When I drop him off at his apartment building Duke points the woman out to me. She’s an old hunched lady with kinky hair the color of rust and thick gouges in her face. I can’t tell if the gouges are scars or just age lines, but she’s obviously too weak to be much of a threat. She sits next on the steps to the building next to a ratty plastic bag that looks like it is about to explode. She rubs her face with her grimy hands. The woman holds out a plastic cup but nobody looks at her.
“That’s her,” he says.
“She doesn’t even live here,” I say.
“She’s a murderer,” Duke says. “Just look at her face.”
I try to tell him he’s off, but it’s pointless. He says he’ll see me later on. Duke slams the door.
After dinner that night I sit on the front porch and drink a beer, and Joanna sips a glass of Shiraz and rocks in the porch swing. I think about our parents, and how Mom raised Duke and me to be independent, how we were expected to hold our own and contribute. I wonder what kind of lessons my father taught Duke that I was never privy to, and I wonder how those factor into Duke’s thinking.
The last time I spoke to our father was two years ago. He called me from Richmond one afternoon and left a message saying that he was in town for the weekend, and he wanted to know if I would meet him for a drink. He didn’t say why he was in the area, or anything of the sort. He just kept it brief, reading off a phone number in his gravely, flat-toned voice. Then he hung up. I never called back.
I wasn’t even sure where my father was living, or what he was doing, though I found out later from Duke that he’s in Maine. He calls Duke about once a month from Northern Maine, and even sends him cards on occasion.
Then the phone rings. Joanna answers the cordless. “Hold on,” she says, tossing me the phone.
“Hey man.” It’s Duke. His voice sounds tinny and distant. “Can you come and pick me up?”
“Sure,” I say.
“Wait,” he says. “I’m not at home.”
“Ok. Where are you then?” I look at my watch—it’s about ten. “You know the Shell station down on Holly Boulevard?”
“Yeah,” I say. “Sure.”
“I’m behind it.”
When I pull into the station I find Duke sitting on the curb next to the phone. He is still dressed in the same gray military attire from today’s work. A single streetlight illuminates him. The noise from the highway is deafening. Wedged in between the asphalt and the curb are cigarette butts and bottle caps and twisted coffee stirrers. The air smells of diesel fumes.
I park, and cut the engine. A cold front is moving in. The air is chilled and the clouds blast across the sky.
When I sit next to him on the curb, Duke hardly seems to register my presence. I put my arm around his shoulder. He blinks and scrapes his feet on the asphalt.
“What’s up, Duke? It’s late. I need to get to sleep.”
“I shot the woman,” he says. “That witch murderer.”
I don’t know what to say. I just sit there, and let the word ‘murderer’ bounce around my brain. I shake my head and withdraw my arm. I have to admit my first instinct is fear. But I stand my ground.“Jesus, Duke. You shot that poor woman?”
“She was following me all night. She was laughing at me, laughing at what she was going to do to me. You know? I had to.” We sit there listening to the traffic. I expect him to be angry, but he exhales and sighs. He actually seems relieved, sedated.
“I guess I should call,” he says.
“Jesus, Duke. Where?”
He swallows and closes his eyes. He points to his forehead and grits his teeth. His finger shakes and sags.
I listen to the buzz of the streetlamp, and the sounds of trucks on the interstate. In July moths will hurl themselves against the lamp. I think of their sizzling wings. I know it is only a matter of time. What can I really do? What does he want from me? Maybe Joanna was right after all. She usually is.
“Okay,” I say. “I’m your brother. You tell me what to do.”
He scrapes his foot in the gravel, back and forth. Then he looks down at his laces. His eyelids look heavy and dark. For a moment he reminds me of some kind of extinct animal with overly large, lumbering features.“Man, just wait here with me. I need to make that other call,” Duke says. Then he stands up, and does what he says he will do. All I can do is watch and let it happen.
Per Contra Fiction - Winter 2006