Creative Nonfiction: Our Familiar Faces by Will McMillan

Chris_and_I_for_Essay_1

Photo by Melba Godleske

A dozen thunderous whacks on the door. Dull wooden thuds, muffled explosions, snapping the air into pieces. Like someone’s banging against the lid of a coffin, I think, watching my father wield his fist as a flesh and bone hammer. I’ve done my best to keep clear of those fists, to keep them from making sounds off of me.

I shiver, standing next to my brother. He shivers next to me. Both of us silent, barely aware of each other. Both of us next to and staring up at our father, hot winter breath steaming out of his nostrils. It’s another early morning on another weekday, another day we should both be in school. Fingers jammed into my frail winter jacket, I let my mind drift backward in time. How many days has it been? How many days of school have we missed? How many days of cold, early mornings, shivering from the cold, from the fear, staring up at a giant, forced to ride along with him, as he chased after her?

Again, our father’s fist strikes the door. Boom! Boom! Boom! Followed with a thunder strike from his voice. “Open the door, God damn it! I know you’re in there!” And we shiver, my brother and I, from the cold, from the strikes. “Open up this God damned door right now!”

I look at Chris, wanting to ask him. Is it mom he’s yelling at? Or the man she fell in love with?

***

It was a quiet Sunday morning when it happened. When we awoke to discover a note from our mother, scotch-taped to the fridge while we slept. She’d fallen in love with another man and she needed to see where these feelings might take her. She had to do that on her own. Goodbye, she’d said at the end of her note. Stay happy. Stay healthy. Stay well. Our father ripped the note into pieces, just as he’d ripped her other notes into pieces, a perpetual confetti of mounting disloyalty. She’d followed new feelings of love before, after all.

But all those other loves were supposed to be over. We’d moved into a new house, hadn’t we? And not just a new house but our very first house, and allegedly into a new place in our lives. No more notes, no more new loves. Except here we were. She’d left us again, now one time too many, and our father couldn’t wait for his wife to return. This time, he’d bring her back on his own.

Boom! Boom! Boom! Another half dozen whacks. Another strike from his voice. “Open this door! Open it or I’m breaking it down!”

Her note was still on our carpet in tatters when our father ordered his boys to get dressed. Still laying in tatters as he got on the phone, calling her friends and her family for clues that, by the shouts and barks of our father, they were reluctant to give. There was only one belt on the passenger seat of his truck, and my brother and I shared it together, smashed hip to hip, the belt snaked tight around our waists. Our legs dangled above the floorboards as our dad drove up and down streets we’d never driven before, through neighborhoods nowhere near our neighborhood, into cities miles away from our city. Every woman with a white and blue coat. Every woman with blonde, shoulder-length hair. Every woman holding hands with her children. Everyone, for a moment, was our mother. One day of searching bled into a second, and when it became clear there was no end in sight, our father pulled his sons out of school. Now, the days were for searching, Chris and I tethered beside him. Every night was for phone calls, our father pacing the stained linoleum in our dim, yellow kitchen. No matter where we might hide in our house, my brother and I could hear him, his shouting. Every friend she had, every brother and sister. Liars. Traitors. Couldn’t be trusted as far as he could throw them. They were all in it together, plotting against him, keeping his wife out of his reach.

“They’re all fucking cheaters themselves,” said our father after one particular evening of calls. My brother and I sat quiet at the dining room table. From a burnt saucepan, he slopped sticky, tasteless, bone-colored noodles into our bowls. Our dinner. “No wonder they stick up for your mother so much.”

***

Boom! Boom! Boom! “Open this God. Damned. Door!”

Someone, during one of the nightly phone calls, let something slip, leaked some news to our father, and the next morning here he was with his children. At a stranger’s apartment, supposedly the new love of our mother, pounding on their door. Over the sound of his banging, above the sound of his shouting, I can hear scrambling on the other side of that door. Our father can, too. Along with the scrambling, the sound of a voice. A man speaking in fast, broken sentences. If he is only half as afraid of my father as I am at that moment, I couldn’t blame this man for scrambling. I couldn’t blame him for letting the door split to pieces rather than confront the person who could make it shudder so hard.

Footsteps approach. The scratch of a sliding chain lock. I watch as the door opens in slow, cautious inches. I listen as a wavering voice speaks s out. “Hey…oh, hey.” Compared to our father, this someone, this maybe new love of our mother, appears hardly more than a boy. Slight, pale, with frizzy brown hair sprouting from his head in thin patches, an attempt at a mustache sprayed over his narrow, upper lip. His blue jeans flap on baseball bat legs. Barely half as tall as our father, nowhere as wide, nowhere as lethal. His hand quivers as it strangles the doorknob, his eyes bouncing from my father to Chris, then me. I suck in my breath.

“Oh hi!” says our father. “Is my fucking wife in here with you? You mind if I take a look for myself?”

This man at the door, caught in the menacing gravity of our father, is reduced to nothing more than a shadow. Our dad bulls his way in, my brother and I at his sides, a trio storming the apartment together. His power is tangible. A power that, when not being used on his children, his wife, can be turned as a shield to protect us. I fear nothing as I walk through the house of this stranger, aware I can touch, can examine anything that I want. Tapping into it, our dad’s fury is a shelter that makes me invincible.

“Melba! Melba!” He roars through the kitchen, the living room, the bathroom. Past laundry in a wad on the couch. Past a sink clogged with dishes. When he comes to a closed door at the end of a hall, what we recognize as the door to a bedroom, he pauses. “Is she in here?”

The man takes another moment to stare, his eyes pinballing between us. In his fear I see no recognition, no indication he’s seen us before. For my father and Chris, it’s possible. But for me, it’s different. As soon as he’d opened his door, as soon as his gaze met with mine, it didn’t matter if he thought he’d never seen me. Thanks to our mother I knew I’d seen him.

