Current Essay

“11 Ways to Start a Fight with Your Father” by Julianne Clarke

Image by Cole Rise, used with permission.

1. When your father picks you up for Thanksgiving break during your freshman year of college, wear a t-shirt that says “nasty woman.” Walk out of your dorm building, and up the street to where he’s parked, with your jacket unbuttoned so he can read it, even though it’s the end of November and it’s cold. You bought the shirt on Amazon for fifteen dollars last month when you were certain Hillary would win. When you get into his car- the car you drove to high school every day last year; the one you picked your friends up in to go to the mall and to the beach- he doesn’t say anything about your shirt, and you worry that he didn’t notice. He doesn’t say much as he drives up route 2 but when you reach the townline he starts talking about Trump. Seize the opportunity. He doesn’t understand why your anthropology professor- who is a woman, disabled, and queer- cancelled class on the day following the election. He doesn’t understand why your English advisor, who is gay, let class out early. He uses the word “snowflake.” He tells you that your liberal education sounds like a waste of money. Don’t tell him that after you heard the results you walked to the quad and hit the cement wall of the library with your fist. Don’t let him see the purple bruise on your knuckles. Tell him that people are allowed to be upset, and they’re allowed to be scared, because Donald Trump has an open rape case against him, and he’s mocked disabled people, and the LGBTQ community and plans to build a wall on the Mexico border, and rip children away from their parents because they aren’t the right color and they don’t belong here, and he bragged about grabbing women “by the pussy.” Your father tells you it was just locker room talk, and you remind him that Trump said those words in the workplace, not in a locker room. Your father says that Trump is a businessman, and he is going to save the country money by cutting funding and rearranging budgets. You tell him that people’s lives should not be run like a business, but your father was in the navy, and he says, “it’s about time we take care of veterans” and he slams his fist on the dashboard and he’s yelling over you saying, “We. Are. Americans. This. Is. America.” And when he puts his hands back on the wheel you don’t say anything else. After your father dies your mother tells you, while eating lunch with your aunt, that she once asked him if he really believed the things he would say. He told your mom, “it doesn’t matter,” he said, “but look how angry she got.” Perhaps you should get a shirt that says “angry woman.”

2. When your father gets up from his recliner to use the bathroom, take the TV remote, and put on last week’s Grey’s Anatomy because you haven’t seen it yet and you’re tired of watching Ice Road Truckers. When he gets back, before he even sits down, he says “oh, no, no, no” and you try to tuck the remote under the couch cushion, and out of sight, but Dad can be fast when he wants to be and even though you try to hold onto it he snatches it right out of your hand. And he changes the channel back and rests the remote on his leg, not on the arm of the chair. And you watch another episode of Ice Road Truckers like you do every night because Dad pays for the cable, and you are just a teenager, after all.

3. When Dad says “the girls” he’s talking about his pet chickens, but the problem is that sometimes when he’s talking about you and your sister he calls you “the girls” so you tell him he has to pick a different nickname for the chickens. He tells you he’d call them “the kids” but they aren’t goats, and he doesn’t want things to get confusing. You suggest he call them “the chickens,” or “the hens,” but he decides that he’ll call you and your sister “the kids” so he can keep calling his chickens “the girls.”

4. When you talk about Ellen Degeneres–comedian, talk show host, actor, writer, producer, and known lesbian–your father calls her Ellen Degenerate, and a fag, and you ask him, “why?” You’re sitting in his truck in the driveway waiting for the engine to heat up. It’s winter, the heat is blasting, you’re wearing a winter coat, and can feel your skin sweating. Dad is in a t-shirt, enjoying the sauna. His Carhartt jacket is in the backseat. He tells you that homosexuality is unnatural. He doesn’t quote the bible, or say that man shalt not lie with man, because you don’t think even he believes that bullshit. You listen to him describe his disgust of gay men, and lesbians, and maybe it’s because he was born in the fifties, and his parents were racist, and you were born during the age of the internet. You saw a video online recently about an alternate reality where everyone is gay, and straight people are called “breeders” and shamed for their sexuality, so you ask your father, “what if the roles were reversed?” You think it’s the perfect argument, because certainly if everyone else in the world were gay, you’re father would still be straight. You want him to practice empathy, to imagine what it might be like to be the minority, but your father laughs. It’s dark in the car so you can’t see his face, and even if you could, you’re not looking at him, you’re looking out the windshield at the lights on the house. “Then the population wouldn’t last very long,” he says. And you don’t have anything to say to that so you stay silent. Years later, you look back on this conversation from high school and, as a practicing lesbian, you wonder what he would say to you now.

