Authors: Steve Weddle
F+W Media, Inc.
“What happened to your face?” Champion Tatum asked his only son.
The boy had been standing in the back doorway, waiting for his father to look up from splitting wood. Champion set the axe down on its head, left the piece of jagged oak where it lay, and crossed the path of hardpacked mud to the back steps.
At ten years old, the boy could have stood on the bottom step and been even with his father, a man who had been beaten enough for the past fifty years. Instead, the boy stayed on the top step, making his father stare up at him, at the scraped chin, little pieces of gravel wedged like flecks of house paint into the skin.
They went inside the house, five rooms that hadn’t been cleaned since Eleanor Tatum had come home from the mill late that Saturday night last June, skipped church the next morning, and walked into the front yard to put a bullet through her temple.
“Never seen a woman do that,” Champion had overheard one of the deputies saying.
“Must have been pretty messed up, do something like that,” a tall man Champion hadn’t seen before said. “Women usually take pills. You know, when they cash in.”
“Damned shame,” another deputy said, shaking his head, scratching into his notepad.
They all shook their heads and agreed it was a damned shame.
Champion looked in the medicine cabinet for a can of antibiotic spray while the boy rinsed the cut out in the sink, washing watery blood and bits of earth down the rust-tinged drain. Champion moved the toothpaste, the cough syrup, the Q-Tips from shelf to shelf. He shut the mirrored door, easing it softly into a metallic click. He reached down below the faucet, held his palm up to catch the water, and splashed it around the basin until it was mostly white again. He wet a washcloth, pulled free some of the loose threads, wadded it into a ball at one end, and dabbed the boy’s chin. He set the cloth on the counter, reached under the boy’s arms to lift him onto the edge by the sink. Felt the warm strain in his lower back, took a step away from the boy. Told him to hop up on the counter, which the boy did with ease.
“What happened to your face?” Champion asked again, drying the boy’s chin with a towel he’d found on the floor.
He nodded. “Looks like it hurt.” He put his palms on the boy’s ears, tilted the boy’s head back to look at the drying blood under the chin.
“’s fine,” the boy said. “Just fell is all.”
“Reckon the other boy’s worse?” he asked, hoping his son had toughened up the last year. Hoping he was back to normal, back to being a boy. Fistfights and forts. Skinning squirrels. Running trot lines. Champion had taken to having an extra few drinks on nights the boy wouldn’t stop crying.
The first few days after Eleanor Tatum had killed herself, Champion was the grieving widower, with Tatums from his side, Pennicks from hers, filling up the house. Neighbors came by with food and advice. A day at a time. Be strong for the boy. Call if you need anything. Then a week. A month. Then everyone moved on to the next death in Columbia County. The defensive end at the high school. Too young. A damned shame, they said, then celebrated the boy’s life with one Friday night in July at the Legion Hall while Champion and his son sat alone in the darkness. Everyone else had moved on, collecting tragedies like folk tales. near the Walkerville Cemetery, that. Champion woke up each morning, hoping his son was all cried out.
The boy shook his head. The other boy wasn’t worse off. No one was worse off. “I had this stick,” the boy said. “The walking stick Momma brought back from when she went up to Hot Springs that time.”
Champion remembered the time. The curled-up corners of her smile when she’d won employee of the year and they’d sent her up, an all-expense paid vacation for two, to a hotel for the weekend and she and Imogene McAllister had come back with gifts for their families and months’ worth of stories to tell. Eleanor had never been as happy as that weekend she was able to “get away,” as she’d called it. She’d brought back that walking stick and a marionette for the boy, a pair of boots for her husband. Champion thought about the gifts, but couldn’t remember whether she’d brought back anything for herself.
Another boy, Kenny Jenkins’s son, had taken the stick away from the boy on the cut-through behind the fishing pond. “He said he’d give it back if I kissed the ground in front of his feet. And I didn’t want to start nothing. And there were like four or five boys standing with him and they were all looking at me waiting for me to do something.” And this. And that. And. And. And the boy was all alone.
“So I just figured I’d like bend down and … ” He stopped. Wiped his nose as the tears came, as the cut in his chin reopened.
Champion wet the rag, put it in the boy’s hand, pressed the boy’s hands to the wound until the boy winced. “Just hold this here. Not too tight,” he said. “So you bent down?”
“Yeah, but I wasn’t going to kiss the ground,” the boy said. “Not for Toby Jenkins or nobody. I just leaned down like I was going to, then I was going to get back up like I’d done it and get my stick back and come home.”
“But it didn’t work that way, did it?”
“I put my head down and Toby shoved my face into the ground and then everyone goes off laughing.”
“It’s all right. You’re home now.”
“I gotta get that stick back, Dad. He took it from me. I gotta get it back.” The boy slid down from the counter.
Champion took a roll of toilet paper from the top of the tank, unrolled a couple feet, gave it to the boy to dry his face, blow his nose. Then Champion took the cloth, pressed it to the boy’s chin to try to keep the wound closed.
“We’ll go in the morning.”
“We gotta go now.”
“In the morning, son. It’s getting late. In the morning.”
