When Burk was a boy, he saw his father shake his little brother so hard he turned blue. They lived in a split-level with a front door that only shut if his father put a shoulder into it. They were playing Lincoln Logs when Burk’s brother Orrin started crying and wouldn’t stop. Burk tried to shush him, clapped a hand over his wide, wet mouth, piled Lincoln Logs on his lap, but nothing helped. His father pounded into their room after a minute and shook Orrin by the zipper of his gold footie pajamas. "You. Knock. That. Off." Shake shake shake shake. His little cowlick snapping back and forth. Orrin stopped crying but kept wagging his arms, his mouth open. Then he turned blind eye blue. His father picked him up by the same zipper like a piece of luggage and carried him out of the bedroom. Burk pulled the bill of his Cardinals cap down over his face, trying with all his might to disappear. He never disobeyed his father after that.
Eavesdropping on his mother a few years later, talking on the phone with Deb Carmichael from church, two days after his father had clocked her in the temple. Burk and Orrin hid behind the wall in the entryway with their orange squirt guns in their folded hands, tips pointed up. They waited for the right moment to ambush their mother, to get her good and drenched.
“It’s about lifestyle,” his mother said. “He’s the one who brings home the pay.”
“Who’d look after Burk and Orrin? You know what childcare costs these days?”
The whisking of eggs in a tin bowl. Whisking the hell out of them. Coffee pot gurgling on the counter. Orrin squirting himself in the mouth for a drink.
“It’s not dangerous. He’s just got a temper on him is all.”
“Oh they won’t. He wouldn’t let them raise up a holler unless the house had half burned to the ground.”
The hollow clatter of the whisk in the sink. The clinking of a glass bowl pulled out of the middle of the stack in the lazy susan. Orrin shifting sideways onto his hip.
“They’re fine. People grow up to be fine all the time. Look at Pastor Granderson. He’s always telling how his daddy beat up on him as a kid.”
The rattle of Orrin’s squirt gun fumbled between his knees. The rushing water from the faucet, abruptly slammed off, echoing through the pipes in the floor. Burk clamping his hands over Orrin’s gun, wide eyes and tight lips. Quiet.
“I don’t want to talk about this anymore,” bringing it down to a whisper. “My boys are good boys. Good boys.”
Burk’s father stood at the door to the garage, thick and unshaven, Orrin standing next to him. Burk didn’t move from the kitchen table. He was studying freshmen algebra, mostly because there was a tall brunette in the class named Mandy Parks, and he daydreamed about tutoring her in a back corner of the library. He imagined her becoming overwhelmed with his mathematical prowess and climbing onto his lap and kissing him while her hair slid around his ears.
“Let’s go,” his father said, waving Burk over with his dark first baseman’s glove. “Orrin needs batting practice and we need a catcher.”
“I have homework,” Burk said.
“Not on Saturday you don’t,” his father said. “Now get your ass out here.” Orrin and his father went out back, and Burk quickly followed after them. He grabbed a mitt out of the garbage can they kept the sports equipment in and shuffled out onto the choppy backyard grass.
Orrin kept repeating the setup between pitches. Full count for an hour, two outs, bottom of the ninth. His father pitched from the lump of the irrigation access panel in the grass, Orrin in his stance beside Burk, and Burk crouched down, begging his father to slow it down.
His father twisted back and corked one in. Orrin swung and missed, and the ball stung Burk’s palm through the glove. “They don’t make them any prettier than that,” his father said.
“Maybe I’d hit it if you didn’t throw like a girl,” Orrin said, then crouched back down into position.
Burk stood and tossed the ball to his father, thirty feet away. His father caught it with a swat of his glove. Burk pulled his hand out of the catcher’s mitt and blew on his palm to cool the sting.
“Talk about a girl,” his father said, glaring at Burk. Burk couldn’t tell if he was amused or furious. He thought about Mandy Parks, how she’d just turned sixteen, how her shirts fit tighter across her chest every week, how her lips gleamed wet with watermelon gloss. He squatted down behind Orrin and tugged the catcher’s mitt back over his sore palm.
