King of Nowhere
I was born and raised in St. George, an economically depressed town of about thirty thousand people five miles southeast of Ithaca. My father was raised by Polish immigrants in Australia; my mother’s parents came over from Sicily during Prohibition. My parents met at a mixer not long after my father came over with his family. My father was taken with my mother’s dark hair, smooth olive skin and tiny, sparrow-like frame. They married six months after they graduated from high school. Early on, my parents more or less accepted their fate of childlessness (a car accident when my mother was a little girl was to blame) so my arrival as their late in life son duly shocked both of them.
For years I never knew what my father did for a living. I knew he worked nights: whenever I came home from school I was never allowed to make a lot of noise because he was asleep in the upstairs bedroom, and he went to work right after dinner. When I was leaving for school in the mornings I would see him coming up the walkway. He appeared in an instant, materializing out of the morning fog that draped around the houses on our street and piled up in the alleys like weightless cotton. This optical illusion, combined with the mystery of his job, solidified my awe and terror of him. I never thought he saw me those mornings because his head was bent in intense concentration, but he always reached out to touch me on the shoulder before sitting down to the breakfast my mother laid out for him. It was our silent ritual.
I made the mistake of asking my father what he did at work when I was about eleven years old.
His eyes, normally reptilian in their passivity, flicked over at me, annoyed. He snorted.
“What difference does it make?” he asked. “My name is Bill. I’m your father. I keep the lights on. That’s all you need to know.”
I never asked him again.
I eventually did find out what kept him out all those nights. When I was fifteen, a bunch of my friends and I decided to “borrow” a car and take a joyride downtown. The plan was to get into a bar. How we were supposed to accomplish this, I don’t know— our master plan of four pimple-faced teenagers with no fake IDs showing up at a bar was destined for failure: but, of course, that night we were invincible kings of nowhere.
We stopped in front of a strip club, and debated whether or not we wanted to go in. One of the members of the group (I won’t say who it was) wanted to go home, but didn’t want to risk his friends calling him a pussy. The unfortunate schmuck was called upon to get out of the car and ask how much the cover charge was.
I stopped dead when I saw my father in front of the club. I couldn’t believe it--I wouldn’t believe it--but even with a baseball cap pulled low over his eyes, I recognized his long-sleeved shirt, his belt, and his shoes. He was in the middle of an argument with what I assumed was stripper. Her caramel skin was flawless, but her face was twisted in rage as she spewed profanities that I had only seen scratched on bathroom walls in my repressive Catholic high school. Her large golden hoop earrings caught the light of the neon sign. I heard a bit of their conversation, and I prayed it would go on forever so I could turn and run back home like the coward that I was.
“I’m eighteen,” she screamed at him.
“Like hell you are,” my father shouted back. “You're a thirteen year old kid. I’d just as soon buy you an ice cream cone. Now go home. I’ve got work to do.” I pulled at the car’s door handle, praying I would disappear and wake up in my bed with no memory of what I had just seen.
My father said my name, and the earth fell from beneath my feet. My intestines dropped to my knees. I was finished.
I didn’t hear my father approach me; I just felt his thick fingers squeeze the back of my neck and jerk me away from the car. He walked me around the corner, and my feet barely touched the ground as I struggled to match his gait. It was the closest we ever had to an embrace.
“I see you around here again, I’ll break your kneecaps,” he growled. I saw a man in the middle of the block standing in front of a double-parked car with his arms folded over his large belly. He clutched an axe handle in his oversized fist. It was my father’s best friend. He and his wife came over for dinner with my parents almost every week.
“Jimmy,” my father called out to him. “Take my kid home, willya?”
Jimmy’s deep-set eyes peered out at me from beneath his newsboy’s cap in disbelief, but he said nothing to me. “You got it, chief.” He pushed me in the backseat of his car. If I didn’t know these two guys, I would have thought I was being kidnapped.
It was the angry stripper girl. She stalked over to my father and continued her tirade. I tried not to listen as I curled up in the backseat. I wanted to vomit, but I peeked out of the window anyway.
My father grabbed the girl’s arm and pulled her towards him. “You go home, too,” he told her. “I don’t ever want to see you here again. You have no idea what you’re getting yourself into. This is no place for children. ” She struggled, but was no match for my father, who sank his fingers into her forearm and gripped his shoulder with his free hand.
“Don’t fight me,” he said. “You can’t win.”
The car door opened and the girl was shoved in next to me. Her hair, black as tar, rippled over her shoulders like unbraided rope. I found myself getting pretty excited that I was pressed against a hot girl even though I knew I was in over my head. Her thin legs were sheathed in tight leather pants. I would have covered her bright red lips with mine right then and there if I didn’t think she would have ripped off my skin if I so much as whimpered. I stumbled home with the image of the girl’s face spinning in my head before I dropped off to sleep.
My father relieved me of my fantasy of seeing her again when he came up the stairs and let his belt buckle fly at seven the next morning. I had welts and bruises on the backs of my legs for a week.