Note: "Dziadzio" is a familiar form of the Polish word for "grandfather";
other names and references herein have been altered in respect for anonymity.
Unnerved by all that silence under the living room, his landlord telephoned us before he unlocked the basement flat: Dziadzio was there, a tableau at the edge of his single bed, sitting so stiffly upright that even the breeze of walking toward him could have knocked him over.
After the funeral, my father and I sat quietly in our suburban basement, our knees abutted before a Franklin stove rigged to the furnace flue. Upstairs, we could hear the Pomeranian's tip-taps stitching alongside my mother, who seemed to shuffle with ease now, as if, at last, everyone in the house were free. In his lap, Dad rummaged a cardboard cigar box bloated by folded documents and, after drawing his fingertip down the page to inspect it, passed each one to his fifteen-year-old son. On his signal, I fed it through the stove's portal, where paper chastened with flame, then darkened, then fluttered into cinder: Dziadzio's unpaid subscriptions; betting slips; documents embossed in India ink and greasy with foreign watermarks; acid-brown epistles handwritten in Polish, skinned from grimy envelopes thin as pastry flake.
Next and last to go, you would think, would be the box itself, its corners held together by mucilage and a wisp of tobacco leaf, but, even at fifty-one years of age, Dad clutched Dziadzio's cigar box to his knees as if it were a schoolboy's last birthday gift on the table.
"I'll keep it," he said, staring at its empty insides. "One day—might be useful."
One day, when I am a fifty-one-year-old man, I burst the perforations of a mailer under a piano lamp I've salvaged from my friend Nick's estate. Bankruptcy has struck the Milwaukee Archdiocese, and there are now scores to settle. The notice advises me, if I were abused by a clergy member, teacher, or deacon, I "must file a claim by February 1." The word "must" seems carelessly bossy, as if grumbled by Pope Benedict over breakfast in bed, and February feels such a long way off, even if my childhood in parochial school doesn't.
Besides, I hadn't suffered any such abuse.
Other altar boys I knew kept at least a memory or two of a priest's hand on their crotch, or remembered that one deacon's flesh and bristle flopping out of his vestments the moment a cassock fell around some boy's ankles. Once, in those years before his family and I breathed his ashes into the Canyon Lands, I glibly asked Nick, who had served all the same masses in school that I had, "Was I just too ugly for them?!"
"Nah. Too girlish," he assured me. "They were only into the 'butchy' twelve-year-olds." He meant, the kids who sported the rough-and-tumble jean jackets, whose rivets and buttons flickered with bewilderment when the sanctuary went dark. I trusted Nick's opinion, and his experience. He wore a jean jacket of his own, and he was made to share his sleeping bag with the unordained redhead who led the Christian youth group on summer camping retreats. Afterward, when his family started inviting clergy to the house for Sunday afternoon meals, Nick disappeared into the basement rec room, an unspoken shame cleffing itself into him while he practiced Hamlisch on the untuned upright piano.
Other altar boys I knew kept at least a memory or two of a priest's hand on their crotch, or remembered that one deacon's flesh and bristle flopping out of his vestments the moment a cassock fell around some boy's ankles.
When we were sixteen, on the soggy deck of his family's swimming pool at night, Nick gathered his scuffed knees to his chest and described for Craig and me an incident in the woods near our church. In paraphrase, it goes like this:
Two older teens brandish a switchblade, then make him undress below the waist; they've kidnapped a girl, too, even younger than he, gotten her high on something, and swear they'll rape and kill her right then and there if she doesn't get on her knees to fellate Nick. They threaten to stick him in the neck if he won't play along. When the older teens tire of their own cruelty, they steal into the thickets, stumbling the girl between them. "It's just a dumb joke," they say. "She's just a dumb friend." Nick plucks out the scabs of grit and twig from his kneecaps, leaves his clothes in a crumple of leafy dirt, then steals through the backyards to get home unseen.
"The one guy, he took his blade," Nick claimed, "and slashed me a little, down there, cleanly, across the front of me," then he fixed his gaze on the surface of his swimming pool and said nothing more to us. We didn't ask him to prove his injuries.
Instead, Craig and I languished our three-speeds through the dark until we reached the highway. "Why would he even be in the woods by himself?" Craig asked.
"I don't know," I replied, "Did you see his knees?" But we'd settled that Nick was making it all up—that it was really all just a dumb joke—then stepped our bicycles through the crosswalk.
