"Thornton" by Literary Awards Finalist, Mark Havlik

It was late January when he called. Said his mother had died. I was shocked and told him how sorry I was and if there was anything I could do for him. I had just seen her in October, during the Series, and she looked fine. He said no, I didn’t understand. It was his birth mother. I didn’t know he knew her – I mean her name and whereabouts. He never let on that he did.

“All the research I’ve done just shows his adopted parents – Edward and Sarah Shepard. There’s no public record of his natural parents. The papers were sealed by the courts when he was adopted. So you know who his real mother was … and his father?”

Yeah, I know. Maybe I’m only one of two who does, probably am, I bet.

“So who were they?”

Now listen. This you got to get right. I know how you sports writers are … twisting things around but this … this is important. You got to put it down just like I’m going to tell you. Got it?

“I will.”

Don’t shit me. I want you to write it down just like it happened or otherwise I’m going to come after you with one of my trophy bats and crack open your Ivy League head.

“Jesse, take it easy. I give you my word. I have no reason to distort anything. I told you from the start this is your story, not mine.”

All right, but just do it!

“I will, I promise. Now his parents … can you tell me about his parents? Please …”

Can’t tell you much about his father. Shep was four when his dad died. He told me he was a big guy, but gentle. A real baseball nut – White Sox fan. Bought Shep his first glove. Taught him how to throw a ball, hold a bat and swing it.

“When did he tell you this?”

On the plane. He asked me to go with him the night he called about his mother. I said sure, I’d go. I knew he wasn’t close enough to anybody else and didn’t want to be alone. But it was a big secret – didn’t want me to tell a soul. Nothing about any of it. He even made me swear to it.

“So you went to his mother’s funeral?”

That’s what I thought at first but when I met him at the airport the next morning he said no. Said his mother died a month ago. Just heard about it, and we were going to her gravesite.

“Where did you go?”

Indiana. We flew into Indianapolis, rented a car and drove north for an hour or so – outside some small town. There was a graveyard – kind of run down. Across the road from it was this old brick building.

“That’s where she was when she died,” he tells me.

“The hospital?” I ask, because that’s what it looked like to me.

“Yes. But a special kind … for the mentally ill.” I didn’t really know what to make of it so I kept my mouth shut. He thought because I didn’t say nothing, I didn’t get it. “The insane,” he says. “Do you understand, Jesse? She was crazy.”

I just nodded. He didn’t have any flowers. Didn’t cry. Just stared at that small little headstone. Rose Christensen – that’s what was written on it. I had no idea what he was thinking then. Not that I ever really had a good bead on that, not ever.

I started to shake. It was cold, not freezing cold, but a damp kind of cold that gets into your joints. The sky was gray. Everything seemed gray.

“Let’s go,” he says, “we’ve got another stop to make.” And then he asked me if I was okay. I told him I was just getting chilled a bit that’s all.

“But don’t worry about me,” I tell him. “Are you all right?”

“No.” That’s all he said. I didn’t think he was.

We drove another hour or so all through farm country, pretty remote. Didn’t talk much. I figured if he wanted to say something he would and I didn’t feel like prying. Poor bastard, I kept thinking, but he didn’t look like that sad son-of-a-bitch I thought he would. He looked … disturbed, kind of cranked up, but like it was walled inside him.

I remember we drove past a sign that read Thornton. I guess it was a little after that he made a right turn and we were on a dirt road. It ended by a dilapidated farmhouse. It was boarded up and looked like no one had lived there for years, but the land around it must have been worked – you could tell. There was a barn, too. It was in worse shape than the farmhouse. Part of the roof was caved in.

“Where are we?” I ask him.

“At the beginning,” he answers.

He was always like that … short; know what I mean, in what he said? But that day, it sounded stranger than usual.

“C’mon,” he says, “let’s go in.”

“It’s all boarded up, Shep.” I tell him. “We can’t go in.”

He got out of the car, popped the trunk, and took out the tire iron and started to pull apart the wood boards that were nailed across the front door. Sort of reminded me of the South Bronx when I was a kid – watching the junkies breaking into an abandoned building so they could shoot up. I got out, leaned against the car and looked all around, keeping watch, making sure no one was seeing what Shep was doing. But it was deserted. Nothing for miles on all sides – just crop land. I was still nervous though.

