It’s taken six decades for me to figure out definitively, once for all, that my father was an asshole. In the sixties and seventies, I think my mother knew it too. There were a lot of telltale signs, but when you are eight, or ten, or twelve how can you know? Or if you knew, would you care? Your father, after all, is your father. So, when your father makes fun of your first-grade story because you misspell a word, you figure you’ll never be writer. If he takes credit for you being asked to read a poem to the school assembly in fourth grade, you figure your writing has no value. When he derides the idea that writers actually work, you get busy. You learn to paint rooms, pull wires, turn wrenches, hammer nails. Real work with visible results. Results that benefit my father, the landlord.
While you are locked in a basement apartment that smells both dank and of pine oil cleaner and fresh paint, you labor to push a roller brush on a stick up and down the walls, applying a coat of Pittsburgh Paint and Glass’s least expensive oil based, flat paint. Squinting with eight-year-old, myopic eyes under the light of a single, forty-watt, incandescent bulb that dangles in the middle of the room, the roller making a sound like wet lips smacking, kiss, kiss, kiss, up the wall and back down. There is no other sound beyond your own voice, repeating to yourself, ‘No, you missed a spot. Go back and do that one over. You got it wrong.’ You hurry with your work as best as eight-year, untrained limbs can. Pushing, pulling, dipping the roller in the pan. Carefully replenishing expended paint from a can set in the corner of the room. Your father hasn’t said where he was going other than over to the hardware store. He didn’t say when to expect his key in the lock at the other end of the apartment, three steps below grade. So, you paint. First the wall where he started to show you how. When this is done, you begin the second wall, the third, the fourth. You feel pleased.
While you are busy with the walls your father is busy with one of the other tenants, collecting rent. The unit is half a mile away. It’s an ad hoc, barter arrangement. The woman doesn’t turn tricks, exactly, but she does collect a small, feral group of children. They are her children, aged four to nine. Three in total. The oldest child charged with the care of the youngest, they kick a half-deflated ball around the yard. She pays her portion of the rent with her back to sagging bedsprings. At forty-three, my father sweats and humps arrhythmically. The woman is twenty-three with breasts that have nursed four babies and an assortment of men since her uncle raped her when she was fourteen. Three of the four children lived. My father doesn’t know or care about her children. Her hair is a striking color of reddish blond with auburn roots.
She’s unimpressed with the labored grunting and looks away when my father grabs the ring at the base of his deflating penis. The flaccid organ threatens to leak further when he slides off the lamb intestine prophylactic. He is old school. For her part, the woman gathers the sheet between her legs and rubs a smear of KY jelly from her thigh. She sits on the edge of the bed and readjusts her denim halter top; ample breasts tension the knot behind her neck. Knee length gingham, her skirt, drops into place as she stands. By this time, the woman’s six-year-old is banging on the apartment door. Her older half-brother keeps pinching her little titties, she complains. While my father zips up and moves to the bathroom to flush the condom, she hollers through the door, ‘well, if he pinches you again, kick him in the nuts. You have to learn to do for yourself.’ Fifteen, homeless and seven months pregnant, that’s exactly what the young mother had done and continues to do. Food stamps and welfare only went so far. When one of the two deadbeat fathers couldn’t come up with court ordered childcare payments, she got two weeks rent by giving the landlord a quickie. She never tried to collect from her uncle. She never wanted to see that son-of-a-bitch or her father again after the bastard kicked her out. She caught a bus from Lynchburg to Richmond and never looked back.
She heard my father piss and wash his hands. When he came out of the bathroom, she asked, “we good?”
The first few times she’d paid her rent this way she had acted a little. A moan, like he’d gotten the spot that makes the back of a woman’s throat quiver. A couple of months earlier the landlord, my father, had come by when she was on her period, crampy and not in the mood to tolerate him. When he told her he didn’t like the way she gave head, only the sex would cover two weeks rent, she let him go to it and just cleaned up the blood later. From then on, she distracted herself when he came and did it. He nodded and walked past her to the door and away. This arrangement continued until the week after my father saw her walking, hand-in-hand with a black man in fatigues with two chevrons on his arm. My father had gone by her apartment and casually placed an eviction letter in her mailbox. It was typed by my mother and signed by her.
I knew none of this. I only knew, as I sat on a urine scented couch in a room adjacent to the freshly painted one, that the afternoon shadows were growing in the already dim basement apartment. I considered turning on the hot, one-hundred fifty watt spotlight my father had constructed from half-inch copper tubing. He had told me not to touch it because it was not grounded, and I could get shocked. I sat hoping he would bring me a Hostess Ding-Dong. Sometimes he did that when the trip to the hardware store took longer than he thought it might. He’d been gone so long that I was considering asking for a Yoo-Hoo on the way home. I considered leaving the apartment and going up to the Kestners to ask if I could use their phone. I had done that once before. Even though I remembered how angry he had gotten when mom asked him where he had gone, I was worried that he might have had an accident. If he had, I reasoned, someone would let mom know. In the driveway, the leaf springs on his old, work car gave the familiar creaks. I could see the rear fins on the fenders slide past the windowsill like a shark along the shoreline. With all that I had done while he was gone, I knew that this time he’d be proud. This time, some crumb of praise would fall from his lips where I might grovel it up.
Above grade, a driver’s door slammed. His small feet thumped heavily down into the entry sump. A large ring of keys jangled against the door as he turned the cylinder and entered. At the key scratching, I sprung up from the couch and moved toward the door. My legs ached from standing and painting the four walls. I was unaccustomed to long labor. Cramps tightened and slowed me, but I didn’t want to be caught sitting or I knew daddy’s first words would call out laziness. In passing me, he noticed the paint on my hands and shirt sleeves. “A good painter gets the paint on the walls.”
Under the dim, single corded bulb, the room I had painted looked quite good. The rolling left only an inch-wide strip in the corners and at the baseboards to be completed with a brush. I stood in the doorway behind my father as he entered my masterpiece. He gazed from wall to wall. “You think you’ve done a good job? You’ve worked hard, I can see that,” he said. It was a nugget of praise. I smiled gratefully. “Working hard and doing a good job aren’t the same. Let’s see if it’s a good job.” As he said this, my father unwound the cord to the spotlight. When he flipped the switch on the back of the makeshift junction box where wire nuts tied the cord to the leads on the light socket, the room blazed. He turned the light to the first wall. Roller streaks raced up and down. In some places the old, nicotine stained paint showed beneath fresh seafoam green that looked minty in the glare. Four, five, eight places pointed to and commented on. The ache moved from my legs to my heart. He moved on to the next wall and merely pointed with his index and middle fingers outstretched. As my smile dissolved into greater and greater concern, self-loathing and doubt, his face took on an almost impish smirk, as though he were sitting with his playmates back in the thirties as they laughed and pulled the wings off flies.
He finished his critique, flipped off the hot, blaring light, and knelt in front of me. Paternally, he grabbed my shoulders and shook them slightly. “You see, son? In order to do a good job, you need light. You can’t see the mistakes without light.”
I see the mistakes. It’s taken years. I see them, and I pray I haven’t made the same ones.