The Children Without Fathersby Michael Beeman
The children without fathers lived in the abandoned buildings of northern New Hampshire, squatting in stores remembered from better times: what used to be an ice cream parlor, used to be the town's video store, used to be a Chinese restaurant until the owners lost all their money and left their shops and restaurants without looking back. Patches of missing shingles scarred the balding roofs in rotting pockmarks. Windows cracked from the cold, from warping window frames, from stones thrown by bored teenagers. In the winter snow piled up on roofs and awnings until they collapsed; frozen pipes burst under the frost-line, flooding basements. Un-mowed grass grew to knee-height in the summer. Weeds pushed through the cracked pavement of unused sidewalks and empty parking lots. Fallen branches and dead leaves littered the grounds as slowly the discarded buildings were reclaimed by the wilderness, like fields that have lain fallow for too long.
In Conway, the children without fathers found Second Glance, a thrift store that went out of business the summer before. Martin Ames, the smallest at just thirteen, squeezed in through a tight basement window and fumbled through the dark to unlock the front door. Second-hand clothing hung on the racks inside as if waiting for buyers to return. The children without fathers explored all day, girls rummaging through bins of unmatched shoes, boys searching closets stuffed with ugly winter jackets, looking for anything worth taking. They met again at dusk, pairing off to kiss in darkened corners on piles of unwanted clothes. Wandering alone, Martin Ames discovered a crate of telescopes in the attic. He brought the crate outside. When the others found him, the children without fathers spent hours looking at the sky and each other, laughing at how the telescopes made them huge with one end, tiny with the other.
In Andover, the children without fathers broke into Blaine's Cinema. The names of forgotten films atrophied on the marquee out front, the remaining words and missing letters an unfinished game of Hangman. Jenny Thompson jimmied the lock on the side entrance with her mother's credit card, opening the door on the second try. Inside, the theatre was as cold and dark as a cave. The lobby air was thick with dust. Flies orbited the soda machine. The candy in the concession stand had all melted into bible-sized slabs of sugar.
The credit card trick worked on the projector room, where Jenny found tin canisters of old movies stacked next an older projector, but the card snapped in half as the lock gave. Jenny yelled the titles of films she found through the small, square projector room window to the children below. "Ghost Busters!" she yelled. "Titanic! When Harry Met Sally! Indian Jones! Love Actually! Mission Impossible! Mission Impossible Two!" She shredded yards of film feeding movies through the projector's complicated circuit of sprockets and teeth. The children without fathers waited in uncomfortable theatre seats, making shadows on the blank screen with their lighters and hands, reenacting scenes they knew by heart. Jenny thought about stealing the metal film canisters when they left, but where else would the movies stay so safe?
The children without fathers climbed onto the condemned roof of Granite State Convenience in St. John's, walking carefully to an attic window that been open for five years. When Danny Brown put his foot through a weak spot in the center of the roof, his leg was swallowed up to the hip. No one was too surprised: at over one-hundred and ninety pounds and under five-foot six Danny would never be confused for nimble. Someone helped him up, but Danny's face stayed red and he wouldn't go inside. He offered to stay behind on the roof as a lookout, and so no one noticed he wouldn't have fit through the attic's trapdoor.
Yellow newspapers and glossy magazines, spoiled food and skunked beer, emptied soda cans and juice bottles slid underfoot in the store's unused aisles. The children without fathers thought the trip was a bust until Martin Ames found a handgun under the front counter. The weight startled him: The gun felt too heavy, like one of his father's old tools, the solid nail-guns, electric drills, hammers now rusting in the garage. James Woodrow, the oldest child without a father at seventeen and a half, called "Woody" even by his teacher, told Martin it was a 9-millimeter. Woody taught Martin about the safety and the action, showed him how to release the clip and load the bullets, but let him to keep the gun in case he needed to use it.
An office door in the back gave way after a few kicks. A mound of off-brand cigarettes cartons covered the desk inside. The children without fathers smoked all night, gorging themselves like dogs left with an unguarded pile of food. They were sick for days after, and smoked carefully from then on.
The children without fathers drove old Volvos, Hondas, Toyotas and Fords inherited from long-gone fathers or older siblings now living on their own and disappearing into the cycle of work, television, and beer. The real owners became names on post cards, faces in old pictures, the subjects of stories either told too often or once by mistake and never mentioned again. The children without fathers fixed up leftover ATVs, go-carts, three-wheelers. The children without fathers rode dirt bikes through networks of hiking trails that did not need names. When the snow came, they cut private highways through the forests on Yamaha, Ski-Doo, and Polaris snowmobiles. They paid for gas with money they stole or earned from selling the things they stole. They stole gas.
