By Charlie Keyheart
When I was a kid, no more than four years old, my father stuffed my head under a sofa—in the dark, airless crack beneath—and I knew, with every narrowing breath, I was going to die.
It was an old fold-out sofa bed, the mattress bursting out, top and bottom, like a pair of lips. But dad was large, looked bigger in his tight white V-neck that smelled of peanut oil—he’d been popping corn for the game—and beer exhaled through his skin. He was able, with just a hand, to throttle me on the rug, while he lifted an entire sofa-end to lower on my skull.
But—here’s the impressive thing: my mother was still on it! Legs up, grapes in her lap, face in a People magazine. We’d been wrestling—my dad and I—on the carpet below when I went for the kill: a downward elbow smash, twelve o’clock to six, right into the meat of his spine. Completely illegal in any respectable fight league, but somehow my child’s brain had worked it out, and with no training—on pure instinct!—I landed it beneath my full crashing weight.
He screamed. God. I’d never heard such a cry. He screamed like I’d snipped an artery, like it was all a matter of time. He screamed and my heart quickened. I leapt back to watch from safety.
But I was four. What did I know from safe? Soon I was being dragged across the rug and stuffed into an airless slit face-first, sofa closing like a pincer. I could feel my little lungs cashing out, my skull as it became load-bearing. And from this desperate position, somehow, I heard the following:
Will you boys go play somewhere else? I’m trying to watch TV.
Mom, legs up in the air on that seedy sofa-bed, flipped a glossy page. She might have nibbled a grape. I don’t think she looked down at us once.
That’s when my own screaming began, and honestly? I haven’t stopped since. My father and I stopped “playing,” stopped everything together that day. He would become a sinister presence in my life, an antagonist, a threat. I was still a child and needed him, but that need would forever be tempered by the knowledge that this man had tried to kill me, and the lust was in him still, somewhere, lurking, and could pounce at any time.
I lived with him fourteen years after that.
Eventually, I left for the Pacific, the great old civilizations there. I’d spend years immersed in foreign cultures, teaching “little emperors,” their parents’ only children—a policy enforced by law, and a good one, I thought, when, for instance, trying to board a city bus became a fight or flight dilemma.
The funny thing? Now I look for it, for antagonism, hostility. Wherever I go, I scout potential foes. Beasts-in-waiting is what I want. I find them everywhere—in bosses, teachers, classmates, even, on bad days, lovers. I’ll invest them with enormous power, exaggerate my own vulnerabilities, then play out in my mind all the gruesome ways they hurt me. The cruelties I imagine shock even me.
It’s like that small crack under the sofa has somehow reproduced in my mind, and now there’s a demon hole there—a monster slot—and however peaceful everything else, I just can’t leave it empty. I need to have that space inside me filled.
Then I can focus. I’ll stay up nights torturing myself, my mind a weary blur of attack and defense. Fighting, always fighting—but in my head. Come morning, I’m good for nothing.
Couldn’t sleep, again? a girlfriend asks.
Monstering, I say, and she nods.
I never married.
It’s like I never left that living room, still stuck between the sofa and the rug. That tight little slit that doesn’t even exist anymore—the couch was tossed out years ago, the house demolished for apartments. But in my mind, I’m gripped in the narrow, breathless and desperate, head flush with blood as I’m thrust from a light world into dark.
A crowning, an un-birth, I might think on grimmer days.
Only now dad’s dead and I’m doing it to myself. Sometimes, I play his part, watch little child-me choking, blinking off as I crush him under all my miserable weight. He curls up, then, a tiny, gaping fish.
Don’t you see? Dad’s gone, but I’ve taken his place for him. I carry on his work inside my mind.
Yes. Yes. I’m a good son.