Rattle or Thud

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If my brain was a room it’d be a real shit hole. Sparsely furnished, paint peeling, half empty journals scattered in piles, each one marked “Work in Progress,” and huddled in every corner and sopped across the floor are black patches of dead static. There’s static in my brain. Everywhere. Thick as oil and are almost invisible until you’re slipping on them, and they smell like, well, nothing. I try to avoid them as much as possible, tip-toeing around where i believe them to be, but sometimes i step in one and they flair up, coat over me from foot to throat, engulfing me, and then i’m lost in the emptiness.
Sometimes it’s my own doing. Sometimes i fall in them when i drink too heavily, sometimes i accidentally snort them back with oxycotin or xanax, or whatever i can get my hands on, sometimes they pierce my skin when I’m sitting in the tattoo chair or I accidentally grab a bottle filled with the stuff when i’m showering after a nice jog. And then i’m in them, inside these little puddles of memory where things just start, then stop, then pick back up seconds, minutes, sometimes even hours later. The time between, these missing scenes: a complete wipe of snowy static.

But sometimes these patches really sneak up on me, they wait and wait and then just spring up. I’m just taking a walk and then all of a sudden i’m three hours from home and my feet have blisters and i’m shivering with fear, or i’m stocking a shelf one moment and the next i’m sitting on the shitter, panties around the ankles – out of habit, trying to regain my composure (in through the nose, breathe, out through the mouth, blow). But these ones aren’t a complete wash of nothing. They look empty, nothing but snowy static and a dead crackling sound, but these ones come with a prize and it’s a good one. My mind, coming back from the break-in-frame, is latched onto something from the past, or rather something from the past, something buried down in my childhood, has latched onto me, and when i surface it’s like pulling a cork. The little puddle leaks and overflows into a pool of static that seeps through the front of my skull. When i’m just sitting, reading, thinking – or even when i’m fucking myself; out it goes – pop – and then it comes, baring gifts.

The director yells action!, the scene beings, and then the screen gets scrambled. Here and there the tracking bar pops up on the bottom, trying to de-scramble the mess, but i don’t want it to. There isn’t anything i want to see. The scene comes back in, only briefly, and each frame is a streak of white hot pain that flies past me with a horrible whooosh!

And then i’m thinking of playing catch.

I’ve only played catch with my father three times in my entire life, four if we’re counting the one time he tried to pass me a football.

I’m not looking for sympathy by saying that. Sympathy isn’t what i go for, it’s not my bag. I’m well aware and even know some people who have had it worse, don’t get me wrong. Some people were raped or molested or beaten within an inch of their life, or even just plain-old abandoned, by there father. I’m not saying i had it worse than those folks, i’m not trying to tug heart strings, i’m just saying.

The first time i played catch with my father is a bit on the ethereal side of my memory, buried down in that primordial mist that makes up the knowing glimmer in a child’s eyes. Somewhere in that almost pre-memory place where the secrets of the universe are still being filtered out by bad parenting, crummy television, and sexual repression. Whispers of god muted by a life time of life. But If you really had to press me, i’d have to guess i would have probably been somewhere between the ages of four and five. That time was good. I don’t remember the details, which is probably why it was good. There weren’t any lessons or learning that i remember, hell, i don’t even remember the rest of the day, or the week, or even the month, though i’m assuming it was anywhere between late spring and early autumn. I just remember that it was good, and as i remember it, it feels good.

Now the second time i played catch with my dad i remember pretty well, though i can’t exactly remember how i felt. Remembering things deep down in those puddles isn’t as cut and dry as pressing play, it’s more of a third person account as the event is reenacted for you. The stage is set, the stand-in actors take their places, and you just watch them go. And the actors aren’t very good, mind you; they’re nervous and they’ve forgotten their lines, and the director, my brain, now with years of separation from the actual events, can’t remember the subtle emotional nuances and has to fill in the blanks, but it isn’t the same. So i really only know how i feel about the memory.

