But, inevitably, circumstances would align against us. Something at my father’s work would initiate a sequence that wouldn’t launch until he arrived home. By now the four of us kids had learned to complete our chores or settle our disagreements before we saw his car pull into the driveway. But it didn’t seem to matter. There was always something left out, overlooked. An empty soda can on the end table. A bad report about school work. It could be something as simple as the wrong response to a question asked at the dinner table. And the sequence would reach its end, the code completed. The monster would smile, and in its maw we would see oblivion.
Those large hands would launch. Those who were their targets would be laid to waste beneath a rubble of tears and bruises—both inside and out.
Call it stupidity or just blind faith in the belief that people can change, but no matter how many times I witnessed my father’s transformation and experienced the pain he inflicted, upon myself or those around me, I always forgave him. I never let go of the hope that one day my father would rid himself of the monster that crouched inside the dark corridor of his eyes.
For the longest time, that monster took the form of alcohol. My mother often explained it was because my father drank too much that he was the way he was. And looking back, I can hardly recall a memory of my father where an open beer wasn’t within arm’s reach.
I remember nights he would come home late and there would be no explanation. Or he would leave soon after dinner and disappear into the dark only to return at an hour of his own choosing. He would enter the house his shoulders hunched, his mood altered. His voice would be much louder than usual, his laugh not his own, his stare not so accurate. Sometimes the alcohol would put the monster to sleep. Other times it made it irritable and more easily roused. On nights like these we made silent pacts with each other not to speak or do anything that would draw attention to ourselves. There was never a pattern to its behavior. It seemed to abide by its own unique set of rules. This was why I was so frightened and yet curious the night my father asked if I wanted to go with him.
My father collected guns. He made a hobby of buying and restoring old rifles. He had a small room to himself at the end of the hall where he worked, sometimes late into the night. Inside the room—which was off limits—I had seen glimpses of a workbench, a gun case and shelves of unnamed paraphernalia. When he went out alone at night, he sometimes said he was going gun hunting. One night, when he grabbed his coat, he turned to me. His eyes stared as if he were trying to fathom whether I could be trusted or not. Then he spoke. “You want to go?” I was ten years old.
My mother tried to step in and give him a reason why I couldn’t, but his eyes began to change. “But he wants to go.” A large hand fell upon my shoulder like a vulture’s claw. “Don’t you, son?”
I nodded in agreement.
My mother quickly pulled back, but not before kissing me on top of the head and making sure I was dressed warmly.
As my father and I rumbled off into the night, I could see my mother’s face in the living room window staring as if she would never see me again.
That night I was introduced to my father’s world. It was a world of darkness and solitude, of cold metal and long, winding roads. We stopped at several houses that operated shops out of their basements or converted sheds. They were all the same. Guns hung from every available space. There were cigar boxes and coffee cans filled with brass casings and lead bullets. Trays of tiny primers and cardboard canisters of gunpowder. Animal heads gazed down from the walls. While my father talked business, I picked through the odds and ends. When I saw something I liked, my father would throw it onto the pile and pay for it with a grin. “Starting him early, I see,” the gun shop owners would invariably say. And my father would nod. “They’re never too young.” And the shop owners would laugh, not knowing fully what my father had meant.
As the night wore on, my father began to stop at more than just gun shops. We would pull up alongside curbs in front of neon-lit buildings and he would disappear inside for ten to fifteen minutes at a time while I stayed in the car and played with my new toys—three old copper-cased civil war cartridges, each the size of a pack of gum and as heavy as a pocket knife. Each time my father returned to the car he was more animated than before, talking to me as if I understood what he was saying, or talking to no one in particular. At one of the many small town intersections we passed through, he changed his mind and made a last second turn that sent the car spinning around like an amusement park ride. He laughed and I laughed with him, scared and thrilled to the point of nearly pissing my pants. I enjoyed it when he laughed. It was a rare treat.
I wanted to spend all night with him, but it was getting late and I knew my mother would be angry that we hadn’t returned home yet. And as we drove under the street lights of a town I didn’t recognize, my father’s mood quieted. He seemed to be scanning the night. Hunting for something that couldn’t be found in a field or in the woods.
The streets were empty except for a woman pacing back and forth beneath one of the street lamps. She was dressed as if she were going to a party. My father pulled over. He put the car in park. Without a word, he got out and approached the woman. My only thought was that they somehow knew each other and he was just saying hello. But instead of a quick “Hi, how’s it going?” the two of them began to walk away. They entered an alley and were suddenly gone.
