Wallie was saddled with leather skins to hold water and he panted like a dog.
“This is a valuable service,” I told him. “And not entirely out of line with what we’re making here,” where here was the construction sand pit behind Reggie’s house. It was a microcosm of barren waste, which we had to clean moderately before filming due to workers tossing beer cans into the far corners. Reggie and Wallie began sword fighting with abandon. It was better out here than at home, where a Will-shaped hole in the stagnant air presided over family dinners, which we usually did not have anymore. Little Marie asked me, what was nubile birth?
“Noble birth,” I said. “It means you are destined for greatness.”
“It means you get Prima Noctis!” Reggie said and got whacked in the thigh with Wallie’s plastic sword.
I said, “She’s six, man.” Reggie was an only child so he didn’t get it.
Then the cops showed up and drove us away. Again. That about wrapped things up for the day, so Reggie’s mom drove us home and reprimanded me for abusing Wallie.
“He’s seventeen and of strong back,” I argued. Clearly, Camelot was getting to me.
“And-a-half,” said Wallie. Reggie delivered me the “No Go” via hand chop across the neck, so I shut up.
In Which Arthur Doth Muse Upon the Future of Camelot
In my bedroom that evening there was a knock on the door. “Do you have Melissa’s number?” Ever since Will had been impaled by a tree branch, Dad got a certain way after seven-ish.
“The babysitter? I don’t really know her.” A lie. Sort of.
He gawked to discover a eunuch wearing his son’s flesh. “It’s not on your phone?” He paced toward me and reached out.
“Dad, your breath.” Like the sanitary cabinet in a doctor’s office. I would never let him touch Melissa.
“Sorry,” he said, and saluted me awkwardly. Then he swayed out the door. I locked it and turned out the lights. Presently, inspiration came when I was in bed and I sat up under the lamp to sketch out a new shot for the movie.
Arthur commands the digging of a shallow hole for Vortigern [older brother? younger?] and looks deliberately away from Guinevere.
Wallie was making sacrifices. We all were, it was hard work. When it was done, they would see. Then we would sit together in the living room and Mom would make Pop Secret, and Dad would joke again like he used to. He would whisper to me, Poop Secret, and strain pseudo-furtively as though hovering above a toilet. The three of us, and Marie, would watch the first indication of my cinematic genius, mentioned in documentaries years down the line. The records would say, and he did it all in spite of his brother!
In Which Brave Knights Quarrel
Reggie and Wallie were arguing over delivery outside sixth period class. Wallie thought the Percival character’s lines were too cheesy. “Strike thy claim amidst the grains of mine broken heart”? he said. “No, I’m not saying that.”
“Just read the lines,” Reggie said and peeked at his script. “Retrieval of the Grail is God’s injunction and I, man of noble pursuit, find suitable the punitive rigors of heavy questing as recompense for the blooded arrow I did accidentally loose, pegging mine lady wife in the eye.”
“You sound like a fruit,” Wallie said. He didn’t like reading anything that wasn’t young-adult rubbish. He just had to do the job, play his part. Then he could return to his teen romances and “now-a-major-motion-picture” leisures.
After school, Reggie was fully clad and declaring his loyalty to me, his king. “Rise,” I said. “Through the power of inchoate Britain’s majesty, which doth impart its savory splendors unto the people, not unlike a great feast of roast boar with robust amarone…”
The weight of Reggie’s Halloween armor toppled him into the swamp beneath the boardwalk. “Good,” I said. Wallie dropped the camera and ran into the scene. “Great,” I said. I rubbed my forehead and paced around the planks. “What am I working with here?” I shook a fist at the sky, but I could barely see it through the trees. Waldorf and Reggie were struggling at the edge of the boardwalk. I was thinking about casting Marie as the Merlin character. Years from now they would say, How edgy! The great wizard as a little girl! This was the kind of irony and beauty in art that surpassed Wallie. Reggie staggered out of the muck and then dove back in to retrieve his sword, which was not a replica but a real blade from The Knightly Closet at the mall.
Wallie said, “Can we take five?” His back was hunched under strapped bags and he slapped at a mosquito on his neck.
