By Patrick B. Ambrose

"What happened to you?"

"Got in a fight."

Daddy shook his head. Gazed at my right hand, gripping my knee.

"Where's the ring?" he asked.

"In safekeeping."

His eyes narrowed. "You might've whupped that punk if you'd been wearing it."

"I can't be flashing jewelry around. My housemates might get jealous."

He snorted.

I glanced at the indigo bruise on my knuckle. There had been three of them. They'd jumped me in the shower. A mangy fuck, Rayford Scully, snatched the ring.

I smelled Daddy's Skin Bracer after-shave. His comforting scent eclipsed the stagnant locker-room stench of Central Prison.

"Me and Mama are praying for you, son."

"How is she?"

"Not so good. Yesterday she left the house with a hundred bucks to buy groceries and returned with nothing but a goddamn cucumber."

"Jesus . . ."

"When she can't sleep, she fires up the kitchen stove. One of these days she's gonna burn the place down," he replied, shaking a cigarette from a pack of Luckies. He lit one and inhaled. A blush spread over his weathered features.

"Your friend Blaine LeMaster stopped by the other day. He brought us takeout from Alligood's. Blaine's a good boy."

Aside from sending an occasional care package, Blaine LeMaster hadn't done shit for me. He'd kept his distance.

Daddy smoked while we talked football and reminisced about old times. He gave me the Spoke-county lowdown. Soon, we lapsed into an awkward silence.

Daddy's hands trembled. He lit another coffin nail and took a deep drag.

Here it comes, I thought.

"The old man's tired," he said, glancing down at the floor. "He's plumb wore out."

He shook his head from side to side.

"I can't take care of your Mama no more," he continued, his voice quavering. "I spoke to Aunt Loretta about putting her in a nursing home. She didn't like it, but she understood."

Our eyes met. Daddy's filled with tears.

"I should've stayed outta jail," I replied.

"Ain't nobody's fault, Jasper," he said, rising from his chair.

I hugged him. Breathed in the remains of his scent as a guard buzzed him through the door. That's the last time I saw Daddy.

I saw plenty of Scully. Out in the yard with his goons. I had seen lots of stupid shit, but nothing like a prison punk with a pierced septum and a ring in it. Daddy's ring, no less. He looked ridiculous. A rat-faced fuck recasting himself as a raging bull. Always smiling, always fondling that ring, making sure I saw it--Daddy's heirloom hanging like snot from his nostrils. I didn't have the balls to kill him. Scully and his friends knew this. They laughed at me.

I worked. The only way to survive a bid. I slung slop in the mess for awhile, then landed a job in the library. Books kept me out of trouble.

Time passed. I cared less about the future. What future? In a matter of weeks, Daddy was dead. And Mama was one step from The Promised Land.

* * *

I got out in two years. Moved in with my Aunt Loretta, and together, we took care of Mama. I couldn't find work. Nobody hires ex-cons.

Every week Loretta drove the old family pickup to church, but the cab still smelled like Daddy. Cigarettes and Skin Bracer. I opened a beer for the road, and was about to stick the key in the ignition when suddenly, this image of him settled in my brain. Like viewing a home movie, I sat there sipping a Bud, watching me and Daddy load the pickup with tackle and a cooler of beers. We had put our hooks in the water a month or so before I wound up in the can.

On the rifle rack was a .22 and a 12-gauge. I left the guns behind and headed down I-77. A couple miles from the South Carolina line, I turned onto a dirt path marked by a "Keep Out" sign crudely fashioned from mildewed siding and a tomato stake. Weeds slapped the undercarriage of the truck as I cut through acres of hardwoods and long-leaf pines. Up ahead was a clearing--a dusty lot with a double-wide. I pulled in next to a rusty Beetle on blocks with an angry pit bull chained to the bumper. The animal growled. Sardine cans, beer bottles and dog mess covered the ground. Smoke spiraled from a trash barrel. The air stunk of burning plastic.

I grabbed a six-pack from behind the seat and high-stepped over the debris en route to Blaine's trailer. Dead paint flaked off cheap aluminum siding and polyethylene plastic covered busted windows. A huge glob of Bondo filled a dent in the front door.

"Hey Jas!" Blaine shouted, stepping outside. "What's shakin'?"

He wore greasy overalls and carried a pint of bourbon. A fat wad of tobacco stuffed his cheek. He gestured at a couple of web chairs separated by a drum of joint compound. On the bucket was a .38 and about a dozen shells.

I cracked a beer. Tobacco juice sprayed the ground between us. About fifty feet away, a four-by-eight rested on two saw horses. Across the board stood a row of liquor bottles, some of them busted.

"How does it feel to be a free man?" Blaine asked.

"Kinda stressful. I'm broke and caring for a senile woman," I said, swallowing beer. "Thanks for the care packages," I added. "Red Bud ain't easy to find in prison."

"It was the least I could do."

A coppery stream pinged an empty can.

"A terrible thing, what happened to your old man."

