I Never Knew All Too Well

*This piece appeared online at Pulchritude Press (no longer in business) about one year ago in their inaugural posting. They graciously took up my work as the feature of their launch.

Though this nonfiction work gained considerable following and acknowledgement online, it also attracted rather negative reaction from a few who found it – the truth – offensive.

My family.

So much so, that on Christmas Eve Day 2015 I received a document from my mother’s bank requiring my signature on documents removing me from the family trust.

Beyond that, my estranged sister – whom really appears angelic in this piece in comparison to the real person she is – will take any opportunity she perceives granted her to admonish me for “being such a martyr”.

To which I say: even Jesus Christ was crucified for what he preached as the truth, but that which the crowd simply refused to be possible.

I now share my story with you.

 

 

What Little I Knew

Cherry nut ice cream, Ford vehicles, Kiwi shoe polish, Roy Orbison, and Old Spice.

That is the extent of what I knew of my father, though more significant traits I associate with him were his ever-present rapid-fire temper, a strongly perceived sense of apathy, and a seemingly obligatory faith in God.

Labelling him ‘enigmatic’ would certainly be incongruous; the definition of the word would be well beyond his humble comprehension, him earning only a trade school education and zero grasp of any grammatical sophistication.

The guy was lucky if he could spell his own name.

You see, I never spoke with my father. Ever. About anything. I had no idea who he was as a person, what he understood, what he thought or felt. The one indisputable insight I possess is that everything I said and every decision I made was prosecutable and punishable in his eyes.

Yet as abysmal as that perspective may seem, never has it been lost on me his sense of fairness; his belief in loyalty, unwavering honesty, or his ability to straight shoot the world directly in front of him.

Therein lay the struggle of me: his self-fulfilling prophecy and paradox.

*

My aquatic acumen was first initiated when I was three or four years old during the one and only vacation I recall my entire family taking in the cramped camper firmly hoisted atop my dad’s faded red International Harvester pickup truck.

On the rocky beach of  some grey and wavy lake on that cold and windy day, my dad picked me up and tossed me into the water.

That was it. Sink or swim.

Having not expected to fall so quickly under the feet of mucky water, I flailed and sputtered and panicked and then resurfaced, not to return to the water for the remainder of the only family trip we took.

From the time I was ten my dad worked as a self-employed mechanic in a pole shed situated on our thirty acre farm in the middle of a cornfield. Farmers and businessmen and neighbors from miles around would bring farm implementation, pickup trucks, lawn mowers, and diesel engine dump trucks for his service spurred by nothing more than word of mouth.

He found solace and comfort and repose from a world I don’t believe he particularly enjoyed. And the humans in it that he liked even less.

He was fighting to sink or swim, his own learning curve akin to navigating choppy waters.

Spending a great deal more time than he in the acreage’s home just thirty feet away from his shop and similarly in my own head with my own dreams of a glamorous future in fashion design, I selfishly reveled in my own desires and ambitions, an activity that’s not changed dramatically during these past decades.

I suspect that my dad lived in his own head. Spending sixteen or more hours each day alone in a massive tin building and surrounded by nothing more than grease and pistons and a fearsomely loyal Lab and Shepard mix hound could do nothing but compound accustomed solitude.

Contributing rarely seeing my father without his head buried under the open hood of a vehicle to his passion for fixing things, I fought tirelessly to stay clear of the path of a man whose rare presence I intensely feared and the wrath that accompanied his impatience.

*

Surrounded by a family constructed of self-demanding violent bullies sent me further into my own world when I was very young. I spoke to no one about my life or my dreams; my family didn’t care and no one else understood.

On occasion the stifling apathy would erupt as it’d done one temporarily decent Sunday night as I’d just finished my tea, the battered mug resting peacefully on the floor before me. I suddenly found myself on the receiving end of my elder sister’s usual brutality. I distinctly recall the inability to duck fast enough when she’d swung the cup at me, splitting my lip efficiently enough to draw blood and swell the better part of my cheek.

And I responded the way any kid would.

I tattled.

Absolutely convinced that I’d be vindicated once my parents got my side of the bloody lip story, I rapidly learned that justice is indeed blind and I wished that I would have just kept my mouth shut because what followed was far more painful than finding myself the unwilling recipient of a slug to the face.

