Saturday, November 18, 2006

Not So Close (Chapter 7)

The man who called it “near beer” was a bad judge of distance.
     — Philander Johnson


On those occasions when the Hulk did emerge in the guise of my stepfather, it was if a tornado had been unleashed inside our small house. These were the years that were met with increasing anxiety and I was in an near constant state of fear from around the time I was around eight until … well, many, many years later. It was around this same time that I think I resigned myself to this being my life since there seemed to be nothing I could do to change it, try as I might. This was also the time that my mother and my rift began which only deepened with time, making me feel increasingly alone. This feeling never entirely left me, unfortunately. No matter how much I try to rationalize it away today, it continues to linger at the back of my subconscious like a spiteful gremlin, keeping me grounded but also stopping me from trying to fly.

I spent as little time at home as I could, but of course being as young as I was made that very difficult until my teen years. Every evening around dinnertime, my anxiety levels would rise in anticipation of Eddie’s arrival home. If Eddie arrived at dinnertime, it would often signal an uneventful or even pleasant evening, although it was no guarantee. But it was certainly a good sign. The later it became, the higher my level of apprehension. Sometimes he would call, giving us a glimpse into what might be coming because he never tried to hide his drunkenness on the phone.

But even then, it could be a benign evening, there was just to sure signs of anything. Sometimes he would arrive home drunk but in a not unpleasant mood and nothing would set him off before he invariably passed out on the sofa. But never knowing was in and of itself the worst torture of all. The anticipation was always worse somehow and it was exhausting being in a constant state of high alert before and after he got home. We literally walked on eggshells trying to do whatever we could not set him off. This is was what I imagined hell would be like, if any such place really existed. Because it’s hard to imagine a torture more exquisitely painful. We would speak in hushed, respectful tones. Jokes, sarcasm and criticism were off the table, which was surprisingly hard to pull off for a smart ass like myself. But I understood the consequences just the same as if I’d been in a combat situation, which in a way I suppose I was.

In fact, it may have been having to be so disciplined in these situations that made me such a smart ass in the rest of my life. After all, what could a teacher, a minister or even a policeman do to me that was worse than living with a violent psychopath? So I certainly began to be somewhat rebellious and something of a discipline problem, and I learned that as long as I didn’t go too far that I could get away with a lot, a lesson I learned directly from Eddie. So I gave a lot of the adults around me a hard time. None of them ever seemed to think there might have been a reason for acting out which in hindsight seems remarkable. But in many ways it was a simpler time. People didn’t connect the dots of causality as readily as they seem to today. Teachers weren’t trained to look for signs of abuse. And domestic problems were rarely interfered with, as it was still a less enlightened time when the authorities almost always took the man’s side as a matter of course.

Certainly that was the family’s reaction — both sides — even when they could ignore it no longer, they did little about it. They left my mother to fend for herself, and me by extension. It went on literally in varying degrees of severity from this time until the day my mother died, and in some ways it even continued a little while after that, because Eddie contested the will and threatened my life in the process. So I learned to swallow my pride, my anger and a lot of other emotions during that time. It’s taken me a long time let them back out and even today, twenty-five years after my mother’s death, some of it is still a struggle. There are days when I wish I could just be a normal person, but that is just one of the emotions denied me by my monster of a stepfather, a family and community who didn’t want to get involved and a mother too scared for herself to look out for her son.

An average evening would begin around supper time with the “is he or isn’t he” question, meaning will Eddie be arriving home at dinnertime. If he did, it usually signaled a relatively quiet night, though it was no guarantee. This was especially so once he started his own business, because without a boss he was free to drink throughout the day, a luxury he partook of more and more as the years wore on. But so long as he didn’t go past his threshold he could have a violence-free night. And as that was the other thing that increased during that time, Eddie’s tolerance for alcohol, it meant it took more and more alcohol to push him over the edge. The was the good news. The bad news, however, as it usually is, was much worse. Because since it took more alcohol to turn him into the monster, the monster, too, grew larger and more monstrous over the years. So that by the time I was nearing the end of high school, it was getting positively dangerous to my very physical well-being to be around on those nights when he exploded. So I abandoned my mother to suffer his wrath alone. Did I feel guilty? Not at the time, I didn’t. I suppose in my youthful arrogance, I continued to blame my mother somewhat not for causing Eddie to happen, but for continuing to let it happen. But I know now she felt perhaps almost as helpless as I did.

