The old man had been drunk when Graham showed up at his door with two armfuls of groceries from the Kroger in Hollow River, enough food and supplies to get them through another week without having to see each other. Pale, coughing almost uncontrollably, hurling obscenities between breaths, and waving a nearly empty bottle of Budweiser in his face, Lee Gordon had laid the blame on his son for the pain and chronic sickness he now suffered. It was Graham’s fault that his mother was gone. It was Graham’s fault that he’d had to work so hard all his life to provide for them both. It was Graham who had driven him to drink. Graham who was responsible for the smoking that had damaged his lungs so severely. The ungrateful brat had never been any help to him. He had never been anything but a waste of space.
These were all things the younger man had heard before. When Lee Gordon went into a drunken rage, it was like a needle stuck in a groove on a vinyl record. He repeated the same insults and accusations, as loud as his ruined respiratory system would allow and for as long as his target would stand there and take it. Most of the time, Graham quietly walked out, locking the door behind him and allowing the old man to continue ranting at him from inside. On this night, as he stood in the open doorway of the house with two armloads of groceries, the anger boiling up from inside him had become too hot for him to back down.
“Where’d you get the beer, dad?” he had shouted at his father over the tirade, setting the grocery bags down just inside the door, the same spot where his dog Butch had once let go of his bladder and then lost his life for it. “Who is bringing you the fucking beer? You know you’re not supposed to have it.”
The old man either hadn’t heard or pretended not to have heard him. He continued shouting at Graham instead, inching the bottle of suds in his hand ever closer to the bridge of the younger man’s nose as he railed. Looking back, Graham now thought it might have been that act that had ultimately sent him over the edge, the closing in of his father’s brutal hand: the hand that had punched him and pulled at him so many times over the years, the hand that he’d never had the strength to hit back at when it neared. Until now.
Suddenly furious, Graham snatched the brown glass bottle from his father’s hand. Lee Gordon, perhaps to his credit, had enough presence of mind to appear momentarily shocked by it. The younger Gordon next grabbed the collar of his father’s button-down work shirt and spun him toward the interior of the old house.
“Where is it?” he screamed in his father’s alcohol-pinked ear. “Where are you hiding this shit? Show me. I’m gonna pour every bit of it down the drain, and then you’re gonna tell me who’s been bringing it to you. Then I’m gonna find them, and I’m gonna rip their throat out. Do you hear me? WHERE IS IT?”
He shoved his father, intending to force him to walk forward, but Lee instead plummeted to his hands and knees on the hardwood floor beneath them. Even through his own anger and hate, Graham could see that the sudden turn of events had badly scared his old man. His arms trembled at his shoulders as he clung to the floor, apparently unable to raise himself back to his feet on his own. Graham set down the beer, grabbed two fistfuls of work shirt at those shoulders, and hoisted his father back to his feet.
“Where is it?” he growled again. Then it dawned on him. The cellar. “You hide it in the fucking cellar, don’t you? Of course, you do. Why wouldn’t you? There’s no reason for anyone to go down there anymore, is there? You don’t have any little kids left here to torment. So let’s just go have ourselves a look in the cellar.”
Graham stepped around his woozy father, who stood with his eyes half-lidded. The rest of him swayed in gentle circles at the ankle, trying to maintain his balance. The younger Gordon unlatched the cellar door and swung it open. He stretched his right arm into the door frame and flipped the light switch into the On position, bathing the dirt floor below with the loud white hum of tube fluorescents. He started to descend alone in search of Lee Gordon’s stash but thought better of it when he remembered that his dad, though dazed by his son’s pushback, was still very much in the throes of drunken rage. As such, Graham was likely to end up trapped down here if he allowed the old man to remain upstairs while he went down. It would be just like him to latch the door behind his nosy son and trap him down here for spite, at least until he felt the first signs of a hangover and needed someone to help him nurse it.
“All right, Dad.” He leaned against the cellar door so that it remained open. “You first. I’m not leaving until you show me where you’re hiding it.”
The look on his father’s face went from dazed drunk to exhaustion, to anger, and then to resigned resentment in the space of a second. The older man bent down, wobbling a little at half-mast, and plucked his beer bottle from the floor where Graham had left it. He had a little trouble returning to a standing position, but Graham did not leave his place against the cellar door to help him. After some waiting and more wobbling, Lee Gordon stood mostly erect again with the bottle of Budweiser gripped by the neck in his right hand.
“Fine.” He shuffled to the cellar door while tipping the bottle and the remainder of its contents toward his open mouth. Graham snatched it from him again. He glared briefly at his son for his impertinence, but then went back to watching his own feet when Graham refused to avert his eyes.
Graham watched as his father descended the first step, then the second. The old man had become fat in that baggy, fleshy way an old drunk has. It was as if there was no muscle attached to his bones at all now, just mounds and mounds of blobby yellow fat creating pendulous bulges in odd places against crepe Hefty bag skin. His hair was still thick in most areas, although male pattern baldness had left a pear-shaped cul-de-sac of scalp on top from his hairline to his crown. Lee Gordon was no longer the frightening authoritarian strongman he had known for the majority of his life. He wasn’t even strong in the mean sense of the word, the way that bullies see themselves as strong. He was petty and weak, no longer a man in his son’s eyes. He was nothing more than a walking advertisement for the consequences of alcohol abuse. Some part of Graham felt sad for his father. Some part of him felt a little pity. Mostly, he felt rage. Rage that he had allowed a weak man like this to control him for most of his life. Rage that all he’d had to do to stop it when he was a child was to stand up to his father the way he had tonight. Rage that so many of his young years were lost to him now; years that could have been filled with the happiness of living elsewhere, away from the man who would rob him of a life well-lived, of pride, of courage, and of confidence. Rage. Graham’s fist tightened around the neck of the Budweiser bottle in his right hand.
Lee Gordon teetered a little on the second step down, and again on the third. On any other night of his life, Graham’s first instinct might have been to reach out and steady him. Not this time. Instead, Graham raised the bottle of Budweiser in his right hand by its neck over his head, dumping what little remained of its contents on the top step of the cellar in the process. He took two steps down the staircase behind his old man and brought the bottle down hard against Lee Gordon’s baldness. What happened next probably lasted only seconds, but to Graham, it felt as if everything around him had been slowed down and stretched into minutes.
The crown of his father’s head caved from the force of the blow, his skull crunching audibly beneath the thunk of the thick glass. The thin hot membrane of scalp covering the bone broke open as well, oozing thick red blood from the back of his head and into the hair below. The beer bottle did not break but remained clenched in Graham’s right hand as he followed through. Lee Gordon pivoted on the third from the top step of the cellar staircase so that he faced his son. His half-lidded drunken eyes fluttered wide open, fearful, questioning “why?” His right foot became tangled against his left one as he turned and, just like that, he was pinwheeling his arms. Going down.
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