Before He Used His Father's Gun
(A Short Story by Jeremiah Cobra)
“Must I inherit the sins of my forefathers?” Issac wondered aloud. “Must I honor their ideas simply to relive their misery?” He stood alone before the gates of his childhood home. His tears blurred the town of Moriah into a kaleidoscope of flickering street lamps, broken windows, and weed-ridden lawns. He blinked away those tears to see clearly his father’s old revolver, his own steady hand that held it, and a childhood scar on the wrist of that hand. There was a day when he trembled to hold this gun. Today was no such day.
He tucked it into the waistband of his jeans and turned toward the house to which he had become a stranger. Long after his father had inherited it, the house’s wood panels were rotted, and its blue paint was chipped and grayed. The gate screeched as he pushed it open to walk through the thinly scattered blades of grass, his steps finding only the crumbled vestiges of a once homeward path. By the driveway, he paused to gaze at the rusted sedan that seemed to grow from the weeds and asphalt below it. Once his father’s most prized possession, the car sat with its tires saggy and cracked. Its once lustrous paint was peeled and faded to reveal the scarred steel beneath. Its windows were made foggy by many a weathering storm. Its headlights were yellowed like the eyes of a jaded drunkard.
As he turned to the front door, he realized that he did not wish to encounter the void that had grown behind it. He would only find empty rooms in which happiness had been stunted by gloom, and he would only mourn a life that should have but could not have been. He shuddered as he pushed his key into the worn lock and turned the knob. The door was heavy with age, and the thick, dusty air inside flowed like molasses into his nostrils. He took a tentative step past the threshold, and the echo of the creaking floorboard skittered down the darkened halls. For a brief moment, he thought his father might emerge from that darkness with drunken gait and clenched fists. He thought of the gun at his waist, but he did not reach for it.
By the remnant light of dusk, Issac saw that the house had come undone. He stumbled over couch pillows that had been thrown to the floor, and he broke his fall by the old coffee table upon which newspapers and unopened mail lay sprawled. He wandered into the dining room where emptied nips of scotch and vodka told a solemn tale. He found the rotting smell of unwashed dishes swelling from the cavity of the sink in the kitchen. He traversed the barren halls to the dark and dusty stairwell where every step expelled a protest to its dwellers. He swept aside worn clothing and old furniture in his parents’ bedroom where the scent of stale smoke wafted about from full ashtrays. He all but held his breath as he searched the closet for a knapsack and some clothing to fill it. Finally, he made his way to the second stairwell leading up to the attic, his old bedroom. It was only as he approached the attic door that he began to feel a bit at ease.
The rusted hinges whined when he pushed the door open, and a heavy and stagnant air poured into the hall. Yet, there was light from the tiny window within, and that light beckoned him away from sullen chambers. Inside, a veil of dust and cobwebs had settled upon all of the furniture, but the order of the room was preserved. An old quilt lay perfectly smooth upon his bed. His wardrobe stood stoically in one corner of the room, and his books were lined neatly on the shelf against the wall that rose to meet the slant of the roof. The faintly sweet musk of an old pine chest emanated from its place at the foot of his bed. He took a deep breath and walked over to it.
When he lifted the cover to the chest, the first thing he saw inside was a small crystalline music box topped by a figurine. A tiny ballerina stood en pointe atop a tiny grand piano. Issac sat on his bed and wound the music box. He watched the ballerina twirl to the sound of his mother’s favorite song. Closing his eyes, he easily and vividly envisioned his mother, the once beautiful dancer.
Farah sauntered gracefully about a tidy kitchen filled with the aroma of simmering collards and baking cornbread. She reached down and grabbed her son’s tiny hands while humming her song. They danced and jumped about the room, and their cheeks felt as though they would burst from smiles and laughter. Issac admired her cheeks, like tourmaline set aglow by the sun’s kisses upon them. As she twirled about the room, her hair waved about and shimmered like raven feathers. Indeed, she seemed to have wings.
“Are we flying?” Issac asked her as they danced, for surely there was no higher aspiration than this joy that both of them took for granted.
But soon, the music box wound down in his hands. The song slowed until the crystalline figure no longer danced but languished. Then, he saw Farah sitting solemnly in the living room, her hair disheveled, her dream deferred, and the corners of her eyes creased by wrinkles of despair. Slowly, a tear trickled along these wrinkles and down her round cheek before landing among spirits glittering in a crystal glass. It was the first time that Issac would remember seeing his mother so stricken by sadness. He was four years old.
“Though he slay me, yet will I have faith in him,” she whispered the words softly, perhaps as a psalm to God or perhaps as a prayer for the many fights she would have with Issac’s father. Though her whispers were meant to restore her spirits, they sounded to Issac like surrendered feathers fluttering down from her wings. He feared that one day those wings would no longer fly.
The music box froze in Issac’s hands, and he heard the subtle rustling of footsteps through dry leaves outside. Someone was approaching the gate. He thought of the gun at his waist, but he did not reach for it. Instead, he calmly placed the music box beside him on his bed, and he reached into the chest again for an old photo. He was five years old in that photo, and the football he held was far too large for his hands. His father was in that photo, too, standing so tall that his forehead had been cropped out. His face remained, however, with eyes darkened by the shadow of his furrowed brow, nose perpetually flared, and mouth drawn slightly downward at its corners. Abram looked stern, angry even, but Issac remembered his father’s smile on that autumn morning.