But in some ways the early days, though less violent, were worse because I was younger and had not yet steeled myself to regularly expect my childhood to be interrupted by violence and misery on an on-going basis. It was always new and, as such, a surprise every time. At first Eddie would be obviously drunk when he got home. We would know it immediately by the telltale whiskey on his breath, his fumbling around with decreased motor functions and by his slurred speech. We’d try our best not to provoke him. Initially this wasn’t too hard and just involved be incredibly subservient and even a little obsequious as I imagined people at royal courts around kings and queens must have acted. It certainly felt like Eddie had sovereignty over our lives and if displeased could dispatch us on a whim. It’s hard to describe the fear of trying to keep it together and stay in control enough so that he didn’t become angry. Inside I’d be seething with a rage that seemed impossible to contain. But contain it I did, because the one thing I did not want was to let out the beast in Eddie. It did not make me a better person outside of my home or later, either, because I learned too well to bottle up my emotions, which would inevitably lead me to uncork them at always the wrong time and in the wrong way, though in part that’s probably because there is no right way to do any of those things. It’s unhealthy behavior from the get-go, so no response really works. Boy did that take me a long time to work out. It’s not good to have a psychopath as a role model, no matter how inadvertent.

Dinner was almost always the first order of business for Eddie, and my mother was expected to have it ready as soon as he sat down. In the earlier days, we usually sat at the table in the kitchen to eat. Later, we more frequently sat in the living room in front of the television, especially when supper was later and later in the evening. My mother was a decent cook, nothing too spectacular, but she made most of our meals well enough that I have fond recollections for some of her dishes. She made a great meatloaf, for example, and did the most amazing fried potato chunks that had a crispy coating but were exquisitely tender inside. I was a fairly picky eater, confining the vegetables I’d eat to peas and corn, so it was something of a challenge for her since Eddie ate practically anything. The household rule was that I’d have to try a small portion of whatever foods I hated, meaning Brussel sprouts, liver and all manner of other despised foods made there way past my unwilling taste buds. But it was that or risk an incident. So I reluctantly ate whatever was put in front of me, without protest.

The other dinner rule was that I wasn’t allowed to leave the table until I’d cleared my plate completely of all food. This rule was decidedly cruel was I was very young because I had a great fear of choking when I swallowed food, and for some unknown reason especially meat. It would take me a good hour or more to eat a hamburger, for instance. I would just chew and chew and chew. It just never felt small enough that I wouldn’t choke. I don’t really even know what the genesis of this problem was, though I suspect I must have accidentally choked on something when I was too young to remember it, but if so, nobody else remembered it either. Eventually I outgrew it, though I was helped along by coming home late one evening from playing at the crick (the creek a few blocks from our house) to find my mother hd packed food for a trip tp thr drive-in and we wouldn’t be able to go unless I gobbled down my food in record time. On this occasion, both Eddie and my mother looked like they wanted to tear me limb from limb so I ate my dinner in what seemed like mere seconds. I never again had a problem swallowing my food, though I’m still a slow eater even today. Though I tell myself I just like taking my time and savoring the food.

I also liked reading at the table, though I had to give that up, too. One evening when I was around eight, I was thoroughly engrossed in a paperback about who killed the Red Baron. It was a popular historical book, though it was written for adults at least. Apparently, I wasn’t paying enough attention at the table and Eddie grabbed it out of my hands and ripped it in half. I think Eddie was one of those people that really could have torn a phonebook in half, though I never saw him accomplish that particular feat. I did witness many other displays of superhuman strength, however. I saw Eddie rip the phone right of the wall with one hand, break a pair of metal scissors right in half, punch holes into a wall, and smash china figurines by squeezing them in his hand until they blew apart. Curiously, he never harmed his own things when he seemed so blinded by rage. He was obviously in control enough that he only chose objects that belonged to my mother or me.

My mother collected these horrible little knick-knack china dolls that were displayed on several shelves in the living room and dining room. I don’t know who made them or, as a boy, why, but I never liked them. My mother, on the other hand, loved dolls and especially these china ones for some reason. They weren’t antiques and I don’t think they were collectible, at least not in the sense that things are manufactured today precisely to be collectible. But she collected them from the stores that sold them. They were only a few inches high, probably no more than 6-10 inches tall, and had thin delicate features. They each had different hair and differently ball gowns on. Whoever made them, they cost a little more than $10 a piece in the 1960s. I know because we purchased pieces of the collection over and over again. They were a favorite target of Eddie’s when he was drunk and angry. He knew my mother loved them and that was what made them prime targets for him. He was very good at psychological warfare and knew just the things to say or break to upset my mother with maximum impact. Whether this was a learned skill or just intuitive, I never figured out. But he was definitely very good at it.

I generally learned to keep my own things hidden as best I could. Not at first, of course, but after I’d lost several favorite toys, books and other things, I figured out that it was best to keep anything I cared about as out of sight as possible. Of course, I was just a kid and so this wasn’t always carried out with unfailing skill nor did it even matter sometimes. One time I had a box out of the way in the basement that I’d filled with favorite things like baseball cards, hot wheel cars, and some games I was especially fond of only to have Eddie throw the entire box out with the trash when he came upon them one drunken day. I mourned that box for years, there were so many treasures in it.

