Tony’s Release – An Excerpt from A Son’s Loyalties

Here’s a little excerpt from a project. I appreciate any feedback.

Chapter Three – Tony’s Release

Tony walks away from the chain link door and makes sure not to look back. It’s dry Central Valley heat and dust all around. He stops for a moment, not sure where he’s going, and pushes the sweat on his forehead back into his thick black hair. He draws a deep breath and sees a truck door open. His younger brother Billy steps out and waves.

They shake hands and embrace stiffly.

“You want to drive?” Billy asks.

“Yeah.”

Tony pushes the driver’s seat back one notch and adjusts the vents so the air blows on his face. He sees his reflection in the rearview mirror and can’t wait to get a proper haircut. Hell, he can’t wait for a proper bath and shower. As he pulls the car out of the parking area, he takes one last look at the fence and watchtowers and the cold buildings beyond.

The land is flat and they drive in silence as Tony tries to get a feel for the truck. It sits higher than his car and lumbers between lanes. He stomps the pedal to the floor, and the truck surges by the other cars on the highway.

“You trying to get a speeding ticket your first day out?” Billy says.

Tony smiles. “Nah, pretty boy. Just trying to get away from there as fast as possible.”

McDonald’s yellow arches rise on the horizon, and Tony pulls the car onto the off-ramp.

“Seriously, of all places, you choose McDonald’s?”

“You know anywhere else I can get a Big Mac?” Tony asks. “Besides… the fries! And a Coke!”

Tony salivates at the thought of salty fries and ice cold soda.

When he parks, Tony remembers the last time he was in a McDonald’s was almost ten years ago during a long road trip with his parents to Seattle. They stopped in Redding to gas up and stretch their legs. Billy had a large chocolate milkshake and threw up an hour later with his head hanging out one of the rear windows.

“Fuck McDonald’s!” Billy says as he opens the door. Tony sees his little brother’s body has filled out in the years he was away.

“Just stay away from the milkshake.”

Tony starts to scan the empty restaurant before realizing there isn’t anyone there to do him any harm. They stand in line behind a mother holding hands with her four-year-old daughter, and Tony thinks of his own young cousin and how messy blood becomes and the stain on the sidewalk for weeks.

Billy shakes Tony awake after pulling the car into the driveway. He opens his eyes to a tract home with a tree in the front yard and yellow rosebushes under the windows. The kitchen smells of rice cooking and his mother is at the counter mincing pork with a large cleaver. She asks if he’s already eaten and he just wants a bath. Billy shows him to his room and says, “I’m not sure where anything is, but I think Sarah went shopping for you the other day.”

Sarah’s citrusy perfume hangs in the room and an outfit for Tony is on the bed. He pulls the top drawer of the dresser and sees her carefully folded work scrubs. He picks up a framed picture of them taken with Half Dome looming in the background. She was in nursing school the last time he saw her, and he told her to never visit him again because he didn’t want her to have the image of him in a jumpsuit. It was the same thing he told every visitor until word got around that the only person he would welcome was Billy, which seemed odd since they weren’t particularly close. Regardless, Billy drove the hundred odd miles to visit once a month unless told to stay away, which usually happened around the holidays.

Tony draws a bath and slowly brushes his teeth while watching the tub fill. When he takes his shirt off and looks in the mirror, he realizes how wiry thin he has become. After lowering himself into the tub, he lathers his hair and submerses his torso. He closes his eyes and feels the water around him.

Half a drink has Tony’s head numb and buzzing like it’s his first time. At a patio table, he sits and watches the ice melt in his Hennessy and Coke. He studies the condensation on the glass. Every few minutes, Billy introduces a new arrival to him. They’re all in their late teens or early twenties, and they try to jog his memory by telling him where they grew up and how they met him in years past. Some live in the same shabby apartments and hang out in the same parks he did before he went away. Every now and then, they glance over and he gives them nods of acknowledgement.

“Welcome home, motherfucker!”

Before Tony can turn around, he’s in the grasps of Biggie, who got his nickname in middle school for being tall but eventually everyone caught up or surpassed him. Now, he’s just big in every other way, starting from his tree trunk legs up to his buzzed noggin.

“Good fuckin’ seeing you!” Tony says as his best friend sits down next to him.

“I brought gifts,” Biggie says as he puts a carton of Newport and a bottle of Hennessy on the table.

