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Lessons Learned and LostA book of poetry and prose
By Justin Hollingshead
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2011 Justin Hollingshead
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDEEP IMPACT
I'm asleep. Okay, I'm not really asleep. I'm pretending to sleep because my father has been drinking and he's stumbled and slurred his way into my room and he's next to me right now. He's close. I can feel the heat from his skin and smell the whisky and tobacco on his breath. I can smell the body odor which has permeated the clothes he's worn for three consecutive days. Above all, I can smell the malice and hatred in his heart. My father has come for me, and he has bad intentions on his mind.
I'm five years old and already I believe in both God and the devil. I've been through too much not to believe. I begin praying in my mind asking the Lord to please make him go away; to keep me safe; to wrap me in His protective arms and never let go. My father continues to loom over me. I know because he has cast his shadow over me and the hairs on the back of my neck are standing on end. My heart begins to pick up pace. Th-Thump. Th-Thump. Th-Thump. What does he want? Why is he just standing there?
Deep inside, I know that this will not end well.
But then a curious thing happens. My father kneels beside me and takes hold of my tiny hand in his own. He begins stroking my dirty hair and whispering things to me that I don't quite understand. I am confused and still playing opossum. After a moment, I realize that my father is crying, and what he is whispering are the words, "I'm so sorry."
Has he come seeking forgiveness? Has my father decided to change his wicked and destructive ways? His grip tightens as he continues to weep and whisper that he's sorry. I am tempted to open my eyes and reach over and hug the man and tell him that yes I forgive him and am eager and happy to have him as my dad.
But then I notice how tightly he is squeezing my hand, and I realize all too late that I've been had. This is no heart-felt apology or quest for forgiveness. This is simply one of his many games. It's a game he started playing with me some time ago where he squeezes my hand harder and harder until gradually he is squeezing with his might, crushing my little hand and fingers. If I cry out then the real beating begins, but if I "Man up" and show neither fear nor pain then I am given a reprieve. I know what's on the line so I keep my eyes closed, and in my mind go to a place far, far away.
Tighter and tighter he squeezes. The pain builds and sweat beads my brow. My father has super-human strength and soon I hear things pop, but I grit my teeth and keep my eyes and mouth shut. I can do this. I can win this time. I will not surrender! Soon I feel my father begin to shake and tremble and I know he is squeezing with all his incredible might. If I can just hold out a little longer, I think to myself, I'm sure he'll go away. So I reach deep into myself and find a strength I didn't know I had. Sweat now rolls freely down my face and my heart is a jack-hammer in my chest. P-Pow! P-Pow! P-Pow! But I hold on, and a moment later I know I have won. My father releases my hand and says, "Hmph". He stands up and leaves the room.
I am flooded with relief. The throbbing in my hand begins to dull and my heart slows down. I think it is a good idea to whisper up a prayer of thanks, but before I can begin, I hear heavy footsteps rushing in my direction. I open my eyes in time to see my father's face distorted by whiskey and rage. The giant closes the distance between us and grabs me. One hand takes hold of my ankle, the other clamps around my head. He picks me up and throws me with all the ease of tossing a pillow across the room. I collide with the wall shattering the sheetrock and I crumble to the floor below followed by bits of plaster and falling debris.
I'm dazed and desperate thinking that this is not fair. I had done my part! I had "Manned up"! I had won the game. Hadn't I? He drags me to the center of the room cursing me; calling me a piece of shit. I try to crawl away, but he stomps my feet and kicks my legs. All forward motion is halted. My eyes are wide with fright, and as I open my mouth to beg and plead with him, he slaps it shut. Abruptly, I am silenced. My father stands me up and savagely punches me in the stomach. The wind is knocked out of me. I gasp and hit my knees. He stands me up again and lands another blow to my belly. My knees buckle and I vomit. He laughs at me as he grabs me by the hair and lifts me once again. He throws a series of punches into my sides and back. It hurts so bad! I can't move. I can't breathe. I thought I was going to die and he just kept punching!
Red faced and puffing hard, he reaches back and sends a brutal right hook into my kidney. This time I shit myself. I couldn't help it. So there I lay in agony. I'm covered in my own blood, feces, and vomit and my father begins to laugh again. He lights up a cigarette and watches with amusement as I struggle for air. How strange that I remember feeling ashamed for having messed myself. My father, having decided he is almost done with me, leans over and puts his cigarette out on my arm. Satisfied, he leaves me soiled, hurting, and feeling ashamed.
