A Whack on the Side of the Head

By Mike Anderson

At one minute to eight, Rich put his white styrofoam cup down. He walked to the podium, slid his fingers through his hair, and began to move papers around. For 30 seconds he frowned at one of them, while the group took their seats and quieted down. Someone’s watch beeped the hour. Rich looked at the group and spoke,

     “A man was walking down the street. He turned the corner and saw five guys, about

15 years old. They were all just standing around, smoking cigarettes. He glanced at the

first four, thought nothing of it, and kept walking. But when he saw the fifth he stopped.

He walked up to him with an angry look on his face, yanked the cigarette out of his

mouth, whacked him on the side of the head, and said, ‘What do you think you’re doing?!   Don’t be so stupid! Go home, right now!’”

     Rich paused, surveying the group again. They watched him and waited. 

     “Why did he treat that kid different from the other kids?” he asked.

     Silence. The group stared back blankly.

     “Come on now,” Rich said. “This is the part where we have lively discussion. Why did the man treat that boy like that, and leave the others alone? Any ideas?”

     One person in the group stirred. “Um,” he said. “Did he know him?”

     “Very good. Yes, he knew him. How?”

     There was a pause, then another member of the group spoke.

     “It was the man’s son,” he said.

     Rich pointed at him. “Bingo. You got it. It was his son. Okay, next question. Why did he treat his own son worse than he treated strangers?”

     More blank stares, and a few puzzled frowns. He explained further.

     “I mean he lets the other four do what they want; he doesn’t interfere. They’re happy. But with his own son… He’s mad at him, he hits him, tells him to get home. You’d think he’d treat his own son a little better.”

     “Well,” the second man ventured, “he cares about his son. Wants what’s best for him.”

     Rich pounced. “He cares about him so he gets mad at him and hits him? This is caring? The other four must’ve been pretty glad he didn’t care about them!”

     A third member joined the discussion. “His son was doing something stupid,” he said. “He was smoking. Plus it sounds like he was hanging out with a bunch of losers. So because he cares about his son he doesn’t want him hurting himself. He’s kind of rough on him because he wants to get his point across.”

     “Wait a minute,” Rich said, holding his hand up and frowning. “Are you telling me that the father’s anger was actually an expression of love?”

     “Yes.”

     “He gets mad at him.”

     “Right.”

     “Smacks him upside the head.”

     “Well, maybe he didn’t need to actually hit  him. But it wasn‘t like he punched him in the mouth–it was just a hard tap on the side of the head.”

     “Yeah, but isn’t letting someone do what they want to do more loving? Isn’t it more

loving to not  get angry, and to not  hit someone? When I see somebody get mad at somebody else, my first thought isn’t, ‘Aww, look how much he loves him.’”

     The group laughed. Rich continued.

     “It seems to me he was more loving to the four who weren’t  his sons. He let them do whatever they wanted.”

     Another member of the group chimed in. “He left them alone because he didn’t care about what they did–they weren’t his sons. He wasn’t showing them love, he was showing them…” He searched for a word.

     “Indifference,” someone finished for him.

     “Right. But because he loves his son, he gets in his face to stop him from doing something stupid. He’s kind of harsh because it’s important to him.”

     Rich’s frown remained. “So you’re telling me,” he said, “that sometimes the most loving thing you can do for someone is to get mad at them, maybe even get a little rough with them.”

     “Sometimes, yes,” the first person said.

     “To let them know how strongly you feel they’re making a mistake,” another added.

     “Then would it also follow that sometimes letting people do whatever they want, and not  getting in their way, could actually be a very unloving thing to do?” Rich asked.

     The group nodded.

     “But,” one of them added, “you can’t go around acting like a parent to the whole world, so you concentrate on those you’re close to–the people you really care about.”

     “And you hope that other people have someone like that in their life,” the second person said.

     “So if the son in this example has the eyes to see it,” Rich said, “his father’s anger and harshness is a way of saying, ‘You’re my son, my flesh and blood. I love you and care about you and I’m not going to let you mess up your life.’ It should give him… a sense of security. Is that what you’re saying?”

     “Yeah,” the group answered.

     “Do you think it did? Give him a sense of security, I mean?”

