By: S.D. Lavender
Jimmy could almost hear his father’s voice saying what he used to say whenever it was time to help out a relative: Other people might like you, but family’s the only ones you can count on. The words had had always made sense, but now as dusk descended on the streets of St. Louis and Jimmy and his brother Del headed toward the Oasis tavern to find Ed Mahoney, their brother-in-law, and give him the beating of his life, Jimmy was confused. Sure, Ed had been warned: hit their sister one more time and he’d wish he’d never been born. But the bastard had gone and got liquored up and done it again. He was asking for it, begging for it. Was he stupid? What was it somebody said? When he’s sober, Ed’s the nicest guy in the world, but when he’s drunk he’s mean as a snake. Well, thought Jimmy, this snake is gonna get stomped.
Jimmy scanned the sidewalks; Ed was on foot because Vera refused tell him where she had hidden the car keys. That’s why he had slugged her. Then she had driven over to her Mom’s house and Mom had called Del at work and when he got off he came by and got the details from Vera, who had a nasty shiner, but was otherwise calm by that point, sitting at the kitchen table smoking and drinking coffee. Jimmy had come in from the back yard where he’d been practicing his curve ball and heard enough to know what he had to do. The first thing he’d noticed when he hopped into Del’s ’40 Nash Sedan American, was the .22 rifle laying across the back seat.
“What’s that for?”
“Better to have it and not need it,” Del had said, echoing another of their father’s favorite sayings, “than need it and not have it. He might have that Kraut pistol on him.”
“He does, we’ll shove it right up his ass.” Jimmy didn’t think it was going to be much of a fight. Sure, Ed was a scrapper, but he was only five ten, about Jimmy’s size, and Del was six seven. And besides, there were two of them.
“What if he’s not at the Oasis?”
Del took a while to answer, “Mom said he might have a girlfriend. We find out who she is, we’ll go over there.”
Del nodded and flicked the ash from his Pall Mall in the tray. “That’s the rumor.”
“We should whip his ass just for that. Jeez, what did Vera ever see in that guy?”
“The uniform. We all looked like heroes.”
Del blew out a long stream of smoke, and then rolled down the window to let in some of crisp October air. Jimmy wanted to ask for a cigarette, but he knew what Del would say. Hell no, you’re just a kid and you still got some growing to do and Coach would probably bench you for the whole season if he saw you smoking. Del was always looking out for him, even more so now that their dad was gone. It was good to have a big brother as big as Del. Any time some punks were picking on Jimmy and his friends and then saw Del coming, they would scatter like cartoon mice.
The Nash tossed its shadow on the white walls of the cemetery. Jimmy used to climb those walls and it was always obvious he had done so by tell-tale the chalk on his pants.
“I don’t know why you like that place so much,” Mom once said. “We’ll all be in there soon enough– and for a long, long time.” But he liked gazing into the goldfish ponds and the innocent faces of the marble angels. He had read most of the headstones. There was a poem on one of them he had memorized:
Remember friend, when passing by,
As you are now, so once was I.
As I am now, so you shall be,
So be prepared to follow me.
At first the words gave him the creeps, and he imagined a snickering, rotting corpse beneath them, but since the death of his father, he found them almost comforting. Follow me. So maybe there was some other place to go to. A better place.
He’d sit on his haunches beside his father’s grave and talk baseball: how many batters he had struck out. Talk about the Cardinals: Stan the Man, Enos Slaughter, Joe Garagiola. He’d tell him how much he missed going hunting with him. How he wished he would have been there the night his dad was cleaning his gun–to say, “Did you make sure it ain’t loaded?” He’d say how much they all missed his piano playing.
There were other family buried there too. People he heard stories about: his great grandfather, who had to flee Kentucky for winging a revenuer–an aunt who died from the Spanish Flu in 1918; a cousin whose ship had been torpedoed by the Japs. Jimmy hoped they all would make the cut come judgement day, all rise up for a big family reunion.
