Red Benson* lived around the corner on Locust Street. He was a milkman with a drinking problem, but it better captures his spirit by saying he was a drinker with a milk route. Unlike my father, Red was happy when inebriated. Every Christmas Eve he’d dress up as Santa and hand out toys at the orphanage on North Main Street, make several stops afterward, then, still dressed as old Kris Kringle, drop by our house, though never with presents. Our parents would already be “feeling no pain,” as they often put it. The three would sit at the Formica kitchen table as our mother sipped her Narragansett beer and our father and Santa kicked-back shots of whiskey. This boozy tradition took place in a room we called the “kitchen,” even though it did not have a sink or stove or cupboards.
Billy and Mary were young enough to believe that Red was Santa. They’d wait patiently in the parlor, hoping Old St. Nick would start feeling his oats. (The parlor was the second of the two downstairs rooms, unless you counted the unheated, enclosed porch, which we called the “den,” and the minuscule alcove, or “pantry,” which contained the stove and sink and a few shelves. The parlor looked and functioned like what our friends called their living rooms.) Eventually, the two kids would meander by the kitchen table hoping to draw our visitor’s attention, until, suddenly, the overweight man would spring from his chair and chase after them. Once he cornered his prey (which was easy enough given how tiny the house was), he’d grab a skinny leg just above the knee and squeeze his fingers and thumb a bit, jiggling his grip. It was impossible to not laugh uncontrollably, begging him to stop and not wanting to be chased and caught again. I’ll admit that on one occasion, and despite our ages, Frankie and I were targeted.
After five or ten minutes of this, we were ordered to our door-less room at the top of the stairs, a space barely large enough to hold four beds, each a foot from the next, and each with a scapular tied to its headboard to protect us from dying in our sleep. A blessed palm leaf, pressed between a painted-over hinge and door frame, guaranteed us a peaceful afterlife in the event the scapulars didn’t work. It was then that the second half of our Christmas Eve script played out. It began with our mother notifying Red that our father’s habit was to drink away all of the family’s money, often not leaving enough for food; that he did nothing around the house and therefore had no business being a property owner; that he took every opportunity to embarrass us all in the eyes of our neighbors, some of whom, if they lived more than two blocks away, would note the condition of the house and our clothes, as well as my father’s absence (whenever the bars were open), and assume he was dead. At this point in her narrative, she would add, “I only wish!” And that would be our father’s cue. He’d point out that she wasn’t telling Red anything she hadn’t already told him – along with every other neighbor who would listen, and that everyone is sick of hearing her bellyaching, and that because he was conceding the truth of her allegations, she should just let it go. Especially given that it was Christmas Eve, for Christ’s sake!
But she wasn’t able to let it go.
Slightly sobered by the evening’s angry turn, Red would try to extricate himself from a bad situation he
knew was about to get worse, but my father would insist he have another shot “for the road.” As he poured the whiskey, he’d begin a degradation process designed to prove that Santa was out to do him or his kids harm. We’d be alerted to the start of the mortification ceremony when we’d hear my father address his guest, who was active in the local American Legion chapter, as “Commodore,” a rank he had never earned. (I’m not sure why he did this; maybe because he himself had never served in the military?) Within minutes, he would unload the heavy artillery he had been keeping under wraps by bringing up some real or imagined failing of Red’s, some problem that had been festering for months, one he hadn’t yet articulated.
We’d sense a dark cloud gathering whenever he’d stare out the window toward Red’s house, shaking his head, muttering to himself. “The son-of-a-bitch,” he’d whisper as he plotted a counter-move. One year it was the handful of leaves from Red’s grape vine that hung over the fence dividing our contiguous backyards: it was not only unsightly but a danger to himself and his family. He was especially irritated by a couple of ripe grapes that had fallen from a cluster onto our badly cracked walkway, leaving their smooth purple skins to potentially upend and seriously hurt one of his kids. Another year he was bothered by the fact that whenever Red hired Frankie or me to help him on his milk route on the many Saturdays he was hung over, he’d pay us each only one lonely dollar for a full twelve hours of work. “It’s nice to be nice,” he told Santa menacingly on one of those nights before Christmas, “but the boys aren’t going to run up and down three flights of tenement stairs all day for a measly buck while you keep your fat ass in the warm truck.” This type of verbal salvo would elicit backlash from my mother. Wishing to set the record straight, she would loudly interject a comment meant to expose her husband’s motives. On this night, with an outraged tone, she opined that it really didn’t matter how little we were paid as he invariably took from his boys every penny they earned.
