These are a few short drabbles from way back before summer that I randombly revisited last night, and got the urge to share. I also decided to tweak them a bit and experiment with a slightly different tense and style than usual, which was a lot of fun.
There are a couple more sitting around in my files, so I might add to these sporadically further down the line, if time and mood allows.
With belligerent instincts born of affection,
the unlikely wholesomeness of an ill-advised collaboration,
a bodacious sandwich in a paper bag, a couple of murders
and a whole lot of glaring
Something happens to a man the instant he becomes a father. There is a radical change, an abrupt shift in gears that no one, no matter how eager or involved or obsessively studied in the mundane practicalities of fatherhood as relayed by those who've experienced it before him, can ever truly comprehend until he is struck by it himself and only then realize the magnitude of it, and its many lasting effects.
Mothers feel the child for what it is long before they hear its first cry. They cradle it constantly for months on end, feel its warmth as their own, its every tiny motion, share their very heartbeat with it, but during that time all a father sees is an ever-growing, somewhat comically round lump on their partner's belly. Nothing can ever prepare him for that single moment after all the panicked rushing and the screaming and the crushing agony of idle helplessness, when suddenly things quiet down and someone places a small bundle of cloth in his arms and congratulates him; like he'd know how to hold it right, or have the presence of mind to remember even if he did.
And then he's staring down at this soft, fragile, miniscule creature he's told is his child, this fresh being who hasn't even been around long enough to form a thought yet, and for a while he's every bit as dumb as it is. Then it does something, it always does something –might be a frown, a little whimper of protest because this new thing doesn't smell like mom, a meaningless little shuffle within its cozy nest of towels or even just take a tiny breath, it doesn't matter- it always does something, and all at once it clicks.
His boy, maybe; or, and especially for some, his daughter.
Viktor Vasko had had one such moment too and recalled it all too vividly, because nothing was the same again after that first encounter. The air smelled different. A lovely, bright midsummer day might have been too bright so that the toddler at his side had to shield her eyes, at which point the sun was to be glared at. Perhaps that older boy next door once made an offhand comment on how obnoxious his neighborhood's kids were, and he too was to be glared at, to a much more powerful effect. Strangers on the street who Viktor thought looked at her funny, unmannerly little would-be Don Juans who were still far too young to understand exactly why they were teasing her, a family friend who remarked how beautiful a woman she would turn into one day; all of them had become instantly familiar with the brawny Slovak's pointed stare, and even those close enough to him to laugh it off would actively avoid receiving it a second time.
There was no thought whatsoever involved in any of this. It was simple instinct, pure and strong and irrefutable; and Viktor, having always been a man of impulse, might have followed that instinct somewhat overzealously, but he never once regretted it. He was a perfect fit to that role, he thought. He was good at it, and that quickly became his point of greatest pride, what he would consider his most defining feature and be content with the state of things.
Then some archduke halfway across the world went and got himself shot, which apparently meant that millions of young men had to be put through Hell on earth. That, too, changes a man, in all the wrong ways.
The War rattled his brain. It squeezed out the calmness of him, the civility and restraint, forced him to shed it all in the mud of a dismal trench somewhere in France, and when finally it was time to return home, he could not for the life of him remember where he left it. What he brought back instead was machinegun fire and screaming men, a cacophony of death and violence forever stuck inside his ears which he could not rid himself of until eventually he was acting it all out, exploding time and time again like the countless shell blasts that had often come so close to claiming his life. And thus his losses began to mount.
He had returned with all four working limbs still attached, but in the long run, the War had cost him his right eye and both his knees. It had cost him the esteem of friends and family who had known the man he was before he was shipped off to the trenches. It had cost him a loving wife who could no longer excuse all of his mistakes, try as she might. It had cost him his little kňažná.
He could no longer be an ideal father, or even a decent one, and he knew it. So he had done the next best thing and stoically resigned himself to his chosen life of trouble and poor decisions, trusting that the girl was safe and happy somewhere far away without him, because this was truly for the best. And that was to be the end of it.
Except, not quite. For despite everything, Viktor still bore the indelible mark of parenthood, that primitive, mystical endowment with all its attendant roughness and sensibilities. It had left a soft spot in his heart, one that no war, no amount of rage, bitterness or loss could ever encroach upon or corrupt. It just so happened that, perhaps unsurprisingly, none of the people surrounding him in the gnarly bootlegging enterprise he found himself involved in were a right fit for it.
Until one day, out of nowhere, someone came along who was. A dainty little girl showed up at the dirty garage that he had made his domain, wearing an expensive frilly dress that made her look like a slightly oversized doll at the shop window of the local toy store. The girl stepped inside without a moment's hesitation, seemingly oblivious of how jarring her presence was in such a place, and very openly stared at the huge man's worn-out eyepatch the way a hardcore baseball fan might have stared at a real life Ty Cobb. She said something aimed to peeve him, he responded in kind, and by the end of that momentous exchange the girl had, for whatever reason, decided she would attach herself to this grumpy one-eyed lunk with the perpetual temper who seemed to favor grunts over full sentences.
