By the time the joint is half-gone, Taylor is a believer. It is killer weed. He recalls his rookie year when the sergeant lit some in a training class so they could smell it ‘ all the jokes, eyeballs rolling, dope-crazed pinko/hippie perpetrators listening to the sergeant briefing them on the properties and peculiar effects of cannabis. Taylor has smelled his share since, confiscated tons.
As Ryan passes him the joint he thinks this might be the stupidest thing he has ever done. Why is he doing it? To have a way to talk with his son. Well, here they are. It might not always be agreeable, but they are capable of a conversation.
His skull feels thicker; the electricity is buzzing in the bedside lamp. He can hear everything more clearly: cars and pick-ups passing outside…dogs yapping, crickets, tree frogs, the water running in the pipes. Voices connecting in the dark like stitches. He can almost hear the year passing. He’s a little jittery, but mainly it’s sort of a cleaned-out feeling. His insides have been temporarily erased. Heavily weightless. A strange, ungainly sense of satisfaction.
Ryan lifts the heel of his boot over the wastebasket near the bed and stubs out the joint. Taylor watches him put the roach in his shirt pocket, and in that instant the buzz of the lamp sputters and changes, lengthening into a thin, cold hiss. The pain is back suddenly, an echo rebounding, throbbing deep in his belly ‘ another, displaced heart. Damn ‘ the pot’s made it worse.
Ryan says, “Maybe we should open the window, air it out some.”
“Sure…open ‘er up.”
The boy goes over to raise the window. A sluggish breeze whistles into the room.
“Feels good,” says Taylor, moaning low, closing his eyes when the air washes over him, trying to pretend his stomach is numb. Wishing for it to be gone. That erased feeling was nice. Emptiness would be fine.
“So how’s it going?” Ryan asks, coming back to his chair. ‘You okay?”
He keeps his eyes closed. Why do you think they call it dope? “Fine,” he says. He feels Ryan’s eyes on him. He nods his head in time with the dull throbbing. ‘Stoned,” he says. When he looks up again he sees the boy’s face has clouded over. A familiar look of distress. He wonders if Ryan has read the pain. ‘What’s wrong, Son?”
“Man, this is too strange.”
“It’s different all right. Sure is a first for you ‘n me.”
Ryan reaches out and touches Taylor’s arm. ‘I don’t think we should’ve done it, man. It’s wrong. I mean you and me, doing this.”
Taylor can’t remember the last time they touched each other. He shifts his arm so he’s holding Ryan’s hand. ‘I take full responsibility.”
“You’re a cop, Dad.’ Ryan pulls his hand away slowly and scratches the lack of an itch on his knee. ‘We can’t be smokin’ together. It’s bizarre.”
“That’s it ‘ I’m a cop-dad. If I was a stock broker or a garbage man, it’d be better?”
“It doesn’t feel right.”
“This is a switch. Now who’s paranoid?”
“I’m afraid you’ll end up being sorry.”
Afraid. This is one surprise too many. The fragmented pulsing now moves into Taylor’s ears, heavier, but the pain may have receded a little. Maybe not. It’s hard to tell. Like weather that can’t make up its mind. All of a sudden he remembers the poem. Father, believe me/I say I’m afraid. He’s not sure if that’s how it went. He wonders if it is in some way about him. ‘Any poetry in the works?”
“Nothing much. Started one a few weeks ago.”
Taylor puts his hands in his lap and squeezes them as tight as he can, slowly, so they won’t shake. ‘You about finished?”
“What’s it about?”
“The mess we’re in. Just gets worse.”
Taylor’s hands relax a little. ‘What mess? You and me?”
“No, man. The world. Terrorists…wars everywhere. Is there someplace where war’s not happening?”
Taylor understands immediately ‘ there’s no up-side to this one.
Ryan shakes his head again. ‘Some guy came up to me at school last week, said he had guns if I needed one. Needed one. What’s making poetry out of it going to do?”
The helplessness caught in Ryan’s voice is something floating over them. ‘It’s scary,” says Taylor. He knows it’s not any kind of answer, no answer at all. He’s been squeezing his hands again, they’re beginning to ache. ‘That’s sort of what I thought when the punk shot Ryan. Couldn’t understand anything about it. Made me angry more than scared.”
