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At first I didn’t recognize Mom. Her face was all puffy and yellow and crowded with splotchy brown bruises, like the peel of a rotten banana. Her left eye was swollen shut. Her right eye, what I could see of it, was Pepto-Bismol pink. Her nose looked okay, but her mouth was a mess—both lips fat and split and ringed with purple. I’d never seen her banged up before. I could hardly look at her. It hurt me too much. I’d seen a lot of bad things in Iraq. I’d seen men torn apart by bullets, men’s legs blown off by IEDs, men vaporized by bombs in broad daylight. But the sight of my seventy-year-old mother’s pulverized face hurt me more than anything I’d seen in combat.
“Who did it?” I said. I was surprised by the calmness of my own voice.
“I filed an assault report,” she said through her busted mouth. I could tell when she talked that she was missing some teeth. “The police will take care of it.”
“Who did it?” I said again.
She shuddered and looked away. She knew I wasn’t going to let this go. She knew she might as well tell me. “Just some kid,” she said. “Some stupid kid. Nobody I know.”
“What did he look like?” I said.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Tall. Red hair.”
“Do you remember anything else?”
She shook her head. “I was too shocked to get a good look.”
“Where did it happen?” I said.
“Outside the East Side Catholic Center—on East 55th,” she said. “I usually leave with the group, but I stayed late yesterday to clean up. The kitchen was busier than usual.”
“Did he take anything?”
“My purse,” she said. “I only had a few dollars in there. I cancelled my credit card. Please don’t do anything. The police will handle it. Promise me you won’t do anything.”
“Okay,” I said. “I promise.” I didn’t want her to worry. I knew what a worrier she was. She’d always been a worrier, but she’d definitely gotten worse since Dad died. He’d never worried about anything. He’d always been able to settle her down, smooth her out. Now that he was gone, there was nobody to keep her on an even keel—nobody but me, and I wasn’t exactly an even-keeled person myself.
“Would you mind picking this up for me?” she said. She handed me a crinkled sheet of paper with a prescription for Percocet printed on it. “I don’t want to go out looking like this.”
“Sure,” I said. “Which pharmacy?”
“The CVS at the corner of Cedar and Lee,” she said. She stopped talking and dabbed her bottom lip with the back of her hand. I could see that it had started bleeding. “Would you mind going now? The Tylenol I took isn’t cutting it.”
“No problem. I’ll be back in twenty minutes,” I said.
After I dropped off the Percocet, I drove to the police department to see if I could get a copy of the assault report. As it turned out, the report was public record. I didn’t even have to show the cop on duty my ID to see it.
According to the report, there had been one witness to the incident—a lady walking her dog a block away. She had described the assailant as a white male in his early 30s with red hair and a red beard, between six feet and six feet two, about two hundred pounds. So he was a big boy. That didn’t concern me much. I was a big boy, too. I’d never met a man who could take me down in a fight. In the service, they used to call me Bruiser. I could bench more than any other guy in my platoon. I could also do more chin-ups and sit-ups. At Camp Pendleton, I beat the whole goddam first regiment in pugil stick. And those guys were Marines. They weren’t chicken shit little street punks who went around beating up old ladies and snatching purses.
The report said the assailant was last seen heading north on East 55th, near the intersection of East 55th and Chester Avenue. The approximate time of the attack was seven fifteen in the evening. There was a note at the bottom of the report that said this particular guy—or at least a guy who fit the same description—had assaulted another lady on East 55th five days before. That attack had taken place about two blocks away from where my mum was attacked. When I asked the officer in the records department what the cops were doing, he told me they had squad cars cruising the neighbourhood around East 55th and Chester every few hours. The police had also been knocking on doors and talking to people on the streets. He called it a “canvas search.” So far they hadn’t turned up anything, but he was confident they would. He told me that if I left my name and number, they would call me when they got him. I left my name and number and thanked him, but secretly I hoped they wouldn’t get him. I didn’t think they would. God wouldn’t let that happen. God wouldn’t deny me my vengeance. This scumbag needed to be taught a lesson, and I was the one who had to teach him. If I got in trouble for it, so be it. It was a sacrifice I was more than happy to make.
