EDITOR’S NOTE BY ANDY HUNTER
Assholery is similar to masonry, in that both are primarily concerned with putting up walls, shutting others out, hiding things, providing shelter to that which is vulnerable, and protecting that which we can’t bear to see exposed.
So it’s all the more fascinating when that exposure takes place. In Matt Sumell’s “Punching Jackie,” he exposes a broken promise to a dying mother: never abuse a woman. Sumell carefully unties and catalogs each thread that is woven into a moment of violence. In this forensic act, he quantifies the multitude of forces that move Alby, his alter ego, to punch his sister. How many moments lead to that moment? How many old feelings, wounds, frustrated ambitions, petty slights, rivalries, and even neurological and biochemical processes fed into that sudden fire?
Unlike masons, assholes like to destroy things. And when Matt Sumell punches holes in Alby’s walls, he reveals the troubled heart of a sensitive man.
Early on in writing classes, students are warned not to write dialogue that’s too on-the-nose. We use indirection, in life and in art, and people rarely say exactly what they mean. Real communication takes place in a sort of code that people in relationships learn — actually, they create it — over years of familiarity. Such cryptographies are naturally strongest in families, having had a lifetime (sometimes multiple lifetimes) to develop. The author’s job is to crack that code, which Sumell does poignantly, hilariously, and with great originality.
I published Matt Sumell six years ago in The Brooklyn Review, and we published him in Electric Literature two years later (twice), and again today. His book, Making Nice is coming this month. Every editor gets into the game to find powerful, original voices and catapult them into the world, but it rarely works out the way you imagine it will. With Sumell it has. Here’s a fierce talent whom the world will soon know.
Chairman and Founder, Electric Literature
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“Punching Jackie” by Matt Sumell
Thing is she didn’t think that pots and pans should go in the dishwasher, so I pointed out that there’s a setting on the dishwasher for pots and pans, just look, it’s right there, open your fuckin’ eyeballs. Well she didn’t like that very much and started in with this business about me being a loser headed nowhere and all that, which normally wouldn’t get me going except that it might be true, also ’cause it was coming from someone who supposedly cares about me and who I care about and blah blah blah I mean, I’ve pretty much looked up to her my whole life — she’s been like an older brother to me, but a lady.
Anyway she didn’t mean it I don’t think, maybe a little, but really it was just her best-guessing what would hurt me most, and I’d be lying if I said I haven’t done the same thing myself in arguments past. Just the other night even this girl in a bar was not nice to my nice friend James so I said, “Wow, that’s ugly.” When she said, “What is?” I said, “Your face. Now get outta here.” It wasn’t true, but I was pretty sure it would hurt her feelings, and as it turned out I was correct. I could tell I was correct ’cause she started crying and called me a fuckin’ dick, only when she said it, it sounded more like “deck,” fuckin’ deck! — and then she gave me the middle finger and headed off all wiggly-wobbly on her high heels in the direction of the ladies’ room.
Also, along similar lines maybe, any racial thing that comes out of my mouth, if not an attempt at humor, is meant only to injure. For example one time this Asian guy was walking extra slow across this crosswalk holding an orange, so I rolled down my window and said, “How about you just pick up the pace a little, Ninjerk. I got places to be and stuff.” I didn’t mean it, the Ninjerk bit, it’s just that he was pissing me off and I wanted to piss him off. I know there’s a racial sensitivity there, which minus the modifier is exactly like any other sensitivity: easily exploited. There’s no sincerity in it, only malice, which is exactly what I suspect about my sister calling me a loser, except she might’ve meant it a little. I’m not sure.
