CHAPTER 2: The Fourth of Three

I know the exact time when my life went to shit. But first, you need to know that my mother was a grade school teacher. We'd just moved thanks to my father's job, and she took a new teaching job in a neighboring town. Claiming she didn't like the local school, she got permission to haul me with her to this other school where she taught. (I have a vague idea why she did this, which I may or may not delve into at some point.) The next year, we moved again to the town where she taught, mostly because my father got tired of her complaining about the commute.

After completing third grade in the new school, I was placed in one of two fourth grade classes. Unfortunately it was the "slow" class, and I was getting a sore arm from having it up all the time. I was there because the "normal" fourth grade class was being taught by my mother. She fought tooth and nail against the school rule that a student can't be in a class taught by a parent. You guessed it: I wound up in her class. That was precisely the beginning of the end for me.

My mother was a good teacher—celebrated, even (in small circles) as it happened. But she was also a strict disciplinarian. And I mean strict. Most students hated her guts. And when I showed up in her class, my high performance was perceived by my classmates as her favoring me. What they didn't know was that she actually worked me much harder than any of them.

The other little wrinkle that made my life in her class almost unbearable was that she was legally permitted to hit me. And if I got out of line, she would in fact do just that—right in the middle of class I'd get whacked. Great fun for those who hated her and resented me. Whenever they wanted to get even with her, what better way than to torment her son?

Thus began my inexorable descent into hell. Because not only was I tormented by my classmates, but they set a damning precedent for their extended circle of friends: whenever anyone wanted to take something out on someone, I was the perfect target! I became the scapegoat for every disgruntled student in the entire school system—a role with which I was saddled right up to the day I graduated high school. Which explained why total strangers would saunter up and assault me, unprovoked.

My mother never accepted the fate she bestowed upon me. She had a professional reputation to uphold, and my behavior and performance reflected directly on that reputation. This is why she was blind to my suffering, and why my lousy high school grades galled her so. It was all about her. Now, lest anyone regard her as the villain in this tale, understand that she had a severe self-esteem problem: hers was (verbally) beaten out of her by my father. This is not to excuse, merely to explain.

Regrettably, she was to suffer further humiliation because of me outside of school. After our fourth or fifth move, I was trying to acclimate myself to the local children. It was a waste of time. I found myself at odds with them quite quickly: I was a quiet introvert, and they were raucous troublemakers, so I was never inclined to play with them. I hated sports anyway, so I just hid in my room and modeled trains.

Meanwhile, my behavior did not go unnoticed by the neighborhood kids' mothers. I refused to play ball with their little darlings! Why, I must be homosexual. Bear in mind, this was back in the days when such a thing was terribly scandalous. So when this rumor reached my mother, she was beyond mortified. It was a terrible cross for her to bear, and she carefully hid it from me until I was in my fifties.

Through school I did manage to make friends with a couple of kids from the other end of town. But when the local gang found out, they'd stop my friends as they were biking to my house, pin them down on the ground, and spit on them. A couple of our cats mysteriously disappeared—I was certain they were killed by the little darlings. And Mischief Night (the night before Halloween) was always a disaster: our house was the entire town's target.

The price my mother paid for all of this trickled down to me in insidious ways. My father? He was of the mind that discipline was the "mother's job," so he never laid a finger on me. His form of punishment was verbal. For a long time, I questioned whether or not I was really his child, but as I aged, that was answered in the mirror. Yet there was a fourteen year gap between me and my brothers, who were more like uncles to me due to the age difference, and were long gone before I started becoming me.

And then there was my mother's patent prejudice against sex. It was so pervasive that I never noticed the fact that my oldest brother's birthday was only six months after their wedding anniversary. That realization, which came while I was in college, hit me like a Mack truck. What the fuck? Well, turns out she hated her mother so much that she allowed herself to get pregnant while in college, just so she had a "legitimate" reason to move out early. Meanwhile, when I began dating a girl believed by her to have, ahem, a "reputation," my mother the whore threatened me: if I got her pregnant, I'd be disowned, and never allowed to step foot in our house again.