Once, he withheld his onslaught until Santa, in costume, repaired our chronically leaking toilet, a task my father would not or could not do himself.
After Red escaped, the real frustrations were vented. The yelling, accusations, and threats often became frightening enough for Frankie and me to run down into the kitchen to plead with them to stop. Occasionally a neighbor or two would call the cops and soon thereafter, but way too late, there would be knock at the door.
When Mary, the youngest, reached age five or thereabouts, another act was added to the drama. He’d herd the four of us into the parlor and close the French doors to the kitchen, where my mother remained. (The closed doors didn’t muffle his voice; our mother, seated only three feet away, could still hear him as clearly as if he were standing by her side.) Here, at one or two o’clock in the morning, he’d deliver what I believe were his cardinal life lessons. He’d stare at each of us, slowly tracking his gaze from one to the other, from Frankie to me to Billy to Mary. A couple of us would be wiping away tears. “Always stick together,” he would say; and, “Always get a receipt.” Most of these parlor-talks ended with the same request. “I’ve never asked any of you for a goddamned thing,” he would say earnestly, though not altogether truthfully, “but I do have this one favor to ask.” We’d be seated on the old couch across the tiny room from the even older couch on which he sat; we’d know what was coming but remain respectfully attentive nonetheless. “Make sure that when they put me in the ground…” he’d pronounce in a solemn tone and punctuate with a pause, “I am really dead.” After making eye contact with each of us, he’d ask, “Will you promise me that?” We’d nod. He’d remind us that “tomorrow is a new day” and we’d go back to bed.
He took all of the money we’d earn in the small ways we knew how. I was ten and was pocketing a quarter a day by helping a neighborhood kid deliver newspapers, when my father asked how I was doing. I was shocked that he had asked, as that was the first time he had shown an interest in my well-being.
“Good,” I replied, wearing a tentative smile.
“No, I mean how are you set?”
“Good,” I said, not really knowing what he was asking.
“How much money do you have?” He sounded frustrated with me.
“Two dollars and twenty-five cents.”
“Let me borrow it and I’ll give it back next payday.”
Asking how I was set became a habit, as did not paying me back.
As we aged and moved from milkman helper and paperboy helper to paperboy to under-the-table janitor to delivery boy, and, at sixteen, to factory worker, we would have larger reservoirs of cash for him to take. And he would. For quite a few years, most of his cars – all of which were old and beat-up and not long for this world – were purchased in large part with our money.
When he wasn’t popped or loaded or tipsy or feeling either his oats or no pain, he was what we called “wicked drunk,” and those were the times he’d do things with us, expensive things. One payday he drove Frankie and me and four or five neighborhood kids to the airport, loaded us onto two small planes and had the pilots fly us over the city. Later, when my mother asked how she was supposed to buy food for the week given that he had just wasted the grocery money, he said the hell with the food, the kids have to know what their city looks like from above.
Another time he decided he would treat us, along with another group of friends, to a Celtics game. Like the plane ride, this was new to us. He was driving a car we had just helped him buy, one he hadn’t yet run entirely into the ground, so we all assumed it would make the one-hour drive there and then back without breaking down, even if the drive was actually two hours each way, as he never quite learned the proper directions and would stop at a handful of bars along the way to ask where we were, exactly, and how best we could get to the Garden, and if he could trouble them for a shot of whiskey. During the game he drank whiskey nips and beer chasers, so he was drunker when we left Boston Garden than when we got there.
Later, we were headed south on Rt. 24 at about 11 p.m. when a Chevy Impala passed us on the left. Route 24 has two lanes in each direction, so passing a slower car on the left is perfectly acceptable. But not to my father, not when he was the one being passed. His tendency was to interpret the move as an insult and a challenge. A threat.
