“Handkerchiefs and Handcuffs,” Essay by John S. Maguire

John S. Maguire

Essay by John S. Maguire 

I woke up Saturday morning, early as usual, so I could have the one TV in the house to myself. I was an avid cartoon watcher and I wanted to watch the Saturday morning cartoons that I looked forward to every other day of the week. Entering the living room with its enormous console TV I heard him snoring, his Lazy Boy in the reclined position. He was fully dressed and as my mother was fond of saying, he “reeked of cigarettes and booze.”

Even as a young boy, I understood what she meant but not why it bothered her. She smelled basically the same way since she smoked a couple of packs a day and while she couldn’t match my father in the quantity of drink, she could certainly put her share back. Weighing approximately one hundred and two pounds (attributable to her frequent trips to the bathroom—she purged before purging was cool), pound for pound she was a formidable drinking companion.

The fact that he was fully dressed was a clear signal that either he had been out drinking all night and was relegated to his lazy boy by my mother, or that had been out drinking all night and was so afraid to face her that he simply accepted his fate and hit the chair upon walking in. His snoring, which at its zenith sounded something like a moose calling his mate for breeding, meant that my plan to get in some cartoon time was foiled. The only thing I was more afraid of than my mother when she had been drinking was waking up my father when he was asleep, fully dressed, smelling like booze and snoring. It was like making Bruce Banner mad, forcing him to become the Hulk. I had done it only one other time and in his vengeance there was no justice. He meted out pain indiscriminately. So I sat on the couch and waited for one of his more violent snores to wake him up. This never took too long; soon he would bellow out a loud snore, choke, cough and sit straight up. I had seen it before and it scared me because he looked like some sort of zombie coming back from the dead. Soon, however, I learned that if I got him before he dozed off I could get him fully awake.

Then it happened. SNORE, COUGH, CHOKE and UP.

“Papa, can I watch TV in here now that you’re awake?” I said quickly.

He wiped his face with his hands, focused his eyes to see me, gave me a look as if I had just killed his favorite dog and sort of rolled out of the chair and to his feet. His formerly slicked- back hair was now sticking straight up. It was nearly impossible not to laugh, but the thought of a beating allowed me to stifle any hint of one. He stumbled into the bedroom, waking my mother, who started on him, I am guessing, right where she left off the night before. It didn’t matter. It was cartoon time. I sat so close to the TV that I couldn’t hear anything but my heroes saving the world.

My father drank like he did everything else in his life, as if he was racing some demon trailing behind him. He raced to get drunk, to get sober again, so he could get drunk again.

Being the “Keeper of the Bag” allowed me access to my father that few others had, but everyone wanted. He was bigger than life, having turned five hundred dollars into a thriving construction business, a Cadillac for my mom and gifts for everyone around him at the time. But I was with him all the time, not just the times when he was drunk and happy, energized by a crowd. I was there when he shook so badly that he couldn’t get the shot glass to his mouth without spilling all the whiskey that it contained. This Saturday was one of those days.

Soon my two sisters were up and my mother was starting breakfast. My sisters were fighting over who would clean the dishes and why I never had to when my mother got serious.

“Get dressed. You are going out with your father,” my mother said.

“Where are we…” I couldn’t get the rest out before my oldest sister, who was 15 going on 25, screamed, “Mom, you promised to take me to the 8th grade boys’ basketball game this morning at 10. Matt is on the team and he asked me personally to come to the game and watch him play.” Her voice was more desperate than demanding. She had three years more than I to get to know my parents and knew all too well that they did what they wanted, no matter what they had promised.

“Well, there you go,” my mom said. “You all can go to the basketball game, then maybe some lunch at Beverly’s afterwards.”

So, my schedule had just been laid out for me. I thought it would be a quiet TV day. No, I was going to the 8th grade boys’ basketball game. Great. A whole team full of my sister’s henchmen, who, when we were at school, took great pleasure in harassing me at her whim. This was going to fun.

My mother walked back into their bedroom and closed the door behind her. There was some muffled speech, then some yelling, then other noises I couldn’t make out, then quiet. Twenty minutes later, the bedroom door swung open and I got a glance of my mother sitting on the end of the bed with a towel on her head as my father emerged through the door. When he hit the hall I saw him swing his head toward his office while staring at me, which meant get the bag and meet me in the living room. I grabbed the bag and headed towards where he had slumped into the couch growling something I couldn’t make out. He smelled a little better and he had different clothes on, but he looked a lot worse and I knew what he needed. As I had been trained, I pulled a shot glass out of the bag and then a bottle of scotch. Pouring the scotch into the shot glass got my father to sit up. He grabbed the glass and attempted to lift it to his lips. Unfortunately for him, he was shaking so much that all of the liquid spilled out of the glass before he could get it to his lips. This was a problem, as he needed that medicinal whiskey. He needed to stop his shakes. Even at eleven I knew that much, but only through experience.

“God damn it!” he would scream as all of the whiskey spilled from the glass. “God damn it, pour me another.”

“But you’ll just spill that one!” I said.

I wanted to grab the words from the air before they reached his ear. I knew that any misstep when he was like this would mean a beating. One word misused or misunderstood and he was off.

“What did you say, you little mother fucker?” he said as he grabbed me and pulled me towards him. Yanking his belt out of its loops, he soon had it in a rhythm of slapping my ass (and anywhere else he could find to bring it down on). I could feel liquid dripping on me. I assumed it was half sweat and half whiskey, as he hit me again and again with that belt.

“Now, don’t speak to me like that again,” he said. “You know I don’t feel right and I can’t take that from you.”

It was as if he was remorseful for what he had just done, but needed to blame his actions on external forces. Holding back the tears (my father hated tears), I poured him another shot. This time, however, he had a plan.

