Twelve in the Black – by John Thornton Williams

My mother’s eyesight is going. You can tell by the way she butchers my hair, what’s left of it. I sit on a kitchen stool with a cape snapped around my neck, draped over my knees, and she talks about her overweight husky and the state of her kittens—how the mama cat wants to eat its babies.

Offhand, I mention shaving my head, ridding it of the fair ring that seems to have a mind of its own, that in the mornings makes me look like a friar. She warns that I’ll get cold, which means she’s afraid I’ll stop visiting.

*        *        *

The calls come from Jamaica at dinnertime, so the man on the other end is calling around four in the morning. The phone rings. She pushes back her chair and leaves her plastic-sectioned plate of leftover macaroni and green beans and sliced tomatoes, sliding her socked feet over the linoleum saying, “Hold on, I’m coming.”

To start, the man asks if she has any grandkids. He asks if she’d like to pay for their college. He says that trust funds sell for fifty cents on the dollar in Jamaica, that they just need time to mature. Does she have a spare hundred dollars she’d like to turn into two?

He keeps calling, and she keeps giving. He updates her from time to time on her account, which is off the books, under the table. Before long, she asks me for money to put in my boy’s birthday card. I ask if everything is okay. You know, money-wise. She says it’s great. That Junior is in for a heck of a surprise when he turns eighteen.

*        *        *

My wife’s brother, Lewis, is a police officer. I get his phone number from her address book while she’s cooking dinner. After we eat, she helps our boy with his homework and I call Lewis from the study phone.

“Hey Lewis. This is Jay.”


“Jay Lawson. Kelly’s husband.”

“Right. What’s the occasion, Jay?”

The office chair has wheels. I roll back and forth. “See, my mother’s been receiving some phone calls.”

He doesn’t seem terribly concerned. He says calls like this aren’t uncommon, that con artists in New Zealand, Mexico, Zimbabwe, purchase senior citizens’ information from phone banks. Then he asks if I own a firearm. He knows I don’t. We went to school together, and I gave him a hard time for ROTC. Then I started dating his sister.

“I don’t own one.”

“You really should. What, with all those subdivisions they’re putting in around your house.”

It occurs to me that I’ve never fired a gun, never even held one. “Right.”

“I’d be happy to take you shooting some time.”

I swivel the chair. Through the window, shadowed by the light from her porch, my mother chases a squirrel from her garden with a stick. “Maybe we can discuss all this in more detail.”

“Sure thing. For now, just tell your mom to quit taking the phone calls.”

“I’ll do that. Oh, and Lewis. Could we keep this between the two of us?”

*        *        *

Lewis met his wife only a couple years ago. They don’t have kids. They vacation in Maui. They tend a vineyard and sell the grapes to a winery. When I see them at Christmas or Easter, I wonder about all the sex they’re still having.

I’m to meet Lewis at his house and follow him to the gun range. I park my compact in his drive, and he yells at me when I step out, waves me to the back porch, which is screened in. He’s still wearing his uniform pants and belt—complete with handcuffs, mace, taser—and an undershirt, which is a size too tight.

“Long time, no see, Jay Bird,” he says.

From the upper step, he stands taller than me. I shake his hand, and he clasps my shoulder. “Thanks for talking with me about this whole thing.”

“Happy to help.”

He turns to the porch, and I inspect my shoulder, which he squeezed pretty hard.

Lewis sits at a farm table and motions me to the other side. Between us rests a flat black pistol and a box of bullets. “This here’s a Sig Sauer, forty-caliber, semi-automatic handgun. Standard issue.” He hefts it, mashes a lever. The clip drops out, and he catches it before it hits the table. “Now, this magazine holds fourteen rounds. The magazine’s ejected, so the gun’s not loaded, right?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Wrong. There’s a round left in the chamber.” He jerks back the slide and a slug pops out, clatters to the table. “You don’t account for what’s in the chamber, someone winds up shot. That’s why the first rule of shooting is never aim at something you don’t want to hit.”

“Listen, Lewis. I wonder if we could talk more about this situation with my mother.”

