Pudge had never seen his dad cry before. Frank Hayes was a tough bastard, even by the hyper-masculine standards of rural southwestern Pennsylvania. The boy had seen Frank forcibly eject angry men twice his size from the diner, and he’d been to enough volunteer firemen’s banquets to understand why other men instinctively respected his father. The man possessed an almost clinical detachment in times of crisis, an unwillingness to succumb to any emotion, be it fear, anger, sadness. But that night–after the coroner pronounced death, after the bodies were bagged, after the scene was cleared–Frank returned home and wept in his wife’s arms on their old green couch. Pudge fled in embarrassment from his father’s humanity.
When he’d limped home from the pavilion that afternoon in August, his father asked only where it hurt and how much, and then he’d lifted Pudge into the back seat of his Jeep Cherokee and driven him to the emergency room in silence. A full half an hour to Union City, just the purr of the engine and searing pain for company.
The hospital staff made Frank leave the room so they could question the boy about his injuries. Andy, how did this happen. You can be honest with us…. They did not believe the story he and Jared had agreed upon–about wrestling on the hay bales and him falling off, but they put a cast on him, gave him a walking boot, and said nothing else.
“Who punched you?,” Frank asked him as they made the drive back up into the mountains.
“I fell, and–”
“Bullshit, Andy. You didn’t fall face-first into somebody’s fists.”
The boy said nothing, just sat staring at the back of his father’s head rest.
“We’re gonna work on this, so the next time you get in a fight, the other guy will end up with puffy eyes and the only way you’ll hurt your ankle is kicking his ass.”
Pudge entered fourth grade to pitying looks from Mrs. Meeder, who spoke extra gently to him and offered him a cookie while the other kids took recess. Like the nurses, she suspected something. He stayed quiet and enjoyed the snack.
Adults were driven by motivations beyond his comprehension. He understood his father’s tears only in a theoretical sense. Five people died; death was sad. No one in Pudge’s life had ever died. Forever remained abstract.
He knew some of these dead men. Mayor Jenkins was Sammy’s dad, who roamed the annual Bradleysburg carnival passing out tickets to random children. Mr. Neville took care of the church camp. Bernie Wallace didn’t have a car; he could be seen walking around town, carrying his mail or a freshly purchased half-gallon of milk. None of them knew Pudge as more than Frank’s boy, but he still could not fathom a world without them.
Through the thin wall that separated his bedroom from the living room, he could only make out pieces of his parents’ conversation–screaming and stench and dental records. He tried and failed to form an image of the accident. He’d seen people electrocuted in cartoons, the poof of smoke and the hair standing up above the suddenly sooty face. Where did death come in? How were dentists involved?
Two days after taking him to the hospital, Frank brought Pudge into the backyard.
“Hit me, Andy.”
Pudge hesitated, but seeing that his dad really did want to be punched, he threw a wide, looping right at the man’s stomach. Frank knocked it aside easily with his left hand and slapped the boy across the face with his right.
The blow stung. Pudge could feel the outline of his father’s fingers on his jaw. He cried out in surprise and pain.
“The first thing you have to understand,” Frank said, ” is that the other person in a fight wants to hurt you. You have to protect yourself. Hit me again.”
He punched again, but this time he kept brought his left hand up to block his father’s shot. It worked, kind of.
“Good, son. That’s a start.” Frank knelt down to be at the boy’s level. “I don’t want you to start fights, but I don’t want you coming home all fucked up, either. Guard yourself. But if the kid just won’t leave you alone, the best thing you can do, the best way to end it, is to grab him by the balls and squeeze as hard as you can. Don’t let go until he’s on the ground. He won’t bother you again.”
This lesson was the only one Pudge received. Frank was gritty, tough, but he’d experienced something new at the borough building, something mean. Pudge was suddenly fearful.