First published at Crime Scene Scotland in 2004.
I was eight when I saw my Dad die, almost nine when I watched my step-dad do the same.
Northbound 101, halfway through the Avenue of the Giants, Dad stopped at a roadside tourist hole. On this hot July day, he poured sweat like he’d just left a sauna. Dad was a large man. He smelled big, wore Elvis Costello glasses you could burn ants with, and was so fat his belly had a belly. I loved him so much I’d have died for him. He lived with frustration every day of his life, but he never hit us, never once raised his voice.
No, Dad took out his frustrations on food.
While Mom went to the outhouse, Dad and I went inside to look at trinkets. I remember shelves of lacquered redwood clocks and windmills, hordes of redwood bears that looked like fat redwood rats. But what fascinated me were the plastic-wrapped redwood seedlings on sale for two bucks a pop. Dad bought me one. He never said no to me.
Up front, a row of glass jars displayed every hard candy I could think of and a few more. “Everything from Abba to Zabba,” Dad said. Next to the register was a big jar of homemade pickles. I ogled the candy; Dad ogled the pickles.
Dad paid for the seedling, and as he turned to go, he brushed against a display of inch-tall novelty coffee mugs. Six mugs spilled to the floor, and the tiny handles broke on two.
The counterman said, “You break it, you pay for it.” He had a wispy yellow moustache, and lips the color of corpse skin.
“I’m sorry,” said Dad, smiling, “but you had it too close to the edge.”
“You break it, you pay for it, you stupid fat bastard.”
Dad just stood there, breathing heavier than usual.
He had to put up with stares and dumb jokes all the time, but I imagine this was the first time he was exposed to raw, unfiltered hatred, because he lost his temper. He swept the display to the floor, opened the dill jar, and grabbed a pickle. The counterman hollered, cursed, grabbed the phone. Dad took my hand — gently, I remember that — and led me outside, while stuffing the pickle into his mouth.
Outside, he came to a full stop and put his hands to his throat. I knew right away he’d choked on the pickle, and I had to save him.
Maybe, in my own way, I’m still trying to save him.
I threw my arms around his huge gut. Did I have some notion of performing the Heimlich maneuver, or was I was trying to hang on to him a few seconds longer? I don’t know. All I remember is how he crumpled to the ground, and how I fell with him.
I saw his face, but I’ve made myself forget that, too.
He left us enough money to bury him and pay off the car. Not long after the funeral, Mom began to wait tables at a breakfast joint called Lottie’s Pancakes. The job paid minimum wage, and life was lean. “Breakfast diners don’t tip worth a shit,” Mom used to say.
Every day, I watched her put on black nylons, a short brown skirt, a frilly white blouse, a name tag, and white Keds. She had little feet, and she didn’t amount to more than 5′-1″. She left the top blouse buttons unbuttoned and pushed her breasts up. “To make an impression,” she once said. I’m afraid she was successful.
Soon after I started third grade, Eric Binder showed up at our breakfast table. Mom had been dating and I hadn’t even known. All those nights when she’d left me with the landlady’s daughter, I figured she was working a second job.
It upset me. After she introduced us, I told him he looked like a frog.
He had a long upper lip, a wide mouth, bulging brown eyes, and no neck. When he smiled, his mouth became that much wider.
“Kermit the Frog,” I said.
“You can call me Sir.”
There was something calculating about his smile. Later, I realized he’d taken notes. Eric Binder always settled a score.
I think now of certain guys I’ve seen, hard cases sliced ear-to-ear, a wide arc descending one cheek, crossing the corners of the mouth, and ascending the opposite cheek: a permanent rictus, a punishment reserved for stool pigeons.
If I saw Eric now, I’d think of those hard men, but at the time, I thought of frogs. I imagined him opening his mouth, his fleshy, pink tongue darting out, coiling around my waist, and hauling me in. I tried to imagine the darkness inside him, but I couldn’t.
Six weeks later, Mom became Mrs. Eric Binder.
I won’t say he beat us for no reason. Eric always had a reason. The best thing about his beatings was the way he framed them with lectures. They were question-and-answer lectures; Eric believed in the Socratic Method of abuse. You had to demonstrate a clear understanding of why you were about to be beaten, and afterwards, you had to describe precisely how you’d be different in the future. If you were insolent during the question-and-answer period, he educated you with back-handed slaps. (He wore three rings on his right hand.) These slaps were not part of the correctional portion of the program, and could be elaborated or abbreviated at will. As for the beating, that was administered with a leather belt. He tried to confine his beatings to the back, buttocks, and legs, but sometimes he didn’t try very hard.
The toughest thing was to watch him hit Mom. He made her quit her job, but when she began volunteering at the public library, he beat her for it. I’m not kidding. He even beat her for shopping at a different supermarket.