     “No. At least not right away,” one of the group answered. “It probably just made him mad or scared or something. But later on I think it would, maybe when he’s older and looks back.”

     Most of the group nodded; some looked lost in thought. Rich watched them silently for a moment.

     “Interesting,” he said. “Anger, harshness, and punishment–being a sign of love, a sign of belonging. Something to make you feel cared about and secure. I wonder if anyone’s ever looked at it that way before?”

     “I haven’t,” the first man said. “Until now.”

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

Hebrews 12

 

Michael Anderson

Copyright 2007

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Here’s a short story I wrote a couple of years ago (unpublished

of course!).  It’s the equivalent of 15 printed pages, so set aside

30 minutes or so if you’re going to read it.

                                        All the Lonely People

 

     Ron sat at the red light, trying to make it turn green by muttering, “Come on, come on.”  His fingers tapped the steering wheel with no apparent rhythm.  He checked his watch again; ten minutes to eight, and he still had at least a fifteen minute drive.  This would make the fourth time in less than two weeks that he’d be late for work.

     He tried again.  “Come on.  Come ON!”

     The red light stared at him, unblinking and unsympathetic.  His enemy.  Ron saw the lights for the cross street turn yellow, and he readied himself.

     Green!  His foot crushed the pedal to the floor without mercy and his Toyota leaped forward.  Thank God he was the first one in line.  He sped two blocks to the 4-way stop on Delaware, slowed, then made a sharp right turn and reattached his foot to the accelerator.  Again his car obeyed him like a young filly on the home stretch.  The speed limit here was 45, which meant he could get away with 50.  It was rush hour, and traffic laws were for cowards and old men. 

     Ron hugged Delaware’s curve to the left and then came very suddenly to the rear bumper of one of those old men.

     “No!”  he shouted as he hit the brakes.  The green Saturn in front of him wasn’t even doing 40, and Ron could see the wrinkled neck, white hair, and funny hat of an elderly man. 

     “Come on, buddy!”  Ron said to his windshield.  “This is rush hour!  You’re supposed to be rushing!”

     But the old man, alone in his car, continued along at 37 miles per hour, and Ron was unable to pass due to the curves and the oncoming traffic.

     “What’re you doing on the road this time of day?”  Ron asked the windshield.  “You can’t be going to work.”

     He decided to try his favorite ploy—tailgating.  But the old man didn’t seem to notice; he definitely didn’t speed up.  He just stared straight ahead, both hands on the wheel, sitting erect.  Ron sighed.

     The street straightened out.  The “No Passing” zone ended.  Ron edged over to his left and looked at the oncoming lane; there were no cars.  He hit his blinker, swerved over, and urged the Toyota forward.  It roared past the Saturn.

     Inside it, the old man was startled.  He hadn’t even noticed there was someone behind him.  He slowed and moved over to the right, giving Ron the road.  Then he glanced in his rearview mirror to see if there were any other surprises lurking behind him.  There were none.

     The old man had a name—it was Warren, although he seldom heard it spoken out loud anymore.  All the people who knew it where gone.  His brothers and sister had all been dead for more than five years.  John, his best friend for over six decades, died a little over 14 months ago. 

     And Louise, his wife of over 60 years, breathed her last exactly 5 weeks ago that day.  He had been sitting beside her bed, holding her hand, and he watched that last breath leave her frail body.  He had been sitting there looking at her for some time, seeing so much more than everyone else.

     He could still see a pretty 18 year old, who wanted to dance with every guy wearing a uniform. 

     He could see a 20 year old bride smiling nervously at him, floating down the aisle in an angelic white gown that almost glowed.

     He could see a young mother of 3, worn to a frazzle and falling asleep late at night in mid-sentence.

     He could see a middle-aged woman who was putting on weight, arguing with teenagers.

     He could see an empty-nester, hair cropped short and graying, entering the workforce for the first time in her life—part time. 

     To the nurses and the doctors she was an old woman with terminal cancer; to Warren she was a life story—someone who made fantastic Thanksgiving dinners, who—in her fifties—failed her drivers test three times before finally passing, who once saved an 8 year old boy’s life with the Heimlich Maneuver.  The hospital staff couldn’t see what he could see.