5. When you put on the radio in the kitchen to the pop music station 95.7, which all the cool kids at school listen to, Dad yells to you from the living room where he’s reading the newspaper to turn it down. Your hands are covered in Cabot Seriously Sharp Cheddar™, which you’re slicing to make homemade macaroni and cheese, so you rinse them in the sink, and dry them on the dish towel that hangs on the oven door which is never fully dry, then you turn the volume from eighteen to sixteen. The water is boiling so you dump in the medium shells, not the full box, but two thirds of it, and you preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and measure out the butter, flour, and milk for the cheese sauce. Dad comes into the kitchen and he doesn’t ask if he can eat some of the cheese that you just cut up, but he reaches for the cutting board to take some, and he pops the chunk of butter for the cheese sauce into his mouth. You watch his face, but his expression doesn’t waver as he bites into it and chews, and he asks you to hand him a slice of bread. You give it to him. When he leaves the room with his butter and his bread, he pushes the power button on the radio and the music cuts off even though he’s leaving the room and you’re still there, and you were listening to it.

6. When you’re riding in the backseat of your father’s car, his window is all the way down and you ask him to roll it up because your hair is long and it isn’t in a ponytail and it’s blowing into your face. Dad rolls the window up two inches, and technically he’s doing what you asked, but he’s making it infuriating. You put in headphones, and turn your music up on your iPod nano so you can hear it over the wind that is rushing past your ears. It’s a three hour car ride to your Grandmother’s house, and Dad is driving on the highway. You know it’s summer, but the air conditioning works so really there’s no reason for the windows to be down. You try to ignore the the wind, but you notice Dad roll his window all the way back down and you lose your temper. You demand that he put the window up, but he pretends like he can’t hear you over the roar of the wind, and he laughs as you get angrier until finally he rolls it halfway up. And then all the way up. And then all the way back down.

7. When you tell your father you’re getting a tattoo tomorrow he tells you that if you can afford a tattoo, you can afford lots of other things like the monthly school bills he pays, and car insurance on a car you don’t own, and no longer drive, and rent, and groceries. He says you shouldn’t scar your body for no reason, and you remind him that he too has a tattoo. An eagle on his bicep, which Mom calls a Navy scar, because he got it when he was young and enlisted. You make him look at the ugly scar you have on the back of your left hand from when you were watching the neighbor’s dogs, and you got in the middle of a fight over food, and one of them bit you. You remember the way it bled, and how you called him and he wiped the drops of blood off your neighbor’s kitchen floor then drove you to the hospital. You tell him that you’ll have that mark for the rest of your life, and you understand the permanence of a tattoo, and you say you’re just going to put something on your body that you want and that you chose. In the morning when you leave you tell him you’re leaving to get a tattoo, and he says, “so that’s really happening?” And you tell him “yes.” And he looks at the design- “c’est la vie” in typewriter font–which you printed off the desktop computer in what used to be the computer room, but is now just a room with some junk in it, and he tells you to make sure the letters are spaced out enough because with time they’ll bleed together. He rolls up his shirt sleeve so you can see the eagle on his bicep, and he tells you it used to be black ink with fine lines but now the ink is green and the lines are thick. You nod and tell him, “thank you,” and get in the car that you don’t own, or pay for, and drive to a tattoo shop forty-five minutes away.

8. When your father asks if you’d like to go out to dinner with him and your Mom, say no because you would rather just stay in your bed, and even though you are kind of hungry you would rather have the house to yourself for a night.

