Book: Suckerpunch

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AT THE FUNERAL FOR Oliver’s father I daydreamed about killing my own. I’d come at him with a switchblade while he was in the garage, the table saw whirring in his hand as it chewed through a 4x4. I’d come at him with a hammer. I’d come at him with a baseball bat, his head splitting open like rotten fruit. With stealth I’d come at him, his back always turned, the way he finally turned his back on us early one morning and drove off to who-knows-where.

The minister had a comb-over and silver-rimmed glasses. His face was pink as a slice of ham and his lips were thin, almost nonexistent. With his thin lips he spoke highly of Mr. Thompson—what a great father he was to his son, what a great husband—and I remember thinking, How the hell would you know? Did you have a hidden camera in their bedroom and watch him make Mrs. Thompson come? Were you there when Oliver wiped out on his bike and Mr. Thompson sprayed Bactine on his knee, then ruffled his hair and called him a tough guy even though Oliver was bawling his eyes out?

I looked over at Oliver, who wasn’t bawling now. He wore a white button-down shirt, black slacks and shoes. He had the pamphlet with his father’s face on the cover rolled up into a paper baton. He slowly turned toward me, his dilated pupils large as dimes, then turned back to the minister, who was going on and on about Jesus and the valley of darkness and the glory of the Lord Almighty.

Mrs. Thompson wore a black veil and barely moved.

There is nothing more precious than life, the minister said, than to do the will of God. And the only thing more powerful than death is the supreme power of Jesus.

I imagined Jesus with lightning bolts zigzagging out from his palms. I imagined one of those bolts striking my dad through his chest, his eyes rolling back, skin smoldering and foam bubbling out of his mouth. I imagined my dad in the mahogany casket instead of Mr. Thompson.

After the service, Oliver wanted to know what I had planned for the evening. Even though the sun was right on his face, his pupils were still huge.

I’ve got nothing going on, I said.

Want to get wasted?

Sure.

My dad left behind a lot of booze.

How’s your mom doing?

She’s on Valium. Want any?

Before I could answer, Mrs. Thompson came out of the wooden doors of the church and walked up to Oliver.

I know you’re still angry, she said, her voice quivering, watered down. You don’t have to come to the burial if you don’t want to.

I don’t want to, Oliver said.

You sure?

I’m sure.

It’s something you might regret later on when—

I won’t regret it, he said, cutting her off.

Fine, she said.

Mrs. Thompson glanced at me. Sometimes when I beat off I thought of her sucking me. Now she was standing before me, wrecked. The black roses sewn to her veil looked like flies on a window screen.

I’m sorry for your loss, I said, which sounded stupid after I said it. As if she’d misplaced her husband. As if he were wedged between the couch cushions. As if she’d opened her purse and Mr. Thompson slipped out and fell through the bars of a grate, and all she could do was watch him glinting down there at the bottom.

What actually happened was he walked down to the basement with an orange extension cord and hanged himself.

You’re a good boy, Marcus, Mrs. Thompson said to me. Then she squeezed Oliver’s arm lightly and then headed toward the inky black car that waited to take her to the cemetery. She climbed into the backseat and closed the door, her face hidden behind the tinted window reflecting the fat white clouds sailing above us.

So what time should I pick you up tonight? Oliver wanted to know.

Anytime after eight, I said. Honk when you get to my house.

My horn stopped working.

Rev your engine then.

All right.

More people spilled out from the church and down the concrete steps. An elderly woman with a back curved like an awning. A man with an eye patch, tapping a cigarette out from a pack. This little girl in a powder blue dress, holding her father’s hand.

Oliver and I stood there in our black clothes, watching. I didn’t know what to say. I looked over at Oliver, at his large pupils.

What happens when you try to honk? I finally said.

Nothing happens, he answered. A small wind played with a piece of hair that had fallen across his forehead. Just silence, he said.

 

My home was a two-story house with cream siding and a shrub at the entrance that my mom kept clipping into some dumb animal. One month it was a cow, a couple months later it was a grizzly bear, and sometimes I didn’t know what it was, a creature half horse and half antelope. The front door of our house was chocolate brown, as was the roof, where a glow-in-the-dark Frisbee was stuck on the shingles, as if someone had gone up there to eat dinner and left their plate behind. My home had a swimming pool and a giant lemon tree sagging with fruit. It had four bedrooms and a chandelier dangling over the foyer like a garish earring.

The day of the funeral, I came home and found Enrique standing in his room with his head bowed, his palms pressed flat against the wall. Between his hands there was a hole, the knuckles of his right hand were dusted with drywall. What? he said, even though I hadn’t said anything. He was sixteen then, one year younger than me.

You okay?

Yeah.

What happened?

Nothing.

It doesn’t look like nothing happened.

I was just pissed, that’s all.

And felt like punching the wall, I said, finishing his sentence.

Right.

That’s really smart.

Enrique picked up a paper clip from his desk and began straightening it out.

You still on a hundred? I asked him.

I’ve been breaking them in half.

Don’t break them, I said. Stay on a hundred.

They make me drowsy.

