By Bill Rayburn
“I’ll always be smarter than you.”
That simple declaration by my father emerges with stunning clarity; the pain and confusion seeping back into me as if he were still a tangible presence in my life, still attempting to break my spirit.
We’ll never know, my father and me, who was smarter. Simply by surviving, literally outliving him, I am the tougher man, the more resilient opponent of life. Our war of attrition ended suddenly with his surrender, his suicide being a confirmation of so many things I’d felt, yet didn’t quite believe. His final, unalterable rejection of himself smoothly meshed with my refusal to love the man. My feelings of vindication were entangled in guilt, yet there was the undeniable perception that I had been proven right, and he wrong. There was a certain freedom inherent in such clarity.
I was 19 when my dad killed himself. His death replaced my birth as the beginning of my life. His choice to take his own life set me free in a way that any other form of death might not have.
Had he met a more benign, indiscriminate fate, so many realizations might have remained just out of reach, my ability to sort through my feelings impaired by doubt.
So much of dad’s strength was derived from the huddled masses that cowered when he roared, that shrank away when his shadow approached. We all feared him, including mom. It was the main link in his chain of control and when it was broken, so was he.
He bestowed upon himself the moniker of ‘The Iron Duke’, ostensibly coined to bring attention to the two artificial hips he’d had implanted in his arthritis-ravaged originals. The tough, impervious flavor the name gave off was more representative of his personality, however, than his deteriorating hips. The more his body betrayed him, the less vulnerable he wanted to appear. His visage was one of impenetrability, to both his family and his professional colleagues. Yet, this distance, this authoritative shell he crafted, proved to be his most fatal error, shaping his world into an isolated, ever-shrinking existence that eventually proved uninhabitable.
The destruction of The Iron Duke began when mom, in an incredible display of courage, decided to divorce him after 26 years of what can best be described as oppression. Her relationship with him was no less angst-ridden than mine and in many ways worse. She had to sleep with the man, a level of intimacy with which neither was comfortable.
The existence of six children did, I suppose, prove there was some degree of intimacy, though I’m certain even that aspect of their relationship was mechanical and passionless. A diminutive woman, yet possessor of great inner strength, mom was nonetheless an unwitting contributor to his intimidating aura. She came no higher than four and a half feet, and when paired with dad, himself an uninspiring 5'10", and she appeared inconsequential, almost dwarf-life. He loomed larger than life when next to her. His choice of such a non-threatening mate, from a physical as well as emotional standpoint, was consistent with his obsession to control people and his environment.
Since my personal landscape was sowed only with dad’s seed, I quickly grew impervious to mom’s intentions. I found out she was leaving him through my sisters. She’d talked of divorce for years, but her wolf-cry had fallen on increasingly deaf ears. I remember rejecting the news as simply more smoke. Ironically, my lack of faith in mom’s determination paralleled dad’s naive dismissal of her decision, though his error in judgment would prove much more costly.
The disruption of their marriage did not send shock waves through their small social circle, for theirs was a union often rumored on the brink of disintegration. Mom’s history, threatening desertion but shamefully unable to act, had given dad a false sense of security that would prove to be his undoing. His lack of respect and his disbelief in her ability to act independently of him proved to be his most serious blunder, as he would consistently remain a step behind her during the laborious process of parting.
His first move was a tactical error, calling upon mom’s faith in the Catholic church and its inherent frowning on divorce. It was a telling clue as to how out of touch he was with her ideology. She’d had little to do with the church for years, her rejection of God very similar to mine. We both had long ago coughed up any allegiance to a higher being, dad’s attempts at shoving religion down our throats providing us with one of the few deliciously ironic victories we could claim against him. We were adept at the rhetoric, when necessary, though it sprang only from the need to manipulate him into believing our commitment was equal to his. It was an indirect rebellion. Direct rebellion was simply not tolerated.
Our intense repudiation of God had, in fact, very little to do with religion. Had dad stressed laughter in the same martinet style, I’m sure our lives would have been mirthless, so complete was our instinct to rebel.
Lacking God’s help, he tried a more direct form of intimidation by soliciting a lawyer. Once again, he miscalculated. Mom had already procured the services of a family friend whose specialty was divorce and the resulting estate divisions. Dad’s attorney not only failed to catch up, he eventually abandoned the case, finding as most everyone did, the inherent frustration in dealing with my dad to be unbearable. Dad was left to tread in the shark-infested legal waters alone, the weight of his ego dragging him, inexorably, to the bottom.
