January 26th through January 29th you can get my story collection ALL THE DIFFERENT WAYS LOVE CAN FEEL for only $.99 on Kindle. Check out “Just Gus,” one of my favorite stories in the collection, for free below. If you enjoy it, consider picking up my book for less than a buck on Kindle.
Four days after his eighteenth birthday, Gus Lockheart stole several cherished items from his father. The better part of a record collection that included the Rolling Stones, John Prine, and the Talking Heads. A set of Hemingway hardbacks. Two-dozen neckties. Gus even stole Peter Lockheart’s Davidson County Community College student ID circa 1971, a purely impulsive act that, some twenty years, two marriages, and one son of his own later, would make him smile.
Way back in that August of 1997, Gus was a skinny, hyper-sensitive, be-spotted teenager whose childhood was about to end. Awaiting him was a place at an undistinguished university in Alabama, a vague location Gus had never visited or even thought of except during eighth grade history class when Miss Hallock, his first real crush, waxed poetic about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “wonderful gift for oratory.” On the cusp of a new adventure, Gus had shifted his focus from comic books and hip hop to the Reinvention of Self. College, young Gus believed, meant change. College meant taking risks, doing things you wouldn’t ever do.
Like stealing from your father.
And thinking nothing of stealing from your father.
So naturally, the night before leaving his parents’ house for good, Gus, theatrically dressed in black from head to toe, didn’t hesitate before swiping the aforementioned items from Peter Lockheart’s study in the middle of the night and packing them into a U-Haul.
And, of course, Gus lit his first ever-unfiltered Camel Red in the moonlight afterward, trying to no avail to hold in the harsh smoke without coughing. He applauded his own daring. He applauded his gumption, his moxie, his willingness to embrace his destiny with both hands. Cigarette dangling from his lips, eyes burning from the smoke, he clapped his hands together loudly, filling the darkened suburban neighborhood with self-congratulation.
And as if on cue, the Johnson’s dog, a large, mangy mutt with one milky eye, leapt the chain-link fence next door and tore ass after Gus, who barely made it back into the garage, but not before having a piece of his black pants torn away.
To his credit, Gus did feel the slightest twinge of remorse at the breakfast table the following morning when Peter Lockheart, thinning brown-grey hair still wet from the shower, lowered the Winston-Salem Journal he’d been reading since dawn, finished his decaf, and slid a tattered piece of black denim across the table.
“I’m coming with you today,” he said, which, Gus knew from long experience, was the end of the discussion.
Still, Gus held his father’s gaze long enough to say, “I’m driving then.”
Peter Lockheart shaped his pinstriped Pierre Cardin into a perfect Half Windsor knot that Gus could never quite duplicate, even though his father had patiently demonstrated the four step process many, many times, most recently on Prom Night when Gus went stag.
“I control the radio,” said his father, the be-suited six-foot four-inch man now towering over Gus and his soggy Cheerios. “Deal?”
But his father didn’t wait for a response, and, eventually, Gus lowered the hand he’d extended and brushed the piece of black cloth onto the floor.
The first leg of the car ride from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to Birmingham, Alabama, passed in tolerable unease. The sun was hot, the sky Tarheel blue, the traffic moderate most of the way down I-95 South. Behind the wheel of a 1987 Volvo that was once beige, Gus drove with one hand on the bottom of the steering wheel, while his left arm hung out the window, burning in the August heat. Despite Gus’s near fetishistic love of rap music, and his father’s devotion to classic rock, there was no music played in the car. Nor was there a father-son heart-to-heart. No Peter Lockheart, an observer and a critic by nature, pointing to and naming specific types of trees along the highway, no sarcastic remarks from Gus in reply. For three hours and thirteen minutes, the only sounds Gus heard were the whoosh of the highway rushing by and the U-Haul bumping along behind him, stolen items tucked away inside cardboard boxes.
However unexpected, this silence suited Gus just fine. He didn’t, for once, require his headphones piping ganster rap directly into his chemically-imbalanced brain, for his head was filled with fantasies of romantic conquest and scholastic triumph, even the occasional misadventure ending with a thrilling but comical run-in with the Law.
By the time Gus sped past the South Carolina state line, he’d already lost his virginity to a buxom, raven-haired Sociology professor, won the university’s literary prize for an epic poem he’d penned while in a Peyote trance, and been voted school president, and subsequently booted from office for a sex scandal involving three cheerleaders and a secret video camera.
