by J.H. Bond
We’re in a bathroom at McDonald’s and it smells like pee and I’m helping my dad put his makeup on. It’s his eyebrows that he struggles the most with. They’re supposed to arc like dark rainbows high up on his forehead. He can’t do them in the mirror—they look like mountains.
“Get ’em even, Mitchell,” Dad tells me, as he kneels down, eye-level.
I’m always drawing pictures. Now I’m drawing one on my dad. His real eyebrows are gone, lost under a mask of white. I give him some new ones with a makeup pencil, then paint the tip of his nose bright red.
He pulls on his stockings. Zips up his yellow-gold jumpsuit. I hand him his giant shoes and ask how come they’re so big. Goofy factor, he says.
He fits on his wig and it blazes like fire.
“How do I look?” he asks me.
“Like a clown,” I say.
Dad’s got three parties this afternoon. I count eight kids at the first and I don’t know any of them. Dad’s trying to make a wiener dog balloon and I’m at a table in the corner, drawing pictures of the motel I’ve been living in with my mom.
I sort of hate the kids Dad entertains. He gives this boy with braces the wiener dog balloon and a freckle-faced girl a turtle. They’re all cracking up and happy like Dad’s a good clown, but he’s not. Every time he tries to juggle he splatters an egg. Kids laugh, but still. He can’t do tricks. He doesn’t tell jokes. He just falls down and spills stuff, and slips in the stuff he spilled.
His problem is, he’s not really a clown. He’s my dad. In real life he wears shoes that fit and shirts with buttons. His real hair’s brown and not on fire and he slicks it over to the side real neat.
After the first party’s over he sits down with me and looks exhausted and beat-up. The first thing he says is that he’s sorry this is where I see him, at a McDonald’s, dressed up like a clown.
I don’t know what to say.
He goes, “Mitchell, son, do I embarrass you?”
Dad says never mind. He says it’s just a job until he gets his real job back.
The next party’s in ten minutes. I show him the pictures I drew of the motel, and tell him how there’s stains on our bathroom wall shaped like states—Idaho, Minnesota, Texas. My dad’s always wanting to go places. I tell him when we turn out the lights we hear roaches drop out of the vents, a whole army of them scuttling across the floor.
“Here’s a picture of one,” I tell my dad. “Here’s his antennae, here’s his legs.”
“Looks like a guy I knew in high school,” Dad says, and I laugh because sometimes my dad makes me laugh too, and he doesn’t even have to fall down.
His favorite picture is the one I drew of the orange begonias me and Mom keep in a vase beside the motel TV. The TV doesn’t work, but the begonias sure do. I’m good at drawing flowers.
“Does anybody ever give you a hard time about your pictures?” Dad asks me.
“Not really,” I say.
“Not even the flowers?”
I say not really and Dad says I’m like him. I’m interested in things, is all.
“Keep drawing,” he says. “Drawing’s a way of seeing the world, isn’t it?”
“You want me to draw a picture of you?”
“Nah,” Dad says.
His boss stops by to tell him nice job but take it easy on the falls. He says if Dad blows out his back, he’s not going to pay for it. Dad says it’s not his back that hurts him, it’s his knees, and his boss says he’s not going to pay for knees either. After he walks away Dad calls him an asshole.
Then Dad brightens up and he says, “Good news. I got your pencils back.”
My dad had a yard sale and sold off our belongings, his stuff mostly but some of mine and Mom’s too, including the graphite drawing pencils he got me for Christmas last year. He says he grabbed them up without thinking. Now he’s telling me he found the kid he sold my pencils to and he bought them back.
He says he’s also tracked down some of Mom’s clothes and all of her romance novels. I guess it made sense at the time to sell some things, but now he regrets it. I know for a fact he sold his writing desk for twelve dollars and forgot his poems were inside. My dad writes poems.
His plan is to get everything back, but Mom says it’s not possible. The whole neighborhood was in our yard but also there were people we don’t know, people we’ll never see again. Dad’s been driving around, knocking on doors. Mom says he needs to stop, but Dad won’t. He swears he’s going to get it all back, me and Mom included.
“You can tell your mom I’ve kept the house clean,” he says. “I’ve been vacuuming, washing dishes, the whole deal. The other day I found four dollars in the couch.”
“I saw you running after us,” I tell him. “When we left. I saw you running down the street.”
Dad’s wearing yellow gloves. He’s scratching his wig.
“Did it hurt your knees running after us like that?”
“Sometimes when you get worked up you can’t feel things,” Dad says.
“How far did you run?”
“I don’t know. I don’t really remember.”
