Vincent Czyz | Longreads | June 2018 | 21 minutes (5,418 words)
I was born into Cold War America, 1963: Brezhnev, the Kremlin, the KGB, ICBMs, the Warsaw Pact. My father was a hard-line Republican, a Rough Rider looking for his Roosevelt. Reentry vehicles, NATO, first-strike capability, limited strike, and hardened silos were all part of my vocabulary by the time I was 12. He dismissed with contempt liberals who wanted to cut the defense budget and showed me bar graphs comparing U.S. and Soviet military hardware. The red bars representing Soviet numbers always towered alarmingly over the blue ones, except when it came to helicopters; the United States had a lot of those.
The stalemate between the superpowers has been over for a long time, but every now and then I still catch some of the fallout. While making a furniture run, for example, with a friend — Danny had mothballed a bedroom set at his mother’s house and needed a hand getting it into his truck. We went to the front porch in jeans, construction boots, jackets. It was a chilly March afternoon. He rang the bell.
Danny’s mother, a small Korean woman, opened the door. She gasped when she saw me, then covered her mouth. I almost stepped back, wondering what I’d done wrong.
Mrs. Lo Cascio lowered her hands. “You look just like your father!”
From his early 20s on, my father had had a mustache, and this was the first time Mrs. Lo Cascio had seen me with a beard. Her reaction was a rerun of an incident at my father’s wake in June 1983, a couple of weeks before I turned 20. Uncle Eddy, an adopted member of the family, put a hand on my shoulder and squeezed. “You’re the ghost of your father when he was 17.” As often happens at funerals, his face performed a high-wire act between smiling and crying.
In the early ’60s my father had been a typical Orange badass. He had two tattoos, both on his upper arms, one of which was a dagger dripping blood. The blade, running with red, was supposed to be intimidating, but it had been inked by a drunken artist, and no one could ever figure out what it was at first glance. Growing up, I had always thought it was a ballerina and saw the drops of blood at the dagger’s tip as her slippered feet. The other tattoo was a skull wearing a top hat and smoking a cigarette. Under the skull was a huge 13 in red numerals. The 1 looked like a peg leg and the 3 like a curlicued leg. The 13, he told my mother — he rarely told us anything — was there because Italians considered 13 lucky (he was half Italian, half Polish). Having looked into occult practices and dismissed them as twaddle, he was also well aware that 13 is the number of the death card in the Tarot deck: The tattoo was his fuck you to fate.
He had been born — as had my mother, my brothers, and I — in Orange, a small city in New Jersey. In the mid-1990s, the annual murder rate in Orange surpassed the yearly body count in South-Central Los Angeles, the drive-by capital of the country. Orange had been settled by Italian immigrants at the turn of the 19th century, but it also had a large black population. There was enough tension between the black and white communities — and enough poverty all around — to guarantee high school brawls, gangs, and street prestige for the boys hardest of fist — and heart.
One of my father’s notable achievements while growing up in the ’50s was getting thrown out of Catholic school for carrying a switchblade. When a priest confronted him in the boys’ room and asked for the knife, my father flicked the blade open and said, “Take it.”
The priest made the right call — to the police.
“I swear to God,” Paulie Leonardo told me, “your father could grow a full beard at the age of thirteen.” At 13, the lump in my father’s trousers wasn’t hormones kicking in; he carried a gun to work. He was a shylo for neighborhood racketeers. Paulie went with him once and watched my father — even then Dad wore a black motorcycle jacket and cigarette packs rolled in his T-shirt sleeves — wring $30 from a man desperate to avoid being pistol-whipped or shot by an eighth grader. “Don’t make me do somethin’ I don’t wanna do,” my father told him, a line made famous by film.
By the time he was 15, Dad had become adept at stealing cars. He and three of his friends boosted a 1958 Buick Skylark from a country club parking lot. An immaculate white convertible — the BMW of its day — and well out of the reach of a pack of teenage Orange toughs. They paraded themselves through town in it and took turns driving. When Pedro got behind the wheel, my father warned him not to go through West Orange. Pedro didn’t listen, and within minutes of crossing the border, cops pulled them over. My father was the only one who got shipped off to juvie because he had a loaded .38-caliber revolver in his pocket and insisted no one else in the car knew anything about it. The judge also didn’t appreciate the fact that my father had been to court before.
