September 19, 1990
It was a beastly hot afternoon when my brother Patrick and I stepped off of the school bus. Frankie from next door goggled at us from his perch atop his BMX bike.
“Wow, how come you guys are wearing shirts and ties?” he asked as we approached.
“Because they’re our uniforms,” Patrick barked at him. Frankie’s eyes widened even further, but he said nothing more as he watched us go inside. We were quite a sight, decked out in yellow and black with plaid ties. Ever since Dad found religion again, he decided that we were all to receive a proper Catholic education – especially after my disastrous stint in public school kindergarten.
However, I didn’t fare much better with my peers in first grade. Things got off to a rough start on Day One when Sister Patricia went around the room asking everybody’s age: “Six… six… six-and-a-half… six… six-and-a-half…seven… six-and-a-half…” One moron even came up with “six-and-three-quarters”. I shook my head at all this “half” nonsense until I finally piped up and told everyone how stupid they sounded. They stared at me.
“How old are you then, Tommy?”
“Five?” the girl next to me mouthed in disbelief.
“Shouldn’t you be in kindergarten?” a boy asked
“He’s too small for kindergarten!” another boy put in, setting off a round of giggles in the room.
So I wasn’t off to a winning start, and the other boys picked on me constantly. I couldn’t even find respite in the bathroom. Three of them surrounded me in there one day and I couldn’t get them to back off. Finally I warned them: “If you don’t stop bothering me, you’re going to catch my asthma.”
The ruse worked. I watched them trip over their feet and climb over each other out the door. They collided with Sister Patricia, who came to investigate why we were taking so long.
“What’s going on here?” she demanded.
They huddled behind her and pointed at me with fear. “He said we’re going to catch his asthma!”
“What are you talking about? You can’t catch asthma,” she scolded. They didn’t believe her, and walked backwards all the way to our classroom, keeping one eye on me lest I run up and breathe on them. What a bunch of retards.
Sister Patricia was one of those clichéd “spare the rod” types, but the only one ever affected was Justin, the class delinquent. One day we found Justin urinating in the big black garbage can inside the boy’s lavatory, which was actually an impressive feat considering the can was nearly as tall as he was. When we got back to the classroom, one of the boys gleefully announced, “Justin peed in the big garbage can in the boys’ room!” WHACK went the yardstick across Justin’s hands.
Whenever Justin fooled around in class, Sister Patricia spanked him, smacked him with the ruler, or put him in the corner where he would fall asleep. Once she even took him out of class and made him sit with the kindergartners. We laughed ourselves silly until Sister Patricia re-entered the room. “I’m glad you think it’s funny, because you’re all going down there next,” she glared at us. Instant silence.
Unfortunately things weren’t as quiet at home. We sent Dad into a rage when we came home from school that day. Patrick and I went down into the basement to play with the train set and use the ping-pong table, only to find both drowning under a sea of papers, invoices, newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, and posters. The overflow from Dad’s desk spilled onto the floor and across the basement into any space it could find. Just with the clubhouse, there were only so many times you could stand making space only to watch it fill up again. This time Patrick said something.
“Dad could you stop putting your stuff all over everything out here?” he asked. “We want to play a game. It’s a ping-pong table, not a desk.”
Dad looked up from where he’d been hunched over a ledger, tugging on his hair in frustration. “I know, I can’t do anything right around here,” he barked. “I’m sorry you think all my stuff is garbage. I’m busy working all the goddamn time,” he continued, raising his voice and spinning in his chair to face us. “I don’t have time to organize my papers into neat little piles so you can come down here and play a game. I’ve got a shitload of bills to pay!” Dad shouted at the ceiling.
Patrick grabbed me by the wrist and took me upstairs as fast as he could, weaving his way through the maze of meter-high stacks of newspapers as Dad continued yelling at our retreating backs. Once we were upstairs, I heard loud banging. Dad was punching holes in the basement walls again. Money was a sore subject in our house, and after every fight Dad went downstairs and turned the walls into Swiss cheese.
