“Dad!” The last time I played cards with Parker started out with Sandy yelling and banging on my front door. She never could wait, never had any patience. She didn’t understand that it wasn’t as easy to get up out of a comfortable chair as it used to be. When I opened the door, I caught a whiff of soap and lilac. Sandy was dressed-up in a nice brown business outfit with a skirt. She had little Parker by both shoulders, trapped between her and the door where he couldn’t run off and blow things up or skin his knee or be a little boy. He was sulking about something, ignoring the both of us and playing a video game.
His momma let him grow his hair long and wavy. He reminded me of a poodle, and I wanted to muss up his hair and scratch behind his ears, but I hated getting patted on the head when I was a kid, so I didn’t. “You look nice, Sandy,” I said instead.
“Thanks,” She nodded her head just the once, a little irritated that I wouldn’t call her Sandra, but I just couldn’t get used to it. Then she said, “I have a job interview. Could you watch Parker for just a couple of hours?”
“Where’s the interview?” She’d been out of work for a month after BT Concrete went under and took her office job with it. “It’s at Hannaford, in the deli or maybe the meat counter. Now, I know you don’t think…”
“No, no that’s good, Sand-Sandra.” I knew she was expecting me to tell her to forget about the damn supermarket and hire-on at the plant with me on the line or maybe work in the office with Franco and Marta. I’d said it plenty of times, but not today. Instead I said, “It’ll take the pressure off for awhile, let you find something bigger. Hey, maybe you’ll up and manage the place someday.”
She gave me a look then, that same look Eileen used to get. Mostly Sandy favors me, but that look was all Eileen.
I stepped back and let them in. Sandy took that as a yes and let out a breath she must have been holding. She pushed Parker, who still hadn’t said a word or looked up, through the door and walked over to the phone on the wall. “I tried to call,” she picked up the handset and flicked the ringer switch. “You should get a cell.”
“I was here. I just didn’t want to get called in on a weekend,” I lied.
“You could get caller ID.” She kissed Parker on the forehead, “I have to go. I’ll be back as soon as I can, and please leave the phone on, Dad, in case I need to call. Parker, you be good for your Geedad.”
“Can’t I come?” Parker finally spoke, and from his voice he had been sulking the whole time. “I don’t want to stay here!”
“I can’t take you with me,” Sandy headed for the door.
“I’ll stay in the car.” He was whining now. The boy had a talent for it. Parker could hit a note with that whine of his that was like a skill saw through your teeth.
“I hate you!” He shouted.
She didn’t even turn her head, “I love you too. Be good.” She shut the door just a little too hard behind her, but didn’t slam it.
It wasn’t exactly how I’d planned to spend my day, but I was glad for Sandy. “So how’s school?” My parenting skills were a little rusty, but it seemed like changing the subject had always worked pretty well with Sandy until she caught on.
“Fine.” Parker pulled out his game and sat down in my chair, the oversize, overstuffed, flowery chair that Eileen had made me haul home from a garage sale fifteen years before. It had been five years since she passed, five years that same month.
I wanted to paddle that boy. Wanted to shout at him for shouting at my Sandy. But when he was like this, it wasn’t Parker I was seeing. It was his dad. That was the guy I wouldn’t mind hitting some day if he ever showed up. Besides, paddling Parker would be like feeding sheet stock to a bender, he’d just take the drama, and turn it into five kinds of trouble. I watched him frown at his little hand game and tried to remind myself that he’d been such a sweet baby. He’d named Eileen and me, “Geemaw and Geedad” when he was two. She’d have known how to snap him out of that mood, or told me what to do. She wasn’t here, so I sat on him. It wasn’t what Eileen would have done maybe, but it focused his mind pretty well.
“Hey!” He yelled.
“Oh me. My old eyes are gettin’ bad. I thought this was my chair.” I was careful not to put my whole weight on him, but he was still pinned.
“Get up!” He was struggling now, trying to push me off.
“Dunno, it’s a little more comfortable this way. You make a good cushion.”
“I’m gonna tell Mom!” He was starting to get it now, trying not to laugh, trying to stay mad.
“You gonna tell her your Geedad sat on you? Not if I squish you flat.”
“I’m gonna bite your butt!” He crowed.
“Maybe I shoulda wiped it then.” At that, he finally started giggling. You can’t go wrong with toilet humor at ten. It felt like a whole different kid had come in the room.
“Now up.” I let him loose.
He crawled out of the seat, already looking a little disappointed that the attention was over.
“Here, you can sit on my lap, or squeeze in beside me.”
He squeezed in between me and the left arm of the chair. He was a gangly little thing, so he fit right in.
“Do you have Disney channel?” He reached back for the remote on the coffee table.
“Nope.” I hardly ever turned the TV on except for football or an occasional basketball game, so I just had the basic cable.
“Have any games?”
“I’ve got some cards.”
He looked confused, so I explained, “Playing cards.”
“Like for poker?” He looked more interested.
“What do you know about poker?”
“I have Texas Hold’em at home.”
“You do? Well I don’t know that one, I’ve played poker some. Want to teach me?”
“I only know how to do it on the computer.”
