MR. SARDONICUS

A VERY DARK DOMESTIC COMEDY

by homer snopes

 

Late one cool fall afternoon in Las Vegas, a shivering, slightly inebriated Bill Spinx sat alone in his lawn chair in his back yard, gazing at his reflection in the pool. A chilling desert breeze rippled the surface of the water and touched him to the bone as the sun sank behind the blue-gray mountains to the west. He wondered when Uncle Mark, driving down from Boise, would arrive. Soon, it would be dark and he would have to return to the house, trudge upstairs to his study, and prepare for tomorrow's lecture on his favorite topic, socioculturally-induced psychoses.

For now, he found refuge outside, in the darkening afternoon, away from the battle raging within his household. The breeze, generally a foreshadowing of a storm this time of year, felt good. He wondered how Uncle Mark, a rough man he had always looked up to as a father and hadn't seen for years, would handle the situation. When Bill was much younger, his Uncle Mark had always known what to do. Uncle Mark had even gotten Bill out of jail once.

The shouts and screams echoed from the house, a beautiful wood and brick two-story located in northwest Las Vegas, and he knew that his wife Gretchen was once again letting Justin have it with the board, the belt, or a rolled-up newspaper.

The day had just gone bad. Having talked over the phone the evening before with his uncle, who was spending the night gambling in Reno, Bill had driven into the garage at 2:30 that day in a terrific mood. His last class - the History of Violence in Cinema - had finished by two. Predictably, upon walking through the door from the garage, he had found the children lying on their stomachs in front of and gazing up at the television, a gigantic Toshiba with a 37" screen, both anticipating an afternoon of action-filled cartoons.

The "good stuff," his eight year old son Justin insisted, started around 3:00. About a year ago, Justin had found a station specializing in children's cartoons, some that Bill had ever heard of. The three to four hour cartoon-a-thon consisted of some familiars, such as "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Smurfs," but included as well some he'd never heard of: "Savage Sisters," "Darkling Plain," "Rodent Feast" (this one, Justin had insisted over dinner one night, was hilarious), "Twisted Terror," "Vampire Vixens," and the like.

With Justin and his sister Lisa watching the tube, Bill and his wife had sat down at the kitchen table to enjoy a late lunch of warmed-up three-day old Domino's pizza and Coors beer. Between them, they went through at least a case a week. After about ten minutes and three beers apiece later, they had heard their darling five-year old Lisa's shrill scream, followed by an exchange that had become as much a part of family ritual as evening prayers:

"Fuck you, Justin!!"

"Fuck you, Lisa."

"Fuck you, asshole!!"

"Fuck you, you little cunt!"

Next came the loud slap and more screams and crying from Lisa. They knew Justin was punishing his sister once again and they tried to ignore the commotion. As Bill and his wife ate and drank, the screams had slowly subsided. Then all had gone quiet save the unmistakable sound of two cartoon characters slugging it out on the set.

After several minutes of unnatural silence from both children, Bill and Gretchen had bolted like race horses from the table and into the family room where they had found Justin suffocating five year old Lisa with the red and white sofa pillow that Bill had given Gretchen last Valentine's day. Lisa's muffled screams and twitching legs told the parents that she was still alive.

These "attempted homicides," as Gretchen had jokingly labeled Justin's attacks on his sister, had become common household occurrences in the last six months but up until today had always occurred early in the morning or late at night. Justin was now seeing a therapist, Dr. Harvey Mellon, one of Bill's associates at the college, three times a week, but aside from finally agreeing to say prayers with the family at the dinner table, Justin had made no improvement.

This afternoon, before the proverbial shit hit the fan and Justin was once again either denied television privileges for the next three days or whipped silly by his mother, Bill had grabbed what remained of his pizza as well as two six-packs of Coors from the fridge and had high-tailed it out the back door and onto the patio. There he could finish his lunch in relative peace, drink as much beer as he liked, gaze at his own dark reflection in the pool, and hope for his uncle's arrival, which would certainly force a peace onto the household. Bill had decided months ago to leave the discipline up to his wife, a tall and thin dark-haired woman of Northern European descent whose ideas of family discipline were likely derived from the literature of the Third Reich.

He watched the sunset, always glorious in southern Nevada, the yellows and oranges giving way to red, purple and dark blue and wished that he were aboard one of the jets now streaking into the western horizon. Because his son had once again tried to "terminate" his sister, Bill had taken the safest course of action, drinking beer and waiting for the evening star, a possible symbol of hope, to appear just over the mountains to the west. He loathed all forms of violence; his parents Thomas and Eunice had never laid a hand on him; but, when he had reached his eighteenth birthday, Eunice had given him two hundred dollars, a sack lunch, some old clothes, a foot in the rear end, and told him to hit the road.