“Right. We’ll get there. First we got to go over this information before it gets dark.”

I pinch the stray slug between my fingers. “Aren’t there lights at the gun range?”

“Range closes at five on Fridays. We’re using the woods behind the house. Now, the second rule of shooting is that only one person is in control at a time. Who do you think that is?”

“The person with the gun, I guess.”

“That’s exactly wrong. When you’re shooting, you take orders from me. Clear?”

“Of course.”

“Don’t suppose you’ve ever loaded a magazine.” He tosses an extra clip my way and splits open the cardboard box of bullets. Brass rounds roll across the table. He tells me that in the army, he was required to load three magazines in forty-five seconds. I’m fairly sure he was never in the army—just ROTC—but I keep that to myself.

“The last rule of shooting,” he tells me, “is no horseplay. Any time you wave this thing around like a toy, we’re finished.”

I realize what a mistake I’ve made, and it makes me tired. He selects a packet of targets and a backpack by the door, and we start into the woods, my work shoes slipping down the muddy embankment.

*        *        *

Lewis tapes a target to a little tree at the foot of the ridge. He rummages through the backpack and produces two sets of noise cancelers that resemble the headsets you borrow at the library. With it clamped over my ears, Lewis sounds like he’s speaking underwater. I pull one earpiece away from my head and catch the end of his instruction.

“Fire all fourteen rounds.”

He hands me the pistol, which feels like a toy, then the full magazine. That’s where the heft is. I situate the headset, aim and squeeze the trigger. There’s nothing but an empty click.

“Pull back the slide,” he says. He sounds far away, which is nice. I turn, and he motions with his hands. Out of the fourteen rounds, eleven miss the target completely. The other three nick the bottom left corner, and Lewis measures them from the center by finger length. It takes multiple fingers.

He whistles in disbelief. “Scoot on up.”

I fire again, and the result is similar. He drops to a knee and reloads a magazine. I squat so as to keep my slacks clean and fumble with the bullets until he takes my clip and finishes it for me. Then he holds out his hand. “Let’s see what I can do with Old Faithful.”

I hand him the gun and step behind him, and he stands there, frozen.

“Who did I say was in charge at the range?” he asks.

“The person without the gun.”

“That’s right.”

I can’t help but grin when I tell him to fire all fourteen. Ten of his slash the black circle within the larger circle of the target. He pulls a pen from his pocket and marks them, frowning. Again, he hands me the pistol.

“Scoot closer. Closer. Drop to a knee.”

I examine the ground, choose a leafy spot. With my arms outstretched, the pistol barrel practically touches the target.

“I want twelve in the black,” he says.

I fire. At this range, there’s no telling what hits and misses. I fire another magazine, and then we’re out of bullets, for which I am thankful.

*        *        *

Back on the porch, we clean the gun. He breaks the thing apart, both hands working independent of each other and moving faster than I can follow. Then he rations me one piece at a time, and I scrub it with Q-tips and an oily cloth. When I finish, he inspects the piece and attacks it with a Q-tip of his own, then shows me what I missed.

“I’m sorry about your mom,” he says, squinting down the barrel, which, separated, looks impossibly thin.

“But you think everything is okay?”

“She’s fine. I’m just sorry it’s happening.” He shakes his head slowly, like he’s fighting off something in the air. He says that it’s fucked up, then fits the gun pieces together, and I watch him, trying to inventory the steps in my mind.

*        *        *

Weekday mornings I drive my boy to school, drop him off early before I tear across town to the high school, trying to make the first bell. He has a hard time getting up. Once, after I’ve already woken him and he’s fallen back to sleep, forearm across his brow, I rip away the covers and there it is, unmistakable: an erection pressing against his pajama pants. We recognize it at the same time, and my boy’s face falls. He rolls over on his pitched tent, and I turn to leave. Once the door is closed, I crack it and whisper, “We need to leave in four minutes.”

“Okay,” he says, his voice muffled by the pillow.

In the car, I know I have to say something. My boy sits with his hands in his lap, and there’s nothing on the radio.

