Show of Force
Franz pulled onto Route 29, gestured to the empty road ahead. “See? We’ll be fine without your mother.” He scrutinized his son’s profile, the outline of that new Adam’s apple. Franz’s secret didn’t make his hands shake the way he almost wished.
Route 29 sliced through Virginia forest, trees cordoned by guard rails. Franz pointed at a bullet hole in the Welcome to Smoky Ordinary sign. “Check it out.” His foot eased off the gas. They’d only lived in this town for nine months, and people who shot at signs still baffled him, as did the statuettes of crying Indians at Big Pat’s Granite Ranch and the deer that milled in their yard, south of town, like it was a petting zoo.
He swerved over, hopped out onto glass and bottle caps. He plucked shell casings from the gravel, the way he’d been doing lately. His wife needed something, maybe a hobby. She could make shit out of these exploded bullets. Jewelry or whatever.
Rory leaned his head out the window. “Come on, Clutch. Stick to the mission.” Clutch was military slang for a transport driver. Franz knew this because Firestorm3, a game about warfare in a fictional Middle Eastern town, had been the screaming and exploding soundtrack of their lives for years. Today was the championship of the Firestorm3 video game tournament, and Rory was at the top of the leader board. Or actually, Rory’s alter ego, RekonDog, was at the top.
Franz glanced at his watch. His wife always allowed too much time for the suburban outposts further north, where the road widened to four lanes, the foliage cracked open to sky and quickie marts, and DC traffic slowed to a crawl. She’d become cautious in ways he didn’t recognize. Maybe she’d infected Rory with it. Franz got back in the car. “Is that your signature cause, Miss America? Punctuality?”
“Listen, new guy.” Rory pressed a finger to his lips. “Strictly tango uniform during the transport.” Tango uniform meant tits up which meant dead—which meant no talking. Rory, who was fourteen, returned to the text message he was composing, probably to his coach, HotCross, a 21-year-old guru out west someplace. Recently, RekonDog had become something like a semiprofessional athlete in the Firestorm3 world—with sponsors, a coach, and a group of skinny, long-limbed teen fans enthralled by Rory’s bad-boy tendency to throw equipment and mouth off at officials.
Franz had insisted on driving him to this last day of the competition, in spite of both his wife and his son’s protests. Babette had even left him a note, scrawled on a paper plate that said: This will be a big day for RD. He needs someone who knows where to park and which gear to hand him during play. No offense, but do you even know what a game card looks like? Underneath his wife’s scrawl, Rory had written Word! in black marker and underlined it three times. He loved them, but they could go fuck themselves.
He decelerated by another ten miles an hour, glancing at Rory, who didn’t look up from his phone. “Real mature,” the boy muttered.
He did want to needle Rory, but he also wanted to stretch out the journey. He hadn’t worked up to his big announcement. Franz had already signed a contract for a job in Texas, and he had done it without any discussion with either of them. Maybe it would be the right kind of jolt. Like that machine with the paddles that brought people back to life.
Babette took the boy to tournaments in Dallas every month. This move would put them closer to the action. Franz would be the guy who fulfilled his son’s dreams, the guy who paid better attention than they gave him credit for. Maybe a few months would find the three of them in a Dallas art cinema at some old kung fu movie, himself in the middle holding the popcorn, all of them happily eating out of the tub.
Rory began some strange breathing exercises, a series of sharp gasps, and he seemed to study Smoky Ordinary as it passed—the Dairy Queen where Babette ate nonfat ice cream even though she’d lost so much weight, and the big stone Lutheran church that had been here since 1841 and which, as atheists, they would never attend.
They’d moved out here after Babette lost her longtime job as a bicycle messenger in DC; she’d been attacked by two men in broad daylight. After they wrestled her to the ground, one man held her down while the second one grabbed her belongings, including the client’s package, and rode away on her expensive bicycle. What had haunted her, what made it impossible to go back, she whispered to him once after waking from one of her predawn nightmares, wasn’t the men who’d robbed her, who were just desperate and poor; rather, it was the blank stares of the suit-wearing assholes who hadn’t stopped to help.
