writing chapter 7.3
Meanwhile, across town…
Nathan got home from work reeking of garbage, his shirt stained with ground-in salad and dried-on mayonnaise. Dad caught him coming in. “Where you been? Why are you so filthy? And you smell.” Nathan mumbled something about a vicious soccer foul that left him covered in dirt and grass stains, and fled to his room. Dad laughed at him and held his nose. “Must have rolled in dogshit, too, huh?”
Nathan took a shower and dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. He snuck into the kitchen, past Dad and Sis, their faces glowing blue in the darkened living room.
The news anchors look like they’re keeping secrets. The ageless black woman turns to the middle-aged white guy and winks, then faces the camera. “A few weeks ago we reported on an apparent glitch affecting scientific instruments all over the world.” A graphic appears behind her – sprung clocks going boing. “Well,” she continues, “they had another one.”
Her coanchor snickers as he takes over. “After careful examination of thousands of instruments, investigators concluded that it was…wait for it.” They both laugh, then the anchor stares at him intently as he winds up for the finish. “The cause of near panic in the scientific world was…an electrical short. Due to a faulty plug.” He looks relieved.
Back to the anchor in her perky yellow jacket. “So, it’s not the end of the world or a publicity stunt for an upcoming science fiction movie.” She segues into an update on the construction of a huge new sound stage project that will triple filming capacity in Atlanta. “They’re calling it the Hollywood of the East.”
Then her coanchor takes over while she prepares herself to announce the ad break. “Coming up, Atlanta gets invaded by hordes of costumed superheros on Labor Day weekend. It’s the I don’t know millionth annual Dragoncon convention.” Footage of last year’s Saturday morning parade, showing wave after wave of stormtroopers in formation, followed by winged fairies and dancing elves, with hooded reapers riding on motorcycles behind them.
Sis loved the bikers. Dad hated the fairies. Nathan stood in the hall and worried about being found out. He sidled into the kitchen, rubbing his damp, spiky hair, smelling of soap. Mom was making dinner. Frozen macaroni and cheese with boiled hotdogs and stale buns. Nathan thought about the meal he could make with salad fixings from the B’stro D L’te.
Mom shook her head when he said something about the parade. Later. Dad might walk in on them looking for his dinner, and hear them talking. So they spoke around it.
Nathan’s boss had asked him to work Labor Day weekend. “I really need you, Nathan, he’d said plaintively. “You wouldn’t believe the crowds.”
Nathan had hesitated, every nerve screaming NO. Then he’d said, “Okay,” hoping his face showed how much it cost him. “I guess I can come in and help out for the lunch rush. But then I’ll go back to Dragoncon.”
His relief had been obvious. “Sure, when things die down. Great. Hey, you can wear your costume if you want. Who you dressing up as, anyway?”
Thinking about it, Nathan wasn’t sure he should have agreed, and turned to his mother for advice. “He wants me to work,” he whispered. “But I don’t know. He really depends on me. Maybe I’d be letting him down if I didn’t, maybe he’d think I’m not a team player.” His face fell. “I guess it’s okay if I only watch this first time.”
“No, it’s not okay,” Mom insisted, keeping her voice down. “I don’t want to go by myself. What about all those fan tracks you’re so excited about?”
He chuckled wryly. “Maybe I can get to a few late night panels and parties.”
Mom frowned and he grinned. Of course he wouldn’t go to any parties. They had to be home by dinnertime.
They were going to have to make some excuse about where they were going all weekend, and they didn’t want to risk a complicated lie. So, a trip to the beach – just the two of them – was out. And visiting their Aunt Maud in Valdosta wouldn’t work. They were thinking about using a school field trip as their smokescreen, but they knew Dad would say no if Mom asked to go as a chaperone.
Dad got up to go to the bathroom, pausing by the kitchen door to hurl his empty can at the trash bin. They busied themselves with the dinner while he made fun of Dragoncon and tried not to look guilty.
Once he’d waddled off, Mom asked, “How’s school this year? Get any of the teachers you wanted?”
Nathan shrugged. “No, all the good ones quit during the summer. There’s a bunch of new teachers.” He was now a junior. “Some of them don’t look like they’ll last very long.”
Nathan was relieved to have an excuse for his time out of the house. During the summer, he’d had to invent a soccer camp and grant himself a full scholarship, and he was always terrified Dad would take an interest. He hated lying, mainly because he was a very bad liar. He was almost ready to quit his job so he could stop pretending to be a jock, especially since Dad picked on him anyway. For Mom’s sake he studied and got good grades. He’d always tried to follow the rules, and always wanted to be noticed for his efforts. But he was always punished instead, for even trying, and he was starting to think he didn’t want to play anymore.