The sun was not yet higher than the trees in their backyard, and it shone through a canopy of crimson, orange, and gold leaves. The air was crisp, and the smell of burning wood wafted about from the chimneys. Issac’s hands were chapped from the cold, hard leather that met his palms with each attempt to catch his father’s passes. When Issac finally held on to the football, his heart leapt in his chest.
“My boy is gonna be a ball player!” Abram declared with a wide grin. Certainly in that moment, Issac did not want to be anything more. His father had spoken a dream into his soul– a heaven to which he could aspire. If only Abram knew that fathers can speak heaven or hell into existence for their children. Perhaps he would not have gave utterance to so much hell.
“It’s like everybody in this world wanna take your joy,” he echoed words he had heard long ago as he sat in the kitchen and lamented his present.
“And you’ll let that happen?” Farah asked.
“Damn what I’ll let happen! The world is full of hunters. Sometimes I think they can’t wait for you to start looking for joy. That’s when they hunt. Their bait is the food in your mouth and every desire of your heart. That’s how they got my pops–– turned everything and everyone he loved into a thing to be worked for, a leash to hold him by. Made him work ’til the very end.”
“Then his heart killed him,” Farah said. Abram shot her a fleeting and menacing expression.
“I ain’t gonna let nobody have that kind of power over me.”
“Sometimes you gotta sacrifice for the people you love,” Farah said.
“And I sacrifice plenty!” Abram became agitated. “Y’all got a hold on me, and they know that. They think as long as I gotta work to take care of y’all they own me. Well, I’m done with that. It’s time for me to do some owning.”
“Is that how you see us?” Farah asked, “As bait for someone to control your life?”
“You know what I mean. Everybody has some claim to someone else in life. That’s just how it is. Meanwhile, I’m just tryna sit here and claim this beer in peace–– in my house.”
“It ain’t gonna be yours for long if you don’t get a real job,” Farah said.
Her last words felt to Abram like the pull of a chain around his neck. He howled in protest and slammed his bottle down on the kitchen table. The bottle shattered in his hand. Beer and blood mixed on the table and dripped to the floor. Farah’s eyes widened with panic as she looked at the gash in Abram’s palm.
“Let me fix it,” she said as she searched frantically for a bandage. When she found a clean one and approached him, he looked at her disdainfully before he pushed her against the table on his way out the back door. He did not return that night.
Issac looked sorrowfully at his father’s expression in that photo. He decided that it was not one of sternness or anger but one of pain. Perhaps Abram wished to smile in that photo, in that moment. But his own thoughts kept him from doing so. Issac placed the photo near the music box as he listened to the gate screech open outside. Soon, the front door sounded a deep groan downstairs as it was pushed through the threshold. The familiar, heavy footsteps that trod through the hallway and into the living room made Issac’s heart drop into the pit of his stomach.
He thought about the gun at his waist, but he did not reach for it. Instead, he thought about the day he got that gun. He was seven years old.
On a harsh, cold winter evening, Abram stumbled drunkenly into the kitchen through the back door and slammed a revolver down on the kitchen counter by the sink.
“What’s that?” Farah asked nervously.
“It’s a gun, Farah.”
“I mean, what is it doing there?”
“It’s sitting there.”
“You know what I mean. Why did you bring it in here? You told me you would never bring that back in here.”
“Don’t be questioning what I bring in my house. I’ll bring whatever I want in here.”
“But it kills people!”
“No, those niggas out there kill people.”
“Then keep it out there for them. I ain’t never questioned how you get your money, but don’t bring that foolishness around me or our son.”
“Well, that’s my pop’s gun; it ain’t going nowhere.”
“You remember what you did with that? What you told me you did?”
“I don’t remember shit. And that gun ain’t going nowhere.”
“Then we are!” Farah replied and stormed out of the kitchen toward the stairwell.
“Like hell, you are!”
She rushed from the room and he behind her. They entered the hall where he grabbed her firmly by the arm just as she reached the stairwell. He jerked her away from the handrail and grabbed her other arm to hold her still.
“You ain’t taking my son nowhere,” he said resolutely, “You wanna leave, fine. But you don’t take nothing that’s mine with you. I done worked too hard for it.”
“Let me go!” she said, “You don't own me.”
They tussled about in the hallway until he finally released her. She grabbed her coat and headed for the front door.
“Where you gonna go? You just gonna come back again, like you always do. Ain’t no better life out there. Ain’t no better man—” Abram’s voice faded into the winter air and cut abruptly beyond the closing door.