I sat in the car. I was nervous and I didn’t know why. I didn’t know what was going to come out of that alley. I counted the times the corner streetlight changed from green to yellow to red, transforming like the eye of an animal, from kind to cruel, from being at ease to being afraid. I must have dozed off thinking about it because I heard the trunk open and shut. By the time I opened my eyes my father was getting into the car and placing the key in the ignition. He didn’t look at me at first. His hands shook slightly and he leaned over and reached into a paper bag down by my feet. His fist came back gripping a beer. He pulled the tab and took several long gulps. When he finally turned his attention my way, I noticed he had perspiration on his forehead. His eyes were like two bullet holes. “You ready to go home?” he asked.
We drove back through the night a different way than the way we had come. It took a long time. I didn’t recognize many of the roads. One was nothing but stonewall and woods, not a house for miles. We pulled over and my father got out. He opened the trunk and lugged something off into the woods. When he returned I could feel him pause. My skin began to burn as his monster’s eyes stared at me, but I pretended to be asleep. He put the car in gear and we drove home.
He never took me again.
Until this day, I wasn’t sure why he had taken me that night. I now believe, like any proud father, he was trying to pass on a kind of legacy. But he either deemed me not worthy or not ready to accept what it was he wanted to give. Perhaps he realized I would one day find it for myself.
So the illusion persisted. As I grew into adulthood, I gave my father every benefit of every doubt. I defended him as if he were a criminal accused of a crime that everyone was convinced he had committed but only I knew he wasn’t guilty of. He just needed one person to take the time and effort to understand who he really was, and I was the one who was going to do it, and then everything would make sense.
I believed this as I watched my siblings abandon him one by one, finally growing old enough to slip out of our dimly-lit household and into whatever light they could find on their own.
I watched as my mother deteriorated into an old and withered shell of her once vibrant self.
I watched as my own marriage dissolved, my wife more strong-willed than what I would have preferred but chosen because I needed her to be who I wanted to be, but in the end couldn’t.
I watched until my own world became one of darkness and solitude, much like that endless back road night when my father took me gun hunting.
I watched until I had nothing left except the one hope I had clung to since I was old enough to know what hope was.
I had prepared myself for this moment and didn’t even know it.
My father’s drinking had reached the point where he was no longer coming home. And when he did, my mother tried not to let him in, but her guilt was perhaps as strong as my faith and she would eventually succumb. After she died, he took up residence in a moldering pay-by-the-night hotel on the lower part of Main Street in town. I learned all of this from the officer who was the first on the scene when they found him in his hotel room, unconscious from an apparent fall. It was two o’clock in the morning when the phone roused me from my sleep and I made my way to the hospital.
It was the first time I had seen my father in over four years. Tubes entered and exited his body like worms. His head had been shaved, a half-moon incision cut into his skull. The sheet barely covered him, and as I approached the hospital bed I could see the bruises—a panoramic purplish blue—covering his chest. The doctor had said that my father’s heart had stopped on the operating table when they were inside his brain removing the clot, and I wondered if having a heart attack could cause this kind of bruising—a constriction of muscles so violent it looked to be the equivalent to being thrown against the steering wheel in a car accident, only from the inside out.
Standing there, looking down at the man that was both a menace and an admiration throughout my life, I was thankful that I was the one who was called. Although I had dreaded this day since my own mortality began to seep into my consciousness and weigh upon my thoughts, I wanted to be here if anything should happen. I needed to be here. I had earned that much.
And so I waited.
And with each day that came and went, the bruises got worse.
On the second day, as the doctor performed routine responsiveness checks on my father’s comatose body—tickling the palms of his large now impotent hands, pinching the base of his yellowed fingernails, massaging the jut of his bony sternum—I asked what was wrong with his chest. The doctor looked down and appeared to see his patient for the first time. Puzzled at first, he then quickly came up with a hypothesis.
“Your father has been through hell,” he explained. “Trauma to both his head and his body. We don’t know what extremes he has suffered, but they are severe. If it is any comfort, his condition is surprisingly steady.”
And, yes, I was comforted. But at the same time I was also worried. I needed him awake. I needed him lucent. I hadn’t waited all these years to at last be cheated from my just reward.
You see, my goal in all of this—my mission—was that I was going to save my father. I was going to save him in my own mind from torturing me for the rest of my life. I was going to look him in the eye and tell him that I forgive him. That I had absolved him of his sins. That I understood that he had lived his life the best he was able. And he was going to thank me. Not in words or tears, but with a nod perhaps or a gentle sigh, an acknowledgement that, finally, someone had accepted him for what he was and not what he could be. And then he would close his eyes for the final time and I would be rid of him at last.
I wasn’t going to leave his side until that happened.
I slept in the waiting room when I was tired. I ate vending machine junk food when I was hungry, drank bitter black coffee when
I needed to stay awake.
On the third day his condition was unchanged, the bruises however continued to bloom.
On the fourth day he began to stir, movement twitching at his extremities. A good sign, the doctor admitted, though he still seemed puzzled by the persistence of the bruising.
On the fifth day my father began to mumble.
This was it.
