Chester raked a pocket comb through his son’s hair near the entrance to the Hall of Reptiles. “Your mop never stays in place, just like the rest of you, Murph.” He tilted the boy’s head with both hands to inspect the combing. “I suppose that hee-haw step-daddy of yours don’t teach you much about appearance.” The harsh combing caused Murphy’s eyes to water; it also made him want to scream at the top of his lungs. He shut his eyes and counted to fifteen like Dr. Kohl advised.
“Elmer told me if I dyed my hair orange, I’d look just like B-Bozo the Clown,” he managed to say, keeping his eyes riveted to the floor.
“Bozo the Clown, huh? Well, what can you expect from a shit-kicker like him? Christ almighty, your mother really had her head up her— But I’ll just say it again, Murph: what you need—and maybe it’ll soak into that mop-head of yours before it’s too late—is to come live with me.” He steered Murphy into the Hall of Reptiles and up to where several people were clustered around the towering dinosaur skeleton in the middle of the room. “Zeesh, look at that thing,” Chester said.
Murphy imagined it shuddering to life like the T-Rex skeleton in Night at the Museum and stomping over people. Pogue, his Special Ed teacher, would be its first victim, squashed like a tomato underneath its huge clawed foot. The plaque identified it as an Allosaurus, an early Jurassic carnivore, older than the T-Rex it resembled, having lived a hundred and fifty million years ago.
“T-Too bad they died out, huh, Dad?” Murphy said.
“‘Too bad’?” Chester grinned his lopsided grin. “Yeah, right, too bad.” He glanced at his watch. “Listen, bub, I gotta take a leak. Stay right here. Do not leave this room.” He stared hard at Murphy until he nodded, then rushed away.
Murphy clutched the rope surrounding the Allosaurus and slowly circumnavigated the skeleton, pausing to admire a nearby triceratops. The crowd kept jostling him and the room began to spin. Murphy forced himself to let go of the rope; he ran out of the Hall of Reptiles, ran downstairs to the men’s room, but his father wasn’t in there. Panicked, he rushed back upstairs and entered the Hall of Insects. And there he was, talking to a woman with stringy red hair and splotches of rouge on her bony cheeks. As she bent to look into one of the showcases, Chester snaked his arm around her. Murphy waved several times with both hands before his father noticed him and scowled.
“I told you to wait in the dinosaur room,” he shouted.
Murphy turned to leave, but Chester yelled, “Get your butt over here!”
Murphy walked over to them, cringing in embarrassment.
“Take a gander at this here African beetle.” Chester stabbed his thumb on the showcase glass. Murphy was startled by the creature’s size—it had to be half a foot long, with sawtooth jaws. “It can haul a hundred times its own weight, it says here. Know what that means?” He leaned toward the woman and grinned crookedly. “It means that if the beetle was my size, it could make hash out of that watchamacallit-saurus in the other room.”
The woman tittered. She pressed two fingers over her pasty orange lips. “Your dad is such a kidder,” she squeaked, and reached over to ruffle Murphy’s hair.
He jerked back reflexively.
“Don’t do that!” Chester said. “The kid is—”
“—bashful?” said the woman. “Bein’ bashful ain’t so bad! Bashful guys don’t have tentacles for hands.” She stuck her tongue out at Chester. Murphy got a whiff of her perfume, which smelled like rotting flowers, and for a terrifying moment he thought he would lose his lunch.
For the next several minutes, the three of them surveyed the insect displays. Finally, Chester whispered something in the woman’s ear and said to Murphy, “I’d better get you back to your mother or else she’ll throw another one of her shit fits.”
They were barreling down the Harbor Freeway, heading back to Murphy’s house in Torrance, when Chester said, “You know, son, I’d told Jen—Miss Hillyer—that I was bringing you to the museum, so she decided to meet me—us—there.” He cleared his throat. “She likes to surprise me.”
Murphy couldn’t think of anything to say.
“Boy your age needs his father—his real father, not some backwoods dingus who don’t give squat about you or your, uh, problems. You’d be happier with me and Jen. Heck, I’d get you into a better school. None of that special-ed crap for my guy!” He reached over and tousled Murphy’s hair—which made no sense after the combing incident.