“Your boyfriend works there,” he said, working the strap. “What did you say to him?”
When he said your boyfriend, I felt hopeful for a moment, until I realized he was just being Eric.
One day, he chased her from the bedroom. She was naked save for plain white panties (he’d made her throw out her colored underwear), and I watched as he beat her back and ass. Later, I went into my bedroom closet where I’d hidden a double-edged razor I’d stolen from his bathroom drawer. I cut the backs of my fingers with it, shallow scratches, just enough to draw blood.
It helped. It usually did.
When Mom married Eric, we left our apartment and moved in with him.
I don’t know what attracted Mom to Eric, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the house. Mom was raised in a trailer park, and had always been proud she and Dad could afford a nice apartment. But Eric lived in a chalk-white, two-story, Southern plantation-style home with columns out front. Yes, we had columns, while our neighbors lived in stucco-sided ranch houses.
We lived next door to the Seymours. They had two teenage girls, and a boy, Carl, who’d been born with a cleft lip and palate. Carl was eleven, but he played with me (he said) because I was the only neighborhood kid who didn’t give him a hard time. He told me he’d had his mouth fixed when he was little, but the other eleven-year-olds still thought he looked and talked funny. I didn’t think he was funny-looking. He was tall for his age, with chestnut hair and hazel eyes. He could sink nine out of ten baskets from the end of the driveway, and could hold his breath for ninety-five seconds. The best I ever managed was forty-one.
Eric spent every Saturday afternoon restoring a cream yellow 1959 Thunderbird. One day, while Eric worked on the T-bird, Carl and I played Stratego on the Seymours’ porch. That’s the day I showed Carl my back.
“You’re shitting me,” he said. “Your dad did that to you?”
I let him touch the scars; it felt good having his warm fingertips on my back. I couldn’t remember the last time anyone had touched me.
“Your dad doesn’t hit you?” I said.
“I’d kill him if he did.”
“Anyway, I wouldn’t just let him do it.”
“I don’t have much choice,” I said.
I put my shirt down. The whole time I had my shirt up, Eric had his head under the T-bird’s hood. I’d wanted him to look up and see me showing my scars. Maybe he’d feel ashamed and stop hitting me. Or maybe he’d get really pissed and kill me.
Either way, I thought. Either way.
When I got home after Dad died, I planted my redwood seedling in a Dixie cup using soil from the backyard. I knew enough to punch a hole in the bottom, and I watered it every day. It never grew. That didn’t bother me; redwoods take thousands of years to become giants, so why should I expect it to shoot up in less than a year? I hadn’t even grown an inch that year. The seedling stayed green, and that was good enough for me.
One day, I was in my room watering my tree, when Eric snuck up behind me. This was one of his favorite things. He’d sprayed my door hinges with WD-40 so he could ease the door open and watch me, catch me by surprise. Once, I turned my bed and desk to face the bedroom door, but he beat me for it. He beat me, he said, for being fearful and suspicious, when those feelings have no place in a family.
That’s why I had my back to the door the day he caught me watering my tree. I used an old film container to give it water, and I used a pencil to break up and aerate the soil. I’d just finished doing this when Eric set his hands on my shoulders.
Whenever he did that, I wanted to throw up.
“Why are you doing that?” he said.
“I’m just watering my tree.”
“But it’s obviously dead. You can water it all you like, but your plant dried out months ago.”
I didn’t say anything. I knew he was wrong, but I’d learned not to disagree with him. I never knew what might set him off.
“Look,” he said, and pinched the seedling at its base between his thumb and forefinger. With his other hand, he pinched the trunk the same way, right above his other thumb and forefinger.
He said, “If it’s alive, could I do this?”
His topmost thumb and forefinger swept upward, stripping away every last tiny leaf and branch. I was left with a fibrous, naked stem.
“You see, Russell, if it were still alive, I wouldn’t be able to do that.”
Point proven, he smiled and patted me on the shoulders.
“Now, clean it up,” he said.
Eric owned about a hundred videotapes. I left school at 1:30, and Eric didn’t get home until 4:00; this left me time to do my chores, watch one video, and finish my homework. One afternoon, after finishing a video, I went into the kitchen to see Mom. She was always in the kitchen, scrubbing something. She never got to watch videos.
“Russell?” She was drying dry dishes.
“When I grow up, can I be a mechanic?”
“Honey, you can be whatever you want.” She said it quickly, without much thought. After drying a few more dry dishes, she added, “But a mechanic, that would be nice. This family needs a good mechanic.”
I was happy she saw it my way.
Carl came over a few days later and we watched the video together.
“I don’t get it,” said Carl. “Why’s it called The Mechanic?”
