I hated my parents’ goats. I hated them because they were stupid and always looked at me as if it were for the first time. And that lack of recognition never changed, from the day they arrived until the night they saved my life.
They were both Nubians, large as ponies. My stepfather used to let my little sister, who was five or six at the time, ride them around in the backyard while he held on to her coat. My sister squeezed their thick necks and just sat there, smiling. The goats had these big, dopey ears, and when they escaped from their pen (which was often), their ears flopped around as they galloped through the yard. Slipping while trying to tackle one near the rhododendron bush, I knew they were oblivious to their own stupidity, and that just made me despise them even more.
But I think I hated them most of all because my parents made my older brother and me take care of them. I never understood this part of the deal. One day my parents came home in our green Volare station wagon with the goats jammed in the back, and my mother rolled the window down to announce triumphantly that they’d gotten themselves some goats. Great, I thought. Now can I go back to my David Bowie albums?
We didn’t live on a farm, so, for a year or two, the goats were penned in the corner of our unheated basement. At first, I welcomed their arrival, figuring they would be one more thing to keep my parents occupied and out of my hair. Over the next several weeks, however, my parents’ interest in the goats waned, and my brother and I slowly became indoctrinated as full-time caretakers. It began with small, offhand requests: “Guys, do you mind bringing the leftover spaghetti down to the goats?” Then the requests became less sporadic, and more expectant. “Did you water the goats yet?” my stepfather would ask, and my brother and I would actually play into this, each saying it was the other one’s turn.
After my stepfather built the goats a more suitable pen in our backyard, early-morning feeding and watering duties were brutal, particularly in the winter. We were summoned from our beds half awake and expected to break the ice off the top of the goats’ black rubber water bucket and refill it from the spigot on the side of our house. A trail of hay led from our basement door to the pen out back, where we flipped armfuls of it over the fence. But their favorite breakfast treat was the honeyed oats we dumped into their little trough. As they ate, steam from their mouths clouded about their heads. Like fools, we sometimes performed these chores in our stocking feet, the brittle snow cutting into our heels and toes as we ran.
The worst was having to care for the goats on the morning after a Friday or Saturday night out. As a rule, I was grounded and didn’t get to go anywhere, so on the rare occasion I was given the nod for my friends Dan and Sean to come pick me up in Dan’s rumbling, massive Gran Torino, I made the most of every minute I was away.
As Dan zigzagged down the dirt road away from my house, he would hand me a Budweiser, or maybe Sean would try to light a bit of hash for me in a pipe made from an empty beer can. It was during these first couple of seconds of freedom that I found the most happiness, as if a pair of large hands had released their grip to let me breathe. Any respite from my mother’s abuse was always welcome.
We usually ended up going to Kittery or Portsmouth for a punk-rock show — several homegrown bands flailing about at the Grange Hall, all raw, pumping adrenaline. If we were lucky, a more established band, like the Circle Jerks, Black Flag, or Bad Brains, would be playing in Boston. The area in front of the stage was a maelstrom of boots, fists, and clenched teeth, everyone oblivious to the sweating bodies pounding into them, the roar of hyperspeed thrash drilling into our heads.
It was heaven.
We left the halls wobbling, with a buzz in our ears, maybe a split lip, but we always held each other up, grabbed the other guy by his leather jacket or moist T-shirt and wrapped our arm around him. “Faggot,” someone would say, and we’d all laugh and pull apart.
And if there weren’t any shows to go to, we’d drive around until we found a place to drink: a deserted section of back road, an old graveyard, an apple orchard, a golf course — it didn’t matter. We’d laugh and play our music loud on the car stereo, singing along — “Dead Cops! Dead Cops! Dead Cops! Out on the street!” — until the windows were steamed by our fragrant shouts of tough-ass punk attitude.