     When she died, they passed her body onto a mortician, stripped the linen, and got the room ready for someone else.  They told Warren they were so sorry, and urged him to take care of himself. 

     But Warren was like a bee caught outside the hive on a cold night, stunned and sluggish, helpless and lost.  He knew with a horrible reality that the cliché was true—part of him had died with her.

     And now here he was on a Thursday morning, going to have breakfast at Margaret’s Kitchen, just like he and Louise always did.  He was alone in the world, like the survivor of a shipwreck—sitting by himself in a bobbing lifeboat.  He kept to their traditions.  He didn’t know what else to do. 

     Yes, he drove slow—his eyesight wasn’t as good as it used to be—but he was a safe driver.  He stayed within the white lines, he read all the traffic signs, and he never sped.  He knew he didn’t have the reflexes for it.

     Warren had one daughter—Susan—who lived a half hour away from him.  His two sons both lived out of state.  Susie had two teenage boys who kept her busy, plus a part time job, plus she and her husband were seeing a marriage counselor every week.  But she still found time to call him almost daily, and help him with groceries, food preparation, and some housekeeping about once a week or so.

     His sons—Keith and Steve—each called him a couple of times a month, asked him how he was doing and talked about sports.  Warren didn’t know it, but they each sent Susie some money now and then, so they could help out in some way. 

     But for the most part, Warren was alone.  And “alone” was no longer just a word to him.  It lived, it breathed, it pulsated like a thumb struck by a hammer.  It followed him wherever he went and perched on the back of his couch, waiting silently, like a vulture.

     He sighed.

     A glance in the rearview mirror told him someone else was in a hurry to get somewhere.  The woman’s face he saw was angry and irritated, resentful at being stuck behind an on old man.  Warren pulled onto the shoulder and let her pass.

     He knew he was an old man.  When he was younger and he saw the elderly, he wondered if they realized they were becoming elderly, or if it just snuck up on them one day and scared the daylights out of them.  But he knew it.  The mirror told him every day; his body told him multiple times every day.  And people younger than him told him constantly.  Usually not with words, but with facial expressions, body language, and attitudes.

     Sometimes he would try and diffuse a situation.  He’d smile and say to a store clerk, “I’m sorry, you’ll have to say that again.  I’m pretty old and I don’t hear so good.”  Sometimes they cut him some slack, sometimes they seemed to blame him for being that age—as though he had done something wrong.

     Some days when he woke up, Warren felt like the last prisoner on death row—waiting for his execution date.  He would lie in bed for awhile, trying to think of a reason to get up.  Then he would hear Louise’s voice chiding him, “Don’t sleep your life away.”

     I’m in my eighties, Louise, he thought.  You can’t accuse me of that.

    But then he’d sit up anyway, thinking that if there was an afterlife, and if he ran into her, he didn’t want her scolding him.  He’d slide his feet out onto the carpeting, one at a time, and then perch there on the edge of his bed, taking inventory.

     Usually his back ached, and his legs felt stiff.  Sometimes he’d get a sharp pain in a hip or a knee or a shoulder, sometimes in all of them at once.  He’d grunt or groan.

     “I got more crummy joints then New York city,” he’d say.  And Louise used to reply, “Don’t go looking for sympathy.  You’re not the only old person in this house, you know.”

     Now there was only silence, and her side of the bed was empty.  He would slowly push himself up to a standing position, pause again for a moment, then shuffle off to the bathroom, his legs and arms cracking and popping like the Fourth of July.  It was another day, and it probably wouldn’t be any different from the one before it, or the one before that.

     Warren’s awareness slowly came back, and he realized he was still idling on the shoulder of the road.  The woman who had passed him was long gone, and his stomach—which didn’t care how old he was—voiced its empty displeasure at breakfast being delayed.  In the silence of his car he could hear it grumbling.

     When you’re alone, you hear more; not that you really want to.  You hear clocks ticking, your own breath whistling through your nose, laughter in the distance, the coffee maker gurgling, a car driving by, the refrigerator coming on. 

     But oh how he wished he could once again hear a familiar voice call him, “Warren.”

