When My Father Was in Prison
We had this bird called Smokey that my brother taught to say Nevermore, but he (Smokey) couldn’t ever really do it since he was the wrong kind of bird. Not a talker, my mother said.
There was a girl across the street whose father was a government functionary. My brother made me repeat the words to get the sounds right and when I asked what that was, he said it was almost the same thing as being in prison, except her father slept at home.
Two church ladies came to bring us Christmas presents. The presents were Spongebob Squarepants pillowcases, and the cards were in my father’s handwriting (how did they do that?) but you could tell the gifts weren’t really from him, my brother said, because in spite of everything he wasn’t that stupid.
All my brother felt about him anymore, he said, was the lack of him, and that made my mother look up from her cutting board and say, “You’re getting a little too big for your britches, aren’t you?” And my brother said it was true, none of his pants fit; other kids had fathers with jobs who could buy their kids new clothes, even the girl across the street’s father, and you know what he was.
I heard my mother on the phone saying, “I think the boys will kill me. That’s what I really can’t stand, not the—” And then she walked away with the phone, and I didn’t know what wouldn’t kill her, but I knew my brother and I might.
I opened my brother’s door without knocking, and his friend Carl was kneeling on the floor and my brother was sitting on the bed. I shut the door right away and blinked and blinked, but I could still see them without their pants on and my brother’s hand in Carl’s red hair and Carl’s face somewhere in there with the blankets and my brother’s legs.
My brother told me later it was just something you did when you were fifteen, but he wouldn’t look at me for three days, and I wanted (but also didn’t want) to ask him, Where were their pants? What had happened to Carl’s face? I counted the years from nine to fifteen, even though I knew how many it was, and six seemed like a lot but also not enough.
Smokey died and we put him in a cereal box, which seemed like the wrong kind of box because even though he went right in, there was a lot of space left, so my brother stuffed in the Spongebob pillowcases and closed the box and then wrapped it in flowered paper like it was a present, which actually it (the pillowcases) had been in the first place. Ashes to ashes, my brother said. Circle of life.
We went outside to bury the present under the pine tree in the backyard, but we had to wait until almost dark because this was a rented house. The landlady might not want us digging holes, my mother said. Nevermore , my brother said.
My mother took me to a church that had something called prison ministry, but my brother wouldn’t come and the church was just regular anyway—no one said anything about prison or asked us about my father. When we got back, my brother and Carl were sitting on the couch watching Spongebob. My brother had a pillow on his lap and was holding the remote, and Carl’s face was red like his hair. I’d heard a new word at school, so I tried it: “Hey, dicksucks,” I said, and my mother swatted my butt and my brother said, “Idiot,” and Carl just got redder and stared at the TV and blinked and blinked, like how I’d blinked after I shut the door on them.
He (my father) sent us letters. “Hey fellas! How’s my boys? Your pops is okay. We got to watch a movie the other day—The Great Escape. Ha ha just kidding. Actually it was a movie about penguins. You know I’m helping out in the kitchen here. It’s not to bad for a job. Well do good in school and be nice to your mom—don’t give her any hassles, and I’ll see you soon okay? Your dad loves you. P.S. Sorry about all this.”
My mother let me keep the letters in a drawer in my room. First she would read them and then I would read them and then my brother would read them, and then he’d give them back to me and I’d put them in the drawer. But once—it was after Smokey died—I showed my brother a letter and he blew his nose in it and crumpled it up and dropped it on the floor. He didn’t even read it. “Nevermore,” I said, and he laughed, and then I said, “Dicksuck,” and he punched me in the head.
The girl across the street’s father waved to her every morning and beeped his car horn, and when the weather got nice the girl would come outside and wave back to him from the front porch. She’d wave until his car turned at the end of the street. I watched her while I ate my English muffin before school and practiced saying government functionary, but when I actually said it to her—I opened the front door and yelled it this one time—I got mixed up and said, “Your dad is a government dictionary!” Then I slammed the door and opened it again and screamed, “Dick! Suck! Your dad is a government dicksuck! Dicksucktionary!”