Most of all, Jimmy was glad Del wasn’t there. After Del got called up and went overseas, Jimmy had prayed every night: Please protect Del, and keep him safe. He’s all we got now that Dad’s gone. And now there’s that .22 in the back seat, and Ed might be carrying that Luger.
The Oasis Tavern was an olive-green cinder block building with a neon sign over the doorway. Horseshoes rang out from the pits in back, and Patsy Cline sang out from the juke box inside. It was darker and smokier than Jimmy remembered. He searched against one of the walls for the little riser where western swing groups used to play, but it was gone. His dad had sat in on piano now and then. Vera had come to see him and that’s when she first met Ed– in his MP uniform, acting the fool, trying to croon like Crosby.
The bartender, a beefy redhead with rolled up sleeves, raised an inquiring chin.
“What can I get you?”
“We’re looking for Ed Mahoney?” said Del. “Has he been in tonight?”
The bartender shook his head, “He’s eighty-sixed.”
“Hey, Delbert,” said a blonde woman at the end of the bar sitting next to a man in a zoot suit. “Remember me?”
Del moved down the bar, looking her over.
“Barb Corrigan,” she said when it was obvious Del didn’t remember her. “Central High.”
“Oh yeah. Hi there.”
“What are you up to these days?”
“Well, right now I’m looking for Ed Mahoney. You seen him?”
“Naw. He got in a fight last time he was in here,” she said. “Shooting his mouth off as usual. That guy don’t like nobody.”
The man sitting with her squinted up at Del. “How tall are you?”
“Five-nineteen,” said Del.
Barb laughed and smiled at Jimmy. “Hiya kid. I heard about you. Jimmy, right? You’re a regular Dizzy Dean.”
Jimmy shrugged. He had heard about her too–Backseat Barb.
“You got any idea where he might be?” said Del.
“No, and I don’t care,” said Barb. “What you fellas want with him anyway? Oh, that’s right–you’re kin now, ain’t you?”
“Is there a gal he’s been seeing?”
The smile left her face. “How the hell should I know?”
“I heard things.”
“Well bully for you.”
“Hey, Slim,” said the man, turning a little on his stool. “The lady said she didn’t know nothing,”
Del eased back–relaxed, but ready, “Nice suit you got there.”
Barb stroked the wide lapels. “It is nice, ain’t it?”
“Yeah,” said Del. “First time I seen one on a white man, though.”
“Hey Marvin,” the man called out the side of his mouth. “This guy don’t like my suit.”
The bartender bellied over, one of his hands sliding under the bar and faced Del. “Leave my customers alone, OK?”
There was a pay phone on the wall near the entrance. Del went over to it and Jimmy followed. Del fished a dime out of his pants pocket and dropped it in the slot.
“Who you calling?”
“Vera. See if the dog came crawling back.”
He dialed and waited. There was no answer.
As Del and Jimmy headed out, Barb shouted at them, “You find him, you tell him to get lost.”
Del looked around the parking lot and up and down the street. Somewhere in the dark a bottle shattered and a woman howled.
“I could use some coffee,” he muttered.
They drove a mile or so to a hamburger joint. A couple came out, arm in arm, leaving the place empty. Del and Jimmy took a booth, and the waitress, a plump, farm girl type, came over to take their order.
“Just coffee,” said Del.
“I’ll have French fries and a chocolate shake,” said Jimmy
“Comin’ right up.”
Del lit up a cigarette and seemed deep in thought, twisting a bit of hair hanging over his ear. Then he said, “Listen, it’s getting late. After we’re done here I’m going to take you home.”
“It ain’t that late.”
“I shouldn’t have let you come anyway. Last thing you need is a busted hand.”
“I can take care of myself.”
“I know you can, but—I don’t think Dad would have liked it. You shouldn’t have nothing on your mind except baseball. He sure wanted to see you on that mound at Sportsman’s Park, wanted that more than anything in the world. He was real proud of you. We’re all real proud of you.
“He was proud of you, too.”
Del shrugged. “Yeah. Maybe.”
