I had arrived in Dime Box, one of the smallest towns in Texas, earlier that day with plans to kill my father that same afternoon. But I couldn’t find him.
It was a hot evening. Even the crickets were lazy. But they chirped anyway, because that’s what crickets do. The creak of the rocking chair on the wooden porch, played metronome to the night’s insect symphony. In the distance a dog barked, once, probably wakened by the thunder rolling off the distant hills.
I sat on the porch waiting for the storm to pass. I thought about my girlfriend Wendy, who by now had probably called the police and was getting the “I-told-you-he-was-no-good” speech from her father.
At that stage I didn’t care what anybody thought. I was an eighteen year-old boy whose world had just been totally messed up by his father and I wanted the man to pay for ruining my life.
A warm wind, announced by a scurrying dog, brought the rain to Dime Box. I moved into the motel room and watched the rain through the window.
Beside me on the bed lay the gun I bought from a shady guy who loitered around my neighborhood. It was surprisingly easy to get my hands on it.
My mom must have died during the morning while I was at school. I found her lying peacefully on the couch. The television was on and some preacher was tearfully begging my dead mother for a donation. The suicide note didn’t say much, except to thank me for being a great son and to curse the day my father was born. Lying next to her on the couch was a newspaper with a circled article. It was about my father. He was living in Dime Box, a very small town in Texas, where he had built a factory that was making figures for some of the most famous wax museums in the world.
Obviously he was making a lot of money because he had that grin on his face. The same kind of shit eating grin he flashed when he got past me to score a touchdown on the front lawn when I was a little kid.
I stared at the picture. The handsome man with the slightly crooked teeth grinned back at me. For some odd reason I wanted him to reach out of the picture and touch me. He did nothing except smile with that self-satisfied look on his face. It was at that precise moment I realized that the man had to die. His departure from our family had made my mother’s life a living hell. From that day onward it was booze and pills and depression. He killed my mother. He needed to be hurt like he hurt her. I looked over at her body and crumpled the newspaper into a tiny ball.
The day my father left us was very clear in my memory. It was a year after we moved back to Boston from Johannesburg. I was nine and still trying to become an American again after living in South Africa for most of my childhood. I was in the front garden kicking my football. I was doing this because in our school, playing football gave you a much greater chance of making friends and being cool. I had one major problem though. I was always too small to make any team. My father talked me into trying out as a punter in the YMCA junior league because it didn’t make any difference how tall or big punters were. He’d been the star punter for an unpronounceable college no one had ever heard of. To help improve my game, we’d kick the ball to each other in the street after he got home from work. My mother was working for a lawyer at the time and never got back to the house until well after dark. We’d punt the ball back and forth, back and forth hundreds of times until it got too dark to see.
I knew my parents were having a major fight that day, but I waited in the front yard thinking that my father would come out and vent his aggression on the ball like he always did. Kicking it way down the street or into the yard next door, which happened more often than not, because he was the worst kicker in the world. The part of me that got the most training was my neck, as time after time I’d watch the ball soar over my head and I’d have to turn and chase it along the road or over the fence onto the neighbor’s front lawn.
My father came out of the house crying. He was carrying a box of clothes and a suitcase. I was confused. My mother came to the door behind him. She was crying too.
“Don’t come back, you bastard,” she screamed. “Don’t ever come back.” I’d never seen my mother scream like that before. She looked so ugly. Her eyes were red and spit shot out of her mouth as she yelled. Tears were streaming down her cheeks and her nose was running. She slammed the door so hard that the window cracked. I heard her breaking something inside. I think it was the Chinese vase. I turned and looked at my father, waiting for an explanation. He looked bewildered. Hurt. Like a little puppy that was about to be put down. He came over and hugged me.
“I’m sorry,” he said, putting his cheek against my face.
Then he turned and ran.
“Sorry for what?” I yelled after him. I saw his foot catch his coat and he stumbled and fell. I know he hurt himself because he fell hard. I heard his body slam against the concrete sidewalk. He stood up, gathered the shirts, trousers and tennis balls that had fallen out of the box and limped over to his car.
