Melbourne Beach

By Bo Lewis
Feature image: Second Beach, Newport, c. 1878-80 by Worthington Whittredge 

Coach West had just finished grilling the dogs and we were all standing in line, going crazy with hunger. We’d had nothing but concession stand sno-cones after the doubleheader, and we were ready to eat our weight in barbecue. Rudy and I were going to do an experiment to see which tasted better on dogs—onions or relish. I was going to blindfold myself with my ballcap and Rudy was going to feed me one bite of each until I discovered the answer.

But Dad’s hatchback came skidding across the gravel toward the pavilion, a long dust cloud rising up behind it like the tail of a dragon, and I knew something was about to happen. The door popped open and his hand shot down to the gravel like a kickstand as he got out of the car. He left it running and didn’t shut the door behind him.

Coach West set down his tongs and gave Rudy’s father a look. They hopped off the pavilion deck and went to greet Dad. Marcellus’s mother, our Team Mom, took over at the grill, speaking loudly and brightly, asking what everybody was doing for summer now that we were done with the third grade.

Coach West called out, “What say, Burt?” and Rudy’s father said, “You want something to eat?”

“Picking up my boy,” I heard Dad say.

Coach West said, “Sure thing, Burt. Only, we just now got started. Come have a bite.”

Dad said something I couldn’t make out, and Coach West told him to go easy.

“What’s with your dad?” Rudy whispered.

Marcellus’s mother told Rudy to fetch her the baked beans. “Roy, come here, baby.” She nestled a charred dog into my bun and spooned a puddle of baked beans next to it. “Get you some potato chips and dig in. We’ll say grace later.”

I could feel the team watching me as I dressed my dog with mustard and relish. It was quiet in the pavilion. Dad was still talking to Coach West and Rudy’s father, but I only heard snippets. Something about him taking me on a trip. I carried my plate over to an empty picnic table, and one by one my teammates came and joined me. The other parents looked on and sipped their beers and didn’t say much.

Dad was starting to get loud. He shouldered past Coach West and came into the pavilion. “Roy,” he said. “Hop to.”

“At least get some food on your stomach,” Coach West told him. “We got more than plenty.”

Dad turned and looked at him. “Thanks, Dennis. You wanna fix me a plate?” Dad had a way of making any old sentence sound like a challenge.

Coach West muttered something under his breath and went back to the grill. “What was that?” Dad said.

“Nothing.”

The other parents made way for Dad as he came over and grabbed me. “Let’s go,” he said, lifting me by the arm. “You can finish that in the car.”

#

We were going to see Grampa. He lived in Melbourne Beach, Florida, with his new lady friend in a trailer park for old people. We’d been there once, all three of us, a couple years back. I could only remember a few things from that visit: a sunburn, a shuffleboard court, and lots of AstroTurf. Mom had just joined the army and we’d moved from Richmond to Fort Rucker, in the southeastern corner of Alabama.

“Does he know we’re coming?”

“Course he does!” Dad took the electric lighter from its socket and lit a cigarette. “Roll your window up.” The rule was that when Dad was smoking, my window had to be up so all the smoke would get sucked out on his side. That winter I’d had a case of bronchitis that kept coming back, and a doctor had told Dad I had asthma. Dad said only fat kids and pansies got asthma, but we were doing the window trick just to be safe.

I mumbled that I didn’t want to go to Florida.

“What?” He turned the music down. He was always blasting music. He’d even removed the backseat to make room for a pair of giant speakers.

“I said do we have to go.”

“What’s the matter, you want to stay in Buttfuck, North Carolina all sum- mer?” That was what he called our new town in the Fayetteville suburbs. He and Mom were separated, and Mom had stayed in Alabama.

I shrugged. If we were going somewhere, why couldn’t it be Fort Rucker?

Why couldn’t we visit Mom?

“Cheer up.” He snatched the ballcap off my head and tossed it into the back. “Hey!” My hands flailed after it.

