“NBC Radio News on the hour, this is Russ Ward reporting. Communist tanks and troops in the northern most province of South Vietnam have overrun another district town and moved to the outskirts of Quảng Trị City, nineteen miles below the demilitarized zone. Heavy US air and naval support has been directed against the enemy drive. US destroyers offshore fired ten thousand rounds against the Communist position north of Quảng Trị, but the enemy troops continue their advance. More on the story from Jim Laurie—”
“Turn that shit off, James,” my father sneered before tipping back the rest of his Budweiser and lighting up another cigarette. The bottles littered the coffee table in front of him; he’d taken the time to peel the label off of every one and had stacked them in a neat pile in the center.
“Yes sir.” I shut the small radio off and sank back down into the armchair with a sigh. Beer made him angry, like almost everything else, but not enough to do anything about it. It was when he drank the ‘hard stuff,’ as my ma called it, that I steered clear of him.
“You think you know what I went through because you listen to your little radio every day? You don’t know shit about war, son.” He rested the back of his head against the couch and exhaled a cloud of smoke while staring up at the ceiling. “Nobody knows shit about what I went through.”
My old man had been drafted into the Army in 1965, two weeks after my first birthday. Most of the soldiers I knew of served their two years and returned straight home to their families. Not my father though. My ma told me that he was too important to the fight and because I didn’t know anything else, I let it go.
When he stepped off that bus in his uniform last year, our lives changed forever. It went from being just me and my mother, something I’d unfortunately taken for granted, to living with a monster.
He’d been sent home after taking shrapnel to his knee and now walked with a slight limp. He looked nothing like the man in the wedding photograph that hung in the living room. In fact, I’d whispered to my mother that he reminded me of the Incredible Hulk, only he wasn’t green.
“You know how they repaid me for all my years of service?” My father asked the ceiling. I’d heard this story more times than I could count, but knew to keep my mouth shut and let him tell it again.
“There was a crowd waiting for us when we got back to the states and I thought it was a welcome home parade. I gave them the peace signal and you know what I got in return? You know what those fuckers did to me after I fought for them?” He turned his head and glared at me, waiting for my response.
I knew, but replied like the obedient son he wanted me to be. “No sir, what did they do?”
“They spit on me and called me a baby-killer! The country that I went to war for has forgotten all bout old Donald Quinn. My GI benefits are a joke and nobody wants to hire an infantry veteran.”
I wasn’t sure what I expected when he came back; my mother’s parents had passed on before I was born, so my only experience with fathers up until him had been the TV variety.
My old man was no Steve Douglas or Mike Brady though.
While my mother worked on the weekends, I was forced to sit and relive Vietnam with him until he passed out. He’d rant about how Uncle Sam had screwed him over and turned him into this. She’d promised me that he’d go back to the man he was before the war, but I didn’t believe her. I’d only ever known him like this.
I shifted and tapped my fingers against the orange material covering the chair. I could hear the neighbor kids laughing over something and would’ve given anything to join them.
“That’s the trouble with everyone… always wanting to follow the rules. You think we followed rules when we were over there facing the goddamned Việt Cộng?” He roused himself from his stupor to ask.
“You’re goddamned right we didn’t. We were brothers, but here, it’s every man for himself. This country ain’t done one thing for me. So, I don’t fight for them anymore. I found a true brotherhood—one that makes its own rules. When you meet them, you’ll understand. You’re almost a man now, James. What are you—fourteen… fifteen?”
“I’m eight… sir.” I watched him think about that for a minute before looking over at me again.
“No shit? Well, it’s time you learned to be a man. No more of this comic bullshit. Superheroes don’t exist, you hear me?” His voice shot up and I nodded nervously.
My ma said we had to walk on eggshells around him, but I wasn’t sure how that would help. It’d just make a mess and give him something else to be angry about.
At night, she and I would sit in my room while he was out with his new brothers. Ma would clutch her rosary beads and say her Hail Mary’s, along with the litany of Mary.
I recited along with her, “Virgin most wise, pray for us. Virgin rightly praised, pray for us. Virgin rightly renowned, pray for us. Virgin most powerful, pray for us.”
