Copyright is held by the author.
LEVINS AT 16, crazed on angel dust, swung a hatchet into a motel room door. He kept swinging, hoping to bust in and swipe what wasn’t nailed down. That he was making an unholy racket didn’t concern him. Two cop cars raced to the scene.
A judge sentenced Levins to time in a juvenile detention center. While incarcerated, Levins felt obliged to rip a toilet seat off its hinge then throw it at another inmate, a sodomist. The judge doubled Levins’s penalty: in all, he did about a year.
A photo captured Levins shortly after his release. It showed a wary-looking kid, scowling through whiskers, his hair dark and scraggly. His eyes were vague; his mouth was edged open and you could see a chipped front tooth.
Ten years later Levins still had the photo, scanned onto his phone and kept near one of his mom. The young man still resembled the kid from jail. He had the same wide mouth and smooth, high cheekbones. His nose had stayed long and sharp; his blue eyes could still chill.
But he’d cleaned up his act. The broken tooth was fixed; his hair was short and brushed back. He wore wire-rimmed glasses. Levins was over six feet now and lanky, with long arms and broad shoulders that suggested a sweeping, powerful reach.
During his mom’s final year, Levins had promised her that he was going to straighten out, maybe work with kids. And, he had done it: he taught sixth grade for two years then moved on to a school for emotionally disturbed children. Levins was a faculty supervisor, a boss of about a dozen teachers.
On a warm spring evening, Levins was standing next to one of those teachers, a man named Horace. They drank at a neighbourhood bar called Goody’s. Levins knew of several people he would rather be with. But he had a job to do, and he considered socializing with co-workers part of it.
Levins took pride in how he conducted himself at work. He was pretty good at checking his emotions and staying focused. But Horace was one guy that got under his skin.
Horace was large and lazy, an immovable object that dared you to move him. He often sneered, suggesting that he felt the job was barely worth his trouble. When you wanted him to do something you had to ask twice, then stick dynamite up his ass. Levins hadn’t decided yet whether Horace was putting on an act or was a genuine prick.
Both men stood against the bar. Goody’s was crowded with people blowing off steam. Levins drank Heinekens, Horace swilled rum and cokes. Levins noticed that the more booze Horace absorbed, the more sinister he looked. Horace’s sneer shone through the dim light. He had a gold molar that winked. After a couple of hours, it looked to Levins like Horace’s sneer throbbed with a life of its own, like a quivering snake wrapped around jagged teeth. The snake shared space with the pits and boils on Horace’s reddish-brown face.
“Levins, how long you been with Vicky?” Horace slurred his words, his voice raspy with alcohol.
Levins drew back slightly. He had had plenty of Heinekens and might be swaying a little himself, but he felt contempt for drunks. He surveyed the scene with that corner of his mind that always remained sober.
Levins fiddled with the neck of his bottle. Speaking softly, he told Horace, oh, six or seven months.
“Six or seven months,” Horace repeated. He rolled his eyes up as if calculating. “You all serious and shit?”
A dull yellow tinged the whites of Horace’s eyes, making them look prehistoric. Levins hung with those eyes, held the man’s gaze. Horace was pushing 40. His chest wobbled; his belly poured over his belt. Levins knew that the man was clueless. As far as Horace was concerned, he hadn’t changed in 20 years.
“Reason I ask, I ain’t serious with my lady,’ Horace said. His garbled voice managed to be careful with the word lady. “Don’t get me wrong, she’s fine as can be. Just like Vicky.”
Horace’s reptile grin spread. “But there’s loads of great pussy out there. Know what I mean?”
Levins looked into the dark glass of the mirror behind the bar. He picked out his slouching, weary figure. Next to him Horace looked colourful and absurd — a fat spook in an orange fedora and purple vest.
From a nearby pool table balls cracked together, then a surge of conversation screeched through Levins’s ears. He took his fingers off his bottle then massaged his temples.
“I get the general idea, Horace. But Vicky isn’t your concern.”
Horace reared his head back, barked a laugh. He was taller than most people so usually he could sneer down from atop his bulk, spitting out scorn. But he wasn’t as tall as Levins so he had to look up.
The role reversal made Horace seem uncertain and his eyes softened in retreat. After glancing at the mirror, he lifted his glass and then tossed down a swallow, as if re-fueling.
“Just that — well, you know,” Horace said. He looked back into Levins’s eyes. “Vicky is gorgeous. A man can’t help inquiring. That long hair of hers looks sweet an’ . . .”
Trying to groove his voice into Barry White silk, Horace ran out of air. He sputtered, “. . . soft as uh . . .”
