Six o'clock and Caleb pulls up, out of breath from his eight block trip. He does a wheely, lays a thin, black skid mark on the sidewalk in front of my steps. He's puffing, decked out in army fatigues, green paint slashing his cheeks. "I've got witnesses," he yells. "This old guy grabbed me by the throat. Tommy was there and Enzio. Dad's waiting for you, Uncle Henry. He's going to kick some ass. I've got witnesses." Then he's up on his bike maneuvering his fat, camouflaged shape down the street, dodging imaginary assailants. It seems The McEachern Clan has been done wrong again, and I'm about to be impressed into duty.
The Angry Man
When I arrive at John's, he and Claudia are going at it on the front porch, real contrasts in shape. John's as wide as he's tall, proof you can live into your mid-forties if you drink, smoke dope, pound nails all day, and cultivate the personal life of a mercenary soldier. And yet Claudia, all five feet of her, has him against the railing, yelling, "Fix the toilet, fix the stove." She walks over to the screen door, and with all the strength she can muster, kicks her foot through it, "Fix the goddamn door, why don't you." She looks sexy, all pumped up, her nipples hard under her Led Zeppelin T-shirt, the white quarter moons of her can quivering below the fringe of her denim shorts. "Henry," she yells at me, "I gotta live in this neighborhood. Make him do something useful with his time."
John locks those disturbed McEachern eyes on me, points a crooked finger in my direction. "Stay out of it," he barks. Then he confronts Claudia, jamming the same finger into her nose, "And you, Little Miss Whore of the World, get inside." I, myself, would've run like hell, but Claudia insists on the last word. "Bust you," she yells on her way inside, a phrase I never heard before but one that obviously holds a special meaning for them. "Bust you, too," John yells back. "Nobody grabs my kid by the throat."
John looks as if he's just come home from roofing. His hands, arms, and T-shirt are dirty and spotted with tar; his jeans probably haven't been washed in a week. Claudia isn't your basic washing-and-ironing housewife, which led John one day to say he'd be better off with an inflatable doll, though I can't imagine a doll with the sexual gamesmanship Claudia must possess. Looking at him, I'm sad to see how he's let himself go. He's still strong, but he has a beer gut and one of those scraggly beards you see on Maine loggers, the kind of lumpy guys who prowl the country roads at night, hoping some pretty girl breaks down.
He's staring at me, disgusted about something. He waves his arms, looking for support from the neighbors, all who are probably inside hoping he'll quiet down or drive away. "Check this out, everyone. My brother comes to fight dressed like a goddamn undertaker. What're you going to do," he says, spreading his arms as if to perform magic, "strangle someone with your tie? I wish Pop could see this."
I want to tell him that I don't roof houses for a living, that I just got home from teaching summer school, that I was enjoying a cold beer when Rambo Jr. appeared at my door. Instead, I take off my tie and ask what happened.
"You don't have to fight," he says, "just support me for once, for Christ's sake." At first he wants to take his motorcycle, and I can picture him beginning his attack by laying a twenty foot skid mark on some poor guy's front lawn, but he decides instead on the red pickup. "Nobody grabs my kid by the throat," he yells. "Nobody."
We speed past houses to the end of the block, make a quick right, and pull up on the front lawn of a brown two-family. John's half out of the truck before it stops, skipping up two stairs at a time to reach an old man sitting on the porch. I'd seen John punch out bikers and humiliate a construction worker by calling him a "faggot" in front of his kids. One night at a bar I saw him drag a drunk who insulted Claudia over to a large whirling fan; he held the guy's face a few inches from the blades until he cried. And, most recently, when an impeccably groomed Yuppie kept beeping at me because I wasn't accelerating quickly enough at a traffic light, John got out of my car and dragged the offender through the open window of his black BMW. He didn't hit him. He just shook him, the way you'd rattle a Coke machine that robbed you of a quarter for the 50th time. Then he dropped him onto the road, laughing at the circular stain dampening the crotch of the guy's summer suit. John could do that to you, make you aware of the unpredictability of your bladder and sphincter muscles.
But these guys were around John's age, most of them tough guys themselves, looking for someone to antagonize. In contrast, the man on the porch had to be at least sixty. He's sitting calmly in a rocker, drinking a can of Budweiser. He's smiling. No neighbors are out, except for a man watering his bushes across the street, and another man, maybe thirty-five, who's walking behind a little boy on a tricycle. But Caleb's there and two other boys, all in camouflage and war paint. One holds a plastic machine gun at his hip, readying himself to shoot down a few pigeons; the other's a nervous little creature fingering his imitation bowie knife.
