Put the Stick in Your Mouth and Take Your Beating Like A Man

“Come on then, let’s have some fun.”

“Jesus Christ, Junior, the kid’s not doin’ nuthin’ to you.”

“You turnin’ into a pussy, Kev? Last two weeks, the old man’s been kissin’ his ass cause he hit a paper target. Fuck that. Was probably pure luck those shots.”

“Maybe the kid can shoot.”

“Maybe you’re a pussy.”

“Take it back. I ain’t a pussy!” Kevin circled his brother. They were pretty evenly matched. Junior was taller, but he was heavier and and quick from football.

“Prove it then.”

They creaked up the stairs to their brother’s room. Kevin’s heart ratcheted up a beat with every step, but he clenched his fists. The old man always said you had to put the stick in your mouth and take your beating like a man, but Danny wasn’t a man. He was a boy and a small one at that.

Junior nudged him in the ribs. What was worse: being called a pussy by your big brother or sticking your baby brother’s head in a toilet filled with piss? Kevin wiped the sweat off his lip and knocked on Danny’s door.

“Danny, whatcha doin’ in there? You want some grub? Junior and I was gonna get some pizza. You could come if you wanted. We never did congratulate you right about being such a good shot.”

Would Danny buy it? There was a long silence before Kevin heard the floorboards squeak as his brother approached the door. Pizza beat peanut butter and jelly on stale bread. As soon as Danny stepped out, Junior grabbed him around the waist and swung him in the air like he was a feather.

“Lemme down, asshole!” Danny’s arms swung in useless punches, but he landed a solid kick in Junior’s face. Blood began to dribble from his nose.

“You asshole!” Junior tightened his grip around Danny’s waist and grabbed one arm. “Help me, Kevin. Get his legs.”

“No, Kevin. Don’t. Please!” Kevin heard the plea in his brother’s voice and hesitated for a second. Didn’t everyone horse around?

Kevin grabbed for the scissoring legs, but Danny was fast. Kevin caught only one leg just as the other smashed against the hall table. They all heard the shattering of crystal, and Kevin wanted to stop. But Junior was too angry now; between them, they hauled Danny into the bathroom and shoved his head into the avocado toilet that reeked of stale piss and mold.

“Let him up, Junior. He’s gonna drown!” Kevin pulled at his brother who kept jamming Danny’s head against the side of the bowl.

“I hope he does.” Junior had a wild look that scared Kevin. “My nose is bleeding!”

“Jesus Christ, you want to be a cop, Junior. They don’t hire murderers.”

“Tell that to the old man,” Junior said, but he hauled Danny up.

“You assholes!” Danny shook his head like a wet dog. spraying both Junior and Kevin with piss water.

Kevin pushed him towards the shower, putting his body between Danny and Junior. “Here, just rinse off. You’ll be okay. Be quick.”

When Junior stalked out of the room, Kevin rocked back on his heels. “Danny, it’ll be okay now. We will get you pizza.” He reached out his hand.

Danny cringed away from him and turned on the water. “I don’t want it.”

“Jumpin’ Jesus Christ!”

Leaving Danny to clean himself, Kevin followed the sound of Junior’s voice. He stood in the hall, next to the overturned hall table staring at the crystal bowl lying in shards on the floor.

“Christ on a one legged crutch,” Kevin said. “Mom’s rose bowl.” The Waterford crystal rose bowl had sat on that table for years, like a shrine. It was one of the last bits of his mother left in the house, unless you counted Danny. He was the only one of them who took after her with his dark hair and slender build.

Junior looked a little sick. “Get a dust pan. If we’re lucky, the old man won’t notice. Get Gammy’s old bowl.”

“He’ll notice,” Kevin said. “The bowls don’t look alike.”

“They might if he’s drunk. I’ll buy another bowl tomorrow.”

“How?”

“You let me worry about it.”

Kevin ran down to fetch the dust pan and Gammy’s bowl. It was crystal, but the shape was wrong. It was bigger and curved out where Ma’s curved in like a ball.

He started towards the stairs when he heard the fumbling of keys in the front door and the cursing. Kevin slipped Gammy’s bowl back in the china closet and the dust pan in the kitchen. Just as he closed the kitchen cabinet the front door swung open.

“Are ya’ deaf? Didn’t ya’ hear me?”

Kevin bowed his head. “Sorry, sir.”

“Deaf and dumb.” His father’s gait was slightly unsteady, and Kevin wondered how many drinks he had down at the Shamrock. More than five and less than twelve, he gauged. He didn’t know where Junior was, but he hoped Danny had the good sense to hide.