“Too slow!” He noogied my hair. His mood had lifted, and mine along with it. He swirled the ice in his Redskins cup and took a long gulp. “Finish your slop and I’ll let you shift.”

I loved shifting for him. He’d push in the clutch and shout the gear number, and I’d move the stick. That way he could keep his right hand free for his drink. But when I looked down at my plate, I saw that it had tipped slantways and all the baked beans had spilled down between my thighs. They were pool- ing on the seat under my crotch. I looked up, hoping Dad hadn’t noticed, but he’d seen it too. He sucked on his cigarette, shaking his head. I could feel my chin beginning to tremble.

“Hey, no biggie,” Dad said. “It’s just shit-ass Naugahyde.” He handed me his drink and reached around behind my seat where we kept a roll of shop towels in the kangaroo pouch. “See what you can do with these.”

Everything was all right. My white baseball pants were ruined and there was syrupy bean juice in the seams of the Naugahyde, but Dad wasn’t ticked. He sang in his heavy metal falsetto as I mopped up.

The tape in the deck ended and for a while there was no sound except the wind snapping in and out of Dad’s window. I watched him smoke in slow pulls that showed his cheekbones. Every so often he’d thumb the filter and the wind would carry away the ash. Dad had a new way of holding his cigarettes, ever since he’d sliced off his pointer finger back in January. He’d been at work, split- ting an oven cord lengthwise with a box knife. They’d sewn the finger back on but it didn’t work anymore. All the nerves were cut. He’d let me poke it with my fork as hard as I dared, and the most he ever felt was a distant tingle that made him laugh. Sometimes, late at night, I’d crawl into his room and stick the finger in my mouth. I liked to bite it. I’d clamp it between my molars, gently at first, squeezing harder and harder until he flinched or rolled over.

He caught me watching him. “What’s the first thing you want to do when we get down there? Eat a shark? Wrassle a gator?”

“They have gators where Grampa lives?”

“It’s Florida, man. Gators outnumber people three to one.”

I pictured a strip mall full of gators walking around on their hind legs, push- ing shopping carts.

“Your grampa wants to take you fishing. That’s his thing now, apparently.

He goes fishing every day.” “How come we’re visiting?”

He was quiet a moment, like he hadn’t heard me. Then he said, “Me and you make a solid team. But there’s a piece of us missing, isn’t there? Boys need their mothers. Men need their wives.”

“Uh-huh.”

“So I had an idea. Son, what’s the last place we were all together and happy?” “Waffle House?”

“Florida, dingus. The sunshine state! I phoned your mom. She’s coming down. We’re getting back together.”

“For real? You’re sure?”

“Sure I’m sure! Come tomorrow, she’ll be there. I feel it in my waters. Do you feel it in your waters, Roy?”

What I felt was a mix of hope and dread, like a weed-whacker was thrum- ming inside my gut. But Dad kept smiling at me, nodding, and I said, “Yes, sir.”

“Goddamn right.” He pounded the steering wheel and we swerved over the white line. Outside the car, the spaces grew more and more open, and after a while the stink of farms blew in and mixed with the cigarette smoke.

“First mate,” Dad said, rattling the ice in his cup. “A refill, good man.”

I said, “Aye aye,” and opened the glove box, which was always stocked with a bottle of Bacardi 151 and about ten thousand packets of ketchup. I poured the Bacardi and it was a long time before he said when.

“Coke?” I asked. “You know it.”

The cooler was on the floorboard between my feet. I pulled out a can of Coke and a handful of ice. The deal was I got to drink any Coke left in the can.

“First mate,” he said again. “Some tunes for the voyage.”

I fished around behind the seats and found the zipper case with all the tapes. We mostly listened to Maiden, Sabbath, and Priest. I liked Maiden the best because they had a song that sounded like the first level of Contra, my favorite Nintendo game. I pushed the tape into the deck and Dad cranked it so loud my eardrums throbbed. He shouted, “Fifth!” and I shifted the gear and we started headbanging.

