Brandon Davis Jennings
Dad was still alive when I was twelve. We’d just moved to the desert, and because he wanted me out of the house after school, he signed me up for football. I didn’t like football. I didn’t like violence or pain. But I didn’t say any of those things to him. I had no idea how to talk to him or Mom about anything.
Dad left work early to watch my first practice, and he saw me tossed aside and knocked over by boy after boy. He yelled from the sidelines at first, but when the yelling stopped, I looked over at him, hands in his BDU pockets, staring at his boots. The next play I was thinking so much about making him proud that I was slow to react to the snap. A hole in the line opened up in front of me, and the fullback ran me over, stomping on my chest with a cleat. When my back hit the ground, Dad yelled, “Jesus Christ.” By the time I stood and jogged back to the huddle, he was gone.
I’d ridden my bike, so I had to ride it home. My arms were black and blue, elbows and knees covered in dried blood streaks. I imagined pedaling into the dry lakebed that surrounded the base until I was swallowed by a mirage or riding onto the firing range to be blown apart by an A10’s Gatling gun. I knew if I didn’t go straight home I’d make things worse, though. So I rode home, hung my bike on the yellow hooks in the garage and reluctantly opened the door to see Dad on the couch watching college football.
“Come here and sit down,” he said. A vein in his forehead looked swollen enough to pop. “Watch these guys. See how they do it.” His boots were shined, but they’d been worn so much that deep creases had formed in spots that made the shiniest parts look too glassy, almost fake. He sat forward on the couch, elbows on knees. His big shoulders stretched the seams on his starched blouse. The sharp creases in his sleeves seemed dangerous.
The guys on TV were huge, and even at that age I understood that no matter what my technique was, I’d never be able to compete with men that size. I was too heavy for the junior league, so I had to move up to senior league—which meant instead of being the biggest and the oldest, I was the smallest and the youngest. It seemed hopeless, but I sat and watched because disobeying Dad wasn’t something I’d ever done without immediate regret.
A giant defensive tackle wrapped up the quarterback and slammed him to the turf. “See?” he said. “He used the rip move.” Dad stood. His boots thumped on the hardwood. “Rip your arm up underneath the other guy’s and then shove him out of the damn way.” He demonstrated on the air. The crinkling of his blouse punctuated his movements “It’s that simple.”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“Bullshit. Stand up and show me.”
“Do I have to?”
“What the fuck did I just say?”
“I’m on offense,” he said. “I can’t use my hands. Rip up underneath my arm. Then shove me out of the way.”
He was a foot taller than me, so he crouched. “I’ll call ‘hut’ and then you get past me.” It seemed insane that we were doing this in the living room, so close to the television, to the lamps, the pictures and all the other shit that decorated it. Mom was crazy about the pictures and the vases even though I’d never met half the people in the pictures, and the flowers in the vases were most often brown and limp or without petals.
Before we had a chance to destroy anything, the door opened and Mom walked in. A paper grocery bag rumpled and then her keys rattled and clanked when she dropped them into the ceramic dish on the table by the door. “What are you boys doing?”
“Headed out back,” he said. “Derrick’s gonna learn a few techniques.”
“Techniques?” Mom shifted the bag up onto her big hip. “We’re eating before long. So don’t get too technical.”
“You’re an infinite well of puns, babe.”
“Make sure he has enough time to shower and wash his hands before he sits at the table.”
Dad said, “You got it.”
We went out back and into the middle of the yard, away from the concrete-slab porch. Hard patches of dry earth and tumbleweed fragments dotted the back yard. We had the worst lawn on the block, but the grass out front was green enough and trimmed enough to keep the housing inspectors off our backs. Fucking jokers, Dad always called them when Mom brought them up in order to motivate him to water the lawn or fertilize it.
“All right,” Dad said. He unbuttoned his BDU blouse, peeled it off, and then tossed it onto the ground; it half-stood there—a corpse that wanted to push itself up but lacked the limbs to do so. “Like I said before. ‘Hut’ then get past me. We’re gonna stay out here till you beat me. Understood?”
“Yes, sir.” I didn’t want to do it, but Dad got these ideas in his head, that somehow I would grow into a man right in the middle of a lesson like this. He’d get angrier with each of my successive failures until he couldn’t stand it anymore. That was what I feared most—what he would do when he realized I wouldn’t immediately become what he’d hoped I would.
He got into a three-point stance, and I dropped my helmet on the ground and got into position across from him. “Put your Goddamn helmet on,” he said. “What do you think it’s for?”
