Fiction Featured Story: Knuckle Sandwich

 

1

If there was a bright side in all of this—and Charley was certainly looking for a bright side—it was that Kate hadn’t driven off with his fingers still stuck in the door. At least she had noticed what had happened, opened the door, let him fall to his knees in a heap of agony, and then, after a long moment where she seemed to be considering what to do next, wiped the heel of her palm across her wet eyes and finally drove off.

But hey, what the hell, he’d been expecting something like this for weeks. Not this exactly, not getting his fingers almost severed, but certainly he’d known that something bad was looming.

He went back inside the apartment, hunched over and cradling his hand. He knelt on the hard floor of the bathroom, melted over the lip of the tub, and opened the faucet to warm, trying to keep his crooked hand still under a soft patter of water. Strangely, it really didn’t hurt that much, but his ears were buzzing and it felt as though his body were trying to float away on him. He kept closing his eyes and resting his forehead on the cold edge of the tub, willing away what might have been nausea, only to pick his head up again, surprised that gravity was still holding onto him. He refused to look at his hand. Kept telling himself, don’t look at the hand.

Once the black dots started to bloom in his peripheral vision he knew it was time to make another move. Shaking his head wasn’t sending them away. He stood, mouth hanging open and sucking air, and wandered off to find the phone with a small towel draped over his hand.

The apartment was a mess. For every item she’d managed to stuff into her bag, she’d let two more fall to the floor. Half the stuff was broken. Photos in frames were knocked off shelves and walls, lying face down in puddles of broken glass. And the CDs. All his CDs were strewn about the living room, half of them cracked, as if she’d slammed the heel of her shoe into them just for good measure. Maybe she had.

Took him three tries to get the number punched in right. The pain was coming on strong now, pulsing. He pawed at a kitchen chair, missing it.

“Hello?” Woman’s voice.

“Nikki…”

“Charley?”

“Hi—”

“You just wake up? You sound exhausted…or drunk.”

“No, no. Where’s Joe? Joe home?”

“Yeah, he’s out in the yard.” Charley managed to drag the chair out from the table and fell into it. He thought Nikki had already gone to get his brother on the phone, and was surprised when he heard her say, “You sure you’re all right, Charley?”

He looked at the yellow towel around his hand, roses of blood blossoming in three or four places. He moved the hand to his lap, closer, protecting it. “I’m not sure,” he told her at last. “Can I talk to Joe? Please…”

He might have passed out momentarily. When he finally heard his brother’s voice, Charley picked his forehead up from the tabletop.

“Joe.” He suddenly wanted to act casual. Not get him concerned. Downplay this latest fiasco. Like he always did.

“What’s up, Charley-boy? You okay?”

Charley licked his lips, measured his words. “I’m…yeah, I’m okay.” Licked his lips again. “You busy? I mean today? Right now?” He winced, sliding shaky fingers across the mouthpiece so his brother wouldn’t be able to hear the pain. He let his forehead topple back to the table.

“Well, I’m supposed to…I’m supposed—Charley, are you all right? You sound sick or something. You all right?”

“Mmm. Fine, yeah.”

Then, from the background, he thought he could hear his sister-in-law, Nikki. Joe, away from the phone, said: “I don’t know. Let me talk.”

Charley picked his head back up. There had been a fat candle on the table—a centerpiece. Kate had taken that, too. Not that he minded—it was just a candle. Just a stupid fucking candle. Made the place smell like an old lady’s house, anyway.

“What’s Nikki saying?”

“You just wake up or something?” Joe asked.

“Naw, no. No. Listen, you busy or what?”

From Nikki, in the background: “He’s drunk again.”

“I’m not drunk,” Charley said. “You can tell her I’m not drunk.”

“So tell me what’s going on. I was going to take Emma to Hampton Beach a little later on. Nikki’s got to work.”

Nikki again. “Hampton’s a pit. What’s up there?”

Joe must have pulled the phone away again. “Emma likes it, that’s all. She likes the bowling thing, the skeeball. The fried dough.”

“So, you’re busy?” Charley said, although Joe might not have been listening.

“And the trashy little high-schoolers, don’t forget about them,” Nikki said.

Joe came back to the phone, huffing. “Anyway. Jesus. So tell me the deal, Charley. What’s wrong?”

“I think I busted up my fingers.” He glanced down at the yellow towel. Looking made it hurt even more. “I think so, yeah.”

“Busted them up how? What, a fight?”

Nikki sounded suddenly closer. “Charley got into another fight?” There might have been a trace of glee in her voice, Charley thought. Of course. Another fight. Like there had been so many of them. That’s Nikki for you, though, his wonderful sister-in-law. Always rooting against him, always pegging Charley as the bad guy. One fight he’d been in. One fight. Not his proudest of moments, not by a long shot. But Nikki was always more than willing to remind him and anyone else of that night, three and a half years ago—three and a half years ago—when he’d punched out Kate’s ex-boyfriend.

“No, I didn’t get into another fight. Tell her I didn’t get into a fight.”

Charley had been with her only about a month, maybe six weeks, but they had gotten serious pretty quick and were spending almost every night together. Kate had just left a year-long relationship with a big-mouthed Fed Ex guy who kept calling her and leaving long, rambling messages, some of them pleading, some teary, others—the scary ones—angry and endless. All of them were uncomfortably desperate. She’d answered the phone the first few times, let herself get reeled into hour-long conversations that went nowhere and always ended with him calling back two and three times until she had been forced to shut the ringer off. That was when the ex must have decided he needed to show up at her work to get her to talk to him. After the second time the guy had shown up, Charley decided to start picking her up from work himself. He’d told himself it was for her own safety, so he could protect her, keep her from being kidnapped and murdered, stuff like that. Truth was, he was just hoping for a chance to take a swing at this fucking loser.

He got his chance, third night he picked her up. Soon as he walked into the restaurant, there was the Fed Ex guy, blue uniform and everything, sitting at the bar playing with the straw of his Coke. A cellophane-wrapped cone of flowers lay on the bar, leaking water. Only five or six other customers sat at the bar, mostly older men with bad posture hovering over their scotches. Charley grabbed the Fed Ex guy roughly by the sleeve. “Up,” Charley said, buzzing with adrenaline.

The guy resisted, twisting toward Charley with a confused look on his face. He tried to jerk his arm free. “Who are you?”

Instead of answering him, Charley tightened his grip on the guy’s sleeve and pulled him to his feet. The bar stool swiveled and banged the edge of the bar. From the corner of his eye he saw Kate, coming up the center of the bar with her cute pink work shirt on and a plate of buffalo wings in her hand. Charley, in that flash of an instant, imagined the fight that Kate was about to witness, and he might of actually had time to feel a jolt of pride. It felt pretty cool, protecting the new girlfriend, showing her what a rough-and-tumble tough guy he could be, not afraid to mark up his face in the name of love. He imagined fists flying, headlocks, a scuffle that would end on the hard floor of the restaurant with a couple managers peeling Charley off the Fed Ex guy. Charley would be sweating and sporting a good-sized mouse under his eye, but the ex-boyfriend would not be bothering his Kate anymore. Sure, Kate would lecture him about how he shouldn’t be taking risks like that, that she could handle herself just fine. And she could, no doubt. But he’d know, deep down, that she’d be beaming.