In the early ’60s my father had been a typical Orange, NJ badass. He had two tattoos, both on his upper arms, one of which was a dagger dripping blood.
We have a black-and-white photo of him in Jamesburg State Home for Boys, a snapshot curling at the edges. (Rubin Carter had escaped from Jamesburg about five years earlier, well before earning his nickname “Hurricane”). Dad is puffing out his chest and flexing his biceps in competition with a blond inmate. The blond has a little more definition, but my father is the bulkier of the two. In between them is a kid laughing because he’s not in the running — arms like flamingo legs, a flabby waist as wide as his shoulders, the face of a 12-year-old. My father looks to be 19 or 20, but he wasn’t yet 16. Handsome and charismatic, he bore an uncanny likeness to the young Tyrone Power. His hair was black, but his pale skin, inherited from his Polish father, never tanned.
I knew almost none of my father’s past until long after his death. He was fiercely private and not proud of what he’d done as a boy living below the poverty line and being raised by his widowed mother. He was vocal about politics though. Thanks to his patient lectures and the occasional conservative rant, the Cold War was as much a part of my childhood as wiffle ball or Iron Man comics.
When I was 9 he moved us to the small town of Wanaque, about 30 miles from Orange. He wore three-piece suits to work, where he sold ads for the Yellow Pages. Outside of his job, he didn’t have much fashion sense. On summer weekends he would pair Bermuda shorts with colored socks and white sneakers. Aside from his tattoos and some vague stories about juvie, which he always called jail, I knew nothing about him except that he had grown up without a father. Thomas Czyz, my grandfather, had died of a heart embolism two months before my father turned 3. The only memory my father had of his father was of being held in one arm while Grandpa Thomas shaved with the other.
My father was only 5’7”, but he was solidly built, and people always remembered him as being much taller. His most striking features were his green eyes; they smoldered like hot jade when he was enraged. A look was enough to strike us near-catatonic. I later saw grown men — some far larger than he — devolve into jellyfish when confronted with that look. He once left the three of us in the car as he jumped out at a red light to lean through the open window of another car, across a passenger, to get at a driver who had pissed him off. I still remember the passenger: a hippie with long hair who flattened himself against the car seat and put his hands up like a parody of a man being robbed, an expression of terror pincering his face. All that was visible of my father to me were his legs and part of his lower back. I watched as his sweater jerked up in increments until it was pulled over his head and he was in a T-shirt. He backed out of the window, and his sweater flew out after him as the other car sped away. Dad got back in our car, and my brother Bobby asked him a question I didn’t quite catch, but I’ll never forget the reply: “No, but I got a piece of his ear.”
My father hit all of us, sometimes forcing my mother to make a trip to the doctor’s office to see about the extent of her injuries (lying, of course, about how she had gotten them). Twice he had Mom come to our grammar school in East Orange and pull us out of class early because he couldn’t contain his rage until we got home. The five-minute car ride was almost as hellish as what we knew was waiting for us.
The beatings started when I was 3 and ended when I was about 18 — usually with a belt, which once in a while he sent one of us to pick out from an assortment hanging in a closet. We quickly learned that wide ones, despite their impressive look, didn’t hurt as much as thin ones. I was never hit with a closed fist although I was sometimes whacked with whatever was handy — a pair of encyclopedias once.
My older brother wasn’t so lucky. One night he borrowed Dad’s car, a Ford Custom 500, and didn’t come home. Dad sat in the kitchen waiting for him. He jumped up when he heard a key in the lock, and there stood my brother, his T-shirt covered in dried blood.
“Where’s the car!” Robert, Sr., bellowed.
The Custom 500 was totaled. Bobby had fallen asleep at the wheel, crashed into a tree, and broken his nose on the steering wheel.
Dad cracked Bobby in the jaw with a right hand that knocked him over the couch in the living room. Dad ran to him, pulled him to his feet, and asked if he was all right. Bobby nodded — and got hit with a left hook.
