Post Road Magazine #23

Big Ray, or Some Things Concerning My Childhood, with an Emphasis on My Father

Michael Kimball

My parents didn't have very much money the first few years after they moved back to Michigan. I was too young to remember that time, of course, but apparently we lived in a series of rental houses that were identified by their particular infestations. We lived in the mice house, the spider house, the raccoon house, and the cockroach house. My father remembers turning the lights on before entering any room. My mother remembers leaning over my crib and wiping bugs off my forehead.

Once, my parents couldn't get me to stop crying. They couldn't figure out what was wrong with me. My mother says my father talked her into ignoring me. He said I would stop crying if they stopped picking me up and trying to comfort me.

After a few days, my mother took me to the doctor, who thought I might have an ear infection. I didn't, but I did have a spider living inside my right ear.

There's a photograph of my father and me lying in my parents' bed. I'm about two years old and I'm lying where my mother usually was in their bed. The sheet is pulled up over our stomachs and our hands are on top of it. My father and I are turned toward each other and smiling at each other. I'm trying to remember what that must have felt like.

Not long after that photograph was taken, my sister was born. My father didn't make it to the hospital for her birth, either. He was deer hunting with his younger brother somewhere in the woods of Northern Michigan. The same day my father brought home the carcass of a sixpoint buck, my mother brought home my week-old sister.

I don't know who took care of me during that time when I was two years old and neither one of my parents were at home. I don't think I was left at home on my own.

Not long after that, there's a photograph of my father sitting on the couch. He's holding my sister in his arms and has his face turned down toward hers. I'm sitting at the other end of the couch in nearly the same posture—my arms folded across my chest, my face turned away, looking at something outside the frame. I wasn't old enough to understand what was happening in the family, but I already seemed to know that my sister was the favorite.

There's a photograph of me opening presents on Christmas morning, 1970. I'm smiling and holding up a new pair of black cowboy boots. I'm so happy that I'm holding the cowboy boots out to the camera. My father is behind me in the photograph, sitting off to the right. He is staring back at me with a blank look on his face. He is either really tired or he doesn't care.

I wonder if my father didn't like it when I was happy.

There's a photo of me from when I'm about four years old. My mouth is dropped open and I'm looking at my father with a facial expression that's some mixture of surprise, hurt, bafflement, and disappointment. It may have been my father's version of teasing me—which could be brutal or devastating, but never fun or funny—but I don't know what exactly my father had just done to me that particular time or why my mother felt the need to capture it with a photograph.

My father is still thin in all those photographs, but I don't ever remember him looking like that. When I see him thin, I think it's a different person. I feel like I had a different father than the one in those photographs.

I went through a stage where I would walk into whatever room my father was in and turn the lights off. I never told anybody why, but I was trying to make him disappear.

My father would call out when he came home from work, and, when I was a little boy, this was an exciting time in the house. For a time, my sister and I would run to the front door and hug his leg or jump up and down around him. My father standing just inside the front door having just come home from work, that was one of my happiest memories for a time.

It was around this time I noticed my mother wasn't as happy about my father's daily homecoming as my sister and I were. Often, she wouldn't hug him or go to the front door or even say anything to him. If my mother didn't greet my father in any way, which happened enough for me to notice it, then he would wait until my sister and I let go of him and say something mean to my mother. Then it would get really quiet. I remember looking back and forth between my mother and my father until it felt scary.

Here's one of the insults I remember: Your mother seems to be lost in thought. It's someplace she's never been before. My father would laugh and get my sister and me to laugh with him. It was confusing that things could be funny and mean at the same time.

My mother and my father were really good at being mean to each other. Sometimes, when my father stood up, my mother would look at him and say, I always wanted a taller husband.

The thing I remember most about the taller insult was how it filled me with a strange feeling of power. I was just a little boy and I was going to grow bigger and get taller. I made a pact with myself to grow up to be taller than my father. It felt like something I could control.

My father used to find different ways to insult my mother. He would say things like, You wouldn't be so ugly if you were a redhead. Or, Are you always this stupid or is today a special occasion?

At the time, I didn't understand these insults. I could see how much he liked her when he looked at her.

Sometimes, when my father came home, my mother would say, I was hoping you were somebody else. She would usually say it with a really pretty voice, which made it confusing, but pretty soon my mother and my father would start arguing, and that would turn into the kind of yelling that was too loud and too fast to follow.

Sometimes, I think that was how I learned to talk—loud and fast. I don't know why none of the other adults I was around ever corrected me. It was my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Fisher, who taught me how to use my quiet voice.

In my family, it was usually the last person talking who won the argument, but my father could also win any argument by raising his hand back over his head. The only consolation was that his hand was usually openpalmed and not a fist.