Didn’t happen that way. Charley’s fist popped the guy like a piston—bang—right in the fucking mouth. Fed Ex dropped like a bag of shit, probably out cold before he even hit the ground. Charley stood over him, arms and fists ready for a fight that he was having a hard time understanding was not going to happen. He blinked down at the guy, acutely aware of Kate just off to his right, standing there with those buffalo wings at her hip. And not just her—everyone was staring at him. He kept looking down at the guy, Fed Ex blinking lazily and bleeding from a bleeding lip that his bottom teeth had punctured. It was tough to keep staring at him, at what he had done, but even tougher to have to look up. To look up and see Kate. Slowly, he let his fists soften and disappear into his pockets. From somewhere nearby—he wasn’t sure where—he heard someone say: “What’d he do that for?”

 

Charley was sitting out on the front steps, hand wrapped in a fresh towel, when his brother arrived some twenty minutes later. Joe knew the history: it was a long story dating back as far as that afternoon Charley had beat up the old boyfriend. The relationship had been a consistent struggle since. So there was no need to ask for any kind of lengthy explanation about what had happened. In fact, as Charley did begin to dribble the details, in between heaves and pants of pain, Joe heard pretty much exactly what he thought he’d hear. They had had a fight. Kate packed her shit and left. Charley followed her out the door trying to talk some sense into her (although her leaving was probably the most sensible thing she could have done), and then, somehow, Charley had managed to stick his stupid fingers in the door just as she slammed it shut.

“I’ll tell you one thing,” Joe told him, trying to keep his voice down in the emergency room waiting area, “this has to be the last fight. Has to be the last one.”

Charley, head back against the top of the seat, looking up at the lights, said nothing. He didn’t want to be having this conversation. Too many people in the room, for one thing. No need playing out his shit life for all to hear. And, anyway, it was a conversation as old as time. Every one of their fights resulted, eventually, inevitably, in some kind of sloppy explanation—to his brother, his parents, his neighbors, his friends. Sure, sometimes he’d talk about it just to get it off his chest, give his point of view to whoever he could, try to get someone else to see things his way, make him feel less crazy, less like an asshole. Sometimes he needed to hear someone say to him, “Man, she’s way out of line.” Other times he didn’t particularly want to talk about anything, but needed to because the fight had been seen/heard/gossiped about—whatever—and Charley felt the need to go ahead and explain what had happened. Usually, though, and Kate probably was not aware of this, but usually in these circumstances Charley went out of his way to cover what had happened. No, we’re not in a fight, Kate tore out of here in the middle of the night because some friend of hers got arrested, or some shit like that. He never got any credit for that.

“You agree with me, right?” Joe went on. “Has to be the last of the fighting.”

“She left. I don’t think we have to worry about it.”

“Yeah, I know she did.” He leaned in a little closer, checking himself when he saw Charley glancing around the room self-consciously. “And she’s also left before. I mean, listen, I’m not telling you how to live your life or anything, but the fact of the matter is, these things don’t get any better. You’ll never get along any better with someone than you do in the first few months, the first year. And, let’s face it, you two never exactly got along all that well even then.”

It was certainly true, Charley had to admit, but that didn’t change the fact that he didn’t need Joe peppering him with advice right now. At least not until he got some meds in him to relieve the cutting throb that pulsed up the length of his arm. He knew, somewhere inside himself, that of course things would never have gotten any better with Kate. But the alternative, lame as it sounded now, was to be alone. And Charley knew that that wasn’t just his own lame excuse—that was the lame excuse of a whole lot of people. No one wants to start from scratch.

He felt Joe lean in. “So, what happened? What was it this time?”

Charley let one eye open. Was this a real question, or a dig? Was he actually trying to open a conversation, or was he making fun of him?

“Come on, man. Give it up. What went down?”

What went down? Talking like a cool guy now. Charley didn’t know how to read him, never really did. He thought Joe might be talking down to him. Same old Charley, too young to know his ass from his elbow. He wanted to remind him that he was thirty-three fucking years old, not really a young punk anymore. But he didn’t want to talk. More than anything, Charley just didn’t want to talk. “I don’t want to talk, all right?”

Joe sat forward, resting his forearms on his thighs and folding his hands. He looked up at the TV. “Okay. Whatever. We’ll just sit here and wait quietly. Time flies when you’re having fun.”

“My fucking hand…”

 

2

“Charley Lynn?”

Joe glanced down at his watch. “Under two hours. A new record.”

“Want to come in there with me? Watch the fun?”

“I guess.” He bit back a yawn, stood up. “Stretch my legs a bit.”

So much for good company. Joe brought a copy of Cosmopolitan magazine in with him, one he’d been reading out in the waiting room. It was three months expired with a cover crinkled from too many wet beverage cups resting on it. Charley had picked up a copy or two over the years, waiting for a haircut or whatnot, checked out a few of the models or actresses or whatever, discarded it after a cursory glance. Joe, for some reason, had been digesting it for nearly an hour. Said there were a lot of good, in-depth sex Q and A’s. Basically, getting his jollies. He told Charley it was better than reading Penthouse forum. “Penthouse forum’s totally fake,” he’d said. So this was what being married did to you, Charley thought while he followed the nurse down a bright hall, into the ER. Reduced you to sixth-grader all over again, sneaking off with your big sister’s make-up magazines. Maybe Charley had dodged a bullet after all.

With Joe involved in his magazine and not talking to him, Charley absently revisited the beginning of the end of the relationship. For a while things had been going well. A bartender when they’d met, Kate had helped him get a pretty good gig at her uncle’s car lot, selling new Toyotas. For the first time in his life he’d felt like a grown up, with a live-in girlfriend and a real job, complete with a shirt and tie requirement and morning hours.

Didn’t last, though. He was a lousy salesman. He knew it, Kate’s uncle knew it, everyone knew it. Eventually Charley quit—he couldn’t take for another day the feeling that Kate’s uncle wanted to fire him but wouldn’t. Kate didn’t know right away. Charley left the apartment each morning in his shirt and tie, sent a few resumes out, then went to a movie. Why he’d actually thought that this news wasn’t going to reach Kate, he’d no idea.

Not wanting to have to tell her he was out of a job, he reluctantly picked up a bartending gig at one of those chain restaurants with the annoying jingles everyone hears over and over again on the radio. He’d thought tending bar had been in his rear-view mirror, and he dreaded stepping back in.

But he took the job and, in the days leading up to his first day of training, put the best spin on it possible, for his own sake as well as Kate’s. First, it was just temporary. Temporary gig. Second, always good money, tending bar. Keep up his end of the bills, all that stuff. Maybe take Kate out on a nice date—something they hadn’t done in a long time—out to dinner, have a few drinks, make a lot of eye contact. Third, it was kind of fun behind the bar, wasn’t it? He used to enjoy it—shooting the shit with the customers, telling stories, flirting with the waitresses, the servers, as they like to be called now, having a couple drafts after close while cleaning up and counting cash. Not such a bad lifestyle, nice and casual, nice and easy. Take a small pause from all this serious grown-up responsible stuff. Catch his breath and all. De-stress.

