“Hell is truth seen too late.”
Christmas Day I found no package by the tree shaped anything like a guitar or even like a box for a guitar. And when my two brothers and I tore the wrappings off our identically shaped presents, we found we had each received identical gifts—cameras, Minolta XD5 35mm cameras, brand spanking new Minolta XD5 35mm cameras.
As I opened my gift, my mother and father gazed down with their phony expressions of holiday care and then, as I saw what they’d done, as the realization of their betrayal commenced its final assault and my face collapsed with bewilderment and pain, my mother and father’s faces transformed from phony care to phony indignity, the only gambit, I saw, as well, they could entertain, being the only gambit that might succeed.
I, their phony faces said, was the ingrate to beat all ingrates.
I, their phony faces said, was the traitor, I, the maker of schisms and grief.
My one response, their phonily indignant faces said, should’ve been—and was a crime to be other—gratitude and glee.
I had devoted the last of my atoms to willing the appearance in my hands of the guitar I’d found in a pawn shop in downtown Y—a ’68 Fender Mustang with that sweet nitrocellulose finish of daphne blue, for just a hundred-and-twenty bucks. I had longed for that guitar, I’d prayed for that guitar, I’d laid in bed at night whispering to myself, Please please please just get me that guitar, and I’ll be your slave forever.
But when by the Christmas tree that morning I opened their package and saw what my mother and father had tried to foist on me—a thing I had no interest in and hadn’t once expressed the slightest interest in—the tiny ember in my heart, what remained of the fire of hope that had once been my dream, vanished in a wisp, and I was sucked into the void.
Knowing that our real life never embodied anything remotely approaching harmony, my mother, and, as my mother’s accomplice, my father, too, became obsessed with creating the fictionalized images of our life—photographs, in other words—by which they could say otherwise. Once the photograph existed, my mother and father could rest in the fantasy that it reflected a wholesome truth.
We have always been happy. Look, here’s the picture to prove it.
And this, I came to see, was the critical part to the subterranean logic by which my mother and father gave me a brand new camera. Rather than destroy me by refusing to give me a guitar and thus destroy my dream to rock, consciously or no, my mother and father believed that by giving me a camera they could win me over, first, to the same twisted ways by which they transformed lies into truth and, second, to the same historical interpretations.
With “my” camera in hand, under the same false logic by which my mother and father over the years had striven to rid our family’s history of its stink, my dream would’ve been crushed not by some gargantuan blow but by a quiet slipping into the mists, there to don the raggedy costume my mother and father had been trying to make me believe my version of my life had only ever worn. Preoccupied with my own new camera, I’d function as a conscript in the services of my mother and father, forging with the same mindless earnestness the halcyon days we could all look back on so fondly in the years to come.
Over the years, made as I was time and again by my mother and father to assume this or that configuration of poses and expressions in this or that place, each of which contradicted in every way the true grimy nature of our saga, I grew not increasingly malleable, but hostile, first to being photographed and, second, naturally, to cameras themselves.
I couldn’t see a camera as good for anything but service to fantasy, nostalgia, time and stasis and death.
Pictures of lies, pictures of death? I wanted life, ferocious and howling.
You dare give me shit? I’ll turn it to a storm!
You give me death? I’ll make death dance!
My business was glory and wrack.
I would have alchemy, I’d have magic, I’d have mutiny, eternal as untiring.
There—ha! ha!—ran the maverick’s way, where angels feared to tread, down onion honey roads, through hymnals of mud, to the place where things made to break and built to spill break and spill that sorrow become joy and tears glee.
All of this poured through me as there by the tree that Christmas morning, 1981, the world began to shudder.
I couldn’t speak any more than think, I’d been rendered stupid and inert.
A long time passed before I saw I hadn’t breathed. I may as well have been drowning, I was drowning in my rage. And then somehow my rage thinned for the second I needed to see that if only I took a breath, all would be well, the world would be well, my mind would be restored, reason would return, the universe would show me what to do.
I took a breath.
I took another breath, then, and another and another, until I understood: I was on my own now, and now that was so, I had no obligation to anyone, much less to my mother and father, I could do as I pleased anytime I liked, yes—I could simply leave the room.
And then like a boss yet another insight cut me, a devastating truth: without exception, every single thing I’d understood before had been a lie. I hadn’t been defeated but sanctioned.
