My mother screamed. In the dead of a sweaty summer night when I was seven years old; she screamed so loud I was afraid to leave my bed, screamed with such twisted fury that I could only lay staring at the spinning plastic blades of the old window fan as it pushed wet hot air around my room; she screamed so loud that lights clicked on all down our street; families came out into their yards, men in boxers and undershirts, the women—big curlers in their hair—pulling robes tight around their bodies, slapping away hungry mosquitoes, children shooed back inside only to reappear short moments later in the parted curtains of small windows. She’d gotten a call: my father was arrested for rape that night.
It was that moment: my mother’s screams, my thumping heart, my coward’s legs, that started me off. My mother was okay, physically, but I wondered—often—what if someone had been in the house, someone like what they said my father was? I don’t think of my younger self as an only child because the term implies a luxury. I slept in the second-hand bed with the full expectation that someday there would be a little brother or two sleeping next to me, stealing the covers or turning the fan so that it only blew on them, or a sister who would make me leave the room when she dressed. The thing? What they said my father did? My mother never believed it, he treated her like shit, was always in and out of work, always out with some woman drinking when the bills were due, but she believed in him as if he were a deity. “What does Benny Ray need to rape somebody for? Tell me that! Benny Ray?” she would ask the women who gathered in our kitchen sipping coffee months later when my father was in the jail downtown waiting for trial. “Every woman that ever saw Benny Ray wanted him. He could’ve had anybody. He’s a lot of things: he’s lazy, he’s a player, he’s a part-time father and a weekends-and-holidays husband, but he ain’t no rapist. That damn court-appointed lawyer ain’t shit!” I sat up listening to them arguing on mornings when my father had come home with the sun and as they fought I laughed quietly at the bad words she called him, until slowly the arguments were replaced by my mother’s soft surrender behind their closed door and the thin walls of their cocoon. The kitchen women, afraid of the fire in my mother’s eyes, would stare down into the depths of their cups, but when they left, promising prayers, and they were safe from the wrath of my mother’s love, they whispered into passing, hungry ears.
I went to school with my mother’s lies, cover stories meant to protect me and my father became the guillotines of my childhood, the instruments of my executioners; it was like being smothered with your favorite blankie. The kids reminded me every chance they had, just where and what my father was. There was a time when the kids had passed me around for insults until the tears crawled down my face like dry salt, and though I was a small boy with very skinny arms, I fought; I fought that day. I swung my arms even as a big kid named Marcus bloodied my nose. I punched and I clawed and I kicked and spat and cursed until Marcus got tired of hitting me, and Mrs. Pinky grabbed me and pulled my head into her soft flesh. And I hid there, in the darkness of her embrace, with my chest hemorrhaging sobs, hoping to spend a thousand years there. I guess bullies and the bullied are like pedophiles in that the victims eventually become the victimizers, and I did have my time being the same kind of wicked kid that had tormented me before I finally had a big enough growth spurt to stop looking like the kid with a kick me sign taped to the back of his shirt. I used to tell people that I was a recovering asshole, just taking it one day at a time.
Mom didn’t have another kid until I was fourteen—a red, sand-colored girl named Nona—so I grew up lonely and afraid and angry, hating my father. By the time I finished high school, Nona’s father, Mr. Floyd (a big man with wide shoulders, reddish-brown skin, and short, thick fingers) was married to my mother. He was decent to me, kind and giving, but having come into my life at a relatively late date, he never really felt comfortable with the idea of actually parenting me. At twenty-eight, I was a newspaper reporter with an on again/off again girlfriend, a condo, a drinking solution, and, like all good journalists, an unfinished novel. I used my mother’s maiden name, Marshall, and my cards read: Benjamin R. Marshall. My skin was a somewhat darker shade of black than my father’s and in place of the silken mustache that he had sported in the military portrait that still hung on my grandmother’s living-room wall, I had the wild strings of a beatnik’s goatee.
