When Push Comes To Shove - Murdoch's Viewpoint
Not mine; Sam Peeples created the boys, wished he would have written more of the shows. And shame on Fox for not putting the series on DVD’s!
This is a Murdoch muse. Some cussing. No sex; just Murdoch wondering if he’ll every get this father thing right.
When Push Comes to Shove - Murdoch’s viewpoint
Even here, sitting at my desk, I can hear Scott’s footsteps as he moves down the hallway above me to Johnny’s room. I listen for the knock that will come; Scott’s knuckles politely rapping on his brother’s door. It’s strange how such a common thing can be so distinctive.
Johnny tends to pound. A single knock, using his fist -- occasionally his boot -- and he rarely waits to be invited in. My younger son usually storms through the door with such force it bangs against the wall, loud enough to wake the dead.
The last time, I made him mend the dent in the plaster. It would have been easier, of course, just to have Jelly do the patching; but I’ve found that Johnny actually profited from having to repair the damage. I wouldn’t accept anything less than restoration to the original condition. No, standing over him, I made sure the job was done right: the painstaking reshaping of the hole, the application of the wet plaster, the smoothing and sanding, the waiting for it to dry; and finally the repainting.
It didn’t take him long to understand that damage done in less than a minute can require more than a day to make right.
I can hear muffled voices now; Scott and Johnny talking. There is a lyrical quality to Scott’s voice, something almost soothing when he speaks, so like Catherine. He rarely raises his voice, even with his brother.
Johnny, on the other hand, ranges from that soft, slow drawl to loud explosions of anger he dispenses democratically to anyone within hearing. So like Maria. I never saw her temper during our brief courtship. Even throughout the first few months of our marriage, she had maintained a sweetness of tone; saving her passion for our bed. Then, as her pregnancy advanced, her mood darkened. The rages would come; bitter fury against every one and every thing. Afterwards, the cold, stony silences, when she would withdraw into herself; shutting out the world, the people around her. Shutting out me.
I’ve often wondered, as I’ve watched my younger son slide into his Johnny Madrid mask, if he didn’t learn that coldness from his mother.
Standing up, I go to the bottle of Talisker’s. I debate the drink; I’ve had two already with Scott, on a near-empty stomach after a barely touched lunch. What was it Johnny said that first day, when I asked him if he drank? When I know the man I’m drinkin’ with, yeah. God, the insolence I saw in that face; heard in those words. The conversation had gone pretty much down hill from there.
Thank God the fire bell rang. I change my mind about the drink and put the glass down.
Johnny’s voice. I can hear it, and can tell that he has been sleeping. He is as cranky as a two-year-old when someone wakes him up. The mouth is in full gear. Then Scott, saying something I can’t quite make out; Johnny’s retort more than a shade louder. Fuck off, Scott. His favorite vulgarity; because he knows Scott and I hate the crudeness of the word, what it implies. Which is precisely why he uses it.
There are times, like now, when I can imagine Johnny as a little boy. Bare-footed, bare-headed; that black hair so in contrast to those eyes. Squatting in the hot desert sun-shine, poking at a Gila monster with a sharpened stick, again and again; challenging the poisonous lizard to bite him.
I take a deep breath. Johnny’s at the top of the stairs, and I move toward the doorway; curious. It suddenly turns quiet, but then I hear a soft whoa, and -- as his buttocks settle on the banister -- a faint, whistling intake of breath. More silence, as if he’s reconsidering what he’s about to do.
He hits the floor at the bottom of the stairs, as light-footed as ever, but this time he misses his usual mark; spoiling a perfect record. Gingerly, he swats at his bottom, changing his mind and turning the gesture into a fanning motion.
When he turns to look at me, I see it. That quick smile, as he ducks his head slightly so I can’t see the laughter in his eyes. I raise my hand to stop the apology. Turning, I head back to my desk; knowing he’s right behind me. “Close the doors, please, John.”
I hear the click as the doors shut, and take my seat behind the desk. Gathering the strength I’ll need for what is possibly coming, I keep my back to him; staring out the window. When I turn around, he’s standing behind the chair where Scott had been sitting, waiting.
This time, I decide not to invite him to sit down. Johnny in a chair, with his legs crossed, is a study in perpetual motion. His right leg seems to dance up and down with a will of its own; and his fingers are constantly in motion. Digging at the corral dirt in his spurs, tearing at tiny threads on his shirt sleeve; anything to keep from remaining still.
He clears his throat. “About my pistol, Ol…Murdoch.”
I can’t believe what I’m hearing! Determined not to lose control of the situation, I refuse to take the bait. “Yes, John?”
