The childproof lid on the bottle of painkillers yielded to no combination of push, pull, or twist, so Reddick shoved aside the knickknacks on his desk and grabbed up a pair of long-bladed scissors. As he took aim, the points hovering above the bottle, his secretary Sheila rolled into the room.
She stared at him. “Who are you? Hank the Ripper?”
Sheila wore a bright floral dress that drew attention to her bulk. Even now, Reddick sometimes wondered how she lived. Where she found clothes to fit her. How she washed herself. How she put on her shoes.
Sheila made her way to the chair in front of his desk, and he watched with apprehension as she sat. “The Happy Crapper has struck again.”
Another thing, Reddick thought. Something else he would have to pretend to give a damn about. He took a practice stab with the scissors. “Where this time?”
“Boys’ john. First floor.”
Reddick jabbed down. The blades caught the bottle off-center, caroming it towards the edge of his desk. He grabbed the bottle but backhanded the clutter. A small statue clattered to the floor.
Reddick’s knee pulsed with pain. He raised the scissors again, but this time he kept the fingers of his left hand cupped tightly around the bottle. Reddick could feel Sheila watching as he measured out where to strike. He stabbed hard into the plastic, twisted the blade in the gash, and shook out four tablets, double the prescribed dose.
“Don’t those have codeine in them, hon?” Sheila asked.
“Oxycodone. Better still.” Reddick washed the pills down with a gulp of cold coffee. “Come, Watson. The game’s afoot.”
Despite her girth, Sheila moved down the hallway at a pace quicker than Reddick would have liked. His knee ached with every step. The halls were filled with students who ran back and forth laughing loudly until they saw Reddick. Then they gaped up at him, stepped back against the lockers to get out of his way. No one believed him to be a gentle giant.
This year, Reddick’s first as middle school principal, had been hell. Before, he had coached football and taught English in the high school. The students had liked him. His colleagues had respected him. But when Kim got pregnant and they needed more money, the only option had been a move into administration. The middle school children were a tribe of savages. They screamed during assembly. They flung butter-pats and four-letter words in the cafeteria. Despite his efforts to win them over, he could tell that they hated him.
A group of teachers was gathered outside the door to the boys’ restroom, blocking the door, chatting, pointing students to the other toilets. Reddick noted that Schmidt, the wrestling coach, was among them. Schmidt had also applied for the principal’s job, and now he seemed always to have a comment for Reddick.
The group fell silent when Reddick walked up. These middle school teachers were unlike any he’d known in the high school. They looked constantly for reassurance, a pat on the back, as if they were children themselves. At the same time, they excluded him from their jokes and their conversations. Well, he didn’t give a damn. He wasn’t going to compliment them on their colorful bulletin boards.
“The scene of the crime,” Sheila said. She pushed the door open for Reddick.
There, in the middle of the floor, sat a firm turd perfectly centered on a sheet of notebook paper.
“Lordy,” Sheila said. “He’s got good aim.”
Reddick leaned over to look. The sheet, as always, was filled from top to bottom with profanities: Fuck cocksucker twat. The words continued down the page in a childish scrawl, motherfucker asshole shit dickhead. The Happy Crapper sometimes struck in one of the boys’ johns, sometimes the girls’, but otherwise the modus operandi never varied.
Reddick felt nauseated. “Let’s get out of here.”
In the hallway Sheila said, “You watch, there’ll be another one before the end of the year. He won’t be able to stop himself.”
“How do you know it’s a he?” Reddick asked, although he himself suspected a seventh-grade boy, T.V. Wilson, of being The Crapper. Reddick turned to the group of teachers. “Anybody see anything? Ideas?”
“At least we know it’s someone in school today. There are loads of absences.”
“Could be a copycat.”
“Actually, Reddick,” said Schmidt, “we suspect it’s you.”
Although Schmidt only reached to Reddick’s chest, he seemed dressed, as always, to show off his build: a knit shirt that pulled tight at his biceps. Sometimes Reddick wanted nothing more than to lash out with a jab to Schmidt’s nose. He was pretty sure he could take him if the fight didn’t wind up on the floor.
Reddick turned to Sheila. “Let’s find the janitor.”
