1. God’s Middle Finger
Nothing could wake my father. My childhood was spent tapping his foot or shaking his shoulder—a favor to my mother who’d go to bed early and plead with us—don’t let him sleep all night in his chair. So as he stretched out in a Naugahyde recliner, sleeping hard after dinner and long into the night, eventually that chair transformed into some kind of dream ship, a ship we could never see the whole of, only inside the engine room of my father, the exhaust snarling out of his nose and mouth. Dad dad dad wake up dad dad dad wake up. The only thing worse than leaving him down there was having him wake up angry and disoriented from whatever journey he’d been on. Go to bed! he’d yell instinctively. Or leave me alone, goddamn it! If he didn’t yell and was still too deeply gone, I’d grab an afghan and throw it over him. But that was much later, when I was old enough to stay up past my mother and be alone doing work or watching television.
This story takes place when I was three months old. An age where sleep came in fits for both parent and child. My father had a line, a baby needs his mother, that he’d roll out whenever my sister or I cried at night and he didn’t want to get up. And I was a crier, forever hungry. But in this story, only my father is awake, and it’s not for me. It’s because of a storm. What a gift to have a three-month-old baby asleep early in the morning. Those bleary hours. What a loss to have it all wrecked by Mother Nature. A baby needs his mother, I picture him saying, but not this mother, as he prayed for the thunder not to wake the child. How loud was the storm? Very loud. The kind of storm that choked the snarling engine of my father’s subterranean dream machine and surfaced him snarling. The kind of storm that grabbed him by the foot and said dad dad dad wake up. So he did.
Here’s what he saw: boxes. They hadn’t unpacked from the move from Dayton to Xenia, Ohio. They had barely unpacked from the move a year and three months earlier from Bayonne, New Jersey to Dayton. Dayton was one of the world’s reigning assholes, but at least the asshole was a place. The Wright Brothers, those Midwestern daedali, forever inventing machines to escape its bleakness: first bikes, then kites, then planes. Now my father and mother and sister and I crashed down to earth here. Then to Xenia. Not even an asshole, but even more mysterious: a hidden pocket up the colon, somewhere only doctors with mining lights strapped to their heads could access.
2. Land of the Devil Wind
Xenia means hospitality in Greek, but the Shawnee tribe who had lived around the area for an eon didn’t have a word for that, so they called it “Land of the Devil Wind.” But who’s going to live in a place called “Land of the Devil Wind, Ohio”? So those settlers did the hospitable thing and kicked out Tecumseh and Co. and then put out the Greek welcome mat and gave our neighborhood an ironic American name, a name that was the faintest reminder of a tool belonging to the ones they didn’t want to live there anymore: Arrowhead, they called it. Turn that arrow on its point and one had a perfect depiction of the shape of the funnel that had cursed the land, that had wiped the neighborhood clean in 1974.
My parents were still living in New Jersey when the F-5 tornado hit the town, but the stories of that day stuck with all of the people of the town long after the wind settled. A column of air a half-mile wide traveling around fifty miles an hour carved a new Main Street of debris and ruin where the old one had been.
To build the city, the people needed saws to cut trees and dynamite to blow blocks of granite from quarries and huge hot kilns to burn the bricks hard and teams of horses to carry it all and later then steam engines to carry more and then diesel powered monsters bulldozing down boulevards and steam cranes to lift buildings up. Mostly they needed time—not days but years—decades, a century of digging and setting foundations and roads and taming fields into a grid of blocks and circles of green, some with small park ponds where boys dipped handfuls of sawdust into water and packed it into balls stuck on a line to catch carp that they’d bring back home down those streets into houses for mothers to fry on the stove or fathers to cook on the grill just as the Shawnee did long ago before the cranes or cars or horses or homes or sawdust, when all was quiet and a thin line of navy clouds, those giant dark brains in the sky, flashed fear on the horizon.
In total, about half a million tons of concrete, granite, steel, aluminum, brick, rubber, rope, flesh, and bone. Snap a picture and it was all there, frozen in time. If the picture was snapped on April 4, 1974, all that weight had been pushed aloft and separated into finite parts, dust, glass shards, tires, wood siding, two by fours, golf balls, pets, fences, shoes, birds: all of it spinning high into the air, swirling into the remains of people, pets and buildings still alive on the ground huddled in bathtubs or hugging toilets. All the storm needed was five minutes of wind to scatter it all.
