Hawk Prescott ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(Published in Midwest Literary Magazine Spring Anthology 2010)
I was born in the hot month of July. If it had been up to me, I would have been born in December—or not born at all. On the morning of my fifteenth birthday, I got out of bed and went downstairs to look for my birthday present (I wanted either an aquarium or a Siamese kitten, or both), but there was no present of any kind that I could see; only a list of chores my mother had left that I was supposed to get done by the end of the day. She had forgotten my birthday. If your own mother forgets your birthday, that seems to me a bad sign. I was comforted by the thought that my present—whatever it would be—just hadn’t arrived yet and I would have it in my possession before the end of the day. After all, it was my birthday all day long.
I was sitting at the kitchen table in my bathrobe reading the funny papers when the maid came in at the back door. Her name was Midge Prescott. She hadn’t been with us very long. She seemed to always be wearing the same clothes. She was short and what my mother called stout. She had flabby arms and a round face and bangs that came down to her eyebrows—her hairdo was one of those that looks like they put a bowl on the head and cut off all the hair that hangs down outside the bowl. Whenever she came too close to me, I noticed a smell like motor oil.
“Hello, Johnny,” she said.
I mumbled a greeting, not bothering to tell her my name wasn’t Johnny. She turned the light on over the table so I wouldn’t “ruin my eyes” and set about washing some vegetables at the sink. I looked hard at the newspaper to keep from having to talk to her.
“You should get outdoors today, Johnny, instead of moping around inside the house,” she said over the gush of the water. I think she was saying she didn’t want me hanging around in the kitchen.
“I’m not moping,” I said. “I’m reading the newspaper.”
“I can give you some work to do if you don’t have anything to do.”
“I have plenty to do,” I said. “And besides, I’m on vacation and I just got out of bed.”
“How about some nice fish cakes for supper? Do you like salmon? The store had a good price on salmon, so I bought twelve cans.”
“It doesn’t make any difference,” I said.
“I’ll make some nice red beans and rice to go with the salmon.”
I had been going to tell her it was my birthday but was glad I didn’t. She would have said something stupid like many happy returns of the day. She would have asked me how old I was and then five minutes later forget all about it. I had developed a distinct dislike for her in a very short time. I was hoping she would find out how impossible my mother was to work for and quit, or else my mother would fire her.
I went upstairs and got dressed and went outside and swept off the walks and watered the plants, as my mother had told me to do. I was pulling weeds out of the flower beds when a pickup truck pulled up at the curb in front of the house. When I turned around and looked over my shoulder, the man driving the truck motioned me over. I figured it was somebody lost and wanting to ask for directions, so I went over to him.
“May I help you?” I asked with what I thought was a tinge of annoyance in my voice.
“My mother works here,” he said.
“You’ve got the wrong place,” I said. “Nobody works here.”
“Oh. She’s your mother?”
He turned off the engine and got out of the truck and came around to where I was standing. “You live here?” he asked.
“Midge is in the kitchen,” I said. “Do you want to go inside?”
“No, just give her this.” He handed me a little bottle of pills.
“What is it?” I asked stupidly.
“It’s her medicine. She’s not supposed to be without it.”
“I’ll see that she gets it,” I said, stuffing it into my pants pocket.
He leaned his hip against the truck and took a cigarette out of his pocket and put it in his mouth. Before lighting it, he offered me one from the pack. I just looked at the pack stupidly, thinking it was some kind of a joke, before I took one and put it in my mouth, as he had done. He lit mine and then his own. I had never smoked before and I wasn’t really smoking now. I just held the cigarette out at arm’s length and watched the smoke rise from it. If any of the neighbors saw me with a cigarette and told my mother, I could always say I was only holding it and not smoking it. Of course, that would bring up the question of why I was holding it, but I could always think of some reason later.
“Midge didn’t say she had a son,” I said. I took an experimental puff on the cigarette and blew some smoke out smoothly. It tasted terrible but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.
“No reason why she should,” he said.
“She’s been here now for three months and she still thinks my name is Johnny.”
“Your name isn’t Johnny?”
He didn’t laugh but only looked at me like I was some kind of a freak. “I’d love to stay and chat,” he said, “but I’ve got to report to my parole officer.”
“You were in prison?”
“Another time,” he said, dropping his cigarette to the sidewalk and stamping it out with the toe of his boot.
I watched him as he got back into his truck and drove away. When he was out of sight, I threw the cigarette down on the ground and went back inside. I took the bottle of pills into the kitchen and set it on the counter in front of Midge where she would be sure to see it.
“What’s this?” she asked.
“Looks like a bottle of pills,” I said.
“Where did it come from?”
“You didn’t mention you had a son.”
“He dropped off the pills and left.”
I wanted to ask her some questions about him, his name and why he had been in prison, but she seemed disinclined to talk. The elbow pipe under the kitchen sink was leaking and she was removing everything from the cabinet to keep it from getting wet. I had a feeling that, if I had asked her, she would have told me his name was Johnny.