When he was sure that they were both gone, Issac, who had been eavesdropping from the upper staircase, tiptoed downstairs to the kitchen. He was both intrigued and afraid when he saw the menacing gleam of the gun’s barrel under the fluorescent light. He slowly walked over to touch the handle. The carving there felt abrasive against his palm, and his arm trembled with the weight of the revolver as he picked it up. It seemed to him that he held a most curious charm. Might it bring good luck or harm? Did it nurture man’s nature, or did man’s nature nurture it? Did it hold his father spellbound in anger? Had it brought his grandfather bad luck on that day so many years ago? Issac hoped that it might bring him good luck that day, for in that moment he simply wished for his mother to stay.
Opening the back door, Issac carried the gun into the yard. Immediately, he began to shiver from the frosty air and the ice and snow beneath his bare feet. He scurried quickly to a large elm that sat in the middle of the yard. He climbed the tree until he came to an old nook inside which he carefully hid the gun. Then he hurried back into the house and up the stairs to the attic. He left his door open so that he heard when his father crashed drunkenly through the front door. Farah was not with him. Issac’s heart pounded as Abram’s heavy footsteps thumped through the hallway, and into the kitchen. There was silence for a moment before those heavy footsteps trudged back into the hallway and up the first stairwell.
Issac was relieved when he heard the sound of his parents’ bedroom door open and close. Only then could he fall asleep.
“Wake up, little nigga,” a deep and gravely voice broke Issac’s slumber and he was startled to see a broad, shadowy figure perched at the edge of his bed. It seemed to Issac that a ghost had come to make nightmares of dreams.
“You know where my gun is?”
The pungent smell of alcohol and tobacco ash seemed to rise forth from this ghost’s throat and settle like a fog about Issac’s pillow. Issac tried to sit up and escape that fog, but a wide hand upon his chest anchored him to the bed.
“No,” Issac answered groggily.
“You’re lying. I’ll ask you again. Where is it?”
The boy’s heart pounded against the ghost’s hand, and he found that his words were frozen on the back of his tongue. The ghost broke the silence.
“So you just gonna sit in my house and lie to my face? Okay then.”
Issac’s heart raced as he listened to footsteps fade from the room and down the stairs. When he could no longer hear them, he thought that his own heart had stopped. However, when the footsteps returned, they shook the floor in the halls and stairwell.
They resonated in his chest.
Thump, thump. Thump, thump.
Issac looked frantically about the room for someplace to hide.
Thump, thump! Thump, thump!
The familiar and dreadful jingle of a belt buckle rang in the air as a silhouette settled in the doorway. Issac sprang to his feet when he discerned this specter from the darkness. He saw the loop of leather in its hand, and he skittered to the darkest corner of the room. An old desk sat in that corner where it had been built into the wall long ago. It had aged with the house such that the color had grayed, and the nails with which it was built had become rusted. A few of these nails protruded from a beam of wood that stood separated from one of the desk’s legs. Issac sought refuge amidst the darkness and jagged edges beneath this broken desk. The ghost did not hurry after him but walked calmly to the desk and settled upon his haunches.
“What you think, boy? That I’m less dangerous without that gun?”
Issac watched with trepidation as the ghost ducked its head down to peer farther under the desk.
“You think that gun will give you power, but you don’t know what I’ve gone through to keep this house. I’ll tell you that much worse niggas than you tried to take it from me. But I’m still here. Now where is it? You gonna use it on me boy?”
“I don’t know,” Issac replied with a quiet, helpless whimper. He felt a strong grip tighten about his collar.
“If you got it, you better use it right now. But don’t miss, or your butt is mine.”
Issac, feeling as though there was no other way out of this encounter finally cried, “I threw it away!”
It did not respond, and the sound of Issac’s breathing swelled in his own ears. He continued.
“My momma didn’t want it in here, I thought she would come back if I threw it away.”
It remained silent. Issac could hear his own pulse.
Thump, thump. Thump, thump.
Then, a simple response.
“Okay,” it said, and Issac thought that he had said enough to make this ghost disappear. But suddenly, it sprang forward and grabbed Issac by the leg. For a brief moment Issac was able to hold tightly to one of the desk legs, but it soon yanked him free. Issac let out a shriek.
“You hush! I ain’t even hit you, yet.”
Issac felt lifeless as he was raised to his feet. His right sleeve had become damp and sticky, and when the ghost let go of him, he heard his own cry and the collapsing of his body as a distant echo. Perhaps the ghost had taken his soul. Perhaps he were descending from life. When light suddenly flooded the room, he saw his body through his father’s eyes. He saw a child writhing on the floor and the blood streaming down his wrist and dripping from his fingers. He saw the crimson stripe that had been torn across his wrist. He felt his father’s heart crumble.
“No, no, no, no, no…” Abram stammered as he dropped to his knees and used his own hand to stop the bleeding.
“Farah!” he cried as though words alone might bring her home, “Our son!”
He scrambled in a panic to bandage his son’s arm, and he sobbed so loudly that Issac briefly forgot about his own pain.
“What have I done? My son! My own blood!”
Issac stared at his father with bewilderment. Who was this man who cried like a child before him, who was so fearsome moments ago yet so broken now?
Issac looked at the scar that had grown with him over the years. How awful that it should always remind him of man in his weakest moment, of man on a day when he could break his own heart? What capacity is there in man to harm that which he holds dear?
