Father’s job is very important, we think.

“I think he is a builder,” says Brother.

“I think he is the mayor,” says Sister.

“If he were the mayor we’d know,” I say.

We chirp at Father every day when he returns home from work, snake-faced and limping, victim of his employment. “Are you a banker?” we ask. “Are you a builder?”

“I am tired,” he says.

One day we run out of guesses. “Are you a—” We freeze, minds voided. “You must—”

That evening, in bed, I tell my siblings I plan to follow Father to work in the morning. They laugh, but at dawn I hide in the trunk of his car. I am so giddy and nervous I’m shaking. I swallow a pill to settle my nerves, to keep from yipping when Father drives over bumps.

I awake when the car comes to a stop. Father exits. I slide out of the trunk. A building’s shadow casts a gray tongue over a parking lot.

Inside, the guards supposed to be guarding the door are not at their posts. The cubicles are as empty as ice trays. I walk for an hour before I hear people cheering. I follow the sound to a door. Behind it a swarm of men and women in business attire holler and laugh so loudly the ceiling is shaking. I look for Father, briefly, then push my way to the front.

I come to a velvet rope. Beyond it, on display, Father sits on a large wooden stool in boxer shorts and argyle socks. He is covered in muck. A woman steps out of her high heels and enters the roped-off area. She walks to a line drawn on the ground, then hurls an egg at Father. Its yoke yellows his chest. A man hurls a carton of yogurt at Father. Another spitballs his eye.

“No cutting!” a man says, and yanks me away by my collar. I flee to the trunk, where I wait two hours for Father.

*

That night I tell my siblings that Father is an accountant.

“So Father is boring?”

“I wish that he wasn’t,” I say.

“I wish Father wasn’t employed,” Sister says.

The news bullies my siblings. They are unable to sleep. Mother feeds each of us pills. I spit mine under my pillow after she leaves. I plan to ride with Father again in the morning.

*

Father drives to a scrubby farm wretched with wheelbarrows rusting. In the barn, Father stands on a stool. Men in overalls, their faces dirtied to the black of burnt bread, pitch cow pies toward Father two-at-a-time. They pump their arms, fist bump, they squawk and they dance after pelting Father flat in the face. What pleasure he brings to these people! I stay for the entire show.

*

The following morning, when I open the trunk, Mother is huddled inside. She beckons me next to her. “I don’t know why this didn’t occur to me sooner,” she says.

“What about Brother and Sister?”

“I know I shouldn’t complain. We live a luxurious life. But not knowing wears on a woman. Imagine, sweetie, the demons that try to explain where your father is going?”

I hear Father coming and press a finger over her lips.

Father drives to a pier. We crouch behind a pair of crates. Fishermen heave fish at Father. An oyster adheres to his beard, drips its juices onto his neck. We watch him, wanting to pluck the oyster, but Father, masterfully, doesn’t react. Mother delights in the scene, excited by Father’s obvious talent. A smile eclipses half of her face.

*

Mother and I pack for four the following morning. As expected, Brother and Sister lay curled like a couple of cats in the spare tire well.

“Father’s job isn’t accounting,” they say.

“Move over,” I say.

At home, that night, we say nothing of what we know to Father—though it is hard repressing our joy. Does he notice something different about us? Does he notice that we laugh louder than normal? Is it strange that we offer to massage his shoulders, that we let him watch whatever he wants on TV?

We continue asking him where he works, for appearances sake.

“Are you sure you aren’t a bricklayer?”

“A stunt pilot?”

“A goon?”

It is fun asking while knowing. And Father, moved by our charisma, even starts to smile at home, starts to respond to our guesses by making the sound of a buzzer.

“Are you a game show host?”

“Eeerrrrrrrrr.”

Yes, knowing Father’s job makes our lives more meaningful and amusing. However, we want more than to know. We long to feel what the heavers were feeling, the smushers, the chuckers, the dumpers, the tossers, the pitchers, the whippers, the spitters. At dinner, I fantasize about spilling my milk in father’s lap, or tripping while carrying salad, launching the bowl in Father’s direction, the Caesared greens spackling onto his sweater. We all have similar fantasies and do not notice that Father is talking.

“You’re acting possessed,” he says.

“Uh-huh,” we mindlessly say, forming catapults with our spoons.

*

One afternoon, when we open the trunk, we step out into a warehouse, entirely empty, save for Father undressed on his stool, spotlighted and silent. I walk to a line painted onto the floor. I find a squat metal box. “Come here,” I tell everyone. Together we pry off the lid. The pennies inside are packed to the rim.

 

 

Photo by _gee_

Alex McElroy

ALEX MCELROY's writing appears or is forthcoming in New England Review, Black Warrior Review, Georgia Review, Catapult, and Tin House online, among other places, and he is the winner of the 2016 Neutrino Prize from Passages North. More work can be found at alexmcelroy.org.

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