By Julie A. Dickson
The entire doorway from the garage to our den seemed to fill with his presence. From where I sat across the room, no light was visible around the large form that was my father. Without a word, he swept the hat from his head in a familiar arc, to place it on its hook, his expression unreadable. My mother called her greeting from the kitchen; my younger brother bounced up from his chair. I was silent.
My brother could never stay quiet. Even when my mother warned, his mouth seemed to babble on like the engine of our car after the key was turned off. The hand darted forward and so quickly made contact with my brother’s face that his words became screams while I shrank back on the couch, making myself small. My mother put down her dish towel and closed her eyes.
I knew the power of my father’s hand, having seen it suddenly extend into the backseat of the car, often striking out at innocent chatter. I learned to sit behind my mother, shrinking back into the dark corner, hopefully out of reach and I knew silence was also my ally; not that any of these protected me completely, so quick was his temper to rise like a switched-on light or a bed sheet snapped open.
His hands, encased in work-gloves, often carried armloads of firewood, bound for a basket beside the woodstove that now stood quietly cold beside him. At times, I saw his hands wrapped around the handle of a rake, moving methodically away and back towards him with rhythmic precision, until he paused to wipe sweat from his forehead before it reached his eyes. My father sought the outdoors, where in solitude with leaves and wood, he seemed to distance himself from the world.
This volatile man could hum and rake in the yard, could make leaf piles for me to leap into with the same hand provoked by my brother. Why then did he continually support my brother’s irresponsibility, that hand bearing money to feed his constant demands, while ignoring my quiet acquiescence, my complacency? I was confused at the violence of his hand, the dichotomy of perverse generosity. Did being a girl make me inconsequential like my mother, while the rebellious nature of my brother was simultaneously assaulted and rewarded so many times?
My father’s hand sometimes held both a glass of scotch and a lit cigarette as the ice rattled on the way to his lips. I would stare at that hand, studying his large meaty fingers, in contrast to the smooth, quiet hands of my mother that I could easily envision taking a roast from the oven or wiping dishes dry. His hand spoke an immense presence, like a barely held-back caged beast, biding time before lashing out.
I envisioned my father being held captive by his highly stressful job; his refuge was working outdoors, away from contract negotiations where those hands pounded typewriter keys and tightly grasped a telephone receiver. Those too-soft indoor hands had to be insulated by gloves- protected from the harsh outdoor environment that he loved. I learned from those gloves; the insulation I wore against my father’s harshness was my mother, shrinking in her shadow, watching for signs of danger and taking cues from her practiced eye.
Once, my family attended a magic show. I watched carefully as the magician’s left hand rose, leading the audience’s eye away from his right hand, which covertly dropped a coin into his pocket. The two hands then quickly swiped across each other, and the coin was gone! Was I the only one who had seen, who had not been fooled by his sleight of hand?
As my father’s hand rose smoothly to place his hat carefully on a hook, my eyes trained to follow the movement like in the magic show, to be transfixed by the illusion, I wasn’t fooled. There was no magic, no sleight of hand, as I knew well the alter-ego of that other unpredictable hand.