Book: Suckerpunch

Previous: Chapter 6
Next: Chapter 8

OUR DAD’S RAGE FOLLOWED us after he left. It trailed behind our footsteps from room to room, invisible. Sometimes we could see it, like the holes Enrique made in his bedroom, or the sheets of paper I scribbled on violently with a pencil held in my fist. Now we were taking our rage straight back to its source.

Oliver pulled up to my house in his dead father’s car, a gunmetal blue Buick. It had a bumper sticker that announced the owner of the vehicle cared about the environment despite the dark plume of smoke the muffler coughed out whenever we accelerated after a stop. We dubbed the car “the Picklewagon.”

I didn’t know Ashley was coming along until she showed up that morning with her backpack and green hair rubber-banded into a ponytail. Enrique was holding Catface, scratching her throat. I pulled him to the side. Does she know what we’re doing? I whispered.

He shook his head no.

Good, I said.

Ashley snuck up on Enrique and pinched his ass. What’re you two whispering about? she wanted to know.

Personal stuff, I said.

Oliver slapped the roof of the car. Come on, he said. Let’s go.

We climbed into the car and headed down South Street and onto the 605. In the backseat, Enrique was tickling Ashley, who giggled and tried to tickle him back. He said he was tickle-proof and sat still to prove it. Ashley’s fingers went over his stomach as if she were playing a piano. Nothing.

See? Enrique said. I was born without a funny bone.

Ashley leaned close to Enrique’s ear and whispered a few words and he grinned. That’s true, my brother said. That’s so very true.

Enough already, you two, Oliver said from behind the wheel, his eyes on the rearview mirror. You’re going to make me blow chunks.

Ditto, I said.

I twisted the radio dial from the passenger seat, every station fizzed with static. I turned the knob forward and back, forward and back, determined to find a song, any song. I found a Marvin Gaye tune before a wave of static crashed over his voice.

Open the glove box, Oliver said. Maybe there’s some CDs.

I clicked open the glove compartment and rummaged through its contents. There was a road map and a pink takeout menu from a Chinese restaurant. There was the little white kite of a dead moth. There was an envelope from Kodak plump with photographs and I flipped through them casually as if they belonged to me. There were pictures of a narrow house wedged between two more narrow houses. A red front door and tiny foyer. A living room with a shag rug and a glass coffee table, a black leather couch. A bedroom with too many pillows piled against the headboard. A photo of a woman taken outdoors, surrounded by foliage. She was in her midforties, blond curls with the wind caught in them, big eyes and a big smile.

I held the picture up for Oliver. Who’s this? I asked.

Oliver glanced over at the photograph. I don’t know, he said.

Then another photograph of the same woman, this time sitting beside Mr. Thompson at a restaurant. I held this up to Oliver.

Oh, yeah, he said, pausing. That’s my aunt. I didn’t recognize her.

Ashley coughed. The car grew quiet.

Don’t be so damn nosy, Oliver said. I thought you were looking for CDs.

Yeah, man, Enrique chimed in from the backseat.

Ashley slapped Enrique on the arm.

What? he said.

Oliver kept his eyes on the road and said nothing. No one knew why his father killed himself, but I felt as though the answer, at least part of it, was in my hands, bracketed on a 3x5 glossy. I slipped the photos back inside the envelope and shoved them in the glove compartment.

We hit some traffic when we reached the 5 freeway heading north. Catface jumped onto my lap and pushed her head under my hand so I would run my fingers down her back, which I did. She squinted and purred.

Ashley leaned in, her head between the headrests. Catface looks stoned, she said. Then added, She looks like Marcus did at the party.

I wasn’t stoned, I said.

Whatever, you looked like that.

What party? Enrique wanted to know.

The hotel party a couple months ago, Oliver said. At the Travelodge.

Oh, that. I wasn’t invited.

I invited you, I said.

No, you didn’t.

Yes, I did, I said, pretending I was getting agitated. Truth is, I didn’t invite him. He was moody as hell that day and I didn’t want him around.

