If I had been born right, I would’ve been born out the bottom of my adoptive mother—not out of some anonymous woman, probably on the non-sanitized floor of a mobile home. But Mother hadn’t been blessed, health-wise.
We were killing time, walking the insides of a museum not far from the hospital. It was a perfect time for my father to hammer home a sentiment he held, and expressed repeatedly, as though he thought I was too stupid to pick up on it.
The museum we were in was an art museum. It was called The Museum of Ephemeral Art.
The universe presented my father with opportunities to belittle me because it loved him. The jury was out on how it felt about me, though I had vivid dreams—premonitions, I thought—of living alone and dying in a one-bedroom apartment.
I wanted to look at the paintings and I did my best to look at the paintings. Father walked forward with his shoulders up high—his head like a turtle’s going into a shell. I did not have time to look and linger at the paintings much. I tried. It was difficult to meet my own needs while abiding by his authority, and I did know Father had other things on his mind.
Mother was really sick and it was a shock to me that that could happen to her. I thought we were Loved.
I was so taken by the building’s labyrinthine design: its multiple levels, its high ceilings, its hallways, its nooks and crannies, and little rooms where perhaps only one piece, if anything, was hung. On its bottom floor, we walked a long hallway where only big sad clowns looked down at us from their frames.
“Is this the sort of place you’d like to be commemorated,” my father said, frowning like one of the wall’s clowns. “You want to put yourself up for everyone to gawk at, huh?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “maybe.” Though I could tell, looking around, that artists were clearly defective in some ways known by God and foreign to medical science.
Our car was parked on the curb outside the museum. From the top of the hill, the street sloping down from the museum, I could see much of the museum and hospital’s city—mostly alien to me. I could see moving cars and building lights beginning to flicker on against a background of waning sunlight.
I thought, what’s so great anyway, about being kept alive through art? I didn’t want to exist anywhere at all, let alone in something so abstract and potentially unending.
In that dusk, before the street lamps lit up, with my adoptive father of ten years finagling with the car door a few yards ahead of me, I thought about bolting. But I didn’t. I walked to the car and got in the passenger seat.
I had just turned sixteen years old.
I had been praying to God for something to change.
I would say to Him, “Please God, deliver me from here. Cast me to a new home, or let me be free, at least, of these people.”
I looked out of the car window at the rows of rectangular city buildings we passed.
Every night my adoptive parents fought. They stormed up and down each of the house’s levels, fulfilling their seeming need to occupy each room with their noise. I couldn’t take their yelling—or rather, Mother would yell, and after she had yelled for a few minutes, Father would speak in a hushed scathing tone, that burbled louder and louder until he shook all the area surrounding him like a booming subwoofer.
A road sign indicated we were nearing the hospital. I imagined what my father would do once he got in there. I imagined him stomping his feet at the front desk, yelling at some nurse for being made to wait. He would always make a stink at any minor inconvenience that could be attributed to someone nearby. Mother was the same way. They were always angry all the fricking time.
I couldn’t even escape their hatred in the basement—my sacred grounds. No one went down there but me. Down there I would paint. Mostly pictures of animals that I drew from reference books. But it was my art—mine. But even down there I couldn’t escape the sound of Mother’s high-pitched feverish ranting, or the terrible vibrations of my Father’s voice.
We walked out of the automatic hospital doors with Mom in a wheelchair. She was very still and wasn’t talking. Her grayish blonde hair was fallen around her shoulders, looking dirty like a wet mop. He whispered to her in her ear, I couldn’t make out what, his body bent over the chair as he pushed it forward—his ass swaying back and forth in my lower nine o’clock.
We stopped and stood on the curb. One large hospital employee moved Mother, while retaining her sitting position, into the passenger seat, while another folded the wheelchair and stuck it into the trunk. I got in the back and Dad got in the front.
He started up the car and we pulled out of the hospital and headed home.
“BILLY LOVED THE MUSEUM,” Father said, saying it loud like it would help Mother hear, but really so I could hear in the back, “HE LOVED ALL THOSE WACKY PICTURES—YOU COULD IMAGINE.”
When we got home, the workers had finished installing the stair lift on the railing and were pulling out of our driveway. We both stood facing the staircase watching Mother travel upstairs.