His father unfastened his shoulder holster, then bent down to unstrap his backup from his ankle. After he unhooked the third holster from his belt he dumped everything on the dining room table. Thomas Patrick Ryan, Sr. was the most decorated cop in the city’s history, and its most deadly. Like a shark, he had a kind of sixth sense for blood, and no problem shooting to kill.

“Never aim for the legs,” he always said. “Too easy to miss. Go for the gut shot. Puts ‘em down every time.”

“How bout if I put these away for you, Dad?” Kevin said.

The old man grunted. “Get me a scotch,” he said.

Kevin took the grunt as a yes. After he poured a drink for his father, he collected the guns. He’d put them in the locking closet in the kitchen and keep the key away from his father no matter what.

“It’s been a long, shitty day,” the old man said. He downed the drink in one swallow. “I’m goin’ to bed.”

He listened to his father’s heavy footsteps on the stair, then the long pause. “What the living fuck?”

“It was an accident, Dad,” Junior spoke in his best bullshit voice. “Kevin and I were rough housing a bit with Danny and . . . well . . . it was an accident . . . Danny accidentally knocked over the table.”

Kevin let the key drop into his pocket and ran for the steps. “NO.”

It was too late.

He heard the sound of the old man’s fist against Junior’s face. It was enough to send Junior reeling back against the wall. Before Kevin was halfway up the stairs, the old man was throwing open doors like a crazy man. “Where are you, you little shit?”

“No, Dad, don’t.” Kevin tried to grab the old man’s arm. He shoved him off, and Kevin stumbled into the bathroom and went down on the floor. Where was Danny? The old man reached the big closet at the end of the hall where they kept the winter coats. He already had removed his belt.

“Get out here, you little shit!”

When the old man jerked open the door, Kevin smelled the moth balls. He pulled himself up from the bathroom floor. The little white balls had spilled out into the hall, and he watched as his father wrenched Danny from the closet. The kid, who two weeks ago had been sitting on the bar at the Shamrock getting sips of beer for hitting a paper target down at the shooting range, was being dragged by his skinny arm down the hall, fighting and kicking while the old man administered cracks with his thick leather belt.

“NO! It wasn’t my fault!” Danny tried to slip out of the old man’s grasp, but it didn’t do him any good. The old man punched him so hard, Danny’s eye began to swell shut at once. It was like watching a horror movie unfold in slow motion.

“Dad, please,” Kevin said, “no more. It was my fault. Me and Junior–“

But the old man didn’t want to hear. He held Danny with one arm clamped around his neck. “You shut up or you’ll be next.”

Then the old man was howling and Danny was making a break for the stairs, heedless of the shards of crystal bloodying his feet. The old man caught him before he could make it. Grabbing Danny’s arm, he twisted, and Kevin heard a snap, like the crack of a hard pretzel. Danny’s face turned the color of ashes. Even Junior said, ”Dad, no.”

The old man slammed Danny against the wall, but at the sound of Junior’s voice he turned and swayed just enough for Danny fall out of his grasp and go rolling down the hardwood steps to smash up against the radiator directly below.

“Jesus Christ,” Junior said. “Jesus Christ. Is he dead?”

Kevin pushed past them both and took the stairs two at a time. Feeling for a pulse, he watched the blood pool around Danny’s head from the deep gash in his forehead. It looked as though his skull was dented.

“Call an ambulance,” he said. “For the love of God.”

He heard his father’s voice, but didn’t move, not when Junior came down and told him they had to get their story straight, not when the ambulance came, and the EMT’s slid a plastic board under Danny and encased his head in a plastic collar. He saw the one EMT’s stony face and realized he’d been here before. Kevin look away ashamed.

Ten minutes later Stan Witkowski showed up. He’d been the old man’s partner for twenty years, and he patted Kevin’s shoulder. “It’ll be all right, Kevin,” he said. “Danny had a fall. It happens.”

“He didn’t fall, Stan. You know it.”

Stan looked at him, his dark eyes unreadable. “He had a fall. He was running and slipped. That’s it, Kevin. There’s nothing you can do. You gonna turn on your own father?”

“My father deserves it.”

“Well, maybe, but your brother needs a man to take care of him. That’s gonna have to be you.”

“I don’t know if I can.”

“You need to decide what kind of man you want to be, Kevin.”

Stan was gone then. Stan, the old man, Junior. They left him behind to clean up. Kevin wanted to run after the cops and say, “My father did this.” But he didn’t because it wouldn’t matter. Nobody messed with his old man. He was the cop who saved the mayor’s life from some druggie-prowler by putting eleven rounds in his chest. A perfect cluster.

