Like a Demon

William Lychack




Two of them in a diner off the highway somewhere, booth by a window, poor woman trying to smile it all nice—nice in a way it never was, nice in a way it always was—the mother trying to just never mind her son, just ignore this strange person, pay no attention as he lifts his shirt slightly, black handle of a .45 tucked into his pants, gun exactly where he promised it would be.


Now, she says, of all the stupid things.


You would know, he tells her—and he can’t seem to chew that grin off his face—and he looks away to the traffic, sunlight, strip mall in the distance, whole world so bright and oblivious, waitress clearing dishes from the tables oblivious, cook behind counter in his apron oblivious, slushy sound of cutlery and voices, walls of quilted aluminum, and his mother staring at him all the while. Could out-patience a statue, this woman with heating elements for eyes, that tungsten glow on the side of his face until he turns to his mother, finally, her hand out over the table to him.


May I? she asks—and she tips her head to one side—and he gently places the gun in her palm without a word.


It’s warm, she says. And heavy. Much heavier than I’d have expected.


She weighs the pistol in her palm and hums slightly. Something unreal to all of this, her fingers fitting the grip, the trigger guard, the trigger. He watches and leans forward to narrate what she’s holding—Colt Commander, M-1911, single-action, semi-automatic, standard-issue blah, blah—as if he knew what he was talking about, really, his mother’s eyes snaking across the diner, gun pointing at the waitress, waitress backing away slow, sandwich platters balanced on her arms, entire place going airless and hushed, everything suddenly ridiculous, son tucking few dollars next to his plate, clearing his throat, saying, C’mon, Mom, let’s get going.


* * *


Underhum of tires on highway, bright blue wash of sunshine, and soon it’s just the clean getaway of Lincoln floating big and loose, woman’s little dog on her lap, mother holding gun like it’s a bird in her hand. Probably just the speed that makes it shake like that, pistol nervous and shivering with her holding it. A tree, a barn, a police car on the side of the road—miles turning into minutes, minutes turning into miles—and he glances every so often at her, the gun in her hand, his mother’s knuckles like chicken bones, the woman surprising and dangerous and off-balance to him.


So, he says, any chance I can grab that thing back from you now?


And his mother turns to him, stares as if not quite able to place this stranger, her mouth going all seasick, something helpless and pleading about her eye, as if she’s on the verge of saying, I’m sorry, but who are you again? And why are you driving this car? Where are you taking us?


You okay over there, Mom?


She presses her lips to a line and raises the empty point of the gun to the side of his chest. You know, she says, but I have such an incredible urge to shoot you.


Better let me pull over first, he tells her—and he goes all cheery and nonchalant and proceeds to ease off the next exit and rides them beyond the gas station, beyond the transfer station, the sandy clearing in the distance, where he says she can roll his body into the tall grass. His mother just sits the passenger seat, not moving, not opening the door. She just watches as he wades into the grass, his mother waiting as he stands in front of the car, her son with his arms raised, that gunpoint smile on his face, that electricity of insects from the brush. Well? he calls to her—and he opens his arms, offers his chest, closes his eyes, breathes deep—but nothing happens.


Story of his life, his mother a silhouette with that dog on her lap, and he circles around to his side of the car, continues to the back fender, opens his pants and pisses into the grass, his legs and arms heavy as he gets behind the wheel again. Not going to happen, he says, is it?


What’s that? she asks.


You’re not going to shoot me, he says, are you?


She shakes her head no. Sorry.


* * *


Big fat breeze of car halfway through New York State, halfway to Michigan, road like a wire in front of them to Michigan, and his mother places the gun on the seat, says to do whatever he wants with it, saying she doesn’t care. She turns to watch the rain approach, wipers beating back and forth, tires on the road like steam escaping, blind spray of trucks to pass. The dog never takes its eyes off the son, the son taking the pistol and leaning across to close the gun into the glove compartment.


Halfway through Ohio, she rests her eyes closed, and her face goes all pinches and pulls of clay, that quiet scrape of her breathing as she falls asleep. Another hour, and Michigan, and he talks to his father in his mind—goes back and forth with the man—son trying to tell all these things to him. Like the mystery of the gun he can’t explain. And why he wanted to take her to visit in the first place. And what he meant by bringing them together here. None of it making any sense to him, either, starting with his father and mother eloping all those years ago.


No one sets out to be a complete fuckup, as his father once told him. It just sort of happens, Michael. (Note to self: Your father uses your name over the phone and safe bet he’s trying to impart some bit of wisdom he feels you need to know, some lesson he believes his duty to teach to you. Either that or he’s loaded again. Not always easy—or necessary—to tell the difference. Have to listen for those wind chimes of ice in his drink, man all homesick and goosey on the line, your father asking if you remember some song he used to sing to you and your brother when you were kids, and you just waiting for the right moment to hit him up for some money, just waiting to stick him good with some last-minute knife, ask him if somebody diddled you as kids or something, wonder aloud how else could he explain why everyone’s so fucked up in this family.)


* * *


Almost dark when they stop for gas, his mother still asleep, his hand going to her hand, the dog always watching everything. His mother’s skin is dry as paper, and he cups his palm on her fist until she wakes. Not used to this kind of touch, and she startles. What’s wrong? she asks. We there already? 


