The Writing on the Wall
Sizzle's seven years old and wants to saw that fiddle, boy. His music instructor must be a real idiot, because the kid's tone deaf, and when he plays it sounds awfuljust awful. But Sizzle's sure he's got it. Teacher told him so. He just needs to rehearse a little more each day, tickling those strings, dragging that bow. And me, I'm in love with Sizzle's mom, Rita. And I guess I love him, too. That's why I listen to him practice while I sit and watch his daddy die.
Sizzle's cue to fight: I swing Rita's front door open, pump my fist a few times, and holler like a steam engine. On the money, Sizzle runs full bore, fists clinched, and goddamned determined to whoop me for the first time. Kids at school steal his violin and taunt him until he cries, so I'm training him to punch and cuss out anybody twice his age. Sure, I could take it easy on him, but that wouldn't do him any favors. I windmill with my left arm, distracting Sizzle, so I can jab him with my right, but he's learned and stops on a dime. He lifts his leg and Crane Kicks like Karate Kidjust like I taught him.
Liver disease keeps Sizzle's dad, Bol, on the couch, watching T.V. and sweating his death. Bol's fifty-seven years old, and so sick he couldn't curl his yellow fingers into a fist, even if Sizzle and I both worked him over. Bol still boozessays drinking's the only way to escape the hurtand it leaves him with a brainful of poison. He says things to Rita about Eve eating the apple, and she better not be his Delilah. He says he's taking her with him when he goes.
"Boys," Rita says. She was bringing Bol a glass of liquor before we cut her off. She has this look on her facelike this house should only be a place of sadness, but she'll be damned if she ain't going to smile with Sizzle trying to karate kick my nuts.
Rita's thirty-twothe same age as meand despite being married to a dying drunk, she never lets on that life has not always been great. She bartends at the Lighthouse and all the old timers call her Sweet Rita, Marga-Rita, and Come and Rita Me My Rights. The old timersWin, King Louis, and Hamare in love with her too and don't trust anyone's intentions. When I visit Rita at the bar, oxygen machines come out, blood surfaces to their crusty, dry lips, and in general, the old farts start dying on the corner of the bar until Rita leaves me and tends to them.
I'm a Lighthouse regular, and from the start, it's been me versus the old timers, vying for Rita's affection. As soon as I appear, one of the three digs into his old empty pockets and finds a treasure for her son. Sizzle's got a chest for his loot, and inside are things like coal script, Best of Show ribbons, and a wooden carved train whistle. Every week it's some new prize, and I'm afraid the old men are turning her against me, one present to Sizzle at a time.
"Get her, Sizzle," I say.
Sizzle runs to his mother, sets his feet, and sidekicks her in the hip. Normally, Rita fends for herself, but this time Sizzle knocks her off balance, and she slops booze over the kitchen cabinets, the counters, and the linoleum, streaked black from Sizzle's race cars. Rita hollers in frustration.
"Sizzle, Ha-Ju-May." I told him that means "stop and go" in a karate fight. Down on a knee, so I can see him eye to eye, I put my hand on Sizzle's shoulder. "You've just learned your first lesson. Never hit your mother."
"Okay," Sizzle says.
"Do you know why?"
"Because it's not nice?"
"No," I say, "it's because your mom is the strongest person in this room."
Sizzle watches Rita smear paper towels over the mess. He turns back to me, his face scrunched, not sure if I'm lying. Like the time I told him I caught an alien in a jar and kept it in my closet. Or how my uncle is Arnold Schwarzenegger. Or how I've got a boy of my own, older than Sizzle that I haven't seen since he was a baby. It's taking time, but Sizzle's catching on that people aren't always what they seem.
"She really could, Sizzle," I say. "She's the real deal."
"Clinton," Rita says, "no more karate in the house, okay?"
"No problem, Rita," I say. "We'll keep it outside."
Eye crust clings to Bol's cheeks, and his hair is smeared toward the side he doesn't lay on. He pushes himself up on the couch and motions for Sizzle. He talks slow, thinking through each sound before it emerges, afraid each word will be his last. "Sizzle," he says, wanting to get it right, "be nice." He closes his eyes and that's it.
Years before, Rita fell out of love but stayed with Bol because she thought it was the only choice she had. She'd seen too many women leave marriages and end up worse off than before. When she finally did start divorce proceedings, Bol got sick and she couldn't bear for him to die alone. He is the father of her son, after all.