Everyone swore the guy had a gun. They even found one. It looked like one of his father’s old pieces, but no one even questioned it. The druggie was on the mayor’s front lawn on the wrong night and made the mistake of calling the mayor an “evil rat bastard” when the old man was in ear shot. When he reached into his pocket for his manifesto about the evils of the city administration, that was the end of him. The mayor gave the old man a medal and a citation.

Who was going to challenge that?

So who was going to care about a ten-year-old kid? All Kevin could do was clean up the mess and try to protect a brother who didn’t trust him.

He swept up the shards of crystal and began to scrub his brother’s blood. It had seeped into the cracks in the wood floor, and Kevin had to wash the boards with the Murphy’s Oil Soap. He watched the water turn pink. Later he went to the bathroom and dumped the pink water down the toilet. Adding some more Murphy’s Oil, he scrubbed at the toilet until the piss and mold smell was gone.

He washed his big hands and scrubbed them until they turned red. The sleeves of his yellow sweater were stained with Danny’s blood, but by now the blood had dried and started to turn turned brown. Kevin knew he’d never wear that sweater again.

He pulled off his clothes and took a long hot shower, but he still felt dirty.

He didn’t know if he’d ever feel clean again. All he knew was he’d never hurt his brother again. It didn’t matter what Junior called him or did to him.

He’d put the stick in his mouth and take his beating like a man.

Aftershock

The students slouched in their seats in Mrs. Irving’s counseling session. It was the last period of the day, and the spring heat made the room feel stuffy and airless. Someone wore perfume that smelled like a mixture of cotton candy and vanilla. It mingled uncomfortably with the aroma of sweat and body odor that permeated the room. Emma DiAngelo drew spirals in her notebook while Will Einbender and Ted Butler texted about the stupidity of this whole meeting. Meredith Hargrove sat with her hands folded and pretended to pay attention.

“Now, kids,” Mrs. Irving said. “I know how traumatic it is when we loose a friend, especially a sweet girl like Jennifer Drew. It has repercussions that spread out through the entire community.” She spread her arms wide as if she were trying to encircle the assembled group.

Lexi Granger stifled a yawn and fumbled in her pencil case for her green pen. In its eraser she had embedded a tiny piece of a razor. Carefully she traced a white line on her finger.

 

“Would anyone like to share their remembrances of Jennifer?” Mrs. Irving said as she brought her hands together.

The kids looked around uncomfortably at each other. Who really wanted to talk about Jennifer Drew? She took a bunch of Oxycontin tablets and washed them down with a fifth of vodka. She had been there, and now she wasn’t. No one in this group was particularly close to her. Meredith Hargrove didn’t like her, and if Meredith didn’t like you, you were doomed.

Lexi punched the razor in the pad of her index finger and watched a drop of blood well up. Meredith didn’t like her for a while, and she used to say things like, “You should kill yourself ‘cause you’re just a loser.” Now Meredith mostly left her alone because in seventh grade Lexi turned Goth and told Meredith she’d stick a razor in her lunch sometime.

Meredith wasn’t used to people talking back to her.

“Jennifer was smart,” Ted Butler said. “She was nice, but kind of shy. Like she kept to herself. She was a good lab partner.”

He didn’t mention that Jennifer asked him to go with him to Junior Prom last year, and he said no. Well, he hadn’t exactly said no to her face. He told her he’d let her know then told Dana Rosenberg to tell her. As far as he knew, Dana was Jennifer’s only close girlfriend.

He wasn’t even sure why he didn’t say yes. Jennifer was pretty enough. She just was a little strange. Quiet. She studied all the time. She took a lot of AP classes.  Even the Asian kids thought Jennifer was a brain. She had did have cool green eyes, but who wanted to go with someone like that?

Actually, she did go to prom with Mike O’Connor. They’d been dating ever since.

“She was nice, and it’s totally sad, but I didn’t really like know her,” said Missy Rogers. “We didn’t have any classes together.” She crossed her legs and swung her stiletto-covered foot. That wasn’t a surprise. Missy brought up the bottom half of the class. She earned her nickname “Little Grinder” in middle school, and her cell phone number was on speed dial for every guy who was horny and hard up.

She was a good-time girl, bouncy, blonde, a three-letter jock and one of the richest kids in the school. Her parents owned a bunch of beer distributor stores, and the taps were always flowing when Missy gave a party, which was every weekend. Mostly everyone liked Missy; she might have been dumb as a post, but she liked to laugh and never acted like she was better than anyone else even though she lived in a giant house with an indoor and outdoor pool.