I stood, squeezed my helmet onto my head and buckled the chinstrap. The helmet pressed into my forehead, and I rocked it back and forth until the pain numbed enough so that it became secondary to my fear of what Dad would do to me after I’d failed to beat him.
We both lined up and stared at one another. I saw my ridiculous, helmeted-face reflected in his pupils. Black hairs curled out of his nostrils, and he ran his tongue along the bottom of his bushy mustache. “Hut,” he said.
Before I had moved, he smashed his elbow into my helmet, and I was on my face in the dusty grass. “For God’s sake,” he said. “Use the rip move. I just taught it to you. Don’t look in my eyes. Watch my chest. I can’t go anywhere without my chest.”
I pushed up to my knees then stood. “Yes, sir.” Tumbleweed thorns stabbed my palms; I pulled a couple free and dropped them on the crackly grass.
We lined up again. He said, “Rip your arm up under mine. Get your elbow into my armpit and then knock me out of the fucking way.” He cleared his throat. “Got it?”
I took one step and moved my arm toward his, but he slapped it out of the way and then elbowed me in the helmet again. I dropped to the ground, and a tumbleweed thorn bit into my knee. Grass blades scratched my shins and ankles. Blood ran down Dad’s forearm. “Are you even trying?”
He sighed, ran his finger along the stream of blood. Then he looked at me and licked the blood off his fingers and spat. “Son,” he said, in this tone he always used to indicate how important what followed would be. “You have to live in this world. I don’t know what’s going on in that head of yours. But it doesn’t matter. You are here. Be here. Let’s go again.”
I stood and lined up once more. My body weight rested on my fingers, toes, and my thighs. My head thumped. Dad chewed his cheek. His jawline was so sharp and mine was so round. I couldn’t see myself in him, and I think in that moment that he couldn’t see himself in me, and that it made him sick. He stopped breathing. “Hut.”
I didn’t make it one step. He grabbed me underneath the shoulder pads and lifted me off the ground. There was an instant then, when I wasn’t going up or going down; I just was. But then Dad drove me into the grass, and I couldn’t breathe. There was nothing other than the need for air and the inability to capture it until Dad ripped me from the ground by the facemask, and said, “Breathe, you fucking idiot.” And when I sucked a breath in, he dropped me. I lie on the ground, gasping. “That’s what it feels like to have the wind knocked out of you.”
Between heaves, I said, “Yes, sir.” I coughed and spat. Soreness spread across my back. Fire burned in my throat, and tears welled in my eyes, but they weren’t from sadness.
“It’s no big deal,” he said. “Don’t whine about it.”
“Now you’ll be ready when it happens in a game.” He slapped dust from his knees. “Or whenever.”
Dad rubbed the drying blood from his forearm. He snatched his BDU blouse from the ground and pulled it on, and then rolled the sleeves to his elbows, staring at me while he did it. There was a look on his face, a blankness that I didn’t understand for a long time. “I love you, boy,” he said. “You have to understand that.”
“Get cleaned up for dinner.”
I ran inside, showered quickly because the water stung all the nicks and scratches on my arms and legs, and then got dressed and met Mom and Dad at the table. Dad didn’t look at me during dinner. He just smothered his well-done steak in A1 sauce and chewed and cut and chewed and cut until there was nothing. Dad left the table and turned on the TV while Mom and I still ate. When I finished, Mom said, “Put the dishes in the sink and get ready for bed.”
I did as I was told, and that night while I stared at my bedroom ceiling, I decided to join the military, to show Dad I was strong, to become stronger than he ever was. It was easy to choose that then, six years before I’d be old enough to actually do anything about it. But Dad died somewhere near Alaska a few months later, and we never learned how he died. You know we weren't even at war back then? Does anyone remember what that was like?
BRANDON DAVIS JENNINGS is an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran from West Virginia. His first book, Operation Iraqi Freedom is My Fault, is due out this May. He earned his MFA in Fiction from Bowling Green State University, and his Ph. D. from Western Michigan University. His work has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Crazyhorse, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Berkeley Fiction Review, Monkeybicycle, Ninth Letter, Passages North and elsewhere. His chapbook Waiting for the Enemy won Iron Horse Literary Review’s Single Author Chapbook Competition in 2012, and he won the 2013 Thomas J. Hruska prize in Creative Nonfiction. He lives in South Bend, Indiana with his wife Tina (saver of lives and grower of 'Baby J'), and their two dogs Finn and Macha. He plans to revolutionize the art of house-husbandry by 2016.