Seven-year-old boys are improvised explosive devices. They run through mud and water and fences and fields and each other. They smash windows with baseballs and smash their knees on trees and rocks and gravel and falling bicycles. They catch grasshoppers in their cupped hands and open their palms again to release them, feeling the pressure of their tiny legs pushing against their skin as they spring back into the open dusk. They sit hidden in swampy gullies, watching the wind walking among tall reeds, bending their tassels of seeds with a gently gusty fragrance from another street over, another town, a scent from the ocean, and the neighbor’s perfume, a husky whisper, all gliding to the senses of the restless child.
My brother and I shared the top front room of a Boston triple-decker. Sitting side-by-side in its bay window, we could watch the world below, running past without any apparent motivation, simply continuing, a train without an engine. On the first floor was a foster care family, where four or five children at a time would rotate through, always girls. Bruce, the foster father would rarely show his face, and when he did, it was to meet with one anxious man or another on the back porch. The two would stand together in relative silence for a moment, until small packages would pass from Bruce’s hands to the strangers’, and they would carry them away, seeming calmer than when they arrived, yet also somehow defeated. On the second floor was Robert, an older boy, with his mother and usually one of a long series of her boyfriends. Years later, shortly after he turned 18 and just before his daughter was born, Robert would be found in an empty apartment, eyes glassy and lifeless, frozen in a macabre tableau, a statue sculpted by heroin and memories too heavy to bear. But that’s another story. And like most stories, no one will ever tell it.
Outside in the narrow gap of a driveway, sunlight oozed down between the two triple-decker apartment buildings which seemed, to a seven-year-old, immeasurably tall. Tiger lilies cavorted together around a car covered in Bondo patches, where Bruce would be adding a new layer of putty to the hopelessly rusted undercarriage, proudly explaining “When it dries it’s hard as a rock,” to anyone near enough to listen, a can of bud light sitting always within arms-reach.
Behind the building was a dirt yard surrounded by chain-link fence and beyond that the drainage ditch that we called “the woods” and a sprawling parking lot behind a school that was built on an old landfill. Several years earlier, the city had realized that gasses from the landfill were seeping through the ground into the classrooms, and they had closed the school, only to reopen it the next year in the same condition, but this time as a school for the mentally disabled.
This was my playground, a medieval wilderness behind the old school, built on a garbage dump. The drainage ditch filled with invasive reeds, which like us, grew far too fast to be controlled. I saw the world this way, taking in all the shouts of the neighborhood, the rivalries between drunken fathers. The teenagers having sex in the bushes, the pornography that older boys would leave in the secret spot behind the fence, the arguing parents. Nothing is a secret to a child, and yet everything is. In the evenings, I was sent to find my brother to bring him home for dinner, and I stood in the parking lot by the school, calling his name, and finding that it echoed back to me in the warm air of summer dusk, bouncing off the red brick walls. In these moments, when I realized my shouts were unheard, and that everyone was out of earshot, I suddenly felt the liberation of anonymity, and I would shout and hoot at the top of my lungs and make all manner of sounds to see what form the would take when they came back to me.
During the day, we ran in packs with children who avoided cussing by spelling out the word, saying “What the H-E-double-hockey-sticks?” and who our teachers never did convince that ain’t was not a word. There were days we spent on the second floor of our building, visiting Robert, who was a year older than my brother. We clustered on the couch watching Robert’s favorite show, wrestle-mania, next to his mother’s overflowing ashtrays on the side tables. We marveled at the strange names of the wrestlers – “The Ultimate Warrior”, “Andre the Giant,” “The Undertaker,” – and the even stranger costumes and makeup which, in retrospect, made them look like drag-queen super-heroes.
On days when Robert’s mother’s boyfriend Tony was home from one of the odd jobs he did when he wasn’t in jail, he would amaze the crowd of children by lifting two of us high in the air by the arm, one in each hand, his biceps flexed and bulging like those of the wrestlers on TV, and each of them would giggle with the thrill of being suspended in space as Tony belly-laughed at our adulation.