#

Before long we saw the first sign for South of the Border. Just over the state line they sold all kinds of fireworks you couldn’t get in North Carolina, the really good stuff. The signs were getting bigger and closer together, like a countdown clock. Dad had refused to stop there when we’d moved up from Alabama, back in November. It was late June now. I could picture the look on Rudy’s face if I showed up to his Fourth of July cookout with a bag full of bottle rockets and Roman candles and cherry bombs. In the woods behind his house we could tape M-80s to his army men and blast them to smithereens. I pictured the sweet carnage of our battlefield: a no-man’s land scattered with plastic heads and caterpillar goo.

“I’m hungry,” I said. “Hello, Hungry. I’m Burt.” “Daaad.”

“Don’t get your titties in a tangle.” He swatted the turn signal and drifted into the right lane. “Reckon I should drain the monster anyways.”

We downshifted off the highway and veered toward a hundred-foot neon Mexican holding a sign that said South of the Border. The whole place was made to look like you were crossing into Mexico, with sombrero-shaped gift shops and a mascot named Pedro painted onto every sign. One sign said This Way to Rocket City, with Pedro pointing the way and smiling big under his bushy mustache.

As we parked, I got nervous. If I was going to buy fireworks, I needed to ask Dad for money. But there was no telling how he’d react. Half the time, when the ice cream truck would cruise through the apartment complex and I’d ask him for fifty cents, he’d give me a dollar and tell me to keep the change. The other half of the time he’d call me a spoiled little skidmark and remind me that there were kids in China weaving oriental rugs and sleeping in boxes. But I couldn’t just wimp out. “Don’t be a puss-wad,” he’d told me more than once. And, “The closed mouth don’t get fed.”

“Dad? Could I ask you a favor?”

He killed his drink and flicked the ice out onto the asphalt. “It occurs to me,” he said, hitching sideways and digging for his wallet, “that you have a birthday coming up.”

“In October.”

“October is sooner than it seems, little man.” He handed me a ten-dollar bill. “Go nuts.”

I couldn’t believe it. I pried off my cleats and laced up my tennis shoes in    a hurry, in case he changed his mind before I got away. But he just got out  and leaned against the car, smoking his cigarette. It hung from his lips as he reached his fists into the air and stretched. His arms were hard and brown and full of veins. Mine were soft and white as fishbelly. I wondered how much longer before I got to look like him.

“C’mere,” he said. He kissed the top of my head and smacked my butt. “This car leaves in fifteen minutes, whether you’re in it or not.”

#

It was suppertime and I was starving, so I spent a few dollars on food: two handfuls of saltwater taffy, some rock candy that looked like the inside of a geode, a Chipwich, and a pack of candy cigarettes. The rest went toward ex- plosives.

I jogged back to the parking lot, swinging my loot in one hand and my Chipwich in the other. You had to eat a Chipwich fast, before the ice cream ran down to your elbows. But when I saw the car, Dad wasn’t there. I looked around and spotted him at the far end of the lot. He was facing away from me, hunched over a payphone. I crept up on him, straining to hear. With all the noise of cars and families, I couldn’t catch a single word until I was right behind him. I heard him say, “Don’t dick us around,” and then, a minute later, “Please.”

He hung up the phone like he wouldn’t mind breaking it. When he turned and saw me, he looked startled.

“Ho! Gonna make me bust an artery. Hey, is that a Big Wheel?” “It’s a Chipwich,” I said. “Was that Mom?”

“When I was your age we called those Big Wheels. Here, lemme taste.” He took a giant bite, and the ice cream squished out between the two cookies. “Been to the piss-house yet?” I shook my head, and together we walked toward the cinderblock piss-house to drain our monsters.

Back in the car I fixed Dad a fresh drink.

“Lot of highway ahead of us,” he said. He lit a cigarette and started the engine.

“Dad, check it out.” I showed him the pack of candy cigarettes. I took one out and held it the way he held his, between the middle two fingers. I put it to my lips and blew an invisible cloud of smoke.