* * *
Reddick’s knee seized with pain as he knelt to retrieve the statue he’d earlier knocked from his desk. The statue was a gift from Kim. When she got pregnant, they had spent the last of their savings on a package tour of Italy, recompense for the honeymoon they’d never been able to afford. In Naples, she’d stopped in front of the Farnese Hercules and whispered, “It’s you.” Reddick could see the resemblance but felt certain that she hadn’t meant it as a compliment. True, Reddick was bearded, lineman-large, still muscled despite the years. But this Hercules had gone thick at the waist. He leaned on his club, tired of his labors.
The June sun baked the room, but the blinds bunched crookedly at the top of the window frame and no amount of tugging would lower them. Reddick could feel the sweat dripping from his armpits, soaking into his short-sleeve dress shirt. He considered taking more of the oxycodone, but he knew he shouldn’t. Instead he uncapped a bottle of Tylenol and shook some onto his desk. He took out a notebook to record The Crapper’s latest offense.
The phone rang. Reddick rolled two of the Tylenols under his fingers. He picked up the receiver.
His wife said, “Come home.”
Reddick checked his watch. It was only one-thirty: Kim shouldn’t be home at this time of day. “What’s wrong?”
“I’ve fired her. Peg.” He could hear a shake in her voice.
“You gave her notice?”
“I’ve fired her. Now. Immediately. I’m taking the day off from work so I can watch Joey.”
Reddick closed the notebook. “What happened?”
“That cunt. I can’t stand to call her Aunty now.”
It was a word he’d never heard Kim use before. “I’ll be right there.”
Reddick limped to the parking lot. He cranked the ignition of his aging Ford until the engine caught. The whole car shook in synch with the firing of the pistons. It angered Reddick to think that a world existed—at least on television and in the pages of glossy magazines—where people drove Porsches and wore Armani suits; and then there was this world, where he and Kim moved from one month’s paycheck to the next.
The transmission slipped for a moment before the car lurched out of its space. Even pushing the pedals caused Reddick’s knee to throb, but the painkillers, thank god, were beginning to kick in. He turned right out of the lot and stepped down on the gas, trying to hurry, and the car shuddered towards home. He couldn’t stop thinking about the tremor in Kim’s voice.
He drove past boarded-up shop fronts, over pot-holed roads. Empyrean was his hometown, and he’d lived here throughout its long decline. Now it was caught in a vicious cycle—those with money and education left; they sold their houses at a loss and further fueled the market for cheap housing. A welfare capital had been created, a place where no one would ever vote to raise taxes for education. We should have a sign, Reddick thought, that reads, Welcome to Empyrean, the Asshole of Western Missouri.
What could have happened between Kim and Aunty Peg? They needed her. Kim worked in social services, one of the few boom industries in Empyrean, but it wasn’t a career to grow rich in. When she’d wanted to return to work, they didn’t know what to do with Joey. The daycare centers churned their stomachs. Nannies were too expensive. Then they’d found Peg.
Peg was some sort of distant relative to Kim—a second cousin once removed or a third cousin; they had never worked it out exactly—and she had seemed perfect for the job. She didn’t want a lot of money. She was getting benefits, she said, and just wanted to supplement her income on the quiet.
She talked to Joey in a singsong voice, and she insisted they call her Aunty Peg. “Like I’m part of the family. Right, Joey-Woey?” Although they asked her not to, she persisted in using baby talk. She called out, “Oh-oh. Bumps-a-daisy,” when he fell down. But Reddick liked the way her face lit up when she saw the baby. “Joey, Joey, Joey,” she sang out, her voice high-pitched.
“She’s dumb as a post,” Kim had complained.
“She seems to like Joey.”
“It’s like having the Teletubbies in the house.”
Reddick knew that Kim had never liked her. He knew that she suspected Peg of watching television during the day when she was supposed to be watching Joey—they had come home to find the set switched to a different channel from where they’d left it. But to fire Peg without notice was insane. How would they get by?
* * *
The front door was open, the screen ajar. Last week, the compressor on the air-conditioner had died with a clunk and they were still waiting for the repairman to come. Fixing it would mean another expense, something else to charge to one of their credit cards.
Reddick entered the house to find Kim sitting on the couch holding a beer. The bottle had sweated and left rings of water on her jeans, but she didn’t seem to notice. Joey slept on the couch next to her; she touched his head. When she saw Reddick, Kim raised her index finger to her lips.
She rose from the couch and picked up her Dictaphone from the coffee table. “Let’s go to the kitchen,” she whispered.