“Do you know why he wanted to go inside?”

Nope. Didn’t have a clue. But he was determined to get in. You could see that by the way he was wielding that tire iron. I told him to be careful with his pitching arm, but I don’t think he heard me with the sound of those boards creaking and splintering. Man, it sounded so loud to me. Finally, he got them off and with his foot up, he kicked the door. Wham! It flew open.

He walked in and I followed but I was still a little jumpy about going in. The place was a mess – crap all over the floor. There was no furniture, at least on the first floor, except for a broken down kitchen table. It had one leg missing, but it was standing up straight. I mean completely straight. There were no chairs; they were all gone.

“This is where I was born, where I was raised, until …” he says, and paused just like that. I was wondering if I should ask him – you know, say it, “until what?” or wait for him to finish it off himself. But he said it first. “… until I was taken away.” He was looking weird. He reminded me – and I know it sounds peculiar, but it’s what ran through my mind at the time – of an animal, prey, smelling the air, sensing something. Danger, I thought.

There was a stairway against the far wall that led upstairs and he took it. I stayed down. Walked around, kicking the debris littered all over the floor to see what was in it. Just stuff – smashed up pieces of dishes and glasses, parts of plasterboard that had fallen from the ceiling and walls. I could hear him up there. He was moving around pretty fast as if he were checking everything out. Then he ran down the stairs. “I’ll be right back,” he yells out. I thought he was going to the car to get something so I didn’t follow him.

I went over to that kitchen table. Struck me odd that it was standing up like that – with just three legs. There were some pages of newspaper on it all yellowed because they were so old. From almost fifteen years ago. Wow! This is some ancient stuff, I thought to myself. The Daily Gazette. That was the name of the paper. I never knew what that meant – Gazette. Why would you call a newspaper that? I knew about the Daily News, The Post, the one in New York and The Washington Post, and even The Times – but I never read that one when I was a kid. But Gazette – small town crap, I figured. I picked up a few of the pages to see what was in them but as soon as I did the table fell. “Shit.” Felt like I had desecrated something. Like I was in a tomb. That’s what the place felt like to me … where something dead was buried. I picked up the table but couldn’t keep it upright. It kept falling over. I must have tried three or four times but still couldn’t make it stand up.

I leaned it against the kitchen wall, but that didn’t work, either. It kept slipping down the side of it. I figured I needed some kind of wedge to put under one of the legs to prop it up. I reached into the pile of junk on the floor while I was holding the table up with my other hand and found a whole copy of the Gazette – old too, from the same time. I folded it in half and shoved it under one of the legs. That did it – the table stayed. But I saw something on the front page of the paper that grabbed me. I could see the name Christensen. I bent down to see what it said. It was a story about this family from Thornton: Rose Christensen-Slater and her husband of two years, and Rose’s son, Jimmy Christensen. I pulled out the paper, the damn table fell, and just as it did, Shep blasted in and ran up the stairs. I glanced up and could see he was holding something in his hand, but he was a blur, and that was all I could see. I read the next few lines in the paper and realized, oh, Christ, this isn’t some hick town thing about a local family and their farm … it’s a goddamn horror story!

Then I flipped the paper over to the top half, and there was a sketch. I guess they didn’t allow no photos seeing how he was a kid and all. But it was just as gruesome. Maybe more because it left something for your mind to pick at. That’s when I heard the thunder – but it wasn’t coming from outside – it was coming from the second floor. I hit the stairs and climbed up – probably took two or three steps at a clip. And there was Shep swinging away with a sledgehammer at this old, gray radiator. It was one of those coiled, steel ones like they had in the apartments on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. But this one was smaller. You could see the marks on it. They weren’t just scratches. There were grooves cut deep into it.

Shep was cursing away. “Shit, bastard, bitch!” I let him go on with it for a minute or two, figuring he had to get it out, and then I grabbed him, wrapped both arms around him. But he went limp all of a sudden, and slid right through my arms and fell to the floor, weeping. I told him it was okay – just let it out. I didn’t know what else to say. There was nothing you could say. I took the sledgehammer from him and walked back down.

