All That Matters - Jim Beane
The lawyer called during dinner. My mother gripped the phone receiver and the color drained from her face. The lawyer called to inform my mother that she no longer had legal rights to any of the contents of her recently deceased father’s house, and furthermore she was forbidden to step foot on the property.
“I have things in that house,” my mother said into the mouthpiece. “What about my things?” I didn’t know what things she was talking about, I thought we already had her things. My mother listened, her eyes closed. I stood by useless as usual. At thirteen, I was too young to offer much real support.
“Sorry is not good enough,” she said. When their conversation ended, she slammed the receiver into its cradle.
“Call Walt,” I said. “He’ll get your things.” My brother Walt was the man of the house. Although he no longer lived with us, he visited almost every day and was the one my mother relied on. He kicked in a chunk of his weekly pay from working construction to help, and if problems arose, she leaned on him, not me. My mother looked to the ceiling of our apartment as if to the heavens.
“I’ll kill that witch Sally,” she whispered.
Sally was Ruby’s niece. Ruby was my mother’s stepmother. The phone call was from Sally’s lawyer. According to him, Ruby had been named sole beneficiary of my grandfather’s estate. But that’s not what bothered my mother, the house in Randallstown had bad memories, she wanted no part of it. What bothered my mother was that a stranger had overpowered her.
My mother had not been close to her father. His funeral forced us to Randallstown, but before that, we hadn’t visited much. She disapproved of him replacing her mother with Ruby. She wanted nothing to do with Ruby, and I don’t think she even knew Sally existed before my grandfather began to die.
Sally became Ruby’s official caretaker after my grandfather died. She moved into the house in Randallstown shortly after his funeral. Within two months of my grandfather’s death, Sally had warehoused Ruby in a rest home, changed the locks on the house in Randallstown and hired the lawyer who called my mother.
I’d never heard my mother vow to kill anyone before, so in that moment, I believed her.
My mother and I had been planning my thirteenth birthday when she got the lawyer’s call. For the first time in months, she had seemed happy. Outside, warming temperatures and the threat of a thunderstorm teased us with the promise of spring.
“Let’s celebrate,” she had said. “Thirteen is such a milestone.” With a buried father and a mother who’d forgot how to smile, I could have used a celebration. But my mother forgot my birthday after the lawyer called. At least that’s how it seemed to me, and her plan to retrieve her things had little room for cake and ice cream. She needed Walt.
Sure enough, Walt’s throaty ’62 Buick pulled up outside our apartment the next morning. He unfolded himself from the front seat and strolled across the parking lot toward me. He wore faded jeans cinched with a thick black leather belt and a white tee-shirt tucked in at his waist with sleeves rolled up high on his arms to show off his muscles. His shoulders were broad and square then, his hands hardened from manual labor. Walt always looked tough, ready to fight, and that day ready to do whatever my mother needed. He drew a quick drag on his Lucky, then crushed the butt beneath the heel of his boot.
Walt taught me a lot of stuff when I was a kid, but the most important thing he showed me was how to look cool smoking cigarettes. I ran across the lawn to greet him.
“Hey Jip,” he called out. My full name is Jessup James Shockley, named from my dad’s father, Jessup James, who I never met. Walt called me Jip and still does. He grabbed my shoulder in a tight and sure grip, reached into his pocket and withdrew a pocketknife with carved deer antler on the handle and a locking blade. Five inches of chrome steel, sharp as a razor.
“Didn’t think I’d forget your birthday, did ‘ya?” he said.
The knife was heavier than I’d imagined when I saw it at Harley’s Hardware the Saturday before. I was with Walt getting light bulbs when he caught me staring in the knife case by the cash register.
“Which one you like best?” he asked. I had pointed at the one I now held in my hand.
“Forget it, Jip,” Walt said. “Too big. You know Mom would never go for it. How about that one?” He pointed to what looked like a toy version of the one I wanted.
I shook my head no. Walt shrugged and drifted away. I tried hard to put the knife out of my mind. Walt was right, my mother would’ve never okay’d such a present for me. She still treated me like I was a baby.
“You’ll only cut yourself,” she’d have said, and that would have been that.
I hefted the knife in my palm. Walt winked and I slid the knife into my back pocket before my mother could see it.
