One of the Boys
My father was swerving around cars, speeding, honking. I rested my head on the strap of the seat belt, tried to ignore how fast he was driving, unsure if he was outrunning the storm or just angry with me. My mother and I had gotten into a fight. She’d called him to come pick me up from her apartment. He resented any dealings with her. It was midday, spring. A shadow crept across the fields. Crows looked on from power lines. The warning sirens wailed.
“Let me look at you,” he said. He thumbed my earlobe. “Well?”
I looked to the road to remind him he was driving.
“What did she tell you?” I asked.
“You answer a question with a question? She said you were out of control.”
“Why is your face so red?” he said.
Embarrassed, I went quiet, kept to myself. He knew I’d
been crying. When we pulled into his driveway, I opened the door. He told me to shut it. I slammed it too hard.
“I was supposed to go to the movies,” I said. “I’d made plans.”
“Before the tornado watch?”
He repeated the question.
“I told her I was leaving, and she blocked the door, so I grabbed the phone and ran to my room.”
“So today’s the day she decides to start being a mother.” He laughed wildly. “She had to hold you down?” he said, almost not a question. “Did she hurt you?”
I tried to remember. She had wrestled me to the bed. Then I was on my stomach. She twisted my fingers, took the phone. I tried throwing her off. That was when her hand holding the phone came down on my head. Now I fingered the tender spot on my skull, pressed it hard, wanting the pain, wishing the bump were visible.
“I don’t know,” I said. “No.”
“Did she hit you?”
“I don’t think she meant to.”
He pulled me close, put his arms around me, patted my back to the rhythm of the wipers. It was an awkward hug. The kind of embrace you give to a grieving stranger.
“It’s OK, son,” he said. “It’s OK.” He sat me up. My older brother was standing in front of the Jeep, palms to the sky, shrugging at the rain just now quickening. “Let’s go inside.”
* * *
My father equated the granting of privacy with respect. Even when our bedroom doors were open, he knocked, waited to be invited in. We did not yet know why sometimes, when his door was closed, he did not answer. Since the separation he’d assigned each of us our own bathroom. His was still the master, upstairs, the same one he’d once shared with our mother. My brother’s, the hallway bathroom, was on the same floor as our bedrooms. To decide who would get it our dad had measured the distance with footsteps—my brother’s door was closer than mine. Two floors down next to the basement was my bathroom. Only on those late nights when, staring out my window, cigar tip aglow, my father would whisper me awake, Be my eyes, was I allowed to use the hallway bathroom, and only because he’d entered my bedroom without asking.
Here, in my bathroom, the Weather Channel spoke to us from the television in the basement. My brother looked at the Polaroids developing on the sink top. The ghostly shapes taking my form. My downcast eyes. My messy hair I’d made messier, shirt collar I had stretched to look rougher. My father seemed displeased.
“You look too good,” he said. “You were in much worse shape when I picked you up, weren’t you?”
It was a question meant to convince my brother.
“Yes,” I said.
“Maybe more light?” my brother said.
He brought the lamp from the basement, plugged it in, tilted back the shade.
“Now, son, try to look how you felt when she hit you.”
My father pressed the button. A photo reeled from the mouth of the camera. My brother placed it on the pile. We waited.
“Lamp help?” my father asked.
My brother shook his head.
“Fuck,” my father said.
I held my breath, bit my lip until it bled, then took a bigger bite.
Two more photos.
“What do you think?” my father asked my brother. “What else can we try?”
“Makeup?” my brother suggested.
“You got any?” my father asked.
“Upstairs,” I answered. “Next to his dolls and tampons.”
“I could try slapping him?” my brother joked. “That might work.”
My father turned to me. “How would you feel about that, son?”
My brother started to say something, that he’d been kidding, but my father silenced him. I’d hesitated too long.
“I thought you wanted to come with us,” my father said to me.
“I thought you were one of the boys.”
“Swear to me.”
“I did already.”
My father set down the camera.
