Johnny Peters is a writer from Houston, Texas. He writes “The 360” column in the fire service quarterly B-Shifter, but rarely gathers himself together well enough to submit fiction. His work has appeared in a defunct high school literary magazine, and [Pank].
Crooked Tightly in my Mother's Arm
I was crooked tightly in my mother's arm when she shot my father. I remember the look of surprise on his face. How he fell backward. How he broke through the screen door and tumbled out on the lawn.
Joe says I cannot possibly remember this. I was too young. Joe says I've constructed it from what I've been told. But I've never been told about the look on his face or how he lay there, breathing in hitches and fits like a chainsaw running out of gas. No one told me how mom tucked the butt in her armpit, picked new shells from a pocket in her apron, reloaded the .410 and told Mrs. Dennis to get back to her house.
My grandparents raised me. All they ever told me was my mother had been very sick and had hurt my dad.
Joe says there's not much he can do for me now. He says this is too much. That killing a man is too much. Joe says the man has family—a wife and two kids—I tell him I know, that I live in the town. They are both girls. I think it's worse when it's girls losing a daddy.
I'm cuffed, even alone in here with just Joe. My cuffs are chained to the shackles around my feet. I haven't ever fought, it's just that the police know me and they don't like me. I can't blame them.
I tell Joe it's all right. I tell him I don't want to get out of this. Joe doesn't say anything. He knows it's true, but that doesn't make it any easier for him. He's a softie. I met him over nineteen years ago, when he had more hair and bigger glasses and no gut. Same brown suit though. He came to the station to get me and he drove me out here to live at my grandparents' farm that isn't really a farm anymore. He smoked then and he smelled like my dad if my dad didn't also work in a machine shop—only tobacco—no grease or oil or rust. Joe says I “couldn't possibly” remember this either. I ask him who told me about it and he just says I must have put it together. I ask if he’s sure that's how it happened, and he says that's how it must have happened.
They come in and tell Joe the visit's over. He seems to fold up. He reaches across and grabs my hands. The police don't like at all and they haul me out of the chair and holler at me to stand, but my legs are caught up in the chair so I really can’t. I don't talk back. I don't blame them for being angry. They saw Frank every day. He made their coffee. He asked about their wives—and now he's gone and they're mad. I think it's pretty cool of them that they didn't shoot me when they came out to my grandmother's to get me. They didn't even hit me. One time, after I'd busted out the window at Bill's and tried to bust open the cash drawer, two of them whupped me until I couldn't open my eyes. I walked because of that. They learned their lesson since then. Maybe if they hadn't done that, I wouldn't have been free to shoot Frank. That's not true of course, but they still think it and they cuss themselves for every time they've screwed up trying to nail me down. They hate Joe too, because he's a softie and he knows the laws and he's gotten me out of my own trouble so much because my mother shot my father and I'm troubled and I'm in counseling and I'm trying to get better and prison will only make me worse and I can't get a fair trial here, so let's move it to Houston where Claude can get a sympathetic jury that doesn't want to ruin a young man's life over mischief.
But killing ain't mischief. Busting out a window, stealing a car, beating a man with a pool cue, that wasn't mischief either. But Joe can convince a few people out of twelve that it was and that's enough to keep me out until I finally shoot old Frank. But Frank wasn't that old. Two years older than me. We went to high school together. He laughed when I pulled that .410 out of my coat. Then he offered me a little money. I wasn't after money.
Back in my cell, grandma's brought me my quilt. It's folded at the foot of my bed. I fold it some more so I can use it as a pillow. All the chains are off. They pinned me against the wall to remove them. Like I was Hannibal Lecter or something. The police don't threaten me. They don't call me a murderer or anything. They don't talk to me past telling me to stay still while they put on the chains or take them off, or when they ask if I want a hamburger or chicken finger basket. All my food comes from the Dairy Queen. On Sunday, they get me a Dilly Bar. If I ask them how a murderer gets such good treatment, they tell me the same thing every time. They tell me I am innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. And then they think about me in the chair. I bet Joe tries to keep me from getting the death penalty. I bet he succeeds. Joe is a real softie.