And just as he was mentally preparing his speech to the university president and the board of trustees, who were all lobbying for Gus Lockheart’s expulsion, but secretly adored the loveable scamp, Peter Lockheart switched on the radio. To NPR. All Things Considered, to be precise.
Having forgotten that his father existed, Gus turned to the passenger where Peter’s large frame was crammed. His forehead was glistening with sweat. His tan suit fit perfectly and looked hot and uncomfortable.
“The news?” Gus whined. “Really?”
Peter claimed to be interested in something happening overseas, which alarmed and annoyed Gus, for he’d never known his father to care about world events. As best as Gus could tell, the only things Peter Lockheart really cared about were, in ascending order of importance, books, music, and the “continual progress” of his only son. It was a mystery to Gus how this Early-Morning-Hummer-of-Beatles tunes, who attended every single soccer game and was present for every single parent-teacher conference, managed to earn a six-figure salary doing logisitics, whatever the hell that was.
“What’s the matter?” his father asked. “You afraid you might learn something?”
Nearing the Atlanta city limits, Gus knew more about the trial of Pol Pot by the Khmer Rouge than he ever wanted to. He was bored stiff. Literally. His legs were beginning to cramp. He pointed to a billboard with a picture of sunnyside up eggs and bacon and steaming coffee.
“Lunch?” Gus asked.
“It’s only ten-forty-five.”
“I’m starving,” Gus lied. “Come on, I’m buying.”
“Save your money, big shot. You’re going to need it.”
Another twinge of regret. Gus patted his pocket where he’d put the sixty dollars his mother had given him with the express instructions to keep quiet about it. Although a constant positive presence in his life, Doris Lockheart lacked definition in his mind. She was just a sketch of a character, a dim outline on a blank page. No fine detail. Not even a smell because she, like his father, rarely gave hugs. But Peter Lockheart was in Technicolor, loomed larger than life itself, and the man’s scent—Canoe aftershave—was so branded in Gus’s memory that he thought of his father every time he saw a boat or visited the ocean.
“Let’s eat,” Gus said. “I’m flush.”
Denver Omelet picked over but not eaten, caffeine flowing through his veins, Gus flicked through the selections on the mini jukebox sitting on the table. Tired oldies. He leaned back, allowed the noises of Silver Café to wash passively over him. Forks scraped plates. Grills sizzled. Waitresses politely demanded orders. A baby cried once, and then fell silent. The smell of coffee and meat and disinfectant was strong, and Gus, imagining himself a witty character actor in an independent movie, stretched his arms out along the top of the booth and said:
“Chuck Berry is a pervert, you know. He installed cameras in the women’s bathroom of a store he owned. Who does that?”
Without looking up from his corn beef hash, his father said, “It was a restaurant called Southern Air. It wasn’t a store. And Berry didn’t own the place.” His tie was tucked into his breast pocket to avoid stains, and Gus couldn’t decide if this simple detail delighted or depressed him. Either way, he decided, it gave the character in question some quirkiness and a bit of visual interest. But Gus still couldn’t imagine a daily crossword-puzzle-solver like his father preening around a stage singing “No Particular Place to Go” with a Gibson guitar slung over his neck. Surely, the rumors of a much younger Peter Lockheart as the lead singer of a psychedelic rock band were false. They had to be, Gus thought. Just look at how perfectly parted this guy’s hair is. How immaculate his table manners.
“Restaurant or store,” said Gus, “the guy’s a pervert. End of story.”
“No, it isn’t the end of the story. It’s a part of the story. An ugly part, but not the whole thing.”
“Please tell me you’re not defending a peeping tom.”
“You missed my point entirely.”
“You were being allegorical. No, I get your point. I don’t think you got mine.”
“Tell me then. What was your point?”
Gus fell silent.
His father sighed. He resumed eating, and Gus decided to switch tactics midstream. Between sips of sugary black coffee and frantic arm gestures, he spoke inaccurately of the famous musician in question’s career, which, after a minute or two of silence, finally brought a grin to his father’s face. Encouraged, Gus invented an elaborate fiction involving his Geometry teacher Mr. Miller, who just so happened to have met the great Chuck Berry.
Gus, experiencing a high greater than the time he’d smoked a joint with his only friend Marshall, said, “This was June ’71. Mr. Miller was just home from his second tour in Vietnam, and he stopped into a sawdust joint near Camp Pendleton and who’s sitting at the bar? Dressed in a tailored maroon-suit and cowboy boots with silver spurs that reflected the late afternoon sunlight just so?”
