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