We'd been living together for I don't know how long. It was cool and he was sitting on the screen porch smoking his pipe. He did this a lot but this night it was like he disappeared deep into himself.
I jumped up into his lap and he barely moved. Like he was so lost he couldn't feel right in front of him. After an eternity her started to talk -- not really to me, but I was the only set of ears in the room.
“Most sons learn things from their dads. Ya know? I did.
"Ya know what my dad taught me? How to read people.
“I guess I learned this some time before my third birthday, Five days a week when my dad’s car would pull in. If dad came in smiling it would maybe be a good night. If his face showed no expression there were storm clouds out on the horizon.
“But when his mouth was a tight straight line it was a matter of when not if everyone would be torn to pieces. I would see that mouth and turn off the TV, go into my room and look at picture books or hide under my covers hope when things broke loose I’d be spared."
He stopped talking for several minutes.
“No one was ever spared. No one was safe.
“He'd yell 'Get down here you little shit' and I’d go running as fast as my chubby little legs would allow. 'This house is a goddam mess and you can’t lift one goddam finger to help your mother. I swear to Christ I'd beat your worthless little butt if I thought it would teach you just one goddamn thing.'
“And it would go one like that for 10 minutes, more if I cried. Tears just seemed to anger my father to greater heights, so by the age of four I could face this barrage dry-eyed on the outside but all the time feeling like I’d swallowed 1000 white hot fish hooks.
"He'd rip me apart on a daily basis -- like just being alive pissed him off. I used to wonder what I did so young to be such a huge screw-up.
“But no matter how much pain I was in once we sat down to dinner I goddam well better not leave my plate anything but clean. Most nights no one talked at the dinner table They just ate while he watched the news and cussed everything and anything he didn’t like. I always wished the Holy Father was there to see this dad, but at church Mr. Finnerty was as straight as 6 o’clock.
“And mother just let it happen. I would read all these books about animal mommies protecting their young and wonder why his mother just let it happen When teachers would read stories about how nature used mommies to protect their young I cried so hard I couldn't stop.
“In time this just became the normal. We kids grew and adjusted. My brother Johnny got a job in a garage and disappeared under the hoods of cars after school and all weekend. Plus a lot of beer. He could drink at that old bastard like an army of Teamsters.
“My sister Molly did everything one could do in school. Cheerleading. Annual. Girls basketball. And smoking a lot of weed. She was the only one in the house with the balls to stand up for anyone. And she as fearless. He'd yell and she'd give it right back until he'd leave the room. Then she'd fall on the floor and cry.
"We all cried so goddam much.
“I disappeared into sports. The screaming of the coaches were nothing compared to what I’d heard at home. Some days I actually laughed during grass drills, watching my teammates shudder at the thought of more. When they told me I wasn't worth a shit it was like nothing I didn't already know.
“Johnny graduated high school and opened his own garage. He married his high school sweetheart and started cranking out babies. Even though there was a college fund he didn’t want one goddam cent of the old man’s money.
"Johnny never raised his voice or his hand to his kids. He hugged and loved those kids.
"Once the old man yelled at one of his kids and Johnny looked like he was going to kill him. His wife pulled him off and they left. And he stayed away.
“Molly left home and went to live in Berkeley where she put herself through college and law school because she didn’t want a goddam cent of the old man’s money. And she knew her life, her leftist politics, her bra-less tits and the weed she smoked was one big middle finger to the old man. One of her many projects has a shelter for abused women where she sat up at nights with the new ones until they knew it wasn’t their fault. And that they mattered. Her nickname was Reverend Mother.
"And she stayed away.
“By the time I was a senior I was told I was goddam well going to college so I didn’t end up covered in grease and smelling like beer -- or living like some sort of Communist, shaming the family's good name. Even if I was a useless piece of shit.
“I applied to several schools and got into Michigan. Dad said I’d make something of myself if for once in my life I'd apply myself so he didn't have to know some brains into me.
“The day before we were supposed to drive to Ann Arbor I got up early and got a cab to the bus station. Me and 39 other dumb sonsabitches got on a bus for the Great Lakes Naval Station. We got there after dark and the first thing they did was make us call home to tell our families they’d hear from us in three months after basic training.
“Dad answered and asked me where I was and did I know I missed my last family dinner before leaving for college.
“I told him I did, that I was in the Navy and that Michigan and he could go straight to hell.
"It felt like I'd broke out of jail. For the first time I cried because I was happy."
After Finn told his story he just sat for hours. And cried.