by Sean Conway
Our father, Charles Hartley II, hanged himself in the attic in the spring of 1977. I was five years old. My brother Kelly was eleven. May 25th: the same day that Star Wars opened, though I didn’t make that connection until later. My mother took the two of us to see the movie toward the end of that summer, maybe six weeks after the funeral, and I remember being entranced by Luke’s desperation of being trapped on a desert planet. Stuck. Five years old, and I too felt stuck, unsure how to proceed, how to move forward, how to start kindergarten in the fall and care about one-plus-one and See-Spot-Run or how to tie my shoes. Who could focus on such trivialities as these when we were all going to be dead sooner rather than later. I was the grimmest five year old on the planet.
When I watched Star Wars again a couple years later on a re-release, I this time found myself swept up in the idea of vengeance—Luke’s need to find the evil that killed his father. Not to overstate it, but the movie, no matter how far, far away and a long time ago, felt like a projection of my own complicated DNA unscrambled and refitted so that a little kid could understand it. The evil that had killed my father was Vietnam. I’d known it as a four year-old, maybe even three: the empty chair at the kitchen table, the images on the TV news, the photographs enshrining the house with his crooked smile. I didn’t know what the war was, but I knew it was something evil, something that stole my father and was killing him, slowly, even before he was gone.
Just as I was suddenly the oldest kindergartener—telling classmates that finger-painting a yellow duckling wasn’t going to make us live longer lives no matter how well we painted—Kelly too had aged overnight, becoming an eleven year old delinquent teenager. By that fall, back at school, I suspected that he was smoking cigarettes, stealing money from my mother and other parents in the neighborhood, drinking on occasion when someone’s father failed to account for his beers, and, eventually, throwing wild punches at whoever looked at him funny. He refused to get a haircut and started bringing home music—Queen and David Bowie, then later Led Zeppelin and the Sex Pistols. Our father would’ve hated all of it—the loud, squealing guitars, the mop of hair falling over his eyebrows. Kelly had quit little league the day my father died. Everyone thought it had been a product of depression, but the truth was he couldn’t quit that shit fast enough. Baseball, gone, fall Pop Warner, gone. Winter basketball, gone. All of it.
In the driveway, I kept practicing my free throws. Just in case he was watching. Just in case I could still make him proud and—I don’t know, I’d only been five—make him change his mind.
Later on I worked at the Seahorse Inn on Salisbury Beach a few hours a week, under the table. Just enough to have some pizza money and change for video games, and just enough to give my grandmother some relief. I helped out right through my twenties and, of course, put most of the money my grandmother tried to give me back into the safe. She must have worked seventy hours a week, covering the front desk, cleaning rooms, doing laundry, mowing the front lawn, planting flowers and sweeping up the parking lot. Like painting a battleship, as my late grandfather used to say—as soon as you finish you gotta go right back to the beginning and start over.
All the progress I had made over the years, every hard-fought victory—graduating high school, getting into a half-decent college, allowing myself to be open to the possibility of falling in love—was undone in that one afternoon when the congressman from Massachusetts committed suicide in room four of the Seahorse. You probably saw it on the news.
The Seahorse Motor Inn had been in my family since 1947, my grandmother loved to tell us. Of course, there had been a lot of good years in there, prosperous years, but as the Day-Glo 1980s faded, so did Salisbury. The last of the rickety rides closed and the games and fried dough stands boarded up their windows. The waterslide and batting cages seemed to disappear overnight, leaving behind a cracked parking lot peppered with crabgrass. The scavengers were then quick to show up: a fly-by night dance club opening and closing in a five-month span, then another one in its place, then a strip club framed in purple fluorescent lights, another one two doors down, the cockroaches waiting for the sun to set so they could swarm in, filling the loop with low-ride cars with too much bass, the sidewalks littered with the slouched and the angry, the young and the buzzed, sucking cigarettes and dead in the eyes. The Seahorse, stubborn—like my grandmother—withstood it, though it had been failing for a long time. Most summer days during my high school years I sat on a stool under the throb of the sun and collected fifteen bucks a car for beach access parking. Then ten bucks. Then five. Then they didn’t want to pay at all and gave me a hard time about three lousy bucks, arguing that Salisbury was a frigging dump and my parking lot was empty and why don’t you just let me park my fucking car here you cheap prick. One guy got so mad at me he balled a five dollar bill in his fist and bounced it off my forehead, then drove ahead and ran over the toes on my right foot. They were a little bruised but somehow weren’t broken.
The rooms stayed mostly vacant, rented by kids who threw parties and left holes in the walls and stains in the rugs and knobs busted all over the place. The drug-dealers weren’t far behind. Broke my heart to see my grandmother painting the railings and vacuuming the carpets and playing her Sounds of the Sea cassette tape in the lobby as if any of it made one ounce of a difference.
