My dad has hated me for as long as I can remember.
That’s a pretty sweeping statement, and I know how phony it sounds. It sounds petulant and really fantastic-the kind of weapon kids always use when the old man won’t come across with the car for your heavy date at the drive-in with Peggy Sue or when he tells you that if you flunk world history the second time through he’s going to beat the living hell out of you. In this bright day and age when everybody thinks psychology is God’s gift to the poor old anally fixated human race and even the president of the United States pops a trank before dinner, it’s really a good way to get rid of those Old Testament guilts that keep creeping up our throats like the aftertaste of a bad meal we overate. If you say your father hated you as a kid, you can go out and flash the neighborhood, commit rape, or burn down the Knights of Pythias bingo parlor and still cop a plea.
But it also means that no one will believe you if it’s true. You’re the little boy that cried wolf. And for me it is true. Oh, nothing really stunning until after the Carlson thing. I don’t think Dad himself really knew it until then. Even if you could dig to the very bottom of his motives, he’d probably say-at the most-that he was hating me for my own good.
Metaphor time in the old corral: To Dad, life was like a precious antique car. Because it is both precious and irreplaceable, you keep it immaculate and in perfect running order. Once a year you take it to the local Old Car Show. No grease is ever allowed to foul the gasoline, no sludge to find its way into the carb, no bolt to loosen on the driveshaft. It must be tuned, oiled, and greased every thousand miles, and you have to wax it every Sunday, just before the pro game on TV. My dad’s motto: Keep It Tight and Keep It Right. And if a bird shits on your windshield, you wipe it off before it can dry there.
That was Dad’s life, and I was the birdshit on his windshield.
He was a big, quiet man with sandy hair, a complexion that burned easily, and a face that had a vague-but not unpleasant-touch of the simian. In the summertime he always looked angry, with his face sunburned red and his eyes peering belligerently out at you like pale glints of water. Later, after I was ten, he was transferred to Boston and we saw him only on weekends, but before that he was stationed in Portland, and as far as I was concerned, he was like any other nine-to-five father, except that his shirt was khaki instead of white, and his tie was always black.
It says in the Bible that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons, and that may be true. But I could also add that the sins of other fathers’ sons were visited on me. Being a recruiting chief was very tough on Dad, and I often thought he would have been much happier stationed out to sea-not to mention how much happier I would have been. For him it was like having to go around and see other people’s priceless antique cars driven to rack and ruin, mud-splattered, rust-eaten. He in ducted high-school Romeos leaving their pregnant Juliets behind them. He in ducted men who didn’t know what they were getting into and men who only cared about what they were getting out of. He got the sullen young men who had been made to choose between a bang in the Navy and a bang in South Portland Training and Correction. He got scared bookkeepers who had turned up 1-A and would have done anything to keep away from the gooks in Nam, who were just then beginning their long-running special on Pickled Penis of American Grunt. And he got the slack jawed dropouts who had to be coached before they could sign their own names and had IQs to match their hat sizes.
And there was me, right there at home, with some budding characteristics attributable to all of the above. Quite a challenge there. And you have to know that he didn’t hate me just because I was there; he hated me because he was unequal to the challenge. He might have been if I hadn’t been more my mother’s child than his, and if my mother and I hadn’t both known that. He called me a mamma’s boy. Maybe I was.
One day in the fall of 1962 I took it into my head to throw rocks at the storm windows Dad was getting ready to put on. It was early October, a Saturday, and Dad was going at it the way he went at everything, with a step-by-step precision that precluded all error and waste.
First he got all the windows out of the garage (newly painted the spring before, green to match the house trim) and lined them up carefully against the house, one beside each window. I can see him, tall and sunburned and angry-looking, even under the cool October sun, in the vintage October air, which was as cool as kisses. October is such a fine month.
I was sitting on the bottom step of the front porch, playing Quiet and watching him. Every now and then a car would blip by going up Route 9 toward Winsor or down 9 toward Harlow or Freeport. Mom was inside, playing the piano. Something minor-Bach, I think. But then, whatever Mother played usually sounded like Bach. The wind tugged and pushed it, now bringing it to me, now carrying it away. Whenever I hear that piece now, I think about that day. Bach Fugue for Storm Windows in A Minor.
I sat and played Quiet. A 1956 Ford with an out-of-state license plate went by. Up here to shoot partridge and pheasant, probably. A robin landed by the elm tree that threw shadows on my bedroom wall at night, and pecked through the fallen leaves for a worm. My mother played on, right hand rippling the melody, left hand counterpointing it. Mother could play wonderful boogie-woogie when the urge struck her, but it didn’t often. She just didn’t like it, and it was probably just as well. Even her boogies sounded like Bach wrote them.
All at once it occurred to me how wonderful it would be to break all those storm windows. To break them one by one; the upper panes, and then the lower ones.
You might think it was a piece of revenge, conscious or unconscious, a way to get back at the spit-and-polish, all-hands-on-deck old man. But the truth is, I can’t remember putting my father in that particular picture at all. The day was fine and beautiful. I was four. It was a fine October day for breaking windows.
