By Wayne Johnston
The gun had always been there, in the brown leather shaving kit on the top shelf of the linen closet. I think he put it there when we moved into the house and we kids were small enough that we couldn’t reach it. Then he forgot about it. It wasn’t even his. It had belonged to my mother’s father, and it had history that was better out of mind.
My father and I were learning about each other through confrontation, and I was testing my world, finding my truth by breaking his rules, and it didn’t feel good. We were fighting again, and I had escaped to the bathroom, knowing that if I stayed at the dinner table I would have said something to trigger the backhand across the face that might have knocked me off my chair, bruised my face and sent me running out the door to spend the evening in the woods and another night in the barn. When he broke and hit me, he was wrong by his own rules, and that made me feel less alone and terrified, but I hated him for it.
I had looked at the gun before, but this time I actually loaded it. I held it in my hand and stared at it. The metal felt cool against my skin and I could feel the impression of the trigger against my finger. I carefully unlatched the door and stepped into the dark hallway. The kitchen light was off. No one could see me and I stood there in the dark holding the gun looking across the kitchen and over the counter that divided it from the dining room.
I watched him eat and even though I was too far away to hear the smacking I knew he was doing it and could hear it in my head. I hated what I saw in the mirror and I hated what I saw as I stood in the dark hallway watching him at the table eating. I didn’t even raise the gun. I just imagined, and the pictures came.
He was angry, at me, and it made his face ugly and his nose too big. I felt the trigger against my finger and imagined raising my hand, aiming at his ear and squeezing. I imagined his body jerking as the bullet hit and the blood spraying all over my chair on the other side of him. The scene kept playing, and I imagined the rest of the family’s reaction. My mother’s scream, and everyone crying and yelling, and I realized that I only hated him and me; and that the next move would be to point the gun at my own head, so I didn’t do anything but stand there. I couldn’t even cry. Pretty soon I went back in the bathroom and put the gun away.
I couldn’t look in the mirror so I went back to my place at the table and tried to eat. The food wouldn’t go down and the milk was thick and coated my mouth. I stared at my plate and tried to let the room go out of focus and away. My father belched and it brought me back. I gave him stomach problems and they were afraid he was getting an ulcer. I couldn’t sit next to him any longer. I knew if I opened my mouth I would say something that would make him hit me. I wanted to hit him but I couldn’t do that any more than I could pull the trigger, so I got up and left the table again.
Except for him, they all stopped eating and watched as I walked across the room toward the entry hall where both the front door and the stairs up to my room were. Then my father turned in his chair and demanded,
“Where do you think you’re going?”
“Fuck off,” was what I said back. I didn’t say it loudly and wasn’t sure if he would hear me.
“What did you say?”
“I said fuck off?”
I yelled it this time and knew I’d better get moving. I don’t know why I went up the stairs. I guess I wanted it to happen, whatever it would be when I finally pushed him over the edge. I was fourteen and taller than him, but I was still awkward and he was stronger by far. He was my dad. I was scared of him.
By the time I reached the landing at the top, I could hear him behind me and knew I had made a mistake, so instead of going into my room I went into the bathroom where there was a window onto the roof. I bolted the bathroom door and went for the window. I had to climb on the toilet to get my foot over the sill. If I could get out in time, I thought I could hang from the gutter and drop to the ground and maybe get away before he could get back down the stairs and outside. He pounded on the door.
“Open It!” he yelled.
I was trying to get a foothold on the shingles and get out the window. I heard the wood splinter and saw the door jam split, and the door flew open toward me. Then he had me, and he pulled me back into the room. My foot caught on the sill and I twisted my ankle. It hurt when I put my weight on it but he kept me moving and threw me into the hallway then through the doorway into my bedroom.
I landed on the floor and quickly got to my hands and knees. He was standing in the doorway, and I expected him to come flying at me with all that army stuff he kept telling me he knew. The dirty fighting stuff they taught him in boot camp so he could disable a man and kill him if he had to.
“Don’t you ever say that word again in this house!”
I knew I was dead anyway, so I met his eyes, and I said it right to him, not loud; I just said it with all the hate and conviction I felt. “I wish you hadn’t done it with her the night you made me you bastard!”
I crouched like I’d learned in wrestling at school to brace myself for the army stuff, but it didn’t come. Something happened to his eyes when he understood what I said and knew that I really meant it, that I really didn’t want to be alive and that I hated him because I was.
