Read Grist Mill Road Online

Authors: Christopher J. Yates

Grist Mill Road (26 page)

 

ROSEBORN, NEW YORK, 2008

Matthew doesn't wait to see if he's following, just turns and steps inside the house.

McCluskey stands on the drive, hands on hips, the heat battering him as the voice says it again.
You gotta hear the guy out
.

Fuck you, Mikey, he whispers, heading down the path to the porch, then through the front door, closing it behind him.

We're all in here, Detective, he hears Matthew call out from a room beyond the end of the hallway, where McCluskey can see a kitchen counter and a bunch of black metal skillets hanging from hooks.

He enters the kitchen, Matthew and a black woman standing at the stove, their backs to him, the room smelling of bacon grease. At a large kitchen table sits an old man in a billowing nightshirt, three-quarters bald but with long cirrus wisps of hair sprouting from his crown and the sides of his head.

Matthew reaches across the stovetop for a piece of bacon that hisses away on a griddle, and just as his fingers pinch the end of a slice, the woman slaps his hand with a spatula, Matthew yelping, turning to McCluskey.

Take a seat, Detective, he says. Coffee?

Nah, says McCluskey, I'm bitter enough already.

He sits down at the end of the table, and then Matthew heads
over, cup of coffee in hand, and takes the seat opposite the old man, who looks like he's about to fall asleep. Matthew picks up the old man's hand, and says, Look, Pete, we have a visitor. But the old man's sagging head doesn't move, and Matthew speaks to him louder this time, Pete, Pete, this is Detective McCluskey.

And not looking up, the old man says, Do I know him?

No, you've never known him, says Matthew.

The old man sighs, hunching farther down in his seat.

Please, Detective McCluskey, says Matthew. You can speak freely, Pete's not going to remember anything you say to me.

McCluskey glances toward the stove.

Celeste, Matthew calls over his shoulder, will everything keep in the oven for a few minutes? This shouldn't take long.

Is he here to arrest you or me? says Pete to the table.

McCluskey twists in his seat. What was that, sir? he says. Arrest someone? Why would I want to arrest anyone? Has Matthew done something wrong?

Pete is opening and closing his eyes, one then the other, looking confused and upset, as if someone is deliberately misconstruing his words. Matthew squeezes his hand encouragingly.

He shot her in the eye, Pete snorts.

Celeste, who has finished stowing breakfast in the oven, starts to leave the kitchen. Shout when you ready, Mr. Matthew, she says, McCluskey noticing a Caribbean accent. I be in my room till you need me, she calls out, her voice fading away down the hallway before her feet hit the stairs.

Pete, they already arrested me for that, says Matthew. I went to prison, remember? You came to visit me every month for two years. Every single month without fail.

The old man looks annoyed at the latest misunderstanding, and slaps the table. I could never have done it, he says, becoming quickly upset. I could never have gone through with it. And then his fingers start to trace lines following the grain of the wood, as if something is written there, but when he can't find any words, he shakes his head and closes his eyes. Matthew eighteen? he says, No, Matthew … A moment later, Pete sighs, and starts to breathe
deeply, McCluskey hearing that he is already asleep, the air catching in the old man's throat now and again, before exiting with a low whistle.

Matthew drops Pete's hand gently to the table, stirs his coffee a few turns, and looks across at McCluskey. Pete gets easily confused these days, Detective, he says.

McCluskey runs a hand down his cheek, feeling the scrape of his missed morning shave. Your father has Alzheimer's, right? he says.

Matthew nods. Yes, he says, only Pete's not my father. Pete's a friend.

McCluskey feels like he's being played, and yet he's not sure the guy's playing him. Yeah, he says, you know, my grandfather had the same thing, the Alzheimer's. Me and my little sis, we were just kids, right, so we thought it was funny. He'd put stuff on back-to-front, like this wifebeater he always wore down to breakfast, so you could see all the white hair on his back, then he'd get lost buying the newspaper, knock on the wrong houses coming home, accuse the people opening their own doors of being burglars. And after that he'd yell the whole street down and my dad would have to come running. Me and my little sis thought it was this funny kind of joke, right? Just a couple of dumbass kids, what did we know? Anyway, I guess I get it now, now that it's too late. So I'm sorry about your friend, Matthew.

