You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger.
My father died on a bright Monday morning in mid-August, 2005, at his home in Austintown, Ohio. He was 89.
When I read his obituary on my laptop I felt no emotion whatever, as if it were just a stock market report, or a weather forecast. In the days and weeks that followed, my continued non-reaction seemed peculiar. I thought something must be wrong with me. I ought to be feeling something, one way or another, like regret and sadness, or gratitude and elation. Anything. But I didn’t.
Deep in my psyche I just couldn’t believe he was dead. The obit, after all, might have been put into the Vindicator’s online archive by some genius hacker. So Chester was still alive, and nothing had changed.
Maybe if I had stood at his casket in the funeral parlor and looked down at his white wax face, and had gone to the cemetery to watch his coffin descend into the neat rectangular hole in the ground, I’d believe it. I didn’t get that opportunity, though, because nobody in his extended family felt obligated to invite me. It was entirely by accident that I found out, nearly six months later.
Would I have flown from Italy to America for his funeral? Probably not.
Twenty years earlier I decided I’d been to more than enough of those gloomy, depressing rituals. I began early as an altar boy and served at countless wakes, funerals and burials. Monsignor would put on his fancy vestments, and I’d wear my simple black cassock and white surplice. I’d stand perfectly still with a tall, thick lighted beeswax candle as he read prayers for the dead in Church Latin from a book with a flexible black cover and gilt-edged pages. Often hot wax would flow down and sting my hand, and I’d force myself not to move. The wax would harden on my fingers, like a shell, which I’d peel off afterward.
Schivanoe’s Funeral Home always had the nauseating cloying smell of flowers, and the floor creaked under the heavy dark carpet. One time at an open white silk-lined coffin I stared at a woman’s closed eyes, and at her liver-spotted and dark-veined hands entwined with a black beaded rosary. Suddenly the old woman’s lips moved, and I blinked rapidly and wanted to run. I imagined her sitting up, and telling everyone to get out, go home, you all made a big mistake! But it was just my flickering candle casting dancing shadows.
Out at the cemetery, the old Polish women dressed in black would stand silently at the graveside, and when Monsignor threw dirt on the coffin’s lid that was their cue.
They’d throw their heads back, and scream, and wave their arms violently, and wail in Polish. Oh, Jezus Chrystus! Oh, Jezus Chrystus! One time a widow tried to throw herself into the open grave, but was gently restrained by her brothers.
Chester almost certainly grew to despise funerals himself. As a boy and young adult he experienced a grim succession of deaths, beginning with Casimir, his father, of a painful stomach obstruction. Then his mother, Josephine, died of Addison’s disease. Before that, his older brother, John, died, followed by his older brother, Stanley.
They said that Chester never cried at any of these sad departures, largely because he was highly skilled at bottling things up, and pretending awful things never happened to him. Like when he was showing off on his bike and hit a pothole and fell down and a 1917 Chevy V-8 ran over his leg. After lengthy surgery, he spent months in a cast that drove him crazy with itching, but when it came off he never hesitated to pull up his pants leg to show classmates at Jefferson Jr. High the huge ugly scar between his knee and ankle. Like he was happy he got it.
When Alex, Chester’s favorite and closest brother, got an abscess on his spinal cord and died after a year of paralysis in bed, well, it was just too much for him, he almost couldn’t take it anymore. It was unbearable, and unfair, and if this terrible thing happened to Alex, it just might happen to him.
Poor Alex! He was way too young to die.
At Alex’s funeral mass at St. Casimir’s Aunt Jane frowned when Chester, dreadfully hung over from all the drinking the night before, made a spectacle of himself with his moaning and weeping. He went on and on, sobbing, sniffling, blowing his nose with a wrinkled white handkerchief. Her brother’s childish lack of self-control annoyed and embarrassed her.
At the cemetery, the military honor guard detail from the Polish Legion of American Veterans, consisting of four red faced guys with beer bellies and way-too-tight Army uniforms, couldn’t quite get the flag folded right, and the bugler played taps in a disturbingly fast, jazzy way that was, at least in Chester’s mind, not just a joke but a profound insult. He glared at that goof-ball bugler, and everyone thought he was about to punch the guy out. Again, Jane frowned.
Afterward I heard someone tell Jane, “Hey, what do you expect from the poor guy? He’s been through a lot!”
The numbness that came over me when I read my father’s obit continued for several months. I kept telling myself I didn’t have to think about his death or anything else unpleasant. I’ve got a novel to write, countries to visit, pictures to take, women to make love to. Life is too damned short. And life is for the living. Right?
