Daddy Buck

Originally published in Parable Press

 

He may have been born James Williams Jr., but my father wasn’t the kind of man to take a second-hand name. When he got to be school-aged, he stood up during his home room attendance and told the teacher to call him Buck. He said he’d seen the word next to a big deer in one of his picture books and he liked the sound of it.

Sometimes a name just sticks, so Buck it was.

It stayed that way for a good long while. I don’t think he saw his legal name again until it was typed on his arrest record next to fingerprints and tear stains.

My father’s parents hadn’t graduated from high school and he was far from a scholar himself. But he was respectful and tried hard enough that the teachers shuttled him along from year to year. It might have also helped that he was the 145 pound state wrestling champ three years running. My father wasn’t raised to take something he didn’t deserve, but I’ll bet it was damn near impossible to keep track of how you were doing in school when teachers casually traded passing grades for Friday night fame.

On the wrestling mat his good nature disappeared and was replaced by something bordering on savage. We all have our talents, but my father’s seemed to be driving young men’s bodies and wills into submission. He took down so many that his father had to build him a case to hold all of his medals.

My brother loved pulling those old wrestling medals out and pinning them all over us. Even though I was a girl, nothing gave me more pleasure than spending my days dying glorious deaths in our epic backyard battles. We’d lay in the grass, vanquished and moaning, until my father would un-decorate us with a tickle and a smile and put his medals away. He explained to us that soldiers did brave deeds and these were just prideful objects that he didn’t have the courage or good sense to part with. He said he hadn’t done anything noble at all to earn them.

He told us he didn’t like that side of his nature coming out. Truth was, he’d only joined the wrestling team to show off his muscles to a pretty young lady he hoped one day to marry. That girl must’ve liked wrestling a lot because they got married not long after high school.

My mother told me they never argued until they had kids. Trading the bliss of newlywed life for the tornado of twins didn’t make life easy on them. But their first dispute wasn’t over diaper changing or who was going to get up to feed us. No, their first fight was over names. Not ours. But our father’s.

Buck wanted us to call him, well, Buck.

He said that’s what everyone called him since he was a boy and he wouldn’t answer to anything else. But my mother found it disrespectful for a child to call a parent or any adult by his first name. She also pointed out that babies learning to talk often mispronounced words and she’d be mortified if a child of hers said the word fuck. So they reached a compromise. My brother and I were taught to call him Daddy Buck and there was peace in the kingdom.

Daddy Buck kept his knives sharp and his guns clean and he hunted and fished well enough to bring home supper on weekends. His hands were rough and strong and he could twist the tops off of beers that weren’t even twist offs. Best of all, he could spit farther than any man I’ve ever known. He’d make this horrible hacking sound that had us in peals of laughter and then he’d launch a wad of goo with impossible accuracy and distance.

As far as the kids in our neighborhood were concerned, a man who could spit like that was superhuman. He could hit our dog from across the yard. We made Daddy Buck do that trick so much the poor animal got skittish, always thinking it was about to rain.

My father managed the town’s sporting goods store. He paid his taxes and bought beers for veterans. He sang the national anthem and took his hat off, even when it was just playing on TV. He voted in every election, but he’d be the first to tell you he wasn’t a fan of the government. Thought the Democrats and Republicans were running pretty much the same show, just wearing different colors. Said he’d seen enough of them come and go to know for a fact that both were sneaking into a man’s pocket for the privilege of spending it foolishly.

We didn’t talk a lot about politics in the house, but he was on a bit of a rant that night because the state was in yet another budget crisis. The government said they didn’t have enough money to pay the teachers so their solution was to “give” them a day off once a month to cut costs. Called them furlough days.

The kids loved it, but the parents didn’t for the simple reason that when both parents work, furlough days made child care a challenge. Even though we were just in 3rd grade we looked after ourselves pretty well, but it made our parents nervous just the same. My mother’s boss didn’t care about her “family” issues, but Daddy Buck promised to get home as early as he could even though he knew we were just running around with the neighbor kids. A few of the kids had moms that stayed at home, so there was usually someone to dispense Band-Aids and spray Bactine.

On one of those days off we’d run out of things to throw rocks at and I suggested we play hide and go seek. Some of the kids said that was a game for babies so we changed the rules. Everyone kicked in a dollar and whoever was the last one found got to keep all the money. “Hide and seek for money” sounded much more grown up.

