Sunday, January 22, 2012
The Whipping Boy (Short Story)
“Young people aren’t meant to suffer the vengeful hand of those who deliver them to this world,” was the message pastor Butler delivered in his Sunday sermon the morning brother Henry was born.
I was already three years old when Henry arrived. I‘d been around long enough to sense all was not right within the walls of the Gladstone house. Initially, it was the tone of language piercing the wooden slats of my small crib . It wasn’t something a boy could fully grasp as threatening but a synthesis of vocal agitation and unpredictable movement as if preparations for a grander conflict was being formulated by someone or something living within our home. Henry arrived just when the source of all the tension was about to shed its skin.
Year one passed, mostly uneventful. There was the usual shouting, broken plates and slammed doors all a careful distance from Henry’s room. Then one afternoon father, “Mr. Eugene,” as neighbors would address returned with a newly purchased antique smoking centerpiece cut from plate glass with a bronze statue of an angel rising up the middle. A small brass ashtray placed above the glass surface next to an open pack of Winstons served purpose.
Eugene proudly showcased the recent acquisition to members of the Chester Avenue Methodist Church of which he had recently been appointed deacon. Rarely, would mother, Olene or Eugene invite visitors without advantage. Neither were bred for small talk - speaking mostly to folks who could advance their ideals or those privy to wealth.
Eugene was a proud man short on compassion and long on punishment for those who crossed him. He saw the world in strict black and white, no grey areas or regions of compromise. Money served purpose not the idle whims of frivolous play. Retribution came swift without investigation or judicious hearing. There would be no defense no pleas for mercy or lesser discipline. Eugene sanctioned whippings usually with a hand-me-down razor strap like the one his father administered to appropriate punishment for less than obedient children.
Brother Henry’s first year was spent mostly in the protective company of mother Olene who at times could be affectionate at others unusually distant. Olene’s disagreements with Eugene stemmed mostly from her mother’s dissatisfaction with her conversion to Protestant teaching over Catholicism, understood as a crime against her ancestors. Eugene would never physically abuse her,but his presence brought an unfair level of tension to her life.
Olene’s mother Velma despised Eugene and never forgave him for moving her first born hundreds of miles west of her birthplace. I had a special bond with grandma unlike that between mother and I. Grandma would always be bragging,” Daniel can do this, Daniel can do that.” Mother never knew much what I could do other than clean things and wait on dad and plea for Henry.
One morning Eugene sprung from bed in a rare cheerful mood and called for two-year old Henry. He lifted brother, kissed about the forehead leaving him fly upward, release, then catch him as he falls within quick grasp. Their laughter would dissolve into joyful celebration a magic union between father and son.
Eugene backslid down the worn red brocade couch with Henry bundled in his arms. The moment so thrilled brother he broke caution then lovingly hugged father about the neck. Eugene began tickling Henry’s feet all the way up under the armpits. Suddenly, Henry’s right leg makes an involuntary swing downward through the middle of father’s prized centerpiece shattering the delicate surface into a thousand charred bits of glass. As if summoned from the bowels of Hades, Eugene lungs exhale the most terrifying cry of anguish. Father springs to his feet and declares an unconscionable act has been wrought against his prized possession. He quickly tosses Henry aside, gathers two large sheets of broken glass, walks determinedly to a back porch receptacle and heaves the fragments inside the aluminum container. With dust pail in hand, Eugene collects every sliver until the area is clean of all evidence. Henry quietly observes wishing father would return and embrace him as before. But Eugene had other plans. While ridding the floor of shard fragments he secretly plots a degree of punishment. Father determines, after all it was Henry’s careless leg kick that destroyed his angelic centerpiece, not the actions of a somewhat careless parent, someone should accept the consequences.
Eugene coldly lifts young Henry and carries him to his bedroom then tosses on the mattress as if discarding an unwanted article. Eugene searches for the underside hook of his buckle, unsnaps then slowly pulls the thick leather belt through the shredded loops of his work pants. While clutching the belt ends in his fist he reaches down and rolls the young boy on his stomach then lashes his backside with ten unsparing strokes. Henry unfurls an agonizing scream - one mixed with terror and few muted words then begs father to cease and explain why such pain be declared upon him. Eugene breaks silence.