In the end, however, I would be yelling for Dan to drive faster, faster, trying to make it home before curfew, dreading my return, my head fizzing with alcohol. The next morning, my stepfather would stick his head into my brother’s and my bedroom around 9 A.M. and say, “Rise and shine. The party’s over,” in this singsongy way. I don’t think he was being malicious. He accepted that boys will drink with friends on weekend nights, and he liked to give us a ribbing about it. In fact, during the tirades my mother unleashed on me, especially when she got bitter and mean, he was usually the voice of reason, trying to steer her into calmer waters. I’d be absolutely terrified, and my mother would stand there furious, eyes lit like torches, and my stepdad would try to bargain or reason with her. I’m not saying he was a saint, though, because there were a couple of times I thought they’d both pulverize me.
Once, on a stupid whim, after watching the horror movie Nightmare on Elm Street, I taped paring knives to the fingers of my right hand and pretended I was Freddy Kruger, scratching at my little sister’s bedroom door when I was supposed to be baby-sitting. When my parents came home, my sister ran screaming to my mother, and chaos ensued. My mother cursed and hollered at me, then did something I couldn’t have imagined: she punched me in the mouth. I think she was more stunned than I was. I just looked at her, blinking and confused. I turned to my stepfather, but he was as incensed as my mother. We all stood around for a moment, then I awkwardly went to bed, rubbing my tongue across my upper teeth and lip, thinking, Did that just happen?
The resentment between my mother and me was double-edged. I just wanted to be my own person, to live a life bound by nobody’s rules and to do what I wanted, regardless of what was proper or right. When I was told no, I’d say (at least in my mind), Fuck you, and do it anyway. The thought of any person controlling my actions, even my mother — especially my mother — absolutely infuriated me.
And my mom? Well, she came from an abusive Irish Catholic family of alcoholics, where Christmas morning meant waking up to your mother and father strangling each other as they tumbled down the stairs screaming, Would you just die, die, you worthless piece-of-shit motherfucker, die! So what would you expect? She tried to kill herself before her tenth birthday, for Christ’s sake. Now my maternal grandfather lives alone in Massachusetts on a navy pension because he was almost blinded in World War II. My mother’s mother died about seven years ago of brain cancer. As my grandmother lay on her deathbed, my mother waited for her to apologize. Instead it was my mother who finally said, “I’m sorry,” and my grandmother smiled and said, “I know.” She died the next day.
Sometimes on those hangover mornings, I’d throw up behind the goat shed, stomach clenching, bile stinging my nostrils. I could smell the goats’ moldy hay beds and their decayed shit and urine, a pungent rush of ammonia stronger than any cleanser. “Fucking goats,” I’d say. “Fucking stupid goats.”
After I graduated from high school, I spent the entire summer lying around the house near comatose on various drugs. In November I got a job at a nearby factory. Every day was the same: rise at six for work at seven, assemble metal products and shelving, eat peanut butter and jelly, work some more, then home. One day in my third week, I was operating the rivet press, driving aluminum rivets into precut holes in a sheet of tin. The work became slightly hypnotic: grab the tin, place the rivet, step on the pedal, remove the tin. The cadence of it made me sleepy, so sleepy, in fact, that I got the tune wrong and followed “grab the tin” with “step on the pedal.” The long bar that rammed the rivets home shot down with dramatic force: about ten thousand pounds per square inch. The driving head of the tool was about as wide as a quarter and came down on the very tip of my right index finger. I instinctively pulled my finger up and away, then saw a yellow wad of skin filling the hole where the rivet should have been.
I was lucky, the doctor told me. It just missed the bone but managed to snip off a good portion of the flesh, causing a nasty gash. He happily reported this while lacing in a few stitches. While he worked, I noticed my finger, which poked up through a hole in a teal surgery blanket, was blanched white. I looked away as he tugged the last of the thread through.
When I got home, the shock of realizing that I could have lost my finger started to set in, and I devised a plan. The safety bar, which looked like an unwound coat hanger, was supposed to stop the machine from working if it came in contact with anything unorthodox — like, say, a finger. The thing is, the safety bar came down, hit my finger, bent, and was then followed by the awful press. It bent. I smelled a lawsuit.
