Mercy Rule


The spring before my father came back I sprouted up to five-five in a hurry. The week after finishing seventh grade the growing pains kept me in bed for three days, but by Independence Day Felix and I were at the Mill Creek courts hustling preppy jocks from all over. The net-less rims stained the backboards with streaks of rust and dropped flecks of sun-faded orange paint onto the blacktop with every shot that didn’t slide through on nothing but air. We’d play twos—Felix always driving, driving, and me hanging back for open jumpers. Felix wasn’t subtle about winning. A celebration dance after a particularly demoralizing juke and score wasn’t uncommon. He had an extra tooth above the canine on the left, and when he laughed it pointed straight out as if to indicate the butt of every joke. The losers would stare and shake their heads as Felix salsa-ed, but they never had anything to say about it. Felix and I would head home with paint chips stuck in the sweat at our hairlines, rimming our scalps like crowns.

“Fucking thespians,” Felix always said. That was his favorite damn word—he was always calling rich kids thespians. If he knew what it actually meant he might have toned down his sore-winner theatrics, but to him the sound mattered more than any definition. These kids piled out of their parents’ Audis, Gatorade-filled gym bags slung over their shoulders, thinking playing at Mill Creek meant they were hood. But just because they were rich didn’t make guys like Felix and me poor.

My mom always made sure I knew how fortunate we were money-wise. “Think how lucky we are to have been born in America,” she’d say. “Of all the places—what are the chances?” Sure, she was a maid—a housekeeper if you asked her—but while I was out schooling those pampered brats, their plastic mothers paid Mom just fine. We weren’t rolling in it or anything, but we had a house—I had my own room with a little TV on the dresser, we had our little patch of grass. So we back-to-school shopped at Target and some of us had an extra tooth we couldn’t afford to have removed or something—it’s not like we were eating out of dumpsters.

Still, living so close to all that money could fool some people into thinking they were real street rats. That same summer before eighth grade Felix’s older brother stopped hanging around. Aaron was seventeen, a rising senior, and somehow his absence had given our bodies permission to swell. Felix came up an inch shorter than me, but his skin pulled tight over his newly muscle-dense figure. At a distance you might not have been able to tell him from his older brother.

“Bigger, better things,” Felix said when I asked where Aaron spent all his time, but more than likely Felix didn’t have any more of an idea what that meant than he did thespians. More than likely that was a direct quote from Aaron, as vague and hopeful a description as there ever was, and inside it all the potential of Felix’s usual fantasies. Really Aaron was probably hooked on the newest pill he was pushing, I was almost sure. But that didn’t stop Felix from idolizing the shit out of him.

The last time Aaron hung with us he’d tossed a baseball around and told us stories about him and his best friend Otis, like how they’d each taken a turn getting blown in the high school dugout by “some Ashley bitch.” And how one night they hopped the fence and fed a bag of weed to the Hartley’s terrier and it chomped down the little Ziploc and everything, sprawled on the lawn and whined as its eyes glazed over. If you asked Felix, his brother was the coolest kid you’d ever meet— if you asked me, he might have been before, but he quit varsity. Aaron playing point guard was the only ticket I saw to bigger and better, and he hadn’t taken it. He had the best crossover I’ve ever seen up close—a move he passed onto Felix, a distant second, but inching closer and closer, it seemed, the longer Aaron wasn’t around.

In August Felix started wearing Aaron’s sweatband to the courts. I thought that was the grimiest thing I’d ever seen, wearing someone else’s filthy headband like a statement, and I let Felix know it. The first morning he had it on I pinched and pulled the worn fabric, let it snap back to the skin on his forehead. This was before any other kids had showed up—I wouldn’t have dared.

“You’d let your fly down and wear a goddamn condom around if Aaron used it first,” I said.

Felix didn’t even offer a warning fuck you, just lunged. He spun me around and worked me into a headlock. When I came to, Felix was crouching next to me, close but not touching.

“What the fuck,” I said.

A drop of sweat ran into his eye and he winked it away. “You were barely out five seconds.”