I didn't learn to drive until I was nineteen, and it would be another ten years before I got my own car, all of which made me a well behaved passenger in other people's lives. One drizzly spring day, Nick just kept driving his Chrysler down Lake Shore Drive. He wanted to find where the Photinia had run aground in a Lake Michigan storm, and he laconically trawled the easternmost streets of St. Francis until a back road to the relevant bluffs revealed itself.
The ship had since been cut apart and scrapped in Sturgeon Bay, and little trace of it remained here except for a few calcified blisters of metal we imagined to be washed up on the breakers. A few steps from the eroded sheer, Nick stopped and broke into tears. "Something—something bad happened to me. I need to tell someone. Promise me," he repeated, "promise you won't hate me." This was the something-bad of that promise:
On a Friday night at The Foundry, a man, all palaver and kindness, buys him a strong drink; he sees past Nick’s bad skin and draws his dizzied hand to the inside of a swelling pocket. Somewhere outside the club, the parked station wagon is sprawling and lost among the empty buildings of the Third Ward. Another man, faceless—just sinew and hair—climbs the bumper and through the lifted hatch. Together, they hold down Nick's palms and shins against a rough pile of floor mats and tug his white overalls down his limbs. While one rapes him from behind, the other holds up Nick's head and lurches deeper into his mouth whenever he tries to cry out. When they finish with him and leave, he's alone, squattled into the back of a station wagon he's not even sure belonged to either of the men. He wipes the remnants of his underpants down the small of his back. He rucksacks once again into his white overalls, then he stumbles away, cottontailed by his own blood.
Nick stared into the shattered whitecaps and thanked me for listening, as if some great sin of his had been confessed. Gulls overtook the offshore patellas of rock, then we murmurated back to his car. "Where next?" he asked. "You get to choose."
Nick found a boyfriend and moved across country, all the way to San Diego, and I puppied behind them the next year. "It had to be San Diego," he used to say, "The farthest we could get away in the contiguous forty-eight." After the annihilating toil of their breakup, Nick reinvented himself: bulked himself up, made his German more fluent, and took his motorcycle to the sorts of gay bars where I didn't dare follow. One afternoon, my partner and I glimpsed Nick from our car: his hair saw-toothed beneath the scorched portico of a men's bookstore; his back stiffened as a jackbooted commissar, contemptuous of the passing traffic. I circled the block unnoticed. Nick was still there, lingering for that one muscle-bound ginger who was clean cut and penitent enough to step into the razor of his shadow.
Near the end of my summer vacation, when I was seven, I regularly stationed myself across from the bus stop on Highway 41. When the bus paused inside its diesel sigh, my father emerged, and we'd walk home together down Kimberly Avenue, his barber bag kettlebelling between us by its outstretched handles.
Nick found a boyfriend and moved across country, all the way to San Diego, and I puppied behind them the next year. "It had to be San Diego," he used to say, "The farthest we could get away in the contiguous forty-eight."
At one time, flat-topped and spit-and-polished were so much the thing, my father might have nearly mortgaged us into a vacant convent on Milwaukee's west side. In its antechamber he would have set up his own vision of a barbershop: a quartet of burly chairs, chin-up and chest-out to the plate-glass windows, and a barber pole turning widdershins under a business sign hand-painted by my older brother. Upstairs, however, the floors keened, and the stuck windows gathered the gloom and let in the asthma. Besides, my mother swore she'd heard the ghostly footfalls of sensible black shoes still tunking the floorboards. When the convent's pipes were predicted to burst by January, she begged my father to give it up and remain at Tischmann's for another few years.
The shoe-maker who rented the shop next to Tischmann's let him scavenge remnants of leather from out of the bins, which he bundled covertly around his kit and put in his bag. When I noticed the extra weight of it once, "I'll make a surprise," is all he said.
A little bit of scavenging wasn't out of the ordinary for him. He'd brought home other items to repurpose: a twelve-inch black-and-white TV with a broken tuner; glass blocks from a demolished wall; even an entire barber's sink once. But, other than his usual indignation that perfectly good things should end up in the trash, I couldn't guess the use of the remnant leather. I knew high school boys like my older brother were now girding up their jeans in rawhide, so I surmised it would be a belt for him.
