My father’s cousin, Bobby Burger, came home from Vietnam with a purple heart and black lungs. At least that’s what he told my dad each time he stopped by to see him.
“Sonny Boy. I’m back and thirsty,” he’d roar through the screen door at least twice a summer. I never understood why they called each other that name; Dad said it was just something that started when they were kids.
His laugh settled like a morning fog around our dining room table where he chain-smoked and drank cans of Schlitz almost as fast as I could fetch them. When he showed up, Dad turned off the radio, stopped puttering in the garage or mowing the lawn so he and Bobby could retell their stories of every fish they ever caught, every cast they ever made, every cow pasture, electric fence or posted sign that ever crossed their paths around St. Lawrence County when they were “young enough to think fun was a job.”
“He’s lucky to be alive.” Dad told Mom when she complained about the length of his visits, how drunk he got. Six men went into a fox hole and only he came out. This was the heart of the story, the heroic waiting he did with five of his fellow soldiers dead around him, their bodies first bloating, then stinking as three days went by. “Can you even imagine an hour with a corpse on top of you, in the dark and not sure what’s above ground if you claw your way out?” Mom didn’t answer. “If shooting the shit helps him a few times a year, how can I say no?”
He didn’t raise his voice to her often, taught me to speak with softness in the presence of a lady and to remember, “every girl’s a lady.” But on the subject of Bobby’s visits, he would not give in. There was a place at our table and a case of Schlitz for Bobby whenever he parked in our driveway, until the day he pulled the gun.
I remember a row of empty cans on the table, each one smashed against his forehead when he finished and then piled where we could see. He had started to sweat about four beers in, and he looked slick as I stood beside him with another full can, his ninth. When his arm shot out and grabbed me around the neck, I was surprised. Close and tucked in by his armpit, he smelled of wet ashes and dirty sheets. Before I had time to gag, he pulled my chin upward forcing me to look in his eyes. At the same time, Dad yelled. “Sonny, what the fuck?”
“You think I’m a hero?” His lips were only inches from my face. My head couldn’t move in his grasp, and my mouth couldn’t form any words. I heard the hollow metal certainty of a gun, cocked and then placed between my eyes. The cold seared its stillness into my skin. “Do you?” The icy spot on my forehead held my focus. When I shifted my eyeballs up in their sockets, a length of black seemed to grow like a horn, outward and endless. And then Bobby’s face, spitting lips, eyes pulsing at me as the gun began to shake against my skin.
I never got the chance to answer. In the next moment, an explosion of movement on my right side and Bobby grunted as my dad threw his body into him. Together they toppled over and away from me. I heard the blast, previously only known to me outdoors, filling the room with a thick echo. My mom was beside me, dragging me by the shoulders, my feet scrambling as she pulled, her screams cutting through the remnants of the shot. She had me on the back porch and then the lawn before I ever got fully upright.
“Don’t you move.” Her look, like the story of the Greek woman who turned people to stone with her snake hair, froze me where I stood, even though I wanted to know what had happened to Dad. She called to him through the screen, and the door squeaked into the now silent house. I could picture her crossing the linoleum, passing the kitchen table, pushing her way into the dining room. It seemed like hours before she came back, alone.
“Everything’s fine, Mrs. Atwell,” she called, raising her hand to our nearest neighbor. I hadn’t even realized the old lady was on her back porch looking our direction. Then Mom’s arms were around me and for the second time in less than twenty minutes, I was pulled tight against the body of an adult. This time I pushed away.
“He’s fine. The shot went through the wall and out the living room window. He’s got Bobby tied up in an extension cord. He wants you to head over to Mark’s house.” She was a few feet away from me, her hands still reaching and twisting like she wanted to be holding onto me again.
“I’m not leaving.” As the words came out of my mouth I couldn’t believe them. Apparently, a gun to the forehead freed me to talk back to my mom. Her hands found their proper job then, shaking me by the shoulders for such boldness.
