Parental guidance was redefined in our household. FAMILY was just me, my sister Lynn and our father Punch. Yes, Punch, like the puppet whose face was all nose. Our mother had died when Lynn was five, and I was practically brand new. Punch never intended to raise kids, and he made that clear from the get-go. We were shuffled around to various relatives, friends, neighbors, and foster care, not to be his until we were both old enough to hold somewhat of a conversation.
Punch was the oldest of four brothers, all born to Anna and Louis. Anna was a backwater Pennsylvania farm girl, married late at the age of twenty-five. Lumpy, crow-faced, and lacking any elegance or refinement, she accepted the proposal from Louis, an Italian American near stranger. It was a kind of providence that fueled her unwavering devotion to him, despite her family’s rejection of her marriage to a dark-skinned Italian, and despite her husband’s eventual infidelities and habitual cruelties. Anna was used to cruelty. Her mother had been a beauty in her day and disdained her daughter’s lumpish countenance. “Mama, am I pretty?” Anna would ask.
“I suppose you could pass, on a galloping horse,” was her mother’s stock reply.
A legacy of cruelty runs through our family. Punch was a target for his father’s ongoing wrath. Every communication between them had a subtext of disappointment. “A son must hate his father!” Punch would tell me. Had I been more astute, I’d have benefited from his advice.
I was not the son Punch wanted. Is there such a thing as a manly boy? Perhaps had I been a Hardy Boy, or a Spin and Marty Boy, it all would have been okay. But I was not, and although a boy, I was, at best, boy-ish, a boy by default, barely a boy. Could Punch have sensed my queerness years before even I was aware of it? Did he hope to build in me a sturdy dam of shame to hold back, chock off, my true nature? Whatever it was, Punch’s disapproval came often, delivered in simple declarative adjectives. “Fussy!” he would bark, his face grimacing as if he'd had a whiff of something foul. "Delicate!" pursing his lips in a disdainful gesture. I'd accumulated a whole list of these words, an ever-growing inventory: sissy, baby, retard, orphan, wimp, sad-sack, little pussy—the last of which seemed, confusingly, more of an endearment—who doesn't like kittens?
Like a letter marked, RETURN TO SENDER, Lynn, and I eventually aged enough to live with Punch. “Don’t ask me for things. You gotta self-parent. Got that? It means before you do something, you ask yourself, what would a mommy or a daddy want me to do? Then you do that. SELF-PARENT. Got it?” If Punch was going to teach us anything, it was how to raise ourselves.
It seemed so simple, but we kept messing up all the time. Wouldn’t a mommy or daddy want me to have anything I desired? Like that Reese's Peanut Butter Cup in its shiny package? There are so many of them, and several fit nicely into my pocket. When we did get into trouble, Punch was inconsolable. “What’s wrong with you?” he’d lament, “Why do you keep getting caught?”
Punch could care less what we did, as long as it did not interrupt his freewheeling bachelor's existence in any way. He mostly stayed busy with projects that kept him elsewhere. One exception was his Big Hole project, a mystery excavation. Midweek in early summer of 1969, he began hurriedly digging a hole in the backyard. Every day he’d continue his strenuous efforts, making the hole bigger and bigger.
"Are you making a garden?" I asked. "With silver bells and cockle shells and pretty maids all in a row! Ding-dong, ding-dong!" he sang in reply, tilting his whiskered head back and forth like a ringing bell. After that, I made it a point to stay safely inside the house, avoiding the backyard. Day after day, I would look out the window, seeing Punch slowly disappearing from view as the pit deepened. It reminded me of pictures I had seen of World War I trenches, sans the barbed wire. As each day passed, mounds of dirt and stone surrounding his project rose higher. The hole looked like the foundation for an in-ground swimming pool that lacked a shallow end.
In the moonless dark of night, there were voices and commotion in the driveway. I snuck down from my attic lair for a better look. As best I could make out, several cars, headlights out, processioning up the driveway, crossing into the backyard. Knowing from an early age that stupidity can disguise itself as bravery, I crept back to my safe room. In the morning, the dirt mounds were gone, the pit filled. In its place were rows of newly planted grapevines, “My secret garden,” Punch called it.
