A Grown Man Whining About How Mean His Father Was (Badlands)

It is a cliche used to describe the pathetic:  “his father was so mean to him!”  said with sideways marionette’s quake of the head and a mocking little wave of the hand.  “Her mother was a nightmare,” is sometimes said with a touch more sincerity, but, in general, hearing an adult talk about how mean a parent was brings a smirk to the cheek.  

“Well, you hit on something there, Elie.  That’s why I said the other day that I don’t hold anything against my parents,” said the skeleton cheerfully.  

“Look, there’s no doubt that I was a bastard to you and your sister, and that I did terrible harm to both of you, and put obstacles in front of you in this uphill world that made things a lot harder for both of you.  I accept all that, and like I told you right before I died, I was sorry about it.  But beyond that, as an adult, you have to find a way to move on.   You can’t keep blaming your painful childhood.”  

Well, of course, you can keep blaming your painful childhood, many people do that, consciously or unconsciously.   But I take your larger point, it’s like forgiveness.  We learn that forgiveness is not primarily for the person you forgive, though it also makes that angry, guilty asshole feel better.  Forgiveness is a gift we give mainly to ourselves.  The understanding that while you cannot change a bad thing that was done to you, you can digest it to the point where you can let it go, exhale it as some other gas.   We can learn to become like the plant that breathes in toxic gas and exhales oxygen.  We must do this for ourselves and for the larger sake of peace among those we love.  

“Uh… OK.  You’re getting a little abstract and poetic here, but I get the point,” said the skeleton.  

Plus, there are also certain things that at the time were hurtful that you can later see through more mature eyes as having been inevitable.  You remember that ass-whipping you gave my sister and me in the Badlands?  

“Heh, yes, I remember that very well.  And I have to say, you and your sister brought that on yourselves.  It was one of the few times I ever lifted a hand to either of you,” he said.  

All true.  Yes, and my sister feels the same way, so do I, in fact, even at the time we didn’t really hold it against you.  It was one of those things that, looking back on it, had been inevitable.   I don’t remember if I told the story here already.  

“I don’t think so,” said the skeleton, “and, anyway, you have to start gathering these 330 pages into themes and bunches and pruning them and adding things where more detail is called for.  Write the poor little story, what do you have to lose?”  

You were still working as a teacher back in, we’ll say, 1962, and so you had those blessed ten weeks off every summer.  Somewhere I probably still have the bit I wrote about What I Did on My Summer Vacation from the beginning of second grade.   We’d gone to the AAA on Hillside Avenue and while my sister and I gathered up tons of glossy tourist brochures, you sat with someone from Triple A and they took a green marker and made lines down a series of spiral bound map books they called Trip Tix. The long pages were bound at the top, like a meter maid’s ticket book.   The Trip Tix laid out the route exactly, mile by mile, and had notations for every historical site, or site of interest to kids, along the 3,000 mile drive.  There was also a fat book for every region we’d be passing through, with selected hotels and restaurants, each with a notation about how they felt about young children and dogs.  We were going to be traveling with Patches.  

“A brilliant dog, Patches.   She’d proven her smarts on the street as a very artful and independent little pup before she decided we were going to take her in.  You remember she used to come back from Union Turnpike munching on a chicken carcass she’d find behind the bar?”  

She was a smart dog, alright.  I remember one time she was not so smart, though, or at least, not very prudent.  

“Yosemite National Park,” said the skeleton.  

Yup.  We were stopped in a line of cars on that leafy road.  

“I remember it vividly,” said the skeleton.  

I know, this is for the reader.  Several cars were stopped in front and behind us as we came upon a small group of roadside bears, up on their hind legs, begging. There were signs all over the park about not feeding the bears, and every ranger reminded us of that warning, but some of these shameless hustlers still managed to get fed.  You and mom were obeying the law, as you most often did, and the car windows stayed rolled up.  A gigantic dark reddish brown bear was standing by mom’s window, to us it looked like a grizzly bear, it seemed to be about seven feet tall, and Patches, who was on mom’s lap, lunged toward the bear.  

“Heart in mouth moment,” said the skeleton.

The bear wasn’t about to take this shit from some little pampered pooch in a car and it swung an enormous paw at mom’s window.  The paw was almost the size of the entire window, and you could see the gigantic, sharp claws and the huge light brown pads on the underside of it as it pounded against the glass.  

“It seems like a miracle the glass didn’t shatter,” observed the skeleton.  