Dinner was almost ready, so Nathan went out to the living room and set the coffee table with a stack of plates and a handful of forks, a roll of paper towels and an array of condiment bottles. An ad was on for a new reality show. Dad moved his head and fussed at Nathan to get out of the way.
Dark shapes move across the screen; dramatic, edgy music droning in the background. The title is enormous: red on black letters. BlakOpz. The voiceover is gruff, a master sergeant. “They’re ruthless mercenaries. They enjoy pain. They lack empathy. Blood on their hands? It’s a fashion accessory. They’re BlakOpz.”
The camera pans over a pack of snarling he-men, with a deadly-looking dominatrix type here and there. “We’ve recruited a squad of security personnel who are hungry for power, glory, and lots of money.” Closeup on snarling mouths, staring eyes, sweaty brows, cleavage. “We’re sending them on quick, far reaching, and deniable piratelike undertakings on behalf of the big boys.” Cut away to show a panorama of their equipment, then a cut to the interior of a troop transport, the troops jammed together, bristling with weapons, sweating, more cleavage. “Ride shotgun with the squad leader as we put these recruits thru high-stakes operations, under high-stress conditions, forcing them to make split-second life or death decisions. Join them as they take their game to the top in a deadly struggle to survive and win. Constant jeopardy. Cutthroat rivalries. Sudden elimination. Venomous judges and death panels.” The voice turns callous. “Some of you will pee in your pants.”
Nathan stared at the ad and thought how glad he was to be going to college, while Sis was thinking how much she’d like to date a mercenary.
During dinner, Nathan ignored the program and the food he was eating, and thought about his job. The office workers always talked about layoffs upstairs in the big corporate cube farms and suites. They were in constant fear for their jobs, and Nathan sympathized. He was convinced he was just one mistake from unemployment. He may have straight As in school, but if he didn’t get thru college, he could end up like those grungy men who huddled in the corners of the foodcourt until Caroline ran them off. They could be him.
Dad’s dark fantasies were never so genteel. He pictured himself having to hang around Home Depot all day with the Mexicans, fighting like dogs for a chance to clean out a backed-up sewer for twenty bucks.
But Nathan’s boss worshipped the rags he cleaned with, and was thinking of Nathan for his youngest daughter, who was almost old enough to marry. And Dad’s boss looked forward to getting rid of him with a particular pleasure.
Nathan finished his dinner and went to the kitchen with his things. Mom joined him, happy to move to a well-lit room where the TV didn’t blare so relentlessly.
Dad came in on his way to the bathroom, and announced that his new district supervisor had just fired the weekend manager and added his hours onto Dad’s regular shift, effective yesterday. “Until they get somebody down from Corporate to take over,” he said, unsure what it might mean for his job.
Mom and Nathan shared a glance – their Dragoncon problems were over. But there was still the chance he would find out, and neither of them wanted to invoke his wrath.
Mom congratulated him, assuming it was a promotion, and Dad’s mood grew instantly dark.
But Nathan had already started to ask a question. “The store closes at 9 on Saturdays, doesn’t it?”
Dad hunched over, his arms crossed on his chest, squeezing the beer can in his fist. “They’ve switched to a new accounting method, too. The books take me an hour to finish and now there’s all these week-ending procedures I have to deal with.”
Mom looked concerned. “Oh dear. We’ll change dinnertime so we can still eat together.”
He growled and turned down the hall. “Don’t bother. I’ll get something at McDonalds. Your food sucks, anyway.”
Nathan finished washing down the counters and turned to the kitchen table. He found a brochure under some bills, something Dad brought home from his second interview with the security company.
“Huh. Pro-X SecurTM,” he said, turning it over and looking at the bottom for the company name. “A friend of mine – um,” he winked at Mom, “the security guard at school – she was thinking about getting a job with these guys. She wasn’t sure, tho. It sounded like a lot of following people around and going thru their garbage. And she was hoping for a desk job, but they’re going to start her on patrol. So she’s not sure.” He put it down. “Is Dad looking for another job?”
Dad came around the corner. “No, Dad is not looking for another job,” he said, cuffing Nathan on the head. “Mind your own business, Nuthin. Dad’s doing goddamn wonderful right where he is.” He got himself a beer and stood looking down at his son while popping the top. He took a deep draught and then burped. “Ahh. A cold beer is worth two of you.” He pulled out a chair and sat backwards on it. “Why do you ask?”
