Chester wasn’t wholly bad, obviously, but his hatred for my mother was overwhelming and of course when he saw me, he saw her. His many explosions of rage and cruelty very nearly obliterated the memories of pleasant experiences with him. It's hard trying to come up with an example.
All right, here's one.
After he came home after work he’d send me to the deli to get a tub of ice cream and a big bag of potato chips. He loved maple walnut. He’d lie on the couch, and I’d sit crossways on the big stuffed chair by the front door. We’d watch old black and white movies on TV. I loved his laughter, and he’d really get into it. When he laughed loudly I felt safe. Wanted. Whenever Hawaii appeared on the screen, he’d rise up from his reclined postion and say, “Hey! Look! I was THERE! That’s Diamond Head, on the beach of Waikiki”
Okay, watching old movies and eating ice cream and potato chips and drinking Coke with him was great.
And then one day when I was a senior at The Rayen School he decides that he, Alex, and my prom date, Joan, and I ought to go out to dinner. A formal dinner at Youngstown’s best restaurant. Not only that, we guys will wear brand new black shiny Tuxedos, from his rental store out on Mahoning Avenue.
Starched white shirt with gold studs for buttons. A black bow tie. A black silk cumberbund. Sharply creased trousers, with a narrow black satin band going down each side. All three of us are tall and lean, with absolutely flat bellies. I was surprised at how good my father and uncle looked, all dressed up like that. Also surprised at how dashing I was. A view of myself that I’d never had before. Clothing does amazing things, actually. A transformation.
Clothing for me was always a great contrast between when my jeans and tee shirts and socks were clean after Aunt Jane had washed them, and then not to long afterward when they became soiled and wrinkled. They stank, especially my socks, and I didn’t ever want to get too close to my classmates, lest they smell me.
My father gave me clothing that he couldn’t sell. Ill-fitting bluejeans with some odd name, not Wranglers or Levi’s preferred by Bobby Quinn and other well-fed, well-dressed classmates. Shirts whose colors were bleached by laying out in the display window, in the sun. I was mortified by what I had to wear to school. I was immediately marked as strange, weird, out of place, and I hated it.
Anyway, in the mirror I was astonished to realize I was just as good looking as any goddamned movie star. And when I saw my father and uncle, well, they looked like movie stars too.
When we picked up Joan she was wearing a long pink dress, the one she’d worn at the prom, and I felt a surge of giddy elation. I imagined an evening sitting among other well dressed and handsome sophisticates, and I thought of that movie “Top Hat,” when Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers did that famous “Dancing Cheek to Cheek” routine, which starts slow and romantic and then gets complicated and vigorous. Every one of Fred and Ginger’s steps are perfect, flowing, and majestic. Astaire is totally assured, self-possessed, and what’s more he treats Ginger gently, kindly, and lovingly, you can see it in the way he looks at her and sings. To me it's a perfect man/woman fantasy.
And I was totally invested in fantasies like that as I felt the powerful stirrings of sexual energy. But I thought sex should always be an expression of LOVE rather than merely the mindless satisfaction of lust. I’d seen a dog mounting a bitch, and he violently pumped until it was over, and in a minute or two the animals both just walked away, as if nothing had happened. I found that mindless humping strange, even obscene, although intellectually I knew it was perfectly natural. One thing about that animal sex—neither showed the slightest embarrassment! No shame, no guilt, no bullshit. This is what dogs did, and that’s IT. If you don’t like it, then don’t watch.
But the male dog appeared to have absolutely no control over what he was doing. It wasn’t a matter of his intent or making a deliberate choice, he was just wholly taken over by what that German philosopher Shopenhauer called wille zum leben, and the poor thing couldn’t stop even if he wanted to.
Being out of control like that always scared the hell out of me. I would never permit myself to lose control like that, ever.
He was blitzed. I saw the upper part of his face in the rear view mirror, now and again lit up by oncoming cars. Just a portion of his forehead, the upper part of his nose, his eyebrows. Those fierce, glaring eyes. Penetrating eyes. Hateful eyes.
“Who the FUCK do you think you are, huh?”
I hadn’t expected this, it blindsided me, stunned me. I’d never imagined he'd do something so clearly as hateful as this. I thought he’d just let it go, and say nothing further. But he was just getting started.
“Come on, tell me, who the FUCK do you think you are? Huh?”
I said nothing. Joan’s hand in mine went limp. She, too, was paralyzed by my father’s totally unexpected, slurred outburst.
“You think you’re fuckin’ better than anyone. But I got news for you, you worthless piece of shit. You ain’t. Got that? you ain’t.”
Alex was there in the front seat beside him. Did I expect him to rise to my defense? Would he say, “Hey, Chet, lighten up, he’s got his girlfriend back there.”? No, Alex never contradicted Chester.
Instead Alex turned around and said, “You shouldn’t look down on people, It ain’t right.”
I hated their use of the incorrect, ungrammatical word “ain’t.” It revealed their ignorance, stupidity, lack of respect for language. I hated their lie that how they thought and acted was “normal,” while how cultivated and intelligent people acted—like Fred Astaire, for instance—was somehow wrong or out of place.
Chester and Alex simply didn’t see the absurdity of their world view, their hypocrisy, the illogic of it. And to preserve this ignorance they could only resort to one thing—violence, either physical or verbal. They didn’t have the wits to win an argument, but they had the muscles to beat down anyone they were offended by.
But then wait. Chester didn’t say one goddamned word to that Italian Mafia guy in the shiny suit and the soft voice who told him where he was going to buy his beer from now on, and that there would be a new jukebox coming to the Bo-K Bar, so get rid of this old one. No, Chester just stared at the Italian, and the Italian smiled because he knew Chester didn’t have the balls to do anything but obey, submit, like the sniveling skinny coward that he was.
What in hell had I done to provoke his venomous outburst in the car?
Maybe he didn’t like the way I addressed the waiter, first ordering for Joan after a quiet consultation with her, and then telling him precisely how I wanted my steak, medium rare, just like in the movies. Maybe I was being condescending, and snobbish, like those British aristocrats ordering their servants around, not seeing them as human beings but mere unwashed rabble.
But I don’t think so. What I remember about that evening is being caught up in the idea of Fred Astaire. Such a handsome man, so suave, smooth, enormously talented, but at the same time so kind, and thoughtful, and loving toward Ginger. The total opposite of that asshole in the front seat, glaring at me through the rear view mirror.
We may have looked like movie stars, but it didn’t take long for Chester to revert to his old form. A drunken fucking lout. A know-nothing. A sadistic bully. But who was careful to bully only women, or children. He didn’t have the balls to lay that crap on grown men, because he knew they’d kick his sorry skinny ass all the way to Bowling Green.