Peter the Great

by rthieme on September 1, 2005

[This story was published in Down in the Dirt in August 2005, and the subject matter certainly is. The Palo Alto Review, rejecting it for publication, said, “The narrative is a convincing replication of the character’s mind, the rhythmic patterns creating tension and momentum. The story’s subject is a difficult one, carefully rendered. However, the characterization and plot are predictable, the territory too familiar to generate enthusiasm.” Some rejections are as good as acceptances, aren’t they, especially when we know this familiar territory can not be visited too often … but visited perhaps as an “exemplum,” not so much a moral story as a story with a moral.  You can take the boy out of the pulpit but you can’t always take the pulpit out of the boy.]

Peter the Great

by Richard Thieme

“Which way do I do it then? Do I bring this three up and over? Carry the seven? Or what?”

Peter Bellerophon looked amazed at her dumb-assed face. The girl was twelve, for Crissake. Peter had shown her twice already. How many times did he have to go over the same goddamned thing? She wasn’t even his, but here he was, spending his time telling her things she never got anyway. Let her stupid-assed father show her how to do it, if he ever shows up.

He pushed the book and pencil and paper out of his face.

“Stop asking so goddamn many questions,” he said. “Figure it out for yourself.”

Ellie burst into tears and ran down the hallway. The door slammed, then he could hear her crying through the closed door. She always ran, but never far enough, not for him.

“There you go again,” Bonnie said, sticking up for the girl for a change. “You’re so nice.”

Peter lowered the newspaper, which he had opened as soon as Ellie ran out of the room, and stared at the woman. She was standing at the ironing board, one of his shirts hanging down, six of his shirts hanging clean and pressed on the rack. She wore the cut-offs he liked and one of his old plaid shirts, long tail-ends tied in a knot around her midriff. She wasn’t wearing a bra, he could see, which he guessed must irritate hell out of her nipples. The thought of her nipples sore against the shirt and the sight of her chest between unbuttoned buttons turned him on.

“Hey lady, you want to fuck?” Bonnie just looked down at the shirt. “Fuck yourself.”

Peter was thinking of the scene in Body Heat when Ned Racine comes over the lawn but instead of finding Mattie Walker in the gazebo, it’s the other girl, the one who it turns out really was Mattie Walker. It’s this great scene where he comes across the lawn and says, “Hey lady, you want to fuck?” and this dream-girl turns around, he steps back when he sees it isn’t the broad he’s been banging, that’s the scene he’s thinking about, thinking too of getting into Mattie or Mary Anne or whoever she is from behind, her fists squeezing the sheets, hearing the girl in her room crying, thinking too how Bonnie’s nipples are irritated, hurting, which had to turn her on as much as it did him, so when she said that, standing there bent over and ironing with those hard short strokes that said she was pissed off, he didn’t expect it. He didn’t know where in hell she was coming from all of a sudden and he didn’t deserve it.

He dropped the newspaper.

“What the fuck is that?”

He stared across the room, waiting for something to come back at him, something he could whack back, but she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction and he sighed. Here we go again. We certainly have been here before, haven’t we? When he doesn’t want to hear another word, she can’t shut up, but now, when she ought to say something, when he wouldn’t have minded a little conversation, she stands there ironing, pressing her lips in that tight line.

So he gave her the benefit of the doubt. He waited. But the woman did not say one goddamn word.

“Hey,” he said. “Bitch. I’m talking to you.”

She kept ironing, not looking up.

So he has to get up out of the chair, letting the newspaper slide onto the floor, and take a step toward her. In his mind, he is a dinosaur, a Tyrannosaurus Rex, old T-Rex himself, the one in the movie that chases the car. He sees himself huge, a predator stalking prey, striking fear into the animals running for cover. The smart ones, anyway: the smart ones run for cover.

“Goddamn it! Are you listening to me?”

She looked up this time, pulling the shirt on the board. He saw a flicker of fear in her eyes before her eyes got hard again. That turned him on even more.

“Don’t start with me, Peter.” She kept her voice cool, making him pause. He saw in that split second, though, how if he stopped now, she’d have him by the balls. Let her stop him just once in his tracks with a word or look or tone of voice, that’s all it would take for prissy little Peter to be pussy-whipped for the rest of his life. Help me with the dishes. Yes Ma’am. Don’t track mud in. No Ma’am. Carry the groceries. Yes Ma’am. Where would you like them, Ma’am?