I wanted to hug Walt for getting me that knife, I wanted to tell him how much it meant to me. But my mother swung the screen door to our apartment open and beckoned Walt inside. Impatience was my mother’s specialty. She didn’t care whose birthday it was. She didn’t care what a lawyer said she couldn’t do. She wanted her things, right then, and Walt was the man to help her get them. I wanted Walt to stay outside with me for a minute or so, maybe offer me my first Lucky Strike, hang out, shoot baskets, anything. But my mother had been spitting and fuming since the lawyer called, and I knew she’d never allow a delay. Walt disappeared behind the slam of the screen door.
I plopped on the stoop to listen, but they spoke in low voices. A few minutes passed, the door flew open, and my mother stormed onto the stoop in her coat and hat, clutching her purse as if she were late for church. She rushed off the stairs. Walt followed in her wake. The door slammed behind him.
“C’mon Jip,” he said in a forced cheerful voice. “Road trip to Randallstown.”
“Stop calling him that,” my mother snapped. She hurried across the lot to Walt’s Buick.
I jumped off the stoop and ran to catch up. My mother positioned herself in the front seat and stared forward. I hesitated at the car door, feeling the need for her permission before I climbed inside.
“Well, come on, if you’re coming,” she said finally. I climbed into the back seat and pulled the door closed. Walt’s Buick came to life. He shifted into gear and popped the clutch, and the car jolted forward.
One hour later, we were in Randallstown, and as we neared my grandfather’s house at the fork in Randallstown Road, Walt asked my mother if she was hungry or needed to stop for the bathroom. She shook her head no. Walt glanced at me in the rear view mirror and raised his eyebrows.
“You mistake this situation for fun, Walter,” my mother said, “but it is far from fun.”
Walt started to mount a protest, but she waved him off. She pointed toward the windshield and waggled her fingers to further emphasize her need to hurry.
We pulled into my grandfather’s driveway around ten. The sun hid behind the storm clouds gathering in the east. Rumbles sounded in the distance. A station wagon and a beat work truck with a rusted pipe rack were parked inside the chain link fence surrounding my grandfather’s house. The truck’s wing window was sealed with duct tape.
Walt eased the Buick’s nose up to the gate, cut the engine and stared at the rusted pick-up. He reached beneath his seat and extracted a tire iron. My mother stretched across the front seat and grabbed him by the wrist.
“No need for that,” she said. “I’ll make them listen.”
“You sure about that?” Walt said. My mother turned to Walt, a shocked look fell across her face.
We never questioned our mother. She was in charge of the family, no matter how often she asked for Walt’s help. Whatever she said went. She was big on life lessons. It was important to her that we understood how some people, those with power, abused those with none. She’d learned this lesson the hard way. When my Dad passed, she got screwed out of his pension by a pack of powerful union officials that made their own rules. They had the power and my mother never forgot how they treated her, and made damn sure we didn’t either.
“Sally may have the law behind her,” she said. “But I know what’s right and so will she by the time I’m done with her.”
Walt patted the lug end of the iron into the meat of his open palm.
“Walter,” my mother said. Walt looked disappointed but slipped the iron back under the seat.
Thunder inched closer. I swiveled in my seat and watched the firemen across the street fold up their card table and hustle it inside the Randallstown Fire Station. A dishwater sky smelled of rain.
“Wait here, Jip,” Walt said. “Mom and I will go to the door first and politely request they hand over her things. Wait here with the tire iron in case they don’t see it her way.” Sarcasm did not sit well with my mother.
“Walter, please, don’t frighten your brother. He doesn’t understand.” To the contrary, I did understand and it was a bit too late to worry about scaring me anyway. I scrunched down in the seat so I could get a better view of the front of the house.
Walt jumped out and opened my mother’s door. She patted her hair, offered her hand to Walt and with his assistance, stepped out onto the drive. She hesitated at the car for a second or two, and used both her hands to smooth the front of her dress.
“Jessup,” my mother said. “You’ve ridden this far. You might as well accompany us to the front door. Walter and I are well aware of the kinds of low quality people who do these things, but you’ll do well to learn from this.”
Walt walked in front, as if he could protect us by just being first. He took the stairs one at a time, slow and deliberately, up to the front porch. My mother and I waited on the sidewalk. A shadow appeared behind the storm door.
“What do you want?” the shadow said in a reedy voice. Before Walt could answer, my mother spoke.
“I’ve come to collect my mother’s things,” she said.
“Yeah, well, my momma says no one comes in this house anymore without bein’ invited,” the shadow said. I hoped his trembly voice meant he was as afraid as I was.
