He was bald and old and wore one of them blue sweat suits. Nothing nice like Nike or Adidas though. It was one of those kinds made out of the same stuff that towels are made out of. He wore it all hanging off him and I could tell that that old man was just skin and bones underneath. I saw him and the first thing I thought was, Yeah, that’s me. I can do it. I mean I wasn’t too sure at first but I get a good look at him and I’m all like, Yeah I can totally do this.
He was swaying and staggering when he got up out of his beat-up Lincoln Continental. They must save those damn cars for old bastards, I swear. Every time I see one of those cars some old drunk like him is always behind the wheel. Anyway, he looked like he’d been drinking all day long. I mean he was drunk. He had this thick metal cane with feet on it like you see at the hospital but it wasn’t like he was using it. It was just dangling beside him while he swayed from one side of the sidewalk to the other like he wanted to step on every crack and break his Mamma’s back. He looked like one of those guys who march in front of a marching band holding that stick or wand or whatever telling the rest of the band where to go. Only he sure didn’t know where he was going. He was just moving forward like he was trying to keep his balance during an earthquake.
I remember the old man was wearing these nasty slippers that were looking like he been wearing them since he was a little boy. And he was shuffling and scraping down the sidewalk just dragging his tired-out ass to his apartment or wherever. I got up behind him a little bit and man I was about to fall out from the fumes. I mean he reeked. He smelled like daddy would when he got home from work. A wet sour like smell like rotten eggs, pickles, whiskey and shit. Like a death smell, or what I think death would smell like. It was like what that preacher said was death that time I went with Mamma to church. But I can’t really say what that was because I was so little. I do remember when they all said that one prayer though, The Lord’s Prayer? The one where everyone says something like “Forgive them whose trespasses against us”? When they said “trespasses” though the “s” sound came out together in one long drug out “sssssss.” At the time I thought it sounded like a hundred snakes all hissing together and I then I knew didn’t ever need to know anymore about death or evil than what I heard then. I know all those people were just snakes underneath their nice clothes. That’s why I never went back to church. Even Daddy laughed when I told him that and he said that’s why he didn’t go either.
Anyway, I was right close to that old man when I could see that he was working his mouth like he was eating something. But when he turned his head to the side I could see that it was just his dentures. They were floating around in his mouth like a big fish in a small bowl. And somehow that started me thinking about Rennie and Luntz back at the Home and how they said I should do it.
“Chickenwing,” Rennie said, “the first one is like your first piece of ass.”
“Except Chickenwing ain’t never had none,” Luntz said, like he was all big and bad, “and he too goddamn ugly to ever get none either.”
And as I was tailing the old guy I was thinking about how they probably didn’t think I would do it. They’d say that I was too scared, or I was a pussy and a freak. They’d say, “What did your daddy do to you anyway, Chickenwing? What did he do to make you like you are?” I started thinking that even the old man stumbling in front of me didn’t think I could do it and he didn’t even know about what I was fixing to do. And so I thought I could start getting mad. But I really couldn’t.
So when I almost got to passing him I slowed down and let him get ahead again. I knew I couldn’t do anything unless I was good and mad. I mean me and my arm like it was and him being a little taller than me even though he was skinny as a rail. Instead I stopped and made like I forgot something or like I had an appointment. I pretended to look at my watch by pulling up my sleeve even though I didn’t even have one. But I didn’t even have to bother because he didn’t even notice me anyways. We had walked two blocks and even though I stopped he was still going on ahead of me. I wondered if that old fart had about forgotten where he lived or what. And I could hear Rennie laughing at me back at the Home. I could hear them calling me a Chickenwing and Cripplefreak. I knew if I couldn’t take that old man then what good was I anyway? As I watched the old man’s back I started to think about what Rennie and Luntz would say if I came back to the Home empty handed.
But instead of Rennie and Luntz, all that would come to my head was my Daddy and how he would slap me and my sister, Jenny, around before we got taken away. I don’t know why I thought of it then. I never really thought much about Daddy on account of it always made me sad and depressed and whatnot.
Even the therapist that came to the Home every Tuesday and Thursday kept after me to tell her about it, but I didn’t. It’s kind of funny now but back then it seemed like if I didn’t think about it or talk about it then it didn’t happen. Or at least it didn’t happen to me. Maybe I started pretending it was just a story Rennie and Luntz told me about. It’s not like I forgot about Daddy, but walking behind that stumbling old man fixing to do what I was gonna to do to him, I kind of started remembering anyhow.