Guinevere Sets Alight the Hearts of Men
Mom and Dad screamed at each other downstairs. It would be fine. Initially, this was a tear-jerker for me. Par for the course now. It might have been Dad’s fault about Will. And yet Will was his own man, I thought. Had been his own man. No man at all, after the DNA test from Celia’s battered cervix came through. Mom said Will had a shitty example for a father, that he had pushed him to go over there, gun-toting and all-American. But, hello? I’m also here. Who did I abuse?
Melissa, who was finished babysitting Marie, passed my bedroom on the way to grab her coat. I meant to shut my door for this reason. She was a short freckled thing with luminous greens for eyes. I knew Melissa’s face to a degree that shamed me.
“How’s the epic?” she asked.
“Okay.” I picked up the phone and held a hand to it as though I were in a call. It hurt me to deceive her.
“Is it a school project?” She leaned against the door. I was cudgeled by longing, by the runic curvature of her mysterious body, indecipherable symbol of god’s generosity.
“No.” From below, I heard a plate shatter in time with the puncture of my organs. I would have died for Melissa, died and come to life and died again, but I couldn’t give her decent conversation.
“Just funsies, huh?” She laughed. I nodded, but I didn’t smile. Then she offered her services. What I wouldn’t have given for this. I told her we didn’t need a Guinevere. She wanted to know, could she be a lady in waiting? A handmaid or an evil sorceress? Did we have a Morgana?
“We’re doing fine,” I said. “Have to take this.” What I wanted from her was the holy amalgam of savage biology girded with the infallible strains of my secret love. That was the difference between me and Will – I wasn’t going to do it.
Downstairs Mom said, “You are not driving her home again.” And she slammed the front door. Mom didn’t know that nothing had happened in the car between Dad and Melissa – I had hidden in the trunk with Dad’s gardening machete. I had to make sure. Dad wasn’t the same after Will, as though you could channel your dead son with a revitalized libido.
In Which Wounds are Licked With Poison Tongues
In the fridge was empty six-pack cardboard. I brought a carton of milk to the living room, in the dark. Mom bristled on the couch. “You weren’t at Will’s grave today.”
Straight to it then. “I was making art.”
“Your little movie. We all wondered.”
“Dad didn’t wonder.”
“He did, actually,” Mom said and clicked her electric blanket off. “Who do you think Will would have played? Which knight?”
I got sick of hearing that name, like a penny in the swear jar of my gut. You weren’t going to get rich on pennies. “I don’t know.” I really didn’t, and it aggravated me that she couldn’t read my tone, or else that she didn’t care to.
“I think he would have been a good Percival. Do you know the one where Percival leaves and breaks his mother’s heart?”
“I know it. And it’s going to be two hours long, not a little movie.”
“Percival leaves his mother and forces himself on a woman while she sleeps.”
“Okay, I don’t remember that part.”
She brushed her hair behind her ear. “Isn’t is funny how the old stories can ring so true? I guess it just runs in the family.”
“I’m not like that,” I said. On the mantle was a picture of Will with his perfect teeth and his military buzz cut.
“You’d be lucky to be like Will, young man. The tombstone was spray painted. I know it was the Flanders girl, her dad or her brothers. Do you want to know what it said?” “What did it say?”
“Well you weren’t there, so do you really want to know?”
I twisted the lid back onto the carton and left the living room.
“That little cunt was asking for it and everybody knows it,” she called after me.
Ritual of the Ensorcelled Thrall
In the basement where Will’s bedroom had been, and still was, I opened his garage-sale cabinet and pulled out his clothes. I picked out a pair of black sweats, a black button-down shirt with a collar and Will’s brown combat boots because he didn’t have any in black. I sat in the circle where I had seen Mom sitting before, inside a ring of bedside candles that she lit with his old BIC lighter. You knew when she was down here because of the incense. On the other hand, you couldn’t get Dad to set foot if you told him there was teen pussy and an open bar waiting for him at the bottom of the steps.
There was a paper cut-out of Will’s face taped onto the mirror, about where Mom’s head would be when she looked at it from inside the candle arrangement. She liked to put on his leather jacket and basketball shorts, then sit there in front of the mirror silently resurrecting his mannerisms, his frozen paper face holding court over the body of a pudgy middle-aged woman in men’s clothing.
