Eric M. Cherry
Conscious of the gun tucked into the back of his waistband, Chuck refused to turn sideways as he pushed his way into the bar. He’d forgotten how large a crowd came to Ted’s for Monday Night Football. A cold sweat and a bad case of jitters made him want to turn back, only Wolf was sure to learn that his pup had been asking around for a piece. When that happened, it was over.
Ted’s regulars clustered in their usual places at the bar and square, formica-topped tables. Chuck had known these people for years but the months away let him see them for who they really were: kids who’d grown old without growing up. Men and women who never got their heads out of high school. Here and there were the cliques, the couples switched up from the weeks before, and everyone playing the same stupid games they’d always played. Just like the football games that no longer mattered to Chuck, the petty rivalries that tied these people together left a sour taste in his mouth.
There, in the glare of the wide screen television, sat Old Wolf with his graying buddies. Toughs gone to seed. Laughing with open mouths full of stained and crooked teeth, crowing over some lame-ass thing or other, they had no idea how pathetic they all were. Especially Wayne, their Old Wolf, who’d never been anything but a louse for all his fifty-three years.
Old Wolf looked up with bleary eyes when Chuck bumped the table with his knee. “Hey, Pup. Just in time to buy your old man a beer. The Raiders are up a field goal.”
“Speak up, Son. Sound off like you got a pair.”
That brought another bray of laughter from the table. Chuck glanced at the four men and two women - new gals to the crowd but the same as all the rest, with their hair teased up and makeup overdone. He fought down the urge to shout, to tell them all where to get off, and returned his glare to his father. The weight of the gun under his grease-stained jacket gave him the strength to hold himself together.
“Let’s take a walk,” he said.
“It’s the middle of the game. Get me a beer and set your ass down.” He waited a long beat before swearing. He pulled a wad of bills from his shirt pocket and threw them down on the table. “There, all right? I’ll buy the first round.”
Chuck stared at the crumpled bills. He picked them up, smoothed them out, and turned them over one by one. There, on the corner of three fives, was the dab of marker he’d put on them. He’d known and still the sight felt like another twist of the knife in his back.
Chuck folded the cash and put it away. “You can’t buy me a beer with my own money.”
All at once, Wolf’s manner went hard. He’d been rocking back on his chair but now sat up steady. The glint in his faded blue eyes told Chuck he had the man’s full attention. An electric shock ran through him and he rode it out; this was how it had to be, how he’d wanted it to be, and he had the gun.
“Let’s go out back, now,” Chuck said.
The table was silent as Wayne nodded. He looked down at his hands while he tugged the silver rings from his fingers, setting each one inside his cap on the table. One of Wayne’s goons gave out a low whistle, completing their little drama as the old man added his watch and Union pin to the small heap of metal.
Chuck let it go. He focused on not breathing too hard, even as he felt his face grow hot. All of these jackasses were playing the same parts they’d always played. None of them knew Chuck wasn’t going to play along. Not tonight.
He said, “Are you done?”
“Cool your jets, boy. You and I will be done soon enough.” He stood then and looked over his motley crew. “Somebody get me a drink for when I come back. I’ve got to teach my pup a lesson, I guess.”
More hoots and jeers followed them out of the bar’s back door. In the alley, with the door shut, only the meaningless noise of the crowd reached them. Chuck felt the past shut off behind him with the door. However this went down now, that life was over.
Wayne shrugged off his denim jacket and tossed it on the trash bin, where someone had jammed broken two-by-fours like pencils in a blind man’s cup. “This about Debbie, is it?”
Chuck didn’t trust himself to talk. He nodded. And it was about Debbie: about seeing the old man pat Debbie’s knee and give it a squeeze, the same way he used with all the women he slept with. Debbie had been Chuck’s girl for four months. She got him working two jobs because they were going to buy a place together. He’d be out from under his dad’s thumb at last.
In that way, it wasn’t about Debbie at all. It was about the way Mom had looked that night when Chuck’s prom date didn’t show up at the dance. How Old Wolf grinned too broadly and laid out the truth of women to his pup: “Can’t get too hard up about ‘em, Pup. Never know what’s going on in their heads.”
It was about twenty dollars worth of Chuck’s hard-earned money showing up in Old Wolf’s pocket. Chuck had traded too many hours each week for that money. He’d had too many weeks for too many years stolen from him by this rotten old bastard.
Wayne craned his neck one way and then the other, stretching his muscles and taking in the alley. Chuck had seen this all before. As the man worked himself up for a brawl, he let his words out in short grunts. “Let me tell you something about Debbie. She’s not for you. Not your type at all.”
Chuck swallowed his response. His face burned and he said nothing.
“I know what you think of me. I’m a dog. Maybe you’re right. If so, then that Debbie of yours is just a bitch. And you know what dogs and bitches are like. Just nature, is all.”
Chuck’s hands itched to close on the gun but he couldn’t go for it. Not now, with his eyes stinging. He had to blink away the tears that welled up in his eyes, let the trembling in his fingers fade, and wait until he could talk. He swallowed the hard lump that swelled in his throat and Old Wolf just kept grunting.
“I’m sorry you had to come around to it like this. Maybe I should have taught you better sense. To keep your eyes open. I don’t know. Where d’you think I went wrong with you, Pup?”
