Fiction from the 2012 issue.
Kingdom of Heaven
By William Jensen
My stepfather died in prison last year. He was incarcerated at Chino for armed robbery when throat cancer got him. By then his long hair and beard had turned from a jet black to a wolfish grey. He was arrested shortly after he turned fifty and I saw him every weekend for the three years he served before he became sick. I was the only visitor he had at the end. Even my mother had stopped coming.
Before he passed he did time at San Quentin, Folsom, Blythe, and Maricopa for things like burglary and grand theft auto. But I would never say my stepfather was a career criminal.
My stepfather was named Jesse Copland. He was athletically built, with broad shoulders and a thin waist. His face was long and narrow and his eyes were a pale blue. He met my mother when I was two. They married the next year. My biological father had taken off and I never knew him. I don’t care to know about him either.
For the next few years we were a family. But when I was seven mom and Jesse started fighting. I would lie in bed and listen. Shadows shuffled past the crack of light beneath my door. Their voices were muffled; my stepfather’s a low rumble, my mother’s a high-pitched flow. I gripped my pillow and breathed with my mouth against the fabric. Occasionally I heard a distinct word amongst the mumbles: No, You, Now, Afford, Baby, Handle and Please, but that was about all. Usually it was just footsteps, lighting of cigarettes, beer cans snapping open, and sometimes a door being slammed. But when I woke up I found them at the breakfast nook drinking coffee, smoking, and smiling; Jesse in his tank top and jeans, and mom in her pink robe.
We lived in the southern outskirts of Mesa, Arizona, in a small, stucco house. The land around us was flat and marked with jagged stones, coated with a red dust. Our street was a quiet one-lane stretch of blacktop and at night I heard coyotes howl.
My mother was a waitress, and Jesse made money carving and staining southwestern furniture out of Juniper and Pine. Mostly benches and rocking chairs. Some pieces had been glossed over and were smooth to the touch. Others were left as rough wood and bark. He worked in our garage. Old newspapers covered the floor. Paint cans and brushes lined the wall. Jesse spent afternoons there, sipping coffee and listening to classic country radio. But then the furniture stopped selling after Christmas. This meant half our income stopped coming in. By January we drank tap water instead of soda. We ate buttered pasta instead of beef. Mom and Jesse argued even more.
In February they had another fight; but this one led to disaster. They yelled so loud I heard everything they said. Jesse spoke in a pronounced fire and everything my mother said sounded like a sharp stab.
“What are you saying, Mary? Is that what you want?”
“No it isn’t.”
“Then what, damn it? Just tell me!”
“I would if you let me!”
I stayed in bed. I didn’t want to hear them. My mother growled in frustration. Their shadows came and went.
“Let’s just finish this, just get it out in the open,” Jesse said.
“Okay. Fine. I hate it here. I hate it more than anything else in the world.”
They had the radio on and a song with loud electric guitars was playing. Somebody turned it off, opened the refrigerator, and popped a can of beer. Mom paced.
“We can leave, babe. Just not now. Trust me.”
I tried putting my pillow over my face, to cover my ears but it didn’t help. It was too uncomfortable, too hot and hard to breathe. I stopped watching the shadows, closed my eyes and eventually I drifted off. I did not dream.
The truth was my mother was never satisfied. While Jesse had stayed in jails, she had lived in more towns and cities than anyone I know. Before she had me she lived along the California coast, and in Reno, Las Vegas, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Seattle, Tacoma, Denver, Colorado Springs, Eugene and Portland.
I don’t know what compelled her to always move. I’ve asked but she has never given it much thought, nor given me any convincing answer. I’ve concluded that she is simply a wanderer.
But the reason she was upset then was because she hated where we lived. She hated the long summers, the dryness that made her skin crack. She hated the snakes that hid outside the front door and the little black scorpions that crawled in through the garage. These were the things that drove her insane; these were the things, like everywhere else in the world, which defined their place that she could not accept. If she lived in Florida she would have hated the humidity, in Michigan the snow, in Kansas the wheat. Unless there was an unrealistic happy medium between all things she would never be content.
The morning after their fight I walked to the kitchen. Jesse sat at the nook, sipping coffee by himself. I knew something wasn’t right.
“Hey, buckshot,” Jesse said. He gave me a wink.
“It looks like she took off.”
Jesse reached for his pack of Camels on the table and shook one out. He clicked his tongue and shot me another look.
“Where did she go?”
