A few years before my father died I assigned myself the task of uncovering traumatic things in his past that may have led to his abusive behavior. What, I wanted to know, were the forces that shaped him? A long-standing article of my faith is that every effect has a cause, and getting good at identifying causes helps you to better deal with their effects.
So I sat down, gritted my teeth, and labored mightily on a story about an important episode in Chester’s life that I entitled “His Journey Westward.” The word Westward is an old Irish metaphor of death, and in the story I imagine Chester being a witness to his own father’s death, and his sister, Jane, angrily accusing him of being responsible for it.
It begins in January, 1930, with a major winter storm that leaves three feet of snow over northeastern Ohio, and Casimir, Chester’s father, goes out to shovel it. He comes back in, sweating and breathing hard, and goes upstairs and lies down on the bed to recover.
Chester and his older sister, Jane, are in the kitchen. They get into an argument. Casimir yells down, tells them, for Christ’s sake, STOP THAT RACKET, I’m trying to get some rest!
After his father’s shouting Chester decided to go to the basement and rummage through the cardboard box full of old magazines, like Life, and National Geographic. He was going to keep out of everyone's way. But Jane’s pony tail beckoned him. He couldn't resist. They were yelling at him, always at him. Never at her. Miss Janey goody two-shoes. Miss Bossy Boots. One day he'd teach her a real lesson.
On a terrible impulse he seized his sister’s pony tail, and yanked down, as hard as he could.
"AIEEEEE!" Jane screamed. She rose, and bumped the table violently. Her chair fell backward, bounced on the floor.
Chester and Jane looked up when they heard the bedroom door open, and the creak of their father’s footsteps, and then his bellowing at the top of the stairs.
"God DAMN it, I told you to be quiet!"
Chester's eyes widened. His father was on his way down, most likely with his belt. They heard the big man’s heavy footsteps on the stairs, and then a pause.
"Unnnnhhhh," was the alien sound that froze them.
It was a sudden expulsion of a breath, a sound of distress and pain. After another dreadful pause the walls rumbled and shook as Casimir’s body collapsed and tumbled down the steep, narrow stairs. A deep and profound rumbling, more frightening than thunder.
Jane screamed. Chester could not move, he dared not move. His paralysis pressed down hard on him, and he suddenly felt himself pretending he was in another place. Not here! Not here! Jane rushed out of the kitchen, through the dining room, to the living room and the stair's landing. She screamed once again. "Oh, Daddy!"
Their mother appeared. "Casimir!" Josephine shouted. "Oh, dear God..."
More of his mother's footsteps, and the peculiar sound of the phone's rotary dial. His mother saying rapidly, "..he's not breathing...please come quick, please..."
Chester knew he should be doing something, but he couldn’t move. He sat, staring, thinking he was not really in that kitchen, in that house, hearing all those awful sounds. He knew he should rise out of his chair to help his father, to help his sister and his mother.
But he couldn't.
Afterward Jane came into the kitchen. She stood before him, chest rising and falling, her cheeks flushed, her eyes glistening. "You little bastard," she said.
That was all she said. But her eyes told him: This was all your fault. If you would've listened to Daddy when he told you to quit the racket he wouldn't have gotten out of bed to come down to beat you. He wouldn't have fallen down the stairs, you little punk bastard. You're always goofing around. You never do what you're supposed to do. Skinny little goofy bastard.
Chester always imagined growing up, as tall as his father, as handsome, as strong. Coming home from school with a report card, straight As. Top of the class. He imagined his father grinning, and saying, "That calls for a little nip, eh? Here's a toast to you, boy. I'm proud of you!"
He imagined himself finally being able to sit in a library for six straight hours, memorizing from textbooks, without struggling in a cold sweat. Or being first string on the football or baseball team, winning a game. Or getting a job where he'd supervise dozens of men, and bring home lots of money. Or pulling someone from a burning car after a wreck, risking his life, becoming a hero, being interviewed by reporters and written up in the newspaper. He knew what his father's face would look like when he saw, finally, what a success his little son had actually turned out to be.
Chester's rowdiness, his provoking his father to anger, was not the cause of his father's death. Little Chester was not to think that he had been responsible. No, absolutely not. Mr. Palcewski would have without doubt died shortly anyway, and shoveling snow earlier in the morning certainly didn't help his heart any. "Do you understand that, boy?" the tall, white-coated bald doctor with the rimless glasses had said.
Later at the crowded, noisy wake Chester chewed on a piece of hard salami, and poked at a square of yellow cheese. He cast quick glances to the left and right, then ran his finger at the base of the chocolate cake and brought the smooth, sticky glob to his mouth. He didn't want to think about what had happened. There was too much to it.
There was, at the moment of his father's death, an irrevocable realignment of everyone's status. When his father was alive there was a curious equilibrium between his mother, father and sister. Chester occupied a certain position in which he had some influence in the way things went, which is to say that he knew he could count on his mother's coming to his aid when things got bad.
Josephine was the one, after all, who ordered his father not to beat him with the belt that last time he did something wrong. And while Jane was almost grown he still was his father's son, someday himself to be a man, whereas Jane was a girl, to become a woman, and as far as he could tell men ruled and women obeyed. More or less.
