The Rotten Ones

When I was four, my brothers and I were jumping from the top bunk to the bottom when, my father says, I fell sideways and cracked my head on the corner of a table, fracturing my skull. It was a hairline fracture, but I suffered mild brain damage.

That’s how I’m told: mild brain damage. My mom and dad agree on that.

In the hospital I was given Valium, but my behavior was erratic. So, unable to sedate me, they gave me more and more until eventually I overdosed and almost died.

This is how my dad tells it. It’s one of my favorite stories of his. It’s true: the Valium; my fractured skull; the brain damage. But when Dad tells it, he says I was a madman, a lunatic, that before I overdosed, they couldn’t control me. He says I was an animal, growling and biting and lashing out at the nurses—that no one would come near me; only he could hold me. When he did, I bit chunks from his arms. He says they put me in a crib with a barred top, and that it looked like a cage. When people visited, they spoke to me through bars.

My mom has no memory of the cage. She calls my dad a liar, says she was there too, that it was she who held me as they rushed me to the hospital.

But that’s what I enjoy about the story—that it’s true and untrue all at once. That I have no memory of it. That my dad makes himself a hero in it. That he can do that: change, rewrite his life the way he wants it to be—small shapings, small reaches for a different version of himself. That he could use story as a means of creation—of history or identity. That he could create a memory I’ve internalized and made true: me wild and vicious; him a hero.

I’ve found this to be precisely my father: storyteller, great reviser of the past. Always looking for a way to rewrite the story. But in the spring of ’95, when I was moving between my mom’s house in White Oak and Dad’s in Bethel Park, opposite ends of Pittsburgh, my brothers and I had somehow joined him in his work. We too had become a part of the revision.

Dad, who had been living with his girlfriend ever since he moved out of Mom’s, introduced us to her daughters.

Nikki and Melanie, he told us, were to be our sisters.

Of course, we resisted. The girls annoyed us. We thought that they were whiny and weak and that they cried over everything: a stubbed toe, a glass of Pepsi spilled on the floor. They were always too warm. Too cold. Too crowded when we moved in—too much boy in a house of girls.

I was nine when we started staying the night.

Melanie, the three-year-old, was cartoon-cute with a tiny face and giant brown eyes. She had big curly hair that bounced all over the place. My brothers and I—who were ratty, had mullets, wore black jeans and T-shirts—hated her for that cuteness.

Nikki was sportier, more tomboy. She had short, cut-off hair and was a ’90s girl, punky pissed off all the time. We were the same age, and my brothers and I would mad-dog her when Dad wasn’t around to let her know we were tough, that we weren’t taking shit. But Nikki crossed her arms and fired looks back. She wasn’t taking shit, either.

All the stance taking and glaring came to head, though, over Melanie’s coveted stuffed animal—a big blue-and-white rabbit with a mouth sewed tightly into a forever smile. It was huge, taller than any of us, and she kept it in the back room, the playroom. The rabbit used to sit up in a rocking chair, towering above us, always watching. There was something about the thing—its too-perfect, shallow eyes, its unstained fur and smug smirk. It used to piss me off.

So one day my brothers and I started kicking the shit out of it.

Chris (a year older than me) punched it in the head. Jonny (a year younger) jump-kicked its chest. Once we had it on the ground, we were going to town, punching and kicking, shouting, Damn you, rabbit, as we landed deathblows to its face and throat.

Nikki burst into the room screaming. She dove between us and the rabbit, nearly taking hits herself, yelling for us to stop.

Then she tattled. Which made us hate her too. Because Dad lined us up in the back room and spanked us in front of the girls, who watched in silent, curious horror as we took our spanks without wincing or crying.

“They’re brats,” I told Dad later, when it was just us boys. “We can’t stand them.” But he smacked me on the head, told us too bad, deal with it, Quit bein’ fuckin’ assholes. He told us to respect the girls. Don’t smart-talk or torment them.

But we thought that was bullshit. He was different with them—gentle, kind. He’d hold Melanie in his arms and smile. He’d pull Nikki close and nuzzle her hair. Whether it was genuine or some idea of a newly written version of himself—as if that’s how a father treated daughters—it was an unfamiliar part of him that made me squirmy, even jealous. The girls wanted to go to South Park on a Sunday, and to South Park we went: the seven of us walking across that sunny, fresh-cut grass together like a little family, stopping occasionally to cool off in the shade.

The girls would get excited about a slide and Dad would wait at the bottom to catch Melanie, to let her know how well she’d done. In response my brothers and I plunged backward down the slide. We did pull-ups on the swing set, threw crab apples at each other to draw blood or leave bruises.

But Dad kept his cool. He just pinched our necks, scrunched his lips, and growled into our ears to settle the fuck down.

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