By Ron Riekki
My father, a night-shift paramedic, cursed often, so when the word tumbled out of my mouth he should not have been shocked. But he was and he warned me that if another word like that fell into his ears, well, he would take me directly home to wash my mouth out with battery acid, thoroughly.
The worry for me was that I knew plenty of worse words. The one I let slip was minor in comparison to what I knew, insignificant to the potential damage I could cause, and so I kept silent, the car barreling down the road faster than the train to our left. It could have turned out well, except he pushed me to speak.
The conversation was not a pleasant one. My mother had left. On TV, she had seen a movie called The Stepford Wives. This was 1976. Ford, President. The Bicentennial. We’d just gone to the local Air Force base, K.I. Sawyer, to admire the F-101s. The airplanes looked like my father—short, thick, mostly white, a large nose, bald head, lettering along its sides. An official, boring U.S. AIR FORCE stamp painted on the airplane; my father had an official boring USMC across his heart if his heart was on the right side. My mother hated that tattoo, telling him that he should have her name there and not “Us-muck” as she pronounced it.
I was not particularly happy with the loss of my mother, a loss that was due 100% to the intensity of my Dad. When they’d argue, my father would slam the door so hard it would break off the hinges and my mother would yell, “Temper Fi” from the other side. The next day you’d see dad with a screwdriver and my mom hoarse.
They’d actually met when my mother was jogging on the beach. She’d stepped on a shattered Diet Coke bottle and my father stitched up her foot with the first aid kit he had on him. Who, off-duty, brings a first aid kit to the beach? It resulted in his second marriage.
In the car, I mentioned the anger to him and he yelled back that he didn’t have anger and it was then that a much more banned word popped out of my mouth.
My father said we’d go straight home and there was a brand new bar of battery acid waiting for me under the sink. He said he wasn’t going to just wash out my mouth, but my entire throat down to my kidneys.
At this point, anyone wise would have clung to the door, maybe even jumped to the concrete, but I let go with every curse I knew and the middle school had taught me plenty. There was, in essence, an entire after-school study program dedicated to learning the variations on cursing, its multiple complex rearrangements that could create shiny neologisms of the most debased use of the English language. This course was called football.
And the training worked, because my father’s fury reached Trump-Apocalypse levels. The interesting part was that he was the one who became silent. His whole purpose seemed to be to get us home as soon as possible so that he could thoroughly enjoy the cleansing of my throat-kidneys.
I swallowed, appreciating the ability to do so, wondering if the process might shift after what was about to happen.
I don’t remember being tugged into the house. It was more like being transported instantaneously beside a toilet. My father unloaded the cabinet and it seemed filled with the most incredible array of paramedical paraphernalia—alcohol swabs and laparoscopic, ethylene oxide sterilizers and CDC-disapproved bioterrorist inactivation disinfectants.
He announced he was about to clean out my mouth, throat, lungs, and heart.
The knife in his hand seemed always there. And then it seemed as if it had always been in my chest. The horror I felt looking down to see my abdomen and thorax slit open as easily as a painting, as if I was made of paper.
He clamped me open and rummaged around until he found one organ in particular and then placed it in the bathtub filled with ice-cold water. He disassembled me like that, organ after organ being placed either in the tub, in separate pre-prepared dry plastic bags, or in a nearby ice chest. The effect was that I felt like my entire identity was being sold on the black market, a total depersonalization. Have you ever had a loved one leave you, a sudden long-time relationship breakup? Do you know the feeling that goes along with that? My entire body felt hollow. Hollow chest and hollow fingers, hollow feet and hollow tongue.
I was organized all over the bathroom. No real me left.
My head was in the sink.
Or part of my head.
The thinking part.
Or I think it was the thinking part.
I seemed to hover above it all, an out-of-body experience where I also felt nowhere, no ability to feel where-ness.
In so many ways, unaware.
I looked around for my eyes.
My father carefully plucked each eyeball out of its socket and polished them with a combination of rust-remover and a sort of shellac manicuring. They shined, as if I’d never misbehaved in my life.
