The Boy, The Fire, and the Goat

I was gazing out of the school bus window, crackled, hut-sized homes passing me by. One after another flew past, none much different than the next. It took me about ten minutes to get home from school. Those were often the best ten minutes that I had. I would sit toward the front, knees clinched up against the seat in front of me, alone in my thoughts. I sat there and no one bothered me. This was the only time of the day when I was neither being tortured at school or ridiculed at home. I was at peace.

“Mike,” my bus driver spoke gently, reaching around her seat to tap my knee, “We’re here.”

I stepped off the bus, ran to the side door, jerked it open, ran downstairs and slid quietly into my room. A quick step in, then I paused. It’s three-thirty. Why is Keith still sleeping?

Keith was my oldest brother. Not to delve into stereotypes, but he was that quintessential mid-twenties, Dungeons and Dragons playing, Star Trek obsessed slacker. He was staying in our basement temporarily with his wife and three kids because they couldn’t afford anything else. In reality, he was just lazy. His wife worked nearly two full-time jobs, while he stayed at home to “watch the children.”

His kids, Heather, Nicole, and Dennis were good kids, but had little guidance. When I say that my brother stayed at home to watch them, I mean that he stayed home to play video games and smack the kids around if they caused any trouble.

Every day after school, unfailingly, I trampled down those same steps into my room, and there he was, ass planted on the couch, eyeballs locked on the TV, building calluses on his thumbs. Imagine a flimsy, worn-out Kansas City Chiefs hat loosely placed atop his head, a stretched out, sweat stained T-shirt, and his belly button peaking out. That was my brother.

This was all nothing new. What was new was that he was sleeping so late in the day. It was odd, although it probably shouldn’t have been. But why was he sleeping so late? And where were the kids?

I crept out of my room and, restraining my steps, made my way toward the utility room. The light was off and a mist of gray streamed through the window, giving me just enough light to see. A small mountain of clothes was sprawled out across the room. I twisted around them as best I could, peeking my head around for the kids. An instant cool feeling hit my foot. “What the fuck?” I said. My sock was wet.

I swung my arm around searching for the light switch. The light flickered on. Oh dear lord! My hand rose to my mouth. I sucked for air. My eyes glazed over in pain, and my heart was trying to pry past my rib cage. I wanted nothing of this. Under my breath, I pushed out the words, “Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck,” as I took tiny, rushed step back to my room. I saw nothing; I knew nothing.

What occurred in that utility room would have been reason enough for a major argument in any normal family, but in my family, it was sure to be met on a whole different level. Perhaps the level of an all out gang war, or an air strike on Cambodia.

Earlier in the day, while Keith was asleep, the kids had trekked through the utility room, grabbed a bottle of bleach, an entire box of dry laundry detergent, and soaked that mountain of clothes.

I looked down at my blue sock and the die was already beginning to bleed. Judging by that, nothing in that pile could have survived. Something major was on its way. I hid in my room, pulled my blanket over my head, clutched tightly to my pillow, and waited.

An hour later, footsteps galloped down the stairs. It was my mother. Her pace was ingrained in my mind. They were light, brisk, barely noticeable to the average ear. The stairs were right above my room, so I plenty of time to learn it. The door squeked eerily. Nothing. Wait for it. Another squeak. Light, brisk, moving upwards.

I pulled the blanket back over my head. It was my protective outer shell. “Hahahahahahahaha,” I laughed nervously, “Hehehehehe.” Whenever there was a crisis, I laughed hysterically to stay positive until the issue came up. Certainly this wasn’t normal, but what else could I do? I knew what was coming. And there they were. Landmines, charging down the stairs.

“Keith Allen!” my father shouted, “Keith Allen!”

“Look at this. Look at this!” he shouted.

My father had earned a reputation for terrifying people. He stood 5’11”, 300 lbs. His arms were thick and strong. His gut formed a perfect half circle over his belt. He was an extraordinarily hairy man. His thick black coat of hair shocked most people. The fact that he was so large left everyone with the impression that somehow he was less evolved, a revert back to the Neanderthal. Worst of all, he could tower over you, and his voice could penetrate even the strongest of souls.

The screaming continued. The shelves on my walls rattled. I wanted nothing more than to creep through my door without being seen. The longer it went on, the more likely I would be dragged into it. There was no way for me to escape without being noticed.

“I wan’t you out of this fucking house!” my dad shouted.

The stairwell began to rumble. Oh thank God. It was done. For a moment, everything seemed to die down. Bored, I slipped on a hoodie, laced up my shoes, and grabbed a football. Whenever I was bored I slipped out back to toss the football to myself. I’d just throw it up and catch it, throw it up and catch it.

I took my first step out the door. Behind me footsteps barreled behind me. It was Keith. The steel door flew open. He grabbed my shoulder, looking past me.

“Move Michael,” he said. His voice expressed that his beef was not with me.

I paused for a second, curious. Our garage door was open. My father was there working on my mother’s car. This was not the first time I’d seen this, but it never seemed exciting. Jaws were flapping, arms were flailing. Suddenly my brother reached around and grabbed a small plastic red gas can. That’s lawnmower fuel in there. What’s he going to do with that? He swung the tank back and forth, pouring the gas on my dad, who stood there shocked, yet defiant.

That all seemed really interesting, until my brother slipped his hand into his pocket and pulled out a cigarette. He squeezed his hand back into his tight jeans and came out with a lighter.

I lifted my head thinking, “Gasoline on my father, lighter in my brother’s hand. Hmmm.” Strange thing was, I didn’t feel shocked. I kept put on those stairs and watched my brother try to set my dad on fire.

My mother, of all the luck, happened to walk out as my dad was running toward the house.

“Sharyn, call the cops,” he said.

As he walked by, he drew eye-contact with me. I saw fear in his eyes. It was the first time he’d shown me an emotion that wasn’t anger, although it seemed only by default.

I turned my head back toward Keith. He was staring at me. Our eyes locked. He shrugged. He bit his lower head and stooped his head low. The sad thing was, Keith was my favorite member of the family. We had an understanding with each other that the others couldn’t understand. From an early age, he was in constant trouble, suspended from school or in jail. I, on the other had, was well behaved, but hyper-sensitive, and more interested in music and reading than my other family members. We were outcasts in a family full of jockish, stereotypical American middle-class normalcy. In that moment of eye-contact, I actually understood him a little more.

Well that moment ended quickly. The door behind me flew open, tearing into my back. I winced in pain. It was my brother Kevin. Apparently, he was not too thrilled about the incident, and he charged straight at Keith.

The neighbors heard the shouts grow louder and came out to see what the commotion was. Mrs. Lidwell glanced at me, walked up and said “Maybe you should go play.”

Annoyed, I said “Well, maybe you should go break this up.”

“Just go play, ok,” she snapped back.

My mother slipped halfway out the door, her face moist with tears. I moved through the neighbor’s backyard to the house next over. A goat stood tied to a post. He looked bored. Why he was there was beyond me, but I had nothing better to do, so I squatted down Indian style next to it and started yanking small patches of grass from the ground. I brushed my hand across his side, back and forth. He tilted his head toward me and nudged my shoulder.

“Baaaaaaa,” he moaned.

I let out a silent, nervous laugh, placing my head on its side. I looked back toward the house. The cops cuffed my brother and slammed him into the police car. I wanted nothing more than to run up there and sock them. My parents and the neighbors gathered into a small circle, chatting.

I stared, soaking in whatever I could wrap my brain around. I took another deep sigh, and turned my attention back toward the goat. He tilted his head back to me, eyeing me down, chewing his grass.

Mike Persley is a writer currently studying at the University of Illinois at Chicago

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