It also meant you’d better find an awesome hiding place if you wanted to go home with all the money.

Both my brother and I were small for our age and our favorite place to hide was in the kitchen cupboard. There were cleaning supplies in there, but we knew better than to eat or drink anything. It always gave me a strange thrill to sit so close to things that could kill me. Eyeing the skull and crossbones on a bottle of drain opener or a package of rat poison made me feel powerful, like I was cheating death.

I wasn’t old enough yet to know that no one cheats death.

Not even a kid.

On the day of hide and seek for money, my brother and I got to the cupboard at the same time. In a begrudgingly generous way, he let me take the favored place. His brow wrinkled into a little scowl and he said, “Ladies first,” in the mannerly way that Daddy Buck had taught him.

They were the last words I ever heard him speak.

My brother hid in the empty recycling bin can in the alley. He knew it would be empty because Daddy Buck thought recycling was just a scam the city had come up with to charge us for picking up sorted bottles and cans that they were just going to turn around and profit by.

The teachers may have had a day off, but the garbage men did not. They trolled the neighborhood alleys with the type of trucks that efficiently and mechanically picked up the cans and shook them into their giant bellies to gnaw on and digest. I guess between the noise of the trash dumping and the hangover the truck driver was sporting no one heard the little boy getting the life crushed out of him. Alone and broken in a sea of shattered glass and twisted aluminum.

I still have nightmares about what that must have felt like.

How is a family supposed to survive that?  

The simple answer is, it doesn’t.

My father had lots of questions about what happened, but the one I remembered most was, “Who’s idea was it to play this game?”

“Mine.”

Four letters was all it took to tear a family apart.

My mother turned to tranquilizers to dull the pain and Daddy Buck turned to bourbon. You’d think that losing a child would make the surviving one a treasure. Maybe because we were twins, every time they looked at me they saw him. It’s hard to live in a place where your face rips opens wounds that desperately need to scab over and scar.

It was silent in our house for months. I learned to cry in whispers so as not to disturb the still. I never want it to be that quiet again. To this day I have to keep a radio or the television on. A little something to make noise or I get uneasy.

One night I came home from a friend’s house to find Daddy Buck dozing with a bottle in his lap. I tried to pull it away. He was in half a daze and whispered to me that if he had to lose one of us, he wished it had been me. A son will keep a man’s name alive. What could a daughter ever do?

I would have hit him, but I was such a tiny thing that he probably wouldn’t have even felt it. So I spit on him because it was the meanest thing I knew how to do.

I thought he was too drunk to notice, but the hand that steadied my bike and tucked me in turned to a fist and struck. My lip split and my jaw cracked. I don’t know if it was the sound or the shock or the pain, but I threw up all over him.

Daddy Buck just went back to sleep.

That was the first time my father ever laid a hand on me. I wished I could say it was the last. My mother’s hell was just about to begin. I never knew how long 4 months could be.

The savageness that had been reserved for the wrestling mats was unleashed on what remained of our little family. My mother can’t see out of her left eye and still walks with a pretty bad limp.

A shelter took us in after she got out of the hospital and my parents were divorced by mail. We moved to the other side of town and I never saw him again although I did hear about him getting arrested for trying to run a garbage truck off the road.

He ranted in court. Said the government killed his son with their greed and incompetence. Said someone in the government was going to pay for what they did. He said a lot of things about the government that you don’t really get to say without some kind of consequence.

He was jailed and did not do well in confinement. I imagine he was just as fierce as he’d been as a young wrestler, but there are no weight classes in prison. And there are no referees either. Mother told me he’d suffered some kind of serious head trauma and had been moved to an institution.

Years passed. The polite language would be that we lost track, but the truth was I could never look in those eyes again without seeing all that rage. It’s hard to lose a parent while they’re still living, but maybe some heartbreaks are for the best.

I’m a grown woman now and I’ve got a child of my own. My boy’s grown up with child locks on kitchen cupboards and organized play dates instead of running around until dark. He’s lost a lot of freedom, but he hasn’t lost his life, so I think that’s a pretty fair trade.