“Here’s a curveball for ya,” his father said. He reared back, kicked up his leg, and ripped forward like a major league closer. Burk tensed but couldn’t move. The white blur of the ball twisted through the air and struck him in his left eye. Cold pain spiked back through his head. He toppled backward onto the grass, swallowing the cries that choked him. Orrin and his father stood over him, hands on their knees, their heads blocking the clouds.
“Is he going to live?” Orrin asked.
“Still got a good break on it, eh?” his father said.
They helped Burk inside and sat him at the kitchen table and his mother gave him a bag of frozen French fries to press on his face. Burk sat motionless for a long time, sucking deep breaths to keep from crying. He thought crying now would be the worst thing in the world, like he was letting his father down in their unspoken pact of manliness.
He didn’t say a word to his father for the rest of the weekend, and in algebra class on Monday, Mandy Parks turned around in her desk in front of him and examined the cerulean swirl beneath his eyelid that curled up the rise of his nose.
“Did you get punched or something?” she said. She wore a teal tank top, and her glossed lips parted, waiting for a reply.
Burk shook his head. “Curveball,” he said.
She grimaced and bit the side of her lip. Then she flashed him a coy grin. “You should cover it up with some makeup. I’ve got foundation and—”
“What?” Burk said. “I’m not wearing makeup.”
“Come on. No one will even know.”
“Well fine then. Geez.” And she turned back to the front of the room.
At supper that evening Burk told his mother he’d had a day like any other, and his face didn’t hurt anymore, and that a girl in his class had tried to put makeup on him to hide the bruising, but he’d turned her down.
His father laughed and kissed away the last of his Coors bottle. “You’re a damn fool,” he said.
The meetings with the advisor were the worst part of college. Burk was supposed to major in either math or engineering according to the scholarship he had secured after scoring a 35 in math on his ACT. He was determined to fund his own education rather than beg his father for tuition payments, but the numbers had lost their charm without Mandy Parks in the classroom.
“You aren’t meeting the requirements needed to retain your scholarship,” the advisor said, a huge man, stuffed into his desk chair like they’d bolted the armrests on after he sat down.
“Math isn’t my thing,” Burk said.
“That’s irrelevant if you want to keep the full ride.”
“What about what I want to do?”
“What do you want to do?”
“I don’t know. Not math. Never again.”
“You should rethink that. You’ve got a good thing here. Don’t you want to make your mother and father proud?”
“I could care less what my father thinks,” Burk said.
“You mean you couldn’t care less.”
He made a point to call his brother twice a week, once on Wednesday and once on Saturday afternoon. Orrin was telling him he wasn’t going to join him at college in the fall.
“You gotta get out of there, bro,” Burk said.
“I know it,” Orrin said. “Dad’s burning through Coors like I burn through pot.”
“Don’t tell me that, bro.”
“I’m just saying,” Orrin said. “Not all of us can get a scholarship in mathematics. Some of us are regular, you know?”
“I’m regular too,” Burk said.
“You’re something,” Orrin said.
Burk didn’t drink a drop until he turned twenty-one. When he finally did, he went down to Arkady’s Market, flashed his clipped ID, and drove away with a case of Coors. He shut his off-campus apartment door and tore into that case like a present at Christmas.
After three sweaty cans he started scribbling a list of the things he’d say to his father right before he killed him, shot through the head. Lot of profanity. Fuck you all over the place. References to things long past. The driving trip to Flagstaff was hell because of you. Christmas ’99 was hell because of you. Mom hates herself because of you. Orrin hates himself because mom hates herself. Lot of hate. He said that word hate over and over, slurring it when it lost its meaning.
He built a tower of empty Coors cans on the blotchy gray carpet of his apartment. He did pushups until he collapsed. He watched porn on Cinemax after 11:00 pm. He thought about Mandy Parks, how she’d gotten married over the summer, barely twenty-one herself. He checked his Facebook wall and read birthday wishes from his mother, his aunt Gwen, his aunt Bonnie, and his brother Orrin.