“Mr. Johnny Be Good?”
Gus touched the tip of his nose. “Ding-ding-ding. We have a Bingo. So Mr. Miller and the Living Legend talk about college football. Chucky, as Mr. Miller called him, was a big LSU fan. Insisted that the Wishbone Offense was the key to a national championship.” He took a much-needed breath, savoring his father’s attention. “Mr. Miller also said Chucky was really short. ‘Almost a midget,’ and that’s a direct quote before you accuse me of being prejudiced against the diminutive.”
“Diminutive. That’s great.” But his father didn’t laugh. He wiped his mouth a final time. He gestured toward the waitress for the check, and then once again leveled his tobacco-brown eyes at his son. Gus knew this look, had grown up enduring it. It was the same half-concerned, half-amused expression that would appear on his face right before he delivered a detailed critique of Gus’s play on the baseball diamond, of the prose, punctuation, and content of Gus’s fifth grade report on the Declaration of Independence. Gus slumped, not up for a battle of this ilk.
“Who gets the honor, gents?” the waitress said, holding the meal ticket aloft.
“Give it to him, please,” Peter said. “I’m just along for the ride.”
Face reddening, Gus dropped a twenty-dollar bill on the table, and the waitress walked away to the register.
“You win,” said Gus. “Tell me what you meant by it being only part of the story.”
Instead of answering, his father pressed A7 on the jukebox and slid out of the booth, straightening his tie before exiting the restaurant.
Gus recognized A7 right away. “Sympathy for the Devil” from Beggar’s Bouquet. That same Rolling Stones record was, at that very moment, baking in the back of a U-Haul in the parking lot.
Outside, the waitress was having a cigarette, and sensing that his father was watching, Gus bummed a drag from her Marlboro Light, pecked her on the cheek, and coughed up a lungful of smoke as he walked away.
His father was in the driver’s seat of the Volvo. Sans suit jacket, sleeves rolled neatly to the elbow, he gripped the wheel at ten and two and said through the open window: “Get in.”
The car was cranked, the AC on full-tilt to combat the ninety degree temperature and one hundred percent humidity. The radio was on and playing something by Led Zeppelin, or maybe Cream—one of those electric guitar-centric bands from 1960s England that Gus could never keep straight.
Gus slouched in the passenger seat, stuck his headphones in, and allowed N.W.A., the urban poets of Compton, California, to lull him to sleep with fantastic tales of bitches and weed and AK47s.
Gus awoke when the AC stopped working some twenty miles outside of Birmingham proper. Head pounding, he removed his headphones and rolled down the window, air assaulting him at sixty-five miles per hour, its smell a breath-stealing mixture of burning gasoline and cooking asphalt. Up ahead on the highway, the traffic was at a complete stop, and he turned to his father, who muttered a four-letter word and, at the last second, skidded to a halt behind the other trapped cars.
His father pounded his fist on the steering wheel once, a rare display of impatience that, for a happy moment or two, took Gus’s mind off of the oppressive heat and the thumping in his temples. As did the half moons of perspiration darkening his father’s armpits. And the distracted manner in which his father hummed along to a mellow tune playing on the radio, one Gus actually knew quite well. Men of Peter Lockheart’s physical stature were not made for boxy vehicles like Volvos, and this observation prolonged the pleasurable sensation Gus felt, it flicked the switch once again on his high-powered imagination. Looking at his father, Gus thought of a Silverback Gorilla in a Brooks Brothers suit stuffed into a clown car, a werewolf in a tuxedo on a tricycle, a grisly bear sitting atop a child’s bike, its fury bulk spilling over the side. Gus bit his tongue to stop from bursting out laughing. The last thing he wanted in this heat was to have his father pose the dreaded questions: “Are you taking the Zoloft, Gus? Precisely as prescribed to you by Dr. Ambrose? Are you tense right now, Gus? Nervous? Anxious?”
An eighteen-wheeler with the words HELP ME written in dirt on the back was stopped in front of them, and Gus’s good feeling disappeared and was replaced with a racing pulse and racing thoughts. His mind flew away from him and crash-landed on a memory. His father having to fireman-carry Gus out of the boy’s locker room at Regan High School because his son, shirtless and drenched in circumstantial sweat, couldn’t breathe and couldn’t stop sobbing and flailing his arms around.
