Recently, I was asked a question and, in pondering the answer, I was suddenly overtaken by the memory of that day. It came upon me like a hungry tiger, tearing me to shreds and leaving a disemboweled lump of meat where, only moments before, was a thinking, feeling, functioning man.
Cotton Candy. The smell of it is floating through the air and sweetening each breath. This, in no small part, is making the day better. What else could I ask for? Not only did I get to ride The Bullitt this year (a big kid ride if there ever was one) but to walk in the parade too! I am eight years old, and my Father and a group of his “friends” (other men who lived their lives in the bottom of a bottle) are members of a Veteran’s group for people who saw combat in Vietnam. They have been asked to bring their families to walk in this year’s parade during the regional Franco-American festival.
We have known about this for weeks, and I hardly slept last night. We each wear a little t-shirt with the logo of the Veteran’s group on the front. I couldn’t be more proud. Some of us have little flags, and others pass out bumper stickers, but we are all having fun. There is something about everyone looking at you, waving, and just generally having a good time that puts a smile on my soul. Next, I’ll run for Senate and become an Astronaut. I am on top of the world.
Now, we are being addressed by the Governor of Maine. He is speaking of things I can’t and have no interest in understanding. I have better things to think about at my age: baseball cards, my next birthday, how to stop that stupid girl at school from pulling my hair every day. I start to imagine pushing her down the next time she does. My imagination runs wild while the speech continues. I wish Knight Rider would come out next. That would make this day complete.
In the middle of my fanciful daydreaming, my Father taps me on the shoulder and says, “Let’s go.” I don’t know where we are going, but I have little time to ask before he starts walking.
Walking with him is always hard. He moves with fast, long strides that eat up the ground in front of him in big gulps. Today is especially hard because there are people everywhere, milling around lazily, languidly looking at the trinkets being sold by the vendors and watching the children on the Merry-Go-Round. I am small and not exactly built to push my way through a crowd.
We walk only a few short blocks when we come to this house. It looks like every other apartment house in Lewiston: run down and begging for paint, sheets in more of the windows than the shades that are popular now. Huge chunks of the asbestos siding are gone, wasted by the years of harsh winters and its bitter cold. In front of the apartment is a bicycle, missing both tires, and its chain has discolored the concrete of the sidewalk from years of sitting there, rusting. The body of the house is yellow with a dark brown on the windows and the one door that once had glass in the top third of it. A condemned sign wouldn’t look out of place here.
My Father knocks on the first door we come across after entering the building. We hear a yell from inside, and we enter. I already know what is in store for the rest of the day. I can smell the distinct odor of old beer that has been sitting in the can and getting hot and stale, a smell that I loathe.
I see that the room holds the men from the veteran’s group, and I can also tell within moments that few, if any, had stayed as long as we did after the parade. The slurring of their words, apparent in their voices, says that they have had a few drinks already. Five, maybe six men and a woman that must be somebody’s wife.. They are sitting around a glass topped table, with legs made of what looks like bent pipe―four separate pieces, connected, shaped like a large squarish C. The walls are dirty from years of cigarette smoke and not being cleaned, making what should be white look as though it were river mud; yellowish brown with hints of green.
In the adjoining room there are two other kids, so my brother and I know that these are our friends for the day, and we run off to see what games are currently afoot. This room is the same color but much smaller and contains a couch which I am sure has come from the side of the road. The smell of cigarette smoke and body odor lingers everywhere, and I know it is safest to not be seen or heard for the next few hours—if we can help it.
The afternoon progresses like most of this nature; there are beer runs and arguments, the voices get louder as the hours pass by, and the thoughts become less coherent. I have been in this situation as often as I have been in a room with a window.
I am playing and not really paying attention when it happens. Why? To what end? Have I looked too much like I am having fun? Was there an instant where I looked too much like my mother? I do not know. What I do know is there isn’t a warning―no loud crash or even an instant where I can feel the malevolence building. One second, I am playing happily, waiting for word to get ready for the few miles home with my Father weaving on the sidewalk, and the next there is a hand on the back of my neck, and it is squeezing. Hard.
I instinctively try to duck and run, but it’s too late. I have been caught unawares, and the fear grips me like a blanket wrapped around me in a restless sleep, getting tighter with each attempt at escape.
“Come ‘ere, I wan-na show you summten.” His breath hits me in the face and my stomach turns, exacerbating the terror that has begun to settle inside me. It smells of cheap beer, Marlboro Reds, and the not unfamiliar stench of hate. It’s a seething anger that I know well. He had had it rough, and I was ungrateful for all his sacrifices. Just a spoiled little brat that doesn’t know how to be a good little boy―stupid and too much of a sissy boy for his tastes, in need of a little mettle in my blood.
As I am being dragged across the floor, trying to wrestle myself from his grip and getting nowhere, nobody seems to notice. There is no apparent lull in the conversation. No people crying out for my Father to release me; nothing out of the ordinary going on here at all.
“If you don’t quit squirming, you little motherfucker…” The threat is left open, allowing me poetic license to finish as I see fit. The options that my brain offers are no less frightening than anything he would have managed.
Where, I don’t know, but from somewhere, a set of handcuffs appears. The metal ones, not exactly like the ones issued by the police, but not the cheap kind with a lever that will unlock them if you can manage to get your finger on it. He reaches down and seizes me by the wrist and clicks the first bracelet on me before I see what he has. The other people in the room have stopped talking. They have all noticed that something is happening and are transfixed by the spectacle of a man dragging his son across the room. They watch, fascinated as it unfolds, rubberneckers to the car wreck that is in front of them.