Charlie Rice had been working for my grandmother off and on for years, but she’d been sent to the florist the day of the congressman’s death to get fresh flowers for the lobby and front steps. Two weeks past Labor Day and my grandmother was still at it. So it was she—my grandmother—who’d found him in room four. He’d sawed his wrists open in the shower but ended up on the bed. Not that I saw him myself. He’d been removed by the time I got there, but the mattress was saturated, the rug blotted in a long, winding trail, the linoleum floor of the bathroom flooded and curling at the corners because the guy had left the shower running with the plastic curtain partly open and the shower head askew. Just to be a dick, I guess.
I’d known Charlie forever. She used to date my brother Kelly, back when Kelly worked the rides at Shaheen’s and Charlie made change at Joe’s Playland. I remember her wearing a canvas apron that always hung too low on her narrow hips, her short-shorts and black Reeboks. She’d been a full head taller than me, so I could never decide whether to look up at her face or down a little at her breasts or straight ahead at her neckline. You couldn’t lose either way, really. She smelled like cherries. And a little bit like sweat. It was always a hundred degrees in the arcade, even with the industrial fans in the corners, blowing the heat but not really cooling anything at all. Making a lot of noise, too. I’d loved that we basically had the same name—she was Charlie, for Charlene I guess, and I was Charles III, and even though my family called me Chick, it very easily could have been Charlie. I took this as a sign. Aside from the Bionic Woman, Charlie might have been my first real object of obsession. She was beautiful and tomboyish and three years older than me. It was inevitable that Kelly would get her. I was crushed. He strung her along for a few weeks that first summer we’d met, until someone else stole his attention. There’d been no shortage of girls for a guy like Kelly in a place like Salisbury.
He’d spent a couple summers working the Himalaya ride. The Himalaya was the heart of the amusement park, both logistically and emotionally. The dizzying circular blur, the dazzle of lights, the pulse of music. A jewel. It was impossible not to be drawn in. In a way, the Himalaya was a merry-go-round on steroids—an endless train of boxcars on a grumbling track just below a wooden platform, circling with ever-increasing speed, like some kind of physical and psychological test for astronauts. Lights flashed, music pounded, all leading up to a crescendo of blinding speed coupled with the disorienting flicker of strobe lights and a loud wail of a siren for an exclamation point. A fun ride during the day, sure, but after dark—after dark it burned with all the energy of the brightest star in the universe.
In their white pants and candy-striped shirts, the guys who worked the Himalaya drew attention. Girls loved them. Usually three worked at a time. One managed the line, unbuckling the velvet rope, smiling down at the young girls, counting them off as they scrambled for seats like a game of musical chairs. Another checked belts, making sure everyone was strapped, usually giving the girls’ belts a more deliberate check, hands lingering. The ride would start up and these two might step onto a small ledge at the side of each cart, hitching a ride around the track, then stepping off casual as can be, without a misstep or stumble. Cool as a cucumber, or a peppermint stick I guess. The third guy was the DJ up in the booth, the coolest of the three with the side of his mouth pressed against the foam mic cover, telling everyone to “hold on tight as we go real fast…on the Himalaya!” Every once in a while he’d throw in an “aye, aye, aye” for good measure.
After a climactic top-out, the sirens screeching over the music and the lights strobing, the ride would deflate to a stop, only to have the DJ announce, “Now hold on tight tight tight as we go even faster…the other way!” And the cars would reverse directions. All of us on board by this time would be laughing and light-headed, the buzz of an adrenaline high surging through us. I’d ridden it sixty-six times and had the ticket stubs on my wall to prove it.
Kelly and the rest of them kept business cards in their shirt pockets, which they handed out generously over the course of an evening. They called themselves “The Himalaya Alliance of Girl Watchers” and handed them out to pretty girls. This is no joke. This is what it said. At the bottom, they’d actually rate the girl who was receiving the card (see exhibit a). Somehow this was a badge of honor. The girls loved it. If you worked on the Himalaya, you were a celebrity. Charlie Rice never stood a chance.