“Well, uhh…” He points to his empty holster. “Kinda feel naked.”
I nod. “We’ll be eating dinner soon, son. Think of it as time gained. You don’t have to hang it up.”
He moves around the chair and starts to sit down; changing his mind when he sees my frown. “You’ve spent the majority of the afternoon in your room, John. Have you given any thought as to what we discussed?”
A single nod of his head. “Some.” His voice lowers. “Don’t much like what happened up there.” He’s standing closer to the desk, in front of the chair. I watch as he picks up the brass matchbox cylinder and begins rolling it between his palms, the smooth finish picking up stray streams of sunlight from the window at my back that draws his gaze.
I’m leaning back in my chair now, my hands locked across my stomach, just above my belt. “Contrary to what you may think, John, I didn’t enjoy it, either. I had hoped you were beyond the age where you needed that kind of parenting. It seems, however, I was mistaken.”
His eyes lift to lock on mine. I see the lids narrowing, his jaws tensing slightly, and then relaxing. There is nothing in his expression to betray what is going on behind those eyes; the blue as cold as fresh-water ice. “Never needed that kind of daddyin’ before,” he whispers.
Somehow, I sense a possible lie; and return the gaze head on until he yields. I remember Val Crawford telling me once the reason he and Johnny got along so well was because -- when Johnny crossed that invisible line between them, that line between man and boy -- he had brought him up short and put a stop to the foolishness. It makes me wonder if Val hadn’t reacted exactly the same way I reacted. “Well, perhaps you need that kind of daddying now, John.”
The matchbox drops from his hands, and he quickly bends down to retrieve the container and the matches that have spilled on the floor. He has an amazing grace about him; the same fluid grace his mother possessed, and the memory of her dancing warms me. When he rises up, I know he sees the smile. He puts the matchbox back on the desk. “Somethin’ funny, Old Man?”
I close my eyes briefly at the familiar insolence. “No, John,” I keep the words and my voice soft. “I was thinking of your mother. You move like her; you have the same…”
My words from the first day come back to haunt me. ‘You have your mother’s temper.’ In my head I’m counting to ten in two languages. “The same grace, Johnny. The same way of moving as if there’s music in your head only you can hear, and you are dancing to the tune.”
His features change and it appears he understands I’ve just given him a compliment. “Dancin’?” he asks, thinking of the play on words. It’s the pistoleros’ euphemism for gunfight. The corners of his mouth are twitching, but he’s fighting the smile.
“I think we’ve had enough of this dancing, son.” I come forward in my chair and thump the desk with a rigid forefinger. “The apology, John.”
He picks up the matchbox again; the need to keep his hands occupied overcoming the need for caution. “Well, if you want to tell me you’re sorry for the whuppin’…”
I stand up too quickly, feeling the familiar stab of pain in my right hip. “We can continue this discussion in the barn, John. Is that what you want?” I purposely lower my hands to waist level, hooking my thumbs in the waistband of my trousers; my fingers tapping on the buckle of my belt.
Instinctively, but not out of fear, he backs away and drops his head. I can see him thinking, puzzling the thing over in his mind. The matchbox is between his palms again, rotating ever faster as he works it back and forth. Reaching out, I pluck the small canister from between his hands and put it back on the desk. “I asked you a question, John. I expect answer.”
I know how difficult this is for him. The years he has spent alone have demanded no small amount of bravado from him; and there is a natural unwillingness in him to capitulate. Reaching out, I lay my hand on his shoulder, gently. “This isn’t a gunfight, Johnny, and I’m not calling you out. You aren’t going to lose if you do what I ask; what I expect.”
He lifts his right hand to brush away something at the corner of his mouth; a small flake of skin from the place where his face was cut during the fight at the Silver Dollar. “You don’t ask, Old Man. You tell.”
“Only because you refuse to do what’s asked. And don’t call me Old Man in that tone of voice again.”
Needing to keep his hands busy, he wraps himself in a tight self-hug, his fingers kneading at the flesh of his upper arms. “Too many rules, Ol…Murdoch.”
“Six,” I counter; although I have no idea of what those six are. “Scott said the two of you counted them up.” I can feel his agitation.
“Big brother tellin’ tales outta school?”
I shake my head. “You know better than that, John. He’s concerned about you; about the drinking and the fighting. Amongst other things.
His fingers still. The long lashes flutter as he blinks rapidly, a sadness deep in his eyes. “Un leopardo puede no cambios sus lugares, Murdoch.” (A leopard can’t change its spots, Murdoch.) He reverts to Spanish, the language he is most comfortable with when he feels vulnerable.