Since so many people had left after the storm, land was cheap, even three years after. My parents bought a house in this new section of the subdivision that had been “redeveloped” by wind so fierce it had sunk a golf ball a few inches into the granite foundation of a building. Withdrawal slips from the local Xenia banks sucked into the sky rained down on cities a hundred miles to the north. The last breaths from thirty souls went up there, too, though that was harder to track down. But maybe it was the same air, cycled through, that night my father finally woke up, so tired from moving, from rocking the baby.
Early rattling thunder and then the wails of an air raid siren, the kind that preceded Luftwaffe bombers during the London blitz. It seemed strange for Nazis to be attacking thirty years after the fall of the Third Reich, even stranger for them to be dropping ordinance on a small rural town in Ohio. My father’s father, a veteran in the Big Red One, had fought the bastards. He loved to tell a good war story, had dragged my father to all the movies. A Messerschmitt had strafed Utah Beach as he came ashore on D-Day +3 and he gunned the jeep out of the boat and into six feet of water. The steering wheel knocked out all of his teeth.
Perhaps my father dreaming of his father gumming up sand on some distant French shore as the bombs rained down. Perhaps it was just the wind. Still the siren grew louder, and outside the window, a line of housewives filed by his window, towing their children and canned soup in Radio-Flyer wagons, to the concrete bunker shelter at the end of the block at McKinley Elementary. The siren blared on. My father opened the window. The thunder rolled beyond them in the distance.
“What’s going on?” he asked one of them.
“A tornado is coming,” one woman answered. “Get to the shelter.”
“Jesus!” my father said.
“Jesus!” the housewife replied back, but in a much different way.
3. What My Father Wasn’t Thinking
Had he gotten into the car that morning and driven downtown to the newly-built Xenia public library, he could have seen a photograph of the first depiction of a tornado in Western art. It appeared on a tapestry called “The Conquest of Tunis” designed by the painter Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen and commissioned by Emperor Charles V to commemorate his crusade against the Ottoman Empire in the early 1500s. The tornado is small and appears alongside Monserrat mountain in what critics believe was Vermeyen’s attempt to express some kind of divine green light to kill lots more Muslims. But my father did not move.
What the woman shouting Jesus meant was something along the lines of a metaphor, an allegory running through her typological life. Jesus was her savior. For what better metaphor is there for a tornado than the finger of God? The tornado is all-encompassing, but invisible like all wind, until dust and debris outline its shape. Within that cloud, the basic elements of life: earth, wind, fire, water. Its power is resolute to thwart the greatest human-built structures. But there is nothing in the middle of it. Who would believe such a thing existed? Who, upon seeing it, wouldn’t be marked for life? When something catastrophic or literally awesome happens, the natural instinct is to turn to God. Thanks be to God! Or Praise the Lord! Or its blasphemous cousin: God damn it!
When my father said “Oh, Jesus!” he uttered it not out of any fear or call for divine mercy, but just plain annoyance at being woken up too early. He shut the window that morning and went back to sleep on the couch. The dream engine revved on.
There was no tornado that day. But whatever the wind—divine or devilish—it passed us by that morning. In its trail, I breathed in that tornadic Xenia air held hostage between the blessing and the curse and was forever changed. There was one last luftwaffe bomb lurking in those clouds, an idea from a German psychologist in the 40s named Klaus Conrad: apophenia. A dubious but lively concept in the beginning stages of schizophrenia, Conrad described it as when a person makes patterns between unrelated phenomena. A delusion as revelation, as if trapped between sleeping and waking. Patient may perform abrupt, seemingly meaningless actions. Progression of delusions from external to inner “space.”
It’s what happens when the clichéd explanations fail to make sense of the world: “Then the dust settled” or “It was time to pick up the pieces” or “Everything happens for a reason.” Close your eyes to the chaos outside and retreat inward toward some dreamier truth. Conrad’s pathology is too broad for contemporary psychology, but no one told Xenia. It was the town disease. You could say it was in the air, but that was wrong. It was the air.