“You know,” I say, drumming my fingers on the steering wheel, “what happened this morning is perfectly normal.”

He slouches in the seat. He looks out the window.

“It’s just something natural that happens to our bodies. It’s not your fault. Nothing you can do about it. You know, we should have a talk some time.”

He works at his fingernails in his lap. “That’s okay, Dad.”

One by one the idling cars waiting to turn into the middle school flick off their headlights as a pink sliver of sun crests the tree line. When the chain reaches our car, I follow in turn.

“There’s nothing wrong with it either,” I say. “Perfectly normal for someone your age. Or my age, for that matter. We’ll have a talk.”

“Dad, I’m fine,” he says, his voice equal parts aggravated and exasperated.

The cars aren’t moving.

*        *        *

My mother works like she doesn’t know she’s eighty-two. She drives a tractor that leaks power-steering fluid and steps among thousand-pound cattle, prodding them over fields and through fences. She pulls calves from their mothers by their forelegs, carrying on like her husband, my father, never passed.

There is one thing. She’s afraid of the chainsaw, so I run that for her.

She splits the logs.

*        *        *

One night, after my boy’s baseball game, I sit my mother down and give it to her straight, the way my father would have, the way I think she’ll want to hear it. You’ve been gypped, conned, had, taken to the cleaners. She leans back, troubled. Her eyes are somewhere else, like she’s checking her bases. Then a smile creeps across her face.

“He told me you’d say that.”

I spend the next half-hour convincing her that the man in Jamaica will not pay for my son’s education. That he’s using her money to eat jerk chicken and smoke pot, and whatever else people do on that island. For the first time in years, my mother snaps at me.

“How should you know? You’ve never even been out of the country.”

This is good. It means she knows I’m right. I tell her I spoke to Lewis about it, and she goes still. I remind her that Dad told me to care for her. My wrinkled and spotted mother looks like a pouty child. She pushes back her chair and says she has some vacuuming to do. I feel a twinge of guilt, but what I did was necessary, and now we can get on with our lives.

*        *        *

Tuesday nights, my wife makes tacos. I don’t like tacos. After we eat, she takes our boy to his pitching lesson, and I sit on the deck to grade stack of papers. It’s just getting dark. Streetlamps click on all at once in the neighborhood across the way. An aura of orange light glows over the treetops like the whole area is radioactive.

It’s a strange thing, to be in the middle of something before you realize what you’re doing. For a moment, after I’d crossed the patch of woods and pulled apart the fence and stepped through the barbed wire, I wasn’t sure how I’d gotten there.

The entire neighborhood runs up the foot of a little mountain, and a mansion at the top sits unfinished, sheets of plastic flapping in the wind. A couple dogs bark as I hike towards it, past houses with new grills on the porches, with hybrids in the drives.

I investigate the inside of the mansion, considering hallway angles, clearing corners like James Bond. Standing in what will be the living room, I breathe in drywall dust, smell the freshly poured foundation, the wall studs of treated pine. I sit in the doorway and dangle my legs where the porch stairs will go. My home is just through the woods, but I can’t see it for trees. My mother’s is farther back on our plot, its chimney just visible over the tree line. The lights are on in the neighborhood houses, and in the windows families eat dessert or play board games or watch movies. One couple slow-dances in their kitchen. A teenage girl laughs into the telephone. Or is she crying?

*        *        *

“Is Mr. Lawson available?”


“How’d you like to escape to the Bahamas?”

“I’m sorry?”

“I’m pleased to inform that you’ve won a free vacation in our secret shopper sweepstakes.”

“I think you have the wrong number.”

“A cruise to the Bahamas, all expenses paid.”

“I’m not interested.”

“Aboard Elation, the flagship of our fleet.”

“No, thank you.”

*        *        *

We eat lunch at my mother’s house on Christmas Eve. Something isn’t right. She won’t meet anyone’s eyes, and she hacks up the ham all wrong. She just bustles around the food and watches her plate while she chews. She answers my wife’s questions quietly and doesn’t so much as acknowledge my boy. We eat dessert, and she says she’s tired, so we leave.