“Usted no es un animal, hijo. Usted es un chico, mi chico.” (You are not an animal, son. You are a boy, my boy.) I whisper the words, pulling him close; and feel him leaning into me, a slight tremor coming.
He’s laughing; a soft teasing laughter and he gives me a half-hearted shove. “I ain’t no fuckin’ boy, Old Man.” The laughter is in his voice; his words.
I wish I knew a third language, so I could count to ten in that one as well. Instead, I smack him on his unprotected rear-end before letting him go. “As I said before, John. We can continue this discussion in the barn. Is that what you want?” I ask the question once more, trying to sound firm.
The head dips again, his hair falling across his eyes, but I see the smile. Taking a deep breath, he massages his rump with his right hand. “No, Sir. Not any time soon, anyway.
“I’m sorry, Pa.”
Oh, that’s a good one.
“About the gettin’ drunk and the fightin’.”
I can see him counting with his fingers as he drums them against his thigh.
“And for bein’ late for meals, and runnin’ Barranca full out when I come into the yard. For the cussin’.”
His brow furrows, and he chews a little on his bottom lip; on the opposite side of where the cut is.
“Oh, yeah. And for not doin’ the chores.” He’s quiet a moment. “‘S’pose there’s some consequences for all of that; ‘sides the whuppin’.”
I decide now is a perfect time for a before dinner scotch. “Yes, John.” I recognize the hopeful look on his face as he swings his gaze towards the bottle of tequila next to the Talisker’s. “And no, you may not have a drink.” I watch him out of the corner of my eye.
“An’ the other consequences?” he asks; already having figured out the first one.
“I expect you to catch up on your forgotten chores; which is going to occupy almost as much time as the extra work you’ll be doing while you reflect on you recent behavior in town.” I nod toward my desk, and he visibly winces as he spies the stack of ledgers. “And, John, you are going to reimburse me for the fines and the damages I’ve paid. Which means you are not only going to be working very close to home -- to me -- you are also going to spend the next few months working for free.”
Although my youngest has, in the past, made it a habit to ask for small advances against his wages; he has never put himself in a position where he was totally in hock for the full amount. Until now.
No money; no trips to town. No Saturday night frolics with the ladies.
He’s begins to pace. “Jesus, Murdoch…”
My right eyebrow arches, and he stops. “And you are going to apologize to Maria and Teresa.”
I can see his nose twitching. I’m certain it’s the smells coming from the kitchen.
“Yes, sir.” He’s thinking again. “Pa, about my pistol…”
Brass cajones, that’s what I’ve heard Val say about him. “No, John.” There is a genteel rap on the door; a welcome interruption. “It’s open!” When Scott opens the door, he pokes his head in, looking around as if he’s expecting to find bodies before stepping across the threshold. “Yes, son?”
He and Johnny exchange a long look; both of them smiling. “Maria asked me to tell you dinner is ready, sir.” With that, he steps into the room and crosses to where his brother is standing; their heads coming together, almost touching as they share a whispered greeting.
I set down my empty glass. “John, you have apologies to make,” I head toward the dining room, expecting both boys to follow. “Now would be as good a time as any.”
Behind me, I hear John’s almost contrite ‘Yes, sir’, and Scott’s stifled guffaw. They are whispering now, assuming I have reached that point in life where I am sufficiently old enough to be losing my hearing. They are wrong. I hear it all.
Scott: Did you apologize, little brother?
Johnny: Nothin’ to it, big brother. And he bought it, too!
Scott: And now you’re going to apologize to Maria and Teresa?
Johnny, shrugging: You know I’d do anything for chocolate cake, Scott! Where’s your head? Up your ass?
Scott, a bit of warning in his voice: Johnny…
I hear a scuffle as Johnny attempts to put his brother in a headlock.
Scott: Behave! You don’t want to chance another whuppin’, do you?
Johnny; laughing: That’ll be a cold day in Hell!
We arrive at the table, and I watch as my sons take their seats; Scott at my right, Johnny at my left, Teresa beside him. I decant the wine, pour a glass for myself; an equal measure for Scott and wait as Maria joins us to stand beside my chair. “Johnny,” I encourage, nodding at Teresa.
Johnny’s eyes go first to the three-tiered iced chocolate cake sitting in all its glory atop the sideboard on the near wall; his eyes lighting. Shoving back his chair, he stands up, bowing slightly at the waist; first to Teresa, and then to Maria. Reaching out, he takes Maria’s left hand in his right, straight faced as he bends forward and kisses her fingertips before standing upright. He is still holding her hand. “Soy muy arrepentido que usted oyó mi idioma malo, mamacita. ¿Me perdona?” (I'm very sorry you heard my bad language, little mother. Forgive me?)
