Image: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
I was 13 the night the cops got called to our house, handcuffed Bull, and shoved him into the back seat of their car. The neighbors watched from their front lawns. Mrs. Sullivan clapped, her fat hands meeting as if in prayer, and I could feel each slap from where I stood on our driveway. The other neighbors just stared, strangers whose blank faces were so familiar they were fixtures of the landscape, like the wooden mailboxes: Mr. Mitchell L. Gann, the closet drunk; the fat man whose Dachshund barked at cars; the childless couple who would move out a few years later in the middle of the night. Even old Mrs. Garcia was out there, who taught piano until the Alzheimer's sucked out every sonata she knew. She was smiling and waving like she was watching a parade, her white hair tucked up underneath a baseball cap.
"Cadet of the Year, three years in a row," Dad would say later. "Could have gone to West Point." Instead, Bull got kicked out of military school that year for bashing in Ronald Thompson's face. Bull was a big guy, much bigger than I would ever get, and we didn't call him Bull for nothing. He was the type who wore Husky as a kid and made the middle school coach come knocking the minute he was done with his summertime growth spurt. At 13 and five-foot-two, I was still waiting for a summer that would never come.
The first night he was back, the two of us sat outside on the porch after Dad went to bed so Bull could drink beer—just enough, he said, to make him pass out. It was quiet that night, and for awhile we didn't say much, the conversation full of pauses time and distance tend to make.
I'd picked up cigarettes, Marlboro Reds. I liked the way it gave me something to do with my hands, how it made the silences bearable. It felt good to pull out my own pack when Bull dumped some of his tobacco out on the ledge. I grabbed a smoke, my lighter from my back pocket, and lit up, like I'd been doing it all my life.
"You drinkin now?" he said.
"A little." I shrugged, like it wasn't any big deal. "So?"
Then Bull said he'd teach me how to roll my own cigarettes if I wanted, because real smokers didn't use filters. I didn't tell him I'd read somewhere, people who smoked filterless cigarettes increased their chances of getting cancer by 64%, and I'd promised myself I'd quit when I turned fifteen. Instead I said, "Sure," then asked him to tell me about breaking that guy's nose.
Bull smiled and shook his head. "You don't need to hear all that."
"Come on," I said. "I bet you got him good, didn't you?" I thought about what it would feel like to actually punch someone, to cause someone so much pain in one powerful move.
He laughed like he'd wanted to tell the story all along, which I suspected he had, and it reminded me of something Mama said once, after he told one of his big ole stories—that's what she called them, because it was always about a big ole something. She turned to him like she didn't even know him and said, "No wonder you're called Bull, for the amount of Bullshit coming out of your mouth."
Then Dad had said, "Pot, meet kettle," and he and Bull laughed, so I did, too, even though it made Mama cry. Mama always cried.
"So this kid Ronnie Thompson enrolls after Winter break," Bull said. "Already he has that against him—hasn't gone to boot camp, doesn't know anyone, and to top it off, his daddy's a judge." He held a rolling paper with one hand and carefully poured some tobacco into it with the other like an expert, his biceps flexing a little as he did, and I tried to imagine how many push ups it took to get like that, how much weight he could bench. Four hundred pounds, I bet. I didn't doubt it.
Bull rolled the cigarette up tight, licked it across its edge. "You could tell this was something he thought would look good for some pussy state school. No intention of ever actually serving."
"So Thompson gets assigned to Charlie, and right off, I can tell this guy doesn't want to do shit. Lives off snack cakes and Ramen his mama sends him in care packages. So one night I tell him he's gonna get to PT—on time—the next morning with the rest of us.
"Next morning, no Thompson. So I go up there, and he's still sleeping, all wrapped up in a blanket, and I just got pissed, so I punched him as hard as I could."
"While he was sleeping?"
"Broke the fucker's nose."
The beer no longer seemed to be doing its job, and Bull didn't look like he was close to passing out any time soon. Instead, he looked like he had just become aware of where he was—at home in Katy, Texas, sitting on his daddy's front porch.
"Then it was over. The kid's face is all fucked up, he's screaming bloody murder, I'm taken down like I'm a criminal to the Dean, where Dad gets called, and Bam. Here I am, back in this shithole."
"It's even shittier now, you know," I said. "With Mama gone."
Bull shrugged and handed me his cigarette, then his voice got real low. "What's fucked up is I knew I wouldn't get away with it—I knew it. The one thing I had going for me. What the fuck is wrong with me?"
Deep down, Dad was glad to have Bull back home. I could tell, even though he tried not to show it because Bull was supposed to be in deep shit or something. I think having Bull home reminded him of when Mama was still there and made the house seem less empty.
At first Dad made a big show about being mad. He hardly spoke to Bull the first few weeks, and when he did, it was mainly, "What kind of chicken shit thing was that?" or, "$15,000 down the goddamn drain," and Bull would always remind him he'd been there on football scholarship.
"What the hell's that got to do with anything?"
But after a few weeks, I could tell Dad felt bad about the whole thing because he started cooking us omelets before school and hanging out while we were watching cartoons. "What's up for the weekend?" Dad asked Bull. He never bothered to ask me what my plans were.
"Got time to spend with your old man? Fishing or something?"
Bull grunted, took a swig of milk, wiped his face with his sleeve, and mumbled, "Can't. Get Jackie to go. He's never busy."
