Zak SalihFiction / Number 97
They told him Father was sick. He was up in Sacramento, they said, at a hospital by the lake. Just like Camp Christopher, they said. He would get better, and then he would come back home. Father had driven himself to the hospital that morning, after Jimmy had gone to school. Grandfather had come from Cleveland to stay with them.
“Think of Ralph—” Grandfather caught himself. “Think of your father as a car. He’s driving along, but something’s off. Something catches every time he tries to speed up. It’s like he’s in the wrong gear.”
“It’s sort of like when you have two puzzle pieces,” Mother said. “They can’t fit together, no matter how hard you push. They just won’t go. So it’s back to the box to find another piece. Does that make sense?”
Jimmy, who was only ten, supposed it did.
“You can’t make this piece fit,” Grandfather said.
“Daddy,” Mother said. She gestured to Jimmy with her chalk-white cigarette.
Grandfather cracked open Father’s evening paper and cleared his throat.
Jimmy stood there in the living room, feeling stupid. He waited for Mother, for Grandfather to say something else. To explain what Father was sick with, why Father couldn’t rest in bed the way Jimmy did when he had a cold and the inside of his head felt packed with paper towels. It was like trying to understand what the other kids said when they spoke to you underwater. Like a secret message in the back of Strange Worlds or Chamber of Chills or Atomic War! you had to decode with patience and a pencil. Father had been quiet all month since losing his job. He talked less, slept more. Stopped drawing in his sketchbooks and journals. No more maps for Uncle Sam, he said.
Jimmy thought of Father at the kitchen table this morning, watching him eat breakfast. Mother had come into the kitchen with her red-rimmed eyes, Grandfather with his face of stone. When Father saw them, he reached across the table, took Jimmy’s empty cereal bowl, drained the gross leftover milk in two gulps, and smacked his lips like a cartoon duck until Jimmy smiled. Then he helped Jimmy with his books, his paper lunch sack. Jimmy hugged Mother (who smelled more like cigarettes every day), shook Grandfather’s hand (who’d arrived yesterday, unannounced), and hugged Father, who told Jimmy to have a good day.
Mother smoked her cigarette.
Grandfather clutched Father’s paper as if it might float to the ceiling.
Through the bay window behind them, Jimmy caught the flash of boys on bikes. His friends? He thought of grabbing his sneakers from the hall closet and following them out into the post-dinner dusk, running after them like he always did because he had no bike. Instead, he went to his bedroom, which he was forced to share with Grandfather. He stared at the half-made twin bed across from his own, wondered how long he’d have to endure the noise, the stink of Grandfather. The snores, like the old man was trapped in a ditch again fighting Germans. The farts, like a mountain lion purring under the blanket. It had been better when Father, after losing his job, had started sleeping in Jimmy’s spare bed—even when Jimmy wasn’t scared of the shadows the dresser made on the hardwood floor. Jimmy would wake in the middle of the night to find Father across the room, curled on the bed facing the stickers of planets and stars on the wall. Breathing softly, like a baby in a crib.
Father the broken car.
Father the wrong puzzle piece.
Father the sick man.
Jimmy, wondering what such a thing would look like, went to his homework desk, its outer edges crowded with scissor-and-penknife carvings: the crooked letters of his first name, an embarrassing spider with outsized fangs and ten legs, four weak attempts at copying the young trees in the back garden. He opened the top drawer, took out the sketchbook Father had given him for his birthday back in March. He plucked a blue pencil from its rubber-banded bouquet of colors. He turned the pages. They were rough and pulpy, but there were five hundred of them. From the living room, the voices of Mother and Grandfather sounded thick and dangerous.
Mother: “Tina hands out samples at Dale’s.”
Grandfather: “Hawking pound cake?”
Mother: “She could introduce me to the manager.”
Grandfather: “You deserve better.”
Jimmy couldn’t understand what they meant, felt reduced to the twerp some of his pals said he was. A weird little bug with an overactive imagination who, unlike Father, couldn’t draw the world right. Who drew Mrs. McKean’s breasts like traffic cones, pistols like boomerangs, tanks like coffins resting on doughnuts.
