by Will Richter
I don’t know why Two-Face locked little Charlie in the fish freezer that day. He never told me and I never asked. In any case he didn’t appear to be angry when he did it, though this was a long time ago and I may have forgotten. I do remember him cracking a beer, mounting his feet on a bucket, and inviting me onboard his boat, a commercial troller called, for some reason, Heracles. He didn’t offer a beer because I was twelve.
Then, as was his habit, he told me a story. This one was about elephants. He said that in some parts of Africa elephants are so numerous that governments put a bounty on them. If you see an elephant, he said, you are encouraged to shoot it. You must shoot it, in fact, or very likely you will wake up one morning with that same elephant putting its foot through your roof. Whole villages were destroyed in that way, he said, and entire populations lived in terror.
None of which was true. Weren’t elephants endangered or, at the very least, threatened? It seemed unlikely that any government would allow its citizens to slaughter them at will. But I didn’t ask questions. That was the key thing about me.
Throughout Two-Face’s tale, as the two of us reclined on folding chairs, as the late-afternoon sun sparkled on the channel and half blinded us, as Two-Face finished his latest beer and started on another, we could hear Charlie’s muffled cries from the freezer. Charlie: fourteen years old, but small and quiet, so that he seemed younger. That summer he was working for his father, Two-Face, as a deckhand, catching chums and sockeyes, gutting them, and putting them in the below-deck freezer where he was now locked. He never seemed very happy about it, the work. In any case he rarely smiled and talked even less. This was the loudest I’d ever heard him.
‘Look at this now,’ said his father. He pointed at a small boat, which had appeared around the corner and was making its way to the fuel dock. The fuel dock—the only one within thirty miles on that stretch of BC coast. My parents and I lived within sight of it, entirely alone in that part of the world unless someone like Two-Face came to visit.
The boat tied up and expelled its passengers (three men of various ages and a young pregnant woman), and moments later my father, trying as usual not to notice Two-Face, tramped down the ramp to greet them. I knew the vessel, an aluminum-hulled crew-boat type owned by one of the local First Nations.So in that way I also knew what kind of story I was in for next.
‘Lookit this,’ said Two-Face, watching the boat. ‘Just take a look.’ He spoke as if we were viewing something outrageous. But as far as I could tell it was just some people getting fuel.
Charlie continued to call.
Then Two-Face told a story that, in one form or another, I had heard many times before and would later hear at least a hundred more. The structure was always the same—the same
“Indians” gaming a misguided system to acquire free money, free merchandise, free property the same air of grievance and disbelief. These stories were a favourite of Two-Face’s. He really warmed to them. Today—seeing, perhaps, the pregnant woman—he chose one about residents of an overpopulated reserve supposedly burning down their own trailers to jump a queue for new free houses. ‘I shit you not,’ he said, his entire body leaning in my direction. ‘Burning their own trailers! Can you believe it?’
It’s a bad habit of mine that when people are saying things I object to I lose all ability to pay attention. Or rather, I pay attention, but not to the words being spoken, only to the sound of the speaker’s voice, say, or the feel of the air around me—some detail of form or fabric or sensation that’s entirely beside the point. For example in that moment, as Two-Face gestured and winked and made every attempt to enliven his story (he was a fabulous storyteller), all I could focus on was the scar on his left cheek. Quite a singular scar, about two inches in diameter and in a cross-hatched pattern, as if someone had pressed into his flesh with a hot potato masher. Strangely this scar didn’t make him too ugly. Actually it went very well with his fleeces and his rifles and the dark woodsman charm of his face. In any case I don’t know how he got the scar. He never told that story and nobody else seemed to know it either. But of course that’s where he got his nickname, after the Batman character, which he hated but had to tolerate.
By now the boat had fuelled up and gone away, but Two-Face, gurgling through another beer, continued with his story without even glancing in that direction, the humorous fuelers now irrelevant, as always they were.
Of course I know now that I should have done something to stop him. Even at twelve I could have walked away or told him to shut up or made some sort of stand. But it’s also true that in the dozy warmth of that sunlight, in the sound of water slapping and sucking against the boat’s wooden hull, even in the texture and hue of that patterned flesh on Two-Face’s cheek, the ecstatic beauty of the moment was undeniable, overwhelming the filth that dripped continually from his mouth.
Charlie didn’t call anymore. It began to worry me and I wondered if Two-Face had forgotten him. I’d stood in that freezer once myself, had been confronted by the rows of salmon corpses stiff with cold. How long until Charlie was likewise frozen?
But Two-Face was already on to something else. He said he’d heard that my mom and dad wanted to send me to boarding school, and I told him, ‘Yes.’ Then he told me not to let them—whatever I did, not to let them. I asked him why not and he took out a cigarette, lit it, and rubbed the butt against his forehead for a while.
‘Lemme tell you a story,’ he said.
I could tell that something was going to be different about this one. Gone were the vocal exaggerations and physical quirks with which he typically unspooled his yarns. He was sober and blank, almost boring in his delivery. You got the feeling that, for once, he told the truth.
