My Family is from Nowhere
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My family is from nowhere.
I wake up with the phrase in my head. It sits there, hanging over me, while I stumble around the flat, looking for my shoes. As I drive to work—the vast, iridescent Sydney sky gleaming above me—I’m enveloped by my own private, impenetrable fog.
The phone rings as I’m parking the car. It’s a journalist. Can he ask me a few questions?
“No,” I reply.
“What was your brother like as a child?”
My brother was fat as a child. He sat on the sweaty leather couch watching TV with our father, eating food from bowls my mother never gave him a chance to empty.
“Get up,” I used to say, flicking the back of his ear as I walked past. “Get up. Go and do something.”
“Leave it,” our father would growl, pointing at me. “Leeeeeave it.”
My brother had it easy as a child. My brother was fat.
I hang up on the journalist. I sit there in the car park and stare at nothing. I turn on the radio. Turn it off. Turn it on again. I wonder where all the people are.
I was at work yesterday when my father called. “Oh God,” he said. (Not Hello. Not How are you, son? Just Oh God).
“He’s been arrested. Your brother has been arrested. For manslaughter.”
“Right,” I said. I was that calm; that calm in the face of it all.
As I wait for the lift to take me down to the basement of the hospital, I watch the patients who gather in and around the Emergency Department: the woman threatening to sue the triage nurse (“Do you know who I am?” she’s shouting. “I have connections!”); the young man taking a casual stroll, holding up a bloody, bandaged hand; the old man who glides along the floor in oversized sandals, stopping to look behind every few seconds. Is he looking to see if someone is following him? Hoping they’re not? Wishing they were?
The basement of the hospital is a maze: locked doors, abandoned storerooms, and haunted, empty mailrooms. One wall features a faded mural of doctors and nurses through the ages, their heads too small for their bodies, tending to patients whose faces are obscured from view.
As I step into the office, David swings around to face me. “Are you sure you should be here?”
“Good morning to you, too.” I sit down, turn on the computer, and pull up my list of clients.
He pushes his chair over to me and squeezes my wrist. “Are you okay?”
I thought there was something there once, between us. But every time I took a step closer, he took two steps back. So I would give up, convinced I had imagined it all. Then, over lunch, he would look at me for a few seconds longer than needed or comment again on my appearance, and the process would start all over again. Me: one step closer. Him: two steps back. It’s a game I take too seriously. Or not seriously enough. Either way, I still don’t understand the rules.
“I can’t,” I say, shrugging him off. “I just need to work. Not think about it.”
“Denial.” He shrugs, skating back to his desk. “It’s always worked for me.”
When my brother was a child, he would stand at my bedroom door and stare at me until I looked up. “Faggot,” he would say quietly, so no one else could hear.
My first client is a woman whose husband has just been diagnosed with bowel cancer. He has, at best, six months to live. They have a seven-year-old son who sits in an orange plastic chair by his father’s bedside. The woman is wearing a bulky khaki coat, and she stares at her husband blankly. Her husband, skin a palette of grey, stares at the wall.
“There’s some options we can talk about,” I say.
A whole minute passes before she turns to look at me. “Options?”
“Would you like me to come back, maybe tomorrow? I can talk them through?”
Their son fixes his eyes on me, his face pale and bloodless.
“Stop looking at that guy,” my brother would say when we went to the local swimming pool. “I can see you looking at that guy. Everyone can see you looking.”
“Shut up,” I’d say, kicking his fat ham-shaped leg, slapping his flabby arm. But he was right; I was looking at men. My brother knew when I was feeling the things that I shouldn’t. He had a sixth sense for the hidden things that hurt.
I meet my father for lunch at a café in the city. As I wait, I flick through the newspaper. On the fifth page, I see my brother’s face. He’s looking directly at the camera, holding his tattooed forearms up against his chest, crossed, as if warding off some spirit. My brother and his tattoos. My brother and his defensive pose. I would laugh if not for the title of the article: Killer Punch, and the accompanying photograph of the young man my brother killed.