At the edge of my consciousness, though, I knew I was either in denial, or weak, or lazy, or just afraid. As a young man I acknowledged the truth of Socrates dictum that the unexamined life is not worth living. But taking a cold, hard, objective look at myself always was something I’d do someday, way in the future. Only when—or if—I ever had the time. But not now, damnit, because I have too many other things to do.
Well, time flies. I’m an old man. If I don’t begin the examination now, I never will.
Youngstown, Ohio. 1945. I'm three years old, sitting on a rough woven straw carpet on the front porch, in warm sunlight. Beyond the railing is a trellis covered with blossoms of honeysuckle, jasmine, morning glories and roses with vines of sharp thorns. Superior Street is lined on both sides with buckeyes, elms and maples, and from that dense mass of green leaves comes a loud buzzing. I wonder what’s making that sound. It’s natural and sort of calming and pleasant, but at the same time seems odd, and nobody, not even grandma, seems to notice it. Beside me is our big white, blue-eyed cat. His paws are folded beneath him, and his eyes are narrow slits. In the bright sun I feel content, safe, in a drowsy pleasantness, a perfect beautiful state.
In the window above is a white, red-bordered flag with two blue stars. Grandma says they are for my father, Chester, and his brother, Alex, who are in the Army. They signed up when the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor. Alex is in England. My father is stationed on Oahu, in Hawaii. Grandma says war means fighting Japs and Nazis who want to take over the world. Our boys are there to keep that from happening.
It’s summer so I’m wearing no shirt, socks or shoes, just a flimsy pair of shorts with a fly. When I lean forward it opens, when I lean back it closes. My little cock, I observe, is like the fire hydrant half a block down the street. Same short body with a rounded bulge at its top. The hydrant is also like the spigot in the kitchen sink. When you turn the handle, water rushes out. Like my willy, when I pee.
I think of the picture of a little boy on the paper bag that holds the loaf of bread grandma bought earlier this morning at the store three blocks away. The boy is holding the round loaf against his chest, and he has a knife, and is cutting the loaf…only he is doing it the way one of grandma’s old lady friends said you must never do, which is to slice bread pulling the knife toward you. It’s safer to cut away from you, because if you slip you won’t stab yourself.
I put my hand into the gaping hole of my shorts and idly twirl my cock in a clockwise direction. To my great surprise it gets stiff, something I’d never seen it do before. I stop, and twirl my willy in the opposite direction. It goes down.
Very strange! I try it again. Same thing happens.
Why does it do that?
I have no idea.
Suddenly white cat leaps up, bounds quickly down the porch steps, and disappears around the corner of the house. I think about the day before when I tossed it off the porch, to see if it would land on all fours. That’s what they said cats did, no matter if you turn them upside down. Sure enough, white cat made three perfect landings.
“Janek!” shouts my grandma, invisible behind the dark screen door. “Przestać go! Jest to obrzydliwych!”
Johnny! Stop it! That’s disgusting!
She pushes open the door, bends over, and slaps my hand. Her face is all twisted up. I wonder what makes her so angry.
That’s the word she used yesterday when white cat went behind the Gabler player piano in the dining room and left a pile of smelly shit. When she found it she grabbed a broom and chased white cat all over the house until he fled out the front door. Yes, that pile of shit WAS disgusting.
I can’t connect her angry word with what I am doing now. Twirling that part of my body feels no different from scratching my arm, or tugging my earlobe. I am only three, but that’s precisely what I think: She is simply wrong.
An infantile erection, I learned much later, is not sexual but merely the result of the constriction of blood flowing from the penis, either by a full bladder or other pressure. In my twirling in a clockwise direction, I had likely been pressing the heel of my hand on my lower belly, and then when twirling counter-clockwise, I’d lifted it.
But grandma, being a Roman Catholic, believed in the toxic Augustinian notion of original sin, and interpreted my playful, curious experimentation as masturbation, and therefore dirty, sinful, and above all disgusting.
Why was I immune to grandma’s loud angry condemnation, and was able to stick with my own perceptions rather than hers? Although my mother had abandoned me when I was about a year old, she later told me she’d spent that year loving me, nurturing me at her breast. In her eyes I was lovable and worthy, and that affirmation was imprinted on my psyche.
Earlier or later: I silently creep down the hallway, and peek into the bathroom. Grandma’s sitting on the pot. Her long dark dress is pulled up and bunched around her waist. Her legs are thin, pale white, her knees are bony and her feet are bare. She pulls off about a yard of toilet paper, and meticulously folds it into a perfect square. She looks up, sees me. Her eyes get wide.
