There was this painting of lightning shooting across a brown,
red, and yellow sky, that almost covered one of our entire dining
room walls. It was so big it covered the light switch. I remember
you had to push in on the bottom left hand corner, the dark brown
part, to turn the dining room light off and on. When you did the
whole painting would wobble like it was about to snap the one nail
it was hanging on. No matter what the weather was outside it always
seemed like a thunderstorm was moving through the middle of our
After dinner I'd stare at the painting while my Dad tried to
explain how to do word problems. You know the kind ... If Billy
starts digging a hole at four o'clock ... If a train leaves
Pittsburgh traveling at a speed of 20 mph ... If a fifth grader buys
a bucket of chicken and climbs out on the roof of his house and gets
an M16 and kills 3 of his neighbors ... You know the kind of
problems I'm talking about.
The longer it took my Dad to get through to me the louder and
and more intimidating his voice would get, and the louder and more
intimidating his voice would get, the less I could hear him, and
the less I could hear him the more the veins in his forehead
looked like the lightning in the painting. I'd start to feel like
I was going to snap like the nail holding the painting up. I
knew it was just a matter of time before I got a backhand or the
belt ... I'd go as blank as an empty canvas.
After about an hour He'd say, do you understand yet ...
and I'd say, I don't know ... and he'd say, what don't you
understand ... and I'd say, I don't know ... and He'd say, what
do you mean you don't know .... and I'd say, I don't know ...
at this point you could almost hear the lightning start to crack,
and it would usually end with him saying, why do you keep saying,
I don't know ... and like a genius I'd say, I don't know.
Nothing stings like a backhand across the face. I'd try
not to cry but I'd squirt a few tears out anyway. He'd grab a
beer and turn on the T.V. My ears would be ringing and my nose
would be bleeding and the lesson would be over for the night.
I'd hear him and Mom yelling in the next room and in a while
she would come in and ask why I was being difficult ...
I'd say, I don't know ... and go to bed. The next day at school
I'd copy Fred's homework as usual, the veins in my forehead
bulging like a stage five hurricane, feeling like I must be
dumbest kid ever born.
As I got older I realized the hardest word problem of all,
was being able to say, I love you.