I’d given this a lot of thought. “Because he fixes problems,” I said. “Permanently.”
“What kind of problems?”
Midway through the video, Carl said, “That’s one hell of a way to fix a problem.”
“See what I mean? Fix a problem that way, it never comes back. Problems can’t come back from the grave. Dead is dead.”
Carl wore a look of wonder and joy, as if I’d opened up a new world to him. I knew the feeling.
By the movie’s end, we were improvising lines.
“You better be dead sure, Russell,” he said. “Dead sure, or dead.”
“Carl, I’ve got my own rule book.”
And we talked about the movie. I liked how Charles Bronson’s character, Arthur Bishop, reduced his target to a dossier of photographs and pages of notes, and how there was never, ever a chance he’d be caught. Carl liked how Bishop listened to music while he planned, how he executed his contracts so artfully, and how the work had made him wealthy.
We each took a plum-sized chunk of Play-Doh and worked it to strengthen our hands, just like Bishop did with his lump of wax. We rewound the video part-way and watched the ending again, pumping Play-Doh the whole time.
A week after I showed Carl my back, and three days after Carl and I watched The Mechanic for the first time, Mrs. Seymour visited Mom. Carl and I were watching the movie again when we heard his mom’s voice coming from the kitchen. It was difficult to hear them above the running water and the clack of dishes and silverware, but we heard enough.
“. . . understand . . . loves us . . . man.”
I’d heard it from her enough times to fill in the rest for Carl: “You don’t understand. He loves us. He’s a good man.”
Then I said, “You told her about my back.”
“I had to,” said Carl.
Mom turned off the tap, and we could hear her next sentence clearly. I could imagine her flicking water from her hands as she said, “That man is the best thing that ever happened to us.”
I said, “I told you I don’t have much choice.”
Carl was quiet after that.
After Carl left, Mom put her hands on my shoulders and said, “Whatever goes on in this household is family business. You mustn’t tell anybody, ever. Promise me.”
Some promises are meant to be broken.
Carl sank baskets, and his mom took a picture of him with a Polaroid. Afterwards, she sat down next to me on the porch, whisking the photo through the air.
“He’s good,” she said.
“I’d be happy to make just one basket.”
“Oh, you will. Give it time.” She stopped whisking, and we watched the photo sprout muddy pastel colors from a field of grey. She said, “I wish he’d play with the other kids, though.”
“They won’t play with him,” I said. “They make fun of his scar, and the way he talks.”
She looked at me funny. After a while, she sniffed, and turned her face.
“Is that what he told you?” she said.
Her voice was choked, like Mom’s. I nodded.
She said, “They’ve come by three times wanting to play ball, and he turned them away every time. That’s three times that I’ve seen. No telling how many times they’ve been by.”
This confused me, so I said, “I’m going to be a mechanic when I grow up.”
“That’s nice,” she said, her voice a million miles away. Then, “Russell?”
“Are you okay?”
“I’ll be okay.” By then, I’d decided what I had to do.
“Really? I don’t know.” She sniffed loudly and wiped her nose on her fingers.
I said, “Mrs. Seymour? Can I borrow the camera?”
“Ask Carl. It’s his.”
After she went back inside, I snatched the ball from Carl and missed a basket.
I said, “Your mom says the other kids wanted to play with you, but you wouldn’t play with them.”
He took the ball and nailed a basket. “I don’t like them. I don’t understand them.”
“What about me?”
Carl shrugged and passed me the ball, bouncing it off the asphalt.
“When can we watch the movie again?” he said.
I took Polaroids. I took notes. I assembled a dossier.
I arranged my dossier of Eric Binder in my bedroom closet on the backside of a cork bulletin board. These days, I came to the closet to study Eric’s dossier, adding notes and observations. I no longer felt the need to cut myself, but I saved the razor. I didn’t know if it might be useful someday. As a nine-year-old, I had access to so few choice weapons.
I turned the bulletin board over and showed the dossier to Carl.
“Cold,” he said. “Just like Bishop.”
We both wanted to be Bishop. Neither of us wanted to be Jan-Michael Vincent’s character; hell, we could barely remember his first name. Vincent’s character was an irritating pretty boy, and in the end, he got what he deserved. But if you were Bishop, you could live with yourself.
He read the headings of my notes: “Known statistics. Habits. Health.” Then he examined the photos. “What’s this?” he said, tapping a black photo with his index fingernail.
“Eric sleeping,” I said. “I was afraid to use the flash.”
We played AC-DC on my tape recorder. I didn’t like heavy metal; it was Carl’s tape. Whenever Carl came over, I let him play what he liked.
Scanning the board, he rubbed his index finger across his lips, just like Bishop.
