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I

At this moment, Tommy Cronin, whose mental capacity has been professionally measured at equal to that of a three year old is being pelted with raw eggs by me and his father who everyone except Tommy calls Pops.  Tommy’s one of those carnival ducks at a shooting gallery; every time he’s hit, he turns and marches the other way.  The misses, the eggs and garbage, they smack and drip on the wall behind him.

Me and Pops hit him one after the other and he turns all jerky back and forth.  This would be Keystone Cops, this would be Fatty Arbuckle, if it weren’t in color and it weren’t real.

And this is Pops’ punishment.  Not Pops’ punishment to Tommy, but to me.  This is my penance.

 

II

Understand that I’ve known Pops my whole life and I owe him too much to recount.

To Pops, I’m Smart Guy.  I can’t remember when he first called me that, but it stuck.  I grew up with Tommy, played on Pop Warner and Babe Ruth teams that Pops coached.  I started working at Pops’ religious memorabilia factory underage at fourteen.

My first two summers, I made Christs.  To be more accurate, I inspected plastic Christs at their last stop before being packed and shipped.  Inspection was the end of the line and not much could go wrong.  The two trouble spots were the paint and the mold joints where Christ and the cross met.

The cross had three holes where the nails would’ve gone.  A machine clicked them together.  Sometimes, when the mold operator set the timers off, the holes would fill with plastic and Christ would be improperly fastened.  Down the line, you’d see them coming.  Christ dangling off his cross, arms unstuck, looking like a diver at the moment of dismount.  My job was to toss them in a box for meltdown so they could be re-done.

After two years of that, Pops put me copy editing on Bibles.  We did old and new Testaments, plus the Book of Mormon and what I was told was a shoddy translation of the Koran.  Since the early ’50’s, he’d had the Holiday Inn contract and it was strict company policy to stay at Holiday Inn’s on your vacation and steal their Bibles.  Every stolen Bible was money in Pops’ pocket.  You came back from vacation and you presented Pops with your stolen Bibles.  You didn’t, his potential royalty came out of your pocket.

“You don’t steal for Pops, you’re stealing from Pops.”

A world view.  Not open to debate.

 

III

A year ago, Pops’ only son Tommy shot himself through the right temple.  The bullet exploded the left side of his head–crushed and pushed the wall of his skull out like a burst dam–exited and came to rest in the wall.  The best doctors Pops could buy, which is to say the best anyone could buy, re-built the left side of his head as well as they could, but it’s still caved in like a rotting orange.  Tommy pretty much lobotomized himself; he walks through life like some horror-movie zombie.  Every couple months, they have to drain fluid from what’s left of his brain.

 

IV

I was out in Los Angeles, trying to get some work in the movies when this happened.  Pops called and asked me to come back and help out and I did.  I owe Pops big.  He sent me to college–undergrad and film school–and gave me twenty grand to get started out West.  Plus, Pops asking and Pops demanding is a distinction without a difference and I’ve met very few people who could afford to get on his bad side.

For about six months, Pops played the role of dutiful father–helped Tommy rehab his atrophied body and ignored the doctors who said there was no hope for mental rehab.  For the first month, Tommy was still pretty touch and go, too deep a sleep could potentially slip him into a coma.  Me and Pops stayed up with him, slept at one hour intervals and shook Tommy gently at the top of every hour.

The cops took the slug out of the wall and I ended up wiping down the wall of blood and brain and bone and patching the hole.  The carpet was replaced.

After six months of day-to-day care, Tommy finally spoke.  He looked at Pops, eyes all distant.  “Dad?” he said.

No one, except the D.A., has ever called Pops anything but Pops.  “Dad?” Tommy said again.  Pops left the room.  And this bubbled-eyed relic of Tommy looks up at me.

“Yeah,” I say.  “That’s your dad.”

And Tommy nodded, his eyes drifting.

I wasn’t used to his eyes yet.  They vibrate, his eyes do, like those lottery ping pong balls the second before they get sucked up the tube. Bouncy and weightless.  Like there was nothing, absolutely nothing, in front of or behind them.

A little after Tommy began talking, the doctors confirmed Pops’ fear.  Along with little detectable emotion, Tommy has no memory.  After this, Pops hired 24-hour care for Tommy and spent next to no time with him.

What Tommy is now, as far as he knows, he has always been.

 

V

Pops asked me to stay in town instead of going back to California.

“Sure,” I said.  “How long?”

“Until this is resolved.”