Nathan shuffled, staring at the floor and trying not to mumble. Dad hated mumbling. “I was thinking of quitting soccer this year and getting a job after school. So I could help with the bills and maybe save up for college,” he finished, trailing off.
Dad scowled, insulted. “I don’t need your help. You just continue right on wasting your time preparing for college. They probably love soccer fags.” He took another drink and burped. “I keep telling, you, Nuthin, leave real work to real men. Your kind never has to get your hands dirty,” he said resentfully, and then laughed. “Except when you go rolling around in dog shit.”
Mom shook her head. “He’s afraid you’ll compete with him,” she whispered as Dad got another beer from the fridge.
Nathan bristled. “I don’t have to do what you do in order to be a real man, Dad. Real men go to college, too.”
Dad reached out to cuff him again, but Nathan was too far away. “Idiot. My point is, is real men don’t need to go to college. Being a man means you go out there and win. College helps some people win a lot more, but not you.” He pointed at him with his beer. “You’re wasting everyone’s time going to college. You’ll never be a real man, because you’ll always be a loser, and it won’t matter what you do.”
Mom stifled an impulse to say something risky. “I’m sure whatever Nathan does, he’ll make us proud,” she said mildly.
Dad frowned at her and turned back to Nathan. “No, he won’t. Nobody’s proud of a loser.”
“I’m not a loser,” Nathan said, perhaps unwisely.
Dad shook his head sadly. “Stupid. You’re either one or the other.”
“But Dad, there’s a whole range of things in between.”
“No there’s not, there’s only two choices. One is good, one is bad. I can tell just by looking at you that you’re bad. Know how I know? Because good people look good. Bad people have warts and crooked teeth and look scruffy. Or queer. Appearances don’t lie. Just watch TV once in a while and you’ll see. It’s full of common sense.” He leaned against the fridge and drained his beer. “Values we can all believe in.”
“I think Nathan’s quite handsome,” Mom said meekly. Dad glared and threw his empty at the trashcan.
“You should stop wasting time with your mother and come on out here for some family time with me and Sis,” Dad said, reaching into the fridge for another beer.
“You might as well be alone when you’re watching TV,” Nathan remarked sullenly.
“You’re not alone,” Dad protested. “You’re sharing it with millions of other people at the same time. They’re all out there, one big happy family. The trouble with you is,” he waved his finger in Nathan’s face, “is you don’t watch enough TV. You’re always holed up in your room by yourself. God only knows what you get up to in there. You need to get out more. Make some friends.”
He went to lay a sympathetic hand on his son’s shoulder, but Nathan twitched out of the way. “I know it’s tough, Nuthin,” Dad continued, feeling fatherly. “I got picked on a lot when I was your age.” He stood tall and thumped his chest. “But look at me now, at the top of my game. And I have to say it, your father is equal to any man that ever lived. If only…” He stopped, out of breath.
If only he got the recognition he deserved at work. If only he had better kids and a wife who didn’t spend all his money. If only he could get a break. He never complained, he did what he was told, he was reliable and trustworthy. As loyal as a dog. Lately he felt like he was being punished for it.
He tried again to get Nathan interested in some family time. “Come on, we’re going to play a game.” Mom motioned for him to go, and Nathan reluctantly followed.
Dad had brought home a board game to play with his son, something so uncharacteristic that Nathan was instantly suspicious. Dad’s new supervisor had given it to him right before he left work that night, chuckling nervously. “It’s sort of an educational tool,” he’d said. “We thought you, uh, your kids, that is, could use a few lessons on how the world really works. It’s a great game,” he finished, shoving the box into Dad’s hands. “The whole family will love it.”
“It’s like Monopoly, where one player ends up with all the money and bankrupts all the other players,” Dad explained to the kids, having read the back of the box. “You buy up their debt and then you freaking own them. But that’s only part of the game. Once you control your area, you corner the rest of the market and starve out the competition.”
Sis nodded vigorously. “The one with the most slaves when he dies wins. It sounds great.”
Dad looked at Nathan hopefully. “Swim with the sharks, eh, Nuthin?”
Dad always played vindictively, and acted like winning made him smarter than everybody else. Sis was a brazen cheater. Nathan felt his stomach clenching, claimed a math test in the morning, and fled back into the kitchen to do the dishes.
“What’s the game like?” Mom asked as he stood with his back to her, furiously scrubbing a plate.