I got up and went out to the soft shoulder and began picking up stones. I was wearing short pants, and I stuffed stones into the front pockets until it must have looked like I was carrying ostrich eggs. Another car went by, and I waved. The driver waved back. The woman beside him was holding a baby.
I went back across the lawn, took a stone out of my pocket, and threw it at the storm window beside the living-room window. I threw it as hard as I could. I missed. I took out another rock, and this time I moved right up on top of that window. A little chill went through my mind, disturbing my thoughts for a tiny moment. I couldn’t miss. And didn’t.
I went right around the house breaking windows. First the living-room window, then the music-room window. It was propped up against the brick side of the house, and after I broke it I looked in at Mom, playing the piano. She was wearing a sheer blue slip. When she saw me peering in, she jumped a little and hit a sour note, then she gave me a big sweet smile and went on playing. You can see how it was. She hadn’t even heard me break the window.
Funny, in a way-there was no sense of doing anything wrong, just of doing something pleasurable. A little kid’s selective perception is a strange thing; if the windows had been fastened on, I never would have dreamed of breaking them.
I was regarding the last window, the one outside the den, when a hand fell on my shoulder and turned me around. It was my father. He was mad. I hadn’t ever seen him so mad. His eyes were big, and he was biting his tongue between his teeth as if he were having a fit. I cried out, he scared me so bad. It was like your mother coming to the breakfast table with a Halloween mask on.
He picked me up in both hands, right hand holding my legs at the ankles and left hand holding my left arm against my chest, and then he threw me on the ground. It was hard-as hard as he could throw, I think. I lay there with all the breath out of me, staring up at the dismay and realization creeping over his face, dissolving the flash of his anger. I was unable to cry or speak or even move my diaphragm. There was a paralyzing pain in my chest and my crotch.
“I didn’t mean it,” he said, kneeling over me. “You all right? You okay, Chuck?” Chuck was what he called me when we were playing toss in the backyard.
My lungs operated in a spasmodic, lurching gasp. I opened my mouth and let out a huge, screaming bray. The sound scared me, and the next scream was even louder. Tears turned everything to prisms. The sound of the piano stopped.
“You shouldn’t have broken those windows,” he said. Anger was replacing dismay. “Now, shut up. Be a man, for God’s sake.”
He jerked me roughly to my feet just as Mom flew around the comer of the house, still in her slip.
“He broke all the storm windows,” my father said. “Go put something on.”
“What’s the matter?” she cried. “Oh, Charlie, did you cut yourself? Where? Show me where!”
“He isn’t cut,” Dad said disgustedly. “He’s afraid he’s going to get licked. And he damned well is.”
I ran to my mother and pressed my face into her belly, feeling the soft, comforting silk of her slip, smelling her sweet smell. My whole head felt swollen and pulpy, like a turnip. My voice had turned into a cracked donkey bray. I closed my eyes tightly.
“What are you talking about, licking him? He’s purple! If you’ve hurt him, Carl…”
“He started to cry when he saw me coming, for Christ’s sake.”
The voices were coming from high above me, like amplified declarations from mountaintops.
“There’s a car coming,” he said. “Go inside, Rita.”
“Come on, love,” my mother said. “Smile for mummy. Big smile.” She pushed me away from her stomach and wiped tears from under my eyes. Have you ever had your mother wipe your tears away? About that the hack poets are right. It’s one of life’s great experiences, right up there with your first ball game and your first wet dream. “There, honey, there. Daddy didn’t mean to be cross.”
“That was Sam Castinguay and his wife,” my father said. “Now you’ve given that motor-mouth something to talk about. I hope-”
“Come on, Charlie,” she said, taking my hand. “We’ll have chocolate. In my sewing room.”
“The hell you will,” Dad said curtly. I looked back at him. His fists were clenched angrily as he stood in front of the one window he had saved. “He’ll just puke it up when I whale the tar out of him.”
“You’ll whale no tar out of anyone,” she said. “You’ve scared him half to death already…”
Then he was over to her, not minding her slip anymore, or Sam and his wife. He grabbed her shoulder and pointed to the jagged kitchen storm window. “Look! Look!
I cringed against her hip, and she wrenched her shoulder away. White fingermarks stood out on her flesh for a moment and then filled in red.
“Go inside,” she said calmly. “You’re being quite foolish, Carl.”
“I’m going to-”
“Don’t tell me what you’ll do!” she shouted suddenly, advancing on him. He flinched away instinctively. “Go inside! You’ve done enough damage! Go inside! Go find some of your friends and have drinks! Go anywhere!
I began to cry again, and shrank away from them both. For a moment I stood between, tottering, and then my mother gathered me up. It’s all right, honey, she was saying, but I was watching my father, who had turned and was stomping away like a surly little boy. It wasn’t until then, until I had seen with what practiced and dreadful ease he had been banished, that I began to dare to hate him back.
While my mother and I were having cocoa in her sewing room, I told her how Dad had thrown me on the ground. I told her Dad had lied.
It made me feel quite wonderful and strong.