by Michael Botur
From Hell of a Thing (The Sager Group, 2020)
A libertarian spends his last days of freedom living in the woods with his oblivious children as the cops and child services close in.
GO HOME, STAY HOME
Daddy’s in a lunchtime line at the bank waiting to get a letter with his bank account and address on it. The line is all folded arms and tapping toes and people frowning into their phones as they wait for a window to open.
Daddyyyy. It’s taking foreeeever.
Daddy is nodding. We’ll do some maths while we wait for this bureaucratic brachiosaurus to move, Daddy goes. How many seconds in eleven minutes, kiddliwinks? That’s it. Do the tens first.
Daddy looks the security camera in the eye. One last chance, God. I’m asking you to your face. Make things easier on me.
A woman in a black and gold security uniform tells the line that Window 3 is now closed, unfortunately. The wait time increases to 18 minutes.
Tell the bank to stick their paperwork up their cloaca, Daddy announces, loud enough for everyone in the line to hear. Kids: you know what a cloaca is, surely? C’mon, basic feature of non-mammalian vertebrates. The intestinal, urinary and genital tracts combine into a common… I’m boring you.
The family walks out into the wind.
Look, we’ll play Go Home, Stay Home when we get back, I promise.
What about your letter from the bank, daddy? You said you needed it real bad or we can’t get your payment?
We need our dignity more than some letter, Cynth.
Daddy has been illegally parked for 50 minutes in a ten minute parking zone. He’s pretty sure he can spot a fascist robot in a uniform bending over the bonnet of his tired Toyota. Daddy is receiving a ticket right now and the car is nearly too far away to stop the pressing of the buttons, the clicking of the pen, the issuing of the fine.
Hurry, kids, hurry!
They wheeeee as they drag Daddy down the street. Daddy is panting as he arrives in front of the fascist. She’s an old-ish lady, hunkered over another car. She has left a ticket tucked under Daddy’s windscreen wiper.
Hey, he begins. I was just at the bank. Need a bank statement so I can prove I’m eligible for a food grant, you know how it is. We’re driving off now, is that copasetic?
The parking warden adjusts her cap over her bun. You should actually consider yourself lucky, mister – your tyre’s touching the white line, which is a second breach of the bylaw. However, considering I’ve given you an instant $400 fine because you’re lacking a Warrant of Fitness, I can’t add any extra infringements.
But I don’t have any money? Daddy tugs the white cotton out from the pockets of his jeans. My wife’s taken everything. I’ve got nothing. The bank’s f-forcing a mortgage s-sale. They’ll come for my kids next. PLEASE.
Good day, sir.
But the car’s in perfect working order. I changed the brake pads personally, the fluids, the air filter. Even the transmission oil. C’mon, now. We don’t need some government sticker to verify that.
Cynthia and Chad slip their fingers under his belt like tendrils. Can we goooo, Daddy?
Daddy grabs the disappearing shoulder of the warden, who is attempting to assess the next vehicle.
Hang on, sister –
YOU WILL REMOVE YOUR HANDS FROM ME RIGHT NOW.
Daddy does not want to go to court again. Daddy’s been in court five times over the last two years, for refusing to give his name to police, for missing child support payments, for flying to the highlands of Papua New Guinea and immersing himself in a barter economy, for teaching Derrida when he should’ve been teaching chemistry, for the school suing him to recover their wages for breach of contract, for renouncing capitalism till the bank sent some people round and said they were taking the house back unless he caught up on payments.
The parking warden is fingering her earpiece. She’s reporting Daddy to the cops.
C’mon, kids, Daddy goes, tugging the kiddliwinks back up the street. Legally it’s your mother’s car and I was supposed to surrender it. In summary, we can’t deal with the authorities right now.
Is it summer, dad? Daddy? Daaa-deee.
Daddy herds the children into an alleyway. They hit the bricks at the end and leap the wall and land in a bathtub full of cabbage, laughing. They skulk from parking lot to fence to tree to shadow, pretending they’re cats, backs against the buildings, forefingers and thumbs curled over their eyes to make binoculars. They get to the park and the brook and the boardwalk and slow down and Daddy checks every direction to make sure they’ve lost their tail, exhales and spreads his fingers on his knees. They’re safe by the bush.