A huge crack of lightning and an angry peal of thunder brought me back to the hotel room window in Dime Box, Texas. The storm seemed to mirror my mood. It was aggressive, violent and came in waves.
Across the road, the wind tore down the sign from the law office, bent and buckled the screeching metal, and finally, bored with its whimpering, left the sign rocking in its twisted misery near the bank.
I was really angry with the rain. I wanted to kill my father and be on the first bus out the next morning. I had to take a bus because I had just turned eighteen but didn’t have my driver’s license yet.
I turned on the television. The storm had done something to the cable system in the area. All I got was snow, in the middle of summer.
It was the second time in my life that rain had screwed things up for me. The first time was in my sophomore year at high school. Much to my pleasure, the football team’s punter was bitten by his girlfriend’s dog as he climbed out of her window the night before the match. The girl’s father was forced to use a baseball bat to separate the dog from the punter’s trouser leg. He took a swipe at the dog and, in the process, demolished the punter’s knee.
Thanks to the dog and the girl’s father, I was on the bench as a back up for the reserve kicker during a game the next afternoon. I sat on the bench in the rain and watched our team come from behind to lead by one point with six seconds on the clock. All we had to do was punt the ball away on the fourth down and the game was ours. The prospect of winning at least one game that season was so exciting that I forgot that it was raining and that I was on the bench. I was cheering hysterically until the substitute punter tripped over his own laces and twisted his ankle as he ran onto the field to punt the ball. I didn’t realize that the whole universe had shifted its attention to me until I felt the coach’s hand on my shoulder. I could see that fire in his eyes.
He pushed me onto the field. “ Do it,” he said, under his breath. “Just kick that damn ball as hard as you can.”
And I did. I closed my eyes and kicked that stupid piece of inflated pigskin as hard as I could. Suddenly there was a loud slap. I opened my eyes in terror. One of the opposition players had blasted through like a bulldozer and blocked the punt. The ball hit his hand and bounced onto the ground. I wasn’t sure what to do. No one had ever blocked one of my kicks in the front yard. I stumbled forward and managed to reach the ball. I fell and pulled it into my body. The gun sounded and the game was over. We won by one point. I wish my father had been there to see me.
I decided to leave my past in the hotel and get out of the room. The soft pattering of the rain on the window was relaxing me too much, taking me back too far. I needed the edge. I recalled visions of my mother’s dead body to neutralize the nostalgia that was threatening the very reason I was there.
I looked out of the window again trying to figure out where I could go to pass the time. A flashing purple and green neon sign across the road caught my eye. It was missing some letters. ’“Ben’s elf Serv Laundry”. Watching an elf do my laundry was bound to be a lot better than sitting in a depressing hotel room. I didn’t have many clothes with me and I decided to wash what I had worn that day in case I needed to stay in Dime Box for a while.
The laundromat wasn’t really a laundromat. It was a room with three wooden chairs, two washing machines, a dryer, a Coke dispenser and a pool table. The only light in the room hung above the table creating grotesque shadows on the walls and ceiling as it swayed back and forth in the wind. The movement of the shadows seemed to make the whole room rock as if it were resting in a huge hammock.
I stood in the doorway looking the place over. I couldn’t make up my mind whether to walk in or turn around and face the storm. Neither option appealed to me. A voice made up my mind for me.
“Close the damn door. You’re letting the rain in.”
The voice belonged to a woman sitting in the far corner.
I closed the door. The swinging light slowed and soon came to a stop.
“You got dimes?” the woman said, “these machines only take dimes. No quarters.”
About forty and barefoot, she wore a white cotton dress, one pocket hanging loose and a safety pin where the second button was supposed to be. I couldn’t believe my luck. I had chosen the headquarters of the homeless to dodge the storm and hide from myself.
“Where are the elves?” I said trying to make light of my dramatic entrance and somehow to cover my uneasiness.
