True story: When I was nine, I walked the length of Lester River to Lake Superior, on one of the last, dreadful, snow-preserving days of spring. I imagined that I was coming down a Himalayan gorge, traversing the world alone, and then, coming upon the vast expanse of the lake, I walked out onto the thick ice. I continued forward until I disappeared into a deep fog. It was a new life: I could feel the cloud bank roll over me, heaven fallen to earth, standing alone and containing the entire world. And then I heard what sounded like a canon shot, and the jolt knocked me on my ass. I stood up to see that I had broken off from the shore on a thick floe of ice, the white pines at the shore slowly shrinking behind the fog. I ran, lungs burning, eyes filled with tears, and leapt…
My hands were a disaster: I had scraped my knuckles to hell on the snowbanks during the fight. After fixing myself up with the first aid stash I’d stolen from my father’s van—white medical tape and gauze that my father reserved for gashes he got on the job—I set to training anyway. I wanted to beat the fuck out of the world. It deserved it. The “EVERLAST” logo of my heavy bag had long since faded, rubbed out by my fists, and I had drawn and redrawn it with permanent marker: “EVERFUCKD.” The blue-black lines quickly wore thin beneath blows, one more dark shade beside the deep rust of dried blood and the worn crimson of the canvas.
I crouched and swayed, leaning into the bag. Whenever I landed a really good shot, my grandmother’s china would shake and jingle in the hutch upstairs. It felt like ringing the bell at the fair, the exact same satisfaction. Except that when you ring the bell at the fair, you don’t get a leather palm upside your head as a prize.
My eyes were blurred and stinging with sweat when I heard my father scream.
“Ha! You little shit, I caught you!”
It was like the air itself had sucker-punched me. There wasn’t room down there for another person. My training room had one bulb, without a cover. It wasn’t even a room: just a corner around the bottom of the stairs. Our basement had a low ceiling with stone walls, and I crouched to avoid knocking my head against the railroad ties the builder had used for rafters.
“I got you!”
My father was down there with me all right, but down there. I looked at the tape wrapped around my hands—freaked at their contraband protection. I tugged frantically, rolling it into tight cables that slid from my fingers on a glide of blood. I could hear my father, but couldn’t see him. I couldn’t breath. I wanted to vomit. I was blind.
My father was making an incredible racket.
He stopped moving. I thought for sure he saw me screwing around with the tape, but then he yelled again from a far, dark corner. The unfinished half of the basement didn’t have any working lights, which filled me with horror in my salt-blindness as I squinted for my father. Over the years, my father had built a labyrinth of ceiling-high walls made of every conceivable mechanical refuse and material junk. The only light came through tears in the brown plastic Hefty bags duct-taped over the windows. I stumbled toward this half-light in a panic.
I ducked under the beam doorframe and stepped down into the darkness. I oriented myself by his breathing, which was rough like sleep in a nightmare.
“Finn? Is that you?” He paused for air. “Damn if you’re not going to knock the house down one of these days. Give me a hand over here, would’ja?”
My father began going apeshit again with his breathing, his grunts. It sounded like he was banging a drum made out of gristle. I heard scratches, like a dog against a door.
I found him leaning his head against the stones, crouching. His hair was flaked with moldy chunks of mortar.
“I got the rat.”
My heart did flips of relief and excitement: we had been looking for that rat for months. And I was still free.
“You got the damned rat?!”
“Remind me later that I owe you one for swearing. Now, get over here and help me with this damned rat.”
I looked over his thick shoulders and saw that he had the rat squirming between the ends of our barbecue tongs. He was holding the rat by the torso and pressing it against the bottom of an empty glue bucket. My father was one strong son of a bitch. He was the enforcer on his high school hockey team, and our bedtime stories frequently revolved around fights, his favorite story being the one about the time he knocked all four front teeth out of Scott Anderson’s mouth with one punch.
At the moment, he was not punching, but pinning, and he had that damned rat pinned down in one of his empty buckets, the old glue brown and caked to the sides.
“Got you now, don’t I, rat?” he said, glaring. His voice reverberated from the shitbucket with a plastic echo. “Got ’em just like I got that nigger in that bar, a real big one like this rat here. Got ’em on the ground and then put my foot on his throat—’one move and I crush it.’ Are you watchin’ this, Finn?”