“You mean that don’t you,” he said.
I told him I did and instead of looking like he was going to kill me he looked like he was going to cry. He went over and sat on the bed.
“You really hate me don’t you?” he said.
“Yes,” I answered. He was making me crazy again only this was a new one and I didn’t know what to do with it. The path to the door was clear. The door was open and I could have run down the stairs, but I couldn’t make myself move.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know quite how it got this far.”
I stared at the floor and didn’t say anything.
“I don’t want it to be this way,” he said. “Will you help me understand?”
I just shrugged, and said I didn’t know.
“Will you at least try and talk to me and tell me what you’re thinking?”
“I hate you,” I said. “I wish I didn’t have to live here anymore.”
“I’m responsible for you until you’re an adult. It’s the law, so I guess we’re both stuck. I would like to try and make it better but I’ll need your help.”
None of it seemed real and I didn’t trust it. “I wish I’d never been born and I wish you were dead,” I said.
“I hurt you that much?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“Do you want to hurt me?”
“It wouldn’t do any good,” I said. “You’d still be my father.
“What would help?”
“If I killed you, I’d have to kill myself,” I said.
“Would you feel better if you hit me?” he asked.
It was hard to look at him, but I could tell he was serious. His eyes looked like mine did in the bathroom mirror downstairs. Like I said, none of it seemed real and I hated him. It didn’t just go away because he didn’t kill me and was blubbering on the bed wanting me to tell him what was wrong. So I got up and hit him with the back of my hand the way he usually hit me. The impact hurt my hand and his face was like sandpaper. He winced and I couldn’t look at him.
“Do you feel better now?” he asked. He was having trouble talking.
“No,” I said.
“You still hate me?”
I hit him again, harder, and it hurt my hand worse. He took it without moving and I made myself look at him. There were tears on his face, and I felt miserable, so I sat back down on the floor and couldn’t cry or think or feel anything except just awful.
And then I realized that for that instant we were equal and that he was just as miserable and helpless as I was and that he didn’t have the answer either or he would use it and fix this. For a minute, that gave me a glimmer of hope. It was just a glimmer and it didn’t last long. It was like it wasn’t just my dad that was crying. It was as though God was crying too. I don’t mean my dad’s angry Lord, but the one I would believe in if I believed in a God, the one that would be big enough not to be angry all the time, big enough to forgive, and big enough to cry sometimes.
I also had an overwhelming foreboding that everything would turn to shit again any minute. And it did. Sort of. Finally he looked up at me and said, “I’d like to ask the Lord for forgiveness and for his guidance in dealing with this thing between us. Will you kneel by the bed and pray with me?”
“I can’t,” I said.
He looked at me for a moment before he said, “Will you at least kneel with me while I pray?”
“No,” I answered.
He knelt by the bed and prayed aloud for a long time. I sat on the floor and tried not to listen. When he was finished he said, “I’m going to leave you alone now. If you want to talk to me later, please do.”
I didn’t say anything and he left. I listened to him go down the stairs and I didn’t know what it meant, but I knew something was different. Of course I didn’t go and talk to him later. That was an invitation to give him my soul the same as wanting me to kneel and pray with him was, and I couldn’t do that. I didn’t trust what had happened, and I had no idea what it meant. He hadn’t hit me, but I think I felt worse than if he had.
The first impact of the back of my hand on his face wasn’t enough to undo what he had done to me, but the second time felt like slapping a baby, and I have never forgotten how awful it felt, or lost the vision of his eyes and the open wound of his soul I saw through them. He had given up, dropped his defenses and admitted he was helpless. He really didn’t know what to do, and it was excruciating to see.
But it’s what saved us.
After that night we didn’t stop fighting and become great friends. Mostly we avoided each other and the fights were different. We still had them but he never hit me again. I even went back for the gun once, and when it wasn’t there, I thought he knew and had taken it. I found out years later that my sister had sensed the danger and had hidden it under her bed.
When she and I were cleaning his house many years later, we had families of our own, and he was in a nursing home, I found the shaving kit in his garage. The gun was gone. The leather was stained with mold and the kit was empty except for a few loose bullets. I keep it just the way I found it, in a cupboard in my garage behind a stack of repair manuals.
Copyright Johnston 2013