Originally published in Parable Press
He may have been born James Williams Jr., but my father wasn’t the kind of man to take a second-hand name. When he got to be school-aged, he stood up during his home room attendance and told the teacher to call him Buck. He said he’d seen the word next to a big deer in one of his picture books and he liked the sound of it.
Sometimes a name just sticks, so Buck it was.
It stayed that way for a good long while. I don’t think he saw his legal name again until it was typed on his arrest record next to fingerprints and tear stains.
My father’s parents hadn’t graduated from high school and he was far from a scholar himself. But he was respectful and tried hard enough that the teachers shuttled him along from year to year. It might have also helped that he was the 145 pound state wrestling champ three years running. My father wasn’t raised to take something he didn’t deserve, but I’ll bet it was damn near impossible to keep track of how you were doing in school when teachers casually traded passing grades for Friday night fame.
On the wrestling mat his good nature disappeared and was replaced by something bordering on savage. We all have our talents, but my father’s seemed to be driving young men’s bodies and wills into submission. He took down so many that his father had to build him a case to hold all of his medals.
My brother loved pulling those old wrestling medals out and pinning them all over us. Even though I was a girl, nothing gave me more pleasure than spending my days dying glorious deaths in our epic backyard battles. We’d lay in the grass, vanquished and moaning, until my father would un-decorate us with a tickle and a smile and put his medals away. He explained to us that soldiers did brave deeds and these were just prideful objects that he didn’t have the courage or good sense to part with. He said he hadn’t done anything noble at all to earn them.
He told us he didn’t like that side of his nature coming out. Truth was, he’d only joined the wrestling team to show off his muscles to a pretty young lady he hoped one day to marry. That girl must’ve liked wrestling a lot because they got married not long after high school.
My mother told me they never argued until they had kids. Trading the bliss of newlywed life for the tornado of twins didn’t make life easy on them. But their first dispute wasn’t over diaper changing or who was going to get up to feed us. No, their first fight was over names. Not ours. But our father’s.
Buck wanted us to call him, well, Buck.
He said that’s what everyone called him since he was a boy and he wouldn’t answer to anything else. But my mother found it disrespectful for a child to call a parent or any adult by his first name. She also pointed out that babies learning to talk often mispronounced words and she’d be mortified if a child of hers said the word fuck. So they reached a compromise. My brother and I were taught to call him Daddy Buck and there was peace in the kingdom.
Daddy Buck kept his knives sharp and his guns clean and he hunted and fished well enough to bring home supper on weekends. His hands were rough and strong and he could twist the tops off of beers that weren’t even twist offs. Best of all, he could spit farther than any man I’ve ever known. He’d make this horrible hacking sound that had us in peals of laughter and then he’d launch a wad of goo with impossible accuracy and distance.
As far as the kids in our neighborhood were concerned, a man who could spit like that was superhuman. He could hit our dog from across the yard. We made Daddy Buck do that trick so much the poor animal got skittish, always thinking it was about to rain.
My father managed the town’s sporting goods store. He paid his taxes and bought beers for veterans. He sang the national anthem and took his hat off, even when it was just playing on TV. He voted in every election, but he’d be the first to tell you he wasn’t a fan of the government. Thought the Democrats and Republicans were running pretty much the same show, just wearing different colors. Said he’d seen enough of them come and go to know for a fact that both were sneaking into a man’s pocket for the privilege of spending it foolishly.
We didn’t talk a lot about politics in the house, but he was on a bit of a rant that night because the state was in yet another budget crisis. The government said they didn’t have enough money to pay the teachers so their solution was to “give” them a day off once a month to cut costs. Called them furlough days.
The kids loved it, but the parents didn’t for the simple reason that when both parents work, furlough days made child care a challenge. Even though we were just in 3rd grade we looked after ourselves pretty well, but it made our parents nervous just the same. My mother’s boss didn’t care about her “family” issues, but Daddy Buck promised to get home as early as he could even though he knew we were just running around with the neighbor kids. A few of the kids had moms that stayed at home, so there was usually someone to dispense Band-Aids and spray Bactine.
On one of those days off we’d run out of things to throw rocks at and I suggested we play hide and go seek. Some of the kids said that was a game for babies so we changed the rules. Everyone kicked in a dollar and whoever was the last one found got to keep all the money. “Hide and seek for money” sounded much more grown up.
It also meant you’d better find an awesome hiding place if you wanted to go home with all the money.
Both my brother and I were small for our age and our favorite place to hide was in the kitchen cupboard. There were cleaning supplies in there, but we knew better than to eat or drink anything. It always gave me a strange thrill to sit so close to things that could kill me. Eyeing the skull and crossbones on a bottle of drain opener or a package of rat poison made me feel powerful, like I was cheating death.
I wasn’t old enough yet to know that no one cheats death.
Not even a kid.