You have to be patient, Father always told him. If you want to draw things right, you have to take your time. You have to look at the thing. You have a wild mind, Jimmy, and that’s great, but sometimes it gets in the way of drawing things as they really are. You have to sketch, first. Don’t just draw but try to figure out how things work. Start with the ghost of the thing. And that’s what Jimmy did now, in his bedroom, while the night thickened outside. He focused on his wrist, his fingers. He worked in short, light strokes. A sketch, Father called it.
Mother: “There’s something for me here.”
Grandfather: “There’s nothing for you here. You want money, June, you need a lawyer.”
Mother: “I’m not doing that.”
More thick, dangerous talk. Then Jimmy heard the front door slam and knew Grandfather was off on one of the angry walks he always took when he came to visit. Jimmy forgot about the ghost and started drawing heavier lines. Angry lines. His fingers, his wrist dead weight dragging blue along the page, drawing Father as he might appear in a panel of Tales of Horror or Weird Fantasy or the other comics Mother forbade him from reading. Pockmarked with radiation boils. Shambling through moonlight and pine. Throwing up atomic blood that smoked and popped as it hit the trembling blue line of a forest floor somewhere in Sacramento.
Two weeks passed with no word from the radiation monster Jimmy was convinced Father had become. The secrecy, the seclusion, the kidnapping, the silence—it made perfect sense. Huddled under his school desk, trading zombie faces with Roger and waiting for the bomb drill to end, Jimmy thought of Father injected with some experimental serum at work, or maybe hit by a stray burst from some super-secret government ray gun. He didn’t share these ideas with his friends. He knew what they’d think, what they’d say about him.
He didn’t share them with Mother or Grandfather, either.
“Why doesn’t Father call us?”
“It’s part of his medicine,” Mother said.
“Can I write to him? Send him some drawings?”
“He needs to be alone right now,” Grandfather said.
“How much longer until he gets better?”
“Soon,” Mother said.
“Be patient,” Grandfather said. “It’s like spaghetti water. If you stare, it’ll never boil.”
That evening, Mother called Jimmy into the living room. He watched her put chalk in her mouth, light the tip on fire. Mother told him that because Father had lost his job, there wouldn’t be enough money for Camp Christopher. She was sorry, so sorry. But she didn’t look sorry to Jimmy. She looked somewhat happy to share her pain.
Back in his bedroom (his and Grandfather’s bedroom), Jimmy drew more portraits of Father, this time with a red pencil. Jagged cannibal teeth, the soup of a melted eye dripping off the edge of a cheekbone. He drew because he felt powerless to do anything else. Every mutation, every disfiguration was an act of revenge against Father. This would have made Jimmy’s third year in a row at Camp Christopher. Already, Jimmy saw the widening gulf between him and the other boys. Already, he saw himself in September, bitter and resentful, stabbing his thumb with pencil lead while Roger and Colin and Gregory laughed at him from underneath their school desks, all of them waiting for bombs that never dropped.
Jimmy turned to a fresh page. This time, Father dangled from trees by tentacle loops, scraped at a pile of red dollar bills that rightly belonged to Jimmy. When he finished, Jimmy tore the page from the sketchbook. He crumpled it and threw it, a worthless rock, at Grandfather’s bed, which Mother had made at some point during the school day and now waited, yet again, for the angry old man’s butt radiation.
School ended. Summer began. Father stayed sick. Mother read the back pages of the newspaper, made phone calls. Grandfather, it seemed, would be here for quite some time.
“Every family needs a man to take care of it,” he told Jimmy from behind the broken refrigerator. “Your mother isn’t good at being alone. Screwdriver. The small one.”
Jimmy tried to help Grandfather fix the broken things Father never could. The fussy toilet, the weak-willed oven. He thought he’d spend the summer that way, handing Grandfather tools, carrying useless bits out to the trash. But he wasn’t the best at it. Bored, he became careless. Handing over the wrong tools, carrying the wrong bits out to the trash. Then came the afternoon Jimmy dropped a box of lightbulbs on the floor and Grandfather said this wasn’t working out.