Like Pipi Longstocking, I could mostly do as I pleased. The one exception was during what Punch called his “Wednesday Night Special.” As directed, every week, I would disappear for two hours so that Punch could have his Special Lady, a prostitute, make a house call. It made me think of the commercial, ding-dong Avon calling, but that was a different kind of lady. Initially, having to vacate felt like an affront, but I soon discovered that my peers would pay good money to see what an honest-to-god prostitute looked like. I often wondered if she observed us, legs dangling down from our perch in the large oak next to the house. If so, she played dumb, but always seemed to need to delay every few steps between her car and the house, fixing her hair, bending down to check her stockings, adjusting her bosoms—my charges got their dollars’ worth.
Under these circumstances, my sister and I honed exceptional grifter skills, perfecting a stance of amoral innocence One-upping each other was another family tradition. I'd made the mistake at age ten of bragging to Lynn about my accumulated wealth, totaling fifteen dollars. “It’s hidden, well hidden,” I replied to her innocent question of where my loot was stored. Search though she might, she would never find it, eager as she was to locate and plunder. She could tear apart my little corner of the attic all she liked; it was not there. My fortune was in place she would never think to look, safely stowed beneath the rug under her bed.
The following day, one of Lynn’s friend Sue was visiting. Pulling Lynn conspicuously aside, she was excitedly telling her all about her father’s new real estate venture, selling plots on the moon.
“The moon?” I said incredulously. Sue ignored me, “Lynn, your little brother is eavesdropping, and this is top secret information!”
"I won't tell anyone," I promised. Sue softened and said what an incredible deal it was for "those in the know."
“What’s the cheapest?” I asked.
“On the sun side, way too expensive, but he still has some plots left on the dark side at fifteen dollars an acre, a real steal.”
Of course, it was a steal in only one way, but I was hooked. My own piece of the moon! I did not mind being on the dark side, the attic was dark, and it suited me just fine. I forked over my fifteen, learning a few new swear words as Lynn discovered my secret hiding place. In a businesslike manner, Sue advised me to wait a few months, and expect a package in the mail with the land deed and all of the particulars.
I waited. And waited.
Lynn launched as required at eighteen, and it was understood that I would do the same. Now it was just me and Punch., and Wednesday’s Special Lady.
More and more, it was clear to me that my grownup Wednesday nights would not be filled with a Special Lady.
An R rating for the movie Boys In The Band meant that I would not be admitted. It was 1970, and I was just a year shy of eligible. My usual method for getting around the Motion Picture Association rules was to scrutinize the movie line and zero in on someone with a weak chin who might have trouble saying no. But with this movie, that seemed risky. I was curious, but not THAT curious. My only way in was to be accompanied by a parent or adult guardian.
"To pass my music test, I need you to take me to see a musical called The Boys In The Band," was my fabricated lure for Punch, adding the clincher, "my treat."
My generous treat was all his money, transferred stealthily from his wallet into my pocket on an ongoing basis. He was an easy mark most of the time, and when he did start questioning his thinning wallet, I would shrug and point to all the Chianti bottles, dead soldiers overflowing the trash can. That usually quieted him down.
I was taking a risk asking Punch to accompany me, “I really want to see this movie. It has men kissing.” That would go over big with macho Punch, whose name was germane both as noun and verb. It could all go south quickly, but, like my beleaguered grandmother would say, “I’ll jump off that bridge when I get to it.”
Standing in line for the movie, I had been smart to make Punch my date. All good looking older men, many of whom I imagined would happily have accompanied me into the movie, and maybe later for dinner, a walk in the park… Beyond that, my imagination shut down, I wasn’t ready, but perhaps this movie would fill in more blanks. Homosexuality in 1970 was officially a “paraphiliac disorder.” I had looked it up in the school library—urges and arousals of a sexual nature that are disturbing that involve suffering and humiliation. Sexual acts can include animals, children, and inanimate objects. The school librarian hovered nearby, likely made suspicious but a student in her realm appearing at all interested or engaged.
“Can I help you, young man?” she asked in a tone that suggested I was doing something wrong.
“Yes,” I said, “would my hand be considered an inanimate object?”
“Only if you were dead,” she sniffed, which put me much at ease.