Nowadays when he got home, at around eight or nine, he found Babette and Rory in the living room, his son playing Firestorm3 and shouting obscenities, his wife watching from behind the couch, cheering his sniper shots, ducking as if bullets might whiz from the giant screen. From the back, their blond heads made them twins. Franz snuck through the living room and hurried upstairs, where he took a shower and masturbated and then read a book. He hated the way they looked at him if he dared to initiate, say, a conversation while Rory played that goddamn game. But it didn’t mean he was a misanthrope, as Babette liked to claim.
Today the two of them would finally get that. Fluffy clouds drifted in the June sky above the treetops. The sun warmed the beige interior of the car, and the tires created a hum. When they heard the news, would they carry him around the living room on their shoulders, like a sports hero?
“That weird face you’re making is distracting. I’m trying to get my Zen on,” Rory said. He still gazed out the window. The boy had heightened senses, could see Franz even when he wasn’t looking. “Mom was right,” Rory said. “If I take your ignorance of my process personally, I’ll only hurt myself.”
“Your process?” Franz laughed. She said that? He reached over like he might pick Rory’s nose, but Rory shrank from his hand like a martial arts expert. Those reflexes—the kid never missed a trick. Rory was famous for combat techniques like “show of force” which involved dropping harmless flares to lure the enemy, and then annihilating him before he knew what happened.
“You’re still doing it,” Rory said. “Stop.”
“This is just my face,” said Franz. His neck flushed warm.
“If I’m not mistaken, you’re still talking.”
“How are you feeling about the competition today?” A cloud had drifted over the sun, and the wall of trees on either side cast a dark, almost wet shadow over the car. He didn’t have to squint at his son, whose body filled the passenger seat the way an adult’s would. That was new.
Rory scooted up straight. Franz could only glance at him in snapshots, because of the way the road twisted through the forest now. Rory studied the bend ahead with wild eyes. “It’s about stats. Not feelings,” he said. “The stats show I’ll kick everyone’s ass in this Podunk contest and then go to nationals to kick ass in Dallas. Yet again.” Rory wasn’t exaggerating about his odds. His college fund was nearly as big as Franz’s retirement portfolio.
But feelings didn’t factor? Rory kept getting suspended from school. He was the kind of boy who was always going to lose his shit when his friends made remarks about Babette, with her low-cut fishnet tops and the opium flower tattoo on top of her breast. She was the same petite blonde she’d been in high school—the one who’d hitchhiked to the punk rock show where Franz had met her. Not the first girl with whom he’d smoked weed in the alley behind the club. Not the first with whom he’d had sex in his parked car. But the only one who’d made him laugh, who seemed to find it fun, rather than like she was proving something to someone who wasn’t even there.
“And then what?” said Franz. “Let’s say you win all of the money and whatnot. What happens next?” He waited for Rory to say something about Dallas, about how tired he was of airplanes, maybe even how awesome it would be to live there.
“I’m the champion of the whole country. I’ve got an ATV and ten grand and, as of next year, a learner’s permit.” He leaned forward, making sharp, angry gestures with his hands. “What happens is I go to Korea for the World Cyber Games. Mom’s talking homeschooling! She says we’re moving to Vegas!” He laughed and put his hand up for a high five. “I’m going to be the Tony Hawk of Firestorm3.”
The 1980s Tony Hawk reference, he knew, had been for his benefit. And some distant part of him, in a windy backwater of his brain, knew the high five was a monumental gesture from Rory. But he was too stunned to return it. Korea? Vegas? Homeschooling? Why hadn’t Babette mentioned any of this? He touched his forehead, cold from the air conditioner.
Franz turned toward Rory, started to speak, and then hesitated. “But I thought everything happens in Dallas?”