Dad looked for a second like he was about to laugh, but then his expres- sion hardened. He reached out slowly and took the cigarette from my lips. He snapped it in half, and chalky bits of candy sprinkled like dandruff onto the console. He picked up the box, which was red and white like his Marlboros, and tossed it out the window. Then he grabbed me by the meat between my neck and shoulder, and his thumb dug in. “No, Roy.”

“But—”

“You’re an athlete.” He let go of my neck and rapped his fist against my chest. “Gotta keep your lungs good, shitbird.”

He tried to ruffle my hair and I flinched. I curled away from him, pressed my forehead against the padded trim of the door.

“Roy,” he said. I didn’t budge. He put the car in gear and coasted out of the parking lot.

It was wrong to imagine him dying but I did it all the time. He could have an accident at work. A jolt from a live wire, or another mistake with a box knife. When Mom had come back from basic training, she’d shown me all the places where if you get cut you bleed to death. The armpit, the groin, the side of the neck. And once the blood comes out, there’s no getting it back in. Like toothpaste.

Dad was swirling the ice in his drink. A big rig went past and the whole car rattled. “First mate,” he said. “How ’bout some music. Something mellow.”

I ejected Maiden and decided on Yes. Their music sounded like it came  from another planet, like some secret alien lullaby. We said nothing as South Carolina slid beneath us and the sun went away.

#

At night, once the noise of the day passed, I always thought about Mom. When she didn’t come up to see us on holiday weekends, Dad said there was no understanding women, especially the ones you loved. But I understood. Mom didn’t want to visit because she saw me for what I really was: a freak, a sicko. I had urges that bubbled up from some black swamp in my head. I did things normal kids would never think of doing. Like when I was snooping through Dad’s tool chest and found a magazine full of naked people—men with gigantic monsters and women with faces like they were being tortured. First I got the coupon scissors and cut out all the heads and privates and stashed them in a Piggly Wiggly bag underneath the shed. Then I took the magazine carcass out into the woods and set it on fire.

In Fort Rucker, I’d spent a lot of time outside. Dad worked weekends, and Mom’s church friend Glenn was always coming over for Bible study on Saturday afternoons. Mom would send me out of the house, saying she better not see me back until Glenn’s car was gone. So I’d walk through the neighborhood for hours on end, snooping and burning things, getting my soul in trouble.

One time I came across a toad that had just been squashed in the street. Its bottom half was torn open but it wasn’t dead yet. I could see its guts glistening, its throat bulging, its clammy toes grasping at the air. How strange, I thought, that it couldn’t scream. The toad found its way onto the driver’s seat of Glenn’s car, with my magazine clippings strewn around it like funeral flowers. From just beyond the tree line with my chin in the pine tags, I watched him leave through the side door. He shrieked when he saw the present I’d left him, and Mom ran out to see what was wrong. But later, when I slunk back into the house, she didn’t say a word about it.

#

I was asleep when we arrived. At least, I’d been asleep for some time, and when I woke to the low gears and many turns of Grampa’s trailer park, I kept my eyes shut. I wanted to be carried inside and laid in bed like when I was younger, when Mom would strap me in the booster seat and drive through the winding Virginia backroads until I finally dozed off.

I heard a screen door flap shut, then Grampa’s voice and Dad’s shushing him. Dad lifted me out of the car and carried me like a dead bride into the trailer. If I kept my eyes shut and my breathing slow, it felt like the good part of a dream.

“Sweet Lord,” I heard Grampa say. “He shit himself!” “Pop,” Dad whispered. “Hush.”

“He did! Look at that stain.”

“That’s beans, Pop. Keep your voice down.”

I felt a bed rise up beneath me. As Dad pulled off my shoes and my baseball pants, I cooperated just enough. Then a doorknob clicked and I was alone in  a tiny room with an air conditioner growling in the window. As I drifted back to sleep, I wondered when in the night we’d passed Mom, when we’d been exactly as far south as she was in Fort Rucker. I wondered whether she’d been allowed to stay in the duplex, or if she’d had to move into a singles’ barracks.  I wondered if at that same moment she was packing for Florida—or if she was lying in bed, waiting to fall asleep, thinking how lucky she was to be rid of us.

