You Boys (2011)

Cody’s dad hadn’t changed out of his army uniform in three months. When he took Cody and his older brother Will to dinner that night at the Waffle House, just the three of them, Cody noticed little splotches of ketchup on his dad’s chest that hadn’t been there before. Sitting in the brown, fake-wood booth at the orange table, they looked over their menus–the All-Star breakfast, the Dollar Menu–Will flexing his eyebrows while Cody kept glancing up and looking at his father. He smelled a little sour, a little off. He’d taken them to the Waffle House on Pelham Road. It had bad lighting and dirty floors, unlike the new-chrome, white-tiled one they took their grandmother to, now and then. Here, the plastic cups were streaked with gray water, and the water smelled like wet dog.

“Why’s it smell like wet dog?” Cody made a face.

“That’s how they wash ’em,” Will said. “Dogs. Lick ’em clean.”

“I’m serious.”

“So am I.”

They ordered their hash browns all the way, their eggs sunnyside up, orange juice for the boys, coffee for their dad, who never drank coffee. He sipped it from a fat mug and looked at his sons sitting across from him.

“Well, then,” he said. “How you boys been doing?”

“We see you every day,” Will said.

School had just let out for the summer, so Cody figured his dad wanted to talk about that.

“I got my report card today. All A’s.” He’d gotten a B in math, but he didn’t tell his dad that. “I figure I got good enough grades I could be on the debate team next year. Once you’re in eighth grade, you can do that.”

Their dad shook his head. “That’s something else. William?”

“I want to do sports next year,” Will said. “I figure since I’m no good at school maybe I’ll be good at sports.”

“Bullshit,” Cody said. “You never played a sport in your life. What sport?”

“Watch your language,” said his father.

Will folded the corner of his napkin down on the table. “Track,” he said. His dad nodded and was still nodding when the waitress set their food down in front of them.

“Load up on carbs,” he said. “Carbs’ll keep you going better than anything, if you’re going to play sports.”

“I’m not starting now,” Will said.

The waitress came by to refill their dad’s coffee cup. He poured in twice as much sugar as he had before. Then, wiping his plate clean with his last triangle of toast, he said, “Well, I sure am proud of you boys. It’s a hell of a lot more than I did at your age.”

Will was staring at the waitress, whose back was turned. Cody kicked him under the table.

“And hell,” their dad went on, “I’ll be damned if you end up serving.”

When they’d finished eating their dad told them to order waffles for dessert. He patted down his uniform, from the shoulders to the knees.

“Shoot,” he said. “Must’ve left my wallet back at the house.”

He got up and looked around, checking his seat and under the table. “Tell you what,” he said. “I’ll run get it, and by the time I come back you boys’ll have finished your waffles.”

On the way out he ruffled his hand through Cody’s hair, which he hadn’t done since the boys were little. As Cody watched him open the first glass door and then the second one that led outside, it looked like his dad was moving underwater.

Cody kicked Will in the crotch this time.

“What’s your problem?” he said. “You ain’t said nothing all night.”

Will looked down and pressed his finger into the little ring of water his cup had formed on the table. He drew a figure 8. Cody cut along the lines of the four neat triangles preordained by the Waffle House griddle, while Will ate his waffle in big mouthfuls. When they were done their dad hadn’t come back, so they each ordered a slice of chocolate creme pie.

Cody couldn’t finish his. Will finished it for him.

“Pig,” Cody said.

“Pig yourself, fat ass.”

While Will ate his pie Cody went to the old-fashioned jukebox and put in a quarter. He played a song by Roy Orbison, and when it was over he put in another quarter and played it again. I was all right / for a while / I could smiiiile for a whiiiiile . . . Will didn’t look up when the waitress took his plate away. He pulled the hood of his sweatshirt down over his face. He wore the hoodie even though it was warm out. He was always cold, their mother said, because he didn’t have any meat on his bones.

Cody came back to the table and sat down across from him.

“Where’s Dad?”

Cody looked out the window at the parking lot. He couldn’t see the pickup in the space where they had parked.

“Should we call Grandma?”

Will shrugged. Cody got up and went to the counter to tell their waitress what was going on. She grinned, gray teeth, like their grandfather’s used to be.

“Strange things happen here all the time,” she said. “Man had a heart attack just last week, right where y’all’re sitting.”

She let him use the phone by the cash register to call home. On the second ring his grandmother answered and listened to Cody’s story. Then she asked, “What did you do?”

After he hung up he put another quarter in the jukebox and played the Roy Orbison song again.

“Dad’s not home,” Cody told Will as he sat down across from him again.