Punch and I walked the length of the movie theater aisle to sit right up front. I did not want to miss a thing and didn’t want Punch to scope out the audience and put two and two together. He would, sooner or later, but at this point, if he stormed out, who cares? I needed him to get in, not to get out.
We sat in the darkened theater and watched the movie—high camp drama from the start. As promised, a lot of suffering and humiliation, but no children, animals, or dead things, just a bunch of men that Punch would likely call crybabies, or worse. This is it? Where’s the kissing? The nudity? This is 1970, not 1950. I could not figure what all the fuss was about.
Growing bored with the movie’s emotional machinations, I began to hope for Punch to cause a scene just to liven things up. I stole a few glances toward him, especially during the movie’s blindingly gay moments. He sat quietly, unfazed. At one point, I even wondered if my father had perfected a way of sleeping with his eyes open—with Punch, you never could be sure of anything.
At last, right toward the end of the movie, when The Boys are all weeping, hugging, flooded with a combination of self-loathing and hope, Punch turned to me and gave me a nudge.
“Hey, if this is a musical, where’s all the music?” he asked.
To this day, I marvel at the mystery of exactly how Punch saw the world. Banking on my good fortune and his curious obliviousness, I joined him in confusion.
"I know--some musical!" I said with great indignation.
“You got gypped, buddy boy,” Punch chuckled, “totally duped!” he added with satisfaction.
One of the many unintended benefits of having an unfit parent was my work ethic, born of necessity. If I wanted something, I’d have to figure out how to get it, and if I wanted to keep it, I’d better also hide it well.
Beyond my household duties, property care, cooking, cleaning, laundry, and food purchasing, I was also expected to work. This felt more like a privilege than an imposition. I felt sorry for my friends whose parents had big expectations of them. They would police their homework, monitor their grades, force them into activities they did not want to do to ensure they were “well rounded”—all of which seemed to make them miserable. They were powerless, and they envied my freedom. I liked running the house, and I liked working.
I worked at first informally, not being old enough for a work permit. I swept up hair at a barbershop, crackling with dirty jokes and lewd comments. Had I been more savvy, I would have learned a lot, but it was all gibberish, and I left there as innocent as I had entered. That led to tagging, washing, hanging, and bagging clothes in a dry-cleaning establishment's backroom. The owner turned off the exhaust system to cut costs. In response to my heaving and coughing, he promised, "You'll get used to it.” I quit after a month for the luxury of a fresh air paper route and a job at a pizzeria cleaning and hauling crust-filled garbage. Summers, the work was full time. During the school year, it was whenever possible. How I got through high school without ever actually doing homework is a wonder. However, the expectation for those of us relegated to the bottom of the academic heap was slim. Just show up and keep quiet.
My big break came when I turned fourteen, got my papers, and landed a job at Shop Rite Supermarket—a legitimate job with a real-time clock, just like in the movies with the thunderous click-clunk of punching a timecard in and out. We would line up every two weeks as the franchise owner showed up to hand over the pay. I was told his name but could only remember him as Mr. Shop Rite. He was amicable enough, although he worked at looking tough. A big man, greying hair, an ample belly, always dark-suited, end-of-day disheveled, he would hand out cash with a furrowed brow and a menacing scowl.
One payday a month into my employment, Punch showed up and stormed his way to the counter. "He's holding out on me!" Punch snarled at Mr. Shop Rite. I wasn’t. Why hold out on something I could retrieve later?
Now convinced that he was getting the full amount, Punch left pocketing my pay. Mr. Shop Right called me over. Feeling guilty and embarrassed, I started to apologize. “Here, this is for you.” Seeing my lack of comprehension, he smacked his palm hard against his forehead, repeating, “This is for you (dummy implied), not him. Hide it!” I received double pay from then on.
I worked at Shop Rite through high school, climbing proudly up the supermarket ladder from outdoor Cart Collector, to indoor Bagger and, eventually, the pinnacle of my Shop Rite career, Cashier.
