Love it or hate it, this story is true. If nothing else, I hope you find it momentarily distracts you from whatever blahs you may be enduring today.
There once was a young boy named John whose parents found it necessary to divorce.
John, though he was but seven or eight at the time, had no worries that he might have been the reason mommy and daddy were breaking up, because even then he was wise enough to know that his mommy was batshit crazy. So waste not a tear at the plight of poor, sad John.
John’s father, far from being batshit crazy, seemed to personify the very essence of manliness to the young, impressionable lad.
I know I’ve mentioned this before, but for newer readers, John’s father had been a submariner in the US Navy, a police officer all the rest of his life, and an avid ‘manly stuff’ hobbyist and sportsman. Bushy cop mustache, live the stereotype!
Hmm, a batshit crazy psycho who liked to scream and run around chasing people with knives, or an incredibly macho badass? Who do you think the boy would choose, if given the chance?
The courts, as the courts were wont to do, did not ask John which parent he would like to live with, nor did anyone ever ask him if he feared for his life living with one or the other. John was not consulted in any way. This was because he was not an equal member of the family in the eyes of the courts of that time, in that state… in a custody dispute, he was simply the prize.
So of course, they assigned custody of John to his mother.
Yay, me. You may now allow one and only one tear to trickle down your cheek, no larger than what a medium-sized crocodile might shed, if such be your desire.
Fast forward a few years.
I’m living with mom in Miami, near to where she grew up. She went back to live close to her parents and relatives, amidst familiar surroundings with an emotional support network.
Which is ironic, considering how desperately she hated and envied all her relatives, and how bitterly she raged about them when nobody but me was around to hear. But enough about that. Let’s get to the fun.
While my mother and I were settling into life in Miami, my father was busy doing what police officers usually do when they find themselves suddenly single and without kids in the area - get hooked up with cop groupies and run through a string of quickie marriages and even quicker divorces with lots of weird, messy drama.
When my father Tony was about six months into living with wife number two (who was so heavily freckled and with such a wide, flat nose that I mentally dubbed her the “buckshot mallard” the moment I laid eyes on her), he invited my nine year old (or so) butt up to stay at his rental apartment for a weekend to have a great time, get to know each other better, and of course have a chance to meet his blushing new bride.
Mostly to meet the blushing new bride and see how happy he was.
The psychology of these kinds of events are so transparent that even I, at such a supposedly naive age age, knew what was up. I was to see how wonderful my father’s new life and new wife were, and then bring those tales back with me in order to torment my mother.
Relationship judo. Hai-yah! Ah, the games people play.
Surprisingly enough, things didn’t go according to his plan.
He did succeed in two things; he made one hell of an impression on me, and I definitely got to know my dad a lot better.
The weekend was, as are most such summer weekends in south Florida, hot, muggy, buggy, humid and miserable. Note to future vacationing travelers; Southern California, being a desert with water extravagantly pumped into it, actually has the weather Florida only pretends it has. The humidity makes all the difference. If you’re on the coastline, and able to get those offshore breezes, it’s divine. Get further inland, and oh my.
South Florida, in case you missed it, is a swamp. Everglades. Gators. Mosquitos. Lizards. Sword palms and snakes. Spiders larger than your fist.
Actually, it was pretty fun, now that I’m reminiscing and don’t actually live there. Made for a great introduction to a world of excitement, adventure, and antivenom.
For this singular weekend excursion, Tony drove down in his rugged blue Jeep to pick me up and haul my butt back up north to Boca Raton.
He was full of ideas of what we would do while I was there. I believe there was some leatherworking, model rocketry and shooting on the agenda, exciting stuff for a young boy to look forward to. The excitement! The thrills!
Halfway through the drive up, things spun on me a little. The first rush of “I’m finally spending time with my dad!” started to wear off, and the “Who the hell is this old fart” thoughts began to kick in.
“It’s my dad, I’m spending time with my dad, oh boy, oh this is great, dad, woohoo, hey, wait a minute, who the hell is this old guy anyway? I haven’t seen him in two years, I don’t know this guy, this isn’t the dad in my memories at all. Was he always this tan? Did he always have that gold chain, and come off like a smooth-talking used car dealer?”
The changes a few years made to my father in person when compared to the one frozen in my memory were nothing compared to the shock of being introduced to his new home.