But that ain't all. Rita acts like she's Bol's nurse, like it's clinical and all the feelings she ever had dried up because he was a bad dudeto hear it told at the Lighthouse when Rita's not aroundbut I know she still loves him. Which means I have to love him, too. Love your enemy. Isn't that what Christ said?
Rita makes sure Bol's got everything he needs while I move Sizzle's booster seat to my car and strap him in. She emerges from the house, smiling so big it's like she's just seen the sun. At the old school house, there's a basketball court and toys for Sizzle to play on. It's sunny and cool, and the world seems to have conspired to give us the type of day we deserve.
Under a stand of tall oak trees, I stretch a blanket. The hillside slopes gently toward the playground, and in the distance, the Ohio River lulls, thick and brown. Empty barges float on the top of the water, their metal walls rising fifteen feet above the river, mesmerizing Sizzle with their size and lapping water against the rocks. Petroglyphs from Indians line the rock bank. Odd stone etchings that hardly a soul knows about. Think about itsomething that ancient, that important, and only someone like me knows they're there.
Sizzle turns to me. "You want to hear me practice?"
"Bust me out some of that Mississippi Hotdog," I say.
Sizzle opens the case and the red lining smells of wood and rosin. He takes his fiddle out and his strings are tarnished to the point of rust. They must hurt his fingers when he plays, and they probably haven't been changed in a decade. Beneath the strings are three thin strips of blue tape, so Sizzle knows where to play.
Another couple is having a picnic besides us, and the poor folks have no clue what they're in for. Sizzle's playing sounds like reeka-reeka-reeka, and the couple looks like their stomach's sour, which pisses me off, and I tell Sizzle good goingcan he play nice and slow? Sizzle drags out each horrendous note: reeeeeeeekaaaaa- reeeeeeeekaaaaa- reeeeeeeekaaaaa. The couple looks away, giggling, and so help me God, if they get up and move, I'm going to say something I can't take back.
"Sizzle, that sounds great," I say. "Double-time it."
Sizzle puts the bow to the strings, and he's grinning like sin. He's not even trying to play the song anymore, and his mom is laughing, and I'm hollering for him to play it, brother. And the thing is, some of those notes Sizzle plays actually sound good. Not like music or anythingjust the right sound at the right time.
"Honey," Rita says, "walk around the playground while practicing."
Sizzle always does what he's told. He's the best damned kid I've ever seen. I don't know how Rita bartends, cares for her husband, and raises such a perfect kid.
"I think we're due for some good news," I say. I pull out one of the lottery tickets I've been saving and offer it to Rita.
"Why do waste your money on those things?"
"Because I won a thousand bucks once."
"You say that every time," she says. Rita's face softens as Sizzle makes a lap. She waves at him as he turns his back to her, rounding the corner, awful notes and all. She needs to eat more, and I tell her so. Her eyes look so gaunt, it's like she's barely surviving. "Alright," she says, "but if I win, I'm not sharing any with you." She takes a penny and rubs the bar code off the bottom corner.
"You're not even scratching the games," I say.
Rita laughs at me. "It was dud. You have any more?"
"You've got no sense of drama."
"I've got you for drama," she says. "How's your job?"
"Job sucks more than ever. Thanks for bringing it up."
"I'll share what I win," she says. "Just give me another one."
Rita knows I always buy two tickets. I give her the other and she puts the penny down on the corner and again removes the bar code. She smiles like a cat full of canary, folds the ticket, and slips it in her jean pocket.
"Well?" I say.
"Well," she says, back.
"You going to give me my half?"
"I can't give you half of nothing."
For the longest time, I didn't think I was winning against those old timers at the Lighthouse. Then one night she closed up and kicked everybody out but me. She poured drinks and I told lie after lie. She didn't believe a single one, as she pushed her mop, smearing scunge around the men's room, but those lies won her over. Ornery, is what she calls me.
Sizzle makes his way back to us and puts his violin away. He takes a pop from the cooler to the swing set. He sways on the swing, legs dangling above the dirt rut made by a thousand dragging feet.
"I'd like to meet your son, someday," Rita says.