Chester kept glancing at him, then at the road, then back at him. “Well, what’s your decision?”
“Uh-uh,” Murphy finally said.
“‘Uh-uh’?” He tightened his grip on the wheel. A tense moment passed. “Wanna know what your problem is, bub? Your mommy got you all tied up in her apron strings.”
Murphy tried to visualize the metaphor and giggled.
“Actually, I could gain custody of you. It was your mother who filed for divorce, not me. Do you know what I’m talking about?”
He knew, but shook his head.
Chester whipped into the next lane, gunning the engine.
Murphy squeezed his eyes shut and counted to fifteen.
Another awkward silence fell. Finally: “So tell me, what was your impression of Jen. Nice lady, huh?”
Murphy thought for a moment. “Her per- her per- her per-perfume stinks.”
Chester barked a laugh. “She told me that when she was your age she had emotional problems too. Her old man started drinking after he lost his job. Her mother had to work two jobs. But that wasn’t good enough—she still couldn’t support his boozing.”
Murphy twitched in his seat and shut his eyes, both wishing and not wishing he were home.
“At least I’m no drunk. I know my limits. Okay, so I’ve had problems finding work; that don’t make me a lousy father.”
Murphy wanted to tell him to shut up.
“So do you like living with that step-daddy of yours or what?”
“I sneak out the b-back door when he gets home.”
“Oh yeah? Where do you go?”
He shut his eyes and counted. He didn’t want to scream. He didn’t want to go back to the hospital where they would shove more needles into him. He counted to fifteen, and then managed to say, “To the Nel-Nel, to the N-Nelsons across the street. Tony—he has this huge t-t-telescope. And he lets me sleep in his tent.”
“Hmm . . . I don’t know, son. That don’t sound kosher to me. You need to meet boys your age who like to play sports.”
Chester pulled up in front of the house. Murphy said good-bye without looking at him and ran to the front door, which his mother had opened before he even reached for the knob; then she slammed it shut.
The next day Chester phoned Murphy to ask if he would reconsider moving in with him and Jen. As soon as Beatrice realized who her son was talking to she yelled, “Tell that so-called father of yours you’d rather watch some stray dog take a shit. Tell him—”
“Shut up!” Murphy yelled. He imagined his father grinning his twisted grin. “I don’t want to moo-to moo- to move in with you,” he blurted into the receiver.
“Your mommy is making a pansy out of you, Murphy. Are you wearing skirts yet? Is she still wiping your ass?”
Rage welled up inside him. He wanted to break something. He threw the receiver to the floor.
“Are you still there, son?” Chester’s voice crackled. Murphy picked up the receiver and held it far from his ear. “Listen, Murph,” his father continued, “I take it back; you’re not a pansy. You’re a young man who needs to stay a man, you know what I mean? Tell you what: Let’s you and me drive out to the desert next weekend. We’ll shoot lizards! I’ll show you how to use a .22.”
“I don’t want to shoot them. I li-like lizards.”
“Whatever you say, bub. So what’s your decision?”
“I g-gotta go!” He slammed the receiver down and ran into his bedroom. Beatrice followed and tried to put her arms around him. “I know what he’s up to, that so-called father of yours. Just ignore him, okay? Okay??”
Murphy pushed her away, slammed his bedroom door and counted to fifteen.
That evening, after Elmer came home, his overalls and scowling face streaked with car grease, he and Beatrice began their tirade for the evening—something about Murphy showing signs of becoming a pussy. Murphy shut his bedroom door and pulled out his Giant Book of Reptiles. But he was too agitated to read. It was getting dark outside and Tony Nelson would soon be in his back yard, setting up his 8-inch reflector, getting ready to gaze at the stars and planets. Murphy put on his jacket, opened his window, detached the screen, and leaped into the darkness.
Fred D. White’s fiction has appeared most recently in Praxis, Foliate Oak, Five 2 One, and as a podcast from No Extra Words. He lives near Sacramento, CA.