Copyright © Eric Lanke, 1989. All rights reserved.
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Before I start I want to say that I no longer know any of the people I’m going to talk about. They’re from a part of my life that’s forever gone and I doubt very much that I will ever learn what became of them. But that’s okay, because when I think about it, I realize that I really didn’t like these people from my past. Only one of them ever really taught me anything about how things are, and that lesson was taught so well that I neither need nor want a refresher course.
This thing happened back in 1978 when I was ten and in the fourth grade and we were still living in the suburbs. I had two good friends back then, both in the same grade with me and who both lived in my neighborhood. One was named Tony, and I think I liked him better. It’s hard to remember what it was that motivated you when you were ten years old. It’s even harder to remember what guided your emotions. Most of your memories come back to you as facts and they don’t bring with them explanations as to why they are the facts. I just know that I liked Tony much better than Shitface.
It was what my father called him. His real name was Scott. My father had gone to high school with Shitface’s father, and he said that his father was a shitface, too. When we were kids, I guess I called him Scott, but now the name just doesn’t seem to fit my memory. I can’t help but call him Shitface, too.
It was during the summer that this thing happened. It was early in the season, but my parents were already making plans for the move we would make in August. It was a wonderfully hot summer day, the kind you only have before you become a teenager. The heat was oppressive, and my friends and I were out relishing in it.
I spent the day away from home, out in the neighborhood with Tony and Shitface, like we used to do. Not really going anyplace special, just hanging around. We would get some kids that we did or didn’t know and play baseball in the side streets with a tennis ball and a softball bat, or play ball tag in someone’s backyard with a big rubber ball. It was a long day and it was getting dark when I started on my way home for dinner. Tony and Shitface had to walk with me for a while to get to their homes, and as a group we passed the house were Cissa lived.
Cissa was an older boy, about sixteen or seventeen, who lived with his father in a run-down house on the corner of 106th Street and Lawn Avenue. Cissa was his last name and that was what everybody called him. I don’t know about anyone else, but I sure never knew what his first name was.
Cissa’s yard was traditionally a cut-through yard. I don’t know what it is about little kids that keeps them from using the sidewalks. It certainly wasn’t to save any effort, because often climbing fences and running from dogs wore you out more than walking down the corner would. I can only say that there is something clandestine about it that kids love. There is something secret agent-ish about sneaking through someone’s yard who you know doesn’t want their yard sneaked through. Kids love it and I guess kids will always do it. Who knows, thirty or forty years from now it may be me who is shaking a fist at the latest generation of 007s to march through my bean seedlings.
We were cutting through Cissa’s yard when Shitface stopped and shouted some taunts into the open windows of the house. Cissa was usually home alone at this time of day, his father worked second shift at the lumberyard. I’ve never known what happened to Cissa’s mother, whether she was dead or divorced, or whether he ever even had a legal one. It sometimes scared me to think how little I knew back then. At any rate, Shitface’s taunts were meant for Cissa, and he was the only one who could have been home.
“Hey sissy sissy Cissa!” Shitface shouted. “Sissy sissy Cissa! What a fucking sissy!”
Tony immediately joined in on the taunt and their voices sliced through the summer heat like the wings of a hornet.
“Sissy sissy Cissa! Nothing but a silly fucking sissy!”
Had I been older, or a little more independent, I would have kept right on going, cutting between the bushes and Cissa’s garage and on home to some of my mother’s good cooking. But I was young and stupid, and I guess I felt like I needed to belong, to do everything my friends did no matter how spiteful or juvenile it was. I’m not blaming Tony and Shitface for what was about to happen to me, but I think it should be said that if I had been alone, or perhaps just with Tony, I’d have been on time for dinner that night.
But I added my shrill voice to the taunt as well. It was immature and I really didn’t know why Shitface was taunting Cissa in the first place, but I taunted him all the same.
“Sissy sissy Cissa! Stupid silly fucking sissy Cissa!”
It was then that the garage door suddenly rolled up on its track and Cissa rushed out. The three of us spun and froze in surprised terror. I remember looking at Cissa dashing out of the garage and I thought that I’d never seen anyone so angry in my life, not even my father after I’d punctured a tire on his gold Pontiac with a lawn dart. Cissa’s face was all red and his hands were hooked into claws.
