Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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2829 words
SHJ Issue 4
Fall 2011

Chapter Five
[From Desperate Love: A Father’s Memoir]

Richard Reiss

My car is new. It’s the color of the sky and shines like glitter and smells like vinyl and reminds me that I am not too old to be impractical. Late at night when I am sure not to hit a kid on his bike or an elderly woman walking to the curb to retrieve her mail, I take my car, my new car, my three hundred and forty horsepower two-door thrill, and obliterate the speed limits on the winding country roads through the few remaining farms of central New Jersey.

Gabriel thinks my car is hot. He shows it off to his friends and has me take his picture standing beside it, looking like he owns it, looking like a cool kid with a really cool car. He tells his friends that in four years, when he is twenty-one, that I will give the car to him. His friends are impressed. He is impressed. I am doubtful.

I am doubtful because I know a secret. I know that there is a symbiotic relationship between a man and his machine, especially if that machine is a car. I know that this car will not like Gabriel because Gabriel has not been nice to it, has not been nice to me. There are two small, barely noticeable, indentations from his knuckles on the passenger side door, where Gabriel punched the car in anger. There is a scratch on the hood from the time he tossed a trash can lid at me as I backed out of the driveway. And there is a broken vanity mirror on the flip side of the front passenger seat visor. Paula pulls it down to look at herself as she applies burgundy red lipstick to her mouth. What she sees are four diagonal cracks from the bottom of the mirror to its top. The cracks come together to form a perfect isosceles triangle that cuts from below her chin to the top of her nose. Although mathematically perfect in its dimensions, it is a familiar reminder of how imperfect Gabriel can be. His imperfections are often revealed by the swiftness of his fists. Dents. Holes. Broken glass. Broken hearts.

I’m looking at that picture of him standing beside the car. He swaggers. He thinks that the car is a chick magnet, and maybe it is. It’s certainly an improvement on the last family vehicle. But this car is not meant for families; it’s meant for fun. Still, as I look at the picture, I am reminded of another incident with another car when Gabriel was not even fourteen years old. It was a time in Gabriel’s life when he was a hider; he hid all sorts of things. But I am a finder; I find everything. I’d go through his stuff and occasionally discover new hiding places for the crap he didn’t want me to know about. To be honest, he was not very clever at the art of hiding, and most of the objects he didn’t want me to find were easily found. His favorite hiding place was under his mattress, but he also hid things in his pillows, his clothing, his nightstand, his guitar case, his dresser and occasionally in the stuffing of the carnival animals that I won for him at the County Fair. The most common finds are cigarette lighters: right there—one at a time—under his mattress. I knew I couldn’t control his smoking but I was concerned that an accidental act of friction might set his bed on fire. So I took the lighters and kept them in a collection at my office. I also knew that he was stealing the lighters since he had no money. These were not the cheap plastic lighters one purchased at the Seven-Eleven, but rather the fancy stainless steel lighters with etchings of skulls or marijuana leaves or a fish simulating oral sex. He stole them from the stores at the mall; I stole them from him.

I find other things too. I find knives, razors, and candy bars and cookies that he hoards like a child who has never tasted chocolate. I find porn…hard…soft…whatever. Once I opened his nightstand drawer and I found a gun. When I saw it, I became nauseous. I picked it up and it was heavy; it had the weight of an instrument of death. Upon closer examination I could see that it was not a real gun at all, but a BB gun designed to look like a German luger, or at least what I thought a German luger might look like. To identify itself as a non-lethal weapon there was a small plastic orange circle at the tip of the gun, at that spot where the BB is expelled through an equally small hole. So I took the gun into the garage, found a hammer, and smashed it into a hundred little pieces of broken plastic and bent metal.

Mostly, Gabriel said nothing when I removed the things that he knew he should not have. After all, anything stolen could always be replaced. And I told him about the gun. And I told him how it freaked me out. And he told me it belonged to a friend. And I told him tough shit.

One day, during my usual rounds of investigation, I found two unopened packs of cigarettes. They were hardly hidden at all, caught between the frame of his bed and his mattress. As I took them out of the bed frame I pressed the small white and green boxes against my lips. I inhaled. I smelled the tobacco through the cellophane wrap that crinkled each time I squeezed them lightly in my palm. I could see him with his smokes; he was easy to visualize: a changeling with an attitude. He grows a few inches, he gains a few pounds, he plops a cigarette in his mouth.

