Chapter 17: Sowing Dragon's Teeth
“Just saw a 10-73 southbound on 55,” says the radio, and Hero eases off the gas.
Speed traps are not particularly welcome when you’re hauling cargo as suspicious as a half-eaten shadow wrapped in garbage bags, especially when you’re also giving a lift to a man who looks an awful lot like Tom Selleck, The Butcher of Boulder.
"A couple bears are setting up camp at mile 1-50,” shares the radio. The voice is nasally and speaks with a strange lisp, like its tongue is split down the middle.
We’ve been driving for an hour, and this is the first voice I’ve heard in the last week that wasn’t Hero’s or the brief mumblings of our cargo, before I cut out his tongue like a psycho.
Hero picks up the receiver. “10-4; thanks for the heads up. We’ll be on our best.”
After a pause, that voice is back. “Hey Butcher, that you?”
Hero hisses through his teeth and briefly side-eyes me, palming the mic again. “Red Dragon …,” he says with a snicker. “You ever find what you were looking for?”
It’s that goddamn pervert from Missouri.
“No Japs ‘round here, Butch. Kinda hoping to taste one of them sideways pussies though. If you come across one, you send her my way, you got it?” What a disgusting cretin.
“I’ll be sure to do that, Red, but only after I’m done with her,” he says. And now I have to wonder why the hell he’s even indulging this asshole.
“When you’re done with her, Butcher?” I repeat. “Are you just going to keep talking like that?”
He glances over, and I’ve suddenly turned into that nagging wife I’ve been trying to avoid becoming. “He’s the dregs of humanity, Cowboy. Allow me these meager indulgences.”
“It’s disgusting,” I snap.
He grins and holds the receiver out toward me. “Do as you will.”
I snatch it from his hand. “Hey Red,” I say into the mic, “are you always this vulgar or only when you can hide your sorry ass behind a radio?”
“Who the hell’s this?”
“Hopper-Dropper, and it’s pretty damn pathetic that you have to agree to take Butcher’s sloppy seconds just to get some tail. You must be one ugly bastard.”
Butch chuckles at me and I toss the mic back to him. I don’t give a rat’s ass if I piss off that pervert. I hate people like him. He gives all truckers a bad name; besides, there could be kids listening in on this conversation.
“You better hope I never find you, Hopper-Dropper,” he threatens, and I wave my hand through the air. Piss off, asshole.
“I think Hopper’s just feeling a little full of himself, Red. I’m sure no harm was meant.”
“If I ever find that little cocksucker, he’s dead, Butch.”
Something in me snaps, and I lean over the console and snatch the mic from his hand again. “Come and get me, you little shit! No one’s afraid of an ugly little pissant like you!” I chuck the receiver back across the cab. “Turn the damn thing off. I can’t listen to him anymore.”
Butcher nods and flips off the radio, leaning back in his seat. “You a little edgy today?”
I’ve been a little edgy since the day I was born, but today might be a bit worse than most. “I don’t know what to say to my old man. He’s going to call me something horrible, and I’m going to want to punch him in the goddamn teeth.”
“You’re not the scared little boy he remembers, Hopper.”
“No, I’m not. I’m a whole hell of a lot worse.”
“Not worse. Just different,” he says.
“He doesn’t know about the divorce, and he’s going to call me a screw-up because I’ve never done anything right,” I blather. “I went to college, which he said was a waste of time and money, and it was, because I didn’t even get the degree I wanted. Then I lost my wife to another asshole, and I don’t even have my truck anymore. Hell, he probably would’ve been proud to know that I had a truck. He always thought I was a pussy for wanting to be a teacher.”
“Borrow my truck, then,” he suggests.
“No; no lies. And you’re not getting within a hundred yards of his house. I’m not subjecting any of us to that shitstorm. I just want to say my piece, give him the damn flask, grab a couple things, and leave.”
“And what piece do you intend to say, Hopper?”
I always thought that I needed to blame my father to his face for all of my life’s problems, but those antagonistic words never seemed right in my head. “I wanted to tell him off – tell him I hate him – but that feels so … cheap, like a low blow or a cop-out.”
He nods and side-eyes me again. “Why do you say that?”
“Because he’s hurting just as much as I am; he always has been. I can’t just storm in there and tell him off. It’s been fifteen years; where’ve I been?”
Where have I been? I haven’t been there with him, and I sure as shit haven’t been a son any more than he’s been a father. I haven’t called, or written, or checked in on him any more than he has. Relationships are a two-way street and you can’t blame a hurting man for hurting. You don’t get to control the feelings of others. You can only control how you react to them: with cruelty, contempt, or compassion. He had no right to blame me for my mother, and I still resent him for it, but at what point do I just let it go? “How much longer do I let him have this guilt-stricken tether tied to me?”
