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Pyjama Squid
Marc Phillips

Winner of The Moth Short Story Prize 2015


Charles started school with us after his mother and daddy left him over in Harlton. He walked home one day and the place was cleaned out except for a stack of phone books. He sat there on those books while it got dark. The landlady came by and told him his folks were gone. She’s gotta rent the place. He can’t stay. Find some kin, she says. Go live with them. Thing is, he’s got no other kin, or he doesn’t want to give up where they live. So the landlady called the law and they came for him.
If Charles knew the reason his folks ran off without him, he didn’t dwell on it. Even poor people like us can afford reasons. When you see poor people walking around with something, it’s a safe bet you don’t want it. Many times we don’t want it either.
Sheriff Clark says, ‘Now Charles, one of them phone books was from Dallas. Did your folks go to Dallas?’
Charles didn’t talk much to anybody, but he wouldn’t say boo to Thurmond Clark. Even at nine he knew better. So Thurmond said fine, keep your mute ass in the orphans’ home. There was only one orphans’ home and it was here in Tatum.
Things were different in the forties. A kid shows up with dirt all over his face and don’t wanna tell you where his folks might be, you stick him in the Tatum Home and move on. The end. Right off, Charles seemed okay with it. Would it have made a fancy damn if he wasn’t? At least he had his own bed now. He had a big white bathtub too. I used a number 3 washtub out back of our house.
People saw Charles as tough. Had he come from over at Shady Acres, they would have said stuck up. But since the bus picked him up at the home, his quiet streak meant he was tough. It took me a year to get over the feeling that Charles suffered the rest of us. I wouldn’t have said that back then. I would’ve said it didn’t seem to trouble him that he had no friends but me. We got along. In junior high, Charles grew like a Beefmaster. He was over six foot tall, two hundred pounds, and his nature didn’t leave anything for the bullies to poke fun at. I was a small kid and they gave me hell, so I stuck close to Charles.
It wasn’t until the tenth grade, when some of the boys started catching up with his size, that Jeff Garvey decided to try Charles. Jeff didn’t touch him, but he jibed him, made fun of the way he looked, worked up to calling his mother names. Charles didn’t pay any attention. They couldn’t get a rise out of him, and that was the end of him being tough. From then on, they rode Charles hard at school. He said it wasn’t nothing like the way they did him at the home. Somebody shit in his footlocker. Somebody peed on his straw hat. You don’t get new clothes at the home until you split the seams of the ones you’ve got. My dad had an extra hat and he gave it to Charles. It was a wool paperboy hat that made his hair wet with sweat most of the time, different colours of paint splattered all over it because Dad was a painter. Charles slept wearing that hat so it wouldn’t get pissed on and people took to calling him Dutch Boy. You do that to people like Charles. You call them names like Dutch Boy until one sticks. Dutch Boy stuck.
Dad told him, ‘Nothing says you gotta put up with nonsense. Hit one of ’em in the nose and they might quit. It’s what I tell Jacob.’
Charles nodded but he didn’t hit anybody. A flat-faced orphan kid called Yeller snatched Charles’ hat off his head one evening and Charles choked him until he went limp. Yeller was a wiry little kid, a wiseass. I don’t know what made him think he could take Charles’ hat. I guess nobody had tried thieving from Charles before and Yeller figured somebody needed to. That was the end of the home for Charles. They couldn’t have him strangling people, and he was too young for jail, so they turned him out on the street. It was 1953. Charles was sixteen and looked twenty.
We took him in. He quit school that year and Dad put him to work painting. That lasted two months until Dad saw business was too slow to afford it. He already had Arty Monkhouse working full time with him and there wasn’t enough pay to go around. Afterwards, Charles helped around the house. He started by painting it. He fixed the chicken pen and split a bunch of wood, then he hung us a new front door. We ran out of money for materials and he had nothing left to do. That’s when he slept with Mom.
