The old man takes the bowl of oatmeal and dates from me as though it were a glass heirloom in the hands of an idiot manchild. Once he’s hunkered over his dinner and has a firm grip on his spoon, he grumbles, “About time, doofus.”
I return to the kitchenette and run the hot water. While I scrub the pot in the tiny sink, the old man inches a spoonful of oatmeal towards his mouth. “Smells like you stirred this swill with your dick,” he says. He tongues a clump of date and rifles displeasure in my direction. The yellow paneling inside the trailer glows orange in the near-dusk. I acknowledge the rebuke with a slight nod and continue to scrub.
For fifteen years, I have trained to kill the old man. I am good with a knife and can ooze my way through a dark room, but there is a ritual to uphold, the ritual the old man learned from his teacher. Any awkward beast can ambush unsuspecting prey. The true art is to kill the man who knows you are coming. The old man took twenty-six years to kill his teacher, but I won’t need that long. The old man has grown small in his overstuffed recliner. His surviving clutch of hair, silver as stainless steel, has grown unmanageable and refuses to remain against his scalp. The old man slaps the wad of oatmeal onto his tongue and hums as the spoon comes out clean between his lips.
“Dry,” he says with his mouth full. “We could caulk the windows with this crap.”
Three weeks since my last opportunity. The old man sent me outside as usual, and I jogged a circuit through the trailer park while I waited for my invitation to return. When I did come back, the old man interrogated me about my jog and the possibility of his murder. I answered his questions well enough that he doused the lights, and we stalked each other in the dark. I covered my blade to hide my position. I moved on the balls of my feet, my knees bent to silence the floor. But still the old man sniffed me out and struck my hand with the bowl of his iron ladle. My knife clattered to the linoleum.
“Like a camel on roller skates,” he said. “I am still alive, oaf,” disappointment souring every word.
Now the old man says as he brings another spoonful to his mouth, “These dates are hard as kidneys. You need teeth to chew these, cow-brain.”
Frank corkscrews through a maw in the floor in the far corner of the trailer. His black and brown fur is matted with dirt and pine pitch and early evening air. He stretches each leg in turn as he saunters towards the old man. While still smacking his lips and licking his gums, the old man puts the bowl between his knees and pulls a pouch of cat treats from the side pocket of his recliner.
“There, there, there,” the old man says as he tears open the pouch. He tsks and throws past Frank, but the tabby zeroes in on the tumbling kibble and swats it dead in its tracks before he eats it. The old man throws this time to the other side of the room, and Frank again pounces before the treat loses momentum. The next one is straight at him, and Frank scoops it, mid-air, straight to his mouth.
“Good hunter,” the old man murmurs. “A natural, you.” Whenever Frank brings in a kill—a baby rabbit, say, or a vole—the old man digs his fingertips into Frank’s fur as though trying to loosen something and tells him, “At least something in this place knows how to kill.”
This humiliation and indignity are all part of my training. Not only must I be able to pierce the same hollow in the paneling from across the trailer with my knife, not only must I visualize and pantomime the insertion my blade into the base of the old man’s skull for a quick and respectful kill, but I must wash the old man’s stained underwear by hand in the tiny sink. I cook, sweep the sheet-thin carpet. My place is to obey my teacher. Only when I kill the old man and take his place will I give commands and ask questions of my student. Until then, I crawl through the gravel moat of the old man’s trailer and pick out every hint of plant or weed. If the gang of dirty boys, twelve-year-olds who run unattended through the trailer park, kick up the gravel that I have just smoothed out, I quietly repair the damage. I tend to Frank’s litter box. Shop. Our money comes from federal checks addressed to a name the old man says is not his, nor that of his teacher. Who knows how far back our line goes—how many students killed the old men who trained them and then went on to find their own student-assassins. All day, the old man sits in his recliner. He calls me an ass-dimple and itemizes my inadequacies. His death is simply another chore to complete, and I am to occupy to time with nothing but my training.
The old man gets through half of his oatmeal and throws Frank another handful of treats before he folds up the pouch and puts it in the pocket of his blue luau shirt with orange parrots. Then he turns to the wall and says, “Be gone, melon-face.” His hand lingers by the pocket of his recliner, where he keeps a glass ashtray to throw when I do not respond in time. On my way out, I grab my denim jacket from the spot on the floor where I sleep. I always wear my knife on a shoulder holster.
“Good riddance, turd,” the old man calls behind me. When I close the door, the ashtray thumps against it for punctuation. The porch light, which looks like the dismembered torso of the Michelin Man, trembles.
