Winnie Grant had lived in Lake Valley for ten years and still didn’t consider it home. He had come there, like most of the other men, for the promise of abundant construction work that could put food on his table and beer on his tab. The engineers with their ceremonial hard hats and the businessmen their elitist three piece suits (and the city planners with both) had left fliers all over his tiny Omaha suburb and he had been the only one in his union (the Brotherhood of Masons Local #143) to believe the glass-half-full taglines.
To eyes as tired as Winnie’s, the signs read like directions to Heaven. This new development, evocatively christened “Lake Valley,” was spoken of only in deified whispers, as though its very ground was made of manna and its rivers of honey flowed in parallel paths to tall redwood forests from which birds chirped and sun was shaded. The one-sheets that Commercial Limited Investments had stapled to telephone poles and thumbtacked to bulletin boards became scripture, a place to start anew, a mini-America in the heart of the larger America. It was a place where you could awake from the American Dream and find at your fingertips a reality far better than whatever a man’s limited imagination could construct from his own fantasies and daydreams.
By the time he left home at seventeen, Winnie had been given three things by his father: a pair of steady hands, a Protestant work ethic, and a scar under his right eye, the last of which was a goodbye present by way a strong right cross that Winston Sr. had nigh-perfected during his brief stint as a Navy boxer.
And it may sound, from that description, like Winston Sr. was a violent man, but this was simply not the case. He had indeed delivered a straight shot to the face of his only son, strong enough to take a chunk of Winnie’s face with it, but it was not bestowed out of rage or lack of control.
On the eve of his eighteenth birthday, Winnie, as was unofficial custom in their neighborhood, had been given a fifth of Black Velvet whiskey as a gift, sort of a small-town baptism-by-firewater. After an evening nipping at a bottle of what was more diesel fuel than liquor, Winnie, just as his older friends had, would emerge from the tunnel of adolescence an adult, a man with a liver as pickled as those of the town’s other patriarchs. Being resigned to a life of Midwestern manual labor could only be balanced out by a steady downpour of 80-proof anesthesia, and everyone else on his block had accepted it. Winnie felt no reason to do otherwise.
The origins of this rite of passage had been established by Winston Sr.’s father—a man Winnie never met—a journeyman stonemason himself, whose hands beat granite with a hammer and his children with fists. During the hour or two a day that he was sober, he was a kind and gracious man with a sharp wit and a laugh like a cave-in. During the remaining fourteen or so waking hours, he was a monster who communicated almost solely through backhands and blasphemies.
Winston Sr.’s father, with a joviality that masked a deep-seated misanthropy that came along with the whiskey, demanded that all 18-year old boys in the town consume a bottle of cheap liquor during the last evening of their seventeenth year. Perhaps this was to shirk accusations of alcoholism—someone else drinking meant that he wasn’t drinking alone—or maybe it was to put a veneer of maturity to his terminal vice.
Regardless, Winston Sr., seeing the demons that the bottle awoke in his formerly gentle father, refused the tradition, and was accordingly ushered into adulthood with a beating that left him with a broken nose, two cracked ribs, and a strong faith in the God that he believed saved him from a worse fate.
And when Winnie found himself with an empty bottle and a chip on his shoulder, when he walked through the front door of his parents’ first and only home, the house to which he was brought home from the hospital, the house in which the days and weeks and months and years of his childhood passed like highway mile markers, he collapsed onto the floor, vomit dribbling from his mouth across the hardwood like an oversoaked sponge.
He woke to his father’s hand on his shoulder, nudging him awake. The dehydration of the hangover and the piercing sun intruding through the kitchen’s half-closed blinds made a demon out of Winnie.
“Are you okay?” Winston Sr. said.
“Yeah,” Winnie said, “I’m fine.”
“Nothing, okay?” the boy said, heaving his father’s hand from his shoulder and rising to his feet. “Leave me alone.”
“What’s going on, Win?”
Winnie wiped the sick from the corners of his mouth with the back of his hand and transferred it to the front of his soiled jeans.
“Come on, son, let’s get you cleaned up,” Winston Sr. said, putting his across his son’s back and guiding him toward the bathroom.
“Don’t touch me,” Winnie said, retracting from the room and storming out.
“What’s gotten into you?”
“I hate this town, I hate this house, and I hate you. I hate all of this.” Winnie struggled to fling open the front door, but was vexed by the sticky deadbolt. Winston Sr. approached from behind him to help, but Winnie, misinterpreting his father’s approach, swung out at him with a clumsy left hook, missing by half a foot, and Winston Sr.’s deep-seated combative reflexes countered with his right fist flying and connecting with a sickening crunch.
Winnie recoiled from the blow and his head slammed against the solid oak of the door. His hands leapt to his face and concealed the point of impact, half out of pain and half out of shame, and the one eye out of which he could still see shot Winston Sr. a look that stuck four inches out of his back. As he delivered this look, he caught an image of his father, the man whose name he shared, stepping slowly backward in horror at his instinctual capacity for violence, if not prolicide.
One of Winnie’s hands stayed on his cheek while the other lowered to the doorknob. His fiddling finally turned the lock and he opened the door carefully, as though a ruined surprise party awaited on the other side. He stepped out and almost evaporated in the radiation of the punishing Midwestern sun. Winston Sr. stepped silently into the doorframe when his son was thirty paces away.
“Happy birthday,” his father whispered. Although they communicated through letters during the last few years of Winston Sr.’s life, they never again heard each others’ voices.