“ This will teach you to be careful, you clumsy shit. The angel was here no more than a week and you destroyed it. You know how much that cost me don’t you? Don’t leave this room until you hear from me.”
Witnessing such a horrific encounter sickened me. For most the next week I spoke few words. Father tried to lighten conversation with me but I refused to oblige him. He’d never laid a hand on me but I saw a different hand strike at Henry.
Time would advance and Henry quickly learned not trespass father’s mecurical temperament. Instead, he designed a system of lanes well below chairs and tables, along walls behind the living room couch transporting him dafely beyond the old man’s inspecting eye.
Eugene was an enormous man just past six feet seven in height and weighing less than two hundred pounds. Everywhere he walked he cast a long shadow. To Henry he resembled an imaginary creature dwelling at night below the floorboards of the bed who’d unexpectedly enter his dreams.
There would be the usual bouts of temperament, explosive fits of anger between Eugene and Olene but nothing too serious until Henry began regular schooling.
Eugene found himself locked in battle with the plant labor union. He was vehemently opposed to any organised intrusion into the workplace even if it meant wage guarantee and job benefits. Father was not a man of vision. He was an arrogant, petty backstabbing opportunist who engaged in race mongering and pontifical self-righteous exhortation. I never understood that when I was a kid but who knows what parents are truly made of until experience and wisdom clear your field vision.
“Why we need this scum from Washington all they want is our money. We do the workin’ - they do the takin”, he’d say.
Father would repeat the mantra person to person like a fire breathing Pentecostal minister. He was like a one man wrecking crew out to to rid the world of so-called “Big government”. His actions would only alienate fellow co-workers who already harbored a less than complimentary opinion of the “ Screamin’ ass “ as they would privately address him.
Father was a security guard whose duty was either turn lights on or flip them off - lock and unlock doors or chase “Thieving Negroes, “off the company dump. He excelled in the latter. Why he picked a fight with an organization who’s objective could only benefit a lowly “Watch boy”, no one rightly understood. Everybody swore the big farm boy had been kicked in the head by a less than domestic jackass.
Poor Henry never had a friend until elementary school. We lived an oppressive existence detached from relatives and neighbors preferring to insulate him from outside influence staying mostly indoors.
Sundays, Henry and I would slide are small frames down the front porch steps out of Eugene’s view but the old man never let us out of the cross-hairs.
“ Son, get your skinny ass back up here where I can see you. Daniel where you think your going? I know the both of you are up to something.”
Henry and I watched the other children race by pedaling their bright red bicycles or hike to the dime store as a group. I was always curious what I’d be like to walk the walk. Olene would be there to scold - the perfect watchdog for commander Gladstone.
“I know what you thinking Henry. You think we’re being special hard on Daniel and you because you two are our only children but that ain’t so. You gotta grow up right like your father and mother. We ain’t gonna have any hoodlums in this family."
Henry would listen then turn his attention back to the street. What he really desired were a few kind words of encouragement, some act of affection that would assure him he was truly a worthy boy.
Olene insisted on sending Henry to Catholic school causing a fierce confrontation with Eugene.
They knew better than send me there. Every time those witches in black came around grandma I’d cry hysterically.That gave father reason enough to send me to public school. No such luck for Henry.
“ Catholics just poison the boy’s mind with all them alcoholic priests and pedophiles Olene,” father would say. “ I’d just have to straighten him out all that much more. They'll turn that boy queer, I'm telling you." This would be one of the uncommon arguments he’d loose to mother.
"You can rest assured mother hates you for taking me away from the church and I promised her Henry would be baptized Catholic and he will always be Catholic, you hearing me good Eugene Gladstone?” Olene had the last word on that subject.
