Doree’s feather duster passed in brisk whispers over the TV console in the corner of the living room. She reached down and turned off the power switch and the black-and-white cartoon picture collapsed into a single bright point of light at the screen’s center before vanishing into lifeless, gray-green glassiness.
“J.R. does not need to be watching that Casper show, Danny. He’ll have nightmares about ghosts again.”
“But The Lone Ranger’s on next,” said Danny, who, in his wheelchair, had been watching TV beside J.R., “and then we planned on watching Superman.”
Doree was tired and wouldn’t argue. She still wore her white nurses’ aide’s uniform from the overnight shift.
“There’s your Lincoln Logs over there, J.R.,” she said, “You go play with those.” Without complaint the boy crossed the living room and dumped the tin of Lincoln Logs onto the floor.
“But what about me?” said Danny, “I don’t get nightmares from cartoons.”
“You’re also old enough to keep yourself busy without the TV on.”
“Come and play cards with me, Danny,” said Patty, who had been playing solitaire at the dining room table and had stopped shuffling the deck long enough to light a cigarette. “We can play twenty-one.”
At twenty-two years old, Patty was three years older than Danny, who wheeled around to face the dining room table, but said nothing in response to his sister.
The telephone rang from the kitchen.
“I’ll get it,” said Doree, and she hurried through the dining room to the kitchen doorway.
“Oh, hello Jay,” said Doree.
“It’s your old man, J.R.,” said Danny, whose stringy black hair fell over his shoulders. In addition to old man, Danny said things like groovy and psychedelic, and he burned incense, rolled Laredo cigarettes, and listened to bands like Blodwyn Pig.
Danny craned his neck to see what he could of his mother in the kitchen. With just two small windows, the kitchen was as bright as the mid-morning light could make it. Most daylight entered the house through the two southern-exposed French doors in the dining room; beyond these doors was a painted concrete porch with a plywood wheelchair ramp that led to a gravel driveway. The light that reached into the dining room was little help in the living room, where the windows were dimmed in the shade of a large willow at the northwest corner of the house. The family rarely used the front door that opened up to the willow because the angle of the steps was too awkward for Danny to manage.
“No, you cannot come over here and get him,” said Doree, “the lawyer said so.”
“Oh, lord—here we go again,” said Patty, who set down her cards and took a long nervous drag on her cigarette.
“No. No you will not!” said Doree. “I’ll call the police, Jay.”
“Sounds like the old man’s up to something,” said Danny.
“Jay! I’m calling the p—” said Doree.
She took the receiver from her ear and looked at it as though it had somehow let her down. She hung up the phone on the kitchen wall and stood silent for a moment in the doorway before turning to the dining room.
“He says he’s coming over to take J.R.,” her voice quavered. “He says he’s coming now.”
“That man’s crazy, I tell you!” said Patty. “There’s no telling what he might do!” She tamped out her cigarette in a compact fit of fury and stood and went about the living room pulling blinds closed. “Anyone with even a bit of sense could tell from the first how crazy he was.”
“I’ll be right back,” said Danny, and with an awkward left turn he wheeled himself into and then down the hallway, whose entrance divided the dining and living rooms and led to the bedrooms at the back of the house.
“I’m calling the police,” said Doree, and she turned back to the kitchen and picked up the phone and dialed zero.
Her arms folded at her front, Patty paced a short circuit between the living room and dining room and after a moment lifted her voice to say, “Anyone could tell, I’m telling you! Anyone!”
From the kitchen: “We’ve been separated. Yes. For two months. That’s right. I’m trying to get a divorce from him. Well, he’s hit me before…that’s why we separated. Yes. I’m scared of what he might do. Well, if not to me, to my son. Yes. Yes, he’s just four years old.” By the last of these words she had broken into full sobs.
Danny reemerged from the hallway, the barrel of a rifle poised over one shoulder.
“Oh, Jesus, Danny!” said Patty, “What do you think you’re going to do with that?”
“Just let him try and take J.R., man,” he said. “I’ll put a bullet right between his eyes. That’s what I’ll do!” Danny retook the center of the living room, spinning into position with a flourish so that he once again faced the French doors.
“The police say they’re on their way,” said Doree, wiping at her eyes and nose with her wrist in the kitchen doorway.
“Danny has gone and gotten his twenty-two, momma,” said Patty.
“Oh, Danny, no!”
“I’ll put a bullet right between the old man’s eyes,” he said. “Come here, J.R.—come on up here and sit with me.”
The boy got up holding onto a couple of segments of Lincoln Logs and scrambled his way onto Danny’s lap, where he turned and faced forward. Danny crossed the rifle in front of the boy, as though to secure him into place.
“Right between his eyes, man,” Danny told the boy, patting his arm. “Just let him try and take you.”
“Probably be better off letting Jay have him,” grumbled Patty.
“You hush up now, Patricia Marie!” said Doree, “That is enough of that!”