My son and I were shopping in our little downtown the other day when we saw a mass of hair and rags propped up against a storefront. I couldn’t make out the face behind the tangle of hair, but there was something in his body language that gave me pause. The man twisted the top off his beer bottle in a way that chilled my bones.

He looked up at me and smiled a toothless grin.

 “He’s staring at you, Mom. Do you know him?” my son asked.

I raised my hand reflexively to my face. “No sweetie.”

“He’s got a bunch of medals. I wonder if he’s a soldier.”

“Could be.”

“Can we give him a dollar?”

I told my son I didn’t have any small bills and then I lied again when I told him we were in a hurry.

My son fished in his pocket and pulled out a dollar bill mangled in the way only little boys can. “That’s alright. I’ve got one. Hey mister!”

“Stop it Jimmy. He’s just a bum.”

“That’s not a nice word, Mom. He’s a person. He’s someone’s father.”

“No. No he’s not. He’s nobody’s father.”

The man’s eyes lit up at that.

I gripped my boy’s hand and tried to pull him across the street.

“Mom, you’re hurting me.”

And then I heard that hacking sound.

That wonderful horrible sound that made all the kids squeal. That sound I hadn’t heard since I was a girl. Since I was a sister. Since I was a half. And since I was a whole. Tears flooded down my face as I raced away. Desperate to escape.

And even though I put a dozen yards between us…

I braced, knowing surely he would hit me.

Under a Cursed Star

Originally published in Menacing Hedge

 

Vaughn imagined a catfish or a bass crackle-popping in a skillet full of hot butter when he saw his fishing line go taut. He’d only been back-trolling for ten minutes, so an early strike was a good omen. The upside to catching fish early in the evening was getting home sober enough to cook them without burning down the house.  His mother had always told him, “You take your happiness where you can find it.”

The act of grabbing his rod and reel, the release of the spinner, and the gentle, backwards tug on the pole all acted in concert to exorcise the stress from his body. His mind went to a better place and he said a small prayer the week would finish in a finer place than it started. Vaughn thought it sure as shit wouldn’t be hard to do that, but his hopes were dashed as he started to reel in his catch.

Not a lick of fight on the line. Probably hooked some lake trash.

He reeled it in a little faster than he normally would, after all there was no danger in losing a live one. But he might have gone a little slower if he’d known what was on the other end. The thing that cut through the water wasn’t the door off on an old toaster oven (he had caught one of those before and almost lost his lucky lure in the process) or some old tree branch. This object traveled easily, and as it began to surface, it gave the impression of being thick and slithery. Although, as Vaughn pulled it out of the lake he could tell it wasn’t a snake.

He raised his catch a little higher, but still couldn’t quite make out what he’d hooked. He reached for his flashlight and appraised it under the soft, flickering glow of a bulb in need of replacement.

It twirled on the line trying to spin itself back to its original untwistedness.

Vaughn remained calm as he swung the catch over and cut what looked to be a human forearm off of his fishing line. The waterlogged limb fell to the fiberglass bass boat with a wet whump that reminded him of the dropped-on-the-floor Thanksgiving turkey he’d taken a beating over years ago when such things mattered.

There was no one here to punish him with words or belts or fists tonight.

There was just him and someone’s arm.

Part of him expected the arm to move. Maybe the act of catching it like a fish made him think it would behave like a fish, but it did no such thing. It just lay there, oozing water and some other yellowish mucus onto his battered-but-not-yet-broken boat.

As the boat lilted back and forth in the water, Vaughn shifted his body allowing the full moon to illuminate the limb.

The hair on the arm suggested it belonged to a man. But Vaughn had seen plenty of hairy-armed women buying groceries at the store. So it could be a woman’s. The limb was so swollen with water that identification was impossible to his untrained eye. Vaughn decided his evenings spent watching TV crime shows had left him much less prepared in the world of forensics than he’d have hoped.

It was not uncommon for Vaughn to fish on a Friday night. He was not the kind of man who kept company with his office mates who spent their “happy” hours and the better part of their paychecks trying to woo the interns with liquor and lies. He took pride in the fact that he did his work and went home. It was much easier to avoid glancing at the women if he got home as quickly as possible. If he’d known he was going to hook an arm instead of a bass, he might’ve opted to endure that particular brand of torture instead.

