Some great man was said to arrive on this planet with Halley’s Comet, before abruptly taking his leave some four score years later by embarking on the vapors and fumes of that self-same celebrated space hurtler.
Bookended by a dirty snowball that shines like a glow plug for a wickedly unhinged star, it all seemed part of the show for us Earth-bound enthusiasts. It was also one hell of a way to evince a beginning and — even grander still — punctuate the vainglorious end that waits for us all.
Of course, the man I describe wasn’t great by virtue of his connection to Halley’s Comet. He was hardly great at all, if he’s the kind of man most men are. No, his deeds had an effect and that effect was apparently celebrated somehow somewhere enough to gild his shortcomings and lose them thusly in that sheen of golden shit.
Greatness, I’m told, is overrated.
My father wasn’t great. Terrible with tantrums and an unsprung mind, Jerry Faulk Sr. too came and went according to an exacting schedule. Born on Aug. 6, 1942, he finally gave up the grizzled tumor-ridden ghost exactly 49 years and five months later.
March 6, 1992. Old man, take a look at my life. I’m not a lot like you, but there’s definitely more than a passing resemblance.
That first day, Jerry Boyd Faulk began a truncated trek through life, one full of rage, fear, paranoia, violence, shame. Drawn by an addled sense of what works, he tried to bully his demons down.
Despite his black tooth and home-wrought hieroglyph tattoo, his enemies never fled the field. Instead, they built permanent campaign headquarters there, in a Quonset hut behind his off-color eyeballs. Safe from discovery and otherwise immune to the psychiatric artillery that 20th Century medicine lobbed lazily toward any escalating threat, we were — all of us — collateral damage.
His naming-day landfall was made just as the Second World War in these God-fraught American states gained traction.
Initially content to let the Britons and all their European third cousins succumb to the mustachioed maniac and his legions of jack-booted jaw clenchers, absorbing a blistering sortie that targeted coastal real estate worthy of a glossy Sunday magazine was too massive a kidney bean to swallow whole.
The attack on Pearl Harbor raised the ire of the archetypal American Cowboy. Politicians slapped their soft, sweating hands together and beamed. Badass like a Wells Fargo bandit making off with more gold in sacks than California coughed up all year in 1849, America was supposedly righteous in its strength. An Angel Gabriel in a ten gallon hat now sat astride his warhorse, and the little brown people didn’t stand a chance.
American warrior, proud taker of cultural liberties, thick-headed numbskull wielding a well-hung shootin’ iron, our champion fought and killed not for glory but for the honor of his (mostly white) people.
So led, Americans fell hard for the rage of the age. War, like Catholic Bingo, was now an American institution.
Amid the fevered fervor, Dad emerged slick and wild-eyed from the crux of Grandmother’s nethers. Scant weeks before, Grandpa James Boyd Faulk had crashed one such party only to be told he was certifiably unfit to die for his country.
Lungs is bad, said the doc.
Almost 35 years later in fact, after the old man’s bellows had outlived their warranty, he blew his last blast, a wheezing and phlegmatic explosion from perforated air sacks so painfully crucified by the Cancer.
Like his lunatic son, the rejection became the disappointment of his lifetime. Both incidents shamed him, and both smarted long after the worst was over and done. Yet while he would’ve been proud to snuff a Kraut or two — maybe even the Fuhrer himself — for the good old Stars and Stripes, his son’s descent into darkness hurt worse; at least a dreaded 4F designation didn’t beat its wife half to death out of pure meanness and an awfully tuneless manner of seeing things.
Boyd — he refused to respond to the name James, which he’d always hated — remains a mystery, much like Dad. To me, their absence was their one defining characteristic.
Dad was physically present, yet his heart and mind were as remote as the oceans of Enceladus. Sealed tight against the light and magic of our patron star, its depths promised nothing if not a compounding darkness where likely nothing lived but where maybe just maybe monsters stranger and more foul than the demons of your strangest nightmares lurked where they’d never see or be seen.
Hunger, though, required no eyes. Teeth were hard and plenty, and monsters as a rule like to chew their food dead.
Miswired and prone to short circuitry, Dad was forever afraid and therefore incapable of cultivating intimacy beyond shared meals, dumbly cohabitating a living room, and the occasional misfired attempt at PSA parenting: Drugs are bad. Get a job. If you’ve got to screw a neighborhood girl, wear a goddamn raincoat.
Don’t start fights, but if somebody starts one for you, then damn well you ought to finish it.
Boyd’s absence was more absolute. After all, he was dead. To me, he amounted to a sloppy rendering drawn from other people’s stories, their vague and often self-serving recollections, the obligatory and therefore ruinous niceties afforded to dead Men of the House.