He might have been drunk. My dad drinks sometimes. There’s this shed in our backyard and Dad sat out there all summer typing on his typewriter. Some nights he sat out there until the sun was up. This one morning he came in and we were already awake, me and Mom, eating waffles, and Dad went to sit down at the kitchen table and missed his chair. All of a sudden he was laid out on the floor laughing and I was laughing too, but Mom didn’t think it was funny. She said, “Get up. You’re drunk. You’ve been out there drinking.”
It wasn’t long after that Mom found out Dad had lost his job, and not long after that that he had the yard sale. He says we were broke and needed money, and Mom says whose fault’s that?
Dad checks his watch. It’s almost time for the next party. He says it’s going to be a big one, like twenty-five, thirty kids. He acts thrilled, then rolls his eyes. I try to think of something else to tell him and he tries to think of something else to tell me. He says when me and Mom come home, he’s going to tear down the shed. He’s going to plant something beautiful in its place.
“What do you think about a garden?” he asks me.
He says we could grow some tomatoes and some peppers and maybe even flowers. He asks what I would like to grow and I say raisins, so we can put them in cookies. He sort of smiles, and even under all that Ronald McDonald makeup, I can see that it’s him—it’s my dad under there.
“What else?” he asks and I tell him begonias of course. We can plant pink begonias and orange begonias and scarlet begonias. Dad says okay, what else?
“Roses,” I say. “Mom likes roses.”
“You know what a trellis is? We can grow some roses and they’ll climb right up it,” Dad tells me. “That’s what your mom will see when she looks out in the backyard in the morning, a wall of roses.”
I try to picture it, something beautiful in our backyard. It’s hard. Honestly, I wonder if my dad’s been praying again, if that’s what happened to his knees. I wonder if he’s been praying for us to come home.
He says when we do, we’re going to spend more time together, me and him and Mom. He says when he gets his job back, we’re going to take a vacation and go somewhere. There’s a great big world out there and so much he wants me to see.
Suddenly I think of something to tell him—that me and Mom went to Ohio. Ohio’s just across the river but still. We drove across a bridge.
“What was in Ohio?” Dad asks.
“An apartment,” I say.
I tell him the apartment’s near a park, that it has a stove and a refrigerator, and somebody’s living there now, but he has to be out by the end of the month.
Dad’s expression changes. He’s quiet.
“Are you okay?” I ask him, and after a while he smiles his clown smile and tells me he’s fine.
There’s a problem. It’s time for the next party, the big one, and this kid walks in and I know him. It’s Levi Eckersley. Everybody knows Levi. His dad’s dead. He worked at the blast furnace and they dropped seventeen tons of iron ore on him by accident. It was on the news and everything. For like a week Levi was the most popular kid in school, which was weird because nobody likes him, but his dad got crushed, so everybody pretended. Now it’s his birthday and he thinks I’m here for his party.
There’s like thirty Happy Meals set out but only one other kid here besides me and Levi—this kid Benji Farrell, whose dad dragged Levi’s dad’s corpse out from under the iron ore.
“My mom made me come to this,” Benji says. “Why’d you come?”
“I didn’t mean to,” I tell him.
Levi’s mom is pacing around the McDonald’s like the twenty-seven other kids she thought were going to show up might be hiding under a table somewhere. Finally she gives my dad the okay and he bursts out of the kitchen riding a tricycle in his big red shoes. He’s singing Happy Birthday and laughing in his crazy clown voice.
“Wow!” says Levi’s mom. “It’s Ronald McDonald!”
I stare down at the floor, mortified. Dad pedals by and Mrs. Eckersley tries to make me clap. I’m not going to clap for my own dad. He parks his tricycle and passes out party squawkers, then falls down and blames his shoes.
Mrs. Eckersley’s the only one laughing. She’s a tall, frenzied woman with little square teeth and chewed-on fingernails. We open up our Happy Meals and she closes them. She says we should wait to eat because for sure more kids are coming.
All the Happy Meals get cold. Meanwhile Dad blows up some balloons and twists them into unrecognizable shapes. He’s distracted, I can tell. He gives one of the balloons to Levi and Levi makes a face like somebody ripped one.
“What is it?”
“It’s a walrus,” Dad says.
“Doesn’t look like a walrus. Doesn’t look like anything.”
Mrs. Eckersley swears we’re having a good time. I open my sketchpad and draw a picture of her watching out the window for the kids who aren’t coming. Too much time’s passed since Levi’s dad got crushed. She doesn’t know he’s not popular anymore.
Benji pulls me aside and tells me Levi’s dad’s dead.