Mom had done her homework. It was the most selfish, focused and organized effort she had ever made and dad never quite acknowledged to himself the level of her commitment to leave him. His years of dominance simply would not allow him to admit she could outfox him. Indicative of his desperation, and further evidence of how clueless he was, dad then solicited the kid’s support, encouraging us to show mom the error of her ways. We demurred, under the guise of neutrality, but his short-sighted request had only galvanized us in our support of mom. Our loyalty, even in its eroded state, was firmly on mom’s side. The corrosive effects of his abuse made our choice a simple one, and when he finally realized he was facing a united front, it only added to his increasing isolation and confusion.
Though outgunned legally, dad was not stupid. Shortsighted perhaps, but not dumb. Faced with defeat, which would include turning over half of everything he’d earned to a wife who’d never held a job, at his insistence, in her entire adult life, he finally conceded, his acquiescence a surprisingly docile one. As it turned out, he was convinced she’d be rudderless without him and would return quickly to the fold. He was only partially correct.
It took almost six months to unravel the estate, dad’s professional success having resulted in property, stocks and, unknown to mom, a huge cash surplus which, upon discovery, raised the eyebrows of mom’s lawyer, his instinctual distrust of dad suddenly justified.
Yet, the fate of us, the children, was established in a paradoxically simple and efficient manner. There were only three of us still at home, half of the total brood, yet there was little negotiation as to our destinies. The youngest, my 14 year old brother Henry was snatched up by mom, her instinct for survival and her sudden embrace of self indulgence flourishing. Henry was the more pliable and congenial of the three of us, having sailed much of his young life below the radar of abuse dad emitted. He was, for lack of a better phrase, less damaged than my 19 year old sister Laurie or me. Mom, aware of this, probably more viscerally than consciously, took what she perceived as the easy way out, embracing her newfound selfishness. Henry’s well being was not much of a consideration. It would prove to be a destructive pairing.
Laurie and I were plucked out of the dust bin by dad, more by default than any desire on his part to live with us. His life was experiencing a frightening free-fall and he preferred no passengers on a trip destined for oblivion.
Our goal, as brother and sister, was to accumulate capital at a rate heretofore unknown to us. In his inimitable fashion, dad thought teaching us money management meant not giving us any. Of course this backfired. All six of us were incapable of saving money, having been denied access to it our entire childhood. My older brother and sisters were deeply in debt. They were trying to support families paycheck to paycheck, simply because the urge to spend had never been addressed by dad. It was a tough lesson to learn later in life.
The concept of planning for the future, socking money away in case of emergency, was completely foreign to Laurie and me. Our entire childhood had been a series of emergencies, our future always in doubt. Money offered no tangible safety net. Yet, dad was ripe for a loan, given his sudden influx of cash from the liquidation of his assets he’d spent his life nurturing. And he would have parted with his cash simply to remove us from his life. We were so conditioned to avoid discussions of money with him, however, we never considered tapping a source that had never been available before.
With the house up for sale, mom and dad nonetheless attempted to co-exist under the same roof, both waiting anxiously for the subsequent financial windfall. Idealistic as it may have been, they should not have been in the same home. No one benefited, and the arguing did not dissipate, even in the face of the inevitable parting. Even when they were cordial, a thick layer of tension lurked beneath each exchange. It was a tension different from what had transpired previously, causing us all to step more carefully than ever through the emotional mine field our home had become. It didn’t take much for an ignition of emotions.
Mom’s independence and confidence were growing daily and she was less deferential and conciliatory toward him, sporting her rebellion like a badge of courage, flaunting it. Her arrogance, dormant for a lifetime, blossomed, its growth nurtured by the still fresh memories of his tyrannical rule. I watched as his frustration simmered, his finely honed, cultivated control over her and us dissolving right in front of him. He was handcuffed by his desire to gently, subtly corral her back into a submissive role, and his attempts at wooing her were clumsy and transparent. The genie was out of the bottle.
The sense of doom my sister and I felt going into the potentially flammable living arrangement with dad was intense. Though we’d never been close, we now gravitated toward one another, building an emotional fox-hole, hoping our combined forces could stave off what was sure to be dad’s most sustained effort at breaking us. His increasing impotence in dealing with mom would, we felt, manifest itself in anger, very likely to be channeled in our direction. Our instincts for survival were raw and visceral, more common to a jungle than a suburban household.
