AN INTRODUCTION BY HALIMAH MARCUS
The most obvious thing to say about Colin Winnette’s “Mack!” is that it’s funny. Another is that it includes a useful cache of creative insults (“You’re a belt buckle”) and self-aggrandizements (“I am the United States Postal Service of Pregnancy”) in one of the best fight scenes ever written. (Would-be fighters, take note: if you can’t land a strong punch you can at least land a good zinger.)
In a certain light “Mack!” is a straightforward story of an enthusiastic and devoted family man on a trip to Dallas to buy some records. (After his wife reasonably protests, but doesn’t veto, him taking the day off work for the trip, he proclaims, “My wife is really something special. She’s a smart, special lady, and I goddamn love her to the max.”) In another light it’s about insincerity and denial, in yet another it’s about a psychotic break and fear of dying, and in another still it’s a story about me, the reader, being manipulated by a charismatic and withholding man, who is possibly a lunatic, and definitely has more information that I do. In other words, there’s an “unreliable narrator,” but to call him that would be far less accurate, and far less fun.
The funny parts of “Mack!” do double duty: they entertain, certainly, but they also serve as misdirection from the serious questions Winnette asks about commitment and fatherhood, making the whole story a kind of magic trick. You thought you had been looking at one thing, but meanwhile, something else entirely was really going on.
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by Colin Winnette
Our friend Jim’s lucky to be alive, and I told my son and my wife as much at dinner.
“I visited Jim in the hospital and I told him he was lucky to be alive,” I said. I was excited to get the story out and talking faster than usual.
“Swallow,” said my wife. “Chew and swallow.”
I did so then wiped my chin with a flourish.
“I visited Jim in the hospital,” I said, slowing it down with a little bit of exaggeration, “and I told him how lucky he was to be alive.”
“What did he say?” said my wife.
“That he wished the Lord would take him.”
My son laughed.
“It isn’t funny,” said my wife.
“She’s right,” I said. “It isn’t funny.”
“It’s just dumb,” said my son. “There’s no God.”
“Probably,” I said, “but what do you know about it? That man’s lost an arm to infection. He’s lost a daughter and a dog. And now he’s been closer to the afterlife than anyone at this table, and if he wants to say there’s a Lord and that he wants to join him at the great pearly gate, then let him. You can’t just laugh at a man in that situation.”
Everyone was quiet then. I had delivered something like knowledge and I hadn’t even meant to do it when I started out.
“You know what else?” I said.
“What?” said my wife.
“Jean from down the street is killing herself.”
“How’s that?” said my wife.
“She’s ignoring the doctors and letting her diabetes run wild.”
“She’s had a very hard life,” said my wife.
“Who hasn’t?” I said.
“Seriously,” said my son.
“Well, you haven’t, Jack,” I said. “You don’t know it, but you haven’t.”
“Yes, I have,” said Jack.
“I think I would know just a little more about it than you,” I said.
“You’d know more about me than me?” said Jack.
He was getting quick in an admirable way. He was much brighter than I was at his age.
“Damn, you’re so much brighter than I was at your age,” I told him. “You wouldn’t believe it, but you’re two, three times smarter than I was at your age. Maybe even older.”
“I believe it,” said Jack.
“Ha!” I said. “Just like the TV,” I said. “You should be a writer.”
“He wants to be a singer,” said my wife.
Jack didn’t say anything.
“Well, even better,” I said. “You could make real money doing that. Jack, we believe in you and support you one hundred percent! Life is good and full of promising opportunities.”
I stamped my foot and tossed a roll in the air. It landed in the bowl of potatoes.
“Ha!” I said.
“I get beat up,” said Jack.
“Boys get beat up!” I said.
“You didn’t get beat up,” said my wife.
“I was lucky!” I said. “Or unlucky. It might have done me some good. Jack, do you think it’s doing you good?”
“No,” he said. “It hurts.”