“I know,” I tell him.
He says it was his dad who pulled Levi’s dad out from under the iron ore. He says Levi’s dad’s body was like a sack full of applesauce, everything inside him turned to mush.
“God,” I say.
We look over at Levi. He’s eating Chicken McNuggets from four different Happy Meals. He’s got barbecue sauce on his cheek and ketchup on his fingers. In my mind I draw a picture of him and wonder what it’s like for his dad to be dead.
“Mom!” Levi shouts. “Where’s my other friends at?”
Mrs. Eckersley’s at the window smoking a cigarette, going, “Goddamn those kids. Goddamn them.”
She grins real big and spins, and tells Levi he has all the friends he needs right here. She says everybody else is missing out, that we’re the ones who get to spend time with Ronald McDonald. Right on cue Dad works a French fry out of his nose. Everyone’s watching to see if he’s going to eat it.
Somewhere deep inside me I sort of wish my dad was dead too. Not really but sort of. I’m just scared Benji and Levi are going to figure out who he is, that Ronald McDonald is not Ronald McDonald—he’s my dad.
Mrs. Eckersley says, “Why don’t you tell us some jokes?” but Dad doesn’t have any.
“I’m having a bad day,” he says.
“All right, let’s dance.”
Dad says, “What?” and Mrs. Eckersley says, “You heard me.”
She pulls him out of his chair and they start slow. They touch hips and Mrs. Eckersley says, “Not like that.”
“How?” Dad asks.
“Be goofy,” she tells him.
So they skip around without any music, Dad on his bad knees, wincing. Mrs. Eckersley’s beaming like a headlight, showing off her little square teeth. She keeps going, “Look at this, you boys. Look at us dance.”
Dad takes her and twirls her and she ends up in his arms, with his yellow-gloved hand low on her back.
“All right, okay,” she says. “That’s enough.”
It’s the worst party ever. Levi keeps telling us his big brother’s on the way, like we care. Mrs. Eckersley’s smoking another cigarette, saying he should have been here by now. She’s going, “Where are you, Kevin?”
I hide out in a corner trying to draw a picture of Levi’s dad under all that iron ore. I don’t even know what iron ore is. One of the kids at school said metal, another said rocks. Another said it could be anything, there are all sorts of things that can crush you.
I look up and Benji and Levi are tossing nuggets at my dad. One bounces off his forehead.
“Time to open gifts,” Dad says, but there aren’t any. Or there aren’t enough because Levi’s about to cry. He keeps asking where his brother is and Mrs. Eckersley tells him to stop. She says, “Levi, sweetheart, you’re driving Mommy nuts.”
Everybody’s losing it. Dad pulls some Happy Meal toys out of our ears, to cheer everyone up, but the toys are all garbage. Mrs. Eckersley asks him if he could ride the tricycle again, but Dad’s knees are killing him. She flips out. She goes, “I need you to entertain these kids!”
And what Dad does is, is get her a cup of ice water and two Tylenol. There’s an argument and Dad’s boss comes out and gives Dad a talking to. I try not to hear it. I open up my sketchpad and draw a picture of a hot rod with fat tires and flames roaring down the side panels. I write out in the sky HAPPY BIRTHDAY LEVI and sign my name, Mitchell Queen.
A few minutes later the doors to the kitchen kick open and Dad rides out pedaling hard, his wig slid back on his forehead, revealing where his makeup stops a band of pale, freckled skin.
“Watch out,” he tells a man up front, who’s standing at a register, trying to order a Quarter Pounder with cheese. I hear Dad’s knees pop as he circles by. He does a loop around the trashcans, then toots his clown horn a couple of times, parks, and checks his watch. “This party’s just about over,” he says.
“No, it’s not,” Mrs. Eckersley assures us. “It’s not.”
For dessert she passes out baked apple pie pockets, but Benji won’t eat his. He says he can’t eat apples and Mrs. Eckersley asks why not. Benji glances at me and I think about applesauce oozing out of Levi’s dad’s ears. I can’t eat mine either.
“I’m going to fix this,” Mrs. Eckersley tells everybody. She says she’s going to run over to the mall and get Levi some presents. Dad says she can’t just leave and she says watch me.
She rushes out to the parking lot, gets in her car, and is gone.
Everyone’s quiet until Levi begins to whimper. He’s one of those kids who looks just like his dad, except he’s alive—head round as a volleyball, with tiny ears on either side and a chin that wobbles when he’s upset. It’s wobbling now.
“I didn’t get any presents,” he says.
Dad parks his tricycle beside Levi and says this is all a present—the party, the Chicken McNuggets, all of it.