The one about having a son actually isn't a lie, and I haven't seen him since he was a baby. I don't think of my son as real, like Sizzle. My son's more of an idea, a theory, a possibility.
"I'm sure he's great," Rita says. She pulls her hair back into a pony tail and cinches it with a band. Her face looks so thin, God, I swear she's the one dying.
"Like Sizzle," I say.
I take a week off from Sizzle and Rita. After an outing like that one, it begins to feel too real, like I could make it happenbeing Rita's manjust because I want it. Besides, Win, King Louis, and Ham are so filled with rotten tarnation that I wouldn't put any form of sabotage past them if word got out. I've no doubt it was the old timers that told Rita about my kid. That's the type of men they are.
I come over next Sunday and Sizzle's sitting on the couch, with his shoes on, looking pissed. Sizzle was supposed to tell his mom he needs some folders for school. He was supposed to tell her this a week ago because she has only one day off and can't waste it.
"I don't know what to do," she says. "Sizzle just told me."
"It's alright," I say. "I'll sit with Bol."
Bol looks like hell, and she has to think it over. "Are you sure?"
"Sizzle, come here," I say. I give Sizzle a five dollar bill. "Take your mom out and buy her a milkshake. Don't tell her it's my idea. This is your second lesson."
"What's the lesson?"
"You'll understand, someday."
Rita leans in close. Her lips are beside my ear, and for moment, I think she's going to kiss me. Then she stops herself, puts her hand on my chest, and looks me in the eye. She doesn't have to say a thing.
Rita leaves with Sizzle, and I sit by Bol while he watches T.V. He smells like sweat and sour clothes. Every once in a while, he asks me to fix him another whiskey, which pleases and tortures him. Bol's got so much poison gushing through his body it makes him want to cry.
"I'm dying," he says.
"You're going to be alright, Bol," I say. "Rita's here for you."
"I'm afraid," he says. What does a man say to that? Bol wants to know, and he's waiting on an answer.
"You want to talk to a preacher, sometime?" I say.
"Right now," he says.
My drinking buddy John is a registered school teacher who got his preacher license, online. The brunt of his ministry includes marrying a couple after one rowdy night of drinking. I'm scared Bol's going to go on my watch, and I promise John a six pack if he comes down, dressed for the part. Besides, Bol's so sick and gone by now, he won't know the difference.
Bol points at me, and I realize he's been staring for some time.
"Yeah, Bol?" I say.
"Comb my hair?" he says.
I drag the purple tines of Rita's brush through Bol's hair. It's been washed recently and smells like lavender or cantaloupe or nectarine. Whatever it is, it's wrong. So wrong, it makes me sick, combing Bol's hair, and I have to quit.
"You look good," I say.
John shows up with slacks on, and a thin black tie. His Bible is so black and new, the spine cracks when he opens it. "How do you do, Sir," John says.
Bol preens a bit, with his hair combed. He speaks slowly, like a first grader sounding out a book. "Fuck you," he says, slow and breathy.
John looks at me, like I'm the king of all assholes. He wasn't prepared for a dying man rift with God, and I'm going to owe him more than six pack, for sure. He straightens his tie and closes the Good Book on whatever passage he was planning to read. He thinks a minute and says, "Death's just the beginning, right?"
"I don't believe any of it," Bol says.
Bol's torturing me, and If John wasn't here, I'd leave. Then I turn and see Rita and Sizzle walk in. Rita nearly drops her milkshake at the sight of John kneeling with Bol.
"What's going on?" she says.
"This isn't real," I say. I point to John. "He's not even a real preacher."
"How about heaven?" John says. "Not the Bible's heaven, but your heaven. What would that be?"
"My heaven would be a fishing hole that you never ran out of fish to catch," Bol says. It takes him time to get that one out, but he looks the happiest I've ever seen him.
"That sounds like heaven to me," John says. "Who'd be fishing with you?"
Bol points to Rita and then to Sizzle.
"Then that's the heaven you'll go to," John says.
John walks over and puts his hand on my back. "I've just saved your lady-friend's husband's soul," he says. "I think we should renegotiate our terms."
I nod, wanting him to leave before he says anything else.
Rita looks at Bol. "Did you comb his hair?" she says.
I can't answer. I can't say yes or no or goddamn it what am I doing here? And what are you doing leaving me with himyour husband.