He sped up until we were side-by-side with the Chevy, which had returned to the right hand lane. Honking the horn, glaring at the guy, giving him the finger, he ordered Frankie, who was in the front passenger seat, to roll down his window, which he did.
“Pull over, you son-of-a-bitch!” My father screamed.
The guy didn’t want to and instead sped up, and we kept pace. After a mile or so of this, our old Oldsmobile suddenly swerved into the right lane behind the Chevy, with our horn still blaring, when Bam! We hit the guy’s rear bumper. Bam! Bam! Again and again. This continued until one of the Casey brothers, said, “Mr. Hearn, I smell fire.” The warning was dismissed as a subterfuge designed to get him to slow down, but after another minute or so, all five of us kids in the back seat agreed that something was burning. Frankie noticed the dashboard lights were a bright red. The engine shut down. Then we were on the side of the dark highway, still twenty miles from Fall River, hitchhiking.
When we got home and before she knew what had happened, my mother, after spending an evening with her Narragansett and worrying about how she’d pay the week’s bills, asked about the game. None of us had much to say. Wondering how that could be, she persisted with questions until she learned that we no longer had a functioning car. While owning a vehicle didn’t affect her comings and goings directly – she had to walk to her evening job at a discount department store and ask for rides home, and she lugged our laundry out to a waiting cab every Monday morning, washed it at a laundromat a mile away, then brought it all home in another cab – it was what brought him to and from work, which allowed her to pay the bills that did get paid.
“How are you getting to work tomorrow?” she asked, already suspecting the truth. At that time he was working at the Stop and Shop in Fairhaven, fifteen miles away, and taking a bus or a cab or even bumming a ride was not an option.
“How in the hell can I get to work?” he responded, meaning that he would not be going.
“Why in the world did you do this? What were you thinking? Using money we don’t have for a basketball game?”
“The boys should know what it feels like to be inside the Boston Garden.”
“Even if it means destroying our car?”
“That was an act of God! What am I supposed to do about that?”
“God made you get drunk and drag half the neighborhood to Boston? I’ve had it with you! We’d all be better off if you were dead!”
“I’d be better off too!”
“Except for the neighbors on the block, everybody else in the parish thinks you’re already dead! They see the house falling down and me taking the kids to church every Sunday by myself, and they think their father is dead!”
“Good! Let the hypocritical bastards think what they want!”
“Just last week as I was leaving church, Mrs. Delaney came up to me and asked when my husband died! And she lives only two blocks up the hill! She thought you were dead! I told her I wish you were dead!” my mother repeated, laughing louder each time she said it.
The following day the vehicle was towed to the gas station two buildings up the street. When he was told that the car was no longer operable, and would never be, seeing how it was driven some distance without a drop of oil in its engine, he arranged to have the towing fee waived in exchange for the car, which he was told would be sold for junk. His replacement vehicle was older still and big, round, and truck-like in design, with none of the sleek lines that had characterized American cars for at least a decade. It resembled a bloated, worn out, dull green hearse.
Two weeks after our excursion to the Celtics game, he was climbing out of the hearse after a day at work and hours at the Golden Pheasant, his favorite watering hole, when his car-that-would-never-again-run drove by our house and took a left onto Walnut Street. He walked to the gas station and argued with its owner-mechanic, came back to our house, opened the kitchen cupboard and removed a five pound bag of sugar.
Neighbors were coming and going or milling about in the evening’s twilight as my tipsy father walked by, with his bag of sugar clearly visible. He hung a left at Walnut, opened the gas cap door, and poured the sugar into the tank of what was once his car.
It was about 9 p.m. when I heard someone fiddling with the doorknob and pushing against the door, like they were trying to get in but couldn’t. I opened it and saw a face I didn’t recognize. It was swollen and misshapen and bloody. The guy was wearing my father’s clothes, so I called Frankie over, and we tried to convince him to let us take him to the hospital. He refused but we insisted. We walked him out to his car which was parked six feet from the curb. Hours later a doctor told us he was given eight stitches on his face and thirty-eight inside his mouth, that he had a concussion and two broken ribs.