“Boys should be outside,” Grandfather said the next morning, eating burnt toast like a goblin. “I want you out of here after breakfast. Back home for lunch with your mother and me. Back out again. Home by supper.”
What would Jimmy do all day?
“There’s an entire garage of shit out there,” Grandfather said.
“Daddy,” Mother said.
“It’s going to be Camp Jimmy this summer,” Grandfather continued. “You’ve got the bat and glove, you’ve got the fishing pole, you’ve got the pellet rifle I got you for your birthday.”
What if it rained?
“Pack a jacket,” Grandfather said.
“I’ll give you money for the movies,” Mother said.
What if a bomb fell from the sky?
“Don’t be stupid,” Grandfather said.
“There won’t be a bomb,” Mother said.
What if there was no shelter nearby?
“Please don’t make your grandfather angry,” Mother said.
What if he got sick like Father?
Mother covered her face with her hands. Grandfather threw down his toast, leveled a fat finger across the laminate battlefield of the kitchen table.
“That god-damn-well better not happen,” Grandfather said. He was furious. “There’s already enough shame in this house.”
“Daddy,” Mother said.
Grandfather’s finger didn’t waver, so Jimmy had no choice but to turn back to his cereal. It was either that or start crying, and crying was for babies. Soon enough, Grandfather lowered his finger. The three of them, this strange new family, finished their breakfast in silence.
Roger and Colin and Gregory left for Camp Christopher, saying goodbye to Jimmy like a thing to be pitied. A spaceman stranded on the surface of a bleak planet. A pirate abandoned by his mates on an island shaped like a skull.
On what would have been the first afternoon at Camp Christopher, when the counselors brought the boys down to the water by the canoes and taught them the songs they’d row to, Jimmy took his pellet rifle into the woods around the park across town and shot at squirrels and blackbirds. He imagined their tiny bodies as agents of the summer’s unfairness, its determination to move ponderously slow. He tried not to think of the animals as Mother or Grandfather or Roger or Colin or Gregory. Or Father.
When Jimmy complained there was no one to play with, Grandfather ordered him to make new friends. At first, Jimmy went about the task with malicious glee. How powerful he would feel when Roger and Colin and Gregory came back from Camp Christopher to find he’d moved on, grown up, created a new world of his own. He took his mitt and tried to worm his way into pickup games of baseball with older neighborhood kids, but it wasn’t the same. They had different rules. They played with more venom. They slid, smacked, pushed. They paused the game to wrestle in the dirt. Jimmy kept his distance from these other games. He played it safe, in the outfield, until the afternoon when one of the wild boys caught a pop fly and kept running until he barreled into Jimmy with an Indian yelp, pitching Jimmy face-first into the chain-link fence that wrapped the ballfield, where they left him sore and ashamed.
After that, Jimmy kept to himself. He wandered around the small lake with his sketchbook and pencils. He tried to draw something real. A duck tail, a panting white dog, a mother easing her daughter down an aluminum slide, green and silver automobiles. Ghosts, he thought. Ghosts. Ghosts. But this was no way to draw, so his wild brain took hold again, embellishing these everyday subjects with dragon wings and rocket boosters. The world was so much more interesting this way. Jimmy kept some of the drawings in the sketchbook to show Father when he came home. Others he buried under the mulch of trees or the shade of shrubs for future archaeologists to one day discover, admire.
Tuesday afternoon, early July. Mother calling around to cancel her annual summer garden party, Grandfather farting on the couch and talking about lawyers, Jimmy at the park dangling upside down from monkey bars. Hanging there, Jimmy studied the inverted world, but it was no different than the world right-side up. Kids didn’t fall off slides or swings, city buses drove as straight as they normally did.