“The bad guys win,” he said shortly. Then he thought for a moment. “Not that. It’s all about money. It’s the only thing that counts,” he said. “Like, it’s okay to make people into slaves if you make a profit.” He turned on the tap, rinsed the plate, and turned the water off. “I think there are lots of things that don’t make money, or that you can’t buy, but in this game they’re worthless, and don’t count.” He carefully put the plate in the drainer, even tho he felt like smashing it against the edge of the counter. “I don’t want to just see pricetags and nothing else. I don’t want to make a lot of money if it means ignoring the things you can’t buy.”
“Yes, there are more important things than money. But money is simple, and it’s something people can count, and agree on, so they tend to ignore other ways of looking at it.”
“Like it’s important that people have enough to eat and a place to live. But it’s probably not profitable, so it probably won’t ever happen.” He turned back to the sink and washed another plate, shaking his head.
“I’m afraid that’s how it works,” Mom admitted.
“We need to make things more fair, and not worry so much about profits.”
“Why Nathan, that’s very progressive of you. I’m impressed.” Mom smiled. “But don’t let your father hear you talking like that. He has a very different opinion.”
They talked about school, instead. Nathan was having trouble with the police who patrolled the halls. This year they’d started hassling him as he was leaving for his job, even tho they watched him check out in the school office every day. “Maybe they think I’m a gang member. They go thru my backpack every afternoon. They want to go thru my cellphone.”
“You don’t have a cellphone.”
He nodded. “They think it’s suspicious. They think I’ve hidden it somewhere, like maybe it’s timed to go off or something.”
The police were mistaking Nathan for other kids in his school, who talked on their cellphones in class and ignored the teachers, skipped every other class, came to school fucked up on someone else’s pharmaceuticals, smuggled in all sorts of contraband, and didn’t care about school because they didn’t care about having careers. Gangstas don’t do work ethics. In Nathan’s school, winners didn’t go to college. Which reminded him.
“Oh my God, Mom, you need to know about the gang kids Sis is hanging out with at school.”
Mom looked at him warily. “You have gangs?”
“A couple. That’s why the cops patrol the halls.” He lowered his voice. “I think Sis is dating someone in one of the gangs.”
Dad came in for a beer, and Mom expressed her concern without mentioning any names.
Dad laughed dismissively. “Not in my baby’s school,” he declared.
Nathan snorted. “Yeah, right. Hey Sis,” he called into the living room, “know any gang signs?
Sis appeared in the door and posed menacingly with fingers splayed and a sullen look on her face.”
Mom frowned. “Are there gangs in your school?”
“Oh, Mom, you’re so lame,” she whined. “There are gangs in every public school in Atlanta. In the country. We didn’t have any in my old school, of course,” she reminded Dad, shooting a vengeful look at Mom.
“I don’t want you having anything to do with gang members,” Mom insisted.
Sis sneered, “Of course not. I would never do that.” She drew herself up. “They’re gangsters,” she said with disgust. “How could you think that of me? You’re just prejudiced against me. You’re never happy with anything I do.” She was on a roll. “I need parents who can appreciate how hard I’m working.” She raised her hands in horror. “I’m doing my best to avoidcontamination from the scum you force me to associate with in this horrible school.” She started wailing, “I already know how bad it is. You’re just rubbing it in. You’re trying to discourage me. You want me to fail. You’re the worst mother ever.” She flounced out.
And caught Nathan in his room a few minutes later. He was arranging his books on the bed, ready to study. She picked up a heavy textbook and ripped out a handful of pages, glaring at him. “That’s for snitching,” she hissed.
He gathered the pages protectively. “You know, you’ll never learn how to do it yourself if you keep playing people.”
She came close and punched him in the chest. “I never want to do it myself, you idiot.” She turned to the mirror above Nathan’s dresser and pushed back a loose strand of hair. Then she turned on him. “I can’t believe you would tell on me. My own brother. Do it again and I’ll kill you.”
“I’m trying to keep you out of trouble at school. You don’t realize how dangerous those kids are.”
“Oh, grow up.” She made a disgusted face at him. “I know what I’m doing.” She poked his chest hard with her finger. “You don’t. You,” she poked him again, have no idea how dangerous they really are.” Her eyes gleamed. “They’ve killed people.” She poked him once more, and he backed away, rubbing the spot. “I don’t need you making trouble for me at home. Mom and Dad would never understand what I have to go thru to survive.” She unfolded a handful of bullets from her left pocket.
She grinned. “They hide their guns in my locker, too. Nobody looks there. They’re that stupid.”