Two of my ticket stubs had asterisks scribbled in their corners. These were the two rides I’d taken with Charlie—before Kelly had snatched her from me, back when I thought we were connecting and maybe, crazy but just maybe, she was starting to like me. I fantasized about showing her off when school started back up, letting my friends who weren’t really my friends accidentally-on-purpose run into Charlie and me, raising their sunglasses in disbelief at this eighteen-year-old tall slice of amazing, like they did in the movies. Of course, she lived a couple hours from us in Vermont and I could never quite wrap the fantasy in enough reality to make it feel real—even fantasyland had to feel real, otherwise what was the point? And before I could straighten out the difficult logistics of how it was all going to work, I’d introduced her to my brother—my half-brother—and it was all over before it ever really began. I remember I’d been hanging around Joe’s Playland thumbing quarters into Joust and Dragon’s Lair, spending almost all my Seahorse money I’d earned that day. I was sick of the games and was sweating like crazy and kept taking breaks to stand in front of the industrial fan with my arms raised to hurry up and dry my pits before Charlie noticed. I pissed though nine dollars waiting for her shift to end, finishing with a marathon round of Jungle Hunt because I knew I could make a quarter last for as long as I needed it to, jockeying the joystick through level after level, practically on auto pilot, while looking for her out of the corner of my eye. I had a five dollar bill left in my pocket and wanted to save it for her. Dairy Twirl soft serve and maybe one ride on the Himalaya where we could spin and spin and spin until the world around us melted into a blur and the sonic wall of Night Ranger’s “When You Close Your Eyes” enveloped us in a buzz of possibility.
I’d bought her the ice cream but took a pass for myself so there would be enough money left for two ride tickets. Kelly was working but the prick never let me on for free, claiming that his boss was watching or some such nonsense; I’d seen every red-striped clown who ever worked that ride let the pretty girls on for nothing.
We sat on a bench halfway between the Himalaya and the Witch Castle while she finished her ice cream, her head turned sideways, sticking out her tongue and turning the cone around and around. I tried to act cool about it and look around the park casually, but it drove me mental. I don’t think at the time I even knew what a blow job was with any definitive assurance—I’d thought it literally had something to do with blowing—but what Charlie was doing to the ice cream looked way better.
Then Kelly came over with his thumbs hooked in his white pockets and a shell necklace choking his tanned throat. “You two know each other?” He seemed as perplexed by this as I was.
“Yeah.” I couldn’t let on that there was anything perplexing about it. “Why? Do you two know each other?”
It was a mistake. He looked down at her, pretending to think about it but actually just staring. She looked up at him and rotated the ice cream along her tongue.
“You work at the arcade,” Kelly said. “I see you all the time there. You’re a quarter girl.”
She pulled the cone away and looked at it, then French kissed the curly-cue tip. “I’m all girl, actually, but thanks for the insult.” It was right out of a movie. Like the John Hughes movie I never got to take her to see. I felt it all slipping away from me in an instant.
From the mammoth Himalaya speakers a Duran Duran song ended and the sermon-speech intro to “Let’s Go Crazy” began and for a moment I could have believed that Prince was God himself. Then Kelly looked at me and said, “Chick, don’t forget Mom wants you home at ten.”
Charlie kind of giggled at this, and Kelly smiled the most conspiratorial smile I’d ever seen and I wanted so badly to punch him in the fucking face but instead I sat there and glanced sidelong at Charlie to gage how much damage had just been done. I tried to laugh to show I was in on the fun, but it sounded forced, I was sure, and not fun at all but pained. My pits were sweating again.
Charlie nibbled the edge of the cone and pushed a stray lock of hair from her eyes. “Can I have one of those cards?”
I looked down at my lap so my eyes wouldn’t explode from my head. I turned my wrist and checked the digital watch on my skinny wrist that I’d gotten with six-hundred and fifty Skeeball tickets, a green cheap plastic band with Kermit the Frog’s open-mouthed grin on its face. I’d thought at the time I got it that it would be kind of ironic-cool, but now I was faced with the cold reality that it just made me look like a fucking idiot.
I pushed the tiny nub on the side, lighting it in a green glow. 10:14.
The congressman’s name was Cales. He’d been nabbed in some kind of embezzlement scandal, wiring money to accounts in the Cayman Islands. One of the local news crews uncovered it, and by the end of the whole mess it turned out he had a mistress with access to the accounts. They tried to stick microphones in his wife’s face whenever she’d go to her car, but she wouldn’t talk. This was in the summer. By fall he’d be dead in my grandmother’s motel.
But that’s what Salisbury had become, a place where the shamed and scandalized came to kill themselves in anonymity. Charlie was shaking and upset so I took her for a walk to go smoke a joint on the beach. I didn’t smoke but I did that evening. When we got back it was full dark and most of the cops had gone. They’d left the yellow tape around the door to room four and seemed to be guarding it, for no real good reason that I could see. My grandmother asked me if I could get a hold of Kelly and have him help me get that mattress out of there and maybe even tear up the rug. She hoped to have it done before the news started camping out front with their bright camera lights. The Seahorse, she said, already had a bad rap these days, mentioned in the Salisbury police blotter more weeks than not as the background for an arrest or a high school party or a drug bust. And now this.
