Locking the Screen Door

First, groceries. Then I pay the rent. Electricity and heat come next, and the car, which includes gas, comes last. If I can afford it that month, I pay for the water and phone. If I can't, I usually ditch the phone and have water for the first half of the month. After that, we shower at a friend's house. Dishes are hard, but we manage somehow. I work double shifts now that I've dropped out of high school, so things are a little bit better. I can usually pay for the water now, and it's nice to use the shower in my own house. It's nice to say to others that they're free to come over and shower anytime.

I want to take a shower now, but just when I'm going I hear someone pounding on the screen door, which is rare since most people don't knock, they just come in. I go to the door and open it up. It turns out that it's Dan, a friend of my dad's. I don't like Dan very much because I can tell he's not very intelligent and he only ever wants my dad so they can go drink together. So I tell him,

"Dad's not here right now."

"Where he's at?" Dan asks.

"He's out looking for a job."

"Still? Shouldna he found a job already?"

Yes, he should have. When he finds a job, I can go back to school again. I shrug my shoulders to Dan though. I try to look all, don't know don't care but I know that Dan, like everybody else in the world, can see through me. I suck the inside of my cheek and hold the screen door tighter.

"Tell 'im I dropped by then." He finally says. His grizzly face is all wrinkled up as he glares at me. He squints like I'm the sun, even though I'm not. I'm just Owen. I want him to just walk away but he's waiting for me to say something too.

"Kay. I will." I say. Dan nods at me and I watch him cross over to his trailer across the circle where all the kids play in the dirt and glass. When Gabriel was little I made him wear shoes, even though the other kids in the park didn't wear them. I made him wear the shoes because I was worried about bits of glass and unhappiness getting in his feet.

I close the screen door and lock it for the first time in my life. I want to be alone, alone like the little red leaf stuck in the threshold. The little red leaf is fluttering in the wind, trying to get inside but the threshold won't let it. Fall is here, which means winter will be coming soon. I sigh and close the heavier green door too. I just want the door shut and locked up for a while.

I get myself a glass of water, with tap straight from the faucet, not even from a bottle, and drink it right there at the sink. Then I fill my glass up again and set it down next to the half empty bowl of ramen on the counter. I would eat that ramen but it's gross and kind of crusty now so I have to chuck it before I put the bowl in the dishwasher. I go around the house and get all the dishes from everywhere, even dad's room, and then I put them all in the dishwasher and start it. I don't even care that there's no dishwasher detergent. For a little while I listen to it hum and slosh around and I think, this is mine. I paid for this.

I hear someone wiggle the handle on the screen door and then cuss when they find it's locked. It's my dad. He bangs on it and I shout,

"Sorry, I'm coming!"

I open up the green door with the hole in it and then I unlock the screen door to let my dad in. We don't look the same, him and me. Dad is short and hairy with a big gray beard like the one that Gandalf the Grey from Lord of the Rings has. Only Gandalf the Grey becomes Gandalf the White and he is even more magical white than grey. I keep waiting for my dad to turn white, but he doesn't. He just gets more and more grey.

"Why the hell did you lock the screen door?" he asks.

"I dunno." I say.

My dad grunts at me and asks me a really stupid question.

"You running the dishwasher?" He's looking right at it, and listening to the hum-hum, sloshing of it and still he asks me that question. I should say no, dad, the dishwasher just ran itself. I had nothing to do with it, or with the water that it's using either. Everything just makes itself work.

"Yeah." I tell him.

It's not dad's fault, he's just not used to the dishwasher, because when I was small, really small, I had to stand up on a chair and wash all of the dishes without even a towel or anything. There were towels, but they were all dirty so I didn't want to use them to dry my dishes with but dad didn't like having wet dishes. I didn't mind so much wiping the dishes off with my shirt first. It was a lot better than tasting old towel.

"Owen where's Gabe at?" dad asks.

"He's still at basketball practice. I'll go pick him up when he's done." I say.

"Oh by the way Dad, Dan came over. He wants to see you."

