Still handcuffed, Butler Simmons lay on the steel bench, his back against the riveted iron latticework of the town’s musty jail cell. He was nauseous, his head pounded. He drifted in and out of consciousness. During a lucid moment he blinked and tried to clear his blurred vision by focusing on the old stumblebum who lay curled up on the floor in the adjacent corner. And then he closed his eyes as a dream began to filter through.
He was a teenager in his room at home, his jaw and ribs aching from a fistfight. His normally well-groomed father, Bill, wearing a wrinkled, dirty yellow shirt, hovered over him. Unshaven, mouth taut and twisted, he poked at Butler with his finger. “I’m not home but a few days a month to visit with your mother. I’m not here to deal with any malarkey from you.” His father glared; saliva gathered at the corners of his mouth. “What’s wrong with you, boy? Rest of the time I’m home I don’t even want to know you’re in this house. You got that?”
Then a grizzled face hovered again, and the yellow shirt partially blocked the view of the hallway outside his bedroom door where his father and his mother, Ruth, stood talking. “I’ll say one thing for him,” Bill said. “The kid’s a scrapper. Two punks on him and he was still taking care of business.”
The words were an unexpected balm that momentarily washed away all Butler’s aches and pains. Then Bill pulled Ruth roughly against him and kissed her. She giggled as they stumbled through their bedroom door.
“You been fight’n, have ya?” Butler came to for a moment and looked up through the blur as the bum in the yellow shirt stared down at him. Butler’s head began to throb; he winced and closed his eyes.
Butler Simmons stood five-eight, thick and muscular, with a ruddy complexion and a buzz-cut that now showed an egg-sized lump covered in dried blood on the crown of his head. His large hands were permanently gloved in calluses from years working as a brick layer. He was thirty-one, but looked fifty.
Since he was seventeen, Butler had been in and out of jail, always for fighting and often for resisting arrest. It confused his friends who knew him to be generally happy and easy going. Butler didn’t fully understand why he fought either. All he knew was that whenever he was hurting inside, it was his drug of choice, and an easy drug to find. There were always loudmouths in the bars and clubs, or gangs of foul-mouthed toughs walking through the mall. The numbers didn’t matter. The bigger the brawl the better, because all Butler cared about was the banging, dizzying, breathtaking fury of the fight that, in the moment, he wished could go on forever.
Footsteps sounded on the jailhouse stairs and a door opened. Butler tried to focus but could see nothing but the blurred image of a man. “You ready to calm down now?”
Butler struggled to sit up but had to stop and lean against the bars to quiet the pounding in his head.
“I’m talking to you, Simmons.”
It was the smarmy desk sergeant with the Errol Flynn moustache. Through the pain Butler nodded his head and then slurred, “I’m good. How bout taking these cuffs off.”
The sergeant fingered a key and motioned him to the cell door. Butler stood up, then wobbled and collapsed onto the floor.
Butler awoke in a hospital room. His mother sat in a nearby chair reading a magazine. He scanned the room for his father.
“He’s not here, honey.” Ruth closed the magazine and pulled her chair closer to the bed.
Butler’s father was a high-altitude iron-worker, and proud of it. Hard and wiry, and several inches taller than Butler, Bill worked on bridges and skyscrapers all over the country and was only home a few days each month. When Butler was growing up, he would listen in awe as his dad bragged about places he had been and things he had done. Bill spent most of his visits in the bedroom with Ruth, having noisy sex, or in neighborhood taverns drinking with friends. Throughout his childhood Butler yearned for his father’s attention but Bill had no interest in his son. Still didn’t.
Ruth smiled at him. “How do you feel?”
Butler carefully felt the bandage on his head. “I’ve been better. At least the headache’s not as bad and I can see okay. I think someone got me with a cue.”
Ruth leaned back in her chair her expression tight as if she were trying to hold something inside.
“What’s the matter?” Butler said.
“You’ve got to stop fighting, Bubby.”
“I know, Mom. I’ll work on it.”
“It’s different this time.” She startled him when she grabbed his hand. “They had to operate. You almost died.”
He stared at her for several long seconds then looked at the ceiling and swallowed. “What day is it?”
“It’s Thursday. You’ve been here four days.”
“Anyone checked on Smoothie?”
“He’s okay. I was over there this morning. Cats shouldn’t be so fat, you know. It’s not good for him.”
“What about the cops?”
“They dropped the charges. I think they’re worried you’re gonna sue them.”
“Maybe I should.” He tried to sit up.
“No, no. You’ve gotta be on your back for a while.” Butler settled into his pillow. He had never seen his mother so concerned.
“Your dad was here to see you.”
Butler’s mood instantly brightened. “Yeah?”
“It was Tuesday, I think. The doctors were still real worried about you then.”
“That was nice of him. I didn’t know. Did he stay a while?”
Ruth motioned toward a chair next to the door. “He sat right over there.”
