When I was young, my father was heroic to me, was all I knew of religion. His word was the difference between pancakes and oatmeal, between Speed Racer and yard work. Every trip to the Food Barn was epic. We'd hop out of the car, and I'd try to shut the door in rhythm with him, like on detective shows when they meant business. He was heroic because I was a child, because my worldview didn't extend past Lode Runner, Train 9, or Warren Moon's rookie card.
The first time Dad beat me, I was six and the subject of my first-grade teacher's phone calls home. In those days, all the kids anyone cared about got beatings. But that black leather belt, folded on my parents' bed, was still terrible, and this was my clearest illustration that fatherhood was dictatorship, that its subjects were at the mercy of a tyrannical God.
By the time I hit Lemmel Middle School, my appraisal of Dad depended on the year, how I woke up, the number of hours I'd worked in the basement. There were days I would have wished him into nothing, so that I could be free to relish in dumb shit with all the other laughing, orphaned boys. There were others, when I looked around and saw that, though the birthright of every child was a manned fortress, we lived in unnatural times. All the guardians had fled their posts, and here was mine, his hand on his sword, his armor glimmering in the light of moons. Now he sat in his car, across from me, unveiling his true face, unveiling a tangled humanity that made all my foibles look elementary.