I watched Eddie smash to pieces the children’s antique rocking chair that had been in my family for generations because it was in his way. I don’t remember crying so much or so hard over a piece of furniture before or since. I loved that chair. It sat in the living room in front of the coffee table off to one side and was small enough that it was just my size from the time I was a toddler to whatever age I was when Eddie pulverized it into oblivion. It’s possible that my unhealthy attachment to inanimate objects stems from that incident because I remember blaming myself for a part of my family’s history having been so callously destroyed. Long-dead relatives had sat in that chair on the family farm stretching back more generations than I could even really understand, and Eddie had picked it up like it meant absolutely nothing. I recall felling like a part of me was being smashed to bits as I watched it be annihilated before my eyes.

Eddie, when enraged, went into what seemed like a kind of trance. He was a whirling dervish of destruction and would break, smash, hit or otherwise destroy whatever was in his path. It would happen suddenly, like he’d been uncorked and the energy would just rush out of him, lashing this way and that seemingly uncontrollably. But the weird thing was as you grew more and more used to seeing this happen and it began to lose its power to surprise, though not it’s power to make you afraid, you noticed that there was a pattern to it that implied some measure of control. It generally went like this. Eddie would be drunk. Falling down drunk. A how in the hell did he drive home kind of drunk. But he’d seem calm, yet very tense. His speech would be short and his demeanor very demanding. He would expect to be waited on hand and foot. He expect his every whim to be acted upon, in the manner of imagined royalty. Any little slip up, or even perceived slip up — back talk was a favorite — and the game was on. The bottle of his rage uncorked and devastation rained down on our house. He’d smash up the house again and again, he’d push us around, yell and scream with terrifying effect, threaten all manner of worse atrocities, eventually passing out on the sofa after his energy was utterly spent.

The house would be left in tatters again, and we would be left emotionally scarred and physically exhausted. He never left much of a mark on either one of us and if he did, it always resembled something a simple accident might account for rather than an obvious purple bruise of abuse. He seemed to know just how far he could push us without giving us any ammunition to use against him. It was uncanny. And it was this ability that led me to understand how cold and calculating all of this really was. It took me many years, but I finally worked out that it was totally useless to even try to mollify his anger. It wasn’t about reaching any limit or figuring out how not to slip up. It was a fool’s game with absolutely no way to win. If we didn’t present him with a reason to explode, he would manufacture one. It was inevitable. He wanted an excuse to take out whatever was making him so angry on us. It somehow made him feel better about himself, terrorizing his family the way it did. It served some demented purpose that only he understood, if indeed anyone ever did. Because the pattern never changed, no matter what we did. The result was always inescapably the same.

And so was my mother’s reaction. She would clean the house of almost all signs that he’d broken it up while he slept it off. When Eddie woke up the next morning there would often be no sign of what had occured the night before and he would claim no memory of it whatsoever and expect both of us — or so it seemed — to like pretend nothing had happened. He had so many parent blackouts that he must have lost entire years worth of memory, if he was to be believed. Whenever there was evidence that couldn’t be covered up, such as smashed china and the like, Eddie would act contrite and remorseful. He’d give us money to replace the broken things and — at least I always thought — to buy our silence. He’d bring home flowers for my mother the next day. She’d force a smile and act as if nothing was wrong with their relationship.

It was a deeply dysfunctional relationship and my mother helped perpetuate her own misery, as well as my own. She would blame herself, as I would learn only later was so common in abusive marriages. At the time, I could not understand it and I turned increasingly away from her, which she no doubt likewise blamed on herself. We took to yelling at each other as the years progressed and grew estranged. Looking back, perhaps I should have been more understanding but I had that all too common myopia of adolescence in which my problems were the only one that really mattered and they were world class in size, too. Should I have understood better what was happening and found a better way to respond than retreating into myself and away from home? For a long time I asked myself that question without ever really finding a satisfactory answer. I was, after all, just a kid. But should that have excused my not stepping up and demanding more of myself at the time? I honestly don’t know. I can’t live it over again — thank goodness — and I can’t say I could have done anything differently, even if I’d wanted to.

This was also the same time that I first tried near beer. I don’t remember why my mother bought it for me, but it was in the basement refrigerator with the rest of the real alcohol. Perhaps she was afraid that my stepfather’s influence might turn me into an alcoholic, too, who knows? But some friends and I tried it one afternoon when I was in my early teens, probably around twelve or so. It was truly awful, as I remember it, and I wasn’t the only one. We all hated it. If this was what beer tasted like, I didn’t understand why adults seemed to drink so much of it. But it did seem like so many other aspects of the life I’d imagined for myself. It was as close to beer as my life was to being normal, not even close.

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