|The Sacred Heart|
|Essays and Memoirs|
(First Published Chicago Reader December 15, 1992 as "My Father's Keeper")
I was ten years old the first time I protected my father from what had happened to him when he was a boy in his father’s house. Of course I know I wasn’t there to protect him during his boyhood as he was there to protect me during mine. But there was a time, and a place, when our separate, bitter lessons about growing up came together, when the pain he endured as a boy awakened a desire in me to save him from his past.
What happened takes me back, strangely, to the times my family was closest—the holidays. We were usually away from home on holidays, driving to Grandma and Grandpa’s for Easter, Thanksgiving, or Labor Day weekend. But those dates hardly compared to the biggest prize—one precious week when parents, grandparents, and children indulged each other and themselves at Christmas. Christmas for me was a long window onto a table of love dressed with gifts, darkness, surprises, ease; when the men stopped working and the women labored with few complaints.
The table was rarely set this fully for other holidays because there wasn’t time, time for my father to slow down, to stop and relax. In late December everything seemed to be done for him—cooking, decorating, cleaning: even the kids, instructed by mother, shoveled the snow. So our Christmas tradition conformed to my father’s annual ascension, the few days his head was higher, he became animated, and the mean, sense-sapping work he did—marketing paper products in an office he hated, which culminated in a ritualistic tiredness that issued from him, while the TV blared, every workday evening of the year—was on hold. Christmas week was when he was present and home, as we say now, there for us, when he physically was close and we spent time together.
In our family while I was growing up there were three Christmas locations. One was our home, when we stayed put, which was rare. The second was the Wallins’, my mother’s family, in Rockford, Illinois. We went there almost every year. And the third was the home of my father’s family in Evanston. We never went there on Christmas day itself: that was reserved for the big house in Rockford. We went to the Larsons’ in Evanston only when it was convenient, pre- or post-Christmas, when we were on the way to, or returning from, the Wallins’. More than once, when we were driving through Chicago and heading northwest toward Rockford, my father would say to my mother, “Let’s stop. I know they’d love to see the boys.”
For my two brothers and me, fidgeting or bored in the back seat of the Ford wagon, a change of plans indicated adventure—would we break our pattern? Usually as quickly as the question was raised, it was dropped. To deny a preference was too hard; it was obvious that my parents, year after year, wanted Christmas at the Wallins’ and not the Larsons’. Why had to do with splendor. The Wallins had magnificent Swedish Christmases, with big meals, piles of presents, a ball-ornament-laden tree topped with a blue angel, candles in frosted windows, fudge on silver trays, hot cider in glass mugs—all of which, experienced once, set us boys up forever with November visions of gifts: electric trains, complicated games, detailed models, and if the stock market was good, those long, thin, flat white envelopes on which our names (“Master Thomas Larson”) were inscribed and where, inside, behind oval windows, we’d find the long-nosed, wild-haired Andrew Jackson. Promises came true for us in Rockford: we had a tradition of promises and fulfillment. But such a Christmas was not possible at the Larsons’. They were a working-class family; they splurged only on grape punch, a festive tablecloth, or two-colored wrapping paper. Their gifts, sent to us in a large, paper-stuffed box, (which we hauled to Rockford unopened), lay unexamined under the Wallins’ tree until, Christmas morning, we finished off the other, real presents.
Better to say we avoided the Larsons. It was as if the material wealth they lacked could not be made real by affection. Love was a gift, something to unwrap and hold. After my father had said, “Oh come on Dot, are you sure?” mother would respond with an end-of-the-world tone. “John,” she would say, “if we go there, what will we tell my folks? You know they’re expecting us.”
“Ummmmmm.” The black tiger in him growled out an unhappy agreement. We stopped less often.
But one year, 1959, circumstances—maybe divine—put my father and me at the Larsons’ and my mother, my older brother Steve, and Jeff, the four-year-old, on a train to Rockford in a snowstorm. My father had insisted that he and I stay the night with his folks in Evanston and that my mother and the little one, with Steve accountable for them both (I repeated the world accountable in my mind), would be fine on a train, even in the snow (Grandpa Wallin, who was always accountable, would be waiting at the station). Dad and I would drive over the next afternoon because there was something he said he needed to do with his mother and father, a mission he had to accomplish (I repeated the word mission), that was best done without a lot of distractions. Just once he said he wanted it this way, and when had he really insisted that he had to go to Evanston, except now? My mother disagreed and unhappily accepted, just this once. “Well, OK,” she said, “but only if you really have to.”