My father drifts into the café like a homeless man, wearing the beige cardigan covered in cigarette burns my mother hated and the dirty white cap he won at the casino. He sits on the chair opposite me, breath smelling like fear. The slogan on his cap reads Try Your Luck.
“He’s famous,” I say, pushing the newspaper towards him. My father pushes the newspaper away, as if I handed him a meal he doesn’t have the energy to eat.
“Your mother’s going to kill me.” He reaches for a serviette, his hand shaking so much he can’t pull it out of the dispenser.
“She’s already dead.”
“Oh God.” He gives up on the serviette, wipes his brow with his sleeve. “All of this. About your brother? It’s a mistake.”
According to my father, my brother was just trying to protect someone. He was walking along the street. Minding his own business. (“He’s a good boy. He’s a good boy,” my father keeps saying). A woman was calling out, calling for help. He went to help her. He’s a good boy. There was a man. Hitting the woman. When my brother tried to step between them, the man pushed him away and attacked the woman again. My brother punched him in the face. King hit. Coward’s Punch. The man fell over. Hit his head on the concrete. Brain dead. Parents switched off the life support.
My brother was born when I was nine years old. My mother had been told she couldn’t have any more children. “Miracle,” my mother used to say about my brother. “My miracle baby.”
“That’s not how the newspapers are describing it,” I say as my father tries to pour himself a glass of water.
“They’re lying. He’s a good boy.” More certain this time, as if vouching for my brother’s character.
“That’s not how the police describe it either.”
“They’re lying.” He looks at me over the top of the glass as he drinks.
“Have you seen the CCTV footage?”
My father puts down the glass, furrows his brow, and reaches into his pocket for a cigarette. “It only shows the punch. It doesn’t show what happened before that.” He goes to light up.
“You know you can’t smoke in here,” I say.
He scrunches the cigarette up in his fist—holds it for a moment, squeezing it tight. Then he throws it at me, crosses his arms, and turns away.
“The CCTV footage? Have you seen it? It shows a young man,” I say. “It shows a young man punching another young man in the face. He falls back, and his head smashes against the concrete. He’s not moving. And then the man who punched him just walks away.”
“Like I said,”—my father won’t look at me—”it doesn’t show what happened before that.” He rubs his eyes with the meat of his palms and looks down at the table. “What are we going to do?”
“And then the one who punches walks away,” I repeat. “As the other man lies on the footpath.”
“Don’t say it.” He looks up at me. “Don’t say that.”
My father pushes his chair out, stands up, and waves his finger in my face. “You,” he starts, and I can see a thousand words rumbling around inside his mouth, like sharpened knives in a drawer. But he doesn’t say any of them. He swallows them—all those words—clutches the back of the chair and turns white.
“Just sit down, Dad.”
He strolls away from the table. Stands by the window. Peers out onto the street.
“Dad!” I call out. “Come on.”
He wanders out of the building alone.
When my brother was a child, our uncle marvelled at his likeness to my father. “Splitting image,” my uncle would say, patting my brother’s huge pumpkin head and smoking out the house with his apple-flavoured tobacco. And my father would smile.
“Spitting image,” I would correct.
“Tss,” my father would hiss. “You think you’re so smart.”
“Who do I look like?” I would ask my father.
“No one,” he’d reply, turning away. “You don’t look like anyone I know.”
I retreat to the office in the afternoon. I can’t remember the last time I sat down at my desk and didn’t ponder failure: the failure to let people cry, rather than make them talk. To let them stay where they are, rather than moving them on to some place they don’t want to go. The failure to be something other than the representative of an institution with a cold cavernous heart.
“How’s your day going?” David asks, stepping into our office.
“I don’t know what I’m doing here.”
“I told you, you shouldn’t be here.” He squeezes my shoulder.
“No. I don’t ever know what I’m doing here. I mean, what I actually do. What do social workers do?”
My phone rings.
“He’s out on bail!” my father says.
“Your brother. He’s out on bail. Go pick him up. He’s at the train station.”
“Why can’t you? I’m at work.”
