I’m naked to the waist. The first blow comes in low and fast. I weave left, but his fist catches my right oblique. I spit blood onto bare feet and uppercut with my right. I miss. His jab catches my chin. The room blurs and I step back. The cross lands hard against my temple. I feel the wall at my back. I feel glass breaking against expensive art. I feel the floor rise up to my knees. Leaning forward, my sweaty fingers grab at the edge of the rug. The woolen threads feel soft. My face presses against hardwood and glass. I smell bourbon. The man buttons down his cuffs and leaves the room. It’s our first living room, the one before all the divorces and the step-this and half-that. I have this dream every night. Sometimes the man is my father, sometimes it’s Mason. Most times I can’t see his face. Either way, we go at it bare knuckles. This morning, I wake up with bruised hands.
I duck down, stepping back and blocking with my fists. He comes in fast. He lands two jabs, an uppercut, and finishes with a cross. I’m blinded by sweat and blood. I cover my face, peering between fingers. It’s Dad tonight. No, now it’s Mason. The dream is always like this. I shut my eyes.
Mason lets me stay in his room the first night at the University. Dad forgot to send boarding fees. No one knows where he is. The guy assigned to live with Mason never shows up, so things work out. Mason and I have been best friends since middle school. His hair turned gray senior year, so I started calling him Governor. Then everyone did. It was as much for the hair as for his politics. He wants to be JFK. He keeps our room white-glove clean. Mason’s father, who drove up for welcome weekend, gives Mason an Oxford English Dictionary. He wraps thick, hairy arms around our necks and says Sewanee will make men of us. I hear him remind Mason that his scholarship requires at least a 3.0. Mason reminds his father that he was valedictorian. The father gives Mason twenty dollars. Through the crack of the bathroom door, I watch them hug.
The dorm is coed. I walk the breezeway overlooking the courtyard. Heather steps out of her room in flip-flops with a towel over her shoulder.
“Have you taken the swimming test?” she asks.
Heather braids her ponytail and looks at me with huge green eyes. A black bathing suit shows through her t‑shirt.
“The University says every student has to swim 50 yards.” She spins goggles on a finger. “They don’t want us to get drunk and drown in one of the lakes.”
“Oh,” I say. “I didn’t know.”
“The lakes are everywhere. Little death traps when they freeze under the snow.”
“I swim all right.”
“I’m going now. Wanna come?” Heather taps painted toes. She smiles.
“Sure. I think so. Is the test in a lake?”
“Of course not. The cold would kill you.”
“But it’s only September.”
“Are you coming or not?”
I try a jab-cross combo but the man is quick. The cross leaves me open and the man drives a straight to my ribs. I hear the stitching rip in his starched white shirt. I pull up, lift my fists. He uppercuts to my jaw. Blood fills my mouth. I can’t catch my breath and I can’t see clearly. The man turns blurry and his next hit lands across the bridge of my nose. I step back. I hold out my hands in surrender.
I’m packing for Montana. Dad said no, but I’m going. Heather’s going too. My canvas bag looks like a split potato with clothes popping from the seam. I slide my fly rod into an aluminum tube and fill a plastic box with Pheasant Tails, Zug Bugs, and Hoppers. Mason comes in from a mid-term and sits on his bed. A poster of JFK is taped to the wall over his shoulder. Next to it, his autographed photo of George Stephanopoulos. Our beds lie four feet apart in this tiny dorm room. He rubs a hand under his jaw line.
“My throat is killing me.”
“You probably pulled something studying last night. You should fix it up with a fifth of whiskey and dirty sex.”
“Seriously, it hurts.”
“All that reading will do you in.”
“Grades equal money.”
“How long has it hurt?”
“A week now. Are you going to hang that shirt up?”
“Does my nose look ok? Took a soccer ball in the face.”
“I can’t see anything.”
“You should talk to the nurse about that throat.”
“I’ll see my doctor at home.” Mason picks at the hem of his khakis.
“What about the beach?”
“What?” I turn from my clothes and face him.
“I feel like shit.”
“Shake it off. Be a man.”
Mason picks up my shirt and hangs it in the closet. He opens our mini-fridge and grabs a coke.
“Whiskey, Governor. Not coke. And I’m packing that shirt.”
“I thought Montana was off?”
“Why don’t you ever drink?”