“And what about me?” Issac thought with a whisper. “Must I inherit my father’s sins?”
Issac could hear his own heart in his chest.
It kept pace with the sound of the heavy footsteps filling the lower stairwell.
He thought about his father’s gun, but he did not reach for it. Not yet. A lump rose in his throat as the footsteps continued past his parents’ bedroom and into the upper stairwell to the attic.
Thump, thump. Thump, thump.
Issac could feel the sweat forming on his palms.
Thump, thump! Thump, thump!
Without realizing it, Issac began to slowly creep his hand to his waist. The footsteps grew louder until they were just behind the attic door. Issac heard his father’s exhales brushing the wood. A jingling sound rang in the air, and Issac stared at the unmoving doorknob. His heart stopped. Then suddenly, the footsteps turned and retreated. Down the upper stairwell, past the bedroom, down the lower stairwell, through the hallway. Out the front door. Issac sighed with relief as he looked out the attic window to see his father sitting on the hood of the rusted sedan. With slumped shoulders, Abram looked pensively toward the horizon and took sips from a beer bottle. Issac thought that his father looked defeated yet peaceful for once, and he was reminded that no matter how many times his mother threatened to leave, she always returned. She always weathered his storms.
“Is he a bad man?” Issac once asked his mother when he was nine and he found her crying after an argument. As usual, Abram had gone with fervor from the house, and Farah sat on the living room floor with her hair tousled, her blouse torn, and her cheeks flushed.
“No,” Farah replied, “Just because some people do bad things don’t mean they’re bad. He means well. He wants to take care of us, and he’s doing it the only way he knows how.”
“But he makes you sad,” Issac said. “You’re so sad, sometimes.”
“Well, that's why I have you. You make me happy.”
Issac looked at the sadness in his mother’s smile, and he knew that he was not enough to quell the angst that his father had given her.
“One day, when you grow up,” Farah explained, “you’ll see that you must love people in spite of their flaws.”
“What if the person you love always hurts you?” Issac asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe you have to be strong enough to love them anyway.”
From the attic window, Issac tried to look past his father’s yellowed, jaded eyes, his grayed beard, and his faded complexion. He tried to envision the man from the picture, the man who was once so proud to watch his young son learn to catch. He tried to see the man whose running stride he tried to match when he was five years old, and he remembered how impossibly fast his father seemed. He remembered a time when he and his father walked through blizzard snows, and he kept falling in his father’s deeper footsteps. On that day, when he struggled too long, he would find himself lifted by his father’s hands to higher, firmer ground. As he daydreamed, Issac once again saw the long rides in his father’s sedan– Abram’s prized possession because it was once his father’s car, too. Abram taught Issac to love the smell of the gasoline powering the carburetor engine, the soft glow of the lights illuminating the dashboard, and the smooth touch of leather so soft he could sink into it. Abram once promised to teach Issac how to care for that car some day. That day never came, and Issac’s daydream became blurred by heartbroken tears.
Vividly, he saw the first time he received a beating from his father. He did not remember what he did wrong, but he remembered the pain. He remembered the dreaded sound of his father’s belt buckle jingling outside his door. He remembered the first time he learned to fear his father’s anger. He looked at the dagger-shaped scar on his wrist, and he recalled the day he fell out of love with his father. It was their last car ride.
“My pops was tough on me,” Abram began as he guided the long sedan down the main street. Issac sat with his eyes fixed upon the world passing outside the window.
“It was good, though. I grew up tough. I learned how to live in the world. No part of the world has changed since he been gone. I’m trying to teach you how to survive in it. You understand?”
Issac nodded, but he did not understand. He simply gazed out the car window and imagined that he was out there running as quickly as the world seemed to pass. He leapt over the people meandering the streets and sidewalks, and he took flight among the leaves and clouds. He stared longingly at the autumn canopies.
Moriah was not a pretty neighborhood. The litter-filled streets, abandoned buildings, and graffiti-ridden walls made for despondent spring rains, grimy summer heat, and bitter winter snows. But Issac did like Moriah in the autumn. The colorful branches of maple and oak leaves arched over the streets and reminded him of a joy that belied the despair prowling the sidewalks every day. Indeed, he preferred to gaze up at the trees, but that day he caught himself looking down at the drunken and drug addicted who wandered about like zombies, the idle men who slouched on corners, and the young girls who pranced about, pretending to be adults.
“You must think I’m some sort of bad guy for you to take my gun, huh?” Abram
chuckled as if he were reading Issac’s thoughts. “That’s alright. You gotta protect your mother. I can respect that. Protect your birthright. But, there’s a whole lot worse out here than me. You see me being pissed? That’s just me protecting you and your mother. She knows it– she gets it. You think a smile is gonna tell these niggas to back up off me? You gotta let them know with one look that they can’t mess with you. You let them see you smiling, and they’ll wanna find out why you’re smiling– figure out a way to take that smile away from you. Understand?”
They came to a stoplight, and Issac noticed an abandoned building and two men who stood on its doorstep arguing loudly. One of them threateningly raised a bottle cloaked in a paper bag. He shouted a few curses at the other man and brought the bottle down hard upon his head. Issac gasped. Abram chuckled. The light turned green.
