Victor’s Rewrite #1 | Amy Scanlan O’Hearn
He wanted what everyone else wanted. A roof over his head and solid ground beneath his feet. And he would get it because he had two kids to worry about and despite just being let out. Overcrowding, the only time he’d been lucky his entire life. And he would have waited it out and cashed the good luck in somewhere else if given the chance. But, he was out and he had to start thinking that way.
Victor wasn’t doing much thinking otherwise. He had stopped almost altogether if you can believe it. Like thinking Mia would keep coming every week, to watch her lips moving or not moving behind the glass, her brow knitted so tight above her eyes he thought she’d explode. Anyway, it was good just to look at her like a doll in a shop window and to see the kids on her lap. To reach out to their hands and palms on the glass flat and wide, his swallowing their tender undersides. Every other Saturday turned into none, into phone calls, and silence, and then he just stopped waiting.
Today was different. Victor looked at the ten stories down to where his kids played in the lot below. They could have been anyone’s, their heads like pinballs as they raced toward and away from each other, kicking up stones in their wake. But, they were his and now he was alone. One Saturday his sister said, “Mia’s gone,” and his heart skipped a beat and then fell dead in his chest, and within seconds it was a relief that she was no longer on the other side of the glass making him feel guilty for being where he was.
The girl was lovely. Her black hair trailing behind her as she ran across the gravel. An ache rose in his gut at the thought of her falling and gouging her perfect skin. The boy. He was a force they could never control and he and Mia had handed the responsibility of him back and forth. He scowled most of the time. A look that seemed to question why they had brought him into the world if only to be miserable too.
Victor cringed remembering how they had lost him once, how he had actually thought about life without Victor, Jr. No more hassles. No worries. Still, he had searched everywhere, opening that refrigerator they kept on a slab in the back with his eyes squeezed tight afraid of what he might find. When Victor, Jr. wasn’t inside, or in any of the abandoned cars or sheds around the place, or sleeping on anybody’s porch chair or backyard mattress, Victor slowed in his search. Maybe the boy had walked off. He was almost eight then, working here and there. Victor knew he kept cash, had even pilfered some of it himself once. Couldn’t the boy have chosen to go? While he searched all afternoon, Mia sat at home in bed drinking and murmuring, “my baby, my baby. Victor, you gotta find him.” He couldn’t return until he did something. He kept walking and walking, in bigger and bigger circles, and then there the kid was coming toward him, shoulders slumped, feet scraping the pavement. Victor picked him up and the boy’s head fell like lead on his shoulder. Victor wanted to shake him, but what was the use? He carried him home to Mia, who by then had passed out. He laid the boy in the bed beside her and there he slept for sixteen hours while the chaos of the house resumed and while another party started up in the yard. It wasn’t until Sophie skipped onto the porch shouting to all that Victor, Jr. was back that anyone, including Mia, remembered he’d been gone.
His sister had managed him well while he was gone. When Victor walked into the apartment and the boy placed his arms around his neck with the girl, it felt good only missing one thing Victor knew they’d never get back. The house would have to be enough and making it livable was a start. The kids could stay with his sister until it was ready, at least until they had beds to sleep in. He’d sleep on the floor. The thought of space between him and solid ground made him uneasy. His sister found him in the morning on the floor in Sophie’s room and she laughed, thinking he’d fallen out. Better for her to think that anyway.
He knew he’d think about being inside, but he wouldn’t talk about it. Scared. Angry. Helpless. Alone. Not that he’d never felt those things before, but in there they were intensified. Never just lonely, but helpless, too. Not just scared, but angry as hell. He came out feeling more messed up than when he went in. No reason to bother his sister with all that. And the boy and girl? He had stories for them like he used to tell. Stories about agents on the run, secrets that he and Mia had about their fairy kingdom. His sister scolded him the first few times she came to visit. Sophie wanted to know why she couldn’t be with him on his latest mission. And, after Mia left, Sophie told her classmates one of his princess tales and ended up with the school counselor. That wasn’t news. Victor and Leila had been there many times. But Leila was taking control now and filled the kids’ days with real life stories. His sister was convincing, and her reality tales won out in the end. He was glad she had them. It got them all through.