So he went into it feeling okay, ready to go, ready to pour beers. The green shirt, he had to admit, was a little cheesy, and so were the big buttons they made him pin to it (Try Our New Blue Chunk Cheese Salad), but he could deal with that. Everyone else in the place was wearing the same thing, right? Blend in with the other idiots.

Idiots: first day on the job, just this morning, he was to shadow one of the bar-backs, a young kid by the name of Jet. That’s what his name tag said, Jet. The kid seemed all right at first; a typical kid—slouched a little bit, shirt untucked and the sleeves rolled a couple times over, showing off his arms, Charley guessed, though there wasn’t really much there to show off.

“Want me show you the beer cooler?”

Charley blinked, surprised that he was being spoken to at last. He’d been sitting at one end of the bar re-reading the bar menu for the fifth time. “Yeah, sure.”

He followed Jet out through the kitchen, pausing while Jet stopped once or twice to talk with a cook or a dishwasher, standing behind him with his hands in his back pockets, waiting for an introduction that wasn’t going to happen. Just a kid, that’s all. Kids don’t know how to handle anything. He tried to shrug it off.

“This is the fuckin cooler,” Jet told him, slapping the steel door with his palm. “And over here’s where we keep the empties, against this wall. All the Buds and fuckin Bud Lights in these two rows, Coors and Miller Lites and the other fuckin domestics right here. Then, um, then the fuckin imports, Heinekens, Amstels, Sam Adams, all that’s in these rows…”

“Sam’s not an import,” Charley said behind him.

Jet looked back at him; looked at him for perhaps the first time. “Huh?”

Charley shrugged. “Nothing. Sam’s not an import, that’s all. It’s made here. It’s made in Boston.”

“Whatever. We put the fuckin empties in this row, that’s all.”

“Okay.” Charley nodded, sticking out his lower lip, trying to take it seriously. It was all the same, though. Same as the last place he’d been stuck at for six years. The beer cooler, wall of empties, boxes of soda syrup, locked liquor room. All basically the same. Here’s the straws, the cocktail napkins, the dinner napkins, the to-go boxes. Over here’s the wine room, that’s locked too, ask a manager for the key, over in these bins are the lemons and limes and oranges, underneath are the olive and cherry jars. Ask the prep cook to cut some celery stalks for the bar. He had this place figured out in ten minutes.

“It’s all pretty fuckin basic,” Jet went on. “The only bitch is humping the kegs down these fuckin stairs. That’s a bitch. The two wheeler is over there, behind the door. That’s the only bitch, though. Fuckin heavy.” There were three steps leading from the lower beer cooler level to the upper level where deliveries were made. Charley wondered whose dumb-ass layout that was. Jet pulled a cigarette out from behind his ear and stabbed it into the corner of his mouth, but didn’t light it. He had the beginning traces of a goatee circling his mouth, thin and light, something he’d no doubt been trying to grow for months. Charley, for a fleeting moment, wondered what it would be like to punch this fucking kid in the face, knock that stupid cig butt out of his mouth, watch him drop to his ass, face turned up to Charley, eyes bugged out with surprise.

Where was the goddamn manager of this place? How come the manager hadn’t approached him, if not to give him the personal tour himself, then at least to say hello, say good to see you, whatever. And where was the other bartender he was working with today? Why the hell was he stuck with the bottom-of-the-food-chain bar-back? He missed the car dealership. Missed his shirts and ties. He followed Jet back out to the front of the restaurant, standing behind him for minutes on end while he talked to the first-arriving waitress, a heavy woman wearing a polo shirt two sizes too small.

Eventually he stepped around Jet and stuck his hand out. “I’m Charley,” he said to her, biting his annoyance.

Later, Jet left him behind the bar, to give him time to familiarize himself with things, Jet told him. The other bartender, Chaz (Chaz—Charley rolled his eyes when he heard it), was apparently crippled by a hangover and was going to be late. “Don’t go too far,” Charley said to Jet just a few minutes before the doors were to be unlocked.

“Naw, I won’t.” Jet was wandering around the restaurant gnawing on an apple like a squirrel. Of course, fifteen minutes later, when the first couple customers rolled in and stood at one end of the bar, waiting for their eyes to adjust to the dark, Jet was nowhere to be found. Not that it was a big deal, Charley certainly had no problem taking care of these two, but he had no idea how to ring in orders on the computer. He got the couple a draft beer and a screwdriver and left them with menus. When they ordered, he wrote down exactly what they said and brought the scrap of paper into the kitchen.

“Seen Jet around?” he asked one of the cooks.

“Nope.” The cook scratched his head, one hand on his hip, staring down at a newspaper.

“Okay, well, I got an order here.” He held up the paper scrap. “Can I just give you this? I don’t know how to ring anything in.”

Another twenty minutes passed without any sign of Jet. He had a dozen customers at the bar now, a few of them eating, a few others waiting for their food, still a few others just getting their drinks and menus. Charley had been back and forth to the kitchen ten times, asking the cook if they had rye bread, or brown mustard, or if the Caesar salads had anchovies, or if we had yellow peppers. He didn’t have the slightest clue what was on the menu. And what was he going to do when someone asked for his check? Nothing had even been rung in yet. Where was Jet? Where was the manager? Where was the other frigging bartender?

He was pouring another draft beer, just beginning to work up a bit of a sweat, when he looked straight ahead and saw himself in the huge wall mirror that backed the length of the liquor shelf. Somewhere back in his apartment he had a picture in a photo album of himself behind a bar, taken several years earlier. In the photo he was wearing a white T-shirt with Crabcakes stitched over the right breast pocket, ready to stick a swizzle stick of bar cherries into his mouth. His smile looked bright against his tanned face, as did his eyes. His hair was even sunstreaked blonde. He looked happy. It was not a forced, pose-for-the-picture smile, just a genuine, having a good time, smile-slash-laugh. The picture, he remembered, had been taken by a waitress that he’d just started dating.

That’s not who he was looking at now, in the greasy mirror behind dusty bottles of J & B and Dewar’s. And the difference was more than just a faded tan. He’d long ago buzzed his hair short, tired of trying to spread it across a receding hairline. His face, he noticed, had really filled out. Gone was the lean face, the defined cheekbones. Maybe it was the lighting in here, dark except for a fluorescent light above the mirror, but he was also taken aback by just how purple the circles under his eyes were. Had he been sleeping okay lately? What was up with the bags? And what about his forehead, those two or three grooves cutting across like dried riverbeds? Where’d they come from?

He lifted his shoulder to wipe away a track of sweat and took the beer over to a customer. The two people eating sandwiches to his left tried to get his attention, something about more water and another napkin, but he tuned them out. Jesus, he suddenly felt old. Well, maybe not old, not old, but certainly too old for this. Too old for tending bar. He wasn’t that good-natured kid anymore, having fun and making money and dating waitresses. He kept his back to the mirror as he worked, avoiding himself, completely self-conscious. Did everyone else in this place see him the same way he did? Were the customers sitting there eating their B.L.T.s and sipping their C.C. and sodas and wondering what wrong route this old dude’s life must have taken for him to be still humping drinks in a dark, depressing barroom? He knew that, yes, they probably were. He could tell by the way that they didn’t look at him.

