By: Matej Purg
The boy’s feet barely touched the floor as he sat at the dining room table. He was staring at his math book, but he couldn’t focus on the problem in front of him. Illimitable distractions kept him from finding the solution, the clanking and sizzling of pots and pans, his mother cursing dinner into existence. The smell of roasting meat, potatoes, carrots, and fennel collected along the living-room ceiling. He hated fennel. The smell signaled the nightly congregation at the table he currently occupied all by himself, his papers, books, and binders scattered across the surface. He was on guard for his mother’s command to set the table.
He heard the A6 gear down outside, undeniably his father’s. He straightened his spine, bowed his head towards his math book and picked up his pencil. He began counting. One, two, three. He scribbled some numbers in the blank spots of his homework, underlined the fictitious answers. Twenty-five, twenty-six. He erased a few of the numbers and replaced them with neater looking ones. Forty-four, forty-five. He heard the key unlock the door at fifty. The boy summoned a smile and threw his father a careful glance when he saw him appear in the door and close it behind him. The father put down his briefcase next to the shelf with all the shoes. Earlier that afternoon, the boy made sure that none of his shoes were out of line, that all the mud was cleared from the linoleum floor in the hallway. His father hung up his sport coat, took off his loafers, and slid into house slippers.
“Hi Dad,” the boy mumbled. He bowed his head back into the book after meeting his father’s arctic eyes.
“Boy,” the father nodded in his direction. “Doing homework?”
“Yes,” the boy said. Just like every time you walk in the door, he thought to himself. He noticed his father cradling something shiny-blue in his arm like a football. His eyes latched onto it, onto the thing. It was the replica of a racing car, a Porsche, its windows blacked out, its sponsor’s logos plastered across the hood and the doors. His father never came home bearing gifts, except on the boy’s birthdays. This last birthday, his tenth, his father gave him an unwrapped science book, illustrations explaining basic principles. He browsed through the book once or twice, then lost it on his bookshelf. He didn’t care about symbiosis, or photosynthesis, or Pavlov and his dog. He wanted a soccer ball he could take outside and join his friends from school, chase after it until he was out of breath and then chase it some more. He wanted to get his pants green from sliding on the grass, maybe even score a goal.
The boy waited for his father to stop, to say: “Oh, by the way, here you go, boy,” and hand him the toy. He placed the words “thank you, Dad” on the tip of his tongue, ready to deploy when the time was right. The car filled him with the desire to play, the urge to race it across the living room floor. He wanted to hold it up, to admire it, to take it in, as he rotated it in front of his face.
The father passed him, continued muted to the kitchen, opened the door and closed it behind him. He always closed the door behind him. The boy couldn’t make out the words mumbled between his parents. He thought about getting up and knocking on the kitchen door to ask about the car. He wiped a mustache of sweat from his upper lip. The boy knew the risk of asking when he didn’t know the answer. Questions were dangerous in this house.
He returned his attention to the papers in front of him, erasing the numbers he’d jotted down in haste just in case his father checked them. He read the first problem, but the car’s mere presence in the house kept him from focusing. It must’ve just escaped his father’s mind to give him the car, the boy thought. He was just curious about dinner. The boy would have to wait for his father to offer him the toy. He could do that. He could wait.
He heard his mother shout his name through the closed kitchen door and jumped from the chair, shuffled his papers on top of his book, then shoved the pile into his backpack. He wiped the tiny shards of rubber from the eraser off the table and took a deep breath. His mother shouted his name again, louder this time, angrier. He entered the kitchen and picked up the place-mats, the plates and napkins and silverware his mother put on the counter for him. The boy was still too short to reach the upper shelves. His toes barely touched the floor when he sat on chairs.
The father closed the door. The boy spotted the car sitting on the opposite counter as his parents talked about some guy at his father’s office. Tim was his name. Tim this, Tim that. Tim is unqualified, Tim is dumb, Tim shouldn’t be in charge. Tim, Tim, Tim. Same story every day. The boy picked up the table setting, but he couldn’t reach the door handle carrying everything with both hands. He pushed it down with his elbow, terrified of dropping the china and shattering it into a million pieces. Things weren’t supposed to get broken. The father closed the door after the boy and crossed the threshold without a word about the car.