Henry proved to be a reluctant student distracted by the simplest things. Children would contort their faces, stretch lips, causing Henry to laugh aloud. “Sisters of No Mercy” would order him extend palms then whack about the soft lines with a twelve inch ruler. The poor boy would nearly cry then quickly suppress the urge. For Henry this stuff was child’s play. Eventually, he became a disruptive presence forcing school officials to send for our parents. Eugene was appalled by his brother’s behavior while Olene swore up and down Henry would never commit such ungodly acts against the church. During the drive home a deaf silence stilled the car. I sensed major consequence. “ Nasty people those old nuns, I hate them,” Henry mumbled.
“ Shut up Henry, we’ll talk when I get you home, “ responded father. “ But dad! Shut up Henry, I’ll take care of you when I get home.”
Poor Henry’s mind replayed past infractions, errant bursts of laughter, gum chewing, a few naughty words, but somehow they didn’t add up to the impending discipline. Besides, the nuns had already strapped and humiliated .
“ Come with me boy, “ elder Gladstone commands, then grabs Henry’s arm lifting him half distance above ground. His knees bounce side to side off the wooden steps as father carries him up the stairs . Eugene reaches inside an old storage trunk extracts a tattered strip of leather.
“ I told you boy someday you’d get a whipping like the one’s my old man gave me.”
Father commences beating Henry about the legs , along the back, anywhere there were patches of exposed skin, by-passing the face. Exhausted and drained by anger Eugene abandons a screaming Henry who’s now fallen into a near state of shock.
“There will be no next time, I’m taking you out of Catholic school. I’ll find you a place where you better behave.”
Eugene then retreats from the room. Henry can barely unfold his stricken legs. We both watch these red/blue welts rise above the discolored surface of his tender skin surrounded by few smooth areas . Suddenly, the crying stops and Henry into this trance like state. This would be the last moment I ever saw him carry one grain of love for father.
Olene never entered the room until morning. Her only words, “ I warned you.”
In general, things would improve in public school. Eugene was spending months convalescing in VA hospitals where it was determined injuries he suffered in World War ll were improperly treated not to mention the special counseling they were giving him. Father had absorbed a large hit of shrapnel in the abdomen sending him stateside for long term convalescence during the early stages of the war. After six months he was declared fit for duty then parachuted behind enemy lines. A barrage of artillery shells exploded in the vicinity of his fox hole killing several fellow infantrymen somehow sparing him . This would further empty his heart. Eventually, he would receive a medical discharge after evidence of an impending nervous breakdown. After returning home father chose to heal himself rather than seek proper help.
Henry was an average student better suited to social sciences than math. Eugene followed brother’s progress with a keen sense of responsibility. When his math scores began to sag he decided to “ Put some knowledge in the boy’s head.”
Class began one evening after dinner when Olene placed a freshly baked pumpkin pie next to the fried okra. Eugene gripped the long bread knife then began carving equal portions and asked.
“ What are you studying in math that you find so hard?
“ Fractions sir," a confused Henry responds.
“ What do you find hard about fractions?, father inquires.
“ It’s all new to us dad we just started learning about them last week.”
“Come here son and have a seat. Watch me. I’m going to slice this pie in four sections. Now , if it’s whole without me cutting anything what fraction represents one slice.
“ Henry hesitates , then responds. “ One.”
“ What? I thought you were learning something in school. If this pie equals one and I slice it into four pieces what’ll you call one slice? “ Henry thinks but can’t draw a clear thought after hearing the ominous tone of Eugene’s exasperated voice. Instead, he says nothing. “ I haven’t heard you answer boy?
“ Aaaa__two.” Eugene whips the bone knuckle of his broad fist across the table smacking the boy across the cheek.
”I said, if the pie is whole and I take one slice how many is left.” Henry says, “ Three.”
“ See there son you ain’t as dumb as you make me think, eat your pie then go to you room and do some math.”
Olene would appear like an inspecting guard in the doorway of Henry’s bedroom.
“ Your dad said you can turn your light out now and go to sleep.”