It rained hard the day that the story of my father’s innocence broke. I called my mom, who snuck away to a quiet place in the house so that she could cry while she listened to me tell her three times how DNA testing had proved that the semen found on the girl’s clothing and the hairs found at the scene belonged to another man who had been in prison for ten years for another rape. I was sent downtown, to the courthouse to cover the story and, on the drive, watching the line in the middle of the freeways that snaked through the hearts of big southern cities like Houston, guiding me through the angry rains, I remember just hoping that he wouldn’t recognize me after all those years, that in the midst of my questioning he wouldn’t call me son, or ask me about the health of my grandmother. It had been many years since I’d seen him. Mom had stopped forcing me to go when I was about ten. The guards treated the prisoner’s families so shitty that she didn’t want to see me go through it anymore. After she became serious with Mr. Floyd, she stopped going herself. But still I was afraid of my father’s eyes. Even though I was shy, while he had been something of a pretty boy, surely there would be something in my nose or the tight corners of my mouth that would make him squint his eyes and break out one of his dazzling smiles before calling out my full name for all to hear, turning my colleagues into terrible ten-year-olds.
He was smaller than the picture in my mind. The hair, though not gray at all, seemed old in its fragility. His face was still handsome, but wan and there was defeat in the set of his shoulders. I remembered him being such a confident man, but he seemed almost afraid that afternoon as he stood behind a podium trying to answer the same questions time and again. He stumbled over his words; he stuttered; his fingers kept returning to his mustache. The lawyer had to step in and help him with the answers, though it was clear he understood the questions just fine. Holding out my recorder, I didn’t ask one question. I stayed as far back as I could. Was he bitter or angry at the victim who had picked him out from a line-up and testified in court that he was the one? Of course not. What were his plans? Spend time with family; try to get his life back on track. How did it feel to be free after twenty-one years? Good. Good.
I had a drink with my boss that same night. Beth was a very masculine lesbian who wore her short blond hair slicked back like a character in an old mob movie. She had huge breasts that she’d tried unsuccessfully to restrain with a series of failed sports bras. She held the door for her supermodel-looking brunette, Angeline. I was on my second bourbon. I told them about me, my father; I thought that I should since it was bound to be found out. I don’t know what I expected, but what I got was the manufactured sympathy that TV news reporters employ right after a featured story about a celebrity death, right before a commercial break, which itself comes before a story about a guy who went to church with no pants on, to which the whole gang laughs. Beth wanted me to write a story about the whole thing: growing up without my father, his return to my life, the victim, everything. I said no.
“I certainly understand how you feel, Benjy,” Beth said as the tall Angeline struggled unsuccessfully to lean her head all the way down to Beth’s beefy shoulder without looking awkward.
“I’ve spent my life trying to get away from his shit.” I leaned back in my chair, took a good long sip of the bourbon and stared up at the ceiling. “I understand where you’re coming from, man, but I don’t know if I can do it. This shit is like a fucking cancer to me.”
“But honestly?” Beth said, “No bullshit? If you don’t write it someone else will. Someone at some other paper will do it, and they’ll tell your story their own way. I’m not gonna lie, it would be good for the paper, but I also want you to have a chance to tell your story first, in your own way, before people start harvesting a bunch of bullshit. And to be straight with you, I still have to do my job, and if you don’t do it I’ll have to give the story to one of the other guys before we get scooped. No offense, but this is still the rat race, the early bird gets the Porsche and all that shit.” We had a shot of some nasty shit Angeline loved. Beth picked up the tab in spite of my insincere protests and I agreed to write the story. When they got up to leave Angeline looked down at me, noticing the bourbon in my eyes.
“You good, Benjy?”
“Sure?” asked Beth.
“Like pussy-flavored ice cream.” They laughed, I ordered.
I woke up the next morning hung-over and went to the window to make sure that I hadn’t wrecked my car on the way home. He was at my grandma’s; I knew he would be, but I ignored the calls from family until the next day, I needed to prepare myself for calling a stranger “Dad.” Mom and Floyd and Nona were standing outside in the yard. It was one of those southern yards where there was more gray dust than the brown grass and green weeds that sprouted up in odd places. The Chinaberry tree stood off to the side of the yard like an old relative who had looked to be dying for many years, but was still there, still firmly rooted in every memory. They smiled at me, Mom with tears in her eyes. I kissed Grandma’s cheek and she squeezed my hand. Then he was there, walking straight into my present tense.