In my head though, I pleaded for the Blessed Mother to strike Donald Quinn down and make things go back to the way they were before.
Mary never seemed to hear my prayers though. Maybe because I wasn’t the one holding the beads.
My father would come home late and I’d hear the anger in his voice as he talked to my ma in their bedroom. She’d stay quiet until the bed started squeaking. That was when he must’ve hurt her the most and she would cry and beg for mercy.
The first time I heard it, I tried to go help her, but the door was locked. When I began pounding on it, my ma screamed for me to go to my room. She told me later that I was too young to worry about her, but I saw the bruises on her neck and chest.
She tried to hide them with her housecoat or long scarves that she’d tie around her hair, but I knew they were there and it made me hate my father even more.
I would never care for him, even if he said a million trillion Hail Mary’s for hurting my ma. My neighbor, Susan, said that there were some sins that even the Lord couldn’t forgive and she was right.
Donald Quinn was going to burn in the fires of Hell; I just wished it would happen soon.
He went silent again and I watched as his chest rose and fell before checking the clock on the wall. My shoulders relaxed and I exhaled softly.
So far, he’d only slapped me around a few times and only when he was drinking the other stuff. Yesterday, I’d taken the bottles and hidden them under a loose floorboard in my closet. If he couldn’t find them, then he couldn’t hurt me and Ma.
I quietly retrieved my comic book from under the sofa and crept down the hall to my room. Most kids my age were thrilled when the weekend rolled around.
I just tried to survive it.
* * *
“Are you sure what I’m wearing is okay, Don?” Ma asked again before smoothing down the collar of her blue gingham dress in the front seat. I hovered over the bench seat from the back, just excited to be allowed out of the house.
“Jesus Christ, Mary, I said what you were wearing was fine. Now, remember, these men are my brothers now. I don’t want either one of you doing anything to embarrass me. Stick with me and keep your mouths shut, got it?”
We agreed and my old man stubbed his cigarette out in the ashtray and began messing with the knobs on the radio. The old Rambler wagon bounced as we left the pavement and traveled down a dirt road.
The wagon squeaked and jerked with every rough patch we hit, causing my teeth to click together. We drove for what felt like hours before emerging at the bottom of the canyon.
A warped wooden sign greeted us as we approached. Welcome to the Wagon Wheel Motel: Where guests are family.
We began passing men and women along both sides of the road. When we pulled up outside the motel, a group of men in leather vests turned toward the vehicle with smirks.
“What do we have here? Prospect brought his pussy wagon to the gathering,” one joked as he walked around the vehicle.
Ma’s knuckles were white from squeezing the door handle. “Don?” She asked hesitantly. “What do we do?”
“What do we do? We get out the goddamn car, Mary. These are my brothers now.” He threw his door open and went around the back to where the bikers had gathered. The trunk popped open, making it impossible to see what was happening.
Ma reached back and took my hand in hers. “S-stay with me, Jamie.”
I nodded and gripped her hand tighter. “I’ll protect you, Ma. Those bikers won’t get near ya or I’ll pop ‘em in the nose. You hear me, Ma?”
She shook her head and laughed softly. “I thought it’d be the other way around with me watching out for you. These men might be dangerous; they certainly look it.”
We climbed out at the same time and huddled together while my old man chatted with the bikers. “And this here is my Ol’ Lady, Mary, and my boy, James.” He slipped a leather vest on that matched the other bikers and gestured for us to come forward.
Ma kept a tight hold of my shoulder as she moved toward the back of the car. The bikers watched us curiously before introducing themselves.
Hawk… Slider… Gimp—they were the strangest names I’d ever heard. The one they called Gimp had lost part of his arm in the war, so I at least understood that. The others were a mystery.
I kept staring at the biker’s stump of an arm until my old man caught my eye. I straightened and readied myself for the blow that was coming, but he just clapped me on the shoulder and said, “C’mon, son. Let’s find some kids your age.”
