Michael pulled his car over to the side of the road as a light rain cascaded over his windshield. The spine tingling squeak of the windshield wipers echoed throughout the car as music faintly droned through the speakers in the background. And with each pass of the vulcanized rubber against the glass, the anticipation of the moment that stood before him began to feel like a twenty-five pound weight that was pressing firmly against his chest. He knew that if he turned down the road and headed for the farm, that he would be passing the point of no return. It was now or never and Michael had to take one final moment to contemplate what he was about to do.
As he slowly brought the car to a stop on the side of the road, Michael put the automatic gear shift into park, pulled out a Marlboro Red and lit it. This was one of the many crossroads he would face in his life and as he took a long, hard drag off of his cigarette, he could feel the adrenalin in his body begin to subside. He took a long look at himself in the rear view mirror of the car and in the reflection of the deep blue eyes that were staring back at him. And in that very moment, he felt a calm, confidant resolve in the actions he was about to undertake. He took another long, hard drag of his cigarette, leaned his head back against the seat and exhaled forcefully as he closed his eyes.
“Mom, when is he going to get here?” Michael asked nervously as he raced from window to window looking for Peter.
“I don’t know, Michael. Just relax and he’ll be here soon,” his mom replied begrudgingly, but she knew better. Peter was three hours late, he hadn’t called and if he didn’t show up soon, there wouldn’t be any point in taking Michael to the Carnival. The eerie dark of night was settling into their quaint Pennsylvania town and the prospects of Peter showing up anytime soon were growing dim.
Michael’s mother’s boyfriend had promised that he would take Michael to the Carnival. Living in a small country town meant that there were very few options for entertainment. Every once in a while, the family would go to see a film at the movie theater a few towns over but beyond that, your imagination and your backyard was the best one could hope for in the form of leisure activities. So a rare visit from the traveling carnival was cause for celebration and Peter had promised to take the day off from his job at the car dealership to take Michael.
Michael finally sat down on the couch with a long frown on his face. He knew that Peter had lied to him again and to top it all off, he was going to miss the carnival. Michael kicked himself for not having gone with his friends earlier in the day when he had the chance but to Michael, a promise was a promise. Peter had promised Michael and Michael believed that he would make good on his promise this time.
After what seemed like an eternity, Michael heard the squeal of the brakes in the driveway. He lifted his head with a wide-eyed grin and raced to the window to see if it was really Peter and it was. Michael quickly ran to get his coat and as Peter came into the house through the kitchen door, Michael ran over to him excitedly saying, “I knew you would make it, I knew it! I knew you wouldn’t break your promise! I told you, Mom, I told you! I am ready to go, Peter! Let’s go to the carnival, let’s go…”
Before Michael could get another word out of his mouth, Peter hit Michael square across the face with a backhand that started down at Peter’s waist and followed all the way through his body and up above his head. Michael was thrown backwards upon impact and knocked to the ground as Michael’s Mother started screaming at Peter for what he had just done.
Michael felt his entire body moving backward as if it were in slow motion. His bottom hit the floor first as he continued to fall backward until his head smacked into the hardwood floors. Michael rolled over onto his stomach and started to cry as the pain radiated from his right cheek through his jaw and into the back of his head. Tears streamed down Michael’s face as he felt a little trickle of blood roll from his nose to the top of his lip.
In a state of shock, Michael heard his Mother and Peter exchange a verbal litany of expressions that he couldn’t quite make out. He was dazed and confused and as he sat up on his knees crying, he could smell the alcohol that was wafting throughout the house. Peter was drunk again.
As Michael wiped the blood off of his upper lip, Peter screamed at his Mother, “The little b—–d had no right to run up to me like that after the day I’ve had!”
“F–k you! You drunk son-of-a-b—h!” Michael said as he stood up and stared down Peter with utter contempt and rage.
“Michael!!!” his Mother yelled in shock and disbelief at the words that had just come out of his mouth. “Go to your room!”
“What did you just say to me you little s–t?!” Peter asked angrily as he started moving toward Michael with his hand raised.
“Come on Peter, hit me! Go ahead hit me!”
“Go to your room now, Michael!” his Mother screamed at him as she thwarted Peter’s attempt to hit Michael again.
Michael ran out of the room and up the stairs as his Mother and Peter continued to scream at one another. As Michael got to the top of the stairs, he turned and yelled, “Trust me you old red-neck, I promise I’ll get even with you for this! I swear I’ll get even with you!”
Then Michael ran into his room, slammed the door shut, locked it behind him and cried himself to sleep on his bed.
The screech of the wiper across the windshield roused Michael from his memory. He opened his eyes and took another drag off of his cigarette. It had been a long time since the third grade but this moment of truth in Michael’s life had arrived; it was now or never.
Michael put the automatic gear shift in drive, turned the corner and drove the half-mile to the entrance of the farm. He drove past the main house, turned right at the barn where the road hooked and drove down to the apartments at end of the driveway. He stopped the car, took the key out of the ignition and opened the door.
As Michael climbed out of his car, he took a final hit off of his cigarette, flicked it on the ground, slammed the car door shut and walked toward the door of the apartment. Michael’s heart was beating as the adrenalin in his body started to course through his veins. He was excited, afraid, angry, vengeful and conflicted all at the same moment. He clenched his fist as hard as he could, raised it to his chin and banged it forcefully against the front door of the apartment.
“Who is it?” came the voice from inside the apartment but Michael didn’t answer; he just wrapped his fist harder against the door. “Hold onto your damn pants, I’m coming!”
Michael waited in the bone-chilling drizzle for a few minutes while he heard a rustling from behind the door. He could tell the person inside had tried to peer out the window to see who was there but Michael had purposefully positioned himself in a place so he couldn’t be seen. He had waited a decade for this moment and he wasn’t going to let it slip through his hands.
As Peter opened the front door to his apartment, Michael felt his right arm and his clenched right fist begin to rise. He was about to punch Peter when all of a sudden he was struck with a sense of reality and he froze up right there in the doorway. Standing before him was a bitter, old man. Death wafted out the front door like the stench of a rat that had been caught between two walls and was rotting away. As Michael peered past Peter into the apartment, he saw nothing but beer cans and old cigarette butts strewn across the place.
“Who the hell are you?” were the first words out of Peter’s mouth. Peter didn’t recognize Michael as the child he had struck so violently ten years earlier and as Michael stood there in silence, pity overcame his entire being. “Well, speak up you dimwit! You bang on my door and bother me in the middle of the frickin’ day, what the hell do you want?!”
Michael looked Peter square in the eyes and in that very moment it all rushed back into Peter. Fear caught him by the back of the neck as he realized whose face he was staring into. Peter stepped back as if to defend himself but Michael shook his head, started to laugh, backed away from the door and turned towards his car which only enraged Peter.
Peter yelled vile things at Michael as he walked away. Hurtful comments about Michael’s mother, family and Michael himself. And with each word that Peter uttered, the vapid existence that he called a life became clearer to Michael. Peter’s words were worthless, Peter was worthless. If the best he could do was smack a little boy across the face when he was drunk; well, the judgment for that action was in God’s hands now. There wasn’t anything Michael could do to Peter that Peter hadn’t already done to himself.
As Michael opened the door to his car, he looked at Peter and winked at him as if to say ‘you’re nothing but a broken down, bitter old man who has been thrown into the cesspool of life,’ then Michael laughed again and climbed into the car. In the reflection of the rear view mirror, he could see Peter was still screaming and swearing at him in the doorway of his apartment. But as Michael drove out of sight, his conscience was clear as he washed his hands of Peter’s actions forever.