“As long as you want,” he says. “Do you still feel guilty, your father’s feelings aside?”
Of course I do. “Do you know what a lifetime of guilt does to a kid? To be made to feel responsible for a family member’s death like that? I didn’t have to grow up with that burden on my shoulders, but I did, and he made sure every damn day that I knew it.”
“You realize you can break the tether now – right where you sit. Why do it to his face?”
“I have a peace offering,” I say, pulling the flask out of the box. “Might lubricate the cogs of forgiveness on both our parts.”
“And if he’s unwilling to lubricate those cogs?”
“Then I guess I’ll know.”
There’s a long, uncomfortable pause that makes me wonder what’s going on in his head. I didn’t mean to start divulging things about my past. It seems strangely intimate – too intimate – even more so than our overly affectionate sleeping arrangements. This is an area neither of us has tread, especially him. We still don’t even know each other’s names.
Butcher's absorbed in thought, just twisting his unlit cigarette between his fingers like a hard nipple. I probably made him uncomfortable; I tend to prattle on when I get nervous. This trip south was the worst idea I could’ve had. I wanted to make amends – I need to be finished with this shit – but every mile closer we inch, the more nervous I get. I’m jittery now, and I need to calm down before I start sharing far more than I intend. “You, uh, you get along with your folks?” I ask. Tread lightly, Hop.
He snaps out of his daze and lights his smoke. “I did, somewhat,” he says before stopping.
“I’m betting that fruit’s a bit too high for me to reach, eh, Butch?”
He snickers and nods, taking a long drag. “I’ll say that my family didn’t deserve the hand they were dealt,” he sighs. “They fought a war on all fronts, and I’ll leave it at that.”
That reality hits me like a sack of bricks. He would have been maybe ten when the war broke out. “I, uh, … I’m sorry to hear that. We had the luxury of four thousand miles of water keeping us safe. Hell, you grew up on the front line.”
He slowly nods and presses his hand tight against his mouth as he inhales his smoke through his fingers. He’s holding back an avalanche of something, but I don’t have the heart to press it.
“So how did a poor Cajun boy end up with the big dream of becoming a school teacher,” he says through a shit-eating grin.
“Don’t patronize me,” I snap. “My old man never thought education was worth a damn – and it showed, believe me – but I did. And I wanted to be a professor of English literature, but that never happened, obviously. My neighbor was this nice older lady – never had kids, but she had been a schoolteacher in Georgia. She called teaching God’s work," I scoff. “She slipped me money every chance she got as long as I promised to go to school. My father didn’t give a damn whether I stayed or left; so I left.”
“So your neighbor paid for your schooling?”
“Some of it. But don’t go thinking I’m a charity case. I was a kid. No one told me I shouldn’t be taking her money, but I’d been saving to get the hell out of there since I was nine. Every waking moment I had, I was gathering up and returning bottles, mowing yards, or fixing boat motors with my dad. I had my finger in every pie just trying to get enough saved to move as far from Louisiana as I could get.”
“And you stopped running in Maryland.”
I nod, but I wasn’t running from my dad, I was fleeing the future I knew I was destined for if I didn’t get the hell out. Working in a boatyard may have been nice in another life, but not this one. I would have gone all the way to Canada, maybe joined the Mounties if I could have.
“You had a car,” he says. “Your old man couldn’t have been that bad. I can’t think of too many kids who grew up with the luxury of a vehicle.”
“Don’t go trying to guilt trip me for saying I hate him. He rebuilt that Chevy, and I bought it from him, fair and square, and kept it running myself.”
“You couldn’t keep your truck running, though,” he notes.
No, I couldn’t, but what the hell’s that supposed to mean? I haven’t messed with motors for ten goddamn years, and I don’t owe him an explanation.
He must be reading my face because he waves his hand like I’m a juror who’s supposed to just disregard that last comment. I’m too anxiety-ridden to care anyway, plus I think we’ve talked enough about me for the time being. “So, med school …,” I wonder. “Where’d you say you went?”
“I didn’t,” he says, as he flicks his spent butt out the window. Like an automated robot, he taps a second smoke out of his pack and pops it in his mouth. “Johns Hopkins.”
So he’s from my stomping ground. He was living in Baltimore with me; that’s disconcerting. “That’s a … good school,” I say. No wonder he’s so adept at everything. He’s been taught by the best.
