Mr. Chuck Stonehill walked over from next door and told me he found a tackle-box, a bullet, and a rubber by the picnic table in the backyard under the palm tree between our rusting beach trailers. I knew where they came from—they were mine—but I didn’t admit it because I was afraid of Dad finding my love letters to Zeke, or our condoms and pills. Since my father was on his way home from church, I was anxious for Mr. Stonehill (who I privately called Chuckyphus) to talk himself out before Dad arrived home from his job at the milk processing plant. I’m a big nerd for mythology, which drives my father nuts because it’s not Christian, and I called him Chuckyphus because his name was Chuck plus Stonehill. Every day he raked tree leaves like Sisyphus rolled his rock. He would rake the leaves away only to find more in their place the next day. Dad did not need to know about the yellow tackle-box where I carried my bullets, the ones I bought for a way out when any way would do. My dad was a big man and a bully and had been hard on me.
I sat on top of the picnic table under an oak beyond the palm tree. Chuckyphus stood in the sparse grass next to the picnic table. It was dusk. My pug, Winston Churchill, stood next to him, sniffed his ankle.
I said, “It is suspicious.”
Chuckyphus looked up with his hands resting in the small of his back. His gut was as big and hard as a keg. His glasses rested on the tip of his nose and hair grew out from under a navy blue trucker cap. He wore cheap navy shoes with Velcro straps but wasn’t wearing his teeth.
He said, “The rubber looked just like it had been blown up and thrown on the ground. The bullet was a .38 and wadn’t fired.” He said to Churchill, “Hey ya! How you doing buddy? Huh? He can’t hear me.”
Churchill the pug, who was deaf, walked away and smelled the oak. A muggy wind stirred leaves on the ground. Churchill lifted his leg.
Chuckyphus furrowed his brow and said, “Think your pop might know anything about the bullet and yellow whatnot?”
I had carried a padlocked tackle-box for the past two years, since my sixteenth birthday when Dad gave it to me for fishing. I didn’t fish, but he had tried to force a father/son outing and thought since he liked fishing, I should too. Later, I bought the .38 from Zeke, who stole it from his father, who thought a stranger took the gun from his truck. After that, my yellow box generally held the pistol, bullets, condoms, herbal supplements, sundry pills, wind-proof lighters, and weed.
I said, “There’s nothing to worry about.”
“Well,” said Chuckyphus, “must’ve been a gun here. I suspect it’s in that box. I don’t like it. Hell, I’m fit and young.” He was lying. I knew he was sixty-one. “I got a long life ahead of me. Did I tell you I worked twelve hours yesterday?” He was a maintenance man at the QVC warehouse and proud of it.
Chuckyphus walked over to the oak tree and bent down to pick up a bullet casing from the ground. He said, “Here’s proof somebody was shooting. You’d think we’d hear if a shot was fired.” He turned it over in his hands, inspecting it. “I got to get the blower out and blow some damn leaves again. Messy as hell out here. Clean it up, I reckon.” That last part, the “I reckon,” he had picked up since his move from up north, picked it up down here in Carolina.
Chuckyphus complained every day about the live oak leaves, which fell without end. “Back home,” he’d lament, “leaves fell once a year. Not like this year-round shit down here. Hell, I blow leaves every goddamn day. They fall right back down over night, so I got to do it again next day.”
I stayed with Churchill the pug while Chuckyphus went for his leaf-blower. He stepped away, turned around, raised his finger, and said, “Almost forgot the tackle-box.” He scooped up my box and went back next-door.
Meanwhile, my father drove up and parked his truck between the beach trailers. He walked over to the picnic table and said, “Hainsworth, where’s Chuck?” Dad stood with his arms bowed because of his broad shoulders and back, and this posture made him look menacing. His hips were narrow, and his legs were spindly. He wore his hair high and tight. The dirt on his hands smeared his jeans, and mud caked his work boots.
“Chuck,” I started as if thinking. “Haven’t seen him lately.”
“I see you didn’t fix that green hair like I told you yesterday. You look like a kid from a jungle tribe with that bolt through your nose.”
I looked down at the dirt.
Dad said, “Just because your mother passed is no excuse for this expression or whatever you call it.”
“Leave her out of this.”
“You’re not eighteen yet. I’m still your daddy.” He reminded me about my age every time I mouthed off. “And I’m sick and tired of being embarrassed around my friends at church. Who the hell paints his fingernails all different colors unless he’s a druggie? Or worse. Some kinda queer.”
I took a deep breath and bit my tongue. “I already told you,” I said through my teeth, “Mr. Stonehill isn’t here.”
“That’s all right. You know, I’ve hired old Chuck to keep his eye on you for me.”
My Chuckyphus had betrayed me.