It was about boarding school, of course. He himself had gone to one, from the age of nine until graduation. There, he said, all freedom was taken from him. It was like a prison, every minute of his day ordered by a higher authority: when he woke, ate, schooled, exercised, read, studied, slept. His clothes were chosen for him. His extracurriculars. Even, at that time, his religion; he had to pray to a cross he didn’t believe in (during none of this did he make the obvious connections). Furthermore the masters were cruel and, when they weren’t caning the children, would spend their time devising new ways to deprive and humiliate them. Discipline was the byword of that school, he said, and as a rebellious boy, used to the kinds of freedoms I also enjoyed, he had been marked early for extra censure, for extra turns at the worst jobs: cleaning toilets, scrubbing floors, picking baked-on porridge from the kitchen master’s pots.
All of which would have been tolerable, he said, if it hadn’t been for the older boys.
Those ones came in the night.
In their hands they carried towels—which he admitted didn’t sound threatening until you felt a dozen wet ones whipping you at once. You would be asleep in your dormitory and a sudden pain would wake you, the darkness full of laughing boys and whip-cracks and your friends wailing and sobbing. Sometimes it would be a general whipping, children running in every direction as the lashes found their backs, bellies, upper arms, upper legs, anywhere the welts would not show. Sometimes it would be more focused. The older boys would grab two or three victims by the wrists and ankles and hold them in place while the others took their turns. Those were the worst times, said Two-Face, to lie there writhing and begging or to huddle in a corner, hearing the screams of others, grateful it wasn’t you. But often as not it was him, he said. For some reason, just as the masters chose to single him out, so too did the older boys. Maybe it was his thinness, his streak of rebelliousness—or maybe it was the longish haircut with which he had first turned up at school. He was always “babe” or “girly” after that. Whistles in the hall. Taunts as the whips came down.
All of this Two-Face said dispassionately, with flat affect. It reminded me of his son—that same flatness. Only away from Two-Face did Charlie ever come alive, when we ran in the woods together or tossed huckleberries into ponds, watching the fish surfacing to eat them. I wondered if Two-Face knew about that, about that other son who smiled and laughed. But I didn’t ask him, never asked him anything, and Two-Face went on.
He said that after a while he couldn’t take it anymore—not just the thrashings, but much more besides, more than he could ever talk about. That’s when he started collecting the stones.
Small stones, small enough to fit into his pocket and hide inside his pillowcase. Soon there was more stone than pillow, and at night he would slip the pillow entirely out of its case, bunch the stones into a ball, and wait. The boys didn’t come every night. That was part of the torture; you could never sleep soundly because you never knew when they might arrive among you. So for a week Two-Face hardly slept at all. He lay there staring at the ceiling, listening to night frogs, pinching himself to stay awake. Finally, on the eighth night, just as his eyes began drifting closed, he saw movement—a shape at the back of the room, then another: the boys slipping in.
One boy in particular took delight in tormenting him, he said, a fat mullet-headed mouth-breather named Trevor O’Neil. So it was with particular pleasure that Two-Face saw Trevor above him in the darkness that night, peering down and coiling his towel. He said it gave more power to his swing.
In the confusion that followed, Trevor bleating on the floor, his hand on his cheek, his legs jerking, Two-Face managed to scatter the stones from the pillowcase before they could be used against him. That night’s thrashing was only slightly worse than the usual. Nobody knew until later how much damage he had done.
He had broken Trevor’s orbital bone, smashed it to pulp. Another inch and it would have been the eye. Of course the outraged parents wanted answers, and the masters—who in their day had probably created the hazing ritual in the first place—put a stop to it. And after that, said Two-Face, those boys knew to leave him alone.
That was it. That was the story.
I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing, looking instead at the locked fish freezer door. I tried to hide my disappointment—not at the story, but at the way he had finished it: that is, in his usual style. He had gestured and winked and made his voice entertaining and ridiculous. He had done all the things that made you doubt.
Had any of it really happened? Trevor? The stones? Two-Face getting his payback? Maybe. Maybe he had lain there in the dark, a small thin boy with a stone for a pillow, waiting for his chance. Or maybe he had simply absorbed his beatings like all the rest, until he was hard and racist and with no more truth left in him. I couldn’t be sure. And that’s the trouble. Always somewhere some lie is being told and some boy being frozen, and you don’t know when or who or what or why.
Maybe Two-Face could sense my misgivings, because gradually the new animation drained from his features. He sagged. He drank. He scratched the unexplained scar on his cheek and followed my gaze to the freezer. I don’t know which connections he made in that moment. There were so many to be made. Anyway, something happened, because, at last, he rose to his feet, crossed to the freezer, and opened it.
But Charlie did not come out.
For what seemed like three eternities Two-Face stood motionless, his legs spread, the freezer door in his hand, and peered down into the darkness of that hatch. He had no expression, and all at once I was overwhelmed with dread at the contrast of his unnatural stillness and the life that carried on as usual around us. To one side a seagull flew down, settled on a piling, and looked about alertly. Above us the outriggers waved silently with the roll of small waves. Nothing had changed. And still he stood there, looking down…until finally something appeared in the hole.
A face. But not the right one. No, you see, it simply wasn’t him anymore. It wasn’t the Charlie he had been.
That was a different boy.
Will Richter’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Threepenny Review, Arts & Letters, The Fiddlehead, subTerrain, and Fiction International. He lives in Vancouver, BC.