That afternoon driving back from the train station I felt excited by the new snow and the promise that something different was about to happen. What secret mission was my father about to embark on with his own folks? Was I to be part of it? Maybe we would stay up late and spy, go through desk drawers, decode old letters—I would be his assistant, trustworthy and able, and, when the most difficult decision had to be reached, he would ask me, Well, Tom, what do you think—have we enough evidence to charge them with selling secrets to the Russians?
“We’re gonna have a good time, just you and me,” he said at a stoplight. “We don’t get to do too much together, do we?”
“No,” I said. We sure don’t, I thought.
It was strange for me to think that then, because I wanted contact with him but only on certain terms. I was usually wary of my father. He was a big man, with a Santa’s ballooned-up girth, who, though always clothed when I saw him, looked like a pear on stilts. Such weight burdened him, it was obvious. But I wasn’t afraid of his size. In so much body there was safety, a cushion of authority for which I felt a cautious reverence.
Outside, the gray sidewalks were darkening, and the snow was swirling on the stoops and in the doorways and gutters. People stopped, shivering and frustrated, pulled their coats tighter, held their knees close to knocking. Store windows, car and Christmas lights were growing dim. I was warm, for once sitting up front, my legs shaking with excitement in the red leather interior of the wagon. I watched a few flakes touch and bead on the sideview mirror.
I loved watching the snow coat everything. As it fell, I would brush its surface quickly with my fingers; then I would watch the fresh snow create ghostlike shapes over my designs. So when we got to my grandparents’ apartment, a third-floor flat halfway up a tall, dark brick building with a heavily hedged courtyard in its center, I asked to play outside in the powder.
But this day the snow was accumulating too slowly. It blew more than settled, and it had an eerie, wispy quality, like the dust of clouds. The bushes were ugly mazes of sinewy branches. I tried to climb behind a bush under a first-floor apartment window, but the sticks’ tips caught and tore at my gloves.
At the Wallins’ the backyard was as spacious as a city park. And if that wasn’t enough then the basement was empty and heated, and the house and yard across the street was even larger, with boys my age no less. I stood on the stoop freezing and felt cheated that I could have been in Rockford, rolling out mammoth snow boulders with my brothers.
But I also stayed standing a moment, drawn to watch the waffled surface of the sidewalk on which the snow was beginning to sheet, leaving a silky cover. I stomped down the walk once, then again, blasting the powder into clown prints. I lasted a while longer, watching the prints collect new snow. I could have stayed out longer, but my father needed me in the apartment. He could have taken Steve.
I ran up the stairs.
On the front door was a pine-bough wreath, covered with thick white foam. Inside was the Christmas tree. It was bleak—through its spindly branches I could see the brown floor beneath it. Grandma had sprayed the trees, too, with fake snow. Below, there were five presents, the largest was small and flat. Obviously a shirt without a box.
And there was Grandpa Larson fidgeting by himself in the dining room. I hurried by him. He was a mean old man and I was afraid of him. I forced out a “Hi, Grandpa,” and he stared at me. He had baby-fine white hair on his head. He always wore navy blue trousers and a white shirt. He also always wore suspenders and a belt, and there was something beyond force of habit about this combination, beyond the fact that the old Swede usually dressed, summer and winter, in the same two sets of clothes. The suspenders kept the pants up; the belt was for another purpose.
In the kitchen my father sat at a gray Formica table with steel legs, while his mother got down plates from the cupboard. Both said, Here he is. Grandma hugged me and asked why I had come back in. No reason. It wasn’t much fun out there. “It’s freezing,” I said. My father grabbed me from the back and vigorously rubbed my cheeks. He put his hands on my stomach and held me between his legs and went on talking.
He said that the train was the safest place to be in a snowstorm. I wondered why grandpa wasn’t in the kitchen with them. And then I remembered the crosses.
