As Frankie the Caterer, who outweighed me by maybe forty pounds, held me off balance against the cupboard and began throwing punches toward my face, and grunting as he did — and, I have to say, the grunting pissed me off as much as anything– I started to get really mad.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been in this position, and I hope you never have, but it really does make you angry to be treated that way.
“You’re hilarious, Mr. Talking to the Reader Amateur Hour,” said the skeleton.
I’m not kidding, it really is infuriating when somebody tries to beat the shit out of you. I hadn’t been in any fist fights, and had avoided all beatings, in spite of my long habit of speaking disrespectfully to bullies, but instincts took over. I emulated Ali’s Rope A Dope, covering my torso and face with forearms and fists. Off balance as I was I could get no leverage to hit back. This arrangement worked in my favor as well, because Frankie couldn’t get much leverage to put any real power behind his punches, which were landing mostly harmlessly on my arms.
About the only thing I could do was yell, and since there was no point pretending we were friends at this point, the things I yelled would have curdled the milk in a respectable woman’s tea.
My yelling really served no good purpose, except to curdle the milk in the tea of the respectable ladies who owned the place, Daughters of the American Revolution, directly above us, and alert them that some enraged, toilet-mouthed black man had evidently broken into their beautiful mansion and was violently assaulting the off-duty policeman, their friendly caterer Frank.
“His name is Frank, isn’t it? That greaseball?” said one of the women, referring, with the political incorrectness that is the birthright of such women, to Frank’s Italian ancestry.
“The wop?” said another, “I believe his name is Francis, or possibly Frank.”
We were getting nowhere fast, Frank and I, and since the music was loud in the dining room, and we were behind closed doors at the far end of the kitchen, nobody but the Daughters of the American Revolution directly upstairs were hearing any of the perfectly offensive, frightfully disrespectful things I was yelling. Frank kept grunting and hitting, I kept snarling. Then five or six of Frank’s colleagues came running into the kitchen and pulled us apart.
Two of them restrained me, nobody restrained Frank. There was a little pause, as these off-duty policemen stood in a little half circle figuring out their next move, how to stage the scene correctly so that everything played out the way they needed it to. The guy with the mouth like a fucking perp — well, it would be easy enough to pin the assault on him, he was clearly the aggressor, but they were sort of thinking about how to best proceed.
My mind was working fast too at that moment. I was being held, my arms pinned, and Frankie, who hadn’t managed to get a good shot in, was standing a few feet away, still mad as hell. I knew, somehow, the chances were pretty good that as long as I struggled, and was being held by two guys, I’d give Frankie the chance to finally bash me in the face. I could see he wanted to and was probably most comfortable pummeling a man his friends were holding. Policemen famously make loyal witnesses who will not rat out a brother on the job or off.
Instincts, again. I let my body go slack and said quietly to the guys holding me, “I’m OK, let me go please.” I sounded so reasonable, and was putting up no resistance, that, to my surprise, they released me. I noticed the suddenly confused expressions on everybody’s face.
Then I said to Frankie “after what you just tried to do to me, what’s to stop me from doing the same to you?” I could see it perfectly in my head, a crisp punch to the cheek, spinning his head, followed by a hard shot to the stomach, he doubles over, pound him to ground, kick him once, leave.
As soon as the last syllable was out of my mouth I realized nothing stood in the way. I punched him in the face. It was not the heroic Hollywood punch I’d imagined a millisecond before, but it was a solid, if slightly tentative hit. They started moving in, I realized the rest of my plan would have to be abandoned. I moved quickly, telling everyone it was over, leaped nimbly over a long waist high metal table (my legs were strong from bike messengering and I was trim), landed lightly on the other side, bowed, like the admirer of Bruce Lee that I was, and left the kitchen.
I joined the party, began excitedly telling somebody what had just happened. Found a friend of my bother-in-law’s who was a lawyer, told him I might be needing him later, said the same to his friend the shrink. Just then my father rushed over in his tuxedo, red-faced, with the keys to the car in his hand.
“I don’t know what the fuck is the matter with you, I don’t know what you’re on, but this party is over for you. Take the car and get out of here, the police are on their way,” he said in one hot breath.
“Excellent,” I said, not taking the car keys he was thrusting at me, “I’m going to file assault charges when they get here.”
“The cops are on their way, and you’re getting out of here now,” he insisted.
“You’re telling me to flee the scene of an assault when I am the victim of the assault? What the fuck are YOU on?” I yelled back.
“Lower your voice,” he hissed, steering me toward the vestibule outside the ballroom.
“They already called the police, they’re on their way. Frank is a cop. I don’t know what the fuck is the matter with you!” he motioned to the front doors, elegant double doors with narrow panels of intricately cut glass inlaid in them.
“Let’s talk outside,” I said and pushed the door open with the back of my open left hand.
“You balled up your fist and smashed the glass on the door in a fit of violent rage!” insisted my father afterwards, and forever after.
Showing the cuts on the back of my left hand, a tiny scar is there to this day, did nothing to disabuse him of this image of his enraged out of control son violently ruining the expensive wedding, deliberately smashing the glass with the back of his weaker, guitar fretting hand, and then, typically, trying to rewrite history to make himself the victim.
What followed was me being detained by police in a coat room for the remainder of the wedding, my incriminating bloody left hand wrapped in a cloth napkin. I was eventually questioned and told the story to a cop who nodded and said, “curse, shove, punch, yeah, I got it. Look, this happens all the time at weddings, sad to say. People have a couple of drinks. I once punched out my brother-in-law at a wedding, and we’re good friends, we laughed about it later. Emotions are high, this happens at weddings, unfortunately.”