That was the end of it. He helped me up like saying, That’s the line behind you. And he pulled me back to the right side of things. I stopped mentioning Aaron after that, knowing Felix was missing his brother but would rather let brace-faced Carly Beeson dunk on him than admit it. I didn’t see the big deal. Aaron didn’t seem that far off to me, not distant enough to be missed. He was still in the neighborhood, patrolling with his boys, and at least Felix had both his parents. I hadn’t seen my father since I was a toddler, and he wasn’t the kind of gone where there were pictures of him scattered around the house. You didn’t see me having a fit in the park over it. When I was a kid, I’d ask Mom about my father and every time she’d work out a smile and say the same thing: “You’re much handsomer than Ray ever was.” Eventually I stopped asking, and by the time September of eighth grade came around I was sure a father wouldn’t have been much help to me anymore. I’d gotten along just fine and suddenly Felix and I were the kids running Mill Creek, the kings of middle school, twelve months short of shit-eating freshmen and in no hurry to skip back down the ladder.


Once I told him on the bus Friday morning, Felix wouldn’t let up about my father coming back. “Only reason someone leaves that long is they’re in the mob,” he said, half joking, half hoping, the moron. There wasn’t even a pinch of Italian in me. “Only way he came back with the same name is he capped anyone who wanted to cap him. High class shit.” That tooth jutted out between his smiling lips like it might have a joke of its own to add.

“He’s having a kid,” I said.

“Kid or not, your pop’s a killer.” Felix was really going now, howling and slapping my knee so hard the bus driver peeked in the rearview to make sure a fight wasn’t breaking out. That might have been a record, a fight on the way to the third day of school. I swiped Felix’s hand away, wishing I’d done something that might have actually hurt him and praying I hadn’t just set myself up for a full school year of heckling. He came back around with a fist, landed his knuckles square on the tender back of my arm. He always needed the last word that way—it had nothing to do with talking.

“Tomorrow we’ll see,” I said.

The week before, the last of summer, Mom and I had gotten a note along with my father’s monthly check, a gesture neither of us knew what to make of after over a decade of checks without even the memo field filled in. They might have said: For my son, or For abandoning you, or Because I’m a dickhead. In the letter, my father left a number, said if we didn’t call he understood, but I wanted to meet him. More than anything, I was curious to know exactly what kind of dickhead dumped his own kid to go make his fortune, only to send a monthly reminder of his overflowing bank account.

“Shit,” Felix said. His smile hadn’t faded. “If you’re not here Monday I know he’s got you

The bus turned into Ridgewater Middle School. I stood up and threaded my arms through the shoulder straps of my bag. I braced myself against the seatback ahead of us as the bus hissed to a halt. “Like we’ve got anything he doesn’t in High Hills,” I said.

That’s where he left to—High Hills, not even an hour’s drive north of us. I thought if you were ditching a kid you ought to run farther than that. I didn’t know anything particular, but from what I heard it was even snootier than the towns where Mom cleaned houses. High Fucking Hills, above us in every literal and figurative way you could think of, even on a map. I imagined castles, each perched on its own private summit.

Our school was no High Hills High, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t have rich kids. For every bus route through neighborhoods like ours there were two picking kids up from mansions set so far apart they each needed their own stop. They got off their busses wearing brand new pre-torn jeans and Jordans like they could ball with any of us. If basketball skill determined your shoe selection, Felix and I would have been neck deep in Air Force 1’s.

We got off the bus, me behind Felix, and these kids were pouring out of the next bus up the line. I saw Harrison Abramowitz looking dressed for temple in slacks and a blue button-down. He always dressed that way for no good reason. Last year as a sixth-grader Harrison had earned the nickname the Wheely Assassin when he’d swung his rolling backpack at an older kid who called him a kike. Harrison whiffed the shot and ran down the hall with the bag trailing behind him like some kind of pet. I wasn’t there, but Felix told me. The other kid moved on to Ridgewater High and now me and Felix were the eighth graders. Middle school was ours for one year and that meant making sure everyone knew it. There was more to that first week than textbooks and icebreakers. More important than paying attention to our teachers was taking note of whose balls still hadn’t dropped (a detail that locked Brian Marlin in as the last pick in our six-man draft) and, more important still, whose tits had ballooned into handfuls (the competition for Haley Costik would be a close second in importance to our daily basketball games). We’d stake our claim to the least cracked court on the playground and the teams we drafted would stick through the whole year, maybe longer.

Harrison’s bag clunked down the bus steps and as soon as it hit the cement he took off in a half jog toward the front entrance of the school. His wheels caught on a crack in the sidewalk and the bag flipped. Felix huffed a laugh out his nostrils at the sight of Harrison trying to right it. “Spend enough time with your old man and that’ll be you all fussed up,” Felix said. “In a month I’ll have to kick your ass.”