Henry never questioned Olene’s lack of empathy. She was cold, for the most part indifferent to Eugene’s cruelty. She had a rigid moral code one short on compassion for her son yet concerned for the well being of less fortunate church sponsored orphans. Although Henry suffered in private mother’s cruel detachment and the occasional beating from Eugene she accepted things as the were. We had no point of reference or clue how other families lived. It would be our high school friends who’d shed light on this precarious situation.
Several of Henry’s friends played a game of sandlot baseball after school hours. Henry was invited to participate. Baseball fascinated him. In fact, he collected the most impossible cards using shrewd trades with other like minded boys. Mickey Mantle was his idol. Amongst his rare collection, Mantle’s rookie card. At night he’d place the card next to his bed climb into an imaginary batter’s box and with his bat strike a pose like the once great Yankee hitter.
He’d level the heavy wood , heave a few test strokes then swing at full speed splitting stilled air across the bed’s midsection . More than anything he wanted to try his swing against real pitching. I had no idol only Henry . Up to now father ran the house like military boot camp, no room for sport or art.
Henry approached mother requesting to play organized baseball. At first she deferred the request to Eugene. After realizing he’d departed for a two day hunting trip with army pal Bud Norman she gave the ok.
Boys, baseball, sweltering afternoons is about a perfect combination ever realized. Henry wasn’t much at handling fly balls most sailed over his head but at the plate he could make fair contact. At fourteen he was a growing boy almost six feet tall and hundred forty pounds. He could take your head off if you got near of one of his speed pitches. Henry threw straight up heat. His buddies wanted a piece of the overhand fast ball but none could catch the velocity. Henry soon became legend. Word got out around school he had a couple pitches as challenging as Dodger ace Sandy Koufax.
Mother witnessed change in Henry's overall morale. Brother was still a C student but their was a spirit to him that would linger long after returning from nine innings of baseball. She begged Eugene to let the him play more sports after school.
“ He’s fourteen, well versed in good and bad,” she would argue. Eugene thought about it, then said;
“ I’ll let the boy play but he better not screw up on the diamond like he does in school.”
When Olene delivered the good news, Henry though thankful was more than suspicious of the old man’s appeasing behavior.
The living room of the our house was converted into a war memorial/gun rack for all visitors to see. Father displayed his purple heart, citations, rifle pin, division patches and letter of accommodation from World Wat II. Next to them a mahogany case armed with rare French and Italian shotguns, rifles , pistols all smuggled in a body bag by Eugene and his friends out of France after liberation. The detailed silver work carved along the gun stalks was evidence of breathtaking artistry. Father knew exactly what he had stolen and took every opportunity to exhibit them to like minded hunting pals. He also kept a loaded Winchester rifle ready just in case ”One of those thieving Negroes choose to commit harm on him.”
Whatever possessed father to force Henry and me along for a duck hunting trip is near unexplainable. He knew the both of us detested firearms, the killing of innocent beings. Henry concerned himself more with repairing the broken limbs of fallen bird. I never fully comprehended why men blast seemingly defenseless mammals senseless.
Eugene marched through high weeds and marsh like a man intent on revenge. As the ducks scattered and took flight he’d blast wildly leaving pot marks about the soil and trees occasionally maiming a bird or two. Eventually it came time for Henry to step up. Eugene handed him his favorite pump action rifle. At first brother reluctantly held the weapon down his side. Father scolded him for not paying closer attention to the rules of safety. Henry assumed he could outwit the old man firing at an imaginary target , shrug it off then walk away. But something unexpected occurred. A young buck showed himself in a thicket of trees no more than fifty yards in front of his weapon. Father was ecstatic.
“Be quiet boy don’t let him see your motion just move real slow.”
Suddenly, Henry’s knee’s weaken. He then lowers the barrel.
“ What the hell you doing, shoot the bastard, “ the old man whispers.
“ Dad, I can’t do it.”
“ What you mean you can’t do it, hell he’s standing there waiting for you.”
“I won't do it.”
“ Boy if you don’t shoot this buck, I’m going to kick your ass all up and down Main Street until everyone laughs in your face.”