The air is ‘tween-season, but sunset promises to bring a deeper chill with it, so I put on my denim jacket. The remnants of this morning’s rain glisten in the grass. A pickup ambles up the hill into the trailer park and passes me, a squad of paint-speckled riders in the bed. The painters stare. They neither wave nor nod because there are rumors about how the old man and I spend our time together. A flock of yardbirds in the road, the smallest still in training pants, parts to let the truck through, then the two sides collapse into each other like waves. While I am still buttoning my jacket, the gang of dirty boys, brandishing plastic pistols, ambushes the yardbirds and attacks without mercy.
I was once a dirty boy myself in this very trailer park. Running outside was a better option than staying home. Even when my mom remembered to buy food, she beat me on the back with table legs and empty liquor bottle, and she held my hands over the stove burners for being a little shit. Every now and then, while I did my yard work, I’d see her in a car or truck with at least one man, sometimes as many as four. Last time, she spat out the window and took a beer can from the shaggy beast next to her.
“Faggot,” she yelled, and she threw the can at me. “Go get your shit pushed in.” No doubt, she helped along the rumors that I was the old man’s lover. I picked up the can and went back to sweeping the old man’s front walk. This incident was over a year ago and I haven’t seen her since. Maybe she shacked up with one of the men she rode with. Maybe one of them turned out to be the kind of guy whose truck you shouldn’t ride in.
The dirty boys turn their sites onto me and fire lines of water from their weapons. “Pah-chew, pah-chew, bitch.” I raise my sleeve over my face and step out of range. They pursue, so I jog down the hill. The dirty boys stop at the plywood proscenium to the trailer park, and the largest one, the one in the rattiest t-shirt, tells me that I should run, homo. They all leave except Andre. Andre claims to be twelve, but he looks no more than nine, so the other boys will push him around and call him Gay-dre. His lips are barely big enough to cover his front teeth. He throws some gravel at me, and it falls far short.
“Don’t come back,” Andre says, “until you have my money.” Andre likes to pretend that I have a debt with him. I like him to think he has someone to play with, so I look back over my shoulder as though I dread his pursuit. Andre releases a hoarse cry and runs off after the dirty boys.
Sometimes Andre makes a bed out of drop cloth in the abandoned Bonneville that sits in an empty trailer lot. By the time I was Andre’s age, I knew what trash cans were the best to scrounge food from, and I knew that a bed under a water heater was far more comfortable than harsh fabric inside an abandoned vehicle. To pass time between food and sleep, I skipped pebbles along the road and sometimes pegged a groundhog. I ganked bikes and dumped them in the nearby reservoir. When I was thirteen, I broke into trailers for food and money, and I stole glass figurines and collectible plates that I smashed when I got bored. I stole a hunting knife, the same knife I use today, and mugged drunks who staggered up from the bar at the bottom of the hill. I impaled dead squirrels and cats and threw them from my blade. When I was fourteen, I crept into bedrooms and held the blade under the noses of sleepers until they woke. I kept it there until they sobbed or begged me not to hurt them, then I pocketed a thing or two and left. One night, I sliced a man’s double chin to what his fat looked like, and another time I cut a pretty woman along the length of her forearm just to disrupt that unmottled stretch of porcelain white. When I broke into the old man’s trailer, I had a hankering for homicide. I crept towards the rumble of his snoring, and when I took out my knife, the old man struck my hand numb. He clocked me on top of the skull, and curly-cue flares of spectral light fired off in my vision.
The old man leaned over me and felt up my arms and legs. He muttered, “You’re as subtle as a chimp with elephantitis, but I guess you’ll have to do,” then pressed both hands into my chest until I blacked out.
The road runs past a cube before it dissolves into route 22. The Barrelhead. Its neon signs advertise cold beer, warm stools and hot sandwiches to the world and darkening skies above. The chrome handle of its oak door gleams, and the hinges swing easily.
The place is near empty. Two local yokels swipe their attention to the TV. I take a seat where I can see up the hill through one of the raised windows. The handle of my knife pokes me in the armpit. I order a Miller from the owner, a round man with a form-fitting apron, who puts up a draft and wipes out the ashtray in front of me. I order roast beef and look out the window while I drink my beer. The yokels stare at the owner when he hands my order to the kitchen. They don’t like drinking at the same bar as the local queer, but I pay my tabs, so the owner only raises his eyebrows at the yokels and scrunches his mouth to the side. The yokels go back to their show.
