writing chapter 3.6
Nathan got home burning with curiosity, and rushed to his computer to start googling things he’d heard the computer genius guy saying. If only he’d been less hesitant to speak, they could have talked – they actually shared some interests. He stayed in front of his computer until they called him for dinner.
Dad got home with work on his mind. This afternoon Corporate doubled the amount of time he had to spend on paperwork, effective immediately. They wanted him to account for every five minute segment of his day, and assign a job code to each one. And some of the job codes came out of the corporate budget, and some of them came out of the store budget, and it was a big fat hairy deal because it all got whanged with a multiplier and was going to come out of his paycheck if the numbers weren’t good enough. He was getting too old for this shit, because no matter what the numbers were, he was going to end up doing more work for less money.
Mom got home and put her things away and scurried around making Dad comfortable with a couple of beers while she got dinner ready. Tonight it was FamishedFamily(tm) dinners for everybody. She left one in the freezer, because of course Sis was not home yet.
Dad was sort of watching the news, the remote in one hand, a beer in the other, his feet up on the coffee table facing the new plasma TV they’d financed just last month. His favorite newsreader was on, an old white guy with a booze nose. He told Dad that the Board of Education was unveiling a bold new initiative to deal with the worsening public school crisis. He flashed a picture of a one-story compound surrounded by razor wire. Study after study has shown that high school is the gateway to jail for millions of kids. A ticking timebomb. He showed a loud, confusing graphic while Dad took a swig and ignored it. Concentrate on job training, for successful careers, making useful contributions. Institutional life – cheap and effective. Respect for authority – discipline – regular schedules.
Dad drained his beer. “I guess they don’t learn that at home,” he said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand and turning to Nathan. “Where’s your respect for authority, huh? What useful contribution do you make? Get me another beer.”
“It’s already like that at school,” Nathan observed, getting up. “The doors and windows don’t open, and you have to go thru metal detectors, and police patrol the halls. They use pepper spray to break up fights. Kids get dragged to jail in handcuffs for throwing paper airplanes and running in the halls.” He handed the beer to Dad, avoiding his eyes.
“You don’t want cops in the halls? Obey your teachers.” He popped the top and took the first deep draft.
“But school’s a gateway to college and a job, not crime,” he protested, sitting back down.
Dad leaned over and loomed, wafting beer fumes in Nathan’s face. “Tell me you know better than hundreds of experts who say you kids are a bunch of psychopaths. You’re so full of it.” He sat back and took another drink. “Spare the rod and you spoil the child.” He stabbed the remote to change the channel and waved at Nathan dismissively. “I should have hit you more when you were growing up, but your mother kept getting in the way.” The beer went down and he motioned resentfully for another, glowering as his son slumped to the kitchen. “They’re talking about making the death penalty for rebellious children,” Dad said to his back. “You’d better watch out.”
Dad grew up watching All in the Family, and identified with the young rebel Meathead (actually, his sensitive wife Gloria, if you want to know). But here he was doing a fair imitation of reactionary Archie Bunker. Back in the day he marched against the war and smoked pot and called for revolution; how did he get to be so conservative? If you asked him, he would point to his son and talk about the wrong headed attitudes kids have. No worries, tho, they’d grow up once they get any real responsibility, and end up just like him.
He popped the beer open and drained half of it. No matter how unique kids try to be, they’re just part of a herd, where it’s important to fit in and not go around thinking about things, because then you irritate people. His advice, should his shiftless son bother to ask, would be to blend in and be stupid; dull and unambitious. That’s how you pass in today’s world. But Nuthin went back into the kitchen to help Mom with the food and missed his chance at enlightenment. Dad called him for another beer.
“What have you been doing since you got home, Nathan?” Mom asked as she sat down at the coffee table and handed him his dinner.
He had forgotten about his new job, and opened his mouth to tell them about it, but realized that this wasn’t the time. “Studying,” he said, then lowered his voice and finished, “quantum entanglement,” and shut up, not wanting to talk over Dad’s conversation with the television.
Sis came home in the middle of dinner and wanted to know where hers was. Mom got up to pop it in the microwave. “That way you can have it hot no matter how late you are,” Mom explained. Sis spent the time telling Dad how hungry she was and wondering if Mom had it on defrost instead of full power. Eventually she settled down with her food, complaining that it was too hot, but otherwise sitting quietly in front of the tube.
Dad’s other favorite news anchor was on, a chirpy little black woman with an ice-queen exterior that Dad saw right thru. She introduced an expert on the economy who explained the latest austerity measures, which were going to empower poor people to do better. Dad came up with a few examples of programs that needed cutting, and suggested them to the anchor. He could just see himself facing down some bum asking for a handout, or having the last word when his worthless family wanted something. It’s for their own good. It’s not revenge, I just can’t afford to carry their lazy asses anymore. He glared at his son.
“Daddy,” Sis said with her mouth full, “what’s austerity?”
“Oh, sweetie pie,” he said, “you’ll never have to worry about austerity, because you work hard and always do what you’re supposed to. You’ll go to college and get a good job and marry somebody rich, and everything will be fine.” He waved to Mom, who got up and got him a fresh beer. He waited to explain until he popped it open and had a drink. “Austerity is for the lazy, dependent blood suckers who steal our hard earned tax dollars and buy plasma screens and smartphones. People who should be homeless, sucking the life out of hard working folks so they can sit on their asses and drink beer. But with austerity,” he grinned. “Moochers will have to work for a living like everyone else.”