And I thought, but didn’t say: Resolved?  The way things are now with Tommy are the way they’ll always be.  What Pops had in mind, I didn’t ask.  Maybe I would have left if I’d known, but I doubt it.

 

VI

Me and Pops are out on his deck.  He’s drinking Jack Daniels and I’ve got a Bass Ale.  This is a few months ago.

“Let’s say you have a child,” he says.  “Hypothetical.”

I nod.  “I have a hypothetical child,” I say.

“No jokes, Smart Guy.”

He looks at me and I put both hands up.  I’m that mime in a box.  Message received.   Pops is on one of his philosophical drunks and this is a serious talk.

“OK.  I have a child.”

“Good.  And it’s a hermaphrodite.”

“Hermaphrodite?”

“Hermaphrodite, shit for brains.  You don’t know what that is?”

And we’re on the verge of Philosophical Pops turning into Violent Pops, so I just nod.

“Anyway,” he says.  “There is no dominant sexual trait.  The doctors tell you this.”  Pops lights two cigarettes and gives me one.  “You with me?”

“So far.”

“And the doctor gives you the choice and it’s your choice alone.  What do you make that kid?  A boy or a girl?”

“There’s no dominant trait?” I say.

Pops shakes his head.  “None.”

“And I’m alone in the decision?”

“For the sake of this conversation, yes.”

I take a sip of my beer.  Some kids are lighting firecrackers out in the street.

“I have no idea,” I say.  “I think I’d leave it as is.”

“You can’t,” Pops says.

“I can too,” I say.  “There’s no law that says I couldn’t.”

“You want a bet,” Pops says.  “You can’t leave a kid like that.  Not in this world.  You have to make a choice.”

And it hits me.  “We’re not talking hypothetically?” I say.

“No.”  Pops pours himself another drink.  “You’re the first–other than his mother–and the last that knows this.  Are we clear on that, Smart Guy?”

And I nod that, yes, we are clear on that.

“Your problem,” he tells me, “is that you can’t stand up and make a decision.  Even a fucking hypothetical one, for Christ’s sake.”  He takes a drink.  “But you’re going to have to now.”

“What?”

“I love you like a son,” he says.

And I’m worried now that we’re headed into drunken Sentimental Pops, but I’m way off.

“I want you to kill him,” he says.

This is one of those moments in life where you’re talking just to hear the words.  Like they’ll make more sense out of your mouth, you know?

“Kill him?” I say.

“I fucked that kid up.  This is guilt I’m talking about, Smart Guy.  Pay attention. This is a life lesson you’re getting for free.  I fucked that kid up in a way most men could never begin to comprehend.  I’m not talking I didn’t spend enough time with him, or I worked too late at the office, or I wasn’t discreet enough when I screwed the secretaries, I talking big time–capital B, capital T–mistake.”

He takes a tumbler of whiskey in one shot and pours another.

“That’s on my head.  Whatever the fuck led Tommy to put that gun to his head, I started in motion.  My fault.  Forever.  Whatever made him too fucking dumb to use a nine millimeter instead of a twenty-two or pills, that’s his fault.  But he wanted to die and I’ve tried and I can’t do it.  He’s still mine.”

“Pops,” I say.  “What you’re asking.”

“I’m not asking.  Decision time, Smart Guy.  If he lives like this, now it’s your fault.”

 

VII

My first year in film school, we had to do a documentary about our summer break.  Mine was about Pops and the factory.  It’s a shitty film.  I had very little idea how to make one, and documentary is a tough form.  You think the material is all there and all you have to do is shoot it and edit it and that’s where it gets tricky.

What do you cut out of life to make it seem lifelike?

Since that night on Pops’ porch, I’ve watched that film more times than I can count.  I’ve looked at Tommy in stop-frame and tried to spot signs of unhappiness.  Signs of confusion.  And they’re there, but they’re not.

There’s an interview with Pops.  He’s at his desk and behind him are two of the company’s sayings:

THE WORD OF POPS IS THE WORD OF THE LORD

and:

DON’T FORGET TO STEAL THEIR BIBLES

Pops is in good spirits.  On the day I filmed, he was as proud of me as he’d ever been up to that point.  He got drunk that night and turned into Sentimental Pops.

“If I had ten sons,” he said.  “I’d want them all to turn out like you.”

I felt a little uneasy.  “What about Tommy?”

“Tommy’s different,” he said.  And again, looking back, it makes more–or different–sense than it did.