“What about your Dad?”
“Who gives a damn. It’s not like he’ll remember in a week.”
I turn back around, put my knee into the clothes, and press down hard enough to zip the bag. My ribs throb with pain.
Heather stands between us. She lifts both arms, palms out. She pushes off my chest. I move back. But the man grabs her hand and twists Heather to the ground. I watch his boot twist into her shirt as he comes after me. I put everything into a straight and knock Dad’s teeth out. But he gets up. He sits in a Windsor chair and gums a bloody cigarette. Heather disappears from the dream. It happens sometimes.
Dad says, “Got me good, did ya? But you’ll never get away. Look at that hand.” I look down at one of Dad’s eye teeth jutting from my knuckle. I pick it out and toss it to him. In the dream, he pops it back in his mouth.
On the east bank of the Blackfoot river, Heather and I sit on a fallen hemlock. We’ve fished through the cold morning. Warm sunlight finally breaks over the tree line as I light two cigarettes. I pass one to Heather. She moves to the water’s edge and balances at the edge of a flat rock. She flips up the creel lid and looks inside. Two browns and a brook trout slosh in the frigid water.
“Should we release them?” she asks.
“I thought they were dinner.”
“We bought steaks.”
“Fine by me.”
Heather lifts trout one at a time. She cradles their slick bellies underwater until instinct reminds them to swim.
“We should get a dog,” I say.
“The big kind.”
“Like a Boxer?”
“No.” I rub my thumb against my index and middle finger. “Pound dogs are free.”
“You worry so much about money.”
“That’s because I don’t have any.”
“Dad is rich.”
“What would we name it?” Heather throws the empty creel onto the bank and finishes her cigarette. She grinds the butt against a rock and thumps it at me.
“Blue,” I say.
“Why does he have to be such an asshole?”
“Booze.” Heather pulls a six pack from the river. She hands me one.
“Blue is a good name for a dog.” I drink from my beer. “So when are you going to ask me about the fighting?”
Patches of sunlight flit across my hands and the cuts are harder to see.
“Yeah,” I say. “Blue.”
The man lands his first punch. I shake it off, skip right, and work a combination. My jab nicks his chin. He side-steps the cross. Then he lands three for three and I’m spitting blood. I try to call the fight, but my swollen tongue won’t produce sound. I duck under the harvest table and stay to the shadows. Broken glass litters the cold floor. It smells like bourbon.
Mason’s not at the dorm when I get back, but the room is immaculate. I unzip my bag and throw every single piece of clothing on the floor. I check the machine. Two messages from Mom and then it’s Mason: Hey Ben. I’m still at home. I’m sure I’ll be back in a day or two. How was fishing? Call me.
I pick up the phone and dial.
“Got your message.”
“Yeah. It’s not good.”
“What’d they say?”
“They did a biopsy on the lymph node in my neck. Hurt like god-almighty.”
I say nothing. I scratch at the back of my head and look around the room. Fishing gear on the bed, skis in the corner, and my bike hangs from the ceiling. Mason hardly owns a thing.
“Hodgkin’s Disease. That’s what they called it. Said it’s treatable. No sweat.”
I tap the phone against my ear.
“You still there?”
“Yeah. I’m here.” I struggle for words. “Sorry, Gov.”
“It’s fine. I’m fine.”
“I’ll come down there. It’s only a couple of hours.”
“Seriously, I’m fine. How was fishing?”
I tap the phone against my ear.
I move in and uppercut to his stomach with my right. The man staggers back, bumping into the silver tea service and toppling the sugar bowl. He spits to the hardwoods. I see blood. He’s angry now, but I still can’t see his face. This time he throws a haymaker. I’m off my feet and falling fast.
Dad leaves the cabaret. The highway is dark. He steers with his left hand and drinks ’82 Lafite Rothschild from the bottle with his right. “Hothouse,” he says. “Hell of a place.” The wet blacktop glitters under stray pockets of lamplight. Dad finds the replay of the game on the radio. The Cubs are up by one at the top of the ninth. He listens to the Reds strike out as the right tires of the Mercedes stutter on center markers. The car drifts into the right lane. He taps his thumb against the steering wheel and closes his eyes. The shoulder gravel vibrates the car and Dad wakes. He overcorrects left. The car crosses both lanes and dips into the grass median, popping over the muddy ditch and climbing the other side. Dad looks into the glare of oncoming traffic as his car leaves the median. All four tires leave the ground. The Mercedes’ front bumper hits first, shattering glass and bending metal on the rear door of a tan Buick. Both cars spin off the shoulder and into the weeds.