 

    

     If she had just said milk and bread it would’ve been easy.  But she very specifically said, “Two half gallons of 2% and one loaf of wheat bread.”  It was the specificity that scared him—get it wrong and you’re the butt of jokes for days.  “Honestly Marc, you’re worse than a kid.  Why didn’t you just write it down?”  The last three words emphasized as though he were simple-minded. 

     But Marc was pretty sure he had it right.  Two 2%’s—that was easy to remember.  And half gallons.

     “That’s the size we usually get, right?” he had asked.

     “That’s the size that says ‘One half gallon’ on it,” she had helpfully replied.

     Wheat bread he knew was a light tan, not white or dark brown, so he’d just look for the color.  He couldn’t go wrong.

     With his prizes in hand, Marc got in the checkout line.  His watch told him he had just enough time to get home, change, and hustle over to Dillon’s soccer game.  There was only one woman in front of him and she only had a few things.

     Tawnesha put her bag of apples, jug of milk, and box of cereal on the conveyor, and glanced absentmindedly at Marc.  She sighed.  The plastic gallon container seemed heavier than usual.  Look at the bright side, Tawny, she said to herself.  Maybe you’re getting more milk for your money.

     But she knew the reason.  Four weeks of chemo and radiation can take a lot out of you.  Her arms had no strength, and she was always tired.  Getting out to buy some food had been a major undertaking; she argued with herself that she wasn’t hungry anyway, so why get up off the couch?

     But here she was.  She had first made herself sit up.  One step at a time, she thought.  I can quit anytime I want.  Then she got to her feet and walked into the kitchen, stopping to lean on the table for a few minutes.  Fortunately her purse was on the counter and not in the bedroom.  She snared the handle with her thumb, went to the door, and slid her feet into her sandals.

     She was out of her apartment and going down the stairs before she wondered how she looked.  That made her pause for a moment, but the idea of going back upstairs, changing, and returning to this same spot, was too much for her. 

     “Forget it,” she said out loud, and continued walking down the steps.  Nobody gonna look at me anyway, she added silently.

     Tawny got in her car, sat down, and closed the door.  She could’ve remained there—staring at the dirty windshield—for a long time, but it was so hot inside.  She sighed, started the engine, and drove off. 

     She almost wished Rupert was still with her; at least she might have been able to talk him into running an errand now and then, or putting some frozen food in the micro.  But Rupert had left as soon as he found out about her and David.  And David had left after he met Sheila.  Now she was alone.

     Alone.  Tawny had never realized before what a terrifying word that was.  Nor what real loneliness was like.  After Rupert left he hooked up with her best friend Shana and filed for divorce.  After David left she was diagnosed with cancer, and wasn’t too interested in starting another relationship.  Mom was a thousand miles away in a tiny apartment, drinking herself insane.  She had no idea where her dad was.  Her brother Michael was in prison, and her sister Chanelle somewhere in L.A. doing something that wasn’t totally legal. 

     She had no children.  She and Rupert were pregnant once, but he made her get an abortion.  He thought a baby would slow them down too much.  After that she wasn’t able to get pregnant again. 

     Sometimes, in the middle of the night or late in the afternoon, when she was in bed or on the couch—feeling so sick and so tired, she wondered how—in a world with billions of people—she could be so completely alone.

     It was cancer of the pancreas.  Inoperable.  With aggressive treatment she might be able to live two years or so.  The oncologist urged her to do it, since she was only 31.

     Her hair was starting to fall out, and pounds of flesh were melting off her body—leaving her skin hanging loosely from her frame.  She knew she looked terrible, but half the time she felt so lousy that she didn’t care.  The other half she did care but didn’t have the energy to do anything about it.

     “Thank you, have a good night,” the cashier said automatically, without eye contact.

     Tawny smiled wearily.  “Thanks.  You too,” she said, but the cashier was already greeting Marc.

     Tawny put the food in the bag, then put the bag in the cart.  Carrying the bag out to the car herself seemed like an impossible task.  It was easier to just push the cart.