Either way it made me upset, and I slammed the refrigerator door so hard the milk exploded, then I turned around and told her to shut it or I’d punch her mustache off her face and watch it fly across the room like a hairy bug. Then I flapped my arms like I was flying, like a bug, like her mustache. Now, I know I crossed a line there, but I hope some people can at least appreciate how much restraint it actually took on my part to not just turn around and haul one off on her. Knowing some people will find that difficult to appreciate, let me employ this awesome analogy: my temper is like a rogue wave of weapons, and my ego is like the dam holding back the rogue wave of weapons from being unleashed on the townspeople/person, in this case my sister. Sometimes, though, the wave of weapons is too big or powerful or whatever, and some squeeze through a crack or splash over the top or whatever. It’s unfortunate, sure, but don’t I deserve at least some credit for holding back 99 percent of the entire wave of weapons that I could’ve just as easily unleashed on her if I wasn’t a good person/ego/dam? More important, she was making fun of the ego/dam, provoking it to break or whatever. So in a sense she was sabotaging me, like a fuckin’ saboteur. Like a fuckin’ dirty, no good, no pot-washing, dandruff-having lady saboteur. My point, then, is didn’t she, in some way, cross a line first? I think so, and that is number one on my list of seven excuses as to why it was OK for me to punch my sister in the tits.
1) She started it. I know that’s a childish thing to say but…
2) When adult siblings revisit the house they grew up in, they often regress back to behaving like children.
3) Sibling status overpowers lady status. Siblings don’t count as ladies.
4) Testosterone production has a direct link to aggression and fluctuates in response to competitive situations such as a tennis match or arguments about dishwashers or changes in one’s perceived status in a social hierarchy, for example a sibling hierarchy, or a dishwasher-deciding hierarchy, or a hairarchy of mustaches (in which case she’s the winner hands down). When disrespected, there is a biological response within my balls and they make more stuff that makes more aggression. Try as I might, it’s out of my control. This admittedly may be a weak argument, but the logic is the same as acting like an asshole then blaming it on PMS.
5) There is a certain clarity in violence. There’s nothing rhetorical or vague about it — it means only what it means, which if I had to I would translate as roughly: “I don’t like you right now, a lot.” Less roughly translated of course depends on the particulars, and considering these particular particulars I’d have to go with: “The fact that you are insulting me in addition to being more intelligent, eloquent, calmer, successful, plus have all your hair and an apartment and a job that you actually care about frustrates me so greatly that I am going to dominate you physically because it’s the only area in life in which I think I have the upper hand.” However you translate it, though, it isn’t really all that cruel or enduring. In my experience physical suffering is more transitory than emotional suffering. Words, on the other hand, do lasting damage. There’s no taking them back. Not really.
6) One time I punched a boyfriend of hers in the face repeatedly because she told me he hit her. Years later she admitted to me she made it up because she was mad at him. He died in a car wreck before I could apologize. Another time this jerk-off in a bar was being a jerk-off to her, and I told him to knock it off. He did, for the most part, and as I made my way back to the table she came running over to me and said, “So-and-So doesn’t think you have the balls to hit him.” I was younger (dumber) and drunk (extra dumber) and had a canine sense of loyalty, all of which she knew, so I’m sure she figured my reaction would be some version of Oh yeah? — which it was. I turned around and walked back over to the guy, tapped him on the shoulder, and slugged him in the ear, et cetera. That makes two out of an approximate forty instances of violence in my life that she in some way instigated, which if my math is correct equals 5-ish percent. My question then is, how can someone who has more than once taken advantage of what I consider brotherly goodwill cry foul when that sort of attention is directed at them? It’s all kinds of wrong.
7) She was literally asking for it. After I threatened her she got in my face and yelled, “You think that makes you a big man? Huh? You gonna hit me, big man? Well go ahead and hit me then. Hit me. Hit me. Hit me, you fuckin’ piece a shit.”
“I really want to,” I said. “Bad.”
“Go ahead then, you fuckin’ asshole. You’re a fuckin’ thirty-year-old fuckin’ loser, and you know what else, you fuckin’ thirty-year-old fuckin’ loser? Mom was right about you, you’re a fuckin’ abusive piece a shit.”