“God, I haven’t had a cigarette in years.”

“Well, why didn’t you tell me? Just wasted like twenty-five dollars on that shit.”

“Daddy, can I have an ice cream cone?” a young girl asks from the sliding glass door.

Both men turn to look at Ashley, who stares back with wide eyes.

Biggie says, “Yes, baby. Come and say hi to Uncle Tony first.”

The girl skips to her father and leans on the arm rest.

“Hi, Ashley,” Tony says.

Ashley buries her face into her father’s arm.

“Say ‘hi’ to your Uncle Tony.” Biggie nudges his daughter.

She quickly says, “Hi Uncle Tony.”

“You remember your Uncle Tony, right?”

Ashley shakes her head.

“Tell Uncle Tony hold old you are.”

“Six.”

“You’re a big girl now. You were just a baby the last time I saw you,” Tony says.

Ashley smiles, showing a missing tooth.

“Go inside. Only one ice cream cone, okay?”

“Okay, Daddy.” She skips away, pigtails bouncing.

“Is she okay?” Tony asks.

“Yeah, she got a scar and all, but it ain’t that bad.”

“Did you tell her how she got it?”

“Hell no! I’ve been telling her she fell off the jungle gym.”

Sarah greets her mother-in-law Muang in the kitchen and smells the faint fish sauce from the trays of uncooked egg rolls on the counter. She walks through the living room and kisses Ashley on her head before going to the backyard.

“I’ll be right back to help you,” Sarah says to Muang.

“It’s okay. I’m almost done.”

Tony turns and sees Sarah as she opens the door. He hugs and tells her he loves her. Tony’s thinner and more rigid than her arms remember. Her eyes tear up but she had promised herself she wouldn’t cry, and she takes a half dozen breaths with her head buried in his neck.

“I’m so happy you’re home,” she says.

“I am, too.”

“I’m going to go help your mom. And you need a haircut. Soon.”

Sarah goes to her room and changes out of her scrubs. She looks at the indentation where she sleeps on the bed and wonders if she is used to sleeping by herself, especially with her erratic sleep patterns. Since working at the hospital’s OB/GYN department, she has been picking up any additional shifts, covering for her co-workers and declining to take all of her three days off each week. At the annual Christmas party, she received a trophy for being “Ms. Reliable”.

Once the sun sets, the temperature drops sharply and Tony watches the crescent moon hanging low above his neighbor’s trees while Sarah sits on his lap. Some of the thinning crowd are still out in the yard drinking and smoking and slurring their words. Billy and Biggie give a synopsis of events since Tony’s departure. Most of it just confirms what Billy has already passed along to him during their visits.

Kao walks into the backyard and exchanges handshakes and hugs with Tony and the rest of the group.

“God damn! You get taller since I’ve seen you?” Tony says.

“Maybe an inch or two,” Kao says.

“Billy, go get a glass for this guy.”

Kao nods when Billy asks if he wants ice.

“Heard you had a boy,” Tony says.

“Yeah. Cheng just turned one a couple weeks ago.”

“What’s this I hear about you not playing ball anymore?”

“Lots of reason. Mainly, I got too busy. And then with Cheng, I got even busier.”

“You almost done with school?”

“I’m doing the five-year MBA program, so I have this year and next.”

“Good for you,” Tony says.

“I’m going inside so you boys can talk,” Sarah says. “Don’t stay up too late, Tony.”

Billy returns with a glass of ice and Tony pours half a glass of Hennessy for Kao before topping off his glass.

Kao lights a cigarette.

“Maybe I’ll have one, too,” Tony says. He opens the carton and whacks the top of a pack against his left hand to compress the tobacco.

They clink their glasses.

“How’s business?” Tony asks.

“Good,” Kao says. He hands Tony a half-inch thick envelope. “There’s ten in there. You have plenty more. Just let me know when you want it.”

Gunshots ring and ricochet off the sidewalk and brick apartment. Tony shields his head and crouches to the ground. A gun falls and he reaches for it. Ashley is bleeding from her shoulder near the front steps, too shocked to start crying, yet. With squealing tires, the car with the shooters smashes violently into an oncoming pickup.

With the gun raised, Tony walks quickly toward the car and fires multiple shots when the rear passenger gets out. The teenager falls back against the car and onto the ground. In the front passenger seat, another teenager is concussed and trapped by the crumpled door. Tony shoots three times as the kid looks at him confused.

