There was no one reason why I started carrying the pipe wrench to school.
Now, even after all of this, I can’t isolate the major cause. My stomach was hurting all the time, and I used to imagine people were trying to pick fights with me even when they weren’t. I was afraid I might collapse during physical-education calisthenics, and wake up to see everybody around me in a ring, laughing and pointing… or maybe having a circle jerk. I wasn’t sleeping very well. I’d been having some goddamn funny dreams, and it scared me, because quite a few of them were wet dreams, and they weren’t the kind that you’re supposed to wake up after with a wet sheet. There was one where I was walking through the basement of an old castle that looked like something out of an old Universal Pictures movie. There was a coffin with the top up, and when I looked inside I saw my father with his hands crossed on his chest. He was neatly decked out-pun intended, I guess-in his dress Navy uniform, and there was a stake driven into his crotch. He opened his eyes and smiled at me. His teeth were fangs. In another one my mother was giving me an enema and I was begging her to hurry because Joe was outside waiting for me. Only, Joe was there, looking over her shoulder, and he had his hands on her breasts while she worked the little red rubber bulb that was pumping soapsuds into my ass. There were others, featuring a cast of thousands, but I don’t want to go into them. It was all Napoleon XIV stuff.
I found the pipe wrench in the garage, in an old toolbox. It wasn’t a very big piece, but there was a rust-clotted socket on one end. And it hefted heavy in my hand. It was winter then, and I used to wear a big bulky sweater to school every day. I have an aunt that sends me two of those every year, birthday and Christmas. She knits them, and they always come down below my hips. So I started to carry the pipe wrench in my back pocket. It went everyplace with me. If anyone ever noticed, they never said. For a little while, it evened things up, but not for long. There were days when I came home feeling like a guitar string that has been tuned five octaves past its proper position. On those days I’d say hi to Mom, then go upstairs and either weep or giggle into my pillow until it felt as if all my guts were going to blow up. That scared me. When you do things like that, you are ready for the loony bin.
The day that I almost killed Mr. Carlson was the third of March. It was raining, and the last of the snow was just trickling away in nasty little rivulets. I guess I don’t have to go into what happened, because most of you were there and saw it. I had the pipe wrench in my back pocket. Carlson called me up to do a problem on the board, and I’ve always hated that-I’m lousy in chemistry. It made me break out in a sweat every time I had to go up to that board.
It was something about weight-stress on an inclined plane, I forget just what, but I fucked it all up. I remember thinking he had his fucking gall, getting me up here in front of everybody to mess around with an inclined-plane deal, which was really a physics problem. He probably had it left over from his last class. And he started to make fun of me. He was asking me if I remembered what two and two made, if I’d ever heard of long division, wonderful invention, he said, ha-ha, a regular Henry Youngman. When I did it wrong for the third time he said, “Well, that’s just
I hit the back pocket with my hand, and the pipe wrench fell out. It hit the floor and clanged.
Mr. Carlson looked at it. “Now, just what is that?” he asked, and started to reach for it.
“Don’t touch it,” I said, and reached down and grabbed it for myself.
“Let me see it, Charlie.” He put his hand out for it.
I felt as if I were going in twelve different directions at once. Part of my mind was screaming at me-really, actually screaming, like a child in a dark room where there are horrible, grinning boogeymen.
“Don’t,” I said. And everybody was
“You can give it to me or you can give it to Mr. Denver,” he said.
And then a funny thing happened to me… except, when I think about it, it wasn’t funny at all. There must be a line in all of us, a very clear one, just like the line that divides the light side of a planet from the dark. I think they call that line the terminator. That’s a very good word for it. Because at one moment I was freaking out, and at the next I was as cool as a cucumber.
“I’ll give it to you, skinner,” I said, and thumped the socket end into my palm. “Where do you want it?”
He looked at me with his lips pursed. With those heavy tortoiseshell glasses he wore, he looked like some kind of bug. A very stupid kind. The thought made me smile. I thumped the business end of the wrench into my palm again.
“All right, Charlie,” he said. “Give that thing to me and then go up to the office. I’ll come up after class.”
“Eat shit,” I said, and swung the pipe wrench behind me. It thocked against the slate skin of the blackboard, and little chips flew out. There was yellow chalk dust on the socket end, but it didn’t seem any worse for the encounter. Mr. Carlson, on the other hand, winced as though it had been his mother I’d hit instead of some fucking torture-machine blackboard. It was quite an insight into his character, I can tell you. So I hit the blackboard again. And again.