We didn’t realize, at least until high school, that other fathers were any different. I remember watching a TV show called Wonderama, hosted by Bob McAllister, when I was about 8. One morning McAllister had kids reading essays about what made their fathers the best. I remember thinking, My father is the best. Dad had a policy of letting us loose outside to do whatever we wanted so long as it wasn’t “dangerous.” That felt like freedom to me. The beatings didn’t even factor into my thinking. We assumed all kids got horrific beatings from their parents. (I once let a neighbor pound my ass with an open hand — I was about 6 and she was furious I’d stepped in her garden — because I thought any adult had the right to hit me.) Even when my brothers and I were adolescents, we had no real perspective. If someone’s father seemed a little too nice, we’d dismiss him as soft, worthless in a fight, and we’d congratulate each other on having grown up tough.
Years after my father’s death I realized why these beatings were so damaging, and it wasn’t the physical pain or the welts: When he was hitting me, I could see that he was determined to hurt me. I could never reconcile the man who said he loved my brothers and me “more than anything in the world” with the man who was so enraged he wouldn’t let anything stop him from putting me through a few minutes of purgatory.
As a child, I was quiet and withdrawn. I was so silent that my mother sometimes had to peek into the room to make sure I was still there. I liked to read and take apart my toys. I was expert at amusing myself.
Bobby, the firstborn, is a year older than I am. As a toddler he was loud, assertive, talkative; everyone thought he’d grow up to be a lawyer. He enjoyed finding ways to fuck up my day. Exceptionally bright, he feared very little other than our father, Robert, Sr., who doted on him. Ironically, Bobby — with blue eyes, sandy hair, and looks that are more Polish than Italian — didn’t resemble him at all; I did. And as I got older, I came to look uncannily like him. My mother insists that was part of the problem.
“He didn’t like you because he couldn’t stand looking at himself,” she once told me. “He never let it show, but he was very insecure. You reminded him of his insecurities.”
On holidays or during family get-togethers after he was dead, we’d all tell Dad stories. I’d get a little irritated because, bad as he could be, they made him worse. I tried to counter the demonizing — how much rage would I have inside if I had gotten married at 17 because the other option was jail (Mom was already pregnant with Bobby)? If I had had three kids by age 21, no shot at college, and a job selling magazines? What kind of father would I have been if my first child had been born five days before my 18th birthday?
But there was one thing I couldn’t forgive: For reasons I never understood, he ignored me. One exemplary incident that still upsets my mother but which I barely remember happened when I was 4. My father was talking to Bobby in the bedroom he shared with my mother, and I wandered in. My father glared at me and said, “Get out.” I retreated and waited near the bedroom door in my pajamas, but when my father came out, he brushed past me. My mother, trying to fill in for him, asked me what I wanted. I turned my back to her and went to my room.
I tried tricking him into talking to me. He was a gun enthusiast. If one of his guns was in pieces on the kitchen table, a fairly common occurrence, I would ask “What kind of gun is that?” or “What kind of ammunition does it shoot?” Sometimes he went on working as if I weren’t in the room. Sometimes he would give me a one- or two-word answer without looking up.
I spent a lot of my childhood doing things like that or coming up with ways to please him, but the frost on the window through which my father and I looked at each other had already begun to form.
Nothing changed in high school. I had 67 wrestling matches; he missed 65. I graduated second in a high school class of about 330 and was one of two students who gave a speech; he didn’t show up.
Flat-out hating him would have been a lot easier. Unfortunately, my father had a lot to admire in him. He had a strong sense of fairness, and like other street survivors, a strict code. He taught us all how to defend ourselves but commanded us — on pain of an ass kicking — never to start a fight. Ironically, nothing was more important to my father than his family, and in the family, as he often reminded us, nothing was more important than his children. He told us all many times, without bashfulness, that he loved us. Yes, he dealt us psychology-warping beatings, but he was also incredibly protective and would never let anyone else bully us. He gave me and my brothers numerous pep talks, always encouraging us to believe in ourselves. He never found fault with us when we failed or lost as long as we hadn’t half-assed it — “Just do your best” was one of his mantras. He loved to tell jokes. Nothing upset him when he was drunk, and we encouraged him as stealthily as we could to knock back another.