Or I should say I had forgotten the crosses until that moment. They were everywhere in the Larsons’ home. A fervently dutiful Catholic, Grandma Larson had Christ on the cross hung in every room. I glanced about the kitchen, looking timorously for the crucifix. On the closet door was a calendar with the jewel-eyed face of Jesus, full-bearded with streaming, angled light behind his head. By the toaster on another calendar was Jesus, with robe and staff, tending sheep. A third calendar picturing a teaching Jesus before children with the year 1960 in scroll lettering, lay on the counter. There was a shoe-box top filled with what I thought was religious hardware used for quick absolving rituals. I saw a pile of little brown envelopes Grandma put coins in for Catholic charities. Visible in the windowed cabinets were Grandma’s neatly stacked dishes, her pots, pans, and lids. It seemed nothing was hidden. The kitchen was open, with a chapel-like simplicity. Like her home was a sort of wing of the church. But the quiet faith I felt was not free from turbulence. There above the doorway was a tiny cross, hanging from a black nail. An insufferable reminder, the plastic Christ sagged; his locked knees stuck out.
I leaned back into my dad. I was OK. I knew that. But why were we here? Why?
I asked him where our suitcases were. “In the spare bedroom,” Grandma said. “They’re on the bed, honey.” I asked my dad if he would come with me and show me where. When he was mine he would usually do anything I asked.
Out of the kitchen and down the hall we went, me squeezing his thumb. We passed Grandpa Larson staring out the window at the darkening day. His hands were behind his back. His fingers laced, the hands nodding with a will of their own while he kept still. My father must have told him something bad when he first came up. Our mission—the “something” to accomplish—was over.
Grandpa’s turned back intensified my fear because though I knew where the suitcase was I didn’t want to go into the room. I stopped before entering. In it, hung prominently before the beds, was the picture of a heart-holding Jesus next to a huge wardrobe, in which one summer’s night only a year and a half ago my older brother, during a game of hide-and-seek, locked me up and tried to scare the hell out of me. It had happened one night when Grandpa was at work and my parents had gone down to the rectory with Grandma to ask a favor of the priest on her behalf. The room was a place where my fears of the Jesus picture were still untouched, not because of my brother’s antics, but because our father’s past had not yet been exposed to me there. The old room held a wound and, holding firm, I felt it shoot itself through my father’s arm and into mine.
That night—my parents at the rectory, Grandpa at work—I needed a hiding place desperately. Stevie was on the back porch counting, rushing his count to 99, ready-or-not, here-I-come; so of course it didn’t occur to me that once it struck him where I was he would take the key off the top of the dresser, insert it in the hole, and turn it in one sure motion, locking me in the wardrobe and thus changing the stakes of the game.
I began screaming. “Stevie! Let me out!”
It seemed no one was listening, and then everyone was listening.
“I’m telling. I’m telling,” I cried out. No answer. “Stevie! Ste-veeee!” Nothing. Then “Brew-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha,” like an ogre devouring the neck of a maiden. I screamed even louder, “Ste-veeeeee!” Christ I hated him.
I hated my parents too for having left him alone with me. My brother was crazy, addicted it seemed to trickery and deception, wielding his power over anyone he could. This may have had to do with his obesity—being a fat child meant others, young and old, controlled him with their disapproval, so he developed his guile. Teasing (and making it an art) became for him terribly important. Stevie made fun of my shoes, the ones with a self-tightening tongue flap on the outside, which I liked; he mocked my haircut, my friends, my baseball cards, my penchant for reading. I should never have told him that crosses made me feel creepy.
He continued. “Jesus is coming for you, Tommy.”
“Shut up, you asshole.” Our words were muffled, unless he put his lips to the keyhole, and then the words were like evil commands from the radio. The sounds mushed through, his tongue darting out like a lizard’s.
“Jisus wans ta nail you up, Dommy,” he slopped into the keyhole. “Here’s his heart . . . dribbing wid,” and he got real quiet, held back, and growled, “blooooood!”
Only so much of that scared me. Stevie would change the game once he got bored, which was often. But he didn’t know that I was in fear of that picture he had just improvised from, the Jeffrey-Hunter Jesus that hung on the wall next to the wardrobe. In it, Christ was holding out his heart, an apple-colored heart. I thought it was that color. I wasn’t sure because I saw the image only obliquely; I never looked at it directly. I could feel Jesus’ faraway look invade me, and that was bad enough. When I went to sleep or woke up, I just refused to confront it. I could feel Christ’s eyes upon me when I slept in that room, glowing with a dark power that made me feel small and untested. His eye rays repeatedly announced the horrible solitude with which he had suffered our sins. The unblinking jewel in his eye said, though, that the worst thing imaginable was knowing his own crucifixion was coming. And, like a good boy, a good son, he offered his heart to prove his worthiness. I understood the message: any bad feeling we had Christ judged to be much less than his own.