I called my mom, who was a paralegal at the time, and asked her advice. She didn’t think much could be done; it would be a hard case to prove, and I wasn’t permanently disfigured. Probably none of the lawyers at her office would touch it. We hung up. I grew indignant. An injustice had been committed, and I wanted the wrongdoers to pay.
I scanned the yellow pages for lawyers who specialized in personal-injury claims, called the first number I found, and spoke with an attorney, who more or less reiterated what my mother had said. As the conversation wound down, she asked me my name again. I told her. “Are you Pat’s son?” she asked.
My God, had I called my mother’s law firm? It was possible; I didn’t know the name of the place she worked, only her direct-dial number.
That night, I was sitting on the couch, my finger wrapped in clean gauze and propped on a pillow, when my mother came steaming through the front door. She’s not a big woman, maybe five feet, but she was puffed out like a crow in her black coat, breathing hard, her eyes wild. “How dare you!” she began. “I’m the laughingstock at my office, do you know that?”
I stood slowly. “Mom, I was just —”
“ ‘You won’t help your own son,’ they said. ‘He has to call our hotline to get the facts instead of speaking with you,’ they said. . . . You motherfucker. I told you.” Tears were spilling down her cheeks. She was vibrating, electric. I felt that if it hadn’t been for my hurt finger, she would have taken a swing at me.
“I’m the fucking laughingstock because of you, you fucking shit. How fucking dare you!”
My little brother and sister peered in from the kitchen. They’d seen my mother go off on me before, but never like this, never with such disdain and ferocity. My stepfather went into his bedroom and closed the door.
I pleaded. I tried to explain that I believed my employer was at fault, that the case could be won. My voice wouldn’t stop shaking. She’d have none of it.
After what seemed like hours, she just grew tired. “Oh, fuck it,” she said and went crying into her room. I stood there dazed. I couldn’t feel my legs. Everything seemed unnaturally bright, as if the very light were palpable. My mother had made a career out of verbally cleaning my clock, but never like this, never in such a merciless way. And in all the countless fights we’d had in the past, with all her litany of abuses, telling me how worthless I was for the hundredth time, I’d never cracked. I’d always held a stoic pose in defiance to her rage. But this time was different. This time I felt as if a piece of something vital and important in me had been extinguished.
I stumbled out into the dark November night and made my way to the goat pen. Dan and his Gran Torino were on the way, my mother having agreed earlier in the day to let me go out that night.
When I made it to the pen, the pine trees in back were silhouetted against the sky, and stars were starting to flicker on here and there. The air was cold and silent.
“Hey, guys,” I called into the pen.
Both creatures unfolded themselves from the floor and emerged, unsure why I was visiting past their dinnertime. They came close, so I reached out. Their fur was bristly and coarse, nothing smooth about it. They positioned their heads so I could rub their soft, stumpy horns.
“I’m sorry,” I told them. “I’m so sorry.”
And I began to cry. It was a deep cry that came from a place I didn’t know, and it wracked my whole body. I kept repeating that I was sorry, and the goats just stood there silently, letting me rub their heads, fighting for position under my chilled hand. It was the last time I would ever touch them. I would move out of my parents’ house in less than a month. In the spring, the goats would escape from their pen a final time and eat from the poisonous rhododendron bush.
Years later, having survived my initial foray into adulthood, I went to college and became a teacher. But my mother and I remained on uneasy terms, even after I got married, turned thirty, and had a child of my own. It wasn’t until this past Thanksgiving that a truce was reached, and my mother and I held each other for what seemed like the first time. How frail she was, I thought, my hands gripping her small back, how ordinary . . . how human. My mother kept rubbing my cheek and wouldn’t let me release her.
But on that awful night, as Dan’s headlights cut through the trees like buckshot and he sounded his horn twice, I stood shivering and convinced that nothing could ever be good, that living was not about avoiding pain, but about how much pain you could handle. I wiped my face and looked up at the night sky, then back toward the goats. I could hear them breathing, so I leaned closer, expectantly, as if waiting for something to happen.