#

In the morning, Dad and Grampa were talking in the next room. Someone was turning water on and off again. There was a sound of plates and forks being moved around. Every time someone took a step, the whole trailer squeaked. At the house in Alabama, I’d listened to my parents’ arguments through a juice glass pressed against the wall. But you didn’t need a glass here. It was like be- ing inside a stethoscope.

I heard Grampa say, “Is she coming or not?” “She says she is.”

“She says.”

Then I heard a woman’s voice say, “She’ll be here.” This had to be Millie, Grampa’s new lady friend.

“What do you know?” Grampa said. “You’ve never even met her.” “She’ll be here because Roy is here. A mother knows these things.” “You let him get fat,” Grampa said.

“Pop.”

“You did. Last I saw that boy he was thin as a fishing pole. You been pour- ing gravy on his cornflakes?”

I got out of bed and found a paper bag of clothes that Dad must have packed. When I pulled on a pair of shorts, I had to work to get them all the way up. Grampa was right about my belly. We’d been living on microwave burritos and bodybuilder shakes and tubs of ice cream. For supper every day we went to J.

D. Dempsey’s, a bar with a free happy hour buffet. They had a heat lamp cart with piles of Buffalo wings and Frito chili pie.

Out in the living room, Dad was sitting in his underwear on the couch and Grampa’s lady friend was serving breakfast.

“There he is!” Grampa said, hobbling across the room to hug me. He was stooped over and had the grossest hands I’d ever seen. His knuckles were as big as golf balls and his fingertips all went in crooked directions. Dad had told me that back in the war Grampa’d been the navy’s greatest boxer. Even with his curved spine and his swollen ankle, Grampa still looked like he could pull a tree right out of the ground.

Millie fussed over me like I was her own grandkid. She called me “dump- ling” and had the thickest accent I’d ever heard. Instead of calling Grampa “George” she said “Jowidge.” Her voice was very wobbly. So was her head.

“Are you ready to go fishing with your grandaddy?” she asked. I said, “Is Mom still coming?”

Dad and Grampa looked at each other. Dad turned to me and said, “Yes. But Mom and me need to talk about some things first, so you’re going to hang with Grampa. Later we can all go out together. We’ll drive up to Cocoa Beach and see where they launch rockets into space.”

“Doesn’t that sound cool?” Millie asked. Her face was smiling yes but her head was wobbling no.

#

It was awkward being alone with Grampa. I hadn’t seen him in years, and suddenly I was supposed to go fishing with him, shooting the breeze at the end of some pier. Besides, I couldn’t stop thinking about Mom. I pictured her in Grampa’s trailer, sitting next to Dad on the orange plaid sofa, stirring a glass of iced tea and telling him we could move back to Alabama.

Grampa sipped Bloody Mary from a thermos and asked me questions about school and baseball, but there wasn’t much to say. I’d started the third grade in Fort Rucker and finished it in Fayetteville. I hadn’t made any friends apart from Rudy, and he went to a different school. I’d only been to one birthday party, when the kid’s parents made him invite the entire class, and I’d acciden- tally shot the birthday boy in the cheek with his BB gun.

A lady near us was throwing fistfuls of bread into the air for the seagulls. Grampa flung his cigarette butt above our heads, and a gull snatched it in its beak. He laughed and pushed a fresh piece of squid onto his hook.

Grampa smoked even more than Dad. I asked him if he ever got tired of smoking, and he said, “We Richmonders are obliged to support Mister Philip Morris.” I held two fingers to my lips and mimed smoking. Grampa chuckled. “That’s the spirit.” He cast his line out and squinted down at the water.

I asked him what a real cigarette tasted like. He said, “Like an angel blowing you a kiss.”

I asked if I could try. “Just a puff,” I promised. “I’ll give it right back.” “How old are you? Seven?”

“Eight and a half.”

He considered it for a moment. He checked over his shoulder. “One tiny puff,” he said at last. “And don’t tell your daddy.”

