I was so used to being scared and running by then, I don’t know, guess I just always seen it coming. We spent a lot of years running, Ma and me. Start out seeking something better, that life we never had, just to hightail it in the night when that life went and turned its teeth on us.
There were lots of men in and out back then, men with big families and bigger plans. Something Ma thought would be good for a boy growing up. But they just took and took until, when she couldn’t seem to give enough, they grew vicious. One always replaced the other. Ed was the worst of them all, though. We ran from Ed so many times, and after the first time I wondered why anyone would run from anyone more than once. But I was just a kid, and kids don’t know nothing.
The last time we ran from Ed we were living in the trailer park at the bottom of the hill. That must’ve been five, six years back, when I was about nine or ten years old. It was sometime before Christmas, and I was in my room when I heard them starting up. There was the sound of glass breaking and heavy feet stomping past my door, and Ed was in the back bedroom destroying the place, hollering all kinds of things that didn’t even sound like words. Ma opened my door and told me to hurry as we snuck down the long hallway and through the kitchen, where the few Christmas presents she’d been able to afford were torn apart and thrown all over, wrapping paper and bows ripped in jagged strips and scattered among the shards of broken dishes.
We made it out the door before Ed realized we were gone. Ma locked the doors of the old station wagon once we were inside and said, “Get down, honey,” so I got down and looked up just as Ed hurled the trashcan, spreading the windshield like a spider’s web. He leaped up onto the hood but took a tumble as we tore out of there.
The trailer park was shaped like a big horseshoe on a slope, and we were heading up and in instead of down and out like we should’ve been. I climbed out from under the dash as we neared the curve and looked back to see Ed cutting through the middle yards and coming after us.
“He’s coming,” I said.
“I know, sweetie,” she said. “I see that rotten sonofabitch.”
She jerked the wheel and plowed the wagon up the hill at the top of the shoe instead of staying on the drive and following the park around to where Ed was heading to cut us off. There were rocks and weeds scraping at our muffler and crunching beneath the wheels, and when we came out topside on Cherry Street the street lamps’ light shined through the fractured windshield, painting broken black lines on everything inside the car. I watched Ma as she kept checking the mirror. Her face looked cracked in a hundred different places.
We went to Smitty’s, who lived in a house off the main highway toward Middleton with his wife and son. Smitty was in some way related to Ed, distant cousins or something, and had more than once stepped in when Ed had been drinking and got rough. We’d never lived in a house, so it felt really big around me, like the walls were too far away and there were too many doorways and windows to keep my eyes on. I always liked coming here because it was always the same. Smitty’s wife, whose name I can’t for the life of me remember, maybe Sherry, gave Ma a drink of something, and the three of them sat in the kitchen talking while I went into the living room and turned on the TV.
But I didn’t actually watch it. Instead I waited to make sure the grownups were distracted then crept toward door at the end of the hall, where music and the sound of clanking metal rose up from the basement. It’s not that I wouldn’t have been allowed down there, but it had become a sort of secret ritual for me, I guess.
Smitty’s son, Kyle, he was seventeen and had always treated me like I was older, which made me feel older. He was lifting weights on a rusty bench, and for a minute I just sat in the shadows of the stairs watching him. Black Sabbath posters and pictures of girls in bikinis on Harleys and sprawled out on the hoods of muscle cars covered the cinderblock walls. There was a bed in one corner and a heavy bag hung from a stud in the ceiling. Kyle wore nothing but cutoff sweatpants and a pair of fingerless mesh weightlifting gloves as he did bench presses and drank from a gallon milk jug of water between sets. He’d just moved on to some other exercise when he spotted me.
“Shouldn’t go sneaking around like that,” he said. “Might just startle the wrong person. What’d I tell you about that?”
“Sorry,” I said, looking at him through the gap in the railing before turning to go back upstairs.
“Now hang on a minute,” he said. “Come on in and stay a while.”