He pulled me from Ma’s grip and I reached back for her. “I need to stay with Ma. I promised.” With a sigh, he let me go and followed after the other bikers. From the back, I could see that there was a big difference between their vests and his.
Theirs had a large bird in the center and Silent Phoenix in big letters above it. On the left side of the bird was a one percent patch and on the other side were the letters MC. Texas was in big letters underneath.
My old man’s vest had none of those things. His just had PROSPECT in big letters on the bottom. I didn’t understand what any of it meant.
If these men were his brothers, then why didn’t they match?
“Hey there,” a feminine voice crooned and Ma and I jumped in fright before turning to see a red-haired woman with a big smile on her face. She thrust her hand out. “I’m Lucy. Named after Lucille Ball.”
The woman had her top tied up like a swimsuit and was wearing bell bottom jeans. Ma and all her friends only wore dresses. I hadn’t ever seen a girl wearing denim before.
Ma exhaled softly before taking the woman’s hand in hers. “Mary, and this is my son, Jamie. It’s nice to meet you.”
Lucy took us around the gathering, introducing everyone as we went. There were bikers and their families everywhere. I had no idea where my father had gone, but Ma was smiling again and I didn’t want to ruin her good mood by asking about him.
A biker brought us plates of food and introduced me to some kids sitting down by the pond. I hesitated, but Ma insisted that she was fine and encouraged me to have some fun.
I lost track of time, learning to skip stones across the water with some of the older boys. The sun was beginning to sink out of view when I realized how long I’d been away.
“I gotta find my Ma,” I told my new friends before heading back toward the motel.
The bikers had built a large fire and were sitting around it, drinking and laughing. I searched the crowd for my mother and her blue dress, but couldn’t find her. She’d been the only one who dressed up, so it should’ve been easy to pick her out.
My throat grew tight, but I pushed my way through several bikers to get into the motel. I spotted my old man almost instantly. He was gathering up trash with another biker. I could see from the look in his eyes that he was drunk and I flattened myself against a wall until he turned his back.
I wasn’t getting smacked around in front of these bikers.
After checking again to make sure that he hadn’t seen me, I crept down the hall. I could hear voices carrying from outside, but none of them sounded like my mother’s.
I was about to turn around when I heard a soft groan coming from behind one of the doors. I slowly turned the handle and inched the door open before backing away in confusion. Curiosity got the best of me and I crouched down, watching them through the crack.
My mother was bent over a small table, her dress bunched up around her lower back, while a biker moved behind her. Susan and I had found her parent’s copy of The Joy of Sex one afternoon, hidden in the back of their bookcase, so I wasn’t a complete fool.
I stared in wonder at the greenish-black ink running up and down his arms as he held on to her hips. She rocked back and pushed herself up onto her forearms with a quiet gasp. Her eye makeup ran from the corners of her eyes like a black river. The biker wrapped an arm around her chest and pulled her body back into his, causing both of them to groan loudly.
This was my fault.
I left her alone and now this biker was hurting her. I knew that my old man wouldn’t keep her safe and I still went off to play with the kids. This was exactly what he’d warned me about; acting like a child and hurting the people I loved.
“Mmm… yes. Yes,” my mother moaned, letting her head fall back on the biker’s shoulder.
I’d never heard her make those kinds of sounds when my father was hurting her.
“What are you doing in here, kid?”
I scooted back from the door and landed on my backside in front of a huge biker. He had a grizzly beard and long wavy black hair that fell to his shoulders. Sitting in front of him, I felt like an ant.
“I—” I tried to speak and found I couldn’t.
Instead of waiting for a response, he hauled me up by my shirt collar and led me back down the hall.
“Don’t tell—my old man,” I squeaked out, trying to match his pace.
He stopped in front of another door. “I ain’t telling your old man shit. Let’s me and you have a chat.” As he led me into what appeared to be an office, I noticed the Pres patch on the left side of his vest.
I’d heard my father mention the ‘Pres’ before. According to him, he was the leader of the bikers. There was no way that he wasn’t going to rat me out for being inside their building. He closed the door behind him and gestured for me to sit down. “What’s your name, kid?”