I didn’t notice until I came down, but when the kitchen table fell, all the legs broke off, crumbled really, and the tabletop had split in two. Diseased, I thought. Like the whole freaking place. I picked up the paper. The caption under the sketch read, “Little Jimmy Christensen found handcuffed to his bedroom radiator.” He looked … he looked like he was starving. Christ, you could count his ribs. Could see that right wrist bone below the handcuff sticking out. He was just in his shorts. The guy who drew it even put in those patches of funny skin – the scars he had on his upper arm.

“How could something like that happen?”

How? Where did you grow up?

“Shaker Heights.”

Oooh, very nice, I’ve been there – outside of Cleveland. You were lucky – I hope you know that – nothing like that there, too refined. How could something like that happen? Shit, I grew up in the South Bronx and there was all kinds of crap going on. Because of my mother, I was never a part of it. Because of my mother, I never even saw most of it. But I heard all about it. And I’m sure some of it still goes on there. But I got to say I ain’t ever heard of anything as savage as that. Never! She used to tell us as kids, before we went out, that the Devil was all around and you had to watch out for him. That’s how she tried to scare us – warn us, I guess. I never believed it until I went into that farmhouse. Then I believed … you bet your ass I believed. The Devil was out there and he’d spent some time in Thornton.

You getting this all down kid? Getting it straight like I’m telling you?

“Yes, I got it. But I’m not sure I want it. Not this!”

This is just a story to you. To me it’s more than that. But to Shep … it was a part of his life that made him who he was. For two years his stepfather would lock him up like that – handcuffed to the radiator – usually on Friday and Saturday nights while he and Shep’s mom went out and got drunk. He was probably chained there for most of the weekend – figuring when they got back home, whenever that was, they were in a stupor and just slept it off during the day until they went out again that night.

They say he never took it. Not from the first and not until the last day when they found him. I could believe that. He had that stubbornness in him. That’s why his wrist bone was all bulged out. That’s why his right arm was longer than his left because of that jerking, that constant pulling on the radiator with that handcuff on. Then the scars – they didn’t know for sure, but figured eventually he’d tire himself out and fell asleep. And sometimes he’d lean against the radiator and when it kicked on when it got cold outside, it burned him – but not fast. It would take a while and he wouldn’t notice until the damage was done. “Slow cooking flesh,” that’s what the doctor quoted in the paper said. Imagine that, Mr. Shaker Heights?

“Actually, I can’t. And you said he was …?”

I didn’t … but I’ll tell you now. He was barely eight years old when he was rescued, if that’s what you’re wanting to know.

Anyway, I needed some air. It was foul-smelling in there, so I went outside. I felt sick; thought I was going to puke. Shep was upstairs, sobbing away, still. I just let him be. When I got out, I had the paper in my hand. I don’t know why I carried it out with me. Then I understood why. There was something I had to do. I opened the car and pushed in the cigarette lighter, and when it popped out I put it against the edge of the paper until it caught fire. I let the whole damn thing burn to ash. I didn’t want anyone finding it. But it wasn’t just that … I felt it was obscene.

“Did that make you feel better?”

On that day … nothing could me feel better.

“So what happened next?”

Shep was still upstairs. I went up and sat down next to him for a few minutes. “There’s nothing here for you,” I say to him. “Let’s go, c’mon.” He didn’t speak a word and I wasn’t even sure if he was tuned into me or not. Just had his eyes fixed on that goddamn radiator. “C’mon Shep, it’s getting late. Let’s leave this place, okay?” I was practically pleading with him, trying to get him the hell out of there. He finally got up but before he did he placed his fingers over the radiator – the part where he had scraped the paint off and cut into.

“I thought I would have sliced right through it one day,” he says to me. “I figured it would take 437 days to do it. I calculated it out.” Christ, when he said that I nearly lost it. He looked so freaking pathetic.

We walked down and I put him in the car. I drove this time. He was still somewhere else – his mind, I mean. He had spun himself all the way back to when he lived there as a kid. God knows what agony he was going through. Probably reliving the worst of it. And there was more stuff in the paper I didn’t tell you about. Bad things – really bad – that his stepfather did to him. You could look it up if you want. But I don’t want to talk about it. I still can’t say it out loud … not even now, not even after these 25 years. Just can’t.

He didn’t want to stop to eat or drink anything, although I could’ve used a few myself – drinks, I mean. Actually, I wanted to get real drunk. “Just let’s go the airport.” That’s what he wanted. In the car and on the flight back to Washington, I asked him a couple of times if he was all right, if he wanted to talk about it. He said no, almost before I finished asking him. He didn’t seem upset or offended by me asking. He was just quiet, somber. Sort of like he was grieving, I guess.