Whew – close one. His face melts into a smile. Right, kiddliwinks, attention: genus and species of each tree, if you please. Quercus rubra is known in English as what? The northern red oak, correctamundo, well done, Cynth. And this, my diminutive disciples, is the swamp oak AKA titoki, Latin name Alectryon WHAT, please Chad? C’mon, you excel at this one, get it? Not electron excelsus, son, a-lec-try-on. Attaboy.
They take a seat on the lower steps of the boardwalk where tourists launch yellow pedalboats and lick ice creams.
Daddy – where’s mama?
On a yacht with Rajiv, sipping mimosas, I believe. Sorry- DOCtor Rajiv.
Opium of the masses. She took the blue pill. Look, your mother has forced a mortgagee sale because I won’t take half of the house. Compromise kills, kids. We’re not losing our home. Cause when the landlord say your rent is late, and he may have to lit-i-gate… finish it for me, guys.
Don’t worry, be happy?
Bobby McFerrin, what year, please?
Ummmm…. 1988, I fink?
Chad earns a kiss on the top of his forehead.
There’s hope yet.
Daddy finds his best crowbar and uses it to force the padlock from the back door. He’s impressed the so-called authorities have stuck a Foreclosed: Do Not Enter notice all the way back here. They’ve utilized their so-called brains and predicted Daddy’s patterns of movement. Points to them.
Daddy ushers the kids inside, drags the kitchen table to barricade the door. He sits on the cold lino to read a faded 1997 Scientific American magazine from the stack. After they’ve found something to play with – a box of old Duplo and blocks in the basement – the kids are summoned to Daddy for another quick lesson, sitting on upturned pots on the kitchen floor. Over the past months, Daddy’s spent days coloring and drawing for hours, face-down on his belly with the kiddliwinks. Some days they’ve luxuriated in the downtown library until closing time. Some days they’ve waited til dusk then snuck onto the playfort at the kids’ school. It has a swing bridge, a flying fox, a roundabout, and a two storey slide. It’s the bestest playfort in the world, and even Daddy can fit through the plastic tunnels. Some days it’s all gardening in the soil behind the garage, harvesting brassica and cucurbita. The Truancy Services people keep leaving their card in the door saying to give them a call cause Daddy’s not supposed to be homeschooling without approval, but Daddy knows what he’s doing. Daddy fights the phonies.
Recap from today, guys. Myco-rrhizal, like we practiced. Spell it for me. Tax-o-nomic ge-nus. Lin-nae-us. Chad: looking over here.
The sun is almost out of energy. Dad’s getting purple rings around his eyes.
Please can we get a Happy Meal, dad. Pleeeease?
You want to subscribe to the lunacy of the corporate fast food model, you tell me what the proportion of water in the human body is. You haven’t been to school in five weeks. The least you can do is learn.
You were loony, Daddy. Mummy said you were in the loony bin.
It would have been loony to have stayed there. Big difference. Just because the government compels you to go into an institution under the Mental Health Act 1977 section 4, doesn’t mean you can’t leave. I escaped, didn’t I? A puerile place, ‘twas. Puerile means disgusting, Chad. A woman hanged herself with her knickers from a coat hook while I was there. Does that sound like effective healthcare to you? Hmmmm? Kids, d’you know humans are the only species that commits suicide because of lack of happiness? Returning to my thesis, then: it is hyper-capitalism and runaway economics that causes ennui. And we’re not going to subscribe to that, are we.
Daddy, what’s –
Ennui is letting so-called authorities get inside your home, Chad. It’s borrowed from the Old French enuier, meaning annoyance, case in point the ANNOYANCE of letters from the bank declaring it trespass to enter MY property which YOUR FORMER MOTHER should have sided with me on. Anyway, kids, I’ve got more of a weltschmerz than ennui. It’s German. It means the world hurts. My point is we’re not letting the government inside this home. Or the bank. The bank’ll come first, technically, but those Quislings will ask the government for backup, the police, who are technically not an arm of government, in fact our whole system is supPOSED to be built around separating the legislative, judicial and executive… Cover your mouth when you yawn, Chad. Fair enough, I’ve exceeded your attention span. Thank you for your concentration today.