The next day, she runs out of gas in the driveway. My boy opens an empty Christmas card, and I schedule another haircut.

*        *        *

I pop the question before she even has the barber’s cape fixed around my neck. “Have your finances bounced back?” She fumbles with the cape buttons and smacks her lips in my ear. Her hands tremble, working the squirt bottle and comb. That comb can do some damage.

“Mother,” I say. “Tell me the truth.”

It takes a while to get it out of her. Turns out this motherfucker from Jamaica told her she’d been doing something illegal the whole time. Told her the FBI was tracing her, and the CIA was next, and the only way to keep them off her back is another $200 per month. She bloodies my scalp with the scissors, and though she curses under her breath each time I can’t help but entertain the possibility that she’s doing it on purpose. I tell her no one is after her, that she must stop taking calls from this man. That’s when I get it in the ear.

“You don’t know the first thing,” she says, her voice shrill.

But I’m already out of the chair, lumbering down the hall towards the bathroom. When I return, hands mashing tissue paper to different parts of my skull, she’s wiping the scissors on her handkerchief. She apologies for what she said and, while fidgeting with the collar of her turtleneck, she asks me to please stay out of the situation. This woman who subsists on devil’s food cakes and leftover potato salad says she’s getting along just fine, and she doesn’t want to risk the embarrassment. Towering over my mother in a barber’s cape, it occurs to me that she believes her savings will outlast her, and that she’s content with how little she has left.

*        *        *

“What can I do for you?”

“Looking for a Sig Sauer. Forty caliber. Standard issue.”

“Police pistol. You on the force?”

“No. My brother-in-law.”

“Have your permit?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good deal. Can I ask why you’re buying?”

“Protection, I guess.”

“Smart. Be right back, we’ll do some paperwork.”

*        *        *

My wife is in the bathtub. She’s shaving her legs—I can hear the scrape of the razor. I turn off the television in our bedroom. I press my cheek into the cool wood of the bathroom door and tell her, though I hadn’t planned to.


“Yeah?” She sounds far away.

“My mother is having some issues.”

“I can’t hear you.”

I try the doorknob. It’s locked.

She cuts the water. “What did you say?”

It’s so quiet I could whisper, and now I’m thankful for the door between us. “I said, my mother is having some problems.”

“Health problems?”

“Not exactly.”

I explain the situation, and for a second there’s only the scrape of a razor on her skin and the dripping faucet, and I’m afraid that she doesn’t believe me. But she does believe me. She suggests we call Lewis.

I don’t want to tell her I already did, so I just say, “I don’t think we should,” and try to channel my mother’s embarrassment, my embarrassment. There’s more quiet, and I wonder if she understands.

“This guy only calls at night, yeah?”

“I think so.”

“What if we started having her over for dinner? That way she’s away from the phone.”

Now I’m the one who’s quiet.

“It’s such a vile thing,” she says, “To take advantage of someone like that.”

And it is. But her solution is eloquent and simple, and I tell her it’s a good one, and with my fingernails I trace the wood grain in the door.

*        *        *

My mother is never late for dinner, and she’s never early, not even by a minute. She leaves her boots in the garage, muddy or not, and her socked feet whisk across the hardwood. Over a small plate of mostly starch she asks my boy about his day at school, and he tells her about a statistics quiz, or what the Thompson boy said at the lunch table. He always just tells me his day was fine. He may be lying to both of us.

My mother always cleans her plate. She asks to be excused and carries it to the sink, where she draws water and washes the dishes. The first few nights my wife and I told her she shouldn’t, but she ignored us, so now we ignore her too. Sometimes when she finishes we play crazy eights, but often we go our separate ways, to bed.

*        *        *

One evening after work I pull into the drive and find a taxi, yellow and foreign, idling before our garage. I park the compact behind it and stumble out of the driver’s seat, chasing a ratty little man who’s mounting the steps to our front door.

“Can I help you with something?” My wife is working late and my boy is inside, alone.

The man turns to face me. “Hunting a Sybil Lawson.”