Long overdue, the other bartender, Chaz—fucking Chaz—ducked under the bar, short with big arms that he, too, rolled up in an obvious attempt to distract us from noticing how short he was, black hair messy and spiked straight up, giving himself another two inches. He was unshaven, but probably not because he was running late, not because of the supposed hangover—it was more of a look, Charley figured. “’Sup,” he said to Charley, yawning and glancing bleary-eyed around the bar looking like he had no idea what all these people were doing here.

Charley hated that stupid fucking greeting. ’Sup. Talk about lazy, talk about not giving a flying fuck. He’d rather the kid just ignored him completely, rather than toss him that little half-assed utterance. He wanted Chaz to stick his hand out for a shake so he could ignore him, so he could diss him, diss the ’sup. But the jackass didn’t even offer his hand. Didn’t even introduce himself. “These need to be rung in,” Charley said instead, pushing a pile of wrinkled slips into Chaz’s chest.

Charley stepped out from behind the bar, tasting a track of salty sweat that had found its way to his upper lip. “Butt break already?” Chaz asked him. He didn’t bother answering, pretended he didn’t hear. Chaz. What kind of nickname was that? Probably for Charles, like his own name. Ridiculous.

He made one pit stop at the dessert station for a bag of Cracker Jacks, then, flicking them into his mouth one at a time, made a beeline for the front door. The manager was leaning at the hostess station, a bald guy about forty-five, glasses, odd-looking mustache either way out of date or a glued-on fake. He was talking to the hostess, cute but not a day over sixteen, big boobs resting on the counter. The guy hadn’t said a single word to him in the hour and a half he’d been there, but now suddenly had the urge to talk. “Hey, you’re not quitting, are you?” He said it as a joke, Charley guessed, leaning there with a stupid grin under his fake mustache. The girl laughed out loud. Her boss was the funniest guy around, apparently.

“No,” Charley said, shoving the door open, “just getting something.” He didn’t know why he’d said it. Because, yes, he was quitting. He should have just said so, drop that stupid grin off the guy’s face. Yeah, I’m quitting, fuckwad. Thanks for saying hello this morning and making me feel comfortable. The sky was crazy bright, his eyes recoiling behind their lids. Beautiful day outside. He’d never waste another day of his life behind a bar. That’s what he told himself as he slid into his car and drove off, that bald manager’s ugly mug framed in the take-out window, watching him.

 

3

Later that afternoon, Dr. Loaiza sewed up his fingers with forty-three stitches—eleven on his pinky, eight on the ring finger, eight along the middle finger, six on the pointer, and ten around his thumb—while the x-ray technician showed him a vague black-and-white of his hand, pointing out the various fractures and breaks. He couldn’t figure out what she was looking at; all he saw were shadows. He kept glancing at his fingers, his real fingers, not the x-ray, watching the sew job while a nurse with a gaudy engagement ring held his wrist still. Joe stood in the corner, hands stuffed in pockets, clucking his tongue.

“Good times, man,” Charley said to the room, breaking the long silence. “Good times.”

The doctor smiled, cutting thread. “Yes, you’ll remember this day, I imagine.”

Joe shifted his weight from one leg to the other. “I’m hungry.”

Charley watched a line of dark thread being pulled taut, lifting the skin on a finger into a high, translucent tent. He stared at it.

“How about you, you getting hungry at all?” Joe continued.

Charley pulled his eyes from his fingers, glancing over at him. “Not particularly.”

 

4

A little more than an hour later Charley used his good hand to eat a limp slice of pepperoni pizza. With his other arm he wedged a can of Sprite awkwardly between his wrist and ribcage. What a day. What a mother-hump day, from trying to go back to bartending, to getting walked out on when he broke the news to Kate, to a three and a half hour emergency room detour, and now here: greasy dinner at Hampton Beach. He walked slow so as not to lose his drink, lagging a good ten yards behind Joe and his six-year-old, Emma.

He wasn’t even hungry. How could he be? Forget the fact that a steady pulse of pain radiated from his mangled hand. That was only part of it. It was Kate, as usual, that had ruined his appetite. A sick ball of regret had settled in the lower regions of his abdomen, again. He’d acclimated himself to it over the last couple years; that was the good news, he supposed. Tums wouldn’t help; puking wouldn’t help. Just ride it out. Ride it the fuck out. Kate was gone this time. Gone. Gone but, as the saying goes, not forgotten. Ah, shit. This ball was going to sit in his stomach for a long time, wasn’t it? This one wasn’t going anywhere.

He tossed most of the pizza slice into a full garbage can, rotten and orbited by flies. He took a slug off his soda to try to make himself burp—maybe that would help. He focused on his niece, just ahead, holding her daddy’s fingers and clutching a can of root beer that looked way too big for her hand. What a cutie she was. At least he had that going for him, a cute-as-a-bug little niece. She took about three quick steps for every stride Joe made, hustling to keep up with him. Chubby pale legs racing beneath a light blue sun dress with white daisies on it, or were those suns? No, daisies. Nikki had pulled the top of her blonde head into a ponytail that bobbed forward and back. He wanted her to look back at him, give him one of those adorable dimpled smiles that drove him nuts. One of those would help get rid of that ball of sick. But she was too far ahead, too busy keeping up with Dad.

He followed them into an arcade, and not one of those comfy ones with the glass doors and air-conditioning. This was more like a warehouse, an arcade warehouse, opened to the street on one side, nothing but concrete inside, big rusty fans in the corners blowing around the hot air. Bells and buzzers and sirens making it feel even hotter. And none of it helping his stomach. Three steps in and he already missed the ocean breeze, contaminated as it was with the rot of garbage and body odor. That didn’t bother him. Kind of had a nostalgic feel, actually. Gave it that certain Hampton Beach charm that made the seventy-five minute ride worthwhile.

Standing behind Emma while she hurled miniature chipped bowling balls clumsily up a skeeball alley, Joe backed up a step in Charley’s direction and said, “Sorry about this, bro. Not exactly exciting, I know.”

Charley shrugged. “Like I got something better to do.” He held up his splinted and bandaged fingers gingerly. They hurt when he moved his hand too quick. Then, louder, leaning toward Emma: “Besides, what’s more exciting than skeeball?” He fished a quarter out of his pocket and cranked the lever that released a set of balls. He was, unfortunately, a righty, and was forced to reach across his body with his left arm to pick up the balls, then struggled to roll them straight with the wrong hand. Suddenly he realized just how awkward these next several weeks would be. How would he shift the gears in his car? How would he tie his sneakers?

And Kate was gone. He wouldn’t even have her help.

But why would he want her help anyway? For Christ’s sake, she was the reason his fingers were practically severed in the first place. How fucked up would that be? One day she cripples his hand, and the next, the sweet little thing is wiping his ass for him. No thanks. Have a nice life, sweetheart.

 

5

Knuckle Sandwich. That’s what the punching-bag game was called. Charley called it Bag-Tag. “Here we go, Joe, how about a little Bag-Tag?”

