They arrived at the shelter late on a Sunday afternoon bringing nothing with them but two suitcases. Clancy couldn’t understand why they needed so many clothes. He wanted to bring some toys, but his mother claimed, “There’s no room for things like that where we’re going.” One suitcase was stuffed with papers from the file cabinet. This annoyed him; why did she get to bring her old papers when he couldn’t even bring a ball and glove? Even his baby sister, Marie, got to bring that stupid ring to chew on. It wasn’t fair.
Before knocking on the shelter door, Clancy’s mother grabbed him by the arm and yanked him to her. “You’re going to be good, right?”
“Yes!” Clancy said.
“I mean it, Clancy. No screwing around.” She tightened her grip on his arm.
“I’ll be good!”
“Because if they throw us out or if your father finds us. . . .”
His arm throbbed. It was the same place she’d grabbed him last week when he’d sassed her. “I’ll be good,” Clancy whispered.
His mother let loose of his arm. She bent to kiss him but he turned away. It annoyed him that she always wanted a kiss after she’d hurt him.
They were led into a small office where a smiling woman motioned for them to sit in the chairs in front of her desk. To Clancy it seemed like the principal’s office except for the smell; at school it smelled of cleaning stuff, while here it smelled like pee. Soon he heard the woman praise his mother for bringing the papers in the suitcase. “You’ll be able to get your son registered at the school in this district without any problem,” the woman said.
Clancy had to speak up. “But Mom, why can’t I go to my school? There’s only two weeks left, and I’m supposed to pitch next week!”
The strange woman shook her head before his mother could answer. “I’m sorry, but we don’t allow that. If Clancy’s father went to his school and wanted to take him, the school couldn’t stop him. He’s the boy’s father, and until your divorce goes through and you’re given custody, he has as much right to the children as you do.”
“His father never paid Clancy no mind. I doubt he even knows where Clancy goes to school,” his mother demurred, moving Marie to her other leg.
The woman shook her head again. “I’m sorry. But no. It’s for our safety as well as yours.” Clancy quit listening. Instead of Dad bossing his mother, this strange woman was now in charge. Anyway, no one cared what he thought.
He sort of understood why his mother had to come here, but why did it have to be now? Things had been this way ever since Clancy could remember; only recently had it gotten so bad that Mom needed to go to the hospital. In Clancy’s opinion she should’ve just stayed away from Dad when he’d been drinking. Besides, she was always telling him he had to wait for things, like when he pestered her about Christmas coming, so why couldn’t she have waited to leave Dad until he was done with school and softball? Couldn’t she have taken it a little bit longer? Why did he have to come with her? Dad never hurt him, not much anyway.
Clancy didn’t think it was right the way they had left—sneaking off like thieves so Dad wouldn’t catch them. Dad would come home soon, expecting dinner, and all he’d find would be an empty house. Clancy felt he should have stayed home with his father. He knew how to follow directions on labels and could cook a little.
It was the height of embarrassment to him to hear his mother tell this stranger with the scratching pen what his father had done. I could tell things about you, Clancy thought. Not that he’d ever tell—the very idea made him sick. It was one thing to come here for Mom’s protection, but quite another to come here for her to tattle. Yet his mother droned on. Each word she said was another prick behind his eyes; he felt she was taunting him for being a fool for lying for her all these years. “Mom fell down the stairs,” he told the neighbors. “Mom can’t come to my conference because she’s sick,” he told his teacher. As for his own bruises, well, that’s what long sleeve shirts were for.
They were taken into a dormitory where a maze of bunk beds and dressers were grouped to give each family a cubicle of privacy. Six other families shared the room with them, but Clancy paid them no attention. Climbing up to his bunk, he hid his face because ten was too old to be crying in public. Once his tears dried, he rolled over and gazed upward at the ceiling cracks above his head.
Those cracks became his best friend over the next few weeks. Some days he followed them and found alien life forms, while other days he saw Indians waiting for pioneers on the Oregon Trail. Each crack was a new discovery, each bump in the plaster became his friend. The peeling paint provided nuances to his fantasies, which, depending on the amount of light in the room, could be friendly or menacing. Gazing at the ceiling, Clancy lost himself in the trails and shadows of his mind and discovered the process of thought without thinking. Sometimes his hero had a white horse or a speedy spaceship and sped across the cracks in defense of justice. Sometimes his hero died. Clancy never put himself in the hero role; he just watched the hero do what he would do. It was more real to him that way.
Clancy went to the new school and endured the schoolyard taunts of “shelter kid” without a murmur. Each day after school, Clancy marched straight to his bed the moment he entered the shelter. The other children scurried through the labyrinth of beds like rats in an experiment, but Clancy was deaf to their games. He ate little, ignored his mother, and refused to participate in the shelter’s planned activities. Nothing mattered to him but the cracks over his head.
School ended and more activities were planned for the children, but Clancy still refused to participate. The women attended parenting classes when not looking for work. The classes caused Clancy’s mom to come to him in tears, “You think I’m a good mother, don’t you Clancy?” She broke down sobbing when he refused to answer.
A shelter worker heard the disturbance and came to investigate. “What’s wrong here?” she asked in a too cheery tone.
Clancy’s mother dried her eyes. “Nothing,” she replied. It was the first time since they’d arrived that Clancy felt happy. He’d thought she’d lost all pride.
The woman wasn’t giving up. She sat on the bunk directly underneath Clancy. “Don’t you want to talk about it?”
“Oh, no . . . it’s just . . . ” his mother’s voice trailed off.
Keep your mouth shut, keep your mouth shut, Clancy thought, holding his breath and squeezing his eyes shut tight as if he were making a wish. He’d spent years perfecting lying to teachers and neighbors; why did he do it if she was going to talk all the time?