9. When your father knocks on your bedroom door and tells you it’s time to get up at nine in the morning on a Sunday you ignore him, and roll over in bed to try to fall back asleep. He assumes you don’t answer because you’re still sleeping. He knocks louder and yells your name insistently until you get irritated and say, “what?” And he calmly tells you it’s time to get up. It’s time for church. And you get up, because that’s what you do every Sunday morning, and you eat a breakfast of pancakes and bacon, and you go to church with your family even though you hate it and all of your friends go to the Catholic church down the street not the Church of Christ, and you don’t even believe any of it anyway. But it’s not really that bad. After your father dies your mother says how grateful she is for the church goers who bring her food, and company. One woman sews a prayer shawl for your mom, sister, and you too. Yours has a sailboat and palm tree stitched into it.

10. When you eat a whole box of Pop-Tarts in three days your father gets angry and tells you that you lost your Pop-Tart privileges and he won’t be buying them anymore. With your mouth full of a hot fudge sundae Pop-Tart cooked to perfection in the toaster oven, you roll your eyes, certain that he’ll forget about it in a week. But he never buys you Pop-Tarts again.

11. When it’s the day before your appointment to get your tonsils taken out- because you had mono, strep throat, and have chronic tonsil stones- Dad wants you to stay home but you made plans with your friends already. It’s the end of summer, and you’ll be going back for your sophomore year at your college that is two hours away and you won’t see these friends for a while. You tell him you’ll have plenty of time to stay home when you’re recovering from surgery. He says, “the car needs an oil change,” and he’s talking about the car that you drove everyday in high school that you don’t regularly drive anymore. The one he pays for. But you tell him it can wait and he doesn’t stop you when you leave that morning while he’s eating breakfast with your mom at the kitchen table. On the drive to the restaurant where you’re meeting your friends for brunch you call the doctor’s office and they ask you to verify your name and birth date, then want to know if you smoke, or if you ever smoked, and you tell them “no.” They ask more questions and remind you to be at the office at eight in the morning the next day, and you say “okay,” then hang up. After brunch you go to your friend’s house and your mom texts you telling you to go to your aunt’s house but you don’t want to so you ignore the text until she sends another one, and eventually you leave and go to your aunt’s house. When you get there your mother, aunt, and sister are crying and you hope your uncle is okay because he had surgery recently and he’s been tired a lot. But then your aunt tells you that your father had a heart attack and he died and you think about how that doesn’t make any sense at all because you saw him this morning and he was fine. And then you think about how he told you to stay home and change the oil in the car and you think about how if you had listened you would have been with him and maybe he wouldn’t have been chopping wood in the driveway, and maybe he wouldn’t have gotten too hot in the sun, and maybe he wouldn’t have needed to go to the hospital, and maybe, just maybe, he’d be alive. Then your mother tells you that she cancelled your tonsillectomy appointment for the next day.


Julianne Clarke is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in English at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA). She works as a tutor in the college’s writing studio, and is an intern at Tupelo Press. She is a native of Western Mass, and enjoys time outside. This is her first published piece.

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“A Small Wooden Box” by D. G. Lasek

Image by Cole Rise, used with permission.

The eleven o’clock news goes to commercial. I look down at the empty juice glass by my foot. A single ruby droplet at the bottom takes on a warm glow from the lamp that burns in the opposite corner of the living room. I pick up the glass, bring it to my lips, and toss my head back like a grizzled cowhand in Bonanza taking a shot of whiskey. Some sandy sediment clings to my front teeth while the tiny droplet trickles down my throat, barely noticeable.

I stand up with a grunt and mosey from the living room, leaving my father sitting in front of the TV. The sound of a Jetta commercial fades to a dull blur as I round the corner. I push through the heavy swinging door that separates the living room from the kitchen.

The empty bottle stands on the counter next to the sink. Fresh droplets of water run down the inside of the green glass in rivulets. My mother has beaten me to it. Saturday is recycling day in my New Jersey hometown. I should have known that my mother, who has just gone to bed, would have swept through the house, confiscating every stray bottle, can, and newspaper.