“Why don’t you make him swear,” I said, pointing at my brother.
“Because you’re the one who tells your mother everything,” he said.
“Please, just do it,” my brother said. “Just swear.”
“You can stay in Kansas,” my father said. He turned to walk out of the bathroom. “Your brother and I are leaving without you.”
“No, Dad,” my brother said.
“Fine,” I said. “I swear. Again.”
My father came back into the bathroom, picked up the camera. He put his hands on my shoulders, rotated me square with him.
“Close your eyes,” he said.
I closed them.
“I want you to listen to me. Are you listening? When you were born, I mean right after the birth, your mother didn’t want to hold you, either of you. She passed you off to me as soon as the doctor handed you over. I’d never seen anything like it. I mean, what kind of mother doesn’t want to hold her baby? I can deal with the fact that she’s never been much of a wife to me. But the terrible mother she’s been to you? That has burned me for years. Don’t you remember what I was like when you were young? Before the war?” War was the word he used for divorce. “I used to be a kid. We used to play together. The three of us. Remember?” Yes, I thought to myself, I remember. My brother and I are sitting on the carpet watching TV when suddenly we hear a low growl. We look at each other. There is no time to react. My heart quickens the instant before our dad on hands and knees crawls into the living room, roars. We climb all over him, working together to tackle the beast. “Do you remember, son?”
He squeezed my shoulders.
“This will end the war,” he said. “No custody. No child support. This will get us free. Free to start our lives over. You’ll see. In New Mexico I’ll be a kid again. We’ll all be kids again. How’s that sound? Isn’t that what you want?”
I heard my father load the camera.
My brother, I could feel, stepped toward me.
My eyes still closed, I locked my wrists behind my back. The beast is defeated, sprawled out on the carpet. My brother and I are lying on his stomach, facing each other. My brother’s hair is darker than mine. Skin too. His coloring betrays a natural alliance with our father. They have the same sleepy, smiling eyes, which in sunlight turn brown as a bottle. I’m blond like our mother, with her hazel eyes. My ears, though, are my dad’s, big like when he was my age. As the beast breathes, our heads rise and fall together, and with a smile he stole from our dad, which our dad probably stole from a movie, my brother’s lips reveal his top row of teeth like a slow-rising curtain. I opened my eyes. My brother’s arm was drawn back, ready to swing. I did not want him to hit me. I did not want him to have to hit me.
“Wait,” I said.
“What?” my father said.
In the mirror I remade my face with sorrow. This will get us free, I told myself. This was what they needed from me. With my right hand I slapped my right cheek. The left cheek with my left hand, then again, harder, alternating sides, following through a little further each time so that eventually my head turned not from the flinch but from the blow. With my right, with my left, with my right, with my left. I faced my father. “Now,”
I said. “Take it now.” I showed him my cheek. “This angle.” With my right, my right, my right. “Again,” I said. “Another. Take another.”
My brother pulled each photo from the mouth of the camera. My father kept clicking until the button stuck. After they developed, we chose five of the Polaroids to show Child Protective Services.
* * *
An hour later, rain streaming down the one window, the basement had grown dark. The three of us quietly watched the weather report. The storm, which at first had looked like an amoeba shifting across the screen, had become unmoving bands of red and orange, as if the television had frozen, or the storm had turned sedentary, a new land formation across eastern Kansas. My father was hunched over in his chair, the heels of his shoes clamped to the bottom rung. He was about to spring.
“Let’s go hunt twisters,” he said.
We drove to the water tower.
Darkness advanced, not from the east, but the west. From the clouds at the front of the storm there was lightning. An enormous flock of birds warped in the wind. My father offered a reward to whoever spotted the first tornado. We stayed there for some time, our eyes peeled, closely surveying the horizon. But we saw none and even
tually drove off. At home our fence had been torn from the ground. When my father saw the damage, he laughed and said, “Looks like the storm was hunting us,” and after we moved to New Mexico, he referenced this whenever something worked out, and also whenever something did not.