Dad doesn't respond. He sits on the tattered green chair with all the broken wood bones and he takes off his shoes. The chair sags a lot because it's old and crippled so my dad has to arch his back when he loosens his tie. He sighs and sinks lower into the chair and I know that he didn't get an interview again. I told him he should cut his hair and then people would hire him, but he didn't listen to me. He said what did I know I was just a kid and then he didn't talk about it again.

I hear the wind starting to bang around the screen door because unless the screen door is locked it doesn't shut all the way. Then the wind can make it go thump-thumping against the doorframe and I don't like it. My dad doesn't mind it though. In fact he didn't like it when mom used to lock the screen door, to keep it shut. My dad opens his mouth to say something else but right then Nate my friend walks in, taking the chill of fall in with him. There are leaves of all warm colors on his shoes and in the hood of his jacket. I wonder where those leaves came from. There aren't a lot of trees in the trailer park.

"Hey Owen, d'you have five bucks I could borrow?" he asks. He didn't even say hi. People are supposed to knock and then say hello and ask how you are. But Nate is four years older than me, so I guess he thinks he doesn't have to be polite because I'm younger than him. I still don't want him around right now, so I'll just tell him to leave.

"No, not right now." I say.

"C'mon man. I know you've got some cash and I'm dying for a smoke. Can't you just spot me enough for a pack of cigarettes? Even four dollars? Please?" he asks.

"I don't think so." I say to him, but already I know that I'm going to because Nate has been so nice to me in the past and it's rude to tell people no. No is a mean word. I give Nate the five and we go to my room where he smokes his last cigarette. He offered to let me try but I said no, I didn't want to. In my room I don't mind so much the screen door banging around in the wind outside. I hear the dishwasher stop and I wonder how long it's been since I started it. I go out to the living room where my dad is smoking his pipe.

"Dad?" I ask.

"Huh?"

"Wasn't I supposed to pick Gabriel up?" I ask. Wasn't I?

"I think so." My dad says. I check the time, quick, but I'm okay. I still have fifteen minutes until Gabriel will be done. I think I can take one hot shower before I go. I don't want to smell like cigarettes when I pick Gabriel up. Gabriel is so small and innocent. He's like an angel and angels shouldn't smell tobacco. Angels should smell strawberries and cream shampoo that I buy when I can afford it. I couldn't afford it this time, but I bought it anyway and that's why I almost said no to letting Nate have five dollars.

When I get out of the shower I look at the time.

"Bye dad, I'm going to get Gabriel now. I'll be back soon." I say.

Dad doesn't say anything because he's too stoned. I look for Nate, but he's already gone. I would have asked him to get me a book from the school library. Oh well, it's too late now.

I leave and I get in my truck that I bought from Uncle Tom for five hundred dollars. Gabriel calls it the Bird Turd because it's a big white piece of crap. I laughed so hard when he said that, and now it's our special joke that Dad or Nate or Dan or anybody else isn't in on.

Driving to the school is always nice. Even now, when all the leaves are painting themselves gold and red and mottled yellows it's still pretty. I prefer green leaves, because green is a warmer color for leaves. It means that the heating bill is lower. Green is also a solid color. You don't get changes from green. Green stays on the trees like it's supposed to. The painted leaves fall off, and die, and then they're brown like the dirt at the trailer park. I don't like that the leaves change. I wish they would be green all year.

Gabriel is waiting for me in front of the school. He's only eleven. He looks more like mom than I do, especially his hair. They both had really blond curly hair. But mom had green eyes and dad's eyes are brown. Gabriel got dad's eyes. I'm the one with mom's. Sometimes I wish I had my own eyes. But green is a good color, so it's okay.

"Hey Owen." Gabriel says when he gets in. He's tall, already much taller than the other kids in his grade, so he has to scrunch up his knees more with all the trash on the floor and headboard.

"Sorry about the mess. I'll clean it up for next time." I say.

"Owen, you say that every time." Gabriel laughs. He's got a really nice laugh.

