by Thomas Elson
My childhood living room was like a boxing ring from the old Gillette Friday night fights.
In the red corner, draped across the green divan - hands clenched, arms splayed across its crest – at six foot three, one-hundred and ninety-five pounds, an Army veteran who had seen action in France and Germany - nursing an anger as deep as the Mediterranean. Head tilted back, mouth open and emitting glottal sounds that filled the room. His eyeglasses perched precariously on the tip of his nose.
In the blue corner, an eighty-three pound, six-year-old – his eyes periodically squinting to shut out the world - hunkered down, coiled in a brown chair.
On the coffee table near the divan rest amber bottles of Schlitz beer - empty, and a green glass ashtray - overflowing.
When my father sleeps, I am not allowed to turn on the television, so today, the Mickey Mouse Club, Pinky Lee, and Howdy Doody go unwatched. My eyes on the beer bottles, I stand, walk toward the coffee table, lift one of the bottles, and say, “Shits beer. ” Then I smile.
My father stirs, bolts to his feet, wobbles, his left shin collides against the coffee table, epithets erupt; then, like a battering ram, he propels himself toward me. Without a referee to break a clinch or call a foul, I retreat to a neutral corner, and, out of habit, curl into a protective position.
My father’s face contracts. He does not breathe so much as snort. He jerks off his glasses, balls his hands into fists, jams his head within inches of me, then pushes his forehead against mine - shoving my head toward the wall.
“What did you say?” The onslaught of words forces me to inhale his charred and yeasty breath. He repeats his question – louder.
“What did you say?” His words reverberate.
“It’s Schlitz beer.” He says overemphasizing the “L,” then slams the bottle against the coffee table and demands, “Say it.”
Scenes like this - bobbing, weaving, mental jabs, psychological rabbit punches, emotional knockdowns - echo over decades as our family’s default means of communication, until one Sunday afternoon, when I, now a grandfather, ready my grandson for a tour of the Mission San Jose Monastery.
Without warning, my father, now a great-grandfather, oxygen tank at his side and a cannula affixed in his nostrils, clamps his jaw, gathers strength, latches onto his walker, pulls, pushes, stands, regurgitates familiar words: There’s not enough room in this family for both of us… You should have… You were… You never… Why didn’t you… If only you … Words explode, collide, ricochet.
I look at my father’s fists, then step forward. “Hit me. Just fucking do it. Go ahead. Get it out of your system. Hit me.”
The old man grasps the edge of the kitchen table to steady himself. His upper body shakes. His mouth warps into its decades-old contortion. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. But I’m going to do something.”
“Then do it. Just do it.” I inch closer. My eyes never waver from his.
He shakes, almost quivers, then sits down.
I turn from the table, walk through the kitchen, and into the living room where my wife and daughter have secreted themselves on the opposite side of the doorway. “You were very brave.” My wife pats my shoulder.
“No,” I say without looking at her, “being brave would have been doing that when I was six.”
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