STICKS

 

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.

 

I slipped.

 

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.

 

 

GAS

 

Quick thinking or flat denial

is the only thing

that can get you out of a beating

depending on the circumstances.

When “Goddammit!”

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.

I wonder

how many misunderstandings

nature has caused,

how many beatings,

and how many deaths.

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