When I was young, my old man told me we were all animals. He told me this often as I sat on green carpeted floors and thought about the pig rooting around in the mud and the grizzly pawing at the tree and the antelope grazing in the fields and the lions with their awful roars and the ant building its intricate hill.
When I was a kid, my old man worked as a C.O. in a prison the next town over. Day in and day out he ate shit from over a thousand inmates. Day in and day out he heard people shout out things like “Fuck you, you fat piece of shit!” and smiled and broke up their fights and watched them eat and lift weights and play basketball and he never wished ill on anybody.
The other guards respected him. They wondered how he did it—how he didn’t break every once in a while and crack an inmate over the head with his baton or yell insults back at them or try to make their lives a living hell like they did. They invited him to barbeques and gave him plaques and raised his pay and clapped him on the back when he would arrive in the mornings and leave at night.
But when my old man came home from work things were different. He would eviscerate my mother for inane offenses, like our dinner being from the frozen food aisle, he would snarl at me for having no discipline when I didn’t have my homework done, or tear through us both because he had a long day and just wanted to drink a beer or two and have a warm, homemade dinner with his family.
I remember the night our phone rang at three in the morning and woke me up. It rang for what felt like infinity before someone answered it.
The next day, when my old man told me we were all animals, I yelled at him. I told him it wasn’t true. I told him we were different—we were better than animals, and he laughed. My old man laughed in my face and said what makes you so sure?
I didn’t know that the late night phone call was from an inmate who escaped from the prison where he worked. I didn’t know the guy used to harass my old man every day for five years—say things to him like, I’m gonna get you, you fat little fucker. I’m gonna get you when I get out of this fuck hole. I didn’t know the man murdered his wife and two children. I didn’t know why my old man had our address removed from the phone book the next day. I didn’t know why he started going to the shooting range and I didn’t know why he and my mother fought about that instead of overcooked meat or frozen chicken patties at the dinner table.
During gym class a few weeks later Brian Refner stood in the corner the whole time while we played basketball. He stood in the corner and growled at everyone the whole period. Even Mr. Ryan rolled his eyes and left him alone. Everyone laughed at Brian, laughed right in his face. But I didn’t. I walked up to Brian and he looked right at me and kept growling and I looked right back at him and told him he was right.