My cell vibrated its way across the dinner table. Came to rest against my pint glass. Photo of my sister-in-law Deb showed on the display screen. My wife Tanya and I just looked at each other.
– Yeah Deb.
– That crippled fuck finally did it.
– What the fuck now Deb?
– Your brother finally did it. I found the gimpy motherfucker hanging from the bathroom doorknob.
– Yes Vic. How many gimpy brothers you got, Stubbs?
I killed the call and told Tanya what Deb had told me. I left my house and drove across the city to my brother’s house on the South Side. Found Deb sitting on the front porch steps, smoking.
– Did you move him?
Deb shook her head.
– That fat fuck? Fuck no. Can’t believe he finally fuckin’ did it. That gimp motherfucker always talked about it. Never thought he’d actually off himself.
When he was 18, Vic had been paralyzed in a drunken driving accident. We had spent the entire day getting hammered at a distant cousin’s wedding. Most of us didn’t even notice that Vic had left the reception. Vic had the habit of ducking in and out of parties. Thought it was funny to have people wonder about him. Twenty miles outside of Pittsburgh, he fell asleep at the wheel and rolled the beat-up Pontiac our mom had given him for his 16th birthday. Luckily no one else was involved.
I went inside Vic and Deb’s house and up the steps to the second floor. Vic’s wheelchair was in the upstairs hallway, parked outside the bathroom door. I had to shove the dead-weight of my brother aside to get into the bathroom. I undid the necktie he’d used to hang himself from the door knob. Tossed it into the sink. I laid my brother down on the floor near the bathtub. Vic’s face was purple and swollen. I assumed he had been hanging from the doorknob for a while. He was naked so I covered him up with bath towels. I stared down at my brother’s face for a minute or two. My little brother had been through a lot in his 44 years.
I walked downstairs. Found Deb standing in the living room. She had a bottle of something in her hand.
– How the fuck could that piece of shit do this to me! I’m alone now. That gimpy piece of …
I pulled out my Glock and shot Deb in the face. Only reason she had stayed alive for as long as she did was the fact that she was married to my brother. But Vic was dead. Deb had nothing going for her now. Too much had gone on between her and too many people. Specifically me and my brother. But Vic had loved her so the policy had always been hands off Deb. Made me promise that I’d never confront her about the things she did. The cheating, the lying, the physical abuse. But in my mind, in my heart, Deb had been dead for a long time. She just wasn’t aware of it.
I had distanced myself from a lot of people a long time before that night. I lived in the suburbs by that point. Had nothing to do with any of the shit that went on in my old neighborhood. I didn’t want to leave that door open because you never know what might come through it. Even if it meant cutting Vic out of my life, I wanted to be done. But as soon as I heard Deb’s voice on my cell, it felt like a hole had opened up beneath me and I knew that I had already started to fall.
I left the scene as it was. Vic upstairs, Deb in the front room. I didn’t care what the cops thought once they arrived on the scene. I considered going back upstairs to arrange my brother’s body so that he was still hanging from the doorknob and not covered with towels on the floor. Make it look like a murder-suicide, with my brother Vic killing Deb then himself. Sounded plausible. But I didn’t really care enough to do that. The cops wouldn’t care either. Write it up as another robbery that had gone bad in the worst neighborhood in the city of Pittsburgh. Destined for the cold case file.
Thought drifted in and out of my head. I was in a daze. But as I drove home I found myself thinking only about Deb’s big brother Darby. Wouldn’t take him very long to figure out it was me who’d killed her and not Vic. He’d want to think it as me. And though he was doing a fantastic job drinking himself to death, Darby was still no slouch. At some point he’d catch up with me. I was cool with that though. I still had strong shoulders and could bear the weight.
When I got home I talked to Tanya about Vic. For whatever reason, I said nothing about Deb. Maybe I wanted to form some kind of plan first. Maybe I didn’t want to deal with it yet. A bit of cowardice, I don’t know. Tanya hugged me. We drank whiskey and talked about Vic until her eyes started drooping. Around one in the morning I guess it was. Tanya went to bed and I followed her half an hour later.