Dad looked to me and smiled. "How about it, Bud?"
"I. Am. Hydro. Phobic."
Yeah, we were just like one of those families on TV, only this time, the actress, the star, had quit for some reason. She just woke up one day and decided what she really wanted was to play someone else for a while, someone who wasn't a librarian with a husband and two boys. And so she turned in her script and ran off to some random place out in the middle of nowhere, some state in the Midwest with a man she had met, Dad said, at the Herpeton. I didn't know for sure. She didn't send any postcards, any scribbled notes on hotel stationary saying she thought about us anymore at all. Hugs and kisses from the Show Me State. Miss you. Wish you were here.
Not long after Bull got home, the phone started ringing all the time. Girls loved Bull. They'd start calling as soon as school got out, and the phone wouldn't let up until midnight. It would make Dad's blood boil. He'd bang around the kitchen, mumbling things about the kinds of girls who chased boys and the parents who let them do it.
After awhile, one of the girls started coming around. Her name was Faye, and she had this long blonde hair she never brushed. She just wore it straight down her back, almost to her waist, and you could tell she'd never worn her hair any other way. She always had on the same pair of faded red flip flops, and sometimes she wore shirts showing off her stomach. Mama wouldn't have approved of most of her outfits. If Mama had been around, she would have given Faye a pretty blue sweater or something and said it matched her eyes.
Faye would come over after school, and I'd usually be in the kitchen with a bowl of Cheerios, doing my homework or reading comics. Bull told everyone Faye was his math tutor, but only so Dad wouldn't mind they were up in his room. "If it were my daughter—" Dad said, and that was pretty much the end of that.
Sometimes she stayed for dinner, the two of them wearing tight-lipped grins like they were sitting in church while they made small talk with Dad, all "Fine, sir," and "School's great," and shit, and I'd just eat my peas, one at a time, wondering what was going on under the table, because I had a pretty good idea it was something.
After dinner, Bull let me watch TV with them, only because Dad made him. I'd watch whatever they put on, sports or some show with a bunch of teenagers while Bull would try to kiss Faye on her neck. I'd pretend to be all wrapped up in what was happening on the TV, but really I was just trying to be as still and quiet as possible, hardly breathing, hoping they'd forget I was there and start really going at it. But Faye wouldn't have it. She'd push Bull off, "Not now," and then pull a magazine out of her backpack, Seventeen or Cosmo, the perfume ads stinking up the entire room. And Bull would glare at me. "Isn't it past your bedtime, Jackie?" And I'd glare right back and wouldn't move until Faye left.
One night, when Dad went out for poker, Bull invited Faye over so the two of them could get shitcanned. I'd planned on playing video games, but I decided if I was gonna start high school soon, I needed to start building up a tolerance. So I asked for a beer like it wasn't any big thing.
"That's my boy," Bull said and tossed me a can of Bud.
I popped it open. It fizzed a little on top, but other than that, it tasted okay.
Faye was so skinny, it didn't take much, and after awhile even I could tell she was tanked the way she kept slurring her words and getting all touchy feely with the both of us, mostly Bull. Then I knew she was wasted because she said, "Me and Sheila went into Houston and got matching vibrators." She laughed. "The store was called Condom Sense!"
"Hey! Watch your mouth!' Bull said. "My baby brother's a virgin." He rubbed my head so hard, I could feel static. "Get Sheila's skanky ass over here. My brother here wants a piece." He socked me in the arm. "Wanna get laid?"
The way Bull was acting reminded me of how he used to act when we were kids, always trying to make sure people knew he was the older one. The beer was getting to me and so was Bull, like one of those jerks at a restaurant complaining about his bill. "He needs to lose it like a bad habit."
"Oh, leave him alone," Faye said. "He's just a baby."
"Know how old I was when I first got laid?"
Faye got quiet.
"I'm serious! Listen to this." Bull turned to me. "Jack, how far have you ever gotten with a girl?"
I shrugged. I would have paid just about anything to have been somewhere else right then. I thought about Mama. Where she was. Somewhere far—that much I knew. Somewhere far sounded like a pretty good place to be.
Faye tried to swat Bull, lost her balance and fell on the floor, her bony legs splayed out and bent like a couple of sticks, and the focus shifted from me to her underwear: bright purple panties, staring back at the two of us, plain as day. "Cover that shit up," Bull said. She laughed again. "I mean it! Stop acting like a stupid slut."
That's when Faye screamed, "Fuck you," and started crying, and Bull got really mad and yanked her arm to pull her up off the floor. "Let me go, Bull," she yelled, but he just kept tugging on her arm, so hard I thought it might come out of its socket. Finally, he got a good grip on her elbow and pulled her up and slung her skinny body over his shoulder like a bag of laundry. She was kicking and screaming.
"Bull," I said, "Take it easy."
He brushed past me and into his room, slamming the door. That's when I heard the crying turn to shrieks, loud screams that didn't let up for a minute or two. And then it got real quiet.
I stepped outside. Porch lights flickered on, up and down the street. The weather was warm, that time right in the middle of April when the air starts to leave your skin clammy, a constant humidity lasting well into November. The air was loud with crickets and cars and dogs from other neighborhoods, sounds you don't notice during the day, but that become deafening in the dark, like the thoughts I had of Mama, every time I stood outside and remembered she wasn't coming back.