Dad knew Mom had slept with the son of a bitch who came by every month selling Cloverine Salve and something that looked like Twenty Mule Team Borax but didn’t work as good. He said he knew because she smelled like Lucky Tiger Hair Tonic on those days. Dad found the guy and clipped him a good one with the truck. From then on, Mom and everybody else living on Farm to Market Road 1863 had to wait for Sundays to ride into town and buy their salve and borax.
Dad told me, ‘Grace has always had a touch of the whore in her, but she’s otherwise a very good wife and a fine mother. I don’t know why your friend did us like this.’
He wouldn’t have known about Mom and Charles at all if she hadn’t confessed it. Beats me why she did. Dad tried to rough up Charles but he couldn’t hurt him. That was the end of Charles living with us. I held it against Mom, so when Charles left to join the service I asked Dad to sign the paper so I could go too. I told him I couldn’t hang around until people figured out Mom was a whore, and he understood me.
People didn’t know much about the Air Force in 1954, but flying planes seemed like probably the thing to do. The Army and the Marine Corps looked like a bunch of marching around in heavy shoes. Dad was in the Navy in the second war and he said they did have planes but you definitely didn’t want to be no squid. A squid is what they call you when you’re in the Navy. Squid life was hell on the water, he said.
We found out right away that I was too stupid and Charles was too big to fly aeroplanes. The Air Force gives you a test to see what jobs you qualify for. Sergeant Stacey said Charles scored so high on the test that they were rewriting it. You weren’t supposed to be able to score that high. It’s a shame his shoulders were wide as a barn door, because they needed pilots. I asked how I did and Sergeant Stacey said I passed for ground vehicle maintenance and the band. They want you to already know how to play something before letting you in the band, so they trained me to work on cars and trucks. It wasn’t all that tough. They sent Charles to radar school.
Dad mailed me a letter while I was in mechanic school. He wondered how things were going, how was I liking it. He wrote that business was still slow, but he was making it. He ended by telling me he sent Mom back to her folks in Duncanville when she turned up pregnant. That torpedo hit on his battleship in the Pacific had trapped him against a bulkhead and mashed his balls. He couldn’t have any more kids after me, so he knew the baby was Charles’ or somebody else’s. I decided I’d never tell Charles. It was too weird.
I didn’t see my friend or hear from him for all the next year. They stationed me at McChord AFB way up in Washington State. I thought that was the end for me and Charles. I couldn’t imagine where he might go when he got out, or how long he would stay in, and I hoped the Air Force with their test had put him somewhere he felt like he belonged. I fell in with the rest of the dummies in the motor pool and listened to their stories of the fighting in Korea.
Then Charles showed up at McChord, out of the blue. It’s a small Air Force. He was working on the new Lashup radar sites around the northwest, top secret shit to spot the Russian bombers coming in across the ocean. The Air Force gave him a grey Studebaker Wagon and let him wear civilian clothes and live in motels most of the time. He liked his job, what he told me about it. I liked his job too. I hated mine. Most of the time I wanted to hit somebody with a cheater pipe.
I saw him about twice a month when he came by the base to sign in. He would bring me that Studebaker to fix when he broke it, which was fairly regular. Seemed like he generally slowed down by running over something heavy. Anyway, I didn’t make any reports. Plenty of Studebakers and Studebaker parts around. There were always spare bunks in the barracks and sometimes Charles stayed the night. He’d tell stories of how the radars picked up UFOs all the time and the scope dopes would radio in to scramble fighters. The pilots wouldn’t see anything but a few Russians flying around over Alaska. They were always there, he said.
Then, one Friday while I’m under his car, Charles sticks his head in the garage to tell me he can’t stay the night this time because they’ve assigned another airman to ride with him named Luthie. They didn’t get along and Charles thought he’d better go by the book for a while. That was near the end of the Air Force for Charles. He was discharged a month or so later, a few weeks before me. It was all over with and I heard about it second hand, what there was to hear. I had to wonder what this guy Luthie did to Charles.