Vaughn thought about just throwing it back. It would actually be the easiest thing to do. Find a different fishing hole and tell himself that he’d just dreamed up the whole episode. But that note rang falsely to the compass in his head. Vaughn was many things, but he wasn’t a liar. He cleared eight out of the twelve beers from his cooler and set the arm in the ice.

It seemed rude to keep fishing, so he called it a night and headed back to shore.

                                                                       

* * *

 

Vaughn heard the slosh of the melting ice as he set the cooler on his kitchen table. He pictured the arm floating amongst the Budweisers and wondered why he hadn’t taken all the beers out. It would be hard to drink them now. Probably not sanitary either.

His mother would’ve said, “That’s just the cost of doing business.”

She’d said lots of things like that to him as she’d taught him how to behave and the harsh consequences of getting it wrong. Out of habit, he uttered her words aloud.

He picked up his phone and dialed. Even though it was a landline, he held the receiver away from his ear. Touching the plastic to his ear felt wrong, but he preferred it to cell phones. He was certain cell phones would give him ear cancer or brain cancer or some kind of tumor in the pocket area near his penis so he chose a “real” phone and kept it at a safe distance. The good news was he got the internet when he ordered a phone line, and the internet was good to have when you lived alone.

“Sheriff’s office.” A polite, female voice answered.

He was thinking so hard about his love of the internet and his mistrust of phones that he forgot who he was calling.

 “Sheriff’s office.” The voice repeated. At the sound of the woman’s voice, Vaughn’s stomach lurched.

“Do you have any male officers I might talk to?” His voice was sandpaper in his throat.

“Excuse me?”

“I’d just be more comfortable talking to a man.”

The politeness fell from her voice. “Are you calling to report a crime?”

Vaughn peeked under the cooler’s lid. The arm floated peacefully. He considered her question. There were probably lots of non-criminal ways one could lose an arm. Wasn’t that what the police were supposed to figure out?

“I’m not sure. But I am sure that I would be more comfortable talking to a man.”

“I can do anything a man can do sir. I am trained, I am certified, frankly, I teach people how to do this job.”

Vaughn picked up a gruff man’s voice in the background, “Who’s on the phone, Wanda? Are you giving somebody trouble?”

Vaughn heard the man take the phone away from her.

“Can I help you?”

Vaughn thought he sounded like a man working on something in his mouth. Maybe he was eating? Maybe chewing tobacco? He hoped it was eating.

“Oh thank god, thank you for doing that.”

Vaughn heard the man spit. Chewing tobacco, it was. Vaughn tried not to judge. Tobacco was a “bad habit.” His mother told him this many times.

“Yes? You need some assistance, sir?”

“Do you have anyone missing an arm?”

“Excuse me? Is this some kind of prank?”

“No sir.” Vaughn thought talking to a man would make him feel better, but clearly talking to the police terrified him regardless of gender.

“Then why would you ask a question like that?”

He heard the female officer in the background. “Um-hm, he’s yours now.”

“I figured if someone was missing an arm, you would know about it.”

Vaughn sighed. This was not going well at all. This is not how things went on the cop shows on TV, although those shows usually happened in the big city. Wiggins Creek was not a big city, but it was home just the same.

“We would. Yes. Your logic is superb, son. You gonna tell me what’s going on? Are you in some trouble? What have you done?”

Shit. Vaughn panicked. I haven’t done anything. I just went fishing.

He hung up the phone.

 

                                                                    * * *

 

Vaughn thought the best thing to do was to get rid of the arm. After all, the limb had been nothing but trouble. He’d acted like an idiot on the phone with the Sherriff’s people and he’d lost four good Budweisers to it in the cooler simply trying to get it home.

The arm had to go.

He grabbed his ice chest and headed to his truck. As he pulled away he knew he’d never want to hear the sound of ice sloshing around in a cooler again. From now on, he’d have to only drink as much as he could carry.

Vaughn drove around trying to think of a good place to get rid of the arm, but anxiety twisted inside him like a wet rag. He drove past the hospital, thinking they must know how to get rid of things like this. They amputated body parts everyday. Surely they had systems in place. But there would be questions. And nurses.

He also drove past the dump. But this was a human arm and a human hand. At some point it must have thrown a ball or raised a glass or had to hit someone for getting the rules wrong. You couldn’t just throw it away. It would be disrespectful.

