“The Flinch” was a life saving maneuver we used as kids to keep from getting our goddam blocks knocked off. Everyone flinched as if we were constantly in a state of spasmodic alert. The attacks came from all directions, parents, priests, nuns, brothers, teachers, principals, cops, other kids’ parents, even your best friend might decide to sucker punch you to move up in the pecking order of the gang. You were a constant target. Hence, the flinch.
I told someone later in my life that Viet Nam was like Club Med compared to those days. They laughed.
And the hits kept comin’.
My father, despite his overall goodness, thought a hay maker between the eyes was chastisement. If you lost consciousness, he would call you a phony or a baby. These days we’d be visiting him in prison. My father invented the abbreviated ass whoopin’. He would beat the crap out of me and my brother, take a break, have a cup of coffee and a cigarette and come back and finish the job. If you think he would lose his zeal in the interim, you would be wrong. I thought the first part was more than adequate, thank you very much.
I’m not sure about my brother, but I felt my father hated me. I would scream like a girl so the neighbors would hear him whacking me. He hated that. Once he missed me completely with a barber belt that had a buckle, but you wouldn’t know it from my falsetto. Beatin’ times went out in to the street where I lived. Especially in the summer with the windows open. Everyone would hear the commotion. The old ladies would break out their rosaries.
Kicks are for kids:
Once, I had a long scabby sideburn from his shoe running down my face. My mother asked me about it and I told her he kicked me there. She was furious… at me. They had an agreement. She told my father she would play the role of the good Irish wife as long as there was no “dirty stuff.” He told her there wouldn’t be and that was that.
A few months later, I lost Ronnie Bohannon’s bike. I took it snake hunting. I had parked the Schwinn in the bushes and when I came back it was gone. That night, a balmy summer evening, the whole Bohannon clan comes walking down the middle of Paulina Street. I thought I would pass away from fright. My first episode of “pucker factor.”
As I would find out about 10:00 pm, dying was the better option. It cost fifty bucks, that bike. Probably two weeks pay for my father. We weren’t poor enough? Funny, my father didn’t drink very much but he could mete out punishment like a crazed animal when the spirit moved him. Or I did.
That night he had me cornered between the refrigerator and the bathroom door, conveniently located in the kitchen. I was starting to worry I might not survive this one. All the other “lickings” had a beginning, a middle and an end. The beginnings were an interrogation style with questions you couldn’t possibly answer, peppered with feints and jabs that would make you wish for a resolution. It would come, in its own good time, when he felt like it.
But this night was special. We were gonna go places we’d never been before. When he thought I was fading, bleeding and snotty on a kitchen chair, he reached over to the kitchen sink, picked up a pan full of dirty dishwater and let me have it. I was back. Great. My mother would pass through the kitchen from time to time to make sure he was still following the Marquess of Queensberry rules.
As the night wore on, he wore off and so did his judgement. The dropkick came in the final round, just in time for Nora to score a foul. That was it. Their agreement had been breached and the bond they had, broken. I didn’t go to school for the next few days for obvious reasons but my mother and father’s relationship was in tatters. Guess who was to blame? The cold war would last almost five years and then everyone in the family assumed “The Flinch.”
Prologue: Six months later, my father tried to herd me down the cellar to look at something, he said. I had a bad feeling about this one. As I’m walking down the back stairs with him behind me, I was trying to decide if I should make a break to the left and out the back door or meet my maker in that dingy old cellar, I heard something like a single church bell. So close and loud I thought it was Jesus, coming to save me.
It was my mother. She came up behind him on the stairs and let him have it over the head with a heavy skillet. One of those old black ones that weigh about 20 lbs. Holy Shit! My bowels got all runny and so did I. She looked shocked and dazed at what she’d done. They never took it this far before. I said “Jesus Ma, you coulda killed him.”
It would be years before they would reconcile after that. They both suffered from Irish Alzheimer’s…. you forgot everything but the grudge.
Despite my father’s violent leanings, he was a morale, pragmatic man who could charm you out of your sneakers. He loved sports, Nat King Cole and Victory at Sea. He worked six full days for most of his life and coined the phrase, “There’s no such thing as women’s work.” That last little nugget has stayed with me all my life and made me an independent, responsible man.
Without coming off as some kind of masochist, I remember now, a kind of pleading in his eyes mixed with all that anger and a helplessness at our 12 person, one flat, predicament. A nightmare for sure, that was only realized after we left that tunnel.
With his schedule, we could go weeks or months without seeing him. That is, if you could stay out of the house on Sunday. You would do it if you knew he was gunning for you. I remember being on the run from him for a few weeks and sleeping in the back of a neighbor’s junk car rotting in their back yard. Being a heavy sleeper, as kids are, I found myself at Webster’s Auto Body getting ready to be compacted. Those were the days. Or not.
And I also remember sitting the dark with him years later, smoking cigarettes and listening to Ravel’s Boléro. A moment I’ll never forget. Shit, tears are coming. My catharsis is coming full circle.
They’re gone, and I’m still here, flinchin’.