4. Which Way the Devil Wind Blows
At some point, my mother took a job teaching in the summer, so she hired a babysitter for us named Althea, who saw demons and played the autoharp. I had never heard of either. After my mother left, Althea explained very calmly that both were inside the house. This was news to me and my sister. I hoped the black case at her feet was the instrument and not some sort of receptacle of the damned. But she left the black case alone and spoke extemporaneously about what evil she saw, just a running narrative about blackish blobs and grey orbs that my sister and I listened to with great attention.
Who knew? The imagined evil of the world, right there in our house! We had heard about it in prayers. The special addendum to the “Glory Be” from the kids at Fatima: Oh, my Jesus, forgive us our sins and save us from the fires of hell. Lead all souls to Heaven especially those most in need of Thy mercy! These flames and damned souls were abstractions though along with the demons who lived there. But Althea and her autoharp saw them in the corner of our paneled family room, left of and about a few feet above the television. Small, floating demons. Right there in Xenia, Ohio.
Neither my sister nor I thought to ask Althea to do something about the demons in the tv room, and she didn’t seem in any hurry to show them the door. Maybe that’s how the gift works. Some people can see the demons, but it’s other people who get them out, a kind of anagogical division of labor.
After she finished her lecture on the damned, Althea took out her autoharp and sang us a folk song. She had a thick country accent kind of like Loretta Lynn when she talked that softened when she sang. When she finished, we went on about our day with something else to worry about at night.
5. Ten Years After, Solid Objects Still Achieve Flight
St. Brigid was a small parish on the edge of town in the country. It had been downtown but that giant tornado destroyed it along with several other churches in 1974. Tornadoes are ecumenical in their destructive tendencies. The town was very Protestant, and so to be Catholic then was to be under suspicion. The town made us ride long bus routes and start later out of spite for having to provide transportation to these kids. Though we lived on the other side of town with kids in uniforms, the bus drivers let us do anything if we stayed behind the white line where she drove. It was like Thunderdome some days.
On the bus in third grade, Mike Laframboise, thick-necked, freckly, was always squeezing grapes or wiping a half-eaten banana on kids. He was the first to perfect gleeking, a subtle tongue movement that shot little bits of spittle directly from the salivary gland in one’s mouth onto whomever was closest. When he wasn’t gleeking, he was stuffing my sister’s scarf down his pants or punching kids for looking at him or laughing at his jokes or not laughing or just sitting quietly with a book and trying to ignore him. He demanded attention. I had a big mouth and a punchable face, so I’d get tagged or gleeked on pretty regularly, though I was three grades down from him. It didn’t matter. The school, the bus driver, the other kids all knew he was trouble. All of his family, too, no doubt.
One spring day, I was walking out in the cornfield that edged one side of the parking lot where we had recess. It was the end of the school day. We played soccer on the black top. But I was on the hill, looking up into the sky at the white light when I got hit by something hard. Maybe I was bleeding under my eye. Why was I walking there and then in that cornfield? Normally it wasn’t allowed, the teachers whistling us back. I don’t know, but I was walking and crying and holding my eye. I looked down at my feet and there was the cause of the pain, a large piece of brick. My eye was swelling underneath, a little pocket of blue and purple starting. Maybe some blood. Had to have been blood if it was a brick! A brick could break a window. When my teacher, Mrs. Cahigas asked, I didn’t hesitate. Mike Laframboise threw the brick at me. Was Mike even close at the time? I didn’t know. I remember Mrs. Cahigas, a well-dressed waif of a woman always in a pastel suit and normally a little stand-off-ish expressing shock—less shocked was Mike when I pointed my finger at him. Mrs. Cahigas put her arm around me. She was not surprised. This was fully in the range of the Laframboise repertoire. She walked me to the nurse. Mike was not on the bus that afternoon. I sat against the window with a plastic bag wrapped in a brown paper towel from the bathroom on my cheek, the ice long since melted, my eye closing down.
The next day, the principal, a sober-faced nun named Sister Joan Claire, called us in. Nuns were in those transitional days then so she wore a polyester suit with a long skirt and on her head a habit of nearly the same dusty blue color. “Did you do it?” she asked Mike. He was sitting next to me in the wooden chairs in front of her desk. The same squinty glare.
“No,” he said. “Why would I throw a brick at him?”