“You will go because I told you to go. You will go because your father said to go. NOW!” And she turned me with the same violence that had dragged me from the dining room only a few crazy minutes before.
So, I started across the back lawns, four houses until my best friend Mark’s. But at Mrs. Atwell’s garden, I stopped and looked behind me. Mom was inside. I creaked open our front door moments later, needing a look at this man who had almost killed me. A siren howled a few streets away and for the first time in my life, I knew where it was going. High up on the front picture window, I saw a hole and thin spider lines in the glass. A swinging door separated our dining room from the front of our narrow house, all laid out in a line. I could hear quiet movement, like feet in soft slippers and once, a loud sigh. The siren was getting closer, so my time was nearly up. I crept to the edge of the couch, my hand on the door frame, my eye pressed to the thin crack of light between the door and the wood that surrounded it. I pushed just a little and a pair of legs came into view. Just as I worked up the courage to push it wider, a body appeared, and I fell forward into open space as my dad pulled the door from the other side.
I landed on Bobby’s back, his tied-up body breaking my fall, and I scrambled off him like he was the boiling oil my mother cooked donuts in each fall, scalding and deadly, unlike anything I had ever known. But once I got myself backed into the corner of the dining room away from him, I let myself look and there was only Bobby, a sad version of him with his hands pulled behind his back, his slick body splayed across the floor and his eyes filled with tears. The drumbeats of my heart still pounding, I wondered where the gun had gone when Dad bound him in the cord. He looked like a trussed deer more than anything, harmless now. Snot ran out of his nose and across his lips, dripping onto the floor as he laid there, unable to wipe it away. I had the immediate longing to give him a handkerchief, and I stood up to go to my dresser and find one, but Dad glared at me, pointed with clear direction for me to stay where I was. His eyes let me know he would deal with me later, and it wouldn’t be pleasant.
“Come on, Sonny,” he said, bending over to grab Bobby by an arm and help him to his feet. “Let’s get you out of here and home.” It was the voice he used to tell me where to cast my pole when we sat in our boat by the walleye hole, how to steady the shotgun as ducks appeared above us in the blind, how to find the lowest common denominator in my fractions homework: a gentle voice, slow and easy that let me know I could take all the time I needed to get things right. And here he was, sharing that voice with Bobby, only minutes after tackling him to the floor. The feel of metal on my forehead would not leave my mind, nor my mother’s frantic hold on me, but I had also wanted to wipe Bobby’s nose, to ease him like Dad’s hand on his elbow. He pulled the dining room door open again to guide them through and into our living room where they faced Mr. Hartney, the town cop, his pistol drawn and steady at Bobby’s chest.
“It’s OK, Paul,” Dad said, “We’re gonna come on out to your car without any need for that gun.” And Bobby just shuffled along beside him, never looking up or trying to pull away. They moved like the Siamese twins from the circus, through the living room and out the screen door onto our porch. In our driveway, Bobby’s old Chevy pick-up with the crushed-in driver’s door sat behind our station wagon; it would stay on our property for six months, and then disappear one night while I slept. After Dad helped Bobby lower into the back of the police car, guiding his head and then leaning in with a hand on his shoulder, he walked over to the truck and reached through the open window to pull out the keys. Without the siren drawing attention to itself, Mr. Hartney drove off down our street, the dark shadow of Bobby’s head rocking in the back. I heard the keys rattle in the pocket of Dad’s pants as he pulled me into his arms on the sidewalk. We stood in a hug even tighter than Bobby’s grip had been, a fierce holding I did not want to end.
Beth Konkoski is a writer and high school English teacher living in Northern Virginia with her husband and two children. Her fiction has been published in journals such as: Mid-American Review, New Delta Review, The Baltimore Review, and Monkeybicycle. She has a chapbook of poetry, “Noticing the Splash” that was published in 2010 by BoneWorld Press.