He grabbed his handkerchief out of his pocket, threw it around his shoulder as if he intended to tie it and wear it as a cowboy kerchief. He grabbed one end with his right hand, pulling it down to the shot glass. He held the end in his hand as he grabbed the glass so that the end was secure between his hand and the shot glass. Then he grabbed the other end with his left hand and pulled on it, hunched over, using his neck as a makeshift block and tackle. He slowly pulled his right hand up with the handkerchief just high enough so he could get his lips around the shot glass he was holding, containing the medicine he needed so badly. After repeating this a couple of times, the shakes were gone and he was “himself” again and wasn’t likely to slap me across the room if I spoke too loud. After his medicine he was the father I loved: smiling, telling jokes and rubbing the top of my head, messing my hair.

By this time my sisters had dressed, primped and styled enough to go out and we all piled into my father’s Country Squire station wagon for the trip to the high school gym. When the four of us, my father lagging behind, hit the gym door, we all scattered. My older sister’s friends were in the bleachers. The younger brothers of some of the players were hanging around the concession stand so I headed that way. My younger sister, who was only in third grade, found at least one friend and was up at the top of the bleachers, soon oblivious to the game.

I had left the bag in the car, as instructed, and I saw my father heading towards the door after being in the gym only minutes. I knew where he was heading and I was torn between wanting to be there mixing the drinks and seeing him smile and staying here with my friends and not watching him get plastered. One of the boys had found some old programs from one of the high school games and we all started building paper airplanes, competing as to whose would fly the furthest. I hadn’t kept track of the game, but before I knew it I heard the buzzer for the end of the half and looked towards the court to see the coach of our school team and the ref going at it pretty good. This was odd, as we went to a Catholic school and arguing with officials was frowned upon. I hadn’t seen it in the five years I had gone to school there. Something wasn’t right and I wanted to know more.

I left the boys and the airplanes and headed to the stands. I found my sister and her friends and asked what was happening.

“The ref is really bad. He is calling all the fouls on our team and none on the other.”

I had heard all of that before, so I took it lightly. The second half buzzer sounded and the players took the court, the coach staring at the ref and the ref staring back. The coach said something under his breath as he sat down and the ref hit him with an immediate technical foul. The bleachers and the team bench exploded with boos and the team and coach circled the ref as the coach continued to argue.

I looked up and my father was walking into the gym: staggering, weaving, obviously drunk.  Never one to shy away from controversy, my father walked, or staggered, from the door right into the middle of the fray. At first I heard him try to make peace, saying, “What’s going on here? Come on guys. Let’s separate and figure out what is going on.”

Unfortunately, the only one that didn’t know what was going on was my father. As soon as the ref saw him on the court, he called a technical foul. He soon called a second one, finally calling a forfeit and giving the win to the other team. My father was livid. “What the fuck are you doing?” he said. “I just came out here to help.”

“Fans aren’t allowed on the court and if they confront the ref it is an automatic forfeit,” the ref replied.

“That’s bullshit,” my father replied eloquently. “You and I are going to have a discussion about this outside,” he said as he lunged towards the ref.

The ref walked towards the door of the gym, and the coach grabbed my father so he couldn’t follow. With the ref out of sight the coach released my father, who spun around to stare at the coach. “You ever do that again, you will get the beating I had planned for the ref,” he said to the coach as he started to walk to the door.

I knew he was leaving and there was a better than even chance that he had forgotten we were with him so I grabbed my younger sister and on the way out motioned to my older sister to get moving. She saw me through her complete embarrassment at what had just happened. The three of us met at the entrance. I immediately started looking for my father. I could see that his station wagon was parked outside and he was not in it. A loud smack came from the men’s bathroom just off the entrance of the gym and then the sound of someone falling down. The ref from the game burst through the bathroom door holding his eye as it swelled up like a tick with an ample supply of blood.

“Call the police!” the ref shouted towards the concession stand. “I’ve been assaulted!”

Someone in the concession stand picked up the phone and dialed the police station (no 911 at that time) at about the same time my father stumbled out of the bathroom, fire in his eyes, looking for the ref who had taken refuge behind the concession stand counter. The two exchanged words, but there is something about a counter that seems to act as more of a barrier than it really is. My father was mad enough to jump over the counter, but never did.

Five to ten minutes later the police cruiser came up to the front door of the gym and two policemen walked in. They sorted out who was who and used the coach’s office to separate the combatants. One of them asked me what my home phone number was and said he would call my mother so that we would be okay. I wanted so badly to scream “No, please don’t!” but there was no choice. My mother would be coming to pick us up and all the way home we would be subjected to the myriad insults she would hurl at my father, even though he was not in the car.

After another five to ten minutes my father emerged from one of the offices, handcuffs around his wrists, led by two policemen. They drew him past us, into their police car. He did not look at us or say anything to us.

I had just seen my father, drunk, physically assault a ref in an eighth grade basketball game. I had watched him verbally abuse the same ref and watched him being taken away in handcuffs. However, even amid these events the one thing I dreaded the most was being driven home by my mother, hearing everything that was wrong with our lives and my father. Then, as if she had forgotten her earlier rant, she would start in on us and why we hadn’t watched and made sure this didn’t happen. When my mother started she never finished until everyone was dead, shooting the dead a second time just to be sure. A beating from my father had a beginning and an end that was somewhat predictable. I never knew when my mother finished or started as it all melded into one large rant.

I don’t know if he was bailed out or the charges were dropped, but to my surprise he was home that night. I was certain, having only seen police shows on TV, that he would be in jail for some time, but here he was, home for dinner. No one in our family brought up the incident at the time and we have still have never discussed it openly.

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