Whatever his name was, it didn’t matter. I liked him already. He had treated me as an equal. He offered me a cigarette and spoke to me as though I were an adult. He didn’t talk to me the way a man would talk to a child he doesn’t know. He didn’t ask me what grade I’m in at school and what my favorite subjects are. I think if he had had a bottle of whiskey he would have offered me a drink and I would have taken it. I didn’t care that he had been in prison. Maybe he was innocent; maybe he was framed, sent up on a bum rap. I’m sure it happens all the time.
Since I didn’t know his name, I would figure it was something like Hawk or Link or Zeno. He definitely didn’t look like a Hubert or a Marvin. I would think of him as Hawk—Hawk Prescott.
I regarded Midge now with new respect. I didn’t know how this little troll of a woman could have a son like Hawk. He was as much unlike her as if they belonged to different species. I was seriously considering combing my hair straight back (the wet look) like his and I believed that, with practice, I could adopt his manly swagger and his baritone voice. I definitely had a newly acquired desire to wear cowboy boots and drive a pickup truck.
After I finished my chores, I didn’t do much of anything for the rest of the day. I laid on the bed and read a book or sat in the shade in the back yard and dozed. It was one of those hot, still, humid summer days where you don’t move around any more than you have to. My present was never delivered by special messenger, as I hoped it would be, and when the mail was delivered there was nothing in it for me.
About six o’clock Midge came to tell me that supper was ready (the whole house was permeated with the smell of her salmon) and I went to the table. As I was sitting there eating by myself, Midge said she had two things to tell me. The first thing was that she had to leave earlier than expected because she had to go to a meeting at seven o’clock and I would need to stack the dirty dishes in the sink when I was finished eating. When I asked her what the second thing was, she said my mother had called to say she was spending the night at the hospital where she worked and wouldn’t be home. One of the mental patients had committed suicide and she wanted to stay to make sure none of the others followed suit.
Midge was concerned for about five seconds that I would be spending the evening and the entire night alone, but I laughed and told her I didn’t mind being alone and in fact preferred it. She advised me to go next door and spend the night with the elderly sisters who had lots of space and would be only too glad to have me as a guest, but I told her I would rather have the skin boiled off both my feet in boiling oil.
She put a box of raisin cookies in the middle of the table for dessert where I would be sure to see it. I didn’t care for raisin cookies and never ate them, but that was just one more thing she didn’t know about me.
A thunderstorm had been threatening for the last half-hour, so she left in a dither to get to where she was going before it started to rain. I was happy when I heard the door slam as she left. I had the silly thought that maybe she would be struck by lightning and would never come back.
As I got up from the table and began removing the dishes, I could hear the wind whipping up outside and the rumble of thunder and could see flashes of lightning. In just a few seconds, the rain was lashing the house and a violent thunderstorm was upon us—one of those bringing-down-the-house thunderstorms where you’re not sure from one second to the next if a tree is going to fall on you and kill you or if you’re going to be smashed to atoms by a lightning strike. The lights flickered a couple of times and then went out, leaving me in the dark.
I was going to get a flashlight when I saw what I thought was movement in the darkness of the hallway. I saw distinctly, or thought I saw, a person walking away from me through the doorway into my mother’s bedroom at the foot of the stairs. I took the flashlight and shone it all around the room—the bed, the chest of drawers, the dresser, the lamps on each side of the bed, the little antique writing desk, the pictures on the wall, the rug on the floor—and saw nothing out of the ordinary. I was going out of the room again when the framed picture on the dresser of my older brother, Fletcher, caught my attention.
I had seen the picture many times before and had heard the stories about Fletcher but had never given him much thought. He had never seemed very real to me because he drowned eight years before I was born, at age three. I took the picture back into the kitchen with me and set it on the table.
He was dressed in a sailor suit, complete with hat, standing on the steps in front of our house. He was saluting for the camera with a big smile on his face. His eyes shone with happiness. I suppose my parents were preparing him at that early age for a career in the navy. My father had been a navy man.
I took two birthday candles that had been in a drawer in the kitchen for as long as I remembered and two raisin cookies and stuck the candles in the center of the cookies and lit them. With the two candles, I had enough light to see by, so I turned off the flashlight and sat down at the table.
I looked dreamily into the inviting yellow flames of the candles for a while and then in a flash of lightning I saw Fletcher come silently into the kitchen and sit down at the table across from me—not the three-year-old Fletcher in the sailor suit in the picture but the grown-up Fletcher. It was odd because I could only see him when the lightning flashed and not at all in the light from the candles. Even when I couldn’t see him, though, I knew he was there, sitting across from me. I pushed one of the cookies across the table toward him.
When the lightning came again, I saw him again and he was exactly the same as someone I had seen earlier that day—the same brown-blond hair combed straight back, the same aquiline nose, the same cleft chin. He took a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket and was about to offer me one, but the lights came back on just then and he was gone.
Copyright © 2011 by Allen Kopp