“Junior!” he said.
His arms were stronger than I would’ve thought, and he held me for a long time, until I didn’t know what to do with my hands, until I was embarrassed, feeling myself about to break, knowing the family was watching, thinking that they had replaced the big missing puzzle piece that you can never seem to find in the box. “My boy,” he said. “My boy!” The barbeque pit was smoking; Mr. Floyd worked to keep the flames from flaring up and scorching the meat. For a time we were quiet, neither of us knowing the right words to unlock the moment.
“So you a newspaper man, huh?” My father smiled.
“I’m trying to be, but honestly your story is the first decent thing they’ve ever given me. I wasn’t the best student in college.”
“You got a degree, didn’t you? Looks like you was a good enough student. Shit, I’m proud! To be honest with you, I never thought you would end up going to college. As a baby it seemed like it took you a long time to start talking. I had you figured for more of a trade-school man.” He laughed, rubbing the small afro with his long fingers. We were both quiet, but we smiled. I didn’t know what to say, it seemed kind of wrong to talk about prison right then. He took a nervous sip of beer.
“Man, that is so good! It’s so cold. It’s been a long time since I had a drink that was really cold.” He looked around the yard then, at all the family, much of which he had never met before: people who had been very small children when he went away and others who had not yet been born. “Is he good to her?” he asked, aiming his head at Mr. Floyd, who was removing sausages from the grill.
“Yeah, I can honestly say he’s a real good man. Works his ass off at those docks, and I never heard him say an unkind word to anybody.”
“That’s good,” he said, nodding his head, “I’m glad, I really am. I always hated myself for not treatin her as well as I should have. I was just young and stupid and wasn’t a woman alive that was capable of being as deeply in love with me as I was with myself.”
I was strange around him, like he was expecting to take me out for a game of catch or to teach me how to swim. Whenever I saw him there was always a Bible either in his hand or close by, but I never actually saw him reading from it. He would just drum his fingers on its cover from time to time. I started my story, mentioning the Bible right away. I took him shopping with a credit card I’d sworn I wouldn’t use for a while, and he picked clothes for the Benny that had gone to prison more than twenty years before. Nona loved them; they were just like the clothes her favorite rap stars wore. I bought some of them for him, but insisted he get one decent suit and some interchangeable pants and shirts. I avoided calling him “Dad,” preferring to just say “hey” or “man,” the word belonged to other people that neither of us had seen for a long time. His lawyer reached a settlement with the state and he was to receive $300,000 as compensation for all that he had lost. It seemed like the kind of money you might get for having a department store videotape you in the changing room or slipping on a wet floor at your favorite burger joint. Grandma thanked Jesus for it. I brought Dad over to my house a couple of times to meet Shana, the on again/off again, and the three of us went to dinner and played pool once or twice. It was weird. He complimented her on the things that would have been flattering twenty years before, but seemed inappropriate today. She worked as a bank teller, was poorly paid and hated the job, but when Shana told my father what she did for a living he acted as if I had landed a real financial catch. She thought he was making fun of her. Back at my place we argued. Another time, assuming that the relationship was in better shape than it was, he asked about a wedding date.
“What the hell is wrong with him?”
I took a long sip of bourbon. “He doesn’t mean anything by it.”
“And why the hell does he keep staring at me? Every time I looked up he was all down my shirt or looking at my ass! It just makes me feel strange.”
“Well he’s been in prison for twenty one years. I would think that under the circumstances, it’s to be expected, and since it turned out that he was innocent the whole time, I would think that maybe we could give him a pass for showing some appreciation for your fucking push-up bra!” Her toothbrush wasn’t in the holder the next morning.