With a gambit intended to crush me, my mother and father had given me instead what, beyond their love, I had craved more than anything else. However indirectly, for all intents and purposes, my mother and father had handed me the means to buy my treasured electric guitar.
The brand new Minolta XD5 35mm camera my mother and father had just given me was good as money itself, if not more valuable than the guitar, then at least valuable enough to warrant an even trade.
This camera was mine!
I could do what I wanted with this camera!
I could shoot this camera into space, I could smash this camera in a vise, I could lose this camera in a cave, I could hawk it for drugs, I could grant it to the kids of Thalidomide, anything, anything, if that was what I wanted.
But naturally I wouldn’t hawk my new camera for drugs or shoot it into space or grant it to the kids of Thalidomide. I was going to take my new camera to the pawnshop with my friend Tommy Dallen and trade it for my cherished guitar.
Meanwhile, I needed simply to walk away from my mother and father and brothers with my new camera and go to my room in silence. My mother and father had wanted to silence me with their gambit, and they had. But the silence they had bargained for wasn’t the silence I’d give them, because the silence I’d give them had everything to do with me and nothing to do with them.
My mother and father would be the object of my silence, now. I would be silent because I would choose not to speak, no matter what my mother and father said or did. I would be silent because I could be silent, and, more, because I wanted to be silent, because being silent was my desire.
With my brand new Minolta XD5 35mm camera, I smiled at my mother and father and walked away.
My mother and father’s smiles had disappeared.
My mother and father’s smiles had vanished in defeat, I knew, and in agony and despair.
The sound of my mother’s choked gasp and my father’s demand to explain, which I ignored, confirmed this. I didn’t look back, but walked to my room and locked the door.
A moment later my father barked my name and pounded down the hall to wrestle with my doorknob as he ordered me to open up, but I stayed on the side of my bed, smiling at my new camera, which I’d shortly trade for my guitar.
“Thanks for the camera,” I said to my father through the door. “The man at the pawn shop will be glad to see it when I trade it for my guitar.”
“Goddamn it, Pat,” my father howled, “you open this goddamned door! So help me, you’d better open this door right goddamned now!”
I stayed put till my father tired and returned to the family, then waited for my mother to take my father’s place, though she never did.
Soon my brothers’ voices joined my mother and father’s.
Questions were asked, conjectures made.
The holiday had resumed its face of normalcy.
I crept down the hall to the phone in my mother and father’s room and called Tommy Dallen, then sat back to wait for him to scoop me up in his family’s shiny car. A few hours later, after my mother and father had taken their turns hollering through my door, I headed out.
In the guest room at the bottom of Tommy Dallen’s house in the hills of Y, by the great Y temple, I smoked my weed and guzzled my booze and watched MTV while struggling on my guitar to make my blistered fingers mold another chord.
I didn’t change my clothes for a week, not even my skivvies or socks. And whatever Tommy Dallen’s grandparents kept—pieces of steak from their nightly meals out, Banquet TV dinners, bologna and crackers and cheese, Otter Pops, Oreos, Cheerios, and Fritos, Pop Tarts and assorted candy from Brach’s—that was what I ate.
I didn’t give a fat rat’s ass. I gave heart.
I’d left my mother and father’s with the clothes on my back, and, eight days later, like I’d said, I returned with my boss guitar. It was another year, now, a portal to fresh confusion, New Year’s Day, 1982.
My father had warned there’d be hell to pay if I traded the camera for my guitar, and, no doubt, there was hell to pay. My father hollered in my face, demanding to know what I’d done with “their” camera, to which with great relish I replied as a hundred times I’d dreamed I would:
“I did what I said I’d do.”
My mother and father’s faces were black with envy and hatred, and that for me was grand, but past all else their faces were stupid with loss.
I had the power, now, and my mother and father knew it.
I’d taken the sword they’d put to my throat and turned it to their own, and I hadn’t stalled a beat.
Before they could so much as mutter, I sneered at my mother and father with my whole soul, and stepped into my room as I had on Christmas day.
That afternoon, when I emerged, my father was waiting.
“You,” he said, his face in my mine, “are going straight down to wherever it is you pawned our camera and get it back. I don’t care if you have to buy it back with your own money, you’re going to get that camera. But before you do,” he said, “you’re going to act like the rest of the members of this family. When we speak to you, you goddamned well better answer. Is that clear, Son?”