“Don’t look at me!” she shouts. “Close the door!”
She always watches me when I sit on the pot, yet she doesn’t want me to watch her. Why? Another curious thing about her is that she yells a lot, she looks so grim and unhappy. Why? She never spanks me or punishes me in any significant way, she just screws her face up into a frown and yells.
Nothing at all to get scared about, though.
In the living room above the couch on the north wall is a big faded sepia photo in a carved wooden white-painted frame. It’s of a man with a big black moustache, and a woman in a parted white veil. Both stare out with blank faces, unsmiling. It’s Grandma Josephine and Grandpa Casimir, after their 1898 wedding in Polish Galacia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. A couple years after the wedding they sailed to America, intending to stay only as long as they saved enough money so they could return home and buy land. They never went back.
Grandma never says anything about the old country, or about her husband Casimir, or about why they never returned to their homeland, or where my mother is, or anything else. Just grim silence.
In the winter she barks orders to the guy in the truck who is using a chute to dump coal into the wood-sided bin below the basement window. She slowly shovels the coal into the big furnace. Coal dust glitters in the slanting sunlight. She’s covered all the registers upstairs with yellow muslin, which billows like sails in the rising heat, and they gradually turn charcoal gray and have to be replaced.
Grandma invites a bunch of women over to play cards. They all talk in Polish, and once in a while they wonder what the English word for something is, and they turn to me for translation, since I can speak both languages quite well for a little kid my age. Johnny. Janek, in Polish. Ya-shoo!, its diminutive.
An old woman, Marta, grandma’s sister, sits in a chair. Hairs stick out of a round brown birthmark on her wrinkled cheek. Her big toes push out of her shoes, and her left toenail is an ugly disgusting ragged pale yellow. Fungus, she says. She’s always shouting curses at kids who play on the street, casting her evil eye at them. An old crone, a witch.
In the basement grandma chases a chicken, catches it. It squaks and furiously flaps its wings, but she has a big knife and with one quick move cuts off its head. Blood spurts as it runs frantically around on the basement floor, still flapping its wings.
She makes a big batch of perogies to go with the roasted bird.
We’re in grandma’s bedroom. I’m watching her folding clothes. Edward R. Murrow is on the radio. His voice is deep, pleasant, even when the news is bad. We hear the front door open. A man shouts, “Hey ma! I’m home!”
She drops the straw basket onto the floor and hurries down the steps. I follow and sit behind the railing of the staircase, gripping the narrow white posts like the bars of a jail cell, and watch a tall thin man in pale brown Army khakis pull out from his olive green duffel bag what looks like a bunch of dried yellow grass, exactly the color of the front porch’s straw carpet. It makes a faint sound like when gusts of wind rustle the branches and leaves of the trees outside.
He eagerly explains to grandma this was what the wahines wear when they dance the hula. He says they do the hula at luaus, where everybody sits on mats and eats poi with their fingers. Poi is a white pasty stuff that doesn't taste very good. But boy, do those Hawaiians know how to play a ukelele! Now it's funny about these wahines in the grass skirts at luaus. When you first arrive on the island they are fat and ugly and disgusting, you know? But—get this—the longer you stay, the better they look.
Ha, ha, ha!
Oh, his dark dancing eyes and his flared nostrils! A triumphant warrior returning from the great Allied victory over the Nazis and the Japs. His pale brown tie is tucked in between the second and third buttons of his shirt. On his sleeves are dark olive stripes with pointed tops. His shoes are shiny brown, with a lot of scuff marks. The heels are worn. He must have done a lot of walking.
The man pulls out two big brown bottles with pale yellow labels that bear the word Seagram’s, with a vivid red number 7 and a crown on its top. Grandma frowns again, and shakes her head. He says that as soon as he is finished unpacking, he will go to celebrate. Yep. At the Polish Legion of American Veterans, on Colonial Drive. There will be drinks all around, on the house. And then there will be dancing at the Avalon Ballroom. Hey, he had a lot of catching up to do, you know? Lots and lots of people to look up.
He hands Grandma a red box, which he opens to show a glass bottle. “It’s perfume!” he says. Then another box that contains chocolates. Neither present seems to make Grandma happy. I wonder what she’ll do with the chocolates. Maybe give me one or two, if I’m a good little boy?
“Don’t you want to see your son?” she says.
He blinks twice. Looks disappointed, or annoyed. “So where is he?”
She turns, sees me gripping the vertical posts. “Janek, come here and say hello to your father!”
“Hey, he’s a wiry little thing, huh?” he says.