I jump out of the truck and want to stop John; it doesn't seem right. But he's going after this guy, and it's killing him because he knows he can't hit an old man, or gouge his eyes out. So he starts working him over with his mouth. He begins with, "No one grabs my kid by the throat," and goes on from there. He's going to do something to the guy's balls, his knees, his kids' balls, and by God, he'll burn this guy's house down. John's face is about two inches from the old man's, but the old man doesn't flinch, and you'd think John was asking him for directions to Cumberland Farms. This surprises John and he keeps talking, prefacing everything he says with "Fucking-A" this and "Fucking-A" that, which makes the man walking his little boy pause. And this worries me. I move toward him wanting to say that John says "Fucking-A" with the regularity most people say, "You know." If John were into Transcendental Meditation, no doubt the Swamis would have given him "Fucking-A" as his mantra. But this guy's thinking, I know what he's thinking: don't talk like that in front of my kid; don't violate my neighborhood with that language. And I know if some guy were spouting this garbage on John's street, John would be the first one to take a utility knife to his tongue.
But how do I explain John to him? I see this man can take care of himself if pushed too far, tap some reserve, like those women who pick up the front ends of cars their kids are trapped under. He's checking out John and me; he's wearing jeans and a blue T-shirt. His chest makes slight heaves, his body priming itself for trouble, his heart filling, a thousand pinpricks awakening his scalp. Every guy who has been brave or scared shitless has experienced this rush. John seeks it on a daily basis.
But this man is also hesitating, as if he wants to talk sense to John, appeal to some innate goodness we're supposed to have. He doesn't realize that, to John, he's nothing more than some "Fucking-A" something or other blocking a pattern of revenge as old as the McEachern clan. I want to tell him, "If you want a piece of him, sneak up while he's yelling at the old man, and hit him from behind. Then if he tries to get up, keep smashing him." But he wouldn't listen. There's a look of intelligence in his face, which will be his downfall if John's anger turns his way. Guys have been fighting since Day One, and so few of them know what to do. In the movies, you see James Bond come back from the dead time after time by doing things like sucking the air out of tires while hiding underwater. If John were the villain in a Bond movie, he'd handle things differently. He'd put a few exploding bullets in his Magnum, walk over to James, and blow his head off.
For a moment everything seems to freeze, and John paces back and forth across the porch, savagely stroking his beard. He realizes he might as well be screaming at a cigar store Indian. He looks at Caleb. "This better be the real deal," and Caleb gestures to his fellow guerrillas for support. Then John lets out this unnatural groan, leaning over and spitting on the old guy's shoes. "I spit on you," he says. "I spit on your family." Then he repeats everything he said earlier, raising his voice with each "Fucking-A."
"Now see here," the man with the little child says.
Caleb's all over him. "Stay out of it. Fend to your own business."
I'm wondering, Should I be saying this? Where did Caleb, who has trouble with the concept of a homonym, come up with "fend to your own business"?
Two fortunate things happen to the man now. First, his child begins to cry, which distracts him; secondly, the front door of the house next door opens and a young woman appears. She's tiny, looks Italian or Portuguese, and seems very tired. But she's young, and undoubtedly would be a dazzler with a nap and a little eye shadow. She's holding a large fork with a hot dog impaled on it, as if in the middle of barbecuing she heard one too many "Fucking-A's." Behind her, protected by the screen door, is a large man. Her husband? Her boyfriend? I don't know. He doesn't come out of the house, but I hear him trying to persuade her back to the grill. She ignores him, watching John, who seems oblivious to her.
She's waving the fork over her head. "Hey," she's yelling. "Hey, Mr. Crazy Man."
John stops and looks at her.
"Leave," she yells.
"Leave. The boys ran through his backyard and messed up his garden, so he grabs the fat one by the shirt. Big deal. Go home. Take a pill."
A big hairy arm appears from behind the door and tries to pull the woman in, but she shakes it off. "Enough," she says wearily. "Enough."
Caleb's shaking his fist in the air. "Stay out of it. Fend to your..."
"Shut up, Caleb," John says, and walks down the steps, moving toward the lady with a look of perplexity.
The man leaves his crying child, placing himself between John and the woman, and the man with the hairy arm comes from behind the screen door and stands next to her. Neither one of them realizes that John could cripple them within seconds, so I intervene.
"What do you want?" he growls, as if I just showed up by accident.