Better to be drowsy than to do something stupid like that, I said, pointing at the wall, the hole like a yawning mouth. How long have you been on fifty? I wanted to know.

About two weeks.

Go back on a hundred, I said.

Okay, okay.

My dad always said Enrique didn’t need antidepressants, that he just needed to snap out of it. He said the psychiatrist was too expensive and the money could be spent on fixing up the house instead, to build a deck in the backyard, to get shingles on the roof like the O’Donnell house down the street. He’s a tough kid, my dad said. He could tough it out.

I pointed at the hole in the wall. Mom’s gonna shit when she sees that, I said.

She won’t see it, he said.

Enrique unpinned his sports calendar and moved it over the hole. It was May 2005. Above the row of days—half of them already X’d out—was a photograph of a water-skier flying across a lake, leaning as he turned, a clear fan of water spreading out behind him.

There, he said.

The garage door grumbled open, then our mom shouted for us. Marcus, Enrique, ¡ayúdame!

I looked at my little brother. Go fix up your hand before Mom sees it.

If this had happened a year earlier, I would’ve said Go fix up your hand before Dad sees it. He would’ve pummeled Enrique had he seen the hole. He would’ve left Enrique bruised and speechless.

I found my mom in the kitchen, holding two plump bags of groceries. My mom was a short woman with tea-colored skin. She had brown hair flecked with gray that she cut short and brushed away from her face. How did it go at the funeral? she asked.

Boring as shit, I said, grabbing one of the grocery bags from her arms.

Marcus.

Well, it was.

That poor boy.

Oliver’ll be all right, I said, which I half believed. The other half saw him getting more and more messed up. The other half saw him swallowing Valium with beer and then lighting up.

The market was so crowded today, my mom said. And there were only two checkout lines open. Why do they do that?

You should’ve let me go, I said.

You were at a funeral.

I could’ve gone last night.

You don’t know what we need, she said.

Seeing my own mom there made me think of Mrs. Thompson’s sad eyes behind the mesh of her veil.

I know how to read a grocery list, I said, making room in the refrigerator for the gallon of milk.

You don’t know where everything is, my mom said. Do you know where the tuna is? It’s not easy finding the tuna.

Mom, I’m not an idiot.

Yes, I know.

From now on I’ll go, I said.

Okay. My mom turned around to get the other groceries from the car. I stopped her.

Let me, I said. I’ll do the rest.

She clapped my cheeks softly between her hands. Look at this handsome face, she said, then squeezed my arm lightly the way Mrs. Thompson had squeezed Oliver’s.

 

Later that night, Oliver parked at the end of Edgefield Avenue and we climbed out of his truck and up the concrete steps that opened up to our school, the fenced-in football field and aluminum bleachers. Above the gymnasium was the bitten fingernail of the moon, giving us just a teaspoon of light. A cricket squeaked and squeaked in the grass. Oliver had on the same pair of black pants he’d worn to the funeral but had changed his shirt into one he found at a thrift store—a gray-striped mechanic’s shirt with Sergio embroidered in blue thread on the name patch.

He opened the paper bag he carried with him and pulled out a tiny bottle and handed it to me.

What the hell’s this? I asked.

Cisco, he said. My dad had a stash of them in the cupboard.

Oliver took out his bottle before he balled up the paper bag and tossed it into the night.

How am I supposed to get bombed on this little thing? I said.

Trust me, you will, he said. It’s bum wine. Read the label.

I did. It said Black Cherry. It said the bottle served four and that it was not a cooler. It said Formaldehyde.

Holy shit, it’s got formaldehyde in it, I said.

I know.

Don’t they use that for embalming?

I think so, Oliver said. Cheers, Nub.

We clinked our tiny bottles.

When I was eleven my right index finger was severed at the second knuckle, so my friends called me Nub. After booze or drugs or both, they called me whatever their clouded minds could dream up, their voices slurred and far away like a cassette tape warped by heat. Hey, Freak Show, they would say. What’s up, Nine? they’d ask, smiles pushing up their rubbery faces. This is what they called me, my friends. Never just Marcus.

I took a swig and shivered. It was as if I’d swallowed lightning.

Have you drawn anything lately? Oliver wanted to know.

Nah, I said, which wasn’t true. Before he’d picked me up I was in my bedroom sketching Mrs. Thompson’s profile, how the veil draped around her face. I drew the little black flowers. Underneath her chin I crosshatched with a charcoal pencil and then dragged the black down with the side of my thumb.

My mom always encouraged me to draw. She wanted me to graduate from high school and focus on art in college. Sometimes she’d call me a famous artist’s name instead of Marcus. As in, Hey, Michelangelo, what do you want for dinner? or Please take out the trash, Picasso. My dad was just as supportive of my art, but he showed it differently than Mom. He was an architect and said I drew better than he did when he was my age. The shading is perfect, mijo, he used to say. Sometimes when I drew now, I wondered if my pencil was what saved me from my dad. The thought alone was enough to make me close my sketchbook.