He turned over the ironing board, knocking the hung shirts over, the rack banging the table before crashing to the floor.

“Goddamn it!” he said. “Now see what you made me do!”

She backed away, raising the hot iron in her hand. He could see the fear in her eyes, a jolt of adrenaline hitting him hard. His heart pounded and he got a hard-on. Then he went into his karate stance, moving his hands in front of her face. Bruce Lee in torn jeans and a pot-belly tee-shirt.

“Come on,” he said. “Try it. Make my day.”

She backed into the hutch and stopped. The iron was still plugged in. The cord pulled in the socket like a dog on a leash. The wall to the right was a few feet away, then a chair with the table blocking the way to the dining room. He watched her look left: the picture window, and through it, the birdbath frozen over, the bird feeder hanging on a wire line, the clear blue sky of winter. Snow on the patio, snow covering the lawn.

Her eyes came back to his face. He knew she knew what was coming next. First he would hit her in the face, then grab her hair and throw her down on the floor and kick her. If the girl screamed, so much the better. That was just more music for dancing. Jack him up all the more. Then rip away the shirt and bite her nipples until she screamed. Then jerk her jeans down and fuck her on the floor, maybe from the back. When he finished he would leave her there, wiping himself on her stomach, then tuck his balls with care back into his tight jeans.

She brought the iron around in front in both hands and held it toward him.

“Good,” he said, eyes shining. “Try it.” He gestured toward his face. “Come on, come on and try.”

She thrust the iron into his face, pressing it hard against his cheek. It took him a minute to realize she was doing it, not just threatening. His momentum pushed him forward until his T-Rex brain registered that his face was on fire. He smashed her arm down with his fist, the iron thudding to the floor, and then he was howling, holding his face, feeling his skin puff up and blister. Bonnie ducked under his arm as he whirled and ran down the hallway, grabbed her daughter and hauled her out of the room, the girl still crying but wondering, what’s the noise? where’s Peter? what’s happening? running with Ellie out the door, barefoot over the snow to Mary Louise next door who let her in and locked the door and called the police.

Now, this is what amazed him, after they came and got him: Bonnie was the one who tried to kill him. Bonnie was the one who scarred him, branded him a limp-dicked wimp who couldn’t control his women. She was the one who taunted him, made him feel like shit, made him doubt himself, wonder what he was fucking alive for, he was such an asshole, you listen to what she says, and he did listen, boy, did he ever. After she bought the cordless phone, whenever she used it he would go out into his pick-up truck for a smoke and plug in his scanner and listen to her telling Mary Louise or Darla what a prick he was. He sat there in the truck, blowing out clouds of smoke, listening to this woman tell the neighborhood he was the worst of the worst, the original Mister Shithead. And he was supposed to sit there, take it all in, then come back and act as if he was living in some sitcom where everything is a joke. She must have thought he was from the psychic hot line, the way he knew everything; he would drop little hints here and there and watch her squirm, act like she didn’t know he knew what he knew, laughing to himself inside, her so stupid she never did figure it out.

But now, and this is the point, she was doing all this shit to him, trying to kill him, making him sick, so sick he’s vomiting in the squad car with the pain of his face, wondering why they didn’t call an ambulance instead of throwing him onto the back floor of the squad car, the white cop telling him puke on his own goddamn shoes, pushing him down onto the floor, pushing the back of his neck down hard so he vomits onto the floor, then putting his feet on his back and holding him there for the ride downtown. At the station they made him clean up his mess with a towel, his face feeling by then as if something’s eating it from inside out, and finally they put some cream on the burn. But this is what amazed him, this is what got him: after all that they took him back to the station and the sons-of-bitches arrested him. They arrested him. Bonnie and Ellie and Mary Louise must have told the cops all this bullshit, but naturally, she’s wearing cut-offs with her hand circling on her bare stomach and the plaid shirt tied around it and she’s barefoot, there’s something about a good-looking barefoot woman on a winter day that makes everything she says sound like the truth, and of course she was crying, crying here and there while she puts out her story, Ellie crying quietly in the background, Ellie the violins to Bonnie’s vocal, Mary Louise walking the length of the living room with this other cop, the big stupid-looking black bastard, telling him all kinds of shit she doesn’t even know if it’s true but believes what Bonnie tells her, women always believe each other, ask and there’s never two sides to a story, the cop writing it all down and the son-of-a-bitch comes back and puts the cuffs on him, then walks him out to the car. By now a crowd of the neighborhood curious are out there gawking at the cruisers, those goddamn bright lights would pull a crowd anywhere but especially there where nobody has anything else to do but stand around and watch the neighbors battle it out on the front lawn.