They move my trial to Dallas. This is the furthest I've ever been moved, but Joe says too many people know me in Houston now. He wants fresh blood. He can say blood without thinking about it. I don't think Joe's ever given anybody so much as a busted lip.
The .410 was my grandfather's first gun. His dad got it for him on his sixth birthday. How times have changed! It really was a good gun. The .410 is exhibit B. Exhibit A is the security video. There is a picture of the .410. It is laid across my grandmother's kitchen table, open at the breach. There is a chair in that picture, pulled out from the table. That's where I was sitting when they came for me. I had put the gun like it is in the picture so they wouldn't be afraid I was going to shoot them. I never had bad feelings for any of the law. I never fought them or called them names, even when they arrested me. I always felt they were just doing their jobs.
Here's what I remember: My dad comes in the front door. It's too early for him to be home. He picks me up off the floor. Mom comes in with the .410. She takes me out of his hands. Dad is backing up until he hits the screen door. It's latched. He's smiling. Until she shoots him. He looks at me. My dad is a big man. When he falls back, the poor old door just can't hold him. It breaks and he falls back out onto the lawn. He never takes his eyes off me until he's lying on the ground. His lips move like they're trying to grab the air to pull it in.
Joe straightens my tie. He tells me I can't possibly remember that.
The grandmother who raised me was my dad's mother. It was good of her not to say anything real bad about my mother. But I still knew how much she hated her. What mother wouldn't hate someone who killed her son? Frank's wife hates me. I can see it when she sits behind the prosecutor and looks over at me. I can see it when she makes her statement after the jury finds me guilty. It took them five minutes. I think she hates me more than she loved Frank. Or maybe I just understand hate more than love.
Here's what else I remember: The train was coming as dad fell onto the lawn. Since they had cut a new bayou, you had to cross the tracks to get to our house and there wasn't another way in. That far into the city, the trains move slow, and the police were stuck on the other side long enough that by the time they had got to the house my mother put down the .410, fixed me a bottle and took me out to Mrs. Dennis, who hadn't left our lawn at all. She handed me over and Mrs. Dennis took me to her house, almost at a run. I guess if she hadn't, I would have heard. My Grandmother didn't take me to my mother's funeral. Maybe she didn't have one. I think maybe it's because I never saw her body that I'm always sort of waiting for her to come into the room. I'll think she's doing laundry in the next room. When I get up in the morning and am walking into the kitchen for breakfast, I expect to see her at the stove. It's not the same as knowing the sun will rise—I always know she won't be there, but I still expect her. I don't know how to say it any better.
Joe held my shoulder to comfort me during the sentencing, but I didn't need it. I was expecting they'd find me guilty. I'd only let the lawyer plead innocent because it made Joe feel better. I think they tried to make one of them plea deals, but the prosecutor was out for blood. I bet the prosecutor and I have the same feelings about blood. I think we would understand each other.
Frank's wife says I've ruined their lives. She says I will never understand what it is to lose someone to murder—to be woken up by the police, woken up to being a widow. I hear Joe shift in his seat. He is between me and Frank's wife, and I see his big ears get red. His scalp, too. He wants to defend me. I'm not upset at her. I don't blame her.
The day before I shot Frank, I heard him talking about his new tools. Top of the line, would make a mechanic jealous. He was telling Stan and Trey about it while they drank their coffee. I was looking over the magazines, pocketing some chocolate frosted donuts while Frank was distracted. He said it cost him eight grand in all. He'd been saving up for a long time.
Frank's house was in town, but it was set back from the road a ways. There was a field with an old fence. I took the dolly from my grandparent's barn, and some bolt cutters. It would be a piece of work, but I knew I could manage it. I'd decided to take the tools to San Antonio. I could unload them for a couple thousand or more. Frank raced short track and he was serious about it. I knew the tools were good.
His garage was a new metal building. He hadn't locked it up. I was sure nervous. His house was right there and the living room curtains were wide open. If he'd looked out he'd for sure have seen me. It was a dumb thing to do but I was thinking of the money. If he'd looked out, how different things might have been.