In fact, until someone explained it to me, I was sure the leather taws in the cluttered kitchen drawer had been repurposed from one of Dziadzio's old belts. (There was sketchy talk sometimes about the stern whippings he gave his sons, back on the farm.) In truth, it was a worn-out razor strap my father had kept from barber college—nothing more than a metaphor, really, for our good discipline at home. After being released from a Siberian camp into the horrors of the war, Dad had no taste left for violence. "Sometimes, you know, you have to do it," he told me once, "but it won't feel how you think." So, one day after school, I climbed atop a kitchen chair to study the strap, slack and nested. When I traced the furry coil of it with my finger, it wasn't what I thought, not at all like a cow's tail ready for the tensile snap, but spongy, like a roll of new sod, hardly a thing you could imagine crackling with pain.
Not like in school, where punishment was in earnest. Of course, there were nuns who were gentle and motherly, and they gave us cute nicknames or coddled us with butterscotch candies. Others, however, wore their broken insides on their outsides in sweeping black robes of enigma. When I was eleven, I froze up at the chalkboard, unable to fathom a square root, with Sister A hovering close behind me. "What's the matter with you?" she blurted, "Are you just stupid?" I stared ahead, tranced by ashen numerals, until I felt her fingers turn my scalp like the lid of a jar, and with a dizzying smack my face plunged headlong into the blackboard. When I stumbled backward from its dusty-clean chemical sweetness, a broken inch of yellow chalk still twitched in my hand. That evening at dinner, I combed my hair over the blue-black and told my parents nothing; she might respect me more, treat me better, if I kept it a secret. I wasn't stupid, after all.
One recess, when they trusted me to be reading by myself in the classroom, I'd looked inside my teacher's desk. I'd inventoried the drawers where, whatever lay palleted under the unused boxes of colored chalk, or crouched behind the long baguettes of blackboard erasers, weren't symbols of good discipline at all. They were ordinary—just as plain as punishment, itself: a copper-edged beveled ruler, a tin protractor, a five-pronged chalk holder, an inky T-square, a three-hole punch, all tinctured in scented lotion and floured in eraser dust. I'd seen all of them deployed out of discipline, but the hands that used them—they were the real brokers of the power.
In math class, Nick had accidentally poked Marley in the back with the point of a compass. She cried out. He was sorry; he was eight. But Sister M wrestled his freckled arm to his desktop, then jabbed it up and down with the compass point. "How does that feel?!" she screamed. "Like it? Does it feel good?!"
Even now, I feel it for him, an inarticulate shame crisping with rage at the base of my skull every day until all the calculus of her regret replaces its. "How does that feel?!" I shout at her in a daydream, "Feel good?!" But it won't take. Another's regrets can never really be yours. They come on loan, like a friend's sweatshirt, and collar you into those lugubrious dreams you dream only after someone you love has died, from which you always wake with a start, an absentminded heel still lingering in your gut. In one of those dreams, Nick curls before me into a column of ghost, twisting into flame. "Don't come back here," he tells me, "You know you were the lucky one."
Over the course of several weekends, my father vanished into the basement, and our suburban bungalow began palpitating with the sound of ball peen hammer on head and shank. We listened for the kerchunk of a sewing machine's flywheel and, if needles snapped or fingernails blackened, Dad's bellicose growls would echo through the heat registers. When the house found its calm again, my mother summoned my sister and me into the living room. Collared in bandages and redolent with shaving crème, Dad's bruised fingers handed something to each of us. Suede and oxblood leather flashed out of my sister's arms, and mine blossomed into musky black cowhide pummeled with rivets and boot-buckle, and dashed with hand-sewn margins of upholstery stitches.
Another's regrets can never really be yours. They come on loan, like a friend's sweatshirt, and collar you into those lugubrious dreams you dream only after someone you love has died, from which you always wake with a start, an absentminded heel still lingering in your gut.
They were schoolbags! The kind our middle-class neighbors squeezed into their children's arms each morning for their Gregg-rule and store-bought pencil cases. On the suede side of the flap, our mother blocked our name and address in indelible marker. "Okay," he said, "You don't have lunch-boxes, but you have nice school bags." When the whole of it hung by its tight handle, it felt alive to me, like a puppy by its scruff.
At school, I spoke openly of my father's gift. I lost myself in thought about all that needle-prick and angry sweat in the basement as he cobbled the leather scraps. I tested every borehole in the buckle straps, even pretended I forgot to retrieve rulers and gum erasers—so I could open it again. Sister M took notice. A short woman with a broad yardang of a jaw sweeping from her wimple, she looked to my classmates, then asked, "What's the matter with him? Can't his father pay for a schoolbag?" I puzzled at first for the compliment in the question, until she lifted her jaw to my classmates' snickers, and suddenly I reconsidered the bag's handmade cheapness put there by a dull-witted immigrant barber so uncouth he'd actually scavenge garbage from behind a shoemaker's shop; so farm-bred, he'd dip his rye bread into soup and let it dribble down his chin; his Polish accent, just an unchewed mouthful of words.
