A Clean Cut
The evening sunlight was thin and the air cool as my father slammed the rear door of the station wagon.
I gripped the couch pillows underneath my legs and squeezed them the way I had seen my father squeeze his hand springs.
Photo courtesy of Stacey Warde
LEFT BEHIND He was packing. I wanted to go with him. I wanted to spend a weekend, as he had, hunting rabbits and sleeping outdoors. Photo: Author Stacey Warde as a boy with his father Jim Warde who soon after cut ties with his young wife and two small children.
By Stacey Warde
My father was packing the station wagon. He was putting away the last of his camping gear. Finally, he shoved his work boots in between two boxes and was finished. He looked a long time at what he had packed. He often went hunting but had never taken me with him. I was four years old.
“Can I go with you, dad?”
“No,” he answered gruffly. “I may not be coming back.”
He was 24, a construction worker. He was big and had muscles solid as the old truck he drove to haul dirt. I remember his strength. He whipped me hard once when I lied and told him I didn’t throw mud on his surfboard. I never lied again — at least not to him.
Another time I watched him punch his fist through the wall when he was angry with my mother. He was in the bathroom, shaving. I stood in the doorway and admired him as he stroked his face with the razor, wiping it clean of shaving cream, his arm muscles rippling with each sweep. His narrow waist, which was still so much larger than my own, was wrapped in a towel. His stomach tightened as he called to my mother and asked her where his Old Spice was. She didn’t know. That’s when he threw his razor in the sink, cocked his arm back close to his side, clenched his fist, and, like the hammer of a rifle, let it spring through the wall. I left the room quickly.
Now, he was packing. I wanted to go with him. I wanted to spend a weekend, as he had, hunting rabbits and sleeping outdoors. I would never have gone with anyone else, not even my mother. With my dad I felt safe. He protected me.
The big mean kids down the street used to put on scary masks to frighten me. My father told me that if they didn’t stop, he was going to let them have it — and showed me how by pounding his fist into his hand, making the sound of raw meat dropping on a cold kitchen floor. But I couldn’t stop being afraid of those masks — ugly green, old ladies’ faces with blood and bulging eyes. I didn’t have to be afraid for very long because when the big mean kids saw who my father was they stopped scaring me and tried to be my friends.
It was getting late, drawing closer to my bedtime, the time when my father would turn out the light and tell me to go to sleep. The evening sunlight was thin and the air cool as my father slammed the rear door of the station wagon. It would be dark soon. We went into our apartment where the curtains were drawn and little light shone in the stillness.
My father dragged himself into the bedroom where my mother waited. I seldom went in there. I sat on the couch in the dark quiet of the living room and looked after my father into the even darker hallway where he had disappeared. Behind the door they were quiet, not like the time I had heard my mother screaming and then laughing.
I had rushed in to see if she was okay and saw my father pinning her naked to the bed with his massive arms. “What do you want?” my mother had asked as if she was about to laugh. I guessed that it was some kind of game. I wasn’t sure if she wanted me to join them. I couldn’t speak. “Go in your room and play,” she said. I stood frozen. Finally, she had to get up. I stared at the dark triangle balanced like a pyramid turned upside-down above her thighs. “Go in your room and play,” she repeated, shooing me away and closing the door.
Now, there was only quiet, except for an occasional creak in the wall and ceiling. I gripped the couch pillows underneath my legs and squeezed them the way I had seen my father squeeze his handsprings. I felt lonely in the stillness and dwarfed by the increasing darkness. The silence was like the edge of a razor blade; I could feel its edge cutting cleanly through my insides. I knew how razors worked.
Once, I reached into the bathroom waste can for one of my father’s used blades, its blue-black squareness lay flat against the bottom of the can and shone brightly. I picked it up, grasped its edges and bent it back-and-forth with my fingers. They tingled as the blade sliced through the skin. I was surprised and scared to see blood trickling like syrup from my fingertips. Then my fingers started to hurt, and I began to scream. Now, it was my insides that hurt. I felt like screaming but held it in.
I screamed a lot in those days, mostly because of nightmares. Dreadful monsters, usually oversized creatures tall enough to touch the ceiling, came after me in the darkness. They were ferocious and hungry. One night I heard my mother calling me gently while I was sleeping. I looked behind the headboard of my upper bunk and saw a saber-toothed tiger wearing my mother’s sweatshirt, staring me in the face and coming to eat me. I screamed until it went away and my real mother appeared.
I was growing more restless as the waning light outside had nearly ceased penetrating the heavy curtains in the living room. Then I heard a door open. My father, moving like a shadow, crossed the room and went to the front door. My mother walked slowly behind him, leaving the small length of the room’s space between them. I jumped off the couch and ran to the door as my father flung it open. My mother ordered me to come back.
“I want to go with daddy.”
“You stay right there,” she said, pointing.
I started out the door with my father. He turned and told me to stay.
“I want to go, daddy.”
“No,” he said.
My mother came to the door and took my hand. She pulled me inside the house as I tried to wrench myself free. I was straining to get a look at my father. I watched him get into the car. My mother slammed the door of the apartment and I lost sight of him. I began screaming.
My mother let me scream. She didn’t try to fix the pain or tell me to hush. I pulled the curtain back and saw my father warming the car in the driveway. I yelled, “Daddy, daddy!” knowing he couldn’t hear me, and cried louder. I could hardly see him through the blur of tears as the car pulled away.
I heard water running in the bathroom. It wasn’t time for my bath; I hadn’t eaten yet. But my mother called for me. She was kneeling next to the tub. The water splashed loudly. I stood crying in the doorway. My mother motioned me to come. She reached for me and held me tightly. She had never hugged me this way before, not as someone who was afraid. I cried harder. And she cried, too. §
Stacey Warde is editor of The Rogue Voice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.