MY DARLIN’ - CHRIS BENTON
This afternoon, I go outside to gather some eggs from the coop and find my grandson Billy pounding the tire swing with his fists. Billy is going to turn eight next week, and every time I ask him what he wants for his birthday, he frowns into his funny book or his dinner plate and says, “Nothin’.” His frown is frightening me of late. It no longer seems part of the face I know and love. His chin seizes, his lips implode into a trembling gash under the guards of his flaring nostrils. It’s not an expression of sadness or disappointment; in fact it isn’t an expression at all. This is a portrait of a boy preventing some small deadly critter from escaping his head.
I walk toward the old oak where the tire swing hangs and begin to hear the soft murderous grunts his punches hatch from his lungs.
“Billy? What’s wrong, darlin’?”
I’m sure he heard me, but does not answer. He keeps pounding on the spinning tire, his brow threatening to swallow his eyes. I take four more steps and see he has split open all of his knuckles, though this doesn’t seem to concern him in the slightest. I grab him under his armpits with my right arm and he socks me wildly on the chin, popping out my upper dentures. His jean jacket rips in an attempt to get away. I slap him until my hand is filled with fire ants.
Billy screams in frustration, not pain. This worries me further. I drag him kicking and screaming back to the house, the chickens shrieking sympathetically from their prison.
I lock him in my dead sister’s bedroom and travel to the kitchen to pour myself a shot of bourbon in my copper coffee mug. I haven’t heard from my daughter in two days and am pretty sure that her son’s face is stuffed neatly away in some dusty broom closet deep down in her pickled brain. She never picked up the hitchhiker of my discipline. No, what she picked up was an instinct for blackouts, black eyes, and stale strange beds. Just like her father.
Billy stops pounding on the door as the bourbon begins to warm my belly. I thank the Lord once more that there are no windows in my late sister’s bedroom. I pour a triple shot, drop my dentures in it, and began to think about a present that could possibly put a Band-Aid on Billy’s ever-deepening foul moods. I hear the screen door slam, and know that my failure for a daughter has finally come home.
She staggers into the kitchen and pauses unevenly as if on the lip of a cliff. She is dressed in ripped black denim. Her once-fiery red hair is now the color of wet blue straw. Her mascara has bled and dried on her cheeks. She looks like a drowned hobo clown. She scrutinizes the walls of the kitchen suspiciously until her gaze finally falls on my coffee mug, which blossoms a smile explaining her fate in boring detail.
“Hi, Mom.” There is some vestige of enthusiasm there, somewhere.
My daughter maintains her stupid smile and takes two equally stupid steps toward the kitchen table collapsing on a ladderback, which barely obeys. She takes my coffee mug with her pale palsied hands and drains it. She slams the mug back onto the table and pushes it toward me like an ancient accusation. I take my dentures out of it and carefully set them inside my mouth.
“I need some money.”
“You told me you made two hundred in tips the night before last.”
“That was the night before last. I spent it on Billy’s birthday presents.”
“What did you get Billy?”
My daughter responds by digging frantically into her purse for over a minute, finally ripping out a silver pack of cigarettes. She lights one and inhales aggressively. “You know, stuff. Toys. I mean, what the fuck do you care? He’s going to be so happy.”
Of course I know Teresa is lying, and I don’t care. My retirement from the public library is going on four years now, and I have enough to care for myself, and my darlin, but not for her. Her needs require more than my dwindling love.
“I’m sorry, honey, but I don’t have anything right now, sweetheart. I’ve spent the rest of my check on food and Billy’s presents.” It is a lie, as well, but I am beginning to enjoy it. I see the logic of the lost. If there was a way to choke your daughter to death with lies right there on the spot. Lord, if I only possessed such a secret.
“You gotta be fucking kidding me, Mom!” she replies, going into a pee-pee dance.
I get up to fetch the bottle of bourbon from the cupboard and Billy begins howling again from the bedroom pounding the doors like a bum in a drunk tank.
Teresa doesn’t seem to hear her son’s screams. In fact, her gaze is still fixed upon me, a gaze almost murderous as the one her father use to own.
“You bitch, I hate you!” It was a confession that yearns to be a whisper but fails miserably. She turns and stomps out the kitchen, punching a hole in the front door’s upper screen. Half a minute later, I hear the slam of a car door and an engine fire up vengefully before roaring in retreat as Billy continues to pound on my sister’s bedroom door with no more screams.