“I was accepted on my exceptional merit, and then spent most of a decade doing nothing but reprimanding surgeons when they refused to wear gloves in the OR,” he scoffs, lighting his smoke. “I loved the work, though, and I excelled. Studying human anatomy’s a bit of a hobby of mine.” I can’t believe he learned how to be a better murderer from America’s leading teaching hospital – seems morbidly ironic, considering he was trained to save lives, not consume them. “But things change,” he continues, “People change. Life called me elsewhere, and I left. Just like you.”
“That’s a pretty substantial life to just walk away from – credentials, prestige – and a hearty paycheck, I’d imagine. I was fleeing a shithole in the middle of a swamp. Big difference.”
He smiles and says, “It no longer suited me, and there is no reward for living your life by someone else’s measure. The road less traveled is often the most invigorating, so that’s where I went. This road–,” he says, waving his smoke toward the highway, “is far more exciting to walk than long white halls corralling filthy doctors.”
I hum to myself and nod. In the last fifteen minutes, I’ve learned more about him than I have in the last week. What I’m learning isn’t reassuring, but it’s not terrifying either. I’d been imagining him as a phantom – a creature that simply materialized one day in Detroit when I was having a breakdown over a cold breakfast. He’s felt as abstract as the shadow, and as surreal as the night we killed the mugger. You can slaughter a man alongside a monster; you can dine with a devil; hell, you can fuck a shadow, but you can’t open up to these creatures. The more pieces he gives me – the further back his timeline spreads – the more I’m forced to see him as a person with a face and a name, despite our ever-changing epithets.
My mind must have wandered too far away for too long because he clears his throat. “Are you building another prison?” he asks, and my attention is drawn back into the truck.
“No.” I was tearing one down.
“Are you bothered by this?”
“By what, talking? No.”
“Then tell me about one through four.”
I guess I was wrong. There are some things that bother me – secrets I’m still not ready to share. “One was my mother, and I’ll leave it at that.”
He leans back in his seat, a little perturbed by my enigmatic answer, considering he already knew about my mother, but he’ll have to get over it. If I have to call him Butcher, then he can live with not knowing everything about me.
“I’ve filled your belly with my food," he says, "your mouth with my tongue, and your ass with my cock, but you still don’t trust me.”
I know he’s trying to get a rise out of me. He wants to watch my face redden while he revels in my embarrassment, but screw that. “I’ve filled your belly with my cum and your mouth with my dick, but you still won’t tell me your name. As for your ass, it won’t be long now, Butcher – eye for an eye, remember?”
His face suddenly lights up as he stifles laughter and tries to focus on the road. I can feel the amusement radiating off him. He actually looks flustered behind the smoke he’s huffing out, and it makes me feel pretty damn proud.
“I’m looking forward to it,” he says. “I’m glad you’re starting to see the world from my perspective. That justice will feel pretty damn good, I assure you.”
He’s still chuckling, and I shake my head. This guy’s nuts, and I’m choosing to follow the bastard like a stray; what’s that say about me?
He continues, “When you get to where you can trust me, you let me know. I’d like to revisit your count.”
“Why are you so intrigued by that? I don’t want to know your count at all.”
“That’s fair. I guess I just find you interesting.”
“You have a thing for twitchy men who tear the faces off knife-wielding shadows?”
“Apparently I do,” he says. “Do you have a thing for strangers who help you bury a body and then fuck you covered in blood?”
“Apparently I do,” I snicker, and I think I must be going mad. I’ve definitely got more than a couple screws loose in my skull. He’s so blazé about everything, I can’t tell if I should be worried by his lack of concern, or comforted by it.
It’s late in the evening, though still light out when we finally arrive in Baton Rouge. The old warehouse near my house is barely standing, but still there, so that’s where I leave Butcher parked with the truck. The flask is securely tucked in my back pocket, sloshing with every agonizing step I take toward my old home. Every thirty seconds, I have to push my glasses back up my nose because I’m sweating so badly in this goddamn heat. I’ve never forgotten how muggy it is, and it makes me appreciate the relative dryness of the Chesapeake.
When I left this neighborhood, it was a mess of homes and corner stores with a gas station that seemed to be the only place people gathered. Now that I’m back, I see that it’s not just a mess – it’s a dump. The gas station’s boarded up and sporting cardboard signs that say “NO GAS,” and the whole street feels like a ghost town.
I can see the patch of trees behind my old house, and it stops me dead in my tracks. I don’t have to do this. I could just forget this nonsense and turn around. I’d been forced to leave Butcher during one of his bouts of sexiness, reading Sirens while he relaxes on the bed with Garm. I could go right back there and get that justice he was looking forward to and just toss the damn flask to the curb. The enticing image of stripping off his clothes and bending him over has me taking a few lecherous steps back toward the truck. I would certainly enjoy getting to inspect that tattoo of his – maybe explore it with my tongue a little bit – but I come to my senses and cross the road instead, hoofing it to the house.