I tried this process on for size so that I could feel like a predator, like an addict who sits before an empty medication bottle, holding it and breathing deep of the interior.
A King’s Sacrifice
Do you ever think about blood? I mean, the sheer implications of this viscous copper-smelling goop that engulfs the working pistons of our physical selves. Noble blood. Mixed blood. The idea that you should be understood through the wet kaleidoscope of your bloodline. In my innards, I feel a truth to this. What perverted fluid powers my essentials? Did Will’s affliction visit him from ancestry, like an ailing and diseased uncle who blows open your front door and compels you to palliative care? If so, did it skip me?
When I met Melissa we were blossoming middle-schoolers. Her hands were coarse, bizarrely rough for a girl of her years and in some sensuous way I couldn’t figure out. Her father was a gardener and I guess made her grope at great swaths of weeds in their yard for the preparation of his tomato plants. She let me touch her hands under the desk those years before, and when I slid the tender nerves of my virgin fingertips across her thatched palms, I was Adam in Eden, reveling in the godly design of a woman of the earth. I think of her hands, where I want them, and I pull my hair really hard – doesn’t matter where. In the street, in class, I pull it until my eyes water and all I can feel is a sharp yank in the skin of my head, to dull the heavy insistence of the darkness between my legs.
In the bathroom, ultimately, I gave in and thought about Melissa. I thought about her hair and her face, some expression she’d probably never make. In my mind she was so vulnerable. I directed her total devotion in my private film. It played out in a stream of pent-up ecstasy, had been bubbling inside me for so long. It was not a drawn-out occasion – I rent the tile floor below with spasms of quiet love, that she might never be in danger from me.
Justice Doth Smite the Wicked
“Roll camera. And get your lines, Wallie. Okay?”
Wallie cranked a middle finger like a wooden trebuchet. He didn’t work under pressure, I got it. They were watching. Family, friends of family: the Flanderses were well liked. Up on the hill, a small contingent backed by the setting sun, noble black silhouettes of the bereaved. I had seen them and switched gears, so they wouldn’t get any ideas. I wondered if they took turns calling the police, driving us into the swamp or to sand pits. And then out of the sand pits. More of Will’s legacy. They’re watching me for signs, I thought. A neighborhood patrol. I switched from the climactic sword duel to a benign scene where Bors laments his failure to protect Guinevere, left for dead in the icy chill outside the castle walls.
Wallie said, “Thou cans’t impart forgiveness on my wretched brow, but it is not to my deservedness. T’was I, Bors, who did drink much of the wine. I, who partook of the wine! Yes, yes.”
“We’re switching roles.”
“Sorry, boss. I hadn’t rehearsed this bit yet.” Wallie and I exchanged costumes while the Homeowners Association Vigilantes paced. And passed whispers.
Reggie looked more uncomfortable than usual. “They’re still here.”
“I know they’re still here.” I felt their eyes on my back, tried to absorb their viewership and grind it between my molars. I strapped on the generic knight role breastplate. “Roll it, Reggie.” Reggie rolled camera. “I who lapsed in memory of my queen’s guard, and I who abandoned duty when we did play hideth and seeketh – I who did forget to recover her when the Camelot bell panged thrice for lunch and I closed the gate behind myself.” I raised my voice so they could hear me up there on the hill. I raised it in a shrill tenor – let feeling inform the role, they say. The tenor was my angry voice.
“Do-est as thou wilt, oh king, and let me also enhance the torture I have earned. A man’s sword is his worth – but what of mine own?” I dropped my wooden blade. “Armor for the preservation of chivalry, but where can such be found in me?” I unstrapped my plate and flipped it to the ground. Reggie’s camera followed me to the live sword, the steel one, plunged into the dirt. I forgot this scene did require a bit of action. Who gave a shit whether they saw me with a real sword anyway? I yanked it upward, harder than I thought I was going to.
“See now the worth of that so heralded! That so beautified in a man, but which rots in me. See here!” The script called here for some digital editing – Bors dunks the sword into the grass between his knightly tools and it looks like he shatters them. Movie magic. I looked up and saw our audience had scooted closer, like I was the problem. Like it was me and not Will. I two-handed the sword into the equipment for real. There was a clanging sound that made them pause, but it wasn’t loud enough. I swung again.