“Her note says she went to see her sister, your aunt Lauren in San Diego.” He lit his cigarette with his Zippo and motioned with his chin towards the refrigerator. A magnet held up a yellow piece of paper with blue cursive on it.
I’m taking a bus to see my sister. I’ll be back when I want to.
Be sure to feed the kid.
I turned around. Jesse flicked off some ash and rubbed his thumb against his brow. I stood there not sure what to do. Jesse looked at me.
“Well, you better get dressed and ready so I can take you to school.”
I didn’t move. He took another drag and a sip of his coffee. He realized I was still.
“You don’t want to go to school today?”
I nodded. He got up, called me in sick, and then tucked me back into bed.
Under the covers again I was neither cool nor warm. Jesse closed the door and walked away. It was quiet in my room. I did not want to think or feel, but I thought to myself that the world seemed worse than cruel. It was apathetic. I closed my eyes and prepared for the worst.
The next few days Jesse drove me to and from school. For dinner he cooked spaghetti that he served on paper plates. We ate in front of the television. He sat on the couch with me and I leaned against him.
He called mom after I went to bed.
“I miss you, baby,” he said. “Why don’t you come back? Don’t worry about that…Think of your son…Yeah, long distance. I know.” And then he hung up and he shuffled into his room and shut the door.
The next day I started crying while Jesse drove me to school. Jesse pulled over and asked me what was wrong. I told him I didn’t know. I heard gusts of wind as other cars passed us. Mountains were in the far distance. The desert looked cold, bleak, and harsh.
“She’ll come back,” he said
“I don’t know.”
Then I started to bawl and my eyes were hot and wet and I wanted it to stop but it didn’t stop and I wanted things to make sense and I wanted to be held and I wanted to claw at everyone who looked at me and I wanted the world back to normal and I wanted the rest to just stop.
Jesse leaned in. He put his arms around me. He held me tightly. He seemed incredibly strong. The leather smell of his jacket was bold and sweet. I didn’t want him to let go.
The next morning when it was still dark outside, my stepfather woke me. He said we had to go. I tried to roll back to sleep but he shook me.
I slid out of bed and pulled on some blue jeans and my red T-shirt. My arms and chest felt like thawing sleet. I followed Jesse around the house while he turned off the lights and locked the doors. He walked too fast for me to keep up with him.
“I’m sick of this B.S.,” he said. “We’re going to get your mother. I’ve been up all night and I’m sick of it. We’re leaving now and we’re bringing her back.”
“Does she know we’re coming?” I asked.
I followed him outside. His car was an old, rusted, and faded black Chevy with vinyl upholstery. He helped me into the back and told me to lie across the seats and to get some sleep. Jesse threw me his jacket to use as a blanket and said that he had to run back inside and grab something. He didn’t say what.
When he reappeared he quickly started the car, backed out of the driveway, and then shifted into first and headed towards the freeway.
I couldn’t see out the windows, but I felt the car move and turn and the road beneath us went from rough to smooth. I pulled my legs to my chest and fell asleep just before he pulled onto the interstate.
Several hours later we arrived in San Diego. It was mid morning. Eucalyptus trees ran alongside the road. The hills were a vibrant green from the last week’s rain. Jesse sped up and did not slow down on the sharp turns as we got closer. He had the radio off and I heard the gears shifting and the engine revving. We pulled into my aunt’s driveway. The brakes screeched as we stopped. As he got out of the car my mother ran from the house and into his arms. I was still in the back seat. Mom was crying. I don’t think I have ever seen two people hold each other so tightly.
We went and sat in the living room. Jesse and mom talked about the future. I stayed in the kitchen with my aunt. She gave me a glass of milk and I petted one of her cats. In the other room Jesse said he had sold a large entertainment center. This was a lie. He had not sold anything. I knew this but I didn’t say a word.
That night we went to Seaport Village and watched street performers do magic tricks, juggle, and ride tall unicycles. I walked around the boardwalk and took deep breaths of saltwater air, trying to fill my lungs with the spray and the sensation of Pacific Ocean breeze.Jesse bought my mom and aunt chocolates and we rode the merry-go-round. On the drive home I sat in the back and pretended to sleep with my head against my aunt’s shoulder. Jesse and mom spoke while the radio played softly.
“We shouldn’t have splurged like that.”
“It’s okay,” Jesse said. “Don’t worry about that money. I’ll take care of it. I’ll take care of us.”