Reddick followed her. “Are you okay?”
“You need to hear this.” Kim touched a button on the Dictaphone. “I hid it on the bookshelf. I just wanted to find out how much television she was watching.” She notched up the volume.
Reddick leaned forward and listened. It took him a while to make sense of the tinny sounds on the tape, but after a moment, he could make out Joey’s noises, his usual babble, and then he heard Aunty Peg’s high-pitched squeal: “La la. Time for breakfast. Yummy yummy yummy.”
Reddick looked at Kim and shrugged. It was typical Aunty Peg.
“Just listen. That’s while we’re still in the house. You hear? There. There, we’re saying goodbye. That’s the door shutting. Now listen.”
Joey babbled some more, and then Aunty Peg spoke. Something seemed changed, different, but Reddick was unsure of what. Peg’s voice remained as high-pitched and songlike as before. But something on the tape now suggested hatred. Her voice sang out again, and this time Reddick listened carefully to her words: “Eat your fucking slop, pig.” Reddick felt a prickling along the back of his neck. He could hear Joey complaining and then Peg’s singsong voice: “Shut up. Just shut the fuck up. Stop whining like a fucking dog.” Kim pressed the stop button.
Reddick tried to make sense of what had happened to his son, his baby. He hurried back into the living room and looked at Joey asleep on the couch. He slept on his back, his arms outstretched. Reddick wanted to pick him up and hold him, but he only bent down and touched Joey’s head, brushed back his hair.
Kim slid onto the couch next to Joey. Reddick touched her leg, but she didn’t look at him. Reddick kept his voice level. “Do you think she’s done anything else?”
When she raised her eyes to his, he could see they were red. “What kind of place is this?”
Kim had never wanted to return to Empyrean, Reddick knew. At college, she’d studied Romance languages. She’d once hoped to live abroad. “Do you think she’s hurt him?” he asked. “Physically?”
Kim looked away again. “Listen. I came home at noon and checked the tape while she and Joey were out for their walk.” She took a swallow of beer. “As soon as they came up the drive, I told her she was fired. She didn’t even ask why—she just nodded her head and left. That’s guilty behavior, Hank.”
Reddick began to undress Joey, unsnapping his trousers.
“You’ll wake him. Let him sleep.”
Reddick freed the trousers and ran his hands up and down Joey’s legs. He didn’t even know what he was looking for—bruises? Burns? He gently felt the back of Joey’s thighs, searching for lumps. His body was so small, so fragile. Reddick found nothing, but what did that mean? He wondered if Peg could have hurt his son in ways that didn’t show.
Reddick began to fumble open the buttons on Joey’s shirt. The boy woke with a start and began to cry. Reddick picked him up and held him tight to his chest. His only goal since Joey was born had been to keep him safe. He’d bought car seats and baby monitors. He’d wanted only to protect his child. How could he have left him alone with Peg? How could he have failed so badly?
Joey’s cries became louder. “Shhh,” Redick whispered. “It’s okay.” He held him tight. Against his will, Reddick began to cry. He ran his hand up and down Joey’s back.
“You’re scaring him,” Kim said. She took the boy away and held him.
“We should call the police,” Reddick said. “We should press charges.”
Kim shook her head. “We hired her illegally.” She bounced Joey in her arms. “Plus, I don’t think there’s a law against speaking rudely to a child.”
* * *
At the table, amongst the clutter of the kitchen, Reddick poured another glass of beer. Kim was playing with Joey in the living room. Reddick wiped the sweat from his face with a towel. He decided he could allow himself another dose, and he took two oxycodone tablets from his pocket.
He’d damaged the knee two weeks ago. After school, doing his rounds, Reddick had found Schmidt at the squat bar in the weight room.
“Reddick,” Schmidt had said, “I hear you used to lift a little. In your day.”
Reddick had tried to laugh off the comment. “Not like you, Coach.” He watched as Schmidt loaded plate after plate on the bar.
“Don’t worry,” Schmidt said. “I’ll lighten the bar for you when I’m done.” Schmidt squatted the weight once, veins bulging in his neck and on his forehead, and Reddick could see that it was all the man could do to get the bar back onto the rest. Reddick counted the plates; then he slipped underneath the bar and squatted it ten times. On the last rep, he’d felt a tear in his right knee, the one he’d injured years ago playing football. He’d said nothing to Schmidt. He’d forced himself to walk out of the gym without limping.
