I was still in my white Junior Sea Cadet uniform and was marching stiff-legged like a windup toy across the golden carpet of scorched lawn behind our new rental house. Each splinter of dead grass had once been a soft green blade, but the summer heat had baked them into tanned quills that now crackled like trophy pelts beneath the hard rubber soles of my shoes.

I had one hand holding down my dog-bowl sailor cap, and in the other hand I held a red-and-white tin can of Gulf Lite charcoal lighter fluid. For Dad’s birthday party it was my job to fire up the steel grill and I was rushing to get at it.

I would have been sprinting directly toward the grill, but I had outgrown my sailor pants and with each binding stride my thighs rubbed together and made a metallic slicing sound like a butcher sharpening a knife. I had to be careful, because one time I had been running too fast on a bone-dry day and the constant friction generated so much static electricity in my pants that when I accidentally touched my zipper I sent sparks leaping out from my crotch like an electric eel. I shrieked because that really shocked the pus out of me and even splintered a fingernail on one hand. But it was funny, too, because getting zapped between the legs was like some goofy Popeye cartoon moment and so I let out a nutty Popeye laugh, “Ahguh-guh-guh.” Dad’s nickname for me was Popeye, because that’s how I laughed at all his waterlogged navy jokes.

So I was marching out to the grill and hoping not to zap myself below the belt. Another thing about my pants was that they were too short and with each step I could look down and see the tortured leather toecaps of my cadet shoes. My left shoe looked like an aerialrecon photo of Hitler’s bunker torn open after the war, and the other looked like a blown-out Tiger tank. “The Commodore”—that’s what I called my dad—was always talking about the war and he had told me to put a Popeye spit-shine on my shoes before our morning cadet meeting, but that command went in one ear and out the other and instead I had killed time by drop-kicking chunky fists of white coral across our back canal.

I was trying to punt a hunk through a worn motorcycle tire that loosely swayed from a banyan tree like a black snake masquerading as a knotted noose. Kicking coral was just one of those brainless things I would rather do than do what I was told. A lot of times I found myself doing things where I didn’t have to think. I guess it was because thinking always circled me around to dwelling on things that were lousy and painful and generally hateful within myself. For instance, little things—like when my dad said I was lazy or stupid or an idiot or just a knucklehead—got under my skin. I know I shouldn’t have been annoyed with him calling me a numb-nut and I should have just shrugged it off, but even though he claimed that calling me names would toughen me up for the “man’s world” facing me in the future, his words just eroded the little confidence I had that held the drifty me together.

I don’t want you to think I was just being an overly sensitive and spineless kid, so I’ll tell you this: one time he called me an ass-wipe and I snapped right back.

“Stop it, for Christ’s sake!” I hollered into his face. “You sound like the kids I hate at school.”

I don’t know why, but my voice always sounded so girly to me when I lost my temper with him. Every time I complained, my voice climbed an octave higher than an Italian soprano’s. Of course, that just got him juiced up.

“God, what a panty voice you have,” he replied derisively, and he laughed in a mocking way at my feeble attempts to sound manly. I hated everything about that word manly and what it meant to him. It’s like when I played Mitey-Mite football when I was younger and my dad and other dads liked it when we got into fights. They did nothing to stop us. We didn’t get hurt because we were wearing so much padding. We’d just bear-hug each other until we twisted over onto the ground and growled into each other’s face guard, “I’m going to murder you!”

The dads cheered us on and coached their kid fighters on how to curse other kids with words I won’t repeat because most of the filthy ones you know already and don’t need to hear them from me.

I didn’t play football anymore, but I still had some protective padding left over, only now it defended my heart like a shield. Still, it was impossible to predict when one of Dad’s sharp insults would find a chink in my armor. I could be sitting on the edge of my bed with a great book, reading line after line with pleasure, but if even for a second I lifted my eyes from the page and opened my heart to an entrancing passage where I saw myself being heroic, or loved, or brilliant, I was suddenly struck by the escaping memory of one of Dad’s lame names for me, like shithead or brain-dead, and my imaginative world wilted away as the printed words bruised and darkened like fruit rotting on a vine.

That’s why I was eager to get a blaze going in the grill because somehow, when I stared into the burning flames, it was like having my heart purified of all the ugly words that were lodged within. It was a relief to unlock the full chambers of my heart and feel that no cruel words in the world could harm me. I think some of you know what I mean by that—maybe all of you know what I mean.

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