The boy set the table the way his mother had instructed him. Napkin folded into a triangle and placed to the right of the plate. Fork on the left, knife laid atop the napkin, sharp side facing the plate. He checked his work, adjusted his mother’s fork a few millimeters, picked up his father’s knife and flattened the napkin some more before carefully placing it back where it belonged.
Dinner was pot roast with carrots and potatoes, fennel on the side. The mother poured herself a glass of red wine while his father had a beer. The boy drank apple juice. There was some grease smeared on the father’s chin. He was a messy eater, gobbling up his food deep in thought. The mother emptied the glass of wine in three greedy sips and refilled it from the bottle. The boy had trouble resisting the car as he swallowed a piece of fennel with the help of some apple juice. His mother knew how much he despised fennel. Or Brussels sprouts. Or asparagus. Still, she continued to feed him these disgusting vegetables day in, day out. She liked them. She was the one cooking, so she was the one who decided what was on the table.
The boy imagined himself kneeling in the living room, racing the car, chasing after it. He saw himself with his tongue poking out of his mouth, his knees burning red from sliding across the carpet.
“Well,” the mother said, snapping the boy back to the table. “How is it?”
“Good,” the father said.
“Yes, good,” the boy added.
“Good,” the mother said. “I cooked all afternoon. The least you could do is tell me you like it.”
“Yes, it’s good,” the father said again.
“Yes, I like it all right,” the boy said, stabbing the fennel with his fork. “A lot,“ he added. “What did you have for lunch today?” he asked his father to crush the mounting uncertainty, to engage him, to summon his giving spirit.
“Oh, I don’t know,” his father said. “Fried chicken, I think.”
“Was it good?” the boy asked, feigning interest.
“It was mushy,” his father frowned. The boy had microwaved left-over pasta for lunch, but he kept it to himself.
The boy picked up his plate and carried it into the kitchen. Only coagulating fat remained in the emptied pots and pans. After rinsing the plate and placing it into the dishwasher, he stepped toward the car. It had his father’s company logo plastered across the hood, some other logo emblazoned on the doors. It was football-sized and had rubber wheels. Just as he was about to pick it up, his father walked in carrying his plate, the sauce now dried on his chin.
“Close the door,” he told the boy, then rinsed his plate and placed it in the dishwasher. The boy did as he was told.
It felt right to ask now. His father was satiated. He’d had his beer.
“Is this for me?” the boy asked.
The father opened the fridge, searching for any kind of dessert. “What?” he said. He loved his desserts. “Where’s the pudding from last night?”
The boy finished the pudding in his room earlier that day. He cringed, remembering the empty bowl he’d left upstairs in his room.
“The car,” the boy said. His father slammed the fridge shut. He looked at the boy.
“Oh,” he mumbled, “No. It’s from the merger.” The boy didn’t know anything about a merger. He didn’t even know what a merger was.
“Did you finish your homework?” the father asked.
“Yes,” the boy lied. “Can I try it out? Can I play with it?”
The father stared at the car and sucked in a breath through his teeth. “OK,” he said, “but don’t scratch it. I’m going to put it on the shelf.” He meant the one in his office upstairs.
“I won’t, promise,” the boy said, then picked it up with both hands to prove his caution to his father. “Do it in your room,” the father said. “You’ll scratch the furniture down here.”
The boy picked up his backpack on the way upstairs and closed his bedroom door behind him. He always closed his bedroom door behind him. He tossed his backpack on the floor, set the car on his desk, made the bed and shoved the pudding bowl beneath before flattening the comforter, running his hands across the fabric. He exhaled as he picked up the car, felt the coldness of the metal hood, its heft in his hands. He turned it over. The chassis was made of black plastic. A “Made in Taiwan” sticker was plastered between the front wheels. It had moved a little, exposing some sticky glue. He could see some kind of wind-up mechanism underneath. He rotated the wheel, let it go, watched it spin out.