Our lives knew no intersection other than the minutes-long introductions made in an ICU unit. His cancer stood triumphant then just as I began the lifelong and irreversible decline from infant miracle to mortal man.
He was thus more myth than man, more legend than object of affection or wise caregiver as my older brother Jerry Jr. would describe him. A dozen years my senior, Jerry had known the old man, even lived in his home while Dad was serving overseas.
Big Brother describes an idyllic time when he and our grandparents trekked halfway across the country, an exotic and loving cross-generational family, to visit the dry corner of Oklahoma where they’d once plied their skills farming dust and the bones of six generations.
I ached for a role model, especially as I stumbled through middle and on into high school. I needed some clue that yes, in fact, capability was within my grasp. Competence, rather than a carrot forever out of reach, was my goddamn birthright. From the myriad strands of him I’d collected arose an approximate weave of the man, a hard-won sketch that still made me proud.
Bereft then of a standard, damned to face the onslaught of maturity with little or no guidance nor even a nudge to tell me which hand was left and which nut should hang to the right, I did the best I could.
See these lumps? Them’s the breaks.
It was in noticing the contradictions between who Dad described as his father and who Jerry Jr. described as loving grandfather that I first came to suspect that Dad’s disease had wrought yet another legend where fact would have once sufficed.
Jerry Sr. had to be the toughest man in the room. Tougher than his kids. Tougher than his valiant and abused wife. Tougher than his own father.
Tough as an old whore’s nipples when payday rolls around.
Dad held sacred whatever power he’d managed to collect, even if it was merely the acquiescence of the abused.
All us kids had at one time or another faced down a challenge from Dad:
“You think you’re such a badass? Think you’re gonna whup your old man? I see it in your face, you goddamn liar. You ever want to give it a go, you sonofabitch, we’ll sure as hell settle it for good. Ya hear me?”
Our faces betrayed fear, occasional resentments, and the agony of violent absurdity. Modulate your tone, keep your eyes on the dirty shag, and say nothing. These, like most storms, soon blew over.
Not for mother. She bore the brunt of his heavy hand. Fate had handed her a bum deal, aces and assholes, with her signature freshly forged and irrevocable on the dotted line.
Dad needed her, and it galled him to be so vulnerable. With her, he could pretend. He could navigate a broken social service bureaucracy, as well as the dead-end roundabout of county psychiatric care. Like a blind man needs a cane, Dad was lost without Mom’s guiding hand yet the necessity of her, of her strength and stalwart normalcy, broke his spirit and turned him afoul of things good..
She offended him by becoming his life raft.
Ruthlessly, he beat her for it. He loaded his pistol and shot holes in things to mark high water in his flooding misery. She became the the mechanism for Dad’s hatred toward his own father.
But let’s not jump ahead.
For days, Dad had hunted her like a rabid litter bitch. Mom hid herself well in the attic, among the flop-eared boxes of orphaned holiday ornaments and grotesque tinsel bouquets leftover from a happier time.
She’d first considered escape — from the house, the marriage, all of it. But her kids, three of them now cowering in their rooms while Dad broke out the windows in the house, plunged a shovel through the 19-inch catharay tube set, even set the old mantle clock on fire. It had wound itself down to a syrupy creep, and when it finally fell still last month — reeking of insult and futility — taxed the thing accordingly.
While escape was tempting, perhaps her last significant shot at surviving this marriage before Jerry stove her head in with a oak round drawn from our mossback woodpile, the cost of abandoning her children was too high.
She couldn’t bring herself to do it, even to save her life, then lashed herself internally for being such a coward.
So she huddled as she always had before — for now against the back wall of the attic, paralyzed and barefoot for fear of an errantly squawking board that would declare with shrill certainty her precise position over his well-oiled head of stiff hair.
For days, she drew only shallow breaths and moved hardly at all, convinced that somehow her presence in the home afforded the kids some scant protection, though the further she probed the more ridiculous such reasoning became.
Luck in the end proved fickle. Perusing People, staring again at the same celebrity faces awash with limelight and the stain of accumulated vices, she tried to shift her weight back onto her ass. She’d perfected a routine of two hours on, two hours off to keep blood flowing and stave off the creeping numbness. This time, she’d apparently misjudged and a cramp took hold of her right leg, seizing and malforming her quadricep until she involuntarily rolled onto her side and stretched her quivering leg out to unburden the muscle.
The movement startled a loose plank beneath her. It screamed in surprise and fear, a high-pitched and unmistakable declaration that someone had moved. Right here! Right here!