"You can't do things like that to him," Rita says. "Bring over some bogus preacher, when he's dying." She starts crying. It's the first time she's ever done that around me. "He's dying, Clinton," she says. And I know she's right, so I walk out the door, right behind John.
The old timers are happy to see me at the bar. Since it's Rita's night off, I think Win, King Louis, and Ham are especially happy to see me without her. They buy my beer and tell me it's been too long.
Win's the oldest and his body is crippled from a tractor accident. He's so twisted and tight, he's like a spring about to snap itself. "How's Rita?" Win says.
"Good," I say.
King Louis snorts and grumbles. He taps his cigar on the ash tray and looks me up and down. We call him King because he's so full of shit he thinks he knows, that he advises anyone and everyone on how to live their lives.
Ham's the nicest of the old men, probably because he's the smartest. Every day he wears a clean plaid shirt, drinks no more than six drafts, and heads home to the ole ladyas he calls her. Ham would probably be an alright guy if it weren't for Win and King Louis.
"You been over to Rita's house, ain't you?" Ham says.
"No, I ain't been over," I say.
King Louis knocks some more ash off his cigar. "You hear anything about Bol or the kid?" he says.
"Bol's dying," I say. "He's real bad."
"I was afraid of that," King Louis says. "Drinking will do that to a man, among other things."
"And the kid," Win says.
"King Louis," I say, "how about one of them cigars?"
Louis slides his pack of Swisher Sweets down the bar.
"I think Sizzle's doing alright," I say. I take a cigar out and slide the pack over to Louis. I unwrap the cigar and light it.
"Smoking will kill you," Louis says, and puts out his cigar by smashing it into the ash tray.
"You know much about Bol?" Ham says.
I think about how little I know about Bol. "I know he's damn near as old as you farts," I say.
"Hardly," Ham says. "You underestimate our ages. There's dinosaurs younger than Win." Ham waits for everyone to quit laughing and continues. Seriously, you know anything about him?"
"No," I say.
"He's bad," Ham says. "Or was. Rita's one of those women, you know? It's good, you teaching that kid karate."
Win perks up. He's been waiting for a reason to rib me since I got here. "You know karate?" Win says.
If Ham had asked me, I might have told the truth. Instead, I size Win up, careful of what might be on his mind. "Got to get home," I say. "Thanks for the beer."
Rita calls the next day. She wants to bring Sizzle down to my house for karate movies. Sizzle's never going to be much of a fighter, but he's got to protect that fiddle, for Rita's sake, as much as his. Those scratchy notes help keep her going.
Before we start the movie, Sizzle opens his case. He rosins his bow, contemplating every stroke down the horse hair. With the violin under his chin, he takes two deep breathes and closes his eyes. "I named this song Clinton's Boogie," he says.
His bow hovers above the strings and there's so much music about to happen, it's like an arc could pass from the instrument to his fingers. He touches the bow to the strings, without a sound, and then he plays eleven of the roughest, dirtiest notes I ever heard.
"That was damn beautiful, Sizzle," I say.
After our movies, Sizzle falls asleep on the couch. Little beads of sweat crown his forehead, and he breathes like he's having a good dream. Rita and I escape to the coolness of the porch with a glass of beer each and the spring peepers calling from the roadside ditch.
"How is Bol?" I say.
"Same," Rita says. "I don't know what's wrong with me." She slips her flip flops off and props her feet on the rail. Damn if she doesn't have the prettiest feet I've ever seen. She can't bring herself to look at me when she talks about Bol. But right now, I don't care, because those feet look so good, I'm thinking about those legs, and so on and so on.
"Nothing's wrong with you," I say.
"I hate him," she says.
She moves closer to me and kisses me so good it makes me want to call off work tomorrow and lay around, necking like a couple kids. She lays her head on my shoulder, tucks her legs up underneath her bottom, and curls beside me in the chair. I put my arm around her and pretend everything is easy, she and Sizzle live with me, and Bol is a long gone memory, she can't recall.
"How old is your son?" Rita says, with her head still on my shoulder.
"Twelve," I say.
"Do you have a picture of him?" Rita says.
"No," I say.
"Because I'm not a very good person."
She puts her feet back on the porch and sits up straight. "I need to think about you," she says. She touches her cheek, like she's seen something she's scared of. She mulls over my mistakes for a while, until she gets tired and puts her head back on my shoulder.