Thank you, Detective, says Matthew, running his finger around the rim of his coffee cup, looking first at Pete, then down at the cup.

The bacon smell still hangs in the air, like some kind of Abu Ghraib fuckin torture, McCluskey glancing out of the kitchen windows to the back of the property, large lake with a rowboat, and what must be a hundred-plus trees. He scratches his ear. You know what, Matthew? he says. I guess things got a little heated this morning, so thank you for inviting me in. And in return, I'll level with you. I got two questions, that's all. Then I swear I'm out of here. Do you mind?

Ask me anything, Detective.

Appreciate it, says McCluskey. So, not to waste anyone's time here, straight on to the first one. This morning, right? Why'd you say sorry to Hannah?

Matthew smiles, cocking his head, as if McCluskey has wasted one of his questions. I said sorry because I'm sorry about what I did to her, Detective.

McCluskey turns away, as if there's something unpleasant in the air. Yeah, he says, that's what I was worried you'd say.

Worried, Detective? Why?

Because it makes the answer to question number two a lot more complicated.

And question two is?

McCluskey shrugs. If you're so fuckin sorry, he says, why'd you go and buy Hannah's house?

Matthew takes a sip of coffee. That is complicated, he says.

Fuckin A, says McCluskey. Because the way it looks to me sitting here, you buying the house of someone whose eye you shot out? I gotta say, that seems like a provocative act, you know? Not exactly some kind of
so fuckin sorry
behavior.

Provocative? I can see that, Detective.

So was it?

Matthew blinks, once, twice. Yes, Detective, I suppose that it was, he says.

Now McCluskey wants to hit the fuckin guy, not for anything he's said exactly, but just because throwing a punch would make him feel a whole lot better. You wanted to provoke her why? he says. Because maybe you wanted her to come see you?

I suppose, says Matthew. Or to make contact by some other means, perhaps. I'm not sure I really self-analyzed the whole thing at the time, Detective.

McCluskey makes his hand into a fist, bounces it three times on his thigh, like he's playing rock, paper, scissors. So what was the angle? he says. What did you want from this contact with Hannah?

Matthew keeps his eyes fixed on McCluskey as he thinks it through, like being stared at by one of the big cats in the zoo, and then finally he speaks. Detective, I'm not really interested in
psychotherapy, he says, but perhaps some part of me wants Hannah to acknowledge what she did.

Acknowledge? says McCluskey. What she did?

That's right.

And you wanna tell me in your own words what Hannah did?

Not really.

No? You mean she didn't tie her fuckin self to the tree?

Matthew crosses his arms. Detective, he says, the problem for you here is that you're swimming in the waters of a story you don't understand.

McCluskey laughs. Nah, he says, that's not a problem. Most days of the week that's the top line of my job description. And then he stares at Matthew, because if he's being played, the guy's good, and Matthew just gives him that cat-on-the-prowl stare again.

But then Matthew's cell phone, on the kitchen counter beneath all the hanging black skillets, interrupts the staring match with a bleep, McCluskey leaning back in his seat as Matthew reaches over his shoulder, picks up the phone, and glances down at the screen. Could you give me a moment, Detective? he says. I have to reply to this. He looks up at a clock on the wall, peers at it thoughtfully, and then pecks away at the cell phone one-fingered.

Sorry, says Matthew, placing the phone facedown to the table. Where were we?

You have someplace you need to be? says McCluskey.

