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Those Who Know Better Are Sleeping by Jonathan Starke | Word Riot
Short Stories

September 15, 2012      

Those Who Know Better Are Sleeping by Jonathan Starke

“Finish up already,” Simmons called. Ethan was going to the bathroom under cover of a thick oak tree. Clouds crossed in front of the moon.
     “Where’s the toilet paper?” Ethan said. His head appeared from behind the tree.
     Simmons stood in the creek. He moved his creek pole from one hand to the other. It was thicker than a fishing pole. Made of lead piping, it looked to be more of a lightning rod with a thick wire running from its end. “You’ve got plenty of leaves there at your feet.”
     “I want real toilet paper.”
     “If you want to be out here, it’s what you’ve got to do.”
     Ethan tried with the leaves, then yanked his pants up and walked from behind the tree. He was stepping with his feet wide apart. He tugged on the belt loops of his jeans. “I need to go home to the bathroom,” Ethan said.
     Simmons looked over his shoulder at his son. “I thought you wanted to spend some time with me out here.”
     “I did,” Ethan said. Simmons dropped his hands. Half the rod sank into the dim water. “I do,” Ethan said.
     “You don’t,” Simmons said. “No, you don’t.” Simmons shook his head as he stepped out of the stream and looked down at his boots. They were covered in mud, and brown water was running down the sides.
     “I do,” Ethan said. He ran up to Simmons and grabbed hold of his forearm.
     Simmons shook him off. He threw the pole to the ground then got down on his knees and started taking it apart. “You know what else?”
     “What?” Ethan asked.
     “You smell like shit.” Simmons had the pole in three parts and was unstringing the wire. Then Simmons said, “He’s too good for the leaves.” Ethan walked up to Simmons and touched him on the shoulder. Simmons pulled Ethan into him. He hugged him hard, ran his hand up and down his back.
     “You’re not mad?” Ethan asked.
     “No. Not at you.”
     “Can we go home? I still need to use the bathroom.”
     “Sure, just let me finish up here. Why don’t you wind this wire?”
     Ethan took the wire and tried to make it curl against the ground.
     “No, not like that. Wind it around your wrist,” Simmons said. He put one end of the wire on Ethan’s palm and pushed his fingers over it into a fist. “Now, use your other hand to wrap it around your knuckles. Have you ever seen brass knuckles?”
     “No,” Ethan said.
     “Of course you haven’t.” Simmons got back to his knees and put the pieces of his creek pole into a small duffel bag along with a plastic container of bait.
     “How long do I have to go?” Ethan asked.
     “How do you mean?”
     “How long do I have to do it?”
     “Until it’s finished.” Simmons set the duffel bag in the grass and waded back and forth in the creek. He watched Ethan spin the wire around his knuckles.
     “I did it,” Ethan said. He held up his fist with the bronze wire strung around.
     “Way to work,” Simmons said. He stepped out of the creek and pried open Ethan’s fingers and slid the coiled wire off. Then he put the wire in the duffel bag and grabbed a flashlight. He clicked it on and pulled the duffel bag out of the grass. “Here we go,” Simmons said, and the two of them re-traced their path through the woods. A few hundred yards from the clearing, there was movement off the path.
     “What’s that?” Ethan asked.
     “I don’t know.” Simmons said. He turned the white beam toward the sound. Then he was quiet in setting the bag in the grass.
     “What do you think it is?” Ethan asked, and started walking along the path of light toward the noise.
     “Shush,” Simmons said. He took hold of Ethan’s shirt collar and jerked him so he fell down. The flashlight’s beam shook. “Stay down there and be quiet.” Ethan pulled his knees into his chest.
     Simmons continued forward. Something moved behind the tree. Simmons circled. He kept a five-foot perimeter the whole time.
     “What is it?” Ethan asked.
     “Shush, god dammit,” Simmons said. When he got to the far side of the tree, there was a fox with its two front legs caught in a steel trap. The fox perked his head up. He had been gnawing at his left leg just above the knee. So much blood had run down from the chewing wound that the leg was a true red, made more pure and shiny by the triangle of light. Simmons turned and almost knocked Ethan over. “Jesus,” Simmons said.
     “Dad, what is it? A stray?”
     “Get on the damn trail. What did I tell you?” Simmons didn’t wait for Ethan to move. He grabbed him by the arm and pulled him. “What did I say? You stay on this trail. I’m going to take care of this. Go walk about ten yards farther down.”