Her mouth fell open, wide enough to suck deep her first full breath in days. Two blinks later, she fell back when two .38-caliber slugs, one after the other, ripped through drywall and subfloor. They lanced the mote-laden air with wretchedly straight shafts of unwelcome sunlight in the darkness.
A third blink and another slug burst through the floor, spitting splinters into her face and hair while leaving a jagged rupture less than an inch from the fattest part of her heel.
She only realized she’d started moving when she heard the screen door slam. She leapt off the porch and into the yard. Somehow, she kept her footing while her feet slid like ice skates over slick grass. With no fence to hem in the yard, she was soon half a block down the street and deliriously pumping her arms and legs.
The screen door slammed again behind her. As she veered toward Mr. Brown’s hedges — she sought anything really that might block a bullet or at least contaminate the view so the shot would go wide — she counted two pops like the breaking of soda bottles. The miniature windmill that had long stood sentry upon Mr. Brown’s front gate fell over dead like a fascist on the beaches of Southern France.
At least it was quick, she thought, suddenly seized by an uncontrollable urge to laugh, cry and shit herself all at once. She cast a quick look back toward the house and saw Jerry Sr. staring her down, the pistol held loosely and pointed now toward the ground.
Black blood, a stream of it as thick as his thumb, ran from a wound in his forearm to his nicotine-stained fingers. Drip, drip, drip.
Had he somehow shot himself?
Scooting around Mr. Brown’s stucco home, she entered the backyard and dove straight toward a loose board she’d long ago identified in case such an escape proved necessary.
Within minutes, she was several blocks away and headed toward the one sanctuary she knew she could count on.
After Mom disappeared, Dad was quick to drag Jerry Jr. out of his room by the scruff of his neck. Thrusting a rusted .22 rifle into Jerry’s hands, Dad pointed toward Mr. Brown’s house.
“Last I saw of your mother, she was ducking for cover in the bushes yonder,” Dad told him. “If she pops her head up, even for a split second, you’re going to take a shot. You hear me? She’s made her choice, and by God she’s going to die by it.”
The versions I’ve heard of this story don’t describe Jerry’s reaction to his firing orders, but it’s almost certain Big Brother nodded at Dad, promised to do as he was told, then promptly unloaded the rifle and dropped the bullets under the porch where neighborhood skunks went to die.
Mom of course never popped her head up, and Dad was distracted anyway. He had clumsily used his tanned forearm to steady his pistol for a parting shot. In his haste and excitement, however, he failed to notice that the barrel had creeped an inch and now pointed straight into the fat of his forearm.. When he exhaled and squeezed off the shot, just like his father had taught him, the hot slug furrowed deep into the top of his forearm then bounced free to careen harmlessly into the street.
Aboard the one surviving kitchen chair amid a sea of shards and other domestic debris, Dad held a roll of medical tape in his mouth and did his best to stop the bleeding.
An hour before dark, the cavalry arrived. Someone broke the bugle.
It took the odd shape of a recent model Buick Skylark running on three white-walls and a black-eyed spare.
One minute, the curb outside the house was vacant but for a few gum wrappers and an unlit pyre of rank cigarette butts. Amid the shimmering heat that rose from the blacktop, the dark blue sedan then took shape. In the driver’s seat, Grandpa Boyd sat perfectly still under the half dome of his chalk white hard hat, suspenders loose over his shoulders while his starched shirt, sweat-stained and rising to expose a thatch of graying hair on his belly, was unbuttoned from the top down.
He thrummed his fingers on the steering wheel, thoughtfully.
In the backseat, sobbing as she’d been since first arriving on their porch half way across town where city blocks evaporated into almond orchards and the steaming, shit-smelly dairy farms crowding both sides of Crow’s Landing Road, Eleanor took herself to task.
Collecting Boyd was bad. Real bad. Jerry had a thing with his Dad, part of his crazy ways and means, and any perceived hint that Boyd was the bigger or tougher man could wind you up in traction at the hospital.
Running to Kathy and Boyd for protection was about the worst way to violate that unspoken rule. The again, what choice had she?
Jerry Jr., Cindy. Greg. In the house where Jerry Sr. waved his guns around, shot through floors and wall, flexed his fists and clobbered anyone who moved or made a sound. It was either talk to Kathy, then Boyd, or call the police, which would almost certainly end with Jerry Sr. dead and exposed as a psychopath turned bloodless corpse in the town paper.
“Boyd, I’m not sure we’ve thought this through enough,” Eleanor began, her voice wavering with emotion.
The old man rubbed the back of his neck where the skin had turned the shade of old cow leather, his callouses scraping the flesh there and leaving soft white streaks behind.