Butler stared at the chair and the room grew awkwardly silent. Since he was a teenager, Butler kept a picture of his father standing on an iron beam thirty stories over the Chicago waterfront. It still took his breath away every time he looked at it. There was Bill, strong and confident, surrounded by a vast and luxurious openness, with the world of streets and buildings far below. Butler had tried to become an iron-worker but was dizzy and immobile at significant heights. Bill never missed a chance to humiliate him over it. Even at thirty-one, Butler was devastated by Bill’s criticism and, equally, savored even the smallest and often insincere bits of acceptance and praise.
“What about Silvia?”
Ruth hesitated. “I called her, Bubby.” She forced a smile and shook her head no.
Butler was twenty-eight when he married Silvia. She was an old high-school friend who fell in love with him during one of his longer periods of stability. She was intrigued by his easy nature and his bizarre need to fight, and was convinced she could help him put an end to it. In fact, Butler kept things under control for two years and was very happy. Then the economy went bad and he was laid off. They were about to lose the house until his father finally stepped in and loaned them some money. But then Bill started to needle him and Butler finally lost it. In the aftermath of seven separate fights and subsequent trouble with the police, Silvia’s tolerance and understanding wore out. She moved into her own apartment. Their divorce was finalized three months ago.
“You’ve had a skull fracture, Mr. Simmons.” The young doctor put on his glasses and slipped the x-ray film into the clip over the lighted board by Butler’s bed. “It looks like it wasn’t the first.”
“I’ve had a few lumps along the way. Lucky I’ve got a hard head.” Butler grinned.
The doctor didn’t smile back. “When you first got hit did you black out?”
“No, I went down for a minute but I got right back up. It hurt like hell.”
“You could see and function okay? Your speech wasn’t slurred?”
“I was fine. I was going strong until the cops came and threw me in jail. That’s when I started feeling sick, couldn’t get my eyes to work.”
The doctor nodded. “Right. It’s because, along with the fracture, you developed a swelling between the brain and the skull, what we call a subdural hematoma.”
“Untreated, the swelling might have caused permanent damage to the brain, or even death. We had to drill several burr holes to relieve the pressure. Fortunately the procedure was successful.”
“Well, I’m glad of that. Thanks.”
The doctor sat down in the chair next to the bed. “Here’s the problem, Mr. Simmons. Patients who have experienced subdural hematomas become more and more prone to them. With any additional head trauma they’re likely to appear again, and it can happen days or even weeks after an event.”
Butler tried to think of something clever to say, but couldn’t.
“So we need you to stay on your back for the next week or so, make sure this one is behind us. After that you’ll have to take it easy, re-assess your lifestyle. We can get into more details at our follow-up examination but in the future you’ll have to avoid certain types of activities. No rugby, hockey, boxing, wrestling, football, no contact sports of any kind. If it takes a helmet, you’ll have to avoid it.”
Butler felt as if he had just been given a life sentence.
The doctor smiled. He stood up, took off his glasses and slipped them into his breast-pocket. “I wouldn’t worry, Mr. Simmons. Most people make out just fine. Take it easy and I’ll see you in two weeks.”
Silvia had liked a clean, orderly house. That had been a big change for Butler, who as a bachelor had been happy living amongst piles of laundry and counters filled with dirty dishes. As he lay on the couch Butler thought about a day early in their marriage. Silvia had been working on the house and had finished the kitchen with new white lace curtains and placed a large bouquet of cut zinnias on the table. She had just returned the broom to the closet as he came through the door. The afternoon sun was streaming in the window. And there was beautiful Silvia wearing white shorts and a dark tank-top, smiling at him as she wiped her hands on a towel. It was a small moment, but his heart was so full. Seeing her there in the center of the sparkling kitchen, he realized how much better his life was going to be now that they were together.
She had given him a puzzled look and said, “What?”
They had hugged and he had been unable to speak, but she had him in her arms and everything was okay.
Now, as he lay on his couch with Smoothie curled at his feet, his heart full at the remembering, that speechless feeling came back to him again. But he was alone and empty and the feeling stuck in his throat and pulled at him and he felt as if he were descending into a great darkness. He needed to fight, but his head throbbed and he knew he couldn’t.
He scanned the room. Since Silvia had gone he had drifted back to his old ways. He hadn’t vacuumed or dusted. The coffee table was filled with glasses, coke cans and dishes. Papers and magazines littered the floor around the couch and lounge-chair. An overflowing laundry basket sat on the floor by the front entrance where his jacket hung over the newel-post. When he had gotten up and gone to the kitchen to refresh his coffee he had to hold the cup when he poured because there was no place to set it. At least now he had an excuse for the clutter, he thought. The doctor had insisted he remain on his back for another week.
Someone knocked at the door and it immediately opened. “It’s just me, Bubby.” Ruth came into the house with a grocery bag in one arm and a handful of mail in the other. She was wearing a scarf and a rain-coat with dripping-wet shoulders. “It’s nasty out there. How are you doing?”
“I’m doing fine.”
Smoothie stood and stretched. Ruth handed Butler the mail and went into the kitchen, the cat following close behind. Butler shuffled through the letters and tossed them on the coffee table. In the kitchen dry cat food clattered into the bowl.