“Uh,” Reggie said.
I swung hard, down at the props. “Look!” I called. Another swing. Wallie was edging back but I couldn’t care. Reggie left the camera at the tripod. I said, “You didst just leave her there!” Swing, thunk. “To bleed, to etiolate!” Swing, crash. The plate was coming in two. “I” swing, bang, swing, “brought ruin on my home!” Little flecks of wood and plastic leapt up, fragments of Will’s face, swing, his chest, swing, his stomach, his arms cut off at the elbows. “Mother fucker!” I hacked until we were officially minus two props, until I took a knee and listened to the spiralling that was my labored breathing now, my skin damp and hot. My audience was gone. Somehow I had walked right out of the house, I realized, in Will’s combat boots that morning. “Can I borrow this?” I asked Reggie, resting my chin on the hilt. What could he say?
In which the crown is transferred
On Will’s grave was apple-red graffiti. It had been sprayed on thick and at close range so that the letters would drip like blood in a horror title. Rapist, it said. Below it was a small cracked vase, overturned. Yellow daffodils, the kind Mom always bought. Dad’s baseball glove had been manhandled as though this was undertaken with enthusiasm, but they must have given up and settled for ripping off the leather webbing between thumb and finger. It was a pretty tough glove; Will used to chase me with it through the house chanting, Baby want a spank? With medieval weaponry in my lap I sat in front of his pig-sty tomb and glowered at it. “You ruined everything,” I said to nobody.
Drunk and angry, scared, the police figured. Will had no seatbelt on, his pants halfway down his legs and his shrunken penis flapping from the partition in his tighty-whities. My brother the rapist drove as fast as he could from Celia Flanders’ house, where she would be found by her father, bleeding from the groin in the bathtub. Mr. and Mrs. Flanders got in late after a company karaoke party. Will spun out in his little hatchback over an ice patch, providing a steep challenge to the mortician who did her best to convince us an open viewing was one of many other options.
I never looked. I didn’t want to see if it had changed him, if he had a different face now that he was an item on the news, on the phone of the passenger across you on the bus. A brief and evil spirit to haunt one sixteenth of somebody’s breakfast in front of the TV, twenty seconds of gossip over drinks, did you hear? A stamp on a sheet of paper, a posthumous discharge of dishonor. Now he was a tale in a Halloween special, a didactic fable about what not to do when your girlfriend says no, she’s been seeing somebody else, and gee I’m sorry it was so rough for you over there in the desert or the jungle, with native children firing automatic hand-me-down rifles at you from gas station windows, but here in America, love is still flourishing.
Well let’s just capture a life in one moment of trauma, fit it all in one can of craft-store-brand red paint, which by the way is too light for blood – Will would have known.
You wouldn’t watch one scene of a movie. You wouldn’t make a psych assessment of “unstable” on the basis of a single question. You wouldn’t know a guy from his last sequestered month of life, or by listening merely to his barked orders at no one from the basement where he thought nobody could hear him. I decided not to come back to the grave for a long time.
King Arthur Penderby
I knew where my audience had got off to. Mr. Jeffers from next door had Marie by the pigtails, pulling her across our lawn. Dad was after them, working a hand-chop sprint from his college track days. Mom was getting a good yardstick-jabbing by the territorial Mrs. Jeffers, who was croaking obscenities in her smart beige real estate jacket. She had been after mom since last year’s petunia encroachment incident anyway.
“Bitch!” I called from behind Reggie’s sword. Case closed, Mrs. Jeffers squawking at my two-and-a-half feet of molded steel. Mom swiped the yardstick and I ran past someone dumping the water out of Marie’s kiddie pool. Inside the house was a disaster. Seven-year-old Maddox from two houses down was fisting clumps of white stuffing from our couch. Mr. Poyle, my history teacher, was spitting on the family photos, one at a time. Mrs. Flanders had a box knife and was ripping into our cereals.
Upstairs there was a kind of yelping, an ugly bird screech, a mating call. I double-stepped it up to the landing and recognized Melissa’s voice. Of course I recognized Melissa’s voice. In my bedroom, Mr. Flanders and one of his scrawny pinched-face sons had Melissa’s shirt off. There was blood at the corner of her perfect mouth. On my bed.