I keep my focus on the old man’s porch light. When it goes out, I am to return. The old man says that our work is too important to distract ourselves with other people, but as the yokels mutter to each other and sneak murky looks at me from under the edges of their cap bills, I swallow down the fact that the rumors have some truth to them: every three or four months, the old man will crawl up behind me while I am asleep on the floor. Sometimes he yanks down my underwear, but most of the time he rubs up against it. He is too old to get hard anymore, but still he grinds as though he is invading me and hisses, “Hee! Hee!” He mashes against me until he is too out of breath to continue. Then he goes back to his recliner and never speaks of these episodes. Perhaps they are to provide me further motivation to kill him and take over his trailer. Maybe I am to be shamed by everyone around me until I fulfill my training. I could slice new mouths on these yokels before they could get their hands up to protect themselves, but I drown the urge in the dregs of my beer.
The kitchen rings up my order, and the owner brings my sandwich with extra napkins. He refills my glass. While I eat, I tear confetti-like fragments from the paper plate. The rye bread is crumbly, the meat like a stack of shingles, but I soften each bite with a sip of beer. I put the paltry excuse of a pickle slice up on its end, and it bends like an ocean invertebrate. The yokels risk some quarters on the bowling game along the back wall. They have to time their shots to a light that sidles back and forth like the gaze of a sci-fi robot up to no good. The owner circulates along the bar and wipes down the spots of nonexistent customers. After I finish my sandwich, I pull a Phillie from the pocket of my denim jacket and smoke. The yokels confirm my presence now and then from over their shoulders.
I have a third beer while I wait for the old man’s signal. The bowlers shell out almost three dollars and still can’t score a perfect game. They scratch their heads and beards and puzzle at their inability. I know how they feel. The old man sits in a recliner day after day, yet he is still able to best me in the dark. I exhale and watch the smoke as though it might reassure me that tonight I will complete my training. I am at the bottom of my third glass when the light on the old man’s trailer goes out.
I call for my bill, and the owner squints and gives me a figure. I leave a mere pittance of a tip. The owner calls out behind me, “Have a better one,” as he picks up his money from the bar.
I turn up my collar and jog up the hill. Night has delivered its promised cold. The porch light flashes on and off with the old man’s impatience, but when I reach the stoop I bounce in place for warmth. If I barge in without invitation, the old man will declare me a failure and remain alive. The fluorescent rod in the main room shows through the frosted slats like a spiritual presence. While I wait, Andre approaches with a broom handle and a T-square holstered in his belt. He is marred with mud and strands of spider web. He smacks his palm with the broom handle, and his teeth break out from between his lips.
“Where’s my twenty bucks, buster?” he threatens.
I pat my pockets with horrified energy. “I left it at the bank,” I say.
He points the sharp end of the handle at me. “I’ll take it out of your hide,” he says. “You owe me a hundred fifty dollars now.”
I make motions of distress, a mock gnashing of teeth and rending of garments. “A hundred fifty dollars,” I say, “a hundred fifty dollars! Where am I to get a hundred fifty dollars?”
Andre swaggers closer. “Just give me your car,” he says, “and we’ll call it even.”
There is potential in Andre. There is about forty years’ difference between the old man and me, so I don’t know if a twenty year gap is enough to let Andre be my student, but this boy is wiry and would do well with a knife. He can dodge stones pitched at him by the dirty boys. I point to the abandoned Bonneville that has served as a pirate ship, a Mars lander and even a tomato juice factory according to who’s played in it.
“All yours,” I say. “The keys are under the front seat. Take her for a spin.”
Andre laughs heartily, almost ape-like, and takes off for the Bonneville.
I rub the sleeves of my denim jacket. Down the hill, The Barrelhead shines like a diamond in a coal bin. From behind the door, the old man calls out, “It’s unlocked, oaf.” I enter.
The old man holds the ladle in his lap, a banana hanging precariously from his shirt pocket. His silver hair akimbo. Frank is draped along one of the armrests as though he imagines himself on a tree bough.
“You were playing with that child again,” the old man says. He looks at his ladle and grins. “You can’t find your student until you’ve killed your teacher, and I can still stove in your skull.” He waits until I am on the verge of responding, then says, “Tell me the way of my death. Go through it for me step by step.”
“The room is dark,” I say. “And I cannot see nor hear you.”
“Do you wave about or make noise to see if I will give away my location?”
“I’m on the job,” I say. “No reasons to take shortcuts or attract undue attention.”
The old man nods and eases back. He takes the banana from his pocket and holds it by the stem as if for comfort. “That’s good. Good. Proceed.” Franks lifts his head to sniff at the fruit then resumes his slumber.
I go to the window that overlooks the front stoop. I see a shady visage of porch lights and trailers, but mostly I see my reflection, the old man protruding from my head like a tumor. “So I wait in the dark,” I say, “to acclimate and steady my breath. I relax, though not so much as to be unprepared.”