Everything’s fine, Mom. Almost there.


It’s dark, road clear, a few more miles and he’s thinking about his father again—time he and Charlie went to visit the man—the brothers sent to see their father in the summer, two of then nine or ten years old, their mother putting them on a train in Providence, their father waiting for them on a platform in Detroit, his shirt pressed and pants creased for the occasion, boots with zippers up the inside ankles, the old Central Station this breathless cathedral of columns and arches, pigeons in the tall spaces, the boys following that hard click of heels to the car. Impala floats wide and loose as a motorboat in the dusk, streetlights and traffic out of the city, that radial drone of road under everything. Soon they’re having burgers and malts in Flint, stopping at a gas station in Saginaw, one then another sleepy hour to Grayling, Portage Lake, and the cottage.


A lifetime ago already—twenty, twenty-five, try more than thirty years since any of this—yet it truly is like yesterday, three of them on that big bench seat of his car, windows open with the cool pour of air, hum of roadway and radio, man with his arm straight, wrist flexed over the wheel, cigarette after cigarette as he drives. And this little kid—young version of himself—it’s as if he watches the boy as he picks the plastic tubing of the armrest, as he fingers the metal cover of the ashtray, as he glances to his father’s face in that green glow of the dash, the man’s reflection like a ghost in the windshield, he and his brother memorizing the man, neither of them realizing how much they miss their father, how much they will have to stay loyal to their mother, how quiet and guarded and less sure of everything they will become, their father more present when he’s gone, their mother less home when she’s there, the boys holding their breath at night along with the house.


You know the kind of house. Can see the doilies, the photos, all the little efforts she makes, porcelain collies on the shelf, all the bric-a-brac of hope, two kids listening to the way she cries at night, the wound like water pouring down the walls, the sound like birds nesting in the attic, the sound of her crying becoming nothing like crying at all, as if they might have been mistaken right along, can’t trust their own ears, their mother maybe laughing to herself below them, woman giggling over some secret joy she’s been saving, some kind of happiness she’s holding until they’re old enough to appreciate it, until they’re ready to take care of whatever it is she will someday give them.


At least this is what he and Charlie tell each other.


And his brother asks, When will we be big enough?


I don’t know, Charlie. Seventh grade maybe. Or high school.


And there are silences so loud he can still hear them now, all these years later. Driving along on a highway, for instance, and he still feels that strange sense of pressure in the walls as the bedroom sinks deeper and deeper into night, can still listen to Charlie breathing himself to sleep, the moon in the dormer window, that undersea dust of moonlight over everything, trees swaying with the wind, and his father always pale and transparent at the window, the man always staring from the other side of the glass. Even if his father isn’t there, the man is still there somehow, windowed away from them, standing mute and drowned in the night.


* * *


These dreams are fists. They are hard and closed and never will you open them, though they are yours and yours alone to open. Who else would want them, really? Who else would care?


Someone says you’ll never do a certain thing, never become this person you say you’ll be, never be this untangler, this undoer, this beautiful little dream, this lying little sneak, someone says  you’ll never change, you’ll never bring these two worlds together, but then just watch—and voilà!—you’re back at the cottage again, opening the door for your mother, your there on the porch waiting, hellos and hugs and everyone into the living room, cold can of beer in your hand like magic, chitchat about the drive as you stretch your shoulders, your mother’s little dog crying to go outside, you offering to run this chore for them, your mother and father alone in the cottage together, you and the dog out in the yard.


Be so easy if the gun felt natural. So simple to just drift toward the Lincoln, that mineral pull of pistol from the glove compartment, imagine it warm and heavy, picture yourself decisive and clear and real for once in your life. Yet that’s not the way this works for you—sorry—you might yearn for a bullet, might wish for some sharp demon of pain burning like a wick, but you must not yearn enough to become wild and ruthless and real like that. Instead you tug your brother dog by the leash, grass wet and cold, saying, Let’s wait on the steps like good kids for a little while.


Let them have some time in the cottage, you say, your mother and father, one last hurrah for them. Remember she once told you they made love on these visits, woman saying how she and your father would be together while you and your brother played in the yard. And what does one detail like that? No wonder they don’t lie still in your mind, your parents, this life never anything like you expect it to be.


Can feel your mother and father telegraphed in the wood floor as you sit on the porch with the dog. Her footsteps in the house, his can-do voice like mice running inside the walls. That cool of the lake seeps in, that taffeta of air through the leaves of trees, and you wait for that knock and scuff of the screen door opening behind you, as it will, you’re sure, your mother out under the porch light, your father right behind her, two of them wondering what happened to you? Are you still out here?


And are they talking to you or the dog? Not easy to tell. Either way, you both tip your heads as they approach, their voices all singsong, like they’re trying to catch you and tame you and show you just how much they must love you.



William Lychack

Photo by Marion Ettllinger


William Lychack is the author of a novel, The Wasp Eater, and The Architect of Flowers, a story collection forthcoming this month. His work has been included in Best American Short Stories, The Pushcart Prize, and on public radio’s This American Life. The Architect of Flowers has been selected for the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Summer 2011 season.


This story was originally published in Issue 2 of The Literarian.