It was a pretty fair answer since if he wanted to hurt me, he could have just waited until we got on the bus.
Sister Joan Claire placed a red brick on her desk. It would have been a pretty good throw for him to have done it. And heavy. He was strong but strong enough to shotput a brick and put it on target? Definitely not. And I’m sure it would have done more than just blackened my eye had it hit there. It probably would have broken the orbital bone. Maybe knocked me unconscious. Maybe it was half a brick. A piece. But a whole brick rested on the nun’s desk as evidence. Sister Joan Claire certainly wasn’t looking to run a forensics lab. This was God’s own kangaroo court. The boy was trouble, had always been, probably would always be until he graduated. Some stain of original sin had never been washed away. She gave Mike two weeks in-school suspension despite his pleas. To this day, I have no idea if he did it or why I was so sure it was him. I’ve run it through my mind a thousand times, and I can’t recall. Maybe that brick was lifted, as the song says, on eagle’s wings by the breath of God. Or perhaps it was some stray gust of wind left over from that tornadic day ten years earlier when it seemed the devil’s own clawed hand, hefted bricks off the ground, light as eagle feathers. They found bank notes from Xenia raining down hundreds of miles north days after the storm. Why not bricks too delayed years later by some unknown sorcery of the Jetstream? Perhaps it was no miracle. Perhaps the impact of the brick just knocked the memory loose.
6. The Way
Down the block lived a little boy my age named Davey who couldn’t walk and or see. He had an older sister named Kerry who was the same age as my sister. In the summer or after school, we would skate up and down the block, but sometimes Kerry and the whole family would go for walks, the father, bearded and kind-eyed, carrying 5 year-old Davey on his shoulder, arms slung around his father’s neck the way monkeys carry their young. Kerry told us Davey had been healed by the church. We didn’t go to their church, a newish form of Protestantism called The Way. It started as a radio ministry in Lima about thirty miles north of us in the 1940s by a Princeton-trained preacher named Victor Paul Wierwille. Belief-wise, they hewed close to Jehovah’s Witnesses, denying the divinity of Jesus, but adding in a heaping tablespoon of Pentecostal fervor for good measure. They spoke in tongues, caught the spirit, laid hands. I think they could even drink. I didn’t know any of this then though. All I knew was that something was very wrong with Davey.
Had they all laid hands on him? Or was it some magic preacher? Kerry did not say. The impression I had then was that the parents had prayed hard enough and through those prayers and the obvious grief regarding the child’s condition, they had convinced the congregation that a miracle had occurred. To not see it was to be the wrong kind of blind. Inside the walls of that church, it was real. But I was outside those walls. Every time I saw Davey, I just stopped and stared. “Isn’t it amazing he was healed?” Kerry would say to me and I would look at her like she was nuts until my older sister would give me a stern look to shut my mouth. Meanwhile, the top half of Davey would be rocking back and forth on the floor, his eyes doing things I had never seen eyes do before. My sister had a doll whose eyes closed when you laid her back but opened when you sat her forward, but Davey’s half-lidded eyes were in a perpetual state of movement, like he was tracking flies all around the ceiling. He’d smile and roll his head back and forth and make strange cooing sounds. “Isn’t it amazing he’s been healed?” Kerry would say again. Then my sister would nod and I did too because it’s hard to walk against that kind of current when you’re a kid and you don’t quite have the language to balance in the undertow.
Kerry was well taken care of. She was the first on the block to get a Cabbage Patch doll. And she had these blue sneakers with a yellow serrated stripe on the side and roller skates fused on the bottom. She could lace them up like a real pair of sneakers. Who was I to go against that kind of substance? We just had those cheap-o skates that you had to tie on like ice-climbing shoes.
