by K.D. Rush
Mark is a good kid. Our argument yesterday doesn’t change this fact. I remember the arguments that my father and I had over the years. Many were simply due to miscommunication which eventually led to some sort of compromise. Although the one thing my father never compromised on was love. Sadly, Mark knew his grandfather only briefly. Dad passed almost eight years ago, not long after Mark turned five.
As I stand in the doorway and watch my son sleep, I can’t help but wonder what my dad would do in this situation. I close my eyes and I can almost see him standing over me with a stern look and a lecture on his lips. Regardless, I would give almost anything to hear him lecture me just one more time.
This approach doesn’t seem to work with Mark though. He will tune me out as only a budding teenager can. Eyes will roll and arms cross. When a sigh of impatience slips through gritted teeth I know it’s all but over. You may as well have a conversation with a brick wall. His typical response to a lecture is silence. That’s why I tried a different tact with him last night. However, our discussion turned into an argument which led to another lecture. Eyes, arms, sigh, silence. Back to square one. We both went to bed. At least one of us was able to sleep.
I close the door and make my way downstairs while trying to avoid several creaky steps. Pictures hang in the hallway and I can just make out a few of them in the dim light. One in particular catches my eye, and I take it down from the hook, dusting it off as I make my way into the kitchen.
It might be too early for cereal, but it’s a perfect time for coffee. I prop the picture up on the counter and start a fresh pot. The black and white image of my grandfather smiles at me. I smile back. He’s standing beside a fire truck that he spent the afternoon washing. His sleeves are rolled up and he’s holding a baby in his arms. This is the only picture I have with my grandfather and I together. He was killed in an accident less than a year after it was taken.
Death was not something that my family discussed when I was a child. In truth, they went out of their way to avoid the topic. I was just a little older than Mark before finding out how Grandpa died.
I pour a fresh cup, grab my grandfathers picture, and walk out to the sun porch. This is one of my favorite areas of the house. There’s a small desk with my laptop in the corner. A litter box sits beside the desk. It’s my wife’s way of telling me that she would rather not have a cat. It doesn’t matter where I move it, the smelly box always finds its way back home.
The beauty of the room comes from the panoramic view. It overlooks the back yard and a small pond. There are trees as far as the eye can see. Only one neighbor shares this amazing view. Her small house stands on the other side of the pond, though it’s hard to make out in the dark. She is an independent woman, my mother. After my father died she insisted that we trade houses with her. There were a lot of reasons given why this made sense, but I suspect the underlying justification was she simply didn’t want to live in this house without my father. In the end, I relented and gave her our small home in exchange for the one that I grew up in.
It will be light out in a few hours. I can see the moonlight reflecting off the pond. This gives it a nocturnal beauty that can only be described as a fairytale setting. When we were younger, my brother Ricky and I would camp out there and fish all night. If all the house lights were off it became a magical place. We were only thirty yards from the safety of our warm beds, yet we felt like great adventurers.
Ricky is still living the adventure. He joined the Navy after high school, which really didn’t surprise my parents. The walls of his room were always covered with posters of ships, boats or ocean views. Whenever he came home on leave you could tell that he couldn’t wait to get back out on the water. He stays in touch on Facebook these days, and his page is filled with pictures of some amazing places. Still, I worry about him. That’s what big brothers do.
It’s funny how your own children will develop personality traits of other family members. For instance, my father once told me that I get my stubbornness from my grandfather. This may be true, but my mother has it in spades as well. Mark also has a stubborn streak, and it was on full display yesterday. He also shares the same quiet and shy nature my brother Ricky had while growing up. It’s endearing in a way and makes you want to hug and protect. It also makes it difficult to discipline without hurting feelings, or feeling guilty about being the bad guy.
I slide between the couch and coffee table. Sassy is curled up on one of the throw pillows at the other end. That’s where she stays when I sit down. She’s mad at me for the moment. It’s just another reminder of why I love dogs more than cats. If a dog gets mad at you it never lasts. Just pull a tennis ball out and they forget all about it. Cats do not seem to be afflicted with this type of attention deficit disorder, and they will hold a grudge for days.
Taking a sip of the coffee, I put Grandpas picture down on the table and prop my feet up. Sassy gives me an icy stare that reminds me of Mark from earlier last night. It’s probably no coincidence that our furry bundle of joy is sitting in the same spot he was. Technically it’s his cat after all. The rest of our family are just here to provide distractions and entertainment. Although, last night was anything but entertaining.