I thought of a new tack—just be silent and don’t respond.
Suddenly the wardrobe was cozy. I had been banging on the door and hitting the sides, although not too hard because the walls were flimsy. But now I just scooted the rubbers and galoshes aside and sat down, the winter coats, musky and dense, pushing against my face. The wool coats smelled of old salt and sweat and, when I reached to press them back, I felt Grandma’s luxury coat, the one Dad had given her, with the satin lining I loved to rub on my face when he asked me to hang the coat up. Now I indulged and wrapped the cool lining over my head, around my neck, up and down my arms. In the dark I was rubbing and rubbing, while stupid Stevie was acting juvenile outside.
I could care less about his pranks now. I sat and listened and heard everything.
“Dommy! Dommy!” he called. “Emergenthy!” His lips pooched up to the keyhole. I translated. “I hate to tell you Tommy, but I’ve lost the key. Oh no, what will we do? All hands to their battle stations. Take evasive action.” He fancied himself a submarine commander.
I heard him scurry out of the room, pretending to search the apartment for the key. There was quiet. The coats hung. His voice at the bedroom door said, “Up periscope.” More quiet. Puttering noises. As if he’s on wheels of some sort. Brrrmmm. Brrrmmm. Brrrmmm. I think of Christ’s picture. It’s probably cheap, bought at Kresge’s. “Enemy to the rear,” he calls. Off he runs. The old, wood-floored, brick apartment building is alive with his heavy feet. “Fire! Fire!” he calls again, distant. I cock my ear close to the keyhole. He’s stopped. Long pause. Christ is irrelevant—only the fearful are afraid. I breathe steadily, soundlessly. Is he standing there? Then a door slams, and clattering steps. I’m sharp, ready. I know he’s standing close by, waiting for me to clamor in my cell. Nothing doing. I freeze. I hear him creep just outside the door, trying to sneak closer. I see a shadow cross the keyhole. It’s him. Coming for me. I’ll scare the hell out of him.
“AAAAAAAAAAAhhhhhhhhhhhh!” I scream at the top of my lungs, a bloodcurdling cry. I try for a measure of the anguish Christ voiced from the cross.
Then, another long silence. A key slides in the hole. The door jostles open. It’s my father, with my mother standing behind him.
“Oh my God, Tommy,” mother said.
I climbed out and hung my head. Stevie was standing in the room, looking guiltily from me to dad. “I hate your fat guts, Steve.”
My mother looked very worried. My father, though, shuddered with anger. Neither of them did anything for a moment. Instead they held back, full of sorrow I guess at what I had endured.
“I hate him,” I said again. “He teases me all the time.” My thumb and finger covered my eyes. I wanted them to leap at Stevie, tie him up and force the white-hot cross onto his forehead. Brand him the criminal he was.
I sat on the bed. On a cue from my father, my mother left. She shook a despairing head at Stevie and shut the door. Above the light switch on its thin nail the little dark silver crucifix moved and stopped.
Our three heads were hung low, though I was glancing up and waiting. My father ordered Stevie to sit on the bed. He sat on a cedar trunk in front of the Jesus picture. He was collecting himself, getting ready to take Stevie apart, bit by bit, for my benefit. Come on, Dad. Isn’t it obvious what happened here?
But he was still shaking, almost ready it seemed to forgive Stevie for what he had done to me. Or worse, overlook it.
“I—I don’t want to have to do this,” he stumbled.
“You guys fight all the time and I am sick of it. Really and truly sick of it.” His words stung like hot oil. “And I want you two to stop it. Do you understand?”
I was incredulous. I started to say Dad, it wasn’t my fault.
“God damm it. I want you two to stop it!” He pressed his hands together, shook them with a clenched fury. The knuckles pointed. It was as though his hands formed a single fist, as if he were praying for something he couldn’t quite have. He looked at neither of us; he spoke at the floor. The wardrobe door was closed and his head obscured the Jesus picture.