I called Kelly’s apartment from the office. No answer. In here the ceiling was warped and water-stained, a musty smell that my grandmother tried to cover with fresh flowers. Through the window the lights of downtown Salisbury flashed—even now, two weeks beyond Labor Day. Reds and pinks and blues in long strands, gapped in some spots like missing teeth. They struck me, for some reason, as out of place, like Christmas lights abandoned on rooftops and lampposts the first week of March.
I hung up after seven rings. Not much of a surprise, either, given the fact that I hadn’t spoken to him in weeks, and not for a lack of trying. He was 37 years old, six years older than me, but you’d have thought he was much younger. I didn’t know if he had a job or not these days, or even still lived at this number (he didn’t have a cell phone, don’t ask me why). Last time we’d spoken he’d just been let go by Wick Crussley over at the pier in Portsmouth, and was begging for his post-high school retail job back over at the record store on 110, Salisbury Fields Forever.
Charlie came into the office and slapped a pair of work gloves into my hands. “Any luck?”
“Nope. No answer.” She and I, I thought, actually had more in common now than we had back then, back in the Himalaya days. The age difference didn’t seem as significant, of course, but that wasn’t it. Maybe it was that we’d both been stung by divorce, or, more likely, our shared troubled history with Kelly: it put us on one side of the line, him on the other. Sometimes I looked at Charlie and all I could see was that same teenaged girl: the way she sometimes turned her head, or looked up suddenly, or laughed. But other times, like now, she looked tired and distracted and buried in layers of despair and failure, and I didn’t recognize her at all. And I could only imagine that I probably looked the same way to her.
It was fruitless chase, but sometimes I caught myself obsessing about where I would be today if my father’s death hadn’t ricocheted my life into another orbit like a meteor bouncing off the atmosphere of the earth, its trajectory not quite angled enough to penetrate and stay on its course. I hated when I thought like this, though, because it made me sound like a victim. Still, I wondered.
When Kelly had been born our father was nineteen years old and trying to be a handyman. A high school record-setting athlete in football and baseball, he’d hung his hopes on an athletic scholarship, and when none came his way, he skipped college altogether, took a job fixing sinks and door locks at an apartment complex, and got his girlfriend pregnant. She was seventeen and not yet finished with school. By the time she turned nineteen, their no-end-in-sight engagement was over and she bowed out for California, where her uncle owned a restaurant. She’d left Kelly, eighteen months old, with her parents after months of therapy sessions and even, I’ve heard, a couple short stints in psychiatric facilities. I’m not so sure even now that there was ever anything more wrong with her than a case of claustrophobia and immaturity. She was supposed to have been gone just for the summer, a chance to make some money and help out the extended family, bathe in the California sun and the Pacific Ocean—a much-needed physical and mental break. She never came home.
Her parents took Kelly out to visit her three or four times over the next few years, but of course Kelly wouldn’t remember any of this. Eventually my father, working hard and making some money, took partial custody of him, and the days of Kelly being involved with his mother faded away like a retreating thunderstorm. I don’t even know what her name was. Or, if I did, I’ve since forgotten.
He married my mother in 1971. Kelly was five. They’d been dating only a little over a month. On the surface, I guess it seems like a romantic story. She was a hopeful writer taking a year off from school to rent an artist’s loft in Portland, Maine and waiting tables. My father was there for the winter picking up construction and repair work before the busy season. They each admired in the other what they themselves lacked. For him, it was her utter optimism and endless creative well, and more than anything her laugh. For her, she told me it was his strength and serious tone, his ability to problem-solve without getting flustered. A patience she couldn’t relate to. She loved that he could sit in a chair and just look out the window, eyebrows creased, thinking about who-the-hell-knew-what, but always thinking. He was on his way to Vietnam in a couple months, and when she’d asked what was going to happen to them in the meantime, he’d suggested—and she loved this tiny glimmer of unbridled optimism—that they just go ahead and get married.
I always found it interesting that my name is rich with family history—I’m the third Charles, after my grandfather and then my father, Chuck to his friends and family—while Kelly had deliberately erased his. Almost as soon as our father was dead he wanted to be called Kelly Macroom, not Kelly Hartley. It was my mother’s last name. Of course, this caused all kinds of confusion on so many levels. We were two brothers with two different mothers and two different last names, but, even more to the point, Kelly had the last name of my mother, not his. This used to piss me off like nobody’s business. Still does, sometimes.
My mother was the one who’d found him. He’d been missing for a full two days. Car in the driveway, sneakers by the door, eyeglasses folded in their case next to the sink. It wasn’t until the second night that she finally went up into the attic after sitting up in bed suddenly knowing, somehow with certainty, that he was up there.
I, of course, have only a five-year-old’s memory of the day. I remember Kelly crying in the kitchen. I thought he’d gotten in trouble for something. I was used to our father being away—he’d been gone most of my young life up to that point—so the fact that he wasn’t there did not strike me as particularly odd.
