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A MEASURE OF DIGNITY (REFLECTIONS OF A SPIRIT)

by

Jordan J. Vezina



My mother and father were animals. Perhaps not viscous, but definitely not the kind you pet. To put a face on the subject, my father was the reason that I learned about firearms and the principle of odds in relation to Russian Roulette at such a young age.

The old man had one of those jobs, the type where as a kid you’re never sure exactly what it is he does, and so you tell everyone that he’s an astronaut or a cowboy. Cowboy has a nicer ring to it than district rep for the Henry James Whiskey Company. It’s not until you get a little older that you figure out this means you can sneak whiskey from the crates he keeps in the basement and blow away a lot of your youth on drunken fantasy. There’s not a lot of things more pathetic than a drunk nine year old trying to hide his inebriation from his drunk father, who in turn is trying to hide his own from his son.

The distribution warehouse for Henry James Whiskey was the size of a closet, and so that meant that the old man was always using the basement to storehouse the overflow. The great thing about Henry James Whiskey is that there’s no real seal on the cap, so no one knows when it’s been opened. While the old man was at work, driving around in his crummy old Chrysler trying to sell booze, I was down in the basement with a juice jar collecting an ounce here, an ounce there. After awhile it all added up like anger and frustration.

The thing about Dad and I was that each of us always knew when the other was drunk, but we never said or did anything about it. I guess that in a weird kind of way it was the only thing we had in common.

I mentioned Russian roulette before. Talk about someone scaring the living shit out of you. Late at night, after I’d fallen asleep on the couch watching Carson in a drunken stupor, Dad and I used to play a game. There’s nothing like waking up out of a peaceful sleep to the sound of a hammer dropping on the empty chamber of a .38 special.

Click. Click. Click. Click. My turn, his turn, my turn, his turn. The whole time I would just lie there pretending that I was still asleep, but sometimes it was hard to block out the stink of his whiskey breath and that incessant clicking.

Click. Click. Click. Click. My turn, his turn, my turn, his turn.

The old man never put any bullets in the gun, at least as far as I know. The problem with crazy drunks is, you never know what they’re going to do, or when they’re going to decide to load the gun.

Mom was never at home much, mainly because all her boyfriends lived elsewhere. I didn’t learn what a whore was until I was twelve, and then it all kind of clicked into place and the world made sense for once, if only in a horrible and fucked up kind of way.

School was a blast for the most part, just a bunch of days strung together and filled with me and my buddies running around fucking everybody off. I chilled out with the whole alcoholic trip around fourteen, mainly because I didn’t want to end up like the old man.

Click. Click. Click. Click.

I had this teacher by the name of Mr. Pringle, and the thing I liked about Mr. Pringle was that he took no shit. He was this hard assed old Vietnam vet, used to be a Marine or something. Mr. Pringle was about five foot five, but he had huge arms all covered with these death and destruction tattoos, and you just knew he could twist your head off like a bottle cap, if he really wanted to.

Mr. Pringle taught social studies, and he took a real interest in trying to clue us kids into what the world was really about. This guy would stop in the middle of reading the textbook, shake his head, and mutter under his breath, “what a load of bullshit.”

It was Mr. Pringle who was always pushing all this stuff on us like Strike! By Jeremy Brecher, and A Nation of Sheep by Lederer, and the brilliant Howard Zinn. Talk about reading books that just ruin your whole day. I liked living in ignorance. I never got into all the political stuff and the civil rights thing and all that, but I did become very interested in the family unit. I always thought my family was fucked up, mainly because I was raised on television. There are some things the Cleavers just didn’t do.

Click. Click. Click. Click.

Back when I used to stay home from school pretending I was sick I would always watch the super station, because everything else on was crap, and this way I could watch old sitcoms all day long. Leave It To Beaver, My Three Sons, The Brady Bunch, you get the idea. This is where the notion of the perfect family unit got planted in my head. Sure, Ward and the Beaver got into disagreements sometimes, but I guaran-fucking-tee you that Mike Brady never put a .38 special to Greg’s head. The more I read though, and began to really open my eyes and look around, I realized that my family was normal, and it was the Cleavers who were fucked up.

The neighbors were used to my parents getting into it, screaming at each other and breaking shit. There was, however, one argument in particular that is commonly referred to as ‘The whiskey bottle incident’.

By this point the overflow at the Henry James warehouse had gotten so bad that there were whiskey crates stacked from floor to ceiling in the basement, in every closet, and all over the kitchen.