I never took the tools. I was at the door, not believing the knob was just turning in my hand, when I looked into the living room.
They say a man has to hurt a woman three times on average before she leaves him. It took my mom one time. I remember how she screamed, and how she bled. I remember how she held the door to my room while my dad slammed his fist against it and how it rattled and banged and shook. I don't know how she held it shut. I never told anyone about this. Joe wouldn't have believed me, and my grandmother never said anything bad about my mom, so I wasn't going to say anything bad about her son. It wouldn't have changed anything, anyway.
I didn't tell Joe about what I saw that night in Frank's living room. I shouldn't have been there anyway. I refused to take the stand.
I guess that I've sort of wished my whole life that my mom hadn't given me to Mrs. Dennis. I miss my mom, and I think I miss my dad, too. Maybe a man should get lots of chances. I've gotten lots of chances. Too many maybe. Maybe Frank should have gotten another, but he didn't. I guess I wish my mom had taken me with her.
I can see Joe through the window when they raise the blinds. Frank's wife is there, too. She is older. Joe has made the lawyer go through several appeals, and I let him because it made him feel better. Like he was doing something. He's got a handkerchief. Joe is such a softie. Frank's wife—I still don't know her first name.
Funny thing. I was looking at the blinds while they were down, while they were putting the needle in my arm. They rubbed it with alcohol. I guess so I won't get an infection. I watched as they raised the blinds, and there was that same old feeling: like my mother would be on the other side. I never asked Joe about that feeling, and now I sort of wish I had. There's probably some kind of psychological term for it.
I don't feel superior to Frank or anything. Please understand that. I was there to steal eight thousand dollars’ worth of tools. How many pots of coffee that meant I don't know. That's a lot of work for a man. I'm not a good guy. I know that.
I remember what my mother did. I shouldn't, they say, but I do. I also remember why. I remember what she promised me the day before. She promised I would never have to see her like that again, and that I would be safe. I'm not supposed to be able to remember that either. My grandparents hauled me to church every Sunday. People were always talking about God's plans, and I never understood why God made me remember what happened to my mom and my dad until I was standing outside Frank's barn with the doorknob in one hand and the dolly in the other.
I have never felt good about the things I've done. It's not like I stayed up nights feeling bad, but I've never felt good. I don't know how I felt when Frank fell back into the cigarettes behind the counter and dropped out of sight.
All those trials where I didn't go to prison, Joe never seemed like he'd won something. He just drove me home, dropped me off at the mailbox, told me when our next session was. He sure is dedicated. He sure is a good man. He sure gave me lots of chances.
Joe is looking at me. He looks so old now. His cheeks are saggy. He has glasses on his nose and another pair on a chain around his neck. Frank's wife is also watching me. She doesn't look happy. I think people come here thinking they will be happy. I think they think they'll feel some kind of justice has been done. Maybe some do. But most realize it doesn't matter. It doesn't change anything. That doesn't mean there's no sense to it, but it means that things won't suddenly be better—you won't walk out of the room and have the world right again. Happiness is not around that corner. Death don't set things right. It just makes people dead.
They ask if there's anything I want to say. I tell them yes. This is worth saying. It will change something worth changing. I have lived twenty-three years with a memory no one else has, and I have kept it to myself. Looking at Frank's wife, I can see she means to do the same thing. I don't even know her name. Some people in my spot say they are sorry. They apologize. There was a lot of crying in the other cells, and guys who wished they'd done things differently.
Before my mother took me out to Mrs. Dennis, she held me a minute. She looked at me. She wasn't crying, but she also wasn't happy. She told me she loved me. She told me she was sorry. I couldn’t talk then, and there's something I always wanted to tell her. Something I think would have made a difference. Would have changed everything. I have thought about this moment for a long time. I have had plenty of time to. If Frank’s wife hadn't been here, I would have told Joe this same thing, and I think he would have understood. This is the only thing I can imagine making anyone feel any better.
I tell her: “I saw what he did.”