2.25.64 by Mark Farrington
With “2.25.64,” a finalist for Character in the 2018 CRAFT Elements Contest, Mark Farrington delivers a gripping story about the relationship between a boy and his father. Farrington is clearly in control, from excellent word choices and sentence-level prose to the overall narrative arc, composition, and character development—his craft choices give us much to discuss.
Stories narrated in second-person POV or in present tense can falter easily if the choices are mismatched to the content and used only for cleverness, as neither device allows for real reflection. Here, Farrington chooses both effectively: the present tense provides tension and pacing that fit the story, and the POV works so well because we understand within the first four paragraphs, delivered in past tense, that the narrator is speaking to a younger version of himself from a “now” voice of reflection (“You know now that license meant permission…”). Then the shift into present tense helps drives the timing and escalate tension. Additionally, Farrington commissions an adept allusion—the Clay vs. Liston fight—to do heavy lifting, to serve both as structure and as bridge. —CRAFT
Into the arena comes the somber and menacing figure of Charles “Sonny” Liston, aptly named the most frightening man in the world.
People said the war changed your father but your mother disagreed. “It just gave him license,” she said. You were six or seven when you heard her say this to her friend Angela, and you thought “license” meant driver’s license and wondered, Was he too young to drive but they let him because of the war?
You know now that license meant permission, to do whatever the fuck he wanted, not give a shit about anyone or anything if he didn’t feel like it. Like some innocent prisoner finally let out of jail, owed something he knew he’d never get back, so he took what he wanted as compensation, the rest be damned.
You used to listen to your mother tell of all the exciting things she dreamed of doing once her husband was gone. It was reasonable: he was eleven years her senior, he smoked and drank and abused his body, while she spent most of her time at home. Who thought she could die at thirty-seven? He smoked; she got cancer. Close to the end, you heard her whisper, “I never imagined it could be like this.”
She whispered something else near the end, too. Her trembling, bone-thin fingers clutching to your shirt, she hissed out a single plea: “Look after him. He’s a child.”
You stand in his room now, “their room” you still call it in your head, and imagine you can still smell the trace of your mother’s scent, a mix of perfume and baking, something you’ve thought of as the smell of home, but another smell overpowers the memory, the stink of sweat and grime and unwashed bedclothes, the smell of unchecked man. The room is divided in half now, your mother’s side untouched except that her vanity’s been cleared off, after the old man swept into drawers everything he couldn’t use, sell or throw away. On the other side, the bed looks like he wrestled a grizzly in his sleep; cigarette butts spilling out of a multitude of ashtrays, dirty clothes strangled on a chair.
Near the bed, which you refuse to sit on, you stare down at the radio squeezed between the lamp and an overflowing ashtray on the bedside table. The size of a small loaf of bread, it’s bone-colored, dented and dirty, with dust wedged into crevices and cigarette burns on top that remind you of spy movies where interrogators use glowing cigarettes for torture. The dial that turns the thing on and off is loose, despite being sated with glue, electrical tape hugs slits in the wire, and the bent prongs have to be continually reshaped before being plugged in. But the radio works: you listen to it sometimes in the afternoons, sliding the dial away from his swing music to find Sam Cooke, The Drifters, Marvin Gaye. The reception is best late at night, and you’ve already tested it to make sure it will bring in the station you’ll need tomorrow.
Outside there’s a ruckus; the old man is alien to quiet. You hurry out of his room, close the door behind you, your chest thumping. Outside the old man curses and jangles, searching for keys. Before he can begin pounding, you collect yourself, walk over and wrap your sweaty hand around the doorknob and jerk the door open. Hunched over, his dark eyes peer up without raising his head, guilty and predatory, a narrow smile slicing his lips. “Good,” you say, already turning away. “I was about to start dinner.”
Now he has to make his fists do what his mouth has predicted.
This boy who said he’d make the ugly bear look silly.
He never said he was proud you were his son. Now he seems to want a daughter, or a maid. You do the cleaning, the laundry, the shopping with bills he leaves on the table at the end of each week, whatever’s left after booze and gambling and the spending money he keeps for himself. You’ve learned to cook a few things, sausages and mashed potatoes; you can heat up a can of peas. He pushes all the food together into one messy pile and you wince, remembering the distaste on your mother’s lips, his prickly answer: “What? It all goes to the same place.” And then, “This is how a man eats in war.”