Emma DiAngelo said, “Maybe she just never adjusted. Like I think she missed her old school.” She glanced at Meredith as if asking for approval. Meredith gave her a small nod.

A few other kids offered comments about how alone Jennifer always seemed, how sad. They said the kind of things that adults always took so deeply to heart. They’re grieving and fragile, Mrs. Irving thought. She hoped they wouldn’t have a rash of copycats. It worried her.

Lexi Granger looked around the room. Some of the kids on the edge might follow with their own attempts to follow Jennifer, but not this group. She didn’t believe copying suicide had much to do with Jennifer. It had more to do with their own pain. But teachers didn’t know much; they loved the kids like Meredith, the ones who kissed up and put on a show, the ones who saved their cruelty for quiet moments to be doled out like so many poison pills.

They get it in the end,” Lexi’s mother liked to say, but that was a lie too.

Will Einbender stared out the window and wondered if he’d go to the funeral. He wouldn’t mind going. He’d get out of class for the morning and part of the afternoon. That’d be great. He didn’t even know Jennifer, but it kind of spooked him that she killed herself. He never knew anyone who wanted to die. He liked lacrosse and YouTube. Maybe he’d want to die if he couldn’t play lacrosse. He thought Jennifer ran cross country. He thought Mike O’Connor knew her. Mike was goalie for the lacrosse team, and he might know about the funeral.

Meredith Hargrove listened to everyone speak then said, “I think we should maybe collect money for flowers or see if there’s a charity Jennifer’s family would like us to send money to, Ms. Irving.” She couldn’t believe no one had thought of that yet. At least she hoped no one had.

Meredith didn’t care in the least that Jennifer was dead. Jennifer had a higher GPA and was sure to be ranked first in the class. Not any more. Jennifer was already the first girl in the school’s history to get fives on five AP tests her junior year. She had been admitted to Harvard and Yale and Brown. Meredith had only taken four AP’s junior year and had gotten a four in calculus. She hated Jennifer Drew. Now she smiled at Mrs. Irving. “I don’t mind collecting the money.”

“How sweet, Meredith. What a wonderful idea.”

How stupid were adults, Lexi Granger wondered.

Meredith  said, “Maybe we could talk to Mr. Roseman about setting up a scholarship in her name.”

The other kids in the room looked at Meredith Hargrove and murmured their assent. Each of them remembered their own encounters with Meredith. Some long ago; some fresh as last week. Meredith would collect another brownie point on the body of a girl she tormented.

 

“You’re just amazing, Meredith,” Lexi said. She gave Meredith a poisonous smile. “I’m sure Jennifer wherever she is appreciates your . . . kindness.”

“Why thank you, Lexi,” Meredith said. She chose to ignore Lexi’s tone.

 

The bell rang.

“Bitch,” Meredith said as she breezed past Lexi.

Lexi grinned. “You’d better hope Jennifer’s not a vengeful ghost.”

Meredith flounced away with Emma DiAngelo.

In the locker room that afternoon Emma DiAngelo started fill her backpack when she saw Mike O’Connor, and she smiled. He starred in all the school plays and probably would have been a target for all the bullies except he also was the top ranked lacrosse goalie in the state. He was also six feet of gorgeous. Emma had a crush on him since middle school, but Meredith liked him too, so she never did more than say hi.

Mike O’Connor never said much to either of them.

Now he fiddled with the dial of his locker and threw the door open. He jammed books into his backpack, and Emma could see from his compressed lips and narrowed eyes, he was angry. She didn’t know whether to stay or go.

He glanced up and saw her.

“Oh, Jesus. Just the thing to make my day, one of the Witch Bitches.”

Emma felt the air go out of her for a second. How dare he call her that? Didn’t he know she was one of the most popular girls in school?

“You can’t call me that!”

“You gonna tell Meredith? Maybe send me some nasty e-mails like you did Jenny? Go ahead. I don’t give a shit. Everyone hates you anyway. They only pretend to be nice to you. Run along, Emma. Tell your bitch queen everyone here hates her. They just pretend to like her.”

Emma’s fingers tightened around her backpack. Mike O’Connor looked at her as if she were pond scum. She wanted to say something, but no words would come.

He slammed his locker shut and stalked out of the room. Emma listened to his footsteps echo down the hallway. She went into the bathroom and made herself puke.           