Once again dad had caught mom cheating on him, and they were screaming at each other in the kitchen, and I mean laying it on good! Every curse in the book, they were using it. I was just standing in the living room doorway like an idiot, watching it all go down. “I should fucking kill you for what you did! Out in plain sight where everyone can see!” dad roared, his face so red I thought he was going to explode.

“If you were more of a man I wouldn’t have to fuck around!” Mom screamed back so hard her voice cracked.

“Whore!”

That did it. Reaching over mom pulled a bottle of whiskey from the case and hurled it as hard as she could at her husband, missing his head by a few inches and the bottle shattering against the wall.

“Now knock that off Diane!”

Mom didn’t pay him much mind as she began launching bottle after bottle, dad dodging them like some kind of circus performer. It didn’t take him long to start firing back, and before I knew it the place was exploding in a crossfire of whiskey bottles and glass shrapnel. Finally mom got a lucky shot in and a bottle clunked against the side of dad’s head, knocking him cold. Of course she immediately panicked and called an ambulance. At the time I couldn’t understand it, but now I know that’s just how women are. They’ll throw all the whiskey bottles in the world, and never even think about it until one of them clocks you in the head. That's kind of like how love is. Hit and miss.

I got into the habit of hanging out in A.P. Hill memorial park after school, as late as I possibly could without my folks calling the cops. At the time I didn’t know who Ambrose Pierce Hill was, and now that I do it still doesn’t matter.

I would sit on the edge of the old fountain (long ago having ceased its fountainly duties) scribbling in my notebook, writing what at the time I wouldn’t admit was poetry. It was the only way to get the things out of my head that were scraping against the inside of my skull and urging me on to furious deeds of mischief.

“Watchoo writin’?”

I turned to the sound of the gravely voice to find a smelly old wino leaning against the fountain, staring out at the highway.

“You talking to me?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

I looked down at my notebook and then back to him. He was dressed in ratty old jeans and a t-shirt, wrapped up in an overcoat against the August chill. In his hand was a brown paper bag that I suspected contained a bottle of Henry James.

“I don’t know. Stuff.”

“There a big market out there for stuff?”

“Look man, I got enough problems. The last thing I need is some old burn-out givin’ me the business.”

“Sorry. Just thought you might like to talk to a fellow writer,” he said, turning away.

“You a writer?”

“Yep.”

“Why are you sleeping in the park if you‘re a writer?”

“Is it so unheard of?” he asked. “Never be bought, never be sold kid. If I’ve got any advice in this life, that’s it.”

“What does that mean?”

“Don’t compromise yourself for nobody, no how.”

“You don’t compromise?”

“That’s why I sleep in the park,” he said with a smile.

“What about the booze? Is that part of not compromising?”

The old bum almost fell over laughing as he unwrapped the brown bag and pulled out a bible.

“We should all aspire to write something so great,” he said, handing the beat up black book to me.

I thumbed through the thing as I shifted around on the fountain, the stone seat making my rear sore.

“So what’s the-”

I looked up and he was gone. The bible was a little pocket-sized job, so I stood up, slid it into my back pocket, and began the walk home upon the tip of darkness.

Click. Click. Click. Click.

Every breath you take has the potential to be your last. Never thought about it like that, did you? Every wisp of air you take in is a damn underachiever, never quite living up to its destiny. Each step you take could be your last. We’re all just walking in the gap between the words Birth and Death.

I bring this up because it was as I stood there staring at Mr. Delaney’s dead body sitting on his front porch that I first felt the cold breath of my own mortality upon my back.

I didn’t know Mr. Delaney very well, he was just another crazy old man as far as I knew. He’d been in Vietnam same as my dad, but I didn’t even know what that meant, not really. All I did know was that Mr. Delaney, Mr. Pringle, my dad, A.P. Hill, and all those other guys had some kind of weird bond that outsiders like me and mom could never understand.

I stood there for a long time staring at Mr. Delaney, looking into his dead eyes, trying to fathom what else he knew that I didn’t now that he was dead.

Later on emergency services came to cart Mr. Delaney away, and I felt kind of weird about that. I suppose it's like when someone removes anything you're used to having around, even if you never really even noticed or cared about it before, you register its absence.

Mom and Dad went back to their old ways soon enough after the whiskey incident.

Click. Click. Click. Click.

I know you're probably reading this and thinking that no human being could do something like this to his child, but hold onto your disbelief, because it gets better.

"What are you doing?" I asked, annoyed at the intrusion of his trip on my life yet again.

"You ever tied one of these things?" Dad asked, looking down at me from the kitchen chair he was standing on.

Had I ever tied a noose before? What kind of question is that to ask your kid? What if he says yes? What then?