Before all that, word around base had it that Charles was on his way to making Technical Sergeant in record time. He knew things about their radar equipment they wouldn’t figure out for a while yet, and he caused zero trouble. Then, poof!, he’s gone. He would’ve given the Air Force twenty years if they had let him. He had already reenlisted for another six, the long hitch, when they discharged him. Not me. I was counting days.
When I got out and headed back home, one of the first people I saw was Charles, at the diner across from the bus station. He was in painter’s coveralls. Dad’s man Arty had come down with some lung disease and couldn’t cut it on the job any more. There was no problem between Charles and Dad, what with Mom gone. Dad put all that in a letter that I guess the Air Force just threw away after I left.
I bought some clothes and got a room at Della Thomas’ boarding house down the road a ways from the Texan Motor Court where Charles stayed. From the start, it was fairly obvious what I would be doing in Tatum. Smiddy’s garage had gone belly-up last year and that left one mechanic in town, Elgin Gardner. Elgin’s Garage was mainly a wrecker service. He knew his business in tyres and batteries. He’d changed a lot of oil and could swap out a starter pretty slick, but he was slow as Christmas on everything else. An old man too. His lot was packed with broke-down cars owned by people who only had the one car.
I rented Smiddy’s two-bay space downtown and hung out my shingle. I made a killing on drivetrain work. I don’t mean to say I cheated people. I charged what you would charge if you were the single person in three counties who knew how to do a thing. When Elgin took apart an automatic transmission, he was a day and a half getting it back together. If it had a hydraulic torque converter, he wouldn’t even try. I knew all about those things. And don’t forget, Studebaker had one of the first limited-slip differentials out there. By 1958, everybody thought the limited-slip differential was the most important part on a car. Come Christmas, I found myself giving bonuses to two other mechanics who worked for me. I was a businessman.
Me and Charles hung out a lot, like back in school. Neither of us had any other friends. We would meet over at Dad’s house every weekend and must’ve burned several tons of meat on the old barbeque grill. We watched as Dad got older and more annoying and felt ourselves moving up as the next line of men in town. It felt natural. The thing I was missing was a woman. I wasn’t very good at that. Dad told me if I’d wash the grease off me once in a while I might fare better. I don’t know. Grease doesn’t come off so easy.
With Charles helping, Dad’s business did much better. He got more commercial jobs around the county and pretty soon he made Charles a partner and they took on another man. Charles never moved out of the Texan. In 1960, when I could afford a down payment on a house, I told him he ought to move in with me. He could cover half the bills and have half the house, a big three-bedroom ‘arts and crafts bungalow’ they called it. His half would be less than what they charged at the Motor Court. I hadn’t been over there to see his room, wasn’t invited to. I hated thinking of him living there. But he said no, he liked where he was. He had all his stuff where he could see it and that made him happy.
We moved the weekend get-togethers to my house in town that summer. Sometimes I would have a lady over, but mostly it was us guys. Then Dad’s health went downhill, arthritis set in, and he stopped coming regular. One Saturday, when it was me and Charles, I worked around to asking him what happened up in Washington. He said they invited him to leave the Air Force for anti-Semitism.
‘Jewish people?’ I asked him.
‘Luthie. He was Jewish.’
‘I didn’t know that.’
‘You weren’t around him. All he talked about was the brass not letting him fly because he was Jewish. We were in a motel near Chehalis this one night when I finally told him they didn’t let me fly either, and I had no religion at all. He took offence. Said Jewish people were a race and an ancient tribe, not like some fucking Methodist or something, and they had been persecuted by my people for centuries. I told him I didn’t know which people he was talking about, but he’s the first Jew I’d ever met. He got so worked up that he stormed out of the room. Come six the next morning he was nowhere to be found, so I left for the gap-filler site without him. When I got over to McChord the next day, the Air Police nabbed me at the gate. The Colonel said he hated to lose a good airman, but the Air Force couldn’t afford something like this. If I took the honourable discharge, he’d put in a word for me with Bendix. Said to look at it as a pay raise.’
