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I’m proud of myself for finishing last month’s batch of poems & explications. I can’t force poetry; I have to be inspired to write something good. There were days I wasn’t inspired, but I finished anyway.
In my continued effort to explore creativity, this month I’d like to try something else completely different. I’d like to write a story composed of 3,000 words. I can’t decide if it will be more or less difficult. Is it harder to make each day’s entry interesting and able to stand on its own, or to string together disparate 100-word entries with some coherency?
I remember the first time Mr. Calloway called me stupid. It was October, and I’d started volunteering afterschool to help him prepare for the next day. Mom needed the extra hour alone to finish her medical transcriptions, dad needed the overtime at the factory, and I needed the extra hour to convince myself that I really did love Mr. Calloway like I loved my own father. It’s not that I didn’t love my father; no, I loved Mr. Calloway because he treated me as grandly as my father did, and I saw in him everything I loved about my dad.
On that Tuesday, Mr. Calloway asked me to take down the bulletin boards in the back of the classroom, cautioning me to leave up the borders and background. I nodded in mute understanding. When he discovered I didn’t actually know what a border was and had haphazardly removed pieces that would necessitate another half-hour of work to undo, he grabbed the staple remover and told me that was all the help he needed for the day. I grabbed my backpack and left, hearing Mr. Calloway mutter under his breath “Of all the children to volunteer, I get the stupid one.”
I smiled at Mr. Calloway and watched him wipe his hands on his jeans before whispering “Bye” to his back on the way out the door. As I walked home kicking the tufts of grass between the sidewalk cracks to kill time, I recalled my father uttering a similar sentiment regarding my intelligence (or lack thereof) a few weeks earlier when I’d run into him on my way to the kitchen. Mom had returned from the grocery store, three bags in each hand. Dad had remained seated sipping his beer, which prompted a comment or two from my grocery-laden mother.
My father is not one to remain silent and let half-muttered comments bounce off his wounded pride, especially when he’s been drinking. He got up to direct more comments at my mother’s back at the exact same time I had decided to excuse myself for a snack to escape the discussion’s ever-increasing volume. I tried slinking past him, but my right shoulder brushed his left arm, causing him to spill his beer onto his faded work overalls. He swiped at my head with his right hand before grumbling loudly “that stupid kid is going to be the death of me.”
In both instances -- the beer incident with my father and the bulletin board incident with Mr. Calloway -- I realized the two men I loved only wanted me to understand the idiocy of my actions, wanted nothing more than for me to grow up smarter than they’d grown up. Hell, I call myself stupid all the time, not out of rage and frustration, but out of regret for not using my head. I knew what they knew: that if I let myself be stupid, I’d end up as a factory grunt or a low-paid teacher in a hopeless town.
In December of that year, about a week before Christmas, mom sent me to Mac’s Bar to fetch my father. I trudged through the winter sting and pushed open the door with my elbows, hands to mouth creating clouds of warmth around my nose and lips and fingers. The bouncer at the door nodded to me in recognition and I headed towards the back of the bar. Halfway to my father’s semi-permanent residence I froze. Atop one of the crimson-leathered stools sat Mr. Calloway staring into a glass containing what looked to be the same beverage my father regularly consumed.
Excited by this coincidence, I tugged the elbow of Mr. Calloway’s fleece pullover, but lost the words to address him properly when he turned to look at me over his right shoulder, keeping his hands wrapped tenderly around his drink. Upon seeing me at his elbow, he rolled his beautiful Hazel eyes and turned back to pour his longed-for attention instead upon his drink. I debated for a moment whether to tug again and decided instead to head to the back beyond the smoke of the pool tables to complete my mother’s mission. Maybe we’d chat on my way out.
My father is a man of routines: goes to work at the same time, comes home at the same time, eats the same lunch everyday, etc. He also sits in the same booth with the same friends every Friday night. I walked up to his booth and tugged on his arm. His elbow to my sternum later, and I was on the ground peering through the smoke as if I were waking up from a dream. I lay there for the few seconds it took for my father to return to drinking, relishing the spare seconds to process my thoughts.
Little coincidences can be delightful, like finding ten dollars in your pocket on the day you accidentally wander into the comic book store and see the newest issue of your favorite superhero. Or like finding out that your favorite action movie star, the one with whom you’ve shared many life-threatening adventures in your head, shares your same birthday. Or like forgetting to do your reading homework because you were too busy writing a story about your two dads but finding out the next morning at school that the deadline for the homework assignment had been extended by an extra day.
I found it delightful, for instance, that Mr. Calloway and my father shared the same fondness for Bass Dark Ale. Since it was the cheapest drink at Mac’s Bar, one might assume that both of them simply wanted to maximize their drinking funds. I think it had to do with similar tastes in methods of relieving stress. I’d seen them both at work and knew first-hand how much effort they spent trying to provide for me financially on the one side, and educationally on the other. Maybe this expended energy required the dark bitterness of Bass to remove the tiredness.