It won’t much really. Daddy just got mean when he was drunk and after Mamma left he was drunk most of the time. Sometimes he would just scream about his supper not being ready and go and pass out. Other times he’d slap at us and we’d have to hide until the liquor took hold of him and he’d go on to bed. But the worst nights was when he would come home and walk up the stairs to our room for no reason at all. On those nights he wouldn’t say anything. We’d be doing our homework or playing a game and he’d be leaning in the doorway like a ghost. He’d just take his belt off and smile that sad smile of his, that smile that said he felt bad for the entire world.
So when Daddy walked into our room that last night he was wearing that strange little smile of his. We were playing Monopoly on Jenny’s bed and when she saw him she started to cry.
“We got to fix you, boy,” he said, but not all drunk and slurring his words. “You got to learn before it’s too late.” Then he jerked me off the bed and stared at me close so the dead smell of his breath washed over me.
He dragged me over to Jenny’s ratty old desk and knocked down her schoolbooks and papers and made me lean across the top of it. I tried not to cry because with Daddy the more you cried the madder he got. But I remember looking down at the homework Jenny always spent so much time on spread all over the floor and seeing the diagram of a frog dissected and all opened up and I started crying and squirming to get away.
That’s me, I remember thinking. Me and that frog are the same.
“There ain’t no use in crying now,” Daddy said. He held one of my arms flush to the desk and gave the other to Jenny to hold. She didn’t want to do it but he told her if she didn’t he’d make me hold her arm down instead. So she was scared, probably worse than me even, and crying even worse for sure, but she did like she was told.
“It’s gonna be alright,” she said. I remember because that’s what Mamma would say when Daddy would get home drunk and fixing to come up the stairs. But now Mamma was gone so Jenny had to say it for her. “It’s gonna be alright,” she said, her words shaking as they fell out of her mouth. “Everything is gonna be alright.”
Daddy brought out this hammer he was keeping in his back pocket so we couldn’t see it. The hammer made a thick kind of thudding sound every time he swung it down on the arm that Jenny was holding. Every blow was like an echo all going through me almost shaking me apart from the inside. Jenny was screaming beside me begging him to stop so loud I couldn’t tell where my yelling let off and hers began. But Daddy just kept saying, “Daddy’s got to fix you. Daddy’s got to fix so you’ll be good,” over and over. He was breathing that smell like the old man’s but hard like he’d run out of breath from the exertion of bringing down the hammer again and again. All I could see was Jenny’s face all wet and twisted up like an old rag. She just screamed and screamed and that’s all I can remember.
I must’ve passed out after he reached the elbow because I woke up in the hospital. There were about fifty pins coming out of my arm connected to this ring. It looked kind of like I was some bionic man or something only I was eight at the time. The bone between my shoulder and elbow was busted in like twenty different places and since I hadn’t finished growing yet that arm is still all withered and shorter than my other one. It’s that arm that got Rennie an’ Luntz after me calling me Chickenwing and Cripplefreak in the first place. And that’s why I had to look for a weak old man in the first place because I knew I couldn’t take anybody regular.
But I was crying by then thinking about Daddy and I knew I was just a cripplefreak like Rennie and Luntz said anyway. I knew I couldn’t do what I’d set out to do, I wasn’t like Daddy. But walking down the sidewalk crying I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going. I ran into something and I stumbled to the side. Looking up I realized that I had walked right into the old man’s back because he had stopped dead in front of me.
“What the hell you want!” he shouted. But I couldn’t answer because he’d scared me and I just wanted to go back to the Home.
“I said, what the hell you want with me, boy!” the old man yelled again.
“Nothing,” I said but he probably couldn’t hear me because my voice was gone and it came out like grunt or a croak. So I tried to turn around and run away back to the Home but he grabbed my weak arm and shook me as he spoke.
“You been following me! I seen ya!” he yelled, his teeth slopping wetly in his mouth. “You ain’t getting nothing from me, you hear?” As he swung his metal cane at me the whole set fell clattering to the pavement.
The first time he hit me I couldn’t really believe it was happening. I was still kind of crying and trying to get away but he had that huge old hand around my bad arm like a claw. He brought his cane across the side of my head swinging it out and around like a roundhouse punch. The blow roared in my ears and my vision jerked all haywire like that old television that Jenny and me used to watch. As he hit me I was pulling my weak arm trying to get it free while trying to cover my face and my head with my good arm. But he hit me another good one and the whole world seemed to shake and roll back behind my knees and I fell on the ground in front of him.
The old man kept hitting me when I was curled up into a ball like I used to do with Daddy. I didn’t even bother to fight back. I guess I just kind of gave up then. My Mamma had left and they wound up putting Jenny in a different home. They even took Daddy away and now I was all alone. I felt like the only thing I was ever gonna have in my life was that hard, heavy feeling of the cane as it came down on me. And then I didn’t even feel that because the cane hitting just seemed part of being alive and just being alive is pain.