I can spare a few more minutes, says Matthew. And look, he says, there's something important I need to add, Detective. You see, I didn't buy this house solely to provoke Hannah Jensen. That might not even have been the main reason I bought it. Does anyone really know why they do all the things they do? But you asked me a question and I answered it as honestly as I could, provocation was an element in the decision, I suppose. However, also I had the money to buy this place, Detective, and it's arguably the finest house in the area. I wanted somewhere for Pete to live that would be big enough for a caregiver as well—Celeste looks after
him full-time when I'm not here. I wanted Pete to stay in Roseborn, near the Swangums, where he's lived all his life. He loves the mountains, Detective, he spent years working up there. You can see the escarpment ridge from all of the windows at the front of the house—I suppose I hoped it might jog something. But I didn't actively come looking for this house, Detective, I was working with a real estate agent on finding a place in the area and suddenly this property came on the market. And there's something else important, maybe more important than anything else. I first saw this house when I was fourteen years old. Did you ever see something when you were a child, Detective—a friend's clothes, their mother's jewelry, their father's tie—and realize there existed an entirely different world from the one in which you'd been growing up?

And McCluskey knows this is it, he's got all he's going to get. Yeah, he says, Benny Fazio's record player. Big, beautiful beast, red leatherette. You could stack five records and play them one after the other. First time I ever heard The Beatles was in Benny's bedroom, his parents were out somewhere and he pounded
I Wanna Hold Your Hand
through these speakers half the fuckin size of my bedroom.

Matthew nods encouragingly. Right, he says, and if you saw a record player just like it in a store tomorrow, maybe even the very same one, might you not be tempted to buy it?

And he waits a few beats before giving the answer.
Nahhh,
says McCluskey, milking the exhale. Thing is, Matthew Weaver, I'm a CD guy. Switched over my whole collection years ago—Huey Lewis and the News, that was the first disc I ever bought. Oh, you know what? That was probably around the same time you were tying a girl to a tree and shooting out her eye. Early eighties, right?

Fair enough, Detective, says Matthew, glancing up at the clock. Have I answered both your questions now?

Sure, deal's a deal, says McCluskey. But before I go, do I need to run through my whole stay-the-fuck-away shtick again?

I already gave you my word, Detective. But if you need me to
say it again, I promise you I won't go anywhere near Hannah Jensen.

McCluskey stands up with an uneasy sense of believing the guy means what he says, the legs of his chair scraping the floorboards, the noise waking Pete, who comes to with a snort.

Pete, our visitor's leaving now, says Matthew. Would you like to say goodbye?

But still Pete doesn't lift his eyes from the table as he speaks. No, I could never have done it, says Pete, his fingers tracing the wood again. Better to have … better
for him
to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths … Pete hesitates, starting to sound doubtful … How does it go? To be drowned in the depths … to be drowned in the depths of…? What comes next? Pete asks, looking up at Matthew. To be drowned in the depths … of the ocean? says Pete, quickly becoming upset, his fingers stiffening on the table. No, that's not it, he says, looking back down at the table, that's not what it says, those aren't the right words.

Matthew gets up and walks around the table. He crouches down beside Pete and puts a hand on his shoulder. Do you mind seeing yourself out, Detective, he says.

No problemo, says McCluskey.

Detective? says Pete, his fingers starting to tremble. Detective you say? Is he here to arrest me?

No, Pete, says Matthew, taking Pete's hand and rubbing his shoulder. No one's arresting you, not today, not ever. The detective was only here to see me, but he's going now. I know you can't remember but it was a long time ago. And I promise, Pete, I promise, you didn't do anything wrong.

Pete squints at the table. Yes, he says, with a relieved sigh. Matthew eighteen, he nods, Matthew eighteen.

 

MATTHEW

Yes, I had fallen in love with you, Pete, and yet, on the last day of school before summer vacation, 1982, I signed off my final note to Hannah with the little crossed swords of a kiss, placing the piece of paper in her locker so that she would find it toward the end of the day. It wasn't an especially gallant act, I'll admit, considering the feelings I'd developed elsewhere, but I wish the world good luck ever finding a teenage boy whose body is exploding with honorable hormones.

