I wanted that man in the trees. Someone was saying some words at my mother’s grave but I was looking towards where he was, the wind whipping his long white hobo hair.
Earlier he had been hiding in shrubbery outside the church. You would think the church a welcoming place, but there were funeral men stationed at the door to keep him out. My current father was not happy that I kept wandering off during the service, peeking through a low window to see the dirty toe poking from homeless shoes.
“He’s just waiting for handouts from the buffet,” my current father hissed. This was my fourth father, the only one still around. But I thought the man out in the bushes might be the real one I never knew.
This current father, named Bill, had shoes so thick and expensive and shiny it would take a thousand years to get holes in like the ones out in the bush. I hated him for that, his immunity to decay. Even after the accident that killed my mother, my one and only true mother, he stepped from the car with his fucking beautiful suit unruffled. His nose had bled but the blood ran off the treated silk of his tie. He wiped her blood from his shiny pants with a matching hanky and stuffed it into her clenched fist.
After the graveside we headed back to the church basement for the buffet. The hobo father slid along parallel, his shadow long as the trees. He carried a walking stick; okay, maybe a branch to clock someone, but I was not threatened. Before going inside I saw where he went, into a fat, low pine. I made a secret hand signal, sort of like a bird taking off, meaning: I’ll bring you something.
I caught Bill in the lobby doing sleight of hand with his flask. His cheeks were burning, but not from sorrow. He couldn’t make eye contact. He knew I hated him. He leaned his weight on my shoulder and I moved so he toppled.
The basement smelled of old bingo farts. I hid behind my paper plate stacked dangerously high with meats and cheeses. I didn’t believe in bread or pasta salads. My aunt Suzy came over and rested her heavy boobs on my shoulder. She combed my hair with her jeweled nails and told me she’d be there for me. My dick twitched momentarily then shriveled away. My mother had always scratched my head, and I would close my eyes to see a beach at sunset. She stopped doing that after Bill came along, like he told her it was perverted or something.
Bill played the clown, draping his head with thin-sliced beef. He smoked a cigarette through a hole in Swiss cheese until the pastor shouted. He sulked for a while in the corner before slipping out the fire exit. I followed at a distance. I hid behind a bush not far from the pine where the other possible father hid. I watched Bill dig under the seat of his car. I knew he had a bottle there. He crawled into the back seat and disappeared. I knew what he was doing.
I waited until he passed out. Then I opened the back door, stripped off his suit jacket and pants and those big shoes. He slurred, “Mona?” but my mother’s name was Julie. I peeled a strip of beef from his face and stuffed it in his underpants.
The fat pine quivered mysteriously. I said, “Hello?” and it stopped. “I have something.”
The bum scrambled out the back. His sweatpants were shredded. His stick legs, covered with bruises and scratches, looked strong as cables. I ran after him with the suit. “Wait!”
Something absurd entered my mind. I thought of the book my mother read when I was little. It was called, “Are You My Mother?” There was this lost baby bird asking animals and planes and cars if they were his mother.
“Are you my father?” I yelled.
He stumbled on a rock and came up swinging his stick. His eyes were wild and looked worse than homeless – crazy. With a swift Ninja move he hooked the coat and pants. He whacked the shoes from my hand. He fled for the trees.
“I’ll bring you food!” I called.
I went back in, loaded a plate with everything I could. I snatched a big soda bottle. One of my mother’s friends said, “Oh, I’m so glad to see you eat. You will feel better.” I avoided her hug.
I didn’t think he’d be there, but he was crouching near a tree wearing the suit and shoes. The pants and sleeves were ridiculously short. He pulled Bill’s cigarettes from the coat pocket and lit one, jetting a stream of smoke as straight and silver as the tree trunk. When he saw me with the plate he flicked the cigarette away and wiped his mouth with the back of his grubby hand. He was salivating. His eyes grew even crazier.
He grabbed the plate and soda bottle from me, but he didn’t run. He sat cross-legged in the dirt and bent over the food with the jacket forming wings so he looked like a vulture. I started to say I forgot utensils, but he was shoveling with his hands, potato salad and green Jell-O mixed together and oozing between his fingers. He was getting stuff all over Bill’s pants, which made me happy. I saw on his left hand what looked like a wedding ring, but it was so thin and fragile it might have gone through a hurricane or a couple centuries. It could have been stolen from a corpse.
He didn’t pause until he was done. He tossed the plate and opened the soda. His dirty Adam’s apple bobbed five times and it was gone. He pursed his lips and did something strange, blew gently across the bottle top. The tone was clear and low, the loneliest sound I’d ever heard. It made me think of the trains going through town and leaving me behind; of the nights I spent awake trying to catch my breath as their cries echoed from the mountain tunnel.
I studied him for any resemblance. My face was chubby, littered with orange freckles not from my mother’s side. His face was sunken and shifted from what it might have been. Flecks of dirt could have been freckles, and even though his hair was white already, I had a phantom streak of white in the back. His eyes were gray like mine.
“What’s your name?” I said.
He fled into the forest, having a hard time with Bill’s shoes. Over the hill the train whistle sounded at the crossing. “Wait,” I said, “take me with you. We’ll jump the train.”
When I crossed the ridge he was already standing by the tracks. Boxcars were crawling up the grade. It would be easy to get on. Then we could get to know each other, travel to new places. I could clean him up and get him some work. I could be his little sidekick. He could shave his whole head except for one white strip, and I would shave mine, leaving just my white strip. We could be superheroes, traveling the rails as our base of operation. We would have a supercool boxcar of our own, furnished with a big TV and speakers and a wall of exotic fish that would not get motion sickness. I pictured the animated versions of us: him lanky and stretchable, me round but gathering power as I rolled.
Now my father stretched those arms, tearing Bill’s sleeves and armpits, grabbed me and threw me into an open boxcar. It was violent, but I figured the timing made that essential. My face skidded across the metal floor. My mouth filled with dirt and chips of rust. When I rolled over to say something like, “Wow, that was…” he struck me in the face with his stick. He kicked me with Bill’s shoes. He yanked my jacket and pants and shoes off. He wound my tie around my neck and pulled down my boxers and tried to put his dick in me, but it was soft. He whimpered; he might have been crying. He made a weird guttural sound and swung me around by the tie and out the door.
That is no father of mine, I thought, as I sailed through the air. I landed in a ravine, on a rotten tree that exploded to dust. I pictured him crouched in the boxcar, banging his head on the metal, hearing my cell phone ring in my jacket pocket, taking it out and seeing the CALL FROM BILL.
I saw Bill struggling from the backseat, cursing, looking for his clothes.
I loosened the tie but still it took a long time to breathe; spores were in my lungs and my inhaler was in my coat. For a while I thought I would die. The train went on and on, the longest one I’d ever seen. The caboose guy couldn’t hear me wheeze or see my arm lift up.
Finally I was able to stand. I snared young trees with the tie to pull myself up the hill. Then I followed the tracks home, thinking how Bill would find this guy, hunt him down and kill him.
Gary Moshimer’s stuff appears in PANK, Smokelong Quarterly, JMWW, Word Riot, Night Train, and many other places.