I got in trouble and before school the next day we had to go across the street so I could apologize. Sorry, I said to the girl and her parents. The girl was a grade younger than me and I wondered if she’d ever heard dicksuck before. Dicksucktionary, I thought. “I’m sorry,” my mother said. “I’m not sure where he got such a filthy word.” Go look it up in the dicksucktionary . I had to squeeze my lips together not to laugh, and I looked at the girl’s father and he was squeezing his lips together too. When he saw me looking at him he covered his mouth and coughed. “Boys, you know,” he said.
My mother took me back to church and this time she asked a lady about prison ministry and the lady said hang on and came back with a brochure. My mother looked at it and said, “Oh, it’s for when they get out.” The lady nodded and said, “Do you know someone who could use it?” and my mother said, “Maybe.” Then it seemed like she tried to smile a little and almost couldn’t. “But it won’t be for a while.”
Carl was over all the time during the summer and I knew to leave him and my brother alone. Sometimes they watched TV and sometimes they sat outside and sometimes Carl stayed for dinner when my mother got home from work, but mostly they were in my brother’s room with the door closed doing what you did when you were fifteen.
My brother was supposed to be watching me, but I drew pictures of Smokey and my father and Spongebob by myself, and I looked out the front window for the girl across the street and her father, and I went out to the pine tree in the back where Smokey was buried. I tried to pray there, by Smokey’s grave, but I ended up just saying prison ministry and nevermore and sometimes government functionary over and over. I tried not to say dicksuck too much.
Carl and my brother were in my brother’s room, and then they came out and my brother was following Carl saying, “Hang on, wait just a minute. Carl, please. Just—stop for a minute .” But Carl walked past where I was, at the kitchen table drawing the girl across the street’s father, and his (Carl’s) eyes were open really wide and his mouth was a straight line. I put my head down and they passed me and went outside and then my brother came back and his eyes were open really wide and his mouth was open too and he sucked in air like he couldn’t breathe, and he wouldn’t look at me. He passed me going the other way, and I said, “Boys, you know.” He stopped like he was waiting for me to say something else but I didn’t know what else so I just put my hand out, the hand with the pencil, but my brother couldn’t see because his back was to me, and then he kept going, to his room again, and he slammed the door and stayed there doing whatever it was you did when you were fifteen and all by yourself.
One of the things you did when you were nine and all by yourself was look in the drawer full of letters. The letters were folded up except for the one my brother blew his nose in. I uncrumpled that letter and scratched the dried snot off, and it was the same as all the others so it didn’t matter that my brother hadn’t read it: my father was okay, he loved us, he was sorry—except in this one he spelled “sorry” “sory,” and I thought, My father needs a dicksucktionary. This seemed like something my brother would maybe think was funny, but since Carl left—when was that? like a week ago?—my brother hadn’t thought anything was funny at all.
I heard my mother on the phone again saying we would kill her and that my brother was hormonal or something and I had a mouth on me—dicksuck , for Christ’s sake. Where did I get this stuff? I was nine. When she hung up I shouted from the other room, “Boys, you know?” She was quiet and then she said, “You got big ears, kid.” And then, “Do I ever know.”
My brother didn’t want to go back to school to start tenth grade and I told my mother it was because of Carl. They had a fight. So? my mother said. Friends fight. They’ll get over it. He has to go to school. To my brother: You have to go to school. Just tell Carl you’re sorry. I am sorry! my brother yelled. He’s (Carl’s) not sorry! He doesn’t care! And he (my brother) started sobbing and slammed the door of his room and then kicked through it so we could see his shoe sticking out a little before he pulled it back in. Hey, I said, this is a rented house, and my mother held one hand out and shook her head at me to be quiet, and she put the other hand over her mouth but I could still hear her say, Ohhhhh . Oh Jesus. Ohhhhh, Jesus. Oh. Oh. Oh. Jeeesus .
We were getting ready to visit him (my father), but my brother wouldn’t go and my mother cried and my brother told her he was unmoved and she couldn’t physically get him in the car, he’d like to see her try. My mother said she didn’t know when else we’d be able to go and my brother said he didn’t care, he really really didn’t. So my mother put her head in her hands and my brother said, “Just don’t tell him about Carl, okay?” And my mother said, “Oh honey. Jesus.” And she picked her head up and touched my brother’s knee and he took her hand and put his arm around her and they sat like that for longer than I could watch them doing it.