“Tomorrow night,” you say, peering up at him to see if he’s listening. He won’t look at you because he knows you want him to. “It starts at ten o’clock.” You need to remind him not because you fear he’ll forget but because you can’t believe he’s giving in so easily. There might be a hint of invitation there, too.
He spears a whole sausage and bites off one end. His fingers have been broken more than once, and the gnarled middle finger sticks up as if it’s saying “Fuck you” and “Come here,” both at the same time.
“They can kill each other for all I care. Two convicts fighting for the championship of the world.”
“He’s not a convict. Just Sonny, and he’s done his time.”
This time he waits until your eyes find his. “Sooner or later,” he says, “they all end up in jail.”
You let time pass. “You gonna be home?” you ask. “Tomorrow night?”
He shrugs, as if what he’ll do tomorrow night is a question only the Gods can answer. He doesn’t often come home straight from work, but how late he’s out depends on factors you don’t want to know.
“I might move the radio into my room. Reception’s better close to the window.”
He glances over to where the television ought to be. It was never much of a television, tiny and full of dents, with a bent antenna topped by aluminum foil that brought in two snowy channels when the weather was clear, but it’s broken now, needing a new picture tube, sitting in the back room of the repair shop at the end of Main Street, because you can’t stretch the recent cash far enough to pay for the repair. Not that it would matter for tomorrow night. If it were on TV, the channel’d never reach here.
He shovels food into his mouth, a mountain green and white and sausage grey. “Knock yourself out.”
He’s hurt him in the body with a right hand. Clay is hurt. He’s got to keep moving, keep away.
You’re almost sixteen and yearn to get away. But there are no good options. You could join the army, lie about your age, but you’d likely end up in the jungle fighting a war nobody calls a war. College is impossible: in school you keep quiet, stay out of people’s way, do only what you must. You could just take off, keep your face to the setting sun, sleep beneath underpasses. But there’s snow on the ground, and temperatures thudding below zero. Winter is no time for flight.
The simple truth: even if you want to go, you can’t.
There’s a row of bars along Railroad Street, solid doors always closed, windows darkened, smells of beer and piss seeping up from the ground in front. His stomping grounds, and he goes there after dinner, returns late rubber-legged, wearing a snarling, goofy expression. You tell yourself to leave him be, but you can’t stop from snagging an arm as he’s about to greet the floor, tugging to keep him upright, half-dragging him over to flop down on the couch. He isn’t a big man, not a brute, but sinewy and coiled like a snake, sober anyway. But even sober, he’s clumsy. When he got frisky—play-slapping your face to get a rise, or when you were younger, planting his hand atop your head and shouting at you, “Swing, come on, punch your old man, swing like you mean it,” and your arms flailed until they ached, as his taut arm held you too far away to pummel more than air; even when he snatched your mother and wrestled her around the room in what he called a dance—something usually got smashed.
He struck you in anger only once. It was silly: you were five or six, wanted to watch cartoons on Sunday morning, rebelled against going with your mother to church. He never went, why should you? Sitting on the floor in front of the TV, you refused to put on your socks. “Please,” your mother said, not for the first time. “We’re going to be late.” Your rebuttals joined with tears, sweet salty snot sliding down your upper lip. He walked in, wearing just his boxers, finally out of bed. “Please,” she said again, but this time she turned to him. “Do something.”
Maybe he sensed her frustration, heard the unspoken, “For once in your life…” Maybe he was just hungover and ornery. “Put on the damn socks,” he said, and when you replied, “I don’t want to,” the next thing you saw was a blur shooting out of the sky, lifting you up, a noise somewhere then an explosion in the bones of your cheek, knocking you back into your mother’s womb, the world all around you under water.
Splayed out on the couch, he slips back and forth between snoring and struggling to get up. During one of the latter attempts, you offer an arm and he grabs it, hoists himself. He totters, gains purchase, draws his arm free. Steadied, he stares into your eyes, his own eyes crinkling, not so much like he doesn’t know you but as if you look different than you always looked before. You see it too, impossible you didn’t notice before, how long has it been true: with both of you standing straight, he has to look up to find your eyes.
“Fuck,” he says, a general appraisal. Turns toward his room. You can see the tension in his back and neck, knowing you’re watching, he’s trying real hard not to sway.