As Abram guided the sedan skillfully around two jaywalking teenagers, he continued his lecture.
“Who you think is more foolish, the man who swung or the man who got hit?” he asked.
Issac did not answer.
“Which one you wanna be?” Abram asked.
“Hmph!” Abram snorted. “You gonna be better than both of them, huh?” He removed a cigarette from behind his ear and lit it. Then he took a long draw from it and exhaled a blue cloud against the windshield.
“I used to wanna be better, too,” he mumbled past the cigarette balanced between his dry lips, “But you live long enough and learn one thing: there ain’t but two kinds of men in this world, and you better learn to be the man that swings first— ‘less you wanna be the man who don’t swing at all. Can’t make it outta here if you dead.”
He inhaled more smoke.
“Can’t make it outta here, no how.”
He exhaled a blue cloud that fogged the windows and stung Issac’s eyes. “Deer and hunters. Lots of deer out here. Better make sure you’re a hunter.”
Issac sat with his head to the sliver of an opening in the window, and he tried to no avail to sneak breaths of the fresher air as it whisked by. He was not sure that his father was wrong, but he would thenceforth spend much of his time contemplating the kind of man he could be.
“Ain’t no more money to fix it!” the heavy bass of Abram’s voice pounded against the walls while the treble of Farah’s shrill retorts cut through the air.
“You ain't never got no money to fix nothing!” Farah shouted, “You spend all day out there, and then you come back here with no money for nothing! We need that car, so you find some way to fix it.”
“What, I’m s’posed to do? I already owe the man money,” Abram replied.
“You s’pose to get a job!”
“Damn that! I’m supposed to go let somebody put a chain on my life?”
“No!” Farah yelled. “You’re supposed to make sure your son has a life. Make sure he got enough to eat. You supposed to come home at night, and stop making me wonder if you coming home at all. I’m tired of that! I’m tired of praying!”
“Then leave!” Abram cried, “See if you find better out there. You'll see what I been talking about real quick.”
Issac sat for a while in the stairwell, his focus oscillating between their bristling voices and his grumbling stomach. Before long, his hunger pangs consumed all of his focus, and he headed out of the house, into a neighborhood that was deceptively still during the afternoon. He walked past the rows of houses until he came to the main street. To the left, he heard the train whistle and rumble as it left the station. To the right, the neighborhood stretched for several blocks. Straight ahead, delicious aromas beckoned him to a corner bakery across the street. He reached into his empty pockets and turned right.
As he walked the street, he encountered all of the familiar sights. At the barbershop, he could hear one of the barbers joking with a patron.
“Now, you know damned well we black folks don’t– ” the voice chuckled as Issac continued onward. A church with a large sign out front asked him to put his troubles in God’s hands. A voice on a car radio sang the evils of money to the rhythmic thumping of bass and drum lines. A man with street-stained skin and ragged clothing begged for change. Issac shrugged, and continued onward.
Finally, Issac arrived at a small house with a large garage and several broken-down cars parked outside. In its driveway, one elegant, expensive sedan glittered in the afternoon sun. He walked to the large garage and ducked under the door to find an old gentleman bent over the hood of a broken coupe.
“Can you teach me how to fix these?” Issac asked. The old gentleman looked up from the hood. He was short and stocky with baggy, grease-stained overalls, peppered gray wool for hair, and a bushy gray beard. He peered over his large spectacles and cleared his throat.
“Ya Abram’s boy, eh?”
“Yessir,” Issac replied.
“Ya come to bring me da money he still owes me?”
“He doesn’t have any money, Mr. Braithwaite.”
“Den ya come to tell me when he gon’ ‘ave da money?” Mr. Brathwaite looked sternly at Issac, his lips pursed tightly and drawn downward, his eyes becoming slits above the wide, glass ovals.
“He isn’t going to have it.”
“And ya come ‘ere to tell me dat, boy?” Mr. Braithwaite huffed incredulously.
“I came here to work,” Issac pointed to the broken coupe. “Can you teach me to fix that?”
Mr. Braithwaite peered at him a while longer, as if he were solving a difficult puzzle. Then he chuckled and went back to work on the coupe.
“Well?” Issac asked.
“Ya ain’t never drove a car before, ‘ave ya?”
“No, sir. I’m fifteen.”
Issac sighed and turned toward the door. He was not sure where he would go, but he did not want to return home. He was about to duck under the garage door when Mr. Braithwaite spoke again.
“But ya can ‘and me dat wrench ova dere.”
Issac looked back to see an unsmiling face that was nevertheless wrinkled by benevolent concern. Issac hurried to find the wrench and bring it to Mr. Braithwaite who took it and returned to his work, though not before giving another command.
“And ya can sweep da floors. Da broom is in dat corner,” Mr. Braithwaite gestured to a place with an old apron, several greasy rags, and an old, wood-handled broom. Issac took the broom and swept the floors with diligence and gratefulness. He performed several other chores that day, and after the sun set, Mr. Braithwaite approached Issac with a clean rag to wipe his face and hands. Buried in the rag were a few folded bills.