Now, nearly twelve hours later, it finally occurs to me why I’ve had Ricky and my father running around in my head all night. The argument with Mark is the same one that I had with my father nearly thirty years ago. In that instance Ricky was the guilty culprit. To keep him out of trouble, which he was rarely in, I stepped up and took the blame for it. The consequence of doing so led to the worst Christmas of my life. Thinking about it now brings back a fresh flood of memories.
* * *
Saving Private Ricky
April 11, 1976
Spring was in full bloom that Sunday morning. Rain from the previous night had washed pollen off the car, leaving yellow puddles in the mud beside our driveway. We were one of the fortunate families in the neighborhood that actually had a driveway. Most of the folks parked their cars on the side of the road, or in their yard. There wasn’t much room in our yard to park a car, even if Dad wanted to. Mom had flower beds in the front, and Grandma had her garden in the back.
I saw Dad pick one of the red roses off the bush next to the house. He hid it behind his back just as Mom, Grandma, and Ricky walked out of the small two bedroom house that we all shared. Dad gave Mom a quick kiss on the cheek when she walked by, then gave the rose to Grandma. I guess he knew better than to give it to Mom. She probably would have yelled at him like she does at Ricky and I for picking her flowers. Instead, I caught her smile when she looked back and saw Dad escorting Grandma down the driveway. I thought it was funny too. Grandma didn’t need a cane, let alone someone to help her walk to the car.
Easter was still a week away, but Mom wanted to get us to church early so that Ricky and I would have time to rehearse. I’ve been in one play or another for the past twelve years at our church. Well, thirteen years if you count the Christmas play a few weeks before I was born. My mother loved playing the part of Mary on her way to Nazareth. She considers it the highlight of her acting career, and she never fails to remind us about it whenever Ricky and I are in a play.
You would think that with all this experience on the stage that I would be a natural at it, but I’m not. I forget my lines most of the time, and if I make the mistake of looking out at the audience then I’ll either start giggling or just stand there like a deer in headlights until someone from off stage throws me a line. If it were up to me then I would be as far away from the spotlight as possible. But it’s not up to me, so I’ll study the script and try not to embarrass myself. This year I have an extra incentive. Laura McAllister.
She’s the only girl my age I’ve ever met with red hair like mine. My mom said her own hair was red when she was young, but I don’t really count her as a girl. It’s kind of hard to think of Laura as a girl too. She’s not like any of the other girls in church or school. She’s smart. She’s also a bit scary. I don’t mean she’s ugly looking or anything. Laura is actually sort of cute. It’s just that the first time we met I thought she was going to punch me in the face.
When Mrs. Harding introduced her to our Sunday school class a couple of weeks ago I could tell she was nervous. Laura that is, not Mrs. Harding. I don’t think Mrs. Harding has ever stopped talking long enough to be nervous about anything. Laura stood in front of our class, looking like she would rather be anywhere else, while Mrs. Harding spent the next five minutes telling us all about our new classmate in the purple dress.
It might have been the dress. Purple is my favorite color. Or it could have been her red hair. Like I said, she does stand out from the crowd. Whatever it was, she must have caught the dopey look on my face. Her eyes narrowed while her lips pressed together in a tight line, jaw clenched. My mother gets that same look whenever someone at the checkout counter tells her that a coupon has expired.
There were three empty seats in the classroom, one of which sat directly in front of mine. You can probably guess where Mrs. Harding directed her to sit.
Ricky tapped me on the shoulder and I turned around. He leaned in and whispered, “I don’t think she likes you.”
I nodded. “Yeah, I got that.”
When I turned back around she was in her newly assigned seat, facing my direction. I found myself staring into the brightest blue eyes I’ve ever seen. The little freckles on her face just pulled you in.
“What,” she demanded, “are you looking at?”
“I, um…like your dress. It’s really pretty,” I stammered.
Her eyes got that squinty look again, and she made a fist. “Say something else about my dress and I’ll give you a black eye.”
What could I say? It’s not like I was going to hit a girl. So I did the only thing that seemed reasonable. I put up both hands in surrender and said, “Sorry.”
She turned back around after a minute, and Ricky tapped me on the shoulder again. Not daring to take my eyes off the back of her head, I leaned back and heard him whisper, “Told you so.”
Mrs. Harding spent the rest of the class talking about the Easter play she had written for us to perform. It wasn’t the usual type of play that our church was known for, but evidently she had talked Pastor Tom into it.