“Well, goddamn it then,” I said. “I’ll talk to your teachers and get it all straightened out.”
“No,” said Jack. “Don’t.”
“Well, what should I do then?” I said.
“Nothing,” said Jack. “It’s just the way things have to be.”
“Now that’s a pity party, Jack. Sitting there and feeling so sorry for yourself. Let’s rat on these punks and get them locked up. Or at the very least transferred. You have to stand up for yourself.”
“I have to learn to fight,” said Jack.
“Even better,” I said. “A fighting singer! You’ll be like… no one before you. Steven Seagal meets… Stephen Sondheim! We’ll be mega-rich.”
I was just fooling around with him, but the whole thing was getting me excited.
“I’ll sign you up for karate,” I said.
No one was paying much attention to me then. Jack was pressing his potato into thin rows using the back of his fork. My wife was pouring more iced tea. No one was getting excited in the right way.
“Or you can take him in the backyard and show him how to throw a punch or two after dinner,” said my wife.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll take Jack into the yard and show him some punches and he’ll be a real expert the next time two loaves of bread come looking to make a sandwich.”
Jack cracked a grin but didn’t say a word.
“Then I’ll hop in the car come morning and head to Dallas first thing. I’ll be back for supper.”
“Drive to Dallas and be back by supper,” I said, splitting a fresh roll.
“Because all the good record stores are in Dallas and it’s the time of the month that I like to buy records.”
“You say that every month and it’s always at a different time. I’ve been keeping track just so I could say so and not have you make me second guess myself.”
“I’m trying to live life and stay happy and true to myself,” I said. “I’m trying to keep everyone fed and clothed and keep myself sane. I’m even pushing for a little something more around here. Elation, maybe. Something worth singing about.” I winked at Jack. “Something worth celebrating. Let’s live the life, not just a life.”
I was hamming it up then. I was sort of tap dancing around the room. I’m not any good at that kind of movement, but I think they were getting the point.
“Well, what about work?” she said.
“I’m being spontaneous,” I said. “I’m taking the day off, breathing some life into these old domestic coals.”
“That’s well and good,” said my wife, “but it’s not sensible or responsible.”
My wife is really something special. She’s a smart, special lady, and I goddamn love her to the max.
My wife works at a hospital. She is a very skilled nurse but she does not like people. She does not like when people stop her in the hallway and ask her for pillows, or for more juice, or if she can turn up the heat. She is always on her way somewhere more important and when people interrupt her it throws everything off. Also, if she is not their nurse, there’s no way of knowing what their situation is and how she can or should help. She tells me all of this stuff while I wash the dishes and she does satellite work, wiping things down and putting this and that away, which is how we do it almost every night.
“You’re beautiful, babe!” I told her. And I meant it. She is top notch.
“I’m also very smart,” she said, “but I’m not good with people.”
It’s true. She’s got a temper. She does not always think of the right words. Neither do I, but that doesn’t slow me down much. My trick is: I work around them. If something’s not coming to mind, I think of a different way to say it. If you don’t slow down and hem and haw, no one knows the difference.
“You hem and haw a bit, honey,” I said. “That’s the only problem. You’re smart as a pinstripe suit, babe, and I love you.”
“I love you too,” she said, because we have a good relationship and we love each other.
After that I took my son out back and showed him how to throw a punch.
“You do it like this,” I said, and I showed him.
He wasn’t very good at it, at first.
I told him as much, and I showed him again.
He was a little better then, and then he got a lot better.
“Great work,” I said.
“Anything else?” he said.
“Yes. It’s going to hurt like hell the first time you do it,” I said. “I can’t teach you how to not make it hurt. It’s just going to hurt until you figure out how to land your fist in a way that works for you. Also, try not to hit anyone in the eyes or testicles. I’m all for you boys rough-housing and standing up for yourselves, but if you permanently damage someone, break a bone or a testicle, you’re going to have to live with that for the rest of your life. Happens all the time, too. Fighting’s no good,” I said.