I looked into my father’s face, saying nothing, wanting nothing but to smash my father’s face as I’d smashed so many others, as my father had twice smashed my own face, and yet I feared this, knowing that to do it would be to commit the taboo of all taboos.
You do not hit your father—no matter what, you must never strike your father.
The world at the periphery of my vision had collapsed into stasis while at the end of the pinhole through which I now saw, worse than in the worst caricature of a nightmare, my father’s jaundiced eye pulsed in ultra slow-mo, grown so huge I couldn’t see its ends.
I knew I couldn’t look away. The instant I looked away, I knew, my father would win.
I stared into my father’s eye, mustering for him the totality of my hatred. I wanted my father to know that while I might fear him then, soon enough my fear would cave before my hatred and my wrath, and my father would rue his days of abuse through cowardice and neglect, the whole disgusting lot of it hatched of the terror from which he’d never had the balls to pull himself free.
My father’s power was on the wane.
This I also knew. And as I knew this, I knew that despite his show of Fatherly Authority, my father now feared me as much or more than I feared him.
My father knew I’d seen him years before, at the dump, or the parking lot before the lumberyard or hardware store, shaking in the clutches of the angry man.
My father knew I knew that outside the blow he’d delivered to his younger brother, long ago in boyhood—for which my father paid with the loss of his pride when his brother pinned him to the ground and spattered my father’s face with blood—my father had never struck a soul but me.
And just as my father knew I knew this, my father also knew I knew he knew that I’d fought, and many times and in many states, against boys much larger than I, and that I had fought and won.
My father’s well had near run dry. This, too, my father knew I knew, and well.
Nothing else could account for the desperation of his effort to preserve his power. At all costs, my father knew, he had to hold his sway.
I stared into my father’s eye, hideous, wavering how to answer. Then, before I could steel myself further, that old sharp pain blossomed in my chest. My father, clinging to the last of his dirty tricks, had made that dowel of his two locked fingers and begun to jab my chest.
“Is that clear?” my father said.
“Yes,” I said, cursing myself for a coward as the word slipped out.
“For your inconsideration. For your ingratitude. For your selfishness and rudeness.”
“You’re crazy,” I said.
“If you want to stay in this house, you’re going to apologize.”
“You’re crazy,” I said.
“Take some time to think it over—in your room. Meanwhile, the rest of the house is off limits. And no food, either. Comprendo?”
A couple hours later, when I came out for a snack, my mother was washing dishes.
“You heard your father,” she said.
I ignored my mother and reached into the fridge for some jam and a loaf of bread, but my mother slammed the door on my arm.
“You hateful little brat,” she said. “Get back in your room.”
My arm bright with pain and my mother’s breath in my head rotten with hatred and pain, I was jolted into the sort of super clarity I’d known maybe twice before, in which I saw with simultaneous relief and shame that I was acting so the fool, censoring myself as though there’d been something left to save, as though somehow what I said or did to my mother and father mattered, despite the falsity of that claim, since, really, not a stitch of it was true, not a stitch was left to save. Nothing I did to my mother and father or even to anyone else any longer mattered, whatever happened to me no longer mattered, either, it was so easy, and so clear, I was done, that was all, I had had my last—that—was—all.
“Fuck you, you fucking bitch,” I said.
I’d called my mother a bitch that day in the mountains a few years back, for which my father punched my face with his giant fist, but I’d never said something like this.
It felt good.
It felt so good, I said it again.
Already my mother’s face had impossibly contracted, a marvel I’d witnessed more than should’ve been legal to say, already my mother’s face had wound into the face of a goblin, and yet to my disbelief it began to contract still more, a process that might never end, my mother’s face might shrink into itself until at last, with nothing left to twist, it would implode with hatred and pain. All that my mother was—all her misery, all her woe, all her years of abuse and neglect and sadness and rage—had shriveled into the ugliest brightest crimson knot with the tiniest stone-dead eyes.
“You horrible, horrible monster!” she said, and struck at my face.
I’d suffered this act, too, more times than should’ve been legal to admit. With my forearm I absorbed the blow and swept it away.
“Don’t you put your hands up!” my mother shrieked, as if this were reasonable, though when she struck at me again, I did the same.
“Go fuck yourself,” I said, relishing the words, and the feel of the words in my mouth, and the sound of the words in the room.