This I thought was colossally unfair.
“I want you two,” and now, looking up, he offered out his right hand, palm up, though his tone was still desperate, “to put your hands in mine and we all three will make a pact. Shake on it.” (When he was stumped my father made pacts.)
“But that’s not fair,” I said. “He locked me up in there. You should punish him.”
“He forced you in there?”
“No. I was hiding.”
“So, what good will punishment do, Tom?”
“It’ll keep him from teasing me, if—if you make him stay in his room.” How many times in my life had I heard “Go to your room”? How final it was always supposed to be.
“I’m not going to put Steve in his room, anymore. I want this crap to end, you two screwing up whenever we go out. How are you gonna get along in the world if you can’t be trusted?” His words were still punctuated with venom. Mine began to pull apart with tears.
“But you always sent us to our rooms before.”
“It’s different now,” he said. “You guys are getting too old to be put in your rooms. Don’t you get that? I want you two to grow up.”
Stevie was gloating now and clearly saw an advantage. He put his hand on Dad’s.
“Tommy?” my father lured. “Come on. This is it. No more fighting.”
I was stupefied. Whose hurt was it anyway? How in hell’s name could my father be forgiving the culprit, in front of me no less. I couldn’t believe it. To answer these two-of-a-kind, I slapped both of their hands and ran out of the room.
Damm it, damm it, damm it. I ran by my mother—she didn’t care—and I sat in a chair by the window. They left me alone that night, thank God, while I stared at the windowpane and the darkness that surrounded my reflection.
The next morning the hell that my father had bottled up with his unfairness the night before broke loose. When Grandpa Larson heard at breakfast about what Stevie had done, he immediately started unbuckling his belt. He pulled it out, whiplike, saying that both boys needed a lesson, and he’d be happy to administer it. Stevie ran behind my father and my father blew up, getting angrier than I had ever seen him. He yelled at Grandpa, “There’ll be no more beatings in this house,” and he grabbed Grandpa’s wrist and tussled with him. My mother screamed, “No, John.” For a moment, the two of them struggled, their arms waving up high and the black belt dangling down like a snake. They pressed close, my father nearly twice his size, and then the old man gave in and dropped the belt, its buckle clacking on the wood floor. My father picked the belt up and threw it into his parents’ bedroom. God, he was angry, but he uttered what seemed to me to be a set of carefully composed words: “When are you going to learn, Dad, the suspenders hold up your pants.”
That was the last thing he said to Grandpa that morning. We left, in a flurry, a day before we were supposed to. I remember Grandma crying after Dad hugged her and said it was no use. And, as he tromped out and we, mother with baby and two sons, followed him, carrying our hastily packed bags, I fixed momentarily on a final sight. The holy water in the fancy glass bowl beside the door, which, like the crucifixes, adorned every room, was trembling.
I was still holding my father’s thumb and had not looked up.
“Go on,” he said, and I ran into the old room, avoiding the Jesus picture and the wardrobe. I got my Mad magazine from my suitcase and went back to the kitchen with my father. On the way we heard Grandpa shouting, “I’m going out,” and Grandma trotting in and saying, “John, John?” and the door slamming shut. She sighed, then clutched at the beads around her neck. She seemed very awkward to me: she was pigeon-toed and always leaned forward, over-wary and over-gentle. She had none of the carefree attitude that my mother’s mother had. She said he would probably go to Jimmy’s for a drink before he caught the el for work. He was a night watchman.
Strangely, though, Grandma and Dad seemed relieved he was gone, even with the snow and the fact that this was our first visit in a year.
At dinner my father sat at the head of the table while Grandma and I sat across from each other. She said a prayer out loud over the steaming chipped beef on toast, and then she crossed herself, looking down the whole time. My father didn’t cross himself. I knew he was ex-religious, having grown up Catholic but abandoning that faith in college. He told me that he once thought he might like to be a priest, but he was glad he wasn’t. Grandma never belabored my father’s loss of religion. She was content with just having us there.
After dinner we went to the living room. I went to the window and looked out, where wisps of snow swirled on the ledge. When I stood away the window was black, like a mirror. I stared at my reflection. The broad brown stripes on my shirt stood out against the darkness. My head seemed sort of invisible: white, short hair, pale skin, pale face. I faded, like snow on snow. Grandma said we would have to keep the curtains shut to stay warm.