Poor Orrin, he thought. Still at home in that hot hell hole.
Sometime after 2:00 am Burk lurched to the bathroom and wretched into the toilet, the vomit splashing around the basin. He’d heard his father hacking up Coors cases enough times to know that he must look just like the old man, on his knees, praying to God to make it stop, debating in his wobbly stupor if he should intentionally smash his forehead against the porcelain rim and knock himself out to end the suffering. One time he’d walked into their bathroom back home while his father was hugging the seat for dear life.
“You all right, dad?” he said.
His father’s words echoed in the toilet, gained depth. “Tasted better the first time,” he said. Then his back started shaking and Burk could tell he was laughing at his own joke.
Burk wiped his mouth and found his way back to the hide-a-bed couch. He vowed that he would not turn into his father, that that would be the worst thing in the world, that if someone in their family was going to die choking on their own vomit, it sure as hell wasn’t going to be him.
“Your father’s in the hospital,” his mother said over the phone. She didn’t sound too worried, and Burk didn’t have time to worry with her anyway. He had three more blocks of papers left to deliver, and already the sun was peaking up gray over the highway.
“Heart attack. Got him last night.”
“He all right?” He held his cellphone to his cheek with his shoulder, turning down the next cul-de-sac. It was the only job he could find after dropping out. No scholarship, no college, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to ask his father to support him.
Burk’s mother was silent for a moment. “He survived it, though they don’t know how. They did the MRI and called it a widowmaker. I think their terminology’s a little off.”
“Should I come up there?”
“I don’t know. He seems fine. You want to?”
“Do you need me, mom?”
She sighed. “I need a cup of coffee is what I need.”
When he hung up, the screen of the cheap flip phone was distorted, sheened with sweat. He wiped it on his jeans and swerved back onto his side of the street.
Burk landed a job as an assistant editor at the Gazette two months after starting the paper route. Not bad for half a mathematics degree and no writing experience, he thought. It paid enough money for Burk to begin what he considered his own life. He moved to an apartment with the bedroom separate from the kitchen and family room. He traded in his ’92 Taurus and signed the papers on a three-year-old Malibu with an automatic transmission. He slept in until 6:30 each morning, relishing the extra hours afforded by not having to deliver papers at 4 am. On the weekends he watched baseball or golf. He went down to the local brewery for the tour. He signed up for an online dating service and waited to get winked at. Whenever he called Orrin, he told him about the joys of independence and freedom, hoping to spur his brother into finally escaping. He felt he had gotten past something insurmountable, like a wrongly-convicted murderer finally leaping the fence and running free out into the country.
His father called him three months into the job, just after sunrise on a Thursday. “You need to get your ass up here and bail your brother out of jail.”
“You got another brother?”
Burk sped north in his Malibu to the Gass County Jail, over half an hour away. He wrote a check to the skeletal woman behind the marble counter for a thousand dollars, clearing out all of what he’d saved.
Orrin plodded down the hall twenty minutes later, a black hoodie under his arm, head hanging like someone had tied a boat anchor to his cowlick.
“What happened?” Burk said.
Orrin shook his head. “Can we just get out of here?”
They walked out to the car and Burk started driving back to his folks’ house. “You going to tell me what you did to get thrown into jail?”
Orrin stared out the window at the garbage cans they passed at the ends of peoples’ driveways, their lids flopped open, yawning at the clouds. “Just promise me you’re on my side, bro. Dad’s gonna kill me.”
They crossed over the highway, the thick traffic below heading south into the city for the workday. When they pulled into the cracked driveway ten minutes later their father stalked out in his bathrobe and grabbed Orrin by the collar of his shirt.
“I didn’t raise no thief,” his father said.
Orrin twisted out of his father’s grip and struck him in the ear with a fist. His father toppled backward onto the blacktop, his legs seesawing up into the air, exposing his hairy privates to the whole neighborhood.