They’d been walking over toward the prize counter so Emma could cash in her skeeball tickets. A kid, sixteen or seventeen, leaned with one ass-cheek up on the glass case, wearing a candy-striped vest and handing out kazoos and bubble gum and neon green squirt guns that didn’t work. When you broke it down, eight bucks bought you the squirt gun. Joe fisted his knuckles on his hips, looking up at the Bag-Tag machine, Knuckle Sandwich. It was a tall monstrosity, cornered near the air hockey and football toss, the grown-up games. It consisted of a faux-leather mitt that jutted from the underside of the hood, at the end of a metal arm. On the right was a worn and smelly boxing glove, dangling by a short cord. For seventy-five cents you got three punches. Behind the mitt, on the front wall of the machine, was a barometer that scored your punch. The barometer, like the rest of the machine, was painted with cartoon girls in green bikinis, back-lit plastic giving it a depressing glow. It reminded Charley of an old pinball machine. Bally’s Bikini Beach Babes, something like that.

The harder you hit the mitt, the higher the barometer lit, and the higher the barometer lit, the hotter the cartoon bikini babe. At the pinnacle of the measuring stick was the crème de la crème of cartoon bikini babes, tall and impossibly thin with wild blonde hair blazing down her back and impossibly large breasts, popping in their green bikini top like huge rubber balls. She was tanned and sexy, even for a goddamned cartoon, Charley had to admit, with red apple lips and big green eyes, cat eyes. That was the pinnacle. That was the grand prize. No tickets for a plastic whistle from this game, just the pride of a cartoon bimbo’s attention. And if that didn’t drive home the fact, she had a dialogue bubble pointing to her sexy mouth that said, “Total Hunk!!” Of course, below her, her friends didn’t quite match up. Sure, the girl directly below her wasn’t bad. Boobs not as big, skin not as tanned, legs not quite so shapely. But, hey, not bad. Not bad at all. This girl was bending forward, hands on her knees, puckering. Her dialogue bubble said, “You’re All Man!”

Below them were four more levels, each a little less attractive, a little plumper and less tanned. The third girl from the top, giving an ‘okay’ sign with her thumb and forefinger and winking, said, “Hot Stuff!” Her chubby buddy, one step down, had her arms folded across her chest, unimpressed. “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” she said. Charley disliked her the most. Who was she to judge, standing there with her arms folded like that? Look up and check out your hot friends, honey, before you go rolling your eyes at me. The bottom rungs on the ladder were even worse.

He’d played this game once before. Few years ago. Kate had been with him. He remembered Kate leaning against one of the other antiquated games, stripping threads from a hive of pink cotton candy, smiling at him as he pumped quarter after quarter into Knuckle Sandwich. They’d been together, he was just barely remembering, a short enough time that this was actually a little amusing to her. Maybe it had even been a turn-on. At least he liked to think so. He knew that it was early enough in the relationship that it was important to him that he do well. Score one of those bottom-rung heavies, and Kate might have started thinking that she was out of Charley’s league. Probably not, of course, but he remembered thinking just that. He felt some pressure there.

Joe was already fitting the mitt over his hand when he said, “How you going to do this? You’re a righty.”

Charley glanced at his crushed hand, as if he’d forgotten all about it. He shrugged, started winding up his left arm. “I’ll go left. I’ll kick your ass left-handed. Ain’t no thing.”

Joe looked over at Emma. “What do you say to him, Em?”

She giggled, shy, playing with the accordion of tickets in her fingers. “Take it back, Uncle Charley.”

“Take what? Take what back?” He glanced over at Joe.

“You said a swear word!” she explained. “You have to take it back.”

Charley nodded. He stepped over and touched the top of her head. “Sorry, hon, you’re right. I take it back.”

Joe fed a buck into the machine. “This will just take a second, Em. Okay? We’ll trade those tickets in a minute.”

She nodded and watched her father throw a wild roundhouse at the mitt, popping it low and snapping it up into the undercarriage. The machine rocked, slightly off level.

Hot Stuff! it read behind a dusty strip of lighted plastic, the third notch up from the bottom.

“Not bad,” Charley said, “not bad.”

Joe slid the mitt off and backed out of the way as Charley stepped in, turning his body to the right. He cut a couple practice punches through the air. His right hand throbbed with the sudden movement at the other side of his body. “This could be awkward,” he said.

He pushed a red button that brought the mitt back down, then, exhaling, lunged forward and threw his body into a sloppy, left-handed punch.

Child’s Play, it said, second tier from the bottom. A frumpy cartoon woman in a green one-piece lit up, one hand on her wide hip, the other offering a wave. The plastic across her legs was cracked, mended with a graying strip of scotch tape. Charley looked down at his gloved left hand. “I think I missed it,” he said. “I don’t think I hit it solid.”

Joe’s second punch beat his first throw by one, lighting the fourth square from the bottom. You’re All Man! Joe pumped his fist. Emma clapped behind him. “Yay, Daddy!”

Charley’s second throw. He started as far back as the glove’s cord would allow, coiling himself into a low crouch before springing forward and hammering the mitt. A heave of a growl coming up from his throat made Emma cringe. She looked to her father to make sure this was normal.

Total Dud. Last rung on the ladder. Even the fat girl had her back toward him, throwing a bothered glance over her shoulder.

“Goddammit!”

“Easy bro,” Joe said, tilting his head toward Emma.

“I don’t think this thing’s working right. It’s like fifty years old, for one thing.”

Joe stepped to Emma and kissed her forehead. “It’s working fine, my friend.”

“No, I don’t think so.” Charley glanced absently at his bandaged right hand. It was aching now, a strong throb, like heat, pulsing. This just from the jarring left-handed punches, rocking his entire body like seismic waves. “Your turn. Round three. One more.”

“Daddy’s got one more,” Joe told Emma. “Cheer for Daddy.”

“Then I can buy something with the tickets?” She held up her hand, with the tickets draped over her palm.

“Yes ma’am. One more big punch, though.” It was a good thing there was only one more. To Joe’s surprise, a track of sweat ran down his temple. Who knew throwing two punches would be such work? He pushed his hand into the glove one more time, looking over at Charley, who was breathing heavy, too. Wasn’t just him. “This is actually a bit of a workout,” Joe said.

Charley only shrugged, panting. “Hot in here too. Humid.”

Joe drew his fist back to his ear, elbow high, back arched. He peeked behind him to make sure Charley was out of the way, then skipped forward and unloaded.

Hot Stuff!

Joe dropped his tongue out, truly tired now, and shrugged. He shook the glove off. “Hot Stuff again.” He went over and scooped Emma off the jukebox. “Daddy’s Hot Stuff!” he said. Emma nodded, bored, looking past him to the prize counter.

“I’m going to take her over to spend these tickets. We’ll be back.”

“Well wait. Aren’t you going to watch my last turn? I’ve got one more.”

“I’ve already beat you twice. Third one’s meaningless.”

“No, bull—baloney. I’m throwing lefty. I get three tries to beat you.”

Joe sighed, peeked down at Emma. “All right. Let’s go. Hurry it up.”

He stood behind Emma, dropping his hands onto her slim shoulders, giving her a squeeze. Charley winked at his niece and stepped to the machine. He decided to skip the glove this time. Maybe bare-knuckled he’d be able to get a bit more oomph into it. “For all the doughnuts,” he said over his shoulder.