"Knock it off dad." I shook my head and opened the refrigerator door. I glanced over at the drop leaf kitchen table with the empty bottle of Henry James sitting on it, and the empty bottle's half full cousin next to it.

"Don't be disrespectful boy," he said sternly, fiddling with the noose.

"What is your problem?" I asked.

"Your mother is unfaithful.”

I looked at the floor for a moment. What was I supposed to say to that?

The old man looked down at me through drunken eyes, and maybe for the first time I really felt sorry for the old bastard. I mean, he was such a wreck of a human being, how could you not? The worst part of it all wasn't that he was a wreck, but that the wreck was going down.

"I'm tired Daniel," he said, lips moving beneath his bulbous pink nose. "Do you understand son? I just... why don't you go catch a movie or something?"

Without another word I walked out of the kitchen and back down the hallway, heading into my father's room. I found it there, in the underwear drawer nestled amongst some boxers with a small box of bullets. Opening the box I took out a bullet, and with that and the gun I headed back into the kitchen.

"All right," I said. "It's you and me dad. Let's do this."

For the first time in a long while I saw a movie of shock play across my father's face as he stood on the chair with the means of his destruction in hand.

"Put the gun away Daniel."

"No, fuck that!" I snapped, dropping the bullet into the wheel and clicking it shut as I sat down on a chair. Putting the gun to my head I pulled back the hammer. "You're a broken down drunk who can't even hold his family together, but you are my dad and we're all we've got."

"Why are you doing this?"

To be honest, I couldn't tell you now why I did what I did. My Father and I were never close, in fact we were damn nasty to each other most of the time. It was true though, we were all we had.

"Because you taught me so well, and I hate to let a skill go to waste."

For a moment we just stared at each other, him standing there with his noose and me sitting there with my gun, the twin princes of self-destruction.

Dad dropped his noose, stepped down from the chair. He took his bottle of Henry James and walked out the back door and onto the lawn.

I stood with gun in hand watching my father break down and cry in the dark hold of night.

I should have gone out there and tried to say something to make him feel better, but instead I headed out the front door. I had already exhausted the limits of my compassion for my father. The old man was living proof that you can have a measure of whiskey, or a measure of dignity, but you can’t have both.

Out front the world was much more peaceful. Streetlights glowing softly and not much noise beyond what was emanating from inside our neighbor’s houses.

For whatever reason, I reached into my back pocket and pulled out the small pocket bible. I didn’t know why, but it made me angry. There was no answer, no reason for anything. I had grown wise enough to know that. I looked at that bible and it made me mad, because just like all the sitcoms and manufactured history you learn in school, it had been put together by just one more fake standing in line to tell you how it’s supposed to be, and setting the bar higher than you can ever reach.

I tossed it in the gutter as I began walking beyond the dimly lit world of the neighborhood streetlights. I still had many lessons to learn before I could ever understand all the things I had thrown away in the pursuit of answers that didn’t exist.

I needed to recharge my batteries, find something that could hold off my reality for a while and give me a much-needed injection of fantasy.

My only comfort was that somewhere in the world an episode of Leave it to Beaver was on, and at least one family was getting it right.

It was as I was having these thoughts that I was alerted to a new sound, a squeaking. Down the street I saw a small Honda rocking back and forth.

I’m not a peeping Tom or anything, but that wasn’t something that normally went down on my street, and so I casually walked down the sidewalk toward where all the commotion was.

As I got closer to the car I saw that the windows were all fogged up, and whoever was inside was really going to town.

I was startled by a woman’s hand slapping up against a window, bracing her for something. In the clear spot the handprint left behind, I saw into the car, saw my mother’s face contorted in passion as just one more random man nailed her on a Tuesday night.

I should have been shocked, horrified, disgusted. Instead, I felt nothing. I was nothing. I was all out. She didn’t see me standing there. I looked down at my hand and saw that I was still holding the gun.

Raising it up, I pointed it at my mother through the window.

I pulled the trigger.

Click.

As I said, I felt nothing. I wasn’t trying to kill her out of anger. It was the family game.

I put the pistol to my head and pulled the trigger.

Click.

My turn, her turn, my turn, her turn.

I turned the gun back on the car and pulled the trigger.

Click.

So far, so good. Inside the car they were going hard. They hadn’t noticed me.

I put the gun to my head.

I pulled the trigger.







ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jordan Vezina has spent four years in the Marines Corps and currently lives in San Francisco, California where he gets lost a lot. He is finishing a novel entitled Henry Slave and falling recklessly through the year 2001. Visit Jordan’s website at www.jordanvezina.com



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