Everything from that point on just sort of happened.
Ivy Pepper wasn't much like his daughter, truth be told. For one, she was infinitely more spoilt. Viktor also didn't remember his kid ever having as extensive a vocabulary as this one; though in all fairness, he seldom understood half of the youngish jargon she so liked to use, and it could very well be gibberish. But this didn't seem to matter all that much, in the end. She was a plucky, brazen and incorrigibly garrulous little thing, headstrong to a fault and dangerously cute, with mischief to spare and an uncanny ability to charm her way out of any due punishment at the very last minute. She was a smart-mouthed, trouble-seeking, floor-flushing bundle of sunshine, all in all the kind of kid one couldn't help but smile at.
Discreetly, that is. On occasion.
She was great, really. And she was a little girl. And, against all the good sense she seemed to possess underneath that ditzy exterior, she somehow appeared to enjoy him with his curt manner and his myriad pointed glares.
Viktor never paused to consider if it made sense. It didn't have to; once again this was all plain instinct, and once again he was simply following impulses.
Furthermore, it gave the Slovak tom an unhoped-for opportunity to see what form that instinct would take at a later stage, when the girl inevitably went through that so called "rebellious phase" of hers. He used to dread that with his own daughter, back in the day. But Ivy's teen years rolled around and she was just as chipper whenever she vacationed in town, always eager to rush in and share with him all her news and receive his indignant snorting in return, as per their unspoken contract. Then she hit eighteen, at which point a college admission brought her in St. Louis all year long, meaning she could now freely linger around her favorite speakeasy just as it was hitting rock bottom. A worrying development, to be sure.
But worse yet, it brought with it a new, fresh Hell for Viktor: boyfriends. More specifically, healthy, consensual relationships with appropriately aged, promising young men currently in the process of receiving tertiary education.
Viktor had some objections.
One day he had decided to accost that Cecil boy (ugh) and politely voice those objections. He figured he had done a decent enough job of it, because Cecil never showed his face around the speakeasy again- so that was good. Then this Claude character appeared in his place, and one look at the stupid, sleazy look on his face as they danced was enough to convince Viktor that his services would be required a second time.
No good, no good.
He didn't make a habit of breaking them, of course. He didn't need to. It was mostly mean looks and some growling that did the trick, maybe punctuated with a solid wallop or two to ensure the message got across as intended. Anything beyond that would just be gratuitous.
It's just that Chad, whose own instincts of self-preservation were clearly subpar, had attempted to indulge some sort of unworldly boyish pride and actually talked back to him. Viktor found his subsequent walloping to be a particularly cathartic one.
But now, in an instance of pesky cosmic irony (or otherwise an act of divine retribution, if indeed those do exist) Viktor is the one who lays bedridden, sprawled over an armchair and cushioned footstool by the window of his modest ground floor apartment, a thin blanket thrown over the bandages wrapped around his torso to press shut the spot where a buckshot's worth of lead had found its mark in him just the night prior. His fervent hopes for an afternoon of peace and quiet have long been squashed, first by the strident sounds of a godawful banjo emitted by the radio speaker and then by a boisterous trio of irreverent interlopers who stampeded up the building's front steps and barged into his resting space.
One of them was Ivy, so- eh, what could he do. The second was a cheery, thunderously eccentric youngster with a memorable set of eyebrows and characteristic pasta-like physique whom Viktor fantasized about throttling on a regular basis, not least at that very moment. The third one, though, he did not recognize.
It is at this point that Viktor is first introduced to Calvin (Freckle?) whom he immediately registers as the latest in the long line of C-something inadequates Ivy saw fit to involve herself with. He glares at the boy from under his brow, watches him stiffen up and recoil away from this freshly wounded middle-aged cripple who cannot even breathe right at the time, and Viktor can scarcely fathom how such a pathetic creature could have ever caught the attention of a girl like Ivy. He has a weak face, the face of a sheltered milquetoast pretty-boy from the suburbs, complete with a set of wide, timorous eyes and a nervous bearing that makes the older tom's skin crawl as he sees him standing there with the girl wrapped intimately around his arm, averting his gaze and trying to wiggle out of her grip like he is anything less than abjectly grateful to be given the time of day by someone like her.
And worst of all, as Viktor will soon find out, this sorry excuse for a suitor is also a close cousin of the crazy one.
So Viktor keeps glaring at him for a few more seconds until the next distraction comes tottering down the stairs to whisk the young couple away; and he inwardly hopes that this one, too, will find it in himself to talk back to him.