Adults made no real sense – why they did the things they did, danced in the ways they danced, why they told the jokes they told, exactly when and why the disagreements between the angry, spandex-clad wrestlers on TV had originated and how they had turned into violent feuds – these things were unknowable. Had The Undertaker and The Ultimate Warrior tried to work out their differences peaceably, by talking through their grievances before hurling themselves at one another in the ring? To us, adults seemed like an entirely irrational group of people. Even so, we felt a thrill in imitating them. Somehow these imitations each turned into something harder and more real. Our impersonations of wrestlers would turn into real fights, and end with a fat lip or a bloody nose. Eventually, after enough bloody noses, my parents would admonish me to stop spending time with Robert. Increasingly, I would return home crying, and my mother would explain to me, “He just wants to see your reaction. If you get upset, that’s exactly what he wants.” But this fell on deaf ears, and I would inevitably over-react to being pushed, or punched, or tackled, and get angry and fight back, leading to even more shouts and curses. The more it happened, the more it would happen.
My father hated all this. He didn’t like Robert, and he hated that we had to live near him – that he didn’t make enough as a hotel cook to afford to move elsewhere. He hated the wrestlers that Robert talked about, and when we came home he would read us different stories, tales of a time bygone, filled with men of iron in the time of King Arthur. Men who hurled themselves on horseback towards one another jousting to knock the other to the ground for valor, for honor, for love.
There were very few girls in this tiny world of ours. Girls were a world apart, and lived in separate groups, taught to enjoy strange and incomprehensible things, and we were usually told to keep our distance, to do boy things with other boys. Adult men were fascinated with girls and women in a way that we thought was equally bizarre and confusing. They talked about the different parts of women’s bodies, looked at pictures of them posed in strange positions that no person would normally choose to be in. And though this also made no sense, there was always an older boy like Charlie who would talk about sex as though it were completely normal, without ever explaining why. Charlie was gangly with long simian arms and a sandy mullet hanging over eyes. He loved to tell stories and have people sit and listen. He told us about how he about done time in juvie for trying to ax-murder his mother. Whether the story was true or not true was irrelevant. To hear him tell it, invoked in the listener the same sense of unease and unclarity whether they believed him or not. For what was true for sure was that whether he had done it, or had seen someone do it, or had merely imagined it over and over in his head, it was emblematic of his idea of what it meant to be a man; to be powerful.
When my cousin Patrick was in town for a weekend, our mothers opened the early summer windows and drank wine on a sunny Saturday afternoon and talked in more phrases that made little sense. When they talked they moved their hands forward and backward in the air in a pantomime. Their voices were different than when they spoke to us, as if they were speaking in code and whatever was happening it was foreign enough to us that we thought we should escape to the playground at the nearby school.
My brother was there, and so were Robert, John-John, and Charlie. They were engaged in another pantomime, one where they picked two of them to test their strength in the ring like the Ultimate Warrior, or dueling knights, clad in heavy iron armor, set to a test of valor. Robert and my brother started the game, and no sooner had it started than Robert was on top of him. He was trying to land a punch, but my brother’s deft blocking rendered the fists harmless. I thought I would need to learn to do that – block punches. Clearly, it would be important in life. Robert fought harder and my brother became frantic. In the next moment, my brother’s fingers wrapped around Robert’s arm and squeezed sharp fingernails into his skin until a shriek poured out of him loud enough that his body flew back and my brother stood up.
“Ahh, he digs!” Robert said, clutching his arm. “You f*ckin’ pu$$y!” He shouted over his shoulder.
And the test was over. I had watched from the gravel ground below the two-story wooden playscape. Patrick stood on the balcony watching from above, enthralled. He looked at the two of them with reverent awe, as if the scene had triggered some instinctive excitement, as though they were larger than life gladiators from a foreign world.
“That was so cool!” he said as Robert joined him at the top.
“You look pretty tough,” Robert cajoled him. “I bet you’d beat me in a fight.”
“Well, maybe,” Patrick puffed himself up, and tried to look nonchalant.