     “What are you going to do?”
     “Just get down there.”
     Ethan kicked at the trail as he walked away. Simmons watched until he stopped, then set the flashlight on the ground next to the bag. Its beam created thick, pointed shadows off the blades of grass. Simmons reached into the bag and pulled out the pieces of pipe and assembled the rod halfway. Then he took the flashlight in one hand and the creek rod in the other and walked back to the tree.
     “Hey there, boy,” he said to the fox. The fox looked up. He was on his belly now and breathing heavily. The fox had only gotten partway through one leg when he started on the other. Simmons stepped within a few feet of the fox. “It’s okay. It’s all right,” he said. “I can make it all right.”
     The fox didn’t flinch at Simmons being so close. Simmons set the flashlight on the ground and angled it toward the tree. Then he offered the back of his hand. The fox sniffed at it, then turned his head away.
     “It’s okay, boy,” Simmons said. He moved closer, got down on a knee. “It’s okay, we’ll make this quick.” With the hand farthest from the fox, he slipped the rod into place at the fox’s throat. The fox jerked and went at Simmons with his teeth, but instead of biting Simmons, he got hold of the rod with his jaws. Simmons used his free hand against the base of the tree and got to his feet. Then he pulled down hard on the rod, turning the fox over on his side, and stuck his boot on the fox’s windpipe. There was a snap, not of the neck, but of the fox’s legs. Simmons looked away. He closed his eyes and ground his heel into the fox’s throat. A few high-pitched breaths later and the fox was dead.
     Simmons waited with his heel jammed down. After several seconds he lifted his boot. He picked the flashlight off the ground and walked to the trail. Ethan was standing close to where Simmons came out.
     “Ethan, you okay?” He didn’t respond. “Son?”
     “Yeah,” Ethan said.
     Simmons unscrewed the piping and put the pieces in the duffel bag. He stood and extended the bag to Ethan. “You want to carry this home?”
     “No,” Ethan said.
     Simmons nodded. “That’s fair,” he said.
     A few hundred yards later, as they were getting close to the clearing, Ethan said, “Did you kill him?”
     “I think you know the answer to that.”
     Ethan was quiet.
     “There was no other way,” Simmons said.
     “Couldn’t you have called the police or a fireman?”
     Simmons stopped and took Ethan by the arm. “Look, sometimes you have to just take care of things. Maybe if you came out here more you’d understand that.”
     “Mom would have asked for help,” Ethan said.
     Simmons let go of Ethan. “Sure she would. She needs it.”
     “What do you mean?”
     “I don’t mean anything.”
     The two of them walked for a while without talking. They crossed the open field that rested west of their house.
     “Why do you have to talk like that?” Ethan asked.
     “Like what?”
     “The way you do about her.”
     “You’re too young to understand. I just hope you learned something about what you saw back there.”
     Ethan stopped. “I didn’t see you do anything.”
     Simmons laughed. “I bet you didn’t. You look like your mother when you lie.”
     Ethan turned from Simmons and went off the trail. He picked up a short, knotted stick and stabbed at the ground with it. “I didn’t.” Ethan said.
     “Let’s not worry about it. We need to keep moving.”
     Ethan tilted his head. “Is she going to be mad?”
     Simmons paused. “Not at you.”
     “Are we in trouble?”
     “You’re not in trouble. Just don’t talk about this.”
     “Okay, I’ll try.”
     “I’ve got a headache.”
     “I’m sorry, Dad.”
     “Well, don’t be. Sometimes it’s all hard to deal with.”
     “I’m sorry.”
     “It’s just this headache. This one spot in my right temple. Can you see it?” Simmons pointed the flashlight at his head and pointed to the aching spot.
     “What am I supposed to see?”
     “You don’t see any veins popping out or muscles twitching?”
     “You’re funny,” Ethan said.
     The two moved up the gravel drive. Myra, Simmons’s wife, was a silhouette against the curtain of their upstairs bedroom window. She was talking on the phone. Simmons quit walking, squeezed his temples with his thumb. He made a fist with the other hand and ground his knuckles up and down his hip.
     “I don’t want to go in,” Ethan said.
     Simmons took in a big breath.
     “Let’s go back,” Ethan said. “We can fish some more. I want to fish more.”