Plus, sometimes dogs get in the trash. Heaven forbid if a dog got ahold of the arm and ran home with it. If a child saw his fluffy dog chewing on someone’s arm he might never sleep again. Vaughn knew he wasn’t going to sleep well tonight after what he’d seen and he was a grown-ass man.

He drove back home and grabbed a shovel.

 

* * *

 

Vaughn chose a patch of dirt away from the house where nothing seemed to grow anyway to bury the arm. He was almost done with the hole when he spotted the police cruiser’s lights in his driveway. He cursed himself for trying to be too neat with the hole. He’d wanted the sides to go straight up and down like the graves on television. If he’d just dug a shallow round hole, it wouldn’t be right. His mother had always told him, “If you don’t have time to do it right, you definitely don’t have time to do it twice.”

He figured the police must be able to find your address when you call them. He’d seen that once on one of his TV shows.

He heard them call his name. “Vaughn Carson!”

He heard them coming through the woods. “Vaughn Carson!”

He put the shovel down and waited. “Vaughn Carson!”

It didn’t take long.

 

* * *

 

Vaughn tried to explain he’d found the arm in the lake and called the police. He tried to explain that the police themselves didn’t know about anyone missing an arm. He tried to explain that you don’t just throw out an arm and he was just giving the arm a decent burial.

He kept trying to explain until one of the policemen put his hands on him.

There were many things that made Vaughn feel uncomfortable, but people putting their hands on him made him angry. Vaughn tried very hard to control his temper. He had his pills and he had his training. The doctors had given him lots of ways to “stay even.”

He wished he’d been able to stay even.

 

* * *

 

It was hard to sit in the back of the cruiser with the handcuffs on.  It hurt on his wrists, but it also hurt in his head.

He’d sat in the back of a car like this when he was twelve, but they didn't put him in handcuffs then. They’d asked him if he’d like to bring along a toy. He thought he would look like a baby, being twelve years old and holding onto a crappy Stretch Armstrong doll, so he declined.

The cool thing about Stretch was you could pull him and pull him right to the breaking point and he’d always snap back. Sometimes Vaughn dreamed about Stretch. He’d been so worried about looking like a baby in front of the police that he’d left his favorite toy to fend for himself. You’re never supposed to abandon the things you love and he swore he’d do better the next time he had to make a hard choice.

Young Vaughn had been found by some neighbors. They must have heard him screaming in the closet. His mother kept him there when he broke the rules. He tried to be good, but sometimes he’d make mistakes and have to sit in the dark and “think about it.”  

And once, while he was thinking about it, his mother was choking on a hot dog.

He could hear her trying to breathe. He could hear her thrashing into the kitchen table and the daisy-patterned Corelle plates hitting floor. They were the kind of plates that couldn’t break, but they sure made a ruckus just the same.

Vaughn’s mother finally landed next to the door of the closet he was locked in and he heard her not breathe her last breath.

When she was frustrated with him, she used to tell him he was born under a cursed star. But he thought choking to death on a hot dog in her own home didn’t say too much good about his mother’s relationship with fate either.

 

* * *

 

The police did indeed find the remains of a woman in the lake. And as Vaughn noted during questioning, the woman was hairier than most. The fact was noted in the autopsy and oddly enough, that detail helped her family come forward and identify her.

She’d been missing for thirteen months and thirteen days and her family had assumed she was dead. They’d made their peace with her disappearance, but were grateful to have a body to bury and the mortician did a fine job reattaching the arm.

And though Vaughn was relieved the police eventually got the matter sorted out, he still spent an evening in the lockup with some of the town’s less than model citizens.

While he was in the holding cell, Vaughn got into a scuffle with some drunks. He tried to explain that he didn’t like to be touched, but that only made matters worse. He probably shouldn’t have hit the biggest one, but his mother always said, “You take the big one down and the rest always scatter.”

It was then that Vaughn realized his mother had told him many things that made sense when she said them, but rarely seemed to work out in the real world.

The rest did not scatter.

As the drunkards’ kicks and blows rained down on him and he started to lose consciousness, Vaughn banished the thoughts of his mother and her pointless sayings. Instead, he found comfort in the face of Stretch Armstrong who said nothing, but always managed to smile and endure.