He took a smoke break.
I had to pee. I had no idea where my bladder was.
I didn’t know how to control my breath, if I even needed to. I wondered where my lungs were.
I thought of trying to somehow put all of my powers into trying to get my mouth to work, the possibility of shouting one solitary F-Word, to have that ricochet throughout the house, but I could imagine my father coming in to kick over everything, to stuff me down the drain, the toilet swallowing me.
I kept quiet this time. Out of necessity. Out of stillness. The peace of it all. Mouth-less.
My father came back and plopped on the floor. A mechanic in a garage. He could reassemble me any way he wanted. The glory of this. The ability to create any engine, luxury Sedan car interior. Whittling together a new, better Pinocchio made of skin instead of wood.
He picked up my liver. Rubbery, brownish-red, bloody, flopping. He spun it on his finger, pizza-style. He threw it up in the air, caught it.
The realization, for me, was similar to Jesus on the crucifix staring down at his Father below, his Father above, his Father everywhere. I was humbled. A combination of hum and bled. The unpleasant smell of life.
I found the precision of his taking me apart didn’t apply to the reconstruction. He was tired. He slapped me into place, forced the heart onto the right side, found that the gallbladder had no room, switched the heart back to the left, shoved in my intestines, both small and large, and thought for a moment that my bladder was a nonexistent middle intestine. He placed a leg where an arm should be. He put my head in my groin region. He was drunk. A shot of vodka before the smoke. A second shot after the smoke. Tipsy. This wasn’t corporal punishment. It was sergeant punishment. A step above. Pure humiliation.
I swore to myself I’d never curse again. I swore I’d never speak again. I swore I’d never remain silent again. I swore I would cease to exist. I swore not to swear.
My father shook his head. He knocked the cobwebs out of the basement of his skull. He vowed to do this right. He looked up.
And what he saw was not good.
Imagine Jesus’s Grandfather entering a room.
My father’s father stood there.
Armed with a cross.
Grandpa was a hard-core evangelical. Not a televangelist, but a filmvangelist. A docuvangelist. He shot short/long documentaries about himself preaching the wrath of God.
My father had done this before—disassembled me. Grandpa had warned him what would happen if he found him doing it again. And he was doing it again.
And all the equipment was there. All the tweezers and haemostatic forceps, the buckets and clamps.
My grandfather is a museum of a human. If he walks onto a bus, people don’t give them their seat; they give him the bus. They give him the entire bus route.
Grandpa took my father apart in seconds. To the point where there seemed to be no father anymore. I, at least, had parts, identifiable organs. Dad become atoms. He was smaller than the angels on the heads of needles lost in midget haystacks.
He didn’t put me back together either.
Grandpa just left.
We could take care of ourselves.
Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.
Except we had no boots, no straps, no true selves.
I was a bathroom.
My father was the air.
It took us a few months.
Several trips to the hospital.
But, in the end, we (sort of) were ourselves again.
I moved out.
I got lost in the world.
I had a son.
My wife moved out.
On the anniversary of September 11, we went fishing, me and my son. I told him I loved him. He didn’t say anything back. The sun went down on the horizon, looking like it drowned itself in the lake. It was beautiful, the sun’s death.
And then we drove home.
The silence of monks.
Ron Riekki’s books include U.P.: a novel (Sewanee Writers Series and Great Michigan Read nominated), The Way North: Collected Upper Peninsula New Works (2014
Michigan Notable Book from the Library of Michigan and finalist for the Eric Hoffer Book Award/Grand Prize shortlist, Midwest Book Award, Foreword Book of the Year,
and Next Generation Indie Book Award), Here: Women Writing on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (2016 IPPY/Independent Publisher Book Award Gold Medal Great Lakes—
Best Regional Fiction and Next Generation Indie Book Award—Short Story finalist), and And Here: 100 Years of Upper Peninsula Writing, 1917-2017 (Michigan State
University Press, 2017).
Photo by Gessy Alvarez – view more at Instagram.
May 17, 2017