My mother gasped. A genie may as well have roared from a lamp to blight her. My mother was a cartoon creature, I realized. I was a cartoon creature, and this was a cartoon we were tripping through, frame by absurd frame.
I laughed, then, the worst sort of laugh, something like a snicker, but revoltingly worse.
This, too, was new to my mother.
She’d been dropped into a strange new reality with strange new laws.
The world had changed. No one had told her. She knew only to do the thing she did when I defied her.
On the counter stood the jar my mother kept full of wooden spoons, more for beating me, I’d always believed, than for cooking.
She whirled round to snatch one up, but when she turned back with her spoon raised high, I took her wrist and leaned into her face the way my father had leaned into mine not two hours back.
“How dare you!” my mother said. “How dare you! You let me go, right now!”
“I’ll let you go. But I’m telling you. If you ever touch me again, I’ll kill you.”
“And you know I will,” I said, and released my mother. “I will fucking kill you dead.”
My mother trembled heel to skull, her mouth, from which had slipped a throttled gasp, hung open, the menace in her eyes fell black.
I watched her thinking, pondering her guilt across the years, the crimes repeatedly remorselessly done, weighing them against my threat, seeing at every turn that outside a court of law I’d be right to cut her down any way I pleased. Then the genie took her once more, and she ran off shrieking for my father.
At any moment, I knew, my father would come down.
I didn’t care, not anymore. I’d never again let him touch me absent pay. What happened to me no longer mattered, I knew, I had no stitches left to save, I knew, my thoughts, my words, my acts changed nothing, I knew, nor did anything else, it was easy, yes, and so clear, I’d had my last—that was all—I was done—that was all—yes, I was done—that was all, and all.
And then, as from hidden strings, my father appeared, and, like I’d known, it was on.
“Who the fuck do you think you are?” he said.
My father had balled his fists to punch me in the face the way he’d punched me years before, since after all, it had been so easy years before, I’d made no shield years before, not when fourteen, not when ten, I’d stood blindly the first time and sat that way the second while my father struck me down, so what the hey, he must’ve thought, why not have a go again?
A time passed in which I knew these thoughts were at his brain, but just for a moment, because, as I also knew, my father had seen me see him.
My father knew I knew his thoughts, my father knew I knew the thing he’d wanted. And, if but intuitively, my father realized it wouldn’t go down now as it had those years before.
So instead of striking me, my father tried to jab me on the soft spot of my chest, the way he’d jabbed me all those years till then, as he’d jabbed me on the chest a while before.
But no sooner had his fingers pierced my field than I took his wrist with one hand and his collar with the other and slammed him to the wall.
And in that single flash, everything changed, the world changed, the universe, too, nothing would ever be the same.
My father hit the wall so much harder than I’d foreseen, so hard full-body the prints on the wall clattered to the floor.
With my hands at his throat, pressing my face into my father’s face as he’d pressed his face into mine, a spasm of knowledge shot through me whole: my father was terrified cold.
Nor was the knowledge alone. Like the man who’d appeared that long-ago day at the hardware store or lumber yard or dump, from harmless nothing to furious something, conjured by a hocus pocus chant or word to snatch my father by his shirt tight against his neck and press his face close against my father’s face and speak to my father with his poison words, so now had I taken my father by his throat to speak to him with poison words.
I had changed.
My father had not.
I was the angry man, now.
And my father—O my father!—he was still the coward.
Vilest pleasure had eaten me up. So intense this pleasure was, so horrifically horrific, I was bloody and keyed, despicably oiled, high like a high the world didn’t know.
The whole of my life’s rage had been distilled to this time.
Everything I had, and everything I was had shrunk to a spot of rage.
My mind was sharp.
My sight was clear.
The unknown laid before me in a limpid gulf, and all the answers to the questions.
Never had I experienced such a reality shy of drugs or booze.
It was as if I’d taken a brew of drugs rendered from the best of every drug—the hypervaluative verve of blow—the hyperepistemic sight of shrooms—the hypercalm assurance of smack—the intuition, hyperabsurd, of hash and weed—the hypercharged courage of booze.
I saw the world and all it held, and all I saw I knew.
And I knew what had been and would be before it had been and was.
Nothing could stop me.
Power was mine, now, yes—power—was—mine.
My true self had emerged, the monster had emerged like the monster from Kane in Alien, I was that monster, now, and I was damned.