That’s what he said: “nigger.” Whenever he’d get drunk, he’d tell fewer stories about hockey and more about growing up, about just plain being a bastard, a tough-guy—about what it took to be a man. I ate these up when I was a kid, but I grew up in them and as I tried them out, I learned that they worked least when they worked well. Some I couldn’t even try at all: I once tried to tell him that he was a racist, and he called me “asinine,” which was a pretty impressive word for him. He said, “Don’t get asinine with me now, Finn. Ain’t you ever heard of something being nigger-rigged? You gonna speak a whole different language now?”
Honestly? I wanted desperately to burn the book of my life and scrawl bold letters on the first blank page I could find: “YOU MUST START WITH A NEW LANGUAGE.”
After a long silence spent staring into the bucket as my father gurgled quiet and ongoing obscenities, he screamed, “Get over here!”
His veins rose like purple twigs across his neck and forehead. The smell of beer and its cousin, vomit, rose with the heat of his sweat.
“Grab the tongs, for chrissake.”
“Okay,” I said, inching toward him, “I’ve got you.” I stretched my arms out to grab the tongs, turning my face away from my father’s. His face was red like a bruised tomato—dull and hurt with blue. I was in no great shape myself. My forearms burned from the workout, and my shoulders, my back, my neck—still sore and bruised from yesterday’s fight. I squinted as my father released his grip on the tongs, pulling his arms back and sliding away behind me, out of sight. I looked down at the rat in the bucket, at his glassy eyes as he scratched and wriggled. I snagged a steelhead once that fought like that rat—it snapped my line, but I could see for a gleaming moment that my father had been proud of me. I squeezed as hard as I could, my fists shaking.
The basement stairs rattled and creaked as my father stomped up them. Our house was so old and rotten that a layer of dust snowed over everything as my father crashed through the house. The rat didn’t seem like he cared too much about the racket. He just sat there, relaxed like my dad had gone for a beer while the Zamboni cleared the ice.
As for me: I couldn’t much relax. I was surrounded by shit. As you stepped beneath the beam into the unfinished basement, you were greeted by an antique television, the kind that had its own cabinet built around it, made out of cherry or walnut, with elaborate carvings. Except that the tube was cracked, and the cabinet smelled like cat piss, you might actually have used it as furniture. It was covered with dusty jars, each filled with nuts and bolts and screws and electrical pieces, some with hinges and some with switches and some with the little bulbs you put in flashlights. I stood alone with a rat among long-rusted power tools, a foot-pedal lathe that didn’t work, lead glass windows with missing panels, oak trim shattered by a wrecking ball at one end, an exercise bicycle, a wheel, and more dust-covered hoards of nameless, useless shit—me and a rat and the ruin of civilization. It was one of my stated goals to be disinherited from this disaster.
My father came back, shaking a hammer in his fist.
“Bring that rat over here in the open,” he said.
I kicked the shitbucket along the rough floor, nudging it up over the cracks in the cement. Entire chunks of the floor were missing, just dirt in places, with half-buried chunks of wood and iron jutting from the earth.
“Lift him up so I can whack him one,” my father said.
The rat and I had, by this time, a mutual interest in relaxing—but when he saw my father, that look in his eyes where you could just tell before he even said anything, he started kicking and squirming like crazy. Like I said, that rat had been in our house for a long time. You didn’t have to be there long.
My father raised his arms above his head, hammer held high like an angry Communist, his eyes steamy with anger and despair. The hammer came crashing down against the rat’s head, rattling the hell out of the bucket between my feet. I was holding my head to the side, looking down at the rat from between my arms. I rested my shoulders on the wall and hoped like hell that my father was hungover and not still drunk. Regret hurts—but rage kills. Dirt fell into my sweatshirt as I pushed the rat into the bottom of the bucket. My father swung again, and a piece of spit rolled into a little dirtball on the floor. The rat was still shaking, wrestling like he was All-State or a Northern Pike or just crazy or afraid of my father. My father hit him again. And again. And again. Again. Again. Again, and again. My father was panting, stooped over the bucket. The rat was squirming hard as ever. A rat was dying at my feet, and my father had become terminally infected with rage. He looked up at me, with a look on his face that was just—just wrong.