You may be holding your breath, Dear Reader, so now is probably a good time to let it out. I survived. That was just another day in kiddy hell. Just one of countless beatings. It's twenty five years later and I'm okay. And believe it or not, this story has a happy ending. But we'll get to that later for there is much more you need to know.
My father hated me. He told me often that he would one day kill me, but that he was just taking his time and waiting for the right moment. I lived in a shroud of fear and intimidation. He was big, strong, and evil. The man scared the shit out of me. Despite poverty, failure, and being an absolute loser I never saw my father sweat. I never saw him panic or be afraid like me. So imagine my surprise the day the old black lady who lived next door showed up and told him that a storm was coming and that he was going to die. She stated it as a matter of fact then returned to her home leaving my father speechless, and for the first time I can remember, afraid.
All day he paced the house, stepping out frequently to gaze nervously at the sky. Sure enough the clouds were building; and building with them was my father's sense of dread and apprehension. He paced back and forth like a caged animal and began throwing dirty looks in my direction. His looks began to worry me and I wanted to know what he was thinking. It wasn't long before I found out.
"The bitch next door says that this storm is going to kill me, but if I gotta go, then so do you."
I was six. Up to that point, my father had held my head under water until I had gone limp. He had pinched my nose and covered my mouth until my eyes turned bloodshot. He had held knives to my throat drawing blood. He had held guns to my head, and even fired a shot at me saying he missed on "purpose". He had beaten me until I lost consciousness on more than one occasion. So by this time in my young life, the concept of death was nothing new to me. I only wanted it to be as quick as possible and not done in front of my brothers or little sister. I wasn't overly frightened or even really surprised by his declaration. I didn't try to run away or even talk him out of it.
Looking back, perhaps I should have.
We lived at the bottom of a hill on a dead end street in Fort Worth, Texas. Our house had no doors or windows. Only gaping holes where they should have been. There were gaps in the roof and holes in the floor. The only piece of furniture in the entire house was a fold-out couch, and this is where my father and I sat as the heavens darkened and the winds began to howl. The rest of the family was bunched together in a closet. Birds grew silent. Animals hid and electricity filled the air. We lit candles and listened as the first drops of water descended from the sky. Soon the drums of a million tiny fingers thumped against our house. Rain dripped in from the roof and blew in from the open windows. Lightening cracked open the sky and thunder obediently followed, rattling the foundation of our home and causing me to physically flinch.
As the ferocity of the storm grew, the tighter my father held me. My face was pressed into him and I could feel the pounding of his heart. Rain seemed to be blowing in horizontally. The wind was blowing water and debris into our faces, and within moments we were plunged into darkness as our candles were snuffed out. Instinctively, I held on to my father. I clutched him as the wind began to wail, sounding as if banshees had been set loose upon us.
The winds were screaming and so was I. I looked up to see the holes in our ceiling grow larger. And when, in terror, I noticed that the entire corner of our roof was literally being lifted off, I began to sob and I buried my face deeper into my father's chest, for he was strong and unafraid.
In fact, it was then that he began to holler back at the wind. Excitedly, he looked down at me and yelled, "This is it! Are you ready? Here we go!" Then at the storm and perhaps God Himself he screamed, "Fuck you! Fuck you, you son of a bitch! Is that all you got? Come and get me mother fucker! Get me if you can!"
I was terrified as my father reached down and picked me up and lifted me above his head. I was now just inches away from the ceiling which threatened to blow off at any moment, and with it, I would be snatched up and sucked into the belly of the beast who raged outside never to be seen again. Outside, locomotives roared. Inside, my father was screaming and laughing. I was just screaming. The rain stung as it pelted my face, and I was shivering uncontrollably. I believed it was time to die.
But instead the winds died and the rain eased up. Almost all at once things became quiet. It was the creepy kind of quietness that makes you feel nervous. After a moment, my father set me down. His chest was heaving and we were both soaked to the bone. When at last he let me go, I ran to my mother and siblings who were huddled together in a closet. My mother held me and soon I felt warm and secure.
I was physically and emotionally exhausted, and soon fell asleep in her arms. When I awoke it was morning, and for a moment I thought I had dreamt the whole horrid event. But as I emerged from our closet and saw the destruction the storm had caused, I understood that what had happened was very real indeed.
