Tenement Abroad

Timothy L. Marsh

When my father whooped my ass, he did it with a custom hickory paddle. The paddle was a full inch thick, about two feet long, and was very much like the paddle a fraternity might use to initiate new pledges. Some Greek symbols were even carved in the center. Thinking back on my general behavior in those early years, how those symbols aren’t presently blistered on my ass is quite a wonder.

My father was a quiet and passive man. Like most quiet and passive men, he had very little control of his temper once he finally lost it. There was a two-minute window where the vehemency of hell would hijack his personality, and all the gunk and foulness buried under the earth of his mild disposition would gush into the world in a torrent of fantastic epitaphs and screwball threats. By and large, this was the only way my old man could impose discipline. He had to lose his shit. And once he did, that heavy wooden swat was his reckoning tool, dispensing dues with the corporal harshness of a judicial caning.

I was five or six years old the first time I got a taste of it. I’d taken some shooting marbles and planted them into a container of mint ice cream, thinking it’d be funny when someone bit into the ice cream and cracked their teeth. My father came home from a hard day at work. He was grumbling about the company. I’d forgotten all about the marbles in the mint ice cream. There was a vicious cry, followed by a seething curse. A second later, I was summoned to the kitchen. When I got in there, my father had jammed his fist into the ice cream and removed all the marbles in one heaping sloppy glob. The marbles looked like buckshot removed from the innards of an animal. There were 13 of them, each gleaming with melted dairy in my father’s open hand.

“Are these your fucking marbles?” he demanded. My mother stood uninvolved by the kitchen sink, drying a pot that looked pretty dry already. “Don’t look at her, goddamn it! Are they?”

I nodded.

“Right. And did you put them in this ice cream?”

I nodded.

“Brilliant. And do you mind telling me why—WHY on this goddamn earth!—you’d stick your toys in somebody’s food to be swallowed and choked on and God knows what?”

I didn’t have a nod for that one, only a shrug. It enraged him.

Every home has a room where child comeuppance is privately administered. Ours was the “back room,” sometimes called the sewing room, where the ugliest of our furniture was banished like an awful family secret. There was a heinous yellow sofa with floral velvet and broad sloping armrests. The procedure was simple. First I was told to drop my pants, underwear included. Then I was told to lie across the armrest, stomach side down, and lock my fingers behind my head. My father kept the paddle on the top shelf of the sewing room closet, under sweaters he never wore, and when he brought it down, a shudder ripped through my muscles, and my butt cheeks clenched. Every last appeal for mercy, every final defense of my actions poured out of my mouth at once. I unleashed the wild tears, the miserable whimpers, and the huge promises of repentance. And like a true executioner, my father proceeded deafly through it all, made his way across the room, found his grip on the paddle, and assumed something of a batter’s stance aside my tilted bare ass.

By now his temper had somewhat cooled. A demure resolve to carry out the sentence replaced his wrath and roaring. Speaking softly, almost remorsefully, he told me how it was going to happen. The count would be to three. On three he would swat my bottom. He would swat it three times as hard as he could, and after the third time, if I wanted it, I could have a hug.

Just before that first crushing stroke, I swore to my deepest blood that I’d never speak to the stone-hearted bastard again, let alone hug him. And afterward, shocked, stung, humiliated, I threw my arms around his waist and bawled till I choked.