I also found it delightful how both of them pretended to ignore my presence here with them, how they pretended their drinks needed more attention than I did. I saw through their feigned indifference by remembering the times they put my needs before everything else – like when my father took me fishing for my birthday, or when Mr. Calloway sent me on errands to the Principal’s Office. Such special events would, in fact, have been made mundane had they been everyday occurrences. Ignoring me at the bar was about sanctifying the special times, making them more unique by their infrequency.
I got back to my feet and tugged again on my father’s arm. He glared at me, checked his watch, glanced at the empty pitchers on the table, mentally calculating whether or not he’d downed enough exhaustion-reducing dark bitterness, and shrugged to his friends. Finally, he snagged his jacket from the rack and staggered to his feet. I followed behind him trying to help him place his arms into their appropriate sleeves. I smiled up at him through the haze after his elbow found my sternum again. My father could be quite the kidder when filled with Bass dark bitterness.
I picked myself more quickly off the ground this second time and followed the staggering line of my father. To my great delight, Mr. Calloway remained poring his attention on his drink, also mentally calculating whether or not he’d downed enough exhaustion-reducing dark bitterness. My father’s routine in leaving the bar was to make it as slow a departure as possible – both because he knew so many of the regular patrons and had to say a few words to each as he passed, and because the longer he stayed, the more likely he’d pass out completely when we got home.
I took advantage of the slowness of my father’s departure to head back to Mr. Calloway’s elbow and tugged his fleece. As if we were rehearsing a scene, he repeated his prior movements by glancing over his shoulder, rolling his hazels, and turning back to his bitterness. Figuring I had a few more minutes of my father’s departure goodbyes, I tugged again at the soft blueness.
I tugged again.
“What, I said?”
I tugged again, this time holding on to the fleece.
“Oh my dear Mother of God!” he muttered in frustration, shaking his elbow to break my curiosity.
At the exact same time he was trying to shake his elbow free, my father had staggered into me, causing me to pitch forward. This resulted in a less-than-delightful coincidence as now Mr. Calloway’s elbow hit my sternum, knocking me back into my father. I lay on the ground looking up – at my father glaring down in drunken “Why’d you push me?” rage; at my teacher glaring down in drunken “Why do you keep tugging me?” fury; at both of my loved ones glaring down in drunken togetherness. It was all I could do not to say “I love you.”
My father lost his job at the factory the following February along with 1000 of his closest friends. Considering many of them frequented Mac’s Bar, I imagine my family was not the only people affected by the layoffs. I assumed the removal of his exhaustive dayshift would energize him enough to find another job elsewhere, but I was mistaken. And without the exhaustion-reducing dark bitterness – which I realized now was about reducing daily living exhaustion, not factory exhaustion – my father’s patience was also laid off. Dinner each day as a family was a quiet display of “Don’t Set Off Dad.”
One night my mother decided to stop playing our unspoken dinner game. Frustrated by my father’s 9 to 5 shift of watching Springer and infomercials, and by his mumbled comment that mom had forgotten to let the butter soften before placing it near his rolls, she asked him how long he was planning on having her support the family, having her checks go to rent and groceries and car payments and softened butter. My father took a bite of the hard-buttered roll in his hand, chewed, shoved the rest in his mouth, chewed, and swallowed.
“You didn’t let it soften.”
My mother rarely asks me to do anything. Actually, she claims she asks me to do things all the time and I never do them. But I’m not one of those kids that sneak out and party and sleep around and do drugs and end up hitting their mother on television shows before unemployed fathers 9 to 5. I do whatever my mother asks me to, which means I must not hear what she’s claiming she’s asking me to do.
But she asks me tonight, “Honey, can you excuse yourself for a few minutes so dad and I can talk?”
I left the table, not even bothering to take my half-eaten roll (unbuttered). This was a fine opportunity to finish the comic book I’d borrowed from a classmate without having to read it under my covers with a flashlight late at night. I’d flipped through less than a page of onomatopoeias when a few real-life onomatopoeias flew through the kitchen door.
I heard a slap! and a thud!
I heard my mother SCREECH!
I heard a SLAP! and a $#@!! before covering my ears with colored pages of superhero action, wishing only for the power to hear nothing at all.
My father came through the kitchen door with a BANG!, an ouch and a sob softly trailing behind. I froze where I was, uncertain of what to do. My father stared at me sitting in his chair and strode toward me briskly. I thought he wanted to hug me, comfort me, tell me things would be alright between him and mom. I stood up and extended my arms to receive his embrace. Instead, he grabbed me and tossed me to the side, hard against the wall. He sat down in his chair with a plop! and flipped on the television.
