Written 1989-1990. I wrote this while living in New York City, a symbolist purge of some childhood memories.
One day, everything in the house grew legs and walked out.
Drove my father crazy. They didn’t go into hiding. They just sat on the lawn. My father made us bring everything inside.
The neighbor kids laughed at us.
My older brothers liked the Grateful Dead and My sisters liked the Beatles. One day I brought home an Elvis Presley Record. I bought it with my allowance, it was in the cut out bin. I wanted some rock and roll. They said he didn’t really play guitar that his movies were terrible, that he was fat and didn’t have long hair. I thought he was the king I said.
What about his curling lips, his velvet voice. It didn’t matter, they said. I had to wait until they were out on dates or at school to use the record player.
On Saturday mornings in his underwear my father stormed up the stairs screaming. He threw us out of bed and told us to clean our rooms. My father had to travel for his job a lot.
He was gone about one week a month. We were brats to my mother all week. She’d pick my father up at Newark Airport, complain to him all the way back. Complain to him all night too, I imagine. My father had six kids so was probably used to getting some. It was always sort of fun watching him filled with rage those mornings, smacking my older brothers for some disobedient indiscretion. Then he turned on me.
In those days, older brothers and sisters took care of younger brothers and sisters. You didn’t have to pay for a baby sitter and it taught the older children a sense of responsibility. It taught the younger children fear of slavery. We had to buy them candy, we had to do their chores. They were in charge, which meant they were allowed to order us and to punish us. Once for a prank my brother lit my hair on fire. Another time, my younger sister broke her leg.
Sometimes our parents would leave and we would watch them depart with tears in our eyes. We kept asking them, when will you be back. When will you come home.
When I was very, very young, my father took the family on our first and only vacation. We were still in Bergen County when the shouting in the back seat got too loud. I’ll turn this car around, right now, he said. We never stopped fooling around. Someone was laughing, someone was crying, someone was shouting accusations. It was what my family did instead of hugging each other. My father turned the car around and we spent the summer home. That was why we never went on vacation. I didn’t go to the shore until I was a teenager and had a friend old enough to drive there.
One time there was trouble at school. My grades had fallen. I wrote a book report on the Bible and criticized its main character, God. I said he was a malevolent presence and never properly expressed his love to his son, he just let him be murdered. It was the end of baseball season and my father had to spend a Sunday afternoon meeting with my teacher, Sister Agatha. He missed a play off or world series game, I forget. He came home pissed. I had to show him my homework from now on and he took my baseball cards, said I couldn’t play with them or buy any new ones for a month. Showing him homework lasted about a week, then he couldn’t be bothered.
I never asked for my baseball cards back. I just lost interest. Eventually I sold them to a neighbor kid and never collected them or watched baseball again. Needless to say, I was never encouraged to try out for Little League. This made my mother glad, otherwise she’d have to drive me back and forth to the games.
Cleaning the room was a big deal. I would let it go and go and my father would help me clean it. He’d punch me and scream. Look at all the money we spend on clothes and you throw them on the floor. You’re not living up here, you’re just existing. My father went away on a business trip and I cleaned my room. I wanted him to acknowledge it. He and my mother were yelling at me for something. Then he asked if my room was clean. Yes, I yelled back. He went up and a few minutes later walked back down. He said there was dust under the bed, then hit me.
I’d go shopping with my mother. We passed all the cool clothes. They’re not dorky enough, she’d say. I would try on a pair of pants. No, they’re too long, they cover your ankles. How about this black shirt, mom. No, it’s too becoming, get this nice plaid with the potato sack fit.
Corduroy slacks were popular for kids. If they covered the ankles they would not be purchased. My mother made me walk around in them, then asked the sales clerk if they had any corduroy slacks that made more noise, were more stiff and not comfortable at all. Getting a haircut was worse. A regular, always a regular-shorn on the sides, slightly thicker on top. I’d stare into the mirror, wishing the hair would cover my ears, praying for it to grow back.
Everyone locks the house when they’d leave. My parents had to lock the house when we were home. Night or day, it didn’t matter, danger was always possible in the suburbs. I guess they figured if burglars could come when no one was home, they could come when someone was home and hold us hostage.
There were two locks on the front door, and a chain. My father always made sure the chain was up. Last one in had to make that sure the chain was latched. I asked my father, if someone gets through both locks, do you really think a chain will stop them. My father replied, it might just give us needed extra time. One night, a gang of machine gun toting black men ransacked the entire neighborhood. They stole jewelry, T.V. sets, money, raped mothers, turned the kids on to dope and taught them how to dance. They came to our house.
