“Damn you, Eric!” I yelled. “Quit being such a jerk!”
I knew I shouldn’t swear but, hell (sorry), he had pushed it too far. All morning long my older brother had been teasing me, calling names like elephant ears and dog breath, giving me wedgies and, in general, making my life miserable. But when he puckered up his fat lips at breakfast and made wet, drippy, kissy sounds, it was just too much. I picked up my full glass of orange juice and without thinking, threw it at him.
Time shifted to slow motion as I watched the glass arc through the air towards his grinning freckled head. Orange juice was streaming out in a long yellow ribbon of liquid disaster. I’ll show him! I could picture the glass smashing into his face and…and…
Suddenly, my mind shifted from anger at my brother to What have I just done?
Reality reared its head and it wasn’t pretty. Eric easily ducked out of the way and leaped to his feet. The glass smashed into the wall behind him, scattering juice and shards all over Mom’s impeccable linoleum floor. Eric and I both looked at the mess, orange juice running down the wall and glass everywhere. He was eight years old, three years older than me, and not only quicker to react but smarter, too. Wiser to the ways of the world than I’d ever be, he knew there would consequences, the term Mom and Dad often called the punishment Dad meted out on a regular basis, mostly to me.
Eric gave me the finger, and then, because he knew there was going to be hell (sorry, again) to pay, he sprinted across the kitchen, out the back door, and hightailed it for the safety of the backyard even though it was still winter and cold outside. I was left alone.
Mom was at the counter, a horrified look on her face. I looked at her and she looked at me. Then she burst into tears.
Dad must have heard the commotion because he hurried into the kitchen where he stopped and took in the whole scene: the shattered glass, the orange juice on the wall, and, most of all, Mom crying hysterically. He turned to me with a look I’d seen too often; anger mixed with a liberal amount of disgust. In an instant, he immediately assessed blame, sadly shaking his head to emphasize his disappointment in me.
He set his newspaper aside and walked toward me, unbuckling his belt as he slowly crossed the kitchen, avoiding the juice and glass as he did so. I was conscious of Mom weeping by the sink, but even more conscious of my dad, the person who was the ongoing terror of my young life.
He stopped in front of me. His thick, worn leather belt was off and folded in half. He slapped it methodically against the palm of his hand, whap, whap, whap, as he stared at me. Time stood still. I could smell his sickly-sweet aftershave it made me want to puke. Panic set in and I began to gasp for air. I tried not to cry. I also tried not to pee in my pants, but failed as warm urine began flowing freely. I sat there watching him, festering in my wet jeans, the embarrassment mixed in with an all too well-known feeling of terror. His eyes were relentlessly unblinking, boring into mine like burning lasers. There was stubble on his chin and a cruel look to his lips. He was sneering at me.
Then he motioned with his head toward the basement door. “Let’s go,” he said.
His voice was soft yet menacing. I knew what was coming. I glanced at my mom, who had her face buried in a Kleenex. No help there, not that I expected any. Dad was a force to be reckoned with for all of us, Mom included.
I got to my feet. He shoved me a little from behind and made me walk in front of him to the door leading downstairs. “Open it,” he said. I did as he instructed and started the long descent down the wooden steps to our musty smelling cellar. He was right behind me and I had to listen to his menacing footsteps all the way down. Thirteen of them. Each one filled with horror.
When I reached the bottom, I slowed my pace to a crawl, wanting to delay the inevitable. He’d have no part of it and pushed me again. Harder this time. “Move!”
“Okay.” I squeezed out a response, trying not to whimper.
He pointed. “Now!”
I shuffled across the cement floor to the workbench, my wet jeans chaffing. I stopped when I got there and stood facing the workbench and the wall behind it. “Take down your pants,” he commanded.
“Yes, sir,” I said, like I’d been taught to say. I unbuckled my belt and let my wet jeans drop to the floor Yes, sir!
“And your underwear, too,” he whispered.
“Okay. Yes, sir.” I pushed them down below my knees. I couldn’t help myself, I started to lose it and began whimpering.
“Bend over,” he said.
I did, tears flowing freely now.
He could have cared less.
Ten times with the belt. That was the rule. Ten times. Man, did it hurt.
I found out later that the reason Mom was crying was not for the punishment I was about to receive. Goodness no. Mom and I were close back then and still are even now so many years later. But I deserved to be punished. She knew it and I knew it. For three reasons: two I knew about, one I didn’t. I was punished for throwing the glass at Eric and making such a mess. That was reason number one. And for swearing. Swearing was a big ‘No, no’ in our house. That was reason number two.
But I was also being punished for something I found out later, and it was this: I’d made Mom cry.
