Daddy Boy follows Emerson as he packs into a van full of strangers and drives up and down the country—staying in Days Inns, eating bags of carrots from Walmart, and wanting nothing more than to surrender to the force of a colossal storm. “We had no idea where we were going,” Emerson writes, “just waiting for one cloud to pop.” Roaming the prairie landscape of his childhood, Emerson recalls his adoptive dad, Hank‚ unflinching and extremely Texan, and his biological dad, who was rarely around. From the van’s trash-strewn back seat, and in the face of these looming figures, Emerson begins to wonder: Did he want to be Daddy now?
Here’s an excerpt from the book Publishers Weekly calls “a true treasure.” You can pick up a copy at our store.
Clouds on all sides were sucking in on themselves. Hank was driving the car through locusts.
Paintball pelts of yellow streaked everywhere, closing up the windshield. The sound of it was soft like someone sticking Solo cups in chainlink. He was laughing and driving eighty or ninety. Tye, in the front seat, bit his middle finger and played like he was bored. Nobody could see and nobody cared. Hank kept his body relaxed. He drove like he was driving a bus and was about to wave to people. The light glowed through the bugs that were making mud of themselves across the car. The only smell was a grassy one from the insects dying and the five-in-one shampoo that the boys all shared.
There were four of us in the car. I had a Tech Deck in my pocket that I never played with, I just kept it around like a key. I was listening to Nelly on my Discman and Hank was driving through the locusts, laughing, saying, you know they’re trying to eat each other, right?
Hank had won a trip to Orlando by putting a piece of paper into a box by the register at a Tom Thumb in Dallas, that’s where we were driving. I’d won something the same way about a year prior from the same Tom Thumb, it was a holiday stocking that was red and mesh and full of old candy. When my mom wasn’t looking, I’d registered to win and they called our house later and I remember her waving me over to the phone. What did you do? she’d waved. But I’d won. I picture Hank putting the piece of paper in the cardboard box for fun.
Tom Thumb paid for our flight and our hotel, it wasn’t for Disney, just for Orlando itself. Hank wanted to take us, we hadn’t ever been on a trip just the four of us, my two brothers and Hank. It was spring. We rented a red Chevy Blazer at the Orlando airport and drove toward a circular hotel with rooms that opened onto a ton of fake indoor plants. I bumped around with Gunner in the back seat. We had a ways to go, along two-lane highways with swamp nearby. It was just a straight road and then the cloud of locusts.
It’s true what Hank said, that they swarm because of turning can nibal. They’re hungry for each other and they’re being eaten at the same time. They’re chasing and running. Each one realizes it like threading tape, like legs getting plied apart. I haven’t seen a locust in so long, but I dream about them often, little desperate streaks on the windshield. I wet my fingers with my tongue.
Hank had such a specific smell, still does. This is probably his hair. He has a lot of shaggy hair. He uses ripped towels after the shower and keeps unhooked appliances all throughout his house from different projects getting worked on everywhere. In the winter, he puts a tree together in the living room and hangs a plastic cranberry wreath on the door. He has a drafting table that takes up nearly the whole floorspace of his bedroom. There’re blueprint papers everywhere. The dog’s tail hits the tubes the papers go in.
He’s always laughing, saying things like, it’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye and then it’s just a game to try and find the eye.
Whenever I visit, I follow him to his jobs. He works endlessly and I go with him to whatever site he’s working on and everyone says we look so much alike. If that’s true, it’s only a coincidence.
This is the guy who gets so angry when I say I don’t know where I’m from. Texas, goddamn it! You motherfucker, you’re from Texas! And he laughs the whole time, saying somehow I’m the only one of his children born in the state, except he wasn’t even there when I was born.
My brothers, Gunner and Tye, look like Hank, the three of them have that hair. They’re bonded. Tye is stylish these days with nice sunglasses. Gunner and I have the same eyebrows and nose, we’re shaped a little more similarly, but he’s still all Hank undeniably. I’m much smaller and my knuckles are a darker color and my face has different kinds of bones. Tye and Gunner play a lot of games together (it used to be Magic Cards, and then some kind of intense video game). I never know what they’re talking about. They’re best friends.
Then: my dad. I used to call him my “bio-dad,” but I don’t even know what that means.
Maybe “pop” is better.
Like the meaning of it that’s “to appear.”
I’ve got pictures like this: I’m staring at my mom, and Dad’s face just comes over, hovers near her shoulder, and it’s a surprise— they broke up when I was eighteen months old.
“O father” says Etymology Online about the origins of “papa.”
Whenever we talk about it, my grandma tells me this story about my dad and how she’d buy him chocolate milk and he’d use small medicinal amounts of it in regular milk to make it last until it went bad. She also tells me that my first word was either dad or dog and that he’d dress me up in little pink outfits with black buckle shoes and carry me everywhere. We moved in with my mom’s parents on the East Coast when I was two weeks old because my dad had lost his job in Dallas. He started working the front desk at a gym and would take me to his shift sometimes. He was always bouncing you, she says.
Honestly, I’ve spent most of my life thinking I was missing this. These days, I only know my dad through photos on social media. I have screenshots of the photos saved on my phone. He has pup pies on his chest in one and I’ve looked at it and wondered what it would feel like to be near him. He wears a little straw cowboy hat in these photos. We both have short torsos and are sweet-looking I think. He’s little. I want to know what kind of soap this is. I see people sometimes that look like him and want to go up and talk. I remember when I had athlete’s foot a lot as a kid, he’d told me that he’d had that too. We’ve both had ankle injuries on the right side. Both of us will pick up trash if it’s around.
How is it that I feel like it was me who left him? Like I was the one who ended things? Thinking back on it, I imagine experiencing a supreme loss of strength. I imagine it gone.
This is important:
On our way to school or on errands, Hank liked to scream for no reason.
He drove a big black Navigator pickup or sometimes a silver one because the cars came from his job.
We’d go behind the strip mall where the boys got haircuts, the one with Target and the Cici’s Pizza. It was a busy mall but desolate in the bank. Hank would be between gigs when we’d do this, or on the way to Home Depot. I’d practice driving for a half hour or two.
Once, while pretending to parallel park back there, I cut somebody off by accident and a guy with blond tips in an open Jeep Wrangler pulled up right to the passenger window to get any. Hank yelled something about trying to teach his kid to drive and what the fuck man and the guy was like, let’s get out and I’ll show you whatever and motioned to take off his seat b lt. Hank was like, let me show you something and he turned to this mouth-faced guy, blew him a kiss, and then put his hand on the wheel and his foot on my foot and pressed it down. It was my first time driving us home from the parking lot and it was okay.
When he’d pick me up from school it was always several hours late and I didn’t care. One out of every five times I’d get in the car, I’d put my backpack down between my knees and we’d drive a few blocks and then he’d bloodcurdle scream. There’d be cars all around but no kids anymore. What were we training for? He’d shriek randomly.
The scream would start in my head and go through my hands. Maybe this book is like the back of a wide open mouth. Am I yelling?
Buy Daddy Boy.