When I got back to my apartment, I packed my M9 Beretta and my OKC-3S bayonet in my rucksack. I didn’t plan on using either weapon, but I figured I better have them, just in case the guy was armed. I also packed some beef jerky and granola bars and a canteen full of water. I didn’t want to miss the guy because I was off at Burger King getting a Whopper. I fully intended on staying in my car and watching the street until I saw him. I didn’t care how long it took. I had nothing but time. I didn’t have a job. There was nowhere else I had to be. Finding that ginger fuck that hurt my mum was my job now.
I put on the only pair of jeans I owned, a white T-shirt, and my old Cleveland Indians baseball cap. I wanted to look as ordinary as possible. My first impulse had been to put on my uniform because I felt like I was going into battle, but I thought better of it. If the guy saw a soldier coming at him, he’d be more likely to run. He’d know that I was a trained fighter. He’d know that even if he was a tough guy himself, there was a reasonable chance that I could kick his ass.
By three o’clock that afternoon, I was ready to go. I went out to my car, threw my rucksack into the passenger seat, and drove down to East 55th. I parked across the street from the East Side Catholic Center, in the empty lot of an abandoned gas station. I didn’t think anybody would notice me there. I was pretty far away from the street, behind the gas pumps. And I was in a rusted out old Ford Escort—not the kind of car that was going to draw attention. If anybody did notice me, if anybody came up to me and asked me what I was doing, I would just tell them to mind their own business. The only reason anybody would approach me in this neighbourhood anyway was to see if I had money or drugs.
That first afternoon and evening were uneventful. I only saw a dozen men walk by, and none of them fit the description of the assailant. The Center must have been closed because the windows were dark and there was nobody going in or coming out. I thought that was odd because it was a Sunday. Shouldn’t a place that called itself a Catholic Center be open on a Sunday? People needed to eat on Sunday, just like every other day. I knew it wasn’t a church, but still.
There was more going on at the Salvation Army store next door. Women—mostly young women followed by packs of yapping brats—kept coming out with big trash bags full of stuff, probably clothes. A couple who looked like they were in their early twenties came out carrying a large couch decorated with a gaudy tropical flower pattern—a couch better suited to a condo in Miami than a starter home in Cleveland. Just before the store closed at seven, a fat man in cargo shorts and a Browns jersey lumbered out holding a giant TV set. The set looked just like the Zenith my parents used to have in their living room back in the 80s. Maybe it was my parents’ Zenith. It wouldn’t surprise me if my mum had donated the thing to the Salvation Army. That’s where she brought most things she didn’t want anymore. My entire childhood living room—chairs, tables, couches, and lamps—was probably in that Salvation Army store.
The whole time I was waiting, watching the street, I didn’t see a single cop car drive by. So much for the canvas search, I thought. The cops were useless. After my discharge, I had applied to the Cleveland Heights Police Department, but they wouldn’t take me because they said I didn’t pass the psychological exam. Now I was glad they hadn’t taken me. I didn’t want to be associated with those bums. Cops in Cleveland didn’t do anything but sit on their lazy butts and issue speeding tickets. Since I’d been back home, I’d heard about plenty of crimes in the city, but I hadn’t heard about the cops stopping any. As far as I was concerned, the mayor should fire the whole goddam force and hire Marines to lay down the law. There wouldn’t be any more crime in the city then. I guarantee you that.
At eleven thirty I fell asleep. I just couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore. I woke up at six the next morning, ate some beef jerky, and took a quick piss behind the gas station. Then I resumed my watch. I watched all day. Anybody else would’ve gotten bored, but I didn’t get bored. I was too excited to be bored. I was too eager to catch that redheaded punk. I kept clenching and unclenching my fists, thinking about what I was going to do to the son of a bitch when I finally got my hands on him. I saw more people than I saw the day before, but I still didn’t see anyone who fit the description. I knew he would show up, though. Anyone who was dumb enough to attack twice on the same street in the same week would be dumb enough to do it again sooner or later.
