This is a western story of three fathers and their entwined relationships with their sons.
Alan Chin's Website
While back in the West to attend his grandmother’s funeral, Cord Bridger uncovers two shocking revelations: his grandmother had a lesbian lover named Juanita, and he has a teenaged son named Kalin. Fate brings all three together, but to preserve his new family, Cord must leave his safe life in New York City behind to carve a living from the harsh ranch lands of Nevada.
To forge a life with Juanita and Kalin, Cord must first discover the dark secret burning a hole in Kalin’s heart. With the help of Tomeo, a handsome Japanese veterinarian, Cord travels a gut-wrenching road of triumphs and tragedies to insure his son will survive the sinister violence of his past. But as Tomeo becomes more than just a helpful friend to Cord, a new set of problems arise between Cord and Kalin that may threaten the happiness of them all.
Jem sat on the edge of his bed wearing only his jockey shorts. He scrutinized Kalin, his older brother, who stood naked before a mirror hanging on the door, teasing his hair into spikes with a can of hairspray. The door, like everything in the mobile home, was made of aluminum and particleboard covered with a plastic veneer made to look like wood.
The window in their bedroom faced east and looked out onto the crooked rows of dusty trailers and a sprinkling of cactus in the OK Corral trailer park. The Nevada desert sun streamed through the red curtains, staining Jem’s jockey shorts a dried-blood color.
The cool thing about living in this choky trailer, Jem thought, was that he slept in the same bed with Kalin. Since moving here three weeks ago, he woke every morning to the feel of warm breath curling on the back of his neck and silky skin cocooning the length of his body. He would snuggle into his brother until Kalin woke and went to pee. That one advantage made coming here the best thing that had ever happened to him, and worth everything that came before.
When they’d lived in LA with Jack, who was Jem’s father but not Kalin’s, they’d had bunk beds. Jem slept on the top bunk, but on the nights his mother worked the late shift, Kalin made him sleep on the floor under his brother’s bed. Jem thought about those steamy nights he lay pressed to the floorboards, when the door would creak open and his father’s voice would cut through the darkness. He shut off the thought as a gust of wind rocked the trailer, hissing through tiny gaps in the aluminum window frame.
Jem studied his brother’s body, checking for any new changes that might have developed since yesterday. Amazingly enough, it did seem to alter day by day, sprouting taller while the outlines of his muscles became more defined. He had that pinched look, especially around the forehead, of a boy who had grown a great deal in a short time.
Kalin looked nothing like Jem or their mother. Lean as a broom handle, he had piercing blue eyes and hair so black it shone blue, like a raven’s wing in strong sunlight. Both Jem’s and their mother’s faces were soft and oval, with hair and eyes the color of the Jack Daniels she kept in the cupboard.
Jem winced as he zeroed in on the welts laid across his brother’s back, butt, and thighs. That was the worst part about moving here: Mr. Rickard, the school principal, had whipped his brother twice. Schools here had a different way of dealing with troublemakers, and although Kalin denied any wrongdoing, he had somehow gotten on the mean side of Mr. Rickard, as if Rickard had hated him even before they’d met.
The sparse patch of hair above Kalin’s penis seemed thicker than a week ago, as did the hair in his armpits. Jem’s mother had long ago told him that dirt particles got under the skin and became hair follicles, so when he was in the tub he needed to scrub everywhere or else he’d end up looking like his father, whose body resembled a gorilla. Kalin showered daily, but he obviously missed those three areas. It’s the shower. That never happened in LA when we took baths.
That was the other bad thing: this crummy trailer was too small to have a bathtub. He missed the fun of them bathing together.
Sounds sifted through the wall separating their bedroom from the bathroom—water splashed in the sink, the cabinet door squeaked, the whir of the hairdryer. He knew his mother would soon be ready.
Over those sounds, he heard a dog bark from three trailers away, the yappy one with camel-colored hair and a pug nose. Jem wished for the millionth time his mother would let him have a puppy, a Chocolate Labrador, maybe, or an Airedale. Something to keep him company while she worked and Kalin attended school. Her latest excuse was he would start kindergarten in the fall, after a one-year delay, and who would care for the dog while he was in class?
Jem eyed the welts on his brother’s butt again and hoped he could somehow avoid school altogether. His act had so far convinced his mother to keep him home. But now that he had turned seven the county authorities insisted he attend school, act or no act.
He tried not to stare, but his brother was eight years older, and Kalin had the added prestige of having played Little League. At least he did before they moved here.
Another sound floated across the mile of desert separating them from the highway—the throaty roar of eighteen-wheelers. They never seemed to stop in this town, the trucks or the cars, not for gas or a burger or any other damned thing. No one gave a lick about this dusty, nothing town.
Kalin caught him watching. They stared eye to eye via the reflection in the mirror. Kalin hesitated, offered a wan smile. A heartbeat later came the moment when Kalin could no longer look him in the eye. Kalin stepped to the dresser and slid open a drawer.