But now all that had been put aside. At the hospital Jane took charge. She'd always been Miss Bossy Boots. Now she was the one putting coins in the pay phone, calling this relative and that, she was the one consoling her weeping mother, she was the one talking in quiet, confident tones with the doctor and the funeral director and so on. She was the one who was making decisions, while he just sat on a padded bench in the hospital waiting room, hands clasped between his legs, feeling a burning embarrassment at how pathetically ineffective he turned out to be, how useless he was, how utterly incapable he was of saying or doing anything that would help.
Jane was calmly making sure that everything went smoothly in this crisis, this hour of need. Whereas Chester sat there on the bench, a miserable and pathetic figure, wondering if he'd provoke more of his sister's contempt if he asked her if it would be all right if he got a candy bar or a bottle of coke or something, since he was very hungry. But he said nothing, knowing that being hungry--thinking only of himself as usual--was really a terrible thing to be doing now that his father had died. All he could do then was just sit, quietly, stomach rumbling, while his sister bustled about. Miss Bossy Boots.
"Chester!" Jane called out.
He moved quickly out of the dining room, weaved in and around the standing, talking, smoking men. He hoped to reach the stairs, so he could steal up to his bedroom, slip under the bed, and hide in the dusty darkness. Away from that casket and dead body, that melancholy music, away from all that loud talking, and smoke, and the heavy, sickening scent of flowers.
But Jane saw him at the stairway. "Chester, come here," she said. "We need some milk. Get two quarts. Understand?" She gave him a new five dollar bill, folded into a narrow rectangle, which he slipped into the right front pocket of his trousers.
The snow had turned to slush, but the wind was still cold. He walked along the sidewalk, avoiding the puddles. The snow mounds along the street were covered with a glaze marked with specks of soot from the mill and coarse bits of gravel from the city's road crew. In front of the brown-painted house on the corner was a snowman, with his hat awry, his carrot nose lying on the ground A red-haired man sitting in a black Ford was goosing the accelerator, while the rear wheels spun and screamed on the slush, amid a cloud of exhaust and the scent of burning rubber. Chester saw glistening, falling droplets from melting ice on tree limbs and telephone wires, a plop, plop, plopping. There was a whump as mounds of snow slid down sloping roofs and onto the ground below.
The vigorous walk flushed his face. He unbuttoned his coat, and took off his gloves and absently stuffed them into his bulky jacket's left side pocket, as he climbed up onto the top of a long, narrow mountain of packed snow along the side of the street. He held his arms outstretched to keep his balance. He moved slowly, step by step, along the mountain's ridge, careful not to fall into the yawning abyss.
But suddenly he slipped and for a moment--with some wild arm waving--he managed to keep his balance, but then he fell down sideways on the slope of the dirty snow, rolled once, and came to rest in a puddle. He felt the sudden sting of cold wetness through his trousers.
He stood up, ineffectively brushed the wet fabric with his bare hands.
O’Malley’s grocery store always had a heavy odor of cheese and sour milk, and the dark linoleum floor near the dairy case was always wet and slippery. Old man O'Malley never turned his lights on, so sometimes it was hard to read the labels on the cans and boxes and bottles. The store was empty. Chester found the milk. He put the two heavy glass bottles on the counter while O'Malley punched the keys of the cash register.
The register's drawer sprang open. O'Malley waited while Chester reached into his trouser pocket where he'd put the five dollar bill Jane had given him. But his pocket was empty. Chester felt a rising, hot, tingling sensation.
His other pocket was empty as well. His hand felt the warmth of his thigh through the thin fabric. He fumbled in his jacket, both pockets. No five dollar bill. Also no gloves. He looked up at O'Malley, who stood watching, stone faced.
"I lost the money!" Chester said in a weak, high-pitched voice.
"Put the goddamn milk back, then," old man O'Malley said, squinting.
Chester turned quickly and blinked, trickling hot tears, and then pushed open the door of O'Malley's store. He clenched his teeth and made two fists and trembled. Fucking asshole bastard good for nothing goddamned fucking bastard, he growled to himself, walking numbly along the sidewalk.
O'Malley didn't give a damn. He just stood there waiting for his goddamned money. Put the milk back, then. Sure, you ugly bastard!
The wind gusted, and his coat flew open. Chester fumbled with the buttons but kept his eyes down at the wet sidewalk, examined it carefully as he walked along, hoping to catch a blessed glimpse of green. He walked slowly, casting his eyes back and forth, ignoring the cars splashing on the street and the people walking along...please, please, please, please.
He knew how relieved he'd feel, spotting that folded five dollar bill, and also finding his gloves, which his mother told him many, many times not to lose, as he had lost all the others. Oh, how he'd breathe out a great sigh, and feel so exultant at having been spared still another calamity. The lightness and grace of God’s compassion is what he'd feel soon enough. All he had to do was look carefully. Retrace every step from the house to the store. Down Bellmont three blocks, then left on Locust, and two blocks, and then...
The wind was blowing, so maybe the bill had fluttered up over the piles of snow and had come to rest in one of the pools of water on the street. He could vividly picture a wet, immobile five dollar bill stuck to the dark pavement, held fast by the wetness, waiting to be found, just waiting for him to find it.
All he had to do was keep looking.