I hadn’t showered or shaved in days and the hospital staff was beginning to give me sidelong glances. By now I had become a fixture in the hallway outside the ICU at night. They probably didn’t understand why I was holding such a bedside vigil for a dying old drunk, but they allowed me this privilege and I thanked them for it. For their benefit, I drove to a local pharmacy and bought a disposable razor and some shaving cream. I washed up as best I could in one of the hospital restrooms.
It was after midnight, the staff reduced to a skeleton crew. I couldn’t sleep. Not when I was so close to fulfilling my duty.
I slipped past the nurse at the desk, who was watching a late night talk show on a small portable television. I could hear my own heartbeat pounding in my chest as I approached my father’s room. Then I realized the sound wasn’t coming from inside of me. I swung open the door and stood in shocked amazement.
Their clenched fists rained down upon my father’s chest. The heavy thump resonated through the floor. It was a wonder that no one else could hear it. Two half-human-sized creatures sat crouched upon my father’s bed. They turned to look at me, their eyes red, their lizard-green skin glistening with a worked up fury. They snarled and their mouths dripped a thick viscous saliva. They resumed their assault.
My father’s chest wasn’t moving. The color of his face was a pale cyanotic blue.
I moved then, taking a bold step forward. I was going to beat the two creatures off of him with my own fists if I had to, but they were already scurrying from the bed. They disappeared into an opening in the wall where a heating panel had been dislodged. As the second demon’s tail slithered from sight, the panel snapped back into place as if nothing had been disturbed.
I didn’t have time to try and understand what I had just witnessed. My only concern was to revive my father. I was about to rush out and get the nurse when I felt the heat upon my face—a familiar burning sensation. I turned then and saw that my father’s eyes were open. He was staring at me.
But his face remained blue.
His chest still.
His lips parted. “Thank you,” he whispered. He didn’t blink.
A strange calm descended over me as I approached the bed. I didn’t care how or why this was happening, all I knew was that now was my chance to speak my peace, spill the sentiment I had stored and rehearsed all these years. But as I leaned over and looked into the bottomless depths of those eyes, I saw not remorse or humility or anything remotely human. What I saw instead was the monster lurking in the shadows, its own eyes the blackened coals of death itself. And the thing that was my father smiled. Its rotted teeth crawled with tiny parasites, its breath reeked of meaty decay. A hand reached up and latched onto my arm and pulled me close. “My son,” it said. And then it released its last breath into my face.
I fell back, gasping for air. I was suddenly overcome by visions. I could see what my father had seen throughout his life. I relived every deed my father had done. Deeds so heinous and cruel, it made my stomach retch with revulsion. I relived not only the incidents I was aware of within our own family, but those I was not. Incidents that took place on nights he wasn’t home, in places where there were no other eyes to witness except his own and those of his victims.
A flower shop at closing time, the manager, a dark-haired woman, cashing out for the day. Surprised by my father’s entrance. “I’m sorry, we’re closed for the evening. My assistant must have forgotten to lock the door on her way out.” The monster suddenly surfacing, seizing the moment, twisting the woman’s neck until it was as red as the roses that filled the showcase.
A young man, his car pulled along the side of the road, out of gas. College stickers on the back windshield. Thankful to see there were still people in this world willing lend a hand. That hand—large and powerful—the last thing seen, hurtling towards his face, about to crush his jaw.
And when opportunities didn’t present themselves, my father created his own, entering into dark, shadowy realms where the lost and the destitute meet to swap pieces of their souls. Bar flies and prostitutes. Some broken or twisted in back allies for a cigarette. Others murdered for much less. Male or female, young and old, he was indiscriminant in his thirst for death. All of them were disposed of along narrow, winding roads, buried beneath the leaf-rich decay of the woods’ floor.
I could see all of this because I finally understood. It made sense to me now. The alcohol that had been blamed for my father’s behavior wasn’t a cause, but a remedy. It wasn’t used to forget what a miserable life he possessed, but to protect us—his family, to subdue the monster that clawed at his insides and keep it from crawling free and destroying us. Like any animal, he did what was necessary to ensure his lineage would survive.
And as I sat on the floor of my father’s hospital room, his death only moment’s old, I could already hear the whispering. With it came a creak of metal and I turned toward the heating panel. From the darkness of the open duct, their eyes stared out at me. I realized then that they needed a home. Something to protect. Something to devote their lives to.
I nodded and they crawled forth into my arms. I held them like my children and they nudged their bony muzzles against my ribcage and began to burrow under my skin.
It’s the reason why people sit through funerals, attend weddings, wait expectantly outside delivery rooms—that unnamable presence that accompanies death and birth and the consummation of love. Tonight I have experienced all three.
The hospital is now miles behind me.
The road ahead looks like a hole shot through the night.
And, what can I say, there’s a thirst in my throat that this beer in my hand just can’t seem to kill.