(Courtesy of Resevoir Road Literary Review)
The Chief had enjoyed two successful, medal-bedecked tours in the jungles of Vietnam. He enjoyed being in the thick of things, but a Purple Heart was as good a sign as any that it was time to settle down. He and his seed found a home in blue-collar Boonton, New Jersey. His pregnant wife was the daughter of an ultra-conservative WASP family. The Chief was the perfect vessel for her to raise a middle finger to the draconian, conservative values beaten into her.
Before I was born, the root of The Chief’s disappointment in me took shape on the sonogram. “Doesn’t look like much” was the most enthusiasm he mustered at the shadowy black-and-white image of me in the womb.
When I turned five, he cursed my lack of athleticism and my status as a “mama’s boy.”
At ten, I was an albatross around his neck. A constant reminder of his lack of upward mobility as he skulked from sales job to sales job. The Chief had a propensity for calling superiors “jackasses.” It happened whenever he felt suffocated by management. Which was often.
I was an awkward teen; pencil-necked and all ears and nose. I resembled a poorly fired, three-handled mug. Quality time with The Chief was an hour or two on the weekends when we laced up boxing gloves and sparred. The Chief never pulled punches. He wasn’t averse to taking the occasional cheap shot, either.
“Until he learns to block and counter, he’s always going to get hurt. Quit babying him!”
It was a refrain that forever echoed in my head. Once the ringing stopped.
“Street fights aren’t sanctioned events.”
Once, I blocked an errant right cross and countered with a left that made his legs buckle. My mother gasped fearing the retaliation.
The Chief drew back, sizing me up. I tensed and waited for an onslaught that never materialized. He made a grand show of unlacing his gloves and marched me to the kitchen. He took out two Rolling Rock ponies and dismissed my mother’s objections with a wave of his hand.
I was embraced with his conspirator’s toast, “She wouldn’t understand.”
He finished the lager in two quick pulls and said, “Remember, you aren’t shooting blanks anymore.”
Our eyes locked yet we remained worlds apart. I choked down the remnants of the bitter elixir that welcomed me to manhood.
My weekends sparring with The Chief were fortuitous. James Glickston tormented me on the way home from school for a week. His younger brother Daniel received a flurry of body blows from me after he attempted to steal baseball cards from my desk. James sought revenge. Four years and the biological advantage of puberty loomed large on his side. James stood six inches taller and was sixty pounds heavier than me. Severe acne boasted the rancid ugliness that lay inside him.
We stood frozen on my front lawn in the amber-colored late fall afternoon. A dazzling patchwork blanket of scarlet-, tangerine-, and lemon-colored leaves crunched beneath us as we slowly circled each other.
I shrugged my book bag to the ground and sighed. My defiant boxer’s pose excited James.
“You are so dead,” he hissed as he curled into his awkward fighting stance.
My legs turned Judas, eager to betray me and carry me to the safety of my mother’s arms. I maintained our mongoose dance, aware that today was as good as any day to die. It afforded me an existentialist Zen.
I shed the anchor of my father’s disappointment.
James took one step forward, then hesitated as he looked toward my front porch. The Chief walked out carrying a folding aluminum chair. The type with nylon ribbons notorious for leaving chafing, crosshatched marks on your ass and lower back. The Chief sat down, crossed his arms, exasperated. We had interrupted his afternoon plans.
James was confused. “Your dad?” he asked.
He hesitated, expecting some ill rebuke. I prayed for intervention, divine or otherwise. The Chief let out an annoyed snort indicating his displeasure with the lack of activity.
“That’s messed up,” James snarled, and then he launched a slow-motion haymaker.
An eternity passed as it traveled through the air. I left my body and watched the scene unfold. Instinctively, I slipped and ducked the punch. A rising uppercut connected with his well-exposed, pimple-ridden nose.
I felt The Chief quicken as he drew to the edge of his rainbow-colored seat. The sickeningly sweet feeling of bone driven through cartilage reverberated up my arm, through my shoulder, and into my bloodstream. James was unconscious and listed like a felled tree. He was a hieroglyphic on a maple-leaf-strewn tapestry.
The Chief sprung from the porch and thrust me in the air!
I was Kounta Kinte. I was Simba. I was the pride of his loins. He held me aloft; the world spun and dazzled me.
I wanted to cry.
I wanted to vomit.
Most of all, I never wanted this feeling to end.
“We’re going for ice cream!” he declared to the world.
We piled into the Monte Carlo. James remained prone on the front lawn as we left. I pointed and attempted to express some modicum of concern.
The Chief waved his hand. “He’ll be fine. We’ll bring him back something.”
Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” played on the radio. The Chief hummed along. I never recalled him turning on the radio. Or liking music.
“I like the key changes,” he said, reading my mind.
I shared the front seat with a total stranger. The waning autumn sun danced through the broken stained glass canopy of the towering trees. Confused feelings dispersed as I focused on ice cream.
Everything was right in the world if you could sit and share ice cream with your father.