Just before she climbed onto her school bus for the last time in seventh grade, Hannah turned, her eyes locating me alongside Tricky. The look she gave me was something I hadn't seen from her before, as if that kiss at the end of my note had prompted something. There was nothing glacial about this change—while Hannah's kiss a few months earlier had been innocent, the look in her eyes on my last ever day of school certainly was not. What a look, and oh how it thrilled me—considerably more than anything Christie Laing had ever done. Hannah's burning blue eyes made me feel breathless with a deep and powerful sense of lust.

*   *   *

AS FAR AS I WAS
concerned, there was nothing wrong with wanting both you and Hannah at the same time. I still feel that way to this day.

When I lay in bed at night, having the same thoughts I'm sure most teenage boys do, I would think about you both and picture you both—not at the same time, but sometimes both on the same night—and while the feelings might have been different, the biological response was exactly the same.

For Hannah, I felt a kind of urgent rush of desire. Thinking about her as I lay beneath my bedcovers was an intense multisensory experience. Those bright eyes, the way she laughed, the feel of her lips. I swear I could even smell her scent in the darkness of my bedroom, a kind of female musk that drove me wild and left me feeling short of breath, my lust for her so fierce I could taste it. I wanted my skin on her skin, my mouth against hers, our bodies joined together as one.

However, the feelings I had for you, Pete, were deeper. When it came to you, it felt as if it were not just the weakness in my flesh that desired you, but the strength inside my bones. You were something of the soul, filling a hollow place inside of me. I didn't only crave you like a drug, I needed you like air, like a fish needs water.

I know what most people would think if they were ever to read these words. They would say that you were a father figure, that my feelings were misplaced because my desire for your love bloomed from the fact that my own father didn't love me, didn't like me, wanted even to hurt me, but I don't care what people think. I always loved you for you, Pete, and if you happened to fill a father-size hole in my life, if that made me love you even more, then so be it.

You see, it isn't always this way around when it comes to who I love in the world—the urgent lust for women, the deep longing for men. I've craved men in that same feverish way I yearned for Hannah as a teenage boy, and I've loved women deep down in my bones, in the place that makes me worship another human being for their heart, for their mind, for the sense of something magical in their soul.

So let no one ever call you a father figure, Pete. Labels are for soup cans, just like you said. I won't ever let another human being label me.

I love who I love, that's all there is to it. Don't we all? Why should something like that need a word? I can't see why people find this so hard to understand.

Perhaps they're afraid. Afraid of what? I was never afraid.

*   *   *

THE NEXT DAY, TRICKY'S PARENTS
took us out for breakfast to celebrate the end of school, me and Tricky, Tricky's brother Sean, and Sean's best friend and next-door neighbor, a boy named Kyle.

Tricky's dad offered to pick me up from home, but I didn't want the McConnells seeing the dump in which I lived, so I rode my bike over to theirs instead, and then we headed out, four boys in the back of a blue Chevy Impala, just about sitting in each other's laps, my face smooshed up against a window. The route took us along a few streets in town I hadn't been down before. There were kids shooting hoops on their drives, sprinklers sprinkling lawns, all the usual, and then, on a street called Tall Pines Road, before we made the turn onto Main Street, I saw something that made me look twice—it was parked in a driveway, a green truck with a large decal of a gold maple leaf set in a gold triangle adorning its side. It was your Swangum Conservancy truck, Pete.

I was still making sure I'd remember the location when Tricky's dad turned onto Main Street and parked up. Hey, look at that, he said, so pleased with himself you'd have thought he'd just won the election. The perfect spot, he said, right across the street.

Even with my face smooshed up against the wrong window, I knew what was behind me, right across the street.

Everyone squeezed out of the car, and then I stood there, just staring over the road at the Blue Moon diner with a feeling like there was a rock lodged in my gut.

It was Tricky's mom who noticed me hanging back.

What's wrong, Matthew?

Nothing, Mrs. McConnell. Just … my mom works here, that's all.