"Hey Owen guess what?" he asks.

"What?"

"We had to write about our heroes today. Guess who I wrote about! C'mon guess!"

"Michael Jordan?"

"Nope. It's someone you know really well."

"Dad?"

"Eeew, no."

"Mom?"

"No."

"Who then?"

"You, Owen."

I smile to myself. I'm his hero. What he doesn't know is that he's my hero too. Gabriel is nice to people, but he still says no sometimes. Sometimes, no isn't such a bad word. One thing bad about Gabriel is that he doesn't love dad very much. He was so sad when mom left and I promised him that at least I would never leave. I'm like a green leaf.

We get home and step past the screen door, which bangs against my calf as I stand aside to let Gabriel go in first. I hear him yelling,

"Dad?"

Dad doesn't answer but he looks over at Gabriel. Gabriel smiles at him and asks,

"What's going on? How was your day? Did you find a job?"

"No."

"That sucks. Does that mean Owen has to keep working instead of going to school?"

I say, "I don't mind working. I think it's better than school anyway."

Gabriel sort of smiles and rolls his eyes at me but I can tell he's not seriously annoyed with me. I go into the kitchen after telling Gabriel to do his homework. I listen to the screen door tapping gently so I know the wind died down. I'm making spaghetti tonight for dinner. I have meat to put in the sauce and everything so it will be good. I have a bag of Caesar salad and a frozen garlic bread to bake too. In a tiny pot, the baby pot, I have a carrot boiling. The carrot is just for me because nobody else likes carrots in their spaghetti. Just me. And… Mom liked them too, when she was still here. But then she left and so I'm the only one with carrots in my spaghetti.

The water isn't boiling, but the wind has picked up more. It's always so windy here. It makes the fallen leaves go flying around. That must be why the leaves are so everywhere. It's because of the wind that the dying leaves are all so lost. Dad is watching a movie. It's hard to hear the movie because the screen door is banging so loud. I can't watch it anyway because the water is boiling a little bit more and so I have to pay attention. Dad turns up the movie to hear it over the thump-thumping of the screen door. I watch my water and listen. Gabriel says,

"Hey, will you turn that down, I'm doing my homework."

Dad says, "What? What did you say?"

"I said, turn it down! I'm doing homework."

"The damn screen door doesn't shut all the way."

"So? I'm still trying to concentrate."

"Huh. You aren't doing homework."

"Yes I am."

"You calling me a liar!?"

My water boils over and burns my hand, which I had set down next to the pot, too close obviously. I shout and lick my burn and blow on it to cool it off. Then, after turning the heat down I look over the island counter into the living room, where they are still arguing. Dad had a bad day. Gabriel just got off practice. The screen door slams in the wind.

They both stand up and I sort of lurch forward a little, but only a little. They both look at me and we stand that way for a long time, so long I want look away but if I look away who knows what will happen? Finally Gabriel turns away and sits back down, and picks up his books again. Dad leaves. Wherever he goes, I hope he doesn't get blown away and lost in the wind. I turn away and put the dry, crunchy spaghetti noodles into the pot, so they can be soft and edible and delicious. I feel Gabriel come up behind me, watching me. I stir the sauce and he says,

"You have long fingers."

"Yeah. So do you." I tell him. Gabriel is long and reedy everywhere, not just his fingers. Even his toes are long and slender. When he was just a little boy I used to play that toe game with him. This little piggy went to the market, this little piggy stayed home…

"No. Not as long as yours." He says.

I hold my hand out to him and he puts his palm to mine.

"See. Your fingers are longer than mine by like a whole inch." He says.

"But you're only eleven. I'm sixteen."

"So? I win." He says. He gets up on the counter and puts his finger in the sauce, then licks it off.

"Don't do that Gabriel. It's gross." I say.

"Sorry."

I check the spaghetti again and it's still not done but getting there. The sauce is hot enough though, so I turn the heat down to low and put the cap on to keep it warm until the spaghetti noodles are done boiling. In the silence I can hear the TV going and the door lightly tapping the doorframe. Moments like these aren't so bad. Gabriel and me watching spaghetti noodles cook together with dad away somewhere. Even the screen door is respecting us, tapping quietly.