Nathan covered his eyes.
“You just don’t know what I have to deal with,” she continued, looking in the mirror again. “Poor me, driven from my normal, safe private school and forced to go to a ghetto prison school…” She sighed dramatically and clutched her stomach. “You need to feel bad about hounding me, Nathan. This is no time to tell lies to Mom and Dad and get me in trouble with them, too.” She started to cry. “It’s cruel to taunt me about things I don’t have any control over, you’re just trying to undermine my confidence. I don’t have a choice. They’re animals at that school. It’s okay for you, but I don’t belong there. I can’t be blamed for using protective coloring. And it’s not just a gang member, just FYI. I’m dating the head of the gang. Nobody fucks with me now.”
She sauntered into the kitchen for a coke and stuck her tongue at Mom on her way back to the living room to set up the board and pick the coolest token. Dad came in a few moments later.
“I’m just sick of all the lies,” Mom sighed in a whisper as Dad rummaged thru the fridge for something else to eat.
He settled on a beer and shut the door. “What’s Nuthin lying about now?”
She reddened. “No, not Nathan. I just think…maybe Sis is more involved with bad people than she wants to admit.”
“That’s a bunch of bullshit,” Dad said heatedly. “She’s right, you’re just trying to get her into trouble with me. And I told her she was making it up. You’re jealous of her because you’re getting old and she’s young and cute. Well, let me tell you something. you were never cute.” He laughed, “Just joking. I thought you were a real hottie at the time, didn’t I?”
She straightened up. “I want you to stop calling Nathan names. It hurts when you make fun of him like that.”
“Stop? What are you talking about?” He loomed over her and she cringed. “I don’t have to stop. He deserves it. If he wasn’t so stupid, I wouldn’t have to treat him like that.”
“But you’re just being mean,” she said, almost defiantly. “You don’t have to pick on him.”
He moved around to her side and gathered her hair in one hand, the other clutching his beer. “You haven’t seen anything yet. Complain again,” he tugged on her hair so her face turned to the ceiling, “and it’ll go ten times worse with him.” He pulled some more and she arched her back over the top of the chair. They stared at each other upside down as he yanked on her hair for emphasis. “You know better than to tell me how to raise the kids,” he said in a low, reasonable, menacing voice. “I’ve told you over and over again. It’s my job. You’re there to make dinner and clean clothes and do what I tell you. Don’t think I haven’t noticed how you’ve been slacking off. Don’t tempt me to fire you,” he warned with a final pull, and let go.
Mom straightened up and sat rubbing the back of her neck. She avoided looking at him. He stomped around for a few minutes, yelling at the kids for something, while she massaged a spasmed muscle and fought down nausea.
Then he was back, getting himself another beer. “You know, if you just keep your mouth shut, I wouldn’t have to – you know,” she flinched as he stroked her head, “be that way. I mean, it’s really stupid to question my rules. You can see that.” His hand dragged heavily down her head, pulling out a few strands at a time with long screeches of pain. “You just push me to the breaking point.”
Nathan walked in and saw Dad petting Mom like she was a dog.
Dad scowled at him. “It’s not your fault,” he soothed Mom, stroking her hair once more. “I’m just trying to keep Nuthin in his place, and you keep getting in the way.” He laughed and drained his beer, moving away from Mom. Nathan moved to stand next to her.
Dad lumbered off for a piss. He couldn’t help it, they drove him right to the fucking edge and then kept pushing. These days he was trying to avoid the thought that he could lose everything one unlucky day, like tomorrow. All he had was his ungrateful wife and his burdensome daughter and his worthless son, and his castle.
Unfortunately, Dad’s castle was in a bad neighborhood. That’s why Sis had been going to a private school. They’d lived there long enough for the neighborhood to deteriorate to the point where you didn’t leave anything visible in the car, and you kept your doors locked even in the daytime.
Later, while they played the new game, Dad gave his darling some fatherly advice as he bought out, closed down, and sold off one of her factories, winning 20,000 souls with one roll of the dice. “Sweetie, you should really just stay away from gang members.”
“I wouldn’t associate with people like that, Dad,” she said, in shock. “Some of them work for you, okay? I shouldn’t have to associate with them in school, but that’s out of my control, isn’t it?” She put a construction lien on his most expensive property, costing him all the collateral he’d had backing the project. “It’s not my fault. You should have saved me from all this.”
Nathan heard them playing long after he’d turned off the light to sleep. Sis kicked Dad’s ass.