It’s the most I’d heard Charles say at one time. It blew me away.
‘Shit. Who’s Bendix?’
‘They made the radars on the Distant Early Warning Line, watching the polar cap and the Bering Straits. Hired a lot of ex-Air Force people.’
‘They call you?’
‘Yeah. But I wanted to work on that new phased-array thing they had going. I had some ideas. Not anywhere near Cape Newingham, Alaska, that’s for sure. Washington was too cold for me. They said Alaska or nothing, so I came home.’
‘Whatever in hell a phased-array is.’
‘It doesn’t matter now. Lockheed is putting their MIDAS birds in space and they’ll make the DEW Line look ignorant.’
‘Man, what all did they teach you?’
He shrugged. I didn’t bring it up again.
Charles and Dad were painting the new Brookshire Brothers grocery store when Dad’s heart gave out. It was summer 1962. We buried him in Memory Park and I half expected Mom to show up. I imagined somebody seeing the obituary and tracking her down. It would’ve been weird with Charles there, so I’m glad she didn’t come. I hadn’t spoken to her since it all happened. Afterwards, at Dad’s house, I asked Charles did Dad say anything before he gave it up. We couldn’t find a will.
‘Not much,’ Charles said.
‘Well, he’d want you to take the business, so it’s yours. You can have the house too, if you want it.’
‘I like my room in town. But I’ll take that painting gear out back if it’s okay with you.’
He got a storage unit where he kept all the equipment and didn’t change the name of the business. He did hire two more people, and he bought a van, had Virgil Lott Painting put on the side. I took Dad’s truck for the parts and sold the five acres. The buyer bulldozed my old clapboard home right after we closed on the deal. He fenced it in and put horses out there. The next week, like it was time for several things to end at once, the Texan Motor Court burned to the ground. I asked Charles if he wanted to stay with me until he found some place else, but he said he’d get him another room out on the highway.
‘Did you lose a lot?’
‘Not too much,’ he said. ‘Some clothes. My aquarium.’
‘I didn’t know you kept fish.’
‘I had one.’
He moved into the Globe Motel and he never invited me over there either. We talked less and less as time went by, saw each other once in a blue moon. I started seeing a woman on a steady basis. Lucy Bundy. I met her when she brought her Buick into the shop. That was one reason I saw less of Charles. The other was that he had so much painting going on that he was supervising two crews at once now. He left town on occasion too. I noticed his van gone from the hotel late at night, and he didn’t go out drinking. I hoped he had a lady friend somewhere.
He came over to the house the day Kennedy was shot. Luce was there. We sat around my new Zenith and watched the news for several hours. Dallas is a hundred and forty five miles from Tatum. It was too close to talk about.
Thanksgiving came and I invited Charles over, but he said he already had plans. I didn’t press him as to what they were, but I wondered. Luce and I watched President Johnson on the TV without him. It still wasn’t real. President Johnson. A guy from our neck of the woods in the White House. They wouldn’t have elected a guy who sounded like us.
I called Charles on the night of New Year’s Eve.
‘I’ve got some news,’ I told him. ‘Luce and I are gonna tie the knot.’
‘Congratulations, Jake. Tell her I said so.’
‘I want you to be there. Just a little thing down at the JP’s office. Will you come?’
‘You know I will if I can. When?’
‘We’re not sure yet. We want to go straight away on our honeymoon, but Luce is the only manager at M. E. Moses right now and I’m covered up at the shop. Soon though.’
‘Well, keep me posted.’
It didn’t happen soon. Not in the spring like we’d hoped. Not in the summer or fall either. Something always came up. Neither of us were wild about the idea of a winter wedding, so it would probably be next year. We’d have to set a date and stick to it.
Then I came home from work one afternoon and found a letter in my mailbox. From Charles. Why in hell would he write me a letter? I opened it in the car.

Jacob,
This is a rotten thing to do. I’m sorry. I sold your Dad’s business. The cheque in here is half of what I got for it. It was a good price. Don’t be too upset with me.