"Daddy knew she'd end up torching the place," I said. "He just figured he and Mama would burn up together. He never expected to leave the woman alone in the world."

Blaine turned to me, an eyebrow raised.

"What happened?" he asked.

"Mama knocked over the heater and ran outside in a panic. The EMS people found her curled up behind the shed, near dead from exposure."

"Goddamn," Blaine muttered.

I got down to business.

"I need work, Blaine."

He spat, then wiped coffee-colored dribble from his chin. "Give yourself a break, Jas," he sputtered. "You just got out the joint."

"Me and Mama are gonna be eating cat food if I don't get something soon."

"Lotta folks lookin' for work these days," he sighed. "Just ain't no jobs."

"You seem to be doing okay. How's business?"

"Not good. Three of my runners got pinched last week. Had to move my product off the premises," he said, gesturing at the trailer.

I pointed at the .38 between us. "Better get rid of that. Looks like it was pried from a dead cop's fingers."

He took another pull from his pint. "Let me loan you some money," he said. "You can pay me back later."

"I don't want a handout."

Blaine stared at the toes of his sneakers. There was nothing more to say.

He finished his whiskey, ambled over to the row of bottles and set down the empty pint.

On the way back to his chair, he asked: "You know a dude named Rayford Scully?"

"We're old friends."

"He's got a hard-on for you, Jas. He thinks you stole an ounce of Deep Freeze from a prison drop. You worked in the library, didn't you?"


"It was my shit," Blaine replied. "Scully works for me."

"Now hold on a goddamn minute. You think I'd be stupid enough to steal another man's dope when I'm fixin' to walk?"

Blaine fired the .38, shattering the pint bottle. He twirled the revolver on his finger and placed it back on the drum.

"Scully's getting out soon. I'll talk to him."

"Don't bother. Let him come after me. Hell, why don't you clip me? It was your scag."

Blaine wiped his brow, then sighed and shook his head.

"First of all, I don't think you took it. All I've gotta do is convince Scully and everything's cool. Motherfucker's got a jailhouse mentality. He says you made him look like a punk. He doesn't want word to get around."

"I don't get it, Blaine. You find work for that shitheel and don't do nothin' for me. I took the rap for you, man. Rotted in a stinkin' cell for two years and kept my mouth shut. And what do I get?"

"C'mon Jas. Let's see what I can do."

I grabbed what remained of the six-pack and hopped in the truck. Cut a one-eighty and punched it.

Left him choking on dust.

I drove for hours, listening to oldies. Arthur Lee blew his harp. Sang the junkie blues. Brother Arthur did a nickel in LA.--more than twice my bid. But Arthur had royalties and the promise of a tour when he walked. I didn't have squat. Just a sick mother and an ex-con determined to kill me.

Paying someone to clip Scully was out of the question. And going after him myself posed risks. Serious risks. I was a parolee. A speeding ticket could put me back in.

All I could do was wait. Load Daddy's shotgun and hope I never had to use it.

* * *

Mama needed attention. Round the clock. Sometimes she saw things. Sometimes she saw Daddy and remembered. Sometimes she just broke out crying.

One night I awoke and found her standing over me. Tears streamed down her face and her flannel bathrobe was torn.

"There's somebody out there," she whispered, pointing at the window behind me.

I rolled over and glanced into the backyard. I could barely make out Loretta's rose garden and my late Uncle Asta's workshop.

I turned back to her.

"Probably a coon or a possum."

I got a blank stare. She hadn't heard a word. Her eyes glazed over. Her lips tightened.

"Me and Daddy will take care of that Peeping-Tom cocksucker," she growled.

Jesus Christ. Mama never cursed. She'd never picked up any of Daddy's habits while he was alive.

I saw glistening steel. A blade protruding from a fist.

"Jesus, Mama. What the . . ."

"There's a goddamn pervert peeking in the windows," she snapped. "Let's see him do it without any balls." She jabbed the carving knife in the direction of the window.

"For God's sake Mama! Give me the goddamn knife!"

She looked down, a dour expression on her face.

"Don't swear at your mother, son. I fed and clothed you 'fore you had a notion to do it yourself."

I slid up against the headboard, pinched the end of the blade and tugged. She released the handle and I dropped the knife on the other side of me, far from her reach.

Mama babbled nonsensical stuff, shuffled to her room, and collapsed on the bed. Soil and bits of grass stuck to the soles of her bare feet.

Her room was cold. Daddy's scent wafted by. My imagination, probably.

Then I saw his toilet kit on the dresser. Beside it was an open bottle of Skin Bracer after-shave. A cool breeze ruffled the pages of a catalog on the nightstand.

I threw a quilt over Mama's shivering body. On the window sill, hanging from a nail, a piece of ripped flannel fluttered like a flag. It matched the plaid pattern on Mama's bathrobe.

I shut the window, grabbed the shotgun and went outside. I couldn't see worth a goddamn. A blanket of fog shrouded the house and yard, and the absence of nocturnal voices, of crickets and whippoorwills, struck me as odd. It was too quiet--like the deceptively peaceful stillness before the explosive onset of a mountain storm.