After school Felix and I walked from the bus stop to Mill Creek Park. Even though I paid for half, Felix kept the can of tennis balls in his backpack. He bounced one on the asphalt with every other step.

“Those kids got our bat again, I swear,” Felix said like a threat. In the summer we’d found a broom handle that we left behind the backstop for batting. It stayed there all summer no problem, except once we showed up to a new Nissan shimmering at the curb, the broom handle not in its place. There were a couple high-schoolers at the edge of the woods whipping our bat through the brush. The stench of their pot wafted out over the outfield. Worse than them handling our stuff was the fact that they’d driven from their hedge-circled homes to come smoke in the bad part of town.

When we got to the park that Friday we were the only ones there, our bat just where we’d left it. Felix tossed the ball to me and choked up on the broom handle. He held the wood near the smooth, rounded tip and scraped the splintered end across home plate. “Bring the heat,” he said. I whizzed a fastball by him. It hit the backstop before he got his swing around. Felix laughed. “Been hitting the juice, Clemens?”

I eased up a bit, but Felix made a habit of over-swinging. He only really launched one and made me chase after it while he galloped slow around the bases, blowing kisses to an imaginary crowd. In a couple minutes he got sick of cutting through foul balls and crouched in the clay behind the plate. He mimed catcher’s signals, holding his fingers out at crotch level like he was practicing to make the team. Felix insisted there was nothing to being a catcher, said he could go varsity next year if he wanted. Really he didn’t know what pitches he was calling, and when I looked down and nodded he flipped the bird and called me a faggot for staring.

“Your pops find out you’re a fairy and he’ll leave again for good.”

“Lay off it,” I said, but I knew he wouldn’t, because I couldn’t stop thinking about my father either. I was thinking how he owed me something I never asked for and wouldn’t take if he offered—how a father in High Hills didn’t mean anything when you were raised by your Mom in the flats. What a difference forty miles could make, I thought. I might have had a whole different life if he’d wanted me. The next day, he’d make the trip down to our dump of a house and, like those over-privileged burnouts at Mill Creek, act like he belonged. Why was it, I thought, that the rich came down the hill to do their dirt?

When I walked into the house Mom was dusting the television screen. She kept the place clean, but dusting our things wasn’t part of her everyday. She’d come home from an eight-hour day cleaning houses just to give our place a once-over.

Her dark hair was pulled into a bun so I could see her sweat-dampened t-shirt clinging to the space between her shoulder blades. The long-sleeved maroon blouse she’d worn to work was crumpled in a laundry basket on the living room floor. When I dropped my bag on the couch she turned to face me. “Take off those jeans,” she said, motioning towards the basket.

The red dust from that grassless baseball diamond was powdered over my pant legs. I stripped down to my boxers, adding my clothes to hers, and headed for my bedroom. I’d made the bed that morning—a habit Mom instilled in me by the time I could tie my own shoes—but I could tell she’d remade it. There was something real sad about it, how perfect the sheet was folded over, like I wouldn’t be sleeping under it before my father showed up the next day.

Mom hadn’t voiced an opinion one way or the other on my father coming back. “You’d think he’d wait for your birthday,” she’d joked after reading his letter aloud. I thought it was just the opposite, birthdays were the problem. Soon enough I’d be coming up on getting my permit and High Hills might not seem so far. An abandoned pre-teen a couple towns over was one thing, but that kid with a car meant either make up or shove off. I told Mom I wanted to meet him—figured if I didn’t he might soon enough run off on the new wife and kid just to avoid bumping into grown up me. She made the call right there in front of me. If she held a grudge against him, she didn’t let on.

I came out of my room in gym shorts and a fresh tee and Mom had moved from the cleaning the living room to kneeling in the kitchen. She leaned her head in the open oven and ran a sponge along its inside walls.

“What’s all this?” I said.

She pulled out of the oven and straightened up. “You know someone who’ll do it for us? You got a maid on call?” It was like a swear word to her, you could tell the way she said it.

“You really think he’ll look in there?”

She dipped back inside so her words sounded far away. “Things need cleaning, houseguests or not. I don’t see you volunteering.”

The microwave clock said 5:15 and I was hungry for Ramen, not because it was what I wanted, just because it was what we had that I could make myself. I grabbed a pot from the cupboard and turned the faucet on over it.

“Boil enough for two,” Mom said. So I filled the pot to up near the rim.