The staircase was in the big marble foyer when you first walked in. It was a spiral that went up to the landing on the second floor. I wondered, why isn’t he going up there to get her?
He was looking right at me, I noticed, when I looked down.
“Are you going to help me here, Billy?” he asked, under his breath as if it were possible Mother could hear even if she wasn’t sitting on the chairlift, idle, at the top of the stairs.
“What?” I asked, flatly, giving him the side-eye.
“Are you going to help me here, Billy,” he said again.
Coming back downstairs later I found Mother sitting in the kitchen outside the sliding glass door that opened out onto the veranda. Sunlight framed her around the frame of her wheelchair. She sat perfectly still—her eyes aimed forward.
“Hi Mom,” I said, walking up to her. She looked past me.
Father was sitting out on the deck. I could see him in profile through the wall-length windows in the foyer. Father was sitting with his head back, sunglasses on—ambiguously asleep. The wooden patio hung over an intensely sloped, nearly vertical hill, filled with brush and thorny bushes to be snagged on if you were to fall down it.
“Ian?” Mother asked. She lifted a weak hand slightly, towards me. Her mouth hung open slightly. Her eyes were far off somewhere.
“Ian?” I said. “Who’s Ian?”
She put her hand down. Her eyes returned to nowhere. I felt something sink deep into my chest and a brief prickling all over my body. I turned around and exited the house out the back door. I did not go out the front door.
The backyard was half an acre. It was barren except for the overgrown grass. High sheet metal fencing enclosed the property—my father said it was the only really effective way to keep out deer.
I sat down on the grass and gritted my teeth and opened my lips and breathed through my gritted teeth. I ripped out patch after patch of the half tall grass while nearly hyperventilating. After a while I got tired and I laid down in the sun and fell asleep for a bit.
We sat around and ate at the dining room table. My father was teaching himself to cook, for obvious reasons. We were eating some kind of chicken stir-fry. It was okay. The chicken was a bit overcooked—little bland tough overcooked chunks in the bed of vegetables on my brown plate on the brown table.
My head hurt and I drank Pepsi from a clear plastic glass with circular ice cubes in it.
“So you really loved that museum, huh,” Father said.
Father had reached the point of his eating where he was no longer shoveling food into his mouth, and this allowed him to speak in this way while still eating intermittently. I continued eating at my own pace.
“You should have seen him in there, Mother, he was so enamored,” my father continued, in some kind of affect, “You’d think he might start painting clowns and midgets and crop circles.”
We were sitting at the dinner table and Mother was doing nothing but sitting there in her wheelchair staring at something behind my shoulder.
“Is that where you’d see yourself hung, Billy?”
“I think you liked it there,” I said, in a rush of energy.
My father looked at me and my mother did not look at me, obviously.
“Yeah,” I said. I went on autopilot. “I found him in there, Mother, in a little alcove completely by himself. It was just a small cube of a room like my room upstairs. The whole museum was like a maze and I had lost him. He was against one wall, completely out of it. I had to shake him awake. I don’t know what came over him. The only thing in the room was on the opposite wall, it was a framed drawing of a bear on loose-leaf paper.”
I laughed at him. For about five or six seconds he looked mortified. Then his entire face contorted in a kind of fitful rage before he began laughing himself. It was convincing sounding but I had stopped already.
When I lay in bed that night I replayed what I had said at the dinner table. I thought of my father slumped against a wall, maybe sitting on the floor, in a kind of stupor. Maybe when I found him, before I nudged or shook him, there was some spit trailing out from one end of his mouth and onto his shoulder.
My room was small and cubic. There was an attached bathroom and room enough for a small couch and a TV set. I had it made, really. I wondered why I was so miserable.
On the wall opposite my bed was a poster of a photograph of the musician Johnny Cash flipping off the person taking the photograph. I hadn’t heard his music but I’d seen the poster once in a television show about high school students.
The more I thought of finding my father at the museum near the hospital, the more it seemed less like something I was making up in my head and like something that actually happened.
I heard Father skulking around downstairs. This had been happening recently.