     With the groceries on the seat beside her and the cart dutifully returned to the “cart corral,” Tawny sat behind the wheel and looked back at the store.  She realized that the brief, somewhat impersonal exchange she just had with the cashier was the first conversation she’d had with anyone in more than two days.  It made her hungry for a little more. 

     She drove back to her apartment and climbed the steps—one arm wrapped around her brown sack, the other gripping the railing.  She could feel the cold gallon of milk against her forearm.  The top of the steps provided a spot to stop and rest.  She needed it.

     Tawny was hoping she’d see a neighbor, someone she could say, “Hi, how you doin’?” to.  But no one was in sight.  Walking down the hallway on her floor, each numbered door had its own private world behind it.

     There was a couple arguing about money, a TV blaring an episode of “Seinfeld,” and the smooth saxophone of Kenny G.  The one right next to hers had a small child whining about something. 

     She put the key in the lock and opened her door.  Stepping inside into an aching silence, she closed the door and leaned against it.

     “Please, God,” she whispered, “just let me talk to someone.  Just for five minutes.”

     She was not an outgoing person, so the thought crept into her head, Okay, but you might have to be the one to start the conversation.

     She nodded, her eyes closed.  “I will,” she whispered.

 

    

     Rachel walked into the lobby of the office building where she worked, fresh off a fun weekend.  Out Friday night with Tina, Liz, and Sara; shopping for a new outfit with Tina on Saturday afternoon; out for dinner and dancing with Ryan Saturday night, and a lazy Sunday that started with an indulgence of fresh doughnuts.

     The elevator doors opened and she crowded in with about six other people.  She pressed her floor and sighed inwardly.  Is there anything more depressing than Monday morning? she wondered. 

     She had no way of knowing that Scott, right behind her, had started his Monday by staring at himself in the mirror and saying, “If no one talks to me today I’m going to kill myself.”

     Rachel didn’t know Scott; they worked on different floors.  She saw him in the halls or elevator a few times a week, but never spoke with him, never even gave him a second look.

     She was 25, slim and pretty, with an active social life.  Scott was ten days away from 31, overweight, receding hairline, and very shy.  He had had one girlfriend, back in high school.  It had lasted four months.  Now the few friends that he had left in the area were married and having kids.  Their lives were changing and his wasn’t changing along with them—which left him alone, and terrified that he always would be.

     The door opened on his floor and he got out.  A few people said good morning to him, but that didn’t rescue him from his suicide pledge.  He had meant more than people just saying hi, he meant a conversation, a real connection with someone else.

     His life consisted of “Morning Scott,” “Where you going for lunch?”  “See you tomorrow.”  On Friday they always added, “Big weekend plans?”  A question he hated, since he never had any.

     Once, to his shock, a co-worker invited Scott to a party at his place on Saturday night.  He said yes, tried to act casual, and got directions.  He went out on Friday night and bought a new shirt.  He had trouble sleeping that night, because he kept imagining conversations and trying to think of clever and cool things to say.

     By Saturday afternoon he was having second thoughts.  What if no one else from work is there?  What if I make a fool of myself?  He tried on his new shirt again and looked in the mirror.  The night before it had looked good, now he wondered if he looked pretentious—the fat loser trying to appear hip and worldly. 

     By 6 PM he was feeling something close to terror.  What if there’s nothing but sexy, experienced girls there?  I don’t know how to talk to them; they’ll see right through me!  If they look at me at all.

     By 7 PM he had decided it was too risky.  Sitting alone in the middle of a party, surrounded by people who couldn’t care less about him, would be worse than his usual Saturday night routine.

     By 8 PM he had rented a DVD, picked up a couple of slices of French silk pie, and was driving back to his apartment.  He was wearing an old Notre Dame sweatshirt.

     The host of the party didn’t even say anything about it back at work on Monday.  It was as though he hadn’t noticed.  Scott’s carefully thought-out excuses were unused and discarded, like unread newspaper articles shredded and sitting on the bottom of a birdcage.

     He slid into his cubicle and logged on to his computer.  The planner on his desk told him there was a team meeting at nine.  He could hear others around him talking and laughing about their weekend.

     “I must’ve had fun,” Gina said, “I can’t remember anything.”