Leila came in from the kitchen where she was preparing dinner. The familiar smells spreading throughout the apartment brought him back just a little bit more. He imagined every day something would. A cup of coffee or the birds at 5:00 a.m., a distant barking.
“Victor, you haven’t touched your beer. I made it ice cold for you.” She came toward him with a bottle. Bud Light. His beer of choice.
“Thanks, Leila, I don’t drink it no more.” He took the beer, holding it at a distance from his face and nose. He didn’t think he could stand to smell it, and walked it back to the kitchen, needing to keep his back to her, knowing she’d react. Leila loved her wine and when they were kids the two of them often snuck to the alley to get a buzz on. They had good times, her laughing at everything he said as what they left at home evaporated and all that mattered was the space they had made for themselves in the haze of alcohol and weed. They created their own partnership in oblivion. Their parents were good teachers, taught them how to make it all go away by getting drunk or high or both. Problems did somehow go away. The thing was there were always new ones to take their place and mostly the new ones were worse. Him and Leila coming up, it was an escalating study in depravation.
Mostly, he stole. First from his parents, from his father’s pockets while he slept, his mother’s purse unattended on the floor beside the bed. And when that got him bruised, it wasn’t hard to steal from neighbors or folks on the street. Most people walked around with money hanging out of their pockets. And there’d always be more where that came from. He supposed they were all stealing it from someone else, all desperate, jobless, or drugged, homeless or hungry. Thank God for Leila, he thought. His sister stood, her hands on her hips waiting for him to say more. “Com’on!?’ You kiddin’ me, one beer?”
He didn’t reply and stood with his back to her. When he turned, the disappointment still showed on her face as she approached him and walked by, just brushing his shoulder, a dishtowel flung over hers, a wooden spoon in hand, the picture of domesticity, of home. Just like Mom, Victor thought, with a laugh. He grabbed her wrist and pulled her hard, kissing her cheek. He could smell and very nearly taste the wine. It was nice, but he’d sworn to himself, to what was left of the memory of Mia.
“Sis, when I have my first beer, it will be with you,” he whispered into her ear.
“Promise?” Leila looked down at the kitchen floor. He felt her tremor slightly under the skin and they both let it pass. Victor felt that same sense of relief that his sister always gave him. He dropped her wrist and she moved quickly, instantly stirring beans on the stove. She was a born cook, liked to feed people, mostly Victor and his kids.
Before he knew what was happening, Sophie, her hair undone and wild and Victor, Jr., his shirt torn, knees covered in dirt, burst into the apartment, their arms open wide, their screams and shouts and bodies knocking him against the table and then the wall and then they all fell down together, even Victor Jr., ebullient and carrying the warm summer air in with them. He didn’t deserve so much love.
His plan was to go to the museum on the boardwalk, that crazy place with holographs and mirrors, mazes and tricks, an afternoon before he started some serious work on the house. Leila agreed even though he knew she wasn’t crazy about him taking the kids on his own right away. He needed to work up to that, and he understood it would be a while before she wasn’t afraid. What she knew wasn’t the half of it. He wanted to be honest with her again, but sometimes he forgot what the truth was or what he had created as the truth, and he had to be extra careful. He’d be back where he started if he wasn’t. His every move was important to show her that things would change.
The photo of Sophie he kept pinned on the wall flashed into his head. Leila came to visit one Saturday and brought pictures from parent’s day at school. In one Sophie was standing sideways amidst a row of her classmates, so small and swallowed up in the group shot. But slung above the kids’ heads was a banner: You are the author of your own life’s story, it read, swirls of color running through the lettering and pictures of books flung open, cursive filling their lined pages. It gave him something to think about. He’d always felt the victim of his life’s story. He decided then that he would start writing his own story. He just didn’t know the ending yet.
He left Leila’s apartment after dinner and slept alone at the house, gave the excuse that he didn’t want Sophie on the couch again and that he’d have a real bed for himself soon enough. He wanted to get an early start in the morning, beat the crowds on the train.