Reddick picked up the Dictaphone. He pushed play and listened. There was a long stretch of silence, and then he could hear the opening music to a television soap opera. Peg’s voice sang out, “Be quiet, you goddamned retard. You ugly dog.”
How long had it gone on? What else had she done?
* * *
With Joey asleep, Reddick and Kim lay on the bed in the darkness and whispered. He could still hear the tinge of anger in her voice. “Hank, why are we still here?”
She had never really forgiven him for settling in Empyrean. They’d married young, at college. Reddick had played football, and although the pro scouts had come to watch him, they wanted to see speed in a lineman, not just size. He’d told Kim that he felt connected to Empyrean. They had bought their house before the town completely went to hell, when property had some value. And now they were trapped by their mortgage. “Aunty Peg did this,” he said.
“Is this really where you want us to raise our son?”
Reddick started to answer that this place didn’t have to touch them, that they didn’t have to be dragged down by Empyrean, but somehow it felt like a lie. “This is our home. I don’t want to run away.”
“It’s always another battle for you, isn’t it?”
“I’m a teacher.”
“Kim,” he said, “what if she’s hurt him?” He reached out to touch her hand, but she pulled back.
“He’s thriving,” she said. “He’s healthy.”
Reddick pictured Peg’s face. She didn’t often wear her dentures—she claimed they were too painful—but when she did, the white of her top teeth shined in contrast with the crooked and yellowed lower ones. “I’d like to slap the teeth out of her mouth.”
“I know,” Kim said. She turned away; rolled to her side. “I dream about hurting her.”
* * *
At school the next morning, Reddick couldn’t work. He sat at his desk in the heat of his office and tried to write the end of year report, but the only thoughts that came to him were of Joey left alone in the house with Peg.
He took out the Dictaphone from his satchel. He had played and replayed the whole of the tape, but in places he still couldn’t make out what was being said. He pushed the button and listened. Muffled noises. The television? Or was Joey crying? Peg’s voice sweetly chanted, “Mongoloid. You’re as stupid as your fucking mother.” The tape reached its end and the machine clicked off. Reddick picked it up and hit rewind.
He shook a handful of the oxycodone onto his desk. He dropped one into his cola and let it dissolve. It tasted bitter on his tongue, but he drank it down.
Reddick didn’t think of himself as a scholar—before he’d begun teaching, when he lived for football, he’d hardly read anything. But sometimes you didn’t choose your subject; it chose you. There were novels and plays that Reddick had re-read every time he taught them. Over the years, the books he taught had taken on meaning for him, like a secular bible. Now he thought of the moment in Macbeth when Macduff is urged to seek vengeance for the death of his son. Macduff cries out, “He has no children.” It was a line that Reddick had puzzled over, but at this moment he understood. What suffering could Macduff cause Macbeth that could compare to his own?
Peg had simply walked away. No punishment. No humiliation. She would probably find another job with another family. She would probably be turned loose on another child.
Last night, as he’d lain awake in bed, Reddick had tried to imagine what would equal justice for Peg. What was the worst thing he could wish upon her? Shingles? Painful but curable. Incontinence? Embarrassing, but too easy—she could always wear a diaper. Disfigurement? But then it wasn’t as if she traded on her looks.
But there was one thought that he couldn’t shake from his mind. He pictured Peg with bloodied, four-fingered hands trying helplessly to pick up her own thumbs. The thought sickened him. And yet. And yet wasn’t it the opposable thumb that distinguished man from animal? There was justice to satisfy him—Peg struggling with every task of every day. Every time she tried to light a match or fasten a button or pick up a coin she would be reminded of her sins.
“What’s wrong, hon?”
He hadn’t noticed Sheila enter the room. “Reports,” he said. Although he’d always thought of Sheila as a friend, he wanted no one to know what had happened to Joey. It seemed shameful.
Sheila settled her weight on the chair in front of Reddick’s desk. Rumor had it that Sheila had once been beautiful; that she had gained the weight suddenly, late in life. Reddick knew that she was sick of secretarial work. She applied constantly for jobs with various Kansas City businesses. But no matter how glowing a reference he gave, Sheila never got an offer. It made no difference that she was smart and hard-working—as soon as the firm saw her in the flesh, her abundance of flesh, the process ended. It was an unjust universe, Reddick thought. The kind, the meek, the peacemakers shall inherit the short end of the stick.
