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Losing My Father: A Short Story by Carl S. Miller
Blubbering, our father sat before us on the edge of the bed. Fat belly jiggling with each sob, his face was bright red around an unkempt beard, and saturated with tears and sweat.
My mother, barely a shadow in the corner of the room, left me and my two younger brothers alone to face our father.
I was still getting over the shock of seeing this once powerful man in such a weakened state, when he explained that he was moving out.
James, barely eight, said, “Are you and mommy getting divorced?”
I smirked, letting my father see how much I hated him.
“I don’t know,” he replied, still crying. “But your mother and I have some things to work out, and I’m leaving for a while.”
“When are you coming back?” David, the middle child, asked.
“He’s not.” I answered for my father.
At this, James began to cry.
“Just shut up, Andrew.” My father broke his sobs long enough to scold me, then turned back to my brother. “I don’t know when I’m coming back. We’ll have to wait and see how things turn out” – a quick glance to my mother. “There’s another reason I called you boys in here, though. I’ve been a lousy father. It was wrong to hit you boys so much, and I’m going to give you the opportunity to punish me for my actions.”
From behind his back, he produced our most feared object – an old leather belt with a brass buckle. About ¼ inch thick and two inches wide, we knew the this belt well. My father stood from the bed, then knelt over its edge. “You first.” He turned, extending the belt to James.
I could barely keep my body from lunging at his outstretched arm and beating him mercilessly with his own torture device. For as long as I could remember, I had been waiting for that moment when I could destroy my father, just as he had destroyed me and my brothers. But I had never expected it to come so soon. It was almost impossible to resist the immediate violent urges, but I had waited years, and could wait a few more moments. My ears tingled, and my hands grew clammy, as I watched James refuse the belt.
“I can’t daddy. I can’t hit you. I can’t do it.”
“Take the belt,” my father said.
James was now hysterical. “No, I don’t want to.” He ran out of the room, and I could hear his trailing sobs all the way down the hall.
At this defeat, my father began to cry even harder.
Then, turning to David, he offered the belt again.
A few beaded tears trickling down his cheeks, David shook his head in refusal. Then his watery eyes looked to me for support. But, despite his obvious terror, I remained silent.
Why couldn’t he do it? Pass me the belt, I thought. Unlike my brothers, I would not let years of hiding bruises from teachers and friends go un-avenged. Still fresh were the memories of choking down my father’s reeking beer-breath (I couldn’t help but inhale between screams), while he mercilessly brutalized my flesh. The dream of killing him dominated my thoughts, and I did not understand why my brothers could not act. They had experienced the same abuse, the same hatred and pain, and yet their fear of our father still overpowered the desire for revenge.
I watched as David lowered his eyes to the carpet and said, “I can’t.”
“Take the belt, dammit.” My father was desperate. “Hit me, like I’ve hit you!”
But David would not speak. He couldn’t verbally defy our father again, so his refusal was silent. Tears now openly fled down his face.
“I’m a failure,” my father wailed. He turned back toward the sheets and covered his weeping head.
My hands were shaking with anticipation. I was certainly afraid, but spite had almost completely swallowed that fear. And, more than anything, I was anxious for revenge, knowing I would soon crush the hulking symbol of black mind-hell in front of me.
Then he lifted his head, turned to me, held out his hand, and let the belt fall limp before me.
As my greedy fingers slowly reached out for it, I looked into his eyes. And, veiled beneath a wet mess of facial hair, I could see he was suppressing a smile – a sort of satisfied smirk.
All at once, I knew that I truly understood him for the first time; he not only expected me to give in to my anger; he wanted me to give in to it – just as he had done so many times.
Feeling the weight of the leather chunk within my grasped palm, I hesitated. Looking down at it, I thought about searing flesh – my flesh, my brothers’ flesh. And, when I raised my head, all traces of his expectant smirk had disappeared.
“Not you too,” he said. “Hit me. I know you want to.”
He was right – I did so dearly want to beat him. But real clarity had ignited, and, despite my earlier assessment, I realized this was not just a show he was staging for my mother. This was his redemption. In some sick way, he was going to be able to forgive himself by allowing me to revenge myself upon him; he would be able to sleep well knowing I was no better a human than himself. He simply could not stand being the only pitiful monster in the room.
A fresh onslaught of tears bellowed from his sockets as he yelled, “Hit me! I deserve it!”
But I wasn’t going to become an empty creature like him. I would leave him to wallow in the knowledge that he was a lone, soulless lump of skin. I would not give him what he wanted. Instead, I would give him what he wanted least – what he feared.
My hands were now calm, and I let the belt slide from them as I spoke. “I love you, dad. And I forgive you.”
Turning to leave the room, his words stopped me at the door.
“I don’t want your forgiveness.”
I didn‘t turn back to face him when I said, “then I pity you, too.”
I walked out and away from that bedroom, leaving behind all that I had ever known of my father – the one who had wept before me and the one who had lived within me.