"Owen?" Gabriel asks.

"Yes?"

"Why don't you ever do anything for yourself?"

"What are you talking about? I do things for myself all the time." I say.

"Give me one example of something you do for yourself and nobody else."

"I… I put carrots in my spaghetti."

"No. That sort of thing doesn't count. I'm talking about like… like quitting your job and going to school. Why don't you do something like that?"

"Because then we wouldn't have a house or a car or anything."

"But that's not your job to do that Owen. That's supposed to be Bill's job."

"Bill is your dad, you should call him dad."

"He should be grateful I don't go around calling him worse things than Bill."

"Gabriel, I know dad can be mean but he's still your dad." I say.

He says something I can't hear. Then he states, "Check and see if the noodles are done."

I do and as it turns out, they are done. Gabriel is good at things like knowing when the spaghetti noodles are done. I strain the water but we wait for dad to come home for dinner. I like to eat dinner together as a family. That's another thing I do for just myself. I want to tell Gabriel that but he'd probably say that didn't count either. Today dinner is silent. Usually Gabriel fills up the air with his happy chatter, but since he and dad are both in bad moods, they're quiet. So we all eat spaghetti, me with carrots in it, and listen. I hear a dog, one of the small ones, yipping incessantly and someone yelling. The wind cries, almost drowning everything out and the screen door thumps, like the heartbeat of it all. It's so loud.

"Owen, I need you to do somethin' for me tomorrow." My dad says.

"What?"

"I need you to do somethin' for me tomorrow."

"I heard you. I meant, what do you want me to do? And besides, I work tomorrow."

"Not all day."

"Actually, I work double shifts. I work from six to three and five to close."

"So then do this for me at four, or three thirty, whenever you have time."

"Okay. What did you need?"

"You have to go over to Dan's house and pay him the money I owe him."

"Okay. You'll give me the money tomorrow right?" I ask.

"I don't have any money. You're the one with a job."

"So, how much does Dan want?"

"Not much. Only about forty dollars."

"I'll see what I can do." I say.

Gabriel snorts. Dad looks over at him.

"You laughing at something, boy?" he asks.

"Yeah. Just the fact that you have to have your son lend you forty dollars."

"Gabriel…" I say.

"You're such a lowlife loser Bill. I can't believe you have to be my father."

"Gabriel…!" I shout. I hardly ever shout. But angels aren't supposed to say things like loser. Angels love everybody and I know that Gabriel loves dad. I know it.

"Just what are you saying Gabe?" dad asks. "Are you trying to say that I'm no good as a father? Do you think I don't know that!? You think I like making Owen stay home from school and work to pay the bills? Is that what you think?"

"I really don't mind. Dad, I said I don't mind." I say.

"What I think is that maybe at first you didn't like making Owen stay home and work but not that you've gotten used to him taking care of you, you don't want to even try to find a job! I know that when you're out job hunting you're really just going to the bar!"

The screen door slams hard, like an exclamation point to Gabriel's accusation. It's slamming so loudly I can't hear the chair slide across the floor when dad explodes out of his seat. I don't hear what it is that he shouts as he reaches towards Gabriel. I stretch out for Gabriel too, to pull him away. I get him first and I pull him toward me. We both fall onto the floor and dad's fist meets nothing but air. The only sound in the room is the slamming of the screen door in the cold fall wind.

I stand up and get in front of Gabriel, blocking dad.

"Owen, get outta my way!" dad shouts.

"No dad. You're acting crazy." I say.

"Owen… I mean it. I will make you get outta my way if I have to." He says. That stupid screen door makes it hard to hear him. It slams so loud day in and day out.

"Dad, you can hit me if you have to hit someone. Seriously, if you attack Gabriel again, I'll really kick you out dad. I'm not kidding." I say.

"Do it Owen. Kick him out!" Gabriel shouts.