“I’ve got a suspect for you,” Sheila said. “T.V. Wilson was seen in the hallway yesterday at about the right time.”
T.V. Wilson. Earlier in the year, the boy had phoned in a bomb threat, only to call back a minute later to say, no, he’d gotten it wrong: the evacuation should take place during third period, when he had his math test. He’d even given his name when asked.
“Send him in,” Reddick said.
T.V. was skinny and dark-haired, and his thick glasses rested halfway down his nose. Despite the heat, he wore an olive-drab army jacket. He shifted from foot to foot in front of Reddick’s desk.
Reddick decided to let the boy sweat for a while. He pretended to study T.V.’s file. After a moment, Reddick glanced up to see that the boy was looking around the room, seemingly unconcerned. “Do you know why you’re here?”
T.V. shrugged. He pushed his glasses back up on his nose with his middle finger, a gesture Reddick was unsure how to interpret. He wasn’t sure the boy was bright enough for subtlety.
Reddick tried an outright accusation. “We know you defecated on the floor.”
T.V. looked puzzled. “Do what?”
“Crap. We know you crapped on the floor.”
The boy started to laugh, but he stopped when Reddick got up and walked towards him. “Why were you out of class yesterday morning?”
“I went outside to smoke.”
It was a stupid lie. Reddick tapped on the boy’s chest with his index finger. “Why don’t you just admit to it?”
The boy reacted as if he had been punched. He fell to the floor and covered his head. “You can’t hit me!” he shrieked. “You can’t hit me!”
Sheila poked her head in. “What happened?” Reddick was surprised by how quickly she’d gotten to the door.
“Nothing happened,” Reddick said. “T.V. here is a fine actor. He walked back around his desk. “He’s suspended for the rest of the week. For smoking.”
* * *
In the afternoon, as Reddick limped down the hallway, he paused at the door to the gymnasium to watch Schmidt’s P.E. class. Some of the children played a rowdy game of basketball, and two of the boys seemed to be in a contest to see who could foul the other the hardest. A group of girls had left the game and sat on the floor talking. Schmidt reclined on the bleachers, reading a magazine, only occasionally looking up to see if there was bloodshed on the court.
When Kim had learned that Reddick had damaged his knee in a pissing contest with Schmidt, she’d been furious. “Haven’t you ever heard that discretion is the better part of valor?”
“Why does nobody remember that Falstaff said that? And he was a coward.”
“You know better, Hank,” she’d said.
Now Reddick made his way back to the office. “Find out who’s got lunch duty this week and tell them not to bother,” he said to Sheila. “Send a message to Schmidt that we need him to cover.”
She shook her head. “Hank, that’s evil.” She smiled. “I’ll tell him we need someone for morning break, too.”
* * *
Reddick woke in the night to the sound of Joey crying. Kim, usually the first to wake, was still asleep, her pillow pulled over her head. He eased his body from the bed, wincing in pain as pressure was applied to his knee, and hobbled into Joey’s room.
In the darkness, he picked the boy up and held him. Joey settled in the crook of Reddick’s arm but continued to cry. “Shhh. It’s all right.” He rocked the boy, and with his free hand, Reddick felt the area around Joey’s diaper. Dry. It was unlike Joey to wake for no reason, to want only comforting.
Reddick had never known his son to have nightmares. He wished Joey were old enough to communicate what had happened to him. He wondered in how many ways Peg could have scarred him. Did he see her now in his dreams? Did he have fears that wouldn’t go away?
As Reddick’s eyes adjusted to the dark, he began to make out the shapes in Joey’s room. Over the bed hung a mobile of mythical creatures, and Joey’s shelf was filled with stuffed animals. Why were so many toys frightening things made safe? Teddy bears, cartoon monsters, even plush alligators? Perhaps we do it for ourselves, Reddick thought. Perhaps we want to convince ourselves that the world is not the place we know it to be.
Reddick rocked, and gradually he felt Joey relax, felt his breathing become deep and regular. He laid the boy on his side, and he tucked the sheet under the sides of the mattress.
* * *
Reddick had only arrived at school when Sheila entered his office. “Mrs. Wilson is here to see you,” she said. “T.V.’s mother.”