I remember my mother on the phone, holding her head in her hand, rocking forward and back while I asked her if I could have a Popsicle.
I remember Kelly and my mother standing in the driveway, my mother’s arms wrapped around her torso like she was trying to literally hold herself together, while Kelly slouched with his hands pushed deep into his pockets, his face already beginning to harden after having melted to tears, like a candle after being extinguished, its hot, soft wax forming to something misshapen. To me, he never looked the same.
I remember riding my bicycle out of the garage, past my mother and brother, lopsided training wheels grinding on the pavement (I couldn’t have known it then, but it would be five more years before I learned to ride without them). And I remember stopping my bike on the sidewalk to bend over and pick at a piece of flat hard gum, gray and flecked with sand. I brushed it off and put in into my mouth, working to chew it soft and looking at my mother to see if I was going to get in trouble. But instead she was watching, bleary-eyed, the police car coming up the street.
And I remember, most of all, playing catch with Kelly in the backyard, two police cars and an ambulance clogging the driveway, men and women inside our house. My mother had asked Kelly to take me out back for a while. My Sesame Street baseball glove was on my hand, Kermit and Grover and Big Bird sewn above the wrist. Kelly tossed a baseball at me, looking over at the house. I was a poor catch, misjudging everything, bending to pick the ball from the grass. He’d throw it harder, then harder, not the rainbow lobs that my father used to toss. My eyelids fluttered every time. Then a fastball blurred toward me. I don’t think I’d even raised my glove at it. The ball smacked my cheek and lip with a dull thump, knocking me flat on my back, dazed and buzzing.
I remember, days later, my mother combing my hair, me wearing a new suit too long in the sleeves. In the mirror, one side of my face was purple and a little green and puffed fat. Tilting my face to the left, I still looked like myself—the same old Chick. But turn right, just the tiniest bit, and I no longer recognized myself. In fact, from that day on, I didn’t really recognize any of us anymore.
“Chick, love?” My grandmother came out of the laundry room, wringing her crooked hands together, nervous as anything. “Chick?”
“Your grandmother’s calling you,” Charlie said, putting her hands on her hips to catch her breath. She’d already stripped the mattress, stuffed the bedding into a trash bag, and was now trying to drag the two chairs out of the room by herself while I stood in the doorway to the bathroom, taking in the mess. Probably procrastinating too.
“Did you talk to Kelly?” I could hear her but couldn’t see her. In the distance I heard the waves grumbling, like little earthquakes. They always seemed louder at night.
The dumpster behind the clam shack was full, the stink of garbage so strong on the air that it almost smelled sweet. Then the breeze would roll the other way and it disappeared for a minute, then came back. My stomach clenched, a tight fist in my gut. The musty room, the blood, the rotting garbage clinging to the air. The blood. We started to lift the mattress up, twisting it onto its side to hopefully slide it out of the room and stick it in the alley, but my stomach cramped again and a lightheadedness rolled over me, like the waves. I stiffened against the nausea, braced my cheek against the side of the mattress, locking my foot for extra support. “You all right?” Charlie asked. I looked at her but she was out of focus, standing at the side of the upended mattress, balancing it upright with one hand.
I couldn’t answer her. My vision tunneling, out of breath—I was going down. She called my name, tilting her head at me, but I lost my balance and the mattress was suddenly too heavy and I felt the leg of the table smack the middle of my back and the mattress twist away from her grip and pancake on top of me, forty years of night sweat, stray hairs, dead skin cells, stale sex, and of course the sticky stain of blood all coming with it.
The rub was that, on the one hand, I hadn’t eaten all day, but on the other, I’d just cleaned up the leftovers of an ugly suicide. Still, Charlie made me walk with her downtown to get a slice of pizza and a Coke. We sat on a splintery bench and she watched me nibble. It was dark, that fall chill chipping off the ocean and bleeding through my clothes. Heat from the pizza ovens wafted our way, welcome but thin. The bright square of the walk-up window was the only light keeping us from drowning in this moonless night. I kept looking at it sidelong, watching the workers clean, three of them in matching yellow t-shirts, framed in fluorescent lighting that drew a net of flying insects. “You’re not eating,” Charlie noted, her cheek propped on her fist and eyes watching me, full of the bright window’s reflection.
“I’m trying.” I took a tentative bite off a corner, just for show.
She squinted. “I don’t think you’re trying.”
“I wish she’d sell that place,” I said.
“What place, this one?” She pointed for some reason at the pizza window.
“What? No.” I swallowed, forced another bite. “I mean my grandmother. I wish she’d sell the Seahorse.”