Daddy rolls onto the floor, puts his hands under his ear like a pillow.
You said we could play Go Home, Stay Home. Daddy? You promised.
In the morning, Cynthia. In the morning.
Cynth is tugging Daddy’s eyelids.
They’re here. Outside. You said to wake you.
The family drops to their knees, crawls across the floor, climbs out the laundry window and pours into the head-high grass. They weave through the stalks til they arrive at a mountain of potting mix. From up the summit, they can pull the cornstalks and sunflowers aside and see the Gestapo peering in the windows.
Kiddioes: crab walk.
Shuffling on all fours with their butts in the air, they crawl over Potting Mix Mountain til they reach the ladder behind the garage. Soon as they’re positioned on their bellies on the creaking garage roof, Daddy instructs the kids to slow their breathing. Get your heart rate down so the infra-red can’t find you. Their hearts ebb. They watch a gleaming glassy invader settling on the driveway’s gravel. Slamming car doors. Glazed metal.
That’s them. They wanna take you away, Daddy whispers. They’re jealous. The Government wants to put you in a cage. Kids! Do not engage.
Tēna koe, brother, I’m Ricardo, we just wanted to introduce ourselves in good faith, a man in a collared shirt is calling through his megaphone hands. He spins 360 degrees, unsure where to direct his voice. Just a quick powwow ‘bout how the kids are getting on. There are fines, I have to let you know up front. If they’re not being brought to school. Ricardo looks at his partner and whistles. Maximum fine is, what, 150 thousand I believe, Trudy? And me and Trudy here don’t want you to have to face prison time.
The peel of a siren. The crunch of boots on concrete. Fists banging the weatherboards.
PLEASE TALK TO US, SIR. WE KNOW YOU’RE IN THERE.
As the snoops start trying to force windows open, Daddy and the kids retreat. They’ve trained for this for months, practiced in chilly grey rain, rehearsed under a punishing sun.
‘Kids: GO HOME STAY HOME.’
They hurl themselves off the roof, crash into the potting mix, leap the fence, hit the bulrushes and willow trees and tall grass, slosh through concrete sewer tunnels, paint themselves in mud. Half a click up the river, they each have a suitcase stashed in the bushes beside the filtration plant, a suitcase with military rations, water purifying tablets, changes of clothes, a compass, a pocket knife, a first aid kit, an encyclopaedia each and one toy.
It’s not for long, you guys, Daddy pants. I’ll find us a place. That’s a promise.
Fruit trees are easy to raid. All you do is sidle up along someone’s fence, test the hinges on the gate, ease on in. Chad carries a leafy branch in front of his head. The human eye is trained to recognize faces, so he won’t be spotted as quickly if he pretends to be a bush.
They wash their bums in the river then play Hide & Seek and Marco Polo and their favourite, Go Home, Stay Home. The kids try to make it from the wildnerness back to their home base safely without a brute leaping out of its hidey-hole and terrorising them with tickles.
Cynthia is on bread duty. There’s a cabinet beside the boat pond where the supermarket donates stale bread to feed the ducks. It takes two days to work out the delivery boy’s timing – 9.15, every morning – and Cynthia brings back loaves and rolls and bagels.
Daddy returns with dumpster pizza every night, and Chad wakes up to his favorite for breakfast. It’s too unsafe to light a fire – the concrete castle of the water plant looks directly down on them, and the workers would surely call the cops – so they eat every pizza cold.
They live in an old maintenance shed sinking into the boggy river banks. The floor is on a slant and Cynthia’s water bottle keeps rolling away. The only thing to read is Playboy magazines from 1968. In the back, Gore Vidal interviews Norman Mailer for 10 pages.
When Chad screams and pulls leeches off his inner thigh and cries as Daddy pops them and he is splotched with his own blood, Daddy tells Chad in every life you have some trouble / but when you worry / you make it double.
Guys, c’mon, where’s my chorus, huh? Is this about the McDonald’s thing again? You’re a fool if you think a Happy Meal will literally make you happy, kiddo.
Chad’s eyeballs ripple. He bursts into tears hard as hail.
Cynthia punches Daddy on the arm. Her face is an angry snarl.
Having said that, I’m… open to debate?