I tried it on my mother once, but it didn't work. She sent me to my room.

Once, my parents had an argument because my mother set out slices of bread with dinner instead of dinner rolls. My father knocked over his chair when he stood up from the dinner table. He made the whole house shake when he slammed the back door on his way out of the house.

For my father, good bread was an important distinction between the poor farm family he grew up in and the middle class family he expected us to be. That is why we had family dinners on Sundays. That is why we ate so many pot roasts.

My father could fight about anything—bread, haircuts, light bulbs, newspapers, cats, boots, chicken, belts, pickles, chairs, lottery tickets, playing cards, potato chips, cheese and crackers, socks, aftershave, dishes, combs, loose change—anything.

When I was a boy, long before I had four knee surgeries, I used to love to run. Every weekday evening around 5:30, I waited at the end of the block for my father's pickup truck to turn the corner onto our street and then raced him to the driveway of our home. I used to think, Can't he see how fast I am?

I used to be a boy with a father.

During the mid-1970's, there was a gas crisis. People stopped buying as many cars and trucks, and companies like Diamond Reo had to lay off workers, including my father. A lot of fathers in our neighborhood lost their jobs then, and the summer of 1975 was strange with so many of them at home so much of the time. Most of us had never had our fathers pay so much attention to us and we didn't quite know what to do. We still played baseball and basketball and rode our bikes up and down the street, but one father would come out to throw us some pitches or shoot jumpers, and then another father would, and pretty soon it would turn into these brutal father-son contests that didn't end until somebody got hurt.

In the fall of 1975, my father started working as a safety inspector for a company called the Accident Fund. There was all kinds of gear that came with his new job—plastic helmets with face shields, eye goggles with a thick rubber strap, long rubber gloves, and different colored ear plugs. I had no idea what my father did with those things when he went to that job. I didn't understand how somebody could inspect safety. It seemed more likely that my father somehow caused accidents, but I didn't understand how that could be a job somebody would get paid for. Sometimes, when my father left the gear around the house, I would run around with it on. It made me feel like a person from the future.

Years later, I learned my father's job was to make companies install safety protocols to keep people from getting hurt at work. I don't want to talk about how ironic that is, but what if he would have done that at home too?

I remember the few times my father and I played catch. I can still see the baseball in the air between us.

Also, I always liked it when he came home from work and I was playing basketball in the driveway. I would pass my father the basketball and he would throw up a two-handed set shot before going into the house. He almost always missed and I would chase after the ball.

One Saturday afternoon, my father took me to a shooting range. After a gun safety class, I got to shoot his rifle, a 30-30 Winchester. I remember two things about that time: (1) I missed the target by so much we had no idea where the bullet went. (2) The kickback from the rifle made my shoulder hurt for days. I still don't know what my father was trying to teach me that afternoon.

One of the other things I remember doing with my father was playing cards—Gin rummy, cribbage, Euchre, War—any game that could be won or lost. He taught me to play cards, in part, because my mother didn't like cards and wouldn't play with him. I was just the next available body, but it still made me feel special. It felt like he had chosen me.

I was ten years old when my father taught me how to play poker. That first time, he told me to go get my piggy bank and he'd teach me a new game. We emptied my piggy bank and split up my life savings. I didn't understand why we were only playing with my money—especially since I knew there was a pile of change on top of his dresser—but I still wanted to play. The game was five card draw and I understood which hands were better than other hands, but I didn't understand when to bet, raise, or fold at the right times. That afternoon, I lost all my money to my father and developed a great need to beat him. I learned how much I liked gambling and how much I didn't like my father.

I wanted to play poker again, but my father didn't give me any of my money back. He left all my change on his side of the kitchen table and I knew I couldn't take any of it back even though he had used half of my life savings to win the other half of my life savings from me. I put my empty piggy bank back in my bedroom and thought about how I would play my hands the next time.

Over time, my father taught me how to play five card draw, five card stud, seven card stud, Texas hold'em, Omaha, Omaha high-low, lowball, and other variations on poker. We never used wild cards. My father didn't like the way they changed the odds.

Once, for his birthday, I bought my father scratch off lottery tickets. After he scratched all of them off—and didn't win anything—he told me I bought the wrong ones.

One of the grossest memories I have of my father is him making breakfast. He would stand over a frying pan wearing nothing but tight, stretchy, red bikini briefs. His underwear was always too small for him, so the crack of his butt stuck out above the waistband and his stomach fat hung down over the front. The grease would spit and pop in the frying pan. He would stick one hand in his underwear and scratch himself in a way that couldn't be ignored while he worked the spatula with his other hand. He liked his eggs greasy and over easy. He fried his bacon until it was burnt.