Acting like a freed prisoner, a metaphor painfully ironic to my sister and me, Henry was eyeing hungrily the landscape of leniency he was being cast into. In response to dad’s harshness, mom had developed a softer, gentler approach to parenting. With the narrow vision of a 14 year old, Henry was peacefully unaware that any self discipline he had would erode in the boundary-less life that awaited him under mom’s indifferent care. His sudden freedom was a mirage, for in his thirst for fun, he would eventually encounter only pain and confusion. His unchapperoned teen years merely set the stage for another adult Dempsey failure.
Henry strutted about the house in the days before the move, gloating, while Laurie and I huddled together, discussing strategy, making battle plans and fortifying our emotional bunkers. We had years of practice at this sort of thing, but now were called upon to step it up a notch. The enemy would no longer be required to circumvent mom’s roadblocks, to scale her barbed wire compounds, to ferret out the safety net she so often provided us. There would be no more escape routes provided by the diminutive one and we began to harvest a strong appreciation for what she had gone through for us, shamefully acknowledging that it was now too late to forge any alliance. We’d burned our bridges with her.
Her choice of Henry was also a rejection of my sister and me and our years of abusing her. She’d never gained control over us, standing by helplessly as we selfishly followed dad’s lead, developing contempt where love and respect should have been. It was payback time for mom, and she wasn’t limiting her vengeance to dad. We couldn’t blame her. We were Catholics, with a very keen understanding of guilt, blame and punishment. Confronted with our personal judgment day, we grudgingly faced our fate with the resignation of death row inmates, aware that any claims of innocence would be both false, and ignored.
As all of the related mini-dramas unfolded, my three older siblings, two sisters and a brother, remained on the periphery, their separation from dad’s reign having been made long ago. Their respective stances fell along gender lines, with Patricia and Jennifer supporting mom, while Robert Jr., the oldest, stood steadfastly by dad, painfully aware of the wedge he was driving between himself and mom. They’d always been very close, mutually aware of the shared battle scars from their years under the Iron Duke’s rule. Their bond, thought to be unbreakable, was now being severely tested.
Mom had run more interference for Robert than all of us combined, a necessary gambit when dad was younger and more capable of inflicting physical harm. In spite of her efforts, Robert remained the recipient of more violence than the rest of us combined, but there were many times I would have gladly switched places with him, so effective was the emotional abuse I’d suffered.
Bruises on the psyche had a tendency to fade, but their final imprint was ineradicable. Robert’s surprising allegiance to dad created yet another fissure in what was left of our family structure, while the divorce itself would complete the dismantling process. There was a bittersweet sense of relief in all of us, however. We were glad for the removal of the termite riddled structure, yet guilt-ridden about our role in its deterioration. And the remaining foundation, smoke sifting from the rubble, would continue to nurture the ongoing dysfunctional development of my parent’s offspring.
Mom had lined up an apartment, as had dad, while Laurie and I bandied about the idea of living together on our own. We finally rejected the idea, the awareness of our deep-seated mistrust of each other outweighing the growing panic at living with dad.
When the house sold, the reactions ranged from my nostalgic sadness to Henry’s outright glee at his impending freedom. I watched closely as dad saw all he’d worked for slowly slip away. He’d put his heart and soul into the house, nurturing and caring for it with a passion that should have been funneled to his family.
The well-maintained house contrasted sharply with its emotionally impoverished inhabitants. Mom seemed less moved than I’d have thought, until I remembered how disenchanted she’d always been with the house. Dad’s control had extended to decorating and choosing furniture, a female right of passage mom never forgave him for denying her.
On moving day, Robert made a surprise appearance, his anguish evident as he stood awkwardly by, watching the movers load the various pieces of furniture into two different trucks, one for dad and one for mom. Those trucks were literal evidence of how divisive divorce could be.
I remember all of us standing around, helplessly watching our lives change forever, incapable of stopping the internal hemorrhaging. I longed for Henry’s calloused response, to be void of reflective thought. His innocence would die a quick death in the months to come, but as the divorce played out, his youthful ignorance a Kevlar vest, he’d found an innocuous serenity. I was both envious and contemptuous, for I knew oblivion was merely a short term respite. Still, I could have used a brief escape to Henry’s world.
