Passing It On
By G. E. Fields
Denny’s mother cowered in the corner, clutching the half-empty whiskey bottle as if her courage hid in it. Denny could smell its odor seeping from his mother’s pores. It collided with the smell of stale beer in the center of the room --- the scent of Dad. He stood in the doorway in a boxer’s stance, a posture learned on his way to becoming a Golden Gloves’ champion.
“Drunk again, Gina?” his father’s voice boomed in the tiny apartment. Hatred burned in his bloodshot eyes.
“Look who’s talking,” Mom countered, her bravery fueled by alcohol.
Don’t do it, Mom. Please don’t make him madder. Denny wanted to run to her and cover her mouth before his father’s rage boiled over to violence. He was too scared, too small to protect her from his father’s fury.
Dad took a step towards Mom, his anger hot coals in the cold of the room. Denny’s mother flinched and tried to find a deeper recess in the corner. She hugged the bottle close to her breast.
“What the hell have you done all day? The house is a mess, there’s no dinner, and you didn’t call the gas company. We have no heat.” He pointed a thick finger at Denny. “You realize you have a child, don’t you?”
Denny shrunk away from the attention. He preferred to be invisible during his parent’s frequent fights. He was stuck. There was nowhere to hide. When he was younger, he could get under the coffee table, but he was too big, now.
Mom stood up, outrage reddening her pale face. “Screw you, John. Where in hell have you been? What whore did you hook up with tonight?”
“Don’t talk to me about whores. I married the only woman I ever had to pay for.”
“What have I cost you?”
Dad laughed without humor. “You cost me my life, Bitch. I can’t get ahead by feeding you and paying for your booze.” He took another step towards Mom, bumping her face with his massive chest.
She didn’t back down. “What else am I supposed to do but drink? You leave me alone all day and most nights while you go traipsing around with your whores.”
Dad clenched his fists and his muscles tensed, poised in aggression. “Say that one more time. I dare you.”
Denny’s mother lifted her chin and looked her husband in the eye, defiance coming off her like heat from a radiator. “Why don’t you give me a break and beat one of your sluts, instead. See what happens when you punch one of them whores.” She spat the last word out as if ridding her mouth of a sour taste.
Like lightning, Dad’s fist shot out and Denny’s stomach turned at the sound of it colliding with his mother’s jaw. Mom reeled back from the impact and fell against the wall. She recovered quickly and swung the bottle at Dad. It hit him on the head, not breaking.
A scream blasted into Denny’s ears. As it filled his head, he wondered how anyone could hold their breath long enough for such a long shriek. Realization came to him as his lungs started to burn.
Denny’s mother stared at her husband, slack-jawed, terror in her eyes. Dad brushed his skull. His hand came away bloody. Rage replaced disbelief and an eerie silence fell over the room, broken only by Mom’s fearful sobs.
Denny’s father seized Mom by the throat with his left hand, lifting her to her toes. She dropped the bottle and it thudded on the floor, unbreakable.
“That’s the last time you do some shit like that,” Dad growled. He pulled his right fist back and punched her. The crack of breaking cartilage filled the room and Denny screamed again as his mother’s eyes rolled up in her head and closed. Dad let her fall to the floor. He stumbled and dropped to his knees.Reaching out, he closed his hand on the bottle.
In horror, Denny watched him raise it. “Daddy, no,” he yelled.
In slow motion, Denny watched the bottle come down on his mother’s head. His father raised it again and Denny couldn’t fight the shock enough to say anything as its deadly descent was repeated.
Blood splattered on Denny’s face. He could still taste the salt of his mother’s life when the police came to take his father away, forever.
* * *
Foster homes and shelters changed like the seasons; drugs and alcohol easier to get each year; sanity harder to find. Driven by anger, an eighteen year old Denny Porrier went to the prison to confront his mother’s killer.
Manacles clanged like a ghost’s haunting as John Porrier sat on the other side of the Plexiglas. His skin was drawn; cheeks sunk deep, dark circles around lifeless eyes. Denny’s courage faltered as he looked at the broken man before him. All the hate and anger he held towards his mother’s killer fell away under the weight of pity.
Neither man said anything for a long time. They stared at each other like two animals testing for the other’s weaknesses.
Finally, Denny’s father broke eye contact and then the silence. “I never expected to see you again.”
“I didn't expect to come here.”
“Why did you? Have you come to forgive me?”
Denny’s mouth fell open. The audacity of the man before him sent tremors of rage through his body, igniting the hard liquor in his stomach. He took shallow breaths, forcing a calm he didn’t feel. “You think I could ever forgive you for what you did? You murdered my mother.” His voice scratched like sandpaper.
The convict cast his eyes down, shame hanging over him like a shroud. “I know that’s how you see it ---“
“That’s what happened,” Denny yelled, his body erupting from the chair and launching against the protective barrier. “I was there, you monster. I saw it.”