One night he caught this fifteen year old kid in the bushes looking in Ellie’s window and broke the asshole’s nose with one punch. Then he told him, if he ever says who hit him, he’ll have him arrested for peeping. Kicking his ass down the street, the kid trying to run away and hold his nose at the same time. That’s the kind of people he has to live with, that’s the kind of neighborhood she lives in, but she had the house so he didn’t really have a hell of a lot of choice, now, did he?

Choice is a kind of meat, that’s all. The game’s not the same for everyone: that he figured out early. The game had different rules and you better learn what works. What difference did it make if he knew the rules that only worked for some rich kid whose old man bought everything he wanted? People like that live on a different planet. Their rules didn’t work for him, not when he had to go to work at eleven, get the shit kicked out of him sneaking a smoke or cutting out early, watching the old man tomcat around, the old man not caring who he fucked as long as he could talk about it. Always came home and told his wife what a great fuck so-and-so was, what a great big powerful fuck, the woman home with the kids all day, up to her ass in screaming kids. Peter remembered diapers reeking in a portable washer hooked up to the sink and the foul water flowing out of the hose, a hose that bucked like a thick snake when she hit the spin cycle. He remembered his sisters screaming, somebody always sick. He was the oldest; he had three sisters, eenie meenie and minie he called them because he didn’t want no mo. He couldn’t wait to get the fuck out. He tried six times before it was legal. The day it was legal and they couldn’t go get him any more and bring him home he put everything in a duffel bag and went to live with his friend William in a ratty apartment, a house broken up into two-room flops where they shared a bathroom and one stove with two other families.

His mother left when he was ten. One day she was there and the next day gone. He never saw her again, never heard one word. Not even a note, just his kid sister crying in the livingroom, Mama’s gone! Mama’s gone! through her choking sobs. She said someone came for mama in a beat-up Packard, more rust than finish, the trunk tied down on mama’s suitcase. His father came home and raged all night, drinking and breaking things until he passed out and the kids got dinner. After that he wanted out of that crazy house. Get into the world and make his own way, work or get drunk or whatever, nobody telling him what to do and nobody but nobody kicking the shit out of him for no reason at all.

He met Bonnie one night in a bar on the highway. He was barely legal; she was well into her twenties, but he didn’t know that then. He didn’t know she had Ellie when she was seventeen. Didn’t know she had Ellie at all, in fact. He watched her line-dancing in tight jeans and a cowboy shirt and shiny new boots going heel-toe, heel-toe in time to the music. Coyote Moon was on that night. He liked that group. They had this lead singer, a dark-haired girl, he got hot watching her cuddle the mike in her cupped hands. He leaned back on the bar and sipped his beer and watched Bonnie stick out her tight little ass, turning this way and that, slapping the sole of her boot, cute as hell. By the time he bought her a drink he knew he wanted to live with her forever. She didn’t say nothing about Ellie, didn’t mention the girl until the week before he moved in, which should have told him what kind of woman she was. Of course he hadn’t mentioned his drunk-and-disorderlies either or the suspended sentence for assault and battery and having to sit through a lecture from do-gooder dykes: if it happens again, you’ll do hard time, you get it? This bull dyke with hair pulled back, tight behind, looking at him through wire rimmed glasses like he was some kind of animal, trying to pretend to listen when all she did was tell him what a prick he was. Yes, he got it. Thinking about Harrisonville, stories he’d heard. Harrisonville was no picnic.