Finally, he said, “How you gonna do it?”
“When he’s hunched over the T-bird’s engine, I’m gonna hit him with a wrench. I won’t stop until he’s dead. Then I’ll slam the hood down on his head to make it look like an accident.”
“That might work,” he said.
Arthur Bishop said, “Murder is only killing without a license.”
It made sense. It was wrong to murder. It was also wrong to beat your wife and step-son bloody. And it was wrong to remain a victim.
Killing Eric Binder, that was right. Once I understood that, the rest was simple.
But nothing is ever simple.
I wish I could say that Eric did something extra-awful the day before I made my move. But he didn’t. It was just more of the same, and that was bad enough.
You’re probably thinking, why not go to the police, or show your back to a schoolteacher, or a minister?
I don’t know. Maybe because I knew Mom wouldn’t back me up. I’d heard stories of fathers who’d iced their whole family, and the records later showed the psycho had been reported for assault a half dozen times before.
Maybe I wanted revenge.
No: I wanted to be The Mechanic. I wanted to fix this problem.
Saturday afternoon, Eric was messing with the T-bird; Carl shot baskets. I watched him sink four, five, six in a row. Sure: what did he have to be nervous about? We had it all planned. I’d do the deed, and all Carl had to do was remember the story we’d agreed upon.
I took off my sneakers, snuck over to Eric’s toolbox, and found the heaviest wrench.
I’d be cool when the cops came, so cool they’d be suspicious; but then I’d say, “He’s not my dad. He’s my step-dad. Besides, look what he did to me.” Then I’d show them my back. “You think I’m gonna cry over that asshole?”
That’s what I’d say.
Eric was an asshole; Carl said it all the time. For Carl, people were either cool or assholes. It was a comforting world view.
I padded up behind Eric and drew back the wrench. I thought of him hitting Mom’s naked back and thighs with his belt.
Eric twisted his head around. Saw me. Jerked up fast and struck his head on the hood, but he didn’t pass out. He put a hand to his head, his froggy eyes popped out, and he yelled, “RUSSELL!” I threw the wrench at him, but it only bounced off his shoulder. He took two shuffling steps towards me, winding up to sock me with his fist, and I thought, that’s new. He’s never punched me before.
But the punch never landed. I heard a crack. Last time I’d heard a crack like that, Carl’s father had backed his car over a terracotta pot.
Eric folded to the ground like a load of wet laundry. Carl stood over him with a ball-peen hammer.
He said, “Right tool for the job, Russ.”
Eric was still alive, breathing funny. We had to work fast.
Carl jacked up the front of the car. We worked together, first to get the front right tire off, then to roll Eric underneath the bare wheel and position him so the injured part of his skull would be under the wheel. Meanwhile, Eric made wet, blubbery noises with his lips. Carl studied the layout and let some air out of the three remaining tires. “So it’ll land just right,” he said.
Eric’s eyes flickered. His last word was, “Ungh?”
Carl kicked out the jack.
Maybe there was an easier way, but that’s how we did it.
Carl and I agreed on a story: the basketball hit the rim, bounced funny, and knocked the jack out from under the car. For practice, we told this story to Carl’s mom before the police came. The cops questioned us separately, just like we knew they would; Carl’s mom backed us up, and that helped. She lied and said she saw it happen. At the time, I thought it was so cool of her to help us like that, but now I realize any mom would have done the same. Well, maybe not my mom.
Afterwards, Carl took me up to his bedroom and showed me the dossier he’d prepared on Eric. It showed a thoroughness that put mine to shame.
We knew we had to do something about the dossiers. The next day, while Carl’s dad was at work, we gathered up all our photos and notes. We stuffed them into a brown paper lunch bag and burned them on the Seymours’ backyard barbecue. If Mrs. Seymour saw us, she didn’t ask questions.
I won’t kid you that life was wonderful after we boxed Eric; life has never been easy. But it was better.
When I look back, I’m amazed at how much The Mechanic shaped us both. We parroted tag lines; we tried to cop the same attitude. We both embraced Arthur Bishop’s philosophy: as a man, you had to stand outside of everything. You had to have your own rule book.
Carl became a contract hitter for the Chicago mob. I paid him $7.58 for his first hit; he didn’t want the money, but I insisted. Over the years, we’ve done small favors for one another, done what we could to make each other’s lives a little easier. Fourteen years passed before I used his professional services again. His rates had gone up . . . but that’s another story.
And me? I also found a way to stand outside of it all, wield the power of life and death over thousands. Sure, there are rules, but I have more control over them than you can possibly imagine.
I became a doctor.
Before anyone asks, NO, this is not autobiographical. Jeez. Some people.
Needless to say, Copyright Douglas Hoffman, forever’n’ever.