The Reluctant Gladiators

Prose, including snippets (mini-memoirs).
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The Reluctant Gladiators

Post by sasha » September 4th, 2023, 12:32 pm

My father was quite possibly the most honest man I have ever known. He was the sort who’d always put the pen he’d used to sign a bank slip back into the jar, and would never consider privately selling an item without full disclosure of its condition. He was mortified when he discovered that, due to a mix-up at the bank, he’d been writing checks against my checking account rather than his own. (We have the same name, and… well, long story.)

He was almost pathologically addicted to telling the truth. He was the worst liar God ever put on this planet. We had him and Mom over for dinner one Father's Day, and I’d prepared a special spread showing off my new-found passion for Indian cuisine. The centerpiece included mako shark steaks marinated in a yogurt-ginger sauce, grilled over charcoal. I should have known better. Dad's idea of adventurous eating was a sandwich cut along the diagonal rather than parallel to the crust. "How do you like it?" I asked. Mom set her fork down. "It's... interesting," she said chewing thoughtfully. "Mmmm... oh my, what's this?" She delicately reached into her mouth and pulled out a chunk of unpulverized ginger. Dad was more direct. "Where the hell did you find this recipe," he growled, "in a handbook on embalming?" My wife quickly took his plate and gave it me, and put a burger on the grill for him.

Anyway. It's late Easter Sunday, 1981. Westmoreland, New Hampshire - a little farm town right on the Connecticut River. The sun there sets in Vermont, and has done so about an hour earlier, leaving the hills across the river silhouetting a salmon-colored sky. Just above those hills Venus blazes so brightly it reflects from the standing water in the sodden cornfield.

Dinner has been eaten, and the dishes washed. It's gotten chilly, and my brother Brian and I are warming ourselves with a spot of Irish whiskey in the den, while Dad lights a fire in the woodstove. What is it about an open fire that seems to draw men into a circle? We were perfectly content to pay him no mind during his trips to the woodshed, and to idly watch him arrange the firewood atop a bit of crumpled newspaper; but the minute we heard the *scrrritch* of the match we were on our feet behind him to offer our wisdom. "Better light it over here too, Dad," Brian advises. "Could use a little more kindling," I suggest. "Siddown you two," Dad says.

My wife Betty, three months pregnant, has been granted Most-Favored Houseguest status by virtue of winning the First Grandchild lottery. This gives her the right to sit in Dad's chair if she wants, an option she is now waiving to join Mom and my sister Karen in the living room. She also gets dibs on the downstairs toilet. The rest of us have to go upstairs, where my brother-in-law Curt is hunkered at this very moment. He's been at it for so long we've almost forgotten about him. While we menfolk are bringing the Gift of Fire to the homestead, the women are gathered in the living room, earnestly debating which of their husbands is the stupidest.

Just then the dog starts barking.

"What the hell's wrong with that dog NOW?" Dad demands. His pique is understandable – since long before the dog was even born, trucks from the dairy farm next door have lumbered past the house several times a day. But where this has become so commonplace for us that we no longer hear them, she leaps to her feet each and every time she hears a tailgate rattle, and rushes to the window in a paroxysm of barking, as if it's the first time she's ever heard it. "Molly!" Dad roars. "For God's sake, shut up!" The fact that it looks like I might have been right about the kindling does nothing to improve his mood.

Karen has set her wine glass down and strokes the trembling dog's fur while following its gaze out the window. "It's not one of the trucks," she says. "There's someone parked out front."

Brian and I peer out the den window and there it is, an unfamiliar set of parking lights, motionless just beyond the fence bordering the front yard. Someone uninvited parked in the driveway! In OUR driveway! An intruder! This calls for Men. Our sense of territory has been insulted – our personal space invaded. Even Curt has picked up on the vibe, as if we've all given off some kind of alarm scent: the upstairs toilet flushes, the door opens, and he clumps down the stairs. "What's going on?" he wants to know.

"There's a car parked outside," Karen says.