A highway patrolman is first on the scene. He calls in the ambulance and checks the Mercedes with a flashlight. Blood runs from Dad’s forehead into his open mouth. He taps the steering wheel with his thumb.
“Hey hey, Cubbies,” Dad says.
“Sir, are you all right?”
“Chicago wins again.”
“Do you know where you are, sir?”
“I’m in Alafuckingbama you little shit.”
“I see you’ve been drinking.”
“The ’82 is every bit as good as the ’59.”
“Don’t move Sir, paramedics will be here soon. I need to check on the other car.”
The patrolman jogs to the Buick. He checks with a flashlight. The woman in the driver’s seat slumps forward. The child in the back screams. The patrolman feels for a pulse on the woman, then turns to wave the ambulance in.
At least, this is how I imagine it happened. I’ve talked to the cop. I feel sure I have it right.
I come at him swinging. I’m hyped up and punching hard. The man dances around my swings, grinning. He bobs side to side, then lands a cross to my jaw. The sting of it flicks a switch in my head and I rush him. I shove him to the ground and kick his ribs. The man curls into a ball. I kick his face and sides, the back of his head. I jump down and grip his shoulders. I spit in his face. The man keeps grinning as Heather pulls me off. Even this close, I have no idea who he is.
Mason lies back in the ICU, head elevated by pillows. A ventilator breathes for him. Vaseline has been slathered in his eyes. I’ve been told it’s a lose-lose situation. They can’t treat the Hodgkin’s for a virus in his heart and they can’t treat the virus for the Hodgkin’s. The waiting room is crowded with family and friends, but the doctor only allows us to say our goodbyes one at a time. Mason’s sisters and mother talk us through it. The older sister says, “He can hear you, so say whatever you want.” I don’t know what to say. On the nightstand, the mother tears open a white sugar pack for coffee. Her hands tremble and less than half finds the cup. She tears into another. The younger sister looks up to me, then turns to Mason. She says, “Time to go play in the clouds, Bubba-cat.” At this, the mother cries. I start to ask why she calls him Bubba-cat, but don’t. I realize it’s time. Mason’s mother hugs me, but cannot speak. I stare over her shoulder at the spilled sugar. Mason’s mother kisses my cheek. I move to the table and brush the granules into my hand. I make sure I get them all. Then I nod to Mason and step out through the curtain so the doctors can turn off the machines.
I land two jabs and a cross. The man takes one step back, then drives forward with a straight to my nose. I fall backward onto the antique butler’s tray. Bottles of wine shatter under my weight. I look up from the floor and see the man picking through the shards. It’s Dad. He lifts a piece with the label still intact and reads from it. “Intensely flavored with cassis, spice, and wood.” He drops the glass and stands. He crosses his arms. Heather steps in from the kitchen and rushes over. She kneels in the wine and presses two fingers against my wrist. She’s saying something, maybe even yelling, but I can only see her lips move and chin tremble. I can’t hear a thing.
Dad gropes the sheets with shaking hands. He kneads folds of thin fabric, releases, then kneads again. Blood soaks through a bandage on his forehead where the ’82 Rothschild pierced his skull. I’m the only one here. I sit on a metal folding chair and look at the dull monitor screen, blipping without rhythm. I glance at my hands, three band aids on the left, four on the right, then down to my leather boots. I bought the boots years ago. Just like Dad’s. Same brand, same size. A scuff on the right toe matches one on the left heel where I kick them off. I dig the right toe in between the leather and sole, sending the left boot to the floor. Left boot, then right. Always in that order. Dad does the same. The monitor squawks and I look up.
“Horrible wreck,” the doctor says. “He may not make it through the night.”
I look at the doctor, expressionless, then back at my father. The tubes mumble and pulse. I can’t think of anything to say, and instead, I begin to hum softly. My voice grows stronger as the humming becomes words. It’s an old blues ballad by Blind Lemon Jefferson:
Just one kind favor
I’ll ask of you
I sing loose and smooth, imitating Blind Lemon as best I can. The nurses peer at me with sidelong glances. They pretend not to notice.