“Don’t,” Chuck said. His throat clenched around the words, cutting him off. He squeezed his eyes shut and pushed through the rage. “Don’t you call me that. Not ever.”
Chuck faced his father. Wayne grinned. Not the kindly grin, or the mischievous one, but the harsh one. The grin of malice, pride and joy that came over him when he was caught in something and knew he could fight his way out. He cracked his knuckles and shook out his arms.
“Think you got it in you, Pup?”
Chuck tore his stained, denim jacket off and flung it to the ground. He stepped back a few steps, reached behind him for the gun, and watched Old Wolf’s face. He had to see the change. Not until then could he pull the trigger.
Chuck had held back his last paycheck from Debbie, claiming that a cock-up with the managers delayed the checks. And he’d already marked the bills in the coffee can. He knew all that he needed to know this morning when he’d come home and caught the smell of sex in the dirty linen.
Easing the dealer’s mind took a clean hundred dollars. Another two-hundred sixteen covered the cost of the heavy, black metal handgun and its ammunition. The lessons in how to load it, lock and unlock the safety, and unload it were free. Half an hour after the purchase, the dealer told him what he didn’t need to know.
“Don’t aim at someone you don’t intend to shoot. But if you do aim at someone you don’t intend to shoot, be real careful about saying you’re sorry. A lot of hard men don’t take too well to that kind of mistake.”
Old Wolf was that kind of hard man. Chuck had no illusions left about his old man - Wayne would have beaten him senseless in a fight, then demanded that he quit bitching and buy some beer. But in the moment that Chuck brought the muzzle of the gun around to bear down on Wayne, that kind of ending was gone. Old Wolf would not hesitate to take that same gun and turn it on Chuck if he got close enough.
They stood in the alley behind the sports bar, the noise of the game inside and the traffic beyond the bar filling in the silence between them, with Chuck gripping his gun with both hands.
The glint in Old Wolf’s eyes didn’t change as he shifted his gaze from the point of the gun’s barrel to Chuck’s face. The tension in the man’s arms and shoulders didn’t ease, even if he stood down from a fighting stance.
It was a start. Chuck didn’t let the gun’s point waver even as the weight of the thing seemed to grow. He swallowed and kept his finger resting lightly on the trigger.
“Now,” Chuck said, “on your knees.”
Old Wolf waited before slowly, without letting his gaze shift, shaking his head. “Not a chance. You put that thing down. I mean now, son.”
“No. Kneel. This is the only chance you get to live. I’m not going to say it again.”
Wayne lost the hungry look when he grinned again. He nodded. “I do believe you’ve done it. It took a long fucking time but you’ve turned into a man. You had me worried. I’ll admit, I just about gave up on you, Chuck.”
“Wrong again. This isn’t me trying to knock you down. This isn’t you and Gramps all over again. You wronged me one time too many.”
“So you think you’re going to shoot your own father, here in an alley with all those people inside? You’re ready to go to prison over a woman?”
“Not over a woman, Dad.”
Chuck’s arms ached. He had to finish this. Somehow, he had to sum his life up for this scumbag of a father so that it all made sense. Do it, say it, and be done with it all. For good and all, be done with him.
He looked at Wayne, looked hard, and willed the man to hear him. “A kid should win sometimes. Win the card game, hit the baseball, cross the finish line first, all of that. A real dad makes that happen.”
Wayne only looked confused.
“Mom should’ve smiled more. You should’ve done something about that. Instead of just being a dirty fuck, you should have been a man.”
“I’m warning you, Pup.”
Chuck shifted his aim.
Wayne jumped forward.
Chuck squeezed off a single shot. The kick was almost nothing. Echoing off the walls of the alley, the bang still seemed like a tiny thing. Wayne roared as he fell, screamed as he clutched the bloody wound in his gut, and writhed on the filthy asphalt.
“Christ, oh fuck, you shot me, you shit, holy fuck.”
Chuck couldn’t catch his breath. He circled his father. Even with the man in agony, he couldn’t trust that he’d stay down. He remembered how tough Old Wolf had always been and he still feared what might happen if he let his guard drop.
Wayne’s fierce look caught the street lamp. His gaze swept around, seeking Chuck out. Chuck stopped moving and locked eyes with the man.
“Son, you fucking shot me. I need an ambulance.”
Then it came, all at once. The change Chuck had wanted: Wayne’s face crumpled and he begged. His voice rose to a whine. Never, in all his years, had Chuck ever heard the man let anyone gain that kind of position over him - not to con anyone, not to weasel out of anything, for nothing would Old Wolf cry or whimper or whine.
Chuck fired the second bullet into his father’s head. Then he stood over the body, switching the weapon from hand to hand, and watched the blood run into the dirt.
Fourteen hours ago, Chuck had bought a gun. Not even forty minutes ago, he’d pushed in the door of Ted’s Sports Bar. Sixty seconds ago, maybe seventy, he’d crossed the line. There was no going back. He couldn’t open the back door and join the people who’d once been his friends. Nor walk out the front door to the parking lot, to his truck, and drive home. That home, that life, lay on the far side of the line.
Chuck shrugged on the cleaner of two denim jackets. On his back, a little faded but clean, he wore a wolf’s head. The wolf grinned as Chuck loped out of the alley, heading for the highway and beyond.