The movers moved about us in silence, displaying a surprising reverence for our obvious discomfort. They seemed aware their task that day was not to transport a family, but to sever it.
The entire day proceeded without ceremony, a gesture so steeped in denial that I could only frown inwardly at how inept we’d suddenly become at displaying honest emotions. When the house was gutted, we parted with stiff handshakes and quick, even stiffer hugs. Laurie left with dad, while Henry and mom, who didn’t drive, scurried into a waiting cab. Robert and I decided to go for a beer.
My relationship with my older brother had been without depth to that point in our lives. He was 35, and the vehicles we could share to any depth were limited, or so he thought. He accepted me, however, for which I was grateful. Though our age difference presented some barriers, we had not developed the deep sense of mistrust I felt with Laurie and Henry. Robert’s desire to drink with me, an activity I knew he didn’t approach lightly, was both approval and a gesture of good will. His invitation that day signified a ratcheting up of our relationship, due in part, I’m sure, to the sudden collapse of our family.
I’d idolized Robert for years, but as I grew older, seeing him more for what he was than for what I wanted him to be, my adoration ebbed, creating a void. It was a natural growth process that would turn unnatural when Robert proved reluctant to give up the role of hero in exchange for being my peer. My desire to gain his respect and a semblance of equality was stonewalled by his ego and insecurity, two ironically linked psychological bedfellows. His need to have the upper hand in any relationship was a byproduct of living with the Iron Duke.
He was a cocky, almost arrogant man, with a biting sense of humor and a gift for the art of manipulation matched only by his father. I found his philosophy on life to be outdated, even reactionary. He was a creation of the fifties, many of his ideas on women verging on chauvinism. Paradoxically, he encouraged his wife to work and establish independence. His reign of control over here was subtle, but no less effective than dad’s more obvious, ham-handed methods. He would often liken dad’s rule to the adage that “absolute power corrupts absolutely”.
Yet his marriage of fifteen years had many similar characteristics of the failed union of our parents. He was a mass of contradictions and, as I reached my late teens, I found him more an enigma than anything else. Robert would bristle at any comparison with dad, but the similarities were unmistakable. His refusal to acknowledge this was his most damaging denial, for when it was finally unveiled as such by circumstances beyond his control, he was past the point of reconciling with his failed self image.
We went to his house, located about four miles from what was no longer my home. We climbed the stairs to the door in silence. The drive had also been wordless. Inside, I sat on the couch, which faced a huge entertainment center, chock full of expensive, state-of-the-art sound and video equipment. As he inserted a CD, he asked, “Coors okay?”
“Yeah, sure. Thanks.”
He disappeared into the kitchen while Elvis sang of doing it his way. Robert was an Elvis fanatic, a testament to his strong fifties roots. We’d all grown weary of being force-fed The King whenever we visited, but none of us had the heart to tell him. As obsessions go, it was rather benign.
Returning, he handed me a beer and we clicked bottles. He plopped down next to me, sighing, his considerable weight making the leather couch squeak and groan.
“What do you think, Patrick?”
I looked at him. “Pretty damn depressing. What do you think?”
He paused. “Pretty damn depressing, I guess.”
“Henry sure came out smelling like a fucking rose.”
“Don’t be so sure, Pat. I don’t feel mom’s gonna be giving him all the attention that he needs. She talks a good game, but she’s ready to live it up and she’s tired of raising kids and being a mother. It’s hard to blame her.”
“Yeah, well anything’s better than living with dad.”
“You’re probably right, but I got news for you, it’s a helluva lot easier to live with the SOB now than it used to be.”
“I’m not so sure about that. He may hit less, but he hollers more. I think I’d rather get smacked sometimes.”
“He can’t smack as hard, either. You’ve gotta earn his respect, Pat. Otherwise, he’ll be on you all the time.”
I was indignant. “As opposed to now? I’m not even sure I want his respect. It’s too tied up in being macho, a man’s man. He and I don’t see eye to eye on anything.”
“I’m just telling you, if you want some peace from him, you’re gonna have to prove him you’re a man. His way. I did it. He’s proud as hell that I put myself through college, with no help from him. When he kicked me out, he didn’t give a shit what happened to me. I did it on my own, and now he respects me for it.”
