Featured Prose | April 03, 2018

John Fulton has published three books of fiction: Retribution, which won the Southern Review Short Fiction Award; the novel More Than Enough; and The Animal Girl, which was short listed for the Story Prize. His fiction has been selected for The Pushcart Prize and has been published in various journals, including ZoetropeOxford American, and the Southern Review. He teaches in the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts–Boston. You can read his interview with TMR intern Allyson Sherwin here.


Box of Watches

by John Fulton

That Friday afternoon in AAA Guns and Jewels, Shaun’s life flashed before his eyes, just as they said it would when you faced death, though it wasn’t his death but his grandfather’s that made the events of Shaun’s twenty-two years begin to reoccur as soon as he heard the old man shout, “Go right ahead and shoot me, you little shit!” Shaun was in the back room on the phone with a woman who was calling from Feed the Children. “Most of the people who live on our planet are hungry—and most of those people are infants and children,” she’d been saying when Shaun heard A. J. shout these words, turned around, and froze because of what he saw in the yellow, dirty electric light of the front room: the emaciated customer wielding a Beretta .38, which had, as his grandfather knew even better than Shaun did, one of the most unreliable hair-triggers of any firearm. The slightest shiver could set this cheap, overbought street weapon off. But this didn’t bother the old man in the least. He smiled right into the barrel, then laughed a large, open-mouthed laugh, just like George C. Scott in Patton, one of A. J.’s favorite movies ever because the old man liked stories of contrary heroes who rose above history, who built rockets and shot themselves into space, who settled the American West, who killed Germans and bested Rommel, who did anything other than what A. J. had been doing for the last three years, which was to die slowly of old age and cancer, melanoma that had spread to his liver, his colon, and, finally and most painfully, to his bones, placing him not at all above history but deeply and painfully inside it.

They’d been robbed in the past—eight times, in fact—and their rule was: always do what the guy with the gun says, no matter what because, of course, at the end of the day you wanted to live more than anything else. You wanted to get away with your life, as they always had, climbing the stairs after closing time to the one-room apartment above AAA Guns and Jewels where they had shared, since Shaun was a small boy, the same bedroom and kitchen, the same bathroom and black-and-white TV, the same record player playing the same records (because A. J. didn’t see any need to trade up for a flat screen or a CD player, dozens of which they had in the shop below them anyway). For years, they’d listened to Frank Sinatra, Harry Belafonte, Neil Diamond, The Duke and The Count. A. J. liked the big band music best. His eyes soft, he’d say, “Those were the days when people used to dance. You had to know how. You had to learn. You couldn’t make it up.” They prepared the same meals week in and week out—egg salad, BLTs, grilled cheese, club sandwiches, and, on Sundays, steak sandwiches with melted Havarti and martini olives right out of the jar. And sometimes, when Shaun was still a boy, A. J. might make a Jell-O concoction—the same sort of thing that Madeline, Shaun’s mother, had often made—because his grandfather seemed to understand how terribly Shaun missed her after she had dropped him off at the age of six in front of A. J.’s shop, not even coming inside. The storefront’s two neon signs—“Money For Guns” and “Cash Fast”—flickered at Shaun’s back and the wind blew in Madeline’s dark hair as she shouted out the car window at him and his grandfather,“You’re going to stay with Granddad for a few days, all right?” And neither Shaun nor A. J. ever expected those few days to become sixteen years.

Now he was about to lose his grandfather as quickly as he’d lost his mother. He needed to act, to do something. But the woman on the phone was droning on, was saying, “Just a few dollars every month will make a real difference,” and Shaun wasn’t moving. He was scared, it seemed, as he watched A. J. lift his hands above his head not to surrender but to show his hoped-for killer, as the old man’s shirtsleeves fell away from his shriveled wrists, the tumors splattered like thrown mud over his forearms. “I’m already dead!” he shouted. “Do it. Shoot me in the mouth, please. Right in the kisser, you yellow-faced, dickless, candy-ass.” And the indecisive kid raised the gun and then put it down again and then raised it and put it down.

A. J. had always had a passion for cussing, for saying and savoring the profane—cocksucker, shit-for-brains, asswipe—despite the fact that he had never allowed Shaun the same privilege. “Do as I say, not as I do,” he always told Shaun. Or, more simply, “Don’t swear, goddamn it.” And Shaun,who had been a timid and compliant child, obeyed, perhaps because he feared losing him. During those first few years, he would wake in the dark blue of early morning and expect to see the rumpled sheets of the old man’s empty bed across from him and not, as he always saw instead, the good, respiring lump of his still sleeping grandfather.