One day after work I came to Grandma’s house, a long and wide mini warehouse-looking building that my dead grandfather had built himself, adding a room whenever he could afford it until he ended up with the five army barrack-style bedrooms that spilled out over the two lots he’d bought cheap when the neighborhood was just starting to be carved out of land that had been wild and free before. I found him in the back bedroom that was filled to the brim with a huge bed that barely fit inside, a large scarred wooden dresser and a china cabinet with shelves guarded by dozens of ceramic figurines: ballerinas and unicorns and butterflies and angels and a Jesus with a chipped nose and a fat bullfrog with a long extended tongue that looked like used chewing gum. He was kneeling in front of the cabinet, holding the prison bible while staring up at a print of a Da Vinci painting of Da Vinci himself as Jesus. Fingers drummed the cover of the book. The bible was in his hand, clutched tightly, and as he rocked his torso from side to side, his thumb tapped the beaded cover with the rhythm of a child’s poem. Dad didn’t say a word in prayer, seeming sure that he had spoken loudly with the language of bended knee and opened heart. He swayed endlessly, holding the bible, playing his song on its skin. He sweated and it seemed to me as if his whole body were weeping. I sat down on the bed. I was quiet. I let him have his thing. They say a son should never have to see his father getting his ass kicked, that even if he is the biggest asshole in the world and he has just said the most insulting shit to you—you should not kick his ass in the presence of his son, that every son has the right to preserve his father’s invincibility. I saw my father getting his ass kicked. I sat on the bed that day, writing in my spiral notebook as he cried.
Some people had tried to contact my father’s accuser, a banker named Hope Anson, then in her late 40’s, but she was never home and didn’t return any calls. I never tried. What could she say? Oops? Sorry? I did talk to the prosecutor though, without telling him who I was except that I was a reporter from the Chronicle. He said little, citing the sensitive nature of the case. I did notice two family portraits on the big desk: one of him as a middle-aged man, surrounded by his wife and four grown kids, the other of him as a younger man in ugly plaid pants, with his pretty wife and four smiling children, three girls and the smallest, a boy, sitting right on his father’s knee.
I didn’t see my father for a week after that, the weight of his stolen days did things to my posture. Then one day he called—seeming happy and beautiful—and invited me out to lunch with him and a woman named Faye whom he called his lady friend. He had gotten the money, but waited until the short shapely woman went to the bathroom before whispering the news to me. He swore me to secrecy with regards to relatives, old and new, those of the caniborrowadollar tribe. I agreed to help him find a financial planner. Beyond these whispered commands, he didn’t want to talk about it. “Money is such an ugly thing,” he said. Changing the subject, he asked if I had seen the story about the young American girl who had been imprisoned for murder in Italy.
“Yeah, yeah, it’s been a pretty big story for a few years. She was lucky,” I said.
“Yeah, she was lucky. All the way in Italy and they beat the case on appeal. Ain’t that something?”
“Do you think they would have come to your rescue in Italy?” I smiled.
“Hell no,” he said, laughing. “I was stationed over there when I was in the army, and I don’t think they would’ve rescued me then! But I’m happy for her. I don’t know what it’s like over there, in prison, but if it’s anything like what it is here or even worse, I’m happy for her even if she did do it.”
Shaking my head, I laughed.
“They say she’ll be worth millions. The book? The movie? Set for life.” To this, he drummed his fingers on the bible. The next week he moved into a small apartment and bought a used Corolla. I think I felt that he was safe then, that the prison system wouldn’t open its wide jaws and reclaim him like some wayward piece of deep-fried flesh. I tried to make up with Shana but she found more than a few ways to tell me to go screw myself. I spent a lot of time working on the story, wanting to make readers believe in my father the way I never had.
I went over to his place one day to bring him a good Dali print as a house warming gift. He asked how the story was coming along. I was almost finished. I would let him read it before we printed if he wanted to. No, he only wanted to read it in the paper (the Sunday edition) where he could see my name in black and white. I went to piss in a bathroom that was so spotless that it was as if the soap was replaced after each shower and the toothbrush after each brushing. I stayed in there longer than I’d intended to, calculating how much time I could stay before it seemed like I’d never wanted to come over in the first place. I wanted what we all want: time travel, second chances. When I came back out I found him kneeling on the floor, crying again, his chest filling itself with big hollow sobs, and his head bent so low, his shoulders shaking, tears soaking the tender pages of the opened bible.
“Pray,” I said, not knowing what else to say, wrapping my arms around him, “pray.” He continued sobbing, and I could hear the troubled breaths scraping the inside of him. He started to speak, I think, because he didn’t have the strength to go on with his tears and jagged breathing.