Sleep was impossible. So I laid awake listening to our sons Aaron and Will snoring in their bedroom room across the hall. I tried to figure out why my wife ever married me, what she saw in a man whose childhood was dominated by crime and bloodshed. Thought again came and went. I ended up thinking about Deb and all the things that might happen because I killed her. Couldn’t handle the thought of my family being harmed.
Sweat slicked my skin so I tossed off the blankets and got out of bed. Walked downstairs and into the garage. I kept a keg of Guinness in a refrigerator next to my workbench. I pulled a pint and walked outside. Cold air strafed my skin. Only took a few seconds for the sweat to dry. I sat down on a retaining wall and sipped my beer.
I knew Darby would come. He’d try to take me away from my family. Render my kids fatherless and my wife a widow. I had a few friends left. The ones who’d left the life behind like I had. Small comfort though. They had families like I did at that point. I’d call them only if necessary. I had guns and I had knives and I’d use all of them before I called anybody else for help. If I called someone and things went sideways, I’d never forgive myself. I made the mess, I decided that I’d be the one who cleaned it up.
I went back to bed with the taste of Guinness on my tongue. Lay down next to the woman who had changed me, physically and mentally. I owed her my life. If I hadn’t met Tanya I would have died from the drugs and the drinking, the guns and the lawlessness. Sometimes, in my weaker moments, I felt like I had given up my soul to be with her. Denied who I was as a man. Those moments were rare though. I knew I’d been saved. For whatever reason. A rescued man shouldn’t bitch about being saved. Not too many of us get a second chance. But she never got me to go to church with her on Sunday. I can say that much for myself.
I heard the footsteps around 3 in the morning. Dumb-fucks didn’t have the sense enough to approach the house by crossing the lawn. They walked right up the concrete driveway. I heard the clicking of their boot-heels. I heard them fumbling with the lock on the side door.
I shook my wife awake. Told Tanya that there were people breaking into the house, to call 911. I ran downstairs and waited for them in the basement stairwell, Glock in hand. First one through the door was a man everybody called Jello. Real name was Michael something. He was from Hazelwood and carried no weight whatsoever. A hanger-on. Someone you drank with all night then stuck with the bill. Next through the door was Darby. I fired once and turned Jello’s face into Jello. Darby tried to escape through the screen door, into the side yard. Didn’t happen for him though. I put a bullet in his chest even before he managed to turn away from me. He collapsed on top of Jello’s body.
Cops were quick. Three cruisers rolled up a couple minutes after my wife called them. Shone their headlights and lamps on my house. No silent approach. I put the Glock down and walked the length of the driveway toward them, empty hands in full view. After a brief rundown of events, they allowed me to get dressed and talk to Aaron and Will, to kiss the wife. Before I left I told Tanya to pack up some essentials then get to her mother’s house outside of Cleveland as quickly as possible. I kissed her and the kids again then went to the station with the cops to give my statement.
Five hours later I’m back on the street.
Half hour after that I was standing on my street while the local volunteer fire brigade attempted to control the smoldering ruins that had been my house.
One of the firefighters had already told me that no one was inside. My family was not in the building. So I stood there in the street and took in the scene. I felt nothing, really. My family was on their way to Ohio. That’s all I cared about. Possessions meant nothing to me. Nothing in my life held any importance except my family. My brother was dead. People who I once had called friends were now strangers to me. Now that the house was gone, I really had nothing to keep me anchored to that spot, to that city.
Half-formed thoughts rushed through my head. I could use the insurance check to put down roots somewhere else. Start over. The kids could go to school in Ohio. Tanya could get a new job. Me too. There was nothing tying me down. I felt weightless. Like I could drift away any second. Liberated was a word that came to mind.
In the woods behind my house, about three hundred feet from the tree line bordering my backyard, I had buried $2000 and another Glock. My life savings. I’m not good with money. Tanya really didn’t give a fuck about money either. If we had it fine, if we didn’t it was no big deal either. If the bills were paid and there was food in the refrigerator then we were good. Living the motherfuckin’ dream.
I dug up the cash and kept walking through the woods away from my house. I was ready to turn a page. Ready to float away. Then I stopped and turned to watch my house going up in flames. A thought dawned on me. I didn’t want to entertain it but it anchored itself to my brain. If I hadn’t sent my family out of state, they would’ve been inside when the house was set on fire. My kids, my wife. I would have lost everything in my life that mattered. It reality that hit me. I held that Glock a little tighter and watched my house burn until the roof collapsed.