“You didn’t raise nothing!” Orrin shouted.
His father rolled on the ground, holding his ear. His mother waited on the front step in her slippers, a hand over her mouth, sobbing away. Orrin walked up and hugged her.
“It’s good to be home, mom,” he said. And he stepped inside.
Burk wanted to kick his father on the ground. He wanted to say one of those lines he’d written down when he thought about shooting his dad in the face with a gun. He wanted to say you owe me a thousand bucks, chief.
His mother loped over and helped his father to his feet.
“I gotta get to work, mom,” was all Burk said. He got back in his Malibu and fought the traffic going south, no radio, windows up, twisting the grip on the steering wheel, thinking how Orrin had gotten away with one, hitting their father like that, and how it’d cost Burk everything he’d saved to give Orrin a shot at it.
The Gazette folded six months later and Burk lost his job. Lost his apartment. Lost his Malibu. Lost his credit cards, both the Visa and the Discover, full up and no more room. He refused to go back home, and picked up a night shift at the Food ‘n Fuel working for an old German with three teeth on the bottom gum and a tongue that licked the empty parts. So old he shuffled around in the shape of a question mark, rearranging the Hostess cakes while stoned teenagers limped in and bought Fritos and Gatorade.
Burk slept in the university library at a desk in the history stacks, pretending to study from tomes with musty paper that scented him to sleep. He slept in short fits, and when he woke, he remembered he wasn’t in the fat advisor’s office, or in front of the lockers at McCalister High with Mandy Parks, or on the tee ball diamond, but on book pages that stuck to his sweaty face when he lifted his head. He always woke in time to rush out the double doors and walk the seven blocks east to the Food n’ Fuel for his shift.
Two thirty rolled around one night and a cluster of boys pushed into the Food ‘n Fuel. Burk immediately suspected a grab and dash, but the crew looped around the counter to the register where he stood. The boy in front was white, and wore a huge white t-shirt and a Detroit Tigers ball cap with the hologram sticker still on the bill. Burk couldn’t move. He was looking straight at Orrin.
Orrin’s right hand curved into his pocket, and Burk easily spotted the long bulge in the denim, fingers wrapped around the hilt. Orrin’s left hand rested on the glass counter, covering up the lottery ticket display.
His brother froze and stared at him like he was the best magician in the world, like he’d sawed himself in half and stuck himself back together again and not a drop of blood on the tile floor as evidence.
“Guys, over here,” Orrin said. He corralled the other boys into the back corner by the beverage cooler and the motor oil, beneath the bubble mirror. They whispered until one of them whined out, “Aw damn, man. You playin.”
“I ain’t,” Orrin said.
The group of boys nodded and grabbed bottles of Mountain Dew out of the cooler. They filed up in a line and set their bottles on the glass counter and let Orrin pay the bill.
Burk slowly scanned each one with the laser gun. He knew what was happening. He hadn’t seen his brother look like this in a long time. It was like Orrin had confessed something terrible and was waiting for their father to unbuckle his belt and lash him across the backside until he stumbled and broke. “Nine sixty-five,” Burk said.
Orrin handed him a twenty and Burk popped open the register. The clips of cash feathered above the partitions in the till. Then he set the twenty under the till and pulled out the rest of the twenties, a firm stack. He turned to Orrin and handed him the slug of cash, dropped a quarter and a dime on top. “Eleven thirty-five is your change,” he said.
Orrin stared at the cash in his hand, then said, “Thanks, bro,” and he and the other boys piled out the door, hollering into the night air.
“That was a clan of ‘em,” the old German said from the Hostess cakes aisle. “Looked like they were about to cause trouble.”
Burk wanted to say, “It’s not their fault,” but he just stood there and stared out the window at the fuel pumps. They shook beneath the awning that stretched over them and lit them up with its stadium lights.
“Your father’s in again,” Burk’s mother said over the phone. It was just after ten in the morning. Burk had been asleep at his desk in the library, crinkling an onion-skinned volume of county surveillance records from the seventies.