Rory sighed, put his hand down. “Please. The international action is in Vegas.”
Franz could feel the color drain from his face. He relived the spectacular way he’d quit his job last week. His firm was defending a pharmaceuticals giant called Pro-Concepts, which had used a toxic ingredient in pediatric epilepsy medication. Franz’s job for the past year consisted of combing through emails until late at night. In a meeting, amped on energy drinks, he heard himself say to his firm’s partners, “We might win this case?” He pointed at the suits from Pro-Concepts, guys wearing Armani and big watches. “You people butt-fucked a bunch of kids.” He already had a new job, so what the hell.
A few people—mostly fellow low-ranking lawyers—congratulated him later, while he packed his things, as if he were a vigilante. But he’d made plenty of money working this shitty case. And a lot of other shitty cases. If anyone was a dick, it was Franz. At least these other guys believe in what they were doing.
Still, maybe he’d been hasty. The papers he’d signed with the firm in Texas made his chest contort. If there was one thing you didn’t want to do with a bunch of lawyers, it was break a contract.
Franz’s accelerator foot pressed heavy, numb. They’d reached the spot where the road widened, but hadn’t caught up to the suburban traffic. The engine whined. Rory folded his arms across his chest. “What now, Francis,” he said.
The boy had taken to using “Francis,” which was Franz’s given name, instead of “Dad.” He could have at least used “Franz,” the name that friends had christened him in high school. The guys in his band decided that “Franz” was a tougher name than “Francis,” maybe because it was German—something appropriate for a big, broad-chested punk rock guitarist, a guy getting straight A’s on a dare, a guy who the principal called to the cafeteria a few times to settle disputes like a bouncer.
Maybe Rory’s insistence on “Francis” was retaliation for the fact that Franz still called him Rory instead of RekonDog or RD.
Franz took a deep breath. Surely Dallas was more relevant to Rory than DC?
A moving company had to be contracted by next week if they were going to make it down there when the job started. The new firm did represent corporate clients. He still wasn’t a public defender like he’s always said he’d be, sticking up for the poor. But on the other hand, Franz would be an associate and not just some research monkey. He’d be able to afford for Babette to stay home and for Rory to go to college.
Rory wouldn’t find these details compelling, but maybe he’d find them reasonable. “RD,” he said. He wasn’t sure how to introduce the topic. “Sometimes your mother and I make choices—I mean, we do things and they affect your life.”
“Mom already told me that boring story about how you met, if that’s what you’re about to tell me,” he said, cutting Franz off in a flat monotone. “The Razor Club.” He rolled his eyes and used finger quotes.
Franz stopped short. “When did you find out about that?”
How much had she told him? A fluttering sensation grew in his chest. Was there a chance that she still thought about that night, about the way they’d thrust against the back window of his VW, the way he’d broken up a fight later and she’d slipped him her number? He experienced a slight tingling in his crotch like he might get an erection. Jesus. He wished he could be the person he’d been back then, the person you wanted behind you if there was trouble, instead of the irrelevant man who combed through emails in an office while his wife was robbed.
“Are you crying?” Rory said now, his nose wrinkled in that same disgusted way as when Franz tried to get him to use Febreze in his room. Babette never went in there because she said it was Rory’s “personal space,” and as a result, the room reeked like old cheese.
Rory laughed into his hand. “Good thing you don’t still wear eyeliner.”
“Eyeliner was a countercultural statement.” Franz wiped his face. There was no one crying in this car. He glanced over at Rory, who studied him as if his entrails were spilling out over the belt of his pants.
God, he was tired of that look. “I was just thinking,” he said. “The night I met your mother a band called R.I.P. played a song called ‘I Fucked Your Mother.’” He felt the hot urge to reach for Rory’s throat. Instead he said, smiling, “And it’s true. I did fuck your mother.” He laughed.
They stared at each other for a moment, and Franz regretted what he’d said, not least because it wasn’t how he felt about that night. The trees had begun to fall away to wide gravel shoulders and strip malls. They passed a chainsaw sculpture of a bear outside a Shell station.