That same fall, Nick and Craig and I began preparing with our classmates for First Holy Communion in spring. Having to shut our eyes and open our reverent mouths to the foreign body of Christ took training: one had to say "Amen" before protracting the tongue, not afterward, which must remain level, not curled, yet leave the mouth open enough to fill; a tongue should look receptive, but not vulgar; most importantly, when the Host is deposited, we must remember to furl back the tongue and "Swallow, never chew." For practicum one day, we queued up before Sister B and, one after the next, she anointed our tongue-tips with a tap of her brass convent key. By Christmas of that year more than eighty percent of us were motley with chicken pox.
However, on the day of our First Communion, I did as we'd practiced, and it was not as I thought it would be. The Host tasted like a sharp, soapy thumbnail; when I swallowed it whole, it lodged at the back of my throat, on end, like a nickel plug. I grappled for breath all the way back to the pew, until it finally softened and choked itself back up, and I could cannibalize it imperceptibly while communicants filed past.
That evening, when the party disbanded, I fleeced the cash from the cards, which were fingerprinted and crusty sweet with Communion cake. The money at least could persuade my mother to help me pick out a canvas satchel at Gimbels—something plaid, and school-tidy.
By the sinew of its handle, I dragged my father's leather schoolbag from behind my winter clothes and shook out my notebooks and pens. I restocked the bag with origami and sketchbooks; I bullied the empty cards, my prayer book, rosary, scapular, and medals into its suede corners, then obscured the whole thing with shoeboxes until only boot buckle glinted from the recesses of the closet. Repurposed. Useful.
By 1972, men my father's age started tying back their uncut hair and letting their beards grizzle. "Clean cut" was out of fashion, and Dad started leaving work in the middle of the afternoon, just so that Tischmann could keep himself in business. He eventually banded with the tinkers and cobblers lured by pension plans to the local factories. Although he kept his barbering license current, cutting hair became a handiwork kept to the dim basement that brightened with a safety lamp braided through the joists every two weeks. By decade's end, however, disco swiveled the sex appeal back into a man's bangs. A pair of shears became useful again, and my father accepted a part-time evening gig at the mall, this time armed with a top-of-the-line blow-dryer. Tips were good, and sitting in the chair was no longer a matter of pocket change. Consequently, whenever Craig and Nick came by the house, Dad was proudly determined no one should leave without at least a quick trim—no charge.
One night, when it was Nick's turn in the chair, I hovered urgently. Dad must have read it, too—the panic, raw and surprising, in the jitter of Nick's unshaven jaw as the barber's spread snapped shut around his neck—for he filled the labor of that haircut with every possible fatherly instinct, even rolling his R's a little thicker to call him "Brrrute," which could soften the wilds of Nick's mustache into a toothsome grin. Under the buzzing of his clippers, my father worked the scalp, calmly stitching his hands into the tufts of his bangs and snipping so carefully all the delicate filaments on the margins of Nick's ears. After he tossed his Bakelite combs back into their cigar box, he manhandled a whisk broom from his kit to batter the shoulders clean while Nick rounded his back against its bristles.
"Looking sharp," said my father, shining under the safety lamp. Then Nick rose up to him, laughing against the dissonance of the blow-dryer, a nimbus of his own hair on the floor.
I decide to keep that Archdiocese letter. Someday, I think, could be useful.
I draw my father's schoolbag from the closet shelf. My name, tattooed in good penmanship onto the suede side, by dumb luck is still visible but smudged blue-black. I rake the mailer past the pliable spines of sketchbooks within, below the scraps of the prayer cards and those squashed allegories of paper cranes. I return the bag to the closet, its insides like bursa and bones, helping all that leather to sit up straight.
Karl Sherlock is a Poetry Writing instructor and Co-Coordinator of the Creative Writing Program at Grossmont College, in San Diego. His poems, as well as his queer and disability-themed narrative essays, have appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies, including Dickinson Review, Cream City Review, Wordgathering, The Radvocate, The James White Review, Assaracus, Lime Hawk, and others. His story, "Clear," a memoir about his own same-sex marriage under the specter of Prop 8, and his husband's reparative therapy experience as a teen in the Battle Creek Sanitarium, was a 2014 finalist for Sundress Publications's "Best of the Net."