I was lying in bed. I had turned the TV to face my bed and not the small sofa. I was watching a digital cable channel that had been skipped over in the mass parental block. Late at night it played a program that interviewed women in bikinis—models—and was intercut with shots of them walking around a pool and white cement patio, palms of palm trees hanging above them. Watching it muted with closed captioning, every so often black boxes of text covered up their bodies. Even though I was there to look at them I felt bad not to hear them out, and in the end no one was the winner. A drawing I had made, an approximation of what a woman looked like naked, though I had no idea where the nipple went on the boob—which spanned three torn out pages of yellow legal pad paper for attempted accuracy’s sake—was missing from my dresser drawer when we returned from the hospital. I found this upsetting.
I imagined that Father was up these nights because of Mother’s condition. I imagined her lying in bed, in the same position she sat in her chair but facing the ceiling: her legs up and bent at the knee, her arms straight out with her hands down like they were falling off the ends and edges of her arm rests. Maybe it unnerved him to be lying next to someone like that.
I could not sleep much. I turned and turned in bed, glancing intermittently at the digital alarm clock on the dresser a foot from my head. The last I remember it was nearly four in the morning. I woke up early, at 6, before I would normally get up for homeschooling at 7:30. I had done this before and I did this so I could have time to work on my paintings, which were in the basement.
The basement was less redone, less taken care of then the rest of the house. There was one room that housed an unmade bed—just a mattress on a frame—for the company that was never there. The other room had a couch and a Ping-Pong table, but was mostly used for storage. Boxes of crap and old books were piled around.
Centipedes scurried everywhere down there. Sometimes on the walls. Sometimes they’d even find their way upstairs, and onto the walls up on the main floor.
I walked downstairs to the basement, in my socks, careful not to make noise, to miss the squeaking step. I walked through the short hall past the bedroom with the empty bed. I walked into the Game Room.
In the Game Room, so named because it had the Ping-Pong table—though there was never anyone there playing on it—was my easel covered in a sheet, and all of my completed or abandoned paintings stacked up against one wall.
There was my father. There was a towel draped over his head, and a comforter wrapped around his body. His body rotated slightly, in an unconscious way, like he had been spun at one point and was now finally running out of momentum. It seemed like it was something the body does when it feels itself to be alone.
“Oh, hello,” he drawled, turning slowly to look at me, “Billy.” I’d been standing there ten seconds. He got up and walked past me in a slow gloom. I watched him disappear up the stairs, dragging the comforter up behind him.
I went to the corner where I painted. My finished paintings were stacked against one wall. I never looked at them. I decided I hated what I was currently working on. I was painting a picture of a pregnant seahorse, using an encyclopedia picture as reference.
I stared at my freshly placed blank canvas and what came to mind was the little boy who was staring at me in church.
I had dreaded going to church with Mother in the wheelchair. It wasn’t because I was ashamed it was because I didn’t want to have all the eyes on me. I didn’t want everyone gawking because then I felt like they were gawking at me.
I remember I was wearing a very creased button-up. It was buttoned all the way up. My hair was still damp from the morning shower. It was mostly dry at the top of my head but I could still feel the moisture in my scalp. There were very wet patches around the back at my neck. It had grown long, and the sensation of it brushing against my neck made me shiver a bit in disgust.
And it looked so awkward.
And all those hairs growing on my upper lip, oh God.
I was at the end of a cramped pew with Father next to me, and Mother on the other side, in the aisle. The day’s minister stood on the stage up front, which was only slightly elevated from the ground. She was a short middle-aged woman in a red pantsuit, tiny glasses and bun hairdo. She said something into her microphone that made my father scoff. It was about praying not only for the American soldier but for the enemy soldier as well. For he was one who had been led astray but was still a child of God.
Father said something like, “Please,” or, “Come on,” or, “Give me a break,” under his breath.
When she was done she got off stage and the projector screen came down. Christian rock music played. We all had to stand up on our feet for half an hour. People put their hands in the air. Some people shook their bodies and fell to their seats. I stood there with Father while Mother was still sitting there and it felt awkward. Father had his hands clasped while mine were at my side.
I looked around at the light pouring in from behind the panes of stained glass, which had made the projected lyrics faded and harder to read on the screen. On the second floor of seating was a little boy looking at me from between the wooden posts of the railing. He stood at a diagonal to all the people around him that were faced the screen and singing. The light bounced off the top right side of his black bowl-cut hair. He stared at me. He was wearing a button-up shirt, white with green lines. He was wearing khaki pants.