Explosive rage sent my dad flying from his seat at the kitchen table, dragging me to the sink with shrieking demand that the supper dishes be cleaned and with the chore’s completion, I would find myself in my bed with lights out…at 7 p.m. on a sunny summer evening.

His booming punishment brought my cowering sister running to the kitchen with her falderal that fell on deaf ears and rapidly on my backside.

As I stood running the hot water for the cleaning task, sobbing without hope of breath or saliva, my father pulled his faded leather belt from the loops of his jeans; doubled the strap in his hand and he swung with all power in him and with exasperation fueled by intolerance and some warped disciplinary dedication.

The first wallop met the back of me with enough force to buckle my knees and I clung to the stainless steel rim in desperation.

I was frozen by anxiety and internalized my own self-pity when the second blow hit me.

Tea that I had earlier consumed now demanded exit from my body and my bladder surrendered to the next painful strike.

I had wet myself, the urine penetrating my shorts and running down my legs before finally puddling on the kitchen floor at my feet, culminating in the penultimate humiliation.

While my sister got away with her cruelty, scot free; no hitting, no yelling, and no retribution for her.

That sunny summer Sunday in my youth defined a path I would follow to fearlessness, tenacity, determination, and stubbornness that began to shape the person I’d become.

*

Every teenager has got their own form of rebellion.

I had scads, not least of which was my ability to lie which I had perfected to a stunning art form that served no greater good.

Deception became my shelter from continuous parental punishment with the ironic result always settling in inevitable castigation.

Verbal and physical lambasting came when any given lie was discovered, as well as with every truth I told being perceived as dishonesty.

I was damned if I did and damned if I didn’t.

Don’t ever believe that you can get to Heaven without first being singed by the fires of Hell.

I didn’t have a great many friends when I was in high school; classmates found me too weird and I found them too banal, unable to comprehend their shallowness and involvement in very meaningless and trite and petty affairs to which they committed themselves.

I’d even caught wind of someone’s very apt description of me in their statement, “She’s so likeable, but what a little shit!”

I proudly took that as a great compliment.

I’d made the conscious decision to stand up to the on-going perpetual beatings with silence and indifference to which my father’s reaction was burying his head even further into the carburetors, impotent with cluelessness. His only ace was subjugation, authority he no longer wielded over me and he threw in the towel believing his middle daughter nothing but a hellion and a lost soul.

As far as I could tell.

There was simply no attention paid me by my dad; I had long since resigned myself to the fact that he was absent.

For every school event, every concert and awards ceremony he was a no-show.

And though I knew nothing of my father’s school days, I suspected he dreaded witnessing the identical swath of cloth from which we’d both been cut.

Rare was the occasion but never did I miss that unmistakable glint of mischief in his eye that sent me longing for some reasonable connection that we could have been very capable of achieving.

For as much as minimal infractions had warranted barely equitable punishment in my young life, those more vile offenses for which I’d hold my breath and await dire scolding were puzzlingly met with an eerie calm.

Even fewer words or opinions expressed to me as his nineteen year old unwed directionless daughter being pregnant, however, was a tougher pill to swallow and I found myself at the opposite end of the pole to which I’d been normally accustomed.

My son’s birth witnessed my father’s gradual warming to his first grandchild, though he and the remainder of my good Christian family would never fully come to terms with the entire episode; it just wouldn’t be right to accept the fact that my son was, in essence, a bastard.

I suffered my son’s baptism in the line of patriarchal screaming and berating and humiliation, leaving me in uncontrollable tears with puffy eyes and washed away make-up and destroying the blessing and the day that I’d hoped to enjoy with my son.

I was ruined, the ceremony was tainted and I was resolved that my son would never endure this mindless cruelty to which I’d be subjected for far too long. I left for the opposite side of the state only to kick myself for not having put more distance between my family and the misery I strove to escape.

The Path of Definition

Having packed what little I owned and a toddler in the back of my car, I left the farm and the black doom of my inevitable failure loudly and assuredly prophesied by my family.

As much as I wanted to prove them wrong, I wanted more to induce some pride for them to find in my accomplishments, approval I sought and so desperately craved only to have my exceptional achievements met with blind indifference.

