The slide show began.
“Pretty girl,” the captain said. His subordinates murmured in unison, a low, distant thunder of agreement. “For a hippie,” he added, and they responded in kind.
“Her stupid boyfriend,” he continued, moving on to the next slide. “Note the slogan on the T-shirt.”
There was a brief silence. It took time to read it: “Who made you God?”
The grownups wriggled in their seats like addled toddlers. Their shifty-eyed silence became sudden laughter at the following slide.
“I guess we answered his question,” Benton said. As usual, his comrades agreed. They admired Benton. He’d be giving the orders soon.
The captain continued. “Here’s one with no face.” A masked anarchist, all eyes and bandana, raised a finger in the air. The officers feigned sleep, complete with Bert and Ernie snores.
“Wait. Here’s one with no face.” The same kid, his eyes now shut tight, his visage bloody from club blows. That got a chuckle. Someone said something about a new use for the bandana. Benton just nodded. He only laughed when he could do nothing else.
Beers were opened. Some were shared. They were a brotherhood, even the sisters.
The next slide was met with heavy breathing usually reserved for strippers or three-point shots. Benton, the conquering hero astride his black horse, grimaced at a small, cowering group of protesters. They couldn’t see Benton’s eyes or even their own, terror-stricken faces in the reflection of his Aviators. They saw the club, though. Its heft, backed by Benton’s rage, was headed home.
“There’s your boy,” the captain said, to great applause.
“Sorry, no encores tonight,” Benton said, smiling. “For the record, though, I did it my way.”
He posed for several photos that night. He grimaced only by request.
Beth had been gone for three months. She had allowed Ricky to choose between her and his father. This afternoon, Ricky wished he had chosen more wisely. His father stood behind him, across the room. Although Ricky was not allowed to turn around, he knew his father was removing his belt.
“I had to.”
“I had to, father.”
“I told my class that my dad was a hero. You put ’em away. The bad guys, I mean.”
Benton listened. He kept his eyes on the back of his son’s head. Ricky’s hair was black, like his mother’s. Benton knew he wouldn’t turn around. He would stand and explain and — eventually — listen. With assistance, of course.
“Donny Butler said I was a liar, dad. He said you were a bad guy.”
“So what did you do?”
Ricky’s fingertips smudged sweat and dirt around in his palms.
“I won’t punish you for being honest. You hit him?”
“I hit him back.”
“He didn’t hit you first.”
Benton stood there a moment, staring into his son’s hair. He let the belt slip from his fingers.
“You are excused,” he finally said. His son left.
Benton sat on the edge of his little boy’s bed and laughed.