It was spring, i was thirteen. I had my first set of adult hair starting to sprout, above and below, a cracking voice, and a lumpy, malformed body. I wasn’t very athletic, and by “not very” i mean that after homework was ignored and i had finished masturbating for the third or fourth time that day, the only thing i really did was play video games. So, to amend my previous self-kindness, i was a pathetic, un-athletic, fatty. I was only good at video games, which meant nothing to my father or anyone else, really – though, as my mother had pointed out over dinner one evening years from this game ‘o catch, my father had overlooked the fact that before i ever played video games my hand-eye coordination was astoundingly poor. It was so astoundingly poor that my mother thought something was wrong with me (i’m not sure what her fear was at the time, she had a lot of them, fears, for a lot of valid reasons, but i think it was along the lines of me being mentally handicapped, which would have fit my father’s expectations).

But besides all that, it was spring and on a weekend, which meant that mom was either sleeping or working, so it was just me and my dad and my little sister – though she barely played a roll in my father’s life until he lost her in my parents’ divorce. If it was a Saturday, that meant chores; but if it was Sunday that meant after church we’d probably visit Grandma’s house, which is completely the opposite of what you would believe a visit to Grandma’s house would be like.

Think about your grandmother, how sweet she was, how much she truly cared about you and smiled at you (with fake gleaming teeth, or her own in some cases). Does that bring some warmth, warmth that you thought faded after they passed, only to then realize that the embers of her love were and are always there, keeping you from freezing. Imagine the opposite of that. The exact opposite. I know this if off-the-point, but this is another one of those clingers pulled up from the static pool.

So anyway, my sister and I finished our chores, I’m pretty damn sure it was a Saturday. Rake the yard or wash the dishes or some shit with a punch-in time at ass-crack and ending when dear old Dad decides i don’t know how to do anything right, which, to be fair, to him, i didn’t. I didn’t know how to mow the grass, “you have to cut it in strait lines” – thwat; I didn’t know how to sweep a floor, “a regular shop sweet, aren’t ya? Give me that” – thwap; I didn’t know how to sand a wooden door, “who’s the monkey that taught you ha’ta sand?” – thwot; I could go on, everything from riding a bike to tying my shoes. And mind you, he wasn’t out right slapping me either, i wasn’t beaten, not then. They were just little ones, and sometimes, instead of little taps of fatherly encouragement, he tugged my ear or pinched me hard enough to leave bruises on my under arms (i think he pinched me there because he knew no one would really see it), but i think you get the picture.

After my father had watched me do everything wrong all day, after he had ridden my ass, humiliated me, threw in a couple of cheap shots eluding to my sexual orientation here and there, he decides he hasn’t been disappointed enough in his son, his only son, his only dumb-as-fat-as-gay-as-fuck begotten son. Time for a game of catch.

But that part is a bit fuzzy, the clinging memories in that static pool aren’t exactly whole. Think “snaking a drain” and their consistency will be pretty much comparable. I don’t really know if he wanted to play catch just to get a feel on how much i’ve failed him as a son (because he had done the absolute best he possibly could have done, right?), or maybe, after witnessing me fuck up at the most rudimentary of manly tasks, he thought that his fat-as-dumb-as-gay-as-fuck son needed some fatherly bonding. I really don’t remember the motivation behind it, so maybe the old man get’s a pass here. Innocent until proven guilty, right?

The memory fuzz clears and we’re standing in the back yard across from each other. My dad is almost to the other half of the yard and i’m standing by the giant, near fantasy fiction sized tree in the middle of the yard (the kind of tree every kid wanted to climb, except me – the part from Full Metal Jacket where Hartman is yelling at private Pyle strikes about as home as home could be – Do you mean to tell me that you cannot do one single pull-up!). Under our feet was the unevenly cut grass and its unraked clippings. In our hands were stiff catching mitts. The mitts weren’t stiff because they were new, they were the same ones we had used the first time we played catch – the, at the time, only other time we played catch. They were stiff because they weren’t used, they were dusty (which may be an over exaggeration) and smelled ancient (which is pretty dead on).

Even with all the nagging and bitching and humiliation i had been made to endure, there was a spark of happiness with my hand in that stiff glove. I suppose the memories of that first game, which was a lot more recent then than it is now, had probably a bit more shining good bits floating around to lull me into a false sense of security.