He seemed happy enough and I had him high five me because I love that kid.
I woke up the next morning before anyone else was up and I took the keys out of the key dish and left without breakfast.
It was a beautiful day. Some people don’t like highways. Me, I like highways. I like looking out and seeing the hills and some cows and some tiny little fences. I like the power lines too. They’re not as bad as everyone says. They kind of lope along then perk up. They’re sort of incredible when you slow down and think about it. All that information moving from city to city. All that electricity. It can get a man all jazzed up and make him want to sing. I put some music on. I tapped my fingers on whatever would hold still long enough to get tapped.
There was a fly in the car and I just let him buzz.
The music cut out and a man started talking about the Lord. It tickled me because of our talking about Jim just the night before, so I listened. It’s all so much nonsense and carrying on, but that boy could really get after it. He was excitable and excited. You could hear the audience in the background, getting worked up into a fury. You could hear some of them shouting and some of them singing. Hallelujah.
I needed gas so I pulled over. This is a common problem when borrowing the wife’s car. She doesn’t take this kind of thing into account. She goes on about responsibility, but does not know the discrete pleasure of pulling into your driveway with a full tank at the end of the day. That’s a guarantee that you’re prepared for whatever may come to pass. That’s a special kind of satisfaction.
There was no one coming out to pump the gas, so I hopped out and did it myself. I’m a man who gets things done and I was in a hurry. Then I reached into my back pocket and boom. No wallet. Classic stuff. Classic me. Grabbed the keys and my glasses and left the wallet on the sill. Jack was probably digging through it for singles right about now. I was more than halfway to Dallas; it didn’t make sense to turn around. I put away the pump and climbed back into the station wagon. Then the guy came out. He was waving something and hollering for me to stop, but I drove on. They probably had cameras. They’d probably mail a bill. Let them mail a bill. That suddenly seemed like a perfectly reasonable way to take care of business and I got to wondering about why most businesses didn’t just do it that way. Do it like a toll bridge. Take a photo then send a bill.
I drove on and changed the preacher into some jazz. I don’t like jazz. Or, more precisely, I don’t like a jazz song. I like the sounds and some of the little parts they work up into there, but I can’t listen to it for very long. I’ve got my records coded and organized in a real specific way. Every album in the world has some real good parts and some not so good parts, so I mark up each of the ones I buy according to what’s good and what’s not so good. Then, when I listen, I can arrange things so all I hear is good part after good part after good part. Hot damn if that isn’t a fine way to listen to music. Pure frosting. Anyway, I changed the station after a bit and found some more good stuff to listen to. Everything was beautiful, outside and in.
My cellphone started ringing and I ignored it. I am a responsible driver. A big black bird was hanging low and still at the side of the road. How do they even do that? Just sit there all still like that, without moving forward much or moving backward much. It must be something to do with the wind. It’s beyond me.
I could see the buildings. That’s where I was headed. Right to the middle of those buildings that shot up and reflected everything on the horizon for miles. There’s one with a restaurant way at the top and it rotates so you can see the whole city from your seat.
When my phone finally stopped ringing I turned off the radio and listened to the sound of the car breaking the highway air. It was roaring along like the blood in your ears. I’ll be damned if I wasn’t ten minutes out of Dallas.
My girlfriend’s building is enormous. She’s on the eighth floor. She inherited the place after her aunt killed herself. The woman took some pills and drank a bottle of something then drove out to the lake in the dead of winter. It’s amazing she made it all that way — the lake is not a short drive from where she lived. She walked into the lake and drowned. Her husband was trying to leave her because she was depressed all of the time. She had lived a hard life. My girlfriend blames him for what her aunt did. I don’t blame him at all, but I understand why my girlfriend does. She needs to blame him. Her aunt’s best friend blames the doctors. Her mother? Blames God. So there’s that. Anyway, that’s how my girlfriend landed this nice apartment on the eighth floor of an enormous building. She’s very generous with that story. She gave me the full report on the day we met. She’s not at the top of the building, but it’s still a hell of a view. I feel special just to know her.