In the kitchen I found my mother whispering into the phone, cradling it to her ear with her left hand while simultaneously cradling her still-bleeding face with her right. I wanted to feel sorry for her, I really did, but I wondering why she chose to set off my father in the first place. Didn’t she realize as I did that the stress of supporting a family, especially a family with a son like me, was immense? I watched her hang up and clean herself in the kitchen sink. I grabbed a roll and spread on it the now-soft butter.
The police came about ten minutes or so after my mother hung up. Between my father’s surprise when the cops knocked and my mother’s appearing triumphantly through the kitchen door, between my father’s screaming and lunging at my mother and my mother sobbing and swearing at my father, between the cops restraining my father with cuffs and the neighbors gawking at the flashing lights, between my father being led out the door and my hysterical pleading for them to let him stay with me on the promise I’d be a better son – well, I didn’t get to finish my roll.
At school the next day, I spent my time staring at Mr. Calloway. My mother had given me the option of staying home if I wasn’t ready to deal with my emotions. And I wasn’t ready – which is why I chose to go to school. The last thing I wanted was to confront my anger at my mother for betraying my father. She didn’t have to set him off, she didn’t have to call the cops, and she didn’t have to remind them that this was the third time this year. She knew this incident would keep him locked away.
The day passed slowly. Finally, the end-of-day bell rang and though it was a Friday (the one day I didn’t volunteer), I stayed behind anyway. Noticing my odd affect, Mr. Calloway asked me if anything was wrong. I needed Mr. Calloway more than ever. I needed to love him and to have him love me more than ever.
“I need to help you with the bulletin boards.”
“Thanks, but I won’t be changing them for another week or so.”
“I need to fix the bulletin boards.”
“Just go home now. I’m fine.”
“I need to fix them.”
“Are you okay?”
In Mr. Calloway’s science class, we learned about ecosystems and the solar system; how plants and animals, predators and prey, and host and parasite seemed to follow invisible natural rules for survival and synergy; how planets and stars and spatial objects seemed to follow invisible laws of motion and energy, mathematical constants and synchronicity. There seemed to me some unseen world whose whispers organized the little pieces of reality into well-functioning and choreographed routines, directing people and places and things and me and Mr. Calloway and my father into some organized plot. It was this that drove my next actions.
I grabbed my backpack from its hook, stuck my arm into its inner pocket, and pulled out two bottles of Bass Dark Ale that I had stolen from our refrigerator. I figured my father wasn’t going to remember how many he had left when he got out.
“Here, Mr. Calloway.”
“What are you doing? Where did you get that? You can’t bring alcohol to school. Mother of God, I’m your teacher!”
I used the bottle opener on my keychain and popped opened both lids. I placed one on his desk and slowly began draining the other.
“Here you go, dad.”
Mr. Calloway backed away from me in what I presumed to be nervousness. I took advantage of his uncertainty to pour out half of my beer onto the papers on his desk.
“What the hell are you doing?”
He tried pulling me away, but I wrenched my arm free and grabbed the bottle meant for him. I ducked behind his back and began pouring the contents into his briefcase. From behind he bearhugged me, pinning both of my flailing arm to my sides in the embrace I’d been looking for.
I screamed at the top of my lungs in delight.
The teacher from the neighboring room walked in and saw Mr. Calloway clutching me tightly.
“He’s hurting me! Help me!”
“What the hell are you talking about? Mrs. Connelly, this kid’s completely psycho.”
“I always stay afterschool to help, but Mr. Calloway offered me a beer today, and I refused because alcohol’s what got my dad all locked up so then he began to get violent!”
Mrs. Connelly sprinted back to her classroom. Before Mr. Calloway could chase after her to explain, I threw a bottle at his back. He responded by twirling around, his elbow catching my face perfectly.
The police came about ten minutes or so after the other teacher left the room. Between Mr. Calloway’s indignation when the cops entered and my appearing groggily in the back of the classroom, between Mr. Calloway’s screaming and lunging at me and me half-sobbing and recounting the incident to the officers, between the cops restraining Mr. Calloway with cuffs and the other teachers gawking at us both, between Mr. Calloway being led out the door and my hysterical retelling of how I couldn’t understand why he’d hit someone he loved – well, I didn’t get to finish cleaning up bulletin boards.
Three months later, and I have this favorite fantasy. I daydream that my father and Mr. Calloway share the same cell. They sit across from each other on their bunks, my father leaning against the cool of the concrete wall, legs dangling; Mr. Calloway lying on his side, legs curled against him. This time together allows them both to learn about love as I have. And my father mentions my name again, and Mr. Calloway smiles and self-consciously chuckles to himself. And the two of them spend their day regaling each other with memories of how much they loved me.
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