I found a pair of cigarette butts behind a live oak. A wisp of smoke curled from the end of one. Somebody had been watching the house.

I checked on Mama. She slept soundly. Loretta's door was shut. I didn't intrude.

I jerked open my nightstand drawer. Six rubber globules rolled awkwardly across the cedar bottom.

Blaine's balloons. My nest eggs.

I marched into the bathroom and emptied them into the john. Flushed any hope of financial security down the toilet.

* * *

Our economic situation worsened. Social security didn't cut it anymore. I had to do something.

I called Blaine and apologized.

He said: "No hard feelings."

He said he didn't mean to insult me, and come to think of it, he had something better than a loan to offer. He couldn't discuss it over the phone.

I stopped by his place. Blaine cut to the chase: "Scully wouldn't listen, Jas. He called you a prison whore. Said you took it up the dirt road. Motherfucker's off his rocker. Baaaad for business . . ."

Blaine gave me two grand to clip him. Within the week.

Blaine said Scully flopped in a room above The Wrecking Ball, but after a two-day stake out, I hadn't seen him.

I checked the homes of known acquaintances, peeking in windows--a great way to get shot. No luck.

I called every "Scully" in the phone book. I covered four counties. Had the same conversation with every dipshit who answered. Told them I was an old high-school chum trying to renew contact.

Finally, an old woman gave me something I could use. She had a grandson named Rayford Scully. But her Rayford never finished high school.

"That's right, ma'am," I replied with a chuckle. "What I meant was that me and Ray was runnin' partners all those years we was s'posed to be in school."

That got a laugh.

"Well, I'm sure he'll be glad to see you, Mr. . . ."

"Griffin. Delbert Griffin."

"I'm gettin' old, son," she said. "I don't remember people too good. I'm tryin' to fix a face to your name and it just ain't comin'. Why don't you stop by Sunday afternoon? We're havin' a get-together to celebrate Rayford's return. I'm fixin' his favorite meal: Barbecue chicken, red rice and cornbread . . .."

"That sounds real nice, Ma'am. You know where I could reach him?"

"Rayford's living in a room above that . . . that dive with the awful name . . ." "The Wrecking Ball?"

"That's it. Try him in the morning before he starts tomcattin' around."

"Will do."

"I hope you can make it on Sunday, Delbert. Stop by around two. The whole family should be here . . ."

Damn right they would. Crying their fucking eyes out.

That evening, after Mama and Loretta turned in, I lay in bed, cradling the 12-guage, staring at cracks in the ceiling. I passed the time paging though the volumes of Reader's Digest Condensed Books that filled the bookcase. I had the window raised, hoping the crickets would lull me to sleep. And then a dreadful scream shattered the late-evening calm.

I ran into Mama's room and caught her standing by the window, her nightgown fluttering in the breeze. On the bed, she had carefully laid out some of Daddy's clothes--his trousers, a button-down, a navy tie, and a blue blazer.

Her eyes were closed.

"Mama?" I asked. "Can you hear me?"

"Yesssss," she hissed.

"Was that you screamin', Mama?"

"Wasn't me," she replied in a monotone.

She shuffled to the foot of the bed and sat down.

Her mouth was bleeding. Her teeth stained red.

I wiped her lips with a handkerchief, thinking she must've bitten them. Then I picked up Daddy's things, put them on the dresser and closed the window.

I flipped on the floodlights. They lit up most of the yard, but there were still plenty of places for someone to hide.

I circled the perimeter of the house, but saw and heard nothing. Not even crickets. Everything was silent. I ducked behind a rhododendron and waited a good twenty minutes. A blanket of humid air descended on me.

Two cats scurried out the bushes.

That explained the scream, I figured.

I managed to catch a few winks until the wail of sirens rousted me. I grabbed the shotgun and ran out into the front yard. Red and blue lights swirled kaleidoscopic patterns over the lawn and trees. Across the street, at Ms. Summerlin's house, there was an ambulance and three police cars. She must've had another heart attack. I wandered toward the edge of the yard for a closer look, then realized I was carrying the shotgun. I ducked behind a live oak and watched as two medics wheeled a gurney. A white sheet covered the victim's body and a dark stain marked the area where the head would've rested.

Leaves rustled. I had to check on Mama.

On my way back to the house, something brushed against me. The breeze, I supposed.

Mama stood facing the window. As I approached, she turned, her arms dangling by her side. Threads of dark liquid dripped through the fingers of her right hand to a puddle on the floor.

"You okay, Mama?" I asked.

"I'm fine. Just fine."

"You cut yourself again?"

For the first time in ages, she smiled.

"No dear," she replied, taking a step forward. "I just spoke with your father. He insisted I return this to you."

She opened her fingers.

In her palm was a puddle of crimson ooze. I leaned forward for a closer look.

Something glimmered. A metal band, fastened to a triangular wedge of flesh and cartilage.

Daddy's ring.

And a human nose.