Wednesday 20 March 2024

Losing Childhood by Lise Halpern, americano, black no sugar

One of his earliest memories was a battle with his father over lima beans.

He remembers sitting at the kitchen table, kicking the battered wooden chair with his feet and staring at the lima beans as his father scowled at him.  If his dad had not been there, had been out on one of his long hauls, his mom would have never put them on his plate.  She knew he did not like lima beans.

He had eaten everything else on his plate.  Dinner was finished and they were clearing the table.  When he tried to get up to put the plate in the sink, his father had stopped him with ‘Where do you think you’re going?  You sit right back down and finish your beans.’

For the next half hour, he sat at the table as his father stood over him. ‘Your mother worked hard to make the whole family dinner.  Little boys need to eat their vegetables, and if lima beans are on your plate, you will eat the goddam beans.  Too bad if you don’t like them.  Toughen up and just get them down.  No excuses.’   

Jimmy’s face grew hot, a stew of anger, frustration, and fear boiling in his chest.

His mother had finished the dishes and was folding laundry in the basement, his big brother was off doing homework, and the baby was already in bed.  It was just him and his dad in the kitchen.  ‘You think you can wait me out?  You think I am going to give up and go to bed?’ his father taunted in an angry whisper-yell. He bent low to try to look Jimmy in the eye. ‘Well think again, little boy.  Quitters never win and winners never quit.  I am the winner here and you are just a little loser boy.’

His father was right.  At least that night, Jimmy had lost and had eaten the lima beans.  Eventually he learned not to let on when he did not like something on his plate.  He developed the skills to pass the offending food to the dog, or a napkin, or even his jeans pocket. He also learned, when all else failed, to smile as he choked down foods he hated.

Whenever he was home Dad made it clear how little he thought of his weakling son.  Jimmy was not alone in his place at the bottom of the ladder; his dad assumed that all his kids were losers.  They were not tough enough, were undisciplined, and lacked the will to win, and it was his job to toughen them up. He made sure they knew their place and followed his rules or faced the consequences.  Jimmy spent hours of his childhood turned over his father’s knee feeling his father’s belt on his butt. 

Jimmy was smart enough to be a good student, but by the time he got to high school he had developed a smart mouth and bad attitude.  His sophomore history teacher was also the football coach, with a knack for casual cruelty and an expectation that everyone worshipped football.  Mr. Slotnik had nicknames for the kids in his classes.  He called the redheaded girl Carrot and the boy whose parents owned a flower shop Tulip. He ceremoniously thumbtacked failed tests to the classroom bulletin board for at least a week.  Any assignment turned in late lost a grade level and the perpetrator spent the period sitting at the front of the classroom facing their classmates.

Jimmy was a basketball player, not a football player, and all athletes were not equal in Mr. Slotnik’s classroom, so he caught plenty of grief.  One day he showed up without his assignment.  Without a word he walked into the classroom, pulled out a chair, and sat with his back to the blackboard, his hands in his lap and his jaw tight as he watched the desks fill with his classmates.  ‘Forgot your paper today, Jimmy?’ Mr. Slotnik asked.  ‘Too bad.  It’s gonna cost you.’

‘Yessir.  I know.’  Jimmy did not look at him, just continued to stare at his own empty desk in the last row of the classroom.

Jimmy turned in the assignment the next day and got an A-, which became a B- on Mr. Slotnik’s grading sheet.  Still good enough to avoid a whipping at home, so no big deal.  The day the next assignment was due he came to class early and once again sat at the front of the room as his classmates found their seats.  The third time, he sat in front for class and then came back at the end of the school day to turn in his paper.  On the fourth late assignment he was joined by the boy called Tulip, and they sat shoulder to shoulder at the front of the room.  From that day on he always had company at the front of the room when assignments were due.  He ended sophomore year with a C in history and a reputation in the teacher’s lounge.

The high school basketball team was mediocre at best, and Jimmy was no basketball star.  Still, he tried to be everywhere, to grab every rebound, take every shot.  Quitters never win and winners never quit.  Jimmy always played better when he spotted his father standing by the edge of the bleachers in the thin fluorescent light of the mostly empty gym. He was a fireplug of a man, squat but solid; he and stood with his arms crossed speaking to no one as he watched the play.  After every basketball game his father watched him lose, he heard it.  ‘You just quit out there, Jimmy.  You got tired and weak.  Remember how losing feels, Jimmy.  Maybe next time you won’t give up in the middle of the game.’  It didn’t matter that the guy guarding him was half a foot taller, or that his team had no one who could play point guard.  His dad’s view was always,  'no excuses'.  If you lost, it was your fault.  If you won, well, winner winner chicken dinner, lucky you. 

            Time with Dad at home was usually spent doing chores around the house.  The property was the last little bit of what had once been the family farm.  The house was old and in frequent need of patches and repairs.  Jimmy learned how to use tools, how to repair a roof and a fence, fix a plumbing leak, and rewire an overhead light fixture.  His father was all about self-reliance and discipline.  He never tolerated shirking, back talk, disrespect, or disobedience.  His words were his primary weapon, but he never hesitated to use a belt on the butt or a slap across the face to punctuate his message. 

Jimmy and his brothers got pretty good at avoiding their father’s wrath.  He was an independent trucker, gone often for a week or more on long hauls. When he was around, they did their chores and otherwise tried to stay out of the house as much as possible.  When Dad was away the house was safer, noisier, filled with the energy of ungrown boys.  Their mom was not shy about passing out whacks for bad behavior, but her demands were lighter.  No back talk, do your share, don’t torture your brothers. 

            Jimmy found great satisfaction in getting away with breaking the rules when his father was in the house. In elementary school he would watch how many beers his father had at dinner. On nights when it was more than three, he would sneak downstairs after bedtime and watch late-night horror movies on TV.  Sometimes he fell asleep on the nubby brown sofa, but his dad was never the first one down in the morning.  His mom just frowned her disappointment, shut off the TV, and sent him upstairs.  His older brother caught him once. Jimmy shamed hm to silence with ‘You’re not a snitch, Bobby.  Don’t rat me out.’  His brother shrugged and went on to the kitchen in search of an illicit early-morning cookie. 

            In junior high Jimmy started stealing beers from the fridge, storing them behind the spare tires stored in the garage and slipped out to drink them while his dad watched sports on TV after dinner.  In high school he started sneaking out of the house at night, tiptoeing down the stairs and out a basement window.  Usually it was to drink beer with friends in a spot near the creek at the edge of their property.  Jimmy could walk there through the woods behind the house and his friends could walk from the road that ran nearby. The creek was cold enough to chill the beer and the spot was far enough down the hill to have a small campfire and not be seen from the house.

His childhood ended around one of those campfires when the wind blew the smoke from the small fire toward the house.  His father, sleeping off a long trip, woke up to pee and smelled the smoke.  Jimmy and his pals had each had only one beer when they heard the rustling of leaves in the woods. Jimmy’s dad suddenly stood in front of the fire, his fists on his hips.  The flames lit his face red and cast an angry glow around his dark silhouette.

 ‘What the fuck are you doing lighting the woods on fire in the middle of the night?  You and your loser friends.’ He turned to Jimmy’s buddies. ‘Go home, you little shits.  I want to have a chat with my loser son.  Don’t come wasting your time on my land again.  It’s a good way to get accidentally shot as a trespasser.’

His friends poured out their beers into the dead leaves as they scurried back to their cars.  As their taillights disappeared down the road Jimmy sat calmly by the fire listening to the crackle of the burning wood, a thin line of smoke filling his nose.  He was almost eighteen, bigger than his dad.  He looked directly into his father’s eyes as he took another sip of beer. Quietly he said, ‘Really charming, Dad.’

‘Where did you get the damn beer?’ his father growled.

‘I have friends,’ he replied.

‘Not good ones.’ His dad started warming up the tirade. ‘What’s the matter with you?  Sneaking out of the house in the middle of the night, drinking beer with your loser friends. With that bonfire you could burn the woods and even the house.  Just so you can get your jollies, you selfish prick. Get up off your ass and put out this fire.’

‘I’m going to finish my beer first.  Then I’ll put out the damn fire.  It won’t burn your house down.’

His father took a step toward him. ‘Stand up and put out that fire.’

‘When I finish my beer.’ 

His father was fast, and the slap came hard. Jimmy’s head snapped sideways from the impact.  It set him off balance and he dropped the beer.  A stream of curses and disdain exploded from his father.  Jimmy was a loser, a quitter, an embarrassment. 

Jimmy stood and took a step toward the fire. ‘Shut up, Dad.’

His father tried to slap him again. But Jimmy caught his father’s wrist before impact.  Then he hauled back and punched, and blood spurted from his father’s nose as he staggered back and sat down hard next to the fire.  Jimmy looked down at him and said one word. ‘Loser.’  

Jimmy walked purposefully up the hill to the house never looking back to see his father slowly stand and put out the fire.  


About the author  

 After decades of writing creative non-fiction in the form of strategic business plans and advertising copy Lise Halpern has turned her thousand word a day writing habit to more literary pursuits. She resides with two crazy border collies in a river town in bucolic Bucks County, Pennsylvania. 

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