When I was a little boy, my disgust mechanism would kick in and I wouldn't be able to finish my breakfast. I would get in trouble for that, but I would get up and leave the kitchen anyway. Even today, the smell of greasy eggs still makes me feel queasy.

After my father died, I was remembering the underwear and the eggs with my sister and she was dumbfounded. The smell of greasy eggs makes her sick too. Her therapist wonders if that smell is a trigger for something that happened to us, but neither one of us can remember what happened after we left the kitchen.

My father's life was an ordinary one in so many ways. I wonder if I am making him into something more than he was because he was my father.

At the back of my father's sock drawer, under some dress socks he never seemed to wear, there was a black-and-white photograph with scalloped edges that had curled up over the years. The photograph was a close-up, two sets of fingers pulling apart something hairy and fleshy and slick. I found the photograph when I was six years old. I didn't realize what it was until years after that.

There is about a seven-year gap when there aren't any photographs of my father. During this time, he grows sideburns and gets fat. The next time we see my father, he is standing on the patio behind our house wearing a black tank top and grilling hamburgers. His face is glistening with sweat in nearly the same way the hamburgers are glistening with fat on the grill. This is the father I remember: Big Ray.

My father loved to barbecue and it didn't even have to be summer for him to go out on the patio and light up the grill. He would even stand out there during the winter—in his shirtsleeves, no coat—turning over the hamburger patties and strip steaks with a pair of tongs until the meat was burnt on both sides. He didn't like even a hint of blood in his cooked meat. The fire colored his face mean.

Sometimes, in the mornings before school, my father would look at the way I was dressed and say, Looking sharp. That always made me feel really good.

There's a photograph of my father sitting at a picnic table and holding up an empty plate. He looks pretty happy in that shot.

Once, my mother and sister and I were all sitting at a picnic table—mdash;mdash;mdash; with the summer food all lined up in the middle—and we were waiting for my father before we started eating. He sat down on one end and the whole picnic table tipped—the food all sliding toward him and onto the ground before he could stand back up. What I'm trying to say is this: all three of us together wasn't enough against my father.

My father broke furniture. There were certain chairs my father did not sit on. Every couch that was ever in our house eventually had a small stack of bricks under the frame where it had cracked so people could still sit on it without sliding into the middle. My parents' bed had two-byfours laid across the bed frame to support the cracked box springs and keep the mattress from sagging into the middle too.

Sometimes, I feel like my father is sitting in the chair next to my desk. He's a ghost now and thinner. I'm not worried about him breaking the chair.

My mother took my sister and me to church every Sunday morning, but my father never went with us. He always stayed home in bed with the newspaper and I couldn't figure out why my father wasn't worried about going to hell. How could he not be afraid of Our Heavenly Father? Eventually, I asked him if he believed in God and his answer was halting and awkward. His botched response was the first thing to make me wonder if God actually existed and I realized I might not have to be afraid of God either.

It took me longer to realize I didn't have to be afraid of my father.

My father used to do this thing when we were in public and he didn't want to be seen yelling at me or hitting me. He would put his arm around me and rest his hand on my shoulder in a way that must have looked affectionate to anybody who saw it. Then he would grip some muscle in my shoulder so hard that it would make me seize up. The gesture must have made him look like a good father, but I wouldn't be able to move or talk or even scream out in pain.

I will still startle if somebody puts an arm around my shoulder that way.

Once, after my father had knocked me down over something, I got back up, ran at him, and launched my whole body toward his midsection. I was trying to ram him or tackle him, something like that, do as much damage as I could. I felt like this action was somehow going to change things between us, but I just bounced off my father and fell back down, my arms open and empty. He didn't move, except to lift one of his feet and kind of nudge my shoulder with it.

Another time, I left a drinking glass on an end table and my father told me to pick it up and take it into the kitchen. For some reason I don't remember and can't explain, I refused to do it. My father hit me and told me again to pick it up. I refused again and he hit me again. I remember standing there, not moving and not saying anything as he hit me over and over again. Right then, I didn't feel like there was anything my father could do to really hurt me. I felt like I could absorb so much pain and still walk away from it.

One of the things I found in my father's papers was the program from his 25th high school reunion. There is a little biography for everybody in the class of 1957 and my father's says he worked in engineering at Diamond Reo—even though he worked as a draftsman. It also says he was working as a safety engineer—mdash;mdash;mdash;even though he was a safety inspector. My father wasn't what he wanted to be. My father wasn't what I wanted him to be either.

After my first girlfriend broke up with me, my father told me I would have lots of girlfriends even though I was pretty sure then I would never have another girlfriend. After he said that, he handed me an old copy of Playboy magazine from his stack on the top shelf of the closet. He said, Pictures of naked girls aren't as much trouble as real girls.