“I sold the car. To pay for the lawyer.”
“What? You sold your car?”
“Quick, quick, quick, go pick him up. He’s waiting.” And he hangs up the phone.
“I’ve got to go,” I tell David.
“Families,” David says, watching me leave. “They fuck you up.”
I left home when I was twenty-two. By that stage, my father could barely look at me. The night before I left, my mother slipped me an envelope filled with five-dollar notes. “I’ve been saving,” she whispered. But money wasn’t what I needed.
I went travelling. I only rang them once, from an island off the coast of Scotland. My father answered. I marvelled at the way the phone sucked up the coin before he even had time to ask who it was. I was left with just the echo of his brief Hello.
I stood in that phone box and watched a cloud descending over the rocky foundations of an ancient castle, like a low wall of broken teeth. I stood there and wondered how long it would take to become a local in this place. I thought about Neil, the guy behind the bar. His family had never moved from the island; his ancestors had probably lived in the confines of the ancient castle. When he touched me, I wanted to absorb some of his stillness—the stillness of his blood. A person who had never needed to leave.
On the day I came home, my brother got up off the couch. He was a fifteen-year-old giant. It was as if all that fat he’d been storing had been compacted and forced him to grow upwards. “What happened to you?” I asked, astonished by the transformation.
He shrugged. “Guess I grew up.”
“Look at him,” my mother said, arm around my brother’s waist, looking up at him as if he was a movie star. “My miracle baby.”
My bedroom had been turned into a gym. Now, when he wasn’t watching TV, my brother lifted weights.
My brother is standing at the entrance to the plaza outside the train station. He’s six foot two with a head like a medicine ball and a chest like a block of concrete. I stop the car, beep, and wave, but he doesn’t see. I wind down the window and call out his name. He walks to the car slowly, sticks his head through the window, and looks at me over the top of his sunglasses. “What the fuck are you doing here? Where’s Dad?”
“Just get in, will you? I’m going to get a fine.”
He pauses for a moment and looks around, as if he might yet receive a better offer.
There was another mistake, just after my brother moved into an apartment with a girl. He did not throw her at the wall, as she alleged; she overbalanced and fell face-first into the wall herself. Fractured her eye socket and broke her nose.
“Tss,” my father hissed after my brother moved back home. “Her mother has a drinking problem also. I can smell it on her.” From then on, whenever the girl’s mother walked past my parents’ house, my father would hiss underneath his breath and growl, “Liar. Her whole family are liars.”
“So,” I say to my brother as we’re driving through the narrow, boxed-in streets of the city. “What happened?”
“What do you mean ‘what happened’?” He opens my glovebox, pulls out a torch, a packet of condoms, and an old map.
“Well, you’ve been charged with manslaughter, haven’t you?”
He sighs, as if I’ve asked him about a tedious social gathering. He throws the condoms back into the glovebox, wipes his hands, glances at the map, then throws it onto the floor. He switches the torch on. Shines the light in his face. Shines it onto his shoes.
“He fell.” My brother shrugs, bends his neck to one side until it makes an audible crack.
“Because you hit him.”
“Yeah, but…” He taps the torch on his leg, opens it, and tips out the batteries.
“He’s dead,” I say, glancing at him quickly, then back at the road.
“I know.” He looks out the window. “But that wasn’t… I wasn’t trying to kill him.”
“Right. And what were you trying to do exactly?”
“You know.” His voice changes pitch. He sits up straighter in the passenger seat and rubs his face. I’m waiting for him to tell me that I wouldn’t understand. That I’m a fucking idiot. I’m waiting for him to tell me to shut up. “Do you ever get that feeling? You know? Like they think they’re better than you?”
“Who?” I ask. “Like who’s better than you?”
“They look at you like their life is so perfect and yours is just shit?” He throws the torch back into the glovebox and slips the batteries into his pocket. “Like it’s just shit,” he repeats and waves his hands around, as if trying to push something away.
I’m reminded of the tantrums my brother used to throw when he was a little boy. He would roll around on the floor, kicking his legs, hurling his arms around. No one could even get near him.