The backstory on that comment is that when our mother was close to dying, she called each of us separately into her hospital room for one last one-on-one conversation — the opportunity to say all the things we’d ever get to say. My sister was called into the room first, and my brother and I waited in the hallway quietly discussing Jennifer, one of the nurses. I told him she was so pretty that I wanted to see her nude, then have sex with her. In so many words he said he wanted the same things, so I told him to back off, but he didn’t, so we argued about it. After about ten minutes of this my sister came out looking pretty upset, so we went over and tried our best — which was not good — to comfort her, then asked what it was like. She told us what was said was private, but that overall it was nothing special, mostly a bunch of I love yous and I’m sorrys and basically amounted to an emotional goodbye. “Sounds tough,” I said. “I’m probly gonna have to have unprotected sex with Jennifer in order to deal with all this.” As I reached for the door I looked back at my brother and added, “Probly gonna have to suck her gazungas — ”
“Mom wants to talk to AJ next,” my sister said.
“ — I’ll lick them. What?”
“Mom wants to talk to AJ next,” she repeated.
“That’s fine,” I lied. And after AJ and I did some overly dramatic nodding at each other, he walked into the room and shut the door behind him. Obviously I was a little bothered by this because I assumed — I think we all did, after Jackie was called in first — that this thing was going down according to birth order, which would mean that I was next in line considering that I was next in line out of our mother, correctly by the way. Headfirst. So when she skipped me it stung. But, you know, I’m an adult — I drink coffee and stuff — even I can show a little grace every now and then. And that’s what I did. I waited quietly in the hallway with my sister, then quietly near the soda machines with a Hispanic guy in red Rangers sweatpants with tubes up his nostrils, not so quietly in the men’s room, and then quietly again with my sister. And when AJ finally came out I was the first to squeeze his shoulders and shake my head and say things like, “Rough, huh?” and “This is so hard,” and “Anyway… ”
“She doesn’t want to talk to you right now,” my brother said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Right.”
“Seriously. She said she’s too tired.”
“Well when does she wanna talk to me?”
“I don’t know man — like, maybe tomorrow?”
I thought he might be kidding, but after some aggressive back-and-forth about it I came to terms with the fact.
My mother remained too tired to speak to me for the next several days, and for the most part I think I handled it in an understanding, patient, and mature style, except for one incident down at The Wharf when I punched some guy’s hamburger.
On day three, my mother felt up to talking with me.
“Please don’t cry or we won’t get through this,” she said.
“Please. Let’s just say what we need to say to each other. OK?”
“OK,” I said, crying.
“OK,” she said.
“Should I go first?”
She closed her eyes and nodded.
“OK,” I said. “What exactly are we supposed to say here?”
“Whatever you feel you need to.”
“OK,” I said. “Well, I mean, it’s not a big deal or anything but, it doesn’t really make sense that you picked AJ to come in here before me. I mean, I was the middle child and he was the last and a C-section so… and then I had to wait so long and I got nervous about it, I thought maybe we’d never get to talk and I punched a paper-towel dispenser and some guy in the dinner and — Are you still awake?”
“Yes,” she said. But her eyes stayed closed.
“I don’t know why,” she said. “Is there anything else you want to say to me?”
“I love you?” Then I started sobbing.
“That it?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s it.”
She pinched the bed sheet between her thumb and index finger, then dropped it. “So you have no complaints about me as a mother or anything?”
“No,” I said. “You’ve been a great mom. I couldn’t ask for anything more. I had a great childhood.”
She nodded and squeezed my hand. “OK then,” she said. “Well, I have something I’d like to say to you.”
“All right,” I said. “What is it?”
“One time you threw a book at me. You were home from college, and you were really angry with me about something, and you threw a book at my head.”
I had no recollection of this at all. I wondered if it was the painkillers talking again.
“Did it hit you?” I asked.
“No. I ducked and it hit the wall.”
“Wow,” I said. “I really don’t remember that.” We blinked at each other. “Honestly,” I said, shaking my head. “I don’t.”
“Well I do,” she said. “And I’m telling you because I don’t want you to ever, ever, be abusive with a woman again. You can’t abuse women, Alby. I need you to promise me that.”
“OK,” I said. “I promise.”
“You promise what?”
“I promise I won’t abuse ladies.”
“Ever,” she said.