She’s got a valet too, and he hasn’t given me so much as a smirk when dealing with the station wagon. That’s just Dallas for you. Nobody in Dallas is a snob except for people who move there from out of town. At least that’s the way it seems. You show me a snob with a Dallas accent and I’ll eat my hat.
When I arrived, the doorman greeted me like I was an old friend. It was just one of those days.
“Hi,” he said, and I gave him a high five. I was in an incredibly good mood. There’s really no explaining it. Maybe it’s putting in a little extra time with Jack before coming here, or maybe it’s that my wife was such a good sport about the station wagon. No car means she’s walking to the bus and then taking the shuttle to work. It’s not a perfect arrangement, but it’s manageable.
“Allow me to phone ahead,” said the concierge.
“No, no,” I said, and I gave him a big smile.
“It’s no problem, sir,” he said, but I kept moving.
We were a legitimate couple and I could stop in whenever I liked, announced or no. She would be pleased. She would be thrilled. She would be ecstatic. My mood would spill over into hers and maybe we would make a real nice night of it.
She did not open the door but stepped into the hallway when I knocked.
I hugged her.
“What are you doing here?”
“Baby!” I said.
“It’s not a good time,” she said.
“We need to talk about something major,” she said.
“Anything!” I said.
She didn’t say anything. She touched her big toe to the point of a red diamond patterned into the hallway’s carpet.
“Let’s maybe go to dinner later and talk about it at dinner,” she said. “I’ll call you.”
“Why?” I said.
“Just because,” she said.
“No,” I said. “I was in a fine mood but now I’m anxious and getting upset.”
“Lower your voice,” she said.
“Tell me true,” I said.
“At dinner,” she said.
“No,” I said. “That doesn’t make sense.”
She flinched and I tried to give her a look that said, “Why’d you do that?” but she was looking down.
“I’m pregnant,” she said.
“You’re a liar,” I said.
“I am not,” she said.
I thought about it a moment.
“Well, we’ve got to kill it,” I said.
Then the door opened and a man stepped out. He was a fat man. I was much better looking than him, in general, but also much healthier looking and less tired and old.
“Who is this fat, old, tired man?” I said.
“Excuse me?” he said. “I’m a polite fellow and I’ve come out to protect my lady.”
Like his piss was all flower petals and beeswax.
“Your lady?!” I said.
“Lower your voice,” she said. “Let’s talk about it at dinner,” she said.
“This is my girlfriend,” I said.
“Your girlfriend?” she said.
“You are wearing a wedding band,” said the man.
“What’s a tired, fat old man know about it?” I said.
“Is this your boyfriend?” he said to her.
“Yes,” I said.
She shook her head.
I can’t say I blame her. She was in a tough spot.
“We’d like you to leave,” said the man, looking to my girlfriend who was looking anxious and then relieved when he looked at her and then anxious when she looked at me.
“Why did you look so relieved when he looked at you?” I said.
Neither of them said anything.
“Why did you look like that?” I said.
“You had better leave, friend,” said the man.
“I am not your friend,” I said.
“You had better leave regardless,” he said.
“No,” I said, “no, no, no, no, no.”
“Leave or I will escort you down,” he said.
“No,” I said.
“You better step inside, honey,” he said.
And she started to, so I said, “She is not your honey, fat old tired man, she is carrying my child. She is my girlfriend and the mother of my soon-to-be daughter.”
“Is that true?” he said.
She looked extraordinarily sad.
“I don’t know if it’s a girl,” she said. “And I only just met him.”
“Well, goddamn it,” he said. “But you’ve slept with this man?”
She nodded. She held up a finger.
“Are you leaving me?” he said.
She was still a moment. Then she shook her head.