He tried not to stare when Mrs. Wilson entered his office. Her eyes were rimmed with thick, raccoon eyeliner that stood in opposition to her pale skin. She wore a white dress decorated with red hearts. It billowed at the waist; the sleeves were flounced; lace dripped from the collar. She looked like a goth Cinderella.
“He didn’t do nothing,” she said. She sat in the chair in front of Reddick’s desk and stuck a cigarette in her mouth. He watched as she searched through her purse, also decorated with hearts.
“This is a non-smoking campus,” Reddick said.
She pulled out a pack of bar matches and lit up. “He sure as hell didn’t shit on the floor,” she said. “He may not be a genius, but he’s potty-trained.” She shook out the match and dropped it to the linoleum.
“I didn’t suspend him for that,” Reddick said. “He cut class to smoke.”
“He’s got my permission to smoke,” she said. She took a long drag on her cigarette. “I can write you a note if you want.”
“You can’t give him permission to smoke.” He wondered what kind of mother would permit her child to harm himself. Before Joey was born, Reddick had never worried; but afterwards, every journey in the car had become a potential accident, every bottle cap something to choke upon. And now that Joey had begun to toddle about the house, the dangers multiplied. He’d padded the edges of tables and put locks on the cabinets. But how had he failed to see the biggest danger of all? Reddick watched Mrs. Wilson blow smoke through her nose. “You can’t smoke in here either.”
As if in response, she took a roll of breath mints from her purse, unrolled one and popped it in her mouth. She took another drag on her cigarette. Did she think the two would cancel each other out?
“He told me how you pushed him.” She dropped her cigarette to the floor and ground it underfoot. “I’m going to report you to the school board. I’m a taxpayer, mister.”
Reddick doubted that she was—more likely she was a recipient of tax dollars—but it didn’t matter. “You do that,” he said.
* * *
The afternoon heat was unbearable. Reddick’s knee hurt again, but it wasn’t yet time for more oxycodone. He decided to take one instead of two—a compromise position. He shook another pill out of the ruptured bottle. Today had been a waste. He’d accomplished nothing.
Reddick picked up the tiny statue from his desk. Hercules’ labors, which had gone on so long, had been assigned as punishment for killing his wife and children in a fit of madness. Reddick wondered if that fact had made it into the Disney version of the story.
“Maggot,” Peg had called Joey. “Filth.” How could they have ever believed she cared for him?
Another image of Peg had formed in his brain. Even more than chopping the thumbs from her hands, he wanted to cut her tongue from her mouth. He imagined feeding it back to her; forcing her to swallow it.
Reddick thought about T.V. Wilson. He was an unpopular kid, friendless, bad at school. Reddick had suspended him earlier over the bomb scare. Of course he wanted revenge.
In college, Reddick had once been matched up against an offensive lineman who’d psyched himself up into bloodlust. Playing the line was trench warfare, but Reddick had never been a dirty player. In this game, the quarterback couldn’t pass for shit, throwing low arc-less passes that Reddick was sure he could bat down; but every time he raised his hand to swat at the ball, the offensive lineman punched him the solar plexus with the heel of his palm. The blows left Reddick feeling as if he wanted to sit down and gasp for air. Just before halftime, Reddick slipped on the grass and the lineman ground his cleats into Reddick’s hand. Reddick felt sure he could hear the small bones breaking. He held the hand next to his chest and rocked, but he waved off the medics and rose to his feet for the next down.
On the snap, Reddick grabbed the lineman’s facemask and yanked him forward, twisting, and slung him to the ground. Whistles blew and flags were thrown. Reddick had been pulled from the game and screamed at in turn by each of his coaches. But none of that robbed him of the satisfaction he’d felt as they stretchered the man off the field.
He looked at the clock. School wouldn’t finish for another hour, but what good was it doing him to stay?
“I’m going home,” Reddick told Sheila.
In the parking lot, he noticed something written in the dust on the hood of his battered Ford. He walked closer. Someone had printed Bite me Reddick in large block letters. He smudged it out, and then regretted the action—he had nothing with which to wipe the dirt from his hand.
He limped back inside to wash his hands. The faculty restrooms were farther away than Reddick wanted to walk. He pushed open the door to the boys’ john nearest the gym. A turd sat in the middle of the floor, centered atop a sheet of paper. Reddick walked closer. Words filled the page. Pussy shit peckerhead fucker douchebag cock.
