Short Story #3

THREE SIDES TO A SQUARE
©  L.E. McCullough 1999

Rick Carter wheeled his Acura CL Coupe into the driveway, not the slightest bit surprised to see no sign of his older brother Doug, who had promised last week to finish laying down the patio in time for Rick’s wedding this Saturday. As Rick remained in the car listening to his cell phone voicemail, he cast a quick glance in the rearview mirror to check for wayward haircut snippings marring his shirt and suit collars. Beep. . . “Rick, honey, you will not believe what the caterers are trying to foist on us for tablecloths.”

While the message from his fiancée Jenny meandered on, Rick returned his attention to the mirror in hopes of spotting any stray nasal shrapnel that might have provoked those curious looks from his broker team at this morning’s client meeting. Beep. . . “Mr. Richard Carter, this is Ira Vazquez at Superior Used Cars. You’ve been named as co-signer on a loan application for a Mr. Douglas Carter. If you could give me a call—” Beep. . . “Rick, honey, me again, what do you think about having the organist add a Bach prelude to the—” Beep. . . “Rick, Ed Holtcamp from cross the way. Say, if that brother of yours left for Missouri today, would you be kind enough to return the wrenches he borrowed last month—”

Rick clipped the phone to his belt and flung open the car door. Always a screwup, always a problem, he fumed, stalking to the back porch. Always promising, never delivering. . . He paused at the first porch step, a foot-long gash midway up the maple tree in the corner of the yard catching his eye, and he was eight years old again, Doug twelve and showing him how to play astronaut on the rope swing with Mom’s curling iron as a Star Trek laser. I’d do anything you said, brother-o’-mine, anything. You and Dad were my two heroes, the Sheriff and his loyal Deputy Doug—

He turned as a motorcycle roared up the driveway. Doug, dressed in his standard uniform of ragged black t-shirt and mud-caked blue jeans, dismounted from a new Honda Shadow and let it fall with a clatter to the ground. He tossed his helmet into the forsythia bush, then shook his greasy, greying ponytail down his back.

“I’m confused,” Rick said, striving for a polite tone. “I thought you were getting four wheels instead of two.”

Doug looked past him, unsmiling but still within the margins of mid-afternoon sobriety. “Worked out different. You wanna talk or lay a patio?”

Once they got going, the job went smoothly and quickly, with Doug leading and Rick serving as helper. Down on our knees again, building forts and castles in the dirt, Rick smiled, caught up in the melodic whine and scrape of Doug’s trowel strokes. He works like a demon when somebody’s around. If he’s by himself, he finds a million ways to screw off — “Hey, Doug, what about that patch? Jenny wants this just perfect.”

“Mr. Four-Square Eager-to-Please.” The trowel song continued without skipping a beat.

Rick felt his cheeks flush. “Somebody’s got to be,” he declared to his brother’s back. “Or try to.”

The trowel stopped. Rick felt a tightening in his stomach. “At least try for chrissakes!”

Doug exhaled loudly and straightened his shoulders but did not reply. A bead of sweat dropped onto Rick’s nose. He wiped his forehead, shaded the sun from his eyes and blinked several times before demanding, “Doug, what the hell’s wrong with you?”

Doug leaned back on his heels and grunted. Rick clenched his fists, words spewing out of him. “You can’t hold a job, you’re drunk half the time, you’ve wasted your whole life running all over the country, what the hell is wrong with you, brother?”

Doug shook his head. His silence stoked Rick’s rising fury.

“Run away from responsibility, run away from your family!” Rick snarled. “Course, what do you expect from somebody who ran away from home at fourteen and left a sick mother? Goddammit, Doug, are you listening?”

“Boo.”

“What?”

“Remember that stray puppy we took in when you were ten? You called him Boo cause we found him on Halloween.”

Rick’s anger dissipated in a golden swell of autumn-harvest memory. “Sure, I remember old Boo. He’d wait for me after school. Little black-and-white face, funny brown splotch on his nose, big pink tongue hanging out—”

“But we couldn’t keep him.”

“We gave him to a poor family outside of town.”

“Dad gave him.”

“Dad said somebody else needed him more than we did.”

Doug snorted. “That’s what he said, all right.”

“Dad was always thinking of others.”

“Yeh. You could say that.”

Rick scrambled to his feet, temper flaring anew. “Dad was the town sheriff, Doug. He couldn’t please everybody all the time. You should cut him some slack.”

“Like he did Boo.”

“What’s the silly dog got to do with anything? Goddamit, Doug, stand up and talk to me!”

Doug slowly rose and backed up to lean against the retaining wall. He fished a cigarette from his jeans pocket, lit it and let the smoke stream out his nostrils, staring steadily at the shadows gathering on the porch awning behind Rick’s head. “About a month after Boo was given away, Dad took me to a cookout at a farm a few miles outside town. It was a Sunday.”

