This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

November-December 2012

2nd place fiction: Knock on Wood

Will Johnson

Darby called me from the police station early in the morning. Her voice sounded tiny like a bird when she said Daddy I need you to come get me. Any father can tell you the way that feels when your child is in trouble and your blood gets hot. They say in emergency situations the adrenaline gets pumping and people will pick up cars or run into burning buildings or rip doors off their hinges to save their kids. Darby tried to explain what happened but she was talking too fast and my head was still foggy from sleep. The chemo makes me confused these days but I told her I said Im coming Ill be right there dont worry. It reminded me of all the times I bailed my little brother Albee out of jail back in the seventies but I never thought my daughter would ever get into any trouble with the law. I threw back the covers and tried to get out of bed but my body went limp and then my face was on the carpet and Id knocked over my oxygen tank like and it was like those stupid commercials from when Darby was a kid. Help Ive fallen and I cant get up. It might seem strange but as I lay there trying to crawl across my bedroom I started laughing like a goon. You have to have a sense of humor about these things and if I wasnt laughing I knew I would cry and that wouldnt help anyone.

Darby met this guy Turner at the swimming pool in Squamish and shes brought him around the house a few times. She keeps saying were just friends Dad nothings going on. I dont know who she thinks shes fooling because its pretty clear this Turner guy is biding his time. Trust me I can tell when a boy is love struck and I could tell right away he was on his best behaviour. He even calls me sir. At first glance he seems like the kind of kid who could use a good beating because it might do him some good. But the older I get the more I think people are the way they are no matter what you want to believe. They dont change. And if Turner wants to wear scarves and girly jeans then its no business of mine.

I grew up on this little farm an hour or two outside of Halifax. My old man worked three weeks at sea and three weeks at home on a scallop fishing boat. Those were hard men. He came home reeking like the ocean in a foul mood drenched head to foot and ready to sleep. Hed sit in the living room with rubbing alcohol and hed work it into his joints his elbows and his knees and the base of his back to relieve the pain. And he drank. He drank beer and Johnny Walker and whatever he could get his hands on. If he wasnt doing that then he was in the yard fixing the lawn mower or underneath the car and his fingers were black from grease and his jeans all had holes in them but he refused to buy a new pair. He made Ma patch them. Everyone in his generation was like that theyd work themselves to the bone all summer and hibernate in the winter and live off the dole. One day he said to me Rick do yourself a favor and steer clear of women. We were painting a fence in our backyard and I remember he was drinking a beer and he said if I never met your mother Id be a bloody millionaire. I shouldve cut off my balls and been done with it. Who needs em? All women do is shit out kids and cost you money. I was maybe eight years old when he told me that but I never forgot it.

I showed Darby some old black and white photos. She asked a lot of questions and it was the first time in a long time Id thought about my family. We were dirt poor and theres no way Darby can imagine what that was like. Im glad. Darby never met my brothers. My older brother was Josiah and my younger brother was Albee and both of them passed away before she was born. Josiah was a few years older than me and I followed him around everywhere. One time we climbed up twenty feet into this tree and he showed me a birds nest he found. There were tiny blue eggs in it and he stole one. I dont know what he thought he was going to do with it but then the mother bird came and he said run Ricky run away quick. The bird was dive bombing us and I was running around screaming and then it pecked me in the forehead and I was bleeding everywhere. Josiah was laughing and laughing and for years after that whenever he told that story he would say I peed my pants. When he was feeling really mean sometimes he would call me Little Ricky PeePee. Maybe thats a weird memory to have because he was a good brother. He used to sit on the edge of our bunk bed and read out loud to me and Albee. We read the Hobbit and Aesops Fables and Watership Down. My old man would be screaming in the other room and slamming doors and Josiah would sit there sounding out the words and reading them to us one by one.

One day when Darby was in the bathroom I asked Turner if I could bum some smokes and he gave me a whole pack of Benson and Hedges black king size. Darby would kill me if she knew Im still sneaking smokes but really what difference does it make now? Once you have cancer you have cancer and were all going to die anyway. I patted the kid on the shoulder and I said youre a good man Turner. Once they left for the night to go to some party up in Whistler I sat on my back porch and smoked six in a row looking at the sky. It turned orange and then red like the color of blood and then finally it was dark and I listened to the ocean in the distance. I stuck the butts through the slats in the porch so Darby wouldnt find them later.

Albee was a mommas boy and Im not saying theres anything wrong with that. He used to help Ma bake and he would wear aprons and he never wanted to play outside or do anything dangerous. My old man used to beat him and call him a fag and a sissy and one day he caught him wearing one of Mas dresses and he broke his arm. Just like that. He went into the room and snapped Albees arm between his hands like a twig. He took me with him to the hospital and we told the doctor that Albee fell out of a tree and thats what we told Ma too. Thats when I first knew that I had to get Albee out of there and take him far away.