I sigh with disappointment and relief. Then I cross the kitchen and place my glass in the sink. As I turn away to head for the bathroom, something catches my eye. It’s a bottle of Jim Beam Black, half hidden in the corner behind the Mr. Coffee. An inch of liquor lingers at the bottom of the bottle.

I snatch the bottle from its hiding place and set it on the counter in front of me. There really is only a little bit left. Barely a shot. I rescue my glass from the sink and pour the last of the Beam. What’s another ounce or two of bourbon on top of five ounces of wine? That makes one more bottle for recycling. Call it my good deed for the day.

With juice glass in hand, I sally back into the living room. My father hasn’t moved from the rocking chair. As I make my way to my spot on the couch, I hold the glass down toward my knee. He doesn’t look away from the TV. I drop onto the couch and place the glass on the end table next to me, hidden from view by the base of a lamp.

The news comes back on. Kim Jong Un has traded missiles for tractors. There’s been a shooting in the Bronx. A man ran down a mother and her twin daughters in a crosswalk in Passaic and fled the scene. They close with a happy story. An elderly couple whose son died from addiction donated a Christmas tree to Trenton City Hall in their son’s memory. The smiling newscasters wish us a good night from everyone at Channel 5, then the room falls silent for a moment before another Jetta commercial blares forth.

In that moment of silence, I realize that my father and I are alone.

“So how are things with you?” he asks.

“Pretty good. No complaints.”

“That’s good.”

With one sly hand I take the glass from its strategic location behind the lamp base and down the whiskey in one swallow. I set the glass back down as swiftly as I picked it up, being careful that it doesn’t clatter against the plastic coaster. As before, my father’s eyes don’t leave the TV. We don’t talk about his recent trips to the hospital, my uncertainty about my recent decision to attend graduate school, or about the lovely young woman I’m dating. We’ve never talked about any of that before, and we don’t talk about it now.

Drums rumble, horns blare, and the audience roars as Craig Ferguson takes the stage. A warm sensation envelopes my stomach, like a hug from inside. It skips my chest and rolls up my neck, its fingers massaging my cheeks. My dad and I laugh together at jokes about Sir Paul McCartney’s uncanny resemblance to Queen Elizabeth. I feel good. This is probably the perfect place to stop. Even if the ice between my father and I hasn’t entirely broken, it has at least melted, and I don’t show any of the outward signs of intoxication. I could go to bed tonight and actually rest, wake up in the morning, and not wish I hadn’t.

I no longer follow what’s happening on TV. Instead I laugh when my father laughs and watch Ferguson’s lips, hoping each punchline, the end of each skit will herald the next commercial break.

Ferguson says he’ll be right back. I say the same and make a big show of getting off the couch, as though I’d rather not. I walk quickly—but not too quickly—into the kitchen, where I have to think on my feet. The wine and the whiskey are spent. A brief moment of panic grips me as I wonder if I’ll have to go to bed half lit, having failed at both staying sober and getting drunk. Then I remember.

I flick on the small light over the counter and open the cabinet under the sink. There it stands: my mother’s bottle of Bacardi Gold, untouched since my last visit. She won’t miss a drop or two. I take the bottle out and put it on the counter, making sure my father can hear. Conspicuousness removes suspicion. I fill my glass halfway with rum and replace the bottle under the sink. As I head back toward the living room, I take a healthy sip off the top to give the impression that I had only poured an ounce or two in the first place.

This time, as I reenter the living room my father steals a glance at the glass in my hand without turning his head. His glance stings. My face turns redder than it already was. But my father can’t say a thing about the glass or its contents. He knows it, and I know it. So he doesn’t.

By the time I reach the couch, I’ve forgotten my momentary embarrassment. I set my glass down on the coffee table in front of me, then I start to talk. I talk about music, about how I need a new turntable because I’ve been into the oldies lately and the only way to hear those mono recordings is on vinyl and my turntable is pretty old and I’m afraid it’s going to damage the records.