New holes appeared in our roof and the sun was shining through. Wet garbage was all over the house, and the smell of rot and mildew was in the air. I looked outside and was astonished to see the havoc Mother Nature had caused. Trees had blown over, power lines were down, and telephone poles had been snapped. Cars were partially submerged, and water completely covered the street coming right up to the very steps of our house. Trinity Stream had flooded behind our house, and our yard was lost under a sea of filthy water.
But what really got my attention, what totally fascinated me was the huge turtle that had sought refuge on our porch. It was massive! It was at least two feet across and completely covered by spikes and armor. I remember it was the color of green and gray clay. It had scales, claws, and beady little eyes with a hooked, menacing beak. I remember thinking that it looked like a dinosaur!
I called my big brother over and he was equally amazed. Together, Phillip and I lifted the turtle into the house where we patiently coaxed the creature out of its shell. We took turns putting twigs in its mouth and would watch as the turtle would easily snap them in half. My father was actually amused as well. He said it was an alligator snapping turtle, and seemed content to let us keep it as a pet. In fact, he seemed to be in an unusually pleasant mood after having cheated Death and out foxing the old lady next door. He even smiled and patted us on our heads. I liked that.
We kept the turtle indoors. We made a pen for it and fed it lettuce, carrots, and apples we got from the same neighbor lady who had prophesied my father's death. She often gave us food, by the way. The animal wasn't very friendly, and I'm sure he would have liked nothing more than to snap one of us in half. Nonetheless, we enjoyed the company of our very first pet. We never named the turtle, or if we did I don't recall what it was, but we spent time with it everyday. As the weeks went by we grew quite fond of our green, hostile friend.
One day, Phillip and I had gone exploring. When we returned, we found our father in the back yard over a fire he had started. Over that fire was a large pot which he stirred with a smile on his face. This in itself was nothing new to us. As we did not have electricity or natural gas, we often prepared our meals in this manner. He beckoned us over and proudly served two bowls of the fragrant stew. As usual I was hungry and gratefully accepted the steaming bowl, but I became uncomfortable by the way my father was watching me. A wicked smile was present at the corners of his mouth as he twirled a cigarette between his stained fingers. I watched him for a moment then finally dismissed the nagging feeling and began eating the stew. I'll be honest with you, Dear Reader, it was really good! And I was so very hungry! My father asked if we liked it and insisted that we have another bowl to which we readily agreed. We ate until we were full. My father, who by now could not contain his smile, took one final drag of his cigarette and reached behind his back where he pulled out his new ashtray. He stubbed out his smoke on what I instantly recognized as one half of our turtle's green and gray shell.
I was appalled and simultaneously enraged. Phillip saw it too, but unlike myself, realized what we had just eaten. He sprang up and knocked over the kettle spilling the rest of the stew on to the ground and leaving me to figure out what it all meant. It didn't take me long. Although understanding that he had killed and fed us our pet, I did not cry. I just held it in. I set the unfinished bowl on the ground and simply walked past him, refusing to give him the satisfaction of seeing the depths of despair his treachery had brought. Things were changing in my heart, soul, and mind. I was changing into something darker. Stronger in a way, but far, far weaker than what's called "innocence".
In the days that followed, my father grew increasingly fond of his ashtray. He took it everywhere he went and showed it to everyone he came into contact with. Over and over, he told the story of how he wrestled with the beast and eventually killed it with his hammer, splitting the shell and claiming his prize.
Over and over, I secretly planned to get even. So I waited, and my patients were eventually rewarded by an opportunity my father provided when he so courteously passed out. Tip-toeing past him, I seized his turtle shell ashtray and carried it out into the back yard. There, with the same hammer my father had used, I smashed his favorite possession into smithereens. I did not try to hide what I had done. I returned the ruins to exactly the same place my father had left it. I even left his hammer next to it. This turned out to be a big mistake!
When my father came to and saw it, he flew into a maddened rage. It was like he had been attacked with the hammer instead of the shell. He demanded to know who had done this, but before any of us could answer his eyes locked on me. He already knew it was me who had smashed his prize. He raged and he swore, then he stormed out of the room only to return moments later with that damn hammer. Oh crap! What had I done?
Excerpted from Lessons Learned and Lost by Justin Hollingshead Copyright © 2011 by Justin Hollingshead. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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