One kind favor
I’ll ask of you
I keep singing. I forget myself and sing loudly, loud enough that I think Dad might hear.
Lord, it’s one kind favor
I’ll ask of you
The monitor emits a constant beep that I remember from movies and dreams. I produce the last line with air from deep within my lungs.
that my grave
is kept clean.
The doctor moves to Dad and checks his pulse.
“Sorry,” He says. The doctor clips the heart monitor back on to Dad’s finger. “False alarm.”
The machine resumes even beeps.
“Christ,” I say.
“These little clips are tricky.” The doctor makes a routine check of vitals, and turns to me smiling. But then his face changes. His eyes open wide.
“You’ve got a hell of a nose bleed.”
I look down at my shirt, my pants. Blood covers everything. I lift my head and hold my nose.
“Nurse,” he says. “Bring me some gauze, a towel.”
I stare at the ceiling.
“Don’t worry son, your father’s turned the corner. He’s a real fighter.”
“Christ,” I say.
I ball my hand into a fist.
Mason goes down in a single punch, but I’m not sure I threw it. He falls back, opens his eyes and says, “Look at Bubba-cat now, he sure ain’t the Governor.” He won’t get up. I scream at him to get to his feet, but he lies sideways on the floor. He reaches for a blanket on the couch and pulls it over his face. Tables, chairs, paintings, and lamps lie in pieces around the room. There is nothing left unbroken. Heather stands behind me, so I turn to her. She opens a new pack of cigarettes and pulls two out. She lights them with a match. Music begins to play from somewhere unseen, distant and muted. But it’s enough. Heather drops the match into spilled bourbon as we walk through the door.
I say, “I’ve never left this room.”
Heather says, “You have now.”
I stand outside our crumble-stilts house, ten years since Mason died. Crickets edge between blades of grass, hidden, clicking and chirping the night song we all know. My toes yawn out, pressing into the cool and damp. Alabama moonshine falls across the lawn and my hands slip into cotton pajamas for a cigarette and match. Blue sniffs invisible trails, tail wagging and head down low. His muzzle turned gray last winter, and it’s hard to believe we’ve had him this long. Heather drove us straight from the funeral to the pound. We sat on folding chairs in a little square room and a woman brought puppies to us, one by one. Blue had the biggest paws. Today is his birthday.
We’ve just moved in to this house. We’ve unpacked our boxes and we’ve done the cleaning. We do not feel like strangers in this house. My grandfather built it. The Childress River winds along the back yard and disappears south. Dad jaundiced when his liver gave way to tumors last year. He survived the wreck, but not the drinking. He left all his money to a wife somewhere, but we don’t know her. Blue goes to the door and looks back to me. His shoulders sit almost as high as the doorknob. Above Blue, I see Heather through the screen. She no longer smokes. It’s harder for me.
The moon is closer to the Earth than usual. The night is clear and I look up at the craters, piecing together eyes and a mouth. I can’t make out much of a nose, and only when I squint does he take an appropriate shape. In this light, my hands appear ivory white. No cuts, no bruises. Leadbelly calls out to me from our window. It’s Four Day Worry Blues. I’m not sure if I’m awake, so I wiggle my toes. The grass feels real. Crickets drop layered chords into our song. I glance down at the silhouette of garbage at the curb, boxes and bags of Dad’s clothes and cracked glasses. With all his belongings inside, the house felt cluttered and dirty. So I threw them out.
Looking back to the moon, I say, “Goodnight Governor,” and take a deep breath. I put out my cigarette and walk barefoot to the house. Blue follows me in. Heather is already asleep, and I slip into bed without waking her. I watch her eyes dart side to side under closed lids. It’s warm here and I’m tired, so I make a fool’s wish. I put an arm around Heather. I shut my eyes. I wish to sleep without dreaming.
Murray Dunlap's work has appeared in about forty magazines and journals. His stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize three times, as well as to Best New American Voices once, and his first book, "Alabama," was a finalist for the Maurice Prize in Fiction. He has a new book, a collection of short stories called "Bastard Blue," that was published by Press 53 on June 7th, 2011 (the three year anniversary of a car wreck that very nearly killed him…). The extraordinary individuals Pam Houston, Laura Dave, Michael Knight, and Fred Ashe taught him the art of writing.