But on film, before he got drunk that night, he’s Proud Pops, strutting around his factory wearing a pin stripe suit that makes him look like a middle-aged gangster, showing off machinery, and sitting behind a desk that would make a President blush.

“The problem with your generation, Smart Guy” he said to me and the camera, “is that you haven’t had enough wars.   No war.  No depression.  You’re soft.”

Later in the film, I asked him if he was religious.

“No,” he said.

“Then why this business?”

“I sold home security when I was your age.  This is before electronics and all that shit.  We were selling people, a service, understand.  Neighborhood Security Guards I guess would be what they were.  We’d call people and ask if they wanted a neighborhood patrol.  If they said no, we’d hire kids to throw brick through their windows.  They’d want security then.  I got caught.  So I got into religious memorabilia.”  And here, on the tape, he shrugs.  “It’s legit.  No institutional peckerheads to deal with except the I.R.S.”

As I said, it was a terrible film.  Among other things, the editing was poor since I never got it past Rough Cut, but Pops came off very well.  The class loved him.

I watch this film and see how proud he is, think of how much I owe this man and the only way to give him some peace makes me sick.  And now, it’s stuck on me.  Right or wrong, Tommy, with his dead, bouncy stare and caved-in head is now my fault.  He’s been passed to me.

 

VIII

Pops doesn’t talk to me for a while, says he’s waiting for me to “make the first real decision of my life” and I think of heading back West, but I can’t.

Then, earlier tonight, he calls and invites me to dinner.  Sounds like he’s in a great mood, like nothing has come between us.  Like we’ve never talked about me killing his son and my friend.

I get to the house and he meets me at the door with Tommy.  His eyes lull and roll and there’s drool milky-white on his lips.

“We’re taking Rainman with us, OK Smart Guy?”

I don’t say a word in the car.  Tommy keeps saying “Dad?  Where we goin’?” over and over.  Every time, Pops points at me.

“Ask him, Tommy” Pops says.  “Ask Smart Guy.”

So Tommy alternates between:

“Dad?  Where we goin’?”

and

“Smart Guy?  Where we goin’?”

His voice is hollow, slow and drawn out like a hopeless dog at the pound.  His head rocks more than a normal person’s, like either it weighs more, or the neck’s no good.

Finally, I say, “I don’t know, Tommy.”

At the restaurant, Pops charms the hostess and gets us a table by the window.  The waiter and the busser come to the table and they both do a double-take on Tommy.  They look away quickly.

“No,” Pops says to them.  “Go ahead, look.”  He tells Tommy to stand up.  He does.  “Everybody,” Pops screams.  “Look over here.”  He pokes at Tommy and tells him to walk to the door and come back.

And Tommy does as he’s told.  Pops tells him to do it again.  And he does.  When he walks from our table for the third time, Pops stands on his chair and yells.

“That’s my son!  Him there with half a head and half a fucking brain to match with the goo-goo-googily eyes.”  Pops is a carney barker and Tommy’s his geek show.  “Step right up and see the freak!  He’s mine, folks!  You all getting a good look?  Look deep in his eyes.  Might as well stare at a fucking shoebox.  That’s my son!”

Tommy turns and starts to come back to the table.  Pops grabs me hard at the back of my neck and points my head toward Tommy.

“You getting a good look, Smart Guy?”  He releases me hard.  I rub the back of my neck and look down at the table.  Pops pokes me in the shoulder with a finger stiff as rebar a couple of times before I look up.

“Smart Guy,” Pops says.  He’s crying.  “That’s your brother.  That sad, pathetic freak is your brother.  Get used to this.”

 

IX

We get back to the house and Pops sends the nurse home.  The three of us, me Tommy, and Pops, go down to the family room.  Pops tells me to sit on the couch; he places Tommy by the far wall and tells him to stay.  He comes back to the living room with a box full of egg cartons.

“Two choices,” Pops says.  “One, you and me, we throw these eggs at him.  Parade him back and forth and throw this shit at him.  Two, you do the right thing and kill him.”

“I can’t.”

“You won’t,” Pops says.  “There’s a difference.”

“We’re talking about Tommy,” I say.

“No more talk.  You’re going to have to choose.  It’s treat him like the sad freak that he is, or end what should already be over.  One or the other.”

Pops throws the first egg.

“Tommy,” I say.

“Tommy’s dead and that thing in front of you can’t remember its name,” Pops says.  “Make a decision.”