The two of them talked for a long time. I read my magazine, played solitaire on the floor. Grandma said that it was just as well not to force the issue. If that’s the way it had to be, then so be it.
Then my father said it was my bedtime. I had not told him that the room’s icons still frightened me; I figured my reluctance would say it all. I dawdled by the desk. In a glass bowl were more of Grandma’s rosary beads. I handled them while he insisted, “Get going, I’ll be in soon.” I dropped the beads, and they tinked.
Into the spare bedroom I went, passing under (and not confronting) a large crucifix above the door. I felt a chill from the coming night. The snow I would discover the next morning was eight inches deep but only a very light powder. It would melt fast. Grandpa would probably have watched as little of the night as possible, perhaps dozing in his shack on the factory grounds. Was it heated? I wondered. It never occurred to me to worry about Grandpa. But for a moment I did. Perhaps because we were only half a mile from Lake Michigan he’d be warmer. I had no idea, however, where he worked. All I knew was that down in the city where the wind blew hard it would be very cold. The trains would steam and shiver, less willing to move than the passengers.
I knew that we would travel out the next day. We would leave one set of grandparents for another, only 90 miles away, catch a sunny day, and ride in the station wagon, with the snow piled high on the sides of the road, through the flat Illinois countryside. The other grandparents would have a colorfully decorated tree waiting, many presents, baked ham, a backyard in which the snow would lay like a warm, woolly overcoat. Maybe Steve would have messed up the pristine landscape by now, but I didn’t care. I knew nothing ever cracked at the Wallins’.
The light between the two single beds was on. Clothes, boxes, piles of bags and tissue paper filled the room’s corners. I undressed, leaving my underwear on under my pajamas, got in the bed, and pulled the starched sheet with its cruel fold up under my chin. Before me I felt Christ-in-the-picture still offering his heart.
This time I decided to look.
The portrait was held not under glass, but in a white-enameled, lattice-bordered frame. It was cheap. In the picture Christ had a glassy-eyed stare, serene and cosmic, and he held a heart, a perfectly heart-shaped heart. It was his. The heart was balanced on its tip in the palm of his hand. It blushed deeply like an apple offered in a wicked-witch fairy story. On its puffed-up top, resting in the cleavage, lay a little glowing rosary, cross and beads. Christ wore a green robe, very thick, like lamb’s wool, a dark, wet green, surely stained with the sweat of his trials. His long hair and beard were luxurious—wavy, thick, fertile, the color of aged oak. He was so luminous he seemed inhuman.
I was finally looking at him closely, and the sight forestalled some of his power. Perhaps his image could console as well as terrify me. This was no crucifixion, no suffering Christ. No blood dripped, no body slumped. Only the afterglow of suffering shone. His heart was being given to me. There were no conditions. Though I thought we were supposed to give our hearts to Jesus, maybe I was wrong. Maybe he was merely an archetype, the first of a very long chain of sons to do what God-the-father commanded: for me to ask you to give your heart to me I must first be willing to give mine to you. So here it is.
My eyes closed. In the living room they talked on, their voices muffled.
Go through me Jesus, if you must. But let me remain myself. Don’t overtake me. Just get moving. Go through, and then leave me as I was. I can withstand the wave of your pity.
Suddenly, the springs of the bed squeaked, and my eyes flew open. My father was sitting on the bed. I looked at Jesus, and both an instant and forever had passed. I had gone down and come up.
“Oh, I woke you,” he said.
“No,” I said.
“You’ve been awake for two hours?” he asked.
“Well, yes, I was . . . ,” I said.
“Are you still afraid of that wardrobe?”
“Not really.” I shook my head without conviction.
“You know, Tom, the old man used to lock me up in this room—this room was mine, once upon a time—after he got mad at me. Or whatever it was he was mad at. That was his way of punishing me. Sometimes he wouldn’t let me out except for dinner. All I could hear in here was the sound of them arguing and him always breaking a glass if he didn’t get his way with her. She would argue for me, but once he got violent she took his side. Calmed him until he left for work. Then she’d let me out, and we would . . . . I guess she was afraid of him, too. You never knew that, did you?”
I said no.
“That’s why, him, the old man . . . why it is we don’t want to come here very often.”
“Did he whip you with his belt?” I asked.