“What, you hit him because of how he looked at you? Dad said there was a woman? He was hitting a woman? Is that right? Is that what happened?”
My brother rolls his shoulders back and forth, stretches out his arms, and cracks his knuckles. “I need to eat.”
“And that’s the end of the conversation, is it? That’s all you have to say? Some guy has just died, and you…”
“Get fucked,” he says. “Shut up.”
“Dad sold his car. To pay for your lawyer.”
“Just shut up, okay?” My brother chews his thumbnail and fiddles with his phone.
My brother never learned to swim. When he was in the pool, he would crawl around the edge, hands grasping the concrete, body pressed flat against the tiles. He would shout at anyone who risked pushing him out to the deeper water. It was fear at first, but it became pleasurable; a pleasure in his ability to dominate. I could see it on his face. Move! Move! I can’t swim! The little smile on his face when he thought no one was looking.
I wanted to stand at the edge of the pool and drop a brick on my brother’s fingers. Push him out into the deep end with my foot. I wanted to watch my fat brother sink. Watch him drown. But I never did anything to my brother; all my actions lay dormant, like the movements to a dance my muscles knew by heart, but had never had the chance to perform.
My father is waiting on the front doorstep of his house. When he sees the car, he kicks out his bad leg, holds onto his hip, and carefully lowers one foot, then the other, onto each concrete step. “Here he is! Here he is!” he sings as he shuffles towards the gate.
“Jesus,” my brother says. “What’s his fucking problem?”
“Come, come, come.” My father waves my brother through the gate.
“Just shut up, will you, Dad? I don’t need a fucking welcoming party.”
My father pats him on the back, but my brother holds his shoulder to stop him from getting too close, like a dog trying to hold back an over-excited puppy. My father trots behind my brother as he strides towards the front door.
I beep the horn once, and my father turns around. He points to the top of the street and waves me away.
“You’re welcome,” I say quietly. The front door closes and the phrase drifts down softly, like a single feather: My family is from nowhere.
I have wandered, wandered all my life, trying to find my way into my family—or perhaps, trying to find my way out. But I can see now a much clearer path. One step forward. And then another.
So I make one call before I get to the freeway. I have all the words lined up, ready to emerge, one after the other, in perfect order. But I get his voicemail; he doesn’t pick up.
“It’s me,” I say. “There’s something I need to tell you.”
I’m waiting for the lights to change when I get his text: Come to the Dinosaur! We’re in courtyard. xo David.
The Dinosaur is just around the corner from the hospital, so I park the car at work. By then, it’s almost midnight. A young woman in a dressing gown stands smoking at the hospital entrance beside the No Smoking sign. “I know I shouldn’t,” she says, holding up the packet of cigarettes.
I don’t reply; I don’t want to stop.
The crowd at the Dinosaur is spilling onto the street. A nurse I know grabs my arm. “Hey! Are you okay?”
“Yeah, yeah,” I say. “I just need a drink.”
“I know that feeling.” She raises her glass to me, and I keep moving.
Another woman stops me as I’m trying to squeeze through the door. “I know you,” she says, her words sloppy and poorly formed. I can see David at the bar. “I know you, don’t I? Where are you from?”
“Excuse me,” I say, but the crowd is so thick I can barely move an inch, and the woman grabs onto my arm. Now she’s moving back inside the bar with me. I want her to let go, to leave me alone. My nerves are getting the better of me, just seeing David standing there.
“Where are you from?” The woman looks at me intently as we wait for the crowd to make room. “Where’s your family from?”
But I won’t say it. I keep pushing through the crowd. Because now there are all these other words; all these other words I need to say.No Comments
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About the Author
Myfanwy McDonald is a Melbourne-based writer of fiction. Her stories have been published in Tincture, Going Down Swinging, The Big Issue, and the Boston-based zine Infinite Scroll. Her short story ‘Numb’ was shortlisted for the 2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Along with most other people she knows, Myfanwy is currently writing a novel.