The worst beating I ever took was in Toronto believe it or not. We moved there in 1972 and both me and Albee got jobs working at this nightclub downtown called Crazy Eights. I was a bartender and Albee served tables and it was a pretty good gig at first. But then Albee started catching shit from some regulars. I could see it happen they would grab his ass or try to trip him and one time they knocked a tray of drinks out of his hands and laughed while he apologized and cleaned them up off the floor. There was this one dirtball who didnt know when to give it a rest. It was early maybe ten on a Friday and I came over to tell him he wasnt welcome anymore right in front of his friends and I stood there until he got up from the table and walked out the front door. Because he left with no big fuss I forgot about it but then a week later when I was closing up around two in the morning he jumped me in the alley. There was nobody around and he shoved me against a brick wall with his arm against my neck then he broke my nose with the butt of his hand. I didnt get a single swing in and pretty soon I was on the ground and he was kicking me in the face and then he dumped a garbage can all over me and said fuck you faggot. That was almost forty years ago but when I eat my jaw still clicks from where it was broken.

The doctors told me Im not allowed to drive anymore because of the chemo. But once I got out of my bedroom and pulled on my boots I climbed in my truck and headed down to the police station with my shovels and rakes rattling around in the back. It was dark and there werent any cars on the road and at one point I started coughing and swung into oncoming traffic but I made it there in one piece. When I came into the lobby this young police woman told me Darby was getting processed downstairs. I said I have to see her where is she? I mustve been quite a sight there in my robe but I didnt care and I said I want to see my daughter. I want to see my daughter and I want to see her now.

These days things are different for guys like Albee but back then the world wasnt a very nice place. Heroin was everywhere and once he got started he never stopped. My own brother was a junkie. A few times he came home and his face was mashed to shit. Once I locked him in his bedroom for a weekend and tried to get him to detox and he screamed and clawed at the walls and he told me he hated me and threw himself against the door until it splintered and I was worried he was going to hurt himself. There was nothing that could stop him and then within six months he was dead and there was nothing I could do about that either. The last time I saw him in the hospital he looked like a skeleton and he had all these scabs on his face and he kept saying sorry to me. He said sorry Rick and I told him he had nothing to be sorry about and he held both my hands then he cried for a while and fell asleep. That was the last time I ever talked to him.

All these sad memories I dont know if I really want Darby to know about them. But shes a grown woman now and what can I do? Sooner or later you know youve got to rub your kids faces in shit. Tell them the world is a violent and stupid and terrible place and nothing makes sense to anyone. What a message. Youd think after the universe takes away one of your brothers maybe it would ease up on you for a while. But about a year after Albee died in Toronto I got a letter from Ma. Josiah had been drinking in Halifax and he was always a fighter so one Saturday I guess he talked to the wrong girl and in the scuffle a piece of broken glass lodged in his neck and by the time anyone realized what was going on he bled out right there on the floor of the bar. For a long time I wondered what he thought about while he was lying there and if he knew it was coming. Maybe it came on suddenly and he didnt have time to be afraid. I hope so.

Ive never loved anyone as much as I love my daughter. Im not a touchy feely person but I can say that because its true. And if I thought it wouldve done any good I wouldve gone on a rampage through that fucking police station. I wouldve bellowed at the top of my lungs and overturned desks and smashed windows like some goddamn gorilla. But lets face it the chemo took all my strength along with my hair and Im lucky I could even stand up. Sooner or later you have to stop fighting. The police woman told me I would have to wait a few moments before I could see Darby. They wouldnt tell me what she was charged with. They told me she could be released on bail into my custody but first I would have to take a seat. The police woman said it just like that. She said please sir can you take a seat?

My sister Tanya was born right after the second world war. I didnt hear about her until I was nearly grown up and moved out of the house. Josiah told me Ma used to hold birthday parties for Tanya after she died but when my old man found out he put a stop to that with the back of his hand. Nobody talked about Tanya not in his house. To hear Josiah tell it Tanya was the light of our old mans life and he went around showing her off to everyone in church carrying her and kissing her and nuzzling her like nothing couldve made him happier. I cant picture it. I wonder if my life wouldve been different with a sister and when I try to imagine it I just cant. Tanya wouldve been an old woman by now but she died when she was a little baby just shy of three months. You could live to be a thousand years old and that would never make sense. My parents were dirt poor living in a rented basement newly married in Halifax and the gas fireplace sprung a leak and the next morning my old man found Tanya black in her crib not breathing. Thats pain. Sometimes I think if anything ever happened to Darby knock on wood maybe I wouldve ended up a bitter wreck like my old man. I think it wouldve broken me.

When Darby came around the corner her hair was a mess all blond around her face. I guess they gave her some clothes because she was wearing a grey sweater and some grey sweatpants that said VANCOUVER POLICE on them. She trudged out and she said you have to take me home I need to get out of here. Then she cried into my chest for a while and I held her and when I saw the police woman looking at me I didnt care we were making a scene. Later Darby told me the story how some party got broken up and she was hazy on the details but she was really drunk when she took a swing at a cop. Can you believe it? My feisty little daughter trying to punch a cop. In a weird way I was proud. I guess Turner took a run for it and disappeared into the woods and Darby was alone on the concrete in handcuffs with her face against the ground. She told me what happened sitting in the parking lot and she seemed tired and embarrassed. I told her it didnt matter what happened not really as long as she was okay. You get to be my age and you understand things happen and really they dont matter. She was safe. We drove home down the highway and the headlights stabbed through the fog all the way home.

Will Johnson is a writer from Halifax. His work has appeared in a number of Canadian literary journals, including Little Fiction, The Fiddlehead and Prairie Fire, as well as in the anthology Somebody’s Child. Check out his website at or follow him on Twitter @goodwilljohnson

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