He looked at me with astonishment, and then thought about my question for a long moment. His head shook a weak yes. That answer stirred an honest shame he seemed unwilling to admit. Lest I be mistaken, though, there was a cunning in his next words that opposed any heroism I might look to. “But when I got bigger, I was quicker than he was,” he said.
“You were?” I asked.
“I was,” he said.
“Sort of,” he said. “I used to catch the strap and fight him for control of it. I don’t know how I ever did it, but I did. That’s why he locked me up in here. He got so mad with me standing up to him that way. The old buzzard is still mad about it. He can’t do anything but react whenever he sees me.”
I nodded. Jesus in the picture held out his heart.
“But enough of this. We need to sleep. Besides I got something to show your mother.” His fingers opened to a tarnished ring that he brought close for me to behold.
“Nice, huh,” he said.
“Yes,” I said.
“Grandma Larson gave me this. It belonged to a relative of ours from Sweden, who we knew a long time ago. See the white cross on the blue background? That’s the Swedish flag. This ring was on his finger when he first came to America, on a boat, sixty years ago.”
He put the ring on the night table between the beds; the cross, as white as snow, barely shone in the lamplight.
“I think it’s really wonderful that we have this time together,” he said.
He leaned down and snuggled his cheek against my face. It was dark, unshaven, fleshy, warm, and mine.
There was no one for him to yell I’m telling, I’m telling, no one with an earthly existence who would come home and unlock the door and let him out, no one to listen for over the sounds of footsteps and the gauging of distances, no screams and no negotiating, no promises and no deals to cut, no one to beg please, let me out, please, let me out, I won’t tell I promise, no one to answer back, sure you will, you’ll tell right away, so you’re not getting out, no one to have you swear on a stack of Bibles, no one to swear in Jesus’s name, no one except Jesus to look at . . . I swear to Jesus, I will never tell, what was done to me, what was done to me . . . I swear to Jesus, cause if I do, God may not forgive me, God may not forgive. . . .
I am sleeping in the wardrobe with the odor of clothes, the winter musk, the drying salt, the stale sweat of having dressed too warm for a blustery day in March. I am sleeping with the sweat of the coats’ labors drying, sleeping in the thinning air. Questions are typed upon my eyes. Why didn’t I fight back? Why didn’t I kick at the door with real vengeance? Why did I allow my brother to overrun me with his game? I complied—because I had to, I had to know. To know what? I had to be offered conciliation by my father and then refuse it so I would know. Know what? What? That God may not forgive me?
At once, a cry came, and I sat up, startled. It was pitch dark. The cry had fled. It must have been Christ’s scream from the cross, or the sound he uttered while his heart was folded back into his chest.
Then, in the stillness, I felt Christ was coming for me. I waited. My father. Was he awake? “Dad? Dad?” I cleared my throat; maybe no sound came out. “Dad,” I said matter-of-factly. No answer. The wardrobe had screamed. I was dreaming. I was trapped again inside it and this was the sound of the door-opening rage at he who imprisoned me.
I turned on the bedside light. Dad was asleep. I looked to Jesus. He was ever vigilant, stupefyingly unchanged, like a clown. The wardrobe sat.
Then, without warning, my father whimpered. He whimpered again, and it was unlike anything I had ever heard. I knew that the crying out before was his. He made a sudden, cat-like chortle then, a deviously happy sound. I thought it echoed from the other side of his trial, in a place in himself where he was safely locked away from the old man’s belt.
I knew something instinctively then that I know full well now. My father, in the hours he spent locked in the spare bedroom and thinking about fighting back, decided that he would never raise a hand, let alone a strap, against his children.
I would let him sleep, not wake him, not tell him that he had just cried out, not ask if he was OK. I couldn’t save him. But I could protect him in a small way from Christ’s wicked stare. I was his mirror. I was the one to whom his loneliness might be told. I was the one who could stand between him and his father, be on his side, let him out just by being in the room with him.
So that was the mission. The white-cross ring lay on the table between us, and I understood. He had returned to the room to close the old wound within himself. It would be painful, so he needed someone to ease him through. He needed someone who felt what he felt. He needed me. So I turned off the light and stood guard while he slept, watched and listened through the night, scrunching the pillow up under my cheek and holding tight to his end and my beginning.