***

“Is Ken here today?” our mother had asked the checker weeks before, her arms weighted with bags full of groceries. She hovered at the end of the checkout, squinting under a swarm of dangling fluorescents. The checker pulled a mic from under her counter. Her voice crackled with static as she called out the name my mother requested. A moment later a man emerged from the aisles. Not particularly tall, with tight, curly brown hair and a whisp of a mustache. His apron hung snug to his diminutive body; nametag fastened to the left of his chest. KEN. Scrawled in black letters. Below it, the grocery store name, the grocery store where our mother shopped, it seemed, every day. She smiled when she saw him appear, and he smiled at the excitement he must have seen in her eyes, oblivious to me or anything he might have seen living in mine. Between my mother and Ken, I barely existed. If there was a future they imagined together, standing face to face in the store, in that moment, bathed in vicious, overhead light, surrounded by cereals and meats and everyday shoppers, it was a future that existed only for them. No one in that store, no one in the world except them, had to matter.

***

“Is she in here? Is my wife in your bedroom?!”

Ken holds his breath, as if running responses back and forth through his mind. “She’s not…she’s not in the bedroom.”

The hinges on the bedroom door squeak, as if protesting, when our dad turns the doorknob. When we walk in the room. At once, the air bites my lungs, and though I have four walls and a roof all around me, goosebumps explode on my flesh. Clothes litter the worn, shag carpet. Two glasses, half-filled with what looks like grape juice, sit on top of a dusty end table. Blankets the shade of smeared chimney soot hang off one side of the bed in a tangle. Chaos fills this room even more than the cold, and I keep sneaking peeks at our father, whose lack of patience for messes is legendary. I watch for his fury to strike, but he’s staring above the bed, at a wide open window.

Our father points. “Not in here now, but she was a few minutes ago, right?” Ken keeps his mouth shut, letting a burst of shrill February wind do the talking. Thin as moth wings, curtains on either end of the window flap.

“You boys stay in here. I want to talk to your mom’s new little friend outside for a few minutes.”

Our father takes Ken out of the bedroom, forcing him to lead the way through his home. We hear the front door slam as they make their way out. Just me and Chris in the room, I notice a bright swatch of blue on the bed, a zig zagging pattern within the wad of the blankets. I could have spotted that design in the dark, I’ve seen it so many times before now. Fishing my hand through the covers, I pull out my mother’s white winter jacket, a lightning bolt of blue crisscrossing the back and the sleeves. I can still feel her warmth, still smell her scent, radiating from her jacket and onto my fingers. Outside, rain pours from thick clouds, melting late winter earth into puddles. And somewhere, between one drop of rain and the next, our mother is rushing away. In such a hurry to escape from her children, she’s left her jacket, all that could protect her from freezing, behind. I show the jacket to Chris.

“This is mom’s.”

He touches a sleeve. “I know.”  We stare at the blue, zig zagging stripe, then at each other. So consumed by the force and fury of our father, in this moment and so many moments, my brother and I barely know what to say to each other.

I take a deep breath, her jacket up to my nose. It’s as if I’m holding a piece of her flesh that she’s shed, some sacrificed part of herself left behind, in order to become something more than she is. To transform into some other creature. So many times, too many times, I’d felt the weight of my father’s hands on my skin, felt the weight of his words through my body, and wished that I, too, could escape. That I could shed the skin that I knew and emerge as someone else, somewhere else. I can understand the want for that with my mother. She’d felt heavy hands and words many times. I knew how she must have longed to transform, to change. If only she knew how badly I wished we could both change together.

“Boys!” our father shouts. “Come on!”

I fold the jacket back into the twist of blankets, as if I’d never seen it at all. Chris and I march out of the bedroom, out the apartment’s front door, to where our father stands, watching and waiting. Ken stands off to one side, arms crossed as if he’s spoiling to argue, to fight, yet tears reveal a different sort of truth in his face. Barely seven years into life, I knew just how he feels. Our father has a way with his words.

***

Dangling our feet above floorboards, Chris and I crowd our faces against the passenger door window. Ken’s apartment fades behind us, dissolving behind a curtain of rain.

“Where do we go now?” asks my brother. A long morning already, he knows it could become a long afternoon that stretches into a very long night. As of late, we’ve had to remind our father of the passage of time by the rumbles we felt in our stomachs.

“Home,” says our father. “For a minute. I’ve got a phone call to make. Your mother’s little boyfriend gave me a number. I’m going to see if it’s a good one.”

“What if it’s not a good one?” Chris asks.

“Then he gets another visit from me. And that’s not good for him.”

Inside the truck, inside of myself, I know our days just begun. Another day stretches out before us. Another day our mom will spend hiding, another day we’ll spend seeking. A single day that could turn into many days, and then weeks, and then maybe forever? Inside, I know this. Outside, from a bruise-colored sky, rain continues to dump, sounding tiny plinks on our truck’s canopy, streaming down the windshield in horizontal zigzags.

Our dad pauses his truck at a crosswalk, allowing a woman and girl, perhaps mother and daughter, to race by. In short-sleeved shirts, without coats, they appear unprepared for the weather. The woman waves as they rush by, thankful, holding the little girl’s hand in her own. Both of them smiling in spite of the weather. What a terrible day to be walking, I think. What a miserable day to be missing a jacket.

Will McMillan is a queer writer born and raised within the uncharted wild of the Pacific Northwest, where he still lives today. His essays have been featured in Sun, Hippocampus, Atticus Review, and Into the Void literary journals, among many others. See more of him at willjmcmillan.com.

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