They shot out the locks and were working on the chain when the cops finally came. My father was right. The chain held, buying us enough time. We never learned how to dance.
One day an earth quake came to Paramus, but only hit our house. We were always located on an exclusive fault line.
The tremors knocked everything out of its proper place and everything landed where it did not belong. For days, my father had to search the house looking for important things — Screw drivers, masking tape, his glasses, T.V. Guide — he’d accuse us of misplacing things. We had to dodge his blows while we helped him find the objects. We pleaded innocence and when that didn’t work, we blamed each other. My father typed up a directory of things in the house, and places in the house. The directory included cross references between the things and the places, and an appendix listing things that might be purchased and the places those things would go when they were brought into the house. We were forced to commit the directory to memory. From then on, when something was in the wrong place, it was on purpose and we could be justly humiliated.
Before dinner we had to say grace. We had to say grace out loud. Whoever was quiet or mumbling or saying a private prayer, would receive a quick slap. There were six kids and a large table, but my father’s hand could reach anyone. When my father wasn’t looking, we’d make funny faces at each other, trying to get someone to laugh. If you laughed during grace, you would be smacked. You could not leave the table after this brief corporal punishment. You had to stop crying, eat while aching. My father gazed at us and announced, fold your hands we will now say grace audibly. We closed our eyes and recited our thanks in unison. We would eat fast. We couldn’t leave the table until our plate was clean and we asked to be excused. Before we would sit down, we’d have to show our hands, front and back to our father. If your hands were not immaculate, Dad got out the scrub brush and Lava soap, washed them until they were red and sore. After dinner was worse. He’d use a damp rag to wipe off our faces. His fingers dug into your cheeks so hard your gums bled. In our house, hygiene wasn’t hygiene unless it hurt.
Spilling something was an invitation to ridicule. There were no accidents. If you dropped the glass, it was your fault.
You should have been paying attention to what was in your hand instead of what might be on your mind. Good Going. Clean it up. Even just dropping a utensil would have my father commenting. Idiot. Fool. Jack O Lantern. When will you learn to be careful! Every holiday when the relatives came over and complimented the house, my mother apologized for the rug.
She’d point to stains, no matter how miniscule or faded and call out our names and date of the stain. Once I was eating a sandwich and drinking a glass of milk. My hand knocked the glass over. The milk splashed my father, who was dressed to go out. He hollered after a swift swat to the back of my head. The sandwich flew out of my mouth and into his lap. He hit me again. Called me retarded and ordered me to clean it up this instant. No use crying over spilt milk? My father found a use for it.
In the old days, seemed my father and mother would go out on Saturday night. After going to six o’clock Mass, my parents dropped us kids at home and we’d have Swanson’s T.V. dinners. Fried Chicken or Salisbury Steak. Had to time those meals perfectly, because fifteen minutes before they were done, you had to peel away the tinfoil over the cranberry cobbler. There was only one T.V. in the house, a big color which had replaced the big black and white. We’d watch channel two-Bridget and Birney, Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart and Carol Burnett. Of course, my younger sister and I had to go to bed at ten o’clock. It was before my parents came home, so my brothers and sisters had the legal and moral responsibility to decide if we could watch television. We could stay up if we got them a glass of milk. We could stay up if we now got them Chocolate Milk. We brought the milk into the kitchen and put in Nestles Quick. Commercials over, they would shout, if you miss the beginning you’re not allowed to watch the whole show. The theme song played and we ran back to the living room. If we spilt anything we had to lick it up. We suffered abuse for Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence and Tim Conway.
One time my older brother convinced me I had to suffer retribution. I forget the cause, but I suppose the punishment fit the crime. One thousand lashes, by the pillow. My brother gripped the pillow case tight and counted off each blow. At first he’d put his whole body into it. After a hundred my head was ringing and I saw multicolored dots sparkling in the air. My brother started to sweat, took more time between swings. It would be years before I’d even hear about drugs, but I believe that was the first time I was high. The pillow wasn’t painful, it just stunned. After three hundred, my brother began to softly groan, pillow barely brushing against me. I started saying ouch and laughing. By five hundred, my brother gave up, exhausted. Said I’d pay next time.
Only two types of illness existed in our house. One was cured by Dristan. One was cured by Pepto Bismol. Phlegm of any kind meant Dristan. Vomiting, Diarrhea or upset stomach meant Pepto. My father drank Pepto from the bottle and took Dristan by the handful, so he knew what to dispense. When we had a cold, we drank Hi-C and Lipton Tea with honey. For stomach disorders, we drank Hoffman’s Ginger Ale and ate dry toast.
Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup was for both occasions. Of course, there were accidents and cuts and abrasions. My father would apply Methiolate. The wound turned an orangey red and stung so bad you wanted to beg for an amputation.
He’d blow on it and you could feel his saliva as the throbbing sore tightened. From scraped knees to lacerations, Methiloate was applied. Usually, there was no band aid. Dad said the air would heal it quicker. When bandages were called for, he’d say, tell your mother to make you some chicken noodle soup. Illness came in three places–Nasal, Internal and External. Dristan. Pepto Bismol. Methiolate.
Kept out of reach of the children.
My brother tried to teach me how to fly. He placed a towel on the bathroom floor. I got on it, lay on my stomach, stretched out my arms and legs. I was going to be like Superman, he promised. He yanked the towel out from under me. I slammed against the floor, chin first. This was when my parents were home, so my father was able to drive me to Bergen Pines Emergency Room. Five stitches.
Using a string tied to a stick, and the stick propping up an empty cardboard carton, my brother caught a sparrow. We kept the animal in a box, but it wouldn’t eat the bread. My sister and I watched the bird, sitting on a nest of shredded newspaper we made for him, barely squawking. We named the bird Ringo. In a couple of days, the box was empty, stacked on the metal garbage cans on the side of the house. Where is Ringo, we asked our brother. He pointed to the hill in the back yard. He said the bird dug a hole and crawled in. With spoons in hand, we went to the hill and dug up the fresh dirt. Ringo, Ringo, we cried the deeper we got. Finally I saw feathers. I picked up the carcass, covered with tiny green worms, maggots I would later find out. We dropped it and ran into the house, wailing with tears. Nothing was explained to us. Our father told us to shut up and made my brother put what was left of Ringo back in the ground. About a year later my grandfather died. We called our grandfather Popeye and our grandmother Nanna. Popeye was the greatest.
All the other relatives hated us, yelled that we were disrespectful. Popeye would walk with my sister and I down to the corner store, buy us candy, baseball cards, water pistols, whatever we wanted. My mother told my sister and I that Popeye was asleep and wouldn’t wake up. We were dropped off at a baby sitter and the whole family went somewhere.
Later in the day, the whole family and many of the neighbors gathered at our house. Platters of cold cuts were everywhere. Everyone was talking about Popeye, Nanna kept hugging everybody. We kept asking, when will he wake up. When will he be back. My father said, if we weren’t quiet we’d have to go to bed, even though it was the afternoon.
The last time I saw Popeye was at my First Holy Communion.
I was in second grade. The day before our First Holy Communion the entire class went to their First Confession. I had a hard time thinking of sins. Bless me father for I have sinned. This is my first confession and these are my sins. My mother was vacuuming while I was watching T.V. and I said God Dammit. I didn’t tell him my father broke the name in vain commandment frequently and I learned the phrase by listening to him. The voice behind the screen was appalled. Good Heavens, the priest said. For penance, it was an Act of Contrition, three Hail Mary’s and an Our Father. The next day, the boys wore white suits with white saddle shoes and the girls wore white dresses and white patent leather shoes. As usual, one girl fainted during the service. For eight years when the class went to mass, she fainted. A boy slipped and fell walking from the altar after receiving the blessed sacrament. When I got home there was a Gold Sting Ray bicycle with a banana seat. I had yet to achieve the proper sense of balance, but now I had my own bicycle to fall from.
The oldest brother held the handle bar and seat and trotted me up and down the driveway and I pedaled. Seemed everyone was saying good bye and I went up to Popeye, holding out my arms. No hugs this time, he said, you’re a man now. Then he shook my hand. Men don’t hug.
What is he doing in the bathroom my younger sister and her friends would say. After school they came over and giggled in her bedroom. I had to go outside or play my records real loud. Then they would knock on the wall. I had this one playboy I hid under the bed. The woman in the centerfold had golden blonde hair, but her pubic hair was jet black. She leaned against a pinball machine. I remember her pink finger nails. I remember her full breasts, erect nipples and the look of approval on her narrow face. At night I thought I would wake up the whole town with my masturbating. I would look at the magazine by flashlight, then close my eyes and think of her. I wondered what her voice sounded like. I had to stop often before orgasm. Every time I heard a sound, I thought someone might be coming into my room. Since everything you did that the parents did not tell you to do was punished, I knew the penance for this deed could be severe. I never found out the punishment and I soon stopped going to confession.