It would never happen, I knew that. I knew that the motel gave my grandmother her purpose. What else would she do? She’d owned it practically her whole life, had grown old right along with it. In the office, nailed up there on the dark paneled wall, was a black and white photo of my grandfather arm-in-arm with Dean Martin, whose entourage stayed there when Martin played The Frolics back in nineteen-whatever-it-was. Another photo had both my grandparents bookending Skitch Carbo, a comedian who stayed there every summer. I had no idea who he was, but with his fedora and fat cigar clamped in his mouth, he looked like what I guess famous people used to look like. She’d never sell the place. It was her whole identity. In some ways, I was jealous of that.
Charlie picked up my Coke from between my knees and took a sip. “Wouldn’t be worth it for her,” she said. “I mean, what would she even get? I can’t imagine much.”
A blue news van cut across the intersection fifty yards in front of us. The driver flicked a cigarette butt out the window and it flared when it bounced on the pavement. Charlie turned her head, following the van, while I stared straight ahead at the dying orange ember let behind.
Kelly used to say he was going to buy it and let my grandmother work the front desk, let her come and go as she pleased. He thought the parking lot alone was worth a mint, even if the rooms didn’t rent like they used to. He wanted to buy it from her, and for her, a ridiculous dream on so many levels. Charlie was right—it was worth nothing. And Kelly didn’t even have the nothing that it would take to buy it. Ridiculous.
I took another bite and listened to the quiet. There used to be a water gun game right at the front entrance to the main boulevard running parallel to the water. For years it was all you could hear all summer long: the loud bell at the start of the game, then the pop of the balloon signaling that you’d won. I hated it; hated the suspense, waiting for that stupid balloon to grow bigger and bigger, its color growing paler with size, the inevitable shotgun bang that never failed to make me jump. Kelly had grown obsessed with it one summer. Every time a balloon popped he’d laugh for some reason. He’d come home some nights and I’d find little flecks of different colored latex in his hair or sticking to his sweaty neck. Every time he won he’d trade up, from a pair of fuzzy dice to a small stuffed Alf. The third row had a bin of plastic Star Wars light sabers.
He was twenty-one years old and had only been drinking legally in bars for two weeks when he stumbled out of the Tic Toc Club one night that summer around quarter to ten, having been drinking since three, first with Lee Baron, a kid he used to work the Himalaya with, then with Chesney Bromfeld, an assistant manager at Salisbury Fields Forever who’d been put on leave while the store investigated an accusation of sexual harassment. The three of them racked up a hundred-dollar check over the course of five or six hours. This back when a draft beer at the Tic Toc cost a buck and a half.
As the story goes, the three left the bar and wandered over toward the main drag, and eventually to its end where the water gun game was stationed. It was Sunday night but a good crowd was gathered, even that late. Nicky Park was working the booth, a kid who’d grown up in Salisbury and been working the games for years. He might’ve been handsome but he’d knocked one of his front teeth out skateboarding and for some reason hadn’t gotten it fixed. Kelly had that stupid Alf doll under his arm and played about fifteen games in a row without winning.
“C’mon Kelly, watch your mouth,” Nicky told him.
“What, I didn’t say anything. I said ‘fudge’.” He took another buck out and slapped it onto the painted wood top.
“Just calm down or I’m booting you out of here.”
“Booting me out of here? Booting me…” He looked around for support, incredulous. “Who’s gonna boot me? You?”
When the bell for the next game sounded and the water guns kicked on, Kelly aimed for his target for just a split second before turning his gun for Nicky, hitting him in the thigh and making him jump, landing in the friendly fire of another water gun. He threw a pair of fuzzy dice in Kelly’s direction. “You’re an asshole.”
Kelly hurled the dice back and then Nicky made a move to come across the counter, flailing and swinging. Little kids and their parents scrambled back out of the way. Lee and Chesney laughed. One of them reached over and stole a light saber.
Nicky regrouped, looked around self-consciously. “You guys are fucking losers.” He glanced at Lee, then Chesney and Kelly. “You need to do a better job of controlling your retarded friend.”
Kelly got into fights when he was a kid, in those years after our father was gone. In ninth grade, he got in no less than six, suspended four times, then asked to leave for good sometime in mid-May. Someone had made a suicide joke—not aimed at Kelly or us, just a general wisecrack—and Kelly grabbed the kid by the hair and put him in a chokehold and bit him on the back. The kid needed a tetanus shot and a couple stitches. Kelly and my mother got dragged into court first to be prosecuted (sixty hours of community service), then again for a civil suit, which miraculously got dropped. And then Kelly repeated ninth grade.