“It’s true, look at those muscles,” he pointed to Patrick’s arm. “Hey, come here, let me show you something.” He gestured to follow. “Look down there.” He pointed at something in the distance, across the parking lot. Patrick peered over the edge into space for a moment before his feet were lifted up beneath him. From my vantage point below, I could see him land upside down and head first on top of the chain-link fence, his body vertical, its weight pushing his head downward into the galvanized-steel wire. Then the sound erupted from Patrick with the force of Vesuvius. He leaped up and sprinted across the parking lot toward our apartment and was swept away by his mother’s fury to get stitched up by a doctor.
Later when my father came home, he took me aside. He seemed upset, as if listening to the echo of anger that was from somewhere else, from some other child in some other world. A world he wanted to keep from me. Anger filled him like a balloon, but instead of bursting, it gave him a cool self-assuredness. “Bullies,” he explained, “are cowards. All you have to do is show them you’re tough. Show ‘em you’re not someone to mess with.” He held my hand, with my palm up, the back of my hand resting on his palm. His hands smelled like grease from the kitchen where he worked. “If you can’t avoid a fight, close your four fingers first, then your thumb. If you wrap your thumb inside, you could break it when you hit someone.” My father was not a man who talked like this often. He was a scholar, a writer, a historian. He fought only with his words, which he could wield like hand grenades. “Don’t flail your fist,” he said. “Aim it straight and put your weight behind it. Hit him like that and he’ll run away crying. He’ll never bother you again. I promise.”
On the night that we woke in the late autumn to see that the driveway was filled with flashing blue light, we were not told why. We were only told that the boyfriend, Tony, would not be seen there again, and that we would not see Robert for several weeks. It was common to hear shouts from the floor below, tempers flare out of control, and sometimes loud banging sounds. But this night was different. This was not the type of corporal punishment that polite society has come to abhor as something that leaves our children with emotional scars. This was not the overwhelmed parent with frayed nerves who chooses to teach a child an ill-conceived lesson with his belt – a lesson which rarely imparts much understanding other than that larger people have more power. This was something different. This was a grown man, Tony, a bodybuilder, a man desperate to prove he wasn’t weak. This was the dark welling up inside him until he lost control, ripped the heavy old Bakelite telephone from the wall. With one arm he had pinned Robert to the yellow linoleum kitchen floor, and with the other, he gripped the telephone and smashed it repeatedly into the face and upper body of a young boy. I don’t know if this man felt afterward that he had proven whatever he needed to prove to the world. I never asked, because I never saw him again. The news would report that police had found an unnamed child in a pool of his own blood and rushed him to the hospital where he was treated for wounds across his upper body.
It took several weeks before Robert returned. Whether he was in a hospital, or temporary foster care, or both, I never learned. I was walking with my brother that evening, pushing our bikes home from the baseball field at dusk. Nearby was the school parking lot where I had played with echoes on a similar summer night, perhaps the year before. There seemed to be no one there but us in the empty night, and yet the quiet leaves and the milkweed growing in the woods nearby were broken as we saw Robert coming out of them toward us. We didn’t greet him, and he said nothing. He simply attacked with a force without anger. If there was rage inside him, he didn’t show it. He exercised some unseen control, which extended out from him to me. There didn’t need to be a reason. I closed my four fingers and wrapped my thumb on the outside. I was down. I got back up, like they said. Fight like a man. Don’t back down. Show him you’re strong. I threw my fist straight. It landed square on his forehead. He threw me to the ground again. I don’t know how long I stood and fought, but eventually, I fell for the last time. I watched treads of his sneakers as his foot came down on my face again and again. You might believe that being stomped in the face is worse than being stomped in the stomach. It isn’t – it’s more humiliating for sure, and yet, even as I thought my teeth would be knocked out of my head, being stomped in the stomach, having your organs mashed together inside you is pain that seers through your entire body. Time and again I fought to get up, and each time I was knocked back down. The louder I screamed, the more control he felt, and the more he continued. Where was my brother? Why wasn’t he intervening? I looked at him, standing stalk still nearby. I called to him for help, but he didn’t, he stood there, silent. Silent as though he had already learned something that speaking would betray, as though the act of speaking itself invited danger. Was that it? Or was it just that he wanted to watch. I couldn’t be certain, nor did it matter. I thought he might kill me, and it became clear that there would be no help. No one was coming to put an end to this. Whatever happened, whatever was going to bring this to an end, I knew it had to come either from Robert or from me. I tried to get up again, and yelled louder, and the beating intensified, Robert’s face was expressionless save a cold fascination. He was causing this – he was in control, and in that there was a faint hint of satisfaction in his eyes. It was not malice, it was not rage. He was calm and curious, looking at the expression on my face as if he had seen it somewhere before. At that moment I recalled what my mother had said to me. “If you get upset, that’s exactly what he wants.” Fighting did not work. Screaming did not work – I had to deprive him of the one thing that he wanted. I stopped fighting him. I stopped yelling. I was without reaction. I didn’t even recoil at his blows – I wanted to but forced myself to stay still as they came toward me. I was placid. I simply lay there, silent like my brother, and deep calm washed over me. He continued slamming his feet into my face, but I was serene. I felt no anger. The world was distant, and all sound slipped away from me like water down a drain. The entire world was silent. The wind in the trees, the stars in the sky, the cars on the overpass nearby, the field of milkweed, the old red brick wall of the school all singing together, had suddenly come to rest in their music, and in perfect unison, played the silence.
