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.”


“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.