In answer, I poked him with the end of the bat, just above the belt, to knock the wind out of him. Then, having unethically gained the upper hand, I clouted him five or six times more, and the stood over him to say, “The next time you hit my sister I won’t let you off so easy.” After which I took Susie home to my place for dinner. And after which I was Frank’s best friend.
People like that are so impossible to understand. Until the baseball bat episode, Frank had nothing for me but undisguised contempt. But once I’d knocked the stuffings out of him, he was my comrade for life. And I’m sure it was sincere; he would have given me the shirt off his back, had I wanted it, which I didn’t.
(Also, by the way, he never hit Susie again. He still had the bad temper, but he took it out on throwing furniture out windows or punching dents in walls or going downtown to start a brawl in some bar. I offered to train him out of maltreating his wife, but Susie said no, that Frank had to let off steam and it would be worse if he was forced to bottle it all up inside him, so the baseball bat remained in retirement.)
Then came the children, three of them in as many years. Frank Junior came first, and then Linda Joyce, and finally Stewart. Susie had held the forlorn hope that fatherhood would settle Frank to some extent, but quite the reverse was true. Shrieking babies, smelly diapers, disrupted sleep, and distracted wives are trials and tribulations to any man, but to Frank they were – like everything else in his life – the last straw.
He became, in a word, worse. Susie restrained him I don’t know how often from doing some severe damage to a squalling infant, and as the children grew toward the age of reason Frank’s expressed attitude toward them was that their best move would be to find a way to become invisible. The children, of course, didn’t like him very much, but then who did?
Last Christmas was when it started. Junior was six then, and Linda Joyce five, and Stewart four, so all were old enough to have heard of Santa Claus and still young enough to believe in him. Along around October, when the Christmas season was beginning, Frank began to use Santa Claus’s displeasure as a weapon to keep the children “in line”, his phrase for keeping them mute and immobile and terrified. Many parents, of course, try to enforce obedience the same way: “If you’re bad, Santa Claus won’t bring you any presents.” Which, all things considered, is a negative and passive sort of punishment, wishy-washy in comparison with fire and brimstone and such. In the old days, Santa Claus would treat children a bit more scornfully, leaving a lump of coal in their stockings in lieu of presents, but I suppose the Depression helped to change that. There are times and situations when a lump of coal is nothing to sneer at.
In any case, an absence of presents was too weak a punishment for Frank’s purposes, so last Christmastime he invented Nackles.