Henry lowers his head and stoically faces the ground. Father grabs the rifle points in the direction of the deer, assumes a shooter’s position then quickly discovers the buck has disappeared from sight. He spins around fires two shots killing a chipmunk fleeing this side an old spruce tree.
“ You know something, I think you're queer. A queer would get all weak in the woods like one of those tree huggers. Get the hell out of here.”
The ride back was a moribund affair. Father revived the immortal instant the young buck belonged to Henry and his refusal to do proper work on the animal. Henry looked away far beyond the ash pine and blacken ridge of Hope mountain. In his heart he knew he hadn’t reach the point of full blown hatred for father but was increasingly incensed with the belittling comments.
As soon as Henry stepped inside the doorway Eugene sucker punched brother in the face. The blow sent Henry coiling to the floor.
“ Get up and fight like a man. Take your punishment like a real man not like your queer friends.”
Henry refused to stand up. Eugene reached down then grabs him under the right armpit yanks him lengthwise upright. Smack! Another blow to the nose and face. Blood sprays all directions staining the woven circular carpet. Mother dashes from the kitchen and intervenes all the while I’m screaming in terror.
“ Get away from him Eugene. Don’t hit the boy again,” mother orders.
Meanwhile, Henry’s tear-drenched face is smeared in blood . Father breaks Olene’s grip drags the boy by the collar to a large utility closet then shoves him inside and locks the door then leaves the room. I run to mother begging her to rescue Henry from this nightmare. She just stands nearby like a pillar of salt. Again I plead with her to take Henry to the hospital, call an ambulance, police, just do something. She calmly pushes me aside and walks out the kitchen door to a rusted swing set in the backyard. I watch her sit down then kick forward, rock back in forth as if to disassociate herself from all that has happened.
For the better part of four hours Henry profusely wept. I’d hear his weakened voice plead,
“ Where are you mother? Why do you allow him do such horrible things to me?”
Once again I ran to mother hoping she’d change her mind to know avail . Olene did eventually return, unlock the door then walk away leaving the brother free to exit on his own.
From that day Henry’s anger never wavered. He decided in time the old man would pay dearly. He hadn’t decided how or when but was certain it would be a grand display.
Baseball and sociology would consume Henry’s waking hours. When he wasn’t volunteering in the community center or working weekends at St. Joe’s, he honed his skills on the ball diamond.
Eugene rarely spoke to brother. Something had snapped in the man. He no longer attempted to control every movement in the young man’s life. Besides, brother was making above average grades.
It was fall, the eighteenth year of Henry’s life. He’d won twelve games as starting pitcher for the Campellville Jayhawks leading the team to the sectional. Around the plate he still wasn’t much a threat with his bat but his fast ball clocked in at over ninety miles an hour. He would be the subject of conversation throughout Putnam County and scouts as far east as Boston.
The Jayhawks were facing their old nemesis the Providence Blue Devils under coach Dan Berryman who always found a unique way to steal victory from the best of teams.
Henry realized the significance of the game and prepared like a prizefighter battling for a rare world championship belt. Father never attended brother’s games but decided to make the trip out of town .
Henry was the talk of Larcott Products the plant where Eugene worked for more than twenty-two years. Eugene’s boss, Haplern Ashcroft would recite all brother’s statistics, the speed of every pitch in his arsenal. Eugene acted like he was more than proud of brother’s achievements going so far as to take credit for his pitching style.
“ You know I always taught the boy to throw over the top and follow through. I’d never let him throw that sidearm stuff. That’ll destroy your elbow quicker than a motorcycle fall, “ he’d say.
Over a thousand folks showed for Henry’s big game, most to witness the blazing fast ball.
The Jayhawk’s batted first getting two men on with a walk and single. A force out at third, pop up above second and strikeout would stymie any chance of scoring. It was Henry’s turn. Before he unleashed the first pitch his eyes scanned the sizable crowd. A trace of stage fright rippled through his veins but Henry was to pumped to acknowledge it.