Roberts journey to self-respect, and consequently, his acceptance by dad, was accomplished with a different motive than what I intended to use. I was going to expend my energy on building up my self-esteem, restoring my shattered confidence. But not in pursuit of dad’s twisted idea of manhood. I so fundamentally rejected his concepts on personal growth that I often chose the antithesis of what I thought were his beliefs. It was a narrow-minded response, more knee-jerk than thought out, and it often got me into trouble. Rebellion was a lousy platform from which to grow.
Though dad and Robert shared the same warped concept of respect, they differed in one important are. Robert was capable of loving someone. He would not, and could not, consciously hurt anyone as dad had often done. Mom experienced that side of Robert more than anyone, including his wife.
“Do you know mom’s pissed at you?”
“Yeah, I know,” he said quietly. His stance in the ordeal had clearly been a painful one.
“She shouldn’t be,” he continued. “I wasn’t choosing sides. I supported them both, and I understood mom’s desires. It just looked bad because no one else stuck up for dad. I feel like the goddamn Lone Ranger. I tried to explain this to her, but her concept of loyalty is pretty simple. I think she’ll get over it. I did it as much for me as for dad, you know. I mean, he’s a bastard, no denying that, but he’s my father and I could not abandon him. This is the first time I’ve ever seen him vulnerable. I actually feel sorry for him, can you believe that?”
“I’ll never feel sorry for him. Ever.”
“Well, that’s your decision. You might change you mind.”
I changed the subject. “What do you think will happen to Henry?”
He sighed once again. “I’m concerned. I think mom will throw money at him to keep him out of her hair. On paper, it looks pretty sweet for him, but in reality it’ll be like he has no parents at all. At 14, he still needs a lot of work. I’m gonna try to spend as much time as I can, and I think you should do the same. He needs us now more than ever. Even if he doesn’t realize it.”
He was right. Henry would need guidance, though my younger brother was much more inclined to take it from Robert than from me. We were too close in age, with too much rivalry, history and tension for him to give any advice from me any credence.
“Ill help him if he let’s me,” I said.
“Another beer?” he asked, taking my empty bottle. I nodded. Elvis began his soothing, unobtrusive cover of “Danny Boy”.
When he returned and handed me a bottle, I asked, “Have you talked with Jennifer
He laughed. “I tried. You know our sisters. They’re still in denial about the whole scene. Jennifer’s got her own problems with her and Brian maybe splitting up, and Patricia thinks mom and dad will work things out. I thought divorce was their way of working things out,” he said, chuckling.
“I wish they were there today. Who knows when we’ll all be together again?”
“I wasn’t surprised, Patrick. Shit. That was not an enjoyable experience. A part of me wishes I didn’t come.”
I looked at him and raised my bottle. “I’m glad you did. And I think mom and dad appreciated it.”
He smile and tipped his bottle toward me.
“So, what are you gonna do, little brother? Your world’s being rocked. Where are you gonna end up?”
“Hell if I know. I’ve got to find a way to move out soon. Can you imagine living with dad and Laurie? Hari Kari is looking like an option.”
He laughed. We were relaxed with each other. The beer helped.
Alcohol played a pivotal role in our Irish clan. It was the sap which oozed from our family tree, clinging to the barren, disfigured limbs. It was as life-giving as blood, and as deadly as poison. It nurtured our neuroses, fed our insecurities and best of all, gave us a brief respite from our insular, loveless worlds of pain and confusion. Under the influence, we were able to laugh at ourselves, lightly dismissing the ubiquitous depression that hung over us like fog.
Family gatherings were never dull. At a certain point, when capacity levels were being tested, and oftentimes stretched, things could get nasty. Booze would often loosen the tongues of my sisters, raising the hatches that, sober, concealed the years of denial and anger and second class citizenship they toiled under the Iron Duke’s roof. Only when plied with alcohol would my sisters wear their truer colors. Their caustic barbs would be directed at anyone male, a response born of the age old repression that only a woman could understand. Though ostensibly uttered in jest, their pain went undisguised. It was like peaking under a bandage and finding a growing, gaping wound, impervious to healing.
Dad had inflicted these wounds, crudely, crassly, and only partially unknowingly. We were all united in our rejection of dad, and though not an ideal bond for siblings, it was the strongest one we had.
Robert often likened his favorite bartender to an anesthesiologist, and I couldn’t find fault with the analogy. All of us, to varying degrees, wanted to feel less, forget more.
I turned to Robert, my face once again serious. “Do you think dad can make it without mom?”