Maybe it happens at cop family weddings, where men are used to acting like men on TV, they don’t use passive aggression or withering wit to express their hostility, they act like men, use their fist, a beer stein, a bat, whatever I can use to fucking bash your brains in, big mouth. My family had never seen this kind of thing, at least if we don’t include the rude treatment they probably got from the people who murdered them en masse back in Eastern Europe.
I myself wasn’t used to it. What followed was grotesquely familiar, though. I was generously given the lion’s share of the blame for the ugly incident, blame my parents griped about forever. The lawyer friend of my new brother-in-law had negotiated a deal– Frank, a gentleman, would voluntarily drop the assault charges against me if I waived the right to file any charges I might be thinking of bringing against him. “It’s a good deal,” the lawyer assured me. After all, five police witnesses had seen me punch the caterer in the face, which I’d also admitted to doing, the rest was my word against the caterer’s. I took the deal, but I wasn’t particularly gracious about taking it.
Talking to people in the weeks after the wedding, I found that virtually nobody there had been aware of how I had successfully ruined the party. Each one expressed shock when I told the dramatic story. My sister had been unaware of it at the time too.
“You deliberately ruined your sister’s wedding,” my parents kept insisting. “You provoked and assaulted the caterer for no reason. You have a violent fucking temper!” They were like two dogs with a bone, they would not let it go. It enraged them over and over again, that I had simply, maliciously, decided to violently provoke and attack an innocent and decent person in the middle of the happiest day in all of our lives. Never mind that I’d never been involved in a fist fight in my life, outside of this one. I was long overdue for a good ass kicking from somebody, the way they saw it.
They both readily understood how somebody could want to punch me in the face over and over. This struck me as one betrayal too many, the distilled compounding of a lifetime of my parents’ both taking everyone else’s side over my own, my point of view being dismissed as mere blame-shifting justification. If a stranger tried to punch my lights out, he must have had a damned good reason.
Having read my detailed account you might be inclined to think my parents could have employed a bit of nuance in analyzing things, might have realized that few conflicts in life are 100% one person’s fault, but you’d be missing the point by thinking that way.
“Very clever,” said the skeleton, “you know the real reason you are writing this book. To get the last fucking word, to prove to everybody that you’re right and the rest of the world is wrong. You want to pontificate and hand down the final wise word on everything, years after the rest of us are dead and can’t defend ourselves.”
That must be it, dad. So the ending is like this: I went to my parents house a couple of nights later, after a day of riding my bike in lousy weather to make a few dollars. I confronted them about their implacable refusal to listen to my side of the story. They did not like being confronted. My father was smug, my mother was enraged.
“That’s all you know how to say ‘suck my dick! suck my dick! suck my dick!’,” she worked herself into a frenzy, saying it over and over, like a Tourretic parrot, in a high pitched imitation of her violently insane son.
“Suck my dick,” I told her, using the regrettable, dismissive phrase for perhaps the last time in my life.
My father weighed in. “You conveniently leave out the most important part of the whole incident,” he said.
When I asked the obvious follow-up he said, “you had no right to be in the kitchen in the first place. Once you went into the kitchen everything that happened was your fault. You were wrong, but of course, you could never admit that.”
At this point, if we’d been a cop family, fists would already have been flying, my mother would have broken a platter across the back of my head, neighbors would be rushing toward the house.
Instead, finally having heard enough, the maddening futility of the whole exercise exhausting me, I walked over to my father on the couch and held up one finger.
“The most important fucking thing about the incident was the violence that occurred, and escalated, from verbal to physical. If you think they are exactly the same, think again.” He glared at me.
“Don’t make me get up from this couch,” he warned, like he was talking to a five year-0ld.
I watched my father’s eyes watching my finger as I brought it smartly across his nose.
“Don’t make me get up from this couch,” he growled, not moving a muscle.
“You’re a cunt,” I said, moving toward the door to leave.
My mother started screaming about this. Her screams sounded like the screams of someone being scalded to death.
My father maintained his cold, steely demeanor. “I’m writing you out of the Will, you’ll get nothing from us,” he told me.
“Fuck you and fuck your will,” I said.
“Give me the keys to the house,” he said, “you’re not welcome here anymore.”
“I’m keeping the fucking keys and coming by to terrorize you whenever I feel like it,” I informed him over my mother’s screaming.
I left and rode my bicycle towards the train station on Hillside Avenue. It was raining now and I put on my rain gear. On the way to the train I passed the home of Florence and Mike, two good friends of Arlene and Russ. Florence was an excellent artist, a great soul and one of my favorite people in the world. I was one of her’s too. Mike was a good guy, very bright, idealistic, an excellent piano player devoted to Bach, as was Florence.
I knocked on their door, went in and told them the story. They were very sympathetic, predicted that it would take a while but that all this would eventually blow over. We had a couple of laughs at some point, I think, and I rode off to the train feeling a lot better than when I left my parents’ house.
What I remember most clearly of all of these thirty year-old events is the feeling I had the next morning when I woke up.
The rain, which had become torrential by the time I got back to my apartment, had stopped. When I opened my eyes after a long sleep the sun was shining outside. Birds were singing. I was struck by an incredible feeling of lightness I’d never felt, not before or since. It was literally like a heavy weight had been lifted off my shoulders, my neck, my brow, my chest, my back, my arms and my legs. I was euphoric to be free of my parents. The feeling of relief was almost palpable, I could practically taste it.
“It was not to last long,” said the skeleton.