by Chris Garson
Copyright 2013 Chris Garson
“A chink, a spic and a nigger walk into a bar,” my father started the joke. The three neighborhood men grinned.
I knew that was no way to talk, but he was my father, strong and huge. Mom could shut him down, no one else. His way of talking, of hitting, was what made her run. I never forgave her for leaving me alone with him, but I did understand why she ran.
I went to my tree house to escape the joke and stayed put well past dark. Later, when the gin was gone, he called my name. I didn’t answer, but he guessed where I was hiding.
“Get down here, boy. Get your queer ass down here right now.” Like many Southies, my father never went to college. He worked with his hands and was ignorant, but he knew. I was only eight years old.
I climbed down the ladder slats nailed to the trunk, but didn’t look him in the eye. I couldn’t. When he backhanded me, I turned away to hide my tears. If he saw them, he’d only hit me again. I cried the night away in my room. Through the thin wall, I heard him laugh while telling the neighbors more nigger jokes.
I survived elementary school. Always the last one picked and the first one picked upon. Bullies ruled the blacktop. Mrs. Walker let me stay inside during recess. Teacher’s pet, they jeered, but I wasn’t. I was just afraid.
In junior high, testosterone skyrocketed. Bullies built six-packs. I hid in drama club, beyond their reach. I won the part of Bernardo, leader of the Sharks. I invited my father to opening night. He said, “Why would I watch a bunch of dancing faggots pretending to be spics?”
I wanted to tell him off, but I had no voice and he scared the hell out of me. I could only croak before turning tail and running to my room. I threw up in the wastebasket.
I filled out. Against my better judgment, I tried out for the football team junior year, thinking he’d be proud of a running back son. Coach put me at tight end, making me the butt of many jokes, and then cut me. I didn’t tell him until the night before the opener over dinner.
“Goddamn pansy,” my father said and then he washed down his vitriol with gin.
I stabbed peas with my fork.
After graduation, I enlisted. College wasn’t in the cards. “Ain’t got no money for learning about goddamned thespians,” my father declared with a sideways glance my way. “What the hell is that anyways, a male lesbian? Fucking queers.”
My father took me to the station. The last thing he said was, “Come back a man.” I stared out the window as the bus pulled away, committing him to memory, swastika and all. I planned on never coming back. The bus roared towards Georgia’s Fort Benning. Panic, doubt and dread overcame me. The military was no place to hide and from what I knew, the south side of Boston was an enlightened paradise compared to the deep South.
Basic training brought back blacktop bully memories. Don’t ask, don’t tell was in full swing. I was stronger than I’d been, but inside I was the same old mute. I didn’t want to hide. I wanted to come out, but back then, before I found my voice, hiding was my talent.
So I hid and my voice stayed silent. When the boys went out on leave, I lit it up too. I called Wiznieski a dumb pole, decried the lazy niggers, and swore revenge against thieving wops. The voice wasn’t mine. It was borrowed and spewed venom with ease. Hate rolls off the tongue like silk, but peace, love, and understanding, that’s a hairball. Most nights, I stumbled to the latrine when everyone else was asleep, to vomit away the hate.
After I got out, I met and married Quentin, a native Californian. We lived off Lombard Street, far away from Georgia and my father, whom I hadn’t seen since boarding that bus. I kept my Purple Heart and Silver Cross in a cigar box beneath the underwear. They were no source of pride. I was no hero. I’d won them as someone else. I left the army voiceless. I found it with Quentin.
We opened a bar in the Castro named Speak Easy. We welcomed all types, save one. Fodor’s mentioned us four years running and many tourists stopped in, curious what it was all about. I had my back turned when I heard him.
“So, did you hear the one about the chink, the spic and the nigger?” said an old, tired, voice from my past.
I turned. The three grizzled faces sharing the speaker’s table were long-ago familiar. The speaker had his back to me. His shoulders were more slumped than I remembered and the hair had turned white, but I knew him right away, even from the back. What fickle gin palace gods sent him here?
I started shaking. The years unwound in an instant. I was eight years old again. My hard-earned voice retreated into a black hole.
“What’s wrong?” asked Quentin.
Hearing Quentin reassured me of my manhood. My voice, fighting the pull of the hole, crept back from the edge. “Everything’s perfect.”
My former neighbors drooled obscene laughter. I walked over to the table. “Excuse me.”
He turned. Surprised eyes widened in recognition.
“You’ll have to go,” I said with my voice, in my establishment. I pointed to the sign over the register. “No haters allowed.”
My voice hit him like a siphon, stealing his.
“So, you’re a man now,” he barely choked out before leaving. I never saw him again.