“OK.” We sat in silence for a minute, and he looked at his game but didn’t push any buttons. “Remember when I was little? You used to tell me stories.” He snuggled back in beside me a little, poking me in the side with a bony elbow twice before he got situated. “Remember that?”
“I told you a story when you were over for Christmas two months ago. I think I can remember that far.”
“But I’m ten now.”
“I know, I was at your party.” His dad hadn’t shown up, but he’d sent Parker a teddy bear. A teddy bear for a ten-year-old.
“And you skated.”
“I did, a little.”
“So you want a ten-year-old story?” I said, stalling to give myself time to come up with something, “hmm I guess a ten-year-old story is a different thing from a nine-year-old story.”
“You told me about rabbits and a snake.” He surprised me, remembering that. I hadn’t thought he was paying attention when I told it. I know I’d been pretty distracted, trying to keep him busy while his momma argued on the phone with his father who hadn’t bothered to send so much as a card for Christmas. “And you said how the rabbits caught the snake in a noose and made luggage so they could move to Ireland.”
“Where they have no snakes.” I nodded. I’d been proud of that one, although Sandy hadn’t been impressed with stories about rabbits skinning snakes. I noticed the game on his little hand held was something called, “Desert Strike.” I figured it made sense that a boy’s mind would be on wars lately. “So let’s see. Once there was a guy named Skinny.”
“Did they call him Skinny because he was thin?”
“No, he was called Skinny because before the war he worked in his family’s leather shop, and he would work the leather and make things.”
“Sure and wallets and really nice jackets.”
“Before which war?”
“A big one.”
“Andy Turner’s dad got shot last month. He’s in the army.”
“Andy said he’s going to be OK.”
“Well that’s good at least. Anyway, Skinny was a soldier too, and he and his unit were captured by the enemy.”
“Who was the enemy?”
“It doesn’t matter, there’s always an enemy. So when they were captured the enemy put them in a prison camp in the mountains, near a big dark forest.”
“Weren’t they afraid the prisoners would get away in the forest.”
Smart kid. “No, they weren’t because all around the prison was a tall fence, and there were guards in towers with guns who could shoot you. Even if they missed, there was a wide minefield all the way to the trees, so no one had ever escaped from this camp.”
“Did Skinny escape?”
“Don’t get ahead of me. The guards in this camp were very very cruel and they made the prisoners work until they were about to drop, then they barely fed them.”
“What did the guards make them do?”
“They made them bend metal and stamp parts to make tanks and planes and things, and sometimes, when one of the prisoners got in trouble or even just when the guards were bored they would throw some bolts out in the minefield and make a prisoner go bring ’em back.”
“But what about the mines?”
“They let the prisoners rake the bolts back with a stick or use a magnet on a string most of the time, but when the guards were feeling really cruel they would throw the bolts further and make the prisoners go out into the minefield a little way and bring them back.”
“Did anybody get ‘sploded?”
“One time. The guard may have forgotten where a mine was, or he may have done it on purpose, but Stinky, one of Skinny’s friends, had to go way out in the minefield once, and a mine took off his leg and messed up the fingers on his left hand.”
“Did he live?”
“He did, but he couldn’t work anymore, so the guards wouldn’t feed him and the other prisoners had to share food with him. One day when the guards told the prisoners they couldn’t share with Stinky anymore, Skinny got so mad he yelled at the biggest, meanest guard in the whole place. The guard took Skinny out to the minefield. When they got to the edge of the minefield the guard took a great big, heavy bolt and leaned way back,” I leaned off the side of the chair and put my arm back like I had a baseball, ”then he threw it as far as he could, out almost to the middle of the whole minefield.” I threw my arm forward in a dry pitch. It hurt my elbow and shoulder a little, but Parker was looking off the way the pitch would have gone, just like a puppy. ”Skinny looked at the guard but didn’t say anything, because he knew the guard wanted him dead. At first Skinny wouldn’t go, but the guard waved to one of the towers, and they shot at Skinny’s feet until he moved just inside the edge of the minefield.”
“What did he do then?”
“All he could do was go forward. If he went back, the tower guard would shoot him. He looked real close at the ground and took a couple of steps. He thought he could tell where some of the mines were buried by the way the grass grew over them, but he knew there were some that he couldn’t see, so there was no way to be sure where to step.”
“Could he jump?”
“It was too far, almost as far as from the end of the block to this house.”
“What did he do?”
“He thought about something he had read once, about how if you’re moving fast you’re lighter, and maybe if he was going fast enough he would be too light to set off the mines or be able to get past one before it exploded and not get hurt as bad. So he ran.”
“To the bolt?”
“He took off as fast as he could right toward that bolt. The guards were in a bunch back at the gate yelling and egging him on faster, but that one guard he just watched and looked hungry and mean.” I paused just to make Parker ask.
”He ran all the way to the bolt, and he bent down and picked it up, then, instead of coming back, he just kept running. The guards started shouting at him to stop, and the tower guards started shooting at him, but he ran faster and faster until he was barely touching the ground. Right as he got to the edge of the forest a bullet hit him in the shoulder and it nearly knocked him over, but he just jumped forward and there he was in the trees. He didn’t stop running though, he ran until he found a really tall tree, then he climbed up it and hid in the branches.”
