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The Sins of the Fathers

When the door to his room kicked open, Matthew Cooney curled into a protective ball on his bed, tucked his knees into his chest and sought to make himself as small as he could. His father tore the belt from around his waist, turned the buckle outward and swung at the prone boy laying fetal in front of him. The buckle struck arms and legs and ribs. Even in his rage, Mack Cooney knew enough not to aim for the head. It was not for fear of hurting the boy. But head shots left marks, and such marks begged questions that he preferred not be asked.

The first blow hit a shoulder and burned the flesh. The second blow found his stomach and burned the soul. Matthew closed his eyes against it, this inarticulate assault. He braced his muscles against the impacts, closed his eyes and whispered a Hail Mary. This would pass. It always did.

Tonight his father raged, swinging his belt with the vigor of a man seeking retribution against an unfathomable wrong. What that wrong was, eight-year-old Matthew Cooney had no way of knowing. A bad day at work, a cutting remark from a stranger on the street, perhaps his mother’s scowl when his father finally walked through their door, well past a dinner that sat now cold on their table. His father did not bother to explain his grievances as he pummeled his young son. He swung his belt and choked out animal-like sounds that a young boy could not decipher.

Matthew Cooney, the avatar of his father’s frustration and madness, his impotence and inconsequence, absorbed the beating. He did not cry. Matthew Cooney would never cry. His father would not draw the tears out of him, no matter the force of his fury.

At the end of it, six or seven strikes, his rage spent and his own shoulder aching from the throwing of the blows, Mack Cooney hitched his belt back into his place. “God damn you,” he muttered. “I wish you’d never drawn breath. Look what you’ve done to me,” then stumbled out the door. “Look what you’ve done to me,” mumbled into a narrow, empty hallway. Matthew heard thumps as his father lurched against the walls, heading back then out the door to find his next drink.

The young boy lay still to calm the fire of his father’s wrath. He did not try to reason its genesis. He had done nothing wrong, at least nothing that he could recall. Instinct told him that his sins were mere interpretations, that his father saw things his son did not, and that the violence of rage needed no provocation beyond the simple fact that he existed.

After some time Diana Cooney gently entered the room to check on her son. “Oh, Matty,” she whispered. Matthew continued to stare at the ceiling.

“I’m so sorry, Matty,” mumbled through a sniffle. “I couldn’t stop him. I couldn’t. Are you okay? Of course you’re not.”

Matthew turned to her. “It just hurts a little.”

His mother sat on the edge of the bed and gently stroked his shoulder. “Why does he do that, Mom? Why does he beat me for no reason?”

Sniffles gave way to tears, and Diana reached to hold her son tightly. Matthew did not move to her embrace, but neither did he retreat. In his mother’s embrace, Matthew smelled the tinny whiff of cheap whiskey. He had become accustomed to it, the same odor that wafted off his father every night.

“Your father is an angry man, Matty. It’s not his fault. Really, it’s not. And it’s not yours, either. It’s just the way things are, just the way he is. I expect someday you’ll understand it all better. When you’re older.”

“And when I get angry, too?”

“Pray God that the rage passes you by, son. The rage that landed squarely in your father’s heart.”

“Does he beat you, too, Ma? The way he beats me?”

“Don’t concern yourself with that, Matty. I’m fine. He’s still my husband, and still your father.”

“Sometimes I hear things that sound like he does, but I just hide my head. I crawl under the covers until it all goes away.”

“We look out for each other, don’t we, Matty?” Diana Cooney sat back and reached into a side pocket to draw out a flask. “I know what your father did hurts, and probably hurts a lot more than you show me. Here….” And she offered the flask to her young son. “This helps take away the pain.”

Matthew looked at the flask, then back at his mother. “What is it?”

“Never mind what it is. I think it’ll help you. It’ll help you sleep. It’ll help you forget this very bad night.”

“That’s the stuff that makes Dad crazy. Why are you trying to get me to drink it.”

“Because it calms the heart and soothes the soul. Try just a sip. To take away the pain.”

Curious, Matthew tentatively grabbed the flask. He held it to his nose and sniffed the bitterness. His mother had always tried to protect him, to do what’s best for him. He trusted her. There was no one else to trust.

He lifted the flask and let a few drops fall onto his tongue. And with them, they echoed the burn from outside his body and caused his tongue to flame. But he did not spit it out. Very gingerly he drew the liquid back to his throat, then swallowed. Fire raced down the length of him, and his stomach roiled at the impact.

“Jesus, Mom. That was awful.”

“Don’t think about the taste. Just let it sit there inside you and calm you down,” she said, and for the first time all night she smiled. “It’ll do that.” She rose then, kissed her son on his forehead, turned toward the door.

“Good night, son. You’re strong, Matty. Don’t ever forget that.”

Diana Cooney turned off the light as she left, but her son did not sleep. In the small room that was his, he listened to the night sounds – the passing of cars on their dingy street, the clatter of metal doors that closed, the voices of those who still wandered this part of the city. His father was out there, one of the wanderers.

Matthew Cooney wondered where that wandering led him, what he would find when he got to wherever he bounded. A space without a son, it would be, and without a wife. Without a home to drag down his besotted, lost dreams. A space where his father, Mack Cooney, could extinguish his anger at least for a time before it rose up again and consumed all those unfortunate enough to have to share this life with him.

The young boy, son of the father, at last turned toward the wall and pulled his covers tight. His head felt lighter. Perhaps it was the drink his mother had given him. Perhaps there really was something to it that calmed the heart and softened the soul. His shoulders ached, as did his ribs, in all the places where his father’s buckle had met its mark. Sleep would come, fitful and unfulfilling, but on this night, the best he could do.


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