I came down off the steps and joined him in the middle of the room.
“My old man told me what happened to you and your Ma,” he said. “That’s a drag.”
“Yeah,” I said.
He looked at the floor for a second, as if he was really thinking hard about it. Then he looked back up at me and said, “He hit you again?”
“No, just her,” I said. But we got out before it got too bad.” I tried to smile and even laugh a little, like it wasn’t any big thing.
He got up from the weight bench and flipped over the cassette tape in the big stereo on his dresser. Then he went to the punching bag and laid into it a few times, fast and hard. When the music kicked on, he said, “You like Iron Maiden?”
I didn’t really know, so I shrugged.
He shrugged back, then unleashed a series of punches into the bag while he danced around it. He was big and blond and stacked with muscles. I continued to watch as he pummeled the bag for the duration of a song, and when he stopped to take a break, he was breathing heavy and shiny with sweat.
The first time I’d come down here, back in summer, I’d asked Kyle where he learned how to box. He told me Smitty was a boxer in the Army and had started teaching him when he was real young.
“My dad never taught me nothing,” I’d said. “Never even met him before.”
He nodded toward the bag. “You wanna take a shot at it?”
He laughed. “Come on, then.”
I went over to the bag and he squared me up in front of it.
“Now, let’s see your technique,” he said.
I threw a sloppy wide hook, and it barely budged the heft of the bag. I felt embarrassed.
“It’s all right,” he told me. “Here, like this.”
He positioned me in a stance, showed me how to shift my weight and pivot my hips. He showed me how to hold my hands, how to jab and cross and duck a blow.
“Go ahead,” he said. “Try again.”
There was still no power behind my effort, but it felt better, the rough of the canvass on my skin, the slight give of the bag beneath my hands.
“See, you got the hang of it now.”
Mom and me had come over to stay a few times since then, and each time Kyle showed me something new. And tonight was no different.
“You been practicing what I showed you?”
“A little bit,” I said.
“Well, let’s see it.”
I went over, got into position, and warmed up with a few rounds of my go-to combo: right jab right jab, hook with the left, and bring the right back through in an uppercut. And with this last one, I always skinned my knuckles on the bag.
“That ain’t half bad,” he said. “You’re starting to get some force behind your punches. But you need to work on some other combinations. Don’t get lazy, know what I mean?”
“All right, then. Let’s get to work.”
For the next hour or so, we took turns on the bag. We did push-ups and sit-ups and pull-ups from a pipe in the ceiling. He kept showing me things, correcting my form and encouraging me as we boxed our way through Iron Maiden and Judas Priest.
“And remember,” he told me before I went back upstairs, “it’s not about how fast you are with these”—he held up his fists in front of my face—“as long as you’re quicker than the other guy up here.” He tapped a finger against my temple.
Upstairs, the grownups still sat in the kitchen playing cards and drinking. A pistol lay on the counter close to Smitty’s right hand, and when I looked in they all turned toward me and smiled smiles I knew were supposed to comfort me in some way but didn’t.
“Don’t worry, Dust,” Smitty said. He was a short man, but had the look of a dog who, although gentle, could be fierce when he had to be. “Ol’ Ed knows better’n to come around here.” And that did comfort me, but only a little.
In the living room, I lay on the couch facing the back cushions and running my thumbs over my tender knuckles until at last, exhausted, I slept, a darkness without dreams.
Ma usually still had me go to school on days after our running. Guess she wanted to keep at least some kind of normal for me. But this time I went to work with her the next morning, and when the school opened she called me in sick.
She cooked over at the Cloverleaf during breakfast. Since it was early and the bar section was closed in the morning, Ma fixed me up a bed in one of the back booths with some old aprons for a blanket, told me to try and get some more sleep, and when I couldn’t sleep no more, I sat doodling and drawing pictures on paper placemats.