I know I should’ve done something the first time I saw my dad hit Enrique. I should’ve put a hand on my dad’s shoulder and said, Stop it or That’s enough or He’s just a kid. Instead, I quaked in the corner of the living room with my hands pressed to my ears, just a kid myself.

Draw me something, Oliver said, lifting the bottle to his lips and taking a sip.

Like what?

I don’t know. Draw me a chick, or a gun. Draw me a car. Anything.

How about a chick in a car with a gun?

Yeah, Oliver said, and laughed, which was pretty amazing considering that he’d been at his father’s funeral seven hours earlier. I wanted to ask him why his father killed himself. I wanted him to tell me without me having to ask, but I figured he’d tell me if he wanted me to know.

He seemed like a kind man, Oliver’s father. It didn’t make sense that he did what he did, the way it didn’t make sense that my own dad would beat Enrique for the dumbest things. Like the day he jumped from his lime green sofa chair when he heard the lawn mower go over the rock, the pop and guttural rattle of the whirling blade. He swung open the front door and made a beeline toward Enrique, who was crouched on the grass beside the upended mower, examining its mechanics. He shot past my mom, who was trimming the hedge. I was on the driveway, juggling a soccer ball from my left foot to my right and back to my left, but stopped when I saw my dad charging. I think we can fix it, Enrique said just before Dad backhanded him, before the blood came to his lips. My dad called him an idiot, he called him incompetent. It was a damn accident, Enrique said. My dad backhanded him again and pushed the mower into the garage and lifted it onto his workbench. My mom went inside the house covering her mouth and left her shears by the hedge, a grizzly bear that needed more clipping around the snout.

Oliver and I drank and shivered, drank and shivered. The blocky silhouette of our school stood in the distance, a cutout against the blue-black of the evening. Our junior year was almost over and people were already asking us, What are you doing after high school? We didn’t know the answer, nor did we like the options we were left with—work or college. We wanted a third option, something less painful and mundane.

You hear that? Oliver said. His head was cocked.

What?

Listen.

All I hear is that damn cricket, I said.

No, listen.

Then I heard it, coming from the darkness of the football field: A girl was moaning in pleasure.

Oh, shit, I said. Is that what I think it is?

We sat still and didn’t move so that we could hear better. For a few seconds the girl’s moaning was barely audible, like a neighbor’s television at night, and then the wind would carry her cries to our ears, clear as anything.

Touchdown, Oliver said.

Let’s sneak up on them.

And do what?

Give him some pointers, I said. Penalize him for illegal use of the hands.

Nah, Oliver said, taking a swig from his bottle.

Come on, I persisted.

How are you going to give anyone pointers?

Man, I get laid.

Sure you do, Nub, he said, smirking.

Forget it, I said. I took a nip and again my body quivered, hoping Oliver couldn’t read the history of my sex life on my face, which consisted of only one chapter: The Handjob of 2003. In it, a girl named Camille Dawson—a drunk and pudgy-faced girl—dropped on the couch beside me and said, Are you Nub? I told her that’s what my friends call me but that she could call me Marcus. Five Heinekens later and we were in one of the bedrooms, away from the party. I unzipped my jeans and she put her hand down around me and pulled and pulled until I squirted all over the carpet. She said, Whoa, Jesus, and began to laugh. She wouldn’t stop laughing so I zipped up and left, my legs all jellylike as I walked down the hallway and across the living room and into the backyard, where a small crowd had gathered by the swimming pool to watch Britt Souza, fully clothed, do a backflip from the diving board, the water leaping around him like a turquoise flower.

I was nothing like Enrique, who had three girlfriends during his freshman year. He was confident without being arrogant, charming without sounding fake. My little brother had all the moves. I had one: a quick smile followed by a downward gaze at my shoes.

I took another nip from my bottle and thought about this girl I’d seen that morning at Tempo Records before driving over to the funeral. She had a pierced nose and her hair was dyed black. Her lipstick was the color of smashed cranberries. She was clicking through the CDs one by one, her fingernails painted metallic blue. I wondered what color her panties were, and it wasn’t long before my mind had her bent over the CDs and I was inside her, the sound of her whimpering in rhythm with the drumbeat thumping from the store’s speakers, and on her back the silk-screened names of every city the Pixies played on their reunion tour.

By the time Oliver and I finished our Ciscos the field was quiet again. I was more than buzzed and so was Oliver. The ground tilted away from me like the floor of a boat in choppy water.

We hopped into his truck and tore down the road, the streetlights dazzling the windshield, the stereo cranked and blaring the primal drums and noisy guitars we loved so much.

Slow down, dude, I yelled over the music.

I’m all right, he yelled back.

Oliver peeled around a turn and the truck hydroplaned over a puddle and suddenly we were fishtailing, the tires spinning below us. Before Oliver turned the wheel in the direction of the skid and had control of his truck again, we were facing a one-story house, all lit up by the headlights. For a moment I could see through the bay window and into the house, the L-shaped couch where a family sat watching television. I could see the mother. I could see the son and the daughter. And I could see the father, his wife-beater shirt and thinning hair, his thick-rimmed glasses as he turned toward the window, wondering about the light.

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