“Wrong house. She’s next door.” I look up at him from the sidewalk. “Why would she call a cab?”

The man rocks back on his heels and drums his fingers against his belly. “She didn’t. Some guy called it in. Weird accent.”

I take the stairs two at a time and throw my shoulder against the door, which is locked. “Don’t you fucking move,” I say as I fumble with my keys.

“Something the matter?” he asks.

I get the door open and slam it shut and run to my bedroom. “Junior,” I yell.

My boy answers from his side of the house.

“Call the police.”

“Do what?”

“Call the police and stay inside.” I reach under my side of the mattress for the pistol. I fumble a few slugs into the magazine. The gun won’t fit in my pocket, so I jam it into my waistband like they do in the movies.

In the living room, my boy gawks at the phone like he’s forgotten how to use it. “Call them,” I say as I run out the door. The man is waiting exactly where I left him, stretching and yawning.

“Who the fuck are you?” I ask.

“Easy, partner. I’m a cab driver.”

“Get off my porch. Right now.” I grip the pistol under my shirttail.

The man squints at me. “I need to pick up Miss Sybil Lawson. You said she lives that way?”

“Stay your ass away from her. The police are on their way.”

“Police? What the hell for?”

“You know goddamn well. Who sent you?”

The man shakes his head. “How should I know?”

“Tell me.”

“This is crazy,” he says, and starts for his cab, and I pull the gun on him. He raises his hands as if to wave. “Whoa, partner. Put that shit away.”

“Tell me who sent you.”

“Look, buddy. Just take it easy.”

I notice my boy watching from the window. Just then, my wife pulls into the drive. The gun feels heavier than I remember. The man lowers his hands to his waist. Across the drive, my mother waves at all of us, her smile like plaster.

*        *        *

The police straighten out the legal stuff. It’s scary to have a gun pointed at you. The squad car and handcuffs come as a relief. They send the cabby on his way. Apparently it’s not uncommon for scam artists to send taxis as a scare tactic. Addresses on the Internet, and all that.

I didn’t do anything wrong. I was on my own property. The gun was legal. I fill out some paperwork and explain some things to my wide-eyed boy and everything to my cross-armed wife.

Mother comes over for dinner, and it’s like it never happened, only none of us talk except to answer her questions, which are about casserole ingredients and the weekend forecast. I walk her home and return to find my bedroom door shut, a pillow and blanket on the couch. Which seems reasonable.

I don’t sleep well on the couch. For a while I lie with my hands behind my head and listen to basketball on television, staring at the ceiling. When Dick Vitale’s voice grows tiresome, I cut it off and curl up, hands between my knees, eyes open, smelling the leather. In an hour or two or three—who really knows—footsteps slap in the kitchen. I peek over the back of the couch, and light from the refrigerator silhouettes my boy, drinking milk from the carton. I pad over to the cabinet and take the carton from him. I pour myself a glass and drain it and wipe my lip.

“I want to show you something,” I say.

“I don’t want to talk about the other morning.”

“We don’t have to. Put on some shoes.”

As we cross the yard, the frosty grass soaks through my slippers and dampens the hems of my pajama pants. We take the woods with our arms out for balance, crunching dead leaves and sticks, lunging over a rotten log. Through the trees I spot the moon, a shaded bulb behind the clouds. I separate the barbed wire for him to duck through, and he does the same for me.

Shoulder-to-shoulder, we climb the neighborhood hill. Fog cloaks the mountain before us. The peaks seem to float in the moonlight, suspended in the air. We reach the top, where the mansion now has a porch, steps. I motion for my son to sit. I squat down beside him and, against that backdrop, at the edge of the mist, I imagine that we are invisible. Across the mountain, cars buzz like moths up and down the freeway, but on this side the neighborhood is still and quiet. Beside my boy I point out the dark windows.

-1John Thornton Williams has studied Creative Writing at the University of Tennessee, Hollins University, and the University of Wyoming, where he is currently an MFA candidate. A finalist for Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers, he grew up on a cattle farm in Chattanooga. He likes to think that he’s an above average pool player.