Here was my dad, changed and different, but the place he called home was a complete turnup for the books. Just as I had expected him to have remained exactly the same since I’d last seen him, somehow my mental picture was of his still living in our old apartment, with everything exactly the same as it was, including the furniture placement.
Not just no, HELL no. My mother, as part of her batshit craziness, is a functional obsessive/compulsive when it comes to everything being clean, neat, orderly, squared away and perfect in the home. Better Holmes and Gardens might be coming by any minute to ask to take a few pictures, and you need to be prepared, don’t you know.
Additionally, it was part of her cover for visitors. It worked very well, too. Her home was perfect and clean, so she must be perfect and clean. Since most families with kids that I knew were kind of, well, harassed and let things like coasters on tables or toys all over the place slide a bit, she came away from any comparison looking good. Don’t knock it if it works.
My dads new home was, umm, not so nicely kept. Or tidy. Or clean.
Turns out, Tony was a born slob, and his new bride clearly came from the Flower Power side of the sixties. The new apartment was, well, not bad. Physically. What it was, was a living example of two vastly different and conflicting lifestyles recently rammed together into one space. There was no melding, there were demilitarized zones, and there were quarantine areas.
This was the man area, there was the woman circle, scattered throughout the rooms and on every surface, each clearly defined by the lack of someone else’s stuff in the mix, but with a very studied casualness.
It was a total shock to me, being so used to perfect cleanliness and order, to see a house crammed with crap, magazines scattered everywhere, full ashtrays, burn marks on the furniture all over the place where cigarettes had been set down ‘for a minute’ because the ashtrays were out of arms reach and left to smoulder out, plants, potted plants, hanging plants, dangling plants, macrame hangers with plants, some more potted plants, guns, makeup cases, just shit everywhere.
And there were some plants here and there, too.
What was this plant? What was it’s purpose here? These magazines, from whence did they come? My dad reads Shooting Times and Guns and Ammo, where did Cosmopolitan come from, and what alien life form reads it? What the F&@# is a porcelain statue of a little naked boy with chia pet hair doing on the end table amid lighters, loose ammunition and Hoppes #9 gun cleaner? Coffee cups everywhere, dear lord they all have green mold and cigarette butts in them, shit I don’t want to sit down in this place, damnit!
Oh my god, is that the kitchen? Holy shit, what is that, is something growing on the stove? What IS that? Did it move? I think I saw it move! HELP!
So I’m looking around nervously, Tony tells me to have a seat and get comfortable in the florida room (what would be a three season screened-in porch if Florida had seasons… since all Florida has is the one season, hot, it’s an all-season porch, or the florida room).
Sitting down and feeling comfortable ain’t going hand in hand here… but what the hell, I can always wash my clothes afterwards. So I go on in, wondering if I just made a big mistake for the weekend, and sit down.
My dad comes in a few minutes later and sits down across from me. He’s in talky-talk mode, all fake exuberance about how awesomesauce the weekend will be, us buddy-buddy guys getting to know one another again, how much he missed me, how incredible this will all be. Oh, and Kim the new wife is at work but will be by soon, so let’s talk about how we’re supposed to act when we meet her.
So there we are, we’re both sitting in the Florida room, I’m feeling pretty disoriented and taking it all in spectator style while my dad is talking up our big weekend, and IT happens.
My dad stops talking in mid-sentence, his gaze drawn by movement from the doorway off to my side.
I look over there to see what distracted him, and I can see something alive moving through the dense wilderness of houseplants that choke the entrance to the Florida room. This is inside the house, you understand, moving from the porch to come deeper into the rest of the house, possibly on the way to the kitchen.
What fresh hell is this?
Oh wait, it’s a cat.
Oh cool, my father has a pet cat!
In all the time I knew him, my father had never had a cat, nor did my family ever have any pet except working breed German Shephards. Ever. He was a dog person, a big dog person, and I had never, ever pictured him having a cat. In fact, it would be safe to say that the existence of cats, while possible in theory, were not something that at the age of nine I would have been prepared to swear to in a court of law.
But here was a cat, and a fine, proud specimen of the species it was.