I conked out a little after ten that night. I had a dream for the first time in years. I was sitting in church, the church my parents and I used to go to when I was a kid. Father Kenny, our old parish priest, was up at the altar, shaking his fist dramatically and hollering about something, but I couldn’t hear his voice. All I could hear was the sound wind and rain whipping against the tall stained glass windows on either side of the church. I kept worrying that the windows would break and the storm would blow in. I knew I was a kid in my dream because my dad was sitting next to me in the pew, and my head only came up to the top of his shoulder. He had his arm around me, and he was telling me not to worry. He said the windows would hold. My mum was there, too. She was young and pretty like she used to be in her thirties, with her long brown hair and her white, unblemished face. She was sitting on the other side of my dad, and he had his other arm around her. He was comforting both of us, letting us know it was going to be okay.
When I opened my eyes, it was light outside. I looked at my watch. It was already eight. I cursed myself for sleeping so late. I hoped I hadn’t missed the guy. I rubbed my eyes and started scanning the street again. There were no people out at the moment. The lights were on at The Center, and there was a car parked out front, so I imagined people would be showing up soon for breakfast. Maybe my guy would be showing up. If he was robbing people, chances were good he was hard up. He was probably the sort of person who went to The Center for food.
It was getting stuffy in the car, so I rolled down my front windows. It was early June, and it was starting to get warm in the mornings. By mid-day, it would be hot. I was glad to be under the gas station canopy, in the shade. If I were out in the open, I’d be baking by noon. I heard someone flicking the wheel of a Zippo lighter. It was a sound I knew well from the service. I glanced to my right and saw a guy standing by the gas station door, sucking on the end of a cigarette. He was wearing khaki shorts and a short sleeve button-up shirt. He didn’t have a beard, but he had red hair, and he looked about the right height and weight. I bet he’d shaved the beard because he knew the cops were looking for him. He wasn’t fooling me, though. I knew he was the guy I was looking for. I could feel it. God had brought the bastard to me. He’d put him right where I wanted him—twenty feet away from my car.
I got out of my car, tucked my gun into the back of my jeans, and walked over to him.
“Hey, man,” I said.
He looked at me, tilted his head back, and exhaled a jet of smoke. “Can I help you, bro?” he said.
“You like beating up old ladies?” I said.
“Excuse me?” he said.
I snatched his cigarette and tossed it away.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” he said.
I grabbed his throat with my right hand. I tightened my grip just enough to hold him. If I pressed too hard on his carotid arteries, I knew he would pass out, and I didn’t want that. I wanted him to feel this.
“There are some people in this world you don’t fuck with,” I said as he squirmed and gasped and tried to pull my hand off. “I’m one of those people. And when you fuck with my mum, you fuck with me.”
I released his neck and threw him to the ground. Before he could get to his feet, I hit him in the mouth. He fell down and curled up into a fetal ball with his hands over his head. I suppose he could tell by the force of my punch that he was hopelessly outmatched. I got on top of him, pulled his hands away, and started in on his face. I hit him in the face until all of his front teeth were gone and both of his eyes were swollen shut. I hit him until my fists started to ache. He tried to scream, but his throat was too full of blood to get any sound out. When I was done hitting him in the face, I got up and kicked him in the stomach half a dozen times. He spat blood and teeth all over the pavement and then rolled over and wept like a little girl. I thought about taking his wallet out of his shorts (I assumed he had a wallet) and shoving it into the bloody hole of his mouth to shut him up, but I didn’t want the cops getting my fingerprints, so I left him be. I walked back to my car, got in, and drove away.
On the way back to my apartment, I got a call from a number I didn’t recognize. Normally when I see a number I don’t recognize, I just assume it’s a scammer and let it ring, but for some reason, I felt like I should pick up this time, so I did.
“Hello?” I said.
“Hello, Mr. Brennan?” said a man’s voice.
“Yes,” I said.
“This is Officer Schmidt,” said the man. “We spoke a few days ago when you came to get the assault report on your mother.”
“I just wanted to let you know that we have the man who assaulted your mother in custody. We found him last night at the Corner of Woodland and East 79th. He had your mum’s credit card on him. He confessed without too much prodding from us.”