“There was a teacher we had once, when I was locked up; it’s been years now, but this lady told us a story about this English playwright once. This guy was always writing shit, talking about how the king and the pope were fucking over the regular people, how the working man was starving while the pope and the king ate like, well, like kings.” He laughed to himself, wiping his eyes, carefully placing the bible off to the side. “Well this guy wrote one play about this place called the Isle of Dogs. That was where they buried the prisoners that died behind bars or were executed. The island was empty, uninhabited because it was so far below sea level that it would flood every day. When they buried the inmates there, the tide would come along in the next day or so and wash the bodies out to sea, and the prison just kept using the same burial plots over and over. The bodies were just washed out to sea like trash, where nobody could come to visit the grave or nothing. That’s what I felt like, Junior, like one of those bodies. Still do. I don’t even know how to be a fifty-year-old man, but that’s what I am. That’s what my I.D. says, but I don’t know how to be that man. I’m kinda stuck you know? You say, pray? I been praying. I prayed every day; the whole time I was gone I prayed. I prayed to God and Jesus and whoever else might be listening. If you are an innocent man in prison, shouldn’t God know you’re innocent? Shouldn’t he do something?”
The tears spilled from his eyes again, but he was calm, not like before. I rubbed his back with one hand and gripped his shoulder with the other. I said nothing. I let him cry. I rubbed his back. I gripped his shoulder. I let him cry. He trembled beneath my hand. I held on to him. I let him cry.
“Dad, you just have to keep living, make tomorrow worth more than yesterday.”
“There is more.”
“I’m here whenever you need to talk.”
“There is more.”
“Faye is really a lovely woman, seems nice too.”
“Damn, Junior! I’m fucked up. I’ll be alright, got no choice—shit. I. Am. Fucked. Up. You know they raped me one time, the first year I was gone. They raped me. I’m telling you because I need to tell somebody and you’re all I have left. They seemed real cool at first, four of them. They shared their food with me when I first got there, loaned me stamps. Working in the laundry one day, I didn’t suspect a thing; these dudes had been cool with me for months by then, real cool! All three of them jumped me from behind and just started beating me with fists, bottles or any kind of equipment they had in the laundry. I didn’t see it coming, and by the time I even knew I was in a fight, the fight was over. I was dazed, and one of my eyes was already starting to close. I almost lost my left eye. I prayed then too. That’s all I could do, pray. I told God that I was innocent; I begged him for salvation. They laughed while I prayed. They laughed, and God didn’t strike them down; he didn’t even send a guard or somebody to interrupt them. When a man is raped it doesn’t take long before he stops fighting. At a point, there is no point. Man, I’m so sorry that I wasn’t there to be a father for you. I know you needed that.”
I said it was okay, that it hadn’t been that bad, but he knew a lie when he heard one. If a son seeing his father getting his ass kicked destroys hope for him, what I’d just seen and heard was an apocalypse. I walked away from what was left of my father. I didn’t say goodbye. I don’t remember removing my hands from his shaking shoulders. I left. I left and I drank until I swallowed the whole of what my father had told me; I couldn’t shake the image, even days later, of my father in a prison laundry room, fighting for the last part of himself that had yet to be destroyed, while his son was at home, sleeping in the house he’d helped to buy, learning each day to hate him a little more. I emailed my story to Beth the next day.
For three days I drank until I passed out, and within my dreams, I had other dreams that it had all been yet another dream, but in the mornings the truth came bubbling up with the bourbon. I got up each morning and went to the window to make sure the car was alright, hoping to see my undamaged father standing next to it, as good as new. I found the banker and rape victim right outside the branch she worked at. It had been more than a month since my father was released, and I knew that though she wouldn’t grant an interview and the bank probably wouldn’t allow any press inside, she had to work. She was tall and a little heavier than she’d been then; her head was topped with a mass of curly red hair and her face was littered with dull freckles. She didn’t look like it.
