by Alex Austin
As soon as I walked in the back door, I knew it was a mistake.
“Wipe your feet,” my father said, not even lifting his head from his book to look at me.
“Get back out there and wipe your feet.”
I butted open the screen door and stepped down on the mat, wiping my feet noisily on the rubber bristles. At the kitchen table, my father sat ramrod straight, shoulders back and legs crossed. He held the book six inches off the table, his fingers spread across the back of the spine. When he turned a page, he set the book down on the table, carefully drawing the page across, and when he stopped reading, he inserted a marker, never turning down the corner as I now always did. He'd been a sergeant in the army, and he never tired of reminding me that if I had been under his command, he would have straightened me out. Since I'd stopped crawling, he'd been instructing me to: “Pick up your feet, before I put a boot up your ass. Eat with your mouth shut. You aren't a fucking cow. Sit straight. I've seen lumps of shit with better posture.” All that bullshit. As I walked into the kitchen, he set down his book, inserted the marker, and closed it. He took a swallow of beer, then laced his hands together. Specks of white paint showed across his knuckles. He smelled of turpentine. He worked today, I thought, a little surprised.
“I suppose you want some dinner?”
“I'll make something.”
“You'll make something, will you?”
Just wanting to get something in me, take a shower and get out, I went over to the kitchen cabinet, hunched down and hunted through the cans until I found a can of Franco-American spaghetti. I kept my back to him, but I knew he was watching me, waiting for a mistake. As I opened the can, the music on the TV switched to Popeye's garbled voice asking, “Where's me spinach?”
“Turn that back!” yelled my sister Meg.
“You ain't watching it,” said Tommy.
The music blared. I tossed the lid in the paper bag under the sink. As I pulled out a saucepan, my father shifted in his chair.
“Isn't that nice? Making something for yourself? Don't think of your brother and sister.”
“Mom will bring something home,” I said.
“Do tell? You're so smart.”
I jerked the can over the pot, the cylinder of spaghetti slowly sliding out. Constipated, I thought. I turned on the gas and lit a stick match, waiting a few seconds until the gas had accumulated. I stuck the match under the pot and the gas exploded, flames licking the back of my hand, singeing the hairs and emitting a sour smell.
“Can't even light the gas,” said my father, to my satisfaction.
I smiled and repeated his words under my breath. I used to tremble and be unable to breathe when I did anything in front of my father, scared that I would do it wrong and have to feel the pinch of his fingers at the base of my neck. But now I'd fuck up on purpose.
Meg walked into the room. Fresh from the shower, she wore a short bathrobe and a towel wrapped around her head like a turban. Until this year, she'd been as thin as I was, but she was filling out and her breasts swelled up from the loose neck of the terrycloth. She stepped up behind me, brushing my back.
“Do you like the smell?” asked Meg, leaning her head on my shoulder.
I smelled her perfume. “It's okay,” I said, sticking a fork into the lump of spaghetti and spreading it across the pot.
“Go get something on,” said my father. “You shouldn't be walking around here like that.”
“Oh, go on,” she said. “Where you going tonight? Down to the Front, I bet, huh?”
“With all those hoodlums.”
I stirred the noodles.
“Bad boy,” Meg said, slapping my ass and laughing. Ha. Ha. Ha.
“Oh, Popeye,” whined Olive Oyl.
“Hey, brat! Didn't I tell you not to touch that TV?” Meg stormed back to the living room.
I turned off the gas, dumped the noodles on a paper plate and took a seat across the table from my father. I kept my head down as I ate, hardly tasting the stuff. He sniffed and I looked up into his twisted face.
“Don't you even know how to eat properly?” he asked.
“What?” I said, licking at the sauce on my lips.
“Pigs make less noise.”
I shoved another forkful in my mouth and chomped loudly. My father flung down his book, shoved his chair back and stood up to smack me. I stared at him coolly, as the blood rose in his face and his eyes grew dark. “Any time you want to, sonny boy,” he said.
When I was younger, my father was always coming after me, accusing me of taking his tools or breaking something or maybe just because I was sitting around doing nothing. If I responded, he'd smack me. My mother would intercede, getting between my father and me, which was a red flag for his rage. As he pushed my mother aside, Meg would be screaming, Tommy crouched and frozen. My mother would get me in my room and close the door. I would sit on my bed staring at the door and listening to them screaming, thinking that any second, he'd break through. It would climax with my father throwing my mother to the floor or against the wall, which would be followed by silence and then my mother's sobbing as she called the police, if they hadn't already come from a neighbor's call. When the police arrived, and I was freed from my bedroom, my father would be sitting quietly at the kitchen table, smoking a cigarette. In a cracked voice, my mother would be telling the police how he deserved to be in jail. Sometimes the cops would take him, and my mother would gather us around and say that she was going to get a lawyer and end it. But most times the cops wouldn't do anything. They'd leave with my father smoking a cigarette at the kitchen table and my mother pouring quarts of beer down the sink. Glug. Glug. Glug.
When I didn't respond to my father, he sat down, planting his fist at the center of the table. He was an inch shorter than I was, but forty pounds heavier. I once saw him strap a refrigerator to his back and carry it up a flight of stairs, but now if he didn't sag under the weight of his steel toolbox, carried solemnly from house to house like a box of jewels, his face would redden with the effort. Shirtless, he looked almost frail, the skin between his chest and shoulders sagging in white folds, his arms thin and undefined. My mother said the booze had done it. I wasn't sure what would happen if I fought him. I'd never actually resisted his strength, and I remembered how weightless I felt when he'd grab me by the arm and drag me behind him. I was still scared to fight him, scared that he had some power that I might never overcome, scared, too of something else. I was pretty strong, and when I was messing around I could pin most of the guys I knew. But in real fights, I'd always gotten my ass kicked. I'd start off swinging but suddenly I'd be on the ground and helpless. It took me awhile to figure it out, but when I did, it was like the sun rising. When I got angry or scared, the strength drained out of me, like air in a punctured tire. My muscles wouldn't work, just the same as when I was climbing. Anger and fear were my kryptonite. That wasn't something you told anyone, and I doubted that the school nurse could help me. In terms of my survival, it meant that if I had to fight anyone, I had to do it as calmly as taking a piss. But mostly my strategy was to stay out of fights, which wasn't always so easy considering the number of enemies I had