The Main Line
(This story first appeared in the Quarterly #FTW03 package.)
I finished the whole bottle before I started writing. If I’m going to get any empathy for my father I should at least try to see the world the same way he did. He was a man of few words, but the ones he chose to use left memories. You could argue whether his words’ value was because they were so rare—like a precious metal—or because they were blunt—like the force used to remove that precious metal from rock.
Observation #1: The sentences get longer when I drink. And a little floral.
I’m not afraid to admit that I enjoy the occasional drink myself, and that I manage to do it in moderation. So this is neither the story of an alcoholic father begetting yet another alcoholic, nor a reactionary non-drinker. I drink enough to recognize that what he drank, and what eventually killed him, was shit booze. Piss water beer and cheap whiskey. This story isn’t even really about my dad, except that it kind of is. Or rather I don’t want it to be. I’ve tried writing it my way a dozen times, which my angry publisher can attest to.
Observation #2: It might be time to get a new publisher.
No, I’ve tried writing this a few dozen times. And it’s always about him. I want it to be about me. So I thought that maybe if I could see it through his eyes I’d figure out how to do that. So here we are.
This is the story about the first time I hit my father.
It starts in a car. We had moved past the Grand Fury and into our Plymouth Volaré era. Station wagon. Wood paneling on the sides, except that by the 70’s the wood had been replaced by wood-patterned vinyl stickers.
I am 15. Between my freshman and sophomore years in high school. A fat bundle of acne-covered self-consciousness. In ill-fitting jeans. My mother always bought the size she wished I could fit into. (I should make sure her casket is a size too small.) And schoolboy glasses from the Optical Department of Sears on Roosevelt Avenue.
It is Sunday afternoon and we are driving up The Main Line. I’d gotten better at sneaking out of these drives in the past year. Usually able to blame schoolwork. But no such luck this time. They insisted. This is my parents’ idea of togetherness. Driving out to more expensive neighborhoods to see how people who actually made something of their lives lived. So I am sitting in the back seat with my two younger brothers next to me.
My father takes a pull from his flask. My mother asks him not to and the shut up woman is almost immediate. As is the ten minutes of unbearable silence afterwards. He pulls over at an AM/PM mini-mart and comes back with sodas and a pack of baseball cards for each of us, which we tear open as he pours half the soda out of his bottle and refills it from his flask. My mother fumes knowing that the baseball cards have won us over to his side again. Yeah, we’re idiots. But she was never an easy woman to root for. (Maybe I’ll save that story for the next bottle. I bought two.)
Observation #3: Let’s start that second bottle now just in case.
As we drive along Lancaster Avenue we eventually get bored with the baseball cards and start fidgeting. Someone takes a card from someone else. There’s a slap. I look towards the front seat and my father is looking back at us through the rear-view mirror. One look buys him another few miles of silence.
My father drives along every once in a while muttering something about lotteries which makes my mother sigh. In 50 years of marriage this is as close as they’ll ever get to retirement planning.
Suddenly my brother shrieks and jumps out of his seat. He’s stuck his hand in between the cushions and pulled something out. It’s a condom. He releases it in disgust. It lands at our feet. He tries kicking it under the seat. I look up. My father is staring straight at me through the rear view mirror. My mother asks what’s going on. He begins to pull over. I nervously grab the dirty condom and attempt to throw it out the window. Which is closed. Of course. Which is exactly when my mother turns around in her seat just in time to see this monstrosity, this new data point in her thankless life, slowly sliding down the window like a slimy shameful slug. She screams.
The car pulls over and my door opens. My father’s arm reaches for me, grabs me by the neck and pulls me out of the car. I’m laying on my back on a well-to-do stranger’s lawn. He is on top of me almost immediately. He punches me in the face while I beg him to stop. My mother is screaming.
He turns around to tell her to shut up. She’s gotten out of the car and is standing there, staring at the condom which has fallen off the glass and onto the street. He takes two giant steps and picks it up. Another step to the gutter. He turns back towards me, except I’ve gotten up and before he can collect himself I land a sloppy roundhouse right to his cheekbone. My hand explodes. It fucking hurts.
This is now the proverbial moment where everything, and I mean everything goes silent. He says nothing. My mother is saying nothing. My brothers, still huddled in fear in the back seat, say nothing. The Mayflower-white couple who stepped out of the house to yell at the immigrant family fighting on their lawn are saying nothing. My hand is screaming with every pulse.
And then, just like magic, the world starts up again. My mother gets back in the car. Mr. Mayflower walks inside, no doubt to call the police. And my father, more from shame than from force no doubt, falls to his knees.
I stare at him. My tongue hunts around my mouth for loose teeth. He does not look up. My mother will eventually forgive him. Again. I walk towards him. He is smaller than he’s ever been.
“Why don’t you have the guts to just leave?”
“Takes more guts to stay.”
I do not get back in the car.
Observation #4: It’s still about him.