A silver sports car swerved in front of us a few feet from the bumper and Oliver pushed down on the horn.

Asshole, Enrique said from behind my headrest.

 

Just before Oliver picked us up that morning my mom told me to look after Enrique. He was in the bathroom, brushing his teeth and spitting into the sink.

Has he said anything to you? she asked.

What do you mean?

About your father?

Not really.

He’s been more quiet than usual.

Ever since my mom told him that our dad wanted to talk to us and eventually come home, something inside Enrique recoiled. He moved around the house like a jaguar, his head low. I half expected him to punch another wall and make another hole. He’d sit in front of the television with his dumbbells and lift them to his chin, a vein bulging alongside his forearm like an earthworm.

Just keep an eye on him, my mom said.

I know.

Call me when you can.

I will.

Make sure he takes his medication.

Mom, I said. Stop worrying. If worrying were an Olympic sport, you’d get the gold medal.

I can’t help it, she said.

We’ll be back on Monday, okay?

Okay. Just watch your little brother.

Okay.

 

We hurtled up the interstate and there was nothing to look at on either side of the highway but flatlands. After we drove past some almond groves, it was miles and miles of dried brush. I let my eyes follow the telephone wires that slid up and down above the horizon. It was hypnotic—the ballet of wires, their rising and falling. For a handful of seconds it quieted my mind and I forgot what Enrique and I were scheming to do. It was his idea to drive to Monterey and confront our dad. It was his idea to put him in his place, to hear our dad explain himself before whipping out the pistol and making him feel the way he had always made Enrique feel.

I pulled the pistol out of my backpack and examined it closely. With the red plastic ring off, it looked like a regular gun. I wondered what he would do when it came time for Enrique to shove it in his face. And I wondered what Enrique would say, how he would handle all that power.

I looked over at my brother in the backseat. The antidepressants always made him drowsy in the afternoon and his eyes were now closed, his head rested against the smudgy window of the Buick. Still, it amazed me that he was able to sleep—we were going eighty miles per hour toward a man who had tortured him for years. There was adrenaline in my heart as my mind spiraled and shuffled pictures of my dad, his rage, Enrique, his blood, the gun. There was no way I could possibly sleep.

Ashley scraped off her nail polish and dropped the flakes of maroon into the car’s ashtray. When she saw me looking at her and not Enrique, she winked. I turned back to the road ahead that rolled under the car like a giant conveyer belt.

Sometimes I fantasized that Ashley was with me and not my brother, which I did then, post-wink. I imagined us doing it in a movie theater, on a Ferris wheel, a ski lift. I pictured her on top of me in the backseat of a convertible speeding toward a canyon, both of us coming at the same time in the air before we pull the ripcord on our parachutes and watch the convertible explode into a bouquet of flames on the canyon floor.

Enrique snored quietly, his mouth cracked open.

I want to make a little pit stop, if you don’t mind, Oliver said.

Not at all, I said.

It would be good to stretch out my legs, Ashley added. She arched her back and twisted her body to the side. Her shirt rose above her skirt and I could see the butterfly tattoo inked there, perched on her hip-bone, the wings splayed and green.

The highway curved and Oliver took the next exit and made a left down another road and soon I could see the planes glittering on the horizon, lined up in a row like toys.

What’s that? Ashley said.

It’s an airplane graveyard, Oliver said. The world’s largest, supposedly.

No shit, I said.

When we were close enough to see the logos on the tailfins—the dark blue arrow of Delta, Virgin Atlantic’s scrawled handwriting, the abstract and smiling face of Alaska Airlines—Ashley fished out her digital camera from her backpack. What a trip, she said, and took a picture. There must be at least two hundred of them.

Look at the doors and windows, Oliver said. They’re all taped over.

How come?

Probably to keep the dust out, I said.

What I want to know is how the pilots who flew these planes got back to wherever they came from. Ashley snapped another picture.

Good question.

Oliver pulled off to the side of the road. Let’s check them out, he said.