On the day of hide and seek for money, my brother and I got to the cupboard at the same time. In a begrudgingly generous way, he let me take the favored place. His brow wrinkled into a little scowl and he said, “Ladies first,” in the mannerly way that Daddy Buck had taught him.
They were the last words I ever heard him speak.
My brother hid in the empty recycling bin can in the alley. He knew it would be empty because Daddy Buck thought recycling was just a scam the city had come up with to charge us for picking up sorted bottles and cans that they were just going to turn around and profit by.
The teachers may have had a day off, but the garbage men did not. They trolled the neighborhood alleys with the type of trucks that efficiently and mechanically picked up the cans and shook them into their giant bellies to gnaw on and digest. I guess between the noise of the trash dumping and the hangover the truck driver was sporting no one heard the little boy getting the life crushed out of him. Alone and broken in a sea of shattered glass and twisted aluminum.
I still have nightmares about what that must have felt like.
How is a family supposed to survive that?
The simple answer is, it doesn’t.
My father had lots of questions about what happened, but the one I remembered most was, “Who’s idea was it to play this game?”
Four letters was all it took to tear a family apart.
My mother turned to tranquilizers to dull the pain and Daddy Buck turned to bourbon. You’d think that losing a child would make the surviving one a treasure. Maybe because we were twins, every time they looked at me they saw him. It’s hard to live in a place where your face rips opens wounds that desperately need to scab over and scar.
It was silent in our house for months. I learned to cry in whispers so as not to disturb the still. I never want it to be that quiet again. To this day I have to keep a radio or the television on. A little something to make noise or I get uneasy.
One night I came home from a friend’s house to find Daddy Buck dozing with a bottle in his lap. I tried to pull it away. He was in half a daze and whispered to me that if he had to lose one of us, he wished it had been me. A son will keep a man’s name alive. What could a daughter ever do?
I would have hit him, but I was such a tiny thing that he probably wouldn’t have even felt it. So I spit on him because it was the meanest thing I knew how to do.
I thought he was too drunk to notice, but the hand that steadied my bike and tucked me in turned to a fist and struck. My lip split and my jaw cracked. I don’t know if it was the sound or the shock or the pain, but I threw up all over him.
Daddy Buck just went back to sleep.
That was the first time my father ever laid a hand on me. I wished I could say it was the last. My mother’s hell was just about to begin. I never knew how long 4 months could be.
The savageness that had been reserved for the wrestling mats was unleashed on what remained of our little family. My mother can’t see out of her left eye and still walks with a pretty bad limp.
A shelter took us in after she got out of the hospital and my parents were divorced by mail. We moved to the other side of town and I never saw him again although I did hear about him getting arrested for trying to run a garbage truck off the road.
He ranted in court. Said the government killed his son with their greed and incompetence. Said someone in the government was going to pay for what they did. He said a lot of things about the government that you don’t really get to say without some kind of consequence.
He was jailed and did not do well in confinement. I imagine he was just as fierce as he’d been as a young wrestler, but there are no weight classes in prison. And there are no referees either. Mother told me he’d suffered some kind of serious head trauma and had been moved to an institution.
Years passed. The polite language would be that we lost track, but the truth was I could never look in those eyes again without seeing all that rage. It’s hard to lose a parent while they’re still living, but maybe some heartbreaks are for the best.
I’m a grown woman now and I’ve got a child of my own. My boy’s grown up with child locks on kitchen cupboards and organized play dates instead of running around until dark. He’s lost a lot of freedom, but he hasn’t lost his life, so I think that’s a pretty fair trade.
My son and I were shopping in our little downtown the other day when we saw a mass of hair and rags propped up against a storefront. I couldn’t make out the face behind the tangle of hair, but there was something in his body language that gave me pause. The man twisted the top off his beer bottle in a way that chilled my bones.
He looked up at me and smiled a toothless grin.
“He’s staring at you, Mom. Do you know him?” my son asked.
I raised my hand reflexively to my face. “No sweetie.”
“He’s got a bunch of medals. I wonder if he’s a soldier.”
“Can we give him a dollar?”
I told my son I didn’t have any small bills and then I lied again when I told him we were in a hurry.
My son fished in his pocket and pulled out a dollar bill mangled in the way only little boys can. “That’s alright. I’ve got one. Hey mister!”
“Stop it Jimmy. He’s just a bum.”
“That’s not a nice word, Mom. He’s a person. He’s someone’s father.”
“No. No he’s not. He’s nobody’s father.”
The man’s eyes lit up at that.
I gripped my boy’s hand and tried to pull him across the street.
“Mom, you’re hurting me.”
And then I heard that hacking sound.
That wonderful horrible sound that made all the kids squeal. That sound I hadn’t heard since I was a girl. Since I was a sister. Since I was a half. And since I was a whole. Tears flooded down my face as I raced away. Desperate to escape.
And even though I put a dozen yards between us…
I braced, knowing surely he would hit me.