“Get of our way,” Walt said. He took a half step forward and reached for the door handle. My mother called out his name and his hand fell to his side. He stepped back from the door, but remained on the stoop.
“Is your mother here?” my mother said from the sidewalk. “I would like a word with her.”
“OK, that’s it,” Walt said. He lunged forward and grabbed the handle of the storm door as if he might just rip it from the front of the house. Instead, the door flew open and rammed Walt’s hand. He cursed under his breath as he shook the pain away. The shadow stepped onto the porch. He looked more Walt’s age than mine and wore a flannel shirt with cut off sleeves. Muscled arms filled the ragged sleeves. His jeans were dirty and his boots, worn out and untied. His hair was slick with grease and a scruff of blonde fuzz coated his cheeks and chin. Someone else appeared to our left.
Walt cautiously backed down the stairs to where my mother and I stood on the sidewalk. His eyes darted between the two.
The boy to our left stepped toward us. He limped slightly, and clutched a baseball bat in his right hand. He looked a few years older than me, but only a few. He stopped on the grass, a safe distance from us, and tapped the barrel of the bat against his leg.
The screen door swung open again and an older woman stepped out. Her hair was thinning grey, frizzy and piled on top of her head in a hurried way. She wore faded jeans and a loose shirt that almost kept her from looking fat. Before she spoke she pushed a wild strand of hair behind her ear. Unlike my mother, she seemed unaware of her appearance.
“You must be June,” the woman said. Her eyes narrowed. She put her hand on the shadow’s forearm.
I glanced at my mother. She adjusted her hands tighter to her purse and scrutinized the woman. My mother turned her head a quarter turn, as if she might sneeze, then blew a puff of air from her mouth, dismissively. The woman on the porch placed her hands on her hips and leaned forward. My mother remained still, acting unafraid.
“Jessup,” my mother said in a soft voice. I obeyed and came beside her.
“I’m Sally,” the woman said in a gruff voice. “And this here’s my eldest, Jason.” She released the shadow’s forearm and set her hand on his shoulder. “That’s Willam, his brother.” She pointed to the boy with the bat. Jason came down the steps and faced Walt.
“I know who you are,” my mother said. Carefully, she backed up until she stood on the muddy grass. She held my hand in a tight grip and pulled me along. Walt remained on the sidewalk nose to nose with Jason. Willam took one step closer to us, but stopped when his mother raised her hand.
“Walter,” my mother whispered. Walt didn’t budge, his eyes stayed on Jason. She spoke a little louder. “Walter, please come stand by Jessup and me.”
“Better do what your momma says, Walter,” Jason said.
Walt’s hands clenched into tight fists at his side. The first drops of rain hit my shoulders and a thunderous clap boomed nearby.
“I’d have you in,” Sally said. She glanced at the approaching storm. “But you know, my lawyer, Mr. Merton, said we cain’t allow you on these premises.” Willam took another step forward. He tapped the bat against his leg.
“Yeah, Walter, so git.” Jason spit on the sidewalk and jutted his chin toward Walt’s Buick.
Gross mistake in judgment. Walt caught Jason off balance, snatched the front of his shirt and yanked him off his feet. He slung Jason sideways and tossed the big oaf face first to the sidewalk.
“Get him, Willam,” Sally shouted. And Willam tried.
But Walt deflected the first swing of Willam’s bat with his raised forearm and lunged forward driving his knee into the boy’s crotch.
By then, Jason had recovered and grabbed Walt from behind. He snaked his arm under Walt’s chin and jerked upward in a choke grip with all his strength. Walt gagged, his eyes bugged, he flailed at Jason’s arm but couldn’t escape.
My mother cried out Walt’s name and loosened her grip around my arm for just a second. I jerked free. Willam was bent double holding himself, no longer a problem. I focused on Jason and slipped the pocketknife from my back pocket. Walt’s eyes closed, and I flicked the chrome steel blade open. I had no choice, he was killing Walt. I plunged the blade into the soft cheek of the big boy’s butt.
Jason howled, released Walt and jerked the pocketknife from his rear end with his right hand. Walt slumped to the cement sidewalk grabbing at his throat. Jason raised the knife above his head. I fell to my knees and closed my eyes, sure the blade would come.
My mother screamed.
Walt rose from the concrete and hammered his fist into the side of Jason’s head. Jason collapsed in a heap on the sidewalk. My knife flew from his hand and disappeared in the grass.