What about him? Ashley motioned toward Enrique, who was still sleeping with his head against the window.

Screw him, I said.

I already did, Ashley said, smiling.

Oliver walked ahead and his boots kicked up beige clouds of dust. He hopped over the chain-link fence first, then me. Ashley climbed the fence last because she didn’t want Oliver or me to peek under her skirt while she went over. Once we all made it over the fence we headed toward a 747. In the chrome of the fuselage we could see our reflections, distorted like a carnival mirror. Ashley reached up and slid her hand across the aircraft as if she were petting a whale. Jesus, she said to herself.

Oliver dug up a stone and tossed it at the plane’s tailfin and it gonged like a church bell.

I never felt so puny as I felt while standing beside that massive plane, next to a girl I wanted but couldn’t have, in a place that was no place at all. I reached up and pressed my palm against the airplane and felt the cold metal.

Can I ask you something? Ashley said.

Sounds serious.

Not really.

What is it?

Well, Ashley said. Your hand.

I took my hand away from the aircraft and held it before her, wiggling the stump. Let me guess, I said. You want to know what happened.

I already know. Your brother told me.

Oh.

I was wondering if you could still feel it.

What do you mean, like a phantom limb?

Yeah.

I lifted my hand and curled and uncurled my fingers.

Sometimes I feel like I can, I said. You know when there’s a word on the tip of your tongue, and no matter how hard you think and concentrate, the word won’t appear?

Yeah?

It sort of feels like that.

Ashley smiled. The stud in her nose shined in the bright sun. The wind played with her hair and it rib-boned across her face. I wanted to kiss her. Another one of Oliver’s rocks gonged against the 747.

Ashley pointed at the ground. Lizard, lizard! she cried out, all excited.

The lizard was small, about six inches long from head to tail. Its scaly skin was made of miniature octagons in different shades of gray. He lay very still on the ground with his reptilian head cocked in our direction. When Enrique and I were kids, I used to catch lizards in our backyard. I’d pull off their tail and we’d watch it move by itself, side to side like a windshield wiper. Are you sure he’ll grow another tail? Enrique wanted to know.

Positive, I said.

It would be cool if people could do that too.

Later on that day I fetched a pair of rusty scissors from the garage. I looked inside the green bucket where I held the lizard captive and reached in. The lizard scrambled around, frantic, but still I managed to snip off one of its arms. I wanted to see if it would grow another one. I wanted to see if the severed arm would move all by itself the way its tail had, but it just lay there, useless. The next day I looked inside the bucket to see if the lizard had a new arm, but he wasn’t moving. A fly crawled up his back.

A few weeks later I had the accident and lost my finger and I knew better than to hope that it might grow back.

 

I have to take a leak, Oliver said as we headed back to the Picklewagon, kicking up dust. He jogged a few yards out into a field while Ashley and I climbed in the car. Enrique was still zonked out in the backseat, his mouth half open. Drool glistened on the side of his chin. Ashley aimed her camera inches from his face and pressed the shutter button and then she turned to me and smiled. I gave her the thumbs-up sign.

Oliver stood in the field with his back toward us, his hands at his crotch, looking down, then up at the herd of fluffy clouds in the deep blue sky.

Catface jumped on my lap and swayed her tail from side to side. Hey you, I said. Before I could start scratching her head she jumped into the backseat and onto Ashley’s lap. You have to pee too, Catface? Ashley cooed. She saw me looking at her and then winked at me again. It was confusing me—all her winking.

Oliver trotted back, relieved. Hey, did you know that Gandhi used to drink his own piss?

Eww, Ashley said, her mouth twisted in disgust.

So did John Lennon, I added.

Shut up, Digit, Oliver said.

It’s true, man. What do you think that yellow submarine song is all about?

You’re full of it.

Whatever, I said. I know what I’m talking about.

Oliver released the hand brake and stepped on the accelerator.

Enrique’s eyes fluttered open. He was still out of it and his voice came to us as if from underwater: Are we there yet?

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Next: Chapter 8