My mother and I drove a long way and when we got there I didn’t want to get out of the car. She said it was get out by myself or she’d pull me out and carry me in, I was small enough and she was big enough. So I got out but then I threw up. It was a surprise throw-up, and I didn’t think I was really sick but I was kind of glad I did it.
We walked to this place where my mother had to take her keys and her coins out of her pockets and I asked if I could keep the quarters when she got them back, and she said this really wasn’t the time and the man who took her stuff and locked it up winked at me. Another man came and we followed him to this room that looked a little like school, and then two other men brought my father in. I almost threw up again but I didn’t, and he (my father) sat down at the table in the middle of the room with my mother and I stood there for a minute and then I started walking. I went around the room a few times, and my father said c’mere buddy and asked how old was I these days, but that seemed like something he should have known so I didn’t answer. “Nine,” my mother said. “Almost ten,” I said. “Almost ten,” my father said, and I looked at him, all the way around him while I walked, and he looked different but I wasn’t sure exactly how. “So what’s going on with your brother?” my father asked. “What’s he up to?” I looked at him and I looked at the men who’d brought him in—guards—and I looked at my mother, who seemed very ugly all of a sudden, and I said, “I don’t know, probably dicksucking.” One of the guards sort of laughed, and the other one said, “Hey kid, don’t talk like that,” and I shrugged and thought boys, you know and kept walking. My mother and father didn’t say anything and my father probably just thought I was kidding. “Anyway,” I said, “he didn’t want to come and see you.”
My mother pretty much didn’t say anything in the car on the way back, but when we got home I was grounded. I wasn’t allowed to play outside or see my friends, but I also decided not to watch TV or look in the drawer of letters for a whole week. Mostly what I did was come home from school and lie on my bed. Once in a while my brother would look in at me and ask, “Still wearing the hair shirt?” and I didn’t know what that meant but I didn’t want to say so. I wished he’d come inside and ask me about prison. But when he finally did I didn’t answer. So he sat on the floor and after a minute he said, “Wanna name people we don’t like?” We used to do that at family reunions when my mother made us go, before Grandma and Grandpa died. So in my room after I visited my father in prison, we named Uncle Rob and two of our cousins and some kids from school—tenth graders he knew and fourth graders I knew; we took turns—and then we were quiet, thinking up other people we didn’t like, and I said, “Carl?” and my brother coughed and said, “Yeah. We don’t like Carl.” We were quiet again and after a while he said, “Dad,” and I said, “Yeah, Dad. We don’t like Dad. That dicksuck.” And my brother didn’t say anything, but he laughed, which meant he finally thought it (dicksuck) was funny.
I turned ten, and my brother turned sixteen. Our birthdays are close together—October 28, November 12—and we got cards from prison and my father didn’t say anything about how I visited him there. They were just normal birthday cards and said the normal things, and my brother read mine when it came and then he read his. He didn’t blow his nose in them, and I put them in the drawer and that was it for our first prison birthdays even though my mother tried to act excited for a while, but I think we were all glad when it was November 13 and she stopped.
After November 13 was Thanksgiving again and the day my father left again and Christmas again and after that I’d forgotten but it was the day Smokey died again, and my brother came into my room in the morning and said, “Nevermore,” and I started to cry but pretended I didn’t because it was just a bird in a cereal box with Spongebob pillowcases (the church ladies never came by for Christmas this time), and our house was just a rented house, and my brother was just a dicksuck.
I wrote it on the wall of the bathroom at school the day Smokey died (again): dicksuck. But they knew it was me, and when my mother got there she said, “This is really your calling card, huh?” and she went in the principal’s office and I sat outside the door for a long time and when she came out she didn’t seem as mad as I thought she’d be. So I asked if she was mad and she said yes and later when we got home she said, “I’m tired of this. Okay? I’m very very tired of it. It’s time to stop now. Will you just stop?”
I said I would stop but I had to go to the school counselor anyway, two days a week during lunch. The counselor let me eat while she said she imagined things were difficult and confusing for me right now and was there anything I wanted to talk about? My father, maybe? Or anything else? I thought for a minute, and then I asked her, “Will I get in trouble if I don’t know what to say?” and she said no, so I didn’t say anything and she let me sit and eat and look out the window until lunchtime was over. Before I left I thought I should tell her something so I said, “My bird died. His name was Smokey.” She nodded and said, “I’m sorry that happened,” and I nodded back, because I was sorry too.
