Otto Gunther Octavius’s father came home from the factory, his eyes glassy and tired, his face locked in snarl ready for some home combat. His face soiled with grease and his clothes a rumpled mess, those soiled with years and years of fingers and palms wiping off the dirt. A hard twelve hours of manual labor, and demands and insults from his superiors, and heckling and screaming with his fellow workers, and he still had to come home, fight with those closest to him. Again, he walks through that door and, amidst the same smells of boiled vegetables and meat and the same mechanical grease smell that he had in his nostrils all day here in his home or maybe it wasn’t really in the house but had been burned into his nostrils so that he could smell it at all times, there’s the boy, standing there with that dumb look on his face even though the kid was smarter than anyone within five counties, without his glasses. He’d need another new pair because he was blind as a mole without them. He’d fall into the river and he’d not be able to get out because he couldn’t see and because he was physically a weakling and would just flail and flop and splash the water like a spastic duck until he sank and drowned.
All I work for, he screamed, is buying you new glasses. He turned to Marie, his wife and the boy’s mother, and said, what’s wrong with this boy, can’t you do something about him, he’s taking food away from our mouths, your mouth. He moved closer to her, his index finger firm and outstretched and pointed like some sort of demented appendage knife. She backed away from him, as she usually did, and flinched with every movement of that hand, as she always did, because that hand was capable of striking, as it had done many times before, with stinging ferocity across the face, blasts that knocked her to her knees.
The boy can’t do anything about the school bullies, said Marie, defending him, as she often did, not afraid no matter the consequences. He’s a smart and gentle kid and they take advantage of that. He’s smarter and more gentle than either of us, probably both of us combined. Then you come in here and do the same thing to him, like it’s not enough he gets it at school from mean kids.
You mean, like this, he said, unleashing the back of his hand to her jaw, forcing a scream from her, sending her twisting away, her face turned from both of them.
The boy was watching, glancing down at his feet every now and then but still unable to not look up, see what was happening. His father turned to him, brought that dagger finger out, came toward him with it.
Don’t you understand, Otto, that you can’t just sit there and take it. Otto looked around his father, this creature that looked as if he had just climbed from a sewer or some netherworldly realm, and saw his mother, back turned, hands bracing herself on the counter, her voice mumbling. She was likely praying, as she often did. Here was someone, his mother whom he loved, who was just sitting there and taking it, he thought, but didn’t say it, because he knew that would send his father over the edge.
His father kept walking toward him and Otto kept moving backward until he stopped at a wall.
If someone hits you, Otto, what do you do? The boy shook his head, afraid his father was going to show him by example. His father punched the wall next to him, coming down on the side of his fist and not hitting it full on with his clenched knuckles. Both arms were now out and though he hadn’t planted both of them so they touched and boxed him in, Otto knew he was trapped anyway.
He often thought, what if these arms and legs were more powerful than what he had now, what if he could just use his hands to grab his father’s arms and just toss him aside, what if he could just kick his feet and collapse his father’s legs out from under him, have him fall to the ground on his knees?
He often looked at his father and thought, never expressing this thought, I’m never going to be like you. I’m not going to be an angry bitter violent person who turns on his family and who is just a prisoner of this world, someone who is mired in its filth, lets himself be smeared black and have his back broken to make a paltry salary. He swore he would be someone else, a person who uses his intellect to make his way in the world, a person who does things beyond helping himself.
As he was pinned by his father’s presence, his mother came from out of her daze and said, leave the boy alone, your tormenting him like you do all the time. I’m not tormenting the boy, Marie, I’m trying to teach him a lesson about life. You teach him about nothing, she said. No, I’ve taught him the important stuff—how you defend yourself and you don’t back down, don’t take guff from spineless bullies.
He stared down Marie, turning his attention away from Otto. His face folded into a snarl, his eyes turning hangdog, melting away to the floor, the man in desperate need of sleep, rest, a new personality. I hate you, Otto thought, looking at the side of his face. I hate you. How to escape, he thought, with arms and legs so small, how to make him pay.
His father turned from both of them and said, what’s for dinner, woman, I’m starving. The monster, steam blown off, sat sedate, waiting for service.