• • •
Champion was up late watching the Astros give up a three-run lead to the Padres when he heard the boy wake up crying. Give it a minute, Champion told himself. Like he always did. A few minutes later, he told himself to give it a few more minutes. The Astros were up in the ninth with a man on third and one out. Champion heard a storm of noise from the other side of the wall. The boy kicked and cried, trying to exhaust himself to sleep, Champion hoped, but he knew better. He knew the boy was kicking, was swinging in the air. Fighting the emptiness around him.
Champion Tatum stood up, walked into the kitcheI shook my head,an Hn, and pulled down what was left of the whiskey. He twisted off the top, downed a couple fingers’ worth, then put the top back on and placed the bottle back into the cabinet. Then he stepped out of his boots, turned off the television, and walked into the boy’s room. He took a deep breath, closed the door behind him, and climbed into bed with his son, putting the boy’s head on his shoulder until the boy fell asleep.
When morning came through the sheets Champion had hung for curtains, he rolled himself off the mattress to the floor. Got to his elbows and knees and worked himself to standing. Next check the government sends, he thought, I’m getting the boy a real bed.
Champion had finished his second cup of coffee when the boy came out of the bathroom, ready to go down the road to the Jenkins house.
They got into the pickup and drove the half mile to see Kenny Jenkins. Champion looked at the distance in silence. Ten years ago I could have walked this no problem, he thought. Maybe twenty.
They pulled into the driveway two minutes later, saw Kenny playing football with his sons, Toby and Wyatt. Kenny tossed the ball back onto the porch as a half-dozen dogs came chasing nothing around the corner of the house. The dogs stopped between the Jenkins boys and the pickup, barking until Kenny threw a stick at them, yelling at the goddamned dogs to shut the hell up.
Champion and the boy got out of the truck and walked across the clumps of weeds and mud. Kenny pulled off his baseball cap, wiped his forehead with the bend of his elbow, put the cap back on.
“Mr. Tatum,” he said, “what can I do for you?” He squinted an eye, tilted his head, smiled. Neighborly.
“Seems to have been a problem with the boys yesterday,” Champion said, which made Kenny turn to face Wyatt and Toby at his side. “What did you boys do?”
“I didn’t do nothing,” Toby said.
“I didn’t do nothing neither,” Wyatt said as they both took a step to the house.
“Probably nothing,” Champion said. “One of the boys ended up with my son’s walking stick. We just thought we’d save you some trouble and swing by and pick it back up.”
Sounded fair, Champion thought. He looked at the man in front of him, half his age and twice his size. A little problem they had, a problem he was helping solve. Probably nothing.
“Hang on a second, Champ,” Kenny Jenkins said, taking a step forward. “I know you ain’t accusing my boys of stealing.” The way he said “Champ,” more like a joke than a nickname. Like the way you’d call a puppy “Champ” when he came out of a fight with his ear dangling. Like the way you’d call an old mare “Champ” before you had to put her down.
Champion looked over at his son, who was looking up at him. The boy looked across at the Jenkins boys, then to Mr. Jenkins. “It’s okay,” the boy whispered to his father. “It’s okay.”
Champion Tatum took a step toward Kenny Jenkins. “We don’t want any trouble,” he said. “We just came for the walking stick.”
“What if my boys say they don’t have your walking stick?” Kenny Jenkins asked, turning his head and spitting across the distance to the side of Champion’s shoe. “You gonna apologize for accusing them?”
No one said he was killed.
Then Champion took a final step to Kenny Jenkins. “Nobody needs any more trouble.”
Kenny looked at Champion’s eyes. Champion held the stare, searching for his own reflection.
Kenny turned to his sons. “Go get the stick, son,” he said to Toby.
“But Dad. I didn’t—”
“Get the stick.”
• • •
When they got back to the house, the boy stayed outside with the walking stick, running around the yard, pointing the end of the stick at nothingness, blasting spells into the air.
Champion opened the window in the kitchen, sat down at the table, and listened to his son make explosion sounds as he jumped from stumps along the woods. He thought about what the boy had said on the way back. “You did it. That was great. Did you see his face? That was awesome.” And on and on.
In the yard the boy swung the stick around, commanding all his followers to attack the castle.
Inside the empty house, Champion Tatum po
When I came around the corner into his back yard, he had his glasses in his hands, rubbing the lenses with a blue bandana.
I cleared my throat, and he looked up. We were about twenty feet apart.
“The fuck you want, boy?” he said, standing up and grabbing his shotgun from the table. He was more than twice my age, in his mid-60s I’d guess. Thin, rough at the edges. And there were plenty of edges to the guy. Old snakeskin boots. Jeans. Brown flannel shirt hanging out of his pants.
The sun was coming up over the tree line, past the acre-long field behind his house. Midmorning. About this time of year.
“Mr. Greer, my name’s Roy Alison.” I pulled some papers out of my back pocket.
“I know who you are, shitface.” He raised the barrels of the shotgun to my face. “Everybody knows who you are. You’re the piece of shit who killed his parents.”
That stopped me. I guess I’ll never get used to that. Never get away from it. Which is fine. I did kill my parents.