He was on a roll. “They need to dismantle the nanny state and replace it with a pappy state.” Sis looked adoringly at him. “How does that work? It’s simple. We’ll just outlaw being poor, and send offenders to work camps. Kids and old people too. Hell, take them all, illegals, Muslims, blacks, feminazis, the lot.” Dad and Sis looked darkly at Nathan, who might have taken this opportunity to mention his new job, but Dad continued without pause.
“I’ll tell you what freedom is. It’s being able to look after myself and my family without having to deal with haters who don’t want me doing anything because it might offend some whining scumbag welfare rat, or endanger some goddamn salamander or something. I don’t care about them. I don’t have any obligation to solve America’s problems. My only obligation is to feed my family.”
Mom hardly thought being poor should be a crime. “What if somebody loses their job? Should they go to jail?” It was a ticklish subject to raise around a man who was always afraid he was going to be fired.
“There’s no such thing as poverty in this country,” he stated firmly. “It’s a well known fact. Every so-called social problem can be traced right back to somebody’s individual screwup. Every single time, there’ll be something you should have done, and it’s only because you’re lazy – or stupid on purpose – that you’re in the hole you’re in. I have no pity to give you. You’re responsible for the problems in your life.”
Mom took her tray into the kitchen. Dad yelled for her to bring him another beer.
“I want to get a job,” Nathan ventured.
“No way. You’re not allowed to get a job,” Dad said shortly.
“But you work,” he protested.
“That’s because I’m a grownup, so I have to work for a living. Your job is to help Mom and go to school. That’s the rules.”
“But that’s not a real rule. We can decide to change it if we want to. If it’s better for us.”
“It’s always been like this. The only reason I let your Mom work is because you kids are so damned expensive.” Nathan started to object, but Dad wasn’t having it. “That’s the way it’s always been, and you can’t change it, so get used to it.”
It wasn’t fair. It was a sour taste in his mouth, forced to be this dependent on his parents when he had the ability, however small, to buy himself a taste of freedom. “I can’t wait until I’m grown up and can do things myself,” he sulked.
“Nonsense,” Dad insisted. “You’ve got loads more freedom right now, just because you’re a kid. I’ll give you more privileges when your judgment improves. Meantime, I have to keep you down for your own good.” Nathan dropped his head and glowered. Dad chuckled. “You depend on me for the bread you eat and the roof you sleep under, so I have nothing to fear from you.”
“I just think,” Nathan started.
“All you need to do is obey. You don’t have a choice, because I’m not giving you one.” Nathan got up and took his tray into the kitchen. Dad called after him, “Don’t take it personal. I win, and that’s just the way it is. Bring me another beer.”
Dad turned his attention to the latest important newsflash. The whole world was watching Honey Boo-Boo Child. Stay tuned for the most important moment of her life. Honey Boo Boo’s Hollywood screentest! Dad rose from the couch, hoping he had enough time for a quick piss and calling to Nuthin to hurry up with that beer.
Nathan discussed his new job with Mom as he helped her clean up after dinner. They wanted him ten hours a week, mostly during lunch and PhysEd. It cut into English and World History but he could work it out with the teachers. It was on the subway line ten minutes from school. He found himself pleading with her. Straight A’s – work study – extra credit – looking great on his college application.
Mom asked him why he wanted a job. “Are you trying to help us with the bills?” He twisted his hands and confessed that it was only because he wanted to go to Dragoncon next year. “I think that’s a great idea,” she said, relieved, putting an arm around him. “It’s a very responsible thing to do.”
“He always thinks he’s right,” Nathan whined, “and he never listens to anything I say.”
“Yeah,” Mom sighed. “I know.”
“But he’s not right, is he?”
She paused for a moment, feeling disloyal. “No, he’s not,” she said. “A lot of the time he’s just reacting.”
Nathan looked at her. “He repeats what he hears on TV. He doesn’t even get the details right.”
Mom brushed his hair where it curled up on the back of his neck. “He’s too busy to do a lot of thinking about things, and I guess he just figures if it wasn’t true they wouldn’t say it.”
Nathan scowled. “But even the quickest search turns up a hundred different facts and viewpoints. How can he just accept everything when it’s obvious the people in authority are lying?”
“Well,” Mom said after a moment, “it’s kind of easier just to accept what they tell you after awhile.”
“But does he really think the world is like that?” Nathan persisted.
“Probably not, but he sure wishes it was simpler. And he thinks if everybody follows the rules it will be.”
“I don’t want to follow those rules. They’re stupid rules.”
Mom gave a big sigh. “I know. But they’re all he has.”
This made Nathan angry. “No they’re not. He won’t listen to alternatives. He’s trying to force the world – force us – to be the way he wants us to be, and it doesn’t work like that. I know that, and I’m a kid.” He slumped. “It’s like he’s hypnotized.” <
“No,” Mom said, patting his hand. “He’s just tired.”
The cops called the house at 3 am and asked them to pick Sis up at the jail. She wasn’t under arrest, but the car was in the impound. Mom drove down to get her. Sis flounced out of jail and kept ahead of Mom all the way to the car, then sat and stared out the passenger window the whole way home, mumbled something about not having her license as explanation for why the car was impounded, and snarled at Mom the one time she just tried to make conversation. “You don’t care about me,” she sneered, fleeing the car the moment Mom turned off the engine.
By the time she put her things away and went back upstairs, Precious Snowflake was huddled miserably on the floor next to Dad’s side of the bed, weeping and being comforted. Dad was nearly asleep, stroking her hair and mumbling about all things he was going to buy her when he got rich. She got up and kissed him goodnight when Mom lay down, and stuck her tongue out at her as she left. Mom pretended not to notice.