And yet, somehow, while surely I was damned, I’d also been redeemed. To kill or be killed, I had entered the ring.
But this wasn’t just the moment of my damnation and redemption. This was my father’s moment, as well, the moment in which my father himself could be damned or redeemed.
My presence in the ring, this alone was dear, my salvation and my sin.
But that my father fled the ring or entered counted very much.
Entering, my father lived.
Fleeing, he passed away.
But his death was least on my list.
I needed my father.
I needed my father to be The Father.
I needed my father more than anything, then, certainly more than some guitar or girl, and definitely more than money or my mother.
I needed my father so badly I’d have died instead, in the grip of his fatherly hands.
That was why we had to fight, why my father had to fight me. My father had to live.
My father could simply have engaged me.
My father could simply have reacted to my parry, answered with his choice of blow, moot behind its strength.
He could’ve broken my grip with the snap of his arms, my father, he could’ve thrown me to the ground, he could’ve hammered my face, stomped my guts, kicked me in the ribs. He—O my father!—could’ve laughed in my face, roared in my stupid ugly face—Well, let’s see what you’ve got, boy!—then taken me to the street to thrash for all to see.
But my father made not the slightest move, neither to escape nor to trounce, my father made not the faintest twitch.
To my horror, in the face of my wrath my father had fled.
And when he fled, he died, and when he died, some great part of me died with him.
This was the truth, an unspeakable shame: my father was a coward.
My father had shown himself to be a coward years before, in all the ways of his life, smoking his dope, denying blame for this or that mistake or deed, avoiding this responsibility to that obligation, stumbling through his murky world as through a labyrinth of avoidance and denial—that place in which all that was was determined by all that was not, that place whose meaning derived by perverse elimination, where what was real was what remained after the rest had been destroyed, where the logic of truth was turned always on its head—the thing present never real, only the idea of the thing in its absence—that place of empty remainders, that endless fog of ganja in which his fragile balance could be kept, where, on one hand, he could stay numb enough to ignore what challenged his invented world, a world peopled by children alone, and, on the other hand, aware enough to keep that world’s thin façade, the façade not just of a living breathing man, but of a well-adjusted capable man—kindly, laughing, friendly, resolute, stalwart, cool—of a man of fortitude whose life was founded on principle and faith—and aware enough, as well, quickly to patch up this façade those times reality managed to smash on through, his pretexts distilled to their false essence, there in that endless fog of ganja in which panic at the possibility of his façade’s collapse, and of the consequent exposure of his charlatanry, always faded, the gloom of forbidden woods brightened always by imagined suns, because, after all, inside his fog of ganja, nothing ever was but what my father said.
But now even my father’s ganja had failed him. Now my father found himself in the gloom of forbidden woods, and he was terrified past all measure—the father in the grip of the son who, furious, demanding satisfaction, had stepped up to cut off The Father’s head.
Gripping my father’s throat that New Year’s Day of 1982, I knew beyond question that my father had fled, that in his flight my father had failed, that my father was no longer my father, that my father had never been my father in any sense of the word but an impostor of the most detestable sort, that, because my father had been tainted long ago, my father had perished long ago, crashed into the slime of being with all its hateful masses, that, in fact, my father had never been a father to anyone, ever, but at most the convincing fraud whom time alone had revealed as a frightened little man in a big bad world, incapable of the least defense, a coward.
To my unending disappointment and unending sorrow, my father’s face hovered before me then as it had hovered years ago before the angry man, in drooping petrifaction, while beneath it, from the neck down, as it had years ago in the angry man’s grip, my father’s body hung limp with terror, a bag of goo in my furious hands, my father’s arms at his sides, his mouth open, his face gone white, the blinking eyes of a stricken man, of a man crippled to his heart with terror.
The pleasure I felt in that moment of power was matched only by my horror at my father’s paralysis beneath me, and by my disappointment and my sorrow.
I was at once jubilant and sickened, arrogant and ashamed, prideful and repulsed, certain and confused, powerful and puny, pleased—acutely, maliciously pleased—and helplessly, hopelessly frantic.
That this truth was so ghastly made it no more or less the truth. This was not a notion, this was not the dream of a fevered mind. This was a fact that was the truth. In that moment—O my father!—I could do anything I liked with him, anything at all.
From PATRICIDE. Used with permission of Stalking Horse Press. Copyright © 2016 by D. Foy.