When it boiled the water foamed over and sizzled in the burner. I cooked the noodles and served them into two bowls. We sat together on one side of the kitchen table, facing our little living room and out the window at the back of the house. We always ate that way, side by side. You could get claustrophobic in that house, facing one another over dinner.

“How’re your teachers this year?” Mom said between bites.

“You want me to repeat it all again tomorrow?” She flicked her fingers at the back of my head for that one, hard enough to sting me through my short crop of hair. I hadn’t quite switched out of shit-talk mode since leaving Felix. “I’ll tell Mommy and Daddy all about it in the morning.”

Mom wasn’t one to push if you didn’t feel like talking. I loved her for that, no bullshit, but it also made me guilty as hell. Everything she did she did for me and she wasn’t one of those mothers who makes sure you know it every second of your life. She cleaned a thousand snobs’ houses a day, not because it was her job, but because taking care of me was.

She slipped a spun forkful of noodles between her lips and a single long strand hung down over her bowl. I’d been slurping all through dinner, flinging salty drops of broth over the front of my shirt and across the tabletop, but Mom was eating so careful. Where I would have puckered, she peeled back her lips to show the white of her front teeth as they came together and cut off the dangling noodle. It fell into her bowl with hardly a ripple. God, it made me guilty.

Saturday, the knock came on our door and Mom answered without a hitch, didn’t even glance through the peephole after all that time, just swung the door open like he’d gone for a jug of milk. “You look the damn same,” she said.

He was scrawny and pale. The bridge of his nose elbowed downward like someone had been thumbing the soft tip toward his mouth his whole life. He stood quiet in the doorway for a second, because what do you say in that situation? I can explain, son. No fucking way.

Mom tapped the doorknob with her finger and nodded, her lips pinched together into a flatline. “In or out then?” she said, landing her hand behind his shoulder and pulling him inside. She led Ray to a seat at the table. He slouched into it and pulled at the end of his solid red necktie. The head of a pen stuck out of his shirt pocket. He’d showed up dressed for a business meeting and here Mom and I were both in jeans. There was a pitcher of instant lemonade in the center of the table, and glasses, one in front of Ray, two across from him. Mom had set it all up to seem as normal as possible.

“You sure it’s him?” I said, trying to be funny, but it came out sounding like I really wasn’t convinced.

Ray laughed anyway. “What’d you expect? I’m regular enough.”

That got me. I’d spent time wondering what kind of man leaves his kid, thinking you could probably tell right away what kind of man that was. But Ray didn’t stand out from any rich stranger.

“So.” The pause he left put weight on the word, like all I needed to know about him could be read in that one syllable. “I want to know my son,” he said, the same language exactly he’d used in the letter. And I sat and talked. I wasn’t shy. I treated him like Mom would have expected me to treat any adult, polite and honest. Talking was easy with a stranger if you knew he was your father. It wasn’t as awkward as you’d think. I told him about school, how awful Ms. Hardner assigned a whole book to read over the first weekend of the school year, and about basketball at recess, how Edmund Gaines thought it meant something his dad coached JV at Ridgewater High.

When I was finished, Ray started going on about all the things he’d already said in the letter—about his wife, Lydia, and how she was eight weeks pregnant. That’s why he came back, he said. Said before the new kid came he ought to know the one he had already. I didn’t ask, but he told me.

“Lydia teaches little kids,” Ray said, “third grade. She’s no Ms. Hardner though, I swear. You should meet her.”

First it sounded like he was just saying it, like you’d say You should have met my dead granddad, but once his words were out hovering in the room it was different. Ray turned to Mom then, his eyes looking sorry. “You should both meet her.”

“Yes,” I said without looking at Mom. If the reason Ray was back was in Lydia then I had to know her too.

Mom nodded and Ray wrote his address on a napkin, like we’d never looked top left of the envelopes he sent. “I won’t sleep before you’re there,” he said standing in the doorway. I hadn’t seen anyone so giddy since Felix’s parents bought him a Knicks flat brim for his twelfth birthday, and that excitement lasted all of two weeks.

When we’d said goodbye and Ray was out the door Mom downed a whole glass of lemonade before saying a word to me. “It sure looks like him,” she said finally, “but that’s not the boy I knew.”

I’d thought how hard this might be on Mom, but I also thought twelve years was a long time. “What’s wrong with him?” I asked, thinking as far as I could tell he was no worse than any of the kids from school, and probably better if he could come meet us in our own ratty house and act civil.