Such was the messy closet of skeletons lurking beneath my bedroom. No wonder our family was so dysfunctional.

Back in my grade school years, I was a bit precocious at times—golly, I even stuck my tongue out at a teacher. Horrors! When my mother learned of such things, she would start hitting me, often drawing blood. In retrospect, I felt that she imagined herself hitting her mother, my father, and everyone else who wronged her. One time she bloodied my face just before classes started, and she sent me to the nurse with the sternest of warnings to not reveal how the injury happened, under any circumstances. It was one of the few times I saw her terrified. Justifiably. Soon afterward, she became addicted to tranquilizers.

Calling my mother a "whore" may seem rather harsh. But while I was still a toddler, I vividly recall a Cadillac showing up in our driveway on occasion while my father was at work. And whenever it did, I'd be sent outside to play. Apparently the car's owner was the director of a small local drama club. My mother was highly praised for her stage performances, and it was no mystery why; in fact, I don't think she ever stopped being the drama queen, on or off the stage.

On the subject of drama, Christmas was always the worst holiday in my home. She would storm around the house, slamming doors and screaming her lungs out at my father for his failings, and why couldn't he, for once, get things right? Christmas for me was a time to hide in my room during the fireworks. Is it any wonder why I still don't care for the holiday?

Then there was my unofficial therapist, Charles. He was faced with a need for volunteer help one time in my college days, and my mother, recently retired, decided to volunteer. They hit it off quite well, evidently, although briefly. I learned of this from her during my first wedding, at which they were both present. She remarked to me that he'd not aged well, then fell into a fit of confession. Not the sort of thing one wants to hear at one's wedding, I can tell you! Talk about a mind-fuck...

As a "sperm donor," my father was successful. After considerable persuasion, I finally got my mother to confess that I was an accident. "A happy one!" she added emphatically. That confirmed my suspicions, but I still couldn't reconcile the event in my mind. I'd spent my entire life watching them fight like cats and dogs (with the unfortunate side-effect of totally skewing my concept of family—more on that later). They didn't even like one another, let alone love one another. I simply could not imagine them in bed together, even falling-down drunk. It did not compute! Indeed, the mental image was kind of revolting.

But while my father never laid a finger on me, he'd honed verbal abuse to a high art, practicing on my mother until she had zero self-esteem. One of his favorite put-downs for me was, "You're OK for a kid. But who likes kids?" That I only ever called him Father should say something. Not dad, not pop, just father. He was a child of the Depression, and never outgrew that mentality. For several years, my allowance was 90 cents a week. Why? He contributed 60 cent, and because my mother made half as much as he did, she contributed 30 cents. Which explained something else...

Why did my mother hate my father so? Back story: I was not the third of three sons; I was the fourth. Son number three, James, died a day after his birth. My mother claimed they'd always wanted three children, which meant I might not have been born had James lived—another real mind-fuck for me. Anyway, my father refused to pay for a funeral or burial for a newborn, and she was very understandably incensed and deeply wounded. Upon learning that, a great deal of awareness dawned on me, and I forgave her for much of her abhorrent behavior. But all of these revelations came much too late in life to fix anything.

My father had only one boss his entire life: he spent exactly fifty years working for Mobil Oil Corporation. His philosophy about employment was modeled after his experience: you grew up, you graduated college, and you went to work for The Man for the rest of your life. My eldest brother got sucked up by IBM, so he was the golden boy of us three. My other brother was drafted, so he essentially got a pass. Me, I was a true "rebel." I followed my creative yearnings; I was a classic starving artist. I burned through more jobs in the first decade of my professional life than my father had socks. Consequently, I represented a massive disappointment to him. Compounded by what my mother went through with me, I was pretty much a nobody by the time I left home—which wasn't until I was 28...

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