“Yes?” Clancy heard eagerness in the shelter worker’s voice, like she was hungry for their troubles.
“I wish Clancy were happier, that’s all,” his mother said. Clancy’s eyes blinked open and he took a breath. He smiled.
The shelter worker then went into a dissertation about the children, how hard it was for them but how “they are all so very, very special.” Satisfied with his mother’s performance, Clancy went back to his cracks. His hero was crossing a mighty river when the whispered words, “Sunday is Father’s Day, but we don’t tell the children,” floated up to him as if they were tied to the end of a helium balloon.
Anger, confusion, and betrayal flooded Clancy’s hero with a giant wave and destroyed him on the spot. Clancy was in shock; he was also so mad he wanted to hit the wall, but then someone would want to make him talk about it. Father’s Day! They were going to let it slip by and act like he and the rest of the kids didn’t have fathers. His eyes narrowed as he stared at the cracks, searching for a secret exit. Even after all the lights were extinguished he stared upwards, thinking.
He approached his mother on Sunday morning when she was busy with his baby sister who was teething. “Mom, I’m going with the other kids to Sunday School,” Clancy said as he walked by her. “Fine dear. That’s fine,” his mother replied, her mind preoccupied with the baby.
Clancy stuffed a couple of biscuits in his pocket and grabbed a box of juice before getting on the church bus with the rest of the children. In class he chose the seat closest to the door. Waiting until the teacher bowed her head in prayer was difficult, but when everyone’s eyes were closed, Clancy made his exit. Once in the hallway all he had to do was run.
It was as if all those days spent staring at the ceiling were done for the conservation of his energy for this very moment. He couldn’t—wouldn’t—be the hero, but he could be the white horse or the rocket ship, bursting out the door into the sunshine and speeding down the street. Once he’d jumped some hedges and ran a few blocks, he felt safe in stopping to get his bearings. It took him several minutes to map it out, but the church bulletin provided the address from where he’d come, and he was a smart boy and knew how the streets in the city worked. Now all he had to do was get back home to Dad. It shouldn’t be too hard.
It wasn’t. He avoided the busier roads in case someone was looking for him and instead zigzagged through back streets and alleys. Travel made him hungry, but the biscuits and juice box were rationed out to last his entire journey, and he wisely took breaks at appropriate intervals whether he was tired or not. The sun was an orange ball low in the horizon when he came to the creek. The water was full of trash and leeches, yet Clancy’s spirits rose when he saw it because it meant he was almost home.
Finally he saw his house. Joy immediately became confusion and then sorrow when Clancy realized that there was no car in the driveway. He plopped down in the weeds to think. He had come so far, and now his father wasn’t even home. What was he supposed to do?
Then it hit him—of course! Dad was at the bar! He always went there on Sunday! That’s how Mom was able to escape so easily.
He was named for the bar on the corner, that’s how much his Dad liked going there. It was called “Clancy’s Bar and Grill” except it was owned by some guy named Joe and the “C” in “Clancy’s” had long ago burned out. The sign was turned on by the time Clancy got there—”lancy’s” it said in bright red letters. Clancy went in and there his dad sat at the end of the bar looking up at the television over his head.
Clancy crept over to his father and put his hand on the man’s arm. “Dad?”
His father turned to look at him. Clancy saw the look on his father’s face was the bad look, the one that always meant trouble. “Where’s your mother?” his father growled.
“At the shelter,” Clancy whispered.
His father grabbed him by the arm. “So what are you doing here then?” He gave Clancy a shake. “Are you here to spy on me? Or maybe you came to steal my wallet—I bet that bitch is out of cash.” He shook Clancy even harder. “Talk boy! What do you want?”
Clancy hadn’t cried since that first night in the shelter, but suddenly all that he’d been holding in came pouring out of him. “It’s Father’s Day,” he sobbed. “I wanted to see you—I’ve missed you—it’s Father’s Day—that’s all.”
Scared to look and scared not to, Clancy peered up and saw that his father wasn’t even looking at him. His eyes weren’t on the television either. Clancy was confused; his father didn’t seem angry; it looked like maybe he had something in his eye. Before Clancy could think about it further, the drunken man had picked up his son and plopped him on a bar stool.
“Joe!” the drunken man called out, “Bring a Coke for my boy! And a steak sandwich while you’re at it!” Father and son sat and chatted about nothing in particular; Clancy asked questions about home and his father gave lighthearted responses while he drank more beer. His food arrived, and Clancy thought the sandwich was the best he’d ever tasted until he saw his mom enter the bar accompanied by a police officer—then the food in his mouth turned to dust.
His mother ran to him. “Oh Clancy, I was so worried,” was all she could say over and over again. She pulled him to her and held him so tightly that Clancy couldn’t hear all that was said. He heard the policeman say something like, “restraining order” and “run him in” but he didn’t know exactly what they were talking about. Clancy felt the tension in his mother’s body, and he knew it was up to him to stop something bad. “It was my fault Mom, not Dad’s. But I’m so glad you came for me,” he whispered in her ear. Although Clancy hadn’t voluntarily given his mother any affection in a very long time and never had in public, he gave her a shy kiss. Clancy felt his mother’s body relax. It was as if that kiss was a magic key that opened something gentle inside of her. “Please. Just take us out of here,” his mother said to the police officer.
She took Clancy by the hand and led him out the door. Clancy squeezed his mother’s hand to let her know everything was all right; she squeezed his back in return. Clancy turned to smile a goodbye to his father, but the man had returned to his beer and television. Clancy didn’t really blame him. He sort of understood.
That night, lying in his bed, he followed the cracks in the ceiling with a new scenario dancing in his head. He saw himself mount a white charger, and on that mighty steed, he was jumping rivers, and climbing mountains.
And then he fell asleep.