After a racking cough he said, “Bet you get hard just touching it.” Levins stared at his empty bottle. He thought about how lately his days had seemed impossible, like he was forced to haul himself up a ladder of problems, each rung more slippery than the last. At day’s end he’d drop off from sheer exhaustion. Horace was just another problem, and Levins’s rage cooled to a level of irritation he was accustomed to. Fixing this problem should have been easier than most. But Horace wasn’t worth the aggravation he’d face over knocking a subordinate’s teeth down his throat.
“C’mon, man.” Levins smiled. “This must be a gag. You interested in trouble?”
Horace’s eyes measured Levins, head to foot. “Course not. You got me wrong. But I am curious. Can you fight? Not that bullshit when the kids get frisky. I mean, really take care of yourself. Can you do that?”
“This a trick question, Horace?”
“’Cause you look kind of preppy to me.”
The situation was crude, Levins was thinking. It ought to be beneath him. “You’re wrong, man. You’ve no idea. You might get in a couple of shots. But I’ll fuck you up.”
“C’mon,” Horace said, as if Levins had to be kidding.
Levins grinned, projecting ease from atop the highest rung. The trick required such exertion that he felt it might cost him a couple of years of his life. He slapped Horace on the shoulder. “Who knows,” he said.
Levins tossed singles onto the bar, turned and made for the door.
He smacked it open, went outside. The warm air should’ve been soothing but he choked on it. As he was walking out, Levins had felt Horace’s eyes on his back, growing glittery with confidence.
Levins knew he’d backed off too much. The humiliation made his rage boil.
Levins walked around a corner then leaned against a wall. He texted Vicky that he’d soon be home, then bent over, sick from battling his nerves. After a few minutes his wrath turned inward and became gloom, numbing Levins as it rolled through his body like billowing black clouds.
In his apartment, Vicky looked beautiful as always. Her supple body was snug in a white turtleneck and jeans.
Vicky had a sweet overbite and sharp, serious eyes. Levins loved how those features played off of each other, made her look slightly different moment to moment, like a girl in a dream. He was ready to embrace her. But she surprised him.
“Swear to God, Bill,” she said. “All week you dump crap on me. Now I need groceries, where the hell is the money?”
Vicky stood in the living room near the entrance, as if she’d been lying in wait. “I figured you couldn’t go low enough to take it again. But who was I kidding?” She raised her voice. “Who?”
Levins closed the door. She’d caught him off-guard, but they’d had similar discussions before. He walked across a throw rug to the sofa. He sat, tore a beer off a six-pack. “I get paid Tuesday. I thought it was okay to borrow. Didn’t we talk about this?”
“Yeah. We talked about how you better not goddamn do it.”
Levins swallowed lukewarm beer. It tickled his head, made him feel magnanimous. He was reminded of how much he adored Vicky’s no-nonsense, practical side. “Siddown,” he said while patting the cushion.
Vicky ignored him. She sat on a metal chair on the other side of the rug. “And, you bought beer.” Her voice was throaty, tired. “You got nerve; I give you that.”
“Look,” Levins said. “I’m sorry. You know I get paid shit. But the experience is good. A year or two, I can move on.”
Vicky, a nurse at the local hospital, earned twice as much as Levins. She lit a Merit. “Fuck the money.” Smoke poured from her mouth. “Every night I come home, you’re staring at The Honeymooners or something. Only time you talk is during commercials. You tell me what a lousy day you had. Well I have lousy days too.”
Levins saw Vicky’s teeth scrape against her lips. He watched her tap ashes into her palm. Her nails were long and well manicured, except for one on a ring finger that looked chewed.
“I’m having a tough time,” Levins admitted. “The work breaks my balls. But that’s why it’s good. I’m learning a lot. You gotta stay with me here. Please.” He sensed something new in her: a distant look, a withdrawal of light. His stomach tightened in warning but he pushed on. “And you wouldn’t believe what just happened at Goody’s. This black bastard tried to pick a fight.”
“I’m just sayin’.” He winced at the way his voice broke, like a kid’s.
Vicky leaned forward and looked at him with clinical detachment. “Beer’s no good for depression,” she said.
Levins chuckled; then he felt his guard come up. “Huh? What’re you talking about?”
Vicky stood, walked into the kitchen. Levins watched her douse her cigarette under the faucet. Then she stood in the doorway, arms folded, tensely erect.
“Nothing,” she said.
Levins finished his beer then took a phantom sip, pretending he had plenty left. “Nothing, huh?” he said. “That’s a big help.”
“I can’t do this anymore,” she said, her mouth sad, but her eyes hard.