A bleached cow skull they had found by the highway stood on the dresser. Kalin had his stash of cigarettes hidden inside the skull. He had been smoking for three years, pilfering his mother’s Pall Malls at the rate of two or three per day. Above the skull, tacked to the wall beside Kalin’s Che Guevara poster, were five hawk feathers fanning out in a circle.
Kalin stepped into a pair of jockey shorts and tugged a T-shirt over his narrow shoulders. He tossed a white T-shirt to Jem.
Using grunts, squeaks, hand signs, and facial expressions—the language he and Kalin had created in LA—Jem told his brother he wanted the Luke Skywalker T-shirt.
Kalin tossed it to him. “Use real words when it’s only you and me, little brother. Save your act for the grownups.”
“Real words ain’t as much fun.”
“And don’t pick your nose.”
“But it’s clogged up.”
“Here’s a handkerchief, blow,” Kalin said.
“I don’t want no damned nosepick for a brother.”
“Well, I don’t want no bedwet for a brother.”
“Shut up,” Kalin said. “I’ve only done it once since we came here.” Kalin shoved Jem, the way boys roughhouse.
“I don’t mind,” Jem said while fighting back as best he could.
Kalin held his handkerchief under Jem’s nose for him to blow, then ran his fingers through Jem’s hair and rubbed.
The bathroom door creaked. Their mother’s voice filtered through the particleboard, telling them to hurry.
Jem heard the excited tones in her voice and her quick steps to the kitchen. She was all wound up, the way she got around any new man. He knew she expected Kalin’s father to attend the funeral.
“You think she’ll wear her red dress that shows off her titties?” Jem asked.
“No, little brother. Everybody wears black to a funeral.”
“To show how sad you feel.”
“I’m not sad. She was mean!”
“I know, little brother. But because she was my great-grandma, I gotta look all torn up, even if she didn’t like us. So we wear our Sunday clothes and act real sad.”
That’s good, Jem thought. If she can’t show off her titties then maybe we’re safe. No titties means no man coming to live with us. We can stay in this choky shoebox with its flimsy walls and fake wood, buried in this dusty, nothing town. Safe. If only I had a puppy.
Kalin pulled their white dress shirts and gray corduroy suits from the closet and laid them on the bed, then the white socks and sneakers from the chest of drawers.
“So what will she wear?”
“Her dark gray dress that shows off her butt.”
They both snickered as they dressed.
“Is your daddy gonna be there?” Jem said.
“Who knows. I don’t care either way.”
“You don’t want to see him?”
“No, little brother. He’s just another dickwad who didn’t stick around.”
“Tomeo ain’t no dickwad,” Jem mumbled. “I want him to marry Mama so he’ll be our daddy.”
“You’re so clueless. Tomeo isn’t the kind of man who marries women.”
“Because he’s too nice?”
“No, little brother. Because he likes dick.”
“Like I said, clueless.”
Jem only remembered living with his father at the apartment in East LA, but he knew that before he was born, his mother and Kalin lived in another trailer with Tony (the construction worker who put her in the hospital four times), and before that was Luke (who weighed over three hundred pounds because he drank two six packs of beer every night), and before that was Bob (who was now in jail for writing bad checks). There were others before them, but Kalin never talked about them because he was too young to know much. Kalin told him once that their mother was like a puppy who followed any swinging dick that strolled by.
“You think he’ll come live with us?” Jem couldn’t keep the fear out of his voice.
Kalin sat on the bed, slid his arm across Jem’s shoulder, and pulled him close.
“Don’t worry, little brother,” he whispered. “I’ll protect you. If he treats us bad, I’ll wait until he falls asleep and beat the piss out of him with my baseball bat.”
Kalin nodded, saying to hurry and dress. The tone in his voice made Jem think he was fibbing about not wanting to see his father, but he liked the idea of Kalin protecting him with his bat. If Southern California’s Little League had kept records, Jem had no doubt that Kalin would hold the all-time title for strikeouts. That was because Kalin swung the bat as hard and fast as he could at every ball.
Jem shimmied into his Star Wars T-shirt, reached up and ran the flat of his hand over the Luke Skywalker picture. The fabric’s coolness felt good, and Luke made him feel powerful. He often dreamed of running away to find new friends who’d teach him the Jedi way. Then he could battle his corrupt father and the evil empire. Kalin could be his R2D2. Yes, he knew that within his chest beat the heart of a Jedi. It was his most closely held secret. But he also knew Kalin wouldn’t go with him. Too old for Star Wars, Kalin was into Che Guevara and envisioned himself riding a motorcycle cross-country, overthrowing governments and being a hero. Every since Kalin had seen The Motorcycle Diaries, he had dreamed of being Che with the same fervor with which Jem longed to be Luke.
Jem slid into his dress shirt and buttoned it up. It smelled like the thrift shop they’d bought it in, mothballs and mildew. The corduroy pants and jacket had the same faint odor, but he liked the way the fabric felt against his palm.