“Listen—” he started to say. But he didn’t get the chance to finish.
Despite the impossibility of the angle, somehow Rory managed to lurch across from the passenger seat and punch Franz. Hard. Franz’s head hit the driver’s side window. He lost control of the car and swerved across the double yellow line for a moment, cars honking and driving onto the shoulder.
After he regained control and got back into his lane, Franz pulled to the side. “Get out of the car.” He barely knew what he was saying.
The boy stared straight ahead for a moment, not moving. “Get out!” Franz shouted.
Rory opened the car door, let it swing wide. He got out, one slow, deliberate foot at a time. Afterward, he turned and pulled his cell phone from his front pocket, wiggling it for Franz to see—as if he were the parent, as if he were the one teaching Franz a hard lesson. “I have one of these,” he said. Then he gestured to Route 29, straight and wide to the horizon, a litter of auto body shops and dry cleaners and fried chicken. “And I’m on a mobility corridor.” It was military lingo for “a well-traveled road.” Franz could see in the boy’s eyes something he could not quite place, something he hoped was fear. As soon as the door slammed shut, Franz pressed the accelerator to the floor, trying to spray Rory with gravel, though the Nissan engine wasn’t powerful enough for that.
He turned around and Rory gave him the finger as he passed. He drove south on the highway, refusing to allow himself to check on the lanky boy in the rearview mirror. Hadn’t there been a time when they used to draw pictures together, the boy’s wrists so impossibly tiny, his cloud of blond hair so like his own in childhood photos? He drove for five miles, back through Smoky Ordinary.
When they had moved here nine months ago, Rory had been all bony knees and elbows. He still looked enough like that child he’d once been that they could convince themselves they were getting their suburban house and yard for him—they weren’t fleeing the city or what happened. They just wanted to live in a big old house, something with character.
Soon, he drove out the other side of the town and found himself in pristine Virginia second-growth forest. He passed their street. When he got to the Battlefield Days Inn, he swerved into the lot. It was an old salmon-colored place, with external walkways on all three floors. He booked himself into a room, even though it was only three in the afternoon.
He gathered ice from the machine down the hall, and then he went back to the room and shoveled handfuls of it into one of his socks. He lay on the bed, sock pressed to his jaw. All those fights had taught Rory how to punch, that was one thing he could say.
He had left his son. He picked up the phone as if he might call the police. But he ordered a pizza instead, and when it came, he paid a skinny, bearded guy with a sweaty ball of rumpled bills. Then he turned the air conditioning all the way up and ate the pizza wearing just his underpants and the other sock. He moved his sore jaw side to side as he chewed.
When he answered his phone, there was a long silence. “Where are you?” she finally said. Babette’s voice was small and sweet, just like when she wanted to talk him into buying Rory a new Xbox or enrolling him in private school. He wished that he could flip a switch and ignite the passion they used to have, like a gas burner on the GE Deluxe she’d made him replace with that stupid Viking cooktop that they never even used. They’d once stayed in bed for an entire holiday weekend—they’d both lost weight from having sex and not eating.
“I’m at the Battlefield Days Inn on 29.”
“I want you to put on something sexy and come out here.”
“Dylan’s mom picked him up on the shoulder of the highway,” she said. “What the hell happened?” Dylan was another gamer who lived out this way. Rory was okay. Thank God. But then also, shit. Rory probably didn’t wait five minutes for a lift, probably hadn’t given Franz another thought.
“See you soon,” he said. “Oh, and bring me some socks.” He hung up.
When she arrived, he recognized her particularly loud knock. He let her in, and he took the ball of socks in her hand and threw it over his shoulder.
“Jesus!” she said, when she saw that he was in his underwear.
He reached forward and ripped open her jacket—or no actually, Rory’s jacket. The camouflage one with all the pockets.