So he guessed they had both held things back, but he got the worst of it, having to put up with the girl, whining and crying, Christ, he had left to get away from that shit, not get into it. Ellie had a stupid face that drove him nuts. It was like there was no brain in her face. She looked like a big baby. She looked like a Cabbage Patch Doll, one that nobody would ever buy. Bonnie told him what was wrong, it had a name he couldn’t remember but Ellie got it from the guy Bonnie fucked, the guy took off when he heard about the kid. So he moved into the house with the two of them, bringing his pick-up truck and everything he owned, some clothes, a boombox, a little television set. Things were bad at the start but got worse. There was no way to live with the woman, even before she burned him, but then, get this, then they had the balls to tell him to stay away.

Were they kidding? They think he was nuts? They think he was out of his fucking mind? Nobody had to tell him to stay away from a bitch like that, he had enough of her long ago, enough for a lifetime. But doesn’t that tell you how it works? She could do all that, burn him and all, and still they line up on her side. Women run the fucking world, that’s all there is to it. So they got his stuff, put it in his truck and had it out back when they let him out. They counted the time spent in jail against him, telling him again he better stay away, telling him too he better show up at the clinic and talk to the shrink and he better go to these meetings for people who were fucked up like him. Did he get it? Yeah, yeah, he got it. Better say yes than spend another goddamn day in that cell. Thinking he was too stupid to figure it out, saying if he missed two meetings he was going straight to Harrisonville for a year-and-a-day and they meant a year-and-a-day of hard time, not some goddamn vacation. Trying to scare him, the black cop telling him turn around, yeah, that’s right, there in your cell. Stand the fuck up and turn around. Laughing as he turned slowly in the cell. Sure enough, the cop said, first time you hit the showers, you’ll take it in the ass. Hole in one. Ha ha. Everybody laughing at his skinny little ass and pot belly and the dark wedge on his face as he turned in a circle.

Okay, he got it. He got it the first time. So exactly how long does he have to go to these meetings? They said they’d let him know. Their blank faces looking like bars of a cage.

The bastards had him by the balls and knew it.

So this guy Mitch shows up at the Big Boy to look him over before the meeting. Mitch is a winner, all right. His haircut looks like that prick on the news, he’s wearing a suit so expensive-looking Peter asked him where he got it. Mitch not even batting an eye, saying he buys his clothes in Hong Kong. Oh yeah? says Peter. Why’s that? Cheaper, the guy says. Telling him this with a straight face, sitting over coffee in a corner booth, the sky in the window behind him dark and cold, night coming on, a few flakes in the air in the streetlight, Peter in jeans and his windbreaker and a black t-shirt, Mitch sitting there smoking and having a cup of coffee and telling him by the time you buy five or six suits, you’ve paid for your plane ticket. Then he looks at the waitress, lifting his eyebrows, and the woman rushes over; Peter could have hollered and stomped, she wouldn’t have fucking moved, Peter behind a big open menu, thinking he might as well order a special and let this rich prick pick up the check, he can fly to Hong Kong and buy clothes, he can buy him fucking dinner. The waitress wants to know what he wants. OK, he’ll have, let’s see, he’ll have T-bone steak with fries, yeah, the big one, onion rings, rolls and butter, soup first, no salad, and a piece of that chocolate pie up there in the case. And more coffee, OK?

Mitch orders a cup of soup. He’s through telling Peter about his clothes, telling him he works in a bank downtown, he won’t say which one or what he does, he doesn’t want Peter to show up some afternoon looking for his buddy Mitch. Peter keeps looking at the Lexus out at the curb under the streetlight, snow blowing through the light and coating the car. Mitch looks around at other people in the Big Boy, the usual crowd of losers, an old couple eating early, and all of a sudden he tells him he has two kids from his first marriage, a boy and a girl, but doesn’t know where they are; his first wife took the kids and disappeared. Some kind of underground railroad got them out of town. For all Mitch knows she’s in another country, raising his kids with a different name. The second wife, he knows where she is, but he goes anywhere near the woman, they’ll pick him up. Peter wondering, why is he saying all this? Peter hasn’t got a wife and no intention of getting one. Peter asks him, why does he even give a shit where they are? The guy stops looking around and looks at Peter and says, well, they are his kids, and he’s thinking now after all these years he might want to get married again, making Peter spit out his soup, coughing and wiping his face with a napkin. You fucking nuts? You been burned twice and you haven’t learned? Hey, I got a bridge I’d like to show you. Peter grinning but the guy doesn’t smile. He says real quiet, no, Peter, he’s not nuts, not any more. He knows, he says, he knows now why they left. Getting serious, looking through his reflection in the window at the snow really coming down now, people hustling from the bus-stop, heads down, holding their coats closed at the collar.