Five loud raps sounded, rattling the loose panes of the French doors in their frames. The two startled women jumped and gasped.
“Jesus, help us!” cried Doree, and they all looked up to see a tall, thin figure standing backlit against the mid-morning light.
“It’s alright, mom,” said Danny. “It’s only just Ray. Let him in.”
“Oh,” said Patty, “this is a fine picture; that’s what this is.”
“Lord help us, Danny!” Doree said, shouting and whispering at once, “Things are bad enough around here without Ray Ronald coming around!” She went to open the door.
“Hey, Danny!” said Ray Ronald as he stepped through the doorway, lanky and dark-featured with the day’s light behind him. “Some of us are headin’ up to—hey! what are you doin’ with your gun there?”
“J.R.’s old man says he’s comin’ over to take him from us,” said Danny. He patted the butt of the rifle. “I say let him try!”
“There ain’t nobody gonna shoot nobody!” said Doree, positioned in the kitchen doorway, her arms folded and leaning one shoulder against the frame.
“I’ll go get my gun, too!” said Ray.
“We’ve already called the police,” said Patty. “Why don’t you just go on home, Ray? We’ve all got family business to take care of here.”
“Let me help!” said Ray, “I won’t even need a gun. I know karate!” Ray began a slow-motion demonstration of his prowess.
“You can’t learn karate from the back of a comic book, man,” said Danny. “The old man would bust you in two if you tried that baloney on him.”
“You’re crazy,” said Ray. “You seen what I did to that Burns kid that time!”
“He was half your size, man. And you really just wrestled him down and pinned him.”
“You’re lyin’ Danny—” Ray started just as a car door slammed shut at the front of the house.
“Heaven help us—that’s him!” said Doree.
“Maybe it’s the police,” said Patty.
Doree turned and hurried to the window over the kitchen sink for a look. “Nope—it’s him alright! Lord Jesus—where are the police?”
She hurried back to the dining area just as the man’s figure appeared through the doors. The locked door rattled and shook—the glass panes quivered in their frames.
“Let me in, Doree! Let me get my boy!”
“Go away, Jay! I already called the police. They’ll be here any minute!”
“I said, Let me in, goddamn it!” Jay pounded on the frame of the door, and wood and glass trembled violently. “I’m comin’ in, Doree!”
With that a fist broke through one of the panes nearest the door handle. The women screamed.
“Goddamn it! I’m comin’ in!”
“Get down, J.R.!” said Danny, pushing the boy from his lap.
The hand groped for the lock, smearing blood over the wood and glass it found and worsening its cuts with its reach.
“I got you in my sights, old man!” yelled Danny.
But the hand found the lock and worked at turning it.
“Help me, Patty! Help me!” cried Doree, as she ran to throw her weight against the door to oppose the man’s push.
“Oh, Jesus!” cried Patty, hesitating a moment before throwing herself beside her mother’s effort.
“I’ll knock this whole damned door down!” yelled the man. More glass cracked and broke onto the floor.
“I’ll shoot, old man! I’ll shoot!”
“J.R.!” called Doree, “J.R.! Call the police, J.R.!”
The boy had been standing in the living room mouthing one of his Lincoln Logs and watching the scene unfold. He dropped his pieces, and against the backdrop of this drama he hurried to the kitchen and dragged a dinette chair to the phone. He climbed up and took down the receiver and for a moment gave a vacant stare to the rotary dial. Dropping the receiver with a clatter of heavy plastic against the wooden chair back, he climbed down again and called into the mayhem from the kitchen doorway, “What’s the number?”
No one seemed to hear him above the threats and cursing, the pleading, and the shaking and breaking of glass.
“Police!” A commanding voice shouted from outside, a deep male voice.
“Stop right there!” said still another man’s voice, higher in pitch than the first. The struggle at once subsided.
“She’s got my boy in there!”
“Just stop what you’re doing and back away right now!” returned the deep voice.
The two women retreated from the door and it came to a half-open rest, riddled with broken and fractured panes. Glass lay in untidy constellations about the dining room floor. A chaos of blood streaked and spotted the clothes and arms of both women, smeared the wood and the brass and the glass of the French doors, and dotted the hardwood floor in drops that shone like scattered pennies against the morning light.
The three figures from outside made their way through the doorway as the two policemen—one a full head taller than the other—pushed their way in; the shorter one restrained the boy’s father from behind.
“You ladies alright?” asked the taller officer, the one with the deep voice. A brass nameplate on his uniform read, “Jacobs,” when it caught the light from outside.
Breathless and teary-eyed, the women took a moment to examine one another and themselves before nodding to the officer.
“How about him—how bad is he cut up, Jack?” asked Jacobs.
“Let’s see…. Looks like he’s gonna need some stitches, but he’ll be okay. He’s bleedin’ all over me right now, though.”
“You better put that rifle down right now, son,” said Jacobs, motioning to Danny in the living room. “You trying to get yourself shot, or what?”