“See, ‘at’s what I mean. You wanted to go out and kill the punk, right?”
“Not exactly. Hell, Son, my partner wasn’t coming back ‘ that’s all I knew.’ He closes his eyes and the old words float up, sparks from a bonfire: Real lifelike. ‘That kid was locked up for about two months, total.”
“Goin’ backwards again,” Ryan says, with resignation, not judgment. He stands and walks to the window.
Taylor watches him move. He envies the agility his son takes for granted.
Ryan looks out through the flat black reflection. ‘We started talking about the world and how screwed up it is, and you went right back to Ryan in ‘ what was it, seventy-five?”
“Wait now, we were ‘ ”
“There’s enough trouble right here.’ Ryan turns toward him. ‘Why always go backwards, man?”
‘Because it was better back there,’ he says. ‘I preferred it, it was more acceptable in some way ‘ less drastic.’ Wasn’t it? Hell yes. Being younger and funnier and more certain about things was better than being forty-six and stoned, proud owner of a belly full of used parts. But he doesn’t say this because it sounds weak as all get-out. ‘I don’t know, Son. Guess I always go backwards because…I always do.”
Ryan shakes his head, now there’s a smile. ‘That’s deep.’ He turns back to the disregarding pane of glass that holds the sky. ‘You’re brilliant, you know that?”
Before Taylor can come back, Ryan says, “Hey…there’s somebody out there. Walking around the house.”
“Don’t start hallucinating.’ Taylor realizes he feels better, not so edgy or gut-tender.
“Now he’s heading around the other side.”
“One of our friendly street dwellers lookin’ for some decent garbage. When he can’t find the cans he’ll move on.”
There’s some muffled noise downstairs, then something not so muffled directly below them. Glass? Ryan whispers, “Hear that?”
“Someone’s in the basement.’ Taylor closes his eyes, listening. Now it’s quiet.
“Oh, man,” says Ryan.’ I was down there last night ‘ I don’t think I locked the door. I don’t think I locked it!”
“All right.’ Taylor considers the multiple possibilities. He’s quite stoned. ‘Go get my gun ‘ in the closet, up on the shelf.”
“Well, wait. It’s probably nothing. Could be Mom.”
Taylor can tell Ryan doesn’t believe it. His natural inclination is toward disaster.
‘Maybe it’s somebody breaking in,” says Taylor. ‘If it is, I’d rather surprise ’em than wait on ’em. I promise not to shoot your mother ‘ she’s still got a few good years left.”
“Dad, you can’t walk.”
“I was supposed to start a little exercising tomorrow anyway. Get the gun.”
Ryan goes to the closet and Taylor inches himself over to the edge of the bed, puts some weight on his feet. The white pain opens up like a time-lapsed magnolia, reaching down into his calves, then up into his shoulders and neck. But after the first rocket-shock, it’s not all that bad. More like warmth. Our Friends, The Adrenal Glands. Pauline had delivered that memorable lecture shortly after they met.
“You stay here,” says Taylor.
“No way, man. I’m the one who left the door unlocked.”
“No time for a debate, Ryan.”
“Alex, remember?” Ryan’s voice has some water in it, he’s a little pale. ‘Let’s go.”
“Then you stay behind me. You hear me?”
The boy nods for a change.
Taylor has to walk bent over so he won’t oppose the stitches, but it seems okay ‘ he can’t feel much of anything except some minor voltage in his stomach and a half-asleep tingling in his feet. Maybe the pot is holding up its end after all. He’s not moving very fast, but it’s better than he thought it would be. It occurs to him that he can’t remember anything about the pain that first time he was shot, when he caught it under his elbow. It’s a dream that faded before he opened his eyes. He feels Ryan’s tentative hand against his back.’ Stay behind me,” he says again.
They get down to the living room and look around. They’re heading for the stairs to the basement when they hear something else, a smaller sound: someone bumping against a piece of furniture down there.
Ryan whispers, “Sounds too heavy for a cat or something, huh?”
“I’m afraid all the hundred-and-sixty-pound cats have moved uptown.”