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He cued up country western singers as often as Italian crooners like Sergio Franchi, Jerry Vale, and Al Martino. He sang along sometimes while combing his mustache in the bathroom mirror. He wasn’t much of a racist and didn’t understand why the guys he’d grown up with couldn’t get along with blacks. His favorite comedian was Richard Pryor. He particularly enjoyed when Pryor lampooned whites as overly polite and pathetically unassertive. Dad also volubly lamented the tragedies of Native Americans. After a road trip to Arizona when I was 17, he covered half a kitchen wall with photos of tribal chiefs and warriors, leaving Mom a bit befuddled by the black-and-white portraits of all these dead strangers watching her cook.
Because nothing impressed him more than bravery and loyalty, he was a great admirer of Japanese culture, of the samurai and their warrior’s credo, of Toshiro Mifune’s films under Akira Kurosawa’s direction. He himself was an intensely loyal friend. He would have been perfectly at home in ancient Sparta (we could each pronounce Thermopylae by the time we were 7), and believed sons were lumps of steel that needed to be “tempered.” A newspaper quoted him on this after my brother became a well-known amateur boxer.
I later saw grown men — some far larger than he — devolve into jellyfish when confronted with that look. He once left the three of us in the car as he jumped out at a red light to lean through the open window of another car, across a passenger, to get at a driver who had pissed him off.
When I was 14, the boxing club my brothers and I belonged to had a rather grand awards dinner. (Bobby went on to win world titles in two weight classes. Weirdly enough, his trainer, Tommy Parks, who had also been Rubin “Hurricane” Carter’s trainer and a corrections officer at Jamesburg, recognized my father from his stint in juvie.) About half a dozen trophies were handed out toward the end of the night, each with three marble tiers and a golden boxer at the top. Standing at least three feet tall, these were not the plastic knock-offs towns hand out nowadays. My brothers each carried one home that night. I strained forward every time a name was announced, but mine was never called.
A week later my father came home from work with a huge trophy identical to the ones given out at the club — except for the name engraved on the brass plate. I couldn’t tell him he’d actually succeeded in making me feel worse: My brothers had earned theirs; I hadn’t. I hugged him, accepted the trophy, and pretended for as long as he was alive that I had won it. Shortly after he died, we moved into a new house. I left the trophy in the garage of the old one.
By the time I was a senior in high school, Bobby’s career, for which he’d blown off an appointment to West Point, had already been underway for a year. I was offered nothing so glorious, just a half-scholarship from Seton Hall University. But Seton Hall is in South Orange, which would have been a reasonable commute from where we lived in Wanaque. I was 17 and desperate to get away from my father, so I accepted an offer — no money involved — from Rutgers, New Brunswick, an hour away. My father was furious. Weeks later, when he was angry about something else entirely, he shouted, “I knew you didn’t love me when you decided to go away to college!”
I had to call him every day from the pay phone at the end of the hall in the dorm. In two years I only missed twice. When I missed the first time, he roared into the receiver until a couple of students came out of their rooms. After I had hung up, somebody asked, “Was that your father?”
I came home on weekends, another condition of going to school in New Brunswick. My father would ask me the usual parental questions — How do you like your classes? How are your grades? I ignored him if at all possible. At best I was curt. I answered without looking up from my homework or the book I was reading.
I spent a lot of time in the weight room at Rutgers, a habit I had picked up from wrestling and didn’t plan to give up since I was 5’6” and weighed 148 pounds. Still, I was old enough and large enough (just barely), confident enough (in a deluded sort of way), had enough repressed resentment (my core was smoldering), and there was just enough of a hint of mutually assured destruction between the two of us to turn our war cold. If I had had to go toe to toe with my dad, he would have gone through me like a wrecking ball, but I was no longer willing to be a passive target.
Although my father had an IQ of around 140, he never graduated from high school. Already married with child, he had to drop out and find work, settling for a GED instead of a cap and gown and diploma. After he died, I went through his books, which had always been forbidden to us, and was amazed to see, alongside works by Plato and Aristotle, volumes by Nietzsche, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Confucius, Lao Tzu, and plenty of other philosophical and religious tracts, including the Qur’an.
