The little boy perching on the washing machine tottered spastically at the edge of the four-foot drop and screamed bloody murder. Eyes squinted, chest out, hands clenched, he delivered his song to the world. It was one of those sounds that goes straight for the teeth. fingernails-on-blackboard-noise. Styrofoam-squeak-noise. Scrunching-up-a-balloon noise. Screeeech! The acoustics of the laundromat seemed to channel his jet-whine screams and focus them on my head. My mind clicked through a list of unpleasant sensations: Tinfoil on the fillings. Nine-volt battery on the tongue. Drill, drill, drill. Teeth clenched, I looked from him to his Mom, a skinny mid-Illinois type in stringy hair and blue jeans. Her eyes had something wrong with them. I had seen it in the child's eyes, too. Scary. Mom thought the whole scene was a riot.
"Dill! Dill, don't you climb up there!" she shrieked with a hellish grin at her son and then a conspiratorial glance at me, as if to say, "Ain't my boy just the naughtiest little tike?" My God, yes! Now get his little soprano air hammer out of my head before something really bad happens to both of you. I closed my eyes and pressed my temples. Deep breath. I looked more closely at the little boy.
He was about four. I took an index look at Mom. She was about twenty. Jesus Christ. She could have been Sis, maybe, but her bearing was all Mom. White block-letters on the boy's red t-shirt spelled out "Dale", but she had pronounced it Dill. the A had long ago rotted away in the stinking, illiterate stew of Midwestern drawl. Her voice was a grown-up version of Dill's chalk-screech. My God, I thought -- she's as bad as him.
Mom's attention wound Dill up a couple of notches. He flapped his arms and screeched again, lone vulture of the laundromat. Mom, feigning frustration, threw down a towel she was folding and stormed to Dill, her face contorted in that Ozzy Osbourne grin.
"Don't have no kids," she advised me as she swished past my seat by the cigarette machine, skinny arms pumping. I smiled grimly. Okay. Deal. Mom grabbed Dill by the torso and jerked him down from the washing machine. He twisted and struggled against her like a weak, bald little animal. His eyes blazed with little-boy hatred, but he didn't look at her. He looked at me.
I lit a cigarette. Something in Dill made me uneasy, had me on my guard. I avoided his eyes and pretended to study Chapter VII of the copy of Plato's Republic in my lap. I couldn't concertrate. His eyes kept coming back to me, those little Hitler eyes glowing from the pale dough of his lumpy mashed-potato face. I chewed my lip. I smoked in great, nervous lungfuls.
"Bllleeeeeeeaaaaarrrrrgh!" gurgled Dill. The roar seemed to be addressed to me, but I wasn't sure I wanted to look up. My God, he could have been chewing on his own foot, for all the noise he made. Warily, I looked.
Dill was standing several feet away, arms extended toward me in a Frankenstein pose. He did his best demento-face.
"I'm the Glooploo monster! Huuuuuuaaaaarrgh!" Great. Dill took a stiff step toward me, paused, then took another. He roared again, authentic-looking spittle glistening on his fangs.
I looked down and pretended to ignore him. Scuff, scuff, scuff went his little size-three Frankenstein boots. A couple more steps, and he was in my face. I could smell him, could smell his breath when he roared. He was peanut-butter and Coca-Cola and chocolate and grime. I raised my eyes to him, and the tentacles of the Glooploo monster crushed the cigarette to my cheek.
I jerked and shrieked, and the moment blurred. I swatted the stinging cigarette away and (oh my God) cocked a fist, aiming it at his head. Dill and I froze. I could see the moisture of this bovine, brown eyes, could smell his curly, unwashed hair, could see the crusty remains of lunch on his shirt. I conversed, silently, with myself. The little kid is Satan. He doesn't need a head. It would feel so good to... aw, shit. Jail.
I lowered the haymaker. Dill was rigid, wide-eyed. I looked at Mom, wondering if she had seen. She had, and pinned me with a furious gaze before she rushed to her son.
