Friday, May 16, 2008
Dodo, Chapter Three, The Trouble with Father
The first time I ever witnessed father truly break down was on a Saturday, only a few days after I'd moved back to Cuyahoga Falls.
It was late afternoon. I was making my way along the muddy alley way between the houses. Walking just behind me was F, my girlfriend. Her real name was Effie, but I never called her that, to me she was just F. Most other people knew her as 4F, a nickname Helmut had come up with, making fun of her flat feet. F preferred F too. She called me T in turn, like we were characters in some Kafka novel.
F and I had been out in the woods, wandering and talking, the way we often did when there was nothing else to do. I'd found a raccoon skull, separated from its scavenged body. I'd Insisted on keeping it, stuffing it into my coat pocket. All the way home we'd been arguing about it, the grey sky hanging heavy over us.
“It's not funny!” F exclaimed, pointedly remaining a few steps back. “You could get sick from it – rabies – or anthrax – or – or something even worse.”
I'd already explained, at length, how I'd read an article about germs and how our bodies are equipped to defend themselves against disease. It quoted a scientific survey where children raised on farms, in close contact with all sorts of animals, actually had fewer germ-born illnesses than children raised in sterile, suburban homes. “T,” I sighed, tired of the conversation. “I promise – I'll soak it in bleach – OK?”
She replied, making a sharp, little, laughing sound, a sound I knew well. It meant she had completely dismissed my side of the argument; I was a fool and only she could possibly hope to teach me the error of my ways, something she would take it upon herself to do, for she loved me and I had best be smart enough to realize it.
I was about to make things worse for myself, referring once again to the article, when I heard a loud noise, coming from behind the concrete garage that separated my parent's back garden from the neighbor's. I looked up and saw father's old, red wheelbarrow, suddenly sitting out in the middle of the tire-lined path ahead of us.
Just then, another noise erupted, from somewhere in the garden. It was like someone trying to flush a bucket of stones down a toilet, a horrible, grinding, scratching sound. F covered her ears as she came even with me, making a face. “God, T – make it stop!” I gestured helplessly, breaking into a stride, moving towards the wheelbarrow, fearing what was coming next, even as a shrieking cry filled the air.
A second later, father appeared, dressed in his black suit, the one he wore to church. He was bent at the waist, like a cloth doll on a shelf, as if he had no bones in his body. Stumbling this way, he headed straight for the barrow, throwing himself into it, sending it over into the mud, trapping himself partly underneath. Helmut would have said he looked like a turtle who'd grown too big for his shell. His shrieking now became a deep, guttural moaning.
I stopped, hearing F treading tentatively behind me. I was afraid to go any farther. Why did this have to happen now, I thought, feeling both frustrated and scared. I'd promised F it would be okay for us to stay at my parent's house, until we could find our own place. We'd only come because Helmut had split for parts unknown, leaving mother at father's mercy, something I knew I couldn't allow, even if it meant risking what I'd managed to build with F since we'd been living together in Canton.
Though Canton was only twenty-odd miles from Cuyahoga, F might as well have moved to another state. The only person she knew here was an aunt, Florence, who was essentially disowned by her family after shacking up with her brother-in-law. It wasn't F's father, fortunately, for F loved and admired her father. He was actually a pretty great guy. He'd found me a job, on my nineteenth birthday, the day after we'd moved into our apartment. I cleaned the used cars at his auto dealership, working the sponge, while Dutch, an older man who had a glass eye and swore like a teenager, held the hose.
That first night F and I lay in our bed, swimming in the strangeness of the new apartment, I quietly had a panic attack, something I hadn't experienced since I was in elementary school.
F was the first girl I'd ever shared a home with. Seeing her sleeping, so close to me, her dark bangs covering her eyes, her chest rising under the bed cover, I suddenly felt as if I'd made a terrible mistake, one that would shape the rest of my life. I felt trapped. Just thinking about it made my breath go shallow. I squeezed at the sheet beneath us, bunching it into my hands. My eyes now wide open, I stared up at the white ceiling, noticing the dull shadow of the tree outside our window, how its limbs seemed to reach across the room, spread like some giant, open jaw.
It was F, whispering, placing a shaking hand on my shoulder, bringing me out of my reverie, back to the present.
“T? Is your father – is he – okay?”
She said it as if she was referring to a car that had just died on the side of the highway. She didn't understand. How could she? I never spoke about father's trouble, not to anyone, not mother, not Helmut. We all knew he wasn't right, we weren't oblivious, we just simply refused to consider what really might be wrong. No one wanted to pinpoint the thing, the dark shape, the tumor that sat heavy amongst us, gnawing away at the family. When father was drinking that at least was something you could understand, a sickness other people had, a problem characters in stories showed us was treatable. The problem was father's trouble only presented itself when he'd stopped drinking. It was the ugly face behind the bottle, the nasty truth he drank to hide in the first place.
“Sure, he's just stressed – that's all,” I replied, instinctively putting my hand over F's, giving it a little squeeze. “It's not easy kicking booze.”
“People don't crawl under wheelbarrows because they can't drink!” she insisted, angrily.
“The hell they don't!” I said, trying to laugh, watching father's boot move along the edge of the wheelbarrow, his heel leaving a furrow in the mud. “Helmut once tossed his bicycle right through the front window, after mother found his whiskey and poured it all over the lawn.” Even as I said it, I felt a shudder trace my spine, realizing just how similar father and Helmut's behavior often seemed, something I hadn't ever truly considered until right that very moment.
Father's moaning now seemed to surround me, pressing at my ears, blanketing everything with a muted silence, a vibration locked somewhere inside me. It was a feeling I'd known since I was just a little boy, a terrible murmur that lived within me.
A memory suddenly entered my head, as if revealed by the white-gloved hands of some great magician. I was no more than three, sitting in father's lap as he shelled walnuts into a bowl he'd cradled between my legs. Helmut and Mother were outside, hanging the day's washing.
“Damn it!” father swore, cursing himself. I turned ever so slightly, fearful of what had happened, of what I'd see.
There he was, sucking his thumb, a dark trail of blood running across the palm of his hand. He'd cut himself with the little pen knife he'd been using to remove the walnuts from their hard shells.
A horrible look came to his face when he saw me staring. Transfixed with fear, I locked onto the blood, watching it move down about his wrist, terrified of meeting his eyes. I'd been placed on his lap with strict orders to keep still and not to ask questions, he was only tolerating my presence to appease mother. “You ever taste a grown man's blood, Totty Vogel?” he asked gruffly, taking his thumb from his mouth, his voice wet with spit. I quickly shook no, turning from him, fighting back warm tears. “About time a boy learned what a man's blood tastes like,” he said, gripping me behind the ear. Twisting my head to face him, he smiled, showing his uneven teeth, bringing the red thumb towards me.
F had gripped me about the waist and was pulling me back, away from the hulking shape now rising from the wheelbarrow, staggering towards us.
Clearing my head of the memories, I turned about, removing F's arms, mouthing the word “run”.