With the disappearance of the sun behind the mountains, the breeze became a wind. He could hear the shouts and screams continuing from the house and knew that Gretchen had finally lost her patience and was likely chasing Justin up the stairs with some kind of weapon. Little Lisa was probably laughing hysterically; nothing pleased her more than to see dear old mom whip her brother senseless, and when the beatings began Lisa would normally position herself about five feet away from Justin, making sure that he could see her, and laugh silently as Gretchen began the punishment with the usual, "Honey, this is going to hurt your mother more than it hurts you."

Bill was normally not a religious man, and had given up reading the Bible several years ago, but the hour of desperation had come. On his eighth can, he realized that things could get no worse. He stood, thanked the good Lord for his job, his wife, and kids, looked down at the pool, thought about diving in, and prayed that peace would be established in the Spinx household before Uncle Mark arrived from Reno. After his brief prayer, Bill sighed, reached for another Coors, lay back on the lawn chair, and closed his eyes. Breathing deeply to force himself to relax, he tried to envision himself as a huge bird in flight, but he only saw himself as a bat, blindly flying through impenetrable darkness. He remained tense as a board as the shouting inside continued.

II.

As he lay there, he thought again of Uncle Mark, the gaunt man with midnight-black hair wearing red long-sleeved shirt and black trousers and grinning hugely in the family picture Bill kept over the television room sofa. Mark's expression reminded him of a movie he had seen as a child, "Mr. Sardonicus," about a man who had dug up the body of his deceased wife to reclaim a winning lottery ticket and had turned into a ghastly grinning ghoul. Bill's wife and daughter had asked numerous times that the family photo be taken down - it was enormous, occupying most of the wall behind the sofa - and put in the study or, more appropriately, burned out back late some night when no one could report a neighborhood fire. One night last month, Lisa had awakened screaming and crying. She had dreamed that she had been standing in the living room when Uncle Mark had stepped out of the painting, grabbed her with hands whose fingers resembled knives, and then begun to eat her arms and legs.

Of course, loyal to the family of his birth, Bill had refused to move the picture. "It stays right there, boys and girls," Bill had asserted at the dinner table the very next night, bringing his fist crashing down onto the table like a bowling ball. Gretchen and the kids had jumped in their chairs, put their heads down, and silently resumed their meal of steak and potatoes. No more was said about the picture. While he looked grotesque in the photo, Mark was a good man; Bill was quite sure of that.

After all, when Bill was growing up in Boise, Idaho, it was his Uncle Mark who had taken Bill and his brother Maurice to the movies ("Mr. Sardonicus" among them), to ball games out at the old Braves field, to the Meridian race track to watch "demolition derby," to the occasional boxing matches held at the Idaho State Fairgrounds. It was Uncle Mark who, as Bill and his brother began to show an interest in girls, had provided his nephews an unending supply of booze and condoms. "Boys, you just can't have enough of these," Mark had said late one Thanksgiving afternoon as he and his two nephews sat under the shade of the old oak tree in his mother's backyard. Bill had noticed, at the time, that Mark, grinning grotesquely, was holding a package of Trojans.

He remembered as well the vicious stories his relatives circulated about Mark, but everyone in his family had spread nasty rumors about other family members. There were improbable stories about Mark's cooking his poodle in an oven, about Mark's forcing Aunt Bertha and his own mother to have sex with him at gun point, and about Mark's going to jail for beating a man to death at a Boise bar. As he awaited his uncle's arrival in the twilight, Bill sadly pondered the recent near deaths of his mother and her sister Bertha - they had been badly injured in a garage fire three weeks ago at his uncle Mark's home in Meridian, Idaho. Apparently, a friend of the family had attempted to bring murder charges against Mark; however, nothing could be proved and in anger Mark had decided to spend the next two and a half weeks getting out of the Boise valley and heading to greener pastures.

III.

It was now dark. Bill suddenly sat up in his lawn chair and realized he had nodded off. Something had awakened him with a start. He felt dizzy, opened another Coors, and brought the can to his lips. There was no moon in the night sky, only an occasional star. The wind pounded against the house. He wished at that instant for a cigarette, remembered that he had left his pack inside his briefcase, which was sitting on the floor of the study. Gradually, he realized the screaming inside the house had ceased. Relieved, he arose from the lawn chair and, can of beer in his right hand, headed into the house.

He found Gretchen and the kids seated in the living room, in a row on the couch, glumly silent. The shattered television screen had a large hole in the center, through which a wisp of smoke drifted. Seated across from them in the black leather chair was a hugely grinning man he knew had to be his Uncle Mark, holding a cigarette between two fingers of one hand while calmly blowing smoke rings that swam through the dim light provide by the table lamp next to him. Still thin as a post, Uncle Mark had a dark gray beard and mustache, which gave him a certain dignity. His hair was receding and met in a widow's peak at the top of his forehead. Bill noticed that Mark's fingernails had yellowed from tar and nicotine and that Mark was wearing a black leather jacket, a bright red shirt, and faded blue jeans.