"Dill! Dill, get back from him!" She grabbed him by his shoulders adn pushed him backwards a good five feet. Stopping, she held his cheeks between her palms the way mothers do when they're inspecting offspring for damage. Satisfied, she wheeled on me and screwed her face into a sneer.
"Now, come on!" she spat. Dill had lent her his evil eyes. I shrugged and tried to look exasperated. Turning, Mom led Dill by a chubby arm to her table piled with clothes. Dill, alternately shuffling and being dragged, shrieked with joy and hopped up and down, tugging on her shirt. 'Mom, Mom,' I imagined him thinking, 'I almost just killed a grownup!' Mom swatted him on the butt and looked at me and giggled with him as if they shared a really rich inside joke.
I got up and inspected my three washing machines. Little progress since last check (so long ago) -- at least half an hour was left on teh cycle. I let the lids bang down. As soon as I re-seated myself, Dill, the one-boy circus, began squealing again.
He had decided that a good way to amuse himself, barring attempts on my life, was to push a wheeled laundry cart up and down the aisles surrounding the island of washers and dryers. He shrieked like a cat in a wringer. Round and round he went, smashing into things, falling, skinning his knees. Everything was fair game in his demolition derby. The little bastard, I decided, was possessed.
Dill stayed pretty well clear of me, though, and I lost interest in watching him until he said his next Big Line.
"Bitch!" he called at Mom from across the laundromat. "Bitch!" I couldn't believe it. Dill ducked under a table. Gaping, I looked at Mom. She sucked in a gasp of mock offense and grinned madly at her son.
"Ooh, I'm gonna git you, dill! I'm gonna git you!" She skittered away from her table and pursued Dill, who shot from under his own table adn pushed his cart helter-skelter down the aisle toward me. the frenetic duo rushed past, and Mom caught up wiht Dill just as he banged into the Coke machine.
"Bitch!" he screeched, "Bitch, bitch, bitch!"
Mom smacked him on his behind repeatedly, cackling. I watched, amazed. Dill writhed away, screaming, and than he froze, staring out the plate-glass window with the parking-lot view. Mom looked, too. A pair of headlights was pulling into the lot. Mom drew an ecstatic breath.
"Look, Dill," she squealed, "Here comes Daddy!"
Daddy? The thought, an unpleasant one, had not crossed my mind. I didn't want to believe in Daddy. But there he was, pulling up in his Bondo-plastered, ancient Ford pickup. Daddy dismounted and lumbered into the laundromat.
He was young and mostly skinny, but for the beginning beer-belly that filled the front of his greasy t-shirt. His face was stubbly and his black, stringy hair hung in greasy clots over his shoulders. He had one of those biker wallets that are tied to a beltloop with a silver chain.
"Dill, my little man," he rasped and scooped up his child. Dill's hands went (playfully!) for Daddy's eyes, but he caught them both in one meaty, veiny fist.
"Say, you got some fire in ya, partner," rumbled Daddy, and gave his son noogies, not gently. Dill squealed. Daddy put him down.
"You about done?" he asked Mom. She nodded and brought Daddy close to her ear. I 'm pretty sure she whispered something about me. Daddy grunted and eyeballed me momentarily. I looked at him, then looked away. Daddy sat down and lit a cigarette and the little boy, with a fresh new audience, cranked up his circus again.
Dill begged Mom's Coke away from her and took a great two-handed swig. Elated, he began pelting down my aisle, can foremost in his outstretched hands. His still little legs churned and he screeched madly, but he was startled into silence when he tripped on his own feet and came flying headlong at me. I threw up my arms to ward him off, but his little head banged into my knee. His Coke was projected directly at my face and it conked me sharply on the cheekbone, upending and drenching me in sticky sweetness. I jumped up and whirled on Mom and Dad.
"All right, God dammit!" I hollered at them, "Enough!"
They rushed past me to Dill's flattened, silent form and propped him up on the floor. His nose was bleeding quite a bit. Blood dripped down his face. He was dazed. Mom, enraged, turned on me.
"You dumb motherfucker! Can't you see he's just a little boy?" She staunched his bleeding nose with his filthy shirt.