“I hate you,” Levi tells him.
I watch my dad hobble out to his car and sit down in the passenger seat. He leans over like he’s digging through the glove box. I know what he keeps in the glove box. I think about him on the kitchen floor that morning he came in from the shed, when he was drunk and missed his chair. All he said was—and this was after he’d finally stopped laughing—was, “I want out of this place.” Mom was trying to pull him up by his arm and he said, “Do you hear me? I said I want out of here.”
For the life of me I don’t understand why my dad has such a tough time. While he’s hiding out in his car this guy walks past in a dirty T-shirt that used to be white. He’s wearing a pair of scarred, steel-toe work boots.
Levi cries, “He’s here! I told you he was coming!”
It’s his brother, Kevin. Kevin’s got pimples on his face. He tousles Levi’s hair and tells him Happy Birthday, then hands him a G.I. Joe that’s already been opened.
“Wow!” says Levi.
Kevin Eckersley asks where their mom is and Levi says she left to get him some presents. He says nobody came to his party and nobody got him anything. His chin’s wobbling again.
“Oh, Jesus,” Kevin says. “Come here.”
He kneels and lets Levi climb up his back, onto his shoulders. Then he stands again, with no small effort, and announces: “Ladies and gentlemen, the tallest man in the world, my brother, Levi Eckersley.”
Levi is a good eight or nine feet up in the air, looking down at us.
“Buttholes,” he says.
Benji says he got him a card that had five dollars in it and Levi says so. I rifle through my sketchpad until I find the hot rod I drew. It’s for Levi, but Kevin Eckersley takes it and says it’s not bad. Then he flips through the rest of my drawings. He sees the motel I’ve been living in with my mom. He sees the roaches and the orange begonias, and some of the other flowers I’ve drawn.
He says, “Mitchell Queen? Is that your name?”
I always sign my name on my drawings. I nod and Kevin says he had an English teacher named Queen.
“Does your dad teach at the high school?”
“No,” I tell him.
“He’s not an English teacher at the high school? He’s not Mr. Queen?”
“No,” I say.
Right then Dad wanders back in from the parking lot in his Ronald McDonald costume. His wig’s slid way back—he’s barely wearing it. Kevin Eckersley’s staring at him.
Dad says, “You’re the brother, I take it. Are you going to watch these kids now?”
“Huh?” says Kevin. “I’ve been off work five minutes and now I’m supposed to babysit everybody’s kids? I haven’t even sat down. Shouldn’t you be entertaining them or something?”
“I was paid for an hour. An hour’s up,” Dad says. “I’m sure your mom will be back soon.”
“Yeah right be back soon. Sounds like she’s having another crack-up.”
Kevin lowers Levi off his shoulders and sits himself in the chair directly across from me. He kicks his boots up on the table and grabs a fistful of French fries. He’s eating them one by one, staring at my dad.
“She went over to the mall,” Dad tells him.
“I doubt it. She’s probably just sitting in her car somewhere crying. Hey Levi, was Mom upset? Was she losing it again?”
“I was driving her nuts,” Levi says.
“There you go.”
Kevin asks me if I’m going to eat my pie, and before I can answer, he starts scarfing it. Benji has a look on his face.
“Well, I hope you boys had a good time,” Dad says. And then he says, “Come on, Mitchell. Let’s go home,” and all I can do is turn my eyes down to the floor. There’s a stray French fry, some salt. When I look up again Kevin Eckersley has my dad’s wig in his hand and they’re staring at each other.
“Holy shit,” Kevin Eckersley says. “It’s you.”
“Do I know you?” Dad asks.
Kevin’s wearing a big grin. He’s got all those pimples.
“You know who I am.”
“Were you one of my students?”
“Knock it off. Is this what you do on the weekends? Birthday parties?”
“I don’t teach anymore.”
“Oh yeah? What’d you do, get yourself fired?”
“Yeah,” Dad says. “They fired me.”
“And now you’re a clown? You’re Ronald McDonald?”
Kevin’s laughing. Dad has a smile painted on his face, but his real lips are straight. Levi’s watching, Benji’s watching.
“I thought I had it bad,” Kevin says.
“What’s your name?” Dad asks him.
“You know my name.” Kevin Eckersley’s sort of smirking, waiting on Dad to remember him. He goes, “Seriously? You don’t remember me?”
“I had a lot of students.”
“I guess that makes me a nobody, huh?”
“I didn’t say—”
“Mr. Queen. I always thought that was a good name for you. Remember that time you cried in front of our whole class? You remember that? Hey, what were you crying about?”