"Why, Uncle Mark!" William exclaimed, head spinning from having consumed nearly two six packs, "you've arrived!!! Glad t'see ya." Bill stumbled across the room and, after Mark put his cigarette in his mouth and arose from the chair, shook the hand of the uncle whose coming had somehow brought peace. "Hey, Billy," rasped Uncle Mark, his voice showing the effects of smoking over three packs a day for the past thirty years, "how the hell are ya? Ya son-of-a-bitch, where ya been?"

This was the Uncle Mark of old, a man who said whatever came to mind, regardless of who was likely to be offended--and plenty of family members had been deeply offended. Bill quickly gulped the remains of the beer he had carried into the house.

"Fine, Uncle Mark, just fine. I was outside getting some fresh air. Didn't know you'd arrived," Bill responded with a slight belch. He looked at his wife and kids; though somewhat inebriated, he read the numbing power of fear in their expressions.

Mark sat down, stared at the photo over the sofa. "I was just tellin' Shirley an' the kids here about your mommy an' your daddy. Which I didn't know your daddy real well. Always seemed like a good guy, one of us, but always told me to stay away from your ma," Mark paused, took a drag on his cigarette, exhaled slowly, and continued.

"Uh, that's Gretchen, not Shirley," Bill corrected his uncle. Mark acted as if he hadn't heard. Bill looked at Gretchen and the kids, who remained rigid, speechless, white as sheets.

Uncle Mark now looked at Bill, squinted through the smoke coming from the cigarette he held between his thumb and forefinger, and pointed the free middle finger at his nephew. "Now, Billy boy, it does sound like you been havin' some trouble with your offspring here." The cigarette went back between Mark's lips. "And fuckin-A, boy, on the very goddamned night when your sweet ole uncle arrives all the way from piss-ant little Meridian, Idaho. Now that is showin', Billy - and I speak with the utmost fuckin' respect, ma'am - what people in our family used to call real bad manners." His speech over, Mark grinned horribly, cigarette held between huge yellowing teeth. "Shit, boy, I musta rang that door sixty, seventy times, all a while hearin' screamin' and hollerin' your wife and kids make, shee-yit, and decide just to take my chances and come on in. Come on in, Mark, I says to myself. So I did. When I walked over the threshhold an' in through that damned door," here Mark gestured toward the door for emphasis, "what I see but old Shirley here --uh, Gretchen, 'xcuse me--whalin' the shit outa junior there on the stairs. Can't stand to see that kind of shit, a parent beatin' up on a kid, so I grab her by the hair, put this to her forehead"--here, Uncle Mark pulled out a small pistol from his coat--"an' just told her t'stop." Mark's eyes were big as saucers as he told the story. "She just shut up and went to the sofa with them kids and sat down, not sayin' nothin', just listening to old Uncle Mark talk about your mommy an' daddy. Hehehehe. 'Course, I wouldn't never have used the gun on her or the kids. At least not right away. (Hehehehe, that's a joke, nephew.) Then, 'cause it's showin' some flick 'bout a guy diggin' up his wife's grave , I blew out your goddamned set. POW!" Here, rage etched on his face, Mark pointed the gun at what remained of the television. "About which," and here the old man took a deep drag on his cigarette, the rage gone, "I am truly sorry. I'd like to buy a new one when I get the money."

Bill stared at the old man, pursed his lips, and nodded to himself. Sweet mother of god, Bill thought to himself, some people just do not change. His family members always used to talk to each other this way. Of course, no one had ever really used a gun on another family member, but Bill had grown up with guns and, at one point in high school, had threatened to use one on a boy who had been dating his girl friend. Uncle Mark had been the only family member, however, to really support Bill in this situation.

"Well, thank you Uncle Mark," said Bill, seating himself next to his uncle, "I appreciate the offer. And I was wondering, Uncle, could I bum a smoke?"

"That's my Billy," rasped the old man, reaching inside his coat for a pack of Camels, which he extended to his nephew. Ever since the Korean conflict, Uncle Mark had smoked nothing but Camels. "Now, why don't you an' Shirley here just tell ole Uncle Mark ("That's Gretchen," corrected Bill.) what in the hell is goin' on in this crazy house." Bill inhaled deeply on the cigarette. Looking at Gretchen and the kids, still sheet-white and frightened, he began recounting the problems with his son Justin and the recent altercation of the day. Mark listened patiently, occasionally exclaimed something like "Jesus H. Christ!", smoked four or five cigarettes until, one half-hour later, the room was so thick with smoke that Bill couldn't see the books lining the shelves behind the television set.

