When my parents arrived to meet me at the airport, I’d already been waiting over an hour. Even inside you could taste the Houston heat. It was 1987, so they still allowed smoking indoors, even on the planes, and I was sitting next to my bag and smoking. As my parents approached, I took a deep pull and blew it out of my mouth to the side. I didn’t want to blow a cloud of smoke directly at them—too aggressive—but I wanted them to see that I’d become a thing of fire, breathing death, at home among ashes.
My father’s smile appeared genuine, but I could see that my mother had an issue with this new incarnation, and her smile flickered between felt and forced. I hadn’t seen them for nearly a week.
“Hey, bud,” my Dad said. “We’re . . .”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m aware of the boilerplate, ‘glad you’re home, son’ shtick. I appreciate the effort, I really do. But we can skip it. I know you’re going to have a problem with who I am now, but there’s no going back. So we have to figure out how to make this work.”
I gave them both a hard look.
“You put a six-year-old child on that plane a week ago, and it turns out that you were wrong, Mom. A week is a long time.”
I closed my eyes and shook my head in concert with the downbeats of the next phrase: “A very long time indeed.” I exhaled smoke through my nose.
“My week in Michigan with Grandma and Grandpa was an eye-opening experience. I got these wings.” With this, I pointed to the little plastic “Delta” pilot’s wings pinned to my shirt.
“And I got these wings.” I turned and pulled up my shirt to show two long scars running down my back.
“It turns out that you can depend on a carnie outside of Detroit to be down for a knife fight. You can also depend on him to give you hassle for trying to bring an open container on the Flying Fish ride. You bet your ass you can depend on him to bleed like a stuck pig when you rake that broken container down the right side of his face, and to beg for mercy when you strip his knife and jam it right into the meat of his inner thigh.”
I pulled out my pack of cigarettes, shook one out.
“Great. You’re smoking Pall Malls.” my dad said.
“When I need a smoke, I don’t really care what the brand is,” I said. “I just need my nicotine.”
My mom began to cry.
“It’s too late for that now, Pamela,” I said. “You sent a six-year-old on a plane by himself. I did a lot of growing up in a short time, and it’s best you get used to it.”
I whistled. Crystal walked over, fake tan, fake blonde hair, fake . . . well, everything else.
“And this is my sweet piece of tail. She’s part of your life now, because she’s carrying my demon-seed. Swept her on to a cart on the Flying Fish, after my carnie friend agreed to let us ride for free, in exchange for not severing his femoral artery. And ride we did.”
My parents tried to mount a defense of their actions. They sputtered and blurted. I waved my hand for them to stop, a simple quiver at the wrist.
“This is just what happens when you put a six-year-old on a plane by himself. You might get him back . . .”
I put my sunglasses on and rested my wrist loose on the revolver holstered on my hip.
“. . . but he’ll never be the same.”
I snatched up my bag and put my hand low on Crystal’s back. I could feel the ink under her skin. I walked out to my parents’ Astro van. In the parking lot I shot a sea-gull and laughed. I rolled the taste of the Houston heat around on my tongue. It tasted like sucking on dimes, pennies, and nickels. It tasted like rust and rot. It tasted like something ruined.