“Charlie, I’ll see that you’re suspen-”
I turned around and began to whack away at the chalk ledge. I had already made a hell of a hole in the board itself; it wasn’t such a tough board at that, not once you had its number. Erasers and chalk fell on the floor, puffing up dust. I was just on the brink of realizing you could have anybody’s number if you held a big enough stick when Mr. Carlson grabbed me.
I turned around and hit him. Just once. There was a lot of blood. He fell on the floor, and his tortoiseshell glasses fell off and skated about eight feet. I think that’s what broke the spell, the sight of those glasses sliding across the chalk-dusty floor, leaving his face bare and defenseless, looking the way it must look when he was asleep. I dropped the pipe wrench on the floor and walked out without looking back. I went upstairs and told them what I had done.
Jerry Kesserling picked me up in a patrol car and they sent Mr. Carlson to Central Maine General Hospital, where an X ray showed that he had a hairline fracture just above the frontal lobe. I understand they picked four splinters of bone out of his brain. A few dozen more, and they could have put them together with airplane glue so they spelled ASSHOLE and given it to him for his birthday with my compliments.
There were conferences. Conferences with my father, with good old Tom, with Don Grace, and with every possible combination and permutation of the above. I conferenced with everybody but Mr. Fazio, the janitor. Through it all my father kept admirably calm-my mother would come out of the house and was on tranquilizers-but every now and then during these civilized conversations, he would turn an icy, speculative eye on me that I knew eventually we would be having our own conference. He could have killed me cheerfully with his bare hands. In a simpler time, he might have done it.
There was a very touching apology to a bandage-wrapped, black-eyed Mr. Carlson and his stony-eyed wife (“… distraught… haven’t been myself… sorrier than I can say…”), but I got no apology for being badgered in front of the chemistry class as I stood sweating at the blackboard with all the numbers looking like fifth-century Punic. No apology from Dicky Cable or Dana Collette. Or from your Friendly Neighborhood Creaking Thing who told me through tight lips on the way home from the hospital that he wanted to see me out in the garage after I had changed my clothes.
I thought about that as I took off my sport jacket and my best slacks and put on jeans and an old chambray workshirt. I thought about not going-just heading off down the road instead. I thought about just going out and taking it. Something in me rebelled at that. I had been suspended. I had spent five hours in a holding cell in Placerville Center before my father and my hysterical mother (“Why did you do it, Charlie? Why? Why?”) forked over the bail money-the charges, at the joint agreement of the school, the cops, and Mr. Carlson (not his wife; she had been hoping I’d get at least ten years), had been dropped later.
One way or the other, I thought my father and I owed each other something. And so I went out to the garage.
It’s a musty, oil-smelling place, but completely trim. Shipshape. It’s his place, and he keeps it that way. A place for everything, and everything in its place. Yoho-ho, matey. The riding lawnmower placed neatly with its nose against the wall. The gardening and landscaping tools neatly hung up on nails. Jar tops nailed to the roof beams so jars of nails could be screwed into them at eye level. Stacks of old magazines neatly tied up with twine-Argosy,
He was standing there in an old faded pair of twill khakis and a hunting shirt. For the first time, I noticed how old he was starting to look. His belly had always been as flat as a two-by-four, but now it was bulging out a little-too many beers down at Gogan’s. There seemed to be more veins in his nose burst out into little purple deltas under the skin, and the lines around his mouth and eyes were deeper.
“What’s your mother doing?” he asked me.
“Sleeping,” I said. She had been sleeping a lot, with the help of a Librium prescription. Her breath was sour and dry with it. It smelled like dreams gone rancid.
“Good,” he said, nodding. “That’s how we want it, isn’t it?”
He started taking off his belt.
“I’m going to take the hide off you,” he said.
“No,” I said. “You’re not.”
He paused, the belt half out of the loops. “What?”
“If you come at me with that thing, I’m going to take it away from you,” I said. My voice was trembling and uneven. “I’m going to do it for the time you threw me on the ground when I was little and then lied about it to Mom. I’m going to do it for every time you belted me across the face for doing something wrong, without giving me a second chance. I’m going to do it for that hunting trip when you said you’d slit her nose open if you ever caught her with another man.”
He had gone a deadly pale. Now it was his voice trembling. “You gutless, spineless wonder. Do you think you can blame this on me? You go tell that to that pansy psychiatrist if you want to, that one with the pipe. Don’t try it on me.”
“You stink,” I said. “You fucked up your marriage and you fucked up your only child. You come on and try to take me if you think you can. I’m out of school. Your wife’s turning into a pinhead. You’re nothing but a booze-hound.” I was crying. “You come on and try it, you dumb fuck.”