“Ever,” I said. “I won’t abuse ladies ever.”
“OK,” she said, rubbing my hand a little, giving it a pat and a squeeze. Then she said she was tired and asked me to leave. I stood up and kissed her on the forehead and walked to the door.
“I really don’t remember that.”
“I believe you,” she said. “Now shut off the lights, please.”
“OK,” I said, and flipped the switch.
Immediately after closing the door I rushed over to my brother and sister and told them everything, then asked if they remembered hearing about it. My sister said no, but that it sounded like something I’d do, and I told her to shut the fuck up.
My brother said he kinda did remember something like that, that he thinks maybe he remembers her telling him about it over the phone one day. I pressed him for details, then and on numerous occasions since, but the only other thing he’s said about it — years later over beers and a bottle of bourbon, after I got real pushy — was that it made sense because I was at the peak of my asshole stage back then. Then he paused and looked off and added, “The first peak.”
She died not long after, and after years of racking my brain over it I eventually came to some vague remembrance of the incident. Nothing concrete, just sitting at the kitchen table, a book in front of me, her standing there, the both of us yelling. That’s all. Of course that could be from any number of times we yelled at each other in the kitchen, or it could be complete invention, something I dreamed up in response to all this. Either way, though, I believe it. I believe I threw that book. I must have.
And now here my sister was using it against me, because she thought, correctly, that it would hurt. The best I could think to come back at her with was “Learn about dishwashers, retard.” She smirked and shook her head. “Also,” I added, “stop cutting the split ends off your dykey hairdo and leaving them on the sink ’cause it’s fuckin’ disgusting, and so is your dandruff. You should try T/Gel ’cause apple cider vinegar isn’t doing the job, you fuckin’ hippie asshole. And stop throwing your bloody toilet paper from your gross shaved legs in the bathroom garbage cause fuckin’ Sparkles fuckin’ smells the blood and then fuckin’ knocks over the garbage can and fuckin’ eats it. OK? And nobody wants to go to the bathroom and see bloody fuckin’ toilet paper in the fuckin’ garbage. So fuck you.”
She name-called me some more, so I mocked her in my mocking voice. I went: “This is you: I’m too busy doing important artwork to be considerate of other people and clean up after myself so instead I’m gonna cover every flat surface with my shit so other people can’t eat at the table without moving my shit around. Also, I’m a dumb cunt. That’s you, you dumb cunt.”
With that she began shoving me through the doorway yelling, “Get out! Get out! Get the fuck out!” And I’m not kidding when I say she’s super strong and almost had me out, and I wasn’t putting up much of a fight at all, was almost willingly going, and then I just thought: No, you get out. As she shoved me again I grabbed her shirt, and honestly it was a case of being stronger than I think I am, because she kinda went flying through the air and landed on the ground on her back. We were both shocked, me probably more so. She got up quick though and charged, dealing punches left and right (add that to the list: #8 — she hit me first), which didn’t accomplish much except to back me up a few feet into the kitchen. Eventually she stopped to survey the damage, and I grinned at her. She charged again, swinging wildly, and I blocked what I could, then shoved her off. When she came at me a third time I threw one medium-powered punch at the middle of her chest that kinda skimmed over the right tit and landed solidly on the left, sending her backward over the dishwasher door, which was still open with plenty of space available for pots and pans. There were, however, a few utensils in the utensil holder thing, including a knife with I think cream cheese on it that she grabbed on the way up. I turned and ran. I’d just made it outside when I heard it bang off the back of the back door.
We avoided each other for the rest of the night and most of the following day, until our father came home from work jacked up on Ritalin, acting like a dick, the specifics of which I don’t recall and which don’t matter. What does matter is that shared suffering can lead to a sense of solidarity — false maybe, temporary for sure — so we ganged up on him till he fled up the stairs to his room to play Sudoku or some shit on his computer. My sister and I spent the next few hours at the kitchen table guzzling whatever alcohol was left in the house, pledging allegiance to each other, promising it wouldn’t happen again, that we’re sorry, we’re sorry. We’re so sorry.