Within three years, I completed my law degree and took up residence practicing in one of the state’s most prestigious firms, quickly becoming frustrated with the utter grossness of lawyers I escaped the firm to employment that could not have been more polar opposite in nature.

I accepted a job in the service bay of one of the largest car dealerships in the area – the first female to do so in the city.

This was the job – this was the move that would surely ignite a remote spark of interest in a patriarch from whom I’d drawn my love of automobiles, even if it was only from watching his work.

Once again I was sorely mistaken, and the searing self-loathing for naively believing that he could possibly be moved by anything relating to his own daughter reared its hideous head.

However, within months I’d moved in with my successful and handsome beau and with my son, continuing on the path to what I perceived normalcy and happiness to be.

The misconception that had no intention of being.

Brightening stars that had rose-tinted my vision now blackened and catapulted me into the void of gut-wrenching terror, unimaginable destruction that began with the night I returned from evening college courses to find my son’s face red and bruised, battering that was immediately and unapologetically claimed by my ostensibly ‘perfect’ mate with the justification that he’d hit my son because he wouldn’t finish his dinner.

Worst of all, I never saw it coming; no subtle nuance, no occasional lost temper. It was as though this man who had up to that point been so loving and so influential on my son had been viciously and secretively kidnapped and replaced with some mannequin constructed of nothing but pure evil.

On my own and constantly watching over my shoulder in anticipation of the next blow that may land, I clung to the shreds of my life with my child firmly grasped in my overly protective mamma bear claws, biding time until I could move out and spending as much time away from my current home. I reluctantly set out for my small crappy home town for an extended Easter weekend with the toxic individuals I barely claimed as relation – from one poisonous pit to another.

The two days spent in a hospital hardly resembled a holiday.

Only days earlier my father had been diagnosed with lung cancer and he’d been admitted to begin his first treatments on that Sunday, disturbing irony that the man so adamantly against smoking was taken down by his own love and lifelong profession – engine mechanics.

Decades of exposure to brake cleaning fluid, gasoline, and burning oil in the homemade oil drum burner of his shop had caught up with him.

Prognosis was poor. I’d not witnessed the x-rays but was told that pockets of cancer riddled his lungs like sprayed pellets that had spread before it had been detected.

I couldn’t bring myself to feel shame for the first thought that instinctively crossed my mind: would it be all that bad if he died? He hates life anyway; he contributes to it nothing, he enjoys nothing that it offers, he loves no one who surrounds him.

Stress of a terminal spouse brought out more of a despicable demon in my mother; casual conversation turned into incessant sniping, cruelty that blistered hotter now that she faced the unknown.

But unlike previous occasions, I was no longer content to merely stand around and take it, nor did I have any desire or ability to provide comfort to someone whom I deemed uneducated to the very definition of the word.

Burdened with the weight of a dissolved love, a dying parent, and a new domicile I found my classes too much to tackle and I very sadly relinquished the pursuit of my Master’s degree.

Failure my family always expected from me disintegrated holidays into the familiar swearing and bickering and blaming and sulking.

It would be the last holiday that I’d gather my family to my sanctuary and that last that would see us all gathered together.

Though able to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of his marriage, treatment for my dad’s cancer was producing few favorable results; additional and more aggressive chemotherapy regimens were ineffective and as a month passing found us at my brother’s wedding, my father’s appearance belied his age as that of a man having lived an additional twenty years.

Frail and pasty and weak, he’d lost what little hair he’d had when still healthy and he struggled to dance with his wife at the reception.

Well over a year had passed since his initial mortal diagnosis and he and I had not exchanged a word…and I’d still not been able to release my original reaction.

Just take him already.

The night in August I returned home from an NHRA drag race to no less than a dozen phone messages left by my mother, most of them constructed in her typical sourly venomous manner: “Hey, your father’s died. If you can grace us with your presence and take time out of your busy schedule his funeral is on Wednesday.”

The announcement hadn’t affected me. In my colorless daze I alerted my boss, packed my bags and left for home.

The palpable disgust that served as my mom’s aura that week was a loathing she made no attempt to disguise; only neighbors and mourners could keep us from each other’s throats.

Saturated with the muling of imbeciles and just generally pissed with the entire scene, I was relieved with its completion and bailed back to the silent reticence and sanctuary of my own home hundreds of miles away.