Kalin laced up Jem’s sneakers, though Jem knew how to do it himself, and ran a comb through his hair, parting the long strands on one side to sweep across his forehead.
“Kalin, Jem,” their mother called.
Jem glanced in the mirror before opening the door. But rather than checking the way he looked, he sneaked a peek at Kalin, who looked defiant in his thrift store suit and clip-on tie. But what Jem zeroed in on was the unmistakable excitement in those blue eyes. He scanned the room in the glass, their cozy fake-wood hideaway, then summoned up his resolve, as if he were about to plunge into icy water. He opened the door and hurried down the narrow hallway.
Jem loved his mother, but he didn’t trust her. He trusted no one but Kalin. No, perhaps Tomeo, too, although I don’t know Tomeo very well yet. He could be cheerful with his mother, but he would assume his usual manner, his act.
His mother sat at the table while she sipped at a cup of instant coffee and smoked a cigarette. “Good morning, little man. Don’t you look grown-up in your suit and tie. You both do. I’m so proud of you.” She drew on her cigarette and blew smoke toward the open doorway.
The room was stuffy with smoke. Jem noticed the spicy odor of marijuana lingering in the air. He also saw the shine in his mother’s eyes. It was okay, he thought, she only smoked when things got too nervous. Like the whiskey in the cupboard, she only took a little at a time to smooth things out. At least he’d never seen her in a sloppy condition.
As Kalin had predicted, she wore her dark gray dress that showed off her fanny. It also showed the bulge in her belly, and her long sleeves hid the needle marks on her forearms. Her hands and wrists showed, thin and elegant, with long tapered fingers and glossy nails. Her hair was pulled back and tied in a ponytail, accentuating her thin face, so thin she looked like Tomeo. In fact, if she had his slanted eyes, they could be brother and sister.
Her makeup was no heavier than usual, enough to hide the yellow bruises under her left eye that his father, Jack, had laid on her the night they left LA, and her smile seemed genuine for the first time since moving here. Jem had always thought she looked prettiest when she wore jeans, her pink polo shirt, and no makeup. Then she looked like a young mother. Her made-up look was not so nice.
She wore her good necklace and rings, not the phony Indian jewelry she made to sell to the tourist shops in Reno.
“Hurry and eat, boys. Tomeo will be here any minute.”
The refrigerator hummed. A fly thumped at the windowpane over the sink. The ash on her Pall Mall was about to fall, and Jem couldn’t keep from staring, waiting to see it break off and fall on the table, or the floor, or her lap. She never flicked her ashes into an ashtray; she let it burn down to the point it fell on its own. Then she would brush the smudge onto the floor from whatever surface it landed on.
Jem filled his bowl with cornflakes, scooped three spoonfuls of sugar onto the flakes, and then poured enough milk to cover it all. He dug in while Kalin filled his own bowl. Kalin didn’t use sugar or milk; he ate the flakes dry and then washed them down with a glass of milk.
“Now I want you boys to make me proud today,” she said. She ran her hand through Jem’s hair, and her smile widened. “No fighting and no tantrums. You hear me?”
They ignored her.
“Kalin, I want you to keep Jem under control. People don’t understand that he’s autistic, so don’t let him act up.”
“Ma,” Kalin said. “I keep telling you, he ain’t autistic. He just don’t trust people.”
“That’s ridiculous. Why wouldn’t he trust me? I’m his mother, for God sake. So you keep an eye on him.” She shook a finger at Kalin. “And if your daddy is there, you be respectful.”
Through the open doorway Jem heard the crunch of tires stopping on gravel.
“You promise me?” she said.
“Jem,” she said. “I can see Luke Skywalker through your dress shirt. Go and change, sweetheart.”
He ignored her.
“Tell you what. If you change your T-shirt, I’ll ask Tomeo to stop and get a pizza after the service, and we can rent a video.”
He ignored her, still. He could feel her stiffen as she reached for the ashtray and stubbed out her Pall Mall. He expected her to yell or slam her fist on the tabletop. Because she was pregnant, Tomeo had explained, she was allowed these flare-ups. Both boys had to allow her, for now, to grow furious over nothing. It was a woman thing, he said.
To Jem’s surprise, she reached over and picked up a dry wishbone sitting on the counter, one from the KFC dinner they ate two nights ago. She held it out so that both boys could pinch a side, and told them to make a wish.
Jem closed his eyes and wished that they would make Tomeo their father and live in his apartment overlooking Main Street. He felt pressure on the bone. He opened his eyes and pulled. The bone bent and bent, then snapped, with Jem holding the larger piece. He cocked his head toward the open doorway and smiled while he waited to see Tomeo’s face.
His mother asked what he wished for as she lit another Pall Mall.
Using their secret language, he told Kalin he wished Tomeo would be their father. Kalin nodded in such a way that Jem knew he had wished for the same thing.
Kalin reached over and ruffled his hair.
“A puppy,” Kalin said. “He wished for a puppy."