It turned out I didn’t need to wake up early anymore—Father had decided not to continue Mother’s homeschooling regimen.
My father had a second stair lift installed, this one to the basement. My mother was put in the guest room. In the nights following I imagined the centipedes crawling all around her, and on her. I hoped that at least fresh bedding had been put on the bed.
Every day, the door to the guest bedroom was locked. Every time I went past it, it was locked.
A doctor made a house call and went into the locked room. I walked past it to get to my painting. My father was standing outside the door in tremulous worry. I was painting when the doctor came out, and I heard the hushed tone of the doctor and the blubbering of my adoptive father.
I was close to completing my painting. There stood the little boy again, staring out from between the posts of the railing. But there was something about approaching completion of this piece that made me incredibly tired. I made eye contact with the little boy as I had in church that day and felt just as drained of everything.
It was also the most beautiful thing I had ever painted—a willfulness and stylishness to it, while still being startlingly accurate to my memory. I looked at it while my father held his head in his hands behind me, out in the hallway.
I was left in the dark about everything, as I had been my entire life.
My father made filet mignon for dinner. I said it was good.
“Oh you like this, huh,” he asked, or said, I wasn’t sure. “You like the good stuff.”
“I guess,” I said, “I like this.”
“Hmm,” he said, and we ate the rest in silence.
For two weeks we ate filet mignon. Halfway through the second week I had become disgusted by the cut of meat—how it would fall apart in my mouth as I was eating it.
That TV channel fuzzed out completely, but I had become too depressed to masturbate. My father started buying me video games, which I had never been allowed before. I played them one after the other, every day of the week. There was something dumbly meditative in occupying crude, pixelated worlds instead of my own. Still, I prayed to God for anything to give, especially when lying awake. I couldn’t imagine going on another year. I couldn’t do it.
My father rented some sentimental movie from the TV one night. He forced me to sit and watch with him. At the end of it, when the lady was taken off life support, he shed a single tear and got at it with his finger.
“I’m sensitive, you know,” he said, “I’m sensitive even if it doesn’t seem like it.”
I looked at him.
After the second week of filet mignon, my father switched to some bland whitefish he had bought in bulk and kept in the freezer. It was nearly as bad.
“I’m not a fan of this,” I said, one night.
“It was cost effective,” my father said.
I shoveled a bit more into my mouth.
“You can’t expect me to keep buying steak for you, night after night,” he said.
My eyes were burnt out from the video games. I lay awake in bed until I’d reached a half sleep.
It was as if the entire house was shaking around me. I then perceived myself to be floating outside, watching from the sky above the street, past the metal fencing. I watched as the house was ripped from its foundation by an invisible hand and lifted in the air. It was segmented like a Rubik’s cube. Its segments spun as if it was being effortlessly solved. I could see the basement it had become detached from in the ground. I could see my paintings and my mother and the Ping Pong table.
Then I was back in my bed and I was waking up and it was morning. I didn’t feel like I had slept at all.
I went downstairs and to the dining room. I was confused to see Father dressed in his work suit. It was blue with a blue tie and he was wearing a dress shirt under the jacket, too. Then I saw the spread of food out on the table. Mother came out wearing a long floral dress, beaming. We all pulled out our chairs and made scratching noises on the hardwood and sat down.
There was none of the simmering resentment I had come to expect from the two of them, which was intermittently applied to me. Instead they were happy—earnestly happy. They started talking about starting up my homeschooling again. Also, were they supposed to be paying for my art supplies, as well as these video games, now? Sometimes it was the time to put these childish things behind us. Father was looking forward to getting back to the office, after being away so long. To get back in the swing of things. Mother was looking forward to getting back to the paperback she had left with its spine cracked. To have a drink with this object in the chair out on the veranda. And though it seemed like everything was fine—possibly better than before, even—I felt so angry that I simply ate in silence.
RJC Smith is from New York and New Jersey. His work, published in X-R-A-Y and other places, and forthcoming in Post Road, can be found on his website: https://neutralspaces.co/rjcsmith/