“Are you leaving me?” I said.
I looked past the look she gave me and saw her heart, that she was still holding something for me there.
I started to calm down and then the fat old man said, “Lower your voice.”
“Lower your goddamn tone, you hog,” I said.
That shut him up. He went red.
“Am I the father?” he said.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I think so.”
“Oh goddamn it,” said the man.
“I am the father,” I said. “Have you seen my cock? Have you smelled my come? I am the father of every goddamn child in this whole metroplex. I am a beast, a hound, the United States Postal Service of Pregnancy, delivering children to every home with a numbered or lettered address. I am endlessly replenishing the youth of this earth. I am your father, and his father, and his father, and his father.” I slapped the walls on either side of me every time I said his father.
“You need to calm down,” said the man.
“We can find out who the father is,” she said.
“Are there more men than me and him?” said the man.
I lost it then. I cursed and rattled and shook the foundation of the building. I removed my shirt. I slapped the red burns of my palms into my chest and stomach.
Then the old man was pushing me.
“I’ve had enough,” he said.
So I calmed down.
“We’ve got to kill it,” I said.
“You’re not going to do anything,” he said. “Other than leave.”
“We already talked about it,” I said.
“Is that true?” he said.
She shook her head.
“I don’t want to kill it,” she said.
“And so you won’t,” he said. “I love you, dear, and I will support you in whatever decision you make.”
“It’s not your decision,” I said.
“Nor is it yours,” he said. He gripped me by the skin of my shoulder.
“If your seed is as weak as your grip,” I said, “there’s no question at all who the father is.”
He landed several punches before she was at his side and pulling him off me. I swung but nothing connected. I was bleeding and blinded from the blood. My glasses were all smashed and worthless. My whole brain was screaming with the pain of a fist to the nose. You can’t recover from that quickly, no matter how bad you want to. I started yelling and he raised his fists again so I quieted down.
“You son of a bitch this was supposed to go well,” I said.
“Well, you’re a god damned lunatic,” he said, “and I am trying to be civil.”
She was shushing him.
“I am trying to be civil, dear. I am trying.” Like he was the ghost of a southern gentleman.
She kept on.
I was gripping my face and trying to recover. I had a plan to plow into him. To plunge into his sore, sagging belly and take the bear down. That’s what he was. A big stupid bear. Declawed, losing teeth. Of course she wanted him to be the father. He smelled rich. He had oily hands. He had white hair and a gold tooth that was visible when he raised his voice. He was Dallas tan, gold with pink undertones.
“You stupid old bear,” I said. “You smashed my glasses. You stupid old worthless forest creature, circling around for a crotch to die in. You rat. You dog.”
“Am I rat, bear, or dog?” he bellowed. “Make up your mind, philanderer! You hayseed.”
“You’re a belt buckle,” I hollered.
She was holding his arms and standing behind him as if he were a weapon.
“I’m broke,” I said. “You broke my glasses. How am I supposed to get home? You’ve murdered me.”
He looked to her for only a moment before looking back at me.
“If it’s money you want,” he said, and he broke free of her grip to remove his wallet and started showering the carpet between us with twenties. “Here,” he said. “Here. Here. Here.”
“Stop,” she said.
“So now you can go,” he said.
“I won’t,” I said. “She’s carrying my child.”
“I’m not,” she said.
“You don’t know that,” I said.
“You’re a lunatic and not fit to be a father regardless,” he said. He put away his wallet.
“You’re dumb as a heel,” I said. “You don’t know anything about anyone. I have a beautiful boy named Jack and I taught him how to hit harder than you, you outbreak. That woman will take you for everything you’ve got and abandon you without so much as a phone call. She’s got no love in her heart for anyone other than herself. She doesn’t know what devotion means. I am a devoted father and a husband and I am full of love, you handkerchief.”