Danny said nothing, but dropped the rifle across his lap again as Jacobs gave a long awkward stare at the wheelchair, where Danny’s too-small legs didn’t measure up to the rest of his body.
“Polio,” said Doree at last, her voice breaking, still breathless and frightened sounding. “He was just a little boy.”
“Uh-huh,” said Jacobs. “Well, can somebody tell me what’s going on here?” He rested his thumbs inside the belt at his waist and refocused his attention.
“That’s my boy over there,” said Jay in a mournful tone, as though he might break into a cry.
“He’s come here trying to take away my son!” said Doree, with a nod to the boy. Then she added, “Get on over there with Danny, J.R.”
J.R., with two fingers of one hand in his mouth, made his way to his half-brother’s side and climbed back onto the lap in the wheelchair where he was once again secured into place with the twenty-two rifle. To Danny’s right the living room door stood ajar where Ray Ronald had at some point exited without anyone’s notice.
Jacobs let out a deep sigh and turned to the father. “You don’t live here, then?”
“She’s kicked me out of my own home!” said Jay.
“This ain’t your house!” cried Patty. “You ain’t even got a job to help make rent!”
“Excuse me young lady, but who are you?” asked Jacobs.
“She’s my daughter,” said Doree.
“But not his daughter!” said Patty, sharpening her features in a show of disdain.
“And the young man in the wheelchair?” said Jacobs.
“Danny,” said both women at once. “He’s my oldest son,” finished Doree.
“Uh huh,” said Jacobs, “but not his son?” He nodded to the father.
“That’s right, officer,” said Doree.
“So,” said Jacobs, waving a finger from the mother to the father and back again, “you two are married?”
“Yes, we are!” said Jay.
“But I’m trying to get a divorce,” Doree quickly added.
“Second marriage?” asked Jacobs.
“Yes sir,” said Doree.
“It’s his third marriage,” said Patty. “He’s got three other kids of his own that he never even tries to see.”
“Mind your own damn business!” said Jay.
“Calm down, buddy,” said Officer Jack, giving a jerk on the handcuffs from behind.
“But that boy is all I got left!”
“Sir, it scares me to think of what might happen to my son with this man,” said Doree.
“Like hell!” said Jay. “I would never hurt that boy!”
“Sir, I got a restraining order to keep him away from me,” she said.
“That true?” asked Jacobs, turning to Jay and tipping back the glossy black bill of his cap. The officer stood straight and imposing, one side of his face aglow in the daylight, giving outline to a square chin, a large nose, and a stern brow.
Jay seemed to weigh something for a moment, and then said, “Yeah. Yeah, it’s true. But it doesn’t say a thing about my boy!”
Jacobs curled his lips under and looked over the father who stood with pleading eyes; then he glanced at the shaken mother before his gaze came to rest on the wheelchair and Danny, in whose lap J.R.’s form seemed to dissolve in the low light of the living room. The officer shook his head.
“Well, then,” said Jacobs, bringing his eyes back to the father, “We got no choice but to take you down to the station. Probably need to get you sewn up, in any case.”
A rapid bleating of busy signal erupted through the kitchen doorway. Jacobs stepped around the corner where he appeared to consider the arrangement of telephone and chair for a moment before picking up the dangling receiver and replacing it on the wall. He stepped back into the dining area.
“Okay, take him to the car, Jack.”
Officer Jack turned the father toward the outside light.
“Wait!” said Jay, twisting his head back toward the living room. “I’m your daddy, J.R.! I’ll always be your daddy! I’ll always love you—don’t you forget it!” His voice again broke with emotion, and he added, “Don’t you ever forget it!”
“You all done now?” asked Jacobs. After a moment and a deep breath the father nodded. “Alright then, get him out of here, Jack,” adding quickly, “Oh, Jack—one thing.”
“See that he doesn’t get blood all over the back seat there, would you? Try to put a rag under him or something…whatever you can find in the trunk.” Jacobs watched them down the wheelchair ramp. “Ma’am,” he said, “why don’t we step outside and talk about this?”
The bustle of activity made its way across the violated threshold. Patty followed her mother outside with Officer Jacobs.
After a moment, Danny removed the rifle from in front of J.R. and nudged the youngster from his lap.
“Your old man must think he’s invincible or some such thing, J.R.,” he said, as the tike clambered down. “Hey, that reminds me!” Danny looked at his wristwatch. “It’s just now time for Superman!” And with the rifle tipped barrel-up over his shoulder, Danny wheeled to the corner of the living room and snapped on the television so that it came to life, coating the room in projections of gray. “Let’s watch Superman, J.R.—you like watching Superman, don’t you? ‘The man of steel?’ You don’t get nightmares from Superman, do you?”
The half-brothers settled in front of the glowing tube. On the screen George Reeves stood colorless, his hands on his hips, his cape waving into outer space, the world nothing more than a backdrop at his feet.
A moment later, Danny reached down and gave J.R. a pat on the head and said, “Superman killed himself, you know. Blew his own brains out with a gun.”