Nonetheless, Shaun did rebel, did throw fits on occasion, as on the night at the dinner table many years ago when A. J. shook his head and said, “Your mother seems to have traded in her horse for good,” after which he pointed his fork at himself and added, “How about this horse instead?” which was when Shaun threw his plate of cheese steak to the floor and shouted that he wanted Madeline back. He wanted her smell of lilacs and soap and tangerine shampoo, even the occasional scent of booze on her that meant she’d have trouble getting herself in bed and even more getting out of it the next morning. But he wouldn’t complain—not even about the men she sometimes brought home. The one who made candy cigarettes, nickels, and dimes appear from Shaun’s ear was the one he liked best. He just wanted her back. He wanted her soft, tickling fingers and her voice singing “Hush Little Baby.” His grandfather had liver spots all over his hands and face and the stink of cigarettes on his breath, and the more potent rank of his bowels came all morning from the small bathroom at the back of their apartment. “I don’t want you!” he shouted. “You’re an old man and you stink! You really stink!”    And A. J. said and did nothing, just put his head down and attended to his meat sandwich, remaining silent for the rest of the night, even as he bent his frail body to clean up the steak from the floor. It was clear to Shaun then that as tough as the old man seemed, he was, in fact, easily hurt.

But what made things still worse was that Shaun had struck out at A. J. more harshly than ever only a few days before, when his grandfather threw one of his fits, brought on more and more frequently by the pain. They’d been at the breakfast table, and A. J. had slammed his spoon down, shouting, “This is my last Wednesday ever. My very last goddamned one. I swear it! I’m done with this day. I’m done with Thursday and the next fucking day, too,” to which Shaun responded as he always did. “Please don’t say that. Please just eat one bite of your oatmeal.” Shaun was the horse now, the beast of burden who did all the care taking, who’d even had to drop out of the state college a few years ago to keep the shop, to take A. J. to chemo, and to stay with him for the days afterward when he was sickest. Oatmeal was on the list of cancer-fighting foods he’d gotten from the clinic. He’d even read on the Internet about a woman who’d consumed a pound of oats every day until her tumors had just fallen off her—she’d literally seen the wasted pieces of cancer hit the floor and knew that she was cured forever. And so he’d said, “Please just eat,” though Shaun didn’t really believe anymore in miraculous, last-minute recoveries and he saw, with every passing day, that too much suffering made his grandfather vicious. Instead of eating even one bite of his oats, A. J. shoved the bowl aside, poured a generous portion of whiskey in his coffee, and lit a cigarette.

“Those things don’t help, Granddad,” Shaun said. “In fact,” A. J. said, “they usually do help me take a shit, and that happens to be what I need to do right now.” And so Shaun, as calmly and patiently as any twenty-two-year-old who would rather have been in college calculus than with this dying old man, stood and executed his duty, as he did every morning. He walked A. J. to the bathroom, undid his belt and zipper, shimmied his pants and boxer shorts down to his knees, and gently set him on the seat while his granddad shouted, “Take your hand off my cock, if you wouldn’t mind very damn much not making us feel like perverts, please!” It was then that Shaun did it—left him on the toilet and sat out in the living room for thirty minutes, long after A. J. started calling through the door, “Are you there? I think I need some help. Shaun? Jesus Christ. Please come.” Some minutes later, he added, “I’m sorry, kid.” Even then Shaun made himself count slowly to sixty before he hurried into the bathroom to see A. J. grasping at the edge of the sink, using it as leverage to stand himself halfway up, his pants down around his ankles, toilet paper flagging out of his backside and a trail of urine running down his pale leg, marbled with varicose veins, and into his sock. “You left me,” he said.

“No,” Shaun said, sitting his grandfather down, cleaning the urine away, removing the tissue, and cleaning him there, too, tucking him in and zipping him up until he looked decent and cared-for again. “I’d never leave you,” Shaun said, and then he flushed the toilet so that the tiny, black stool that floated in a haze of bloody water would disappear forever.

“You want me to die,” the old man said, staring off at nothing. And though Shaun denied it, he thought—and not for the first time—that maybe he did. And the sooner the better because then Shaun could sell the shop, could start classes again. He could go out at night, maybe even get drunk. He could meet girls, dance to the sort of music his grandfather hated, never mind that Shaun didn’t much care for it either. Maybe he’d even get stoned and play video games with Jared and Mark, friends he hadn’t seen in months, late into the night and not worry about the old man telling him that that was a sure way to become one of the dope fiends or meth heads who were always in and out of the shop, and so to betray and undo all the work A. J. had done in raising him, all the years the old man had got him up and off to school in the mornings, brushed his teeth at night, read to him from old Louis L’Amour novels, the Old Testament, and his grandfather’s favorite book ever, In the Ranks of the Green Beret, because A. J. respected men who understood the importance of duty, men who acted when it was right to act, even though his size-thirteen flat feet had kept him out of two wars.