You know how the scene is supposed to go, even if you didn’t have the type of dad, or the dad-type, that played catch with you. You’ve seen it in movies or citcoms starred by stand-up comedians turned actors, where the duo of a loin and its fruit are truly bonding. The sun is always warm and the breeze is always cool, all around is the smell of cut grass and the calm hiss of wind through the trees. The Dad throws the ball to the son, the son catches it, the son throws the ball to dad, dad catches it; in between each action there is a subtle display of affection, respect, love; here and there they might talk, nothing big at first, but soon lessons will be learned and barriers are broken and gentle music leads us to the credits. That wasn’t my second game of catch.

Dad throws the ball, son misses the ball, fat-as-fuck son retrieves the ball, fat-as-dumb-as-fuck son throws the ball way too far to the right and dad doesn’t catch the ball, dad retrieves the ball, dad throws the ball, fat-as-dumb-as-gay-as-fuck son misses the catch again – i threw it right at your stinking glove, dang it. Lather, rinse, repeat, only we’re using more and more grit with each pass, and you better keep your fucking eyes open. Barriers are being built, grudges brewed, discomfort, animosity, disappointment; and all because this little shit, this little gay-as-fat-as-dumb-as-fuck pansy can’t even catch/throw a ball.

Who taught you how to play catch?

That would be the one. My high pressure indicator for dear old Dad’s bullshit. Even then, at thirteen, still respecting my father (for things he could destroy rather than the things he helped make); that cheap line had been my inner boiling point. Whether tying my shoe Rabbit Ear style and receiving a thwap! on the nape of my neck or not being able to draw a circle on the first go and getting a nip on the arm by the meaty fingers of a steel worker; when he used the line “Who taught you how to -insert function here-” a piece of me, the piece that survived to write this, the piece that would spend his adult life trying to avoid these memories, would say “Obviously not you.”

Not out loud though, are you fucking stupid?

I was already worried about pinch-bruises and hair tugs from fucking up, lord knows what a rebellious vocalization would cost me? (A beating, that’s what it got me. Years later, far from this second game of catch, i found out that open rebellious vocalizations got me a beating.)

But, we’re talking about catch. So during this second game, my father was throwing the balls harder and faster with each pass, his teeth were gritting and his voice was curling into growls just under the hearing of the neighbors (the ones on the right of us were in their eighties and couldn’t hear a damn thing except for rap music blasting from passing cars, and the other neighbor was deaf, literally, but could probably also hear rap music from passing cars), while i was dodging and ducking, running to retrieve the ones i missed to catch and the ones i threw off course; i started to think that maybe the game of catch was actually bullshit. But that’s not the worst of it. While i didn’t get a beating for my shitty performance, though he did say that maybe he had four daughters instead of three daughters and a son, which stung a bit, he did do something worse. He signed me up for a baseball league. Which he rarely attended. Which, when he did attended, turned into a review of masculinity, giving him a free pass to attack every single one of my weaker attributes, every one of my failures, every goddamn one of my calamities – crimeny, who taught you how to swing?

And that leads us to the third time the old man and i played catch. The third and last time.

It was a couple of years into my Local Something or Other Little Junior or Whatever Baseball League career; i was batting a cool .070, had tits, stretch marks, and a gap between my teeth. I had asthma (which, after going to my own doctor as an adult, i found out were actually panic attacks), i was abnormally large, and i was probably, in my father’s eyes, one missed catch or strike-out away from becoming the biggest queen in all of Parma, Ohio, which to him was already absolutely teaming with queers.

Obviously he had to do something, because “who taught this faggot how to play catch?”

And that’s what stung the most. Not so much the faggot part, he didn’t make a routine of outright calling me a faggot, he did say a lot of “that’s how fags do it” whenever in did something, in his book, gay; that shit you get over. No, the part that hurt was the “who taught you” bullshit.

Obviously not you!