When Mrs. Harding’s brother-in-law returned from Vietnam he came home to protestors, and people actually spit on him in the airport. This didn’t happen in our town of course, but some place in California where most of the weirdo’s live. At least that’s the way she described it. Having never been there myself, I had to take her word for it.
The play she had written centered around a group of soldiers coming home from the war, and how each of them were treated differently. One of them had trouble getting a job because of mental problems. Another had a hard time adjusting with all the protests going on. The last soldier came home to the support of his wife and church. It was all a little confusing, and I have to admit that none of us quite ‘got it’, but that didn’t exempt us from having to participate.
Marcus, my best friend, was picked for the part of the crazy soldier. He had the least amount of lines to memorize, but had to say them three different times. At each job interview his last line was, “I never imagined killing someone. Now it’s all I can think about.”
He had it pretty easy.
Ricky was chosen to play the soldier that the protestors picked on. I didn’t really like the idea of people picking on Ricky, even if it was a stupid play. Before I had a chance to tell Mrs. Harding this, she wrote my name on the board beside the character of Caleb Evans, the last soldier in the group.
My mind instantly went from worrying about Ricky to worrying about how many lines I would have to memorize.
I flipped through the pages of the script again and started counting. On the second page, in the direction notes, a line caught my eye; ‘Caleb hugs and kisses his wife, glad to be home.’
After reading that a few times it started to sink in. Mrs. Harding expected me to kiss a girl on stage, in front of the whole church. I looked up slowly, peering around a head of curly red hair, and waited for Mrs. Harding to move to the next column on the board.
And there it was. The part of Mary Evans would be played by none other than the newest addition to our Sunday School class, Laura McAllister.
I’m not sure if I said the word “crap” out loud or not. Probably. That’s when Laura turned in her seat and hit me with those blazing blue eyes again. The squint, freckles across the nose, face framed in curly red hair, I could only stare.
She whispered, “If you make me look bad in this, then you’ll be sorry.”
So, this year I had an extra incentive not to screw up.
At the rehearsal last week we ran out of time before getting to my part. When I wasn’t watching Marcus and Ricky stumble through their lines, I kept my face buried in the script. The one time I did look over at Laura she was going over her lines and you could see her mouth moving while she read. Of course she stopped in mid-sentence and looked up, directly at me. For some reason I felt like I had just been caught with my hand in the cookie jar. I immediately dropped my head and went back to memorizing my lines.
This week it was our turn to rehearse.
Dad pulled into the parking lot at the church and I saw we weren’t the only ones there early. Mrs. Harding was unloading her station wagon which looked to be full of props. Mom suggested Ricky and I help her with the boxes.
The elevators haven’t worked in years, which meant that we had to carry all the boxes and props up a bunch of stairs. It took four or five trips, but we managed to get everything moved into our room on the second floor of the church. Marcus showed up just in time to help us with the last load, while Mrs. Harding disappeared to have a chat with Pastor Tom.
The three of us stood around the boxes, and I can’t remember whether it was Ricky or Marcus that suggested we open them, but I know it wasn’t me. I was too tired from lugging them up two flights of stairs to care about what was in them.
I was on my way out the door and headed down the hall to see if the water fountain was working when I heard Marcus shout, “Oh shit!”
My first thought was, ‘We’re all going to Hell.’ Marcus would be in the lead because he cursed in church, with Ricky and I directly behind him, guilty by association. As hard as I tried, there wasn’t a single prayer I could think of that would save us from any impending lightning bolts.
When I walked back in the room to confront Marcus it became painfully clear how he could have committed that sin. Honestly, I’m somewhat surprised I didn’t say the same thing myself. Ricky had pulled a gun from one of the boxes. It was solid black and looked huge in his small hands.
What happened next could only have been punishment from God for cursing in his House. Of all the different ways this could have gone down, I doubt any of us could have predicted the outcome or the chain of events that would follow.
“Drop it!” I shouted.
In hindsight, I probably should have stayed calm and told him to put the gun down gently. I was anything but calm though, and Ricky did just what I told him to do. He dropped it like it had grown teeth and was about to bite him. The window beside Mrs. Harding’s desk exploded the instant the gun hit the floor. The three of us jumped at the sound, and Ricky put his hands over his ears. I could see the tears starting to flow.
It took me a moment to realize that the exploding window and the gun were linked, cause and effect. The window breaking had been much louder than the gun hitting the floor, and it was hard to imagine it had even fired a shot. The evidence was hard to deny though.
I could tell Ricky was about to lose it. Marcus wasn’t helping when he asked him, “What are you, stupid or something?” I shot him a warning look. Now was not the time.
