There were moments in my life that were unbearable. Here comes one. I understand if you want to skip it. But if we would understand why I was defenseless in jail, later, I must write, you must read. If we are to ever see what happens to children, what breaks inside, and end this goddamn cycle. Hold on to your heart and remember: my life got better when I was twenty. And there remains this beautiful old world, see? Remember this beautiful old world.
We’re all in the basement watching TV, eating dinner on tray tables. Mom’s pork chops, white bread with butter, creamed corn, and brussels sprouts. I hate brussels sprouts.
Upstairs it’s easy to slip sprouts, asparagus, or spinach into a palm, napkin, or pocket. We help each other unless there’s a feud and there’s a feud most of the time, so we either tell on each other or distract the tattletale—“Dad? Greg’s hiding his lima beans again…”
Downstairs he sees everything.
I know what’s coming. I’ve seen it before, when Chris wouldn’t eat. My whole body shakes. Mom and Dad—and Dana, who’s oldest and a girl—sit on the black vinyl couch. We boys make do with folding chairs. We have to sit up straight, no playing around, because it’s Sunday, his Bonanza night.
I pile corn and chop bone to hide yucky green balls. Chris holds his nose and eats his quick. Gags a little. “Chris?” Dad’s correction tone says: that’s your one-and-only let-it-slide gagging noise. They watch me now.
Holding my nose doesn’t work for me. I slide the spoon under and lift. Set it down. Pick up my glass to sip: empty. My teeth tingle. A salty hiccup in my throat, a sandy blur in one eye. No more stalling. Crybaby. I open my nostrils wide, hold them tight, no breath, to slow down time.
“Mr. Greg.” I expect it but jump anyway. His two-note sigh means he’s disgusted. Excited, too.
Dana slides away. Chris whispers: “Just eat it. Get it over with.”
Dad: “Mr. Christopher.” Chris shuts himself up with a wad of bread.
Kirk’s afraid. He’s always afraid. He watches me, makes little moans.
Mom gets mad. “Put it ON the spoon and IN your mouth. Eat it.” She grabs my spoon hand; we chase a green ball around. We lift; it rolls off. I put it back on; she slaps my hand. “Don’t use your fingers!”
He smacks the couch. “Just eat it!"
Plop. First tear.
I lift it halfway to my mouth. My head shakes No . I sniff, gag. I put it down, go to sip: empty.
“No more water!” Dad smacks Mom’s leg so she’ll stand, move back. He lifts his brace to pull his dead leg over. She grips my wrist tight, picks up the brussels sprout with her free hand, puts it on the spoon, steers it in. I shake my head. My eyes tell her I’m sorry.
The smell gags me again. She mushes it against my closed mouth.
“Eat!” Dad says. He squeezes my shoulder, hard; she forces my jaw open. I want to help, really truly, but my head pulls back, chin tucks in. I make “hmm” sounds behind tight lips, squirm. My knees jump. I want to help. I can’t.
Dad scoots closer. Mom gets behind me to give him room. He clamps the back of my neck, tight. Dana stands and pulls trays away, so things don’t spill.
“Eat!” The spoon gets past my lips. Metal p’tangs teeth. Sprout falls to the floor.
He lets go. “Well, mister, if you’re a baby, let’s put you in a baby chair.” Hand on brace he k-chicks off his knee lock but Mom goes over, drags—“Maddy! Scratches!”—then lifts the high chair, sets it between his knees. At an angle, to not block the TV.
“No,” I say but stand, turn around, climb in backwards. It’s too tight so she crams me.Chris is blank-faced. Dana covers her mouth with one hand. Kirk is frozen, mouth open.
Wedged. Feet dangle. Dad stands, holds the top of my head with one hand, and watches the commercial while Mom retrieves the brussels sprout off the floor. Grabs the other one off the tray and sets both on her flat palm, in front of my mouth.
“Eat,” she says.
I take one from her palm, put it to my lips. Open, close, open, half-in—gag.
Dad tightens. Both hands now, on my head, my neck.
“Eat!” Mom pushes it in. I gag. I choke. She covers my mouth, clamps down. I snort—
“Just eat it,” Chris says, like music. No big deal, he shrugs, it’s how they trained me…
They feel me try to chew, and ease off. I try not to bite down all the way, to smoosh instead. I can’t swallow. Dad tilts my head way back. Grabs my jaw; pulls me open. They peer in. “Swallow!” Mom’s fingers push the mess down. Dad grabs a fork and helps.
Dana and Kirk make animal noises. I swallow, have to—and get some down! Not so bad—I’m sorry Mommy! I chew.
But they don’t let go— too tight—Dad’s long finger is hard against my jaw, his garnet ring hurts— chew-chew—I swallow again—
and up it all comes, sprouts and pork chop, corn and bread, water. Dad’s hands fly back; the room is all noise. He’s purple; slaps my head, back, shoulders. Mom’s hands are covered in my mess. I cough, gag—
“Damnit!” Mom says.
“Give me the other one,” Dad says, fork in fist.
“No, no, no…” Chris says. Dana lifts Kirk, flees.
Nothing stayed down, and I get the usual: grounded, no dinners, straight to bed for a week. A week of yard work. Dad missed half his show, so no TV for two weeks. No Flintstones, no Bronco Lane. And he sent everyone to bed, punished everyone because of me.
I stay downstairs and stand with my plate. The whole basement smells like throw-up. I taste vomit with every swallow. I need water.
Mom comes back after he goes to bed, yells “Clean it up!”—but she whispers at me to go stand by the door and listen for Dad, just in case, while she uses the mop. Says things like “Damnit, sweetie.” I tell her “I’m sorry” a hundred times. I follow her when she takes the bucket to the drain next to his shop. She bends under his speed bag and pours carefully, pushes bigger pieces into the drain holes with her house slipper. She makes me take off my wet pajamas and tosses them into the slop sink. Sends me back to stand on the finished side, turns off the basement light, and goes upstairs.
I stand with my plate. I still have to eat a whole one. I’m afraid to throw it away. Afraid of the dark. Afraid to go upstairs.
I’m asleep on the floor when Mom comes down again. She dumps out the mess on my plate and pushes me up the stairs, through the garage, down the hall, and into my room. I crawl into bed in my underpants.
Chris leans over the top bunk. With his not-too-mean voice he says, “No, okay, so…I mean…why didn’t you just eat it?”