My father’s other pride and joy, a Harley Davidson, is still parked where it always had been, and the sight of it makes my gut churn. Wherever that bike is, so is my old man. I realize now that I was hoping it would be gone, parked in front of The Hateful Snake until two in the morning when he’d sober up enough to ride it home. The bike looks older now, but still well-loved and well-used. I wouldn’t have known it had been fifteen years if I didn’t feel every single one of them in my bones.
The house looks exactly the same, tiny and dingy – basically just moldy white siding covering a plywood box on a cracked foundation, with a tin shed out back that looks bigger than the house. The small porch is overgrown with weeds, and half the railing’s still gone. I fell off that damn thing more than a couple times growing up, but the bastard never fixed it … but he was busy, working two jobs to keep this shack from leaking.
I peek in the front window, but my old man has a bookcase covering it now. He never liked open windows – too exposing to the elements and the neighbors’ eyes for his taste. He refused to sleep anywhere but his old chair in the living room with a shotgun on the floor next to him. Said he had to keep us safe, be sure no one was prowling around outside. I don’t know who he was protecting us from. The whole neighborhood was scared of him. He'd always been a damn nut job.
There’s this anxiety building in my chest, and I’m back to debating if I should just abandon the flask on the porch and be done with it all. I still need to speak with him, though. If I give him nothing else for the rest of my life, I want to give him an hour to let me have it. I want to help him find the peace he and I both need. When it’s all said and done I get to leave this place, but my old man never had that option.
I stand on the bottom step of the porch and wait, building strength before I subject myself to the barrage of shit he’s going to come at me with. Where’ve I been? Did I come home for money? Did I knock up some bitch other than my wife? It hasn’t been long enough for him to have changed that much, and I know he still carries the same list of grievances that I do.
I take a deep breath and finally ascend the stairs. The quicker I get this over with, the sooner I can go back to the relative peace of life on the road with my murdering fuck-buddy.
I lightly tap on the door, hoping I don’t get a faceful of buckshot, but there’s no answer. I knock again and wait. I don’t want to startle him by barging in while he’s taking a shit, but if I go around back, I’m as good as dead. My dad was never kind to trespassers.
The door always swells in the summer, so I wrench on the handle and throw my shoulder into it, which is a bad idea considering the state of my pummeled body. I grit my teeth when the stitches in my chest stretch, and I push in the door.
The place is a goddamn mess. My father’s always been a pig, and Jesus Christ, it shows. The television is chattering away about Slim Jims, there are bottles and cans everywhere, and the salty air reeks of diesel fuel and rotten potatoes. I suddenly remember why I always hated coming home after school. It was a rat’s nest of filth and piles of shit. Car parts and boat motors make up a black, oily mound in the middle of the goddamn living room carpet. Only lunatics work on motors in the middle of their living room.
His chair’s empty but still has that slick patch at the top, and today’s work shirt’s been tossed over the upended Domino sugar crate he uses as a side table. If he’s not in that chair, or rolling smokes at the kitchen table, he’s out in the shed working on the boat that’s been his pet project since before I was born.
I wander through the kitchen, taking time to tap the frame of my mom’s photo before I head out the back door to the small yard behind the house. It’s surreal to be walking these hallowed grounds again. Nothing looks different, except for the quantity of rubbish piled next to all the rusted boat trailers and cinder blocks. The shed’s butt up against the woods, and as I guessed, the faint glow of his work light shines from under the door. I’ll just toss him the flask, and he’ll be so overjoyed that he won’t say a bad goddamn word about anything. We’ll share a couple beers, and he can tell me how the bike's running.
I yank open the shed door, and there the drunkard sits at the old broken table in the corner, with an empty glass and a bottle of whiskey, like he was just waiting out here to tell me how much prouder he is of his boat than his own son. He always drinks out here; there was just something about alcohol and dangerous tools that never sat right with me, though he never seemed to care.
“Hi, dad,” I whisper because I’ve completely forgotten what I was going to say to him.
He stares at me, disgusted and exhausted like I’m the last damn person he wanted darkening his doorstep, and I just stare back, wondering how many cans he emptied before switching to whiskey. There’s something about that familiar pain in his eyes that seems to confirm my gut-wrenching suspicion about what they say – you cannot, and should not ever go home again, and he’s about to tell me why.
My chapter 17 notes.