The waitress came over and smiled at them. “You boys planning to camp out here?”

“Naw,” Cody said. “Our grandma’ll get us. We can pay up then. You don’t have to worry,” he added.

“Worry bout nothin,” Will echoed sullenly.

By then it was nearly eleven. Cody looked out at the bright yellow Waffle House sign. Some of the letters were missing, like teeth. He aimed at the gaps with an invisible gun and pretended to fire through the glass.

Pow.”

As they came inside the dark house Cody half-expected to find their dad sitting in the La-Z-Boy with the cat curled up in his lap. Their grandmother clapped her hands and all the lights came on. “Clap on, clap off,” Cody used to sing, every time. He stopped when they got older and Will started making jokes about the clap.

Will’s face was still shrouded by his sweatshirt hood when they came inside the house. The cat strolled up to them. Cody reached down and hoisted him into his arms.

“Better call your mother,” their grandmother said. She’d made them leave a good tip at the Waffle House but hadn’t said a word on the way home.

“Oh, sure,” Will said from under his hood. “She’ll know what’s up.”

Their grandmother ignored him and picked up the phone. The cat purred in Cody’s arms.

“You think you’re real funny,” Cody said, glaring at his brother.

Will went to his room and shut the door. Cody stood stroking the cat while his grandmother listened to the phone ringing at the other end of the line, somewhere in Tennessee. She stood very still, her blue eyes clear as pools behind her glasses. He listened to her explain the situation to his mother, and felt like everything was stretching away from him, as though the floor and the furniture and his grandmother were all made out of elastic. He dug his fingers into the cat, who mewed and squirmed upside-down.

“She wants to speak to you,” his grandmother said as she handed Cody the phone. Cody dropped the cat.

“Hey, Mom.”

“Hey, baby. Your dad take you to dinner?”

“Yup.”

“That was sweet. First time he’s done that in a while.”

“First time without Grandma, yeah.”

“Guess he wanted to have his man time with y’all.”

“Mom, do you know where he is?”

“Oh, baby. I wish I could tell you.”

He heard a voice grumble something in the background. Her boyfriend. Maybe the one she’d had before, maybe not. She’d been gone a year and it still felt like she should be coming home after they got off the phone.

They exchanged “I love yous,” and he hung up. He stood facing his grandmother. She was gnarled and skinny as a dogwood, still stretching away from him across the elastic floor.

“I’m not a baby,” he said.

“I know you’re not.”

“She don’t talk that way to Will.”

“Nobody talks that way to William. Everybody knows better.”

“Did you call Dad? On his cell phone?”

“He left it here. In the kitchen.”

“He leave a note?”

She shook her head. Cody looked at the floor.

“Maybe he just went for a drive,” he mused.

His grandmother said nothing, and even as he talked he felt like he was lying, that she didn’t believe a word he said and was waiting for him to finish so that he could go out back and pick out his own switch so she could whup his ass for telling lies. When he was little he used to stand there telling her one lie after another so he could put off picking out his switch as long as he could, see just how far he could push her. But she never interrupted him. It was scarier than when his dad snapped his belt right in front of him. At least then it was over quicker. His grandmother would let him talk until his mouth ran dry, and then she would point her finger to the back yard and his eyes would fill up with tears.

Now he stood there, and his eyes filled up because he knew she wasn’t going to say anything at all.

“Guess I’ll go to bed,” he said.

Upstairs, he paused in front of Will’s door but didn’t knock. For a long time he lay in bed without sleeping. Toward dawn, just as pink light was starting to come through the trees, he got up and padded in his bare feet to peek in the living room, where his grandmother was sitting in his father’s chair, her hands folded across her stomach, her eyes resting on nothing in particular.

On Father’s Day two weeks later, the doorbell rang. Cody was lying on his bed, facedown. Nobody else was home. He rolled out of bed and slogged his way to the front door.

The girl who lived across the street stood in front of him. She was a sixth-grader, a year younger than him, with a locker at the other end of the hall. She held a tupperware container near her waist. “Hey,” she said.

“Hey.” Cody squinted at her in the bright sunlight. He could not remember her name.

She held out the container. “Here.”

Cody took it. She’d packed it with pink-frosted cupcakes, nestled in rows.

“Red velvet,” the girl said. “My mom told me to bring ’em over.”

Cody tightened his fingers on the lid. “What for?”

The girl rubbed a finger back and forth under her nose. “You remember that time my mom parked her car in front of your house?” She meant the path that led from the front stoop down to the street. “And your dad came out and started yelling at her and said how was your grandma ’sposed to get up that path if the car was blocking it? And my mom said sorry and he just kept yelling, and then he kicked the back of her car and said she oughta show a little more respect?”