When they reach the door to the basement Taylor turns the knob and looks over his shoulder, signaling Ryan to stay put. He starts down the stairs as quietly as he can. Whoever it is has turned the light on. Taylor crouches lower, reaching the fourth step, and a half-face under a baseball cap appears around the corner at the bottom of the stairwell. He stops, cocks and aims. ‘Freeze! I’m a police officer, and I’m pissed off enough to shoot.”
The light bulb glaring behind the head makes it impossible to see his features. The head snaps back, out of sight.
“Get out where I can see you.’ He takes another step down and growls, “Do it, you son of a bitch.”
“Don’t shoot.’ A man’s soft voice, placid as Easter morning. ‘I don’t have a gun.”
“Step out with your hands up. Now.”
He hears a rapid intake of breath behind him, reaches back and finds Ryan crouching there. ‘Damnit, Son ‘ get down.”
Ryan kneels, his hand on Taylor’s waist.
Taylor’s sweating ‘ it’s pouring off his forehead, down his chest and stomach. His pajamas are soaked.
The intruder steps out into the light below them with his hands up and his head down, backing away from the stairs into the middle of the basement. Taylor uncocks the revolver.
“Don’t shoot,” the man says again. His voice is low. He’s a bum all right: sweat-stained Braves cap, grease-stained khakis, dark windbreaker too small for him, a pair of scavenged running shoes. ‘I’m not saying I don’t deserve it, but it wouldn’t be worth it in the long run.”
Taylor straightens up a little and continues down the stairs with Ryan following. He wipes the sweat out of his eyes with the back of his free hand, holding the gun on the man. This is an old guy, must be in his seventies. He might have been a bear once, seems to have dropped a lot of weight. His hands are so big at the end of his arms, they look like wrinkled catcher’s mitts.
Ryan comes out from behind him. ‘Look how old he is.”
“Happens to all the lucky ones,” says the old man, still with his hands up, still obscuring his face with the cap. ‘No crime there.”
Taylor sees the broken shards in a corner near the door: the smoked-glass lamp from their first apartment.
“Sorry ’bout that,” says the old man. ‘I didn’t see it.”
The adrenaline is leveling off, the voltage in his stomach seems to be increasing: the barbed wire is uncoiling again. Taylor backs up a few feet and sits on the bottom step.
The old man starts to put his hands down.
“Keep ’em up.’ Taylor is trying to hold the gun like it’s doing the talking.
“I just wanted to see where you live,” says the bum, lifting his head now, moving his eyes over to Ryan. ‘The door was open. Didn’t mean no harm.’ He takes off his cap and looks at Taylor.
It doesn’t come to Taylor right away, but considering how long it has been and how much has gone in between, it comes fast enough. More than the face, it’s the hands that tell him. When he looks closely at the old man’s eyes, remembrance runs through him as sure as the pain. The voice is the same, now that he takes the time to recall, and there are those lines at the edges of his eyes ‘ crow’s feet ‘ that were always there.
The old man is watching him. ‘I’ve been readin’ about you. Following your career. You’re not going to die are you?”
“Not a chance,” says Taylor, cocking the gun and aiming at his father’s gut: a shot that would not necessarily kill the bastard but would definitely slow him down. This is an area in which Taylor has some direct experience. He waits to see what the bum will do.
The old man turns to Ryan and asks his name.
“His name’s Alex,” says Taylor, releasing the hammer on the revolver, “or Alexander ‘ and it’s none of your damn business.’ He remembers all the times he practiced for this, for when he saw the bastard again. He had a gun in those reveries ‘ but now the time has actually arrived and the firearm is in his hand, the desire’s gone. He’s had it with going backwards. ‘You’ve got a lamp to pay for.”
“Much more than that,” says the old man.
“No, that’s it. Send the money, you know the address.”
“Got money right here.’ The old man lowers his hands slowly, looking into Taylor’s eyes like it’s snowing outside, reaching for his back pocket. ‘Was going to leave some, I swear.”
Taylor watches him closely. Sure, I believe that. The voice in his head is as flat as a hand on a tabletop. ‘Leave it on the floor,” he says.
