By Nehalem Chudnoff
“Hit me. I fucking dare you.”
My father was a large man: 6’2” and 180 pounds. But leaning over me in our small wooden house’s backyard, we were almost the same height.
“Come on!” He taunted, tapping the right side of his chin with his index finger. “I know you wanna hit me,” he spat, his breath reeking of my mother’s whiskey.
“You wanna know how I know that?” I stood, my eyes staring up at his own, silent. “Huh? You wanna know?” I nodded slowly.
He faced up towards the blue clouded sky above us before bending until our eyes were level and incredibly close together. “Because I wanna smack the shit out of you right now.” His face broke into a devilish smile as he lifted his finger to his chin and slowly tapped.
This wasn’t the first time that my father had violently threatened me, but it was the first time that he’d given me the chance to stand up for myself—to fight back.
“Come on,” he said.
And I did. My fist met his face with such force that I was sure I had broken something almost as soon as I pulled my hand back. My father simply stood himself up to his normal height, breathed in through his flaring nostrils, and drew his arm back…
That’s all I remember from that day. My father had apparently hit me so hard that I was struck unconscious immediately, knocking my top-left canine tooth loose for the rest of its residency in my head.
I spent that summer in the room that I shared with my younger brother, with a full arm cast, avoiding my father at all costs.
I was ten years old.
The next summer, my father took me hunting as a remedy to cure my “mama’s-boy affliction”. My mother was raised in the city, unexposed to hunting, and was inherently against it. But my father insisted that, without it, I would never grow into a man. And with my mother and father, it was his word over hers. And so, we went.
By the age of eight, I had already learned how to load and shoot a BB rifle, occupying my free time in our backyard, firing at the base of the many trees that my father had begun, but never finished chopping down. But it was not until this day that I fired a real gun.
After loading my father’s red Chevrolet truck with all of our gear, we set off for the wooded area that sat on the far side of our town—a good twenty-minute drive over rocky dirt roads.
We changed into our dark green shirts and camouflage overalls, double-knotting our thick, black and brown boots, tying the laces around our ankles before marching into the thickly-wooded forest.
Crouched behind a small, thorny tree, my father demonstrated to me how to cock and shoot the gun. He had fired two shots earlier that day, both hitting and killing a large antlered buck, sending tremors that reverberated through the trees’ leaves, ringing my ears. Now it was my turn.
My hands were sweating profusely as they handled the rifle, the tree’s thorns digging into the skin of my cheeks. I wiggled my top-left canine tooth with my tongue (a nervous habit that I had acquired almost as soon as it had become loose) as I aimed towards a patch of brown hair in the distance. I could hear its footsteps against the soft soil that blanketed the ground.
I breathed in…
aimed the barrel…
and placed my finger over the trigger.
The patch of brown collapsed to the ground with a heavy, lifeless thump. My father placed one hand on my shoulder and pronounced the closest thing to an “I love you” I ever received:
“‘Atta boy,” he said, patting my shoulder blades.
I did not respond as I gaped at the void that the animal had left behind.
“Come on,” he whispered, “let’s go fetch it.”
My father kneeled in the grass, one hand on the fawn, and the other covering his face. “Goddamn it, boy. You see what you done?” His eyes were red and his cheeks glistening as he stood, facing me. “You done killed a baby.”
The ride home was silent, short of the hum of the truck’s engine, as I sunk into the passenger’s seat, sobbing quietly. My father placed his free hand on my neck and rubbed my back.
“There you are, son,” he said with a deep, baritone register. “It’s okay.”
That was the first day I ever saw my father cry, and the last time we ever went hunting.
I was eleven years old.
I spent the majority of the next summer before my bathroom mirror, scowling at my loose canine. I had wasted countless hours pleading with my mother to have it fixed, only for her to inevitably reply that it was too expensive, and that I’d have to raise the funds for it myself.
This sudden insecurity regarding my tooth was brought to light after I received the nickname “Snaggle-Toothed Faggot” in school, a place at which I was consistently ridiculed. I sat alone at lunch, played by myself at recess, and was, without fail, the last to be chosen by my peers. I was taught young to only speak when you’re spoken to, but what happens when nobody does? I was sick of asking that question, so I decided to amend my situation.