By ten past eleven the water-gun game was closed and much of the drag was growing dark. In the new quiet the waves came on louder. After the scrum, Kelly and his buds stepped into the SurfSide for another round of beers, sneaking their bottles outside with them just as Nicky Parks came out from behind his booth. He walked past the bar and waved to the bouncer leaning in the door, then lit a cigarette and walked down toward the loop, where he strayed right, onto the sand and through the pylons. Kelly, supposedly unbeknownst to Lee and Chesney, made an unplanned detour and followed him, suddenly taking longer strides and picking up speed.
He disappeared into the dark for just a moment before the other two caught up, but by then the hollow clunk of the bottle striking Nicky Park’s skull had already happened, and by the time they said their eyes were able to adjust, Kelly was on Nicky, one knee planted in the sand, braced on one foot, punching Nicky and driving his head against a pylon. Usually they’d yank Kelly back by the shirt when he got into an argument or even the occasional fight, but Kelly would turn wildly on them, fists flailing, didn’t matter at whom. I doubted they tried very hard to stop him this time, and for all anyone knows they may have even joined in. Nicky’s skull was broken open against the rusted head of a spike protruding from a pylon, his jaw broken and disconnected, bone poking sharply through skin up around his ear. Eyes beaten shut. I’d seen it for myself in the court photos. I’d seen Nicky now and again over the years, the last time probably five years ago. I was behind him in the checkout line at the grocery store, contemplating saying hello. But I didn’t. When he spoke to the cashier his voice sounded, to me at least, a little slow, a little slurred. I suppose it could’ve been my imagination.
I remember my grandmother crying at the police station at three o’clock in the morning. By this time my mother was living in California, ironically, just like Kelly’s mother. When I was twelve she’d met a man while on vacation in Las Vegas. He was some kind of marketing director for the California Angels. For the next couple years she visited him every few months, then moved out there to be with him. I had just started high school and didn’t want to go, which in the end worked out well for her. To this day I’ve never met the guy. I know his name’s Fred.
I’d driven my grandmother to the station even though I didn’t have my license yet, because of her poor night vision. I stood there in my maroon sweatpants and a neon-yellow tank top draped over my ribcage and my hair a mess, my mouth tasting of sleep. “Why, Kelly?” she sobbed, over and over and over, her face red and wet and oddly unrecognizable. “Just tell me why!”
Kelly, sitting on a stool, hands cuffed behind his back, his shirt torn and his chin and neck flaked in dried brown blood, wouldn’t pick his head up. He’d just looked at the linoleum floor, bouncing his knee. “Fuck that guy,” I remember him mumbling. He cleared his sinuses and bounced his leg like crazy. “Fuck that guy.”
I talked Charlie into a game of Donkey Kong at Joe’s Playland. She didn’t really know how to play but was a good sport about it. She just kept moving the joystick back and forth, sort of randomly, her Luigi character moving a few steps one way, then indecisively a few steps the other. From the corner of my eye I watched her blow hair from her face, as though really focused on what she was doing even though she wasn’t doing anything. I could have almost fallen in love with her again for it.
The screen was dull and a little grimy, catching the glare of an overhead fluorescent light in just the wrong spot. The game looked more pixilated than I’d remembered. I jerked the stick, tongue probably poking from the corner of my mouth like it tended to do, Mario leaping barrels and climbing ladders, determined to save the girl. But you couldn’t beat the game. Even if you made it to the top, even if you rescued her, red hearts floating into the air and off the top of the screen, you couldn’t win. On the next screen you’d be back on the bottom, the girl a prisoner again, and this time the rescue mission seemed even more hopeless, the barrels coming faster and with more urgency. You could reach her, sometimes, but you couldn’t really have her.
A few years earlier, in the immediate wake of my divorce, I’d gone on Craiglist and bought a Coleco Vision, the video game system from the eighties. Me, I’d had the Atari 5200. I was an Atari guy. So I’m not really sure why I’d bought the Coleco, since it wasn’t really for nostalgic reasons. I guess maybe I’d wanted to see what I’d missed. It came with a few games, Donkey Kong and Zaxxon and one or two others. I never really played it much, just a few times those first couple weeks alone in my new apartment. Maureen was staying in the townhouse until we figured out our next move. I guess I’d been bored, or lonely, or both, but the video games didn’t much help. My hours at the cable company had been cut back too, so I’d had even more time on my hands that I didn’t want. It was around that time that I first began helping out my grandmother more often at the Seahorse. Just to be busy. I’d paint, cut the small patch of lawn, clean carpets. Sometimes I’d just bring her a coffee and muffin and sit with her at the front desk, flipping through magazines. Eventually, reluctantly, I’d make my way to my studio apartment, after taking the long way home, driving by Pete’s Pub and the Nightcrawler, scanning the parking lot for Kelly’s motorcycle. If he wasn’t there I wouldn’t bother going in. At home, I’d crank the loud but useless a/c, crack a beer, and maybe play Donkey Kong or something else.