“I guess even the rats in this house are tough little bastards, huh?”
He stopped, waiting for me to say something, beaming. I couldn’t.
“That’s right, we’re all tough little bastards, aren’t we?” he said again. He paused and nodded. “Just so you know, the Hakala kid is OK.”
I just stared like the moron I momentarily was.
He had to be hurting. Badly. As this rat was. But he was alive.
“Yeah, I guess there is a lot of tough around here, huh?” I said. My head buzzed with revelation. My fight with Hakala had been the worst I’d ever fought: we fought like caged dogs, desperate to win our fathers’ bets on our manhood. As the sirens pierced the cold and I ran for home, I thought that I had crippled him; or made him a mute; some terrible thing that would punish me with a horror as grizzly as it was appropriate—that I would deserve to die when my heart exploded. In part I hoped that it was that bad so that I would never have to do it again.
“Yeah,” said my father, “that includes you, you shit.” He was panting and out of breath from two packs a day. “But we’re going to kill this little motherfucker…” he paused, “we’re going to kill him dead.”
He lunged out of the basement and clomped slowly up the stairs. I stayed with the rat. The rat had a bloody nose, but looked otherwise OK, like a good fighter shaking off a couple hard knocks. We should have replaced Rhodes on the second line with this rat. How long had this rat had been in our house? Months—more than a few. I looked around at the ceiling, trying to figure where he got around.
This wandering rat gave me regular heart attacks. I used to go to the bathroom downstairs in the middle of the night, then make a quick recon for a snack. This required no small degree of thievery and deviousness, not to mention courage: in addition to the primary fear that you’d get caught sneaking food when you were supposed to be in bed, there you’d be, opening the doors in the pantry cupboards so slowly that the driest hinge wouldn’t squeak, right then, right as you sighed at your success, you’d hear him. And he’d be in the cupboards you were looking into, your face right up against a box as you tried to make out labels in the purple darkness and he was right behind it, filling up your entire head with his scratches, so close that the fear made you deaf to the extent that you might not hear the floor creak as you stepped backward. This rat would just mind-fuck you to death—and you didn’t dare make a creak on that floor. But hunger drives out fear and there were some nights I’d have gladly gone toe-to-toe with my father just for the slow melting of a Nutty Bar as I let it dissolve in my mouth, in the dark, in the silence, carefully folding the plastic into a small triangular football, which I would slide into the side of the garbage can.
I hadn’t heard that rat for a month at least, and now I had him pushed down into the bucket. I laughed at him because he got caught and I never did.
I said to him, a messed up, half-dead rat: “Sucker.”
My father came back down the stairs with an extension cord wrapped around his forearm, letting it out smoothly like boat line as he ducked under the beam. He carried his new drill, a big ½” chuck Milwaukee he had just bought. A cigarette dangled from his lips as he knelt down on one knee, pulled a couple of drywall screws from his back pocket, then stuck one onto the magnetic bit. He gave the thing a whirl and the screw swung around in wobbly circles from the tip. He took the cigarette out of his mouth and pitched it into a corner.
“This should get him,” he said as he held the drywall screw at the back of the rat’s head.
The drill screamed and then shuddered as the screw ground into the bucket on the other side of the rat. It’s fair to say that this pissed the rat off completely: he shook the screw right out of the bottom of the bucket. It was all I could do to hold on to him. My father looked impressed. He smiled and picked another one of the screws up off the floor by his knee. He put it in right next to where the other one was, revving the drill to a frequency that made my own hangover bark. When he pulled his hand up, there was blood on his fingers. I looked into the bucket. The rat was still fighting. There were some blood streaks in his hair, but hardly any more than you could see in anyone’s hair after a good fight. My father put another screw into him, and then picked up the hammer and hit him in the head some more. It shouldn’t have been funny, watching my father, stark raving mad at a rat that he couldn’t kill—but Danny Hakala was OK and that was all that mattered to me.
