I have this way of stiffening my body, zombie-like, which is fairly convincing. I roll my eyes up into my head, jut out my lower teeth until they overlap my upper lip. I tighten my fingers into twisted claws, suck a chest-full of air through my nose, and I ROAR!
Emily, my three-year-old, goes wild. She races for the old gray sofa--the place that puts monsters to sleep if they even get near it. I grab her foot too late, she's already there. She giggles as I crawl away, gasp for air, keel over and start snoring. She sneaks up, pulls my nose, and runs howling back to the sofa, aiming her bright red tongue at me, knowing she is safe.
Seth, he loved monsters too at her age. He's eight years old now, and I can see our being together two week-ends a month isn't enough. Not nearly enough. I watch the wonder flash into his eyes only long enough to pull back, disappear, hiding inside him somewhere I can't reach anymore. Sometimes I remind him how he used to come poking at me while I washed the dishes. I’d give him this little growl, start getting tomahawk chops around the knees.
“Mostly, I'd act like I didn't notice,” I tell him, making sure he sees the glint of warning in my eye. “I wasn’t in any hurry,” I tell him. “I'd bide my time.”
“Yeah Dad sure, uh huh.”
That’s about as much I get anymore. Back then though. . .back then, I swear, this kid would not quit. Usually I’d wait until it hurt--wait until he was giving me his best shot--then, all at once, I'd stiffen up, spin around like his worst nightmare. He was never ready for that. Never. There he'd be, frozen, staring, like he could not believe his eyes. I'd hobble forward, snatching at those perfect screams, squeals of glee singed by terror. I'd chase him around the house, and yeah, sure, every now and then there'd be a trip and a fall, a bump or a bruise. . .tears to dry. Carla would be looking at me like I'd done it on purpose.
"He's not really hurt," I'd tell her.
“You don't know when to stop, Hank. That's your problem.”
There were times she'd accuse me of getting some kind of weird pleasure from it. From hurting people. Especially her, she’d say. I think she knew how much I felt like hurting her when she baited me that way, but I never once raised a hand to Carla and I never will, no matter what she says.
She doesn't say much to me anymore, of course, though I can still see what she's thinking. The same old story scribbled in her eyes every time I ask to keep them for a few extra days.
“No Hank. I don't think so Hank.”
I try to control my temper. I do. And sometimes I can’t. Sometimes I go too far, say things I shouldn't, let things get out of hand. Yeah, sometimes it is hard, knowing when to stop--knowing it doesn't matter to her anymore--that there's nothing I can do except suck it all in.
It's okay though. It's okay. I mean hell, sometimes I get lucky too. Like last weekend, out of the blue, Carla decides to take off with her new boyfriend, asks if she can leave the kids with me. No problem, I tell her. God, I can hardly hold it in I'm so damned excited, just like a little kid myself.
I pick them up Friday after school and we go to South Beach Park. We feed the ducks, step on a frog, bury it, and lose two frisbees in the pond. Then we go to McDonalds, their favorite restaurant, and after that to the movies for a couple of Shreks and I can’t remember what else. Saturday it's the zoo, McDonalds again, and miniature golf. We spend Sunday at the beach and boardwalk, get too much sun, eat too much junk, and don't get back home until way after dark. That's when I turn into a monster.
It's ridiculous, I know that now. I guess I can't help myself. I can see everyone is exhausted but I don't want to waste a single minute of our time together. I crane my shoulders up around my ears, dangle my hands like demented meat-hooks, slump forward with a pounding right foot, a dragging left, roll my eyes back in my head, and I ROAR!
Emily runs screeching to the sofa. That's enough, I'm done with it now, but Seth, he surprises me. Instead of ignoring the whole thing, like I expect, he comes right after me, swinging and kicking.
“I'm not scared,” he says. “I know it's just you!”
I think, at first, this is a good thing. I think he actually wants to play, wants to wrestle, and of course I want that too, so I drop down, holding him off until I'm ready but somehow, somehow he finds a way around me and jumps on my back and screams as loud as he can in my ear, “IT’S ONLY YOU!”
It's like an ice pick stabbed into my brain. My arm involuntarily swings and knocks him off. I can hear him laughing. I'm dizzy, stunned I guess And mad. Crazy mad and I can’t, I just can’t stop it! I lunge at him and miss. He jumps behind the coffee table, still laughing, taunting me, certain I am only pretending.
I yank the table out of the way and one of its legs buckle and tears loose. “Goddammit to hell!”
I hammer the table top, hammer it with both fists until another leg snaps. By now Seth has stopped his laughing. He tries to get away but I catch him before he can slam the bedroom door. I throw him down on the ground. He looks up at me.
He wants the game to be over but I'm not playing. I should let him go but I can't. Not yet. I stand over him, red faced and out of breath. He puts his hands over his eyes and starts crying.
That's what stops me. . .what drops me to my knees.
“Hey bud,” I say. “Hey, I'm sorry. I’m so sorry. It's me, Seth, it's Daddy.”
I hold onto him. I can’t believe what I’ve done. I guess, I don’t know, I guess I wanted him to feel it. Only for a second. I wanted him to know what it feels like, that no matter what, no matter how well things are going, something terrible is happening here and there's nothing I can do about it.
Crazy, I know, but I think that’s it.
I'm not thinking any of this at the time of course. I'm not thinking at all. I have my head against his chest, listening to his heart, when I see Emily. . .see her inching toward me kind of sideways, her little hands out in front. “Nice monster,” she's whispering. “Nice monster, nice monster.”
Copyright 2009, David Mohrmann. © This work is protected under the U.S. copyright laws. It may not be reproduced, reprinted, reused, or altered without the expressed written permission of the author.
David Mohrmann received his bachelor's degree (way back when?) in Social Psychology at the University of California in Santa Barbara. After doing nothing with it, he traveled, which led to meeting his first wife, which led to becoming a carpenter and raising a family and beginning to go crazy (no one else's fault) like his mother and brother before him. He started doing large oil paintings instead, mostly of people looking a little crazy. He also wrote lots of short stories, some of which eventually became plays, which led to producing community theater, which led to going back to school for an MFA in Dramatic Writing, which led to becoming a member of the Theater Arts Department at Humboldt State University. While writing and producing more than 10 plays, his most significant contribution was in the area of political street theater as a trained practitioner in “Theatre of the Oppressed.” He retired early so that he could get back to writing fiction. His stories have also appeared in Toyon, Brink, The Battered Suitcase, and The Furnace Review.