The children without fathers went to school to eat and sleep. The children without fathers did not play sports, did not do homework, did not have GPAs. The children without fathers did not have names, only nick-names: Bends, Junior, Lincoln, J.D., Olive, Slouch, Surly, Marty, N, Scrambles, The Head, Woody, Missy, Bombshell, Big Dan, Cold Pizza, Sarah One, The Other Sarah. Seeing someone's real full name on a driver's license or piece of mail was embarrassing, too personal, too intimate.
The children without fathers' mothers knew they had good kids. They didn't have to worry about them. Their friends were wild, sure, but her son had a steady head on his shoulders, her daughter would not go along with the bad ideas some of the others had, was only going through a phase, just trying out a new clique, had a good heart. The children without fathers' mothers worked two or three jobs, always part-time. Their jobs did not pay enough. Their feet ached. They were so tired. When they saw their children from the couch, their feet elevated, looking through fingers splayed over eyes, their children look unconcerned.
The children without fathers taught themselves the important things they learned from each other, from television, from movies, from the internet, from books. How to open a locked door using a credit card. How to make fake IDs. Which bakeries give away the day's unsold food at the point between late night and early morning. How to hotwire cars, trucks, snow machines, motorcycles. Which roads have speed traps. The bars bikers hang out in to drink and fight. About guns. The things to say to cops when pulled over. How to not get pulled over, ever. How to spot the car without an alarm in a full parking lot. Where and when to grow pot plants, how to pick, weigh, and bag, who to approach on the college campuses down south, what to say, and how much to charge. Skateboard tricks. How to fight. Why it is important to read. What to say to the judge. How to siphon gasoline. Pressure points. How to make a tattoo gun from a needle, an electric toothbrush, thread, and a ballpoint pen. The difference between right and wrong, the fact that most people don't know the difference, or if they do know don't care. How to survive.
The children without fathers got into trouble for practice. The children without fathers were arrested for small crimes and let off lightly the first few times. The children without fathers jumped from high bridges into shallow water, and when they broke bones they did not go to the hospital until it was almost too late. When "Woody" Woodrow crashed into a tree driving drunk one night he abandoned his car by the side of the road and walked home through the woods. Danny Brown ate too much, did not eat right, drank only soda. Martin Ames kept smoking cigarettes until he needed a pack a day. He decided to try every drug once by the time he was sixteen in the name of research. One day Jenny Thompson got a letter in the mail: she'd been accepted at a good college. She didn't tell anyone. When she left without saying goodbye, and never came back.
One by one the children without fathers turned eighteen, and became adults.
The adults without fathers left the homes they'd been raised in. The adults without fathers took on the worst kind of jobs, working as janitors, dump-truck drivers, dish washers. They sold insurance over the phone, paved roads through hot summers, worked as late-shift cashiers at gas-stations no one used. The adults without fathers got each other pregnant and did not marry. Woody went to prison for all the small things that finally caught up with him after all, his name appearing as "James Alexander Woodrow, Jr." in the police blotter next to his escalating crimes. When he got out again it was never for very long.
The adults without fathers had children of their own. The adults without fathers did not make money, the adults without fathers made debt. The adults without fathers felt sick all the time. The adults without fathers were just barely getting by, and now this.
The adults without fathers thought about their lives up until this point, their fatherless childhoods and reckless adolescences. They considered the pinched faces of their squealing offspring. The adults without fathers wanted more for their children. The adults without fathers wanted their children to have the nice things they never had, like new clothes and futures.
The adults without fathers took on more dangerous jobs: logging, mining, commercial fishing, roofing, operating heavy equipment on construction crews, working on oil rigs, jobs that took them far away with promises to earn more. Some sent home good checks for a while. The adults without fathers enlisted in the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the National Guard. Danny Brown tried out for the Marines three times before he was accepted. The first time he was way too fat. The second time he was just too fat. The last time he'd been training for months, running an hour each morning before his shift at the lumber yard, and passed without a problem. The adults without fathers worked two or three jobs, part-time. They fell asleep on the couch. They were so tired.
The adults without fathers panicked and fled. The adults without fathers became faces in old pictures, names at the bottoms of emails and letters, strangers only seen late at night, early in the morning, once or twice a year who quickly ran out of things to say. The adults without fathers orphaned their children as they had been orphaned themselves and new children began to learn old lessons for the first time.
Elsewhere, their children grew.
When his time with drugs was over, and he was tired of being so poor, Martin Ames found a job working a lathe in a mill two towns over. He stayed out too late drinking at the town's only bar after work, came home in the middle of the night, and left again as the sun was rising. And if heading into another day-break shift, driving past abandoned buildings that he still remembered as ice-cream parlors, restaurants, convenience stores and movie theaters from his youth, he felt that old pull to abandon the life he had not chosen but conceded to he was by then too tired to act, too busy living, just trying to get by. The best he could do was step on the gas and push the needle to the red-line, his truck shuddering over washed-out back-roads he'd known all his life and would know all the rest, riding the corners so loose his rear tires slipped into the ditch, and hope that by the time he got to work the pull would be gone because it was time to begin again.