by Hugh Adams
I didn’t have to ask what my mother was staring at. She had been doing a lot of brooding the last few days after all the turmoil of the past week or two. It had all started . . . no, it actually had started years before, maybe even years before I had been born.
My father always suffered from an excess of nervous energy, although perhaps it had been anger driving him more than anything else. As the youngest, I was mostly unaware of earlier, seminal events and even now know very little; most times I’m not sure if I want to know. Stories abounded of frustrated ambitions and how family pride had led or forced him away from some ideas for how to lead a life only to be diverted down yet other paths through in-directed anger and spite against the tyrannies of an Irish family.
My father spent his promise on brooding and resentment; moreover, his investment went mostly within and was bestowed only indirectly on his family or on the wider world. His work performance diminished even as demands of a growing family loomed larger. He lost positions of authority and management to the steady encroachment of drink and dissatisfaction. Eventually he was reduced to the back breaking labor of emptying railroad cars for a supermarket chain. Along the way he sacrificed a large part of his stomach to nerves, an eventuality which exacerbated what came after.
He took to coming home already awash in beer and lugging back up supplies in several quart bottles. Slouching into his chair, he would slur through the evening news, then at dinner berate our family one and all about issues of the day, of course, mostly school work related. While he would provoke most of us, including my mother, he seemed to especially relish goading my oldest sister, an awakening feminist and free thinker. Still too young to leave on her own, somehow she survived years of a waking nightmare, mostly through the advent of shouting and tears prior to a closing headlong rush up the stairs. While we would all breathe a sigh of relief for her, it meant that the next target would be one or several of us before dinner was finally over and we could split up and go our individual ways.
Dad would stumble into the living room to watch a steady diet of TV westerns, many of which were so important to him that he would stay home from school functions because, say, “Cheyenne” was on. Because we would all with downcast eyes try to avoid him for the balance of the night, the engaging, mind emptying act of watching TV was welcome to us all and would eventually lead to his dozing off and snoring for awhile before his bladder would finally rouse him. Off to bed he would go, but not before negotiating a flight of steps to the bathroom and then to bed. Someone of us would have to escort him up the steps to avoid falls and slips, although, as the youngest, I rarely had this duty. Frequently it was my mother herself, gladly granting him safe passage so that she could watch a little TV in quiet, wherein she would also fall asleep with her blanket of dog keeping her company.
Every year at Father’s Day, I dredge my memory to find some valued and value-able memory of my father’s time with me. It is true I have some non distinct memories of fun times at a Jersey shore or sometimes a filament of a quiet dinner or breakfast, mostly Sundays, but they are blurry, curtained through tears and time. But a bonding memory, something that highlights our personal relationship, which might bring a smile to someone else’s face, brings only regret and sorrow for its lack.
Once on a summery afternoon as my friends and I sat on our stoop, my father arrived home early. It is revealing that my first thought was that he had lost his job, but he showed no signs of worry nor did he appear to have that stiff back of the Irish drunk. After he greeted me and my friends, he asked if my mother was home. She was always home when we were but I said to him that I thought she was in the bathroom. With not a moment’s warning, his hand came up and slapped me on the left cheek. Then, as I cringed for a return smack, which never did come, he growled: “Don’t ever mention your mother’s in the bathroom in front of strangers!”
I was completely taken back as my friends looked away from my burning face and gave way to his stride up the steps. We were joined by the unnerving event and word of that occurrence never passed among us. Nor did I ever tell my mother, being fearful of creating ill feeling between them and possible further retribution for another unknown misdeed.
Another time, when I was younger, on a Friday or Saturday evening, I was sitting next to my mother on the couch. She was asleep while gently snoring under the dog, the TV tuned to some later evening news. My father was long asleep in a chair next to the front door, one empty quart bottle on its side on the floor, another, upright but half gone, next to it. I was awake and hoping to soon be abed without disturbing either of them. But my father stirred, his cargo of beer demanding relief, and he jerkily waked and looked bleary-eyed around him. As he sat upright, his hand pawed at his zipper. I quickly patted my mother on the arm and she stirred as well. But as she slowly awakened, my father was already up, mumbling incoherently. There was the definite metallic snicker of a zipper.
My mother gasped in a breath and pushed the dog from her lap as she sat up and pawed at his arm. “Jim! Jim! Wake up! Wake Up! Look at me! Look at me! Don’t start! Don’t start! You’re still in the living room! In the living room!”
But it went nowhere as he pawed at the opening of his briefs and pulled out his fleshy, half erect with booze, penis. He grasped it in his hand firmly and with a sigh, began a prolonged, splashy yellow to orange stream all over the living room rug. My mother was paralyzed with shame, anger and grief and slapped a hand over her eyes, her other groping at my face as she cried out: “Cover your eyes! Cover your eyes! Don’t look! Please don’t look!” that last sounding broken and resigned to yet another degradation. When his urination finished, she angrily grabbed at his elbow and cried to him; `You’re done. You’re done! Now get up to the bathroom before anything else happens! She was gripping his elbow tightly. He shook off her grasp and angrily yelled: “Leave me alone. Leave me the fuck alone!” and staggered to the stairs.
I was speechless at the whole scene and just watched as he disappeared up the steps while my mother furiously pushed and pulled at furniture and bunched up the rug to clean up, the room already permeated with the strong stench of urine.
That had been years ago, both memories past now. Now, in that time just after my twelfth birthday, my father now dead within that same month, buried a week before, I had no question why my mother stared at the small line up of empty beer bottles. She had not had the resolve to deal with them since his death and the curious celebration of an Irish wake. My father being dead brought mute irresolution to me as well, as I could not bring myself to accept his death or mourn him except as I mourned for us all.
Beer bottles, empty of their evil, still had value. While we were not dirt poor, every penny mattered and this was in the day of deposits on bottles. Not a youngster in our neighbor hood would pass up any discarded bottle that had the surprise of a bounty about it. This row of bottles was probably worth 50 cents at least, so they had to be returned.
She had accepted my offer to collect the beer bottles and wrap them in a bag so that someone could return them. The next day, however, when I came home a little earlier from school, I found her in the yard, bent over the bag as it lay in an oversize trash can. She was beating the bag with a hammer. Shielding her eyes with her hand, she slammed and bammed the heavy weight to the resounding shatter, crash and tinkle of glass beneath the iron. When she turned at my calling her name, she uncovered her eyes, her face streaming with tears and shaming to red.
She called to me as she covered her eyes again and returned to her task, “Don’t look! Please don’t look! Cover your eyes! Don’t look anymore!”
Forgive: mother … and father.
Hugh Adams lives in Trenton and works at a nonprofit organization in Ewing that promotes and sponsors voluntarism by adults 55 and over.