He was sitting on the corner by the fire hydrant in a sleeveless white t-shirt. His arms are far from developed, and his hands and wrists are covered with black and red ink, a reflection of boredom and opposition, and another stay-out-of-my-face day at school. There was a long line of drawings and crosses and names and pentagrams and swirly figures that extended from the top of his hands to his biceps. They came together in a bodily rendering of early adolescent imagination. He had made himself the temporarily tattooed man, the boy-man with a cigarette dangling from his lips, like he was some kind of James Dean, although for sure he could never tell you who James Dean was.

He flies into the house around six in the evening. On this particular day, he skipped the school bus and walked straight to a friend’s house to do whatever he does with his friends—nothing truly bad as far as I knew. All the truly bad stuff was reserved for the house. For me. For Paula. For frightening his brothers.

Paula was at work. I was home. Ethan watched TV. Jonathan occupied himself with a Legos project.

Gabriel was the King of Legos. By the time he was three years old he was putting together complicated Legos animals and cars and machines that were meant to be assembled by children much older than he. He could spend hours working on his Legos and we gladly bought him expensive and more sophisticated designs. It seemed to be a wonderful use of his hands, mind and imagination. It was great to watch a child work in three dimensions, and to be able to imagine a three dimensional future for that child.

Soon Gabriel discovered that his cigarettes were missing. He knew who took them too. Without an ounce of fear he said to me, “Gimme my cigarettes. I know you took them. They’re mine. I want them back.”

“I don’t want you smoking,” I said.

“Give them to me,” he repeated.

“No,” I said, and walked away.

He followed me. “They’re my Goddamn cigarettes. I want them. You can’t take them. They are not yours!”

I repeated, “I don’t like you smoking.”

I walked into my bedroom and he followed me. “What the fuck is wrong with you,” he said. “Gimme my Goddamn cigarettes,” and then he kicked my bedroom door and spit on the floor.

I was calm. I was always calm. It was disturbing how calm I was, as I said with an air of indifference, “What makes you think I have them?”

“I know you go through my shit. They’re my fucking cigarettes!” he screamed.

I left the bedroom and went back to the kitchen.

“Dad’s being an ass-hole,” he yelled for his brothers to hear, and then he shouted again, “I want my fucking cigarettes. Why can’t you just give me my fucking cigarettes?”

Ethan and Jonathan were nervous. I knew the look and it was painful to watch.

Jonathan said, “Are the police going to come?”

“No,” I said. “Not today.”

“Dad,” said Ethan. “Just give ‘em to him.”

“I can’t,” I told him.

“Give them to me,” screamed Gabriel. “Why are you being such a fucking pussy?”

“Stop it, Gabriel,” I said. And I took Ethan and Jonathan by their hands and walked them to their room. Gabriel followed us.

“You know I won’t stop,” he said. “You know I won’t. I want my fucking cigarettes.”

Ethan repeats his plea, “Dad, just give him the cigarettes.”

I wanted to feel bad for Ethan and Jonathan. I wanted to explain to them what happened to our lives, why our family is different from everyone else’s. But all I could do is protect them for the moment as I drew the enemy out.

“Stay in your room,” I said to the boys as I closed the door behind them.

Gabriel didn’t care about them; he only cared about me. I left the boys in their room, turned, and walked past Gabriel’s bedroom door.

“Fuck!” he screamed.

He was right behind me. I heard him puffing. I felt his anger. I didn’t have to see his face to feel the intensity of his glare. He passed his room on the right and he kicked the door with the full force of his soon-to-be fourteen-year-old body. I heard it crack but didn’t turn to see if there was any damage. At least this time it didn’t come off its hinges.

We’re back in the kitchen. “What the fuck is wrong with you?” he shouted.

I was doing my best to stay within myself, yet I couldn’t help but wonder what I had wrought. What kind of child is this? What kind of human being? What kind of father had I become that I had allowed my life and my son to reach this horrible point in time?

Gabriel opened the silverware drawer and removed a large carving knife. The grip is as long as my hand and the blade is double the length of the grip. “Put the knife down,” I said.

“Gimme my cigarettes.”

“Put the knife down.”

“Gimme my cigarettes.”

“Put it down.”

“Give ‘em to me.”

I paused. My son was threatening me with a knife for five dollars worth of cigarettes. What is this insanity that is my life? Thank God Paula wasn’t there. I should have called the Police, of course…I should have. Isn’t that what his shrink said? He said he was worried that someday Gabriel might hurt us. I said I don’t believe that. But he was holding a knife. At me. In my house.