I told my brother the school counselor asked if there was anything I wanted to talk about and he said he hated that question because how could you even start? Yeah, I said, but I like her anyway. Does she have big boobs? my brother asked and I tried to punch him but he grabbed my wrist and I said do you even like girls? He dropped me then and I finished the punch. Do you think Dad will be mad if he finds out? I asked, and my brother said he would be long gone before Dad got out so it hardly mattered. He’d be in college, he said. He’d be an adult. Hell, I’d be an adult. It was going to be a long time. Nevermore, he said.
It was winter still but we had a sort of nice day, and after school I played outside for a while and the girl across the street’s father came home and he waved to me. I waved back. He said, “Nice day, huh, kiddo?” I nodded and watched him climb the stairs and he was wearing a shirt and pants and a tie. When he opened his front door I yelled, “My bird died!” but he must not have heard because he went inside and didn’t look at me again.
I went inside too. My brother was there in the living room and he said, “Don’t do that,” and I said, “What?” And my brother said don’t solicit attention like that, like you’re the poor little boy without a father. “What?” I said. And why are you so hung up on that stupid bird? my brother said. It’s more than a year since he died and you didn’t even care about him then. “What?” I said again. “What? What?” Listen, my brother said, I’m serious. It just makes you look pathetic. No one cares about Smokey. You don’t care about Smokey. “What?” I said, really loud now. God! my brother screamed. I fucking hate this! “What?” I asked, for real this time. “What do you hate?” You! my brother yelled. Everything! All of this!
There was a lot of stuff to hate. That was what I said to the school counselor, after a few times of sitting in her office eating my lunch. “Really?” she said. “Like what?” Like getting in trouble, I said, and having your bird die and your brother yelling at you and your mother saying you might kill her. Stuff like that. Plus living across the street from a government functionary. “Hmm,” the school counselor said. “Anything else?” Lots else, I told her. Lots else. Lots. I mean lots.
A new boy (James) started coming around with my brother. On the phone my mother said, “Honestly, do you believe this? At least no one can get pregnant. Jesus. There better be a special place for me in heaven when this is all over, no kidding.”
My brother wrote an essay for school about how his father was in prison and the teacher gave him an A and asked if he would want to publish it in the school paper. No, my mother said when he told us. I’m not asking you, my brother said. Honey, it’s a really good essay, my mother told him; I’m so proud of you. But please don’t do this to our family. Everyone knows already, my brother said. You’re a fool if you don’t realize that. My mother started to cry. But you have no right to tell people all about us. This is my story, my brother said. I have a right to my own story.
I told that to the counselor the next time I saw her: “I have a right to my own story.” She nodded and said that was certainly true. We didn’t talk for a minute. “I told you Smokey died,” I said. Yes, she said. I looked out the window and there was snow still but not so much anymore and I said, “That happened when my father was in prison, all of that.” I looked at her and she was looking at me. “He just…died. Smokey. I kind of can’t believe it.” That is hard to believe, she said; it really is a strange, hard thing. “He’s in prison now. Still. My father.” She nodded again and asked, How do you feel about that? “I don’t know,” I said, and I breathed out hard. “I mean, I’m just saying, is all,” I told her. “I’m just telling you what happened.”
This story originally appeared in Indiana Review 33.1, Summer 2011.
Anthony Correale (Poetry Editor): The facts of this story are familiar: a child acting out in the wake of dramatic family upheaval. But where that story is usually told from a more distant vantage point, Hadley Moore’s story is narrated by the nine year-old boy at its center. There is a bird in the story that he and his brother try to teach words to, but it is “the wrong kind of bird,” and instead, it is the boy who becomes the mimic, fixating on certain events, certain words. We see his father’s absence working through him, even as he is unable to process it in any conscious way. As he says at the story’s close, “I’m just telling you what happened.”
Hadley Moore’s short stories, novel excerpts, and nonfiction have appeared or are forthcoming in Newsweek, McSweeny’s Quarterly Concern, Witness, Amazon’s Day One, the Alaska Quarterly Review, the revived December, Anomaly (formerly Drunken Boat), Quarter After Eight, Confrontation, The Drum, Ascent, Midwestern Gothic, Redux, Knee-Jerk Magazine, and other publications. She is at work on a novel and a collection of stories, and is an alumna of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.