That summer, I got myself a job as a paperboy, riding myself around town on my bicycle, watching the sun rise and fall above me as I dreaded the darkness that was destined to arrive, praying that I wouldn’t have to go home.
But my prayers were rarely answered, and when I eventually did return home, I’d place that day’s coins and crumpled bills into the white porcelain coin bank that my mother had gifted to me in celebration of my first job. Slowly, the scattered stacks of money began to arrive closer and closer to my goal as I chucked black-and-white printed bundles of paper onto people’s doorsteps day-after-day. I promised myself not to meddle with the savings until I had completed the task at hand, no matter how long it took.
While my mother was always meek and boney, that spring was around the time that I began to notice how frail and thin she was becoming. After our family dinners, she would escape to the restroom, and I could faintly hear her regurgitating the meal that she had prepared through the sound of the rushing sink water.
She became exceptionally feeble, barely able to stand without the aid of either my brother or me. When she did stand, she was prone to dizzy spells that led her to faint without warning. All of her clothes became far too loose, her hands were constantly cold and clammy, and you could often see her ribs through her dresses.
Halfway through the summer, she was in the hospital, and by the end of the season, she was gone. Every strand of black hair and every inch of pink skin flushed away like the meals she had prepared in her sickest days.
My father buried her in the backyard next to her first child as my brother and I watched somberly from the kitchen windows. This was the second and final day I ever saw my father cry, as he tapped the upturned soil with the rusty shovel.
As he finally set the shovel down onto the dirt mound, he dropped his head into his hands before returning inside and finishing the remnants of my mother’s whiskey.
That was the summer that my mother died.
I was twelve years old.
During that school-year, I continued my paper route, and by the time the aura of summer was in the atmosphere, I had saved up enough for my operation. So, when I entered my room on one particularly sultry day to find the porcelain coin bank completely empty, I was bewildered in a fuming, furious manner as I wiggled my tooth with my tongue.
That evening during dinner, I raised the issue with my brother.
“Where did my money go?” I asked, glaring at him as he cut his chicken with his knife and fork, my own silverware untouched.
He stuffed his mouth before replying. “I dunno.”
“I took it,” my father said as he took a bite of his food.
“What?” I blurted, startled by the response. “Why?”
He stared at me, his mouth hung in mid-chew. “None of your goddamn business, that’s why.”
“That…” I began, facing my undisturbed silverware on the table.
“What’d you say, boy?” He asked, his mouth full, spewing particles of food into the air.
I looked up. “That was for my tooth.”
He lifted his napkin from his lap, setting it onto his plate. “I’ll fix that tooth,” he muttered.
He stood rapidly, reaching across the table, yanking me up by the collar of my shirt, and striking me across the mouth.
I dizzily scanned the room, small spots of light obstructing my view. My brother’s expression was blank, his mouth ajar. I extended my tongue to find my canine, only to discover the barren cave where it once resided.
I faced my father, who simply stared me down with his cold, green eyes, and lifted his index finger to his chin.
Of all the images that could have possibly crossed my mind at that moment, the one that prevailed was that of my untouched silverware that now sat disheveled on the table, just at my fingertips.
My father collapsed onto the floor, blood seeping from the patch of skin that the knife had punctured. He spat blood from his red-stained lips as he screamed, my brother kneeling at his side, wailing frighteningly.
I ran out the rear mesh-screen door, charging forward as fast as I could, as far away as possible, with no destination in mind.
To this day, I remain unsure of whether or not I killed my father that day, as well as what became of my brother, nor do I care. But one memory lures me back to that small wooden house.
It is that of my father, sobbing into his hands, kneeling by a doe. “Goddamn it, boy,” he said. “You see what you done?” His bloodshot eyes haunting me to this day.
“You done killed a baby.”
That was the summer I left home; took everything that I ever knew and ran from it. Every memento of growing up and living my life washed away like the life of my mother: gone forever. That was the summer I escaped; the summer I left, for good.
I was thirteen years old.