But perhaps Shaun’s greatest failure opposite the old man wasn’t leaving him on the toilet or wishing him dead or tossing his plate of food on the floor all those years ago. Perhaps it was what he’d done only moments before, when he’d left him with this customer to answer the phone in back. A bony, pale, sick-looking kid, he’d come in at the very end of a long, slow day. Shaun should have known, at least suspected, that the kid was desperate. After all, it was brutally cold, a snow as fine and white as cinders blowing sideways in the burnt-out light of February, a day on which they would be lucky to have any business, since freezing temperatures tended to keep the homeless, the drunks, and the junkies off the streets. But the kid had come in nonetheless, their first and only customer that afternoon. He was wearing only jeans and a bright red, short-sleeved T-shirt, his face as pale and ashen as the air outside, and he sat down on the trade counter before A. J. and Shaun one of the stranger pawns Shaun had seen: an old, half-collapsed cardboard box full nearly to the rim with used Timex wristwatches, most without bands, some with only half a band, their crystals cloudy and scratched, so that Shaun should have guessed that this person carrying a box of used-up time had come to finish his grandfather off, never mind that he didn’t carry a scythe or wear a dark hood. His eyes were all black, dilated pupil, the work of some drug. Shaun sunk his hands beneath all those watches, sifting through them, lifting a handful of them up like gold coin and thinking of a price—fifteen or twenty bucks because they could no doubt salvage some of them—while down in his wheelchair A. J. lit a cigarette, just as he always did before starting a deal, using that small moment of fire and smoke to put his poker face on. He took a slow drink of his whisky-spiked coffee and said, “That’s a lot of watches you have there, son,” to which the kid answered, “I don’t have time for conversation.” That response had made Shaun chuckle because this guy with at least a hundred watches didn’t have a minute to exchange a few words. “You want them or not?” he half shouted. “They work?” Shaun asked and received an affirmative answer that he found hard to believe until he listened to one and then another and learned that at least these two did. And so he’d bent, put his ear to the mouth of the box, and heard a gentle roar of ticking, of multiple, tiny metronomic beats overlapping in a whisper of fragmented and shattered sound without beginning or end, in which Shaun had found himself sinking, then suspended, and which was like the rush and mess of all the things that Shaun had done and might want to undo, not the least of which was the simple fact that he wasn’t acting now, that he was still in the backroom when his grandfather needed him in front, that he was just watching, hiding, while the woman from Feed the Children was saying, “A lot of businesses in your area sponsor our organization not just to feel good but also because their customers appreciate it, too.” And his grandfather kept on shouting, provoking the guy, “Come on, shit-for-brains. What’s the matter? You don’t know a trigger from your ass? You don’t wipe it, kid. You squeeze it. That’s how it works.”

“You old fuck,” the kid said in a tone of irritation that seemed to ask Why are you making me kill you?

And then he did it. He pulled the trigger, after which nothing happened, even though A. J. had let his cigarette drop to the floor and crossed his arms at his chest and closed his eyes, a long-may-he-rest-in-peace expression settling over his shriveled visage until he resembled a pleasant corpse, which nonetheless opened its eyes, came alive, at first perplexed and then pissed as he shouted, “You fucking dipshit junkie! The safety’s on,” whereupon the sickly kid looked at the gun, studied it with deep confusion, as if he’d never understand the thing in a thousand years, which gave Shaun the time and courage he needed to put the phone down, take three strides out into the light, and shout, “Get out of my store! Get out! Out!”

The young man, trembling and at least as terrified as Shaun, turned around to face him before sprinting out the front door and not returning despite A. J.’s loud demands otherwise. “You left your watches! We don’t want your stinking watches! Come back and get your shitty box of shitty watches!”

It was over then. Shaun locked the three bolts of the front door, turned the Open sign to Closed, and stood directly in front of A. J., right where the kid had stood, and looked at his shriveled, half-dead grandfather. “I thought I’d be afraid,” A. J. said. “But I wasn’t.” In fact, his hands were trembling so badly that he couldn’t light the cigarette he kept dropping over the glass counter and having to pick up. “Did you see how I wasn’t afraid?” “I saw,” Shaun said. And because the old man still could not light his cigarette, because all he could do now was look down at his shaking hands, Shaun, who normally would have said, “Those things aren’t helping, Granddad,” stepped up to him now, took A. J.’s hand, the one clenching the cigarette, held it steady, and slowly fed the Carlton to his mouth, where it quivered while Shaun lit it. “Thank you,” A. J. said. And then he said again, “I wasn’t. You saw that I wasn’t.” “I saw that,” Shaun said, though he knew that A. J. was. And he was surprised in the next moment when the old man reached out, took Shaun’s hand, squeezing it hard, holding on, before he said in a stern whisper, “You’re shaking, kid. Why are you shaking?”