I began to understand the world the day my father read a newspaper article. Not that it was unusual for him to do so. He was a very lettered man, and most of the time, when not on the job, he could be found in his burgundy armchair, nose-deep in some sort of periodical.
“Listen to this,” he said to no one in particular. It was assumed that when he spoke, whoever happened to be in range would listen. At this moment, that was my mother and me. She was eight steps away in the green and white linoleum kitchen, and I was on the floor near the armchair, playing quietly with my pastel-colored blocks, almost close enough to touch him. My brother and sister were shut inside their bedrooms, dutifully fretting themselves over homework until the dinner bell called.
“Houston Chronicle, Section A, page eight,” he said in his official manner used for reporting facts, on and off the job. “Omaha, Nebraska. Gunman who took hostages shot dead by police sniper.” He put down the paper, and I processed this bit of news from somewhere far away. I had never heard of Omaha, Nebraska; I thought it must be at least in the next county.
My father’s black pine mustache and sandpaper cheeks flickered like a low, blue fire as he spoke. “Now that’s just not the way to do it,” he said. “Cops should’ve gone in there and looked him in the eye as they shot him. Sniper’s too impersonal; they never see it coming.”
Mother stole silently into the room to tell him dinner was ready, pleading, “Please, would you not talk about such horrible things just before meals?”
Unruffled, he responded, “The world and its horrible things don’t stop for dinnertime.” With that he reached out his right arm toward a large brass hand bell that hung on a hook on the wall, and rung it with three deliberate strokes. That was the signal to my siblings and me to wash up for dinner. Down the hall I heard two textbooks slam shut and two doors creak open. I lingered for a moment, transfixed by the paper still on my father’s lap and the news of swift, violent justice that it had brought. When he saw me unmoved by the bell, his mouth set a bit, and he murmured, “Get to it, boy.”
I jumped up with a snappy, “Yes sir,” and pattered down the hallway to wash my hands.
That was April 15th, 1982: the day I opened my unproven hand and found there a kernel of understanding, of violence. Unsure of the taste, I nevertheless took it like medicine, sensing that it would please him.