by a contributor
We never made it to Step 16. We were too drunk. And then Royce died, though that was hours later.
Royce was about to attach the supplied solenoid valve to its mounting bracket using the two supplied 4-40 x .875″ screws, washers and nylock nuts when I asked him if I could marry his daughter.
I said: “I want to marry Erin, and I want it to be okay with you.”
Royce did not look up. I knew what his answer was going to be. I was eighteen, had graduated high school a month earlier. Erin still had a year left. Royce had gotten married young himself, and things had not gone in his favor.
Actually, it didn’t matter. Erin and I had gone down to South Padre Island six weeks earlier—Royce believed she was with friends—and settled the whole deal. After the ceremony, the woman who ran the chapel gave us shell necklaces and coupons for a free dinner at Kaptain Kittlebaum’s Seafood Extravaganza. But not a week had passed before Erin lost it, saying she was wracked with guilt. The least we could do now, she said, was show her old man some respect.
And so, out of respect, I was standing in Royce’s garage asking a question I already knew the answer to, an answer that didn’t much matter.
Royce stood finally and wiped his hands on his jeans. He was a big man, with sad, tender eyes. I tried to imagine what life was going to be like for him once Erin and I left for California—that being the plan. I pictured Royce the way a stranger in a passing car might: a three hundred and fifty pound man tinkering with a brake system in the jaundiced light of the garage, cigarette smoke lingering like exhaust, empty Budweiser cans in a row along a sawhorse. It wasn’t a difficult image to imagine: Erin now lived with her mother on the north end of town; her mother had married a successful tire salesman and their house was large, with a large backyard and a pool. And when we visited Royce it was mostly out of pity and concern, concern that a man in middle age could not make sense of the world long enough to empty his dryer filter, to pay his utility bill.
Eventually Royce responded. “That wasn’t really a question,” he said. “How about you try again, this time in the form of a question.”
He was on his eleventh beer. I had had seven. The case sat on the oil-stained floor next to the truck, the cardboard wilting from moisture. It was a humid night and the oscillating fan in the corner did little to stop us from sweating.
“Can I marry your daughter?”
“Try again,” he said, his focus now back to the truck.
“Mister Royce Buchanan, may I have the honor of receiving your approval to ask your only daughter to marry me? Please?”
“Better,” he said, “though still pretty sloppy. You should’ve worked ‘your daughter’s hand in marriage’ in there somewhere.”
“Is that a yes?”
“That is a no. What does Figure Three look like?”
I said nothing. Royce pinched his thumb and tomahawked a wrench through the drywall. He leaned against the truck and finished his beer and pulled a cigarette from his shirt pocket.
“I was your age when Karen and I tied the knot.”
“It didn’t go well.”
“She tried to kill me once, toward the end. Put rat poison in my coffee. We mistook passion for love. We understood desire, what it meant to be near and with and around a person. Love was another game, one we never figured out. We tried. We gave it everything we had, and we still lost. But I bet you knew all of this already, too.”
After Royce finished his cigarette he tossed the butt into a Folgers can and said, “It’s getting pretty late. Think I’ll turn in. We can finish the truck next weekend.”
That looked to be the end of it. I knew later, after Erin had gotten home from work, she would call me. I knew she was expecting something from me, something at that moment I wasn’t sure I could ever offer. When Royce turned for the door, I suddenly felt like telling him. About Padre. About how it didn’t matter what had happened between he and Karen; it didn’t matter how he felt or what he said. I wanted to explain all of this to him, and I very nearly did, and some days now I wish I had. But I wasn’t drunk enough. Royce had massive hands, the kinds of hands that made me think of the phrase “blunt force trauma.” I was afraid of him.
Before he turned the knob he hesitated, said, “You going to stay here tonight?”
“I don’t think so.”
“You’re drunk. You can take the spare room.”
“I think I can walk.”
“Your parents live, what, four miles away?”
“I can walk.”
“Well, all right. Turn the garage light out before you leave.”
“Well, okay,” he said. “I’ll be seeing you.”
Years later, after Erin left me in Sacramento for a mildly handsome gunnery sergeant who could love her in a way I simply could not, it took all I had within me to keep my position regarding Royce. I knew he was wrong. The end of our love was more complicated than he ever could have imagined. I am still certain of it.
Royce slept on the sofa in a tangle of velour blankets pocked with cigarette burns. This was a habit cultivated during the last years of his marriage, one he couldn’t shirk after the divorce. In those days Erin and I viewed it as eccentric and a bit defeatist. He could have just as easily removed the dirty clothes and phone bills scattered over his own bed, we figured. Also, Royce had sleep apnea. On the few nights we stayed with him we realized his snoring followed a cadence, a nearly mathematical proof: The gradual rise followed by silence—the point at which Royce had quit breathing—which gave way to a strangled gasp that, more often than not, woke the man, at which point Royce often smoked half a cigarette in the dark before falling back asleep.
The fire was caused by an ember, a small fleck of flame that floated from his dangling cigarette and caught on the blankets enshrouding his body. His large torso worked as a torch, and it must not have taken long for the rest of the sofa to catch.
Erin could never bring herself to view the charred remains of the house. Can you blame her? Yet I was mesmerized by the wreckage; I passed by the site often on my bicycle, stopping when I could to take in the scorched framework, the stench of melted sheetrock. Sometimes I picture myself in there that night, waking to see the room around me burning, the glow of something being erased from this earth.
What if I said the picture is always beautiful, always serene? Would that be wrong of me? How wrong?
The house is gone now, replaced by another. But it sat for a week, everything charred and ruined, sitting exactly as it had been: A clock on the garage wall. Royce’s tools. Our beer cans. That truck.
A graduate from the MFA program at the University of Houston, Andrew Brininstool’s work has appeared in Barrelhouse, Green Mountains Review, Quick Fiction, the Tin House blog, Best New American Voices 2010 and has received the Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award from Mid-American Review as well as the Editors’ Prize from /nor.