That’s What I Was Taught

Underneath the paint bucket on the front porch was a rusty old key for use in emergencies. Or, it was to be used when dad left his keys on the counter, or, in a pair of pants.

Stumbling home drunk at midnight was how I remembered him. An old soul who was tortured by shots of whiskey and glasses of beer. The tavern was only a matter of twenty-five yards from our brick row house, and I’d watch him each night trip over his own feet. An uneven sidewalk made it hard on the old man as well. Often his thin face would be bloody from falling on the rough concrete. I worried about him though mom said not to. She said it was some kind of Polish tradition; work, drink, have family. Many times the order of that tradition was switched, changed to drinking first, then work, and family.

Downstairs I could hear her humming; mom waiting up for dad. I’d listen for the thin key to wrestle with the lock and then mom coming over to open the door. They’d speak in Polish. Yelling at each other. Raising their open hands to one another. A slap, a push. Makeup would cover mom’s bruises the next day, then the day after that. The night would end with a thirty minute love making session which I was forced to hear in my room next to theirs. Him, passing out on top of her. And she, pushing the old Pole away and claiming her side of the bed.

By morning all was fine. The smell of eggs and sausage drifted throughout the house. The picture frame which housed John Paul was covered in grease. A film ran over the glass. Mom would clean it after breakfast, but, she would just have to do it again the next day and the day after. Dad would sit there with coffee and a cigarette burning till it was time to catch the bus to work. The house was drenched in wonderful tobacco and paprika smells. We carried them with us, these odors. Enemies always knew we were coming.

And at midnight, I’d see the old man stumbling home. He’d fall. We all fall. That’s the beauty of it. That’s what I was taught.

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