“Yup,” Joe said, clenching back a yawn. “All the doughnuts.”

Charley bent his right arm and pressed it close to his ribs, trying to keep his bad hand still while he threw. Maybe that was why it was aching so much—maybe he had been letting it flail about, not paying enough attention. This time he kept it close to his body and, springing forward, teeth gnashed, smacked the mitt as hard as he could with his left.

Total Dud. Last rung on the ladder again. Charley, in a flash, pounded the plastic window with the side of his left hand. The lit square flickered out, popped back on. “Crap.”

“All righty, then. That settles it. Heavyweight champ of the world, right here.” Joe led Emma by the hand, clapping Charley on the shoulder as he passed. “Let’s go buy some bubble gum cigarettes or something.”

“One more go,” Charley called after him, sounding a little desperate.

Joe laughed. “Come on, bro. Drop it. You know I’m tougher than you.” He was joking. Charley was the one who had proven himself time and again through the years—on the playground, in the bars—while Joe had never really had the opportunity to test himself, and he was glad for it.

“Chicken.” It was all Charley could think to say. “I’m gonna play this son-of-a-bitch one more time.”

Emma, the profanity police, was on him again. “You said another bad word, Uncle Charley.”

By now Joe and Emma were halfway across the arcade, their voices suffocated by the bells and sirens of the games. “You’ve got nothing to prove, Charley. You’re punching lefty, for crying out loud. Come on.”

Charley waved him off. “I’ll be right over.” Truth was, he didn’t give a rat’s ass about beating his older brother. Joe was right, he didn’t have anything to prove to him. Charley was the scrapper in the family, even though the truth of the matter was he’d really only had that one fight as an adult, the one at Kate’s work.

Beating Joe had nothing to do with anything. Silly at it was, he couldn’t let himself settle for one of those low-level ugly chicks, cartoons or not cartoons. He’d been walked out on earlier today, stone cold dumped. Kate was tall and attractive, turned a lot of heads wherever she went. Charley couldn’t accept—ridiculous as it was—could not accept getting dumped by Kate in the afternoon and then winning the attentions of a fat cartoon broad the very same night. Talk about a downgrade. He needed, for some reason, to score one of those upper-level prizes, so he could at least go back home with his head held a little high, maybe sleep just a tad bit easier, alone for the first time in a long time, but comforted by the knowledge that there’d be someone else out there for him, eventually, someone as attractive as Kate. Someone as attractive as the Knuckle Sandwich hotties. Silly, yes, he knew that. But still important.

He fed the game three more quarters and went to work, skipping the boxing glove as he had with the previous turn, trying to capitalize on any advantage he could. His right hand continued to ache, no matter how close he kept it to his body, no matter how hard he concentrated on not jarring it. He wondered if maybe it was some kind of sympathy pain. Punching so hard with his left that the right hand, badly injured, aches. Sort of like the quiet ache one feels in the groin watching someone get kicked in the balls.

Total Dud.

You little bitch. Cheating little bitch. He popped the red button with the side of his left fist and the mitt hissed back down.

Child’s Play.

A single-notch improvement. But still so pathetic that it certainly didn’t feel like one. One more turn. He hit the red button, turned, exhaling hard, shoulders heaving. His right hand pulsed.

Total Dud.

“Fuck.”

 

Last time he had been here had been with Kate. Back in the early days of the relationship, probably in that first month, even. Back when they held hands almost constantly and kissed in public, only vaguely aware that others were watching.

At least, that was how he remembered it. Maybe he had it all wrong. Maybe it hadn’t really been like that at all. Revisionist history. Maybe he was thinking about some movie he’d seen and transplanted it to his own experience. Was there actually such a thing?

What he did remember now, out of the blue, was playing this game, beating the shit out of this stupid plastic-leather mitt, showing off for Kate while she stood to the side and watched him, probably bored to death, most certainly bored to death, but smiling and clapping for him nonetheless. Hot Stuff! Total Hunk!! You’re All Man! He’d landed them all, growing stronger with each adrenaline-fueled punch, with each bright but polite smile Kate threw him. He ate it up.

Afterwards, while he shook the cramps out of his hand, Kate had fed a quarter into an old, rusted machine she’d been leaning on, and proceeded to crank a metal dial around. She pointed the dial to various letters of the alphabet and then, locked on the letter she wanted, tugged back on a side lever, like a slot machine. It seemed to take forever. Charley wiped sweat from his face, trying to catch his breath so it wouldn’t be so obvious that throwing three lousy punches had winded him. He glanced down at her ass. It was, he couldn’t deny, a perfect little ass. He’d slept with her for the first time just a few nights earlier. Looking at her now, working the machine, hunched over, he realized just how goddamn lucky he was.

When she was done, the old machine spat out a plastic coin, the size of a silver dollar. One side read, in curving letters that covered its circumference, Captain Shaky’s, Hampton Beach, NH. On the flip side, uneven letters stamped out: KATE & CHARLEY, JULY 8… JUST THE BEGINNING.

She tucked it away in her purse after showing him, and, when he offered her his arm, slid hers through it. They walked out into the salt air, Charley still heaving, tired, beading with sweat. The champ and his girl.

Or was that a movie too?

 

6

Charley searched his pockets for singles. He was pretty sure there were none, but he dragged his pockets inside out anyway. In his back pocket he found a wad of tens and fives. He was reluctant to leave his post, not wanting some little brat to take his game, but he eyed a change machine about halfway down the aisle behind him. Far down to his left, Joe was holding Emma up by the armpits so she could see into the top of a glass prize case.

He struggled to feed a five dollar bill into the change machine, his left hand shaky and sore. On the third or fourth try the machine grabbed it and, a beat later, a jackpot of quarters rang into the dish. Charley scooped them in frantic swipes, eyeing Knuckle Sandwich, making sure it was his. Truth was, and he probably knew it already if he’d thought about it, no one had played the game all summer. The machine had to be twenty years old, a relic from the eighties, tucked out of sight in a dark corner of Captain Shaky’s, away from the new, streamlined game consoles that lined the front of the arcade.

He thumbed three quarters into the machine. One of them kept falling through into the coin return. Finally he slapped it down on the lip of the console and dipped into his pocket for another quarter. This time the machine lit into life. Charley backed up, shaking his left hand, squeezing his fingers tight, feeling his nails gouging his palm. A young kid, well behind him, stopped and looked down the dark aisle at him. He was only eight or ten, a wet bathing suit sagging from his straight hips, dripping into a growing puddle. The kid looked puzzled, as if wondering what this ancient machine was, and what it was doing back in a dark corner of the arcade. Maybe someone had forgotten about it.

Charley scowled at him, trying to let him know that this was not a friendly atmosphere. This was serious stuff over here. Serious, grown-up stuff. Go play Pac Man. Or whatever the hell it is they play these days. Pac Man Millennium Edition.

Red button. Mitt hitched down. Charley, chewing the inside of his cheek, eyes squinted in what he hoped was relentless determination, sprung forth, cracking the mitt with a left-handed explosion that was going to create some obvious damage to this machine. The machine rocked back, vibrations pinging all the way up his arm.