“Did they come after him?”
“They turned on a big siren and guards and dogs came across secret paths they knew through the minefield. They all came into the forest and hunted him down. It was easy to trail him because of the drops of blood from his shoulder on the grass and leaves.”
“Did they find him?”
“The dogs led them right to his tree and they circled around it looking up and shouted for him to come down. Skinny didn’t answer, and they couldn’t see him where he was hiding high up in the branches, but he was getting tired. It was hard to hold on. He was losing blood. It was a long way down, so the leaves caught most of the blood, but every now and then a drop would hit the ground. That meanest guard saw the blood where it was dripping and went to that side of the tree. He pointed his gun up into the tree and fired off a couple of shots. That’s when Skinny dropped the bolt.
“He had a clear sight of the top of that guard’s head, and the bolt went faster and faster just like Skinny going across the field. When it hit the guard, it was going so fast that it cracked his skull like an egg.
“When the other guards saw that, they began to shoot up into the tree too, but since they were shooting straight up, some of the bullets came back down, and one went right through a guard’s neck. He died right there, and the other guards thought Skinny had a gun now, so they backed away from the tree and took cover, leaving the meanest guard groaning and calling for help on the ground.”
Parker was wide-eyed. The phone rang just then, so I took the chance to leave him in suspense, and got up and answered it. I had it halfway to my ear before I remembered that I wasn’t going to answer the phone today. “Hello?” Sure enough it was Franco. “Hey, Franco, how’s Rosa?” I stepped into the kitchen where Parker couldn’t hear.
“She’s good.” Franco’s voice was steady but a little tight. I already knew the answer just from him calling on a Saturday. Good news waits.
“Glad to hear it,” I said.
“How’s Sandy?” Franco sounded relieved that I was giving him some small talk. I figure he expected me to hate him, lump him in with the owners and management, but Franco had always been one of the crew to me and most of the rest of us on the line.
“Sandy’s fine, looks like she might have a job lined up.” I played it up. Franco was the kind of guy that they were likely to keep on, a good man to know, and maybe he’d have something for Sandy one of these days.
“Where at?” He sounded interested.
“Well, I don’t want to say until we know for sure. So speaking of jobs you hear anything?” I threw it in just like that, unexpected and then just listened, so he had to answer.
“Yeah.” He took a deep breath, and I could hear that little smoker’s wheeze of his over the phone. ”Yeah I’m sorry, they’re going to announce the closing on Monday.”
“Yeah?” I had expected a lay-off, not a closing. I figured I was prepared, but this was still a shock.
“I’m sorry. It’s just that…” One of the things I liked about Franco, right there. He stopped, didn’t let himself make excuses. I knew he wished he could have done something more, but he’d be out of a job now too.
“No, that’s OK. I’d rather hear it from you, it’s better than being surprised Monday. How long do we have?”
“I’m not sure, but I’ve heard maybe Friday.”
“Friday? So finally they move fast on something and it’s to shut the place down? Figures. You have anything lined up? Heard anything on what Marta’s gonna do?”
“No. Marta says she might have a job in a doctor’s office. I’m going to try my brother’s maybe in Detroit. He’s in insurance, has an office.”
“Yeah. Well, let me know if you find something. I’ll do the same. Look, I’ve got my grandson over, so I better let you go. You take care, Franco. I’ll see you Monday.”
“See you then.” Franco’s voice was low, a little scratchy.
“OK. Bye.” I got through without my voice cracking, but it was a close one.
“So what happened to Skinny?” Parker asked as I sat back down.
“What? Oh, well Skinny, come nightfall, he came down that tree, and they shot him. He died right there on top of the meanest guard.” Sandy would be home soon, maybe with a new job. When she found out the plant was closing, she’d probably offer to move in and take care of me.
“But what happened to the guard?” Parker frowned, wanting me to give him some revenge maybe or justice.
“He lived, but he could never walk or talk or move his arms again.” I could put Sandy off for awhile, look for a job, but there would be two hundred good men on the hunt come Tuesday, most of them twenty years younger than me. The house was paid for. I could hang on to it if I kept the taxes paid.
Parker thought a minute and said, “The other guards didn’t make any of the prisoners go in the minefield ever again.”
“Probably not, no.” I could sell the house, but I’d meant to leave it to Sandy someday.
“And they all got away later.” Parker nodded like he was trying to show me how.
“Sure, when the war was over. They all got out.” The house would be crowded with the three of us and all my stuff. It would be just about the right size for Parker and Sandy to themselves, just about right if she had my room, and Parker could have her old room. I could tell them I had a job in Chicago or Pittsburgh, Hell even Canada maybe, move all my things into the shed or sell off most of them, save her some trouble later.
“I think I liked the rabbit story better.” There was that look on his face, Eileen’s look. She’d give me that same look when I showed up some day.
He said, “We could play cards if you want to.” Maybe he was old enough for poker.
“Let’s see if we can’t figure out how that Texas Hold’em works.”
Bill Glover has previously published stories in RevolutionSF, Thaumatrope, Boston Literary Magazine and Fantastic Horror.