“Eleanor, I’ve let this get out of hand enough,” he said, his voice fat and low as a diesel engine working up a steep hill. “Jerr ain’t no good to himself or anybody the way things stand, and if he ain’t gonna listen to reason, then someone’s gotta roust him up good and firm and haul his ass to the nuthouse. Now maybe they’ve got something there as’ll help — I doubt it, but maybe. Either way, you’re here to get your children collected and stowed out of harm’s way. Not me. I’m here to break Harm’s Way’s fingers if he decides he don’t like the plan we made for him.”
Shushing her from further argument, Boyd climbed out of the car and gently set the car door in its place with a muted, careful click. Quiet as a mouse in the shithouse.
Jerry Jr. watched his grandfather climbed the porch steps, his face ashen and hands trembling. As soon as the old man reached him and set a hard palm on the boy’s shoulder, he collapsed into dreadful sobs and forcefully shoved the rifle at Boyd as if to unburden himself. Boyd whispered something and gave him a gentle nudge, which was all Jerry Jr. needed. Stumbling with relief, he sprinted across the sidewalk and slid into the car beside his mother. She held him then, soothing his sobs and hiding as best she could her own tears.
Before their grandfather laid a knuckle upside the front door, Cindy and Greg bolted out of the house, as well. Ignoring Grandpa, they wailed uncontrollably even as they too climbed into the car and into mother’s embrace.
Through the now shattered bay window, Eleanor glimpsed Jerry Sr. athwart the bent kitchen chair. He still held onto his pistol, loosely and at his side, though by now it was likely empty and as dangerous as a plastic spatula. The hair he took so much pride in slicking down was wild and bent in a thousand directions, each lock seeming to point back at him in approbation.
Jerry Sr. had wrapped a handful of paper towels around his wounded forearm and cinched them in place with the ancient role of medical tape. Black blood, dry and brittle like dust from the dead, clung to the short hairs on his arm. With every movement, however slight, bits fell off onto the carpet and were ground deep into the fabric there.
The front door was wide open. Polite as a gentleman caller making his romantic rounds, Boyd stepped in graciously, his long legs keeping him balanced over the shifting piles of wreckage that were spread across the living room floor.
Jerry Sr. sat still and stared at the ground as Boyd began a speech he’d been crafting for well over 25 years.
Shame at first kept Jerry hunkered down, but once Boyd’s discomfort diminished and his meaning became clear, Jerry Sr. latched his teary eyes onto his father’s face and kept them there for nearly an hour.
Eleanor saw only Boyd’s back, the fervent nodding of his balding head. Emotions of every sort stormed across the landscape of Jerry Sr.’s features, yet none held sway for long. For once, he heard sense. For once, he listened like a son should hear his father.
Imperceptibly, Boyd crept closer and closer to his son as his speech devolved into primitive truths and a revelation. Finally, his message all used up, Boyd looked down at his oldest son — broken, bleeding, desperate and afraid — and with both arms he bent hard over to sweep him up in a tight bear hug.
Jerry Sr. resisted at first, not sure what to do with his pistol, with the gamut of feelings that threatened to drown him now after so many years under lock and key. When the gun slid from his hand and clattered to the ground, however, Jerry stood up and into the hardest hug of his life.
Though he knew it to be futile, Boyd squeezed his son with every last ounce of his strength, hoping that somehow his grip and determination might shake loose whatever evil thing it was that had damned his son to such a life.
Eleanor looked up in shock when Boyd tossed the car keys in through passenger window.
“Ellie, I want you to take the kids over to the house and feed them whatever they want times two,” he said. “Once they’re in bed, I want you to take a long hot bath and forget for a bit that you ever met and married a Faulk. Understand?”
She nodded, confused at his meaning but clear on the directions.
“Jerry and I are going to take a walk, a good and long one, to wrestle up someone who knows a thing or two about what he’s dealing with,” Grandpa said. “He says he’s going to try and get right, do whatever it takes and then some, so as not to hurt you or anyone ever again.”
She nodded slowly, skeptical and sad. “You believe him?”
Boyd considered the question for several long seconds then shrugged. “At this moment, he means the hell out of it. Will he stick to it when the newsreel in his head reports out one or another indisputable claim that bugs have gone to roost in his asshole?”
Boyd clucked his tongue. “Dunno,” he said. “But he’ll always be my son. Come the bugs and their buggery, I sure as hell hope to God he means it then, too.”
James Faulk is a writer, husband, father and misanthrope living and craving a livable wage in Eureka. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by unceremoniously sacrificing a three-legged goat on the fifth Tuesday of any month ending in y. Works best if said goat resembles a relative of yours. Seriously. Try it.