When my son Zak was six or so,
he’d invite to spend the night
a couple of cousins and a friend or two.
They’d behave tolerably well, watching movies
banned by their mothers until midnight,
inhaling soda pop, eating chocolate in pound lots,
dining on ice cream sundaes and sugary foods
that in retrospect, as a parent, I regret.
When their blood sugar reached a certain stage,
they’d engage in roughhouse, fight and skirmish,
browbeat and brawl reaching for a bombastic bluster—
at which point modern tradition led my son
to formally ask, as if for sacrament,
‘Father, torture us! Torture us, I beg you!’
The other children, familiar with our practice,
would cry, ‘Torture! Torture! Please torture us!’
The torture they refer to is that I chase them
around the house, a broiling free-for-all
in an enormous circle made by the kitchen,
living room and TV den; I take out after them.
The children run like lunatics on fire
bouncing through the house,
skidding around corners,
jumping over and onto couches and chairs,
gleefully yelping, scrabbling, falling
but never stopping they’d roll and scramble
back to their feet, hurl pillows and cushions
in my path, nearly hysterical to escape
an ancient life threatening ritual.
Some split off from the pack to hide,
every child for himself in a riotous rhubarb
until I track them down.
The torture, a mixture of Indian wrist burns,
industrial tickling, gouged collarbones
and other forms of juvenile tribulation
was at worst… nothing really,
except a chance to fall to pieces,
taunted by the swifter crowd
who surround the captured child,
to swagger and dance their guts out
celebrating the failure of the fallen.
The relentless harassing nature of the chase
brought delirious tears of joy to the young primitives;
but the torture, while admired
and cherished for its hands on inspiration—
seemed somehow lacking to me.
Though the children demonstrated real fear,
often nearly breaking into tears
at being so persistently bird-dogged,
I thought the chase could be better served
as an ordeal
if the consequences were more traumatic.
No lasting injury could be tolerated of course;
the mothers already saw me
as a renegade who needed curtailing.
Bitter moms still held memories of skinned elbows
and a bloody lip collected
during a midnight dark basketball game. So…
on this midnight I let the children escape
longer than usual while I mused
over new and unproved forms of torture
that left no proof or mental stigma, and yet…
I stopped by the refrigerator.
The pack I’d been leisurely chasing
caught up with me from behind—I roared
and sent them off screaming and chortling.
The whimsical genius in me
who likes to gratify his little children’s
love of persecution and the weird in general,
suddenly saw in a jar of mustard,
a new and diabolical way
to inflict distress on my young charges.
The urchins knew I’d stopped the chase—
they hid in the living room
and sent a small scout crawling on his belly
to test how volatile the kitchen might be.
I bayed like an entirely unstable lion,
sending the whole pack screaming
in circles of euphoria.
Unobserved, I opened the mustard,
scooped out just a touch, shut the jar,
quietly placed it back in the refrigerator,
turned out the lights one by one
till the entire house was worried and dark,
all the while snarling deep in my chest,
a dysfunctional and troubled werewolf.
The dark house wasn’t a new ploy,
but effectively caused the little children
to run and moan with fear and joy.
Now silent, in a crouch, made my way
into the living room, behind the couch,
to wait for an experimental victim,
mustard on my fingertip,
listening to them whisper, planning nonsense.
Jaren, my nephew, careless and crazy,
stumbled against me in the dark and shrieked
‘Uncle Jim’s in the living room! Run!’
Because of the mustard
I didn’t grab him as well as I might.
Jaren writhed, struggled and got away,
the whole group broke as one
and ran for their lives.
I loped after them,
knowing that one would fall
or be purposely tripped by his fellow pranksters;
and sure enough, Jaren fell and I was on him.
He screamed, ‘Noooooo!’
Upon occasion, the entire group would leap on me,
pummeling, barking, gnawing, pinching,
attempting to free their compatriot.
But on this night they chose to circle around us
to dance and mock. I held Jaren down,
my elbow against his chest, found his face
in the dark and stuck the dab of mustard
in his mouth just as someone flipped on a lamp.
Jaren’s entire body and face went limp
surprised as anyone who’d ever lived,
he choked, gagged and screamed for real,
‘AHHHHH! What is that!?’
He spit, writhed and fought
like a maniac in a comic book.
‘It tastes like bug guts!’
Now that he’d been properly tormented,
I released him.
He jumped to his feet gagging
and giving witness, ‘Oh… My… God,’
sincerely seeking communion with the Almighty.
He started to retch again.
‘I’m gonna throw up. What was that?’
‘Torture,’ I said.
All five of the little desperadoes
looked at me with new respect and old fear.
Jaren started to cry, they all retreated
towards the TV room, keeping me in their sights.
I suppose they held a meeting,
while I sat on the couch and rested.
A few moments passed; they peeked around the corner
from the far end of the room,
all five including Jaren,
and appealed quietly, with new gravity,
‘Torture us.’