I left the house and began walking. “You fucking pussy!” he screamed at me. “Where the fuck are you going?”

I said nothing. I was walking, walking away. I was leaving my children alone with a lunatic. But they were safe; he would never hurt them. Only me. Only me. Only for me and Paula did he save these special moments of madness. He was not even fourteen and we had endured years of verbal and sometimes physical abuse. Were we victims? Yes. Were we enablers? Yes. Did we have any control at all? Not really. Not any more. But maybe it was me. What was I doing taking him on, challenging him? Was I trying to be a good parent? I was no parent to this child, to my son, to my beloved.

Suddenly, I was pushed. He was one hundred and twenty pounds to my two hundred and five, and he threw himself at me. Two small but powerful hands were thrust into my back, just below my shoulder blades. I lurched forward, catching myself in mid fall, and continued to walk.

“Gimme my fucking cigarettes,” I heard yet again.

“Stop it,” I said. “I am going for a walk.”

And I turn and look and see that in his hand he was no longer holding the carving knife. He was holding my Ping five iron and swinging it around as if he was trying to protect himself from being attacked by invisible demons.

I approached him slowly…intently. I was three feet away. Two. One. I spoke calmly but with force. I said, “Gabriel, go for it. Take one swing, that’s all it takes. You want out of this family? You will never come back. They will take you away and you will never see us again. I’m begging you. Please. Hit me. I won’t hit back. Put me out of my fucking misery you fucking pussy.”

“Just gimme my Goddamn cigarettes,” he pleaded. “They’re not yours; they’re mine.”

I wanted to teach him to play golf. It’s something fathers and sons do. Keep your head down. Relax your grip. Nice and easy now. You’re one hundred and sixty five yards from the green… perfect for a five iron. Remember, you don’t have to kill the ball.

And then, of course, I saw the truth. It’s not over yet but I had clearly lost. I always lost when I sank to his level. I tried not to go there, but I would be lying if I said it didn’t happen often. He was a master at sucking me in, at drawing me down, at bringing out my most base instincts.

With my club in his hand, he ran back to the house, leaving me standing on the sidewalk. His brothers were waiting for us. I could see them in the garage, holding their respective yellow and red bicycles, using them as a shield between themselves and Gabriel. They were watching the end-game. I was watching too as Gabriel made his last play. He stood beside my car in the driveway. He held the club above the windshield and screamed one last time, “I—want—my—fucking—cigarettes!”

How was it that no one had seen or heard us? How was it that not one of my neighbors, one who knew our situation (they all knew our situation) had not yet called the police? Where were the neighbors? Where were the police?

I said nothing as I walked back to the house. I looked at Ethan and Jonathan and I was horrified and angry with myself for exposing them yet again to Gabriel’s anger.

“What are you going to do?” asked Jonathan.

“It’s okay,” I told him as I walked past him and into the house. “Wait right here. Everything is okay.”

Once inside the house, I went to my bedroom and found my own secret hiding place. I opened the closet and shoved all of the clothes on the clothes bar—my suits, shirts, pants, ties, belts and jackets— to one side, revealing a charcoal gray, double-breasted pin-striped suit, 42 regular, that hung alone against the closet wall. It was my wedding suit from eighteen years and twenty pounds ago. I reached inside the right breast pocket and as I did I could hear the crinkle of cellophane and smell the slight odor of tobacco.

I squeezed the boxes tightly, hoping to crush a few cigarettes in the process. I was out of my mind, but I also knew that it had to stop, and this (I hate myself for admitting it) was the only way to make it (him) stop.

Gabriel was standing by the car, club in hand, joking with his brothers. It was amazing how quickly he could transform himself from beast to buddy, but I had seen it so many times before. Yet he is not a schizophrenic and he does not have multiple personalities. He was a loon, plain and simple. Sociopathic? Probably. Maybe. But still a loon.

“Gabriel,” I said, gaining his attention, watching his immediate transformation back to the nightmare that he had been for the last twenty minutes.

“What,” he replied with absolute disdain.

“Go fuck yourself.”

And I took the cigarettes and hurled them into the street where they mingled with a flattened can of Pepsi, a brown torn wrapper from a Hershey Bar and the remnants of my masculinity.

—From Desperate Love: A Father’s Memoir, Serving House Books (October 2011)

[Editor’s Note: See also related article in The New York Times (November 2005): “Sending a Lost Boy to the Wilderness to Find Himself.”]
“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury