My father’s hands fit around my throat.
At first his arm floats over my shoulder as we watch television while seated on the couch. The room smells musty and damp, of ash and fish sticks. On the tube they’re considering a rain delay at Camden Yards and I fix my eyes on a player’s jersey and tighten my focus further, concentrating on the image of the bird that I know is an oriole only because it’s the team mascot. I realize then that I can only name four or five different birds, about the same number of flowers I can identify, and it hits me hammer-hard like it always does, this feeling that he might be right about me after all, that I might be stupid, and like muscle memory acting on impulse a surge of worthlessness sluices through me and my skin burns hot and gets rashy and its suddenly a trick to breathe, so I picture that comic oriole again and I flick my eyes at it and lash out with imaginary fists and I kick the crap out of it with my brain, sending it a message to fly the hell away, and I’m so desperate at this point for control that I’m about to throw an ashtray through the tube when my father’s fingers clasp the back of my neck.
My father’s hand is loose at first, as if just balancing there, like a head rest, but then the pressure comes and the fingers pinch and dig and the nails bite, especially one that’s jagged and has been chewed up, and I wonder if I will bleed or faint.
I change my view and I find his gun on the coffee table, the holster flapped over it like a rubber chicken, like a giant scab. Why not use that on me, I think, but I know the answer. The pistol is for killing criminals, hands are for family.
One time I watched him beat Mother so bad I shocked myself. Until then, I had no idea I could tolerate such evil. Violence that raw can be riveting, its own special kind of sin, and I sat in the corner with my knees up to my forehead and every once in awhile I’d wince or close my eyes but only for a second, as if I was afraid I’d miss out on a potential prize if I didn’t pay attention. My father’s strength is not anger but persistence. He didn’t let up because Mother kept calling him this thing or that thing and then she had to go and bring up his being an officer of the law and saying, “You’re more wicked than the ones you lock… up.” He caught her sharp on the word “lock”--uppercut to the jaw, and the blow stuck so perfect and solid that a tooth flew out of her mouth and nicked me in the cheek and, even though that was several years ago, if you met me today or noticed me standing in line at a coffee shop you’d still observe that crescent scar two inches below my left eye. You’d see it and think it was nothing.
On TV they’re unrolling plastic mats that look like the world largest tortillas. We had Mexican food once when Mother was still around and the waitress stared at me so much that I started squirming in the booth and couldn’t stop and Mom told me to go to the bathroom, and when I said I didn’t have to, she said, “Well, I do,” and while she was gone I saw Dad grab the waitress’s buttocks in back where her apron strings dangled. The waitress pulled away, flushed but happy, and she spoke with her voice a cross between a whisper and a gargle and said, “Not in front of the kid,” and it was the relaxed state of her eyes that led me to believe my father and the waitress were an item and that it was no accident he’d picked this restaurant.
There have been other women. They come and go. He brings them or they show up. One time a loud pounding came from the front door and then a low, groaning sound and I thought someone had shot a dog and left it on our stoop. When I got up to see what it was, my father grabbed me by the hair and yanked so hard that I fell backward. After awhile, that lady must have given up because she wasn’t there in the morning even though a periwinkle high heeled shoe was.
It’s funny the things you think right before you die. It’s all a surprise to me, same as how calm I am. I see now the bird as a logo on a wall by a bank advertisement, and that oriole is flat and two-dimensioned, orange-breasted and stationery, no more able to fly than me.
The people in the stadium have filed out except for one pair huddled up near the top row of the grandstands. Sheets of silver rain pelt them at an angle. The camera zooms in. It’s a man and his son and they’re wearing yoke-yellow slickers and eating sandwiches and one of the announcers is chuckling so hard I think he might choke and the other is saying, “That’s one wet picnic.”
It goes black for a moment—the television, the room, this world and the universe we inhabit. People always talk about there being a light at the other side, off in the distance, but there’s not one in my ending. No, there’s just this edgeless blanket of ink. I feel my way through it. At least I think that’s what I do because I can only sense my hands, I can’t see them, but then just like that I can. My hands are stretched out in front of me and the room reappears in the same sludgy colors with the same fried fish odors and I’m gasping, gasping, gasping, and when I collect myself I think, There I go again, surprising myself once more, wanting to live after all.
I look at the gun again. I’ve never used one before but I figure, how hard can it be?
Len Kuntz is a writer from Washington State and a fiction editor at the online magazine BENDING GENRES. He’s also the author of four books, most recently the story collection, THIS IS WHY I NEED YOU, out now from Ravenna Press. You can find more of his writing at http://lenkuntz.blogspot.com