It was here, upside down, that Jimmy noticed the car pull into the parking lot across from the jungle gym. Long and low to the ground, deep brown like the tops of Mother’s Christmas cheesecakes. Jimmy squinted to see through the glare of the windshield, but he couldn’t make out much. Then a mother stepped into Jimmy’s line of sight and he couldn’t see anything until a car door swung open from behind her hip. A man emerged, wearing a plaid suit and a knotted tie, heavy sunglasses. Below his nose was the familiar moustache, clipped clean down the middle, stretched like bomber wings over long lips.
Jimmy dropped to the gravel. Right-side up again, he expected Father to have vanished, but Father was still there, waving frantically. Then he stepped back into his car. Like a jungle explorer through dark and dense undergrowth, Jimmy moved closer, and yes, it was Father’s car, and when Father leaned out the window with a plaid arm against the side of the door, Jimmy almost collapsed. It wasn’t that he wanted to cry so much as he wanted to burst like a water balloon.
“Hey, champ,” Father said.
Jimmy was close enough to the open window that Father could reach out for Jimmy’s stomach. Thinking of radiation sickness, Jimmy batted Father’s hand away. They were both quiet in the sun. Around them, children squealed and buses roared.
“It’s good to see you,” Father said.
“Are you still sick?”
Father looked down at his lap.
“Is that what your mother and grandfather said was wrong with me?”
Father nodded slowly. “I was sick,” he said. “Very sick. I had to go away for a while, but I’m all better now. Fit for duty. I missed you. I was parked across the street at home, thinking about coming in to see you. Then I saw you leave for the park.”
Jimmy fingered a patch of sunlight on the back of the side mirror.
“Hey,” Father said. “Hungry?”
“I had sandwich triangles.”
“Sandwich triangles aren’t fries, Jimmy.” Father smiled like he did when he gave comics to Jimmy behind Mother’s back. “Sandwich triangles aren’t a chocolate shake.” Father pointed a finger at Jimmy’s stomach. “Surely there’s room in there to help me finish what I can’t eat.”
“I guess. Yeah.”
“Hop in,” Father said. He took off his sunglasses, folded them into the pocket of his checkered suit jacket. He gestured to the empty seat next to him.
Before he could stop himself, Jimmy said, “Are you sure you’re in the right gear?”
Father blinked. Then he laughed.
Those were Father’s eyes.
That was Father’s laugh.
“Come on, champ,” Father said. He smacked the side of the car, turned on the ignition.
The seat leather was hot on the back of Jimmy’s arms. Father turned right on Alameda and headed west, away from home. At a stoplight, Father put his sunglasses over Jimmy’s eyes and Jimmy looked through them, past Father’s smiling face to the opposite side of the street. He saw a woman sitting like a slug on a bus bench. He saw two high-school boys from the baseball fields standing in front of her, arms raised, thumbs outstretched.
Father ate his hamburger, shared his fries with Jimmy. They dipped the limp potatoes in their chocolate shakes. Father licked the inside of his lips with his tongue, and Jimmy watched for radiation-rotted teeth to drop into his lap like loose change. When that didn’t happen, when Father handed Jimmy the rest of the fries like a well-earned reward, Jimmy wanted to wrap himself around Father and cry.
As Jimmy ate, Father put his sunglasses back on.
“I need you to do something for me,” Father said. “I need you not to tell your mother or grandfather I’m back. Not your buddies, either. We have to be quiet about it.”
“A secret mission,” Jimmy said through greasy lips.
“Like slipping behind enemy lines,” Father said with a smile. “So how about this? I’ll come to the park, during the days, after lunch. We’ll spend some time together, just you and me. We’ll think of a good way to tell your mother and grandfather I’m well again.”
Where would Father sleep until then?
“I’m at a motel,” Father said.
Wouldn’t Father be lonely there?
“It’s over by the airport. You can hear the planes go up and down all night long. Mr. Nelson lives nearby, too.”