“Sure, after church. Mom said Dad went every week to help Old Man McClusky with his barbecue stand.”

“Wasn’t much of a farm. Just a couple shacks at the end of a dirt road, lots of rusted-out cars and trash all around, bedsprings, old toilets. Real hillbilly heaven.”

“You’re lucky Dad took you along. He never took me to a cookout.”

Doug dragged deeply on his cigarette. “Then there was the barn. Close to the barn, beside a pile of torn-up mattresses and bloody wash towels was a big metal wash tub. I smelled the tub before I saw it. I looked inside. It was full of cats. Well, parts of cats. After they’d been ripped to pieces by dogs.”

“What?”

“For training. McClusky’s barbecue stand was the front for a weekly dogfight. The mayor’s brother was there, so was Ed Shockley the candy store owner. Mr. Snyder the high school math teacher handled the bets. And there were a bunch of really scuzzed-out guys up from Kentucky who must have used Jack Daniels for shampoo and deodorant.”

Rick’s knees wobbled. A gambling gang! Dad would have infiltrated them and taken Doug to preserve his cover until making his move. . .

“Inside the barn it was dark except for a pair of flood lights shining down on the ring, which was a plywood corral about eight feet square and four feet high. The mayor’s brother announced the next fight, and  I  looked into the ring, and Reedy the TV repairman Dad used to rent the storehouse to was dragging a dog out of a cage to face a pit bull one of the Kentucky guys had brought. Reedy’s dog had a black-and-white face and funny brown splotch on his nose—”

Boo!

“I screamed at Reedy to let him go, but he just kept dragging Boo to the ring. I kept screaming, and everybody was yelling at me to get the hell outa  the way, and I yelled for Dad and saw him trying to push his way toward us, but Reedy kept dragging Boo to the ring. I kicked Reedy in the leg, and he cursed at me and shoved me down, and then Dad was there, standing over me. ‘Hold on!’ he shouted, and everybody shut up and stopped moving cause that’s what you did when Dad shouted at you.”

The law he shouted you stopped gamblers never knew what hit ’em—

“Dad looked at Reedy and poked a finger in his chest and said in a loud strong voice, ‘Don’t ever lay a hand on my son again!’, and Reedy shrank back, and Dad reached down his hand to me, and I took it. He hauled me up on my feet and walked me outside. I was shaking, but he had his big hands firm on my shoulders, and I wasn’t scared really, and everybody was still quiet except for all the dogs barking, and when we got outside I looked up at Dad, and he smiled.”

Boo saved Dad saved—

“And then he punched me in the gut so hard I fell on my ass and couldn’t breathe without crying for an hour. ‘Go sit in the car,’ he said. ‘You’re embarrassin’ me. I got a reputation to protect.’ He went back into the barn. I ran home, wandering through the fields and crying and thinking about the real bad purple bruise I’d seen a while back on Mom’s shoulder. You were asleep when I got back.”

Monday morning you stayed home from school a stomach ache—

“Next day I went to Mom’s cousin Martha in Bedford and stayed there till I got into that trade school in Ft. Wayne. Now you know why I didn’t come back for Dad’s funeral the summer after.”

Rick’s head swam, his eyes clouding with sweat as he croaked, “You’re telling me Dad—”

“Crossed some real badass mob guys from Indy. The wreck on 37 was made to look like an accident.” Doug spat out a piece of tobacco, crushed his cigarette against the wall and knelt down to resume his trowelwork. “Couldn’t please everybody all the time.”

Rick watched as his brother carefully beveled the last portion of cement. “Trouble is, bro,” said Doug, eyes riveted on the flashing trowel blade, “you spent your whole life thinking every square has four sides. Four neat and perfect sides allllll nice and even. Well, it don’t. Sometimes there’s only three sides to a square. And not a damn thing you can do about it.” He flicked the trowel at the grass. “Maybe you should get us a beer.”

Rick stepped unsteadily toward the back porch, along the still-wet walkway. Rrrriinngg — he seized the cell phone from his belt and held it arms-length in front of his face, squeezing with both hands as if it were trying to leap at him — Jenny with a question-comment-directive about the tablecloths. Rick listened without speaking, then bent down and jammed the phone into the cement. Next to it, with his index finger, he slowly traced the letters B-O-O, then enclosed them with a four-sided square, the phone still emitting her voice as he reverently applied a swirling dollop of cement over the earhole.

** THE END  **

From:
Three Sides to a Square & Other Studies in Circumstantial Fatherhood
– 9 Short Stories by L.E. McCullough –

http://www.lemccullough.com/LEMcCullough/Stories.html

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