The Battles of Leuctra
by Max Christopher
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
The kid got up onto his milk crate and raised his hand. A murmur went through the crowd and then it fell silent, except for a few people shouting words of encouragement at him. The kid acknowledged them with a nod and a shy smile. That shy smile surprised me. In the full light of day, he looked less angry and more — well, damn it, he looked beautiful!
The boom box went quiet. A siren could be heard, faintly, blocks away.
The kid raised the bullhorn and pressed the button.
“My mother was a desperately unhappy woman,” he said. A faint electronic burr accompanied his words. “And she hated my father. It is not overstating the thing to say that my first eighteen years of life were a lesson in how a woman can hate a man.
“I have come to think of my mother as an alpha victim. Some of you may know a person like that. Alpha victims guard their victim status jealously. Nobody else gets to suffer; the alpha victim owns all suffering.” He paused, lowering the red bullhorn, and twisted his skinny body around to look at the wall.
This gave me a chance to look at his blue-jeaned bottom. I took it.
“Rejoice, the wall says. That was how my father woke me up every morning. He’d say, ‘Rejoice in the new day,’ or ‘A new day. Rejoice!’ Often he’d just say, ‘Rejoice.’ Well, I didn’t want to hear that, as you might imagine. ‘Cut it out, Dad,’ I’d say. ‘Give me a break, already.’
“Year after year he woke me up this way. I understood when it was too late that he was not always asking me to rejoice with him. Sometimes he was asking me to rejoice for him when it wasn’t in him. It was a kind of code. His way of saying he needed help. But I couldn’t read it.
“My father wasn’t a man who could ask for help. Not in civilian life. He was brought up to regard it as weak. Asking for help is like asking to be rescued. A man doesn’t ask to be rescued; he rescues.
“When things seemed to be easing a little for men, in the late sixties, my father went to Vietnam. He was with the Fifth Marine Regiment at Hue in nineteen sixty-eight. He told me he shared a dirty joke with Gunny Canley.
“Dad got through that and came home.
“He married Rose, a pretty thing eight years younger than he was. They watched a son grow up and become a marine too. That son, my brother Dale, fell in Desert Storm.
“Then my parents, straddling middle age, had this crazy idea that another child would fill the hole left by the death of the first. That was me.
“My mother blamed my father for Dale’s death. Far from healing my parents’ wounded marriage, my presence seemed to provide a lens my mother could use to focus her bitterness.
“My father drank to numb the pain. Came home less and less. When he was home my mother made sure his life was hell. And she schooled me to hate him as much as she did. Trained enemy soldiers on their home ground couldn’t kill him. It took... it took the people he loved to do that.” The kid choked on the last word. He let the bullhorn down. His head drooped and his bony shoulders slumped.
“It’s all right, son,” came from a paunchy bald man in the crowd.
“Let it out, brother,” said another man. I looked. It was Olongapo Ollie, eyes red. He saw me looking at him. “Khe Sanh,” he said.
“I don’t have the right to be called your brother,” the kid said. “I never served.”
“We all serve,” said Ollie.
“Amen!” said another man.
The kid smiled crookedly. He looks so vulnerable, I thought. My heart felt like a fist was squeezing it.
“One dead son. A wife who tore him to pieces. Who ridiculed him for his man-feels. Who taught his other son to hate him.
“Every time my dad would reach out to me a little bit, my mother would get me alone later. She’d go over all he’d said and spin it so he was a monster — more contemptibly, a cowardly monster — and she his poor weak victim.
“She had this habit of relating stories of female murderers with relish, as though these women were doing good evolutionary work by ridding the world of weak men. Heh, I just remembered that.” He looked embarrassed.
Eat you up, I thought. Protect you. Give you all the pizza you want.
“It would have cost me so little effort to be a better son,” the kid said.
“Fatherhood’s a funny thing,” said Ollie. “You may have been a better son than you realize.”
“Not enough to matter,” said the kid. He fell silent for a moment. A screech of feedback from the bullhorn sent a ripple of nervous laughter through the crowd. The siren was louder.
“Domestic violence takes many forms,” the kid said. “If there’d been a shelter for abused men, my father might have been persuaded to go to it. Probably not, but he would have known he had the option. He might not have been found there,” pointing to the Rejoice wall, “with two times the lethal amount of Seconal in him, washed down with tequila. We still don’t know where he got the Seconal. He couldn’t even...” The kid swallowed.
“My father didn’t even go home to kill himself. Didn’t die in his own warm bed. It was February, below freezing, and my father had on an old marine t-shirt. Somebody had taken his shoes. Socks too, if he’d been wearing them.
“My father didn’t like to show his feet. You’d never see them in pictures of him. He said they were ugly, like wads of chewed gum with hair and toenails. And there they were, bare and gray and dirty, probably stinking, exposed to the cold wind while the police worked around him and somebody took photographs. He would have been so embarrassed.