Jimmy remembered Mr. Nelson, Father’s friend from work. He would often come over for dinner, always with a white square box of pastries from the Italian deli. After dinner, Father and Mr. Nelson would walk around the neighborhood to talk about maps. Work stuff, he always told Jimmy, you wouldn’t find it interesting. When Father lost his job, Mr. Nelson stopped coming by. Jimmy missed that delicate crack of pastry shell, the thick gobs of pastry cream.
“What kind of mission is this, Jimmy?”
“That’s it. Give me your trash.”
They pulled out into the afternoon. A block from home, Father eased the car to the curb, hugged Jimmy, told him to have a good day and he’d see him tomorrow. Running up to the house, Jimmy ignored the regimented rows of lavender Mother had planted that spring in a purple moat around the front lawn. He knew he’d catch hell for it later; right now, he didn’t care.
He told Mother he wasn’t feeling well, locked himself in the bathroom and pretended to poop for twenty minutes, then spent the remaining hours before dinner reading Kerry Drake: Detective with his bare feet pressed against the windowsill.
A secret mission.
If Mother and Grandfather could keep secrets, Jimmy could, too.
That night, he barely ate dinner. Mother frowned at the teepee Jimmy built with his green beans. Annoyed, Grandfather sent Jimmy to his room, where he turned to a fresh sheet in his sketchbook and started to draw Father. Not Father the atomic mutation but Father the spy, with blue sunglasses and a boxy blue suit. With a small blue pistol that looked terrible but still managed to fire twenty-three blue bullets at Grandfather’s craggy blue face.
The next day, when the hands of the clock on the tower in the center of the park made a neat line at twelve and six, Jimmy crossed the ball fields where he’d been drawing the older boys as Nazis to the playground parking lot where Father waited, as they’d agreed.
Father wore a short-sleeved dress shirt, the same dark driving glasses.
“Let’s go, champ,” he said.
Jimmy started asking Mother to pack his lunch in a sack so he could eat at the park, but halfway there, he’d throw the sandwich and apple in the trash. Father drove them to restaurants, where they ate in the parking lot with the windows down and the radio up. Pastrami sandwiches. Beef tacos and hamburgers. Soda and root beer. When it rained and Mother, behind Grandfather’s back, gave Jimmy money for the movies, he and Father sat in the cool, dark theater and ate stale popcorn and Boston Baked Beans while watching Popeye clobber Bluto. Several times, Jimmy took Father off the trail in Franklin Park to show how he could shoot, but he felt bad hitting squirrels in front of Father so he deliberately missed, making neat little holes in fat maple leaves instead.
One afternoon, they stood with fishing poles on the lip of the lake, but nothing ever bit. After, they sat and ate ham sandwiches Father pulled from a small picnic basket. Father finished first, and while Jimmy gnawed around the crusts, Father took a pen from his shirt pocket, folded a paper napkin three times into a neat square, and started sketching the lake grass in front of them. Jimmy knew if he tried to draw that grass, it would end up looking like crocodile teeth.
Father asked Jimmy if he was keeping up with his drawing.
“I’d like to see some,” Father said. “Bring your sketchbook tomorrow.”
“They’re mostly just monsters.”
“That’s fine. Someone has to draw them.”
At dusk, when Jimmy returned from the day’s secret mission, Mother called him into the kitchen. The oven hummed. Mother smoked. Jimmy’s sketchbook lay on the counter.
“This was on the floor of your room,” Mother said. “Your grandfather slipped on it. He fell on the bed, thankfully, but he could just as easily have fallen somewhere else.”
“I’m sorry,” Jimmy said.
“He was so angry he almost ripped it up. I told him to leave it alone.”
“Then I started looking through it.”
“Oh,” Jimmy said.
Mother showed him his silly spaceships, his rotting corpses and moon men. Then she flipped to Father’s picture: sick Father, with his boils and crab claws and toxic throw-up. She pointed at the fat blue triangles above Father’s lips. She turned the pages, pointed at more blue triangles above more blue lips. Spy Father. Weightlifter Father. Archaeologist Father.
“I know who this is supposed to be,” Mother said. “They’re not lifelike, but I can tell. I hate that moustache.”