It was just after nine when they pulled up. Always sensible, he thought as he recognized Leila’s old Taurus. She’d had that car for almost ten years, its blue paint faded from the coastal sun, the washed out plastic daisy atop the antenna barely hanging on. Damn, the car still had an exterior antenna. Leila never cared for being showy. She’d still be driving around in her old Gran Torino if it ran. Victor knew that she was strong and that he was the weak one. He and Mia were always showing off, each other, the kids, their chains and charms, new clothes, a roll of bills. He knew better now that it was too late. It was an early chapter he was reworking. Maybe he could try to erase some of that, and redoing the house as a start. The place was falling apart, and he was ashamed to even look at its peeling walls and decrepit and filthy insides. Leila said she’d help, if not with money then with time with the kids. He was going to make it right. More than anything Victor wanted this day to work, wanted the kids to feel his presence and be assured of him staying this time.
His sister called on her way over to tell him that Victor, Jr. woke up in the night with a bellyache and that she had to cajole him out the door. When they finally arrived, Victor hurried out and leaned into Leila’s car, his arms reaching into the back seat to guide the kids out one at a time. First Sophie, whose legs, skinny and tanned, kicked in the air until he set her trembling with excitement on the grass at the curb. When he reached in for Victor, Jr., the boy sat slumped, his hands on his stomach. Victor could make out the faintest trace of dark hair above his upper lip, and beads of sweat, frozen-like in the summer heat.
“C’mon, my man, we’re going to have some fun today. Just me and you and Sophie,” he crooned, his arms embracing his son to lift him from the car. The boy neither moved into his father nor backed away, as Victor lifted him from the far reaches of the back seat and then released him at the curb beside his sister. Victor thought he heard something like a whimper come from the boy’s lips, and he stood there a moment to make sure his legs were firmly planted while Leila watched it all from the rear view mirror. She dropped her head when Victor’s eyes met hers. It was an awkward few minutes as they said their goodbyes.
“Lee, Lee, I love you,” Sophie squealed, and Victor, Jr. put his hand through the open window to Leila’s shoulder, his fingers just brushing the strap of her tank, the way someone might touch a charm for good luck. Where was Victor’s charm? It had been Mia. Victor leaned to kiss his sister on the cheek.
“Don’t worry, little sis, I’ll have them back before dark,” and she pulled away into the street not looking back.
It wasn’t Leila that made him a criminal, but he had a feeling that when it was alright for him to be with his kids without her being afraid he’d no longer be one. What he was writing today would make that happen. The first stop was Dunkin’ Donuts. He’d get the kids to breakfast and a cool drink, maybe ease things up with Victor, Jr., but when the boy sulkily ordered a sausage sandwich and a hot chocolate, Victor knew right away that was wrong. He wanted the kids to load up on sugar, wash it down with a cool chocolate milk. Sophie’s eyes lit up at the pink sprinkles on her donut and she was left with a wide chocolate mustache. She nibbled on the donut, ate each sprinkle one by one while Victor watched her and the boy sitting across from him on the train. Victor Jr.’s hot chocolate was too hot and the sausage too spicy. He didn’t finish either. Before they were out of the station, his head was on his fist, his eyes closed, his breathing steady, but Victor knew he wasn’t asleep. The couple of times Victor slipped into a story, Victor Jr. looked at him, one eye half open.
He was telling Sophie where he got the most recent tattoo on his forearm which peeked out from his rolled shirtsleeve. Sophie leaned over and pushed the sleeve up further, revealing the sinuous legs of a giant squid, its purple and pink hues bright in contrast to Victor’s now pallid skin.
“She’s beautiful,” Sophie spoke in awe of the creature.
Funny she called the creature a female. Victor, too, imagined that when he had it drawn. The creature was the first story he had written for himself. No marks that others required of him, no second rate scrawling for someone else to identify. The giant squid was a dream he’d written in his sleep made real, the power of her arms and the sheer size was what he hoped to become. With her he could accomplish anything, the way he used to feel with Mia, but this time straight up, for his kids.