“Nothing wrong,” Mom said. “Nothing I can see.”

The day after I met my father we turned onto the Gunters’ street at five to noon and parked at the curb. I always went to work with Mom on Sundays. Since I was ten it was the Gunters’ house in Brookside. All those years meant less than you think—Mr. and Mrs. Gunter went out for lunch every week, to stay out of Mom’s way, they said, and their kids were grown and gone. We weren’t anything like friends. The Gunters left the money in an envelope on the kitchen counter. Sometimes it felt like Mom was cleaning a house that no one lived in but somehow dirtied itself every week.

Mom turned the key in the door, let us in, and disarmed the security system. She set me up on the couch with Monday’s homework, like every week. Treat it like a job and one day it’ll turn into one. That was Mom’s attitude toward school, though, judging by her line of work, if she lived by it she must have spent K through twelve studying marine biology, specifically, sponges. Once all my homework was laid out in front of me on the coffee table she went to the front closet for the cleaning supplies.

The book Ms. Hardner had assigned was Of Mice and Men. I’d read about seventy pages into it since Friday night. I skimmed through the last few chapters pretty quickly there on the Gunters’ couch, not thinking too far into anything even though I knew Hardner would be interrogating us about what it all meant Monday. Still, I couldn’t help feeling bad for George, him having to off his only friend that way and having nowhere to go. I bet he would have killed even for Mom’s and my cruddy house. At least we were from some place. George might have straight up shit himself if he set foot in the Gunters’.

I held the book open in front of me the whole time Mom was cleaning downstairs. I’d learned to fake it even after I was done with everything, otherwise Mom made me help around the house. Once she moved upstairs I set my finished schoolwork on the plate glass coffee table and took special note of the stainless steel trash compactor, the bathroom sink in the form of a huge marble bowl. I’d been around the house before, but I never entered a room Mom wasn’t in—that was her rule. If I went to take a piss she expected an announcement.

The first door I opened led into a bedroom that had belonged to one of the kids before they moved out. There were tiny knots in the grain of the laminate hardwood. The bed was made with a down comforter and pillows piled at the headboard. I imagined it wasn’t far off from the room Ray and Lydia’s kid would sleep in. The kid’s allowance would be what Mom makes in a month.

When I turned the knob to the garage the alarm system chirped. A red convertible sat heavy in the center of the uncluttered space, top open. On the side of the front end silver script spelled out Thunderbird. It was old, but even in the dim of the garage the whole car shined. When I got close I could see my warped reflection in the metallic paint. I ran my fingers along the body toward the taillight, gentle. The whole thing implied speed—no one runs an errand in a car like this—but it’s not like Mr. Gunter was a drag racer or anything. He probably just polished the thing all day, like some old-rich-guy way of jerking off.

“Julian,” I heard from over my shoulder. Mom was in the doorway, yellow-gloved hands planted on her hips. Two dark frizzes had worked their way free of her hair tie and stood on either side of her head like antennas. I pulled my palm off the back hatch where it had been resting and its ghost stayed there in a foggy outline for a second before evaporating. “Whose house is this?”

I stuffed my hands in my pockets. “Sorry.”

“If you can’t sit still you’ll help me clean.” Mom turned back into the house and I followed, closing the door to the garage behind me. She led me into the kitchen and handed me a sponge and a bottle of Fantastik for the sink and countertops. “Your homework’s done,” she said, not like a question, but I knew it needed an answer so I nodded. “Stay in the kitchen. If you finish the kitchen, do it again.”

I was thorough. I sprayed and scrubbed knowing that next week we’d be back to do it all again, that a week living in Brookside produced less grime than an hour at Mill Creek, but still this cleaning took priority. The faucet was the last thing I wiped down and when I was done it was a rounded mirror. I stood there trying to position my face so its reflection wrapped around the nozzle just right, my narrow nose bending and bulging in the curl of it, so maybe I could see the likeness of my father.

David Joseph lives in Philadelphia with his wife. He served as Co-Editor-in-Chief of Susquehanna Review for its 2012 and 2013 issues. His fiction has appeared in Hobart, Big Lucks, W.W. Norton’s Hint Fiction, and elsewhere. Most recently, David’s story “Anna Karina Floats in the Ocean” was awarded 2nd Place in CHEAP POP & Great Lakes Commonwealth of Letters’ 2015 Micro-Fiction Contest. Connect with him on Twitter: @dfhjoseph.