“Franz!” she said. She wore a ratty T-shirt and no makeup, and it sure didn’t look like those were the outlines of a bustier beneath the cotton. “You left our son.” Her brow furrowed and she reached out a hand to his cheek. “This is all red.” She paused. “I thought he was kidding when he told me he’d hit you.”
“It’s red from the ice,” he said, which wasn’t true. He gestured to her clothes. “I mean, the jacket’s an interesting touch. But this is it? This is sexy?”
Her face went from concerned to hurt and back to mad in just a few seconds. “Since when do you care about sex? What could be a bigger waste of money than lingerie?” Her eyes glistened with what he thought could be tears, and she wiped her face with the back of her hand. Did Franz want her to cry?
He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. What he could not stop re-living was that night he picked her up at the police station, after the robbery—the bright red scrape on her forehead that he could see from across the lobby. He’d rushed toward her, arms open, and she had not placed a hand on his chest and said, “I’m good” or “Save it for an episode of The Waltons.” Instead she’d pressed her bruised face there in the crook of his armpit and hadn’t cried or said a word. He’d felt the hot, jagged rhythm of her breath. Maybe if she had cried instead, it wouldn’t have been the most terrifying moment of his life.
“Well, why did you even bother with this?” he said now, indicating her outfit.
“I was in a hurry, dickhead. I thought maybe you were out here trying to kill yourself.”
He wasn’t sure exactly why he was frustrated with her—maybe for reacting to him like he was another child to care for, one that she liked a little less than Rory. It hadn’t occurred to him she might mistake his agitation for something so dark, so certain. These days his emotional register had shrunk to the point that he envied weeping, scandalized politicians on the news.
Franz took a few steps backward, thinking about what she’d said. “Like Keith Bear,” he muttered, sitting on the bed, head in his hands. Keith Bear had been a skinny kid with impossibly tall, teased scarlet hair, a runaway from the Midwest somewhere, and everyone knew him. He’d shot himself in a pay-by-the-hour motel room in 1986.
“Well, what am I supposed to think? The way you’ve been acting lately.”
He patted the bedspread next to him. But she grimaced, continued to pace.
“Rory said you wanted to move,” he told her. “To Vegas.”
“Don’t tell me you believe all of RD’s bullshit.” She stopped and turned. “The only way I’m leaving our new house,” she said, “is feet-first.”
They fell silent then, Franz staring straight ahead at the dusty television and the mini-fridge with the combination lock on it. If he didn’t look at the couple in the mirror, or if he squinted at her tiny outline, it was easy to believe they were sixteen, that no time had passed. Way back when, this would have been a dream come true—to have her alone in a hotel room. In his underwear.
He studied her, the straightness of her freckled nose. Jesus, who was he kidding? This was still a dream come true. An army of adolescent boys would have killed to be here with her. Wasn’t the problem just that he understood now, in a way he hadn’t at sixteen, the complexity, the danger of the human beings inside these bodies? Didn’t sex provide glimpses, albeit flickering ones in a woman’s gaze, of the needs you couldn’t satisfy, of the person you weren’t?
He forced himself to sit up straighter. Words bubbled in the back of his mouth. And when they came out, his voice sounded unsteady. “What the fuck, little lady. Want to blaze up?” he said, quoting that terrible opening line he’d used so long ago at the Razor Club.
Babette gasped and clapped her hands. “Oh my God,” she said, like she’d remembered something. She jumped forward and crouched over the jacket, now in a heap on the floor from where he’d shoved it off her shoulders. She fished something out of the pocket and held it up for his inspection between her thumb and forefinger.
“It’s a joint, dumb ass. What did you think it was?”
“But where did you get it?”
“It was in the jacket.”
“I thought that was his ‘personal space.’” Franz used Rory’s sarcastic finger quotes.
“Shut up,” she said, distracted, her eyes lingering on Franz’s cheek again.
