When I was five, I found myself in the backseat of my stepfather's VW Bug as we hurried to the hospital. My stepfather was in the front passenger seat, his frantic heartbeat pumping thick gouts of blood from his Levi's. Blood seeped into his boots, forming a puddle on the floormat, making the interior of the car smell like a jar of pennies. He had accidentally shot himself with his Colt .45 pistol—a few feet from me.
Months later, he pulled up his pant leg to show me the bright pink scars on his calf.
"Bullet passed right through the meat," he said, winking.
My stepfather and my father shared the same name: Gary. My stepfather, the new Gary, was originally from Kansas. The new Gary was six-foot-four in his socks, with long brown hair and a beard and boots that made him even taller. My father was five-foot-eleven in cowboy boots. My mother called the new Gary, her Adonis. Brooding and unpredictable, the new Gary lifted weights out in the garage, and he carried that Colt .45 everywhere, loading it and unloading it while we watched TV in the den. Angered by something my mother said, Gary caved in the side of the sofa with his fist. He worked at the steel mill in Fontana before my grandfather got him a job with Southern Pacific, driving locomotives. Gary also kept company with an ill-tempered Doberman Pinscher with fangs and pointed ears like a scrawny wingless bat. Max accompanied Gary everywhere, even when we went out for hamburgers.
In those days, when you pulled into the drive-thru of the local burger joint, a giant clown took your order. I looked out the window and up at a pair of round blue eyes, a pointed green nose, a gaping red smile, and curly green hair, topped by a tapered yellow dunce cap. A sphere of glowing plastic, the clown's head rested atop an enormous cube. One side of the cube read: "Place Order Here,"; another displayed the menu. I liked to roll down my window and wait for the clown to talk to me: "Welcome to Jack in the Box. Can I take your order?"
Quickly detaching himself from the driver's seat, Gary threw his muscular arms around the broad plastic head, and with a growl, he wrenched it free, decapitating the clown from the cubed menu. He opened the passenger door and lay the severed head, trailing a string of fizzling wires, into the seat beside Max and me. The top of the clown's yellow cap brushed the roof as Gary drove away. After we returned home with our burgers, Gary reached into the gaping orange hole at the bottom of Jack's head, installing a light bulb. Then he mounted it in the corner of my bedroom.
As tall as he was, broken clouds encircled Gary’s head. Sometimes, he seemed happy; sometimes, he played with me. Sometimes, he called me, "Racin' Jason." Other times, the darkening clouds brought lightning. Instead of ghost stories, Gary scared me with the legend of his late father: a man who despised and tormented him, a man who hunted him and his little brother Dennis when they were small like me.
The morning he shot himself, Gary grimaced, a kitchen towel tight around his trembling calf—a makeshift tourniquet. My mother was in the seat beside him, bolt upright, pushing the little yellow car into second gear, third gear, fourth gear. I watched the red octagons and red lights whizzing past us to the hospital. When we arrived, I found a place to put myself out of the way.
My mother talks about how quiet I was as a little boy.
"You were an angel then—so well-behaved. We used to take you everywhere, and you'd just sit there and amuse yourself." She reminds me how much I liked to read even then and how young I started.
I remember going out to dinner with Mom and Gary. I must have been six. Gary proudly wore his brand-new leather jacket and a healthy layer of stink purdy. That's what Gary called cologne. In a booth, I sat, quietly reading the menu. My mother and Gary gazed into each other's eyes, cooing, the restaurant bustling around them—busboys wiping tables and waitresses balancing plates. After we ordered, I occupied myself rescuing a maraschino cherry from the depths of a glass of soda pop. With a skinny straw, I foraged away. I plunged my straw through the crushed ice, attempting to bring that bright red cherry to the surface.
Suddenly the straw flexed and bounced, rocketing out of the glass and across the booth, spraying a dribble of soda across the front of Gary's jacket.
Mom does not remember Gary spanking my naked bottom when we got home that night like he often did, though she admits to having retreated to various parts of the house, hands over her ears whenever he did.
Gary kept that jacket, but it stayed in his closet. One day, I came into the bedroom he shared with my mother, and I saw it lying across the bed. Gary was thinking of giving it to his brother. The stain was still there, stretching along the lapel like a dark archipelago. I fetched the globe from my bedroom, and I spun it until my finger landed on a cluster of islands. The stain looked just like it.
"Tell Dennis it's an official jacket from the…The Philippines," I said.
We watched Tom and Jerry cartoons together for the first time until Mom came home from work.
I never got to see Gary smile like that again. A few years later, I moved in with my father and stepmother. My mother immediately divorced him.
Survivor of a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic epilepsy, Seattle writer Jason M. Thornberry’s work appears in The Stranger, Praxis, Dissident Voice, Entropy, Adirondack Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. His work examines family, disability, and social justice. Jason taught literature and creative writing at Seattle Pacific University.