“Dad,” Gus said, and his father shushed him and turned up the volume on the radio.
“Have you ever heard this song?” he asked. “’The heat was hot.’ Do you know that line?”
This was a game his father played, a game he still plays to this day. He’d call out a random lyric, usually something obscure by Bob Dylan or Robert Earl Keen or The Band, and Gus was supposed to guess the song. Although he hardly ever answered correctly, Gus enjoyed the game, relished the fact that his father never asked anyone else to play, just Gus.
“Something by Aerosmith?” Gus said, suppressing a smile of his own. “The Mothers of Invention?”
“Come on, son. Be serious for once. You know this one. Think.”
Something about the half-amused, half-disappointed tone of his father’s voice set Gus off. Triggered a moment of pre-schadenfreude as he imagined Peter Lockheart entering his study after a long day of memo-writing and business meetings and finding dust bunnies where his beloved record collection was supposed to be.
“Of course, I know the song,” Gus snapped. “You’ve asked me that question at least ten times before.”
“You’re stalling because you don’t know.”
“You’re senile, and it’s really sad.”
“Okay, wiseass, then name the song.”
“’Afternoon Delight.’ Happy now?” Gus turned the radio off.
His father switched it back on. “You’re not getting off that easy.”
An ambulance sped past on the shoulder, red and white lights flashing.
“Fine,” said Gus. “The line is from a shitty song by America called “A Horse with No Name. ‘The heat was hot’ is, indeed, a rather infantile line, even for a seventies pop song, but what’s more annoying, what’s especially soul-crushing in this unbearable heat and horrendous traffic, is the number of times I’ve had to endure you joking around about that ridiculous song.”
“No, you don’t. Clearly, you’ve blocked out the countless times you’ve brought this up. Or you have a neurological disorder affecting your memory.” Gus cleared his throat, tried to speak in the same deep baritone as his father. “‘If the guys in that song are stuck out in the desert for nine days, why don’t they name the horse? What the hell else do they have to do?’ Hilarious. Comedic genius.”
Gus turned back to his father.
Who stared at him. With hurt, not malice, in his tobacco-brown eyes.
Gus wanted and totally deserved a cutting remark from his father, perhaps even a smack in the mouth or a punch in the nose. When Gus misbehaved as a child, which was often, his mother would inform him that Grandpa Lockheart, back in the day, had been a hitter, but that Peter Lockheart would never in a million years do that to his only son. “He loves you too much to lay a finger on you,” she’d say, even though Gus could count on one hand the number of times his father had said, “I love you.”
His father broke eye contact first, which shamed Gus to his core, and he said, “Bet you’re glad to get rid of me. No more family therapy sessions. No more calls from the principal. I bet you wish you’d just stayed home with mom today, huh?”
“You know what I wish?”
“What?” Gus asked, dreading and hoping his father would say something about the stolen stuff in the U-Haul. “What do you wish?”
Shifting his weight around, grimacing, his father said, “I wish I’d bought you a car with more legroom.”
Gus sat down on a Gibson’s Gin cardboard box filled with comic books and graphic novels he’d been collecting since he was old enough to read. His arms and legs were heavy from hauling his possessions up four flights of stairs. While his father was on the street moving the Volvo to a legal space, Gus took his time introducing himself to his new apartment, a 400-square foot studio with a miniscule kitchenette. Hello, putty-colored walls. Nice to meet you, uneven hardwood floors. Say, that’s a fine window unit you got there, and a mighty swell view of a church across the street.
Gus stood up for a closer view of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church. The church had stained glass windows and sharpened spires that were aimed at the blue sky above and should have, in Gus’s opinion, been pointing in the opposite direction. Pressing his face against the glass, he looked way down. On the steps in front of the church sat a quartet of homeless men, each of them overdressed for a scorcher except for a shirtless black man with long, natty dreadlocks. Heathcliff was the name Gus gave this man, and he wore gold sunglasses like Elvis wore during the Vegas Years, bright orange biking shorts, and combat boots. A kid on a skateboard skidded to a stop in front of Heathcliff, they exchanged words, and then Heathcliff pulled a baggie out of his fanny pouch and handed it to the kid with one hand, while accepting cash with the other. Heathcliff saluted the kid, smacked him on the back of the head, and the kid rolled away.
Gus looked around his apartment once more, and then back down at Heathcliff, who was breakdancing.