Shortly thereafter he stopped and walked away. I had taken the thing he wanted most away from him – control of myself. The calm of that moment stayed with me for hours, as I got up and walked home, and saw that my brother had gone to get my parents, who were now walking toward me, looking at me with revulsion. I didn’t see myself as they did, with the lower half of my face covered in blood, plodding forward in perfect calm. My father carried me in his big arms, my face turning his grey sweatshirt crimson. My mother vanished. Later she would reappear and tell me that she had gone and found Robert and threatened to kill him if he ever came near us again. Perhaps she thought that the fear of violence was the only thing that he would respond to. So, that was the day that my mother became someone who threatened to murder a thirteen-year-old. I have thought of this day nearly every day since and probably will for many years to come. And every day I am reminded that no one is coming to help, and that the only true safety is in silence.
I knew there was no reason to fight Joel, except that the other boys had decided we should. We were on a blacktop playground after school and instead of walking home, we lingered and pitted one boy against another to test our strength in second-grade squalor.
I didn’t know Joel very well, and I didn’t dislike him, apart from his shrill, nasal voice that was always slightly too loud. In his face, behind the determined expression he had donned as he glared back at me, prepared for a fight, there was a softness, a clean-ness that I suddenly found made me angry. Like he had just gotten out of a hot bath, naked, and his mother had wrapped a towel around him. Like he was running to the window to watch the first snowfall of the year, and there wasn’t an ounce of fear in his mind. It made me angry. I wasn’t just angry – when I looked at him, I was disgusted. He was weak, and I wanted to rub his disgusting face in his own weakness. I wanted to put the fear in him. I rushed forward.
With one hand I clutched at his throat and pushed him against the ground as though my survival depended on it. I felt him struggle against me, and then fall back to the ground beneath me, and a sickening thrill rose up from inside me. On his face was written an irrepressible rage the comes from the desire to destroy someone else: me. I had to wipe the revolting look off his face, and off the faces of everyone watching. Holding his throat with one hand I beat his face with the other, until the world appeared red. Not red from the bloody knuckle-prints on his cheeks, or the red tinge to his face as he struggled to breathe, but everything was tinged with red as if seen through a red glass bottle – all colors in the world were red. Sounds were muffled and distant. I looked around to see the red faces of other boys as I realized they were lifting me up, pulling me off of him where he lay on the red asphalt beneath red trees and a red sky. And then the same distant calm pervaded, and the color began to slowly seep back into the world, first the purples and the oranges and then the greens and cool blues, until it was ordinary again, and I walked home feeling the air, relishing the shock on the other boys faces, feeling complete as if I had stepped finally into a twisted inheritance and claimed it as my own. I felt safe.