     “You said you wanted to come home, so we’re home,” Simmons said.
     The silhouette moved from the window. Ethan ran up the driveway and into the house.
     When Simmons walked through the door, he tossed the duffel bag into the corner and went to the hallway bathroom. He took the bar of soap and spun it between his hands. He lathered until it was thick. Simmons set the soap in the dish and scrubbed over his knuckles and fingers. He rinsed his hands and dried them and walked into the kitchen where Myra was making a sandwich. Simmons reached for Myra, but she scooted down the counter away from him.
     “It isn’t for you,” she said.
     “I wasn’t after it. But I didn’t figure,” Simmons said.
     “You didn’t feed him, did you?” Myra was spreading dark raspberry jelly over a piece of bread.
     Simmons moved to the window over the kitchen sink. Myra kept her body half-turned from him.
     “Okay,” Simmons said. “If you want to be like that.” He moved the metal spout back and forth in the sink.
     “It was my night,” Myra said.
     Simmons turned the water on and off. “Yeah. Well, maybe he’s tired of watching you paint your nails and change your hair and slip in and out of clothes we can’t afford. Maybe he’s sick of seeing you sneak phone calls to Charlie Futch.”
     “Oh, stop it,” Myra said.
     “What is it, phone sex?”
     Myra looked at Simmons. He had his hand on the knob for cold. “Jesus Christ,” she said. “Jesus.” She put her hand out, the one that wasn’t holding the knife, and waved Simmons out of the room. She glanced away from him when she did it.
     “Okay,” he said. “All right.”
     “You don’t say things like that,” Myra said. “You just don’t.”
     Simmons walked out of the kitchen and went back into the hallway bathroom without turning on the light. He walked circles in there. Then he crossed into the living room and sat down on the couch. Simmons had his hands on either side of him and he squeezed the couch fabric and released. He did that for several minutes before standing and going over to the staircase. He took fast strides up the stairs. He covered three steps at a time. When he got to the second story, Simmons went into the bathroom where Ethan was taking a shower. He put the toilet lid down and sat on it. His hands were shaking.
     “You need any help in there?”
     “I’ve got it,” Ethan said.
     “You sure? You sure I can’t do anything?”
     “Dad, I’ve got it.”
     “Okay, okay.”
     “I’m doing the conditioner next,” Ethan said.
     “Your mother have you doing that now?”
     Ethan pulled the shower curtain aside. White foam and bubbles were sliding off his head and down his face. “She has for a long time,” Ethan said.
     “Right,” Simmons said. He put his hand to his brow and covered his eyes. He squeezed his temples with his fingers.
     “Your headache isn’t gone?”
     “No. It’s not gone.”
     “Mom just has me chew on these purple dinosaurs when I get a headache,” Ethan said, then pulled the curtain back.
     “Ethan, do you understand why I had to kill him?” Simmons waited. Nothing. He stood and took the shower curtain between his fingers. Then he let go and sat down again. “Just answer for me, will you? Do you get why?”
     “I don’t know, maybe,” Ethan said.
     “Remember how you asked me to call the police or the paramedics?”
     “Fireman,” Ethan corrected.
     “Right, or a fireman. Why do you think I didn’t call them?”
     “Because you wanted to do it yourself?”
     “Want? Jesus, no. Where do you come up with this stuff? I didn’t want to do it at all. Do you understand that? I didn’t want to do it at all.”
     “Okay,” Ethan said.
     “Not a bit. Not at all,” Simmons said. He shook his head. “Look, sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do. The fox was in pain in that trap. Did you see him in pain?”
     “Yes, I saw him.”
     “In pain?” Simmons asked.
     “Yes.”
     “Okay, tell me that. Exactly that.”
     “I saw him in pain.”
     “Good, okay. Sometimes when we see something like that we have to make a decision. He would have suffered longer. I never wanted you to see me do something like that. It’s not something you should see at your age. You have to do a lot of things you don’t want to in this world, sometimes real bad for good and sometimes real bad for bad. Do you understand?”
     Ethan didn’t talk. Simmons stood from the toilet seat and yanked the shower curtain open. Ethan jumped back against the wall. He turned away from Simmons who just stood there with the plastic liner in his hand. The spray from the shower was dribbling between them. Simmons opened his mouth like he was going to say something. Then he closed it and shook his head. “Okay,” he said and turned and walked out of the bathroom.
