Zach’s grey suit seemed to be made of plastic, as he melted in the summer heat of the Oneida County Courthouse’s third floor. The heavy cloud cover and dense humidity made him feel like an ice cube left in the noon sun. Severe thunderstorms threatened outside.
His stomach churned, and he tasted the stinging flavor of bile creeping up his throat again. He had nothing left to throw up from a fast food breakfast across from the cheap motel he and his mother had been living in for the past three months. Zach didn’t even remember what his old bed felt like.
The thick wool suit draped over his delicate ten-year-old shoulder blades like a cape. He envisioned himself bolting from the witness stand, snatching the gavel and vanquishing the evil Judge Townsend before he could deny his father visitation rights. Zach knew why he now sat in that boiling courthouse and why he might not see his father again.
Zach’s dad drank ever since he could remember. He and his father often took walks through the pastures surrounding their home, Zach with his adolescent admiration for his father, and his dad with a can of Genesee Light. He always wanted to grow up like his dad. He loved the way his dad’s face felt like rough-cut lumber, and how their driveway’s rocks crackled into dust under his father’s heavy work boots. His dad’s beer was another opportunity for Zach to mimic his father, and he begged for as many sips of the golden liquid as he would allow. He liked the tingle of the fluid on his tongue and the light-headed feeling that came after.
However, since Zach’s mother received her last offense – a black eye that kept her entire secretary’s office busy gossiping for a week – he and his father didn’t take any more walks. Zach’s father no longer shared his beer, and he crossed the line of recreational drinker to professional drunk. The few times he came to visit his son in the past three months, he smelled heavily of booze. His Ford pickup, blue with a rash of rust around the wheel wells, contained enough empty beer cans to fill a child’s plastic swimming pool. The bed was hidden beneath the various cans and bottles that crashed together every time the truck stopped or turned a corner. His dad had already been warned once by an understanding cop who consoled him, having gone through a painful divorce and custody battle himself.
Now Zach sat waiting to testify against the man who raised him, who named him. His mother wanted full custody, and this meant he wouldn’t get to shoot baskets or fish in Madison Lake anymore. No more games of pool at the Deansboro Hotel and no more walks through the pastures.
The court’s white-haired bailiff opened the door to the right of the bench that Zach sat on and smiled weakly at him. “Judge’s almost ready for you, Son.” Zach didn’t like him. Since he and his mother had left, he found it difficult to like anybody. He’d rummage through his mom’s purse until he found her matches, and then he’d sneak out to a field or parking lot and burn whatever he could find. Books were his usual target, but lately he’d realized how well oils and cleaning products ignited.
“Come on in,” the bailiff whispered, and Zach peeled himself off the hard oak bench and into the courtroom. He’d heard little through the heavy doors, his father’s voice only once rising to an audible level and then abruptly halting as the crash of a gavel drowned it out. Zach noticed just a handful of people in the room, and he knew most of them. His grandmother, the only spectator, sat in the front row behind his mother’s desk where she waited with her lawyer. His grandmother had her hands on her daughter’s shoulders, and she slowly massaged her while Zach’s mom closed her eyes and tried to stay calm.
“Come on up here, Zach,” Judge Townsend said, using a gentle tone. Zach fell into the witness chair and waited for his questioning to begin. He looked down and saw his grandmother glaring at his father’s turned back. His father glanced all about him, and his foot shook rapidly, as if he hadn’t had a drink in weeks. Zach looked at his mom’s table where her lawyer, Mr. Romano, nodded at him in an attempt to comfort and encourage. Zach knew what he’d be asked. Mr. Romano spoke with him the day before, explaining that the judge would first ask who he would like to live with, and then why. The “why” was what kept Zach up well past his mother’s delicate snores last night, and what made him cry in Mr. Romano’s law office yesterday.
The day before Zach’s mom took them to the motel, he felt another thunderstorm approaching. His mother and father were fighting all day, bickering at first, but gradually becoming more violent as his father began drinking. By dinner, Zach’s dad was thoroughly drunk and glared at his mother over the kitchen table. Zach’s mother, enraged by the man across from her and unable to take any more, darted up, grabbed his father’s bottle of Wild Turkey, and poured it down their stainless steel sink. His father sat motionless for a few seconds, expressionless, as if trying to comprehend what just happened. Then, he made a sound Zach had never heard before: a low growl, like a provoked bear, and he shot up from the table, knocking over the cups and flower vase.
Zach’s mom stood with the bottle by the sink, defensively, trapped by the wrap-around bar. She brandished the heavy glass, but his dad simply grabbed it with his left hand and struck with his right. And then again. She instantly began sobbing and crumpled to the floor in pain. “Not in front of Zach,” she pleaded, but his dad couldn’t hear. Zach watched him behind the counter, swinging down at his mother who was out of sight. His mother’s sobs, his father’s grunts, and flesh being pounded blurred into one horrific trio.
After he told the judge his story, he couldn’t look at his father. When he finally did, he saw the apologetic eyes of a child caught stealing. They were red-rimmed, with the reflective gloss of approaching tears that matched his own. His father quickly looked down and then whispered something to his lawyer, who gently patted him on the shoulder. The judge said something directed at Zach, and the old bailiff escorted him out of the room and into the hallway, where his grandmother now stood with her arms open and tears streaming down her cheeks. Zach glanced back at his father’s bench, seeing the broad shoulders of the man who taught him to hit a baseball and grill hamburgers. His shoulders didn’t seem as broad now, and they slumped downward like the roof of a sagging barn. His dad’s lawyer rubbed his shoulder again, and Zach wondered if he could still crush the driveway stones with the weight of his heavy work boots.