7. You Won’t Like Me When I’m Angry
I was a fan of the tv show The Incredible Hulk then, if by fan you meant terrified of him. I was only five or six but the show itself became a kind of compulsion, and I wouldn’t let my mother leave when the Bruce Banner parts were on for fear of him turning into the Hulk, which for most people was the entire purpose in watching—the huge green pectorals and quadriceps bursting through his respective oxford shirt and pant seams. Why he wasn’t wearing something less formal I don’t know. You’d think sweats would have been a more viable option, but like me, perhaps Banner, too, was an optimist, thinking that maybe this town would be different than the last one where all green had broken loose. All I knew is that I was the sole viewer praying for him to stay calm throughout the entire hour, hoping desperately in vain for him to visit a town with folks who received strangers with open hearts and warm cups of soup instead of a two by four over the head and face full of acid. But inevitably, Banner would mosey into town and just get deluged with abuse: thrown into construction site dumpsters or dashed upside the head with a glass gumball machine while waiting for his dry cleaning. And I’d watch, holding my breath, as I clutched my mom’s leg and hoped he didn’t go into the knife factory or backstage with the off-duty circus clowns who had been drinking from a paper bag. I don’t remember all the causes of him going into Hulk mode, just that I had to hold onto my mother’s leg in case those clowns got itchy cannon-fingers.
Years later, as a teenager in Columbus, I worked with this woman at a sub shop, the full-time manager named Maria. The shop was down the road from the Ohio State School for the Blind so we had a few regulars walking in with white canes. One such man was in his fifties with big pile of unkempt hair and worn jeans and jean jacket, sort of like if Jim from Taxi had a brother but a horribly cross-eyed brother. He’d order a sandwich and then get out money from his bill-fold and hold it right up to his nose. He’d lay the bill down and declare the denomination out loud and whoever was at the register would say it back to confirm it like they did in those war films when they launch nuclear bombs. “This is a five dollar bill.” “This is a five dollar bill.” A few of us kids used to think he could sniff the money and tell the denomination, but eventually I settled on this being a ridiculous thought to think. Why would a five smell any different than a one? Of course he had to hold it that close to look at it because he was legally blind. He had his little girl who usually led him but he must not have trusted her to tell him the number on the bill. Maybe he was too proud. I’ll admit I tried to smell a bill with my eyes closed once or twice. I had never tried and from a simplistic point of view, everything is possible until proven otherwise. But everything in the store just smelled like hot peppers and salami, so it was no use.
One day after the blind man had picked up his order and paid, I confessed this theory of infinite smelling possibilities to Maria as a joke, but she took me at my word.
“Do you know Lou Ferrigno?” she asked me.
“Know him? He terrorized my childhood,” I told her in not so many words.
“Did you know he was deaf?”
“Did you know that this was not a coincidence, that all deaf people are very strong, that for every affliction like deafness that God granted an equal special ability?”
This would have been news to my father who had taught deaf students for thirty years, and thus far was of the well-earned opinion that deafness in most cases was the least of his students’ problems and by far the easiest one to deal with.
But even with all that running around in my head, I’ll admit this last one got me.
“What if you’re blind?” I asked.
“Then you got extra good hearing,” she replied.
“And if you can’t speak?”
“You’re sense of smell rivals a wolf. Cripples are good at math. Jesus would never have put a totally defenseless being on the earth. Even the lowly snail has his hard shell.”
The idea of this fascinated me for a long time, longer than it should have really. I think Maria had a whole chart worked out in her head and I was starting to make one, too. It’s a nice way to think of the world. Everybody’s got some latent gift or at the least a refuge, even if it’s only your mother’s leg to clutch during the fleeting terror of a slow-motion Hulkening on television. Except of course that some people don’t have either. Or worse: what they do have isn’t good for anyone else, even themselves. They’re held together by a great nothing, a vacuum you can only see until it’s too late to run from it.
Between tornadoes, my parents made a visit back to St. Brigid to celebrate a parish anniversary. After they visited with old friends, they looked up a road sign for me—an historical marker where the legend of “the Land of Devil Winds” had been written. They couldn’t find it. The best they could find was an article in the Dayton Daily News that a librarian directed them to, but even then the article only referenced it as a legend.
Later, they went downtown and got dinner at Friendly’s before they drove back to Columbus. As they waited for their food, another family came in. A mother about the same age as mine and a father hunched over and burdened. When he turned, they saw the reason why. A young man with dark hair and the shadow of a beard on his face held on to the old man’s neck. The father held the young man under the legs. He swerved his head strangely and made clipped noises like grunts or the beginnings of songs. They made their way to a table in the back.
“My God,” my mother said.
“Surely,” my father said, “it couldn’t be.”
“But who else could it be?” my mother asked.