"I wonder who it could be?" Mom says a little uneasily, her anxiety prodding our protective instincts awake. "Well, let's go find out," Curt suggests in a matter-of-fact, take-charge kind of way, groping in his shirt pocket for a cigarette.

"Yeah," I say. It hadn't occurred to me to actually do something. "Sure. I'll back you up."

After a microscopic pause, Brian chimes in. "Good idea," he says unconvincingly. "Count me in."

"Okay then," Curt says, the tip of the unlit cigarette in his lips bobbing up and down as he speaks. "Karen, have you got the lighter?"

While we're standing there watching Karen rummage through her purse for something to light Curt's cigarette, Dad has slipped on his coat and gone out the front door to investigate.

"Roy," Mom says to me, "Don't let your father go out there alone."

How do you expect me to STOP him, I think, before I realize she means, Get Your Chicken-Shit Ass Out There Right Now. "Oh, right," I say, and start for the door. "Let's go, guys," I say. Don't let your brother go out there alone, I think.

Dad has passed through the gate and is standing at the edge of the grass talking to the mysterious unseen occupants of the car, which, as I draw closer, appears to be a Volkswagen Beetle of uncertain vintage. Then I hear an unfamiliar youthful voice tell my Dad to "Fuck off," and I look around nervously for Brian and Curt. They are standing silently about six feet behind me, silhouetted by the porch light. The ember of Curt's cigarette glows orange at the center of his unlit face, giving him a quietly mysterious, almost sinister aura. He reaches up to take it from his lips, and the orange spot follows his hand down to his side. "Everything all right, fellas?" he calls in what I imagine to be his best Naval Quartermaster voice.

Our wives have appeared in the doorway and squint uncertainly out into the darkness. Karen, however, is more like Dad than either Brian or myself, and has descended the front steps to join us in the yard. "Karen," Curt calmly enjoins her, "Stay back.”

"No, you stay back," she says, and stalks past us to where Dad stands, a scant four feet from the VW. I can hear the unmistakable clink of a beer bottle dropped to the gravel. "Just who the hell do you morons think you are?" she demands.

"Karen, don't!" Mom entreats her, and despite the potential menace of Strangers, she darts into the dark to protect her Baby, her only daughter. Curt, remembering never to come between a bear sow and her cub, says nothing as she rushes past him.

"Roy," Betty calls from the porch, one hand protectively on her belly even though she hasn't yet begun to show. She is palpably alarmed by events that seem to be veering towards an uncertain denouement. "Roy, what's going on?"

I open my mouth to answer, but before I can stammer out a platitude, things start happening. Not in rapid succession, like in the movies, but simultaneously (though my training in physics has taught me that simultaneity is an artifact of the observer's perspective). I hear two more clinks, and see my mother peering down and nudging something with her foot. I hear the VW's engine cough to life. (No other automobile engine in the world sounds like those old Beetles, with that high-pitched rattle which, in any other car, would send you in cold panic to the nearest service bay, even if your wife was in extreme labor in the passenger seat beside you.) I hear harsh slurred epithets, many containing references to body parts not ordinarily visible in polite company. I hear Dad sharply calling my mother's name, and I hear the word "police." I hear a drunken laugh in a reedy voice trying to be deep, a voice conjuring images of acne and thin, scraggly facial hair. As the car begins to pull away, I see an odd, crablike thing hopping around it in the dark, and hear a clattering sound like falling sleet. It is my sister, scooping up handfuls of gravel from the driveway and hurling them at the departing vehicle. Its headlights and taillights flick on simultaneously (in my reference frame, anyway), and in the latter's ruddy glow I see a brown beer bottle in the driveway, the last of its contents still dribbling into the dirt. I make a lunge for it, intending to Return it to Sender, but Dad gets to it first, and stands there, hefting it uncertainly.

"Throw it, Dad!" I shriek. "They're getting away!"

He says nothing. In the dark I can't see his face, but I don't need to. I know what his rage looks like. But I also know the enormous power of his self-control, the stern force that stays his hand in moments like these and directs him to do the Right Thing, not the thing that will make him feel good momentarily.

