Decades later, the memory’s still clear, the shame and regret still growing.
He was fifteen, mooching in the house, silently lurking in the dim rooms. Nothing he wanted to do, except to not go outside, into the noisy bright yard. Where the rest of the family, not just parents and sister but aunts, uncles, cousins were …. loud.
Loud voices, exclaiming over sunburn, giving advice to his dad at the barbeque, demanding someone play Ping-Pong. Loud Hawaiian shirts, hanging round scarlet toasting flesh. Loud laughter, between the aunts and his mother, waving away the men who demanded to hear the joke. He’d taken one look through the screen door, then slipped back, back into quiet.
The smell of cooking meat came through the window mesh, mixed with sun-cream coconut and sun-baked hairspray. He’d have to go out, or someone would come looking for him. Extra humiliation before the unavoidable humiliation of Aunt Mel’s greeting. “Why, you’re still growing. I declare, taller and handsomer every time I see you.” The woman was born in Boston, Goddammit. Behind her, he’d see his sister, mouthing the words, practising, to chant later, to etch into his skin.
He slid into his father’s den. Forbidden territory. No-one told you, you just grew up knowing.
Then he saw it, lying on Dad’s desk. Usually it was locked, enshrined, in the display cabinet on the wall. A household god demanding reverence, with Dad as High Priest to interpret and officiate.
A Yankee infantryman’s cap. More than a hundred years old. Felt crown still dark, cracked leather chinstrap, stiff leather peak.
He edged across the room towards the desk, eyes fixed on the cap as he moved forwards. He picked it up, turned it in his hands. Put it on, faced the wall mirror. Narrowed his eyes at the image, sighted an imaginary rifle, sneered, “Take that, scum.”
Then he shrugged, reversed the cap, slid it to the back of his head, bill down his neck. He hunched his shoulders to the mirror, dropped his wrists, stretched out thumbs and little fingers, twisted his hands, “Yo, dude.”
Cap still reversed, he slouched into the yard. His father looked up from the barbeque. Went purple.
But then his Dad stopped being loud. He shook his head a little, took a swig of beer from the bottle, beckoned his son. Who saw his father inhale deep into his chest before he spoke.
“Put it back, son,” the words spoken quietly. “You’ve shown me what you think.”
Forty years on and he sighs at the cruelty of the teenager he was. Barbarity comes easily to the young, who find joy in their power to desecrate family idols. The shock of his father’s response, the realisation of a deep wound, rather than affronted temper. That day marked the start of the end of his adolescence.
He glances at the cap, secure in its display case, on the wall of his own studio.
“Sorry, Dad,” he murmurs.