When Bill finished, Gretchen and the kids were coughing but saying nothing. "Mind if I open the door, uncle?" Bill asked. "Don't mind at all," came Mark's response, dragging deeply on a Camel he had smoked to the nubbins. William opened both the front door and the back door, expecting a strong wind to blow through the house. Oddly, it was as if the wind refused to enter full force, sending a timid breeze instead. It had begun to rain outside. The smoke inside seemed remain in small clouds, clinging to the objects of the room. Uncle Mark continued to puff away, staring thoughtfully off into space.

"Y'know, boy, I always liked you, you been like a son to me, so I'm gonna shoot from the hip. Uh, that's a joke, ma'am," Mark added, looking at Gretchen. "This shit ain't Justin's fault. Sure, he's a little bad ass; but he ain't the problem."

Uncle Mark squinted harder at Bill this time. "It's you's the problem, Billy boy, sittin' out by your damn pool, gettin' drunk, while your little lady here whales the daylights outa your son and the little girl here thinks it's funny." Mark paused, put one cigarette out in the ash-tray he'd placed on his lap and lit another. "Anyone should be beatin' the kid, should be you. But I ain't one for beatin' kids. Someone beats kids deserves to die." Mark paused, darkly scowling at some spot on the floor.

Bill, Gretchen, and the kids sat in stone silence, letting the words sink in. "I'm gonna speak my peace, then go to bed, nephew. Anger's a ugly thing. Made me kill a friend once in a bar in Boise over, shit, buyin' a drink. That's years ago. Before you was born. That night, shit, before the war, we both wanted to buy this Indian girl a drink or two. Both us wanted to fuck the daylights outa her real bad. (Please pardon my French, kids.) I seen her first but that didn't matter. He swang at me, we were both kinda drunk, and I broke a whiskey bottle over his skull. Sounded like one those great big light bulbs used on movie sets explodin'. Then, I get him on the floor, sit on his chest, and beat his face in with my fists." Mark closed his eyes, seemed on the verge of sobbing, reconstructing the scene. "Billy-his name was Billy too-never come out of it and died in a coma three months later. I went to jail. Met your ma there. Come out a changed man."

Uncle Mark rose to his feet, sniffed loudly, stretched, yawned, and added, "You the one got the gun in this family, nephew, so t'speak. An' that's the lone fact o' your existence.. Now, if you all will please excuse me, where's the toilet, where's the shower, an' where's my damn bed?" Mark was ready to turn in.

In stunned silence, Bill escorted his uncle upstairs to the room next to the one he shared with Gretchen. He had no idea how long Mark planned on staying. For all he knew, Mark could be here until the day he died. One thing was certain to Bill: Mark was family, and family should look out for family.

When Bill came back down the stairs, his knees were shaking, the doors had been closed, and the sofa was empty. Smoke still hung in pockets in the air, and he realized that Gretchen and the kids had likely gone upstairs to bed. Bill looked at the hole in his set and felt hollow inside. He puzzled over what Uncle Mark had meant with the comment about the gun and wondered if, just possibly, he had opened his doors to an even greater evil than the one he had run away from just hours ago. He wished he had kept a copy of the Bible around the house.

Standing in the middle of the room, listening to the hall clock ringing midnight, he felt a cold wave of fear rush through him and moved to the kitchen to grab another beer. When he opened the refrigerator door, he heard a shuffling of feet behind him. He turned and saw Gretchen sitting alone at the kitchen table, her unfinished pizza and beer still in front of her. Her face was blank; haggard, expressionless, she reminded him of pictures he'd seen of war refugees.

Then getting up slowly, almost painfully, she walked toward him and looked into his eyes. Gretchen, Bill noticed, still had beautiful blue eyes, which brought to mind of an instant an image of this evening's beautiful sunset. "The man is absolutely obscene, William," she whispered, near tears. "No, he's evil. Get rid of the son of a bitch. Please."

Bill said nothing, just pulled the tab to the beer can and began to drink in enormous gulps. This would be his tenth or eleventh or twelfth beer. He had lost count. It didn't matter any more.

"William, use your head, for God's sake! You're a professor, an educator!" Gretchen shouted in a whisper. "The man could barbecue us in our fucking sleep!" Though he had never heard Gretchen use vulgarity, Bill said nothing. Nothing seemed impossible any more. "Either he goes," Gretchen began again, her eyes blazing in rage, her voice trembling, "or the kids and I are out the fucking door. Gone to God knows where. Just gone. Whoosh. The man," here her voice dropped to a barely audible whisper, "is crazy and evil, William. It's plain as the fucking nose on your face!"

But nothing was plain to Bill now as Gretchen moved away through the lingering smoke to go upstairs, and finishing his can, he reached into the refrigerator for another. He had no idea where to go from here.
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