Oh, she said, turning to Tricky's dad, everyone else hovering by the crosswalk. Joe, she called out, her voice half an octave higher than it needed to be, did you know Matthew's mom works at the Blue Moon?

Joe McConnell was fingering his car keys. Well, we don't have to, I mean …

It's fine, I said, no, it's good. She wants to meet you, Joe … sorry, Mr. McConnell. She said she's thinking of voting for you.

Well, that's nice, said Joe. Isn't that nice, Carrie?

In the diner, I sat at one end of the moon-blue banquette next to Tricky. Opposite us, Sean and Kyle were playing some childish game they'd come up with, blowing paper sleeves from straws as far as they could, and then everything proceeded to go as badly as I'd imagined it would, my mom spotting us and hurrying over, fixing her hair and her apron, and then becoming all deferential to Tricky's parents, while Tricky's parents acted like the three of them were old buddies from college. At some point, Sean O'Connell asked my mom if it was true that waitresses spat in the drinks of customers they didn't like, and when the time came to order food, Kyle asked for a club sandwich and then sent it back because he didn't know there was tomato in a club sandwich. All the while, my mom, a nervous smile nailed to her face, fussed around us like she was proud of me—not for anything about me as a human being, mind, but simply for having made it into the company of such esteemed Roseborn royalty. Then Kyle sent back his sandwich a second time because all they did was pull out the tomato and he said he could still taste it, but worst of all, as my mom was clearing away the plates, Carrie McConnell said to her, Listen, Patricia …
Please, call me Pat
.… Oh isn't that nice. Well, Pat, we'd love to have you and your husband over to dinner sometime, what with our sons being such good friends. What do you think?

Sure, said my mom, in her broadest Queens, we'd love to have dinner with the both of you. We'll bring the liquor and make a
proper party of it. Hey, Matthew, here's my pen, write down our number on a napkin for Mrs. O'Connell while I clear the table. Settle up when you like, Joe, no hurry.

I did as I was told, looking up from the napkin to see Joe McConnell throwing down singles one by one, making a slow, ostentatious show of leaving a generous tip, and then at last we got the hell out of that place.

As for that dinner party? Well, praise be to God, Pete, that such an enchanting soir
é
e would never actually happen, which was just one of many good things to result from the fact that my daddy had only a short time left on this planet. Amen!

*   *   *

I NOTICED YOUR TRUCK WAS
no longer outside your house when we drove back to the McConnells along Tall Pines Road. Tricky and his family were headed down to Westchester to visit relatives later that day. I thought about riding up to the Swangums and trying to find you, but I knew you'd be working and it didn't seem right, so I just headed home.

After that painful hour in the diner, home looked twice as ugly as before, a huge array of crap in the front yard that any visitor would have to wade through before they could get to the front door. Hubcaps and I beams and oil drums, a whole bunch of lumber, an old rumble seat, half a tractor …

There were two tall piles of old broken pallets leaning against one side of the house, and whenever I was worried about whether my daddy was home, I'd make sure to take a quick peek behind them to see if his car was parked there. Only at that point in our lives, my daddy had actually been enjoying a period of unbroken work, his latest job, something at the Jensen Royal Cement plant, getting close to setting an all-time record—seven or eight weeks and he hadn't been fired. Life was considerably easier to bear whenever my daddy was working, employment cooling his moods a notch or two.

So I didn't see his car behind the pallet piles. If I had I would have gotten right back on my bike. As I opened the door, still
thinking of the horror show back at the diner, finally I laughed at the whole thing, especially the way Joe McConnell had laid down his tip, most of the adults in the world seeming ridiculous to me back then, and that's when I saw him, my daddy waiting for me on the couch.

What you laughin at, Chuckles? he said.

Nothing, I said.

How bout you set yourself down and tell me all about all this nothin?

I took the armchair farthest away from him.

You hungry? he said.

No, sir.

What? You mean you've eaten already?

Yes, sir.

Anythin interestin?

Blueberry pancakes.

