Kevin surveyed the old neighborhood. Hip-roofed houses stood packed tightly together in rows, all fronted by crabgrass lawns. It had not changed much since his childhood, back when his favorite pastimes had been setting off Black Cat firecrackers and jumping dirt bikes over plywood ramps. The trees were fuller and taller, and the sidewalk was more crumbled and cracked than before, but beneath those changes, it was still the same place.
Kevin rolled down the window and listened for the whooshing of cars on nearby I-90. When he was a child, he would often lie awake at night, imagining it was the sound of the sea. The whine of a jet landing at O’Hare sounded in the distance, and Kevin couldn’t help but be reminded of how it made him think of his mother. Maybe she was on that plane. Maybe she had finally come home. He’d often thought that as a boy as he lay in bed in his room, listening to the planes take off and land.
But his mother never came home, and Kevin’s father never spoke about her leaving, nor did he encourage any hopes that she’d return. The elder Sniggs had chosen to fill the void of his wife’s absence with increasing quantities of J&B, and used her escape as a club to beat his son into obedience.
“You know why she left, don’t you?” he would ask. “You really think she’ll come back for you, acting the way you do? You’re lucky I haven’t left, too. Start showing some respect and maybe I won’t take off like your mother.”
Kevin wandered through a thousand memories – his mutt Curly, touch football in the street where field goals were kicked over a neighbor’s van, the time he threw a shovel through the neighbor’s front window and barely evaded juvenile detention, his neighbor Old Man Jools…
Jools was a gregarious alcoholic, a veteran of Korea, a retired cop, and Kevin’s best childhood friend. He paid young Kevin exorbitantly to mow his tiny yard, and had an old .38 police revolver that he would bring out on special occasions and national holidays like Super Bowl Sunday. It was the coolest thing Kevin had ever seen in his ten years of existence.
“Don’t tell your dad,” Jools would say as Kevin spun the empty chamber, cocked the hammer, and pulled the trigger. Click. Kevin would escape to Jools’s back patio whenever his dad became insufferable. They’d sit under the corrugated plastic awning and drink Cokes – Jools’s with whiskey – and feed the squirrels while complaining about the Bears. Jools would reminisce about “gooks” and “spooks” during his days as a soldier and a cop, respectively. The adult Kevin knew that most of it was nonsense, but he’d gobbled up every tale with wide eyes as a child. Jools’s back porch was his sanctuary. But then it all ended late one night. He recalled the ambulance, the silent flashing red lights, and the paramedics carrying Jools away, never to return. And just like that, Kevin was alone again.
The old neighborhood was a cornucopia of colorful characters. For instance, Little Ritchie, a psychotic kid with one ear who tormented old Polish women by spewing horrible racial slurs at them. Ritchie was widely regarded as the spawn of Satan, but forgiven by virtue of his deformity. The last time Kevin had heard about him, Ritchie was disabled and living on Social Security. Then there were the brothers Castellano – Bubba and his younger brother Minibubba – two appropriately nicknamed cherubs, twins separated by seven years who were transplants from Queens. They shared their video games, BB guns, and Playboy magazines with Kevin and the other local kids. Bubba became a golf coach, while Minibubba drove heavy machinery, lost his hair, and covered himself in ink. There was also Dillon, the local outlaw who owned a three-legged dog and was on a sex offender registry, and Cannibal Mike, who guarded his perfectly manicured lawn with a sharpened spade. No errant Nerf football was ever retrieved if it landed within his property line.
Sniggs recalled that when he was about twelve, he got into a fight with a neighbor kid named Tony Boyles. Tony was two years older than him, and enjoyed bullying the younger, weaker kids. The specific cause of the fight was long forgotten by Kevin, but he could remember the scene as clearly now as he could back then. There he stood, toe-to-toe with the tall, red-afroed, pimply-faced, half Irish and half Mexican, Anthony Octavio Boyles. The neighbor kids gathered around to watch. Half of them hated the Boyles family because they were half Mexican, the other half hated them because they were half Irish, and everyone hated them because they were renters who let their house and yard go to hell, had a dog that barked at all hours, and drove a shitty-looking car. No one thought little Kevin stood a chance in the fight, which he didn’t. Boyles pummeled him four times in the shoulder and chest and Kevin sulked off to his front door. To his surprise, he found his father barring the way, standing behind the locked screen door with a whiskey in one hand and a Marlboro in the other.
“You ain’t coming in until you go back down there and kick McWetback’s ass.”
Unsure as to what the hell he was going to do in regards to lodging for that evening, Kevin went back down to fight. He lost, but not decisively, as no blood was drawn and no pleas for mercy were extracted. It was a moral victory for young Kevin. Three months later, the Boyles family moved away, and the Polish-German neighborhood was pleased with that.
Done reminiscing, Kevin got out of his car and walked to the door. Halfway up the walk, he thought about turning back, driving into town, and catching up with the Castellano brothers or some other old friends. But he had driven almost 1,100 miles nearly straight through, stopping only in Des Moines to sleep for four hours in a truck stop parking lot. He reached out and knocked on the screen door, assuming that his father was still asleep.
“Who’s there?” shouted a voice inside.
“It’s me, Dad.”
Footsteps thumped from within the house, approaching behind the door. The deadbolt lock slid loose, the knob turned, and the familiar Coke-bottle glasses of Kevin’s father’s appeared.
“What’ya doing here?” the elder Sniggs asked.
“I had some time off. I thought I’d surprise you.”
“You should’ve called first.”
“Then it wouldn’t be a surprise.”