I have kids of my own now. We live a thousand miles from Xenia in Florida, but with each baby, I find myself as my father did, up all night, the endless rocking, shushing the coming storm, praying for their sleep and my own, and searching deep within the map of red veins on their innocent eye lids for a sign, a portent of what trouble will come and how to keep it at bay through blessing or curse. Three children now suddenly grown beyond babies yet still so vulnerable: boy-girl-boy, six, five and three, which means we’re forever in the doctor’s office for vaccines and check-ups and colds and ear infections. Every spring they get a flu shot–that invisible killer– and this year it is my turn to take them. We get in the car and the questions already start.
“Where are we going?”
“Let’s listen to music,” I answer and turn up an Australian band known for their gyrations.
“Where are we going?” They are persistent considering how oblivious they are to their surroundings.
“Into town,” I answer, as if I am a character in a Willa Cather novel. We live outside of Tampa, where the hurricanes are strong but the tornadoes weak. The best we get is some puny water spout or a quick broom handle tornado. There’s not enough flatland for the storms to build up a head of steam surrounded as we are by all this water.
It takes about a half hour to get to the doctor’s office. It sits on the corner of two big boulevards at the end of which is a mall that we frequent with a tiny train they liked to ride. As we pull up closer to the intersection, my son asks if we are going to the phe-mall. He has a strange speech impediment and for some reason puts a “ph” in front of words that began with “M.” He’s in therapy for it and even the therapist finds it too cute to correct.
“No,” I say. “Not the phe-mall.”
My daughter is always more direct. “Not the doctor!” she shouts.
“The doctor?” I ask. “Well—”
“We’re not sick,” my son says.
“A check up and lollipops.”
“Lollipops!” my youngest says.
“Yes,” I say. “What kind do you want? Everyone can choose their own.”
Suddenly, I am the best dad in the world. By the time we’re out of the car and in the office, sitting in the “well room,” they’re somewhat pacified watching the title screen for Cars on a flat screen over and over again.
“Why won’t it start,” one of them asks me.
“An omen,” I say.
“What’s an omen?” my daughter asks.
Never mind, I want to say, but the nurse calls them back before I can answer. She weighs them and takes their temp and talks them up to make sure they’re stable and with it cognitively-speaking before depositing us in an exam room with superheroes on the wall. I’m not a comic book fan, but I know the more famous ones when they point and ask me for names. The less famous ones I have to improvise. I’m pretty good at it because mostly there isn’t much originality to these names in the first place: Hawk beak mask + feathers on arm = Hawkman. Big helmet + carries hammer = Hammer Guy. Woman in all black cat suit = Black Cat Lady. My oldest picked up on the cues and for a while referred to the Joker as Mr. Giggles and Robin as Robert. You look like what you are, I suppose is the message. What’s outside is inside. Their world is whole and true.
The nurse comes in with the metal tray and three capped syringes rest atop a blue paper towel. She is older than the in-take nurse with a scowl screwed on to her face. My oldest has already started crying.
“What’s on the tray?” he asks.
“Okay,” the nurse says. “Bring the first one over.”
“Shots? Shots!” he screams.
They all sound off, screaming, the youngest crying simply because the others are in tears. They crowd into the corner and hug each other like kids in a Sally Struthers infomercial.
I grab my oldest, but he wriggles free. “Come on,” I say. I hold out my hand.
“No daddy! No!” they scream.
“If you don’t get the shot, you could get the flu,” I say. “It’s an invisible disease but it’s out there, believe me. It’s waiting on doorknobs and stray coughs and those pennies you put in your mouth. It’s going to infect you magically and it could very well kill you.”
“Just grab one,” the nurse says, but I hesitate to console the group more. “Now!” the nurse shouts. “You’re only making it worse.”
Oh, Jesus. If the comic book artist could draw the scene and put it into decals. What is great about some superheroes is that they wear it all out on their sleeves. Batman looks like a bat. Superman is physically intimidating. Green Lantern doesn’t look like a lantern but he’s chromatically honest. Nurses used to wear white. In the comic book world, this meant they’d be true and pure and virtuous, but our nurse wore pinkish scrubs with floral print pants. She was older with a wash and set perm. She gave me a look that said, get a hold of your kids right now or I’m giving you a shot.