* * *
When Joey had gone to bed, Reddick and Kim sat on the back porch. The evening air was somewhat cooler. Kim drank a beer; Reddick poured a second shot from a bottle of Wild Turkey. “Kim,” he said. “We fucked up.”
“I know.” She seemed at last to have forgiven him a bit.
“We should take him to a psychiatrist.”
“Hank, he can’t even speak yet. She’s gone, and he won’t remember this.”
“I can’t stop thinking about it,” Reddick said. “All day long, I keep wondering what else she could have done to him.”
“He’s going to be okay.” She picked at the label on her beer. “Listen,” she said, “I see physical abuse in my work. Trust me, that’s not Joey.”
“I want to hurt her.” Reddick stopped himself from saying more.
Kim was silent for a long moment. “I know. I hate her. I can’t stop thinking how much I hate her. But it doesn’t do any good to think about it. At least she’s gone.”
* * *
Reddick closed his copy of Macbeth. He’d found the line he’d been looking for. Malcolm had advised Macduff, “Blunt not the heart, enrage it.” It made sense. Use your head, everyone said, but perhaps we should really be listening to our hearts. Wasn’t there such a thing as justifiable anger?
Reddick sat alone in the darkened living room and poured out another shot of bourbon. Kim was asleep. Reddick put two of his magic pills on his tongue and washed them down with the shot. He’d been knocking back more of the oxycodone than was allowed, and he was running out. He would try to find another doctor to write him a second prescription.
Perhaps there had been physical abuse. The thought made Reddick sick. Or perhaps she had ignored his needs. Or perhaps she had only done the things Reddick had heard on the tape, swearing at the boy. But couldn’t that hurt him, too? So many things in life affect us, things we might hardly remember.
Reddick’s skin felt clammy. He went to the bathroom and looked in the mirror. His pupils were pinpoints.
He returned to the living room and poured out another shot.
Reddick thought of finding the turd in the boys’ john today. On some level, Reddick understood The Crapper—what but hatred and revenge could lie behind his actions? Reddick knew those feelings. Shit or be shat upon; that was the lesson the world taught.
Well, Reddick thought, I suppose we know now that it’s not T.V. Wilson, suspended and away from school. Perhaps it wasn’t a student at all. He thought of the duties he had assigned Schmidt. There was someone with motive.
Shit flows downhill, Reddick thought. Of that you could be certain.
There was so little justice. God, heaven, hell—those were just fairy tales for the simple-minded. When you die, you rot; Reddick was certain of it. So much for divine justice. If there was to be any justice at all, it had to be made here on earth.
He imagined again the bloody pulp of Peg’s tongue cut from her mouth.
It was no good. He could never do it. He wasn’t capable.
But he could imagine scaring the fuck out of her. He imagined Peg discovering that someone had been inside her house while she slept. What could be more terrifying than a nighttime visit from The Crapper? Reddick imagined her waking up, walking into her kitchen to find her floor shat upon.
He found a sheet of notepaper and began to fill it with the words from the tape. Pig stupid fucking retard goddamned ugly mongoloid dog shut the fuck up.
* * *
Most of the windows in the complex were dark; in others, televisions flashed like multicolored lightning. So far no one had challenged him. Reddick paused in front of her door. He took a deep breath to slow the pounding of his heart. He took another.
He tried the doorknob. Locked. He had no plan for how to enter her apartment. Gently he sat his bag of tools on the mat, a rectangle of Astroturf with welcome spelled out in white plastic flowers. Reddick’s head spun, and he steadied himself by resting his forehead against the peeling paint of her door.
To his left, the screen vibrated in its frame. The window was propped open on top of a box fan. Reddick took up his tools and tried to move there on soft feet, but the pills and the bourbon had fucked him up too badly. He stumbled. The tools rattled in their bag.
The only bag he’d found in his garage was the canvas grass-catcher from his lawn mower, and handling it had stained his hands green. He’d taken only a few tools: the long-armed tree pruners, a flashlight, vise-grips, a rusty pair of bolt-cutters.
The fan ran noisily, shaking against the fabric of the screen. Reddick took the pruners from the bag and jabbed their blades into the wire mesh. He pulled hard and ripped a gash.