“He was and you know it. That medal you got.”
“Any fool can get shot. Anyway, I’m taking you back. I’ll probably turn in myself. I don’t think we’re going to find him tonight. I’ll tell you one thing, I sure am glad they don’t have any kids. Been married almost three years and ain’t got no kids. That tells you something right there.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. Something ain’t right. Man drinks like he does. Hits his wife. Runs around with other women. Can’t hold a job for more than a month. Who’d want somebody like that for a dad anyway?”
“Maybe he wouldn’t be like that if they had a kid.”
“You got to be a good man to be a good father, and he’s just— no good.”
Jimmy got up. “Got to use the can.”
He swung into the men’s room and over to the urinal. The place smelled of piss and puke. Somebody was in the stall, coughing and spitting. The toilet flushed and the stall door opened and out came Ed, red eyed and wobbly, his bowling shirt untucked. When he saw Jimmy he stopped, his mouth hanging open.
Jimmy quickly zipped up and turned to face him. Del was a handsome man. Jimmy always thought he looked a little like Dana Andrews, and except for getting a little thick in the belly, was fit as he’d been as an MP.
Ed coughed and shook his head. “Listen, I—“
“You sorry son of a bitch!”
Ed raised his hands, palms out. “I don’t know what to say. “
“Nothing you can say. Del’s out there and he’s mad as hell. We all are.
“You know she’s got a mouth on her. A man can only take so much of that.”
“She’s a woman.”
“You’re just a kid. You still think all women are good. Well, believe me, they ain’t”
“She’s my sister.”
Ed nodded, “I guess I’m just beating my gums here.” He went to the sink, turned on the faucet, cupped some water into his hands, splashed his face, and looked at himself in the mirror.
“Lordy,” he said. “Don’t I look like shit.”
“You are shit.”
Ed grinned and shook his head. “Thing is Jimmy, I’ve had a rough night.”
“That’s too bad,” said Jimmy, “You just come on out and get what you got coming to you.”
At that, Ed reached one hand behind his back and pulled out a German Luger and waggled it at the ceiling.
“I took this off a dead kraut. I didn’t shoot him, but whoever did didn’t take it, so I did. I told my daddy I shot him though, you know, to make him think better of me. And he did, for a little while anyway. My father. You boys had a good one, didn’t you?”
“Don’t you talk– just thank your lucky stars it’s me standing here and not him.”
“Took you fishing and hunting. Taught you all kinds of things. Didn’t drink hardly at all, did he? No excuses. I’ll tell you one thing, my old man was a drunk and not much good, but he would never lay with his own daughter.”
Jimmy stiffened, as if a cold hand had reached inside him.
“That’s right,” said Ed. “Vera told me your old man used to sneak in at night and—”
Jimmy swung, but Ed blocked it and spun him around and got him in a choke hold and shoved the gun into his temple. Jimmy struggled, gasped for air, felt his face go numb and his vision blur.
Ed whispered, “I got nothing against you boys. It ain’t your fault, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to take a beating tonight. Not from the likes of you.” When he was sure that the fight had gone out of the boy, Ed eased off. “Now you go back out there and don’t say nothing, and I’ll just stay in here until you’re gone. Then I’ll get out of town. I’ve been thinking about it for a long time. Be the best thing for everybody.” He gave Jimmy a pat on the shoulder. “You all right?”
Jimmy hung his head, holding back tears, trying to block out the dark pictures swirling in his mind. Finally, he took a deep breath, slipped out of the door and walked back to the table where Del was drinking coffee and the milk shake and fries were waiting.
“What’d you do, fall in?” asked Del.
Jimmy sat down and stared at the fries.
“What’s the matter?”
“Nothing. I ain’t as hungry as I thought,” said Jimmy.
Del ate a couple of fries, took a last sip of coffee, and said, “I guess we’ll get you on home.”
He grabbed the check and walked up to the counter. The waitress smiled and rang up the cash register. The she leaned in and whispered to Jimmy, “Is that guy all right in there?”