I didn’t realize it, but Dad was incensed. It was Valentine’s Day and I guess he’d planned a special day for Mom. He was going to have my aunt come over and stay with me and Eric and he was going to take Mom out to brunch and then the two of them were going to go for a long drive down the Mississippi River where they were going to have a nice dinner and spend the night at a fancy Bed and Breakfast in Red Wing. I guess I’d wrecked the mood or something with my behavior.
Dad was going to make me pay and boy did he ever. My butt was red and sore for the next couple of days.
So, yeah, I’d made mom cry and ruined my dad’s romantic plans. That was the main reason for my beating. Well, in my defense, how was I to know? Valentine’s Day? No clue. Remember I was five years old.
Eric explained it me this way later that day after he and I had made up. And, after I’d cleaned up the mess I’d made and changed my pants, too, of course.
We were at the park a couple of blocks down the street from us were we’d gone to get away from the tension in the house. We were ice skating.
“You big bozo,” he said to me by way of explanation. “Are you completely clueless?”
Apparently, I was. I had no idea what he was talking about. “What do you mean?”
“It’s Valentine’s Day today,” he said. He turned to skate backwards as he faced me. I was doing my best to keep up because my big brother was a pretty good skater. “Valentine’s Day is a big romantic holiday,” he added to make his point perfectly clear to his clueless younger brother. “It’s a big deal for Mom and Dad.”
He shrugged his shoulders. “It just is.”
That didn’t help.
Nor did it later when I tried to get an answer from Mom. “Why is Valentine’s Day such a big deal?” I asked her.
Mom hugged me. I was helping her fold laundry. “Oh, honey,” she said. “It just is.”
Which didn’t help much, either. Nor when my friend Arty filled me in. “It’s all about romance,” he said, grinning. “It’s a time when parents make babies.”
He nodded. “Yep.”
Amazing. I had so much to learn. But, at the time, for me, that was good enough.
However, the old I got, the more the real reason became clear. At least in our family. Back then, Mom was what you would call a little sensitive to things. Seeing new babies or puppies or kittens made her tear up. Same with certain shows on television. Holidays, too.
She loved to get gifts, and it’s my belief that she knew Dad had planned on doing something special for her on that day, the day I spoiled so momentously when I’d heaved the orange juice at Eric. She just didn’t know what it was that he planned to do, and my behavior spoiled the surprise. In her mind, she saw a nice, mellow, trouble filled day (mostly with my dad) and I’d ruined the mellowness part of it. Who knew? It was my first exposure to how complicated life really was.
But on the day of the orange juice incident, I had no idea about any of that stuff. All I knew is that I’d made Mom sad and I wanted to do something about it. So, I did.
After Eric and I got back from skating, I went to our bedroom and got out some color construction paper and sat at desk (on a pillow for my sore butt) and went to work. Eric didn’t even bother me. He must have known I was serious because I was. I made Mom a Valentines’ Day card. It was the first one I’d ever made, but once I knew it was Valentine’s Day, I remembered seeing pictures of them.
The card I made was on white paper that I folded in half. On the front I glued concentric construction paper hearts I’d cut out, starting with a big red one and then filling it in with smaller and smaller cut out hearts colored, green, yellow and blue. Inside I used a red crayon and printed, Happy Valentine’s Day, Mom! I love you!! I signed it with my name, Ben.
I gave it to her later that afternoon when Dad went to get Aunt Bea. In spite of my behavior, Mom and Dad were still going on their special outing, I guess out to eat at some hotel in Minneapolis.
“Here, Mom,” I said, handing her my card. I’d even found an envelope for it. Mom was sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee and smoking one of her ever-present Kool cigarettes.
She set her cup down and looked at me. “What’s this?” she asked, surprised. She snubbed out her cigarette and took my card in her hands. She smiled when she realized what it was and held it carefully, like she was holding a valuable gemstone. She grinned. “Oh, Ben. Whatever have you done?”
“It’s for you, Mom,” I said. “Happy Valentine’s Day.” Then I shuffled my feet, hung my head and added, “And I’m sorry about the orange juice.”
“Oh, sweetie,” she said. Her face broke into a huge smile, and she gave me a big hug. “Thank you so much.”
It made me happy to see her happy. Which was a valuable lesson I learned that day: It was good to make people happy. I didn’t always remember that as I got older, but I tired.
“Open it,” I said.
She did. She read the words and she cried, but they were tears of joy this time. I sat with her while she read and re-read my little card.
I gave her a handmade card every year after that. Even last year. And you know what? It always makes her happy. I know because she always cries. Tears of joy.
Sometimes I do too.
Jim Bates lives in a small town in Minnesota and loves to write. His most recent collection of short stories was published in May 2022, by Clarendon House Publishing.