Being left-handed guarantees a life of out-of-step yet felt curiously aligned to my burgeoning gayness. The cash register was to my right, while I used my left hand to move the goods along the belted ramp. Each price had to be hand-keyed into the register in the days before the easily scanned, multi-striped barcode. Having to use my uncoordinated right hand to strike the various keys made me the turtle instead of the rabbit in the cashiering race. “I don’t have all day,” someone might say, or “This must be your first day, right?” Management warned me, “Not everyone is cut out to be a cashier.” Speed it up, or so long Cashier, hello lowly Bagger.
Rather than suffer the humiliation of being demoted, I realized that if I hit the wrong numbers, people only complained of a higher price. Holding my right hand toward the bottom of the register where the lower numbered keys were, I could blindly strike the keys, turning, say, 98 cents into 34 cents. No one seemed to mind those errors. I slapped away at that register like a pro. My speed was impressive. Soon, long lines of people were waiting to have me as their Cashier. Other checkout counters would be empty, their cashiers at their stations, waving their arms, calling out, signaling their availability. My loyal customers looked down at their shoes, pretending not to notice. My long lines were becoming suspicious. Management questioned me about it, but I was ready for them. "So embarrassing," I confessed, "I tell all my friends, family, and neighbors to come here to Shop Rite for higher quality goods at affordable prices. I guess maybe they just really like me.” An insidious lie that management ate up. I was awarded employee of the month with my name chalked on the employee bulletin board in pastel colors.
Toward the end of my senior year, things had gotten progressively more difficult with Punch. On her own, Lynn was running up debt and enjoying what she called her “Party College Circuit,” moving from Florida to Kentucky to whatever school was the right combination of fun and cheap. The prospect of college, and the subsequent cost, loomed ahead for me as well. The promise that I would be eighteen and gone was still months away, so I did not see it coming.
Dragged from my bed, his liquor-soaked breath fuming, Punch was on the warpath. Having tripped over the vacuum cleaner that I’d left out in the living room, Punch intended to repair his bruised ego. Flung down the attic steps, I recovered my wits just long enough to make a heart-pounding dash to the second-floor steps. Then he was on me, spinning me around face to face. To secure myself from falling backward down the flight of stairs, I grabbed hold of the banisters on my left and right, arms outstretched, leaving myself wide open for blow after blow to my pigeon chest.
I saw two choices with crystal clarity as if stills in a movie: release my grip and fall headfirst toward the window on the landing below. My skull would crack the window ledge, hard—next a hospital bed, then a wheelchair, disabled—an outcome that would seal both Punch’s fate and my own. This vision had a dark satisfaction, an ultimate victory, as seen through a life-long victim's eyes. The other choice was more straightforward, let go of one hand and swing to my left, making Punch lose his balance while I ran for the back door.
Escaping across the lawn toward the street, he called after me— "Come back here, you little faggot, and I’ll kill you, just like I killed your mother.” Reaching the road, I heard him in the distance, “and I’ll get away with it again, too, wait and see.”
I was not going to wait and see. I would never live there again.
I slept for a few hours in a neighbor’s lawn chair until morning. Three rules presented themselves instantly regarding scouting out neighborhood yards for sleeping. No dogs (even the sweet ones bark at you). No outdoor lighting (the point is to be invisible, not center stage). Good quality outdoor furniture (wicker left a grid-branding across my cheek; scoring an upholstered chaise lounge was a jackpot). I woke up damp every morning.
Leaving town was an option, not finish school, but that choice would be Punch's victory, ensuring for me a lifetime of low wage jobs. No, with just over two months left, I'd finish school. The weather was warm, and I could come up with sleeping arrangements. I would no longer be splitting my wages with Punch, and I worked at a food store.
I’d been on my own all along anyway, just in a different way. Being untethered and intent on survival gave me strength, as did something new, a desire for revenge.
Lou Storey's writing/publishing history up to now has been a mixture of academic articles and issue-related essays. He published two short pieces on the topic of gay relationships in The New York Times and a COVID-19 poem. A personal essay appeared in the New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest Book. Numerous academic articles were published regarding LGBTQ mental health in Public Health magazine, and academic essays in the Foundation Theology Journal, The International Forum for Logotherapy, and The New Social Worker. Lou holds a master's degree in social work, a doctorate in psychology, and currently runs a private practice as a psychotherapist in Red Bank NJ.