“The sign...” I said, turning and pointing through the window. I cut myself short. An explanation would only confuse the matter.
“What sign?” she asked. “You one of those born agains lookin’ for a sign. You won’t get no sign from me. Besides I was born once. And I don’t wanna be born again. It was hard enough the first time.”
I didn’t reply. Reaching into my pockets, I managed to find four dimes. I walked over to the washing machine and lifted the lid. The woman followed me with her eyes. I put my clothes into the washer, but quickly took them out again when I noticed the green mold quietly living around the disintegrated rubber lining under the lid of the washer. I grimaced. The woman chuckled. I inspected the second washer. It was fine. I put my clothes into the machine and deposited four dimes. The machine needed five. Things weren’t going too well. Maybe it was a good thing the rain stopped me from finding my father that night. Luck just didn’t seem to be on my side. If I would have found my father then, I might not have had a clear shot at his chest. I might have just wounded him. Or missed him altogether.
“You got soap?” asked the woman. “There’s a store ’round the corner. They’ve got soap and cold beer. And don’t forget to get yourself some extra dimes.”
I thanked her and made for the door. Then I hesitated and turned. I wasn’t sure about leaving my clothes with a bag lady. Again the woman made up my mind for me.
“I’ll watch your clothes,” she said, “Those damn bag people sometimes come here to sleep.”
I came back with ten dimes, soap powder, Twinkies and a six pack of beer. I was amazed. I was eighteen but looked fifteen and the guy at the store didn’t even card me.
The woman was still sitting on the chair. She had pulled her legs up under her dress and was resting her hands and her chin on her knees. For a second she looked much younger. Maybe even pretty. But then I noticed the chapped lips, the bruised jaw and wrinkled skin that had seen too much sun and too little moisturizing cream.
“You should have got the liquid soap,” she said. “That powder stuff doesn’t wash out. Gives my husband a rash between his legs. I threw him out of the house once. Thought he had some kind of sexual disease, but the nurse at the clinic said it was the soap powder. And the heat. You know a heat rash? Like babies have?”
I didn’t quite know how to reply. I shrugged my shoulders and poured the soap powder into the machine, closed the lid and fed the dimes into the slot. Nothing happened. I turned and looked at her. This time she shrugged. I bumped the machine with my palm and it jerked into action.
I wasn’t sure what to do next. I wasn’t a drinker, but under the circumstances, I thought a few beers might help my situation. I ripped the six pack apart like a beer-drinking expert and pulled out a can. “You want one?”
I handed her a can. She looked at the can turning it slowly as she read the label aloud.
“Fosters. This is expensive stuff. Never tasted it. Is it any good?”
Getting irritated, I wanted to go over to her and say, “Listen lady, it’s not good beer, it’s awful. I bought it just to punish myself. So would you please just leave me alone. I’m here to kill someone and the last thing I want to discuss are sexually transmitted diseases and your dumb husband.” But I didn’t say anything because this was her territory and I had invited myself into it.
She took a sip from the can and frowned. Then took another sip.
“It’s like that European beer,” she said. “Tastes like skunk piss.”
Skunk piss! Where the hell had she tasted skunk piss? I asked myself.
The taste didn’t stop her from downing the whole can. I was thirsty too and did the same. Mine tasted a little bitter. I drank a second beer without saying much. We both stared out of the window, eating Twinkies and watching the rain.
I remembered watching the rain when we lived in London. There wasn’t much else to do. It rained for weeks at a time. My father’s company had transferred him to South Africa for two years and my mother and I had gone too. My father was born in South Africa and he was happy to go back.
Living in South Africa was hard at first. Making new friends was tough; learning how to play soccer was tougher. But as time went by, living in Johannesburg got a lot better, until my parents started fighting. I threw up the first time they fought. Until then, I had thought I was part of the perfect family.
I’d never seen my parents fight before. An occasional raised voice escaped from behind closed doors, but never an all-out fight.