A list started forming in my head. Everybody that knew Deb and Darby. Their friends, their acquaintances. At one time, I had called them my own friends and acquaintances. I thought about people I had no desire to share breathing space with anymore. Visualizing their faces made me nauseous. Maybe a dozen of them would ever go as far as to burn down my house. But only a couple were whacked enough to burn down my house in the middle of the night when it was possible that my family would be inside. I settled on two names. Courtney Stevenson and her brother Bill.
I know a little about life, about people and what drives them. People that I knew when I was a kid had nothing. I grew up with nothing. We sort of gravitated toward one another because of that shared experience. Like the universe brought us together. Once we got a little something, it was like gold. Whether that something was a job or it was a family or it was cash, it didn’t matter. A person holds dear what little they have. When I killed Deb and Darby, I knew that I stole a little bit of gold from Bill and Courtney Stevenson. I took two of their friends. And once Bill and Courtney found out my house had been empty when they burned it to the ground, they’d come at me again. They wouldn’t stop. Never. I grew up like them. I understood why they needed to hurt me. So to keep my own family safe, the Stevensons needed to go away and it had to happen quickly.
I stood there in the woods for hours, gun in my hand, life savings stuffed in my pockets. Morning finally broke. And considering the fact that it was a Sunday morning, I knew exactly where to find the Stevensons. St Teresa of the Little Flower on Main Street.
The priests and the nuns that had taught me in grade school were all dead. Father Valentine, who one stole my underwear after he got me drunk on wine, was long dead. Father Nemeth, who used to call me into his office where he would then shove his hands down my pants and juggle my nuts, had died the year before in a car accident. Sister Alice Marie, who had assaulted dozens of children by punching them when they fucked up a math equation, had stroked out. All of them were dead and gone. Dust in a box, six feet underground. When I stepped inside that church for the first time in almost three decades, I gave thanks for their eternal absence.
I stood near the bowl of holy water at the back of the church. Scanned the sparse Sunday morning congregation for the Stevensons. Didn’t see them. I took a seat and rested the Glock on my thigh, prepared to shoot them on sight. I didn’t care about witnesses. Even the churchgoers in that town knew not talk to cops. They had accepted the fact that the matters of punishment and retribution were decided by evil men with guns. Not the cops. And not their fuckin’ God either.
The priest droned on. Fat people sang hymns and strummed acoustic guitars. Halfway through the sermon, Bill Stevenson walked up the aisle, extending a basket to each parishioner seated in the pews. He was serving as a deacon, collecting donations for the church. When he got to me, he did not extend the basket. He held my stare for a few seconds then smiled. Nodded his head then walked on. I just sat there, did nothing. I realized that I was not one of them anymore. The distance between the old me and the new me was too great. At one time I had been a man who could have drilled someone in front of the mayor, the chief of police and the fuckin’ pope and get away with it. But when one leaves behind that type of life, he is stripped of the privilege of creating chaos and mayhem without fear of punishment, and is forced to live in subservience and fear, like gods that have been made mortal.
I tucked the Glock under my jacket.
After the mass ended and all the parishioners had filed out of the church, Bill Stevenson walked up the aisle and took a seat next to me.
– Stubbs. Been too long.
– Bill. Where’s Courtney?
Bill turned to look at me.
– You fuckin’ with me?
– I’m not fuckin’ with you. Where the fuck is your sister?
– She’s fuckin’ dead. OD’d. It’ll be three years next month. Mean to tell me you didn’t know that?
I shook my head.
– I’ve been away.
– So you have. Now you’re back?
– For a minute.
– And might I ask what brings you back, Stubbs?
– You know.
Bill nodded. Swept aside his jacket. Revealed a pistol tucked into his waistband. I nudged the tip of my Glock out from under my own jacket.
– All business? I thought you just wanted to catch up with an old friend.
– Being in this place makes me sick Bill. You just add to that sickness.
Bill Stevenson smiled.
– The church? You object to people seeking solace from a cruel world? Or is it something else? Something personal? The priests fuck with you too?