“Home,” Gus said trying on the word for size, but not liking the fit so he repeated it three more times, saying it louder each time. “Home! Home! Home!”
The door shut behind him, and he wheeled around.
His father stood under the ceiling fan, his cowlick almost touching one of the whirring blades. Surrounded by cardboard boxes with labels like AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL and SOLIPSISTIC and SUBCONSCIOUS, his father had the car keys dangling from his ring finger, and his undershirt was damp with sweat, and in a panic, Gus realized he’d soon be spending his first night alone. In a tiny apartment. In a strange city.
“Catch.” His father tossed the keys. Gus fumbled them, and they landed inside a Crockpot with no top to it. A white rabbit’s foot and two dull golden keys looked up at Gus from inside the slow cooker, and he wondered who had packed this thing and why.
“Hands like feet,” his father said, a simile Gus had heard often during his lone season playing Little League baseball for Coach Lockheart, who was beloved by everyone, teammates and parents alike. “I’m not going to hug you, Gus. Nor am I going to give you advice.” His father upped the Wattage on his presidential smile, shoved his large hands into his pockets. “But I will say this. Those bums down there on the street. They’re selling heroin. To kids. And I know your condition–”
“It’s not a condition. It’s a–”
“I’m not going to pretend like I understand it, son. I wouldn’t presume to”—abrupt stop. He cleared his throat, wiped away a tear, exhaled. “Just be. . .Christ, I don’t know. Just be–”
“Considerate,” he said. “Of your mother. And the many sacrifices she’s made to raise you. She loves you very much.”
“And I, her.”
His father’s eyes were welling up again. He lightly kicked a cardboard box labeled IRONICAL. “Suppose, hypothetically speaking, your old man wanted a hug. Would that be totally disagreeable to you, Gus?”
For once, Gus Lockheart’s impulsive nature served him well, and while the question still hung in the air, he wrapped his arms around his father’s waist and squeezed so hard his chest hurt from the effort.
“You’re my hero, Dad,” Gus said before he could stop and consider the implications of such a confession.
Kissing the crown of Gus’s head, his father gently pushed him away. “You’re due at the realtor’s office around the corner. Time for you to pay your first ever bill. Do you have your checkbook?”
Gus fished out the Bank of America checkbook he’d ordered earlier that summer and waved it like a flag.
“And you have enough in your account to cover first and last month’s rent?”
“Only because some tyrant forced me to get a job at Sunnyside Ice & Fuel Company this summer. Bagging ice inside a freezer set at eighteen degrees. Now that’s my idea of a vacation.”
“Get moving, wiseass. It’s quarter til, and they close at five.”
“And what are you going to do?”
“Convalesce,” his father said, ahhhing as he sat down on the hardwood floor.
Heat be damned, Gus walked an extra two blocks to avoid passing the heroin-dealing, breakdancing Heathcliff and made it to Five Points Realty Company with a minute to spare. He handed the pretty redheaded receptionist a check for $850, and she frowned.
“What’s this for?” she asked in the thickest Southern accent Gus had ever heard in person or on TV.
“My rent,” Gus said. “I’m at the Dulion. Apartment 4B.”
She crossed her arms, and Gus melted at the sight of her cobalt blue eyes and roughed lips. “So,” she said drawing out the single syllable, “you’re Gus. Your daddy told me a lot about you.”
“Don’t worry, Gus Lockheart. You’re paid up for the year.” She tore up the check and tossed it into a wastebasket. “You need to scoot though, sugar. I got a date in twenty.”
When Gus returned to his apartment, his father was gone. As was the box labeled SUBCONSCIOUS, which Gus had filled with Peter Lockheart’s items. Panicked, he flung open the closet door, and there, stacked neatly against the wall were the records and the Hemingway hardbacks, both smartly aligned and arranged in alphabetical order. Dangling from coat hangers were the neckties, and these, upon closer inspection, appeared to have been organized by color and pattern, and Gus’s heart felt so full he was afraid it might burst.
He spent the rest of the afternoon listening to the Talking Heads on vinyl as he unpacked, his head once again swarming with brilliant fantasies. And it was while he was organizing his kitchenette and daydreaming about walking onto the college tennis team and leading them to an improbable NCAA Championship that he discovered Peter Lockheart’s old college ID taped to the side of the Crockpot.
And what was taped underneath his father’s ID?
A slow cooker recipe for Beef Stroganoff, the same one Gus Lockheart would make for his only son Harry some twenty years later.