I walked Charlie home. She lived over on Scotch Road behind Tens, one of the newer strip clubs that had replaced what was once a go-cart track. From her lopsided porch I could hear the faint rumble of bass from the club. I wondered if the noise kept her kid awake but I guess not. I guess you get used to stuff.
“Thanks for helping today,” I said.
She shrugged. “It’s my job.”
“No, it isn’t. Not that.”
“I love your grandmother. I’d do anything for that broad.”
I nodded. “Yeah, me too.”
She hugged me. We didn’t usually sign off like this when I saw her at the Seahorse, of course, but it had been a tough day and I guess the circumstances warranted it. I thought of those days back at Joe’s Playland when I’d blow ten bucks in quarters just wasting time, waiting for her to stop and say hello, hoping she’d want to hang out with me after her shift. Trying to figure out how to get her on the Himalaya and make sure she sat on the inside, because on the inside she wouldn’t have the strength to hold her ground, wouldn’t be able to prevent herself from giving into the g-forces pulling her in my direction. That young version of me would’ve loved a moment like this. She hugged me good, and I hugged her good, down low at her waist, her breasts pushed against me and her hair up under my nose.
“Say hi to Kelly for me,” she said into my shoulder. “If you talk to him.”
She stepped back and I dropped my arms. “If.”
I called Kelly again when I got back to my apartment and listened to it ring half a dozen times, wondering who in this day and age doesn’t bother with some kind of voice mail: people like him, I guess, people who only want to hear from their brother at their own convenience. Less if it’s just their half-brother. Maybe that’s what eighteen months in the Billerica House of Correction does to you. Or maybe he’d been this way long before. Maybe—I don’t know—since he was eleven.
I wanted to take a long, scalding shower, to burn away the sweat and grime and memories of the room four clean up, put it behind me best I could. But the shower never really got that hot to begin with, and slipped back to lukewarm after just a couple minutes. Instead, I hung my head in its stream and jacked it to full cold.
The news channels were locked onto this story. WBZ was broadcasting right in front of the Seahorse. I could see the front door and half the road sign and my grandmother’s orchids and tulips. The other channels looked to be camped a little further down the street. I kept flipping back and forth, settling on WBZ because it had the closest shots. They put a few still photos on screen of the body being taken out, the yellow tape in the foreground and summer sun low in the sky casting long shadows. Sadness came at me from nowhere, like a punch. I got up and fished a beer from the fridge, picking up my phone to make sure I hadn’t missed Kelly’s call. Then I came back and decided I needed to change the channel: the Seahorse, with its flower beds and freshly painted fence in the wash of the late sun, looked so nice, and not just nice, but kind of beautiful, like I think it once was, or at least the way I remembered it.
I flipped away from the news. SportsCenter, old Twilight Zone episodes, a few late night talk shows. One cable channel was showing The Empire Strikes Back, the second Star Wars film. The channel was always playing these movies, it seemed, sometimes running afternoon marathons, over and over. And sometimes I’d just sit there and watch them while the afternoon grew long and then faded to dusk. The Empire Strikes Back was the darker chapter, the one where everything went wrong, when the shit really hit the fan and all felt hopeless in the end. I took a swallow of my beer without really even tasting it and watched the screen. I’d seen it a hundred times before and didn’t need to pay attention. I knew the story. But I watched Harrison Ford as Han Solo, wearing his vest and a puzzled look, that late-seventies hair, a little long and feathered back halfway over his ears, like my father’s hair used to be. Handsome in a way that my father was handsome. The same quirky, unsymmetrical smile. A similar blue glint in his eyes. I squeezed the phone in my hand, trying to will it to ring.
And there he was on Jimmy Kimmel, promoting Star Wars again all these years later, sitting in the guest chair uncomfortably, hands folded in front of him and a little stiff, looking so much older than he did on the cable channel. His hair chopped short and gray, his face longer, carved by time. The volume was all the way down so I just watched him, his eyes hidden somewhere behind the creases and folds of his brow, smiling from the side of his jowly mouth. He didn’t look much like the old Han Solo anymore, and I couldn’t help but wonder, as I took a distracted sip of my beer, if my father—if our father—would’ve looked a little like this now. And if, with all the years stretching between, we would have even noticed the change. I chewed the inside of my cheek like I sometimes do, studying him, trying to recognize the guy I knew from the seventies. I think I almost could.
Sean Conway's fiction has appeared in literary journals both in print and online, including Solstice, Glassworks, and Digital Americana, as well as a print anthology, Mental Ward: Stories from the Asylum (Sirens Call, 2013). He holds an MFA from the University of New Orleans, and teach writing at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, both on campus and in San Sebastian, Spain.