I tried, and it was pretty stupid of me I got to say, to help him through it by telling him about my father. The miserable bastard that he was leaving my mother and all of us when we were real young. Just left. Took off. Shacked up with some woman, had a kid with her, and then moved on to someone else, and did the same shit all over again. Never gave my mother one dime for support. It was like we never existed. I told him how after a while we never even saw him anymore – not on the streets in the Bronx or anywhere else. My mother found out he’d gone to someplace in the Caribbean, with another woman. And one day – when she felt it was the right time – she let us in on it. Not that it made a big freaking difference to any of us. He was a worthless piece of shit. Hell, I didn’t know if he was still living or not … not that I cared. None of us really cared. But it still hurt. That’s what I told Shep.

But I didn’t think he heard much of what I had been yammering away on. And like I said, it was kind of dumb of me trying to compare my life as a kid to the hell he had gone through. Just before we landed he turned to me, and said something, stunned me, to be honest.

“At least you had a mother who loved you.”

He sounded, I don’t know, more than sorrowful about that. And I thought at the time, just looking at him when he said it, that you can get screwed in a lot of different ways, go on without a lot of things in your life but that – not having what he said I had – wasn’t one of ‘em. I really didn’t have anything good to come back to him with when I saw how he felt when he said it, so I just kept my trap shut since he was right about that.

I had my car at the airport and I drove him to his place in Georgetown. I asked him if he needed anything – now, later, or whenever. All he had to do was call.

He just nodded and then he says to me, just so I wouldn’t forget, “between the two of us, right?” I didn’t forget, wouldn’t forget, and I told him so.

After I dropped him off, while I was driving home, it suddenly came to me how strange after all the talking I did on the plane about my father, he comes out with that knock against his mother. Geez, I guess that’s why I was so surprised by it. I thought he’d at least rail against his stepfather who I thought was the heavy in all this. Maybe not, though. Maybe he blamed it all on her – I mean – marrying that kind of guy and letting him into their home. But shit, I couldn’t see his father, his real father getting involved with someone so bad like he said his mother was. I know he didn’t go on about his father much, but still … I had a hard time making sense out of that one. Christ, she must have loved him once. It was probably her husband dying like that, sudden, and being left alone with a kid. Maybe that’s what corkscrewed her? Had to be. But then again, maybe she was always rotten, and that’s what he really meant. There were people like that out there in the world my mother would always say. Man, she’d spout that out often enough like she was preaching to us. But this time … I just didn’t know. Still, it was odd he never said nothing about his stepfather and I gave him all kinds of chances on the plane to say something about that son-of-a-bitch. But not one word came out of him.

I talked to him a few times before we went down to Florida for Spring Training. He seemed okay – like himself, I mean. Didn’t bring any of it up, and I sure as hell didn’t, either. I have to admit I thought about it … maybe too much. Made me angry, real mad – but worse than that the whole thing turned me upside down. Knowing something like that could happen, did happen to someone I knew. It was enough, I swear to Christ, to make you lose your faith.

“I could see that it might. But you know … bad things happen to good people. That’s an old truth. There’s no explanation for it. Even Shep would’ve told you that, Jesse. He knew it from what you said he read all the time … those philosophy books.”

Yeah, maybe. But I don’t think he accepted it. Knowing is one thing, kid. Believing is a whole different game.

Anyway, we never talked about it. He never even hinted about it – the trip, and all that happened while I was with him in Thornton. When Spring Training started, when the pitchers and catchers showed up first in Ft. Lauderdale like we always did, Shep was there and he was just as sharp as he was last season – probably even a little better if that was possible. He was ready to pitch … aching to pitch if you asked me.

Mark Havlik’s been writing full time for several years after leaving his job as a banker. He has completed three novels. His second novel, The Tools of Ignorance, was a finalist in the 2007 Parthenon Prize for Fiction, (ranking within the top 18 of 355 entries,) and a semifinalist in the 2005 William Faulkner – William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition for the Novel. He has also written a few short stories and two screenplays. The Wall was selected as a finalist in the 2007 Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Awards. Masquerade was a first round qualifier in the 2007 Filmmakers International Screenwriting Awards competition.

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