Blueberry pancakes? And where'd you go for these
blueberry pancakes
? he said.

At this point I realized my daddy clearly knew where I'd been. My mom had never been the sort of person to let her brain get in the way of her mouth. My guess is she called him right after we stepped out the door of the diner to tell him the good news about the dinner invitation. God bless her, she probably even thought he'd be excited.

Now I had two choices. I could lie to my daddy and get whupped for being a liar, or I could tell him the truth. My immediate future right now was like a flow chart, this way or that, that way or the other, only this chart was all screwed up because everything ended up landing in the very same box.

So, talking fast and putting it all out there as if it couldn't possibly mean anything, I said, The McConnells took us to the Blue Moon, and I had pancakes there and Carrie, Mrs. McConnell had them too, and this other boy—

Wait, wait, wait. Blue Moon diner? Did you say Blue
Moon
?

Yes, sir.

You sayin you let your momma wait on you in front of a whole
room of strangers, boy? You went and humiliated her in her place of work? Now wait one goddam minute. Do you think you're better than your momma, boy?

No, sir.

No, sir? Why, you piece of unholy shit. How'd you think that made your momma feel? All warm inside? You think because you hang around with those McConnells you're better than us, that it?

No, sir.

No, sir, that's damn as hell right, sir. Makin your momma wait on you. Probably thinkin like you're a man now, boy? Women waitin on you. Takes more than that. You wanna know what it feels like to be a man? A real man? You need to be punished, boy. And you gonna be.

I guess I can stop at this point because the precise to and fro won't add much. Or maybe I just can't face writing it all down. Besides, you saw the bruises yourself, Pete, how they ran down one side of my body because of the way I was curled up in the armchair.

Anyway, apart from small details, the way it went down that particular day wasn't much different from all the others.

*   *   *

I KEPT MY BRUISES HIDDEN
from the eyes of the world, only occasionally wearing shorts, the flesh on my arms always concealed beneath long-sleeved T-shirts and sweatshirts. Even if I'd ever learned successfully to roll my shirtsleeves like Tricky, half the time I would have had to keep them buttoned up at the wrist.

My daddy always stayed away from my face, a level of calculation that made him all the more monstrous to my mind. At least there would have been something honest if he'd drunkenly given me a black eye once in a while.
Looky here, people, sometimes I hit my son when I'm all good and toasty
.

Why did I keep the bruises hidden? It certainly wasn't because I was ashamed of having been beaten. It takes a hell of a lot to shame me. No, I was ashamed of having a daddy who was a beater, that was the problem.

Right after it happened, I lay on my bed curled up on the side that wasn't hurting, trying to concentrate on the feel of the blueberry pancakes slipping their way into my stomach. Apparently I'd caused my daddy to be late for work, and as soon as it was over, he left the house, our front door sounding his continued fury, the wheels of his car screaming violently as he pulled onto the road.

A few moments later, little Billy came out of his room, pushed himself up against my back and held me by the shoulder. My daddy had only ever given little Billy a few light cuffs thus far in life. I don't know if this was because of his age or his Down syndrome. It was a strange relationship my daddy had with Billy's condition, if another man had ever called my brother Pug, I have little doubt my daddy would've propelled the guy to the ER in less than a flash.

Although I liked little Billy being there to comfort me, there was someone else I really wanted lying on my bed with me, only I knew you'd be at work the whole day.

I tried to imagine telling you what had happened, but when I pictured it the words were too hard to get out. Then I imagined me touching one of my sore ribs and me wincing hard enough that you'd notice, and then maybe you'd take me by the arm, concerned, and I'd wince again at your touch. Where else does it hurt? you'd ask me, and I'd start to point, here and here and here, all the way down one side of my body, then you'd lift up my T-shirt and see the first bruise, lift a little higher, another and another, and you'd have to pull the T-shirt all the way over my head to see every one. Finally, you'd kiss my bruises better, Pete, that's what I wanted you to do, and in return, I would have done anything to make you happy, anything at all.

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