Later I lay in bed in the dark, in the stillness. Later, my mother would return home from waiting tables, and try to enter the house in silence so as not to wake us, and I would finally know it was safe to fall asleep. She brought the familiar smell of the restaurant home with her, letting me know she was there. But after she went to bed I didn’t feel safe as I had before, but as though all around was imminent danger. I imagined all the people who had died before. I imagined them being angry. I would be angry. Angry as my father. Angry as Tony. I imagined them in the room with me, looking for a living person to take vengeance on. And as they all do, slowly, this image began to seem real, as though, if I opened my eyes, dozens of wraiths would appear hovering over me, scanning me for signs of life. My eyes stayed locked shut as if super-glued. I controlled my breathing, slow, low, shallow. Anything to disguise the signs of life. I imagined each ghost passing over me, looking to revenge itself on a living person, looking me over, and seeing no signs of life, passing onward. If I could stay perfectly silent, I would be safe at last.
Time doesn’t always run on a continuum. Sometimes, events seem linked across time even though we have no idea how far apart in time they occurred. Echoes of these events reach across time to other events as if linked by some deeper quantum entanglement. This was true of another day that my friends Eddie, BJ and I were running on the playground at recess, when two girls stopped us. They informed us with brazen seven-year-old authority that a certain section of the playground was theirs, and we weren’t welcome. BJ shouted – in the loud voice that he always used before thinking – that it was ours and they had to leave. One of the girls pushed him. I saw it without understanding it. I made no choice. I simply reacted as I had always done, as I had done with Robert, as I had done with Joel. I grabbed one of the girls by the throat and pushed her against the wall of the playground, between the big red steering wheels and the slide. I pushed. Everyone but the two of us run away for help, but it didn’t occur to me that any adult would come and intervene. They never had before. All I saw was someone who had, in my mind, attacked my friend, and to me that could only mean one thing, could only be responded to in one way. And yet in the instant that I began to push, her face contorted, not in vicious rage as Joel’s had. It was something different. She looked at me, silent, breathless, unable to scream, yet asking through desperate, searching eyes why I would do such a thing; why anyone ever would do such a thing. She looked at me and saw what I was doing for what it was, and act of rage-filled horror. She looked at me as though asking how I, how any person could possibly become such a monster as I was in that moment. But what I ultimately saw written on her face was everything I had refused to say when I had chosen to be silent that evening months before, when I chose to cut off all expression of pain and anger to get him to stop; at this moment, everything I had felt in that moment, all the terror, the fear, the surprise, the confusion, the shame, and the disgust was written clearly on her face, outside of me, yet it was the same as my own. And now it was hers. I immediately let go and stepped back in shock, after what was only an instant, but had felt like the cumulative span of both our lifetimes. And she ran. She had not recognized some piece of herself in me as I had in her. To her, I was only a monster and I likely always will be.
I ran and hid behind a little green concrete building at the edge of the schoolyard, and I sat, holding my knees, weeping into them. Inches to my right, beyond the protection of the building’s shade, the golden sun danced on the blacktop where other children were still running and laughing – the first sign that the world had continued to turn; everything had not ended. I looked up for a moment, eyeing the gate in the fence that led out into the not-school world – the path to anywhere else. Through the gate was a tree-covered sidewalk, and a world to melt away into. The urge to escape everything battled inside me with the urge to stay hidden, covered by a painted green concrete shield, shaded by its bulk from the disgusted eyes of the world, invisible. But this dance was shattered too soon by an approaching teacher, and the two girls at her side, both glaring at me. The teacher wore a shocked look, her mouth slightly slack, and looked from me to two girls several times before he bewildered voice creaked, “I think you’ve all been through enough.” And the bell rang, and she turned and walked, beckoning us back to class. And it was over.
And was the source of that violence within myself? Did it come from me, or just end up there? Was I simply its repository for the time being? Or did it come from Robert, and did he get it from his mother’s boyfriends or from the TV? Or did he get it from his father? And from where did it come upon his father? And how many fathers, passed on to how many sons, how many nephews, grandsons, along with how many bifurcated branches, leading back to the surface – the trunk – the center. A great foaming river rushing with raw power at the center of our introduction to the world. Our birth: a fire. Was this what Robert had ultimately wanted, not to cause suffering in another but to see, on the face of another, what he felt himself? Is every branch in this tree simply driven by a twisted desire to understand the other?