It poked it’s whiskers out of the fronds of the potted plants, and ventured further into the room. It’s stride was confident, moving with an oiled grace that spoke of a long heritage of jungle cats, great hunting beasts that are choosing, right at this particular moment, to refrain from eating you, but will be keeping it’s options open for later, in case he feels peckish.
This magnificent animal glided forward, following the space along the wall between my father and I, and then, just as it reached a point midway between us, it paused, and swung it’s head to meet my fathers stare, as if it felt the weight of my father’s eyes upon it.
My father, frozen as he was in the act of speaking, had remained sitting there, watching the cat. The cat, now paused mid-stride, watched him back.
They passed through this extended moment of motionless silence, as a hush fell over the house. All was still. Silent.
It was a moment straight from an old west gunfight showdown.
Standing cat and sitting man, each sized up the other. I could feel the intensity of their wills as they tried to stare the other down, each daring the other to break first, to move, and in moving, lose the true fight, the ultimate battle of the warrior spirit.
Then, the cat hissed at my dad.
With that sudden movement, the room exploded into a flurry of chaotic action.
Before the sibilant sound had barely registered on my ears, my father’s hand flashed towards the nearest table, and came up with a massive stainless steel revolver, a Ruger Redhawk chambered in .44 magnum.
The moment his hand twitched toward the table, the cat had leapt forward, making a mad dash for the far door to the kitchen.
I recoiled in stunned surprise as my father came up with the pistol in his hand, whirled, and from his seated position opened up with his hand cannon at the fleeing cat, the roars deafening my ears, muzzle flash rocking my eyes, the force of the expanding gases leaving the barrel slapping me in the chest with each devastating shot.
Six concussive bursts slapped me back in my seat, and I clearly saw the hindquarters of the fleeing feline jerk towards the wall with the force of some impact as the explosive shots blasted forth.
As the sound of the last shot rang in my ears, the wisps from the smokeless powder filled the room with their scent, and the afterimages of the muzzle flash danced in my eyes, I stopped looking in the direction of the long-departed cat and turned instead to stare at my father in complete disbelief.
He calmly put the gun back down on the table, muttering under his breath all the while. He seemed lost in his own little world. He then turned back to me, and calmly picked up his conversation from where he’d broken off.
Something from my stunned expression must have gotten through to him that, perhaps, just perhaps, what had happened might need further discussion.
My father then explained to me that there weren’t real bullets in the pistol. Oh no, it was just wax, that’s all. He said that he melted paraffin in a tray about half an inch thick, let it cool and harden, and then pushed his reshaped cartridge casings inset with primers into the wax, resulting in each casing having a half inch wax bullet, ready to be propelled by the force of the primer alone.
In other words, it’s okay that he was shooting at the cat in the house, they were just wax bullets which probably couldn’t kill it anyway.
Wax bullets that of course turned into little molten slugs of hot wax under the force of the expanding gases to get stuck in the fur wherever they hit, and possessed the same mass as they did when solid.
I think something in my expression must have gotten the idea across that I was thinking, “That’s still not fucking right.”
He explained further, as if this all made perfect sense, that the cat was his new wife Kim’s, and the cat hated him. They had a personal vendetta, one against the other, and waged it with a passion amongst the hidden battlegrounds of the home… at least, whenever wife Kim wasn’t around.
This was all related in a conspiratorial way, as though he and the cat were just playing big practical jokes on each other, aren’t we all big kidders and love good practical jokes, but there was real hatred underlying his tone of voice.
If there was a closet full of shoes, the cat would find the most expensive, comfortable pair of my father’s work shoes to pee in. If he bought a $50 roll of cured leather to work on, the cat would jump up on the workbench, get in the leather, unrolling it with his body, and then take a dump in the middle of it.
The list of imaginative attacks made by the cat upon my father was impressive, but I noted that nowhere among them could be found “Made special dad-shooting ammo and kept loaded guns around the house, just on the off chance an opportunity for a snap shot presented itself.”
I know he thought me ungrateful, but after that, the magic of the weekend with my father was somewhat lost on me.
As I said, part of his purpose was accomplished. I walked away from that weekend with a far greater understanding of exactly what kind of man my father was.
Sometimes, when looking back on my childhood, being raised by the batshit crazy one until I was old enough to recognize and resist buying into my father’s attitudes lock, stock and one smoking barrel doesn’t sound so bad after all.