I said, “I think maybe he went down to Charleston for the party.”
“We’ll find out,” Dad said. “I’m a go knock and see.”
He walked on over through the trees and up the yard to see old Chuckyphus. I was trying to think fast. Already they were talking, and I knew Chuckyphus would show Dad the tackle-box. The moon rose pale above the twilight trees. I heard the killdeer call and saw one flit across the sand.
Dad walked back to the picnic table with Chuckyphus following behind.
“Wait right there,” Dad said on his way. “I’m a go to my truck, be right back.”
“Wait,” I said. “Why?”
“Bolt cutters,” he said and kept walking.
He returned straight away, put the tackle-box on the ground, and said, “Hold this.”
Chuckyphus grabbed the ends of the box. My dad barely strained as he squeezed through the lock and tossed the bolt cutters down before opening the lid, reaching inside, and yanking up a letter. His eyes scanned the page.
At first Dad said, “Zeke’s queer.” He chuckled.
Then I saw his red face stretch in epiphany. Behind his head, the moon climbed above the tree line.
“What the hell is this?” he asked and pointed at the note.
“What is what,” I said. A swampy breeze floated by like steam. I heard the killdeer call from the dirt where its partner had left three eggs in a divot.
Dad peered into the paper and would not look up. He shifted his weight a few times and held his breath. I saw him shake his head in denial. A couple of times, he started to speak but could only stutter. His face turned redder. I figured he would say to stay away from Zeke and that if I wanted to choose hell and be an abomination, I would have to make that choice after I moved out on my own. He had always claimed that it was a choice, a lifestyle, as if people could pick who to be attracted to. But he hadn’t really thought that through because if he had he might realize that maybe he’s bisexual. I saw dad clinch his fist and crumple the paper.
I thought of my mother who was shy and quiet. She was an abstract painter and taught art at the elementary school. She once painted Dad’s portrait and captured the red tint of his face, the same red that flushed his face now. She had unknowingly fostered my love of mythology as a boy when she read from the illustrated Bible stories for children. Every night we had story time before bed, and she would read me to sleep. I had kept it a secret from my mom and dad, but the Bible stories seemed like mythology even though my parents made me go to church every Sunday and every Wednesday night. Her kind of religion was sweeter than Dad’s. Mom had been much more tender and kind than he ever was, and I wished I could see her again and for her to hold me like a baby. But she died in a wreck when I was twelve, so I never got to tell her. I don’t think she would’ve minded.
Finally Dad said, “You aren’t gay, not under my roof. You got to make better choices than this.” He pointed at my letter from Zeke. “You got to fight against this. You hear me?”
“Is that how you do?” I asked.
“Son, you watch your mouth,” he said and balled his fist. He stepped close to me and got in my face. He was shaking mad and stood there glaring into my eyes. I stepped back, which seemed to break the spell. He backed off. Then Dad tore up the letter and took the tackle-box before opening the door of his pickup truck.
I said, “Where you going?”
He stopped just as he was about to sit in the driver’s seat. “I’m going out for a drink,” he said. My dad wasn’t much of a drinker, which was fortunate because I figured if he had been, his temper would be even worse. I felt lucky he hadn’t hit me. For a second, I thought he might.
When Chuckyphus stepped up, I asked, “What did you tell my dad?”
Chuckyphus said, “Same as I told you. Your dad seemed pretty upset about it, though.”
I said, “He did.”
Chuckyphus said, “Driving down to the beach in a couple hours. Do some metal detecting.”
I said, “I’m heading out there later to think.”
After Chuckyphus left, I drove to the grocery store and paid the loitering man outside to buy me some wine and sell me some weed. I had to get stoned before driving to the ocean in the old German car with the moon roof open and windows wide. I looked out at passing houses on stilts. Some of them were lit up with cars parked beneath. With my free hand, I took the dugout from my pocket and pushed open the lid with my thumb, which released the spring-action, and popped up the one-hitter. I twisted a load, took a hit, and watched the sky waver above the passing houses. I gazed at the moon, the color of a tomb, and saw deserts, craters, and shadows.
The public access entrance to the beach was nearly vacant when I parked and proceeded to drink the red wine. When I walked out on the dunes, I decided to strip, had trouble undressing, and fell several times until I finally walked naked over the sea-softened strand, right up to the ocean’s edge where I took a gritty seat. Wind gusted ten, fifteen miles an hour; the ocean’s surface heaved, spotted with white caps. Seagulls dove and rose. I tasted salt and saw a few dim stars blinking through moonshine and pollution. I stood and shuffled in waist-deep, which took my breath. I pretended to be an actor in a movie where some legless loser screamed at God and made his peace during a drunken episode. I leaned back, yelled, and aimed my pecker as high as I could to let out a twinkling stream.