This third time we played catch sticks in the memory like barb fishing hook. It’s there, stuck and hooked onto something important or vital, something like sanity or speech functions, so you can’t just rip the fucker out; but damn, even brushing past it hurts. I don’t want it in there, but only way to get out a barb is to push it all the way through or to cut it out, and there’s only so many magic medications and Houdini Horseshit therapy sessions you can stomach before you wonder if your dad was right about the fag-shit all along.

At this point my dad is silver haired. He had given up on his salt and pepper goatee, which was mostly salt by that time anyway, and shaved his gray face smooth in a subconscious attempt to trick death. He was growing a bit of a I’m-Forty-so-fuck-it haunch above his belt line, though you wouldn’t have guessed it by the way he spoke about my physical condition. My tits are massive, my shave job is shoddy (who taught you how to shave wasn’t used as much, here he preferred “What, did you shave with a broken bottle?”), my hair beginning to thin, my toenails ingrown, and my face greasier than a dog’s asshole. At nearly six foot, i was a fourteen year old fat-as-dumb-as-gay-as-fuck ghoul and the only thing that was going to fix me was a little father-son bonding over a game of catch. But this wasn’t a game of catch, not to him, this wasn’t a bonding moment. He had watched me, week after week, fail him time and time again at every baseball game. No, this wasn’t a fucking game at all, this was a goddamn punishment, it was the punishment. And i could see, even then, that he wanted it to be a humiliating punishment, not an ass-paddle or slap to the ear, this was a complex punishment made from a spring loaded trap that would just snag and tear and rip and strangle over and over and fucking over again.

The day was hot, the chores weren’t too heavy, and he was in a suspiciously good mood. He asked me if i wanted to go to the park with him, which generally meant that he was telling me that i had to go to the park with him because i’m fat, but offered me the chance to encourage his wrath, so i agreed. He never mentioned catch.

I don’t remember what day of the week it was exactly, but i know it was the weekend, either a Saturday or Sunday, but i do remember… things. When we got into the car he plopped the mitts down on my lap so hard my balls slapped together. Instead of going to the park for a walk, he drove us to a small baseball diamond behind one of the water treatment facilities (i don’t think they cleaned shit out of the water there, or at least it didn’t smell like it), just him and i. He didn’t speak much, which, while uncomfortable, was fine; by then my nerves were tied and tangled in knots tighter than my Rabbit Ear shoelaces. Even the idea of uttering a word had me on the verge of an “Asthma attack.” When we got to the diamond he stood at the pitcher’s mound and i took my place as the catcher, and we played his little trapped game of catch.

If my father could have gathered an audience for this excellent display in parenting, he would have, all the theatrics were in place; though that would be something he’d have never done unless none of the audience members knew that he was my father, and, from his point of view, could you blame him?

The game started easy enough, back and forth, a miss here and there but – keep trying, son. Another miss, Keep your head up; another attempt, throw from your shoulder; i’d try again, turn your body, no the other way; another failure, why are you standing like that; miss, throw it to me TO ME, not over there; nadda, I’m not out in the field, dang it; until he started – you go get the ball this time, if you throw it you pick it up – to get frustrated; who taught you how to throw; damnit, stop throwing like such a fag.

The crowd would be watching, hands on cheeks and “oohing” each time he would throw the ball at me, harder and harder. The ball, which felt like it was made of iron, would skip out of my glove and graze my face, ping my shin, hit my stomach, and, if i happened to catch it, sting my hand over and over until it was throbbing. If i threw the ball at his feet he’d make me run up to him and pick it up, which had my stomach tumbling and my knees quivering as i did. Just the thought that he could have easily pounded down on the back of my skull with his fist or kicked me in the face was enough to make me dizzy. When i did hand the ball over he would turn, throw the ball off into the field, and then tell me to go get it as fast as i could, counting the seconds as my flabby body jogged and wheezed. A game of catch turned into a game of fetch.
The crowd would be roaring with laughter by now. Roman legionaries would be clapping for my execution, Caesar him-fucking-self would have peeled out of the grave, nodded his approval, and given my father the big thumbs down signal for him to finish me off; but my father was a show-boater. Acts one and two were just a tease, a taste of what was to come – the main event is just on its way.