I didn’t know when we were going home, but we always had before, eventually. After Ma got off work, we spent the rest of the day in the car eating leftover hash browns and bacon she’d taken from the restaurant and mostly stayed parked at truck stops so as not to use up gas. She used payphones to call about places to stay, but most people she knew were at work themselves when she called or else couldn’t help on account of this or that. There was always Grandma’s place, but Ma and her never got along too good ever since she was a girl, and the last time we went there they just spent the whole time fighting. We might have gone back to Smitty’s, I suppose—I wished we would—but Ma was too prideful to ever wear out her welcome.
When we were finally out of money and couldn’t even afford phone calls because she didn’t get paid until the end of the week, she kept apologizing to me like she’d done something wrong and I couldn’t understand what she thought she’d done. We’d slept in the car before, so that didn’t bother me none, but I could tell it bothered her a lot. Whenever she’d look over at me from the driver’s seat, it was like she wanted to cry but wouldn’t cry because maybe crying would be the end of something, like admitting something she didn’t want to admit.
“I never meant for any of this,” she’d say. “You know that, right, Dustin?”
“Yeah, Ma, I know,” I’d say as we huddled together in front of the heating vents to keep warm until we eventually had to shut off the engine.
That night, it got so cold I woke up and couldn’t feel my toes and my body was clenched tight from shivering and all my muscles were sore. Ma was gone, and for a moment I thought she’d left me, but then I saw her out there and knew I never should’ve thought such a thing. We were at a friend of hers place, a man named Steve, who lived in a big blue house beside the Dairy Queen and took us in sometimes.
She was creeping around in the bushes by the house, tossing small rocks and whisper-shouting at an upstairs window. It was one of the first times I saw just how desperate we were. We had nothing and no one but each other, and I think Ma was finally realizing maybe that wasn’t enough. I imagined Ed’s face, twisted, on those nights when I knew something bad was on its way to happening, when furniture and things would get knocked around and busted and maybe even Ma if things got real bad. And as I thought about it all, the red light from the Dairy Queen sign poured across the hood of the station wagon and all I could think was that it looked like blood.
Steve finally woke up and let us in after a bit and set me up in the spare room, which he’d turned into a small movie theater. He was tall and skinny with dark hair and big old eyeglasses that made him look like a cartoon and was into computers and inventing stuff. His house was full of electronics and homemade gadgets. He was a nice guy. But whenever I caught myself thinking this, I remembered they were all nice guys until they weren’t.
I stayed awake all that night watching movies on a screen that took up an entire bedroom wall, playing tapes from Steve’s collection which filled rows of shelves beside the bed. I watched Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Segal take out bad guys, and I felt my blood moving faster at the sight of it. The red of it. The violence and the broken bones.
Sometime in the early morning, before the sun came up, I went to the bathroom and heard Ma and Steve talking behind a closed bedroom door. Their voices were muffled, and there were long spots of silence each time one of them said something. All I could make out was her saying she was sorry—she was always apologizing—and Steve saying he was sorry, too, but he couldn’t keep doing this and this morning we would have to leave and for us to please not come back.
I returned to the spare room, put on another movie, and lay there, wondering what we would do, where we would go if we couldn’t go home.
After a while, I grew restless and wished I was still back in the basement with Kyle. So while Rocky Balboa trained on a mountain in the snow, heaving rocks and hauling logs, I did push-ups and sit-ups until my body no longer ached, until I couldn’t feel anything at all. And when the time came for him to fight the big Russian twice his size, I stood on the bed and threw punches. I danced in circles in front of the screen and thought about all those times running. I jabbed and ducked and shifted my body until I thought my heart would explode.
Eventually, I collapsed on the mattress, my lungs on fire. But as I lay gasping, I saw faces floating in front of my eyes—saw the Eds and Bobs and Kennys and Jakes—and when the faces grew their numbers, I reminded myself that Ma and me, we were all we had in this world. And that’s when I pulled myself back up, still out of breath, and started swinging.
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