Meredith Hargrove got into her shiny blue Audi with Emma DiAngelo and checked herself in the rearview mirror. Emma was quiet this afternoon. She said she felt sick and looked it too. Meredith hoped it wasn’t contagious. She pulled out of the parking spot and waved at Mrs. Standish, the Vice Principle. Mrs. Standish had nominated Meredith for the G. H. Kettering Award that went to the outstanding student in the senior class. She intended to get that award. It would be the cherry on the topping of the perfect credentials that helped get her into Amherst.

Will Einbender and Ted Butler joined the rest of the boys lacrosse team on the field. Coach Dickenson called for a silent prayer for Jennifer Drew before the guys started practice. They quickly forgot her once they began running sprints. Ted ran a little slow today. His right knee hurt, but it didn’t stop him from making some vicious hits once practice started. Friday they played Dunsten Prep. The team needed to be in top form. If they beat Dunsten, they’d be number one, again.

Coach said Mike O’Connor wouldn’t be there today, so they’d have Greg Porter in goal. Greg was okay, but Mike was the man.

Ted knew Mike was close to Jennifer Drew, but practice was practice. Still, he figured Mike would be here for the game. Mike would never let down the team.

Will Einbender loped across the field with easy grace. “In the bag, dude,” he said. “Who’s number one?” They high fived.

Missy Rogers wanted to get home so she could lie back on a lounge chair near the hot tub and grab a beer. Her parents hadn’t opened the pool yet, but the hot tub was working. She didn’t want to get into the tub, but she wanted to soak up some rays while it was warm. Prom was coming, and she wanted to be tan. It would show off the hot pink dress she bought with her mom’s VISA.

She was hosting the best after-prom party ever. She went through her mental guest list. She supposed she’d have to invite Meredith. That would be a drag. Meredith was such a bitch. Secretly most of the class hated Meredith, but maybe she wouldn’t come. Maybe she’d fall down a flight of steps and break her neck. One thing was for sure: Meredith would never kill herself. Too bad. Missy’d kind of like to hear that Meredith swallowed a handful of pills. She hit the gas on her little Mercedes and headed home.

Lexi Granger walked out of the school and kept walking until she got to the park. She sat under a tree, pulled out her razor and began to pull it over her inner thighs. She wished it were Meredith Hargrove’s neck. She wondered why people like Jennifer seemed to get crushed while the ones like Meredith always seemed to win. It didn’t seem right.

“What are you doing?”

Lexi looked up into Mike O’Connor’s face. She’d been so intent on her carving, she hadn’t heard him approach.

“Jesus Christ, are you crazy?” He sat down beside her. She wanted to tell him to shove off, but he looked so confused, Lexi didn’t have the heart.

“It makes me feel better,” she said at last. “Like the pain builds up, and I have to let it out or I’ll explode.”

He leaned back against the tree. “You shouldn’t cut yourself,” he said at last. “You should talk to someone.”

“Yeah, right. So they can tell me about my deep-seated mental issues?” She dropped the razor into her pencil case. “Don’t you have someplace to be?”

“The coach let me off today. He knows Jenny and I were friends.”

“That’s good, I guess.”

“I guess.” He shrugged. “Tonight’s the private viewing.”

“That blows.”

“Yeah.”

“So why’re you telling me?”

“Because Jenny said you were one of the few people who talked to her. I can’t talk to Dana right now. She just cries all the time.”

Lexi pondered that for a few minutes. “Jennifer was my peer tutor in pre-calc, y’know? She didn’t make me feel stupid. I actually got a B in math.”

She pulled out a white fuzzy dandelion top and examined it. When she was little, she used to call them wishies because when she’d blow on them, she’d make a wish and hope the little pieces of white fuzz would carry her wishes through the air. She stopped believing in the power of wishies when she was about ten.

“I don’t know why she did it,” Mike O’Connor said. “Six weeks from the end of school. She was almost free, and she couldn’t hang on any more.”

When he was in middle school, kids used to make fun of him for taking dance lessons until he got tall and showed up on the lacrosse team. They didn’t think it was funny the way he played goal. All of a sudden he went from Mike the Fag to Mike the Superman. Maybe that’s why he liked Jenny so much. She never slapped labels on people.

“It’s not your fault,” Lexi said. “Maybe she just was too deep into the shit.”

“Maybe.”

She touched his arm. “Hey, you think I could come to the viewing tonight? Everyone will come to the funeral tomorrow to get out of school. It’ll be a zoo.”

He looked at her for a moment and nodded. “You think you could leave the dog collar and razors at home?”

Lexi blew on the wishie. “Maybe, I’ll even wear regular clothes.”