I led the life once.
“Excuse me. I was hoping we could talk a minute. Something about what your daughter said to mine.”
It felt another lifetime ago. For all intents and purposes, it was.
“You know how kids can be. So I was hoping you could find out what was said?”
I was born into the life. Into the family. And when you’re born into the family, you’re expected to act a certain way. There’s a creed that’s followed, one that’s not ever questioned. Not ever.
“See, my little girl came home yesterday. She told me your daughter told her that she can’t be on safety patrol.”
You lead two lives. The person you are, and the person the family needs you to be. You’re molded without ever feeling the hands. It starts early, when you’re still too young to understand. But you’re molded. You’re taught there’s only one way, the family way. No right, no wrong.
“She told me that your daughter told her that she’s too awkward to be on safety patrol. That she’s not normal. That she’s got issues. My little girl cried all night. It tore me up inside, you know?”
But times change. Families change. Values, the way of going about yourself. Conducting business. This new age took over and old school thinking got pushed further and further from the mind. It went the way of the dinosaurs. Extinct.
“Children shouldn’t have to deal with hurtful words, not at this age. So I was hoping you could find out. And if it’s true what she said, then maybe you could…you know…just talk to your daughter.”
Some things don’t ever die out, though. Some things adapt, learn to survive. Respect is one them. It’s all in the way the family molds you. My pop, for instance. He did his thing, day in, day out, setting an example. Simply by emulating him, I earned his respect. Day in, day out. The family way. The only way he knew.
“There’s nothing got to be talked about.” This father I had never met before, this father who I wanted to believe was as protective of his own daughter as I was of mine, waved his hand in front of my face. I took note of his rail thin arms, his mismatched tattoos. He leaned close to my face; a little too close. “My woman raised our kid right, so your girl, she’s lying. My kid ain’t done nothing wrong.”
“How can you say that if you haven’t even asked—”
There was this one time my pop and I sat eating lunch. Respect, he blurted while we both chewed my Nonna’s tripe, is the most important thing in this world. More important than money. It shows up on the job long before you do. You don’t have respect, you got nothing. Nothing. He chewed and chewed on that tripe and then smiled, a rubbery piece of cow intestines caught in his teeth. But sometimes, you need to teach it.
“Ain’t nothing got to be talked about! Your girl is lying and that’s that.” This father I never met before, this father who I still wanted to believe was as protective of his own daughter as I was of mine, still leaned close to my face; a little too close. “Maybe there’s a reason your girl can’t make safety patrol. Maybe you and your girl should figure it out yourselves.”
Sometimes you need to send them a message.
The father I had never met before smirked and stepped away. A young woman in skin-tight jeggings wearing a PINK hoodie two sizes too small sashayed over to him. She stared, cracked her gum as he whispered in her ear, then they laughed. Laughed, all shits and giggles; the barbell through her tongue shiny under the sun. They shared a sloppy kiss.
Stunods, real stunods, both of them. The school doors opened, and again, for another day, my little girl was mine.
I led the life once.
But the life can’t always be what it was. It can’t be. Upbringings change, morals change. The hands that once molded you disappear. Disappear, and eventually you realize your own hands are meant to mold a new life.
I lay beside my daughter reading her a bedtime story. Lightly, she touched my arm. “Daddy, will I ever be on safety patrol?”
I closed the book.
“Daddy, I don’t want to be not normal.”
“It’s okay though, Daddy, because I don’t need a lot of friends. But I really want to be on safety patrol. I can be really good at it, Daddy.” Her hands flapped in front of her, limbs so rigid in her excitement. “I can be really good. Really good.”
Silently I seethed, cursing the unfairness of my daughter’s disabilities and for the first time in my life, I suddenly felt those hands upon me, the ones that had molded the life I once knew. The life I thought was done.
Sometimes you need to teach it. Sometimes you need to send them a message.
I took my little girl and hugged her, hugged and kissed her, reassuring her that all her life was going to be really good, really, really good. I sang her a song about sunshine until she slipped into dreamland’s arms. Then I locked myself in my room and wept before making the decision to step back into the life again.
It took a few days to learn his pattern. It wasn’t hard.
I found him alone on a Tuesday night, the bar a quiet place right on the fringe of town. I knew the bartender there. Quite well.
A tiny bell sounded above the door as I stepped inside, but the father I had never met before didn’t turn around. The bartender nodded toward me, then offered his only customer a shot that was greedily knocked back by a wobbly hand.
“I think there’s been a misunderstanding.”
He didn’t acknowledge me, not at first, his eyes bleary with liquor. I took the stool beside him. “See, I said I was hoping you could find out if it’s true, what your daughter said to mine, but you never bothered. You never took the time. You never took the effort.”
Recognition finally creased the face of the father I had never met before. Before he could get in a slurred word, I leaned close to his face. A little too close. “Respect, my friend, is the most important thing in this world. But you, you showed me none.”
He listened hard, my words whispered between my lips the way they were. “You don’t have someone’s respect, then you have nothing. You said your woman raised your kid right. Your woman…”
His eyes followed the small box I placed between us atop the bar. “I’m going to teach you something now.” My fingers lingered, then drew from the box. I patted his shoulder. Hard. I put my lips to his ear. “Respect starts at home,” then I turned and left.
I was in no hurry. My daughter would be home, sound asleep. Tomorrow, I’d help her with her homework as I always did, then we’d talk about her joining safety patrol. Tomorrow, I’d go back to being her dad.
But not tonight.
I rolled down the truck window and waited, waited until I heard the screams from the father I had never met before penetrate the bar walls. Waited until I knew he had opened the box and found his woman’s pierced tongue inside.
Finally, I started my truck and headed home. I had an irresistible urge to teach my wife Nonna’s old recipe for tripe once I got there.
~ Joseph A. Pinto
© Copyright 2016 Joseph A. Pinto. All Rights Reserved.