“Hey, it’s okay,” I said, putting a hand on his trembling shoulder. Ricky looked up at me and I could see that the tears were in full motion now. “Nobody got hurt, we’re okay. It was an accident.”
“I…I’m…sorry…” was all he could manage between breaths.
“Ricky, it was an accident. Not your fault.” I hated seeing him like this. From experience I knew that if I didn’t say or do something quick it would turn into what our dad called a baby conniption fit. Dad hated those. He was raised in foster homes where tears were frowned upon. Crying was only acceptable if you were a girl, or bleeding.
“Boys! What’s going on?” Dad. It sounded like he was taking the stairs two at a time.
My mind raced to find a solution. I looked at the gun on the floor, then at Ricky and Marcus. My eyes settled on the stack of boxes. In particular, the one opened on top. Even as I started moving, something in the back of my mind screamed this was not a good idea. I did it anyway.
Something inside the box broke when I knocked it to the floor. It wasn’t nearly as loud as the window, but it sounded like glass breaking. Great.
“No crying,” I said to Ricky, trying to wipe the tears off his face as quickly as I could. “And keep your mouth shut.” I looked over at Marcus to make sure he understood. He nodded. Dad burst into the room a few seconds later.
Instinctively I stepped in front of Ricky. It’s not like we were never spanked for acting up. Dad could, and would give you a swat on the backside if you deserved it. It was rare, but almost always justified. I didn’t think this was one of those occasions though. My only goal was to keep Ricky from crying so it wouldn’t disappoint my father. If Ricky had been bleeding then I probably wouldn’t have bothered.
“What happened?” Dad looked at us, the box spilled out on the floor, and then at the broken window. “Well?”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “The box…it fell.”
“What happened to the window then?”
“We…um…I mean, I think there was a gun in the box.”
The expression on his face changed immediately. You could see puzzlement and concern, and something else that I couldn’t quite identify. He walked towards us and stopped at the box, carefully setting it upright. The gun lay on the floor in a puddle, surrounded by a couple of old Army hats and broken glass. There was a foul smell coming from the liquid on the floor. The green jacket, half in and half out of the box, had a stain on the side pocket. On the side of the sleeve was a stripe. Having watched Gomer Pyle, I figured it must have belonged to a Private.
“You dropped this box?”
“Yes sir,” I said, honestly.
“And the gun just went off by itself?”
He looked at me for a few moments, then turned to Marcus. “Did you or Jake touch this gun?”
“No sir! It went off when it hit the floor, just like Jake says. We never touched it!”
Dad looked down at the gun and shook his head. “Marcus, go find Pastor Tom, I think he’s in his office downstairs. Ricky, run to the restroom and bring back all the paper towels you can find.”
“Yes sir,” they said in unison.
Ricky looked like he had recovered, but I started to leave with him to make sure.
“Not you,” my father said. “You can stay and help me clean this mess up.”
Ricky was at the door when he glanced back and gave me a worried look. Dad didn’t see it as his back was turned, so I nodded to him that everything was fine, just get the towels.
As soon as Marcus and Ricky were out of earshot, Dad said, “You’re not telling me the truth and I want to know why. Are you protecting Marcus?”
The little voice in the back of my mind was screaming again. This is why I don’t lie to my father. He can tell. Technically though, everything that Marcus and I told him was the truth, or at least a version of it. The box did fall on the floor, and the gun did go off by itself. It just didn’t quite happen in that order.
Still ignoring the voice in my head, I decided to press on with my version of the truth. After all, it was the truth.
“Dad, I swear the gun went off by itself. Marcus never touched it, and I had no idea there was a gun in the box when we brought it upstairs.” I could barely look him in the eye when I said it.
He cocked an eyebrow like Mr. Spock does when someone says something illogical. I half expected him to say ‘fascinating’, but he didn’t. Instead he said something that chilled me to the bone.
“You just swore in church that you’re telling me the truth. That means if you’re lying, then you’re not only lying to me, you’re lying to God. For your sake I hope it is the truth. Now, go grab a trashcan.”
I felt a dark descending upon me, a weight that I didn’t know if I could bear. I may have saved Ricky, but at what cost? My soul? I kept telling myself, especially the voice in my head, that I had told the truth. It didn’t feel like it though.
Had I known this incident would be at the root of every argument my father and I would have over the next eight months, then I might have considered telling him the whole story right then and there. Instead, I went and found a trashcan.
* * *