“What?” said Jimmy.
“The guy that was sitting over there. He’s been in there for a long time.”
On the table she was looking at was a cup of coffee, an empty plate, crumpled up napkins. Del tried to read Jimmy’s face, but Jimmy turned away and grabbed a tooth pick out of the dispenser.
“Is Ed in there?”
Jimmy shook his head. “Naw. Just some old drunk.”
Del studied the men’s room door for a few moments, as if deciding what to do, and then handed the waitress a couple of bills. “Keep the change.”
“Thanks, Honey,” she chirped. “You boys have a nice night now.”
Del walked out and Jimmy trailed behind.
As Del opened the Nash’s back door he asked, “Did he have his gun on him?”
Jimmy said, “What? Who?”
“Is that why you lied to me?” He pulled out the .22 rifle and cradled it in his arms and leaned his back against the car. “We’ll talk about that later.”
“You’re just going to shoot him?”
“I’m going to ask him to give up his gun and take his beating like a man. If he pulls on me, that’s on him.”
“But he’s family,” said Jimmy.
Time dragged on as they stood there in there in the night, and it reminded Jimmy of the mornings, just before dawn, when he and Del and their dad had squatted silently in the thicket beside a watering hole, waiting for game. But then he tried to block the memory. He didn’t want to picture that stranger who was trying to take his father’s place.
He broke the silence. “What’s the worst thing you ever done, Del?”
“I don’t know. This ain’t going to be it. That’s for sure.”
Finally, Ed stuck his head out the door, went back inside for a minute or so, and then stuck it out again and said with a voice full of resignation, “Hey there, boys.”
“Come on out here, Ed. Put your hands up in the air and turn around and walk backwards.”
“Hey, now,” Ed said, forcing a chuckle. “I’m the one with po-lice training.”
“Just do it,” said Del. And then to Jimmy he said, “Go on and take his gun.”
Ed turned around and backed up, and when he was close enough, Jimmy went up and pulled the Luger out of Ed’s waistband.
“Bring it here,” said Del. When Jimmy handed it to him he looked at it then handed both it and the rifle to Jimmy. Moving like a panther, he rushed up on Ed and began pummeling him. Ed tried to clinch, but Del threw him down, and after that all Ed could do was cover his head as Del kicked him over and over.
“All right!” shouted Jimmy. “That’s enough. You got him.”
Del stopped, barely winded. Ed, who lay like a fetus on the asphalt.
The waitress stuck her head out of the door. “I called the police, so you boys best get on out of here.”
Del loomed over Ed. “We’re going to get Vera away from you. You hear me? You stay away from her from now on or I swear to God I’ll kill you.”
“That’s a good idea,” Ed gasped. “That’s a real good idea.”
Del turned and took the guns from Jimmy and put them in the Nash’s trunk. Then he went around to the driver’s side and was about to get in when he saw his brother wasn’t moving.
“Come on, let’s go.”
“I want to make sure he’s all right.”
“You just go on. I’ll be there directly.”
“You heard her. The cops are coming. You don’t need no law trouble.”
When he saw Jimmy wasn’t going to comply, Del said, “All, right, let’s get him in the car. We’ll drop him off St. Luke’s.”
They put Ed in the back seat, and on the way to the hospital no one spoke for quite a while until Del finally asked, “What are you going to say, Ed?”
“Don’t worry brother-in-law. I’m just going to say I got jumped by assailants unknown.”
“I think you busted my ribs. In fact, I know it.”
“I’m glad. Don’t feel good does it?”
“Hey, kid,” said Ed. “Forget about what I said back there. Probably nothing to it.”
“What’s that?” asked Del.
“I don’t know,” said Jimmy. “Just drunk talk.”
When they passed the cemetery, a fog had descended over its white walls and Jimmy felt the urge to tell his brother to stop the car so that he could run past the silent angel statues to the grave of his father and somehow know the truth, but he didn’t, and instead watched Del’s profile, illuminated one moment, submerged in shadows the next.