But this is not the time for lofty, abstract moralizing. This is the time for down and dirty action. This is combat, and war is hell. "Throw it!" I repeat. The VW has neared the end of the driveway. It would be gone were it not blocked by my sister's maniacal dance, oddly reminiscent of a mountain gorilla throwing sticks and grass at a newcomer. I'm rather perversely hoping she finds some of the dog's droppings.

"Do it, Dad!" Brian urges. He knows that if the VW reaches the road unpunished, the family honor will be forever besmirched. He snatches up the bottle at our mother's feet and flings it, but it clatters harmlessly off the rear deck.

"They're getting away!" Karen wails.

My Dad's shadow suddenly blurs, and there's an explosion of glass. The VW gives a startled lurch, and the engine revs. My sister hurls one more clod of earth, then stands to let it pass. As the retreating car pulls out onto the main road, the light from the front porch reflects off its rear window, revealing a neat circular hole about the size of a beer bottle. My father seems calm, almost peaceful.

"I don't believe I threw the goddamned thing," he says flatly.

I'm too exuberant to notice the dull shock in his voice. "Yeah, but you did!" I enthuse. "They won't be back any time soon!"

"Yeah, run away, you little pissants!" Karen taunts.

Curt is laughing. "And tell yer friends!" he shouts derisively as the panicked Beetle chugs up the hill toward the cattle barn.

"I didn’t want to," Dad says after a moment. "But one of them threw a bottle at your mother."

This registers. "Did it hit her?" I ask.

He pauses. "It touched her foot." I recall how she had looked down and poked at something with her foot, and I realize he's trying to reconstruct the story in his mind before the actual events crystallize into memory. He clearly needs our help. "Maybe it hit her leg," I suggest.

"No," Mom scoffs. "It barely touched me."

"But it did hit you, right?" Curt asks her.

"Well," she says. "It did sort of roll into me." We are all filing back to the front porch where my wife has been watching this tableaux unfold, like an onlooker to the gunfight at the OK Corral. She gives me an unfathomable look and again touches her belly, where my seed and hers have mingled to create a new being. She seems to be questioning the wisdom of allowing the genetic heritage of our tribe to mix with that of hers. "Are you alright?" she asks, knowing full well that I am.

"Oh yeah," I breezily assure her, putting my arm around her waist and escorting her inside.

Well, the upshot is that, contrary to all the advice and reasoning from the rest of us, my Dad called the police to turn himself in. The town constable arrived about an hour later to take his confession. That gave us time to convince Dad that what had really happened was: He had gone out to investigate a strange car sitting in the driveway and words had ensued, after which one of them threw a beer bottle that "looked like" it had hit my mother on the leg. My Dad had then lost it and let fly with the very same bottle, and he thinks he may have cracked the rear window, for which he would be more than willing to pay.

When the constable was finally able to reply to my father's deposition without laughing, he said that if the kids in the VW were who he thought they were, it wasn’t likely they’d be filing a complaint. And unless they did, he recommended, Dad was to keep his mouth shut. Though this is precisely what he wanted to hear, it seemed to shock him nonetheless; but it came from an Authority, giving it the weight of Law, and relieved him of any responsibility. So he said nothing.

The constable's instincts were right: the VW was found in the woods the next day, stripped of all identification except for the gaping three-inch hole in the rear window. The kids who had left it there went on to feature prominently in a variety of burglaries and drug-related offenses, and for their efforts received vocational training at the nearby county farm.

And word of the crazy family in the old Crary house next door to Chickering’s must have spread, because nothing like that ever happened again. Legends must have arisen about a clan of inbred psychopaths living there who would tear a new asshole into anyone who drove by too slowly. Maybe that explains the time one of the town hooligans held the door of the General Store for my mother; and the genuine interest shown by a group of teenagers when Dad drove his restored Model A in the Home Day parade. The Halloween trick-or-treaters seemed to pass them by after that - but so did the eggers and TPers. I guess notoriety has its benefits.

"Falsehood flies, the Truth comes limping after it." - Jonathan Swift, ca. 1710

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