First pitch, “ strike!”, a smokin’ fast ball somewhere near eighty-seven miles at the knees. Second pitch, inside sinker that just grazes the batter’s elbow. “Hit batter, take first,” yells the ump. Henry looks away unfazed. The next batter would level an outside curve beyond the centre fielder’s reach all the way to the back fence. A run would score. Again Henry’s pitches, nips a batter; runners first and third. Whack! the ball sails past the first baseman down the line. Two runs in.
A dejected Henry turns to wipe his brow and clear his eyes. As he turns he spots Eugene clinging to wire mesh along first base, face red spouting obscenities.
“ The damn boy is queer I tell you he couldn’t plug a big ass buck at ten yards let alone throw a fast ball over the plate.”
Henry coldly shoots the old man a menacing look. Eugene turns towards the stands then yells.
“Hey everybody I’m telling right now he ain’t got the guts to finish the job. Don’t bet no money on the wimp.”
With that remark, Henry pulls himself from the game exits back of the clubhouse. I catch him running out the back gate. Brother was in no mood for conversation. I keep asking him what’s he going to do but he ignores me. Henry then speeds the ten mile distance home walks to Eugene’s prized gun rack, grabs the Winchester, a few shells and lifts another item barely visible from a wooden basket.
Henry bled with anger, an anger no man should carry.
I grab him by the jacket, swing around and beg him to answer me.
“ What have I done to him? Why does he hate and humiliate me?” he asks, then turns for the door.
When we return Henry watches both teams exchange positions with Campellville coming to bat. With the rifle near his side he walks behind a high row of bleachers to first base side spots Eugene laughing near the fence. Without hesitation he raises the Winchester jabs into the crevice of Eugene’s neck and orders him to walk ahead. Father laughs then threatens to beat brother worse than he’d ever been beaten intent on playing for the crowd’s sympathy. Henry in no mood for back talk cocks the rifle then speaks.
“ Move your stinken ass around the other side of the fence. Now!”
A stunned silence hits the field leaving everyone focused on Henry. Eugene emits a nervous giggle.
“ Put the gun down Henry before I whip your ass.”
Henry thumbs the trigger jabs the barrel deeper into his neck then repeats the order.
“ Move ‘round to home plate you evil shit!” Eugene glances beyond the back stop at a somber row of faces staring from above.
No one flinches. Slowly he steps around the curved spine of fencing onto the playing field.
“ To the back fence Eugene.” Father obliges.
“ Turn around face the crowd, “ Henry demands.
As he begins the reversal Henry reaches in a cloth sack pulls from it the worn leather strap the one Eugene’s dad had whipped his less than obedient son with. Out of view Henry delivers a blistering stroke across the old man’s back. Then one back the neck.
“ How does it feel you rotten bastard? Remember how you enjoy whipping baby boys or have you forgotten.”
Henry pauses then slings two more long strokes dead center of Eugene’s back.
“I hope you feel every slash of leather, the bloody welts, the broken patches of skin, my tears left to dry on the floor. You’ll never ever lay a hand on me again or will you ever humiliate me in front of my friends.”
The rifle falls drops beneath a half foot of soil in the batters box . Henry then places the leather strap on top the small wooden butt, turns and walks away. Eugene collapses, his long fingers cover the head and eyes. He then discharges an eerie tone not unlike the plea of a wounded animal .
Throughout the hushed playground, few speak choosing instead to stare like distant relatives attending the funeral of an all but forgotten uncle. No one dared consider punishing the boy knowing to well the pain that he endured most his childhood.
There was no reason to resume the game the night belonged to Henry. Olene cried out for Henry, even begged forgiveness but Henry brushed her aside and left the park alone. I tried catching up but he was in no mood for comfort. Eventually, he turned and hugged me.
“ You can go back home brother he’ll never hit another child. If he does you just call me, I assure it will be his last act of cowardliness.”
With that remark, Henry went home and packed a few things then left. It was months before I hear from him. He’d taken a full scholarship offer to play baseball down in Georgia. A year after the birth of his first child Henry hung a plague in the living room with a passage someone mailed anonymously from church, “Young people aren’t meant to suffer the vengeful hand of those who deliver them to this world.” * * * * *