“Janek. Come here,” she says again.
I shake my head. No.
“What’s wrong with him?”
“C’mon, get over here,” he says loudly. “I’m your father.”
Father? This man doesn’t look like a priest. Priests wear black cassocks. White collars. I look at the hula skirt on the floor, a mass of entangled yellow fibers. The bottles. The boxes. The intense, dark eyes of that man squatting on the floor, rumaging through the green bag. His skin is deeply tanned. He has a thin moustache. His fingers are long, and bony. His black hair shines, and a lock falls over his forehead.
“Don’t be afraid, Janek,” she says.
“Hey! Did you hear what I said? Get over here, right NOW,” he says.
I run upstairs, crawl under the bed. My breath makes the dust bunnies skitter.
I can hear grandma and my father talking down there. I can’t make out most of the words. But then grandma’s voice rises. “Put all those filthy clothes in the basement,” she says.
“Okay, ma,” he says.
He left, and was gone a long time.
I’m in a strange, dimly lit room, in the middle of the night. Aunt Jane is gently rubbing my back, humming a lulaby. I turn over, and I see an odd look on her face. She’s worried, sad, fearful. I drift off. I think I’m dreaming.
I hear a man say, “The kid isn’t going to make it. He’s dying.” I wonder who is dying. And what does dying mean?
Days or weeks later I’m in one of the second floor bedrooms of the rectory of St. Casimir Church. Monsignor Kasmirski, in his shiny black cassock with the scarlet band around his middle, comes into the room, looks at me, and then goes out again, saying nothing.
I’m in a pleasant dreamy state, hot with fever. From the window comes a bright golden shaft of sunshine, which illuminates the medicine bottle on the end table near my bed.
Earlier Helen, the silent, industrious housekeeper, had poured that thick, glowing, ruby red sweetness into an impossibly big gleaming spoon and told me to open wide. Mmmmm, it was delicious and brought a warm glow in my center, which then spread out to my arms and legs. Very nice, very comfortable. I loved that feeling. I licked the spoon clean, and asked Helen for more. She shook her head, no, not now, maybe later.
I’m looking at that medicine bottle when suddenly there’s a loud POP, and its black bakelite cap flies upward, then falls down to the hardwood floor. It skitters, rolls, and stops. Did I imagine it? No, I saw the cap fly up after the pop. Now it’s on the floor.
A mystery. A puzzle. I hadn’t ever seen anything like that before.
Helen comes in with her broom and dust pan and begins sweeping. She comes across the cap, bends over, picks it up, and rolls it in her fingers. She looks around the room, spots the cap-less medicine bottle. Ah. She replaces the cap and finishes her cleaning.
When I’m better, I’m on the rectory’s small porch facing the St. Casimir school rooms. Helen gives me a thin book with a shiny cover. She says maybe I would like to look at the pictures. There are lots of other children’s books in that box over there in the pantry, take as many as you want.
There are short, simple words in short sentences, only three or four on each page. Colorful drawings of little boys and little girls, surrounded by green grass and trees and lots of flowers. Cute animals like rabbits and squirrels and foxes and cats and dogs. They all know how to talk. The children and animals talk together.
Three billy goats are grazing beside a stream. The grass is good. But they see the grass on the other side is thicker, greener, much more tasty. Uh-oh! A troll captures the first two goats as they try to cross over on a bridge. But they tell the troll they’re too small to eat, but listen: the third goat is much bigger and will be a much more tastier meal! The troll lets them go, and attacks the third goat. But being larger the goat easily butts the troll into the water. A happy ending! All three goats graze to their heart’s content.
Grandma told me an old, old Polish story about a troll in a remote village in Galicia who steals a child, and replaces him with a changeling. You can always tell one because they are much, much different from than all the other children.
"Like you, Yashew!"
More and more books. I like to read them silently, but then I also like to read them aloud because I can pretend there is someone beside me who wants to hear the stories. Helen peeks into the room. I see her staring at me. But I continue reading. She disappears.
Weeks, months later. My father awakens me, wraps me in a blanket. Carries me to the car. It’s dark at night, the snow is blowing, and stings my face. He drives, while on the radio a woman sings:
When they begin the beguine
It brings back the sound of music so tender,
It brings back a night of tropical splendor,
It brings back a memory ever green.
What, I wonder, does beguine mean? I listen to the other words of the song. They may give me a clue. But no, they don’t.
That word beguine annoys me! It’s the very first one I don’t like. Why? Because its meaning hides from me. It’s something the adults know, but won’t tell me. It’s their secret word, among many others.