It does, and thinking of it now, I suppose the very size of the paw may have been a decisive factor.  The weight of the hit was apparently distributed across the glass enough that the glass didn’t shatter.  Then again, Physics was the only course I truly had no idea what was going on in.  

“Lucky for you that pinko you had in high school thought you were a cool kid and passed you anyway,” said the skeleton.  

Well, as you know, I’ve always been an extremely lucky bastard.

“As were we all that day in Yosemite.  Jesus that was a scary moment,” said the skeleton.  

Indeed.   Anyway, it was a hot summer, literally thousands of miles in the car, sweltering in places like St. Louis, and I recall that huge bag of M & Ms we had in the car turning to mush.  We started saying “melts in the bag, not in your hand” as a riff on their ad: melts in your mouth, not in your hand.  

“Well, that was before the age of air-conditioned cars.  And it was the height of summer.  We stayed out of the heart of the Old Confederacy, where it was really, really hot, in more ways than one.  We were heading across country, after all, but we stayed out of the deep South deliberately too.  That AAA guide would have also needed to tell us which hotels allowed Negroes, and Jews, along with kids and dogs.  The Klan still ran much of the south and there were no federally enforced anti-lynching laws yet,” the skeleton shook his head.  “We were already post-racial back then, see, there was no need to protect the good Negroes who did what they were told.  If some angry asshole Negro got out of hand, too uppity, well, it was a state’s right to deal with a bad apple like that as they saw fit.”

I remember passing some share croppers’ shacks on the side of the highway somewhere down south.  Raggedy little black kids moving around outside these tar-paper hovels.  That may have been on a trip to Florida, though, I think it was in South Carolina.  

“Yeah, I remember you asking about those shacks, and I think you’re right, that was probably a couple of years later when we started going to Florida,” said the skeleton.  

Reminds me of another ass-whipping my sister and I almost got in Harold’s father’s place in Miami Beach where we stayed during that first trip to Florida.  I don’t know how you didn’t beat our asses that time.  

“I was always a man of great restraint,” said the skeleton, deadpan.  “Even when I was calling you a fucking cobra with a face twisted and contorted in hate I was being restrained.  Even as the spit flew out of my mouth and my face turned colors.”  

It goes without saying.

Back to the Badlands then.  We’d been in the car for weeks by then, and going a bit stir crazy, I was probably six and my sister would have been four.  We’d seen a lot of cool stuff, but there had also been hours upon hours in the back seat of the station wagon.  We were in a rangers’ station and the ranger was showing a slide show.  For whatever reason, the slides were projected in such a tiny size that, even lying on the floor right in front of the screen as my sister and I were, it was hard to see the details of things like the Tufted Ear Squirrel that the ranger was droning on about.  We started to laugh at the absurdity of these postage stamp-sized images at the front of this large, dark room and we couldn’t stop.  You hissed at us, very embarrassed, and it only made things worse.  We were delirious.  

“When you two started laughing like that, it could get bad very fast,” said the skeleton.  

Well, it did in the Badlands that day.  You’d been driving for thousands of miles by then, and it was hot, and your kids were out of control.  Even at the time, somehow, and in spite of how young we were, we seem to have recognized all that.

“If you don’t stop laughing I’m going to whip your asses,” you finally threatened, miles from the rangers’ station, when we still could not stop howling.  This, of course, only made us laugh harder.  And we couldn’t stop.  

You pulled the car on to the gravel shoulder of that desert road, yanked us out and pulled us to the back of the car.  You threw down the little panel in the back of the station wagon and shoved us toward it, seemingly yanking down our pants, and underpants, and drawing your belt out of the loops in one motion.  Our little hands were flat on the panel and our asses were extended in the proper orientation for a good ass-whipping.  I don’t recall the feeling of the strap across my naked ass at all.  What I remember, vividly, are the faces of the kids in the passing car as we were about to be whipped.  They were pressed against the glass and laughing deliriously as their car roared past.  I know my sister saw them too.  

“Well, as President Kennedy said ‘life’s unfair’.  They got a free show of two kids being whipped bare-assed for exactly the same thing they were doing– laughing their asses off.”  

I remember hoping we’d pass their car further down that desolate road, pulled over, and get to see them getting their little asses whipped, but we didn’t.  

“Life’s unfair, Elie, and then you die,” said the skeleton, lying back down to continue his long nap.

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