Child’s Play.

He punched again in a flash of violence, even though the mitt was locked up. His knuckles cracked the plastic covering of the barometer, dull backlights flickering in struggle. “Mother-fuck!” This bitch was playing with him, had to be. Or else fucking broken. Old broken-down piece of shit taking his money and fucking mocking him. He banged the red button.

 

7

Emma decided she wanted the shell necklace, alternate white and pink shells strung on a cheap piece of twine, the centerpiece a half-inch oyster shell. She had to have it. Eighty tickets. Joe laid out their tickets in six rows of ten, with seven left over. While he was counting them off by tens the kid behind the counter told him, “Sixty-seven.”

Joe was about to explain to her that they didn’t have quite enough for the shell necklace, and maybe she could find something else. But he stopped himself. It had taken her five long minutes to pick it out, and five minutes is a long time when you’re lifting a six-year-old. Maybe it would be easier to just step on over back to a skeeball lane and score a few more tickets. What’s another buck or two on top of the six it was already costing him.

Even from over here, clear across the arcade, he could hear the occasional but constant rap of the punching game’s mitt taking a beating. The dead smack of fist against leather (faux-leather) was coming at a clip of about one every five or ten seconds. At this rate, not only must Charley have been running himself exhausted, but he was also pissing through dollar bills. Suddenly this eight dollar shit necklace was sounding like a bargain.

Four games later, at four tickets a game, they had their eighty tickets. Eighty-three to be exact. Emma had enough left over to get herself a piece of stale Bazooka bubble gum. Joe got down to one knee on the hard concrete when Emma insisted that she wear the necklace now. He fumbled with the clasp, tongue poking between his lips. Maybe, he thought, they should wait until they got home, let Nikki handle this. He’d never get it secured.

“Did you get it yet, Daddy?” She stood holding her hair up, turning her head every few seconds, peeking back at him.

“Not yet. Hold still, hon.”

“You gotta keep the thing open with your thumb.”

“I know, hold still.”

He finally got it, his knee sore and creaking as he stood. He doubted the necklace would last the ride home. Cheap piece of garbage. Emma loved it, though, beaming with pride, touching it. Joe knew she wanted to see herself. Maybe, after they went back for Charley, he’d stop over at that photo booth and let her take a look at herself in its mirror.

“Looks beautiful, honey.” He puckered his lips and gave her an air kiss, taking her by the hand.

“I know. It is beautiful.” She kept brushing her fingers over it.

“Let’s go show Uncle Charley.”

 

8

Joe had witnessed someone jump to her death once. Long time ago. He’d been in town, feeding a parking meter, when a dark streak caught his eye. He had just enough time for his eyes to find her before she hit the sidewalk. He at first thought it must have been some kind of inanimate object, maybe even a dummy; then when he admitted, a moment later, that it might have been a real person, he told himself it couldn’t have been that far of a fall, even though he never saw from where she had jumped. The body hit the pavement without much drama—no crack of concrete, no blood, not even a violent bounce—just landed. She could have fallen off a stepladder, if you’d only seen that last nanosecond. All these thoughts, scrambling around his head, a dozen different options. He’d stood there, watching, a short stack of quarters in one hand and a Three Musketeers bar in the other, unable to accept what he had seen. Just kept looking at the body, flipping through a catalog of possibilities, refusing to settle on the truth.

This was a lot like that. Coming around the corner, facing Knuckle Sandwich, seeing his brother Charley. It was that same racing of possibilities that added up to nothing more than an internal charade to avoid the truth. He felt Emma’s small hand squeeze his fingers.

Charley was panting like a fiend, slick with sweat, shirt stained dark and clinging to his body. On the dusty floor were shreds of browned gauze and tangled medical tape, next to four discarded finger splints, cracked and kicked about. The concrete around this pile was wet with laces of blood, while the lane directly in front of the machine revealed full, and partial, bloody footprints. All Joe could think of was a crime scene.

The machine had been hit so hard that it was knocked askew, almost forty-five degrees to the right of where it had been. In what seemed like one fluid motion, Charley kicked the red button with his foot, then, just as the mitt folded down, unloaded a wild right-handed punch. A faint mist of blood popped from the point of contact. The mitt snapped up and the machine rocked again.

Hot Stuff! Third from top. Better, but still just mediocre.

Charley felt a ring of pain at the end of his arm, but somehow it felt faraway and removed. Backing up after tapping the red button again, he took a curious glance at his hand: purple, swollen, bloody cracks split open in ovals. He did not even recognize it as his own. He squeezed it into a fist, feeling the vibration of bones cracking, and then threw another vicious punch into the mitt, howling with intensity.

Hot Stuff!

“What are you doing?”

He hit the red button with his knee this time, scowling. Teeth gnashing together. Chest heaving. He turned his back to the machine for a moment, vaguely aware of the two people watching him, then, just as quickly, spun and unloaded on the mitt again, following it with a scream of anguish, or anger, or simply a release of powder keg fury.

“Charley, stop. What are you doing?”

Again the voice. From somewhere behind him. He pushed his broken and swollen and shaking hand into his pockets, going after more quarters. Trying to pinch them with his gnarled fingers, failing, trying again. His hand was hurting, he knew it must have been, but somehow the pain failed to match the way the hand looked. Not much more than a dull ache, actually. Maybe a small cramp.

He dragged his hand back out and quarters rained over the concrete, plinking and bouncing. Still, despite all that he had spilled, he still had five or six in his sweaty palm. He bent at the machine and fed them in.

“Charley…”

The mitt cranked down and Charley stepped back, getting low, springing forward—like a tiger pouncing, was the way he visualized it—and punched the mitt again just as he heard his name from behind a third time.

You’re All Man!!

Finally, you fucking cheat. You bitch. Finally.

Hands were on his shoulders now. He recoiled, tried to shake away. The hands came back again, more firm this time. “Charley, stop it. Stop.” Now he could hear crying, too. He hit the red button with the side of his left hand, tried to twist away again. The mitt creaked down as Charley glanced over his shoulder to see Joe directly behind him, his eyes wild with concern.

He yanked himself free with a hard jerk and, before Joe could wrap him up again, took one step to the right, giving himself a lane, and threw his body behind a hard punch. As the mitt snapped back Joe’s arms locked around Charley’s waist. They both banged into the machine. Joe fell to his ass but would not let go, clinging to Charley around the knees. Charley tried to hold his balance, trying, also, to get a look at the scoring. He heard the crying again, louder now, and saw Emma standing a few feet away, a finger in her mouth and her face red and wet with tears. She wore a new necklace. Seashells.

“Charley, cut it out, man. Stop!”

Now, out of nowhere, his hand starting hurting. Not just an ache anymore, not just a cramp. Full-on pain that suddenly blinded him, black borders closing in on his vision. Floating away, blacking out. The red button was there, in front of him, flashing because he was supposed to hit it. He was floating away, though, lifting away. Everything else had gone dark, just a flashing red button blinking in darkness. He swiped at it with his fingertips, catching it. The mitt came down, near his eyes. He thought he was going to be sick. Dizzy like he was drunk and needing to get rid of the booze. Still floating, he took one last lazy, clumsy swing at the mitt. “Please, Charley, stop,” he heard Joe from below. His punch missed, and he floated up up and away.