For a while, my dad nods but says nothing. Then, without looking over, he offers some sage advice on the virtues of belt-drive over direct-drive turntables. After all, when he and my mother were first married, no one was interested in television. Everyone invested in audio equipment. There were entire stores and magazines and catalogs and…

Really? I ask. Tell me more, more, more.

This is fun. I take a sip of rum here, a sip of rum there. I interrupt him to declare that Black Sabbath and the MC5 are the pinnacle of rock and roll and did he know that bands nowadays buy the old Orange amplifiers to try to emulate that sound and isn’t it absurd that artists today release albums on vinyl that were digitally recorded. My brain is on the express track, but I speak with calculated nonchalance, articulating each word so I don’t mess up a good thing with the odd slur.

My dad starts telling a story about a guy he knew in college who was a freak for all kinds of vintage guitar equipment. I’m not listening. Instead, I’m picturing my dad in college, young, mustachioed, full of life. My mother would have been back in their hometown—where we’re sitting right now—waiting for him to graduate so they could marry. My dad hadn’t yet faced the commitment that would prove to be too much pressure for him. Kicking back in a dorm room in the protective isolation of Glassboro, sucking down one Budweiser after another, he was an eighteen-year-old kid who had no idea he was about to ruin his life and that of his future wife, and very nearly the lives of his three unborn sons. What would he have done if he had known? Would he have acted differently?

I’m sure I don’t know, but as I drain the last of the rum from my glass, I do know that I pity this version of my father. Things got away from him. They get away from everyone now and then. Maybe it was the distance in those early days, the one-hundred-and-ten-mile stretch of I-95 that separated him from my mother.

It’s time for a refill.

I stagger to my feet and head for the kitchen, where I take a detour to the bathroom. My parents’ house doesn’t have one on the first floor, so I go down to the basement.

Once down there, I feel my way through the dark toward the tiny bathroom-closet next to the washroom. I tug on the pull chain that dangles from the ceiling and turn to face my reflection in the mirror. In the dim glow of the globe light, my eyes look swollen and half closed. For a fraction of a second, the smoke in my mind clears and a single thought sears through my brain, as sharp and clear as an icicle that catches the sun.

I’m loaded.

For a moment I have the distinct urge to put my fist through the mirror, to smash that image of myself, but I don’t. The lucidity fades as quickly as it came. I do what I came to do, then I wash my hands without looking up. I kill the light and head back across the dark basement toward the stairs. Walking around down here in the dark usually gives me chills, but tonight I take my time, winding my way across the floor, climbing the stairs one at a time without skipping any.

Back in the kitchen, I head to the counter, where the white Formica seems harsher than usual under the pale overhead light. I fish around in the cabinet, shoving the bottle of Bacardi out of the way. If any more of the rum goes missing, my mother will notice, and I’ve never been stupid enough to try to replace Bacardi with Lipton. I start to think I’m off the hook when my hand brushes something cold at the back of the cabinet. I pull it out. It’s an old bottle of cooking sherry, untouched for God knows how long. Joy and disgust wrestle in the pit of my stomach, and for a second I’m afraid I’ll have to make a beeline back to the bathroom. But it passes, and I fill my glass.

A voice inside my head that I recognize as sober Me screams: I don’t want this!

The other Me, who has emerged from his rock and now stands boldly out in the open, replies in his calm and steady voice: Yes, you do.

My head spins. At that moment, it’s a wonder to me that my father can’t hear every word of this argument from the next room.

I grab hold of the counter, and the voices fade. I tell myself that it’s okay, that this is a quarter of what I used to drink on any given Friday in college, that I’m an adult, that I have the right to relax and have a couple of drinks at night, that there’s nothing unusual about it.

The next thing I know, I’m back on the sofa. I don’t feel good anymore. My glass is in front of me, filled almost to the brim with wine that isn’t the color of any wine I’ve seen before. It’s brown, dirty. I start to speak again, even more carefully than before. I am aware, in a vague way, that I’m saying something about what I’d like to do after graduate school, but I focus all of my mental energy on sounding normal. The way I enunciate each vowel probably makes me look like an actor in a silent film, my lips forming each O and E with slow deliberation.

