Ground Rules

Mom had been seeing Troy for a few weeks when he ruined a fine Saturday afternoon by lugging over all his stuff. He didn’t have much, but it took all his friends and most of the day to haul in his stereo, records, and several cans of beer. They also towed over that junk car of his. The one I used as a bomb shelter.

Troy’s buddies were jerks, but what would you expect? Troy was king jerk. He was self-employed, which I took to mean his main job was to kick me around and tell me what I was doing wrong or how I was getting in the way. And since Mom was just regularly employed, she was always at gone so that she could earn money that Troy and I had somewhere to sleep.

The day after he moved in his beer collection and records, he sat me down to lay out his “ground rules.” This was after he and all his jerky friends had kept me up all night and made a mess of the trailer and gobbled up a weeks’ worth of groceries before Troy took to the couch, snoring and sprawling out for the day so that I couldn’t even watch TV.

We were at poker table in the kitchen. I had my Kool-Aid and he had his beer and some sort of meat patty he’d cooked while I’d been outside in the heat on a top-secret army rescue mission.

Troy snorted and sniffed and rubbed his red eyes and looked worse than he usually did—which was pretty awful. I heard my commander in my ear.

Beasley, we need you out here ASAP. Beasley?

Troy had no idea I was special ops, or that this was an ultra-important covert operation I was on while he took his time getting around to a point. He fiddled with himself some more, then finally got down to business. “Okay, you’ve had your way with your Mama for too long now, and so I want to get a few things clear. I won’t tolerate a back talking kid. I’ll pop you in the mouth every time, you hear?”

I could hear him fine—it was understanding him that proved to be tricky. Troy spoke mostly gibberish, in grunts and growls like he’d learned to talk listening to AM radio without an antenna. Also, I’d realized that the patty he was chowing down on that hunk of freezer-burned chuck that had been in the fridge since we’d moved in two years ago. I’d always thought we’d kept it frozen due to Hazmat reasons.

Beasley, it’s not safe. Come in, Beasley?

My commander was right. It wasn’t safe. I noticed how the walls had taken on an atomic sheen. A tire black cloud of smoke hung near the exposed wiring of the light fixtures his buddies had knocked free from the ceiling last night. I nodded furiously. This place was going to blow.

Troy gnawed on another side of his cheeseburger, blinking hard, as though trying to squash the bug that was his brain.

“Second, and this is just as important.” He paused hear to swallow. It was then that I noticed his complexion matched that of the stove—or a lima bean. He was sweating something awful, so that I thought his tattoos might just slide right off his arms. Nevertheless, he continued, “I’ll make a list of chores. Your mama has just been letting you run wild, doing whatever you please. You’re what, fourteen?”


“Right, so I want you to start pulling your weight about here. You hear me?”

Again, I heard him, gurgling and all. But my team needed me for support. They were both in my ear, the same ear that was still ringing and sore from where Troy had smacked me the other night for interrupting his card game. Not for the first time I wondered about my mother’s taste in men. They were always self-employed. Always the same guy in the same outfit. Always the same mannerisms, the same jokes, the same cigarette hanging out of the same tilt of their mouths. Same, same, same. Except the one I’d never met.

But Troy here, he was the king. I watched as he forced down his burger, eyed the moldy blue pieces he’d picked off the sandwich slices he used as a bun. He was the worst of the bunch.

He stopped chewing and closed his eyes. I counted to seven before he opened them and set his gaze on me. I nodded.


He slid away from the table, bleary as he let out a soggy belch that sent his eyes to a roll. The chair fell to the floor as he got to his feet, arms out like a zombie as he staggered to the bathroom to rid himself of that nuclear cheeseburger.

Beasley, report back to base. Report back to base immediately…

It was clear I needed to evacuate. The stove was ticking. The pan glowing red. There wasn’t much time. But first, an idea came to mind. I looked at Troy’s beer can on the table, mostly full and wet with condensation. I stood up and peeked down the hall. I could hear him retching.

I hocked up my finest loogie. Then I let that fat, cherry flavored slop slide off my lips into his beer. A little dessert for Troy.

“This is Beasley, reporting to base.”

I ran out the front door and dove into the bomb shelter.

Mission Accomplished.






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