I am dizzy. Hot. Yet it is freezing in the car. I hear the humming of the heater’s fan, but I don’t feel the warmth there in the back seat, and I shiver violently. I pull the blanket tighter around me. Bright lights blur in the window. The car stops. My father has a strange look on his face. He says he will be right back. Just wait, OK? My sudden fit of coughing annoys him. He slams the door, the car rocks.
I dream about the beguine. It is…what? I don’t know. I drift off.
In the darkness I hear a harsh tapping on the window. I look up. A man. A stranger. Then murmuring voices. Someone opens the door, picks me up, takes me to another car, a warm car.
At the hospital I’m on a hard table under a blinding light, and a man in a white mask puts a rounded thing like grandma’s tea sieve over my nose and mouth, then pours something from a dark brown bottle.
“Count backward from ten, Johnny! Count backward from ten!”
The fumes of ether fill my nasal cavity and floods my brain. A dizzying tingling spreads, and I'm paralyzed. I can no longer count backward, and I don’t care. I disappear into the blackness.
Days later I’m again in the back seat, being jostled as the tires rumble on the rough pavement, and the car turns around a corner. Someone jokes that little Johnny should be happy, really happy now, because when they take out your tonsils, the doctor says you gotta eat a lot of ice cream.
What and where are tonsils and why did they have to take mine out? Ice cream is good, but how can it help heal the place where my tonsils used to be?
Shouting. Angry voices.
“What the fuck is wrong with you, Chet? You were knocking back the shots like there was no tomorrow, while your son almost DIED out there in the fuckin’ parking lot!”
One morning grandma, somewhat recovered from her most recent illness, announced it was time for my first day of school. “You’re going to St. Casimir’s,” she said, “where you stayed for a while when you were sick, remember? Remember?”
I said I didn’t want to go, I wanted to just stay there. She said no, come on, get ready and she dressed me, and took my hand and walked me down Superior Street, then over to Jefferson. I resisted. She got angry, and pulled me along until I walked fast to keep up with her grim, purposeful stride.
The Ursuline Sisters of the Roman Union looked weird in their starched white linen head and breast covers, and black cloth of their hoods and floor-length habits, and the rosaries hanging from their belts that clicked faintly when they walked. One of them, Sister Regina, clapped her hands to get our attention, and ordered us to sit at a big table with lots of brand new stuff on it, like Crayolas, and colored chalk, and jars of paint and brushes, and building blocks and lots and lots of modeling clay.
Ignoring the other children I gathered up the blocks and a large lump of clay and began to make a replica of a cinderblock wall. I pushed down on the blocks and the clay oozed out. I used a popsicle stick to carve away the excess so that the wall looked just right.
I called Sister Regina over to see what I’d done, fully expecting her to remark what a clever little boy I was, but when she saw it she freaked out. “Oh, you bad, bad, BAD boy! Look what you’ve done! You’ve stained and ruined those pretty new blocks!”
Days pass. Months. The nuns make us rehearse for the Polish Garden Festival, to be held in the auditorium in the church’s basement. The big day comes. Onstage I hold a large piece of cardboard cut into the shape of a carrot. It’s painted orange, with a sprout of green leaves at the top. There’s a hole for my face. The other kids are cabbage, celery, tomato, potato, and so on. Mr. John Lipinski of the Lipinski Polka Band plays the accordion. We all sing. I step toward the bright stage lights. I see the people sitting out there, their eyes on me. I remember my line:
“W tym ogród jestem carot!”
In this garden,I am a carot!
Applause. Smiles and laughter all around.
Sister Regina and the other nuns knew about me from the time that I was sick and in the care of Monsignor and his housekeeper Helen at the parish house. A couple of times after I got well I walked down to the convent, and they’d invite me in. The floors were wax-polished wood, and there always was a sweet lemon and incense scent. A silent, mysterious and lonely place. I wondered what they looked like underneath those starched white breastplates, and headpieces, and black cloth dresses that went right to the floor. Was their hair long, or short, or were they bald?
Sister Regina warmed to me. I became her favorite because, as she told me many times, I was by far the brightest, most intelligent little boy in the whole school. I’d say things that astonished her. Like when she talked about how the moon passing over the sun caused an eclipse. I raised my hand, and said that you could see an eclipse any time you wanted. How so? she asked. Just take a half dollar and hold it up and squint your eyes, and cover the sun with it. Almost like the real thing.
My god! How did he come up with that?
I enjoyed raising my hand, correctly answering questions. No one doubted I was the smartest kid in that class, in the entire shool. The nuns loved me. The other kids did not.