I could kill myself right now.  People say that–I’ve said that–but now, I think I could.  I’ve never wanted to be farther away from where I am than at this moment.

I throw an egg that hits Tommy in the shoulder and breaks.

“You’re chickenshit,” Pops says to me.  “I love you, but you’re chickenshit.  I asked you a favor. One fucking favor.”  Then Pops talks to Tommy.  “We’re going to play a game now,” Pops says and Tommy nods.  “Turn around and walk the other way whenever you get hit, OK?”

“OK, Dad,” Tommy says.

Pops turns to me.  “I’m trying to teach you something here, Smart Guy.  You’re all that’s left.”

And now, Tommy Cronin is being pelted with raw eggs by me and Pops.  I’m crying, sobbing, and it’s one of those child-like ones that I can’t turn off.  Pops hits Tommy with an egg; Tommy turns around.  Tommy turns around; I hit him with an egg.  And my brain right now is a tape-loop of I could-haves and I should-haves.

And nothing prepared me for this.  If there was a role I should have played, I didn’t know it.  Pop throws an egg.  I throw an egg.  Tommy turns around.

A train leaves New York at 75 miles per hour.  Another train leaves Los Angeles at 60 miles per hour.  The New York train stops every four hours to unload; the Los Angeles train goes non-stop.  Where do they meet?

And you don’t know so you guess.  You guess somewhere in the middle.  You look at the map, point dead center, and you guess a couple hundred miles one way or the other.  You have no idea how to arrive at the correct answer.

Pops left out a third option.  I could leave and never come back.  Hit the West Coast and try to block this, store it away.  But I can’t.  Or won’t.  Pops is doing what he’s done my whole life; he’s playing the percentages and the odds are always with the house.  He knows that and I know that.

“You’re missing on purpose,” Pops says.

I throw another and Tommy turns around.

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Rob Roberge ROB ROBERGE Rob Roberge's fourth book, the novel The Cost of Living, was released in Spring 2013 on Other Voices Books. Previous books include the story collection Working Backwards From the Worst Moment of My Life (2010) and the novels More Than They Could Chew (2005) and Drive (2001). He’s a core faculty member at UCR/Palm Desert’s MFA and has taught at several universities including University of California Riverside’s main campus MFA, Antioch, Los Angeles’ MFA program and the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, where he received the Outstanding Instructor Award in Creative Writing in 2003. He’s a frequent question writer and lecturer and has judged, among others, the Red Hen Story Prize and the University of Ohio/Athens PhD writing award. Currently, he is serving as the advisor for the PEN Mark program. His stories and essays have appeared in numerous journals and have been widely anthologized. He plays guitar and sings with the LA bands The Danbury Shakes and The Urinals.

9 Responses to “An Excerpt From: Working Backwards From the Worst Moment of My Life

  1. Jessica Blau says:

    Excellent! I’m going to Amazon now.

  2. So great to see this up here. I remember the first time I read this story years back, how blown away I was.

  3. rob roberge says:

    Thanks much to both of you…and thanks for heading off to Amazon, Jessica…though I could be self-inflatedly wrong in inferring that you’re going there for my book…the two sentences could be totally unrelated. As in, “Excellent. Now I have to go buy a new toaster.” But, still, thanks for going to Amazon for whatever you’re buying.

  4. Have really been enjoying your book, Rob. It was so great to hear you read this story, too. Hope all’s well in your world.

  5. Irene Zion says:

    Rob,

    This was amazing.
    I didn’t want to read this at first because it says up there that you’re a “guest writer” and I didn’t want to get invested in someone who was just going to leave.
    But then I did anyway.
    Now I’m addicted.
    Your writing is so immediate and real that it makes me be the main character, who I would like to name, but I can only remember Tommy and Pops.
    I don’t enjoy being him, but now I have to buy your book.
    You are talented, Rob.

    • rob roberge says:

      Thanks so much Irene–how nice of you to say.

      But, I’m actually here now (at TNB), not so much a guest writer anymore, so there will be more stuff…but thanks for the kind words and I hope you enjoy the book. All best

      R

  6. […] did this story come […]

  7. Dude, this is like a classic. Which is to say it is a classic, not like one, which would mean it wasn’t a classic, only sort of one, but not quite, which this one certainly is, or isn’t as I’m now confused as to which “one” I’m/we’re referring to.

  8. Heather Luby says:

    Startling—that was the first word that popped into my head. The terrible made beautiful, words raw and fascinating, I was simply blown away by this piece.

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