I pursed my lips and sucked on it like a straw. I wanted to hollow out my cheeks the way Dad did. The smoke hit my throat like a string of firecrackers. Tears rushed to my eyes and I coughed the flavor of blood. Grampa slapped me on the back and I coughed some more.

“Maybe wait a few years before your next one.”

Even after the coughing died down, a rawness lingered on every breath. I had an inhaler in my nightstand, but I was certain Dad hadn’t packed it. He didn’t believe in inhalers.

Grampa and I cast our lines back out and watched the ocean for a while.    I began to feel hot and greasy, all slathered in sunblock and baking in the Florida heat. I thought about the air conditioning in the trailer. Mom must   be freezing in there. She was always putting on sweatshirts and nagging Dad about the A/C. She’d say, “I’m freezing to death!” And he’d say, “Promise?”

I asked Grampa, “Can we go see Mom now?” but all he said was “In time, in time,” and cut up another squid for bait. I imagined riding back to Fort Rucker with her. Mom never headbanged or made dirty jokes or yanked the e-brake, and she didn’t let me shift gears or fix her highballs. But she never blew up at me either, and she never spanked.

At one point my pole bent sharply and I cranked the reel with all my might. But the line fell slack again. It was only the rip current pulling things along.

Grampa decided the fish weren’t going to bite, and he asked if I wanted an ice cream. We strolled the long way back to the trailer park, him carrying our tackle and me making a mess of my ice cream cone. Melbourne Beach was a narrow strip of land with the ocean on one side and a big, slow river on the other. We  went down to the river and Grampa swung his bum foot up onto   a bench to keep it from swelling so much. I wanted to skip stones across the water, but there weren’t any. There was nothing but sand and razor grass and palm trees.

#

It was dim in the trailer. Dad was lying facedown on the sofa, and Millie had her hands in the kitchen sink. The coffee table was covered with empty beer cans. Grampa looked at Millie, and she shook her head.

“Dad?” I said. “Is Mom coming?”

He kept his face buried in the cushions.

“She phoned a while ago,” Millie told us. “I’m sorry, dumpling.” “Figures,” Grampa said.

Millie clapped her hands together and asked if we’d caught her some dinner. “Dinner didn’t want to get caught,” Grampa said. “But the kid’s got a hell of a casting arm.”

Dad finally pushed himself up from the sofa. “Jesus, Pop, he’s fried!”

I looked down at my arms. They were bright red. The tops of my ears were beginning to itch.

“Well, he had sunscreen on,” Grampa said. “Kids just burn. Nothing you can do.”

Millie fixed us pimento cheese sandwiches and we ate them at the coffee table. There was baseball on the TV, but nobody really watched. I thought Grampa might say something wise that would make Dad feel better, but he just got up and refilled his thermos. Dad never stayed quiet this long. I kept glancing at him, hoping he’d pipe up with some idea of what to do next.

“How do y’all like the pimento cheese?” Millie asked. “It’s my specialty.” “It’ll make a turd,” Grampa said. He and Dad had the same way of not quite grinning when they’d said a punchline and wanted you to laugh.

Millie cut up a honeydew, which she called “mushmelon,” and set it out in a big football-shaped bowl. We speared chunks of it with miniature forks that Grampa said were really for seafood. Their tines were thin and sharp. It was the sweetest melon I’d ever tasted, but Dad wouldn’t touch it. He sat there with his shins against the coffee table and his hands on his knees. I hadn’t seen him crack a smile since the drive down.

An idea came to me, a way to make him laugh. I reached my fork out toward the melon bowl, and at the last second I changed direction and stabbed it into Dad’s dead finger. “Ow!” he yelled, and slapped me across the face. Millie began to scold me, but Dad held up his good hand and she fell silent. We all looked at the finger. There were dots of blood where the tines had gone in. Millie disap- peared and came back with a tin of Band-Aids and a bottle of iodine.

My cheek burned where he’d slapped me. I stammered that I was sorry. Dad said nothing.