Still later, Bobby told me that he and Dad had had a couple of lengthy philosophical discussions, about Nietzsche in particular. This left my father’s handprint, metaphorically speaking, on my flushed face. Bobby has read five or six books as an adult, never went past high school — despite graduating around seventh in his class — and never had any interest in academics. I, on the other hand, was mostly intellectual appetite with a little wrestling thrown in. I took college courses in philosophy, political science, and religion, building a mini library dedicated to these disciplines. I was as desperately seeking a guiding principle as — guessing from his bookcase — my father had been, but he never said a word to me about a single philosopher or any of the books he’d read.
Without knowing any of this, I began finding ways to piss him off, careful not to do anything that I couldn’t claim had been accidental or for which he could justify a first strike. One of my favorite tactics was to make him feel uneducated. I once savagely corrected him about how commercial fruit is ripened (I had just learned this in biology class) and even threw in the term gibberellic acid, a plant hormone, to sound more authoritative. I shut him up and luxuriated in my petty victory, spreading myself out in the back seat of our Chevy Caprice as though it were bathwater. All the better my mom was sitting up front and heard the exchange.
I attacked him when he said Rothschild was a Jewish name. “It’s French,” I announced, and pronounced it with a French accent — Roth-sheeld — and even though he was right, I shut him up because he didn’t know a word of French. I was happy when I had upset him, when I fucked up his morning or evening or afternoon.
I stopped smiling around him. Not consciously. But it was so noticeable, he demanded to know why. I shrugged. When he pressed me, I said, “I don’t feel like it.” Not realizing how blunt I was being, he took it for a flip remark and snapped, “Your life is so bad you can’t smile?” I glared at him. “I didn’t say my life was bad.” He bitched a little more and we stalemated there. In retrospect I guess he wanted me to be the excited 7-year-old who couldn’t wait for him to come home from work, who used to sit on the slate stairs outside our house in East Orange watching for his car, who turned boyishly manic over just being in the same room with him. The truth, which he never knew, is that by the time I was about 11, nothing depressed me or my brothers more than walking home from school and seeing his car in front of the house on those odd days when he left the office early. The first thing we did when we came over the hill that led to our street was look for his car. And if it wasn’t there, we did a little end zone dance. Usually in our heads but sometimes actually skipping or leapfrogging over sidewalk squares.
Another habit I took up: Every time I got a good grade on an English paper, I brought it to him. One time the professor photocopied my paper and handed it out to the class, minus my name, as an exemplary essay. This was my Cold War way of saying, I don’t want to be a lawyer. He had grown up in poverty and refused to accept the idea of me as a high school teacher or a struggling writer. In fact, he didn’t just want me to be a lawyer; he sat me down my freshman year at Rutgers and forced me to promise I would be a lawyer.
One weekend when I was home from school, we got into an argument. I don’t remember what it was about. He was on the couch in the living room watching TV, and I was in the kitchen, but there was no wall between the two rooms to impede our verbal slash-and-parry. Whatever I said, it infuriated him, and he trotted out the overworn threat of kicking me “the fuck out of the house.” I stopped what I was doing in the kitchen — making a tuna fish sandwich — and stared at him so icily he leapt off the couch, hugged me, and said he hadn’t meant it. I accepted his apology with nods and a few syllables. I feigned truce, but I knew that I was winning. I almost smiled.
I began finding ways to piss him off, careful not to do anything that I couldn’t claim had been accidental or for which he could justify a first strike. One of my favorite tactics was to make him feel uneducated.
I woke up Sunday, June 12, 1983, and he was dead. There had been no warning. He had died in an early-morning gun accident at the age of 39. I’m now 16 years older than he lived to be. I had no chance to say goodbye, no chance to explain myself. While my stratagems were deliberate, the motivation behind them had been unconscious. Only after years of reflection, memory-sifting, and late-night rap sessions with my mother did I realize I was paying him back for some of the miseries he’d visited on my childhood.
In my most persistent fantasy, my father and I sit down in a quiet bar and have a beer and talk to each other — not like father and boy, like men. (Pure fantasy not only because he is dead, but because he had forbidden us to drink — “I don’t give a fuck how old you are.”) The jukebox plays George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone,” and I kid him that George wrote it with him in mind. Or maybe Skynyrd’s “Gimme Three Steps,” so much his sense of humor he could have coauthored it. We enjoy our beers and take a few knickknacks down off the shelf of the past: “Remember the time when …” We laugh at stupid shit. Then we talk about the mistakes he made; I cop to the mistakes I made. We are honest with each other. He doesn’t lose his temper, sledgehammer the table with a fist, or wield his voice as though swinging a length of lumber. He has respect for the things I say, for the choices I’ve made, for the way I handle myself. We reach an understanding.