 

“He’s all right. He’s okay.” Joe was talking to the crowd that had stopped and turned to watch. They walked up the aisle, Emma on Joe’s shoulders, still huffing, trying to bite back more tears. Charley was at their side, Joe’s arm squeezing his shoulders, just a bit too firm to be comforting, holding him up and holding him close.

Charley wasn’t looking at anyone else. They were all blurs, cattle, glorified car-accident spectators. Joe held his shoulders so tight it was hard to walk straight. His hand was ruined and it let him know, erupting in sickening waves of blind pain. He pulled it close to his body, pressing it gently against his stomach, but that didn’t help.

“He’s okay,” Joe continued to tell the gathering crowd, a little too mumbled to be all that sincere. He nodded as he spoke, casual, letting everyone know that this was not a big deal. No one seemed to know whether to look at Charley’s hand or his blood-speckled face. “He’s fine,” Joe continued.

Emma’s feet rose off her father’s chest and fell back again with each hurried step he took. Her knee was right next to Charley. He reached, with his left hand, his good hand, and touched it, held it. “Sorry, Em,” he said up at her, afraid that she might look back down. He didn’t want her to, afraid that it would bring him to tears himself. “I’m sorry.”

Joe led them outdoors, along the strip, moving at a brisk clip, cutting through the crowd. The salt air felt good, waking Charley, clearing his head. A band was playing somewhere and the scent of hot caramel apples filled his sinuses. Joe led them, cutting and weaving, as the crowd parted and gave them plenty of room to pass.

At the car, way in the back of a poorly lit lot, Joe eased Emma onto the hood and told her to hold on a second, then opened the front passenger door and guided Charley in, holding the top of his head so he wouldn’t bump it, the way cops did with criminals. Was he a criminal now? Is that what Joe thought? He reached into the car and fed the seat belt around him, careful not to hit the busted hand. “That all right?” Joe asked him.

“Yeah,” Charley said. “Great.”

With Emma secured in the back seat, they pulled out of the lot and drove quietly. The radio was on, too low to understand what the DJ was saying. Charley could, however, hear Emma behind him, breath hitching, still struggling. Charley licked his lips, glanced out the side window at a couple of guys sitting on the steps of a bar, sipping bottles of beer. “I’m sorry, Emma,” he told her again.

This, for some reason, got her crying even more. Charley’s eyes welled up. He put his forehead against the side glass. Joe finally spoke. Charley had thought he’d been trying to give him the silent treatment. Punish him. “What was that?”

Charley swallowed. His throat hurt from yelling at the machine. “What?”

“You know what,” he said sharply, annoyed. He peeked at Emma in the rear-view mirror. “What was that all about?”

He picked his hand up, biting back a bark of pain, readjusted it on his lap. He exhaled. “I don’t know,” was all he said.

But he did know. He was in too much pain to have to talk, but yes, he did know. To him, it all made sense. He wanted his brother to know that. Hell, he wanted Emma to know that, too, especially wanted her to know it. But not right now. Right now he couldn’t speak. Right now he could only close his eyes, squeeze them shut and bite his cheek, will away some of this pain.

The doctor had said that the cast would have been on his hand for six to eight weeks, and that he’d still probably have soreness and difficulty gripping. The soreness might have lasted another couple months, maybe longer. Two months with the cast, two more with the soreness. A four-month constant reminder of getting his fingers slammed in a car door, of bad fights, bad breakups. Of failure. Four months of regret. And he didn’t want that. He didn’t want to wake up every morning with his hand aching, an early morning reminder of that awful afternoon out in the driveway. He didn’t want to be angry at Kate every single day.

And so now he wouldn’t. They were driving to the hospital again, where there’d be more x-rays and more stitches, more splints and tape and plaster. There’d be more damage this time. Most certainly surgeries. A year’s recovery instead of a couple months. Soreness and discomfort that was sure to last a lifetime. And he couldn’t be mad at Kate for that. Only himself.

 

9

There is a stretch of road in Hampton that runs between the beach and the strip of arcades, pizza shacks, and bars. At the north end of the strip, you can continue up toward North Hampton and Seabrook, or you can bear off to the left to a south road that runs along the back of all the arcades and bars, and then scoop the loop again. This is what all the young guys did, cruising in their modified Mustangs and Camaros and motorcycles, circling around and around, lurching forward in stop and go traffic, stereos cranked, bass thumping, smoking cigarettes in their wife-beater T-shirts, howling at the junior high girls.

Charley and Kate sat in this traffic, inching along. It wasn’t particularly hot out—it was late and a cool breeze chipped off the ocean—but Charley had the windows up and the A/C humming, just to keep the headache-inducing music out of the car. Instead, they listened to a Red Sox game. They were beating the Devil Rays, 3–1, in the eighth.

His right hand was sore, his knuckles bruised and wrist aching. Might have had a slight sprain. It hurt to shift the gears, but thankfully, in this traffic, he hadn’t had to pull it out of first yet. When he’d backed out of the parking space a few minutes before, he’d winced shifting into reverse. Kate asked him if he was all right. “Just sore,” he’d said. “Overdid it a little.”

She picked his hand off the shift and brought it to her lap, caressing and massaging his fingers and palm. “Showing off for your new girlfriend?” She smiled and glimpsed him from the corner of her eye.

Charley shrugged, trying not to be self-conscious. “Yeah, a little. I admit it.”

Kate kissed his knuckles. “Well,” she told him, pecking each finger, one at a time, slow and teasing. “I was very impressed.”

They’d been dating almost a month. It was the first time she had used the word girlfriend. God, he loved it. The plastic coin she had made hung from the ignition with his keys. Somehow, it felt like a commitment. Like jewelry.

She kept kissing and massaging his hand. It wasn’t really helping at all but, still, it felt good. He pressed the brake again, for the hundredth time, and looked over at her, watched her. She wore a navy blue V-neck T- shirt with a Red Sox logo over the left breast. No one could wear a T-shirt like she could. Around her thin, tanned neck was one of those candy necklaces. Pink and white and pale green candies strung along a piece of cheap elastic. It had cost him twelve skeeball tickets.

The next time he stopped, just another five feet ahead, he tugged the hand brake up so he could rest his foot and then, sliding his hurt hand around her shoulders, leaned over to nibble at her necklace. “Charley!” Kate squirmed, locking her shoulders up around her neck.

He kept going, biting and licking, sometimes getting candy, sometimes going for the smooth curve leading to her collarbone, tasting the sweetness of the candies with the salt of her summer skin. She laughed, wild and panicked, and he laughed too. Her neck was so goddamn sexy.

The car behind them gave two short toots of the horn to get going. Charley picked his head up, saw the traffic starting to move. He put the hand brake back down. Kate, breathing hard, reached across and wiped wet candy crumbs from his chin. A smile lighting upon his face, Charley stretched toward her one more time and kissed her lips. Then he put the car into first, fisting the gearshift painlessly, and the car hitched forward. The plastic coin, swaying with the sudden movement of the car, glimmered like gold.

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