Jul/Aug '03 [Home]
For Halloween, my father made a single, large costume for m brother, my sister and me. Using a cardboard box and papier mâché, he fashioned a dragon's head, with horns, S-shaped eyes, grinning lips, and jagged teeth. For the body, he used a green sheet.
Before we went out, he gave us each a poem to memorize. Mine was "Jabberwocky," my brother's was "The Tyger," and my sister's was "Annabel Lee."
With the verses in our brains and the sheet draped over our heads, the three of us traipsed along the street. At neighbors' doors, we did not accept treats. Instead, we walked inside as a six-legged serpent, ripped off our costume, and recited.
My father took me to a hotel bar. Inside, the place was almost empty. A few men sat on stools at the counter; the dining room was dark. I wandered around, passing an unlit dartboard and a unplugged pinball machine, until I found a mechanical piano. I got coins, activated the paper scroll, and listened to a tinkly rag concerto.
After some drinks, my father started to talk. "I've got a thousand rounds of ammunition," he said. "One of these days, I'm going to start shooting.
"I'm going to take as many people with me as I can," he added, "before the SWAT team gets me."
To hide, I went to visit a boy who lived nearby. At the door, his mother told me he was cleaning his room. I could hear the sound of a vacuum as I walked up the stairs.
I entered without knocking and saw that the boy was not sweeping the floor, but was applying the vacuum hose to his penis.
The boy took me to his basement and brought out some animal traps. He placed a large one on the cement floor and opened its jaws. He tapped the trigger disk with a broom handle, and the metal bit into the wood.
"The Nazis had a small guillotine," he said, "with an opening the size of your finger. They would use it to chop off your schlosse. Then you would die, because you can't live without it."
He opened a smaller trap and handed it to me. "This is for muskrats," he said. "It won't break bones."
Somehow, I touched the trigger and the metal snapped shut on my finger.
My mother drove me to the hospital.
While I waited my turn in the emergency room, I watched candy stripers race gurneys through the corridors. Whenever one of the vehicles rounded a corner, the back wheels would skid out and the protective rail would hit the wall. The patient on the stretcher would groan, and the candy striper would stifle a giggle.
On the way home, my mother went too quickly around a curve and drove into a cornfield. The car wheels mowed ruts through the stalks. We had to get out and walk.
Later, my mother said to my father, "I'll pay the farmer for the corn."
My father replied, "You and your women's lib shit."
I went to the school auditorium for a play rehearsal. On stage, I was nervous. Whenever I said a line, my fingers would jerk. I was playing a witch man, but the director called me Twitch Boy.
At one point, the director told the rest of the cast to attack me. Boys and girls held my arms, tore at my clothes, and slapped me.
"Shoot your wad," the director said.
I yelled and flailed.
For the next run-through, I knitted my brow, projected my voice, and gestured maniacally. "It's my eagle!" I said, pointing upward. "It's coming for me!"
Secret Service agents came for my father. Two men in business suits greeted him in the yard, then talked to him while he leaned against a tree. "We are living in the United States of Plethora," I heard my father say.
He got into a car with the men, and they drove away.
When my father returned, he was skittish. "If a dry-cleaning van arrives," he said, "don't answer the door. The drivers are not really cleaners. They're from the CIA."
My mother made plans to move. She bought airline tickets for herself, my brother, my sister, and me. She told us we were going to live with her brother. She packed suitcases, carried them outside, and set them on the lawn.
While we waited with the luggage, my mother got a phone call. After talking, she told us, "That was my mother-in-law. She convinced me to stay."
I heard my parents arguing as I tried to sleep.
"You never encourage him," my mother said.
"I can't talk to him," my father replied.
I dreamed of piloting an automobile over great distances. I looked to the side and saw a child pointing at me. I looked through the windshield and saw nothing. I looked to the side. The child was pointing. I looked through the windshield.
I "bag raced" whenever I could. To compete, another bag racer and I would find an open area. There, we would put paper bags over our heads, lean toward each other and set the bags on fire. Then we would turn and run in opposite directions. Whoever got farther before tearing the bag from his head won.
Each time I took off, I would see a sheet of flame that quickly became a fire-edged square. Through it, I had a narrow-angle view of ground and sky. Soon, I could smell burnt hair. Usually, by the time I pulled off my bag, the other racer already would have extinguished his headgear.
When my scalp began to peel, my parents took me to a doctor who prescribed a sulfur medication for the outside of my entire body.
At home, I stood in the bathtub while my father sponged the orange liquid onto my skin. He started at my head and worked down. When he got below my waist, he said, "Soon, you'll have so much hair on your balls, I won't even know you."
Then he retreated to his studio, where he had books filled with photographs of "beautiful youths."
My mother collected a sample of my blood and took me to the hospital where she worked. In the laboratory, I saw some organs in jars. One jar held an enlarged heart, another a diminished brain. I also saw an exhibit of objects dug out of people's bodies.
Among the hooks and splinters was a handgun labeled "Smuggling attempt."
My mother told me I was okay. Then she took a bag of old blood out of a cooler. When we got home, she sprinkled the blood onto plants in the yard.
Alone, I conducted a chemistry experiment. I poured alcohol onto a metal table and threw a lit match at the clear puddle. There was a concussion of air as the alcohol ignited.
When the fire died down, I was not satisfied, so I found a grocery bag, put it over my head, and lit it. I stood for a moment, looking at the up-close sheet of flame; then I started to run. No one was watching, which was too bad. I spread fire with my head.
When my parents came home, my father went to investigate.
"What happened?" my mother asked.
"He torched his bedroom," my father said.
My father called me a fuckster. Then he went into his studio and shut the door, presumably so he could look privately at his photographs of budding youths.