It was Thanksgiving in America. We had spent the evening celebrating with the other Americans in the company. I think my mother had one too many drinks, because in the middle of dessert she suddenly folded her napkin, stood up, and said she wanted to go home. We said our good-byes and drove back to the flat in silence.
My mother and father went directly to the bedroom when we got home and closed the door. They didn’t do a good job of hiding their argument from me, because I could hear their urgent whispering through the door and down the hall.
Like any normal eight-year-old, I crept closer to the door, straining to hear more. I wish I hadn’t. My mother was really angry.
“You might as well have slept with her,” my mother spat.
My stomach turned. I wanted to be sick.
“Don’t honey me,” she said. “Your leg was touching hers all through the meal. I’m not blind.”
“I didn’t even realize...”
“Go to hell.”
I heard my father get up and walk around to the other side of the bed.
“You’ve had too much...let me hold you...”
“Don’t touch me, you bastard.”
I didn’t hear anymore. My stomach turned again, sending a jet of bile into my throat. I ran into the bathroom and threw up. My parents stopped talking, but they never came out. I sat huddled in the bathtub listening to the rain marching in waves across the roof.
“I love the rain,” she said, yanking my mind back from London to the laundromat in Dime Box. “Pity it only rains like this once or twice a year.”
The purple and green neon light flashing on her face made her expression change constantly, but she was quiet. Passing the time and doing my laundry with her in the room was going to be easier than I thought.
I gave her another beer and took a third one for myself. I should have stopped then because I was getting drunk and I didn’t like how I felt. I think she was too.
“If my husband comes in here,” she said frowning, “just pretend you don’t know me.”
I didn’t ask why.
“He’s jealous,” she offered. “And when he drinks he gets really aggressive.”
“Maybe he hasn’t had anything to drink,” I said.
“He has,” she said, lighting up a cigarette. “Want one?”
I shook my head.
“He’s had a few drinks tonight,” she said, “that’s why I’m here. This is my special hiding place. It’s usually pretty quiet at night.”
“Looks like it,” I said, glancing around.
“I saw you looking at my bruise,” she said, gently touching the tender spot on her jaw. “He didn’t really mean it.”
She took a deep drag on her cigarette.
“Why didn’t you call the police?” I said.
“ He is the police,” she giggled, blowing two jets of smoke out of her nose. “I don’t want to get him in trouble. He’s up for promotion soon. Besides, he only hits me when he drinks. He’s really a sweet guy when he’s sober. ”
“Another beer?” I said, ready to change the subject.
“Nah,” she said, gazing out of the window, “I gotta go soon.”
Good, I thought to myself. I didn’t need to know her life story. I had a life and a death story of my own.
The fourth beer took me over the top as I stood up to put my clothes into the dryer. She stood up too, ready to leave.
“I’d kill him if I were you,” I said, slurring a little.
“Who?” She tilted her head, slightly surprised.
She shook her head and pulled on her coat.
“There are certain people in this world that simply have to be taken out,” I said matter-of-factly. I knew it was the beer talking, but at that point I didn’t care.
“What do you mean?” she said, rather taken aback by the anger in my voice.
“What I mean is, certain people just don’t deserve to be alive. My father is one of them,” I said. “That’s why I’m here in this shit-hole of a town.”
I lifted up my shirt and allowed her a glimpse of the gun.
“I’m here to kill my father,” I said calmly. “He killed my mother.”
She ignored the gun. She ignored my statement. Her disinterest surprised me.
“Listen, I gotta go,” she said as though nothing had happened. “I didn’t catch your name.”
“Bevan,” I said. “Bevan Gray”.
“I’m Lucinda,” she said. “Thanks for the beer, Bevan.”
She waved good-bye and left. A few seconds later the door opened again.
“Be careful with that gun,” she said. “You don’t wanna blow your nuts off.”
A lame smile was all I could muster in reply. In a second she was gone. And so were my legs. I hit the floor hard. I tried to stand up, but the floor felt like a boat on rough water. Then I think I fell asleep for awhile.