“James. James Quinn, sir.”
He smiled. “Well, James Quinn, I’m Wolverine, President of Silent Phoenix MC. Now, do you mind telling me why you’re in my clubhouse?”
“I didn’t know that I couldn’t be in here, sir. I came looking for my ma and—” The tightness was back in my throat and I swallowed several times until it passed.
Wolverine waved his hand. “You were looking for your ma and you found her. Why’d you stick around?”
“I beg your pardon?”
He tipped his chin up. “You heard me. You found your mother and then you watched. I wanna know why.”
I cleared my throat. “Well, I was supposed to look out for her, but I didn’t do a good job and now that biker’s hurting her. If my old man finds out that I let it happen, he’ll kill me.”
He kicked his feet up on the desk in front of him and lit a cigarette, taking several puffs before responding. “Yeah, your daddy ain’t gonna know about this, are we clear?” I nodded, and he continued. “Your ma? She’s helping your daddy get into this club and trust me, ain’t no one causing her any pain. Angel will take real good care of her.”
His words angered me. I was the only one who took good care of her. I was the only one who didn’t make her cry. Angel and Wolverine and my old man? They didn’t know how to make her smile like I did. My old man had taught me not to give my opinion to anyone who didn’t ask for it, so we sat in silence before I worked up the courage to blurt out, “Why are you called Silent Phoenix?”
Wolverine exhaled a perfect ring of smoke. “You familiar with Greek mythology?” I shook my head and he continued. “Most kids your age aren’t. A phoenix is a bird that lives for five-hundred years and then dies a fiery death—”
“That doesn’t seem like a good mascot,” I helpfully pointed out and Wolverine chuckled before taking another drag from his cigarette.
“You’re right, kid. If the story ended there, it would be a pretty shitty one. Nah, the phoenix bursts into flames and is then reborn; rising up from the ashes. It doesn’t matter how many times it’s forced down, it just keeps rising up as something new and stronger.”
I thought about that and decided that a bird that could burst into flames would be pretty neat to have. “But, what about the silent part?”
“Never announce that you’re bringing a war, kid. Work quietly and then surprise your enemies. These rival clubs? They start getting too big, taking over territories that don’t belong to them. We let them think they’ve won; convince them that we’re gone and then—BAM!” I jumped in my seat. “We rise silently and wipe the motherfuckers out.”
“Wipe the motherfuckers out,” I repeated back softly.
He nodded. “That’s right. This three-piece patch is earned through blood and I’ll be damned if anyone is taking it from me. You’ll learn what it means to wear this kutte someday.”
“I wanna be a superhero though… like The X-Men,” I blurted out, before realizing my mistake. I lowered my head and waited to be disciplined. “I’m sorry, sir.”
Wolverine’s chair creaked as he leaned across the desk. “Why the hell are you sorry?”
I swallowed the lump in my throat. “Comic books are for sissy kids, sir. I need to be a man now.”
He watched me quietly and I knew he was working out how to tell my old man what a failure his son was. He surprised me when he smiled and reached into his desk drawer. “You calling me a sissy?”
He slid an issue of The X-men over to me and my mouth fell open. “This is the first one! Why do you have it?”
“Why do I have it? Because I fucking love comics. Don’t let anyone tell you what you can and can’t like, you hear me? Look around you, Jamie— men are dying everyday for a war that we didn’t start. Life’s too short to let someone else dictate how you live your life.” Wolverine raised his voice as he talked, but I wasn’t afraid of him.
“I like you, Mr. Wolverine. You’re very nice and I want to get to know you better.”
He stubbed out his cigarette and grinned. “You do, huh? Don’t you go telling anyone outside this room how nice I am. It’s our little secret, okay?”
I had a secret with the president of a biker club.
I realized as he walked me back outside that I’d forgotten all about my mother while I was with him. I had to be more careful next time.
The car was quiet as we drove back home, with my old man drunkenly slumped over with his head against the window in the passenger seat. Ma looked like she had when we arrived; only her cheeks were a little pinker and she kept smiling to herself like she had a secret too.