“Who the Hell are ya?”
My stepfather stood behind the screen mesh at the top of our trailer steps, framed by a rectangular doorway of flaking rust and his 12-gauge shotgun resting on his shoulder. Visitors were infrequent to our trailer park, and those who did come were often inhospitable.
The man turned, his eyes laying a weight upon my stepfather that even I could feel. My stepfather glared back, a lit cigarette dangling from his lower lip and beer stains striping his sleeveless shirt. He flexed, making the barb wire tattoo on his left bicep dance, but the man remained motionless.
“I am who I am,” he said.
“Are ya here to convert us?” my stepfather asked. “Because we don’t need no conversion. You a Jehovah’s Witness? Some preacher man? Or ya lookin’ for money? ‘Cause we don’t have much of that ‘round here.”
“I’m self-ordained. And no, I’m not here for your money. No, that belongs to you, and to your government. Neither of whose laws pertain to me.”
My stepfather frowned. I could see the drunk from the previous night wearing off into a hangover as he
squinted in concentration at the preacher man and tried to sift through his words. By now, the rest of the trailer park was stirring, and a small assembly had started gathering around us. Across from me stood Mr. Eliott, a man small in stature, with beady eyes and gnarled knuckles left from years of amateur boxing in his youth. Pete, one of the park’s nastier drug lords, was walking out one of his many call girls and had stopped to see the gathering. Even at this early hour, his lip was fat with chewing tobacco. More were coming. Shankey, the three-legged bulldog, who often brought back questionably large bones at night and snarled whenever anyone came within a stone’s toss, was curled by the preacher man’s feet.
I had never seen a priest this close before, and my eyes, along with the rest of the entourage’s, were upon him.
“So what the Hell do ya want then?” demanded my stepfather.
“Just a place to lay my head for a night.”
Pete led the circle in laughter, throwing an arm around his girl who shivered from lack of clothing in the frigid morning air. Even to my eyes she looked young.
“Not even my honey can stay here for free—not without giving me some sugar!”
He spat on the preacher man, a globular mixture of tobacco and phlegm that clung to his cloak. A flinch never crossed the preacher man’s face, but Shankey growled at his feet, and Pete backed away.
My stepfather spoke again.
“Either ya tell us why we should let ya stay, or ya leave.” He gestured with his shotgun to the end of the trailers.
“Because, Irad Petracci, I am drawn to places where the corners of Hell and Earth meet. Should you cast me out, I assure you it would be a grave mistake.”
“We don’t need none of your type here. Don’t be fooling us, I see the dirt on ya. You’re homeless, a drifter, got no home. And how the Hell did ya know my name?”
And though caked mud fell from the tail of his cloak, it was the preacher man who seemed cleanest amongst them.
“I know many things. Many years have passed during which I have not had my own roof, and many more will come. But that does not make me homeless. Just as having a son does not make you a father.”
The barrel of my stepfather’s shotgun came down so fast that the circle tripped over themselves trying to dismember. The preacher man alone remained unfazed.
“What did ya say to me? Go on, repeat it. I’m not gonna pretend it didn’t happen,” growled my stepfather, his finger on the trigger and the barrel aimed at the preacher man’s chest.
“You heard me, Irad.”
My stepfather squeezed the trigger and it clicked, bringing the hammer down on two shells with enough firepower to rip the preacher man in half. But there was no explosion, no volley of angry projectiles that would leave only blood in their wake.
“Very well,” said the preacher man, “you have not heeded my warning. I would curse you, but you seem to have cursed yourself already.”
He departed, leaving only footprints and my stepfather’s insults in his wake.
“You’re damn lucky these are duds! Go on, keep walking. Don’t ya ever come back, or I’ll be sure to blow your head clean off!”
He ejected the shells and they rattled down the stairs, coming to rest at my feet. My stepfather dragged
me by the shirt collar back into the trailer, where my mother was fixing breakfast. She worked at the diner two blocks down and already was in uniform.
“What was all the commotion about, Irad?” Curlers were still in her hair as bacon sizzled on the stove. Each night she took the leftovers from the back refrigerator of the diner so we could have a hot breakfast.
“Shut it, Monica,” my stepfather grumbled, pulling a chair up to the table and filling a glass with equal portions orange juice and cheap vodka.
“And you, don’t you go bringing around nobody who don’t belong here.” My stepfather threw me against the trailer wall so hard that I felt the aluminum buckle outward.
“Hey! Don’t you treat him like that,” my mother shouted, “or you can leave, Irad! I’ve put up with you long enough.”
He never replied, throwing back the orange juice concoction in two gulps before pouring a second glass. He knew better than to directly cross my mother.
I brushed the dust off my torn up jeans, bolted out the door, and pedaled my bike away from the escalating argument of my parents. A hundred feet after leaving the trailer park, my mother’s voice faded away.
In the distance I saw the preacher man remove his shoes and pour out an accumulation of dirt, which was claimed by the wind and blown back into our park.
As I rode, the shotgun shells floated back to the surface of my mind. They were heavy, not only with gunpowder and lead, but with my doubt that my stepfather could have loaded two dud bullets into the chamber. Maybe they had gotten wet.
I turned and pedaled back home, where I knew that my stepfather would have left for work at the mechanic’s and my mother for the diner. His shotgun was in its usual spot behind the door. The shells were still resting in the dirt.
I had to know.