In the morning as he’s leaving you remind him, “It starts at ten o’clock.”
“I got my own plans,” he shoots back. “Don’t pay no mind to me.”
There’s the bell and they’re still fighting.
After dinner, you bring the radio into the kitchen, clean up while Sam Cooke sings “You Send Me.” Later, fighting yawns, you consider a nap but fear you won’t wake up. You catch yourself glancing at the apartment door, expecting what? Him to come barging in, spoil everything. The one thing he’s really good at, spoiling everything.
A little after nine you carry the radio into your bedroom, nestled on two palms like a gift on a pillow to be handed, knees bowed, to a king. You’ve already cleared space near the window, curtain drawn back. You’ve searched the papers at Mahoney’s Smoke Shop to find the station that will carry it, and you test them now, settling on the one that holds the steadiest connection. Even so, anxiety nibbles at your gut because two men are not talking about the fight to come, and you fear you’ve got something wrong, or maybe the people broadcasting the fight decided it was too much trouble to transmit to such an insignificant town in the middle of nowhere that you have been born and raised in.
Mouth dried out, you walk to the kitchen for a glass of water. And hear outside that familiar thumping and cursing, joined to something unfamiliar: a second voice, high pitched and giggly.
The door swings open. She’s loose-limbed, her cheeks looking like they’ve been rubbed with raspberry powder. His arm is around her shoulders; is she holding him up, or is he keeping her from escaping? Still giggling, until her head raises up and her eyes lock on you and go wide and her cherry lips straighten. “My kid,” he says. “Don’t mind him.”
He looks at you like he’s just delivered a punch line. But she comes forward, daintily offers a hand. “Pleased to meet you,” she says. You can smell her perfume like a wall of heat on a summer day, and up close she looks older, you can see makeup caked on the side of her face. Her hand is cool and soft, truly an offering not a demand, and you remember from somewhere your mother telling you once that a lady will let you know how she wants you to take her hand. This one, you think, wants you to touch her like you’re a prince preparing to try on Cinderella’s slipper.
“Come on,” he says, slips off his coat, takes hers when she holds it out, something that looks like fur but couldn’t have ever been alive. He does a little dance step leading her forward, suddenly transformed into Fred Astaire, while she trails, a little awkward in her heels, and you back deeper into the kitchen.
Pausing outside his bedroom, he peers in, turns back to you. “Hey,” he says. “Go get the radio, bring it out here. We feel like dancing.” He says it like the phrase has some secret meaning for him and the woman, who kicks back her head and grins. There’s a spot of lipstick on one of her front teeth, and underneath the perspiration lining her upper lip, you notice the trace of a mustache.
“Come on, kid, get a move on. Can’t stop these feet from dancing!” He hops and skips like a drunkard in some old pirate movie.
You don’t fight him. You tell yourself it has to do with the woman, but maybe that’s an excuse. Maybe, you think, your whole life is an excuse.
He fiddles with the dial, finds his Swing. Her dress billows out, ending at her knees, and when he twirls her you try not to notice the flash of red beneath. The old man nimble, lost inside a rhythm as you’ve never seen him before. She’s grinning madly, a little shriek of surprise and joy popping out of her as he takes her hands, draws her close, then steps back and twirls her, lets her float away like a spinning top before drawing her back again like he’s hooked a fish, their chests bumping playfully, and then the two of them close together, hunched over, high stepping as if through fire.
The music speeds up, building, and their movements speed up too, their arms and legs flinging off sweat and booze and all the aches of living. Their expressions show they’re gone, flown off away from each other, from themselves, from you, their bodies like desperate immature birds trying through sheer energy to take flight and follow their parents into the skies. And then it ends, the silence itself a kind of thud, and he grabs her and together they flop down onto the couch, she gasping, his grin showing yellowed pointy teeth. She finds a handkerchief from somewhere and dabs it to her face in a coquettish way. “Oh, Lordy,” she says, as the next song starts, a waltz, and you imagine the two of them moving slowly around the room, their bodies glued together, imagine this going on forever, and she moves as if she’s imagined it too, but he pulls her back when she tries to get up, brings her to him for a kiss. She’s easily won over, utters a low sound from deep in her throat; is that what they call purring? Arranges herself against him, knees drawn up, this lengthening kiss not the end of something but the beginning.