Tony and Shitface ran. It was like one second they were there and the next second they weren’t. My brain screamed at my legs to run, but with Cissa bearing down on me, it seemed like hours before they responded. I was running down the driveway, watching my friends pull away from me across the street, when Cissa caught me.
“Tony! Help! He’s got me! Get my dad!”
Cissa tucked me under his arm and ran to the house with me. I’d never before that moment thought about how big a person Cissa was. To a ten-year-old, any seventeen-year-old would seem big, but Cissa was massive for his age. If he’d actually gone to the high school he was supposedly enrolled in, I’m sure he would’ve made one hell of an offensive lineman.
I continued to scream and tried to squirm out of his grasp. I was usually pretty good at that. When I wrestled with my father, it would seem that I could always squirm enough to break his holds. But Cissa held me tightly. I began to get the feeling that my father had been letting me go. Cissa carried me into his house and down the steps to the basement. He threw me on a musty blue sofa that was set against the cold stone wall. I bounced off it and tried to run past him and up the stairs but he tossed me back onto the sofa. I stayed there this time. I stopped screaming. I’d long since stopped shouting words or anything coherent; I’d decayed into pure howls of panic. But I stopped doing even that because Cissa wasn’t doing anything to me. He was just standing there, glaring at me and guarding the stairs.
With the end of my cries, an uneasy silence settled down with the dust in the basement. I was still scared. Perhaps now more so than before. Cissa had me trapped down in his basement and there was no way I was getting out unless he let me out. I stood up and looked around. The furnace sat silently in one corner and a green felt pool table sat in the darkness, covered with dusty boxes, folded lawn chairs, and spattered drop clothes. The only light was the sixty watt bulb at the top of the stairs and the shadows looked like they were about to leap out of the corners and smother me. There was a chill down there, and after the heat of the afternoon sun, it made me feel faint.
Cissa took a menacing step towards me. “You name’s Kevin, ain’t it?”
I nodded my head quickly.
Cissa punched me in the face. He hit me right beside my nose, under my left eye, and I fell backward onto the sofa. I’d never really been punched in the face before that day. My father had slapped me when I’d been bad, but he’d never punched me. You see it all the time in those old western movies and it always sounds like a handclap or the crack of a whip. That may be how it sounds when you punch someone else, but when it’s you that gets punched, it doesn’t sound like that at all. It’s like how your voice sounds different to you when you hear it on a tape recorder. When you speak, you hear it through your skull as well as your ears. Your skull vibrates a little and it muffles the sound. That’s what happens when you get punched, except that it’s not just sound waves that makes your skull vibrate. The western movie handclap decays into a dull thud and you’re glad your vision goes black so you can’t see how pathetic you look.
“Well, Kevin,” Cissa said. “I’m going to do you a favor. I’m going to teach you something it took me a long time to learn for myself.”
I was barely listening to him. My head was reeling and the pain was beginning to set in. I put a hand over my eyes and began to moan.
“Shut up a listen to me,” Cissa said.
I began to cry.
Cissa grabbed me by the shirtfront and hauled me off the sofa. He started to shake me and told me to shut up again. I wrenched free of his grasp and sat down, stifling my sobs.
“You are right now completely under my control,” Cissa said. “That is a fact. I have trapped you down here in my basement and I am able to do anything I want with you. There is nothing that can stop me from beating the shit out of you right now, and you know this. How does that make you feel?”
I said nothing.
“I’ll tell you how that makes you feel. You feel weak, helpless, and worst of all, controlled. And that’s what makes you mad. You’re burning up right now with your hatred of me, and only because I’ve shown you that you don’t have all the freedom you thought you had. Am I right?”
“Yes,” I said through clenched teeth.