     Simmons went downstairs and entered the kitchen. There were two sandwiches on a plate. Myra had wrapped them tight in plastic. Simmons walked to the plate and slid it over the counter between his hands. He passed the plate with the sandwiches back and forth.
     “They still aren’t for you,” Myra said. She appeared from the living room with a glass of water in her hand. She pitched the water in the sink and set the glass down.
     “I guess one can hope,” Simmons said.
     Myra went over to Simmons. She reached around him and took the plate from his hands and set it farther on down the counter. “Don’t want you to be tempted,” she said.
     “A broker doesn’t need to be calling a secretary all times of the night,” Simmons said, not looking at Myra.
     “People forget things, they copy the wrong documents, misplace files, submit the wrong information. Things need to be clarified sometimes and he—”
     “There’s no good explanation for the phone calls. I’m not stupid. I let it go for a while.”
     “I suppose it’s time we had this out,” she said
     “Charlie Futch, the little prick.”
     “Well, what did you expect?” Myra picked up her empty glass and filled it halfway from the tap. She walked to the kitchen table, keeping a good distance.
     “Some patience. Respect. I didn’t picture being with someone who would do this. Could do this.”
     “Spread your wings, little angel,” Myra said.
     Simmons made his hand into a fist and ground his knuckles into his hip. “I’m going to do something about this,” he said.
“Don’t talk like that. You have crazy expectations that nobody could meet. You forced me to act, so I did, and now you’re pissed about it.”
     Simmons opened and closed his hand. “I wouldn’t have done that. I never did that.”
     “We’re not the same person.” Myra took a drink from her glass and moved closer to Simmons. “Look, just calm down a little.”
     “Don’t tell me what to do. I’m not your child.” He stared out the window above the sink.
     “Look at you. Can you see what you’re doing?”
     “Shut up,” he said. His voice rose.
     “Quiet, for God’s sake. I don’t want him to hear you.”
     “I don’t give a fuck. I don’t give a fuck,” Simmons yelled. He was shaking by then.
     “Do you see what you’re doing now? You’re nuts. You’re crazy. Your face and hands have gone totally nuts. Do you even know you do this?”
     “Shut up, I said.” Simmons moved toward Myra and she stepped back.
     “He’s going to hear you, keep your voice down,” Myra said.
     “Stop telling me that,” Simmons said. Myra had nowhere to go. The two of them were a foot apart, and she was backed against the kitchen wall.
     “This crazy behavior, you do it to him, too. I’ve seen you. You do it to him, and he doesn’t know what to say or do.” She had the glass of water out in front of her body like she could put him out with it.
     Simmons was red in the face. He moved a step toward Myra, and she cocked her hand back with the glass in it. Some of the water spilled and ran down her fingers. Simmons stopped. He opened and closed his hands. Then he walked away from Myra and went to the front door. He picked up his duffel bag and went outside to his truck.

Hours went by. The wind picked up in the late night. It whistled through the tall grass in the field near the house, joined by the sound of Simmons’s truck door slamming. Simmons walked into the house. He set the duffel bag in the corner and walked upstairs. He went into the bedroom and sat on the edge of the bed. His lower back touched Myra at the hip.
     “You’re awake,” Simmons said to her.
     “Yes,” Myra said.
     “I care about you,” Simmons said.
     “I know you do.”
     “It’s time we did something about this.”
     “I know.”
     “Did you get Ethan to bed?”
     “I got him to bed, yes,” Myra said.
     “Do you think he heard me tonight?”
     “I don’t know. I didn’t want to ask him.”
     “All right,” Simmons said. “Do you think he’s sleeping now?”
     “Yes, I think so.”
     “Good. What about the sandwich? What’d he do with that?”
     “He ate it, what else?”
     “Yeah. Did he ask where I was?”
     “We should probably talk about something else.”
     “I don’t know what would change things,” Simmons said.
     “I don’t either. Maybe it’s time for, well, maybe it’s time—”
     “There’s something I need to tell you,” Simmons interrupted.
     “Okay,” Myra said. She moved heavily in the bed, but didn’t turn around to look at him.
     Simmons covered his mouth with his hand. He spoke through his fingers. “I spent some time sitting in the pickup. I thought about going down to Charlie Futch’s house and beating him to death.” Myra didn’t say anything. “You see, I saw how it happened. Do you want to hear what I saw? Is this too much for you?”
