see the coal-black soles of his Dr. Martens first, and then the rest of him sucked beneath the front axle of his Chevy. The tips of his boots are tapping empty air like he’s keeping time with some drug-addled country song playing in his head. The wheel is off, a dark circle of rubber and metal prostrate on the cracked earth of our yard.
For a single blinding moment I want Desmond to feel the pain I feel when I have to pretend I’m asleep while he slaps my mother around in the next room. I want to ram a screwdriver through his fat, hairy chest, spit in his face, promise him he will die a slow death by my hand. It is then I see the jack handle jammed into the housing. I notice there is no jack stand to take the Chevy’s weight should the jack fail. With one solid kick I could send Desmond on his way for good. Watch him squirm, stomp his helpless legs while the Chevy squeezes the final gasping breath from his collapsed chest.
But then what? Déjà vu is what. The parade will commence all over again. So as much as I hate the man I’ll take my chances with him, and then the one after him, and the one after him. I can’t say when the parade will end or even if it will end. But what I can say is it makes me sick to be here and be a part of it. But that is the card I drew and until a better one comes along I’m stuck, just like Desmond if I trip his jack.
Desmond cocks a leg in my direction. His greasy arm flops from the wheel well. “Hand me that socket set.” he says. “And make it quick. I don’t care to lay in this dirt no more than I have to.”
I walk to where the socket tray is spread open and slide it toward him with my bare foot, careful not to rush.
“Dammit! Hurry it up!” he says, more of a grunt than actual words. “If I have to crawl out there and get it myself you can bet I’ll wrap you around that tire while I’m at it.” When the tray is close he snatches it, pulls it within easy reach.
While Desmond works I squat next to the truck, hoping the socket will slip, throwing his hand into the tie rod and ripping the skin from his knuckles. No such luck. Across the yard, through the singlewide’s tiny bathroom window, I see my mother hunched over the sink. She is holding a washrag to her bruised cheek. I wonder how many bruises, how many black eyes, how many broken bones she has had in her life. I wonder how many she will have yet. I hope for her sake it won’t be more than she can count on one hand. And as I wait for Desmond to call it a day, I hope for my sake I won’t have to be here much longer to serve witness to it.