– Of course. No kid ever got away from those pervs. No child with a dick anyway.
– I had no idea.
– Wasn’t like we talked about it around the lunch table did we?
I turned and stared at the altar. Took in the various images depicting Jesus’ suffering. Felt tears welling in my eyes.
Bill looked at me and laughed out loud.
– Jesus-fuckin’-Christ Stubbs. I always thought of you as one of the hardest men I ever met, you know that? Someone I looked up to. All of us did. What the fuck happened to you? You used to be a fuckin’ Titan.
– Everybody suffers, Bill.
Bill laughed out loud again.
– Fuck that pussy shit. So you got a handjob from a priest. Pick up your troubles and get on with your life. Because whatever pain you’ve suffered through Stubbs is about as unique as the color of your hair.
I’d had enough. Felt my face flush red.
– You tried to kill my family.
– I tried to kill you Stubbs. If your family got torched too it would’ve been a very happy fuckin’ accident.
I shot Bill in the stomach. Reached under his jacket for his gun. The sound of the gunshot was nearly deafening. Like someone had torn a hole in the air around us and some kind of sonic explosion had occurred. But nobody came running. I was thankful for that. A moment of stupidity on my part that looked to have gone unnoticed.
I leaned forward. Put the gun to Bill’s breastbone.
– You might have looked up to me. But I always thought you were just dogshit on the bottom of my shoe, Bill. You and your dead bitch of a sister.
Bill’s eyes grew wide. His breath quickened. I shot him in the heart then broke out and ran. Didn’t even stop to admire my work. I ran until I reached my car. Started it up and pointed the front end toward Ohio and my family.
But Bill dying wouldn’t change anything. I slowly accepted that as I neared the city limits. There would be another person who would try to burn my life to the ground because I had stolen something they held dear. No, it wouldn’t be Bill. Wouldn’t be his sister either. It’d be one of Bill’s friends. Or it’d be another one of Darby’s friends. If I took out that person, it’d be a friend of that fucker. And on and on. I’d have to slaughter half the town to regain my freedom.
I pulled into a rest area 20 miles down the interstate and killed the engine. Took out my cell and dialed Tanya. When she answered I asked her about the kids and her mother. Everything was fine. I reminded her to keep her Beretta within reach at all times. I knew I didn’t need to remind her but I did it anyway. I just felt better having said it.
I told Tanya that everything had started when I killed Deb. One thoughtless act put me deep in a hole. I told her that I’d be joining them later than we had planned. More than likely the severity of the situation had already occurred to her. Tanya knew that Darby had friends and those friends most likely weren’t the forgiving kind. Her world had exploded and I held the detonator. I told her I loved her and got a few seconds of silence. I waited for her to kill the call out of utter disgust. But she told me that she loved me. Over and over again, she told me that she loved me. I don’t mind telling you that I cried after we ended the call. Felt like she and the kids were in another solar system, light years farther than just the neighboring state. But they were safe. For the moment. But I knew that could change. I’d only be able to rejoin my family when it was safe. Total and absolute.
I gripped the steering wheel and stared at the skyline of my city. I felt a calmness come over me. It was strange. I belonged in that city. I felt like I was settling into a familiar groove.
When I was young man running around the city, I knew who I was as a person. Can you miss the person you once were or is that just nonsense? No matter. Things had changed a lot over the years. For the better, really. I was a husband and a father. People loved me and wanted to walk through life with me. It was thrilling. But being a father and a husband is just a job. As fantastic and important and enlightening as it is, it’s just a job. It doesn’t make me who I am. Most days I have no idea what I’m doing, what needs to be said, what needs to be done. I exist in a state of total confusion. When I was young I felt like I was on a mission. Like I was an arrow fired from a bow, meant for a specific target. After having spoken to my wife, for better or worse, I felt that way again. After I shot Deb and Bill, I could hear that life calling me again. A voice from somewhere inside my head, calling me. Like a fish out of water hears the waves calling it back to safety, back to a life that made sense.
I turned the car around and drove back to the city, toward the life that I deeply loved and missed.
Nicholas Kish lives in Pittsburgh PA. He and his wife Lisa have three children.