I raise my hand to my face, trying to control the smile as well as to stop the words needed to correct him for his cheekiness. I’m very sorry you heard my bad language…. Doesn’t the woman comprehend he has voiced absolutely no remorse for using that bad language; only her carelessness in overhearing it?
Obviously not. Maria moves forward, giving Johnny a big hug as she smoothes his hair and then pats his cheek. She thanks him for the apology, and scurries back into the kitchen, raving about her wonderful boy, his impeccable manners and his innocent heart.
Johnny turns to wink at Teresa, his voice whisper soft. “Y usted, también, Teresa. ¿Me perdona?” (And you, too, Teresa. Forgive me?)
I watch as he lowers his head, just a bit, his chin not quite touching his chest; and he is smiling that shy, little smile that appears so innocent. The blue eyes, however, are dancing and are neither shy nor innocent. The boy is working yet another con. Am I the only one to see it?
Teresa’s smile is radiant; full of forgiveness for her brother. “Of course, Johnny! I know you didn’t mean it!” She fairly jumps out of her chair to give him a hug and a quick kiss on his proffered cheek. He returns the hug and the kiss, and helps her back into her chair; another small bow in her direction as he sits down.
I look over at Scott and watch as he rolls his eyes in disbelief; and I find myself wondering what, short of slaughtering Teresa’s entire clutch of laying hens (each of whom has a name), Johnny could do that she would not forgive him. I take a long drink of wine. It would end up being the hens fault; or Teresa’s for not keeping them properly penned.
Well, it has at lease improved her mood, and she actually manages to smile at me. I, however, know it is going to be some time before she forgives me. That is evident in the fact that all of the foods that have been prepared tonight are Johnny’s favorites, and not mine or Scott’s.
Even so, the meal progresses well, and I watch as my children share their usual banter. I have decided to keep my peace until dessert.
Finally, the remainders of our supper are being cleared away. I smile, watching as Teresa proudly goes to the side board; removes the glass cover from the cake plate, and carefully carries the thickly iced treasure to the table. As usual, she puts it down in front of me, and hands me the knife. Maria has placed the serving plates just to the left of my elbow, and Johnny is sitting fully erect with his fork at the ready. Ceremoniously, I cut the first slice; a generous portion, and place it on one of the plates. “Maria. I promised Jelly the next time you provided our table with one of your chocolate masterpieces, I’d have you bring him the very first piece. Do you mind? He wasn’t feeling well this morning, and he’s in his room.” A partial lie. He is in his room. However, he’s not speaking to me; thanks to Maria’s gossiping tongue.
It’s not only the Irish who have been blessed with a smooth tongue. We Scots can do our fair share of passing out the blarney. Now to get Teresa out of the room.
She smiles across at me. “Yes, Murdoch?”
“I think Johnny would enjoy this cake even more with a really cold glass of milk.”
Johnny’s eyes brighten, and he eagerly backs my suggestion. “Yeah, T’resa! A big glass of cold milk!” He measures with his outstretched arms, never letting go of his fork.
Ever eager to please her adopted brother, Teresa gets right up. The cold milk is kept in covered, ceramic jugs in the ice house; a good ten minute back and forth walk from the kitchen.
She leaves, and I cut another slice of cake, handing it to Scott. Johnny’s anticipation causes him to lick his lips; and he is twirling the fork between the fore-finger and thumb of his right hand. I finally cut his slice, and can see it’s not quite as thick as he expected. He actually sighs in disappointment as he takes the plate.
Now that Teresa and Maria are out of the room, there is no reason to be concerned about my next words. “Johnny.”
He is just about to take the first bite from his cake, and there is already chocolate frosting at the corner of his mouth; left over from licking his finger after poking it into the top layer.
His head comes up, the fork hovering. “Sir?”
“There are some things, son, you need to know.”
The fork has not moved, and his eyes are locked on my face. “What kind of things, Pa?” he asks warily.
Oh, yes, he’s worried now.
I take a bite of cake, savoring the taste. “Well, John, you need to know that I haven’t bought anything; you are going to make a proper apology to Teresa and Maria; I am completely aware of exactly what you would do for chocolate cake; your brother’s head is not up his ass; and I have it on excellent authority that Hell is about to get very, very cold.”
I’ve never seen his eyes so big, or so bright. It’s like looking into the face of a six year old that has just been caught with both hands in the cookie jar. And for once, he is actually speechless. It also appears he has lost his appetite. I watch as he pushes his plate away.
Scott, on the other hand, has attacked his cake with unusual gusto.
Life, just like chocolate cake, is good. I intend to enjoy it.