Inside, Reddick found the small flashlight in the bag. Its narrow beam of light illuminated patches of a living room and an open kitchen. Reddick tried to make sense of the cluttered chaos. In front of him the sink and counters were piled high with dirty dishes. He shined the light to the edge of the kitchen, where a hallway began, and then back across counter and appliances. A large sheet of paper was affixed to the refrigerator with fruit-shaped magnets. Reddick recognized Peg’s scrawl and moved closer to read it. Don’t open door. For nobody. Pie is mine—don’t eat! Leave for school when alarm says 8:00. Reddick turned and swept the flashlight back to the living room.
He almost walked into a plastic picnic table. He shined the beam about the tabletop and saw that it was covered with empty soda bottles. A full ashtray. A hairbrush. A stained and tattered copy of People. Something caught his eye and Reddick ran the light back to it. There on a plate lay the white, straight teeth of Peg’s dental bridge. The sight of it repulsed him—the teeth lying there as if they’d been knocked from her mouth.
Reddick took from his pocket the piece of notepaper and unfolded it. He shined the light on the page. Maggot fucking dog bastard retard. He ran the flashlight’s beam to the middle of the kitchen floor.
So this was what it felt like to be The Happy Crapper.
What kind of filth had he imagined he could bring to this household that it didn’t already possess? Had he really believed that he would drop his trousers and defecate on her floor?
Reddick stuffed the note back in his pocket. Still, he wanted something, some small taste of vengeance. He thought of Peg’s dental bridge lying on the plate, and he swept his flashlight along the tabletop until he found them. Three white teeth poking up from artificial gums and metal clasps.
He took the loppers from his bag. He set the flashlight on the table, and then he slotted the crook of the blades over the bridge. He tried to leverage the long arms of the pruners, but the teeth slid away. They dropped to the plate with a clatter.
“Aunty?” A child’s voice, a girl’s voice, from somewhere down the hall.
“What are you doing?”
Reddick switched off the flashlight and stood still. His mind reeled back to the note on the refrigerator. A child. Peg had left a child alone in the apartment.
The sound of footsteps on the carpet. “Aunty?” There was excitement in her voice.
The overhead light switched on. A girl in pajamas stood at the edge of the kitchen. How old was she? Seven or eight, perhaps. She rubbed her eyes.
And then she took in Reddick and let out a scream. She grabbed her arms to her chest. She flattened herself against the wall, staring at Reddick. She bit at her thumb. Slowly she sank into a crouch.
Reddick lowered the loppers. “It’s okay.” He knelt and shoved the tools back into the sack. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Everything’s okay.”
The girl began to cry in short, terrified rasps. Reddick stood and walked toward her. “Shhh,” he said. “Let’s go back to bed.” He tried to pick her up, but she cried out and pushed against him. “Shhh. It’s okay.” He scooped her up and tried to rock her. “Don’t be afraid. Back to bed now.” But the girl began again to scream.
Reddick set her back onto the floor. She curled up fetus-like, still crying. He grabbed the bag of tools and ran to the door.
* * *
Reddick stood at the sink and rubbed soap on his grass-stained hands. He rinsed and washed again and stripped off his clothes. Reddick leaned over, trying to take in his full image in the low mirror. His unkempt beard. The expanse of his chest and belly. Muscle overtaken by adipose tissue. It suddenly struck him as ironic that he pitied Sheila for the way the world saw her.
He threw his clothes in the hamper and walked past the bedroom door. Kim lay sleeping, her back toward him. He remembered a time, once when they were young, that he had come home drunk and tried to slip into bed next to her while she slept. She had stirred, pressed close to him, and said, “Hello, stranger. Do I know you?” And he had put his arm around her and whispered, “I hope so.”
Now Reddick limped to Joey’s room. In the dim light, he could see that Joey had thrown off his cover and worked himself into the top corner of the crib. Reddick lifted him gently. He moved Joey back to the center of the mattress and covered him with the sheet. He bent and kissed his son on the forehead.
Jim Wyatt lives in Warsaw, Poland with his wife and their two children. His short stories have appeared in a number of journals, including News from the Republic of Letters, River Styx, and Cimarron Review. Jim has won the Robert Watson Literary Prize, the Barry Hannah Fiction Prize, and has received Special Mention in the 2011 Pushcart Prize anthology. He is currently at work on a novel set in Poland. Please visit his website: jimwyatt.org