“Is the darkness an enemy?” the old man asks. “Or does it invite you in?” He peels the banana and holds the naked fruit at arm’s length. It may be bait, a promise of reward if I respond well. But maybe he is just preparing to eat it himself.
“The dark is the dark,” I say. “Whether you conquer it or not, it is the nature of night to be dark and I must regard it as neither friend nor enemy.”
The old man smiles more at the banana than at me as he breaks it. “Half?” I take his offering, and we eat in silence—me with methodic, mindful bites, and the old man with excitement and relish. The banana is harsh, sweet counterpoint to the Miller and roast beef on dry rye and residue of cigar smoke in my mouth and nose, but the old man will beat me if I show displeasure, so I eat. When he’s finished, the old man slaps his hands together seal-like.
“Ah,” he says.
When I stare into my reflection on the window, I can eventually see through it. First I make out the Bonneville, which shakes with whatever game Andre has devised in there. Then I examine the neighboring trailers. At first glance they all look the same, but I study each until I find the detail that makes it stand out from the others. This one across the way has vertical blinds and a plastic owl nailed to its roof; the next one over has plastic daisies in its front bed, the kind that spin their heads in the breeze. Two other trailers pulse with the energy of television, but one pulses with more frequency, as though someone were asleep on the remote. They all look full, loaded down, resistant to any sudden deluge or twister that may sweep through. The old man’s trailer is so spare and light that it would float like a parade balloon if it were to lose a single item in its hold. I may have to bury the old man under the floor to keep my home in place. I eat the bottom tip of the banana. In the corner of my sight, the old man nods as he counts each pneumatic press of my jaw.
“Thirty,” he orders me. “Don’t let it slide back before thirty. Even if it’s gone to liquid. Then we’ll go back to the way of it.”
I work towards thirty, the banana more like paste at this point. I will paint these walls when this trailer is finally mine. Also, I will put Frank out on his ass and get myself something part pit bull.
“Chew slowly.” The old man claps his feet against each other audibly. “I am old and excite easily when there is something that agrees with my tired jaw and missing teeth. I act fast, for there is little time left for me. You, though, should chew slowly and experience fully what it is that you chew. We were at the darkness.”
I have to prove to the old man that I have practiced my movements enough for them to be spontaneous. Just as an actor learns his lines so that he can speak them as though they are spontaneous rather than scripted, so do I have to learn my instructions so that I am acting on impulse.
“I creep and look for what the dark will allow me to see,” I say. “With those clues alone, I make my way in total silence, in stealth to my victim.”
The recliner creaks as the old man rocks in his seat. “And so you creep,” he says. “What is on your breath?”
“Banana,” I say. “And roast beef and Phillie and pilsner. Not necessarily in that order.”
“Is it intrusive, all this odor?”
“The roast beef and the banana remind me that I have eaten, that I have the strength to continue. The beer and cigar remind me that I may take pleasure in my training.”
“And the pickle?”
The old man looks at me, horrified. “There was a pickle with your roast beef sandwich?”
Yes, there was. That flimsy spear. It looked as nutritious as a jellyfish tentacle, and I left it behind in my rush to return to the trailer.
“There was a pickle,” the old man says, “and you can’t tell me there wasn’t. You were offered a pickle and you ignored it! O, O, O!” The old man throws himself back feebly against the recliner. Frank ditches the flailing ship. “Where will you be without the pickle on your breath to remind you of all you have offered to you that you are grateful for?”
I wiggle my toes. I scratch my upper lip. I am that sloppy child again, my bared knife as stealthy as a disco ball. An undisciplined child who spills blood with no art or wisdom. A child who can be plucked up by the nape and pummeled with a ladle by this old man who can barely hold up a banana anymore.
The old man continues, because he is the old man and that alone earns him the privilege. “And now my end is slighted, short-ended, for you have neglected your pickle! What is left but to start over, wipe it all clean and go back to the beginning? Your art is not to choose correctly among all options at every step but to not make the wrong choices. There is a difference if you chew on that long enough!”
The old man pulls in his lips to give me a chance to reflect, but he does not pause long. “You do not learn your art. You do not go through it like a checklist. You live your restrictions. Next time, you may know this better.”
He pockets the ladle and pulls out his Game Boy. As he fits together various shapes into perfect rows, which then dissolve away with celebratory tones, I leave the trailer. The cold is more unforgiving than before. I hear a door on the Bonneville slam, and then the crunch of gravel and dirt as Andre run towards me. In the dark, I can barely make out his body, but his teeth and eyes seem to run on batteries. With a little training, he could move in the dark like a piece of the night itself.
“Time to pay, whitey,” Andre says. “I’m here to make your skinny ass pay.”
I rub my hands together for a little warmth. The lights inside the trailer go out.