What Kevin had wanted to say instead was, “Fuck you, then,” and be on his way, but as he considered that, his father opened the door and retreated back into his harvest gold and Formica kitchen.
“So what’s new, Dad?”
“Damn hemorrhoids are killing me. Do you want some breakfast?”
“Not now, thanks.”
They both took seats at the chrome dinette. The elder Sniggs had the Tribune out. He enjoyed tormenting himself with the communist editorials.
“How’s the job?”
“I’m taking time off,” Kevin answered.
“Goddamn Bears are worthless. Quarterback’s a pussy. Ought to fire every one of them coaches, and the owner too.”
“You can’t fire an owner, Dad.”
“Fire his ass.”
“You getting out of the house, Dad?”
“Yeah. Why? Grocery store. Hardware store…”
“Did you get fired or something? If you think you’re moving back in here…”
“I’m on leave.”
“Come on, Dad.”
“Got to be a reason you came out here.”
“I wanted to see you.”
“Bullshit,” the elder Sniggs answered. “Tell the truth.”
“Okay,” Kevin relented. “There was an accident.”
“What kind of accident?”
“Someone got shot.”
“You shot someone?”
“It was an accident.”
“How do you accidently shoot someone?” his father asked, looking perplexed.
“He was going for a gun. I reacted.”
“Is he dead?”
The memory of the moment burned Kevin like a splash of acid. He needed to explain it so that his father could understand, but perhaps he also needed to reflect on it more so that he himself could understand, as well.
“We were raiding this meth distributor,” he answered. “We went in through the front door. Things happened really fast. As soon as I busted in, there was this guy in front of me. He looked like he was lunging for a gun.”
“How was he lunging?”
“Forward, towards the floor.” Kevin demonstrated. “Like this.”
“Why would he keep a gun on the floor?”
“He didn’t. He had one in his hand.”
“You said he was lunging for a gun, but he already had it in his hand? Did he have two guns?”
“Come on, Dad.”
“Well, what happened? Did he have a gun, or was he lunging for one?”
“I thought he had one.”
“But it wasn’t a gun?”
“You can’t tell these things. It all happens in a flash. There was smoke. There was commotion. It looked like a gun.”
“What was it?”
“I don’t remember. A cell phone, a remote control, something like that.”
“So you shot a man for lunging for a cell phone?”
“I shot him because he had a gun.”
“You just said he didn’t have a gun.”
“He did, as far as I could tell at that moment. It was justified.”
“But he’s not dead?”
“No. He lived.”
“Somebody else died, though?” As unstable as he was, Kevin’s father still possessed a natural and acutely tuned lies and omissions detector. Alcoholics, always the smartest people in the room, are perceptive like that.
“That’s right. Someone else got shot.”
“Who? An agent?”
“Thank God, no,” Kevin answered.
“Oh, thank God for that,” replied the elder Sniggs, his voice oozing sarcasm. “Thank God it wasn’t an agent.”
“It was an accident,” Kevin explained, trying his best to perform damage control on the conversation. “The bullet went through a wall and caught her just right. It was just one of those things, like a lightning strike. It was fate.”
“So let me get this straight. You shot down at a guy lunging for a cell phone and your magic bullet went through him and ricocheted off something – probably his cell phone – and then went through a wall and shot some woman who, thank God, wasn’t an agent?”
“No. My rifle misfired.”
“What does ‘misfired’ mean?”
“It went off before I got it zeroed on the suspect. It was a malfunction.”
“So it went off by itself?”
“It was misaimed.”
“It was misaimed or misfired?”
“It was a malfunction. It misfired.”
“I don’t understand what the hell you’re talking about, boy.” Kevin’s father shuffled over to the cupboard and grabbed the J&B. “Was it misaimed, or was it a malfunction, or did you just make two goddamn mistakes and shoot two people?”
“It’s not even seven o’clock, Dad.”
“Who are you, your mother?” The elder Sniggs poured himself half a glass neat, capped the bottle, returned to his seat, and took a gulp. “Did this woman die?”
Kevin didn’t reply, but the look on his face revealed the answer.
“Oh, shit.” His father leaned back, shaking his head. “So are you going to jail, now?”
“No, Dad. It was a ruled a collateral incident. I’ve been cleared. I go back to work in two weeks. It happens in wars, you know.”
“War? What war? With who?”
“The War on Drugs, Dad.” It was no use. Kevin had come home seeking comfort and support, but it was not forthcoming. It was never forthcoming from his father. He had concluded, at that moment, that the old man was completely incapable of empathy.
Kevin’s father went silent for a spell, taking occasional gulps from his tumbler. “You go to church this week?”
This presented an opportune moment for Kevin to turn the dagger and stick it back into his father’s pea-sized heart. “I don’t believe in any of that bullshit anymore.”
The elder Sniggs didn’t respond. He finished his drink, then stared disappointingly into his empty glass.
“It was an accident, Dad,” rationalized Kevin. “I’m learning to deal with it.”
“It sounds like you’re dealing with it just fine. I just don’t hear you taking any responsibility.”
“There’s nothing to take responsibility for!” Kevin shouted, feeling his blood pressure explode. “Like I said, my gun was misaimed!”
“You should go to church and ask Jesus Christ for forgiveness.”
“I don’t need forgiveness.”
“We all need forgiveness, Kevin.”
“And what about you, Dad? Do you need forgiveness?”
The Elder took his glass over to the sink, then went into the family room to finish reading the communist editorials in the Tribune. Kevin sat across the table from him in silence for over an hour, then calmly pushed his chair back, got up, and left without saying a word.
Kevin would never speak to his father, again.