I followed her to the lodge motel where she was staying. I just wanted to know where she was. I started stopping by the place some times to see if her car was there, if she had a boyfriend. I was really interested in seeing the kind of man she dated. One night I rented a room a few doors down from her and stayed up all night drinking until my eyeballs started to itch. About a week after I talked to my father I drove up to my house and couldn’t go in. I had a feeling that if I went inside, I would never come out again. I ended up back at Hope Anson’s bank, very drunk and very sad. I waited in the parking lot of the taco place next door. I followed her. When she went up to her room I stayed in the car. I watched as she left the room to stop by the lobby and then the ice machine. I got out of the car and walked up the stairs with fast, soft steps, and by the time she came back, singing some love song, I was inside. I smelled it, everything. I could smell the dinner that was cooking and the hairspray and the soap that she used and the part of her that laughed and the part of her that was afraid and the part that was evil and the part that pointed wicked little fingers at innocent men. I smelled it. When she came back inside I was right behind the door. I reached out my hand and touched the back of her hair very lightly, so lightly that she didn’t even notice, just went on singing. I laughed a little to myself. I went closer and the hand was stronger, surer. Reaching out, I grabbed a fist full of the blazing hair then, and she opened her mouth to scream. I put one hand over her mouth and with the other I covered her neck and squeezed with enough force to make her understand. She had to understand.
“Quiet?” I asked, “Quiet?” She nodded. I removed the hand from her mouth and loosened the one on her neck.
“Please don’t. Please don’t hurt me,” she said, and she wrapped her arms protectively around her breasts and squeezed her knees together so tightly that she looked like a little girl who was about to wet herself.
“You think I want to touch you? You think I want you? You? I don’t want you, bitch. Why is it you bitches are so obsessed with your own pussies? No one wants it. It is nowhere near 2am and I am not nearly drunk enough.”
She seemed puzzled then, even embarrassed. I got the feeling that for a moment she would’ve liked to check her hair and makeup in the bathroom mirror. She looked over to her purse as if she were about to offer money, but I shook my head.
“Maybe a beer?” I smirked.
“Who are you?”
“My name is Benjamin Marshall.” I said, but she didn’t know that name. “I’m Benny Ray Fontenot, Jr.” She let out half a scream before fingers were back around her throat, squeezing. Still holding onto her throat, I pushed her down on one of the twin beds in the room.
“I will not tell you again,” I whispered.
“I’m sorry; I’m so sorry. I made a mistake. I didn’t know. It was dark; I didn’t know.”
I told her my life story then, about my father’s depression, the prison bible and its tear-stained pages. I told her about the beatings my father and I had both endured, about how I’d grown up hating my father and hating my mother for loving him. How I’d wished that Mr. Floyd was really my dad. She cried and begged for forgiveness. I brushed back the dark sweaty roots of her hair soothingly. Then I told her about my father’s rape, every detail he’d shared with me.
“Please! Please!” she whisper-screamed.
I slapped her then, crying right along with her, frustrated with myself I thought: Why is everybody always crying, seems like the whole fucking world is crying. I begged myself for her life, and as I straddled her heaving chest, I wanted to finally stand up for my father. In my mind I repeated the words to Dad that Hope had said to me: I’m sorry. It was dark. I didn’t know. I thought about all the times when I cursed God and my mother both for making him my father. Hands traveled up to my face scratching, and I was proud of the blood that I shed for my father. I’m sorry. It was dark. I didn’t know. When her eyes were big and clear I saw a little boy come into the room carrying a gun, her son. He was crying too. He was so beautiful, with his mother’s red locks and big green eyes. I smiled at him and his little bullet. When he shot, the bullet was pure and sure and truthful, and the power of the little gun sent both of us tumbling. What I remember of the next moments was the nice smells: the perfume, the baking chicken, fresh corn bread. And I remember the strong hands of Hope Anson squeezing my neck then, squeezing so hard, the fingers pressed so tightly together, like the stones of a hopeful dam, and the blood, thick and hot, spilling out into the scream-less night.
Carl Lane lives and writes in Houston, Texas. His work has also appeared in The Bayou Review. He is a graduate of The University of Houston-Downtown, where he was an English major and creative writing minor. Carl is currently applying to MFA programs. Asked by a professor what inspired him to write “Isle of Dogs,” Carl responded: “Someone had to say something.”
Photo by Joachim Brink, used by permission.