Once home, Frankie stood by the bed and asked what happened, but my father wouldn’t say. Frankie kept asking, pressing, pestering… “At least tell me where it happened,” he pleaded. Wanting to be left alone, my father mumbled something about a fight at the Roma, a small bar in the basement of the Academy building, a bar he rarely frequented. Frankie turned, walked downstairs, and then into the cellar. He returned with Billy’s fourth grade science project, a three-foot long steel pipe which had been forced through a large, rusted, steel nut, both of which out younger brother found behind Lyons appliance store. He called the device a “microscope,” a term his teacher and co-judge of the competition, Miss Riley, rejected.
“A microscope? Micro means small. This thing is longer than a yardstick. It resembles a telescope more than a microscope,” she’d told him after he had explained his project to the class.
“That’s what I mean…my science project is a telescope. That’s it.”
“Where are the lens?” the teacher asked, staring at but not touching the implement.
Billy glanced at one end of the steel pipe and shrugged.
“What about mirrors? Do you have any in there? And a stand, something to mount it on, what about a stand?” The classmate from whom I later heard this account added that Miss Riley’s questions made Billy’s face turn red.
When he got home, he opened the door to the dark and musty cellar and flung the pipe down the stairs. I heard it clank a few times against the rocky walls.
Frankie returned an hour later with the unbloodied microscope. By the time he got to the Roma, there were only three old men sitting at the bar, and when the bartender spotted him nervously bouncing around holding a steel pipe, he was told to leave.
“I’m looking for the guy who beat up my father,” Frankie replied.
“No one beat up anyone here,” the bartender told him.
“I’m not leaving until I get the name of the guy.”
“Listen, kid, first of all, no one got beat up. Second, you’re a minor who’s threatening me and my customers with a deadly weapon. If you’re not out of here in two seconds, I’m calling the cops.”
My mother believed that lying was a sin, and a serious enough one to keep a person out of heaven. It was imperative for a liar to confess their lies and to engage in acts of contrition in order to be accepted back into the fold. It was better, though, to not lie at all. I am aware of her lying to my father twice, at most. Twice, at most, over the course of a half-century. She once came home from her sister’s with an end table she claimed she bought for next-to-nothing from the Goodwill second-hand store, when, it turned out, the table was new. And one evening my father came home from The Golden Pheasant drunk and demanding a dollar, which I believe would have bought him the two additional shots of whiskey he very much wanted. She swore she didn’t have a dollar, which may have been true but probably wasn’t; still, she stuck to her story until the cops arrived. There were good reasons for her to lie: she didn’t own a single piece of furniture that was purchased new and wasn’t junk; the mass-produced table couldn’t have cost that much; the dollar could be spent on milk or bread the next day; and not giving it to him would lessen the probability that he would kill a pedestrian while driving to and from the bar. Moreover, my father had lied to her a million times.
But it wasn’t the virtually nonexistent lying that upset him; it was the way she would bring up something painful from his childhood, and do so when he was most vulnerable, which was when he was wicked drunk. She’d assert that his older brother’s death at twenty was a Godsend because it kept him from witnessing the kind of man his younger sibling, my father, had become. Or she’d argue with the certainty of a medical pathologist that his second brother, who had died decades earlier as a young boy, hadn’t drowned after all, as the family had always insisted, but had died from a mysterious illness that had been passed from my father to my brother Billy, a disease that twice a year put Billy, from the time he was an infant, and my mother, on a series of slow buses to and from Mass General Hospital. Her message was that he was responsible for his son’s pain and suffering.
These taunts had a greater effect on him than did the infrequent, minor lies; they tilted his weak center of gravity and sent him spinning out of control more than any amount of booze could. They were probable truths that contradicted his story, that challenged his reality and disrupted his life. He called them her “Russian taddics.” (He was a formally uneducated man who mispronounced quite a few words.)
Like most cold war Americans, he viewed the Soviet Union as a threat. Its lies he expected: of course they’d deny wanting to place offensive missiles in Cuba. It was their attempt to undermine our sense of security and predictability, our center of social gravity, our way of living, our shared narrative of who we were, where we came from, what we were made of, where we were going, that deeply upset him.
“The idocity of those bastards,” he would murmur, shaking his head in disgust, his adrenal glands pumping adrenaline into his bloodstream, fueling the desire to fight.