     Myra didn’t respond for a while. She didn’t move. “No,” she said.
     “Okay, this is how I saw it: I pull up to his house. I’ve got my creek rod. But, see, I only use enough to make it half a rod and not the whole thing. And so I put the rod together on the truck bench. It’s cold in my hands. Pipe like that in the nighttime is cold. I get out of the truck and walk up the drive. There’s a crooked path up to the door, the kind you always wanted out front, lined with brick on either side, pebbles down the middle. The kind Ethan would probably pick up and throw at cars passing by if he was the rambunctious type. If he was more like me.
     “But that’s beside the point. I walk over the pebbles, and it’s really familiar to me. Serene. It feels a lot like the creek bottom without the water sloshing around. I walk up to the cedar door and kick it in. My boot leaves a scuff on the door. It’s late, too late for people to be wide-eyed and doing things like this. I don’t find his bedroom right away. There’s a guest room, but his is the one with the door closed. There isn’t any light coming from the crack at the bottom, though I figure somebody would have heard the front door being kicked in. He might be a heavy sleeper. I don’t want to talk about that, though.
     “When I get in the room, I flip the light on. The whole room goes shock yellow. He opens his eyes, tries to roll out of bed, but I catch hold of him and belt him on the jaw, and he goes out for a while. I drag him into the living room and tie his legs together with some cables and cords I yank out of the wall. I knot some of the cords around his ankles and some around this piano leg. He has a small piano in the living room. While I wait for him to come around, I go through his drawers and cupboards and his medicine cabinet. He has enough prescription drugs in the bathroom to stock a pharmacy. I read some of the labels. He’s dying, Myra. He was dying anyway.”
     Simmons paused, but there was nothing from Myra.
     “When he finally comes to, I don’t know if he recognizes me or not. You can’t always tell that from the eyes. He only knows what’s coming, and I take the half creek rod and settle it under his throat. He tries to get loose, flops around like a seal. I have to brace myself against the piano and turn him on his side to get control. Then I step on his windpipe with my boot. I hear it shatter. I feel the pop. Then he turns purple, and that’s it. It’s done.”
     Myra hadn’t moved. Simmons stared out the window.
     “It’s an awful story,” Myra said.
     “I know. It’s a horrible thing for a man to have to do.”
     Myra made a noise in her throat.
     “We need help, Myra.”
     “Yes,” Myra said. After a long pause, she said, “But what I need for myself is to get things set right again. I can’t live like this anymore, not in this way. I need to know where you’ve gone, where you’ve been all these years. The other you, the old you. I need to believe you can bring him back. I don’t want to believe he’s gone forever. I can’t believe that yet.”
     “I’ll get better,” Simmons said. He rubbed his eyes with his fingers. Myra’s face was still buried in the sheets. She reached her hand out and felt around. Her hand moved slow and methodical. When Myra found Simmons’s wrist, she gripped it hard. She left her hand there for a long time. And for a long time there was silence in the room. Then Myra turned over to look at Simmons for the first time. Her eyes were puffed underneath. “I have a question,” she said.
     “Okay,” Simmons said.
     “After you saw all that, do you figure it really changed anything to kill him? Did it fix whatever needed fixing? Will the sun come up tomorrow and be a different color because of this?”
     Simmons was quiet. Then he said, “I guess I wouldn’t bet on it,” and looked down at Myra’s hand on his wrist. The veins on the back of her hand were thick and dark blue, and the harder she squeezed, the more they pushed out of her skin. Simmons looked away from her. “I think I heard something in the hall,” he said.
     “There’s nothing out there,” she said.
     “I heard the boy.”
     “You didn’t hear a thing.”
     “I’m sure I did,” he said and pulled away from Myra’s grasp. “I’m sure I did, and I’m going to go see about it.” But Simmons didn’t move. Neither of them did. They stayed unmoved in the room, close enough to touch, and the only thing audible was the slight hum that comes with dark and quiet.

About the author:

Jonathan Starke is a former bodybuilder who is currently vagabonding the globe and often missing the Golden (80s) and Attitude (90s) eras of professional wrestling. He’s the founding editor of Palooka, and his work can be found in The Sun, The Missouri Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Brevity, Fourth Genre, Passages North, Post Road, and Third Coast, among others. You might find him watching old boxing matches on a Sunday evening. You might not. jonathanstarke@gmail.com

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