“I’m calling the cops,” Sally said. “Look what you done to my boys.” She hurried inside the house. My mother raced up the stairs and followed her inside. Walt glanced at the two brothers. Jason was not moving, Willam writhed in pain. I followed Walt inside and the rains came.
Sally had her back to us and the phone receiver to her ear. As she dialed, my mother advanced on her. Sally whirled and raised her free hand, as if to protect herself, but my mother was not on the attack. She dropped to one knee and yanked the phone cord from the wall, then stood triumphant, the frayed line in her hand. Sally froze, the disconnected receiver useless in her right hand.
“What the hell you think you’re doing?” she shouted.
My mother headed for the glass curio cabinet in the corner of the living room. She swung the curved glass door open and withdrew a glass figurine, clutched it to her chest and sat on the couch along the wall.
“That ain’t yours to take,” Sally said. “Put it back.” Walt stepped in front of her, preventing her advance.
Thunder boomed outside, but inside felt hushed, still. My mother placed the figure on the low table in front of her and I dropped onto the couch next to her. She faced me.
“Isn’t she beautiful,” she said. “Mama’s present to me on my own thirteenth birthday.” Her voice was low. “We were walking in the city to see the lights at Christmas and this was in the window of Stefan’s Jewelry Store.” She picked up the figurine to show me.
Sally shouted at Walt to get out of her way. My mother acted as if she hadn’t heard.
“I was so taken by her beauty, Momma and Papa had a time just getting me away from the window. I couldn’t have wanted anything more. But we were not rich people, and beautiful things held little stock with my father. A few days passed and on the morning of my birthday, a small gift box with purple ribbon sat on my plate at the breakfast table.” She rotated the glass figurine in her hands. “My mother was not like my father. She appreciated beautiful things.”
I stared at the figurine, a ballerina balanced on one toe wearing a tiara and a skirt of lacey porcelain, a washed white complexion beneath iridescent glaze. My mother set the figure back on the table and rotated it slightly, a different angle in different light.
“Out of my way,” Sally bellowed. “I got to tend to my boys.” She elbowed past Walt to get to the door, hesitated and faced my mother as an afterthought.
“Go on, take the junk your mother left behind,” she said. “It ain’t worth anything anyway.”
Walt cleared his throat.
My mother did not speak. She reached into her purse, removed a handkerchief and carefully wrapped the ballerina before she laid the figurine to rest inside her purse.
“I have what I came for,” she said.
“Take it all, I don’t care,” Sally yelled as she fled. “Just go, leave us alone.”
But by that time, my mother was done with Randallstown forever, and did not need to be told to leave. She stood and smoothed the front of her dress. Walt and I fell in beside her.
Walt led us out. Jason was standing at the foot of the steps looking a little dazed. Walt swatted him on the ear to get him to move out of the way. Jason cursed, but scooted to the side so we could pass. Sally was with Willam speaking soothingly, as if he were a child.
The rains had stopped by then and a musty smell lifted off the grass. I glanced at Walt. He smiled and took my mother’s arm. She reached up and touched the bruise forming below his eye, then turned to me and held out her hand.
“Let’s go home,” she said. “The air in this place makes it hard to breathe.”
Walt stopped ahead of us. He reached down and picked up my muddy knife from the grass. He wiped it clean on his jeans and handed it to me.
“Lose somethin’, killer?” he said. I couldn’t help but grin. “C’mon, let’s get burgers at the drive-in. My treat. For your birthday.”
And I followed after him, as I did for many years, for as long as I was able. My mother clutched my arm tight. I felt important, real, finally as real and important as my brother.
“Maybe we should eat at a restaurant,” my mother said. “Burgers at the drive-in aren’t fit for this occasion. They just don’t do the day justice, do they?”
Walt gave me a playful jab and we led her together down the sidewalk to the Buick.
Jim Beane's stories have appeared in a number of literary magazines, most recently O-Dark-Thirty, and the anthology DC Noir. He is a 2013 Pushcart Prize nominee, a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and a creative writing workshop leader at the Writer's Center in Bethesda, MD. Currently, he is seeking publication for his first collection of stories, Maris Stella & other stories, and putting the finishing touches on his novel Galilee as he assembles his second collection. He lives in the suburbs of Washington, DC with his supportive wife and a rather large and particularly needy dog. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.