The mass of men lead lives of Silent Heredity. We begin by imitating other men for reasons we do not understand, until we become them. The limits of our consciousness are handed to us. We can only go a little farther than those who came before us. We do not know why we make all the choices we make, but we make them all the same. When we are young, we wonder why we do this, and wonder if we can change. But as we grow older, we stop wondering, and we begin to believe that there is some logic in the illogical simply because we remember nothing else. We have fallen into the dream of the world, a dream so vast it overarches everything in our sight; a dream so thick we can’t see through it, cannot wake up. It seems there has never been anything else. We believe that the confusion that our own lives inspire in children and teenagers is only because they do not understand the way of the world as we do, and not because of the blatant absurdity of our lives. We say that someday they will understand when they’re older. The real truth behind this statement is a sin, shrouded in a dream. The sin, not that they will understand when they’re older, but the knowledge that they too will accept the same collective dream as wisdom, as the way of things, as we ourselves eventually did. Every moment of our present instantly becomes the past, and it will become someone else’s past. Every act of domestic violence, every football brain injury, every rape, every pimp and prostitute, every gang shooting is simply another handing down of this essential sin. Every police shooting of an unarmed black man, every missile fired, every pre-emptive strike, every call for peace through strength, every immigrant child ripped from its parents at the US Mexico border, from Vietnam’s agent orange to the wars for oil, to every terror attack, to the boy who is mocked for his tears on the playground is a link in this same great chain without beginning, and without end. I understand why so many people believe that a god is a man who was crucified and did nothing to fight back. “Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, he did not open his mouth.” But I have never met a man like that, and so I also understand why so many others hope that God is a woman.
The year I turned thirty, I needed to know where he was. I had heard rumors that he had died after several years in a local gang, but I had never confirmed those rumors. If he was alive today, what would he be like? Would he have fought against his own darkness? Would he have given in, or sought something greater outside himself? Would he have beaten down the dirt on that so well-worn path of those who went before him, and brought a child up in the same terror? Would I be stronger than him? Would we become friends? I was married, had finished college, and had a good job. Could I compare my own life to his, and would that measurement change anything? Would I be able to say that I had finally won? I made up my mind to answer these questions.
My search for him was short-lived. I quickly found a homemade website dedicated to him, made by his daughter. She was fifteen and had posted a picture of herself next to a picture of him from when he was 18 wearing a Reebok shirt, the year he had died – three months before she was born. He had overdosed on heroin and left little more behind than a picture, a nascent relationship – or maybe it was just a quick fuck – with the mother of his daughter who herself never knew him well and was probably never safe around him. A daughter who would never have a father, probably even if he had lived. Yet his daughter’s certainty of her story, the story of a father who loved her, was writ large. The website read: “Dear dad, even though I never met you I know what a wonderful person you were, and I know you’re watching over me every day.”
One dark part of me wanted to go to her, tell her who he really was, disabuse her of this dream that she lived in where the world was the kind of place where dark people became good for their daughters’ sake. And there I was finally struck with the strange possibility that she was right. He had died three months before her birth. And now it seemed possible that this was the greatest gift he could have given her, and that he gave it knowingly: a choice not to pass on to his daughter the gifts of his father. And how many times does the story bifurcate? One less. He took himself away, ending the storyline. He unraveled the curse by ending himself. So was she wrong about him? The gift he gave her was a life never knowing him and his indelible curse, one which he could never have helped but inflict on her. The only way to break the curse handed to him, and handed out through him, was to break himself.
Was his death the folly of addiction? Or was it the truest Act of Love there ever was? “Greater love has no man than this: that he will lay down his life for his friends.” The kindest thing he could have done was to die. I choose to believe that this was his deliberate choice. I have chosen this ending to the story as an author writes a work of fiction. It is not that it is not true, but I can never know, nor can you, what went through the mind of a dying young man. But I know that the legacy he left her was one of a wish. A wish for a better father than he could have been. The seed in the mind of a child of what a man could be, and the belief that that was the man he had been. So as she walks through her life, she will carry with her not the dark dreams of her father, and his father, but the expectation the men should be good. That they should take care of their daughters, that he surely would have taken care of her, had he been able. I choose to remember him this way, as a man who gave a greater gift than he himself had in him. A gift of setting her imagination free.
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