"Gabriel, don't say things like that. He's our father. We love him." I say.

Gabriel stops for a moment. Then he says,

"Well, yeah, but… But don't you want a life Owen!?" he shouts.

"I have a life. You and dad are my life."

"I mean a real life! Don't you want to change something in your life to be better?"

"I like my life. Really I do. I don't want it to change." Painted leaves fall and are blown away lost before they die.

"So you want to live in this trailer working as a dishwasher for the rest of your life? Is that what you want!?"

I'm so confused. Gabriel is shouting at me, and so is dad but I don't understand what he's saying. On top of everything that screen door won't stop banging around; it's making it hard to hear. It's making it hard to think.

"Owen." Gabriel says.

"What?" I ask. "What do you want from me?"

"Nothing. That's just it. I don't want anything from you, except…" Gabriel says.

"Owen." Dad says.

"What?"

Gabriel steps up and comes around to face me. Dad is frozen and stiff like a corpse. He lets Gabriel walk right in front of him, with his back turned and everything. I want to shout at Gabriel and tell him not to be so careless because dad is in a bad mood. Gabriel puts his hand in mine. My fingers are so much longer than his.

"Owen… What I want is for you to do what you want. Make your life something." He says. Do what? Kick dad out? Is that what Gabriel wants me to do? Is that what I want to do?

"I just want you and dad to be happy." I say.

"Sometimes you have to think of yourself, Owen." He says.

The screen door is quiet for some reason now. The wind is still howling, but it's like the door has finally said enough. It's like the screen door has finally decided to stop letting the wind bang it around. I walk over to the door and open the wood one with a hole in it. I watch the screen door flop around in the wind, without a sound. I know it must be making some sort of noise because I see it slapping the wood of the doorframe, but I don't hear it. I grab the door and close it, and I lock it. The wind keeps screaming, and a dark leaf flies past, but it's not alone. There is another leaf with it. Can leaves be lost if they're together?

"Owen, open that door." Dad says.

"No." I tell him.

"We don't lock doors in this house, boy." He says.

"I do."

He was already upset with Gabriel, so I guess I sort of expected it. Maybe that's why I don't feel the pain in the side of my face. I don't really feel anything but I'm so… mad. I unlock the door and let it slam in the wind again. I look over at Gabriel, staring down at his toes. Do it for me… Do what? I look at the door again. This is my house. This is my house! I look right at my dad's face and say,

"This is my house dad. If you don't like the door locked, then leave." Oh my God, I've never said anything like this before. Maybe I should take it back. Maybe things wouldn't be better if they changed. In the fall, the leaves should just stay green and warm and on their tree forever.

"What?" he asks me.

Take it back. Take it back. Take it… "I said, this is my… my house. If you don't like m-my rules, th-th-then you can leave okay?" What am I doing?

Dad steps towards me and I flinch. But then... I... I...

"Leave!" I shout. "Get out! Get OUT!"

I grab him and push him outside into the fall, into the cold wind that has bullied the door for so long. He backs up and falls. He should've shaved his stupid beard and he would've gotten a job. His grey beard might never be white. In fact, I know it won't be. My dad is the type of person to have a grey beard forever.

I close the screen door and lock it. Hopefully the wind will blow him away like a fallen leaf in the autumn. I hope the wind blows him somewhere nice, where maybe a kid will pick him up and put him in his pocket. Or maybe someone will even frame him, so he never turns all the way brown. I put my face in my hands. When I look up again, I see that my long fingers are wet.

"Owen?" I hear. I look over at Gabriel. He's crying too but he's also smiling.

"Gabriel… I'm sorry. I didn't mean to blow him away…" I say.

Gabriel runs over and hugs me. Maybe not all change is so bad. As long as the leaves blow away together, then maybe they won't ever be really lost. Maybe if the screen door stays locked then my life will change too. Now that I locked the screen door, maybe the wind isn't so bad. The wind wasn't a bully after all. The door just needed to be locked for once. That's all.