I said, “Here’s an offering.”
Then there was a ringing in my ear. I could not scream or cry or move but could hear myself thinking, I don’t understand, as if I spoke mouthless. The moon swelled in the sky. Its light consumed and absorbed the whole night. For several minutes, only the moonshine moved in particle waves.
I stood in the shallows with water slapping my shins, and the moon dissolved like a pill on the black tongue of night. I turned and stepped on an oyster shell, which gashed the arch of my foot all the way down to the bone. I dragged my bleeding foot up the beach and passed out under a palm tree.
Chuckyphus startled me awake when I heard his metal detector beeping. He called out to me and waved. I sat underneath the tree while he walked up the dune and stood by me. He had added plastic shields to the arms of his glasses to make safety goggles. They rested on the tip of his nose.
“Son,” he said. “You’re butt ass naked. What the hell happened to your foot?”
I shrugged and said it was an answer to a prayer.
“We should maybe get that checked out,” he said and fussed a bit over my wound.
My clothes were in a pile with my stomping boots. Sand blew across the beach and blasted my skin. Somehow I didn’t care that my arch was sore and tender.
He took a little packet from his pocket and tore it open with his teeth. Then he took the wet wipe and swabbed the cut, which stung a bit.
“What’s with the safety goggles?” I asked him.
“Keeps the sand out of my eyes,” he said and nodded. His hair curled beneath his navy hat, blowing back and forth in the wind. “Seen your pop yet?”
I said, “He’s probably back at the house by now.”
“He’s not at your house. I just left there. He said he was coming here and for me to start on this end and work my way toward him on the other end where he’s hunting you.”
“Maybe I ought to go home,” I said.
“Naw, just stay right here. We’ll wait for him and when he gets here we can go to the hospital in Myrtle Beach.”
I waited and eventually saw Dad walk down to the water nearby. Chuckyphus tried to stop me, but I limped down the dune, stood at the beach’s edge, and closed my eyes. When I opened them, I saw my father marching toward me with my .38 by his side. He raised the gun, and Chuckyphus grabbed his shoulder from behind. Dad swung around with his left and smacked Chuckyphus in the ear. As Chuckyphus covered his head with his arms, my dad took his shirt off, wrapped the gun in it, and placed both in the sand. He lunged at me with Bourbon breath, grabbed me by the shoulders, and flung me into the water.
I splashed beneath the waves.
When I surfaced, I heard Chuckyphus yelling. Sounded like he said, “Think maybe you’re shoving him too hard. Not so hard!”
Dad dunked my head, raised me up again, and said something unclear about “fight it!” Then he cupped his hand around the back of my head. I resisted, but he forced my head forward into the water again. He jerked me back up and screamed to the sky, something like, “the father!” Then he plunged my head again in the sea. He fell, and I recovered my footing and stood gasping.
I walked to the sand, unwrapped the gun from Dad’s shirt, and pointed it at my father. Chuckyphus grabbed my wrist as I fired a shot in the air. Dad glared back at me before diving in the water and swimming away. I did not try to stop him. Instead, I limped up the shore and sat beneath a palm like it was my own bodhi tree. I was determined never to move, never to leave my spot. As soon as I took a breath, I puked, sobbed, and kept crying.
But Chuckyphus was saying something. I had a hard time listening. I heard, “You could stay with us.”
It wasn’t that I couldn’t hear. My mind was distracted. Chuckyphus must’ve called the cops at some point because I waited under the palm tree with no visions but the police. Someone covered me with a blanket. They drove me to the emergency room, then back to Chuckyphus’s beach trailer. A cop handed me the yellow tackle-box with no bullets, no gun, no condoms, no pills, and no letters. I shuffled inside and curled up on the Stonehill couch. Churchill the pug hopped up to cuddle in the crook of my knee. Throbbing pain would not let me rest.
Later, I staggered out to check the weather. Churchill grunted along behind me, snorting at my heels. A breeze lifted leaves in swirls. The sand gnats bit my ankles and shins. Cloud puffs dotted the sky. The killdeer screamed in the dirt. Chuckyphus stood in his yard, blowing leaves into the wind. When he saw me, he turned off the blower. He said, “Sorry about your tackle-box. Hell, I didn’t know. But listen, I already cleared it with the wife. Just got off the phone with her. She said you can stay as long as you like. Your pop is with the police making his statement. I don’t know if they’ll charge him or what, but you need some place and so does he. I reckon he’ll come around later.” Chuckyphus stood there with his lips poked out and his hands on his back, rocking on his heels.
I shuffled back in the trailer. I poured dry food into my pug’s bowl, and he gobbled and oinked like a pig. I shambled into the bathroom, shut myself in. My foot burned as I stood in the shower and wiped what blood soap and water would wash.