McDonald’s is a new experience for Daddy. He strokes the colorful walls, the glittery hardfoam of his booth, reads every word of the paper placemat on his tray, runs his finger over the health and safety warnings on the plastic play fort. Utterly, utterly fascinating, all of it. An anthropologist’s dream.
Daddy is warned not to tear open the chemical sachets to heat his MRE army meals on McDonald’s property, but Daddy informs the manager that the manager is attempting to assert something he legally has no right to assert. They try to impose far too many unjust laws for a so-called restaurant which doesn’t exactly have the moral high ground, considering its investment in blood diamonds. Even just walking through the McDonald’s drive-thru they get told off. Daddy points out he’s not even holding up the line. There is no conceivable reason why he can’t order some milkshakes for his kids from the drive thru window. Finally Daddy is caught boiling noodles in the bathroom and they are escorted out.
School holidays begin tomorrow, anyway, kiddliwinks. This place would become flooded with parents and teachers likely to recognize Daddy and report him. Best keep moving like the Gimi people of the Maimafu highlands. They’re hunter-gatherers, Chad. Go on. Guess the definition for me. Attaboy.
They drift across overpasses and along cycle lanes, dragging suitcases stinking of mandarins and avocado. They have to buy a pack of gum to be allowed to use the toilets behind Mobil. They scrub between their legs and under their arms with liquid soap from the dispenser.
The smell of chicken soup coming from the Baptist church is so strong Chad can almost see little bits of onion and meat in the air. Daddy knows the principal of the kids’ school will surely be in the congregation, though. He’s a real do-gooder.
We’ll be spotted, kids, hate to say it, Daddy explains. Can’t have the cops called. They’ll lock Daddy in a cage. We have to keep moving. Your school’s not far. We’ll settle in the playground, yeah? Recalibrate.
Over the motorway bridge, crouching behind the substation so the police prowler doesn’t spot them, between the big barn retailers, and sprinting to the traffic island and beyond. They hit the edge of the grass and the kids dump their suitcases and run towards the fort.
The school is empty for the holidays so Daddy breaks into a shed and comes jogging back with a can of creamed rice, a box of UHT milk and three packets of Oreos. Daddy won’t let the kids play Hide and Seek until they’ve eaten, but the kids say they won’t eat unless Daddy agrees to play Hide and Seek, and as soon as Daddy can peel his eyes off the cop car crawling along the horizon, he will.
Cynthia, who hasn’t eaten since yesterday, begins sprinting towards the bushes. She looks like a tawny brown wig atop two broomsticks. When Daddy catches Chad, the boy is also way down in weight. Melting, disintegrating. Some wasting disease Daddy promises to diagnose.
With some slurps from a punctured can of sweetened condensed milk, the kids catch up on calories. You’ll need it, Daddy explains, crouching, squeezing the kids’ shoulders, taking a sample of each. I’m gonna make you hide for a looooong time. But trust me: I’ll be seeing ya.
Okay, kids. Now we can play. You go hide – go, now! Run, Chad, get outta here! I’ll come find you! 100 second countdown, y’hear? Hide real good. Hide well, I should say.
The police car veers off the road and onto the grass. They call Daddy’s name. It has to be 90 metres away. So are the kids.
I’M COUNTING TO THREE HUNDRED, Daddy calls across the field, FOUR HUNDRED! SEVEN! JUST HIDE, ALRIGHT?! AND DON’T COME OUT UNLESS IT’S ME.
Chad cuts through the scrapey bushes and the spindly saplings and the raised gardens where the kids from his class are growing string beans and doubles back around the swimming pool until he shrieks with surprise as he collides with his big sister. They’re out of breath. Their eyes weep with excitement.
Cynthia rattles the handles of the gym shed, the caretaker shed and the garbage shed til the last shed opens up. Inside are towers of plastic chairs, stacked 20-high. The kids slide the doors of the shed shut and wriggle between the legs of stacked chairs. Nervous, giddy, desperate to pee, they keep their eyes covered until they’ve counted to one hundred, then Chad points out Daddy said something about three hundred, and if Cynthia’s heard the words on the wind right, it’s actually seven hundred. They count and count until they lose their place and have to start again. Now it’s more exciting than ever. Silly Daddy. He might not see them for years.