1. Going Down

October 25, 1989

I was four years old when I saw my parents embrace for the last time.  I stood in the doorway of their room, watching Dad clumsily pat my mother on the back as she sobbed into his shoulder. Nanny had died a few days earlier and we put her in the ground that morning and covered her with earth. We stood around the grave site as “A Mother’s Love Is A Blessing” played on the radio my brother Johnny brought along. Then Nanny’s coffin was lowered into the ground on top of Grandpop’s, where he’d been lying in wait for eight years.

Mom was an orphan now.

We left the cemetery and went back home for the after-party. Typical Irish. While everybody ate and drank and laughed and cried and sang sad songs, I went into my room to deal with things in my own way: play. I covered my bed with a white blanket. I laid out Bugs Bunny in a shoebox with a rosary around his neck and my children’s bible under his arm. Not to be outdone, I grabbed a stack of index cards and made prayer cards like the ones I’d seen in the funeral home. Finally, I arranged the rest of my stuffed animals on chairs facing my bed.

When everything was ready, I went out into the living room and announced that Bugs Bunny had died and I would like everybody to come and pray for him. The adults thought my animal wake was hilarious… except for my aunt. She refused to enter my room, quaking from head to toe and apoplectic with indignation. “Do you know what he did in there? There’s something seriously wrong with that child!” she shrieked out in the hallway as the rest of the assemblage dissolved into hysterics.

Eventually the party ended and everybody left. Now my mother looked up and caught sight of me in the doorway. She rushed to put me to bed, and gave me an extra-tight hug when she did.

“Mom?” I asked.

“Yes?”

“Are we going to see Nanny again?”

She gave me a sad smile. “Of course!”

“I hope I get to see her again soon,” I said.

“So do I.”

***

My father was a very hard-working man. He had to be.  He had to put a roof over our “goddamn heads.”  Dad started as an English teacher, and it was during his tenure he began developing his heavy-handed and dramatic approach. One time early in his career he substituted for an unruly class, and try as he might he could not call the students to order. Then he remembered a trick that the regular teacher had clued him into: take the yardstick, wet it under the faucet, and smack it on the desk.  The moisture multiplied the noise seven-fold and would shock the class into attention.

So as paper airplanes and books and erasers sailed around the room, Dad picked up the yardstick and went to the sink in the back corner, humming a merry tune and thoroughly wetting the stick. Then he walked back to the front of the class as the boys bounced a couple of crumpled balls of paper off the back of his head.

Standing at attention, he reared back and smacked the yardstick on his desk and hollered “SHUT UP!” However, being an eager young novice to the fine art of ruler-whacking, the stick exploded on impact and showered the entire class with miniature wet toothpicks. But it worked: instant order. The students quickly realized they were dealing with a madman. They bought him a new yardstick and left it on his desk the next day, along with a note of apology for their behavior. A token of appeasement for the gods. Mr. Mersey was not to be trifled with.

Before long Dad realized teaching wasn’t his thing, but he did like the construction jobs he did over the summer with his fellow teachers. He left school and took up home improvement, as well as a night job on the police force. It was one thing to cross him as a schoolteacher, but to cross him as a policeman…?  Another painful lesson was on the way for another unfortunate youngster.

A while before Nanny died, Dad was on his way home in his truck from his construction job. There was a long line of cars waiting to turn down our block, and when pulled up far enough he saw the problem: some girl was parked in the middle of our street, hanging out her window and yapping at some guy standing in the corner gas station. Dad decided to have a word and he pulled alongside her.

“Hey! You know you’re blocking the road and everybody has to go around you?”

She turned her head towards him just long enough to snort and go, “Hey, man – eat my shit!”

“Okay,” Dad said, pulling his head back inside his truck. “Okay,” he repeated to himself as he looked back jotted down her license plate number. “Okay,” he said one last time. He went home and changed and went to work at his police shift. While he was there he ran her plate and got her address.

The next day Dad started to eat. Big portions of beef. Mashed potatoes and corn. Side helpings of cheese and garlic. Dinner of liver and onions. A couple of bananas. When everything he shoved in his mouth came out the other end, he was waiting for it with a plastic bag. He strapped on a pair of plastic gloves, drove to the girl’s house in the middle of the night, and started smearing his business on her car. The door handles. The gas cap. The windshield wipers. The side mirrors. A light film over the headlights. He piled the remainder on the front like a big brown hood ornament and left a note: “Next time you tell someone to eat your shit, be prepared to eat theirs first.”

***

BWONNGGG!

The sound of Dad driving his truck into the “Stop Ahead” sign across the street heralded his arrival every night. By then Dad was working many late nights in construction. He retired from the police force because his carpal tunnel hindered his ability to shoot. Perhaps that explained why he kept shooting himself with his nail gun, even shooting himself in the face one time. Undaunted, he pressed on with the day’s work and only when he was finished did he drive himself to the hospital with the nail hanging out of his cheek.

But it was the first of many falls that precipitated his carpal tunnel syndrome and his fumbling trigger finger. He was at work on a cold January afternoon, trying to maneuver a piece of plywood up a ladder when his foot slipped and he landed in the yard. He was knocked unconscious and broke both wrists. When he came to he found himself face-down on the ground under a light dusting of snow. He knew enough not to try and move, so he lay on his stomach hollering for help until the people in the house heard him.

The paramedics showed up shortly afterwards and whisked Dad away to the hospital. They examined his head and encased both arms in casts up to the shoulders. My mother spent the next two months dressing him and washing him and spoon-feeding him since he could do little else. But when she picked him up at the hospital that first day, the doctor pulled her aside.

“Your husband took quite a blow to the head,” he told her. “You need to keep an eye on him.”

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