He whispered his reply. “Is he okay?”
“He ain’t coming home from this one, honey.”
Burk caught the bus north to St. Benedictine’s Hospital and found his mother in the lobby, next to the empty Gazette stand. She showed him up to the room where his father was waiting to die.
“He’s in and out,” she said in the elevator. “They said it’s his liver.”
Burk followed his mother into the room. His father lay motionless on the hospital bed, hooked up to a totem pole of tubes and digital displays. He barely blinked. A tube snaked out of his nose like an embalmed slug. His belly swelled up under the thin sheets like he was late in his third trimester, about to begin a life, not about to end one. On the TV above the foot of the bed the Cardinals and Cubs were playing, third inning, tied at zero, a foil balloon obscuring the count on the bottom line ticker.
Burk sat in the large recliner next to the bed. “How do the Cards look today?”
“Worse than I do.”
“You don’t look too bad.”
“Feel better with a beer in me.”
The camera panned through the crowd at Wrigley Field, kids on laps with ball caps and plastic mitts, babies napping against their fathers’ chests, the sun beating down, everyone in sunglasses and lethargic smiles.
“Orrin coming?” Burk said.
“I can’t get a hold of him,” his mother said. She sat in the bench seat by the window, clamping her cell phone in her palms between her thighs. Outside it had started to rain, and the drops scored trails down the window like slithering worms.
“He’s probably high in a basem…” his father trailed off. It seemed his belly was slowly filling, like a water balloon left suctioned over the faucet nozzle. Burk was sure his father wasn’t moving because any shift would cause him to rupture.
The TV shifted to the announcers speaking seriously into their microphones, as if the success of the Cardinals’ pitchers would be a determining factor in the apocalypse.
A white-coated doctor entered and strode over to Burk’s mother. He wore cross-trainer tennis shoes, like he was on his way to a private fitness club after this. He bent over and started whispering about final decisions, hospice, and arrangements.
“Wait a minute,” Burk said, standing up from the chair. “If it’s his liver, why don’t you just do a transplant?”
The doctor straightened up. He couldn’t be forty years old. His dark hair gleamed like grass in dewy shade.
“This is my son,” Burk’s mother said, looking up at the doctor.
“I’ve already spoken with your parents about treatment options,” the doctor said. He gestured at Burk’s father and said something about the state of his cirrhosis, about varices in his throat, about distended bleeding, about the ethics of giving a healthy liver to an alcoholic, about time and funds available.
Burk didn’t know why, but he couldn’t believe it. “That’s bullshit,” he said. “You’re a doctor. You could fix him if you just—”
His father groaned and said, “Geez, Burk. Give it a fucking rest.”
Burk stared down at his father and slowly sank onto the footrest of the recliner. The doctor nodded to Burk’s mother and walked out.
When the game ended, Burk got up to leave. His father stared at the TV as if he could read wisdom in the box score. Burk gave both of his parents a wave. He said, “Well,” and walked out, plodding toward the elevator, down to the lobby, out into the wet parking lot, toward the bus terminal, the rain on the back of his neck just one more thing he hadn’t anticipated.
His mother called him every few hours, and finally three days later it was done. She said it was about as peaceful as a man like Burk’s father could make it. Burk imagined his father wringing his own neck while staring at himself in the mirror, barking at his reflection to man up, tough it out, and stop being such a pussy for God’s sake.
They had the viewing, and they had the funeral, and they had the internment, and they didn’t have Orrin for any of it. No one could get a hold of him. Burk burned through all of his pre-paid cell phone minutes leaving messages for his brother to call him back and let him know he was still alive.
Burk went up to the house and announced to his mother he was staying with her until things got straightened out. “I’m going to help you out, ma. Me and Orrin both. I cleared out the next few weeks so we can get this done.” She had cried at the services, but Burk had locked his teeth together and focused on the clouded image of his father shaking Orrin in his yellow footie pajamas. He didn’t tell her he slept at the library, or that he’d lost his Food ‘n Fuel job after handing out over three hundred bucks in change to his brother. “We’ll get rid of everything that reminds you of dad.”
“I don’t know,” his mother said. “What’s the point?”
“Then you can make this place into whatever you want.”
She shook her head and rubbed at the soft spots in the corners of her eyes. “Well don’t throw anything away without me looking at it first.”
Burk started in the basement. The shelves were tightly packed with things no one had used in years. Burk carried the garbage can with the sports equipment down the stairs and set it in the center of the basement floor to fill with everything meaningless. He picked through a plywood shelf along the concrete wall by the window well. The late morning light blazed through the window and caught up all the dust particles in its beam, like a slanted support in the foundation of the house.
Burk pulled down cardboard boxes that had been duct taped shut, each one labeled with a thick black marker in his father’s hand, the tight Os and As and the big capital letters at the beginning of each word. Apparently his father had gotten up the muster to sort out his things at one point in time. High School Stuff. College Stuff. Baseball Stuff. Burk popped through the old tape and ripped up the flaps to reveal a small third place trophy with a gold batter atop a plastic marble column, a maroon t-shirt from his college softball team, the Whiskey Bombers, a picture of Burk’s mother in denim cutoffs and a bikini top that he quickly flipped past, a jersey from North Central High varsity baseball, his dark first baseman’s mitt, a complete collection of the 1969 Topps baseball card set, a Cardinals pennant from ‘67 when they’d won the World Series. Pictures of his parents, Burk’s grandparents, Grandma Florence and Grandpa Neal, a man Burk’s father had said beat him once a week just to keep him in line, and didn’t he appreciate it, knowing what trouble he would’ve gotten into if that stern hadn’t smacked him back onto the straight and narrow.
Newer boxes, shoe boxes, Scotch tape instead of duct, the black scrawl on a box of Nike Pumps reading My Boys’ Stuff. Burk slit the tape with his thumbnail and flopped back the lid.
On top was a crayon and construction paper picture of the whole family that Burk figured he’d drawn in first grade, all of them on a baseball diamond, his father pitching, Burk at bat, Orrin catching, his mother on the bench with her hands in the air, cheering. He couldn’t tell if he’d drawn the picture to show the whole family as a team, or to show that everyone was against his father, and that to knock one out of the park would’ve been just about the best thing that could’ve happened to them. The question crashed through Burk like a baserunner plowing through the catcher at home plate, game on the line.
His mother clopped down the basement steps behind him. She started to say something when her cell phone rang, a short chime he had heard numerous times over the last two days. She stopped on the bottom step and flipped open the phone.
“Oh hi, honey,” she said.
Burk wanted to ask her who it was, but she would only call one person other than him honey now.
“Well, honey, he, he passed away, honey. Yeah. Last Friday. We tried to get a hold of you. No, no we didn’t know that. I didn’t know. Yeah. Yeah, it was his liver. I know. Oh, honey.”
Burk still held the shoebox in his hands, held it more carefully than he would’ve held his own son.
“Yep, that was yesterday. No, you didn’t miss nothing, honey. It was quick. Quick and painless. Oh, I know, honey. Well, he loved you boys so much. No. No, I know. But he did. He said it all the time. Said he wished he knew what he was supposed to say to you and your brother. Said he was about the worst father in the world.”
Burk shifted the box in his hands, away from the garbage can in the center of the room, searching for a way to set it down without letting go of it. He thought maybe if he tried hard enough he could float the box in that dusty beam of sunlight, and maybe he and his father could go through it together, figure out if anything in there was worth keeping.
John Woodington is a writer from Minneapolis, Minnesota. His work has appeared or is forthcoming from multiple publications, including The Sewanee Review, The Cortland Review, Pens on Fire, Poor Mojo's Almanac(k), Slow Trains, and Wild Violet. He holds an MFA from Hamline University in St. Paul, MN.Cover Image:"Fluffy" by Kevin R. KaoStoneware, acrylic, Swarovski crystals, rope42" X 12" X 8"2013