The quality of the sunlight was a benevolent gold and timeless. It was the part of summer that seemed to the boy as if every day was bright, warm and twenty hours long. He sat upon the rumpled brown couch, which was older than he was and smelled like dog piss. The late afternoon rays slanted in through the living room window, flashing upon the television screen, making the color picture hard to see. There were countless flecks of dust in the air, gleaming like tiny gemstones.
He was not home alone; his brother was upstairs somewhere, probably reading a book. He did not know where his mother was, or his uncle, but he did not think of it. Outside the rumble of a large engine approached and turned into the driveway. He could hear the tired crunch the gravel into the concrete driveway. The engine died and a large door opened and closed. He heard footsteps approaching, the heavy hard polished sound of a man’s dress shoes on a hard surface. The door opened and standing in a halo of sunshine stood the broad figure of his father. The boy smiled broadly, his small child’s teeth crowding his awkward face. His father always looked strange in his work clothes; the darkness of his beard, skin and sunglasses, like an Arab, made his white dress shirt look impossibly white. He wore plain black slacks and black dress shoes. The boy surged into his father’s arms and kissed the wire scruff of his face.
His father set the boy down and stood in his contraposto way, surveying the room and saying nothing. Over his father’s shoulder he could see the shelves that held the family photo albums. They were a variety of colors and arrayed haphazardly. In his young mind the boy felt a painful stab of memory. It was of an argument, which he did not understand, his mother shouting in her shrill way, inches from tears and his father bellowing like a lion. Suddenly his father’s powerful forearm shot up-in a flash of suspended time the boy could see his father’s army tattoo-and smashed the shelves upward, scattering the volumes of pictures with a terrific crash. The boy did not understand that moment, but there were more fights. The house had the black, invisible and corrosive atmosphere of an armed camp. He recalled another moment in the kitchen in which his mother, father and uncle were arrayed like chess pieces. His father was cornered by the counter but shouting and gesticulating while his mother and uncle stood across the room, shouting simultaneously back, trying to beat his father, his hero, into submission with the volume of their enraged noise. The boy remembered standing in front of his father, in no man’s land, wide eyed and silent, trying to comprehend the exciting drama. At one point his mother stepped forward, confronting him and his father with wild eyes, gesturing for the boy to leave. He remembered saying something to her that made him feel sneaky and ashamed. He did not know where it came from but he knew he said it and that it was wrong. His mother’s open hand flashed out, smashing him across the face and he retreated to his room in tears. He felt all of these memories in a flash but soon they were gone.
In the other rooms of the first floor the boy could hear his father making a racket. It sounded like a desperate search for something. Drawers were rent open and shut. The closet door in the bedroom down the hall clattered open. He heard his father shouting and cursing to no one in particular. He rushed back into the living room, not looking at the boy and wiping the perspiration from his brow as he powered his way across the living room in haste. He was no longer wearing his sunglasses and the boy could see his father’s eyes. They were different; there was too much white and his irises were too small. His father threw open the door and pounded up the fifteen steps of ugly orange shag carpeting. He heard his brother’s door open, a brief murmur of conversation and then the door closed. Then his father was in the master bedroom for a long time. The boy turned back to the television and watched as Different Strokes was now on. His boy’s mind became quickly engrossed in the plot of the sitcom and he forgot the rumbling for a few moments.
His father burst back into the room. He held a finger to his lips as his swept the boy up in his arms once more. The boy wondered where they were going. It occurred to him that his father had not finished his search and there was one place he had not yet looked, the basement. His father, indeed, carried him through the basement door and down the rickety wooden steps into the cement enclosure. The boy had always been terrified of the basement, particularly at night. He regarded it as the worst place in the world, where bad things lurked. The walls and the floor were a dark steel reinforced concrete. It smelled like mildew from the frequent flooding that occurred due to the high water table. The basement usually resembled a dungeon, but on that afternoon it was warm and filled with the golden light of the setting sun. His father set him down and spoke to him.
“Now listen, Billy, we are going to play a little game, ok?” The boy could smell whiskey on his father’s breath. He did not know what kind of alcohol it was but he knew well enough the smell of alcohol.
“OK, Daddy. What’s the game?”
“I want you to help me find something.”
“But you can’t tell your mother or that other bastard, alright?”
“OK, Daddy. I can keep a secret. What are we looking for?” He was five years old and genuinely excited at the prospect of playing a secret and exciting game with his father.
“It’s like we’re spies and we need to find something to get the bad guys.” He mopped the sweat from the bronze Italian skin of his forehead.
“OK, Daddy. Let’s get ’em!”
“OK, what we’re looking for is a gun. It’s not a hand gun, it’s a shotgun. Do you know what that is?”
“Sure I do.” The boy did know, as he watched shows like The A-Team, and The Dukes of Hazzard all the time and knew what different types of guns were. He knew a shotgun was a powerful gun that looked like a rifle but that you pumped to load. When a shotgun was fired on TV he liked the sound it made, like Dirty Harry’s .357 magnum.
“It’s not a regular shotgun, but sawed off at the barrel, so it’s a little bit shorter than you might expect.”
“Have you seen it?”
“Well, you’re gonna help me find it. That’s the game.”
“If you find it, don’t touch it! Just come and find me, OK?”
“OK, Daddy. Listen, as long as we’re playing spies and all, can I call you Tony?” The boy asked the question timidly.
“No, Billy. I’m your father. You call me Dad or Daddy but you’re not allowed to call me by my first name.”
They tore quietly through the basement. The boy, caught up in the excitement of a real spy mission, a scavenger hunt involving a gun, thrust his hand under every cobwebbed cabinet and behind musty shelves, seeking the cold steel of his quarry. He did not know how long it went on but it grew quiet in the basement. He turned to see his father standing, his shirt sleeves rolled up but musty and dirty. He was breathing hard, looking at the floor and mopping his brow. He looked as if he didn’t know what to do.
“OK, Billy. Never mind. It’s not here. Remember, don’t tell anyone about this! OK?”
“You’re a good boy. Come on, run upstairs and get your brother. Let’s go get some ice cream.”
“OK, Daddy.” He sprinted excitedly up the stairs, his young legs firing like pistons, forgetting the disappointment of the failed search in the excitement of a run down the sunny highway to Carvel for some ice cream. They boy considered what flavor he wanted as his father remained for a moment in the basement, staring at his shoe tops. The boy ran as if his legs would carry him forever. All was right with the world, his Daddy was home, it was summer and there would be ice cream. He wondered, though only for a moment, where his mother was. He wished she was there too to have ice cream with them.