Flanders looked at me from all fours, breathing over his distended man gut. “Alright,” he said, a simple black bra dangling from his red fist. “Alright, too far. Mm-hm.”
Just then I got very chivalrous (swing, glunk) and I cut into Frank Flanders’ Achilles’ heel: his hamstring rolled up the back of his leg like a window shade. He barrelled off the side of the bed with the sword locked in his leg meat and knocked over a nightstand cluttered with old Arthurian texts.
“Okay,” Flanders whispered to his leg. “Okay, this is fine. It’s gonna be fine, son.” Mom was in the doorway then with Marie behind her. She had Will’s old semi-auto with the bump stock. Her mouth hung open a little. The Flanders kid was dialing for an ambulance. Melissa sat up and put Frank in a kind of chokehold, totally silent. Only the sounds of one grieving father, rocking back and forth, his teeth in his face like his lips had just given up. Flanders Jr. noticed and took a step forward – Mom pointed the rifle at him, went “Ack!” He froze there with his mouth quivering, tears welling up.
None of us did anything except watch a teenage girl choke out a middle-aged copywriter with thin wire frames and a red-checkered shirt that could have doubled as a picnic blanket. Flanders slapped behind him, his blooded hands skated stupidly around her forehead. They passed out simultaneously. I quickly covered her with my comforter and carried her past Mom to the end of the hallway, where there was one way to Melissa, through me. “Mom, let him call the hospital.” Mom seemed unhappy about this but she lowered the gun.
I was wrong about the grave. I came back the day after (between station interviews) and scrubbed it with soap and bleach. It’s nearly back to normal. I bought a new baseball glove and set it beside some petunias from the Jeffers’ yard. They saw me pull the flowers and didn’t say anything. Melissa helped me massage the red paint out from the engraved lettering that spelled out William Penderby, beloved son, big brother, and patriot. Then she massaged my back. I hunched over the earth under which my brother lay permanently flaccid.
“Not all Penderbys are created equal,” Melissa whispered. I nodded with quick, heavy passion and a consort of electric mites buzzed up my body. I felt the wetness in my eyes and my nose. Will had one lucid moment with me after he came home from that place where nothing was okay. He told me, he was with this little brown girl, twelve, thirteen he reckoned. His squad picked her up out of the debris, gave her water, played checkers with her in an old hotel. They couldn’t talk because none of them knew the language. They were in that hotel for a long time, Will said. Everybody lost count. “Our boys were supposed to be coming, so we waited.” And they waited. And the little girl, she couldn’t have known what was coming, because she kept on trying to teach them songs, right up until the part they didn’t report to HQ. Will did not partake. Will also did not try to stop them. They had a brutal thing in their eyes, not evil, he said, but apathetic.
There was, in his increasingly foul-smelling bedroom, a silence when he divulged this. I imagined her out there, somewhere, a half-American child toddling behind her through the wreckage when she ought to have been posting selfies on Facebook and contriving rude things to say to her parents, who were probably dead. “Why are you telling me?” I finally asked.
Will said, “So you won’t be like me.”
Now I turned and faced Melissa, wiping my nose. “Sure you’re fine?” “Ugh,” she said and punched my arm.
“Flanders bled all over my script.”
Her lip curved slightly. “Your movie.” Not my little movie.
“So what do you know about Arthurian Legend?” I asked.
About the Author
I used to work the night shift at a funeral home where my job was to retrieve the recently deceased from their dwellings. I told bereaved families I was very sorry and then drove their departed loved ones, in a nondescript van, to a very spacious refrigerator. I never saw any ghosts, but I did see a lot of homeless people and raccoons in the surrounding cemetery at night. I would later discover fiction writing at the University of Washington. It was there that a handful of attentive instructors were evenly encouraging and critical of my writing, for which I am very thankful. Some others were not very even, and one professor called my writing “dog food.” I went to his house once, and he and his wife prepared some really excellent sausage that I would under very few circumstances feed to a dog. I am a husband and father searching for a career in writing, and I practice short fiction when I find the time. I have twice in my adult life been chased down the street by protective mother birds. You think you can fight a bird until it is swooping aggressively in your direction.