That was supposed to be some kind of advice and it was one of two times my father gave me any kind of advice. The other time was after I came home from a date with a girl named Ellen Bonner. He was drunk and said, I recommend the blowjob. Nobody ever got pregnant from a blowjob.

My father hated it when I talked on the telephone to Ellen Bonner, especially when it was a school night. We only had one telephone and if anybody talked on it for more than a couple of minutes, my father would start screaming about the line needing to be open. He thought somebody else might be trying to call the house even though nearly everybody knew they weren't supposed to call our house after dark. For a while, I did as he said, but, eventually, I wanted to talk to Ellen Bonner more than I feared what my father might do to me if I didn't get off the telephone.

Sometimes, my mother would stand in the kitchen next to the telephone and kind of guard it from my father, but there wasn't much she could do to save me from him. I had never really defied my father before, but I would turn away from him as he screamed at me. I would hold the telephone tight to one ear and the palm of my hand over my other ear. I could still hear my father yelling at me and Ellen Bonner could hear him yelling through the telephone, but we would keep talking like it wasn't happening.

At some point, I started stretching the telephone cord across the kitchen and talking to Ellen Bonner outside on the patio. It helped having the sliding glass doors between my father and me. I could still see him and hear him, but the glass between us made it seem as if it wasn't real—mdash;mdash;mdash; as if it was something I was watching happen on the television or a movie screen.

I knew I was usually going to get a beating when I came back inside the kitchen and hung up the telephone, but that only happened when my father was still awake. Sometimes, I would stay on the line with Ellen Bonner as long as I could just to postpone the beating. Sometimes, she would have to hang up, but I would keep talking and listening as if she was still on the other end of the line. Other times, my father would fall asleep on the couch in the living room and I could sneak up to my bedroom without getting any kind of beat down.

I don't know why my father waited for me to hang up the telephone instead of just holding down the cradle so we were disconnected. All I can think of is that my defiance gave him an excuse to beat me, which he seemed to want to do and which somehow seemed acceptable to me at the time.

Eventually, I started to fight back even though I wasn't big enough or strong enough to do any real physical damage to my father. I was still just a skinny teenage boy and my father was a full-grown man. Plus, my father weighed double what I did then, and he also had really fast hands. It usu-ally didn't last too long and he usually didn't leave marks on me. There were almost never any cuts or bruises on my face or on the lower parts of my arms, nothing that could be seen above my collar or below my short sleeves.

Sometimes, I landed a punch on his arms or in his stomach, but I'm not sure he ever felt those. One time, I knocked the wind out of him when I kicked him in the chest as I was running up the stairs trying to get away from him. Another time, I caught him with an elbow in the neck. It was really satisfying to hear him gasp for breath and see him hold his neck with both of his hands as if he was choking himself.

The beatings didn't stop until after the time my father fell backwards down the stairs and hit the back of his head on the landing. He looked crumpled at the bottom of the stairs and he always stood with a little hunch after that. I felt a little stronger and a little taller than I had just before that happened.

Sometimes, I still get the urge to fight my father. If my father weren't dead, I would kick his ass.

My relationship with my father shifted after the beatings stopped. I was eighteen years old and I started calling him Big Ray. For some reason I can't explain, my father seemed to think me calling him the nickname made him cool.

Another thing: I stopped bringing any of my girlfriends around the house because of the way my father looked at each of them—always staring at different body parts, but not really looking at their faces. I watched him stare at Melanie Durbin as she sat down and then as she stood up—mdash;mdash;mdash; always trying to get a glimpse up a skirt or down a top. He saw me catch him, but he didn't stop, and I became afraid for her, too.

When I was a teenager, I learned how to leave a room whenever my father entered it. The timing of this was important. It had to be done while he was still sitting down or getting settled. We got along much better that way.

In 1985, my parents celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary. My mother's maid of honor threw a big party and I didn't understand how everybody was so happy for them. In front of everybody, my father gave my mother a huge emerald ring, which seemed to confuse her. She seemed to be wondering if he might actually love her in a way she had forgotten. But the emerald ring was just an extravagant gesture, a kind of performance my father was so good at outside the house, the loving husband and the good father.

After I graduated from high school, I moved out of the house and hours away for college. I only saw my father on certain holidays, a couple of winter breaks and spring breaks, and one summer when I couldn't find a job at college. I don't know as much about my father after I got away. I felt terrible about leaving my sister behind.

Sometimes, I try to figure out how different I might have been if my father had been nicer to me. Would I try as hard as I do? Would I be happier than I am? Would I have a different wife? Would I have children instead of cats? Would I be a schoolteacher instead of a writer? Would I ever have moved away from home? Would I be more sad, but less torn up?

After college, I moved even farther away from home and stopped going home for holidays. I stopped calling home too. I became so busy with my own life that I began to forget my father.

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