You hear your mother asking if it was safe to have that sort of person here, in your home, with a child.
Daddy hired his old friend from the service to help with the addition to your trailer. A big new living room. A fireplace. New carpet. Won’t even look like a trailer anymore, he says. It’s 1981 and you need more space.
The man is quiet, but not unfriendly. His name is John and he says good morning every day, thanks your mother when she brings iced tea. He eats his lunch with Daddy and you can see them talking but you never know about what. When you approach them they become quiet and John purposefully looks at his sandwich while Daddy asks what you want. When you leave the table, John looks back up and they start talking again. You can hear strange words. Con Thein. Dong Ha. You walk away.
One evening, after John has gone, you finally screw up enough courage to ask about him. You already know not to ask about the foreign sounding words. Your mother taught you not to. Those are war words, she had told you, and you must never ask Daddy about war. So you ask about the murder.
“Murder?” Daddy looks at you, unsure how you know about his friend. “Voluntary manslaughter,” Daddy corrects you, after a long stare. “It’s different.”
Daddy takes a sip of his coffee. “John killed a man in a bar fight. It’s just different.”
“New Mexico. He went to prison for six years.” With that Daddy makes a comment about the almost home run that is being replayed on the television. This is how you know Daddy is done talking about it.
The next morning, Daddy has to run to the lumber yard and leaves John there, with just you and your mother. “Stay out of John’s way.” she tells you. “Stay in your room until Daddy comes back.”
You nod and walk away, play with your toys. Fifteen minutes later the phone rings. You hear your mother laughing, smell her menthol wafting down the hall. You know she’ll be on for a while so you start towards the sound of construction. You walk behind your mother, sitting at the kitchen table, back to you, talking and laughing.
You stand in the half finished room with him. He works, does not look at you.
“What was it like,” you finally say, “to murder someone?” You remember what Daddy said and correct yourself. “To kill someone?”
John turns to you, his eyes burning at you, his jaw firmly set. You are sure he’s going to yell for your mother. Instead he sets his tools down, walks over, kneels in front of you. “Why?”
“I… I don’t know…”
“Sure you do, boy.” He leans in closer. This is the first time you’re scared, looking into his grey eyes. He has a scar across his chin, one above his left eye. “Tell me.”
You feel tears forming in your eyes, fight to keep them back. You want to leave but don’t. You remain frozen.
He smiles. “It’s the easiest thing in the world.” He raises his hand, inches from your face. “You decide to do it and then you bring up this hand. And you kill them.”
You run out now, sobbing. Your mother doesn’t see you and you go to your room, shut the door. You sit, watching it, waiting for the door to open, afraid for your mother and yourself, but too scared to leave.
Eventually, you are awakened by your mother knocking. “Dinner,” she says.
Your father is at the table, reading the sports page from the paper. You eat.
The next day John doesn’t show up. And he doesn’t come the day after. Or ever.
You hear one night Daddy say to your mother that John “never really came home.” You hear more foreign words.
It ends, a few months later, with death. Daddy takes a phone call at the kitchen table, hangs up, covers his face. “Goddamn that fucking place,” Daddy whispers. It’s John, he tells your mother. He drove out somewhere and shot himself. You remain quiet, sure of which hand he used.
Travis Cravey is a maintenance mechanic in Southeastern Pennsylvania. He is an editor with Malarkey Books and editor at large with Versification. You can find on Twitter @traviscravey. He seems pretty friendly.