“There’s a petition circulating among you now. It asks the city council to allocate funds for a men’s shelter. There’s also a cardboard box with a slot in the top. That’s to pay for flyers, radio spots, posters. Loose change is welcome. Pennies turn into dollars. You can—”
* * *
A young woman in the crowd shouted to be heard over the bullhorn. “You’re a sack of scum!” Her hair was half green, half pink. “My father beat up my mother at least once a month. She wore long sleeves in summer to hide the bruises. We kids hid in the attic when he came home drunk. We lived in terror. How dare you say a woman can hurt a man like that?”
The ginger kid let the bullhorn dangle. “Men get assaulted by their wives,” he said to her, “and are too humiliated to report it. There are limits to what a man can take. And until we stop shaming men who ask for help—”
“No man who beats up a woman deserves anything other than prison. Let him ask for help while he’s getting gang-raped in the shower.” Several voices, most female but at least two male, were raised in agreement. “Rape apologist scum, don’t pretend you don’t know me,” she said.
The kid blinked and said, “What? We’re not rape apologists. Look, if we can get men to take the important step of acknowledging that — that they’re not supermen, that they don’t have to carry the whole burden—”
The siren was blaringly close now. People were craning to look.
Two police cars pulled to the edge of the crowd. Their sirens were switched off and two officers got out of each. One thumbed the microphone clipped to his epaulette and spoke into it. Another said, “What’s going on?”
The young woman pointed at the ginger kid, her gaudy wrist bangles jingling. “This misogynistic piece of human garbage is getting this crowd worked up about hitting women. He wants men who hit women to go to a cushy hotel and get served tea and biscuits instead getting thrown in jail where they belong.”
“My father didn’t hit my mother,” the kid said.
“Did your mother hit him?” the young woman said.
“You know she didn’t. She used that tongue of hers like a scalpel.”
“So you want to build a shelter for men with hurt feelings and other losers. Grow up.”
Voices in the crowd were raised. I heard support and disagreement.
“Knock it off!” the first officer said. He had sergeant’s chevrons on his blue sleeve. He pushed his uniform hat back up his forehead and looked around. “We got a report that some guys were hassling a girl.” He looked around. “Anybody know anything about that?”
The sergeant turned to an officer. “Call that number.” The officer slipped a phone out of a nifty-looking holster, thumbed it on, searched and pressed a button.
Deep in the crowd ringtones went off tinnily. I recognized the theme from A Summer Place. Then a phone was launched in a smooth arc over the heads of the people. It landed in the patch of brown grass, ringtones still playing. An officer went over, slipped on a glove and picked it up with thumb and forefinger.
“A ten-dollar burner,” he said.
“Grab it for prints, anyway. So nothing is going on,” the sergeant said. “It was a joke in very poor taste.” The sergeant walked back to his cruiser and reached in through the driver’s side window. He adjusted something out of sight, brought his radio microphone on its thick spiral cord to his mouth and pressed the button.
“Calling in false alarms is against the law,” he said over a public address speaker. “If you know who placed that phony call, you should tell us. If you know and don’t tell, you’re implicated, too. When we find who did it, they’ll probably roll over on you as accomplices, so you might as well save yourself some trouble.”
He waited a moment, then replaced the microphone and walked back over to the ginger kid, who still stood on the milk crate. The other officers were standing in that relaxed but alert way cops have. The sergeant asked the ginger kid what was going on. The kid told him. The sergeant asked for his ID, glanced at it and handed it back.
One of the officers said, “You’re Marcus’s boy.” The kid nodded. The officer said, “That was too bad.”
The officers got into their cruisers and drove away.
“You got away with it that time, Jimmy,” said the young woman with the green and pink hair.
Jimmy, I thought. His name is Jimmy.
The kid turned to her, red climbing up his neck and cheeks. “Meredith, why do you do this?”
“Look at you blush, Jimmy. Pretty as a girl. You’ll be worth ten, twelve cartons of cigarettes a night in prison.”
“I’m sorry your dad did that to your mom, Meredith.” His knuckles reddened where he gripped the bullhorn handle. “But there are two women’s shelters in this town alone.”
“He did it to all of us. As sure as if he’d hit us kids, too.”
“But maybe if he’d gotten some help—”
“All the help a mad dog needs is putting down.”
“Meredith, don’t you see that that’s just the mindset that perpetuates—”
“You say your mother was unhappy. Like she’s been dead ten years.”
“She was terribly unhappy.”
“Is she even cold in her grave?”
“It’s been three months.”
“And you’ve been putting that junk on that wall for, what — two years?”
“Give or take.”
“Had your mother started chemo when your father killed himself?”
Jimmy didn’t answer.
Olongapo Ollie said, “It’s okay, son.”
“You know she had,” Jimmy said.
“Your coward father ditched his family knowing his wife had cancer,” Meredith said. “And left you as the man of the house. Little pink mouse of the house, more like.”
“Give him a break,” said a man.