He looks at me, appears offended, shocked. "You think I'd smack a woman," he says, then pushes me to the ground. When I look up, I'm at the feet of one of Caleb's accomplices who's trying to figure out if there's a way he can maim me and stay out of my class next year.
I'm up quickly, though, not trusting John, and I do something I didn't think myself capable of. I throw myself at him, try to push him down, and, with him, Pop, and the memory of every battle I've been witness to. I strain, smelling sweat and tar, but I can't lock my hands around his massive gut. I wait for men to rush from their houses and jump on this bully. But nothing happens. John laughs, then shoves me to the ground again. I look up to see the back of his dirty hand before it kisses the side of my mouth.
Something goes out of John after he hits me. I can see it. "You gotta understand, lady," he says.
She points to the truck. "Go, angry man. I've known too many like you. Enough."
John looks at her and then at the man next to her. "You have a good woman," he says, and the man nods, probably thinking he'll treat her right for the rest of the week, considering she saved his ass from John, who, to everyone's surprise, walks back to the truck and hops in. He leans over to close the passenger door, and when he does this, our eyes meet. I hope blood is streaming down my chin. I want him to feel guilty. But he just shakes his head and smiles, then closes the door, backing off the grass, and driving slowly away. Within moments, the guerrillas are on their bikes, following the blood-red truck like a pack of mosquitoes.
I stand and look at the old man, then all around me. Everyone's waiting for me to say something. "You should've gone into the house," I explain. "When a guy explodes like that, you have to walk away."
The old man smiles, takes a hit off his beer, then spits over the railing into the bushes. "I think he had the wrong guy," he says.
I look at the woman for support. "Both of you should be ashamed of yourselves," she says.
Then doors open, and men are on their porches talking to each other. "He's my brother," I say, not knowing whether I'm offering a defense or an apology. But no one responds, anyway, so I jog back to John's house and drive home.
Tonight is beautiful, a cool, dry, late August evening given sound to by the bony legs of crickets. It's 9:30 when I go into my study and open the family photo album for about the thirtieth time this year. I scan pictures of me and John, and me and Pop, and John and Pop, and all three of us. In one picture, we're leaning against a wire-mesh backstop. Pop is between me and John, his hairy arms drawing us into him. He and John are smiling at each other, while I'm standing up, arms limply at my side, head down, as if I'd just peed my pants and Pop and John are having a good laugh over it. In the picture, I'm eight, John is eleven. I'm wearing my baseball uniform, Rocky's Cleaners etched in white print across my chest. We had just lost the championship of the 8-10 year-old division. In the last inning, we were down by one run and the bases were loaded. I was up at the plate and Pop was coaching third. He called time out and we met halfway down the third base line. "Swing at the first three pitches," he said. "One of them will be a beauty." For the whole game, he'd been watching the opponent's pitcher and realized that two out of the first three pitches were always strikes. I went back to the plate and looked dumbly at the first three pitches. All were strikes and the game was over. Afterwards, I wanted to to tell Pop that I tried to move my arms but couldn't. I was scared, and didn't know if it was worse to take three strikes or swing three times and miss, which I would have done. Although he never questioned me, when I look at the picture now, his and John's smiles seem conspiratorial.
It's eleven p.m. I'm a little drunk when I get into my car and drive to John's neighborhood. I park two blocks from his house and walk the rest of the way, the hazy lights of televisions guiding me. When I get to his place, I crouch behind the back of his pickup and duckwalk forward. All the lights are off except for one in the bedroom. I know it's the bedroom light because it's red, and I know that sexual shenanigans are taking place because I can hear Led Zeppelin's first album. I shared an apartment with John when we were younger so I know his rituals, know he'll have a glass of whiskey poured, know he'll make Claudia put on makeup before he'll make love to her.
I move to the back of the truck and feel around coils of ropes and blunt ends of tools until I lay my hands on something weighty, a large wrench. I move to the front of the truck again and feel ashamed, cowardly. Screw you, I think. I stand up and bring the wrench down into the right front headlight. From behind, I hear, "Fucking-A." I know I should run now, but I go after the other light, taking it out with two blows. Then I drop the wrench and promise myself not to turn around. Be brave, you bastard, I say. Be a man. I walk to the end of the driveway, imagining John running to the front door, holding his Magnum, or maybe his hunting knife. I reach the mouth of the driveway and jog towards the end of the block, making a left turn and picking up speed, pushing off from a light pole with my right foot, then I'm off down another street running as fast as I can. I feel as if I've been sitting on a 3-0 fastball and just driven it into the upper lever of the bleacher seats.