More Than One Black Hole

That was almost two decades ago. A great many things have transpired during that time.

I don’t think much about my dad – not intentionally and absolutely not fondly.

But as each of my years on this planet roll by I find his presence more and more obvious, conspicuously apparent in myself and in my thoughts and way of life.

We both tired of the stupidity and ignorance of businesses to which we’d each been bound by nothing more than a paycheck and being bossed around by managers who had no place in charge of subordinates.

So I write now. Being a novelist equates to a great deal of time spent alone and in my own thoughts, a practice very comparable to the hours and days and years that my dad spent holed up in his shop working on cars.

Maybe like me he was happiest in his own company, undisturbed and perfectly content and fulfilled by the work in front of him – it was just him and the machines – and it’s just me and my computer, doing what’s made me happier than I’ve been for as long as I can recall.

Reclusiveness in that form is absolute, taking hold with a vice grip – one from which a person may not necessarily want to break free. Instead, there is a grace and undoubtedly a control that cannot be matched outside the walls of solitariness.

I’ve established the inability that he and I both possess when confronting the mass moronic populous, those devoid of honesty, common sense, or rationality – it’s just easier to stay away from it all to avoid the infuriation of waging a war of wits with those unarmed.

But on the Other Hand…

I bought my Mustangs within just years of one another; a 1994 GT and a 1966 Sprint that I thought for sure I’d get my dad to help me with…a wish that would never come to fruition when his illness struck almost immediately after my purchase of the vintage vehicle.

Yet, I rarely miss a car show within driving distance of me, spending days admiring old-fashioned curb feelers and pointed winged quarter panels reaching for the sky and remembering being struck with awe by my dad’s seemingly omnipotent ability to determine every detail of a car’s creation based solely on its taillights.

His stubbornness to break free from the walls of silent protection that he’d constructed for his own sanity prevented him from seeing some of the most amazing machinery that the owners had on display, masterpieces of his own trade that I have no doubt would have elated him.

*

Though I ran far and fast from the ear-busting twanging of the dirt-kicking, boot-stomping traditional country and western music that he played religiously, my father’s penchant for the rockabilly style of music sunk its teeth into my soul. Latching on to the likes of Buddy Holly, Gene Pitney, and the Everly Brothers migrated me quickly to the modern day homages of Chris Isaak, Brian Setzer, and Lyle Lovett – artists I consider musical geniuses whom I never miss in live concert on the occasions they tour the area.

One lazy morning as I resided before my computer screen typing away at my work, my television streaming the ‘Mad Men’ series, I was jolted quickly to attention by an episode’s closing tune – a song I quickly recognized and one that took me far, far back to that one lonely camper vacation and the eight track tape deck in the International Harvester’s dashboard.

“Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line” was a Waylon Jennings’ song that I’d long since forgotten and once the shock faded away, I laughed at the flood of memories the tune stirred up.

Even now that same pang of remembrance is conjured when I dig out of my closet the same 1960s whip-stitched western style jacket that he was wearing in a picture of him I saw only once, and from where the photo came or to where it disappeared is still a mystery to me.

While he ‘courted’ my mother and just prior to their marriage, he’d ordered factory-direct a 1968 Plymouth Satellite. Someone managed to snap a photo that featured him in the jacket next to my mom and in front of that same car that she trashed on her first adventure in parallel parking.

I can only imagine the explosion that that little oopy caused; it’s staggering that he married her following that incident.

And the same reason why no one other than me will ever be invited behind the wheel of any of my machinery.

Another undeniable parallel drawn in sands of time, worn away by winds of desertion and dissolution and distance.

Nature versus nurture will be a tug of war that will continue to defy a test of time and to which no one will ever truly pinpoint a definitive answer; if there is one thing of which I am certain it is that I am an unwilling participant and product of both influences.

It is said that writers and authors most easily construct their works from their own personal experiences, those most profound drawn from times of pain and depression and unsurety – it is abundantly more effective and attractive to write of that which is familiar, close, and lived first hand.

I, as a novelist, am relegated to writing of that which I know all too well in search of the chronicle which I will never understand.

Writing is utter solitude; the descent into the cold abyss of oneself. – Frank Kafka.

 

 

 

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