"Daddy," by Steven Gillis

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Fiction by Steven Gillis excerpted from our Fall 2016 issue.

The first time my father tried to kill me I was seven. We had driven to the Miracle Mile strip mall at the edge of the city where Dad said he had to see a man about a horse. I sat in the backseat and when we parked Dad got out and told me he’d only be a minute. He rolled up the windows and locked the doors. It was midafternoon and eighty degrees outside while the temperature inside the car quickly rose much higher.

I did as told and waited. Dad was tall with scruff black hair and narrowed features as if some great force had compressed his cheeks while pushing his nose out like one of those rubber squeeze toys. He smoked Pall Mall Reds in the hard box. The car was littered with empty boxes. The mall was fairly empty and what people passed by the car paid no attention to me. As a child, I did not think in terms of serious harm. My worry was solely with my father, with his love and my being able to do as told and stay in the car. A slick undisciplined man, more stern with age, clumsy and ill-prepared, Dad had a knack both personally and professionally for grasping defeat from the jaws of victory. Later I would understand his floundering better, but as a boy who could only desire his father’s approval I had no time for judgment.

After ten minutes there was still no sign of him. I played with the windows which could not be lowered, tried the doors which had the safety set and couldn’t be unlocked. The sun came through the windshield like a heated spotlight, the sweat in my hair, on my face and chest beginning to drip and pool. The only shade in the car was a patch directly behind the front seat but even as I tried to curl in there the heat off the vinyl burned me. An hour passed. If my father had tried to kill me a year before when I was six, I’m sure I would have given in to his plan, but at seven I had more resolve. Convinced something terrible must have happened to my father, for why else would he have left me so long, I lay down on the backseat, scooted close enough to the side window so that when I kicked with the flat of both feet I could strike the glass with full force. My effort required only three kicks before the glass gave way and I was able to climb from the car.

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Image: Calfee, William H. Detail of “Conferee.” 1982. Acrylic on paper. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

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