Jimmy crossed his legs. He felt like pooping.
“Have you see your father?”
“You haven’t seen your father.”
“Jimmy,” Mother said. She rested her lit cigarette on the edge of the table. “Do you know what it feels like to be lied to? Not like how you lie to me about those awful magazines I tell you not to read. Not like how you lie to me about walking through my lavender. I mean really lied to. Like when something you thought was one way is actually another way. Something shocking. Like if your grandfather was really a Negro in a mask. Or your friend, Roger. You wouldn’t believe it, would you? It would be like slipping on this sketchbook you left on the floor. You’d be caught off guard, you’d hit your head, you’d be stunned. Probably you’d cry. But you’d also be angry at the sketchbook for what it did to you. Like your grandfather, you’d want to just rip it up. And then you’d get angry at yourself, too. For being so stupid, for not seeing the sketchbook even though it was lying there on the floor, right in front of you, this whole time.”
The urge to poop grew.
“Then there’s the world after the lie,” Mother continued. “When you have to start all over again. Like instead of going from fourth to fifth grade, you go all the way back to kindergarten. Spelling, reading, math—you’re not sure you can learn it a second time. It’s terrifying.”
Jimmy wanted to leave but knew that would be the worst thing. Ever since Father lost his job, Mother’s moods had been like atom bombs. You couldn’t plan for them, couldn’t stop them. All you could do was find a place to hide and wait them out, to hope you didn’t get radiation sickness.
Mother picked up her cigarette and squashed it against Father’s spy face.
“Your father is sick,” she said, “because he’s a liar. He lied to me. He lied to your grandfather. He lied to you. It’s a sickness, lying about important things. It’s the worst thing you could do to someone.”
Headlights swept the kitchen floor. Grandfather was back. He stomped into the kitchen, slapped his hat against his thigh. All three looked as if they’d never seen the other before in their lives.
“Go,” Mother said. She tore the burnt page out of Jimmy’s sketchbook, crushed it in her hand. “And please start drawing nicer things. Flowers, fish. Something real.”
The next afternoon, Jimmy and Father stopped to eat fish tacos at a roadside stand. Later, at Golf Kingdom, Jimmy putted tiny red balls while Father sketched the nearby juniper bushes on the back of their score card. The sun beat on their faces. Jimmy counted the lines of sweat on Father’s smooth head to ignore his own sticky armpits and inner thighs.
At the sixth hole, a storybook castle with a drawbridge over a small moat, Father sat on the stone ledge. He took deep breaths.
“Are you okay?”
“I think so, Jimmy.”
“Are you going to throw up?”
“No,” Father said. He looked at the turf between his legs. “Fish on a hot day. Bad idea.”
“When are you coming home?”
Father kept his eyes on the turf. He reminded Jimmy of Colin, perched on the time-out stool in Mrs. Walter’s classroom. Father took another deep breath, another, then turned to vomit over the other side of the ledge. Startled, Jimmy stepped back. He waited for the hiss, the smoke. He didn’t want to see what had poured out of Father’s mouth; he was afraid it would be blue.
“Let’s call it a tie,” Father said, wiping his mouth, his moustache with a yellow handkerchief. “Let’s go inside and play some cards.”
Father’s motel room was sad, as Jimmy had imagined, had feared. Inside, Father drew the curtains, snapped on the ceiling fan to its highest setting, and rushed into the small bathroom beyond the bed. The door slammed shut. Jimmy heard the clank of a toilet bowl lid, then horrible liquid sounds that reminded him of last year at Camp Christopher when he’d accidentally swallowed muddy lake water and pooped in his bunk.
Jimmy moved as far as he could from Father’s embarrassing noises. He sat on a chair by the window and focused on the two suitcases, open but unpacked, on the dresser next to the bathroom door. He poked at a graveyard of cigarettes in a plastic ashtray. (Father smoked?) He moved around papers on the table that looked like handwritten letters to people with official-sounding names like Director and Administrator and Judge and Esquire.