But the old man stopped. I heard a voice scream from behind of us all like far away, “Leave that boy alone you hear! Leave him alone! I’ll call the police!” And he stopped. I saw his yellow dentures lying beside me and his thin arm jut out of that old dirty sweat jacket. He snatched them up and popped them into his mouth like they never touched the ground. And then I heard the old man’s slippers dragging on down the sidewalk again and the sound of the high heels of the woman who had yelled got closer.
I was still crying pretty hard lying on the ground when she came up to me. I was just lying there on the sidewalk because I got real tired like I just wanted to go to sleep right then and there. I could smell her before I saw her because she wore the same perfume as my old teacher. She smelled all pretty and new. I could see her shoes even though they were all bleary because I was crying and all. She was wearing these black shiny heels so shiny that as I was laid out on the sidewalk for a second I could see my reflection. The white lady must’ve been waiting for the bus to go home from work but she came and helped me get up even ‘though I won’t really hurt that bad and was still crying but about my daddy more than that old man. All the while she was helping me up she was asking over and over “Are you all right? Are you OK?” The lady seemed real worried about me even though I had never seen her before and all I really had was a bloody nose anyway.
“Why would anyone do that to a boy?” she said. Her voice was softer than Mamma’s even and I thought it was the nicest voice I ever heard. She got a handkerchief out of her purse and set her purse down beside her and started wiping my face on account of the blood and stuff even though I just wanted to go. I was still crying and hot but her voice was soft and cool. She was white and young and pretty and had blue eyes and she looked at me and then down the way the old man had gone.
“Why would anyone do that to such a little boy?” she asked again.
“I dunno,” I mumbled because I was so ashamed. Ashamed about what had happened with the old man. Ashamed of what Rennie and Luntz would say if they knew that I was lying here like the cripplefreak they said I was. Ashamed to be crying in front of such a pretty lady and acting like a baby even though I was thirteen years old.
“Do you want me to call your mom and dad? I have a cell phone, I could call them right now,” she was still looking at me like I was about to die or something. “It’s going to be all right” she said. “Everything is going to be all right, son.”
And all a sudden I couldn’t stand it that she looked at me like that. Even though I was crying and stuff I started to get mad. I was thinking like, who was this bitch with her handkerchief and her pretty perfume smell? It didn’t seem like there had ever been any niceness in the world for me, so who was she to be nice? If everyone I ever knew was hard and heavy, then who was she to be soft? Alls I ever saw of people was that they were snakes underneath and I started thinking that if the world was shit then let it be shit, but don’t pretend like it won’t. Wiping it up with a hankie and hiding it with a sweet smell seemed like to make it worse than it was. I was thinking over and over, It ain’t gonna to be all right, It ain’t gonna be all right. It ain’t now and never was and never will be because everything that happened happened to me not to her. I knew that the nice things she was saying to me like she cared and all won’t real. And the more she tried to make me feel better and care for me the more I wanted to smash her into pieces. Every time she wiped my face and gave me that sick pity look a hers I felt that deep like echoing in my stomach like when daddy hit me and the places where the old man hit me started to hurt more. And as my vision cleared I knew what was real and what won’t.
All of a sudden I jerked my arm free from hers and I pushed her down hard and she fell back against the bus stop sign and made a loud clang sound. Lying on the ground she had a surprised look on her face like she couldn’t believe it but that made me just madder. So I kicked her like I shoulda done the old man and she screamed but there won’t anybody there anyway. Her blonde hair had fallen across her face covering up her eyes and she was trying to get up and run but one of her shiny high heel shoes got caught on a broken part of the pavement and she fell down again. “It ain’t gonna be all right!” I yelled. I kept on kicking at her again and again yelling “It ain’t never gonna be all right!” I wanted to tell her what I thought of her but I didn’t know how to say all what I was thinking so she would understand.
Instead I grabbed her purse up off the ground and ran as fast and as hard as I could. I mean I won’t really looking where I was going I was just running. Her purse was clinking and jingling with keys and metal containers of like lipstick and stuff and I wondered how much money was there. As I ran I imagined that them metal noises that the purse was making were the sounds my feet made as they hit the sidewalk. I remember being happy even though I was still crying thinking my footsteps sounded like Daddy’s after all.
Francis Decker holds a BA in Psychology from the University of Maine and a MA in English Literature from Virginia Commonwealth University. He teaches IB English 11 / English Honors, English 10 and Creative Writing at Trinity Episcopal School in Richmond, Virginia. He has been an English instructor at both Virginia Commonwealth University and J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College and has taught at Trinity for eighteen years. Francis also freelances for the Richmond Times Dispatch and Richmond.com. You can follow him @fwdecker and on Facebook.