Max could never be sure, but he thought he saw his stepfather kill his mom. He might have been dreaming, but then again there she was in the morning on the trailer floor, her head in a pool of blood, a fat kitchen knife resting in the curled fingers of her right hand. Had he actually seen her run to the kitchen drawer, grab the knife and turn to take the full force of the Channel wrench against her temple? Heard his stepfather’s visceral grunt as flesh and bone gave way to steel? The psychiatrist the county sent him to told him that either way he was in a state of shock. His psyche had received a mighty blow, from which it would take a long time to recover. Maybe never. He liked the psychiatrist, Dr. Lee. He was twelve then and thought for a long time that all psychiatrists were kindly old Chinese-American men who spoke the plain truth. You may never get over it, Max, he had said, start from there.
“I fell asleep reading,” Max had said. “I forgot my bat.” He had been sleeping with his baseball bat under his bed. His glove, too, but that was a decoy.
“What were you reading?” Dr. Lee asked.
“How did you happen to choose that book?”
“What else have you read?”
“I left my bat in the shed. I was too lazy to go get it. I fell asleep.” The bat was to use on Jake the next time he beat up on him or his mom.
“If you were dreaming it wouldn’t have mattered.”
“I don’t think I was dreaming.”
Jake spent six years in jail, in the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. He claimed that Marie had attacked him. Since there were no witnesses, he was able to make a deal, five to ten with parole eligibility after five. Max’s confusion – had he been dreaming or not? – had eliminated him as a witness. In the spring of 1982, Max, who would be starting college that fall, on a track scholarship from the University of Washington, went to the parole board hearing and testified that he had forgiven Jake. He was waiting outside the prison—the “Walls” the locals called it – on the July day Jake was released. He followed Jake. To a rooming house back in Auburn, in and out of bars, to a Korean massage parlor not far from Dr. Lee’s office. When Jake took a job as a bouncer at Glass-X, a strip club that backed onto a lonely railroad right-of-way, Max drove by every night for a week, getting a feel for the rhythm of the place and the surrounding neighborhood, going in finally on a busy Friday night.
He was still a tough guy, his former stepfather, still scary. The dragon tattoos that had frightened and fascinated Max as a boy still rippled on Jake’s forearms, now even more thickly muscled after six years of pushups at the Walls. He was still a thief as well, stashing a bottle of bonded bourbon in his gym bag when he thought no one was looking. And still an abuser of woman, grabbing the strippers’ asses whenever the mood struck him, once taking hold of one’s arm so hard it made her cry. Max made eye contact with him on the way in, but if Jake recognized him he didn’t show it. His eyes were dead, like his soul.
Max left early and got into the back seat of Jake’s car, a piece of junk he parked in a dark back corner near a Dumpster every night. He watched as the patrons trickled out; then at 2:15 the strippers in a group. At 2:30 the scripted neon Glass-X sign went out, and Jake and the manager, a thin black guy with a pencil mustache and the drowsy eyes of a crack smoker, emerged, exchanged a few words and headed toward their cars. Max watched Jake take a long piss against the side of the Dumpster, at the same time listening to the manager’s car start up and leave the parking lot, empty now except for Jake’s car.
When Jake got in the driver’s seat, smelling of alcohol, Max put a toy gun to his ear, a decent hardened plastic replica of a snub-nosed police revolver he had had since he was a boy.
“It’s me,” Max said, “Max. Your stepson.”
Jake tried to turn to look at him, but Max pressed the gun hard into his ear and at the same time took hold of a hank of the half-drunk man’s long greasy hair and gently pulled his head back.
“Don’t make another move,” Max said. “I don’t want to have to kill you.” Yet, he said to himself.
“Max,” Jake said. “Max . . . they told me you testified for me at the parole board.”
“I did. I wanted you to get out.”
“Put the gun down, Max. Let’s talk.”
“O.K.,” Max replied, putting the gun on the seat next to him and picking up from his lap a hunting knife that had been among the things left behind by his father when he went to Viet Nam. Still holding Jake’s stringy hair in his left hand, he put the point of the thick six-inch blade against the nape of his mother’s killer’s neck.
“Is this better?” Max asked, jabbing the knife a half inch into Jake’s neck, between two vertebra. Jake heaved and tried to pull away, but Max pulled him back hard by his hair. This movement drove the knife in, and – outside of himself now, seeming to be watching from somewhere above the action – Max drove it in to its hilt. He held on in that position, pushing the knife in and up, as Jake wildly clawed the air. Max pushed and pulled harder as the life drained out of Jake – Jake the abuser, Jake the woman killer – ending in one last convulsive spasm. Returning to himself, Max let go of the knife handle and the hair and nudged Jake’s body forward.
Outside the car, Max calmly scanned the still-empty parking lot before taking off the woolen gloves he’d been wearing and tossing them in the Dumpster along with the toy gun. He held his hands in front of him for a second. They were rock steady. Before heading for his car, which was parked on the other side of the tracks behind an abandoned shack, Max turned for a last look at Jake. His cheek was resting on the steering wheel, his dead eyes staring into infinity. The polished wood knife handle with its brass bands at either end was protruding from his neck. He was bleeding from his mouth. Max recalled the gurgling sound as the knife reached Jake’s throat and he began to choke on his own blood. Under that sound, deep in his bones, something was murmuring to Max, something that he would later identify as the lust to kill.