He raised his eyebrows. “Mom says he’ll be pissing on all our graves.”
“Seriously. Dad looks defeated. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t feel sorry for the bastard, but I think he’s shocked to discover that maybe he needs her more than she needs him. Maybe he needs all of us. He’s always seemed so emotionally distant, even hollow, to me. His job, the house, his family. Those were his parameters. Two of those are gone.”
“I agree. He might have the biggest adjustment out of all of you. He’s a dinosaur. A throwback. He’s still stuck in the Roosevelt administration, where a wife almost never left her husband. He’s never worn the skin of this culture comfortably. He’s a tough SOB, though. He always seems to land on his feet.”
We’ll see, I thought.
Two Years Later
I awoke with a start, the remnants of my dream scattering like roaches suddenly bathed in bright light. Years later, I would try to recall that dream, hoping for some significant message, some foreboding image that had occupied my subconscious that night. It remains just out of reach.
Someone was banging on my door. As I rolled off the bed, I checked the clock. 7:20 a.m. Who the hell could it be? I staggered down the hallway, hearing what sounded like sobs coming from the other side of the door. I was naked.
“Who is it?”
The sobbing continued. It sounded like two women. “Who is it?” I asked again.
“It’s Jenny and Patty.”
My mind raced. Why would they be here, now, together, and crying? They lived hundreds of miles apart, and over two hundred miles from my apartment.
“Patrick! Open up!” It was Patty, and she was becoming hysterical. I threw open the door, forgetting I was nude.
They burst through the door, crying uncontrollably.
“Dad’s dead,” they screamed together, throwing there arms around me. My world stopped, as if pausing to check for a pulse. I was paralyzed with a million emotions, unable to think clearly.
Tears streaked down my face. The only thing I could say was “How?”
They hesitated, holding on to me. Jenny looked at me, caught her breath, and then said, “He killed himself.”
A scream, full of knowledge, guilt and pain, escaped me, its source years from being discovered. I fell, as if struck, against my couch. I started howling, painful sobs racking my body as they picked me up. Jenny went to my bedroom and brought me my robe. I put it on and we sat on my couch holding each other and crying. They seemed surprised by my reaction. After a few minutes, I gathered myself and went and got dressed. They remained on the couch, crying quietly, holding each other. I’d hurt my ribs when I fell against the couch, so tucking in my shirt caused me to wince. The stab of pain solidified me for the moment, the emotional rebuilding process beginning immediately.
I went back to the couch and gathered my older sisters in my arms, rocking them back and forth. I started to cry again.
Thoughts tumbled out of my mouth in a painful stream of consciousness.
“I just knew it,” I began. “I knew he wasn’t that strong. Nobody could be. It makes complete sense now. It hurts like fucking hell, though. I haven’t talked to him in months, but I don’t feel guilty. Does mom know? What about Robert?”
Finally I fell silent. Jennifer got up, wiping her swollen eyes.
“Mom found out last night. The police came to the house and told her. Bob’s been with her all night. I don’t know how Henry’s taking it.
“We’re on our way to get Laurie, she doesn’t know yet. Everybody’s supposed to meet at moms. Can we please go?”
I looked at her for about five seconds. She was trying to be strong, an unfamiliar role, and her hastily erected edifice was showing signs of cracking under the strain. I hugged her, strangely attracted to her vulnerability.
I had to ask one more question. “How did he do it?”
She disengaged from me, leaving her hands on my shoulders. “He shot himself in the head,” she said, forever searing the image on my psyche. “Now can we please go? Mom needs us.”
The ride to Laurie’s apartment was interminable. I sat in the back seat of Jenny’s car, crying softly, listening to Patty’s occasional sniffle. Jenny was silent.
I thought back to the last time I’d seen dad, almost eight months ago. I’d dropped by Robert’s house, unannounced, hoping to catch him watching a football game. What I walked in on was Robert and dad, mildly drunk, arguing good naturedly while watching the game with the volume turned off. It was a bittersweet scene for me. I was happy for Robert, knowing how important these moments with dad were to him. Yet, I knew I would never experience such a moment. But that day, dad was receptive to my company and the three of us sat and kibitzed, me drinking beer, scotch being their libation of choice. One exchange in particular stands out to this day, for no other reason than it was the only time I could remember dad coming to my defense.