“Smoothie’s almost out of food,” Ruth said. “I’ll pick some more up for you.”
“There’s a big bag in the closet.”
“Oh, good. I can’t stay now, honey, but I’ll come back later and do some of these dishes.”
“Maybe you could bring Dad with you.”
Ruth stepped into the doorway. “He left today, Bubby. I thought he called you.”
Butler shook his head and said, “No.”
“Sorry. You know how he is.”
“Yeah. If you talk to him, tell him the union hall called. They’re putting me on a big commercial job next month. It’s supposed to last a year.”
“Don’t you need to wait and see what the doctor says?”
“It’s four weeks from now, Mom. Besides, I’ve gotta work.”
“Well… I guess. Dad will be happy to hear that. I know he worries about you.”
Butler put his hands behind his head and stared at the ceiling.
His hand shook when he picked up the phone and dialed Silvia’s number. It rang three times.
He closed his eyes at the sound of her voice.
“Hello?” she said again.
“Hey… It’s me.” He heard her take a short breath. “Don’t hang up. Please.”
Rustling sounded through the phone and then a moment of silence. “What do you want?”
“I just wanted… I just wanted to talk to you. I’m going nuts here in the house.” Butler shifted the phone to his other ear and settled into the couch. “I have to lie flat on my back for a week. I’ve got another three days and then I go back to the doc.”
“Your mom said it was bad.”
Smoothie jumped onto the cushion and lay down next to him. “I’m over the hump now.”
“Until the next time.”
“No. I can’t do that anymore. It’s over.”
“I hope it is, Butler. For your sake, I hope it is.”
“Come see me.”
“You know I can’t do that.”
“Why not? A quick visit with a sick friend. Besides, Smoothie’s been asking about you. Come see him. I’ll stay in the bedroom.”
She laughed. “How is Smoothie anyway?”
“He’s fat. And he wants to see you.” There was a long pause. “Just come to the front door and wave. It would mean a lot to both of us.”
“Butler… It’s over. You know that.”
“I know. I’m just so bored lying here.” His voice cracked as he said, “I was hoping to have something to look forward to.”
She sighed. “Maybe I could stop by after work tomorrow.”
He sat up. “Oh, that would be great.”
“It’ll just be for a few minutes, Butler. It doesn’t mean anything. Visiting a sick friend, that’s all.”
He worked until after midnight cleaning up the clutter. His head was pounding when he went to bed but he was fine when he woke up. He called the florist first thing and ordered a bouquet of cut-flowers for the table, then he washed the rest of the dishes, cleaned out Smoothie’s litter-box, and mopped the kitchen floor. He organized the mail and dusted and vacuumed the living-room. He did a load of wash and put fresh towels in the bathroom and kitchen.
At three o’clock he shaved and took a shower then put on a fresh pair of jeans and a rust-colored polo-shirt. In the living-room he slipped in a CD and lay down on the couch, closed his eyes. He was tense and maybe it was his imagination, but his head felt a little tingly. He made himself a promise that from now on he would strictly follow the doctor’s orders. He had begun to doze when someone knocked at the door. He leapt from the couch and grabbed his head with both hands as a sharp pain hit him like a shot, then just as quickly subsided. He opened the door. It was the delivery from the florist.
On his way into the kitchen with the flowers the phone rang. He picked it up.
“It’s me.” There was a sense of stony strength and immediacy in Silvia’s voice. He braced himself.
“I just wanted to let you know I won’t be coming by.”
Butler set the flowers on the table, pulled out a chair and sat down. Smoothie rubbed against his leg and meowed. “How come?”
“It’s just not going to work. I should never have agreed to do it.”
“You’re just visiting a sick friend.”
“Butler, I hope it all works out for you. I really do, but I have to go now.”
“But…” She hung up.
Smoothie rubbed against his leg again. Butler set the phone on the table next to the flowers and went to the closet. He pulled out the bag of cat-food, returned to the chair and picked at the braided-string closure. He pulled a loose end but the braid just tightened into a hard knot. He always had trouble with these. He tried the other end and the cat meowed again. Butler finally went to the counter, took a knife from the block and slashed the bag twice across the middle. He ripped it open and left it on the floor. Smoothie looked at him, then hunched down and started eating.
It took four of them; a cop, the bouncer from the Blue Duck and two civilians, to get Butler Simmons handcuffed. They jammed him, still struggling and kicking, into the back of the police-car. His body was wedged between the rear seat and the steel mesh partition, his head on the floor behind the driver’s seat. The cop, breathing heavily, the side of his face smeared with blood and the sleeve of his leather jacket ripped at the shoulder, pulled open the rear passenger door and stomped on Butler’s head several times. He slammed the door and scanned the crowd of onlookers, his angry glare daring anyone to speak. The crowd, sporadically lit in red and blue by the rotating police-car bubbles, headed back into the bar.
Butler gasped for breath through the acrid smell of the heavy rubber floor-mats. He thought of the picture, his father on the steel beam, the endless sky, the buildings far below.