Levins felt his stomach go to liquid. Vicky’s eyes scared him.
Like his mom’s eyes had scared him years ago, when he saw her for the last time, in her hospital bed. She couldn’t move or speak; but the cancer hadn’t touched her eyes. They were big and bright, sparkling for him as they always had, spread over her drawn face like two beautiful pools.
But did those lively eyes indicate a lucid mind? Was she hurting? Did she understand her condition? The doctor assured Levins that she didn’t; she was heavily sedated. But he may have been telling Levins what he needed to hear.
Vicky had left the apartment. Levins removed his glasses then wiped them on his shirt.
Last year with his sixth graders he’d done a couple of weeks on poetry. He had to immerse himself for a few days so that he could do a good job. He recalled a couple of lines.
“Like the life inside her eyes/that left a dark and empty sky.”
The words began slowly, but soon became a harsh torrent he couldn’t stop.
The next day at work Levins was dragging. After Vicky had left, he’d guzzled the whole six-pack. It barely got him buzzed but he knew he’d feel awful today. And, he did. On top of that he agonized about Vicky, wondering where her head was. He’d texted her a couple of times with no response.
Experience told him that this might be the end, that she’d dump him. But just as part of his wits stayed sober no matter how much he drank, some hope usually flickered in him no matter how dire the circumstances. It came from a mysterious place, beyond his sensibility and control.
His mom had been the same way. Cracking irreverent jokes on her worst days, like someone determined to prove that life was always at least worth a laugh. Levins had adored her for it, but he knew his own feelings were dangerous. Even the slimmest ray of hope could break your heart.
But at work, Levins tried to create hope. Hope was magic for the snake-bitten kids that he cared for. He was proud of one program he’d established, a money system that rewarded them for completing chores around the school. At the end of each month, Levins brought the top earners into town for an afternoon of shopping — a treat for kids who rarely were encouraged to show their faces in public.
One of the oldest residents of the school was Maloney, a ginger-haired, freckle-faced boy of 17, and a victim of alcohol. His teenaged mother had given birth to him after a month-long bender. The booze had poisoned the fetus’s cells, stunting their growth. For Maloney it meant developmental disabilities and a youth spent in special schools and group homes. After that — who knew?
But it could have been worse. Levins knew enough about fetal alcohol syndrome to realize that the boy was relatively lucky. Many victims were deformed and severely brain damaged. Maloney looked fine, though he was small for his age. His intelligence was just slightly below normal. He had a speech impediment, and sometimes a short temper that belied his generally decent nature.
By late morning, Motrin had dulled the sharpest edges of Levins’s headache. He was doing paperwork in his office when he heard shouting outside. The strident tones sounded like trouble. He groaned as he pushed himself to his feet. As he reached the door his desk phone rang; he thought of Vicky but the shouting rose to a fever pitch so he let the call go to voice mail.
Outside, Levins felt the heavy, boiling weight of the sun. He squinted through the glare. He saw that near a basketball pole on the playground, Maloney was shouting threats and advancing while another boy backed off. Maloney’s voice carried the resonance of fury. The other boy, a chubby teen named Chafetz, whined and looked pale.
Levins also saw Horace. Horace was approaching — quickly for him, a relaxed stroll for most. Levins felt sweat spread under his arms and along the back of his neck. He slowed his pace as Horace reached the boys.
“What’s happening?” Horace asked.
Chafetz said that Maloney was trying to steal his money.
“You fuck liar,” Maloney said.
Levins stood at court side, arms folded.
He said he’d cut off my balls,” Chafetz said.
Maloney clenched his fists. “I will cut yaw balls! Fo’ lying!”
“Nobody cuts off balls round here but me,” Horace said. “This on the level, Chafetz?”
Chafetz scrunched his moon face. “What?”
“Is it the fucking truth?” Horace said.
“It’s the fucking truth!” Chafetz said.
“Watch your language,” Horace said.
“No it ain’,” said Maloney.
“Maloney, he better be lying,” Horace said. “Or I’ll put a size twelve up your ass.”
Levins laughed. Maloney called Horace a “fat bastuh.” A few teachers and other kids had gathered, enjoying the diversion and the warm day.
“What did you say to me?” Horace had a wide unbalanced grin, like Levins remembered from last night.
“Fat brack bastuh,” Maloney said.
With his gold molar looking like a shark’s tooth, Horace stepped closer to the boy. Levins rushed forward. He placed the back of his hand on Horace’s chest.
Levins’s cell phone rang. He ignored it and said, “Maloney, I’ll put a size fourteen up your ass.”
