Fag End by Jason Beech

“Mr Hoffmann.” 

I nod and hold the photo of my boy tight between thumb and index as the bag of walnuts with a red smudge of a scar on his temple ushers me into Mr Shaw’s presence. Mr Shaw rests his elbows on a cheap table, lit from behind by the vending machine. He shows a hand to the empty chair and I lift it to avoid a scrape on the carpet-free floor. 

I squeeze my lips together and palm-rub the ache from my fingers.  

“Mr Shaw.” I’m glad I don’t stutter. “I want you to know … I want you to know I have the utmost respect for you and your family.” 

His face is the moon in this low light. It flares sunshine orange a moment at the struck match. He makes the fag glow and wafts the flame until the light dies. Sits back, crosses a leg, takes a puff. 

“My son didn’t mean any kind of disrespect. He’s wayward, I know. He’s driven me to distraction all his life. When he’d just turned into a teen, he robbed this poor old woman’s house. Scared her half to death. I had to go round and apologise so she wouldn’t press charges. He apologized, too. That took some balls, Mr Shaw, it really did. He charmed her and ended up doing all kinds of chores for the lady after that, right up until she died.” 

I rub my chest and my muscles relax at the twinkle in his eye. He takes a puff and the cigarette’s end pinpoints me. 

“When I find him, and I will, I’ll make sure he comes to you and does the same. I promise. And he’ll do anything for you, within reason, that you need. He’ll make up for it. I don’t know where he is, right now, but I’ll get hold of him. By God, Mr Shaw, I’ll find him and give him an earful.” 

The fag ash has elongated. Droops as much as Mr Shaw’s shaggy eyebrows. He uncrosses his legs and re-crosses the other way. The silence mushrooms and sucks away any comfort I’d cultivated. I flap the photo and offer him a hopeful smile. I scrape the chair forward and plant my elbows on the table. Slide the picture across the table. His free hand remains on his lap, the other shifts the fag to his mouth. His exhale clouds the old photo which he ignores. I lift the picture and peer at Mr Shaw above it. 

“Look at him. All that life. Look at the smile. We went fishing that day. He caught a whopper. He’s full of life. Full of life, Mr Shaw.” My voice almost collapses at the plea to his mercy. My fingers dance and twitch and fumble until I squeeze the panic away within a tight fist. 

Mr Shaw’s eyes have the same quality as that fish. The ash bends. It’s a wonder it holds its structure. You’d think Mr Shaw would flick it, but he lets it dangle as he does me. He runs his tongue across his teeth and sniffs. 

My muscles tighten. There are little eruptions across my skin and the hands on the clock behind him swirl to end time. My time. My boy’s time. Words crumble out my trembling lips. Thoughts chase the hands on the clock, but they become incoherent. The ash seems to reach out to burn me. 

“He didn’t know the place belonged to you. He had no idea at all. If he had known, Mr Shaw, he would not have gone anywhere near the place, never mind rob it. Out of respect for you. Please, you have sons yourself. I have only one. My only child. I’ve watched him grow up. He’s not perfect. Only this morning I tutted at him for the pizza slices all over my floor …” 

The old man’s lips spread to show his yellowed tombstone teeth. He taps the table, uncrosses his legs, calls over his bag of walnuts – who pulls an object out of his waistband. The hands on the clock lock onto one number and the fag ash severs itself from the rest of the cigarette. 

I wrap tight fingers round the photo for the last moment I’d spend with my boy. 

*

Bio: Jason Beech lives in New Jersey but was made in Sheffield, England. His novel, Moorlands, and his Bullets, Teeth & Fists story collections can be found at Amazon. You can read his work at Shotgun Honey, Out of the GutterPulp Metal Magazine, Spelk, and Plots with Guns.

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