“He doesn’t deserve it,” said Meredith.
The crowd was drifting apart. A woman in the little group near us said, “Why so angry? Was he your boyfriend?”
“Did he break up with you for somebody better?” the man said.
“More understanding, maybe?” the woman said.
“It’s all right,” Jimmy said. He stepped off the crate and sat down on it, one hand clasping the other wrist, red bullhorn dangling from its thong. “She’s been through a lot.”
“Don’t you dare pity me!” Meredith shrieked. She raised an arm and paintbrushed the slumped Jimmy before I knew what she was doing. The loud thwack of the blow was accompanied by incongruous jingles from her jewelry.
Jimmy shot to his feet. The bullhorn still dangled. His neck, where it had flushed red, had gone white. His fists quivered at his sides.
“Do it!” Meredith said. She jutted her chin up at him. “You’ll be the belle of the cellblock. I bet you’ll scream like a girl while they run that train on your sweet dimpled ass.”
Olongapo Ollie slid between them, facing Jimmy. “Hey, now,” he said. “No need for this.”
There was movement beside me. I turned and saw the tall brown-shouldered girl striding past me. She was holding the baby. This time it was quiet, sucking on a bottle like it was in hog heaven.
I’d been gravitating toward Jimmy and was only a few steps from the tense group.
The brown-shouldered girl yelled, “Meredith! How dare you slap my Jimmy, you water buffalo?”
Meredith said, “Stay out of this, Leuctra.”
So her name is Leuctra, I thought. It was a new word to me.
“Like hell. You know he won’t hit back.”
“Do I? How’s that bruise healing, Leuctra?”
“That’s it. I’ve had it with you.”
Then I thought: Meredith, I wouldn’t cross Leuctra if I were you. I put two fingers to my egg and winced.
The movement caught Leuctra’s attention. She looked at me. Her eyes widened in recognition, then her face expressed a cascade in which I seemed to recognize alarm, guilt, compassion, an idea and a decision.
“Please hold Marcus Dale,” she said. She passed the baby — so it was a boy — to me. In the light of day I could see that he was a beautiful little thing, the color of caramel. One eye flicked open and regarded me with suspicion while a chubby hand gripped the bottle, sort of.
Meredith spun away from Jimmy and Ollie. Leuctra closed with Meredith.
* * *
I had never before been that close to a full-on brawl between women. The savagery of it was breathtaking. I couldn’t have been more transfixed if Atlantis had risen from that dirt field, pushing the Rejoice wall into the sky. One time I had to spin and take the impact of Meredith’s body on my back, dropping to my knees and pressing little Marcus Dale to me with one arm while stopping my forward topple with the other hand.
A moment later I saw Jimmy land on his back by the wall. He had tried to interpose himself between the combatants and been smacked back like a fly that had wandered into a spinning fan. His mouth was bleeding on the side opposite the bruise. He was having a hell of an afternoon.
I eased over to him. Shifting the baby to one arm, I dug some plain brown napkins from Mogie’s out of my pants pocket and held them ready. Up close I noticed his eyebrows were not red. They were brown. And there was a quarter-inch of brown root pushing up the red hair on his head.
My handsome ginger kid wasn’t a ginger. He was a brunet. His tee shirt had ridden up so his skinny tummy was visible. There was the faintest soft down below his navel.
His eyes fluttered open. Hazel. Big. Vulnerable. My heart lurched. Something else gave a little jump. Hugging his baby closer to my chest, I sank to my knees and allowed myself to gaze at him.
Adorable. And taken. By a girl!
Where was that spigot I used to drench my head the other night? Maybe I could drown myself if I cranked it on and lay under it with my mouth open.
Jimmy’s face was already purpling from Meredith’s blow. He looked up and took it in. His baby. Me. Again.
“Oh, man,” he said.
I held out the napkins. “You’re bleeding. And I think you bonked your head.”
He took the napkins and dabbed at his mouth.
“Press it right on there,” I said. I wished I could tend him and fuss over him. Kiss it and make it all better. Where else does it hurt? I pulled my gaze away from his hazel eyes with an effort.
I shifted my position. It must have looked like I was getting up, because his free hand reached out and gripped my ankle. I let it stay there.
“What are you doing with my baby?”
“His mother gave him to me so she could beat up your friend.”
“Why not me?” He blinked like he was having trouble focusing. It looked like slow motion, long lashes drooping like those big fronds the slaves in old movies used to fan the sultan.
“That other girl was in your face. Your girl probably wanted the baby well away.” I shrugged. “I guess she recognized me.”
“I can handle Meredith,” he said.
Uh-huh, I thought. “She was getting out of control,” I said. “And your girlfriend said you wouldn’t hit her back.”
“This is too weird,” he said.
I looked around. Wouldn’t it be funny, I thought... But the face I was half afraid to see was nowhere in sight. Probably not even in town.
Copyright © 2020 by Max Christopher