Cody peered out at the bluebird box tacked to the tulip poplar in the front yard near the path. The poplar was littering blossoms all over the concrete. He wondered if maybe they should do something about it.

“Yeah,” he said. “What about it?”

The girl looked at her toes.

“My mom says she’s not upset any more, is all.”

Later that afternoon, when Will came home from work, he was still wearing his black Waffle House apron with the little yellow nametag. Cody was dangling upside down on the couch, watching a T.V. show about angler fish. The tupperware container lay open on the floor beside him, half-empty. He shoved another cupcake into his mouth as Will came into the living room.

“Where’s Grandma?” Will asked.

“Church. Father’s Day Fun-k,” Cody hiccupped, “function.”

Will looked at the cupcakes.

“Where’d you get those?”

“Girl across the street.”

“The one with the crazy mom?”

“Said she ain’t upset anymore. Want one?”

Will stared at his brother. He took off his apron and threw it in a chair and went to his room. Cody watched an angler fish skim across the screen. He toppled off the couch and carried the box of cupcakes down the hall to Will’s room.

The door was half-open. Will was throwing clothes around like he was looking for something. His room was already a mess, and stuff was getting piled and piled on top of it.

“Want one?” Cody asked again.

Will looked up at him. His eyes were hard and black. He arched his eyebrows a lot, like the villain in a comic book. Everything about Will was dark: his eyes, his hair, his clothes. Cody had their mother’s lightness, her sandy hair and pink skin. He held the box close to his chest.

Will glared at the pink frosting like it was poison. “Grandma talks too much.”

He started rifling through his chest of drawers, rattling things around inside. Cody pushed another cupcake into his mouth. “How was work?”

“Fuck you.” Will pulled the top drawer out.

“Didn’t she try to make us go to that one time?” Cody asked, chomping around the cupcake. “To that thing at church?”

“I don’t remember. Probably,” Will said, flinging things out of the drawer. “I bet you threw a fit.”

He took out a plastic bag with a pinch of weed in it. He studied it carefully and looked at Cody.

“You smoke my shit?”

“Just a little.”

Will tapped the bowl of his glass pipe inside his trash can. He packed it and lit it.

“Shouldn’t you turn on a fan, or something?” Cody asked as Will inhaled. “What if Grandma gets back?”

“What if?” Will said, mocking him. “What if? Hell, she could use a hit.”

Coughing, he handed the pipe to Cody, who took an even bigger hit. Will slumped on the floor while Cody sat on the bed. For the next few minutes they passed the pipe back and forth, until the room was filled with smoke.

“That musta been where I made the bird house,” Cody said after a while. He got up and opened the window. Outside the cicadas rattled like rain sticks. “That thing at church. I think we had to hammer it together as a surprise.

“Surprise for what?” Will asked, from the floor.

“Father’s Day,” Cody said. After a moment he added, “Stupid.”

They ended up in the front yard staring at the bluebird box. Across the street, the girl who’d brought the cupcakes was standing in her driveway eating a slice of watermelon. Something about the way she watched them bothered Cody. He tried to ignore her. He started wondering if he hadn’t made the bird house in Boy Scouts a long time ago. Will had made it all the way to Eagle Scout, but Cody had dropped out after the kids started calling him fat. It didn’t help to have a brother who was tall and skinny and pretty good-looking.

The bottom of the bird house was rotting out. Will bent down and picked up a rock from the path leading down to the street. He threw the rock at the box.

“Think they had any babies?” Cody asked.

Will didn’t answer. He kept flinging rocks at the bird house until the door on the side popped open. A bad smell crept out, like something dead.

“Pick me up,” Cody said. Will grabbed him around the waist and hoisted him up so he could open the door wider and peer inside. The smell got stronger, sour and warm, but all Cody could see was a nest that had turned black, with a dark mound of fluff on the inside. A few ants crawled out.

Cody got Will to put him down. They looked at the box some more.

“Let’s get it down,” Will said. While he went inside the house, Cody stood still, listening to the cicadas. He looked across the street. The girl was still staring at him.

“Fuck you,” Cody said softly, just to see what it sounded like.

When Will came back, his face had turned gloomy again. “I couldn’t find the shotgun,” he said. He was holding his BB gun. He’d gotten it for Christmas when he was nine and Cody was six. Cody had thrown a fit. Their dad had bought him a plastic Wild West pistol to make up for it.