That nurse’s scowl takes me back thirty years, back to Xenia, to when I was two and the hazy dream of my first memory. Alone, out of sight from my mother and father, I put my finger in a church-key-cut opening on a V-8 can and pulled up, sending a shard of metal into the meat of my pointer. By the time we got to Greene County Hospital, the wound had sealed up. The doctor in the ER looked at the cut and told my mother and me that they were going to have to open it back up and then put in stitches. His name was Dr. Mailman, a ridiculous label that would never stand in the comic book hero universe where he would have been a mailman, some sort of special deliverer between our world and that of the gods. But he was not. Dr. Mailman wore a white coat with the old miner’s light strapped to his forehead and in that way he looked like every doctor I had ever seen in books, on tv, in movies.
“It’ll be okay,” my mother said, but Dr. Mailman had a different theory about kids. Distilled, it was something along the lines of: we shouldn’t lie to kids.
“This is going to hurt,” Dr. Mailman told me that night. And Dr. Mailman was right. I knew it had hurt once and it was going to hurt again. I was only two but I knew that. So when he grabbed my finger to open it back up, I fought him for ten minutes on the exam table. I kicked and screamed and bit and punched and pushed. I still remember him saying it to me and watching my mother cry. But I was living evidence that this theory was wrong. Kids need you to lie. Honesty is the death policy. To live: deceive, distort, distract. Which is why kids love superheroes more than their own parents. They can smell the truth on us that we’re not telling. They just can’t yet see how we’re rotting underneath, how we will grow wounded and weak, perhaps already are, and so they leave us for the fantasy of bloodless spandex and serrated bubble POWs blooming in the sky. They cannot exist here with us, we who cannot fly or turn invisible or run through sonic booms. Not in our world of half-truths, omissions, and lies. That nurse’s uniform doesn’t mean what it should. There is no floral sustenance found under its pink folds. We are docents to a museum of pain because we have to be, because that’s how you know you’re not dead yet. Not dying is the closest thing to a superpower we have, and we’re all so miserable at it that if the comic artists had to make us a uniform, it would just be whatever it was you were wearing that day.
So I summon the strength to grab my oldest—now a whirling dervish of anger and fear—by the shoulders, lift him off his feet, and pin him to the exam table, an arm barred across his chest—his face burning red as he screams and pushes hard—how long can I hold him here?—and finally she sticks him good in the hip.
“Okay,” nurse says.
“It’s over,” I say. “Daddy loves you.”
He’s still screaming along with the other two.
“Next!” nurse says.
“See! It didn’t hurt,” I say.
“Yes, it did!” he shouts.
“Next!” nurse shouts.
The other two start screaming louder now. They’ve turned and are huddled, staring into the corner so as not to watch and I grab my daughter and pin her the same while the brothers hug and scream. And then the last one who is the lightest but somehow nearly as strong as my oldest son gets pinned as my daughter wipes big tears from her eyes and says, “It didn’t hurt, daddy,” but she’s rubbing her arm and more trying to convince herself as the youngest screams higher and the nurse puts the syringe into the fattest part of his thigh and presses the plunger.
“We’re done!” the nurse says.
“Jesus, let’s get a drink,” I say, as a joke, but she doesn’t laugh. So I go back to my kids, an easier audience now that they’re done crying. “Let’s get a donut!” and they’re red-faced but happy to shuffle over one another out the exit and into the car where I’ll buckle them up into plastic seats that have no real chance of surviving a head-on collision at 65 mph, and they begin to see the uniform again—it’s me, your dad—as we decide what kind of donuts they want. Purists, they favor chocolate frosting or vanilla, just not the kind hiding cream or pudding or jelly inside—“the real donuts” they call them—all sugared dough on the outside, and I try not to dwell on the hole in the middle, in me, in of all of us, left to swirl around the emptiness.
Author Bio: Patrick Crerand teaches fiction and nonfiction writing at Saint Leo University and also in their low-residency MA Program for Creative Writing. Recently, his work has appeared in Quarter after Eight, Museum of Americana, and many other magazines. Last year, Arc Pair Press released a chapbook of his short stories entitled, The Paper Life They Lead. Originally from Ohio, he lives now in Dade City, Florida with his lovely wife and three children.