“Ya come back tomorrow afternoon if ya wanna work,” Mr. Braithwaite proposed, “Ya show me ya work ethic, and I’ll teach ya how to fix cars, eh?”
“Yessir,” Issac replied with a smile.
“Ya know, I knew ya grandfather. He was a mean son-of-a-bitch, but he always paid his debts.”
“Yessir,” Issac nodded.
Mr. Braithwaite peered at Issac’s face for something familiar. He frowned with discernment before he nodded at the teenager.
“Go on, den.”
Issac walked the street with the bills folded tightly in his fist. However, he remembered his father's words and wore his smile on the inside all the way home.
After a few days of working for Mr. Braithwaite, Issac returned home to find his father sitting at the kitchen table with a cigarette and a glass of whiskey.
“The hell you smiling for?” Abram asked when he saw his son’s face, “ And where the hell you been?”
“Helping you,” Issac replied. Abram furrowed his brow.
“Oh? How’d you do that? You ain’t been here?”
“I got a job. I been helping Mr. Braithwaite at his garage down the street.”
“And how does that help me?”
“You don’t owe him for the car anymore.”
“What are you talking about?” Abram raised his voice.
Issac became confused. He had expected his father’s smile, and when he didn’t see it, Issac felt his own smile fade. He felt his words freeze at the back of his tongue.
Abram stared at his son for a long, silent moment. Then, the screech of his chair against the floor pierced the air as Abram rose quickly to his feet and rushed toward his son. In an instant his hands were gripped tightly to Issac’s collar as he pinned him to the wall.
“You did what?” Abram growled.
“I– I wanted to help.”
“You don’t help me!”
Abram’s voice was raspy from smoke, scotch, and rage. He jerked Issac’s collar such that the boy’s head banged against the wall. The tears welled in Issac’s eyes as he felt the whiskey-laced spittle and tobacco-stained breath from his father’s mouth upon his face.
“What you gonna be the man of the house, now?” Abram asked, “Because you done gone out and told the whole world that your daddy ain’t no man. You gonna feed us now?”
“I can,” Issac replied in earnest.
Abram’s eyes darted back and forth to scowl into each of his son’s eyes. But then his grip on Issac’s collar loosened, and he slowly took a step back. Then he released his son and looked around until he remembered where he had left his drink. He grabbed the whiskey bottle as he headed toward the backdoor.
“So you’re a deer, then.” Abram said with his back to Issac. “Go ahead and let them hunters get you. Just make sure you’re home by supper every day.” He opened the door. “And clean up the kitchen before your mama gets home.”
When the door slammed closed, Issac stood for a moment with his fists clenched, his breaths rushed, and his heart racing. Then, as if an instinct had seized his body, he stormed out to the backyard to retrieve his father’s gun. He slept with it under his pillow that night and kept it in the pine, toy chest thenceforth.
In the months that followed, Issac worked and learned in the evenings with Mr. Braithwaite. Every Friday, Mr. Braithwaite paid him in cash, three-quarters of which Issac would take home and tuck into his mother’s cigarette case. The remainder went in a shoebox under his bed. Sometimes, he even brought home groceries.
One day, as they sat at the dining room table eating food that Issac had proudly purchased and prepared for his parents, Issac looked up to see his father looking askance at him.
“You a good deer, ain’t you?” Abram goaded his son, “Just let them hunters eat you up, huh?”
“I ain’t no deer,” Issac said defiantly, “Mr. Braithwaite don’t hunt me. He pays me. He teaches me. Maybe I can fix the car, now.”
“Better not touch my car,” Abram warned.
“Leave him alone, now,” Farah said to Abram, but he did not stop.
“Nah, nah, you a deer alright. And you know who I am?”
“I said leave him alone,” Farah raised the tone in her voice.
“I’m the hunter them streets. Nobody messes with me out there,” the excitement grew in Abram’s voice, “Yeah, I’m the hunter out there and in here, too. And you’re a deer.”
“I ain’t no deer!”
Abram raised a chicken leg from his plate while Issac could feel the blood grow hot about his collar.
“Yeah, you see this here? You know what this is? This is you!” Abram pointed the drumstick at Issac. Then, he took a big, ravenous mouthful of the seared flesh into his mouth.
“They’ll eat you up out there, and you’re just begging them to do it, huh?”
“That’s enough!” Farah shouted.
“Nah, nah he’s alright,” Abram said, “He’s cool. Deer don’t do shit, and they damn sure don’t say shit. Ain’t that right boy?”
Issac had enough. He leapt across the table at his father who caught him in an instant and hurled him to the ground.
“Oh ho!” Abram groaned with facetious trepidation, “You trying to be a hunter, now!”
“Issac, you stop!” Farah shrieked, “Abram, you shut up!”
But neither Issac nor Abram heeded her command. Issac gathered himself and threw his wiry frame at his father who once again caught him and hurled him against the table, sending the food, plates, and silverware tumbling to the ground. Then, Abram grabbed his son by the collar and scruff of his neck and held him up against the wall. Issac gasped and choked as he forced curses out of his mouth and at his father’s face.