Dad shrugs, Kevin snaps his fingers.
“It was that poem,” Kevin says, “the one about it’s autumn in Ohio, ‘oh look at all the beautiful boys and their bodies’. Remember that?”
“Yes,” Dad says.
“Is that why they fired you, Mr. Queen? Because you’re a faggot?”
“Not in front of the kids.”
“Is this one yours? What do you think about that, buddy? That your dad’s a fag?”
Everybody’s looking at me. I’m wondering if that’s what a fag is, someone who reads poems and cries. My dad probably is a fag, I realize, but what I want to say is, is at least he’s alive.
“Eckersley,” Dad interrupts. “Kevin Eckersley?”
“That’s right. I knew you remembered me.”
“Your dad—Kevin, was that your dad at the blast furnace?”
“Don’t,” Kevin says. “Don’t even mention my dad.”
“Aw Jesus, you poor kid.”
“You’re out in the world now, aren’t you?”
“I got a good job, asshole. You’re the one dressed up like Ronald McDonald.”
“How old are you now? Sixteen? Seventeen?”
“Quit looking at me like that, you faggot.”
“You’re just a kid.”
“I’m telling you to stop looking at me like that.”
Dad says, “If I failed you in some way, I’m sorry.”
And Kevin says, “Fuck you,” and that’s when it happens—Dad reaches out to touch Kevin Eckersley’s shoulder, to tell him again that he’s sorry, and Kevin slaps my dad’s face. I’m not even sure he means to. His hand whips out like a reflex, and the tricycle’s right there at Dad’s feet. He stumbles and goes down hard—the side of his head bounces off the tile floor, and for a second his eyes are closed but his eyebrows are arched, the ones I drew.
“Shit,” Kevin says.
Then just like that Dad’s eyes open wide and he looks at us and goes, “I slipped. I slipped again, didn’t I?”
“I slapped you,” Kevin tells him, and Dad tries to laugh in his clown voice, but it doesn’t come out right. He tries to stand up, but he staggers and has to sit down. He says it’s his shoes, I just keep slipping in these shoes.
Dad’s boss is mad because there’s still one more party, but Dad’s quit. He says Dad came to him begging for a job, any job, and he gave him one when nobody else would. Now some kid’s going to have a birthday party without Ronald McDonald.
Dad says, “I think I just got knocked out,” and his boss says he’s not going to cover any concussions.
In the car then it’s me and Dad and Benji, who needs a ride home. Out of the blue Dad slaps the steering wheel and starts laughing. Not in a deranged way—it’s more of a chuckle, and I get the feeling he’s laughing at himself, at the fact that he’s been dressing up like Ronald McDonald and doing birthday parties on the weekends.
“How ridiculous does it get?” he asks. I’m kind of laughing too.
We’re flying down the highway and Dad rolls down a window and tosses his wig out. Next it’s his clown shoes—he chucks them one at a time, about a quarter-mile apart. Me and Benji look back and a big red shoe’s skipping off the asphalt.
Now we’re all laughing and grinning. I don’t know where we’re going—home, Benji’s house, the motel. I think about how Mom says Dad was going to leave us. That he had a plan. He was going to live somewhere else and be someone else, but then he realized he couldn’t do it, that we were all he had.
Mom says it’s not enough to figure something out. She says you have to figure it out before you lose your job and ruin your life.
Dad says, “Don’t pay any attention to what that kid said about me, Mitchell.”
The makeup on the side of his cheek is smeared from getting slapped.
“He’s doomed,” Dad says. “You know that, right? That poor kid is just absolutely doomed.”
Dad’s going to say something else, but the thought leaves him and I see another slip into its place. He keeps glancing over at me and looking away.
All of a sudden we’re skidding across the gravels on the side of the road, Dad’s smashing the brakes. He turns the car off and we sit there a minute in silence.
Then he gets out, and here’s one last picture for you: me and Benji peering out the back windshield, watching a man in a yellow-gold jumpsuit cross a double-lane highway, striped stockings hiked up to his knees. People are honking at him, giving him the finger.
“What’s he doing?” Benji asks.
He’s wading through the tall grass that blankets the median. He’s hunting for a glove, searching for a shoe. He’s my dad, and he’s out there trying to get it all back.
J.H. Bond is from Boyd County, Kentucky, and lives now in Atlanta. For several years he covered MMA fighting for ESPN.com and other websites. His journalism has appeared in various magazines and newspapers in the U.S., Brazil, and Japan. His short stories have been accepted for publication this year by The Journal and New South. Find him @joehicksbond.
Illustration by Devan Murphy