The following piece was presented at Jersey City Writers’ literary event – Blackout! A Night of Memoirs. Please enjoy. It is an except from an forthcoming memoir NJMF: Defiance and Survival in the Suburbs by Mark Sullivan.
“You know, I swear I don’t know what the hell it is you think you’re accomplishing going out there with all this protesting crap.”
The way he eats tells you how angry he is. He sits forward in his chair, stabs the food with his inverted fork, and then tilts back his can of beer.
Father, head of the table. Son, seated left. Family dinner. Television: On.
“And look at you punks. That one kid you run with looks like a goddam dinosaur for christsake, with the mohawk and everything.”
He spits pieces of food when he speaks and pretends not to notice.
“I keep telling you that somebody is going to show you a little bit of the suffering and brutality you’re always carrying on about. There’s people out there who’ve seen it for real, you know.”
My face is expressionless. The more I find my identity, the more he hates me. I’m trapped; constantly belittled, corrected, punished, loathed for doing the things I can’t help but do. I don’t show any of this on my face, at least I try not to. I know better. I just need to sit here and take it, wait for him to finish his beer, get it out of his system and leave me alone.
“Me, for example. People who don’t appreciate you criticizing American businesses without knowing the good they’ve brought you and this country. You think I don’t know what I’m talking about, but let me tell you that those poor bastards in China are happy to sew our damn clothes for a quarter an hour.”
My mother is sitting across from me fighting back tears. When he started in, she was silent; her way of saying I should listen to my father – proxy parenting. But now she feels the hate, and she wants to cry. Poor her.
“I don’t know where you get off joining a picket line for this commie crap, anyway.” He won’t let it go. “And look at me,” he continues. “I’m the poor fool who drives you around to all these places. The bowling alley, a punk concert. I must be the dumb one–”
“That’s enough!” my mother cries out. “He’s got it, he’s–”
“Oh, now here we go! I’m the bad guy again, aren’t I? – See what you’ve started now?”
“–you don’t have to… berate him like this!”
“Berate? So you think I’m berating him? – Do you think I’m berating you, Marcus?”
“I don’t know,” I say. And then, a pause.
My mother sobs. The nightly news starts on the television. My father finishes his dinner with angry, convulsive bites. Another family dinner ruined because of me, or because of him, or because of all of us.
He puts his fork down, lifts the napkin from his lap and finishes his beer. “All I’m saying is you’ve got to use your head,” he says, attempting a calmer voice. “You’ve got to focus on one thing. You’re against everything you think is wrong in the world and you get nowhere. You understand me?”
All I understand is fuck you, you fucking drunk fuck.
He leans in, lowers his voice even more and reaches for my mother’s arm. “Your mother and I think –”
“That’s it!” my mother bellows out. “Don’t touch me!” Her face is wet with tears, manic. “Enough!”
“That’s it. Fuck this!” my father screams and stands up. “I’m through with all you people!” He throws his dish into the sink. “I’ve tried. God knows I’ve tried. But you can all crawl under a rock and die for all I care.”
He opens the freezer, claws handfuls of ice, throws the cubes into a glass, grabs a bottle, fills the glass, jabs his finger in the mix and stirs and spills it a bit, sucks the booze off his finger, dries his finger on a dish cloth, throws the cloth, and leaves the room. “You people haven’t any damn reason in you at all.”
My mother and I sit and listen to him walk to the other side of the house with the ice clanking in his glass. He enters the living room, belches, and turns on the television. He’ll be there all night.
My mother cries into her palms. The food is cold and disgusting. I look at her and I don’t know what to think. I don’t know if she is a victim, or part of the problem, or both. Everything is a problem. Especially me, that’s for sure.
She wipes her eyes, her secretary’s make-up smeared, takes a deep breath, says nothing, and gets up to do the dishes. She loads the dishwasher and turns on the motorized disposal drain, and I watch the newscaster mouth the nightly news.