The rat cranked his head toward me, puzzled, not with his eyes, which didn’t really have any expression at all except rat-stupidness, but his head wiggled around with the screws sticking out of the back of it, like a Frankenstein rat struggling to ask, “What the fuck is wrong with you people?”
“What the fuck are you laughing at?” asked my father. “Pick him up and take him outside.” He marched ahead of me and out the back door, hollering back, “Meet me outside the garage.”
I carried the bucket up the stairs one stair at a time so I could hold the rat down. He was still fighting, even after he got the hell beat out of him. He just kept fighting.
“What I need to do is—is I need to go sane,” I said to myself, starting to struggle almost as much as the rat.
My father was leaning against the open garage door, eyes half-shut against the brilliance of his new idea. A fresh cigarette dangled from his mouth, waiting for its part. I think this is the picture of him I’ll always have, now that I will never see him again. He was wearing his usual jeans, covered with duct tape patches, a T-shirt and tan work boots. It was only March, and the sun barely lit the winter haze. He was holding a silver quart can that glowed in the gray light. I shivvered and felt a hundred-and-sixty-eight-pound sadness rush from my father, then pass through me. He was already dead.
“It’s Zip–Strip,” he grinned.
I now understood the look in my father’s eyes when I had walked through our kitchen door, streaked in blood after the fight with Hakala, who was a well-liked kid, even though he had been a terrible bully to me: it was not rage, but fear—the unbearable recognition that he had fucked up completely and accidentally reproduced himself. He beat me right there in the mud room, two steps inside the kitchen door, and hadn’t talked to me since.
My father took the tongs from me, and I stood back, mouth open. The syrupy Zip–Strip ran slowly out of the can, circling around the rat’s ear and then covering up one of his eyes. The smell burned through my nose and eyes and right into the center of my skull. The shitbucket danced across the driveway as the rat’s fury matched my father’s and my father kept pouring it on, chasing after it and pouring it until just a spider-fine strand of the paint remover connecting the rat and canister. My father bent the barbecue tongs as he pushed the rat into the bottom of the bucket. He took his cigarette and threw it into the bucket, screaming:
“Yeah? Go ahead—burn in hell. Just burn in hell you piece of shit.”
Nothing happened. My father was astonished. He took his lighter and cigarettes out of his pocket then ripped the package apart with his teeth. His arms shook as he held the rat with one hand while twisting the paper between his other hand and his bared teeth. His Zippo flashed and flickered—then he tossed the lit paper into the bucket. Flame, ash, and oily smoke burst into the sky.
Black flakes from the burning plastic unfurled in greasy clouds then fell in a grotesque mockery of snow. My father looked into the sky and screamed, “FUCK!”
Fuck was his God and fucked our theology—and His signs floated through the yard and alley: flame and ashes.
My father ran toward the house, swearing at his own stupidity and moaning that he had definitely set the neighborhood on fire. I stood alone, surrounded by thick smoke, watching the plastic melt down the edges of the bucket as the fire burned.
I looked into the smoldering bucket at the rat, burned black and board-stiff, his teeth bared and still licked with flame, eyes wide open and looking straight ahead, just like my father had looked a second ago. I looked at the napalmed carcass and thought about him in his rat-sadness. Then I looked up at the windows of our neighbor, the still curtains behind frost, and thanked Fuck that there were no witnesses to this debacle of evolution.
When my father ran out of the house, he did so with a bucket of water that sloshed in slow motion, spilling on the sidewalk. His face flickered with a lunatic rage that was no longer his. The water hit the bucket and exploded with smoke and steam and ashes, and splattered on my face. My father grinned in panic, like he had just killed something he hadn’t meant to. I stared at him: cold with wonder and a face dribbled with black wet ashes that refused to be tears.
/ / /
Joshu’s “A Newborn Baby”
A monk asked Joshu, “Does a baby possess the six senses?” Joshu replied, “A ball bouncing in whitewater rapids.” The monk asked Tosu afterwards, “What does this mean: ‘A ball bouncing in whitewater rapids’?” Tosu replied, “Awareness to awareness—no stopping.”
This is the first section of Zen Arcade, a novel by Joel Turnipseed. We will be publishing a new section every other Sunday until Summer 2015. Read them here or get an email notification when the new section is available.