“How does she see?” Sophie asked.
“She has eyes bigger than anything in the animal kingdom, and she sees all in the darkness of the world around her.”
“How big?” Sophie always led Victor on. He never had a problem building his tales with her. She always wanted more.
“A foot wide” and Victor spread his arms to give Sophie an idea of how much that was.
“That’s not true,” Victor, Jr., spoke, this time leering at Sophie. She got the message and turned away from them both, looking out the window, pressing her forehead hard against the pane. Her reflection shone back, a frown on her small face. Victor reached over and took one of the pink sprinkles still clinging to her lower lip. He placed it on his tongue and closed his eyes, smiling, rubbed his stomach slow. Sophie, relieved, sat back against the seat, herself again. Victor, Jr. closed his eyes.
He studied his son’s face. The sweat was gone, the dark hair remained. His high cheekbones were remarkable, like Victor’s father. What got that man ahead at all in life had been his good looks. That and his lack of fear. Yet, his father never thought about the fear he created in his kids. While Victor’s mother got used to it, numbed herself against it, Leila and Victor never stopped being afraid. They knew that any day he may not come back, and when their mother left with him there was a good chance neither one may return. There were a couple of times they didn’t come back for days, and Victor assumed they were gone forever, were dead, or worse, the feeling that they had forgotten them on their way somewhere else. They always talked of going west or south and their plans never included Victor or Leila. The first time Victor told Leila they had gone to Mexico and would be sending for them, would wire them money to take a plane to go there, too. Leila talked about what she’d wear and about the people she’d meet and the new friends she would make, and how her friends would be jealous and wish their parents had gone to Mexico without them, too. When their parents returned weeks later, broke and broken, Leila began to doubt Victor’s stories. The next time they left, she demanded a reason that mama and poppa would go to Colorado where it was cold and snowed all year long. They were just lost, she told him, making up her own tales to stay safe. Eventually, she’d say, “they’re passed out drunk and got no money to get back. Just wait, Victor, they’ll show up and then we’ll be cleaning them up again.” She was nine.
When their father was shot and their mother couldn’t stand that was the end of it. Their mother died in the hospital; at least they could be at her side. Their poppa had died in the street and no one asked if they wanted to see him. Their aunt took them both in, and before he knew it, him and Leila were different. She liked school, and her teachers said she should go to college. She did, got a job, then her own place and a car. Victor kept going back to the old neighborhood, stealing from the same neighbors and strangers, hanging out with his crew. Who had been writing his life story then? Something else was in control. Victor, Jr. stirred in his seat and opened his eyes, looked at his father, unafraid.
The train slowed into the platform and Victor took both the kids’ hands, guiding them up and through the crowds to the street. It was a few blocks walk to the boardwalk and to Ripley’s, too early for it to be open. They’d walk on the beach, enjoy the fresh air awhile before they went inside. Victor had plans, too, for after, but he’d tell the kids about them later. They passed the newspaper vendors and cheap souvenir stands, the all-nighters leaving the city, the homeless propped against their carts on the street. Sophie skipped at his one side, Victor Jr. hung back, sluggish on the other. The people passing, the noise, the traffic, it was too much. Victor wanted to get to the water. They’d take off their shoes, walk in the surf. He thought about the one time his parents had taken him and Leila to Atlantic City. They left them on the beach all day, with a towel and nothing else. He remembered that he and Leila swam, dug holes, went up on the boards, roamed the House of Horrors until long after dark. When they wandered back to find their towel, there it sat crumpled and alone. The lights on the boardwalk diminished, and only a few arcades were left open by the time their parents returned. They all slept on the train and no one spoke of the day again. He didn’t have any other memories of the beach. Today he was creating one.
Victor hoped the kids would be as excited as he was to see the roaring water. He pictured them all running toward it, clasping hands, kicking off their shoes and socks and letting the surf wash over them. Instead, it was cold and overcast as they mounted the steps next to Bally’s. At their feet a few pigeons pecked at remnants of popcorn and an overturned soda. Sophie reached down to pet one and it strutted out of her reach. “Don’t touch them, they’re dirty,” Victor, Jr. snapped, “This whole place is ghetto.”