Will aimed at the bird house and shot five or six times. The wood puckered with each BB. When Cody looked across the street again, the girl was gone.

“What happened to the bird house?” their mother asked when she came to see them a week later. She was looking out at the yard with her back facing them. Their grandmother sat in their father’s La-Z-Boy, while Will leaned against the bookcase. Cody sat cross-legged on the floor. Their mother’s boyfriend sat on the couch by himself.

They’d driven up in her shiny SUV with the tinted windows. Their mother looked like a movie star in her giant sunglasses, with her big hair and red fingernails. She sold cell phones now, at the mall in Memphis. She didn’t look like she’d ever worked in a hospital cafeteria.

Her boyfriend had tiny, scrunched-up eyes and hair that was greasy and thinning on top. They hadn’t known he was coming with her.

Cody examined the nail on his index finger. The day before, he’d slammed it in the lid on the washing machine. The fingernail had a white crescent running across it, with a red patch underneath where the blood had dried. He started chewing on the nail so he could try and get to the scab.

“Anybody know?” their mother asked again, turning around. She loomed over Cody. “Cody, quit that.”

He looked up at her and kept chewing.

“Boys will be boys,” said the boyfriend.

“Will be boys will be boys will be boys,” Will said. He leaned harder against the bookcase and smirked at his mother.

When she’d told them she was driving down for lunch, Cody had assumed they’d get pizza at the place in town, like they normally did. Sometimes she’d order a beer and Will and Cody would sneak sips of it when the waitress wasn’t looking. The things you could get away with–that was one of the nice things about having a mom who wasn’t always around. But Grandma and the boyfriend were with them that day, so instead they wound up at a Golden Corral full of old people.

They sat at a table in the middle of the restaurant, their glasses of sweet tea shimmering. Cody slumped in his chair and rocked back and forth a little, in a warm fuzz brought on by the whiskey he’d drunk and the weed he’d smoked with Will before they left the house. Will kicked him under the table and he stopped rocking. He sat up straight, put his napkin in his lap and smoothed it down. He looked at his mother and started chewing on his fingernail again. It hurt, but in a good way, a distraction. His mother and grandmother and the boyfriend were talking about Memphis and how great it was. The boyfriend would say something and then peer back and forth at Will and Cody for approval, like he was crossing a busy street, all scrunched-up and nervous, with bright, stupid eyes.

When they headed to the buffet Will stuck close to Cody.

“You tryna get us caught?” he whispered.

“Whaddaya mean?” Cody spooned a wad of mashed potatoes onto his plate and moved on to the creamed corn.

“You’re totally fucked.”

“Wouldn’t be the first time in this fambly.” Cody slabbed a pork chop onto his plate, grabbed a few rolls, and went back to the table with his shoulders high. He pretended he was carrying a masterpiece he’d just molded together. He could feel Will watching him.

“What’re you boys up to this summer?” their mother asked once they’d all sat down again. The boyfriend perked up, like he really wanted to hear the answer.

Déjà vu,” Cody remarked, and giggled. Everybody was looking at him wobbling in his chair. Will arched his eyebrows at him. Cody pressed his fork into his mashed potatoes and decided not to talk anymore.

“I got a job at the Waffle House,” Will said.

“Oh?” his mother said. “How’s that working out for you?”

“It’s great!” Will grinned. “I get benefits, too. All the waffles you can cram down your gullet. Mountains of waffles. Forget ‘House.’ It’s a verifiable Waffle Mansion!”

“William,” said his grandmother.

“Well,” his mother said coolly, leaning back in her chair, “I’m glad you’re enjoying it.”

The boyfriend poked through his mashed potatoes. “Must be awful strange,” he said, “to be working there. After what happened.”

“What happened?” Will looked right at him. “What do you think happened?”

The boyfriend’s eyes twitched back and forth. Cody half-expected him to lean back his head and open his mouth wide for somebody to feed him.

Before their dad left, the best thing about riding in the pick-up was that he always sat up front with their grandmother, while Will and Cody got the back all to themselves. Back there they could spit and cuss with the wind rushing around them. They could gawk at people in other cars. They could talk about stuff that would have sounded stupid anywhere else.

But now somebody always had to ride up front with Grandma. They took turns, Will in back one trip and Cody in back the next. She didn’t make them ride up front with her. It was something understood between them, something, Cody guessed, that their dad would have wanted them to do.

Driving back from the buffet restaurant, it was his turn to ride up front. After they hugged their mother good-bye and shook her boyfriend’s hand, they went to the pick-up and climbed in.

