Billey's daddy could cuss the ash right off his cigarette.
Most evenings, before the mosquitoes got thick, he and Billey would sit by the spool and polish off a pot pie or a can of beans.
Elwood didn't have much use for pride. Fact is, he didn't have much use for anything except the spool. His little shack had weathered down to the wood. Time and gravity had worn away its right angles, leaving an impression of a house rendered in a few quick, gray brush strokes.
Inside, the air hung heavy with the mildew of furniture rescued from the rain. A slant of sunlight smudged itself on the window panes. A grease-caked Coleman stove stood next to the galvanized washtub in the kitchen.
Billey slept in a fiberglass camper that had been moved from a pickup bed onto a set of cinder blocks near the driveway. Rusty piston rods and hub cabs poked through the weeds in the back yard.
But the spool touched something buried inside Elwood. He'd often seen these things near construction sites. They came in many sizes—all of them big. They symbolized power and industry to a man without either.
"Could lay wire clean to Colorado with six of these," he told Billey as he wrestled the spool into position on the porch. "They got machines to wrap it on tight."
Elwood sat on the spool, planted his feet against the porch rail and pushed hard to scoot it into place. The rail creaked and sagged.
"Always wanted me a round table," he said, wagging his cigarette like a conductor's baton with each syllable. "Ain't nobody gonna take it away from me. Ain't no lawyer gonna take what's mine."
Elwood, usually so agitated and aggravated with Billey, became almost serene when the nicotine kicked in after a meal. He was as still as his folding chair while he stared across the way at something Billey couldn't see.
These were Billey's favorite times, when his belly was full of food instead of gas. He loved to watch the ash grow off the end of his father's cigarette. It looked like a snake slowly twisting out of its skin. Billey stared, usually with his mouth open, hoping that this time the ash would creep all the way up to the filter before it tumbled off.
Billey felt safe as long as the cigarette burned. He couldn't imagine anything better than being ignored by his father.
But it never lasted. An instant before Elwood broke his silence, he clicked his tongue, unloading a spoonful of hot ashes. He patted his shirt or pants—wherever the stuff fell—with the flats of his hands rubbing the dust into his clothes.
"Gah-DAM, what you lookin' at?" Elwood's feet dropped off the table and the chair legs crashed down to the porch. "Give me the shits the way you look at me all the time."
Billey shifted his weight, getting ready to hightail if need be. "I wasn't lookin' at nuthin'."
"You was. I saw you."
"Honest, I wasn't lookin'. I was just thinkin'."
"I'll give you somethin' to think about."
Before Billey could jump, Elwood's hand shot across the table and pinned Billey's wrist to the wood. The man untucked the cigarette from his mouth, blew the ash away and held the glowing end over the boy's forearm.
"You don't have to tell me the truth right now, Billey. Only thing is, I'm fixin' to burn me a hole in your arm while I'm waitin'."
Billey's lips squirmed back from his teeth as he looked up and saw terrifying things in his daddy's eyes. The eyes smoldered with an intensity he never saw in the kids at school even when they were yelling about his mama. Those eyes were just like the cigarettes, always burning without ever breaking into flame. At the same time, the eyes were distant, not looking at Billey at all, like those on the staring crust of a squirrel he'd found by the road last week.
"It's up to you, Billey. You can lie your stinky little ass off if you want. I'm just gonna burn me a hole clean through your arm is all."
Billey tried to wrench himself free, but struggling only brought his arm closer to the cigarette. He felt the awful little cone of heat.
"I wasn't lookin'." Billey's tears rolled off his cheeks and down his arm as if they might douse the coal. "I promise I wasn't lookin'."
Elwood had nothing if not time. He rested his head sideways on the table to get a better look at how close the cigarette came to his son's flesh.
"Are you gonna make me burn you, Billey?"
The man lowered his toy ever so slowly, measuring its heat by the contortions that transformed Billey's face. Anticipation drove Billey through hysteria to resignation. When Elwood sensed the game was over, he said, "You can't lie to me, boy." He jabbed the cigarette into Billey's arm.
Billey shrieked. But the ash had gone cold. His father laughed and tipped his chair back against the house.
"You sure do give me the shits," Elwood said, as Billey rubbed the gray tattoo of ashes from his arm.
Of course, it didn't do Billey any good to try to leave after dinner, either.
One summer night, after he'd scooped up the last bean, he set his tin bowl on the porch to let Black Wolf, a low-slung dog of colorful heritage, have a lick.
"What the hell you doin'?" Elwood roared. "I never paid no man for that dog and I'll be double damned if I'm gonna feed it. Bad enough I gotta feed you, always eatin' like beans grow on trees. And you never brung me a nickel."
Billey shot halfway around the side of the shack before his daddy's ass left the chair. He darted into his camper, snapped its feeble latch and covered himself with his once-green blanket. An instant later, he heard the fist pounding on the wall.
"Never brung me a nickel, did ya?"
Billey felt his sanctuary tilt and rock and come crashing down on the cinder blocks, as if he had been caught in an earthquake.
"Yer just like a gah-dam dog, Billey. Only a dog don't stink as bad as you."
Go back to Chapter 1 of Stress Test.
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