Since I’d moved out on my own, my consumption of beer had grown, in conjunction with my girth. Bob, his own formidable stomach approaching beach ball proportions, began to get on me about my slight paunch.
“Christ, when I was your age, I had a 29 inch waist.”
Without skipping a beat, dad snapped, “And when I was your age, I had a 30 inch waist.”
I’d never seen Robert so non-plussed.
When the laughter subsided, the phone rang. Robert picked it up after hesitating. He quickly became agitated. It was Laurie and she was in some kind of trouble, not exactly an eye-brow-raising piece of news. Dad and I watched him.
“You stay right there. We’ll be there in 20 minutes.” Without saying goodbye, he slammed the phone down.
“What happened?” dad asked.
“Her boyfriend hit her. I’ve had it up to here with that fucking wetback. Time to pay him a visit.”
There was just enough alcohol in the three of us to make this irrational suggestion enticing. Laurie had moved out of dad’s apartment shortly after I had, and she quickly fell in with the wrong crowd, eventually moving in with an illegal alien from Mexico that we were about to “visit”. It was a volatile relationship, frowned on by the rest of the family.
We piled into dad’s Cadillac, a sympathy gift he’d bought himself soon after the divorce. In the short ride to her apartment, Robert took his watch off and asked for mine, a silly, melodramatic gesture more for dad’s benefit than out of any concern for our respective timepieces. I did note, with some alarm that in dad’s glove box was a small handgun.
When Laurie opened the door, she was holding a bloody t-shirt to her mouth and she was crying. Over her shoulder, we could see Alberto sitting on the couch, his leg thrown nonchalantly over the arm of the sofa. He looked at us with an emotionless stare, his eyes glassy. He was either high or crazy.
Robert pushed past us, going right for him. Dad quickly grabbed him, momentarily holding him. I walked up to Alberto, who remained seated. I was drunk with beer, bravery and the support behind me.
“It’s time for you to pack your shit up and get out. For good.”
Behind me, not wanting to waste the delicious adrenal burst of testosterone, Robert yelled, “Now!”
Dad had let him go, and Robert moved up behind me, breathing hard. Alberto was unmoved by the presence of three angry, inebriated Irishmen. I thought he needed some idea as to how serious we were, so I grabbed him by the shirt and flung him toward the bedroom, following him in.
He glared at me but made no move. I pushed him with both hands in the chest and he fell back onto the bed. My adrenaline was pumping dramatically as I looked over my shoulder and saw dad and Robert filling the doorway, backing me up. It was a feeling I would never forget.
When he’d packed his things, dad sat him down and explained the ground rules. All of the starch had been drained from him. He was to never see, let alone touch, Laurie again. He nodded passively, still seemingly oblivious as to how close he’d come to a beating. I wanted him to show some fear, to acknowledge what he’d done. I reached over, lifted his chin with my left hand and slapped him, hard, with my right. It seemed to snap him out of whatever world he had retreated to, because he began babbling in Spanish and cowering on the couch.
Laurie stepped in and spoke for the first time. “Don’t hurt him Patrick!”
I backed away. Dad and Robert were watching me. “
Turning to Laurie, “Why? He hurt you! He needs to know how serious we are. I think he gets the message.”
Alberto got up, slung his duffel bag over his shoulder and walked out the door. Robert bumped him as he went by. When he was gone, Laurie started to cry. Robert hugged her, dabbing with the t-shirt at her swollen lip.
“You’ve got to back us up on this, Laurie,” he said. “You can’t continue to see him. Do you understand?”
She nodded. The three of us exchanged glances. We knew Laurie. There was not exactly a pool of quality men waiting to spend time with her. This scene was going to inevitably be repeated.
On the way back to Robert’s, Dad stopped and picked up more beer and a bottle of single malt scotch. The sudden camaraderie, foreign to the three of us, was more intoxicating than any alcohol, and when we were once again ensconced on Robert’s couch, we toasted each other. I was as proud as I’d ever been. Not because of the bullying act with Alberto, but because they were embracing me, giving me a glimpse behind the curtain at what manhood encompassed.
At the end of the evening, dad hugged me as I was leaving, and I told him I loved him. The irony of that exchange would be with me forever, as that was the least time I ever saw him.
Now, in the back seat and crying quietly, I was grateful for that final hug and my declaration of love. That memory would keep guilt at bay in the ensuing months as I reflected on my years as one of the Iron Duke’s unloved sons.
As we approached Laurie&r