 The Air Force is going to let me fly. Or ride at least. They’ve got radars on big jets and they need flying techs. I can’t think of any reason not to go, besides you. I thought I had two more weeks to find some way to tell you. Now they want me to report at Barksdale tomorrow.
I need a favour. I want my son to have my stuff at the motel. He and Grace will be down in a couple of days. His name is Charlie. I gave them your number. Please do this for me, Jake. The rent is paid until Friday.
I’m sorry I’ll miss the wedding. I wish you and Luce the best.
Charles.
 
Well, there’s the end of that, I thought. I really can’t imagine why, but I had this concrete vision in my head that we would be old men on my porch here in Tatum. Luce would bring us coffee and put up with us joking and carrying on about the past. We hadn’t been known to joke and carry on before, but I felt it coming. I felt certain Charles would die with paint in his hair like Dad.
I drove over to the Globe. The manager was expecting me and let me in. There was a box of books and tablets on the dresser beside a medium-size aquarium, and that was it. I unplugged the aquarium and the manager helped me get it in my car. Didn’t look like there was anything alive in it, but there was a note taped on the tank: ‘Charlie will feed him. Thanks.’ I figured there was a crab hiding somewhere among the rocks. Then, when it sloshed going into the back seat, something moved and startled me. It was a squid, but not any squid like I’d seen pictures of. It was about the size of a golf ball and had these bright zebra stripes all over. No, it looked more like a gaudy pinstriped suit. It was beautiful, pumping and floating the way it did.
Charles was sure a mystery to me. He always had been. A pet squid.
At home, I plugged the squid back up and waited for Luce to come by. When she got there, I gave her the letter.
‘Did you know he had a son?’
‘Yes. Sit with me.’
I told her the whole story. It was shorter than I thought it would be, or maybe she already knew most parts of it, except that one part.
‘My God. So … Charlie is your brother!’
‘Half-brother. I guess. It’s really too strange for me to talk about, in that way. We need to sort of play that part down as best we can. It’ll be hard enough to see them as it is.’
‘You haven’t met him?’
‘Luce, I haven’t seen Mom since 1954.’
‘No, I’ll tell you what’s strange,’ she said, ‘your father and Charles, all that time working together. Like friends.’
‘They were friends. I didn’t tell Charles that Mom was pregnant. I don’t know when Dad told him, but I’m thinking it must have been shortly before he died. That’s when things started changing with me and Charles.’
‘What on earth will you say to him?’
‘Yeah. I don’t know. Charles and I got around it by not talking about it. First, I didn’t tell him what I knew, then he didn’t tell me what he knew, and it was kind of okay.’
‘And that’s the way you wanna leave it?’
‘I’m not the one that left it. I don’t know yet.’
I busted my knuckles at work the next day and stopped short of firing my best mechanic for an argument I started. I was thankful when the phone rang that night, and that surprised me.
‘Hello.’
‘Mr Lott?’ A kid’s voice.
‘That’s me. Jacob. Just Jake.’
‘I’m Charlie.’
‘I’ve got some things your father left for you, Charlie. Should I meet you and your mom somewhere?’
‘We’re right around the corner at the Texaco. Mom says can we come over?’
‘Yeah. I’ll turn on the porch light.’
Five minutes later, there he was, on my porch. Mom was standing behind him. He has her face. Hell, I do too, so he pretty much has my face. There was no mistaking where his shoulders came from, though. He was a huge boy, nearly two of me at that age, the age I first met his father. I invited them in as Luce was coming from the kitchen with tea for us.
She said, ‘Grace, I’m Lucy. People call me Luce. Have a glass of tea.’
‘Thank you. This is Charlie.’ It was easier for her to talk to a stranger. I’m glad Luce was there.
‘Would you like some tea, Charlie?’
‘Yes ma’am.’
‘Call me Luce.’
‘Yes ma’am.’
‘Y’all come on in here and sit down,’ Luce told them.
‘I appreciate it,’ Mom said, ‘but it’s a long drive and we need to be going.’