When he saw the sketchbooks, Jimmy stopped. He checked to make sure Father was still in the bathroom, then picked one up. It was more solid, more professional than Jimmy’s. He turned the pages, as quietly as he could. Here were Father’s ghosts. A flower, the same kind planted by the motel sign out front, unfurling in confident strokes. The geometric shields of a turtle shell. Ducks and swallows with tail feathers more refined than Jimmy’s could ever be. Jimmy slipped his left foot in and out of his sneaker as he kept on. He was entranced by his father’s talent, ashamed by his own lack of it. Now there were faces, bodies. Men’s faces, men’s bodies. Men with full hair and sharp chins and wide, black eyes. Legs and feet and hands like the dismembered limbs Jimmy piled at the feet of his cave monsters. Some of the men Jimmy recognized. Mr. Nelson. Mr. Finn from the hardware store. Was that Mr. Martin, who taught fifth grade? He looked strange out of his school uniform, in bathing trunks.
The toilet flushed again.
The faucet ran, stopped.
Jimmy closed the sketchbook just as the bathroom door opened. Father came back into the room, wiping his hands with a gray hand-towel. He looked pale, halfway a ghost himself. He smelled, too. Jimmy wanted to ask about the sketches, but that was dangerous. He and Father were spies together; they weren’t supposed to spy on each other.
Father asked if they could cut their day short. He felt too sick to play cards.
“We’ll go to the movies tomorrow,” he said.
“You can come over for dinner after.”
Again, Father made that time-out look with his face.
“We’ll see,” he said.
They stepped outside. Jimmy felt relief in the air, the heat even. He leaned over the balcony to spit, then noticed the bright green car parked right behind Father’s, trapping it against the curb. Grandfather’s car. Jimmy heard the sound of boots on the steel stairs at the end of the hall. Jimmy and Father turned to see Grandfather charging at them with his face on fire.
“Ralph,” Grandfather yelled. “You were told! You were told to stay away!”
Father reached for Jimmy’s arm, tenderly, as if trying to memorize the limb so he could draw it from memory. Grandfather tore Father away and pushed him by the chest back into the room and Jimmy was back on the baseball field with the other wild boys, watching Father stumble back onto the bed, hearing Grandfather make a sound like a bear and hit Father once, twice. Jimmy thought of Grandfather’s hands holding hammers and wrenches and cried out.
Grandfather yelled for Jimmy to stay away. Then he hit Father again.
“What have you done, Ralph?”
“What have you done to your poor boy?”
Grandfather dragged Father by his arms to the bathroom. Jimmy saw, briefly, something dark over Father’s moustache and lips. There was a horrible noise as Grandfather pushed Father through the shower curtain and into the tub. Then Grandfather shut the bathroom door and tipped over the nearby dresser to keep it from opening. He rushed past Jimmy, picked up the telephone, dialed the front desk, asked for the police to come to Room 204.
Numb, Jimmy sat in the chair next to Father’s letters and sketchbooks. He watched the bathroom door struggle against the weight of the dresser. It could be anything behind there.
A bandit with a smoking tommy gun.
A man-eating blob come up through the drain.
But it was just Father, begging Grandfather to open the door. Begging Jimmy. Jimmy didn’t want to cry, so he got up and moved toward the dresser. Maybe he could lift it, if he tried. Grandfather grabbed Jimmy’s shoulder, ordered him to go and wait for the police outside. Even there, Jimmy still heard Father’s voice, listened to it die down into soft moans and strangled whimpers. Sad sounds Jimmy never imagined any adult in this universe could make.
They told him it was time to hear the truth.
This was later, at the police station, a building Jimmy had imagined as something sleek, polished. Rows of steel file cabinets like ranked soldiers. Officers at target practice in soundproof rooms. But this police station was squat, disheveled. Even the Lieutenant who escorted them to his office (LT. WILLIAMS stenciled on the door) looked as if he’d just rolled off a park bench.
“Tell it to him straight,” Grandfather said to the Lieutenant.