Victor’s eyes met his son’s. The only thing he could hope for was that the boy’s memories of the past would fade. He hoped new ones would take their place. He pulled Sophie by the hand up the steps and Victor, Jr. climbed up slowly behind them and then
“Whad’ya think, should we take a swim?” and Sophie burst with laughter. “I’m serious,” Victor smiled back and made as though to take off his shirt. “C’mon,” and Victor ran ahead of the kids toward the breaking waves, Sophie following behind and Victor, Jr. still dragging himself after, yelling, “Sophie, You’re not going in! He’s just crazy.”
At the water’s edge, Victor sat and pulled off his shoes and socks, flinging them over his head. He didn’t want to scare the kids, but he wanted to live now and maybe the cold water could wash all that was bad away. He splashed into the waves and ran round and round in circles, whooping and yelling, making Sophie laugh harder while Victor, Jr. stood rigid, shaking his head. He couldn’t stop himself, scooping at the ice cold surf, lifting fistfuls into the air and throwing them toward the kids, happy that Sophie still found him funny but worried about what it would take to change Victor’s mind about his deadbeat dad. Then he saw what looked like the hint of a smile on Victor Jr.’s lips, and his son was sitting back on the sand and pulling at his shoes and Sophie was watching them both wide-eyed and laughing, bent over holding her stomach, her ponytails bobbing wildly outward from the sides of her small frame. Victor, Jr. rose from the sand and ran into the water, started whooping, too, screaming, his voice not yet a man, still a boy, high-pitched but from his gut. He ran toward Victor head on, charged him and together they fell into the water. It was like ice but it felt good, and Sophie was screeching now and he and Victor, Jr. were locked in an embrace of sorts, the boy’s arms wrapped tight around his father as each struggled to rise from the crashing waves.
Victor couldn’t swim and he knew what Sophie was thinking, and he was struggling to regain his balance with Victor, Jr. pushing and pulling at him, a violent tug of war in the surf. With Victor Jr.’s arms around his waist he couldn’t stand, and in an effort to get a breath above the crashing waves he broke free of his son’s grip. Victor Jr. let out a grunt, the sound issued from his mouth more animal than human, and he held his head above the surface of the water to lock eyes with his father’s. His head bobbed up and down, and he began thrashing. Victor, Jr. couldn’t swim either, and Victor could hear him choking as he rose and then fell with the roughness of the surf. Sophie was now in tears and running into the water.
“Stay back,” Victor screamed and she halted, her small arms reaching toward them. She was in up to her knees, shoes on and all and Victor was afraid she’d fall. He tried to make his way back to her, but his jeans were dragging from the weight and slowing him down. He had to keep his eyes too on Victor, Jr., knew he had to pull him out, but every effort to lift his legs was like lifting wet cement. He could see now how scared the boy was, and above the sound of the water he heard from his mouth a cry, “Poppa.” Victor, Jr.’s thin arms were reaching toward him as the current pushed and pulled him about and out. Victor lunged, reaching the boy’s shirt, caught the thin cloth in his fist, and pulled his son’s frail body against his own. Victor, Jr.’s arms wrapped around him again while Sophie’s voice rose in shrills, “Poppa, Victor, come back.” Victor made his way to the shore and to Sophie with his son against him in his arms. And then they were lying at Sophie’s feet, and she was falling upon them and the three of them lay there on the sand, their chests rising against a leaden sky.
Amy Scanlan O’Hearn is a high school English teacher in New Jersey. She is the recipient of the Oregon Poets Association New Poets prize for 2015. A graduate of the Rutgers-Camden MFA in Creative Writing, she writes fiction, poetry and essays. Her work has been published in Verseweavers, Mom Egg Review, Tell it Slant and Bocopa: A Literary Review. Victor’s Rewrite #1 won 1st place in our Helen Short Story Contest in October 2015.