Franz took the joint, and he got up to study it in the dusty light from the window. There would be a drug test before the new job. This joint would probably ensure he failed it, albeit with consequences for his career. He found matches on the hotel nightstand. He lit one, held it in front of the joint for a long moment, watched the flame flicker in the gust from the air conditioning. When he finally took a draw, face tilted toward the ceiling, he saw strips of peeling paint. He waved the match to put it out.
“What are you doing?” she said.
He let the smoke fill his lungs until they burned, until his chest started to feel like one of those Firestorm3 mortar shell craters. He stifled a cough as he offered her the joint, and smoke puffed out through his lips.
“Do you want some or not?” he managed to say, sucking the smoke back in.
Babette looked at the joint for a long moment. “Like that’s what I need,” she said, smirking. But then she reached out to take it. She lay back on the bed. She took three sharp, hollow drags and coughed.
Oh, this was good. Better than he remembered. Was this really good shit, or had he just forgotten? He lay down next to her and she passed him the joint. He laughed, the sweet smoke expelling into the room, his shoulders shaking. He wasn’t sure what would happen next, if he might start sobbing.
“What’s so funny?” she said, turning her head.
He turned his also, so that they were eye to eye. Her breath fluttered his lashes. “Punched his old man, had his weed stolen, probably won a championship,” he whispered. “That little shit is having quite a day.”
They stared at each other. Her gaze felt good. He didn’t know when they had last looked at each other for this long. He fantasized about Babette bringing him a joint every day and smoking it with him during his lunch hour, the way wives in the fifties brought their husbands picnic baskets of fried chicken. Back then, people just didn’t talk about their problems.
Maybe this, right now, right here, was all she needed to know. Maybe Texas was rolled up inside this joint, disappearing into the air. He rolled onto his back again and looked at the ceiling. “You’re so goddamn hot,” he said, resigned, like her hotness was unreasonable.
“Really?” she said, and there was a small, surprised sound in her voice. She’d never been one of those women who needed to hear that she was pretty.
“Fuck,” he muttered, realizing all over again what they’d lost and the things he’d not understood how to give her.
Babette sighed. “What will we do about Rory?” she said.
He wasn’t sure if she meant because of what Rory had done to Franz or because of what Franz had done to Rory or because of what they’d been doing to each other in front of him or because they were both about to be too messed up to drive or what. He closed his eyes. He could see Rory’s face on the other side of the glass just before he’d driven away earlier, the intensity of his eyes, like a coyote, a look that he now understood was familiar because it was how Babette used to look. Before.
He opened his own eyes and studied the gold around Babette’s pupils, like flames. There was nothing they really needed to do about Rory. He felt a pang of sour shame in his stomach. Rory had big brass balls, the kind you needed to change the world. Or no, actually, the kind you needed so the world wouldn’t change you.
“You mean so he doesn’t sell out, like his old man?” said Franz, and he felt his voice waver, as if something might go up in his chest—a landmine, an IED.
She blinked at him, uncomprehending. “What are you talking about, dipwad?” she said, laughing. “I’m the one encouraging our son to play a warmongering video game. And why? To keep myself distracted?” She rubbed her temples with her fingertips. “Look what it’s doing to him,” she muttered.
Franz reached into the pocket of his pants, draped over a chair, and he pulled out the baggie of bullet casings. “Here’s a distraction,” he said.
She took the bag, turning it this way and that. She wagged a finger at Franz. “Did you stop these with your chest?” She laughed uncontrollably for a moment. Then she stopped. Her moist eyes blinked at his, and he could see the admiration there, like he really was the hero, someone who took matters into his own hands. He understood then that this was something Babette still believed about him.
He started to wag a finger back at her, and found himself enthralled for a moment by the miraculous way his hands waved in front of him. God, he was stoned. “The world doesn’t want fucking Superman anymore. His ass would be sued.”
Franz reached for his wife and pulled her close, encircling her body with his own.
“Fuck the world,” said Babette, gesturing to all that was outside the hotel door.