Daddy didn’t back down. He took a step closer and jabbed his finger right in Taylor’s face. “Nobody hurts your mama. Nobody makes your mama cry, hear?”
I didn’t say anything but I wanted to shout at Daddy that he’d made Mama cry plenty of times. But I couldn’t speak. I held my breath as the two men glared at each other. They were evenly matched. He was the same height as Taylor and nearly as broad. Taylor might’ve been through war, but Daddy had had more than his share of fistfights.
Then Taylor dropped his hands and clasped them behind his back. He stared straight ahead, legs wide in a military stance, seeing no one.
“He didn’t hurt me!” Mama shouted from the hall. “If you’d listened, I told you he didn’t know what he was doing. He grabbed me in his sleep. He wasn’t awake.”
Daddy rubbed his jaw, his breath coming hard with anger, but I could tell he’d heard her and was reining himself in. He couldn’t back down and had to save face. He looked around the room with disgust.
“Look at this place. It stinks in here! And you’re a Marine? An officer? I wouldn’t tolerate this kind of slovenliness on my boat, and I’m sure as hell not going to tolerate it in my home. What the hell’s wrong with you, boy? You’re making your mother cry, did you know that?”
Taylor flinched but he didn’t respond.
“As long as you’re living in my house, I want you up and showered and dressed like any decent person, got it? Then your mama’s going to clean this pigsty. You’ll help her. And you’ll stop smoking in the house. After the holidays I expect you to start looking for a job, too. Not just for the money but the direction. You need direction, boy.”
Taylor didn’t move, but his eyes shifted and bore into our father’s. “I’ve taken my last order. I’ll pack up and leave by the end of the day.”
I heard Mama gasp. “No!” she cried, stepping into the room. “It’s Christmas!” She turned to Daddy. “Stop this fighting, hear? I won’t have it!” To Taylor she pleaded, “Taylor, honey, you can’t leave now. Please, you just got here.”
Taylor frowned but said nothing.
Mama looked at Daddy again, her eyes begging him to say something.
Daddy adjusted his pants, stepped closer, and said, the anger gone from his voice, “We just want you to get out of this slump, Son. What you’re doin’ here just ain’t healthy.”
“You think I don’t know it’s not healthy?” Taylor responded with heat. “I’m not healthy.” He took a breath. “I have PTSD.”
I didn’t know what it meant. I looked at Mama.
She had a puzzled look on her face that matched mine. “I’ve heard of it,” she said. “It’s a brain injury, right?”
Taylor squinted, then said simply, “Yes. It’s a complicated disorder. It’s different things to different people.”
Daddy’s eyes narrowed slightly and he said bluntly, “It’s a mental illness.”
“A mental illness?” Mama said, shaken by the term.
“I’m not nuts, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Taylor said, unruffled. “But I’ve got issues. Clearly. Nightmares being one of them. They may improve in time, but they won’t ever go away. Not completely.”
“Uncle Tommy, Grandma’s brother, came back from Nam with something like that,” Daddy said. “He became paranoid and suffered headaches. He’d isolate himself in his woodshed. Days on end. We tried to help him. To get him to see a doctor but . . .” Daddy cleared his throat. “We lost him. . . .”
Mama gasped and her hand reached for Daddy’s arm. “Don’t say things like that. That’s not going to happen to our son.”
“Just sayin’. Better to know the devil you’re dealing with. Thing is, nobody called it PTSD.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Mama snapped at him. “Taylor’s depressed, I can see that. But suicide? It’s cruel to throw that ugly word out.”
“Truth is,” Taylor intervened in a dull voice, “some guys with PTSD do commit suicide.”
Daddy waved his hand in arrogant dismissal. “Those doctors are handing that PTSD diagnosis out to anyone with a complaint because it’s easy. Just a wastebasket diagnosis. I know what you’ve got. It’s called shell shock.”
“That’s enough!” Mama said.
Taylor said nothing but his lips tightened.
“You’re saying all this”—Daddy swung out his arm, indicating the disheveled room—“is on account’a your PTSD?” His doubt rang in his voice.
Taylor didn’t answer but rubbed his forehead with his palm.
“PTSD is for sissies,” Daddy said with bluster. “None of those namby-pamby excuses for you. You’re better than that. You knew when you went to war you were going to dance with the devil. But you leave the devil there. You don’t carry him home with you.”
Taylor dropped his hand and glared at our father. “It’s not like I have a choice,” he ground out.
Daddy pointed at my brother. “You do! You’re a McClellan. We get knocked around three times before breakfast out on the boat, then stand up for the next bout. We’re made of sterner stuff. And you’re my son. You can do it. I know you can.”
I could see Taylor shrink into himself. When Daddy pulls that McClellan card on me, it leaves me feeling like a loser, too.
“You know what we say on the boat—what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Right? Remember?” Daddy was gaining steam, thinking he was winning the argument. He pulled his pants higher and shifted his weight. “Well, tell me it doesn’t fit this situation we got right here, too.” He jerked his head in a nod, then put his hands on his hips and released a long sigh, letting loose the tension he’d held in his chest. “Now do us all a solid, Son,” he said, a marked change in his voice. The anger was gone now, replaced by concern and a bit of conciliation. “Go on and take a shower, shave, and make yourself presentable. It’d do you good to take a walk to the docks. Get some fresh air. Check out the trawler. Tell you what. Let’s walk out together and take stock. You and me. Same as we always done. Deal?”
Daddy held out his hand.