A car passes, drowning out the peepers. The sound of the engine wanes as it travels up the hollow and briefly there's silence. Slowly, the chirping from the ditch returns, louder than ever and like a symphony of scratchy fiddles.
In a week I see Rita again, and when I go over, Bol is sitting up in the sofa with his shoes and clothes on. The air conditioner is going a hundred miles an hour, floating Bol's thinning hair above him. He looks like a ghost, come to haunt me.
"Hi," Bol says, like he just learned how.
I'm so surprised by Bol, Sizzle blindsides me. He's got a piece of PVC, and he beats my shins so hard I fall to the floor. He keeps swinging and every time he strikes my skull it sounds like: bong.
"Ha-Ju-May," I say, as Sizzle works me over with his pipe.
Sizzle clenches the pipe like a baseball bat and is a split second from smashing my nose. I believe there isn't a drop of meanness in the boy, but I do fear I've underestimated him. The kid's tougher than I thought.
"We're ready," Rita says.
At the old school house, I help Bol from the car to the river. He's so shaky behind his walker, I'm sure he's going to collapse. Bol's lawn chair slants on the sandy bank, threatening to topple with him. I bait Bol's and Sizzle's hooks and send their lines far out in the river, where they dangle deep in the muddy water.
"Are there really catfish the size of a man, down there?" Sizzle says.
Bol nods. He's intent on his pole, watching every movement the fishing line makes. "Fish jumped," he says to Sizzle.
Nothing jumped, but Sizzle believes him. Bol stares at the water, waiting, but Sizzle can't sit still. He kicks off his shoes and walks around barefoot, leaving foot prints in the sand. He's such a small kid, the indentations from his toes look like they were pressed by marbles.
When I was Sizzle's age, it was my dad who took me along the bank and showed me the petroglyphs the Indians made years ago. Indians so old, they were dead and gone before the settlers came. The carvings are of crazy stick figures and my favorite looks like a psychedelic duck with antlers. I show these to Rita while Bol and Sizzle fish.
Rita runs her fingers across the etched rock. "What does it say?"
Beside the petroglyphs, some kids spray painted their names in a heart, and I think maybe that's all those petroglyphs ever said. Like it wasn't some religious symbol or prayer to the gods. It was some Indian brave writing on the wall for his little lady, letting the whole world know she was his.
"They shouldn't do that," she says. "Damage things like this."
"It's just kids, in love," I say. "They probably broke up a month later."
"Probably did," she says. She looks like she sees the end of waiting for Bol die and that end scares her more than what she endures now.
At the fishing access, Bol's line dips hard and drags, startling him. For a moment, he doesn't do anything, then all his energy surges through his arms and he sets the hook. He reels, but his back and arms have atrophied, so he gives the pole to Sizzle.
Sizzle reels as fast as he can. The fish is so big, it drags him into the river, clear out to his knees. He falls, face first, beneath the surface. Then he rises up, gasping and still holding the pole, reeling for his life until he lands the river monster.
"A fucking boot?" Sizzle says.
"Sizzle," Rita says, scolding.
I unhook it and drop the shoe onto the bank, beside him. "It's a citation," I say. "Biggest I ever seen."
In Sizzle's moment of disappointment, I pick him up and slam his right foot into the filthy boot. Sizzle screams at me to let him out. He squirms and fights, but I don't let go until I've rammed his toes full of mud.
"Third lesson," I say. "If the shoe fits, brother."
Sizzle tries to kick the boot off, but it won't budge. "Take it off," he pleads.
Bol motions for Sizzle. Bol takes his hand and squeezes it. "Hey," Bol says, "a warm breeze blows up a dog's ass, sometimes."
I have no idea what Bol means, but Sizzle nods and baits the man's hook, like they share a common language and understanding. I cast for Bol and Sizzle checks his line, making sure he doesn't have a fish, or shoe, or something good to reel in.
Rita puts her hand on my shoulder. "Thank you," she whispers.
Rita slides her hand down my back and places it against my waist, urging me forward, toward Sizzle and Bol. They watch the river, and it's clogged with debris and looks both powerful and slow. Water laps the bank, lulling us into a silence, and Sizzle and Bol become even more mesmerized by the river, like they're staring at their whole muddy, filthy world.