“Ha!” Chafetz yelled.
“Fuck,” Maloney said. His eyes were filled with tears. “You.”
Levins felt Horace moving forward. “Easy, Horace,” Levins said. They locked eyes. In the hard sunlight Horace’s skin looked raw and reddish, like Levins felt.
Levins moved toward Maloney, who didn’t back off. Levins tried to reason with him. “You guys act like morons, we can’t even have a money system.”
Maloney kicked Levins in the shins. Maloney wore boots, and it stung. Levins grabbed Maloney’s shirt and lifted the boy. He hauled him up over his shoulder.
“You little fucker,” Levins said.
Levins heard Horace’s rumbling laughter. Maloney was wailing, kicking and spitting. Levins’s headache deepened. Sweat slid into his eyes. He carried Maloney toward the office, worrying a little. He hadn’t seen Maloney go off like this in some time.
Inside, Levins dropped Maloney to the ground, shoved the boy toward a corner. “Siddown and shut up!” Maloney did what he was told, sat crumpled on the floor. His face was wet and twisted, as if in agony.
The suffering expression made Levins hesitate. “Alan, you gotta calm down. You’re not doing yourself any good.”
His desk phone’s voice mail light was blinking. “Hold on.” Levins sat and punched in the code. If it was Vicky, and she had something nice to say, his day would go from awful to great. If, on the other hand . . . He held the phone to his ear.
But it was Spiro, Levins’s boss. “Bill, this is bad. Maloney’s mother was in some kind of an accident yesterday. She’s been killed. Son of a bitch. I’ll try you again.”
Levins knew the drill: Spiro would give him the details and then he’d have to deliver the news. As he was cradling his desk phone, his cell went off again. He glanced at Maloney, who was staring at him with wet-eyed intensity.
Levins snapped up his cell. “Yeah.”
“You get my message?”
“You’ve got to find and tell him,” Spiro said. “She was in a car wreck in the city.”
“He already knows,” Levins said softly. He broke the connection, placed the cell on his desk.
He remembered when his own mom had passed away, he was attending community college and working nights as a security guard. By then her death was expected but he wasn’t really prepared. The grief overwhelmed him. He quit school. For a year he sat at his security desk, zonked out, staring into space with damp, burning eyes.
To this day, he didn’t understand how he’d pulled through. He wasn’t sure what kept him going today. Was it the pledge to his mom to improve himself? A lot of good it did her now. Maybe it was a voice inside him, encouraging him to stay active because he might stumble into something that made everything okay again. What a load of horse shit. But it was that other part of himself, the persistent, mysterious part, talking.
Levins walked to the water cooler. He filled a paper cup then handed it to Maloney. “Alan. Is there anything I can do?”
Maloney swallowed. When he looked up his eyes were clear. “Yeah. Geh’ me the fuck outa here.”
Levins sat. “I can get you to the funeral. But you’re gonna probably have to come back.”
Maloney pulled a wallet from his back pocket. He riffled through its compartments, squinting.
Levins recalled that Maloney had earned the wallet through the money system, filing papers in Spiro’s office, the only student entrusted with a clerical job.
Levins stared at the girl’s eyes, narrowed under long lashes.
The girl’s eyes were large. Levins thought he saw signs of life. Like her pupils were about to flick to the side, and then Maloney’s mother would break into a smile. Levins could tell that her smile would be beautiful. He removed his glasses, wiped the lenses on his shirt.
Levins put the photo on his desk, picked up his cell phone. He thumbed through till he found the photo of his own mother. Below it was the ten-year old image of himself. For a moment Levins stared at the numb adolescent.
His mother had been pretty too, her face had character. Her sardonic look, with a side of her mouth turned up and her jaw stuck out. Like she was about to tell a funny story and make her son laugh again.
Levins enlarged the photo, handed the phone to Maloney.
“I know how it is,” Levins said. “That’s my mom. I lost her seven years ago. If I live to be 90, swear to God, it still fucking killed me.”
Maloney presented the top of his head to Levins as he looked down at the photo. Something inside Levins swelled: something warm that tickled — maybe pride. He stood, walked to the water cooler then filled a cup for himself. In Maloney’s hands, Levins’s phone rang. Maloney handed it over. Vicky’s face was on the display. But Levins hesitated. What the hell would she say to him?
He might have imagined a line connecting this moment — with him completely absorbed in his job — to that unrelenting light in his spirit that kept him going. It scared him.
Levins cleared his throat. “Excuse me, Alan.”
He picked up the phone and gently wiped an eye with his finger.
“Is that you?” Levins asked.