“So you are here to condemn me?” The man put his face into his hands. Denny’s father, the man who dominated their family for so many years like a dam over a hamlet, cried.
“I just want to understand.” Denny sat down, releasing the tension from his frame. “I just want to know why.”
Dad nodded. “I hate to blame the alcohol, but it was a considerable factor." The confession sounded practiced, rehearsed. “My father passed along some bad shit, Denny. I won’t try and blame him either, but I can’t say he's not part of it.”
Dad sighed and turned his head away. When he looked back to Denny, his eyes simmered. Denny wanted to turn away. His head refused to move from that gaze.
“I blame me. I was too weak to fight the urge of the booze. I failed your mom, myself, and mostly you.
“I see a fight in you.” His voice penetrated like sharp steel; cut like a sword. “I sense you buckling under its blows. I was on the mat and I didn't get up.” He paused. “You are not far from the man I was.”
The heat surged back into Denny. He leaped at the fence, the world red in his fury. As if choking something real, he rattled the steel mesh against Plexiglas. “I am nothing like you,” he yelled, the veins in his neck visibly pulsating. “I couldn't kill a woman.”
Dad didn't flinched at the boy’s rage. You don't know what the alcohol will do to you. Your genes aren’t exactly on your side,”
Denny stared through the grate, his breath coming in gasps. “I’m not you.”
* * *
Denny woke from the memory as he always did --- hung over. His mouth tasted like mud and his body smelled of old sweat and vodka. The alarm clock on the nightstand was a blur of digital light in his eyes. Time, like his life, was a haze.
As the morning world focused, so did the memories of the night before. Beer, whiskey, and finally vodka transformed into argument, yelling, a slap, a punch. His beautiful wife, Melanie, lay beside him, her breathing an even flow of sleep. The bruise on her right eye was a deep black against white skin.
Crawling out of bed, Denny stumbled to the bathroom. He fell to his knees on the cold floor, hugging the seat with both arms, and vomited. He rested his forehead on an arm and cried. Gasping sobs replaced dry heaves, without relief.
Denny headed for the kitchen. As he navigated the hallway outside the bathroom, his step faltered and he braced himself against the wall. Pictures fell to the floor, images of his life tumbling and breaking. Against the wishes of his dehydrated muscles, he stooped to pick them up.
He stopped to look at the first. Him, Melanie, Caleb, and Brittany, splashing into water at the bottom of a log ride. Their faces caught in a pose of happiness, A rare day with his family that brought him joy without drinking. The crack in the picture’s glass protector brought another wave of tears.
“Are you okay, Daddy?”
Denny looked up to the voice. Caleb stood side by side with his little sister, their eyes opened wide in confusion, watching their strong father in his weakest moment.
"Everything's fine, Caleb. Have you both started your chores?"
Before the boy could answer, Jenny's tiny voice broke in. "I did all mine. Caleb didn't even start his, yet."
"I did the trash," Caleb objected.
“He mashed it down, that’s all.”
Caleb narrowed his eyes, glaring at his sister with intense anger. “Tattletale,” he yelled and punched Jenny in the cheek.
Denny jumped to his feet and grabbed Caleb, pulling him away before he could launch another blow at his sister. “What are you doing?” he screamed, bringing the boy’s face close enough for their noses to touch.
“She shouldn’t tell.” Caleb’s voice was cool and confident.
“You don’t hit girls,” Denny whispered, choking on the hypocrisy. “Go to your room. I’ll be in later to punish you.”
The boy stomped off. Jenny cringed away from him as he passed.
A soft voice, heavy with sleep, called from behind Denny, “Jenny, come here.” Melanie. The girl ran to her mother, embracing the woman's legs.
Denny closed the gap in the hall like a condemned man marching to his execution. He watched the carpet move beneath him until he saw Melanie’s feet. Then he raised his head and met her gentle blue eyes. “Melanie, I’m so sor --- “
“Don’t say anything. I want you to know that I still, and always will, love you.”
“I love you too.”
“I know you do. Call this number,” she said, handing him a business card. “Talk to him and decide if you and I can be together.”
Golden sunrays peeked over a horizon in the background. He read the card:
Nathan G. Harper
Sponsor and Healer
His father's words echoed in the front of his mind. You are not far from the man I became. “I am not you," he said.
Denny faced his wife, again. She smiled. “Call Nathan and you won’t be like your father.”
* * *
“Nathan Harper.” The answering voice was crisp as an autumn morning.
“Hi, this is…”
“I’ve been waiting for your call, Mr. Porrier. May I call you, Denny?”
“I don’t care what you call me as long as you can help.”
“I can certainly do that. Count on it.”
“I hope you are right. I really do.”
“You called. That was the hardest step.”
word count: 1918
Submitted for consideration in: "What a Character!"