Once again, my father doesn’t appear to notice. Rather than confront me, he seizes the opportunity to reflect on his own career, the career from which he only recently retired but which has been dead in the water for well over a decade. As he drones on about the intricacies of pharmaceutical advertising, I widen my eyes, trying to make them look like normal eyes, to open them all the way and chase away the puffiness I saw in the bathroom mirror. I feel like an owl. Then I do something that I haven’t done all evening, all year, or maybe ever.

I look at my father.

Though he’s stone-cold sober, he looks worse than I do: the bags under his eyes, the ashen skin, the distended belly. There’s nothing he can do about it just now, because his symptoms didn’t appear just now. They are the promise of many years.

I take a sip of dirty wine and watch my father as he talks about big-time marketing campaigns from thirty years ago, about his cutting-edge mentoring strategies. He tells a story about how he once instructed a nervous young employee to write her problem down on an index card and put it into a small wooden box he kept on his desk. By doing so, the employee took her problem and made it his problem. Lo and behold, the girl relaxed, her subconscious went to work, and presto! By the time she arrived at work the next morning, she had solved her problem all on her own, and she thanked my father for his wisdom.

Unlike that doe-eyed employee, my father had a problem that wouldn’t fit in his small wooden box. My parents won’t come out and say why my father has been to the hospital so many times in the last few weeks, but they don’t have to, because I know.

He’s dying.

He’s dying from the inside out, from too many years of refusing to look his problems in the face. He hasn’t had a drink in decades, but the damage is done. His liver gives out a little more each day, and all he can do is sit and reminisce about the time his small wooden box worked for someone else.

My father’s words grow more emphatic as he plunges further down memory lane. He stares at the TV, unseeing, while he gestures with his hands and rattles on about the ruthlessness of corporate life. I realize that I am listening to the words of a man who looks back on his life in the way that someone else might look at an exhibit in a museum: as a foregone conclusion, something dead and preserved with no stake in the future. As I watch his vision of the past play out behind his glassy eyes, it becomes clear that my father is no longer talking to me. He’s forgotten that I’m even in the room, just like he forgot about my mother and two brothers during his days of corporate glory and, later, his nights of debauchery in seedy, bucket-of-blood bars.

This makes me want to scream. His problem is not behind him. It’s eating him alive. It’s eating me alive, too. My father’s problem rushes through my veins faster than the alcohol I’ve consumed tonight. Unlike the alcohol, it does not go away in the morning. It does not stay away during my periods of sobriety, no matter how long they last. It only rushes faster.

I knock back the last of the sherry.

Why won’t he look at me?

Because I’m a young guy who is still exploring his relationship with booze. Because I’ve got dreams and ambitions, I’ve got a nice girlfriend, and I’ve got time to sort it all out. Because I’m a manifestation of the problem he’s worked so hard to lock away in his small wooden box.

Only trouble is, I don’t quite fit.

My father stops talking. The room grows quiet except for the chatter of the TV. We’ve been reduced to watching reruns of American Ninja Warrior. My father looks at his watch.

“Well, I’ve chewed your ear off long enough,” he says. “It’s getting late.”

“What time is it?” I ask.

“Quarter to three.”

“Geez, it is late.”

I get up and walk to the kitchen one last time, feeling unsteady on my feet. It’s time for the usual charade of sneaking up to bed, hoping that each creak of the stairs won’t wake my mother.

After a minute or two spent leaning on the counter, staring into space, I fill my glass with lukewarm tap water and drain it in one gulp. I tell myself that the liquor has been watered down, that I won’t feel it in the morning.

Fat chance, I think as I place my glass in the sink and switch off the overhead light.

Nothing’s free.


D.G. Lasek, originally from New Jersey, now lives with his wife in Massachusetts where he teaches English as a second language. His fiction is forthcoming in Corner Bar Magazine, and his children’s fiction has appeared in Bumples Magazine.

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