“I can’t take any more of your mother’s Russian taddics,” he would tell us, emotionally exhausted, after a night of drinking and arguing. “I give up.”
Many years after the barroom beating, my father came down stairs and looked at me with surprise.
“Thanks for coming by, Father, I need to say my confession.” He wasn’t kidding.
My mother, who had gone across the street to the convenience/liquor store to pick up the newspaper, came in moments later. “Ma, I hurt my knee sliding into second base,” he said, obviously thinking she was his mother. She chuckled.
The doctor told us that an x-ray of his brain revealed that it had changed in structure somewhat, likely from a combination of an ocean of whiskey and a lifetime of beatings, and that he was experiencing a psychosis, one that was irreversible. You have no choice, he said, but to put him into a facility where he will be looked after.
He lived in a small room with four beds occupying most of the floor space. There were eighteen inches or so between each bed and three feet between the bed farthest from the door and closest to the room’s one window. The person in that last bed was the patient with the most seniority, and he had claim to the chair. When one of the four men died, each of the remaining men moved one bed closer to the window until, eventually, the chair belonged to my father. That is where he’d be sitting whenever I visited. I’d park my car just outside the window and, when I walked by, I’d wave. He‘d wave back. He sat in that chair for the last eighteen years of his life.
My mother, alone on Linden Street, was able to enjoy a bit of peace and quiet for a while. She spent her days watching the televised news networks’ depiction of a decaying world, assessing with her own eyes the deterioration of the neighborhood, or doing a tiny load of laundry in the washer and dryer Billy bought for her. Evenings were devoted to sipping beer in front of the kitchen radiator, its cover bare under an exposed, gritty divot in the plaster wall.
“What happened to JFK?” I asked when visiting one weekend after her radiator-shrine –with its matching pair of copper-colored bust-banks and a framed photograph of the late president – had been dismantled.
“I guess he didn’t treat his wife right, either,” she said, shaking her head over recently publicized facts of former President Kennedy’s personal life. I wasn’t sure whether the “either” referred to my father or to all men.
Billy, Mary and I sat by the hospital bed in the parlor for the last three days of her life. She was willing herself to stay alive until Frankie came home, asking, every few hours, how much longer it would be before he arrived.
But Frankie would not be coming home. Like my mother, he was dying of colon cancer, and he was too sick to leave his own hospital bed. I didn’t know whether to tell her that she would not see her oldest child again and that it was time to let go, or to let her hang on, and die believing her children would, as they should, outlive her by decades, but die wondering why one of her boys hadn’t come home for her death.
On the third day, a hospice nurse came by. As she took my mother’s vitals, Billy walked to the rectory and asked if a priest would come to the house to administer last rites. The young clergyman sat with my mother and chatted. She smiled, thanked him for stopping by, and looked completely relieved. For the first time since I knew her, she appeared genuinely happy. A prayer was said. She was anointed. She received God’s grace. A few hours later, she died.
By the time he was fourteen, his two siblings were dead, as was his immigrant father, who had taken his own life. He had dropped out of school and was working full-time to support his mother. He was drinking daily. And yet, as an adult, and despite the booze and the fights and the unreliable transportation, he rarely missed a day at work. Through a dark and stubborn fog, he regularly urged his children to remain close to each other, at all costs.
James Joyce said, “In the particular is contained the universal.” I see the history and social structure that preceded my time – both their degrading and their life-enhancing aspects – in my father, and because of that, I see him more clearly than I did as a child.
Before he was buried, we made sure he was dead. His spirit is with me, still. His name was Francis Joseph Hearn.
*Names of several neighbors have been changed.
About the writer:
John Hearn’s work appears in a number of publications, including Epoch, River Styx, Tulane Review, The Big Muddy, The Humanist, the Washington Post and the Buffalo News. A 2013 piece was awarded honorable mention status in a “best emerging writers” contest by Glimmer Train. In 2011, he co-authored Shade It Black: Death and After in Iraq (Casemate). That book was Miami University’s 2012 Summer Reading program selection and was assigned to all 4,000 incoming students. A sampling of his publications can be found here.
Image: “Carnival on Monday, with Tom” by Tyrone Deans, London. Oil on canvas.