Ryan says, “You know this guy?” ‘ and just as he says it he sees who the old man is, he recognizes his blood.
Taylor doesn’t answer right away. He stares at his father, tells him to keep quiet.
Ryan turns to his dad. ‘Your namesake?’
The boy’s grandfather nods and pulls a few bucks out of his wallet, holding the crumpled bills to show Taylor, then dropping them on the floor.
It’s not enough money to cover half a lamp. Taylor shifts the gun to his left hand and wipes the sweat off his right. He feels a little dizzy, things are beginning to blur. The stitches are on fire, the dressing has pulled loose at the edges. He shifts his focus to Ryan. ‘Meet your grandfather.”
Ryan looks back at the old man.
Taylor Means, Sr. eyes the boy shyly. ‘Hello, Alex.’ He looks down at his feet. ‘Or Alexander. It’s a miracle,’ he says. ‘We’re all here.”
Ryan sits down on the step beside Taylor without taking his eyes off the old man. He’s silent. The fact that he looks exactly like his grandfather doesn’t seem to make an impression on him one way or the other. Already he’s working on the crow’s feet.
“You’re still full of it,” Taylor informs his father, setting the gun down on the step in front of him. ‘Some miracle,” slurring the words. ‘I want you out of here. I want you gone.”
Ryan runs his hand through his hair, looking back and forth between the two men, then his eyes veer down to Taylor’s stomach. ‘Jesus, Dad, you’re bleeding!”
Taylor leans back against the step and looks down at his pajamas. The blood is soaking into the fabric, seeping around the ruptured sutures, through the dressing, down toward his groin, up across his chest.
His father lifts his hands out of his pockets and takes a step toward him, turning to Ryan. ‘Let’s put some pressure on that.”
Taylor picks up the gun again, to point it, but he’s not able to hold it steady. He blinks. He can’t keep the sweat out, his head is tilting back. ‘Don’t…touch me.’ He tries to keep his eyes open. He feels a wind in his face.
Ryan says, “You heard him, get out of here.”
The old man says, “He needs help. He’s bleedin’, Son.”
“He’s my son!” says Taylor. The wind whistles in his ears.
“I’m sorry, Dad,” says Ryan. ‘I’m sorry I let him in.”
Ryan must have the gun because Taylor hears the old man’s voice rise: “Now don’t do anything crazy now.”
Ryan yells, “Then you get the hell out of here!”
Taylor hears Ryan breathing next to him, and in a moment he hears the gun settle on the step. Ryan presses against the dressing on his stomach; there’s the strange squish of blood when the hands push down.
The pain’s not so bad. This’s going to be all right.
Ryan’s voice pushes to free itself: “Damn it, he doesn’t want you here! I can handle it.’ And now there are two more hands on Taylor’s belly, a steady pressure. He hears his father’s regular deep breaths, a constant heart in the darkness, and he smells the familiar odor of pipe tobacco. ‘I’m afraid I can’t go just yet,” says the old man. ‘I can’t do that here today.”
Taylor forces his eyes open. The two silhouetted faces float together with the light blazing behind them: the only way he can tell who’s who is by the size of their shadowy heads. He watches the smaller figure, reaching blindly for Ryan’s hand, wanting to say something in the perfect voice to quell his father’s. But the only thing that comes to mind is It’ll be all right. Who the hell knows about that?
‘Why don’t you go call the doctor,’ the old man says to Ryan.
Pauli calls their names as her footsteps cross the living room above them.
Lord, what’s she going to say about all this?
“That would be Pauline,” says his father. ‘We’ll be quite a sight.”
“Down here!” yells Ryan. He hears the panic in his voice, takes a breath before calling up to her again. ‘We need you, Mom.”
Taylor labors to push words out ahead of himself: “Not much…doubt… about…that.’ He closes his useless eyes for a moment, remembering Pauli’s spotless uniform, white ‘ so incredibly white ‘ and those legs of hers, like blessings made flesh. He imagines her fearful confusion as he forces himself to squint at the twin shadows hovering and merging in the dark air before him. Their four arms disappear into his body. In the silence, their quickened breathing and the steady whisper of blood.
He turns his head to look back up the stairs, where the door will open and the light will come in.