Before he clicks the other bracelet in place, he slides it under the leg of the table so my wrists are close together. Had he been compassionate and put the other bracelet around the leg, I would have had some freedom to move. However, he is desperate to blame someone or something for the ruin that is his existence, and it is my turn. Again.
My struggles to free myself prove fruitless very quickly, and I start to cry. Not a whining wail or a screech―just tears, silent and accusing, dripping from my chin, streaming down my face and washing streaks of red into the pale color of my face.
“Whassamatter, crybaby?” he asks, bringing laughter from the other men in the room. I am too young to tell if this is uncomfortable laughter, or if the hate has spread to the others through osmosis.
I get tired fast, and my efforts to free myself start coming in spurts. I sit and try to find a comfortable way to position myself in order to rest between the attempts to free myself. I try everything. Picking up the table. Pulling helplessly against the pipe. I am just too small and weak to get anything accomplished. My father insults me and pushes me down with his foot while the other men laugh at his words and even have a chuckle or two when confronted with my tears. It always makes these types of men feel better to see someone suffer and writhe in pain. It makes them forget that they are miserable human beings, each lost in their own tragedy.
After I have been sufficiently humiliated and defeated, I become boring, and they lose interest. They resume the conversation as though I am not even there. The only woman waits until it is obvious that she will suffer no ill will for doing so, and gets up to find the keys. I have been under this glass table for almost an hour, and the men are no longer even glancing through the glass to get a look at the kid trapped down there. The woman comes back with a bobby-pin, because the keys are nowhere to be found. She mutters something about how mean they all are. Her comment is greeted with some vulgarity and a warning to mind her business lest she find herself locked there in my stead.
My wrists begin hurting from all the pulling and moving about, red and scraped from the cheap metal of the handcuffs. My shoulders are burning from the struggle with my father as well as the exercise of trying to lift the table.
The woman manages to free one hand and looks at me with what little compassion a woman resigned to such a life can muster. She whispers, “Go in the other room, sweetie, and I’ll try to get the other one.”
I run into the living room, where I was playing so quietly only an hour before. There will be no more playing for me. Not today. Not for a few days. Once again, I have been reminded of my station in life and the reality of it all.
The woman comes in behind me and eventually does release me from the other bracelet of the cuffs. It takes her a few minutes, and the men start demanding she forget it, do it later. Eventually, she gets tired of their remarks and risks their wrath by saying something back. I do not hear it against the thunder in my eardrums that is my heartbeat. I internally beg her to stop, scared that her mouth will make this day worse for me.
I watch as she walks away after freeing me from the second bracelet. She sets the handcuffs on the table and grabs the beer she left there to help me. She sits down and tries to steer the conversation away from herself by saying something light and funny.
I sit on the couch, scared to move for fear of being noticed again. The tears are slowing down now, but still trickle down my face as if they’re not sure I am finished needing them, each one releasing more of the emotions that are holding me motionless―washing away the pity and the anger that consumes me.
This time, when it happens, I hear his chair. It drags across the floor ever so briefly. It sounds like nails on a chalkboard, not fingernails, but nails. I am afraid to hope he is going to the bathroom. Too frightened to turn my whole head and watch him, I try to use my peripherals to see―but the question is answered when I hear the clink of the handcuffs as he picks them up. I try to make myself smaller. Try to climb into the couch as if I were really the cockroach he makes me feel like.
The tears start afresh as his shadow comes near me. This time, the sobs overtake me. They are so powerful and deep, the world swims around the edges from oxygen deficiency. I do not fight him this time. Years of life with him have taught me to know that I am better off not resisting him too often. It doesn’t matter, though; his grip is a vice around my wrist and the nape of my neck.
He is saying something that I can’t hear. The anxiety and fear have deafened me to anything other than my thoughts. I wonder why he hates me; why his love always hurts. What I do hear, though, is the click of those handcuffs as he starts putting them on me again. Snatching me around like a doll to put me under the table once again. This time, he puts them on so tight I think they are cutting into me.
I don’t hear the second one click. I hear my innocence being severed from my eight year old soul. I hear my sanity as it grips the edge of the cliff and struggles not to fall into the darkness that awaits it. I hear the sobs of a little boy that I once was as I enter a maturity I won’t catch up with for almost twenty years. One I still struggle to keep in front of me.
When I think about it now, I can’t remember how long I was locked there the second time or how I got out. I can’t remember going home, or whether my Father tried to be nice to me later. I can’t remember anything after the snap. If you ever ask me what I once wanted to be when I grew up, you will see me think about it, but I won’t remember. I can’t. I don’t remember ever wanting to grow up. I can’t remember anything about that child; who he was or what he dreamt about. He is a far away little boy that couldn’t be invisible. Couldn’t not look like his mother. Couldn’t find love in a world he never asked for and never wanted.
That little boy is still handcuffed to that table. Still struggles to free himself. He will never learn to hate himself, never think about death when he wakes up in the morning. He will never find the release of drugs and alcohol, or be mean to someone because that is how he thinks people are supposed to deal with disappointment. No, those are my crosses to bear and I left the innocence of that little boy behind me with those handcuffs. He still sobs in my heart late at night as I try to fall asleep and lures me into thinking I deserve the trials I’ve endured, but I’ve finally caught up to my maturity and am trying to leave that little boy’s pain in the past where it belongs.
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