Tony wakes up sweating with a headache and remembers the bewilderment on the kid’s face before he pulled the trigger. And the lights and sirens. It’s the same dream he’s had for years. He barely remembers Sarah kissing him before she went to work and can still taste the sweetness of the alcohol in his mouth.

The doorbell rings and the sound bounces around his head. Thirty seconds later, it rings again and Tony opens the front door to see Kao.

“Shit, man, I forgot,” Tony says. “Let me just run in the shower real quick.”

“No rush. Take your time.”

The café is small with orange stools, and the last customers from the morning rush are finishing their oversized breakfasts. Tony and Kao sit at the counter and watch the cook scrape grease off the stainless steel griddle. An older Mexican waitress smiles at the men from a corner table as she stacks eight mostly empty plates and silverware. Tony tells her to be careful. The cook turns and asks if they want coffee and both nod.

“Take it with cream?” the cook asks.

Both men shake their heads and Kao says, “Just sugar, please.”

The cook pours two cups and sets the creamer between them. Tony looks at Kao and shrugs.

“You talk to your parents much?” Tony asks.

“No, why?”

“I had this idea in my head that when I got out I was going to have all these conversations with my mom.”

“What conversations?”

“I don’t know. Anything basically. You don’t talk to your parents like that?”

“I barely talk to my brothers like that.”

“Huh.”

“There are some things I want to say to my parents, but I only know how to in English and they won’t understand.”

“I used to watch those dinner scenes from TVs and movies and wish I had those.”

“Yeah?”

“Not the food or anything, just being around the table.”

“I hear you. When I’m out in DC I sit down and have dinner with the housekeeper and his family a few nights a week.”

“Housekeeper?”

“Yeah, it’s a long story,” Kao says. “It’s not the same but I’m just learning what they do and talk about. They have a daughter who just started high school so we get to hear about her day, and then they just make small talk.”

“That’s the thing. I don’t know how to make small talk.”

The split-level duplex has a fresh coat of black paint on the shutters and the red bricks shine from a recent pressure washing, but there is still dirt between the building and walkway instead of plants or grass. A white dividing line separates the two parking spots. Biggie used to rent both apartments; one for himself and the other for whoever needed a place to crash.

“That’s where I was sitting,” Tony says as he stares at the front porch closest to the street.

Kao nods and looks at the bend in the road in front of him.

“I can’t believe no one got hit that night,” Tony says. “Well, besides Ashley.”

“Blind luck and amateurs with automatics.”

“Just blind luck, I think.”

Not more than two days after the shooting, one of the Mexican gangs with cartel connections sent word to Biggie acknowledging they knew the shooters but didn’t call for the shooting. It was just a few young kids trying to prove themselves. The guns they used were stolen from the garage of a former Marine who was a gun fanatic.

The black barber’s cape fits snug around Tony’s neck, and the small pieces of hair in his nose makes him want to sneeze, but he averts his eyes to the lights above the mirror. He read somewhere staring at a solitary light would prevent sneezing. It works but leaves him seeing spots.

Sarah pulls his hair in bunches and takes quick snips with her scissors, but she’s doing it more gently than normal. She loves his thick black hair and the easy way it can be shaped with a comb or brush, and remembers the first time he walked into the mall salon where she was working after beauty school.

“I just need a haircut,” he said.

“How do you want it done?”

“You’re the professional. I trust your judgment.” He smiled. “Besides, it always comes back.”

“Grows back.”

“You know what I mean,” he said and smiled.

Tony watches Sarah move her scissors precisely and imagines how sharp they are and cringes at the thought of them slicing skin. He never saw for himself because he was still a child, but from the bedroom he could hear his mother say his father was stabbed so many times his stomach was shredded. He shivers and a layer of sweat builds on the topside of his forearms.

“You really let your hair go, didn’t you?” Sarah says.

“No one to impress in there.”

“Who do you have to impress out here?” She whips her black hair and smiles at him in the mirror.

“No one out here either.”

She smacks him on the shoulder and unbuttons the cape.

“All done, mister,” she says. “You can take a shower and I’ll clean up out here.”

Tony runs his hand through his hair and looks at the little black specks in his hands.

“I’m thinking of taking my mom on a road trip. You think your parents might want to go?”

“That’s a good idea. I’m sure they will.”

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