I saw their eyes in the rear view mirror. Jesse glanced at me through the reflection. He knew I wasn’t asleep. I saw him smiling at me. I smiled back and he kept driving.
I don’t know if Jesse ever told my mom what he did. I wouldn’t be surprised either way but on the way there something happened that I didn’t mention.
We were coming into the town of El Centro. The sun was rising behind us, the red glare of morning burning in through the back windshield.
El Centro lies in the middle of the California desert, in between San Diego and Yuma, Arizona, to the east of the boulder filled hills and just west of the sand dunes that have been smoothly carved by the strong winds. You know you’ve arrived there when driving west because of the instant wave of humidity that hits you, followed by the thick green smell of alfalfa.
It was here that I began to wake up. My eyes felt crusty and my arms, neck and face still cold, still stiff.
I sat up straight and held onto the jacket to cover my body. Jesse drove at top speed. He kept his left hand on the wheel and his right hand on the gearshift. I leaned forward and looked at the speedometer. We were pushing ninety.
“I’m hungry,” I said. Jesse didn’t say anything. I wasn’t sure if he heard me. I told him again.
“I’m sorry Buckshot. I don’t have any money on me. You’re going to have to wait.”
“But I’m hungry.”
Jesse exhaled a giant sigh. He gripped the steering wheel tightly.
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll take care of you. You’re not going to starve.”
He pulled off at the next exit. I felt weak, starved and dehydrated. I was lame and dumb.
No cars were on the street and the sidewalks were bare. We had trouble finding some place open. I had hoped for bowls of cereal with cold, ice chilled milk, and biscuits and sausage gravy. But no such luck.
Jesse pulled the car into a McDonald’s parking lot. There weren’t any customers. One employee stood at the counter, a skinny, straggly looking teenage boy with red hair and a pale complexion. Jesse turned in his seat and looked at me.
“Stay here, Buckshot. I’ll be back with some grub in a bit. You stay put. Got me? Stay put.”
Jesse got out of the car and closed the door. He stood there with his back to me. Jesse looked over his shoulder at me. He walked inside.
I pulled Jesse’s jacket up to my chin. It was black leather with zippers and metal on it. The jacket weighed me down and seemed enormous, more like a sheet of cowhide. It kept out the desert air and it smelled like Jesse, the leather in the cold.
My stepfather stood by the counter and pointed at the menu. He seemed to be ordering a feast. A short Hispanic woman went back and forth between the counter and the kitchen.
When they rang him up my stepfather lifted his shirt, took out a pistol, and aimed it at the clerk. I couldn’t hear what anyone said but the teenager pulled out wads of cash from the register and put the bills in a brown paper bag.
I sat up straight and my eyes zoomed in on the pistol. I was suddenly awake. Part of me wanted to yell but I didn’t make a sound. I looked to make sure that no one was around. I realized what was going on and there was a twinge of anxiety from my gut to my throat. But now, looking back, what I remember most is feeling grateful.
Jesse kept the gun aimed and motioned for the other employee to come out front. Then he made all of them get down on the floor, and he grabbed both of the bags with one hand. Then, neither slowly nor quickly, he backed away, the weapon still aimed, cocked and ready.
When he came outside he glanced towards me and around the parking lot. He got in the car and placed the bags and the gun on the seat beside him. I didn’t say anything. He started the car and shifted into reverse. He peeled backwards, sliding into a 180, creating a half donut on the pavement, then he roared out of there as if the car had a rocket engine. I remember I was nervous and excited and I felt like nobody would ever be able to touch us.
We headed onto the interstate. Jesse reached into one bag and threw me an egg-sandwich. It was in yellow paper and was almost too hot to hold. Melted cheese clung like golden goo on the side of the wrapping.
“Eat up kid,” Jesse told me.
I took a bite and it tasted good. Steam rose from the middle and the bread from the English muffin was filling. I looked out the window as I ate and we rushed into the hills.
Mom and I never discussed how Jesse supported us, and I never told her about El Centro. I talked to her last week, the first time in a while. Most of her forwarding addresses for the past fourteen months hadn’t been current. She was living in Maryland and she said she was thinking about moving to Vermont. When I told her Jesse had died all she said was “Oh,” and “I’m sorry to hear that.” Then there was a long silence and I imagined her surrounded by boxes, newspapers, stuffing, and wrapping, holding the phone to her head and looking down at her feet without a single thing to say.