This is where it gets fuzzy again, and i think the actual term is called disassociation. It’s like a type of mental state where your brain, probably out of pure shock, disconnects you from reality. Your in a situation or a place and then next thing you know you’re in another, miles or hours away with no recollection of what had happened. I had a doctor describe it to me years later when, after a series of stressful situations, i would complain to him about, what i called, Non-Alcohol Induced Blackouts.
When the static of my memory clears I’m now standing with my hands against the fence of the ball diamond. I still have my catcher’s mitt on one hand and the fingers on my right hand are almost interwoven in the chain-link fence. Here and there i hear a whooshing noise that either ends with a rattle or a dull thud. When i feel the chain-link fence rattle, i relax, pick up the ball, and try to throw it back to him. If he catches it, he tosses it back to me. If i miss, he tells me to get it. I run – because boy, you better run – and i hand the ball to him, then i run back to the fence and put my hands against it again. The fingers of my right hand become interwoven once more, my left hand is so sweaty it’s almost sliding out of my glove. My knees are nearly buckling and i can feel my balls shrivel up into my stomach. Then i wait for the whoosh, i pray for the rattle, i brace for the thud.

Rattle or thud, rattle or thud, rattle or – whoosh!

Thud!

My knees actually buckle, my hat falls off as i cock my head back and try to cry out with out actually crying, because – don’t you cry or i’ll give you something to cry about.

“Throw it back, com’on.” Right away, no breathers.

I scoop the ball off the dusty field, make sure i’m standing exactly how he has directed me, and i take aim. “Come on,” he’s yelling while pounding his gorilla sized fist into his glove, and i imagine that he imagines the glove is my face, “right here, right in the glove.” I try to breath but the air has turned in syrup and my chest feels like its starting to cave in under the weight of my tits.

“What are you waiting -” he starts just as i throw, startling me. My arm cocks funny, the ball soars over his head.

“What was that,” his growling voice scrapes up an octave. “Dang it, you aren’t even trying.”

I start running and my feet are booted with cinder blocks. When i jog past him i try to avoid eye contact, but i can feel his dark eyes set back in his red face glaring at me. There’s parts of me that flinch and wince like a beaten dog, or a monkey trying to sneak past a sleeping tiger.

I make it to the field, jog back, and he snatches the ball away.

“Give me that,” his finger nails scratch my arm.

I jog back over to the fence and resume the position. Fingers weave, head down, asshole puckered; and that mother fucker wants to stretch it out. That’s what makes it so fucked up. He had been able to mark up the other snaps and snips and slaps and cracks as a momentary lapse in judgment caused by my inefficiencies, a type of disassociation of his own where he wasn’t exactly accountable for the atrocities he committed. But this waiting shit, this waiting for the whoosh! was a cold premeditate and calculation.

One Mississippi, rattle or thud, two Mississippi, rattle or thud, three Missis – whoosh!

Thud!

There’s a dead pause and then the crowd groans. The air that should have been in my lungs tries to escape and i whimper. Black burns of pain edge my vision, a rattle of pain crawls down my shoulder – my right shoulder – and my fingers twist as my legs give out.

“Throw it back,” he’s already shouting as a groan in a breath. My lungs are burning, my chest has now collapsed under my flabby breasts.

I pick up the ball, and try to aim at my father’s glove, only the black burns of pain are still there and welling tears in my eyes make a kaleidoscope of three or four red faced fathers pounding their fist into the tired old catcher’s mitt. I heave the ball, it whooshes over his shoulder.

“Go get it,” now now Now NOW NOW!

I run, get the ball, run back, hand it to him, run back to the fence, and wait for the whoosh.

The crowd is at the edge of their seats, all fifty thousand of them. Some are frozen, popcorn half-way between the tub and their mouth, a woman clenches her husbands arm, a kid is covering his eyes, even the goddamn concession stand workers and bleacher vendors are silent as death’s footfalls. Then there’s a small chant far off in the corner: “rattle or thud.”

My father stands in the center, arms open wide as the chant grows.

rattle or thud

Rattle or Thud

RATTLE OR THUD

WHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOSH

And then the show’s over.

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