“You better stop it, Charlie,” he said. “Before I stop just wanting to punish you and start wanting to kill you.”
“Go ahead and try,” I said, crying harder. “I’ve wanted to kill you for thirteen years. I hate your guts. You suck.”
So then he came at me like something out of a slave-exploitation movie, one end of his Navy-issue belt wrapped in his fist, the other end, the buckle end, dangling down. He swung it at me, and I ducked. It went by my shoulder and hit the hood of his Country Squire wagon with a hard clank, scoring the finish. His tongue was caught between his teeth, and his eyes were bulging. He looked the way he had that day I broke the storm windows. Suddenly I wondered if that was the way he looked when he made love to my mother (or what passed for it); if that’s what she had to look up at while she was pinned under him. The thought froze me with such a bolt of disgusted revelation that I forgot to duck the next one.
The buckle came down alongside my face, ripped into my cheek, pulling it open in a long furrow. It bled a lot. It felt like the side of my face and neck had been doused in warm water.
“Oh, God,” he said. “Oh, God, Charlie.”
My eye had watered shut on that side, but I could see him coming toward me with the other. I stepped to meet him and grabbed the end of the belt and pulled. He wasn’t expecting it. It jerked him off balance, and when he started to run a little to catch it back, I tripped him up and he thumped to the oil-stained concrete floor. Maybe he had forgotten I wasn’t four anymore, or nine years old and cowering in a tent, having to take a whiz while he yucked it up with his friends. Maybe he had forgotten or never knew that little boys grow up remembering every blow and word of scorn, that they grow up and want to eat their fathers alive.
A harsh little grunt escaped him as he hit the concrete. He opened his hands to break his fall, and I had the belt. I doubled it and brought it down on his broad khaki ass. It made a loud smack, and it probably didn’t hurt much, but he cried out in surprise, and I smiled. It hurt my cheek to smile. He had really beaten the shit out of my cheek.
He got up warily. “Charlie, put that down,” he said. “Let’s take you to the doctor and get that stitched up.”
“You better say yes-sir to the Marines you see if your own kid can knock you down,” I said.
That made him mad, and he lunged at me, and I hit him across the face with the belt. He put his hands up to his face, and I dropped the belt and hit him in the stomach as hard as I could. The air whiffled out of him, and he doubled over. His belly was soft, even softer than it had looked. I didn’t know whether to feel disgust or pity suddenly. It occurred to me that the man I really wanted to hurt was safely out of my reach, standing behind a shield of years.
He straightened up, looking pale and sick. There was a red mark across his forehead where I had hit him with the belt.
“Okay,” he said, and turned around. He pulled a hardhead rake off the wall. “If that’s how you want it.”
I reached out beside me and pulled the hatchet off the wall and held it up with one hand.
“That’s how I want it,” I said. “Take one step, and I’ll cut your head off, if I can.”
So we stood there, trying to figure out if we meant it. Then he put the take back, and I put the hatchet back. There was no love in it, no love in the way we looked at each other. He didn’t say, “
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s get that stitched up.”
“I can drive myself.”
“I’ll drive you.”
And so he did. We went down to the emergency room in Brunswick, and the doctor put six stitches in my cheek, and I told him that I had tripped over a chunk of stove wood in the garage and cut my cheek on a fireplace screen my dad was blacking. We told Mom the same thing. And that was the end of it. We never discussed it again. He never tried to tell me what to do again. We lived in the same house, but we walked in wide circles around each other, like a pair of old toms. If I had to guess, I’d say he’ll get along without me very well… like the song says.
During the second week of April they sent me back to school with the warning that my case was still under consideration and I would have to go see Mr. Grace every day. They acted like they were doing me a favor. Some favor. It was like being popped back into the cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
It didn’t take as long to go bad this time. The way people looked at me in the halls. The way I knew they were talking about me in the teachers’ rooms. The way nobody would even talk to me anymore except Joe. And I wasn’t very cooperative with Grace.
Yes, folks, things got bad very fast indeed, and they went from bad to worse. But I’ve always been fairly quick on the uptake, and I don’t forget many lessons that I’ve learned well. I certainly learned the lesson about how you could get anyone’s number with a big enough stick. My father picked up the hardhead take, presumably planning to trepan my skull with it, but when I picked up the hatchet, he put it back.
I never saw that pipe wrench again, but what the fuck. I didn’t need that anymore, because that stick wasn’t big enough. I’d known about the pistol in my father’s desk for ten years. Near the end of April I started to carry it to school.