Cody felt a little better after eating. He could smell his mother’s burnt-popcorn-smelling hair from where it had crushed against his shoulder. He got in next to his grandmother and looked behind him to see Will leaning against the back windshield, smoking a cigarette.

“Did she say anything about Dad?” Cody asked.

“You were there sure as I was,” his grandmother said.

“I know. I just wondered if, like, she might’ve said something while I was in the bathroom.”

They stopped at a red light. “I didn’t notice you had left,” said his grandmother.

A black cloud hovered over the road. She turned on the windshield wipers as raindrops splattered against the windshield.

“Don’t you think it’s kinda weird?” Cody asked. “That Mom didn’t say nothing about Dad that whole time?”

His grandmother looked in the rearview mirror. Cody looked too. Will had thrown away the cigarette and pulled his hood over his head.

“We’re none of us big talkers, in our family,” his grandmother said as she stepped on the gas. “It’s a blessing and a curse.”

“Dad talked. He got to talking real big right before he left.” They were headed toward the intersection right before the turn-off onto their street. He felt a knot in his stomach and it seemed like if he didn’t get the words out at that moment he would never say them. The rain was falling harder. “Especially when he’d been out at the bar. Remember how he’d get to talking? He’d start hollering about stuff, acting like he was better than all of us. Like he was some kind of hero.”

“Don’t you talk about your father that way.”

“All I’m saying is, he sure acted big for somebody who killed people. If he even killed people.”

Right then his grandmother slammed on the brakes, hard enough for them to both jolt forward. They’d stopped two inches from another car honking across the intersection in front of them. His grandmother lifted her head from the steering wheel. Through the wipers they saw the man in the other car flick them off and drive on.

His grandmother took a deep breath and put the truck in reverse until they had backed up to the crosswalk and the red light she had run.

“Is William all right?” she asked.

Cody turned around. He couldn’t see his brother.

“Fuck!”

He jumped out, his heart pounding. It was hard to see, in the rain. Will was crumpled in the bed of the truck with his hands over his face. Cody climbed in and crouched next to him, putting his hand on his brother’s back. Will looked up. His face was covered with blood. It was gushing out of his nose and into his hands.

“Jesus Christ,” Cody breathed. “Fucking A.”

He signaled to his grandmother that Will was okay. The light turned green.

Cody made Will lie down on the couch at home. He plunged a fist into the freezer and grabbed a handful of ice cubes. As he brought them out to the living room a few slipped out of his hands and exploded onto the floor. He’d always been clumsy, but it seemed like his hands were shaking more than usual.

“That’s not how you do it,” his grandmother said sharply. She had a bruise on her forehead from where she’d hit the steering wheel. She went into the kitchen herself. Cody stood over his brother. The ice cubes burned his hands, dripping everywhere. Will had squeezed his eyes shut and was making a horrible, high-pitched whining noise way up in his nose, like the cat when he got pissed off.

Their grandmother came back with a bag of frozen blueberries wrapped in a dish towel. She handed it to Cody, who handed it to Will, who shoved the bag against his face. Cody wished their grandmother would go away, and he willed her to do it, silently, in his head. After a while, as if she had heard him, she went to lie down in her bedroom at the back of the house.

He sat down next to his brother, his hands still shaking. His head hurt from where it had hit the dashboard. His fingernail was throbbing. He felt like all the air had been pounded out of his chest, and on top of that his chest had been stomped on. He felt a knot rising up inside him again, but he forced it back down. He listened to the rain falling outside, and the awful noise straining out of his brother’s nose.

“Stop it,” Cody said.

Will kept going.

“I said stop it.”

Slowly, Will drew the bag of blueberries away from his face. All the blood and snot and tears had turned it into a big mess. He looked at Cody, who started etching a figure 8 in the couch with his finger without looking.

“What’d you do to yourself?” Cody said. “Shoot yourself in the face?”

Will looked at him like he hadn’t heard right. Then he slammed the bag into Cody’s head, hard. The blueberries flew all over the couch, a constellation of marbles.

When the sun came out later that afternoon, Cody went out to the front yard. Steam rose up off the street. He squinted at the bird house through the wet, hazy air. He started picking up rocks and flinging them at the bird house, over and over. He looked up to see the girl from across the street watching him.

Everything came exploding out of him, and then he was flinging rocks at her, pummeling her. She held up her arms and said something, but he couldn’t hear her. She didn’t run away. He kept flinging them, over and over, and then he was crying, the tears making his face hot. It felt like he would never get tired.

“What do you want?” he screamed. “Just tell me what you want, you bastard!” ♦