“Good,” Cissa said. “The way you feel right now is the way I’ve felt growing up with my father. The power I have over you is the same power my father had over me. He laid down the law, and I was to follow it to the letter or he would beat the crap out of me. Anytime I did something he considered wrong, or against his wishes, or was disrespectful to him, he would beat me bloody and throw me down here in the basement for punishment. He did this until I learned what I’m about to teach you.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“That you don’t fuck with people who have power over you. I used to hate my dad so much that I’d purposely do things to piss him off. Disobey him. Talk back. Things like that. I’d do these things and he’d beat me worse and worse every time. Then I decided that what I was doing was stupid. Let the old man have his way. I was sick of being kicked around. So I started doing what he told me to do. I fixed his meals. I washed his car. I cut the grass. And guess what? Things changed. Things got better. He stopped beating me, and he started to give me a little freedom.”
Cissa paused. He looked at me for a long time and the side of my face began to throb.
“Last night,” Cissa said, “my father came home after work really drunk. It isn’t something he does much, but it happens sometimes. When he does, I usually stay out of his way. He’s really irritable when he’s drunk. But last night, I was up watching cable when he came in. He started accusing me of taking his car for joyrides or some shit like that, I couldn’t really understand him. I was trying to calm him down and tell him I didn’t know what he was talking about when he hit me. He took me completely by surprise with that. He hadn’t hit me in over a year. He hit me with a good rap to the side of the head.
“Kevin, I looked inside myself last night and I saw someone who had done a lot of growing in the past year. I saw someone who wasn’t bucking the system. Someone who was doing his best to get along without being abused or hurt. Someone who was being hit not because he deserved it, but because his father had gotten drunk and was pissed off about something his kid hadn’t done. I also saw someone who had a little power of his own.
“I punched my father in the teeth last night and he fell on his ass just like you did. He sat on the kitchen floor for a long time just rubbing his jaw and muttering to himself. Eventually he got up and left. I haven’t seen him since last night. He’s probably shacked up with one of his bitches, but I honestly wouldn’t care if he was lying dead in a ditch somewhere.”
Cissa drifted off into silence. He was staring at me but I don’t think he was seeing me. His eyes were a glassy blank. He suddenly shook his head and blinked a few times.
“Do you know what I’m trying to say?”
My face was pounding. “I don’t know.”
“I’m trying to say that in this world there are people who are going to control your life whether you fight back or not. If you are always rebelling against them, they are going to stifle you more and more until you are buried so deep that you will never get out. The only way to beat them is to play their game by their rules, and bide your time until you find yourself in a position to turn the tables. Then you act, and act fast.”
I was ten. I know I didn’t understand everything that Cissa was trying to tell me. But I’ve remembered his words, and now that I’ve become a man, I see that Cissa knew what he was talking about. I walk around town and I see all the protesters and the radicals out picketing and marching and shouting with the idea that they are accomplishing something. It doesn’t matter what they’re against or who they are. All they’re saying to those in power is, here we are, we’re the ones you have to watch out for, we’re the radicals. And those in power simply close their fist more tightly around that group of people, crushing the ones slippery enough to squeeze through their fingers with the heel of their other hand. But, as I said, I was ten. I just wanted to go home.
“Do you understand?” Cissa asked.
I felt the rising welt on my face. “I think so. Can I go now?”
Cissa moved away from the stairs. “All right, you can go home. Run right home and tell your dad everything I did to you down here. Or if that isn’t bad enough, make a few things up. Forget everything I said and have your dad call the cops. Maybe I’ll spend a night in the detention center, maybe I won’t. Either way, it’s not going to change what I just said.”
I looked at Cissa for a long time, trying to figure out what I should do. He had hit me, sure, but I think I realized that I had had it coming. Maybe not as much as Shitface or even Tony had it coming, but I had it coming all the same. I walked slowly to the stairs, expecting Cissa to stop me at every step. When I got to the bottom stair, I stopped.
“I’ll tell my dad I fell off Tony’s bike.”
“Why did you tell me all this?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Cissa said. “You’re not like those other two. They’re going to go through their whole lives fighting authority, and never for any better reason than because they are too fucking thickheaded to accept that the world will go on just fine without them.”
I looked at the blood that had dripped onto my shirt. “You didn’t have to hit me.”
“You’re right,” Cissa said. “But I did it anyway.”
I turned and ran up the stairs.
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