The boy dropped to his knees. He pulled the car in reverse across the carpet until the mechanism clicked. He whispered, three, two, one, then let go. The car dashed forward, faster than he could’ve ever imagined, doing a Porsche justice, then crashed into the wall, blue metal on white plaster. It spun through the air, the spoiler smearing another blue line across the paint before it landed on its roof. The wheels continued to whizz until they ran out of energy. The boy held his breath, listening for the thump of footsteps. No footsteps came. He was safe, for now. His heart kept pounding.
The boy crawled towards the crash site. He didn’t dare to look at the damage on the car. He zeroed in on the blue discolorations on the wall, tried to wipe one off with his sleeve but only smudged it more. He rubbed some spit on the blue, wiped again and again. It only darkened the white paint. He pushed his head against the wall, temperature rising. He felt the redness glow. He picked up the car and shook it, heard a clatter within its guts, a clanking piece dislodged during the crash. The wall had transferred its white paint onto the bumper. He scraped it off with his fingernails as much as he could. He opened the car’s doors to shake out the loose part, but found that it was stuck in the space between the cabin and the chassis. He placed the car beside him, closed his eyes, and tried not to think. It’s impossible not to think in the face of danger. His cheeks blazed as violence flickered before him. He tried to think happy thoughts, but he didn’t believe them. Instead his mind’s eye filled with the memory of his father’s hairy knuckles blackening his eye, of rust-colored blood dripping from his nose and splashing onto the bathroom rug, of his father’s belt biting his naked ass over and over while his mother watched from a distance, arms crossed, frozen, crack, crack, crack.
The boy grabbed the car and stood up. He had an idea. He could still save himself.
The boy slowly pushed the door open, listened for the blabber of the news on the television. His father liked to remain informed and his mother liked to drink another glass of wine before her shows came on.
His father’s office was behind the last door down the hall. The boy tip-toed across the carpet. He pushed down the door-handle and nudged the door open, stopped just short of the creaking noise he knew would come. The crack was big enough for his feeble body to slide through. Soon he’d be too big to make it without activating the creak.
The toolbox was on the bottom of the floor-to-ceiling shelves next to a stack of old National Geographics. He opened the box and picked out the smallest screwdriver. Within less than a minute, he was back in his room. He was pretty good at being stealthy, at remaining unnoticed.
He got on his knees and tried to fit the screwdriver into the tiny screws on the bottom. It didn’t fit. It was too big. He thought of returning the office to look for a smaller screwdriver, but he knew he was out of options. A silent tear collected in his eye. His cheeks began to fire at the imminent reality of his father’s palms connecting, his spasming body about to be left behind in the dark as his mother’s show flickered across the television screen downstairs.
He wiped the tear away with his sleeve, snorted, and let go of the car. It bounced off the floor and landed in between his thighs. The boy looked at the undamaged roof as another tear wrung from the same eye. He let it run down his cheek, across the chin, and drop on top of the car. He tried to suppress his sobs in the face of destruction. He picked up the screwdriver, held it against his temple and pushed until it was too painful to bear. Then he slammed the Phillips head into the hood. He knew nothing would save him from the onslaught. It didn’t matter how much or how little damage he caused. Things weren’t supposed to get broken. The impact dented the hood and chipped off some paint. He slashed the screwdriver through the plastic windows, into the roof, into the doors. He turned the car around, ripped the sticker from the plastic, rolled it into a ball and put it in his mouth. He pounded the screwdriver into the plastic chassis, cracking it, splintering it, opening up a hole. He shook the car with both hands as he chewed on the sticker, squeezing the bittersweet taste of glue from the paper, until a fly-sized plastic culprit fell from the hole. He picked it up and flicked it against the wall, ripped the plastic chassis from the metal, tore out the steering wheel, the seats, the rearview and side mirrors. He tried to bend the metal frame but he didn’t have the strength. Instead he pulled the rubber tires off the plastic rims, ripped them apart one after the other. He picked up the screwdriver again, slashing and slashing the metal roof until he tore through. The door opened, but the boy didn’t turn around.
“Let me look at your homework,” the father said. The boy swallowed the sticker, gripping the screwdriver tight, his knuckles whitening around the handle.