Billy’s father was a bad memory. According to Teresa he raped her after closing in The Last Lounge a couple of months before they were bought out. His name was Terrence Bayer, like the aspirin. I knew his father, he was fishing buddies with my husband and a true blue bastard. Thought he could get away with anything. Which he did. Teresa didn’t file any police report. She told the police it was a misunderstanding.
Two hours after his screams stop, I unlock my sister’s door as quiet as I can. Billy is lying on his side facing toward me. His pillow is strangled. I close the door as quiet as a ghost, pour myself another mug of bourbon and sit out on the front porch waiting for the dark.
It is Billy’s birthday and his mother has not returned since her last performance. Strangely enough, there has been an absence of complaints from his school pertaining to his growing misconduct. Perhaps prayers begin to work after a number of decades.
Billy’s eighth birthday is today and I see the vague unmistakable form of my darlin walking down Cabbage Inlet Lane from twenty yards. My eyesight has failed me kindly thus far and I am thankful. I see also another shape beside him. A shape that I don’t recognize and this makes me afraid.
“Nan, this is my friend, Tony Willis.”
Tony Willis is half a foot taller than Billy, with a face that will resist age for the rest of his life. I look at my grandson’s face and find eyes already bruised with memories he will never successfully bury.
“Nan, Tony wants to hang out for my birthday. Is that cool?”
Cool. There is a kind of riddle I hear echoing in his request but I’m still too filled with bourbon and dread to solve it.
“Of course, darlin’. The cake will be ready in twenty minutes.” There is no cake and there never will be. But there is some chocolate pudding.
“I’m going to show Tony the quicksand trail. We’ll be back soon.”
Billy looks so happy, so normal. So why do I feel this horrible fluttering in my stomach, like a bird I swallowed whole? I pour a double shot of bourbon and renounce the curse my mother bequeathed me. After five minutes, the curse is lifted and I’m filled with furtive symptoms of hope.
I’m trying to figure how to set candles in pudding but Billy is screaming and springing from the dark wall of oak that surrounds my sinking house.
He’s mewling hoarsely and his arms and face are freckled with blood.
I take him into my arms and the worst is already halfway visible in my head. “Billy, BILLY! What happened, darlin’? What happened?”
Billy heaves a couple of times and swallows half a sentence before he confesses his lie.
“Tony... we were running... he tripped... his head hit a rock...”
“Halfway down the quicksand trail.”
There are no more details and why should I expect any? I pull on my sandals and pour my darlin’ a glass of milk spiked with a shot of bourbon before I open my sad screen door and begin my way down the path of witnessed wood.
A 4X4 barbwire fence guards the lone quicksand hole that haunts our inlet forest. I find Tony Willis ten feet before it and a cedar branch is growing from his neck. His dead eyes are watching the squirrels fucking above my head.
There is no moral conflict, only a certainty soaking in a deep fatigue.
I slowly pull the branch from Tony Willis’s throat and toss it into the sinkhole. I gather him up into my failing arms and he feels surprisingly light, like a scarecrow. I kiss him on his forehead and see his gaze is crowded with a thousand questions.
I heave him over the fence into the quicksand, which gives birth to a gleefully painful pop in my back. For a few minutes, he just lays there on the surface of the sinkhole, one arm hiding his eyes, the other reaching for a warm, loving hand that will never arrive. He slowly begins to sink but it’s too slow. I find an old twisted magnolia limb and push him down until the pool begins to fart in gratitude.
I walk back to my house leaning on the magnolia limb. I find my darlin’ in the den watching General Hospital, stuffing potato chips into his mouth, his face still beaded with the blood of his false friend. He turns and smiles at me.
“Leave some room for the chocolate pudding.”
His smile widens. “Can I open my presents now?”
“After the pudding.”
I hobble back into the kitchen and open the fridge and take the platter of pudding out. I bend over in quiet agony and fetch the rat poisoning from under the sink.
BIO: Chris Benton is some nobody from Wilmington, North Carolina, who is finally taking the writing game seriously. He was available on Facebook, but decapitated the addiction and is now reachable at firstname.lastname@example.org.