Daydreams, however, are even flimsier than nocturnal ones. My father died when I was still angry with him, and there was no way for us to evolve into the father and son we should have been. All I could do was try to find out who he had been and pay some kind of tribute — not to him (an essay like this, exposing so much, would have incensed him) but to the truth. Not mine, not his, ours.
Our reunion, 30 years after we’d graduated from high school, took Danny and me right through our childhood — woodsy Wanaque, where the trinity closest to the holy one was composed of hunting, fishing, and football. I had not been much at ease in a high school dominated by sportsmen and football players, but at the reunion Danny and I had a great time going table to table in our suits and ties, reconnecting with old classmates, dancing, and filling in decades’ worth of blanks.
At one point the music stopped, and our former principal took the microphone, but we were all so reluctant to slow the good-time momentum, he had to ask an embarrassing number of times for quiet. After a few salutary remarks, he read off the names of classmates and teachers who couldn’t be with us — ever again.
The roll call of the dead reminded me. Of Uncle Eddy, whose chain-smoking had caught up with him in Florida. Of Mike Calzone, who, upon hearing of my father’s death, had wept in front of the other inmates in Fort Dix’s federal prison and died of cancer not long after getting out. Plenty of others had gone on trips without return tickets, and I couldn’t keep waiting.
Bobby told me a bunch of my father’s friends still met every Thursday in John’s Market, a deli on South Essex Street in Orange about two blocks from the first house my father had lived in. It was here that Paulie Leonardo had narrated the story of going with my father on a collection run for a shylo while we sat at a cafeteria-style table of gumbas all trying to talk over one another. (The line Paulie repeated to me, the one my father had used on his mark — “Don’t make me do somethin’ I don’t wanna do” — was haunting; after a beating we’d often get a couple of extra whacks, and those, my father told us, were for “making” him hit us.)
After high school, which Paulie didn’t finish either, he planned to apply to “beauty school.” The snag was that to enter a vocational school you needed a high school diploma or a GED, and Paulie didn’t want to take the test. “I didn’t need to,” he told me, “I had your father.” Dad used Paulie’s driver’s license for ID; there were no photos on Jersey licenses in those days.
“Your father got a hundred!” Paulie howled.
Dad’s score didn’t surprise me. What made my spine hum like a tuning fork was the fact that back in the mid-’90s I had done exactly the same thing. I bartended a few nights a week at Old Henry’s Inn, two blocks from John’s Market, and about five doors down from the house my father had first lived in. Tony Pagano, a regular at Old Henry’s, had one dream in life: to be a firefighter in Orange. But for that he needed a high school diploma, which he didn’t have, and he had already failed the GED test. He asked me if I would take it for him. Tony was a landscaper, supported his mother, and was probably the politest customer I had in the bar. He was an incredibly decent guy who I had no doubt would risk his life to save the lives of others.
Tony gave me his birth certificate and Social Security card. I went to the DMV, got a license with his name and my picture on it, and passed the test for him. It was a weird echo in my life of something from my father’s that became semi-sacred almost as soon as I heard it.
Talking to my father’s friends in a noisy deli wasn’t closure; it was opening. It wasn’t the Berlin Wall coming down; it was more like poking a couple of peepholes in it. I was finally having a dialogue, not with my father but with something like the ghost of how his friends remembered him. It didn’t bring him back. It wasn’t downing beers with him in Old Henry’s. It didn’t earn his respect. But it was all I was going to get. Nobody won.
Vincent Czyz is the author of The Christos Mosaic, a high-brow thriller, and Adrift in a Vanishing City, a collection of short fiction for which he received the 2016 Eric Hoffer Award for Best in Small Press. His essays and stories have been published in numerous magazines, including Shenandoah, New England Review, AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, Tampa Review, Georgetown Review, Boston Review, and Quiddity.
Editor: Sari Botton