It was a calm day.
There was tension in the air,
but really no more than usual.
The single word, “Goddammit!”
causes the world to stop.
Everyone is silent, expectant.
The beatings will be handed out shortly.
Mom investigates. The “Oh my,”
that comes from the room
means it’s bad.
My name sounds next,
in that strong, come here now!
commanding voice of my father,
which you never want to repeat.
Arriving on the scene, the question is,
“What the hell, or fuck, or shit?”
depending on the situation.
This time it’s a “fuck.”
He’s mad about the security deposit
because the red crayon circles,
scratched on the wall above the light switch,
too high for my brother to have made,
means it could be lost.
Before I have a chance to answer,
“What the fuck?”
The next question
“Why… why did… why would…”
comes with a finger
poised inches from my face,
that I’ve learned can quickly strike
as a fist or a hand.
There are lessons growing up here.
Number one: don’t answer,
because unlike the family circus
life isn’t quirky or funny.
The ghost of “I don’t know” and “not me”
could potentially get me killed.
Number two: fear can do wonders,
like bringing an seven-year-old boy
to the logic and deduction
of a young Sherlock Holmes.
The trick is to crack the case in moments
before denying anything.
Looking around the room
is taken for a shake of the head,
the finger moves like lightning.
It transforms into a hand
to slap me across the face
and send me to the ground.
Now lesson three: Cry,
even if he missed,
even if he grazed,
even if it didn’t hurt at all, cry,
they might leave…he does.
Once he’s gone I find the stick,
a long red dowel from a set of blocks.
My little two-year-old brother
was trying to turn off the light
and didn’t know any better.
I walk into the living room
with all the confident belligerence
of a precocious child of thirty.
Still crying from the slap,
the hand print on my face
as bright as the dowel.
“He did it,” I say,
pointing to my little brother.
I place the stick on the table
before father like a religious offering.
He glances at the stick,
notes the length and the color,
then at my brother, then at me.
“Oh.” he says, and changes the channel.
Quick thinking or flat denial
is the only thing
that can get you out of a beating
depending on the circumstances.
rang out that Sunday,
everything stopped as usual.
You could feel dad enter
seconds before the door moved.
Inanimate objects tensed,
for fear of being shattered.
This time it’s a,
“Hell, were you thinking?”
I’m shocked of course,
a few years older now,
and well aware not to touch,
move, breathe on, or ask about
anything that’s not mine.
He holds up the gas can.
“Who did this?”
Don’t say a word.
“I asked you a question.”
Do not confirm nor deny.
“Someone stood on this.”
The red gas can is crinkled on one side
like an aluminum can
that someone didn’t completely crush.
“Where is your brother?” he says.
The beating doesn’t come, but words do.
Humiliating, demeaning words
like niggers, little shits,
ungrateful sons of bitches.
The words last for a day,
then a week,
he buys a new gas can
and it’s forgotten.
Until it happened again.
It came silent, which is worse
than a hell, or shit or fuck
because you can’t anticipate silent.
Something struck me in the side of the head.
I recognized it as the new gas can,
crinkled just like the other one
Then dad is on me,
I guess he made up his mind what happened.
I do my best to brace myself
for what comes next.
If my name was Luka
and you heard something late at night,
don’t ask me what it was.
Crying doesn’t help when he’s in a fury
and mom isn’t home to stop him.
Years later it happened again
with another gas can and I discovered
if you leave a cheap, empty gas can,
sealed in the hot sun for days,
simple physics will expand
and contract the air,
causing the can to implode.
It looks remarkably
like someone stood on it,
like an aluminum can
that didn’t crush all the way.
how many misunderstandings
nature has caused,
how many beatings,
and how many deaths.