     “A bunch of us went over to Mike’s yesterday to watch the game,” Sean said, “and Tamara brought her old roommate from college.  Wow.”

     “I did it, guys,” Tony announced.  “I signed the papers and closed the deal.  This is what I will be driving to work on Thursday.”  He held up a glossy car brochure and soaked up everyone’s gasps.

     Scott checked his email and printed off the agenda for the nine o’clock meeting.  He walked up to the printer but Gina got there a half a second ahead of him.

     “Whoops, excuse me Dave,” she said with an artificial smile.  He didn’t bother to correct her. 

     She took a few sheets of paper off the printer tray, checked them to make sure they were hers, then walked quickly away.  Scott was left standing in an invisible cloud of her perfume.

     At ten twenty, after his team meeting had ended, Scott went into the break room for a cup of coffee.  Sean and Tony were sitting at the table talking baseball.

     “What I don’t like about Warner,” Tony said, “is after he let’s a couple of guys get on base, he falls apart.  He can’t concentrate on the next batter.  Give me Hernandez any day.  He’s not flashy but he gets the job done.”

     “Yeah, but he loses as many as he wins,” Sean said.  “He’s only got two pitches—a fastball and a curve, and if his team’s not hitting then he’s sunk.  He can never win a pitcher’s dual.”  He turned to look at Scott.  “You like baseball, Scott?”

     Scott smiled indulgently and shook his head.  “No,” he said.  “Too slow.  I like football or hockey better.”

     Sean said, “Hmm,” then he and Tony fell awkwardly silent.  Scott realized he had blown it.  It was baseball season, the local team was doing well, it was the topic of conversation, and he had just shut it down.  He quickly tried to think of something to say.

     “Well anyway,” Tony said to Sean, “they’ve got the hitting this year, and I think it’s making Hernandez look pretty good.”

     Way to go, Scott, he said to himself as he turned and walked out of the room.  Someone finally does try to talk to you and you totally screw it up.  What a dork.    

     He drifted through the rest of the day, working on auto pilot, remembering his promise to himself from that morning.  He already had it all planned out.

     The sleeping pills were easy.  He’d had a bad back for a few years, so all he had to do was tell his doctor he was having trouble sleeping and out came the prescription pad.  He didn’t actually take any of the pills, and after a few months he got the prescription “refilled.”  Now two full bottles sat in his medicine cabinet, just waiting for him.  He would put on some music he liked, take the pills with some wine, and go to sleep.  It was so easy.

     At four thirty Scott printed out some spreadsheets for a project he had been working on.  He placed them on his desk and wrote a note explaining what was left to do.  Next to his keyboard he left another note with all of his passwords, so access to his computer wouldn’t be difficult.  Then he got up, pushed his chair in, and walked away.  No last look around.

     On the way home he glanced at the gas gauge.  It was under a quarter of a tank.  I should fill up, he thought absentmindedly.  Then he remembered, and smiled.

     He parked in his lot and walked through the front door of his apartment building.  He started to bypass the mailboxes, then changed his mind and stopped to pick up whatever he had.  Bills and junk mail.

     While Scott was looking through the envelopes, Tawny came down to get her mail.  She had just finished throwing up, and felt totally wrung out, but here was another human being in front of her—another chance for contact.

     Although he wasn’t even looking at her, Tawny mustered the strength to put a smile on her face.

     “How was your day?”  She asked him.

     It took a moment for Scott to realize she was talking to him.  Then he looked up at her, startled. 

     “Me?”  He asked.

     “Yeah,” she said, forcing a cheerful tone and unlocking her mailbox.  “I just asked how your day was.”

     He stared at her for a moment, a hundred thoughts racing through his mind.  Then he slowly smiled back and shrugged.

     “Not too bad really,” he said.  “How about yours?”

     She pulled her mail out and shut the door.  “Well, I’ve had better,” she said.

     Scott unlocked the security door and held it opened for her.  “It sounds like there’s a story behind that.”

     She waved her hand.  “Yeah, but it’s a long one.  You don’t want to hear about that.”

     “Try me.  I’m a great listener.”

     The door closed and latched as Scott and Tawny walked up the stairs together, talking.

 

The end

 

Michael Anderson

Copyright 2005