"It's not my fault!" I shouted at her. No backing down this time. "Teach the little fucker some manners! Get some of your own, while you're at it!"
Her ember-eyes blazed wide at me and, speechless with rage, she helped Daddy trundle Dill out to the truck where the three sat for a while, attending the bloody nose. Presently, Mom and Dad marched back in and began industriously finishing their folding. Mom muttered insults at me under her breath. I just sat and stared and fumed. Dill waited in the truck. I hoped he was finally gone. It was quiet, blissfully quiet. Eventually I opened the Plato text and began to read again.
I heard a low-toned squeak as the outside door next to me opened, slowly. Dill, nose still agush, slipped through the crack in the door and waddled to stand before me. Still dazed, he wavered unsteadily for a moment and then bgan backing up slowly, staring at me with big, crazy eyes. Mom and Dad noticed him.
"Dill..."" repeated Dad, and then stopped short again, eyes widening with what might have been sudden insight. that's when Dill stopped fumbling and pulled out the gun.
Everybody froze. Even Dill. We stood stiffly in that Norman Rockwell picture gone bad, all of us afraid that if we moved, HE might move. He did. He pointed the gun at me.
"Eric, where did he get that?" hissed Mom to Dad.
"Out of the truck."
"Is it loaded?"
Dad paused for a second.
"I don't remember."
Now Dill walked toward me, each little step jiggling his hold on the pistol, tightening his three-finger grip on the trigger. His little hands were tense. Tendons stood out.
"Meanie," he said, and took a step. "Meanie mud fucka." Blood and drool dripped from his chin. I clutched the sides of my plastic chair and met the little boy's eyes. they seemed to be reprimanding me. Bad, bad big person. Don't play Dill's games. Hurt Dill's nose. Bad, bad, bad. Dill kept inching toward me. Step, step, step. The gun wavered, but not much. He kept it aimed at my head. Dill stopped his advance just out of arms' reach. I couldn't move.
"Dill," began Dad, tremulously. "Dill, put it down. Dill do you hear me?" Silently I rooted for Dad. C'mon, pot-belly. Let's see whatcha got.
Dill didn't hear him. He stood, arms outstretched, pointing the gun at my nose. Slowly, Dill's blank little face began to change. He set his jaw. His nose-wings flared. His hands trembled, and he squinched his face up with the effort of...
...With the four-year-old effort of pulling the trigger. I screamed.
"NOOOOOOOO!" I swung a wild fist at Dill's tightening grip on the pistol, hoping, hoping, hoping I wasn't too late. The gun jerked and roared as my swing connected, driving my ears a foot into my head and spitting fire as Dill flailed backwards. Glass shattered behind me and rained in shards down my neck and in my hair. Some of the smaller splinters stuck to the bloody, raw furrow that Dill's bullet had carved in my forearm. I stared at my round in the ringing, tinny silence. The slug had gouged out a ragged, foot-long strip of skin, but I was whole. I started breathing again. Mom and Dad sucked in their own belated breaths. Inexplicably, I began to giggle. I wrenched my face around to glare at the Parents of the Antichrist. They were white and still. Suddenly, unreasonably, I felt powerful.
Smoothly, with my good arm, I scooped Dill's spent weapon from the fllor, taking the opportunity while I stooped to shake the glittering glass from my hair. Dad rasied a panicky palm to me in a feeble gesture of please-put-down-the-gun good will. I smiled and shook my head. Relax, Pop. I sauntered to him and slid my face close to his, the gun between us. Grinning madly I jammed the pistol, butt first, into his solar plexus. His eyes bulged and he gasped, but he reached up and took it. I crunched backwards towards the door through the carpet of broken glass, keeping my eye on Dad and stepping over the inert, crumpled form of sweet Dill. He was breathing. I wasn't worried.
"Nice kid," I said.
I shouldered the heavy door and fell out into the night. Someone had called the police. Diffuse red and blue light filtered down alleys and reflected in flashes on building around me. The approaching sirens whooped and shrieked.