Peter pushes through his meal like he hasn’t eaten in a week. Mitch is doing all the talking, telling him things he did to his kids, why his wife left. Peter keeps on nodding and eating, letting the guy talk. The guy jumps from one thing to another, Peter trying to keep the wives straight, the guy talking about trips to Bangkok, things he did there. When the waitress brings the check, Mitch says he’ll get it this time, making Peter laugh, like next time it’s his turn, steaks all around.

Mitch pays and they leave the restaurant, hunching in the cold.

The meeting was in the basement of a church. Mitch told everybody, here’s a new guy, Peter. Then the meeting started. Peter sat there, learning the ropes. Learning to say, I’m Peter and I’m a goddamn batterer. Everybody saying, hi Peter! like that was the prize. Listening to guys talk about their shitty lives. So what else is new? He has to sit on a metal chair in a cold basement with ten other guys and listen to this shit. They talked about their parents. Shit, he could hardly remember what his mother looked like. When it came his turn, he tried, but it felt like someone was rubbing sandpaper inside. He tasted something bitter metallic in his throat and turned to the guy beside him, saying, was he fucking finished now? Could he go out now and have a smoke? They taught him to say, instead of that, I pass. Then another guy talked, and he drifted into some vague dark waiting place, waiting for the meeting to finish, thinking of a beach.

This one young guy Judd was in the middle of talking when Peter heard him say his mother had left, what an asshole his father was, and Peter sat up. “Hey, wait a minute. What is this bullshit?” They all looked at him, Judd stopping talking. Peter gave him a stare. “Who told you about me? Huh?”

Somebody laughed and Peter came out of his chair ready to fight but they pushed him back down. Judd said, “Take it easy, Jesus. Take it easy. I’m talking about me, Peter, not you.” Peter said, “Oh yeah, well, bullshit, because that’s my father you’re talking about and my mother.”

Mitch said, “Peter, nobody knows you. Nobody met you before. How does it sound like you?”

So Peter told them about his old man and his sisters, his old man knocking his mother around, when suddenly he remembered his mother making a cake and handing him a wooden spoon with batter on it. He remembered licking the batter off the spoon. He remembered looking up at her face at the bright light diffused through her hair and her hair glowing like an autumn fire, making her look like an angel. Then he was back in the room, noticing how quiet it was. They were sitting in a circle, the bright fluorescent light on their faces. Something tried to come out that he didn’t know how to say and they sat there waiting. Instead he shouted, “You sons-of-bitches! If I knew what the fuck it was I’d say it!” Then turned toward the wall so he wouldn’t have to look at their stupid moron faces.

Peter shivered but shivered from more than cold. Something was awake inside him. It felt like an alien inside his chest, looking for something to eat. Whatever he had put together inside over the years was a falling-down house getting ready to collapse. He thought of the house he grew up in. He remembered holding himself when it got cold. The furnace was in the basement. He thought if he went to the basement, it might be warm. He remembered going down and stopping on the stairs. It was so dark, he couldn’t see anything at all. He felt like he was walking a plank. He felt if he kept walking down into the darkness he would die.

In his mind there appeared a faint image of his mother’s face. Her face still shone in the kitchen light but instead of hair, snakes coiled and hissed in a tangled mass on her head.

He stood up, ready to run. The men in their chairs surrounded him like a noose. To make it to the door, he would have to slip between that fat guy and Mitch. The door was right there. All he had to do was get the fuck out now while he still had a chance. He looked frantically from face to face. They waited for him to fall. They might as well have all been standing under a tree chanting “let go, let go” while he clung like a child to the trunk.

The door was unlocked. Beyond the door was a hallway and then a flight of stairs.

In the darkness, the heads of the snakes were illuminated by the light of his mother’s countenance. Their tongues flickered in and out of their mouths. There were millions of them, writhing and hissing, waiting for his next move.

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