“You are full of shit,” he said, just like in a movie. He began to slowly roll up his sleeves, too, just like in a movie. “This woman has been through more than anyone should ever have to live through in one lifetime. She could speak for herself on the subject, but I get the feeling it would be wasted breath on a psychotic like yourself. We’d like you to leave and we’d like you not to concern yourself with the future of this child. It is not your child. She is not your girlfriend. This child has nothing to do with you.”
“I came here for a nice time with the woman I love,” I said, though I didn’t entirely mean it.
“I only just met you,” she said. “I…”
She wasn’t looking up.
“I want you to hear that now,” he said, “and say it back to me.”
“Look up,” I said.
“Not that,” he said.
“Look up and tell me what he just said,” I said. “Say all the stuff that he’s saying you’d say,” I said.
“She doesn’t have to,” he said.
“You don’t need to… concern yourself with this,” she said.
“Look up,” I said.
She looked up. There was nothing there for me.
“You don’t need to concern yourself with this,” she said. “I’m sorry. It’s just got nothing to do with you. I don’t know who you are. I don’t know how this happened. I hope you can understand that.”
“So now you can go,” he said.
The concierge and valet were pretty good at hiding their reactions to my face. The concierge asked if I needed a towel and the valet brought up the station wagon and kept it running while I wiped off a bit. I was headed home and it was hardly afternoon. I used some of the hallway money to buy a pricey sub at a little sandwich shop next to the record store. It was like eating a sponge. But I knew it wasn’t the sandwich’s fault. You can’t taste a sandwich when you’ve just been hit in the nose. These sandwiches are normally great sandwiches.
I didn’t put much thought into the records I bought, but I knew they were good. I’d read about them. It was a real stinger to hear all I’d heard, and to be bleeding like I was. It’s true we hadn’t known each other long, but we’d known each other well. We’d ate lobster and stayed up late drinking champagne. I’d put my finger in her ass — not in a gross way but in a tender kind of exploratory way. She didn’t have any smell at all. She dropped a champagne glass over the balcony and it shattered and nobody got hurt. It was just this little smacking sound that was there for us and nobody else in the world.
I drove on and didn’t look out the windows much except for straight ahead. I didn’t turn on the radio. I didn’t tap my fingers. I could hear the edges of the paper bag that held the records jerking around in the wind in the back seat. I spotted the gas station coming up, so I exited and pulled up to the pumps. No one was coming to pump for me, so I backed up and drove over the hose again. Then I did it again. And again. Finally the old timer from before came out and I handed him what was left of the fat man’s twenties.
“That’s more than enough for a tank,” he said.
“It’s fine,” I said.
“They’re covered in blood,” he said.
“I’m bleeding,” I said.
“I guess you are,” he said.
“Do you remember me from before?” I said.
I drove on and felt terrible. I got back into town and drove around some more. Everyone was at work. All the kids were at school. My wife was off being a nurse, getting someone a pillow or some juice, drawing some blood or holding her fingers to a wound or doing something more important. In an hour or two Jack would be out of school and I could be there waiting for him when he got home. I felt like I was about to pop so I pulled over somewhere and put on a sad song and cried for a little bit, but it hurt so damn much that I had to quit. Never get hit in the face, if you can avoid it.
Finally, I drove home and parked and pulled myself over to the steps leading up to the house and waited. Jack was late getting home, but not by much. He was all red faced and shitty-looking.
“What the hell?” I said.
“What the hell yourself, Dad?” he said.
“Oh yeah,” I said, wiping my nose.
“I was in a fight,” I said.
“Oh,” he said. He sat next to me on the step. “Me too.”
“Did you win?” I said.
He didn’t say anything.
“It’s okay,” I said, and I was real fucking sweet about it.
He shook his head.
“Yeah,” I said. “But it was messy.”
“I hit him, though,” he said. “I got him good.”
“Yeah.” He smiled.
“Did it hurt?” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “It really hurt.”
“Well, hot damn,” I said, “if I wasn’t right about that.”