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L.c. Varnum L.c. Varnum
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She had a friend.

When boys become men and men fail as fathers.

      Dad had always been a source of anxiety for me.  He wasn’t a large man by any means; truth be told, he was somewhat short with a slender frame of sinewy muscle.  I suppose some would have called him ‘spindly’ or ‘wiry’.  Looking back I can only suppose that it was his intensity and seemingly constant state of control that made me nervous around him.  Even when he came home reeking of whiskey with flushed cheeks and a cherry-colored nose and took to thrashing me about the kitchen until the floor was littered with pots and pans, he was in control.  He was never remorseful afterwards. He never came into my bedroom later to apologize, overwrought with grief after realizing what he had been driven to do.  Not even the next day or the day after.  It was as though our violent waltzes were a planned part of the evening and I, a willing participant.  
       I suppose I do owe some amount of gratitude to dad.  The beatings made me strong.  After a calloused hand hits you in the face and ribs enough, you start to get used to it.  It still hurts, but you don’t actually fear that pain.  You accept it as an inevitability: you’re going to get hit, nothing can stop that, but you won’t die.  By the time I was fifteen, I was knocking down guys half again as big as me, not because I threw punches with any greater finesse, but because no matter how hard they hit me, it was never as hard as dad did.  
       Someone might say that our whole dysfunctional relationship was put into motion from the beginning.  My parents had not raised me in an environment swirling with love, faithfulness, and good nature.  They had both been young when I came into the picture.  My conception had been ‘luck-of-the-draw’; Mom was just another one of dad’s conquests.  I afford him a measure of respect for sticking around despite that it stemmed only from his family’s strict adherence to traditions.  Having gotten my mother pregnant, it was only ‘right’ that he marry her and financially help out.  That was about the extent of his involvement, though.  I remember vividly the nights where dad left our tiny apartment, all dressed up, and met up with some broad out on the street. Mom watched from the window for a moment, then spent the next hour or so crying.  I played with a ragged, dirty, stuffed dog named Ruff.  Again dad had complete control and did what he wanted. When he came home and mom accused him of his infidelity, he didn’t deny it. He simply played it off as though her anger about the whole circumstance was irrational.  I think that hurt her more than anything.
       Here I am, almost twenty, and when I heard dad’s unmistakable gait—staggered with drunkenness—for a brief moment I’m a kid again. I have to tell my body to relax and sedate the fight-or-flight response that gnaws at my brain. I lift the cigarette to my lips and take a long drag from it, closing my eyes and focusing on the euphoria of the nicotine entering my bloodstream. I open them just as the door to the apartment opens.  Light spills in from the hallway, silhouetting the familiar body topped with a fedora.  Earlier in the night it had been angled at a rakish tilt, but as he gropes for the light switch on the wall I can see it has made its way to the back of his head, a typical spot for someone who had grown warm from drinking too much.
       By the time he sees me sitting at the small dinner table next to the window he’s turned on the light, staggered in a few steps, and has the door half closed.  His eyes stay trained on me as he finishes closing the door.
       “What are you doing here?” he asks, words slurred across sloppy lips.
       I don’t move at first, trying to calm the butterflies in my stomach. “I just got back from taking mom to the hospital.”
       He doesn’t seem alarmed or concerned, but more confused. “Well, what the fuck happened to her?”
       The coldness of his voice puts me at ease and the butterflies settle. “She tried to kill herself, dad.  Ran a razor down her wrists.  She must’ve forgotten that I’d be stopping in, it being Friday and all.  I found her in the tub and got her to the hospital before it was too late.”
       With a sluggish gait he turns and walks into the small kitchen.  The light of the refrigerator gives a yellowish glow to the darkness of the little room and I hear him groping through the meager contents.
       “She’s gonna be ok,” I call out, knowing full well it falls on deaf ears.
       He doesn’t say anything at first, not until the fridge is closed and he staggers back out into the main room.  He’s trying to open the saran wrap around half a sandwich.
       “When she comin’ home?” he asked.
       I stand up, crushing my cigarette out in filthy ashtray that holds mom’s countless nights without sleep. “Not for a while.  She tried to kill herself, dad. They don’t just let people who do that walk out the next day.”
       “Fuck,” he says through a mouthful of sandwich, having finally figured out the clear plastic puzzle. “Well, did you bring any money?”
       My brow wrinkles and my lips set into a slight frown. “What do you mean?”
       “That money you bring her every Friday,” he says, leaning against the wall.  The rolled up sleeves of his shirt don’t show the forearms of lean muscle I remembered from my youth. They’re a little thicker, but not with muscle.  I then notice the paunch above his belt, no longer the flat, muscled stomach I swung at as a child.
       “That…that’s for mom,” I say, my mind reeling at the implication of his words.
       “Yeah, well, I’m your dad, so I take my share. What the fuck does she need all that money for?  Besides, if she knew how you got it-“ he said.
       “That’s her money!” I shout, almost falling over the words.  My ears ring as my heart starts to race. “You don’t get to use that money!”
       “Hey! Watch your fucking tone! I’m your father!” and he tries to stand up straight.
       I can feel the darkness settling over my eyes and the feelings starting to drain away like dirty bathwater down a drain.  “I’m going to say this once and once only: that’s mom’s money. End of story.”
       “Oh yeah? Does she know you get that money working for Black Paddy? I’m sure she’d be real thrilled to know an arm or two was broken to give her a little extra scratch,” he says with a smile.
       Bad move, pops.  
       I walk towards him, speaking through clenched teeth. “Maybe you should think about that for a minute, dad.  Let’s presume for a moment that I do get that money doing jobs for Black Paddy.  Let’s also assume that those jobs probably involve me being pretty rough with some people, maybe even breaking a few arms.  That’s to people I don’t particularly harbor any feelings towards one way or another. So what do you think I’m likely to do to someone who takes money from my mother?”
       “Are you trying to get tough with me, boy?”
       The punch had been a long time coming. Sure, I had landed a couple on him in my day, but none that were fueled by the gravity of the situation I was now in.  By now it was my knuckles calloused over, and not from slapping around a kid.  Big men had felt my wrath and crumpled under its weight. Bigger men than me. Certainly bigger men than my father.  Still, there was a moment of shock when I watched him drop to the floor, his eyes rolling back for a moment.  I had managed to connect right on the chin and the fact that he was still awake was a testament to how good he was at taking a punch.
       It didn’t end with just one, though.  Years of fear and anger pent up had me bursting at the seams.  I dragged him around the apartment, throwing punches into his sides and face while slamming him off walls.  Years of watching mom cry brought my foot into his ribs while he laid on the floor, curled up in the fetal position.  Years of watching mom’s health dwindle away from sleepless nights and an endless pack of cigarettes blocked out any empathy I would have been able to muster for his bloodied face and shattered nose.  By the time I finished, he was coughing for breath and sobbing, clutching at broken ribs and drawing shallow breath through mangled lips.
       I looked down at him for several minutes, looking at the pathetic form.  The anger didn’t subside, but rather it grew.  Only this time I was angry at myself.  I was angry for letting someone so small and insignificant inspire such fear in me.  I was angry that he had held such power over me for so many years.
       “The money is hers,” I finally said. I reached into my pocket and took out a small fold of bills and dropped it on the table. “It better be waiting for her when she comes home.”
       I left him on the floor, unsure if he even understood my final words to him.  As I walked down the street, bloody hands crammed into the pockets of my jacket, I found myself forgetting about the guy I had just seen and felt a twinge of sadness as I realized I’d never see my dad again.

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