The Lieutenant looked at Mother, at Grandfather, at Jimmy. Mother looked at the wall with its flyers of missing boys and girls, its blown-up photographs of bleary-eyed men.
“Well,” the Lieutenant said, searching for words. “It’s not like smallpox, Jimmy. Think of it…Hmm.” He looked to Mother and Grandfather for the appropriate words.
“He’s old enough to hear it,” Grandfather said. Which wasn’t true, because here, in this office, Mother’s hand clasped against his thigh, Jimmy had never felt more like a baby.
“It’s a sickness of the mind,” the Lieutenant continued. “But no less dangerous and contagious. Your father, you see, is a homosexual. A homosexual, Jimmy, is a person who demands an intimate relationship with someone of their own sex. They can be very nice to boys like you. They can give them money, buy them presents, take them to fun places. But they always expect something in return.”
Jimmy asked where Father was.
The Lieutenant said Jimmy didn’t have to be afraid anymore. It wasn’t healthy for Father to be around other people. Father would never hurt Jimmy or anyone else ever again.
Jimmy asked when Father could come home.
“He’s never coming home,” Grandfather said. “He never was.”
Mother started crying.
“June,” Grandfather said. “Go outside. Get some air.”
“I think that’s a good idea, Mrs. Barnes,” the Lieutenant said.
When Mother left, Grandfather leaned across her empty chair. He aimed his German-killing finger at Jimmy’s face and asked if Father had touched him.
“Don’t lie to me,” Grandfather said. “I knew you were lying to your mother when you told her you hadn’t seen him. It’s why I followed you.”
“It’s important you answer truthfully, son,” the Lieutenant said.
Touch him? What could Jimmy say? Of course Father touched him. Fathers touched sons. Bear hugs, armpit tickles, back pats, bandaged cuts, cheek smacks. Father dangling him by his ankles over the pier at the beach and threatening, through laughter, to feed him to the sharks. Father’s belt cracking against his bare butt that time Jimmy had tested out a new word, “bitch,” at dinner. Father’s hand brushing sand from his hair. Father’s fingers showing him how to hold colored pencils, how to treat them as if they were being controlled by something else. These were all touches, weren’t they?
“Tell us the truth,” Grandfather said.
“Be brave,” the Lieutenant said.
“All right then,” the Lieutenant said. He slapped a palm on his desk, sighed like Jimmy did when it was time to get out of bed and go to school. He leaned over and told Jimmy he’d done a good thing. He told Jimmy he should be proud. Then he told Grandfather there would be paperwork, lawyers, a court.
“Like I told June from the start,” Grandfather said.
Jimmy asked the Lieutenant where Father was.
“You’re safe,” the Lieutenant said.
Jimmy asked Grandfather where Father was.
“Let’s go,” Grandfather said.
The Lieutenant walked them toward the lobby, where Mother stood smoking in sunlight. He shook Grandfather’s hand, shook Mother’s hand, patted Jimmy on the shoulder. Jimmy looked back into the police station. He tried to see if Father was somewhere at the end of the hall. The secret spy unmasked, led to his uncertain fate in handcuffs. Crying out, as he had back at the motel after two policemen had arrived and pulled him from the bathroom like taffy, “My boy! My boy! Let go! Sid! Please, Sid, just give me my boy!”
Outside the station, Mother put her gloves on. Grandfather searched his suit for Father’s car keys. Jimmy looked up at the sun, looming bomb-bright over the offices across the street. He kept his eyes on it during the drive home. Through the backseat window of Father’s car, he tried to stare it down, without blinking, without crying. He tried to search for what he suspected was there: the hot white core of something no one else could see. A small, flickering phantom he could draw, maybe, one day, as it really was.
Zak Salih lives in Washington, D.C. His fiction and essays have appeared in The Chattahoochee Review, The Rumpus, KROnline, Apogee Journal, The Millions, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and other publications. His debut novel, Let’s Get Back to the Party, is forthcoming from Algonquin Books in February 2021.