I told him, “I thought it was still numb.” “Me too.”

Millie cleared our plates and Grampa went into the kitchen to refill his ther- mos. It was just Dad and me on the couch. He pressed his bad finger with his thumbnail, testing to see where the feeling was coming back. The box knife scar ran up the meaty part of the finger and across the second knuckle like a lopsided ring. I slumped against him, my ear on his arm, my nostrils full of his smell, and I watched him press and wait, press and wait, over and over again.

“I know!” Millie said. “Who thinks they can take me in shuffleboard?”

I slipped out to the car and flung the seat back and pulled my shirt up over my head so I could cry without anybody seeing. But the tears refused to come. Instead I began to feel more and more like a can of Coke that somebody had shaken like crazy. I squirmed in the seat. I wanted to scream, smash bottles, blow something up.

Dad always kept spare lighters in the car, and back between the speakers was my bag full of fireworks. I held them in my lap and considered the gory possibilities. If I wanted, I could fold my body over the pile of explosives and die in a glorious red mess, like a soldier diving onto a grenade. I pictured Dad and Grampa and Millie falling to their knees at the sight of the car’s glass all caked with plump ribbons of brain and gut. At the funeral Mom and Dad would wail, It’s all our fault! Or I could squeeze an M-80 in my fist and blow my hand clean off. At school when girls would ask me about my hook, I’d stare into the distance and say, I don’t like to talk about it.

I was weighing my options, arranging the fireworks in neat rows across my thighs, when the trailer door groaned and Dad stepped out onto the porch.

He sipped his beer and eyed me a long minute before coming over to the car. I rolled the window down and he peered in, taking stock.

“You know,” he said, “they’re more fun if you blow them up.”

I looked at the fireworks on my lap, all laid out like a science fair dis- play. Back home I was the same way with my collections of geodes and stamped pennies. Dad had warned me that real boys weren’t fussy about their things. Real boys also didn’t kiss their stuffed animals goodnight or make up choreography to Whitney Houston songs. I was already dorkus maximus, and if I wasn’t careful I’d end up dorkus maximus with a side of sugar. I swept everything back into the plastic bag, hoping he’d let it slide. Dad reached in and took the bag from my hands.

“Come on,” he said. “Perfect day for a Roman duel.”

We walked along the golf cart lane, past the pool and the putting green and the shuffleboard courts, out to the dead end at the riverbank. The trailer park was quiet. It was the hottest part of the day, and all the old folks had gone down for their nap.

We fired Roman candles at each other from ten paces apart, jumping and juking and shouting that we demanded satisfaction. We chucked M-80s into the river and pretended the explosions were giant fish farts. We spazzed around our battlefield of cardboard shrapnel and the boiled-egg stench of sulfur.

“Better than fishing?” Dad asked. “Fishing sucks!”

“Hey now!” Dad said, fists on hips, doing his impression of Mom. “Sucks what?” She couldn’t stand it when we said anything sucked. Hey now!, she’d say. Sucks what?

“Fishing sucks fish farts!” I yelled.

“Hey now!” Dad said again, and I laughed like it was the funniest thing I’d ever heard. We said it over and over, louder and shriller with each explosion. “Hey now! HEY NOW!”

There was one Roman candle left in the bag. I lit the fuse, and nothing happened. “Hey now!” Dad called from the riverbank. “You got a dud?”

I leaned over it. “Hey, Roy.”

I peered down the end of the tube, hypnotized. There came a slight vibration, a sound of fire hissing toward the charge. I jammed my thumb inside the barrel, squeezed my fist around it.

“Hey, now,” he shouted again, only this time he sounded nothing like my mother.


Bo Lewis is a Virginia native and a graduate of the Brooklyn College MFA program, where he won the Himan Brown short story award. His fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train, the Oxford American, and Story ​magazine. He teaches at a public high school in Brooklyn and is currently working on a novel.

Website: http://www.bolewis.com/

Feature image: Paul Mellon Fund and Gift of Juliana Terian in memory of Peter G. Terian. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington.

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