‘You’re not driving back to Duncanville tonight, are you?’ Luce said, and she jabbed me in the ribs with her elbow.
I spoke up, ‘I’ve got two extra beds here.’
‘Thank you, Jacob. We’re down visiting my father. Our bus leaves for New York early in the morning.’
‘New York!’ Luce said. ‘Wow.’
‘My sister is there. We live with her now.’
‘Well … The stuff’s in here.’ I pointed the way. Luce took their glasses. As we walked to the den, I told Charlie, ‘Me and your Dad go way back. I’d say we’re best friends. I wish I could’ve seen him before he left. Did he tell you we were in the Air Force together?’
Mom said, ‘He knows who you are, Jacob. I told him.’
I said, ‘Charlie, that thing in the tank there scared me when I went to pick it up. I didn’t feed it. The note said you would. Is it a squid?’
‘Yeah. A striped pyjama squid. Granddad got the first one. It burned up. I went with Dad to get this one in Dallas.’
Behind us, Luce said, ‘It’s gorgeous. Rare looking.’
‘They’re from Australia,’ Mom told her. ‘They’re rare over here because nobody wants one.’
‘He didn’t want no fish or anything in there with it?’ I picked up the aquarium and looked through the glass.
‘Pyjama squids have to live alone,’ Mom said. ‘Anything you put in the tank with it would die in a day or two and float up to the top. They don’t know why. Your father heard about them during the war. He thought it was a good joke, all that money to order one, but Charles latched on to the thing.’ She stared at me. There was a liver spot on her cheek that didn’t used to be there.
I followed them to the car and got the tank situated. Mom carried the box of books.
‘Any idea where Charles will be stationed?’ I asked her.
‘He said he would write us both when he knew.’
‘He damn sure better. Charlie, I would like it if you wrote me too.’
‘I’ve got your address.’
We shook hands. ‘I mean it,’ I told him. ‘I’ve never had a brother.’
Mom said, ‘You’ve had one for nearly ten years.’
I got two letters from Charles. He said it was difficult to write. They were moving him around constantly and he was unbelievably busy. The program they had him working on was called Airborne Early Warning. Didn’t make nearly as catchy an acronym as Distant Early Warning, but it was the new thing. In February of 1965, our local man in the White House sent the big bombers to Vietnam for something he called Rolling Thunder. Charles’ EC-121 plane went too. I could tell by his handwriting how excited he was. They would make history in one of those planes over a stretch of water called the Tonkin Gulf. I saw it on the news.
Charles’ plane went down in an accident some time in late 1966. I found out in February of ’67 in a letter from Charlie. It was missing a lot of details and I didn’t know whether that’s because he didn’t have any help writing it, or because he did. They never found Charles or any of the crew. They gave them little white crosses in Arlington National Cemetery. I don’t know why I wasn’t invited to the ceremony. I asked Luce if she reckoned it hurt less for Charlie because he didn’t really know his dad.
  ‘It probably hurts less, but not for the reason you think. Does that make you feel better, comparing your loss to his?’
  ‘No.’ But I guess I thought it might.
  ‘Children handle it better than we do. It doesn’t mean Charlie didn’t have time to love his dad much. It means he’s a kid and he n eeds to heal.’
  Then I wondered if Charlie thought about it like I did. Most times, I thought missing was not dead, it was just not here. I can handle not here.
  It took forever and a day, but the bookstore in Tyler finally found a book on underwater reef animals that had a little piece in it about pyjama squids. It had one picture and two paragraphs. Dad was right. They kill pretty much everything that can’t get away from them. They don’t bite or sting or anything. The book said some way or other they make it impossible for anything to live near them, but nobody at that time had figured out how.
  By now I’ll bet they’ve figured out the reasons for everything I can imagine and then some. Once in a while I’ll see a television show that answers questions I didn’t know to ask. I haven’t seen one on the mysteries of pyjama squids, which is fine. I have enough reasons already. More than I can use.