My mother tried to talk to me. "All I want is for you to be happy," she said. "But I can't tell if you are unless you let me know. It's very simple. You let me know, and then I can tell. So will you let me know?"
I walked to a farm field and screamed obscenities at the grazing cows. They were a good audience. I picked some Queen Anne's lace, rolled it in paper, and smoked it. A fire caught inside my head. Soon I had to fight to make a sound.
Later, I looked out a window and saw waves of smoke rising from the field where I had been. A siren went off as the smoke turned from white to yellow to brown. After dark, a glowing red line snaked up the nearest mountain.
My father took me and our pet dog to an open area. There, he unleashed the dog, and it ran out over the lawn. When he called, the dog returned, then danced out of reach. He picked up a stone and threw it. He cursed when he missed and picked up another stone.
The next time I was with the dog and it strayed, I used rotten apples to get its attention. To escape, the dog ran onto the highway, where a car skidded into its hind legs.
To punish me, my father found a fallen apple and brought it inside the house. "Run," he said.
I headed for the stairs and made it to the first landing when the apple glanced off my shoulder and splattered against the wall.
In my room, I sat on my mattress while my mother knelt on the floor. "Your father is angry," she said. "His moods are predictable. Every two or three days he gets mad."
"In the army," my father said, "I marched out of step. So my sergeant pulled a fence post out of the ground and stuck it in my pocket. 'That's your left side,' the sergeant said. I marched for weeks from the barracks to the mess hall with that marker next to my leg."
My father told me to walk back and forth in front of him. "Point your toes forward," he said. "Don't waddle."
I felt my legs twist outward at the knees, but I kept my feet parallel. After some practice, I walked like a seasoned recruit.
My father gathered cloth nets, jars, and canvas bags and put the gear in the car along with my brother, my sister, and me. He took us to an abandoned farm, gave us each a net, and sent us after butterflies. He watched from the road as we ran through the fields. Whenever we caught a specimen worth saving, he killed it with hat-cleaning liquid squeezed from a dropper.
At home, he mounted the butterflies by fastening their bodies with long pins and spreading their wings with short pins. He grouped dry specimens in display boxes. As I watched, he pointed to blank spaces and said, "That's what you'll have to catch next."
I saw the dog sleeping upstairs. I found a broom and some rope, then asked my brother to help. Before the dog woke, we tied its feet together around the broom handle. We lifted the pole, and the dog hung from it upside down. As we carried the broom from room to room, the dog yelped and bit at the ropes.
My father took my brother to the middle room upstairs. I heard their voices, then went up and saw them crouching on the floor. My father was on one knee, squeezing my brother's shirt with his fist. I looked at my brother's face and saw that his cheek was bruised.
Before I left the house, I put on a denim jacket. My hair fell over its collar, and there was an American flag sewn onto the sleeve. When I walked past my father, he muttered, "Fucking flag, fucking hair."
When I got to school, I did not speak. I went to class and listened, but did not comment unless I was called on. Now and then, I heard my classmates whisper, "Toad."
During lunch, I avoided the cafeteria. I found an empty classroom, sat at a desk, and took out a sandwich. When a teacher on patrol discovered me, I got up and looked for another empty room.
One of my teachers, a young, fat woman, announced that by the end of her class she would paddle every student she had not yet paddled. No one, she said, would escape the "board of education." Not even the girls.
When one girl's turn came, she walked to the front of the room, faced the blackboard, and grabbed her knees with her hands. Her dress muffled the paddle's impact, but it still sounded loud.
When I made my trip to the head of the class, I learned that the teacher could really swing the bat. I received one whack, and the backs of my thighs stung even after I sat down.
My mother picked me up after school. In the car, I pretended I didn't know her. I turned the radio to maximum volume while she drove. "I know you'll never be happy," she said over the blasting music, "because five years ago you told me you'd never be happy."
In the evening, a boy came to visit my sister. In response, my father fetched a rifle and chased him away. Then he told my mother to take my sister to the hospital. "I want to know if she's still a virgin," he said.
I said I was sick so I could stay home from school. But instead of resting in bed, I prepared to hang myself from the ceiling. Using pliers, I twisted a screw eye through the plaster until it hit a solid base. I stood on a chair, attached a rope to the anchor, and tiptoed free. Instantly, the lath in the ceiling splintered, and I fell to the floor in a shower of dust.
To cover what I had done, I bought some adhesive paper in a matching color and smoothed it over the hole.
I went with a girl to a lake. We walked on boulders that lined the shore. She stood on a rock a few feet above the water, put her hands behind her back, and said, "If my hands were tied, you could push me in."
I looked at her hands for a moment, then took off a sneaker lace and wrapped it around her wrists.
"You can untie me now," she said.
I made no move to release her.
"I'm going to ask my mother if this is normal," she said.
I took off my other lace and wrapped it around her ankles.
"No," she said, then said my name.
As time passed, her voice got louder. I did not push her in.
My father put me into the car and started to drive. "I'm taking you to a doctor," he said.
Between cowfields, he pulled to the side of the road. "I have a pain in my chest," he said.
He turned off the engine and said, "My left arm is numb."
I came to the driver's side and shoved him to the passenger seat. Behind the wheel, I found I could barely reach the gas and brake. I twisted the key, moved the gearshift, and tapped the far right pedal. I steered onto the blacktop and gathered speed.
(Thaddeus Rutkowski's work has appeared in numerous publications, including Artful Dodge, Columbia Review, CutBank, Fiction, American Letters & Commentary, and The New York Times. He has been a resident writer at Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, and Ragdale. Originally from central Pennsylvania, he lives in New York, where he works as a newspaper copy editor.)