Among that shitload of bills were the ones for our Catholic school tuition, and that was on top of paying for our books and uniforms and everything else. Religion was growing in importance in our house, along with watching and listening to the appropriate media. Among the dozens of publications Dad subscribed to were ones that told him which movies and shows and books were immoral, anti-Catholic or otherwise bad. One morning he found me watching Sister Act. He stood in the middle of room glaring at the screen and breathing loudly through his nose for several minutes until he finally said in a low voice, “Do you mind if I turn this off?”
I shook my head, and he bent down and hit the eject button on the VCR. He jammed the tape back into its library case and tossed it onto the table by the front door. After he left for work, I went and retrieved it after my mother advised me not to watch anything like that when Dad was around. Dad preferred I spend my time listening to real nuns like the ones I had in school.
Once again, there was the sound of Dad driving his truck into the Stop Ahead sign across the street. He couldn’t see it in the darkness and clipped it with his side mirror every night.
Nobody said anything, but a rustle of tension went around the room. Everybody was watching TV in the den. I’d noticed by then that every time Dad came home, my siblings would scatter. I kept asking them why but they never answered, although I should have known from the Sister Act incident.
After several minutes he still hadn’t shown, so I ran to the front window to see where he was. He was across the street wrestling with the street sign. WONG WONG WONG WONG WONG WONG. The sign bounced loudly against the pole as he strangled it and jerked it back and forth. He was shaking the sign with such violence it looked as if he was trying to get coconuts from it.
“Fuck this shit!” he yelled, and a couple of neighbors turned their outside lights on. I saw his side mirror lying on the ground next to the sign. WONG WONG WONG WONG WONG WONG. Finally he jerked the pole from the ground, stuck it under his arm and marched across the street with it. He disappeared around the corner of the house, and I heard a crash as he tossed the sign over the fence into his stockyard. Then he came in the side door and sat on the corner of the fireplace to take his boots off – his nightly ritual. I ran to him.
“Daddy! You’re home!”
“Hey there, kiddo,” he said, giving me a brief one-armed hug, still breathing heavily from his exertions with town property.
“How was your day?” I asked as he unlaced his boots. He didn’t answer. His eyes were crawling over my shoulder onto the backs of everyone’s heads, and then onto the TV itself. He sat there like a statue, his hands frozen into position holding his laces up in the air.
“Dad?” I waved a hand in front of his face but he paid me no heed. Finally he snapped out of his reverie and dropped his boots on the floor. Then he stood up and walked past me until he was hovering directly behind the couch. As he resumed glaring at the TV, everybody got up one-by-one without a word and left the room until only my oldest brother Johnny remained defiantly on the couch.
“What are we watching?” Dad demanded.
“A show,” Johnny answered, not even bothering to turn around. Dad’s eyes practically burned a hole in the top of his head.
“NO SHIT. I CAN SEE IT’S A GODDAMN SHOW. Which one is it? Are we watching Seinfeld again?” he sneered. “Watching people sleeping around and talking about how wonderful it is and how it’s all just fine and dandy?” Dad said, making his voice light and mincey and waving his hands around. “I’m sure your mother thinks it’s okay for you all to watch this crap.”
Johnny said nothing. He let out a loud sigh, stood up and marched out of the room without once glancing behind him. Dad stood in the middle of the room for a few moments, and then stomped over to the doorway and began shouting to the rest of the house.
“THAT’S RIGHT, EVERYBODY HAS TO LEAVE THE ROOM WHEN DAD COMES HOME BECAUSE I’M SUCH A HORRIBLE PERSON. I’M ONLY OUT THERE BREAKING MY ASS TWELVE HOURS A DAY TO PUT A ROOF OVER YOUR GODDAMN HEADS…” I bolted from the room as he continued shouting for a couple more minutes. I heard my brothers and sisters closing their doors upstairs. Finally the house was plunged into silence as Dad stopped yelling and he switched the TV off. I heard him banging around and then the basement door slammed shut.
Pop. Pop. Pop.
More holes were going in the walls downstairs.