“Stop!” Farah screamed, “You stop talking to your father that way!” She ran over to pry her son from his father’s grip. “And you! Don’t do him like your father did you,” she pleaded with Abram who ignored her and leaned in closer to his son to hiss the words past his own clenched jaw.
“I’m the hunter in here, you understand? And as long as you live here, I don’t care how much money you make, I’ll eat you up!”
He released Issac who tumbled to the ground but scrambled quickly to his feet.
“Go up stairs, Issac!” Farah pleaded, “Get out of here!”
His vision blurred by his anger, Issac stumbled through the hall and up the stairs to the attic.
When he got to his bedroom, he slammed the door open and hurled the mattress from his bed. He grabbed the revolver that lay there, and he hurried to the stairwell. He froze at the top of the stairs, his hand trembling with the weight of the gun, his breath heavy with fury, and his eyes flooded by tears. However, before he used his father’s gun, he dropped to his knees.
“Must I inherit my father’s sins?” he uttered as he let the gun fall to his side. “Must I keep his demons?”
Slowly, he crawled to his room and collapsed on his mattress. He placed the gun under his pillow and fell fast asleep.
He awoke to his mother seated beside him, gently stroking his hair.
“My son,” she spoke softly.
“Why does he hate me?” Issac asked. Farah chuckled.
“He don’t hate you. He’s your father.”
“He wanted to fight me!” Issac shouted. He tried to sit up, but the soft and calming touch of his mother anchored him to the bed.
“You can’t be fighting your father,” Farah said. “You gotta let some things he says slide. He don’t mean no harm.”
“He choked me.”
“You swung first! How you gonna win that fight? He been fighting all his life. Even fought his own father. He's too good at it.”
She was trying to force humor into her words, but there was too much truth in them.
“His daddy was a hard man. Put your father through hell. But Abram grew up to respect his father’s way. He’s just trying to teach you how his daddy taught him. Just stay out of his path for a little while. He’ll be alright.”
“Mama, why are you always sticking up for him?”
“Because love sometimes means sticking up for people even when they’re wrong. A boy needs his father, after all. Try to honor him as best as you can, okay?”
Many years later, his mother's words seemed to linger in the stagnant air of the attic, and Issac suddenly longed to open the window and let them fly away into the cool, autumn air. He looked down at his father who continued to sip from the bottle and sit upon the hood of his rusted sedan.
What would he do if I went to him now, Issac thought to himself. Would he embrace me or choke me? Would I let him do either? Issac thought about the gun at his waist, but he did not reach for it. Not yet. Slowly, he moved away from the window and picked up the knapsack. He slung it over his shoulder and headed out of the attic to the upper stairwell. He remembered the last time he performed these exact actions. He was sixteen years old.
He returned home and looked under his bed to find his shoebox missing. Immediately, he stormed downstairs to the living room where his father sat on the sofa.
“Where is it?” he demanded with a wild look in his eyes.
“Where is what?” Abram seemed unconcerned as he watched television.
“My money. It’s gone.”
“Maybe it’s wherever my you threw my daddy’s gun,” Abram replied.
“You can’t take my money!”
“You don’t have no money in my house.”
Issac looked with bewilderment at his father who spoke without looking away from the television.
“When you get your own house, you can have money and whatever else you want in it. But this is my house. You don’t have no money here,” Abram continued.
“I pay rent here!” Issac cried, “I buy half the food! I feed myself!”
“And it’s my house! When you’re done respecting that fact, you can get the hell out.”
Issac stormed into the kitchen where his mother washed the dishes. He huffed and puffed, waiting for her to acknowledge him. She did not. Finally, he gained his composure and spoke calmly.
“Just be home before supper,” Farah replied.
“No, I’m leaving for good. I’m not coming back.”
Farah dropped the dish and rag and stood frozen by the sink.
“He stole my money,” Issac continued, “My money! As if I don’t give enough!”
“Well, I’m sure he had a good reason,” Farah began, “Maybe he’s getting the car fixed.”
“He ain’t getting no car fixed!” Issac huffed, “That damned car has died and gone to hell!” Farah turned to stare at her son with a pained and bewildered expression. Issac was at first remorseful, but his anger soon returned.
He breathed heavily and waited for his mother’s response, but she merely stood in the kitchen with her mouth open and a grimace upon her face. Looking at his mother, Issac felt a dull, aching guilt that he was abandoning her. Nevertheless, he returned to his room where he hurriedly filled a knapsack with his clothing. Just as he finished and turned to leave, he remembered his father’s gun. He went to the chest by his bed and opened it. He dug past his charms— a music box, old photos, and old toys and books until he found it. He fingered the texture of the handle before he tucked it into his waistband. Then he looked about the room for a final time. Perhaps he was glad to leave it behind. He walked over to his bed and smoothed out the quilt. Then he turned and left the attic. When he got to the bottom of the lower stairwell, his father stood before him.
“You ain’t taking anything out of this house,” Abram declared.
“But these are mine!”
“And you are mine. I decide how you live until you decide you don't want to be here no more.”
“Get the hell out, then.”
Issac tossed the knapsack at his father’s feet. He thought about the gun at his waist, and he trembled not to reach for it. With teary eyes, he looked longingly at his father and then past him, toward the door. He hurried out and down the main street. He turned left toward the station. He took the first train away.
Issac spent three years away from home. He worked in a garage in a neighboring town, and he spoke with his mother through letters in which she often implored him to come home. Only once was he led by familial nostalgia and longing to his old home, but he could not bring himself to enter or even knock on the door. He did not know what he would do if he saw his father, and he was afraid to see the grief on his mother’s face. Perhaps he would see that his father’s effect on her was all-consuming. Or perhaps he would find that it was he, himself, who had caused her anguish. When Issac finally returned to Moriah, he did so by a dire request that his mother would only discuss in person. Though, he had no desire to return, he felt that a vindication of the life he had sought and made for himself required that he resolve matters in Moriah once and for all. He was nineteen years old.
“How long?” he asked his mother when they had been seated at a diner not far from the house. “How long should one hold tightly to the stem of a dead rose before he learns that its beauty is gone and that its thorns merely seep the blood from him?”
“I don’t know,” she replied. Dark rings encircled her eyes, and the creases that had once been drawn at their corners now traced her sallow cheekbones and down-turned lips. Issac could not help but to stare at the the gray that had spread like clouds through her midnight hair. And, her voice had become raspy– a perpetual whisper, the flutter of broken wings.
“I suppose I had to leave alone, then,” Issac said.
“And I understand why you had to go, but have you grown so cold?” Farah asked. “Your father needs you. You know what that house means to him. It’s all he has left of his father.”
“Maybe for that reason alone he should let it go,” Issac said.
“Maybe,” she admitted, “But sometimes people have a hard time letting go of things. It would break his heart to lose that house.”
“Maybe it broke his heart to keep it. Maybe it will break mine further to help him keep it,” Issac said.
“Still, you’re the only person who can help him,” Farah said. “That house is your birthright. It was meant to stay in the family.”
“Like a ghost,” Issac said reflectively.
“A ghost?” Farah asked.
“Yeah,” Issac said. “Do you believe in ghosts?”
“I think so,” Farah replied. “Something must happen to our souls when we die. Where’d that question come from?”
“I don’t think I believe in ghosts. Maybe I did once, but not anymore.”
“You’re all grown up, then,” she smiled weakly.
“I think so.”
He paused for a long moment before continuing. “Tell dad I will buy the house.”
Farah looked hopefully at him.
“Then you’ll come home?” she asked.
“I won’t,” he replied. “Tell him I will buy the house, but he can’t live in it.”
“What a monstrous thing!” Farah declared.
“I disagree,” Issac said. “I think it is the only thing I can do to help him.”
“And what about me?” Farah asked.
“You should live in the house. Make sure he doesn’t go back there. Make sure he doesn’t hurt you anymore. I’ll go to the house in a month. Tell him to have his affairs in order by then.”
Thus it was that he reached the final step in the lower stairwell of his childhood home, and he answered the two questions he had asked himself when he first arrived.
His heart pounded in his chest, but his body did not tremble as the front door opened to his father’s silhouette in the threshold. He let his eyes adjust to his father’s face upon that shadow. Then, he thought of the gun at his waist, but he did not reach for it. He did not have to. Instead, he approached his father with the knapsack and tossed it at his feet.
“So this is your revenge, then?” Abram asked.
“No revenge,” Issac replied. “There’s no happiness in that. This is a pursuit— my pursuit of a happiness that I know exists out there somewhere.”
Issac paused to pull his father’s gun from his waistband.
“You wanted this to safeguard your fears. I will use it to safeguard my ideals. I think that it would be nice for you to find happiness. But you can’t find it here.”
Abram looked at his father’s gun in his son’s hand, and he felt a sudden but fleeting yearning. His own painful memories ran in his thoughts. He took a defiant step toward his son who quickly placed his finger on the gun’s trigger. Both of their hearts raced.
He took another step forward and felt a sense of déjà vu for son raising gun to father.
Thump, thump! Thump, thump!
He remembered, and he stopped. He looked at his son’s scowl– so much like his. He tried to remember a smile from long ago. He could not. Instead, he only recalled how this déjà vu ended once, and he resigned himself to his fate.
“Okay,” Abram said resolutely, “Okay.”
Abram reached forward and bent down to pick up the knapsack and sling it over his shoulder. Then he turned to look at the rusted sedan in the driveway. Issac watched his father become tired and old. Slowly, Abram shuffled down the crumbled path and toward the squeaky gate. He turned back to look at the house one last time before continuing past the houses he’d known all of his life. When he arrived at the main street, he turned right.
Issac returned to the house where he placed the gun on the kitchen counter Then, he took a pen and paper and wrote a letter.
“Dear mama,” he wrote, “I have sent misery away. Shoot him if he returns. Love always, Issac.”
He placed the letter near the gun and walked through the hall and out the front door. He locked the door behind him and slid his key under the door. He stood tall and looked forward to the autumn canopies. There, he found a smile to wear past the gate, down the main street, and left, toward the station.