Then they are up, their bodies never parting, and moving toward his open bedroom door. Somewhere inside he releases her, steps back outside and waits for your eyes to find his. You know what he is saying: you will eat this, swallow it like all the rest, and we will never speak of it because if we do, you know that you will lose, a first-round KO. Then, just before the door swings shut, a grin, and a glance at the clock: exactly ten.
He’s clubbing viciously, primitively and savagely to try to beat down this young challenger.
You snatch the radio, race to your room, use a chair to blockade the door. Caution yourself: cool, not frantic, as you slide the dial around the circle. You fear, with your luck, that you’ll find the station ten seconds after he’s been knocked cold, ten seconds before your old man will burst in, crowing, “I guess Pretty Boy ain’t so pretty anymore.”
Clay can’t see properly he’s blinking and he’s got something in his eyes.
Liston will be merciless.
Liston is hurting him now because Clay isn’t putting up much defense, saying, I can’t see, I can’t see.
You find the station, hear the buzzing beneath the crackle: thousands of ringside insects. The announcers still using their anticipation voice.
A bell. You straddle your chair, leaning forward, fists clenched in your lap, rocking like a jockey begging his horse toward the finish line. Eyes fixed on the radio that transforms from plastic loaf of bread to a bridge that lets you not walk over and be there but rather, draw it all back into your mind. You see it, buoyant as a dream.
Clay is playing on him now. He’s taunting him, making a fool of the champion. Liston has got a scowl on his face now. His lips are twisted.
Noise outside: clumsy thumping, a curse, that high pitched response, serious now, giggling stilled. You twist toward the door, your heart thumping too, think, that chair won’t keep him out. Think: let him come. Imagine yourself rising to full height, looking down on him. When fighters meet before the fight, in the middle of the ring, they stare into each other’s eyes, the loser the first to flinch. You’ve seen it on the newsreels. You speak out loud, softly, “Come on in.”
A distant door slams, muted but still sharp. Silence beyond your door.
He’s punishing the champion heavily.
He never embraced you, never looked at you with pride. Never taught you, no catch in the backyard, no pretending as you watched him shave. Never told you, This is how to be a man. You thought he was keeping it a secret, that you didn’t deserve to know.
He play-boxed with you, his fist always opening before it reached your cheek. The slap stung no worse than the humiliation of a father who believed you could not take a punch.
He’s making the champion look like a sparring partner.
Your mother wanted to be a dancer. But her Prussian father said no, and she never fought back.
You wonder: was your old man jealous of the affection she gave you? You could have told him, “She would have been devoted to you, if you’d let her.”
Liston now looking completely at sea. He doesn’t know what it’s all about.
Outside your door it’s quiet, the apartment empty. Your father’s bed looks like a war’s taken place there. There’s no trace of your mother’s perfume, not even in your imagination. Their room is not theirs anymore.
What’s happened? Clay has won. Clay has won after six rounds. It’s all over and Cassius Clay is the new champion.
You stand in the middle of silence, surrounded by roars.
Soon you’ll be sixteen. Maybe you’ll head out after all, just keep moving. Find a place, anyplace better than here. It’s cold now, but winter always gives way to spring.
The new truth: if you choose to go, you can.
The static on the radio melds with the crackle of the crowd. The announcers babble, and then suddenly, a clear voice, loud and sure, crowing from the top of the world:
I don’t have a mark on my face. I must be the greatest. I shook up the world. I am the king of the world. I’m pretty and I shook up the world.
MARK FARRINGTON is Director of the MA in Writing and the MA in Teaching Writing programs at Johns Hopkins University, where he has taught for fifteen years. He has an MFA from George Mason University, where he studied with Richard Bausch. His short fiction has won an Editor’s Choice Award in the Raymond Carver Short Story Contest, a Virginia Commission on the Arts Individual Artists Fellowship, the Dan Rudy Fiction Prize, the Metroversity Fiction Award, second place in the Dame Alice Throckmorton Prize, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His short fiction has appeared in Carve, The Valparaiso Fiction Review, The Louisville Review, and other journals and anthologies, while his articles on writing and the teaching of writing have been published in the Quarterly of the National Writing Project and other journals. He has recently completed a novel, Manion in Darkness, and is currently at work on a second novel, Loss of Life. A native of New England, Farrington now lives in Alexandria, Virginia.