Versus Nature Versus Nurture

Short Fiction by Simon A. Smith

Round 1

The death of a father should not fill a son’s heart with more relief than sorrow. It’s an imbalance of the highest order, an error in the very equation that solves for love. No other defects of this variety or magnitude are found in the universe. At least none that I can think of while standing here in the middle of this drab, continent cemetery waiting for the closing hymn to arrive. Am I wrong? There are no trees whose roots reject the absorption of water, no planets refusing their gravitational pull or mandatory orbits. Still, I can’t stop myself from wondering…

This of course is an inappropriate topic to discuss at a man’s funeral, though I wish it weren’t. Sometimes I feel much of my life can be boiled down to this – a temptation to talk about obscure or distressing issues that most others find too disturbing. For example, if I brought it up to Aunt Rhoda, who is right now bowing her head in prayer, I know what she would do. She’d attempt a swift verbal defense, but her words would get all gummed up and refuse to come out. After opening and shutting her mouth several times without any success, she’d walk away in a puff of frustration, the train of her long charcoal dress collecting whatever available rubbish from the ground in her wake. I’ve seen it happen before, observed the precise mannerisms, the way the jaw hinges like a fish, the eyes half startled, half enraged, the abrupt evacuation… This type of resistance is more prominent when it comes to my conventional Foot brethren on my father’s side, but it is not all their fault. The truth is that there are very few people in which I can openly confide.

Round 8

This will tell you something. Maybe four or five summers ago I came back from Chicago for a few days to find that Aunt Rhoda had planned a sort of lunch party for me at her home. There was corn, sweet potatoes, ham and green beans. Time after time I bit into textures that brought to mind dishwater hands and muddy fingernails, the residue of the family members who encircled the table and asked me dicey questions about art school. I could feel it all around me, the gritty soil, sifted through calloused, Mennonite palms. It was tough going, me doing my best to speak in the long gone tones of religious modesty that I had stopped practicing years ago. Each clanging fork or knife coming from another cousin or uncle was the manifestation of a stifled gasp. They were busy at it, looking and moving the way church bells sound.

There was homemade banana bread for dessert. The appearance was something to behold; a perfect golden dome, lightly brown on top. To the touch it was fluffy and moist. Despite my protests, I was offered a humungous piece. It was the size of a small brick or large fist. The first bite tasted of warm oven and raw cane. My eyes watered. The level of sweetness was so acute, so fierce that my cheeks began moving away from my gums in an attempt to leave room for the excess sugar. Something granular passed down to my stomach where I felt it disperse like scattered seeds. My teeth were grinding away. The texture was sandy. Still, I smiled. They watched. My youngest cousin, Dawson, stood on his chair, hovering over me. Many of them were laughing and frowning at the same time. I tried to use my saliva to dissolve the confection before it reached the back of my throat. It took great persistence, but through a series of shuttering gulps I managed to get most of it down.

I was about to thank them all for preparing such a delicious treat when my tooth struck down upon something hard. To say it was rock hard would be redundant because indeed the object my molars had found was a pebble. I was lucky not to have lost or chipped anything. As I reached into my mouth a succession of furious knives and forks scraped against porcelain, filling the space with harsh screeching. Some of them swayed back from the table, ducking some imaginary punch. There was nothing else to do but tweeze the thing out and set it on my plate as gently as possible. It sat there like a calcified tumor on the edge of the saucer. In an attempt not to insult or embarrass anyone, I tried to downplay the incident. I looked up at my perched, eager family and shrugged my shoulders as if to say it’s all right, these things happen. The response was slow but decisive. One by one they went back to their own food, averting their eyes and shaking their heads. You do it every time, they seemed to be saying. What’s wrong with you? How do you manage to do this every time?

Round 4

When Dad died he weighed a paltry one hundred and twenty-four pounds. The olive suit in which he was dressed for the viewing did a nice job covering his brittle, twiggy frame. Had it been left exposed, the wilted torso and limbs would have certainly frightened some of the small children present. Throughout his final year he had lost so much meat around his bones that he began to take on the characteristics of a languid blue heron. Frankly, I was afraid to glance into the coffin for fear that in death he may have made some sort of full transformation. I half expected to find a man-bird amalgamation with cerulean feathers and sunburst beak.

 

Round 10

Bishop Shultz is saying something about dust and ashes, and I’m paying no attention. Instead, I’m staring at my sister, Louise. She is tall and thin with gaunt features all around. The one thing that sticks out is her ropy, muscular arms which have always seemed too manly for the rest of her frame. I haven’t seen her in about three years, but on first glance, externally at least, it doesn’t appear much has changed. Miami has kept her in good stead. Even at age forty, after two divorces, she is still probably the best looking person in our entire family. She looks firm and tanned and her long flowing hair is as blonde as it was twenty years ago.

But then there is something… if you linger. There is something about her face, something new and different that I can’t quite put my finger on. Her cheeks look… melty? Yes, her head, if you squint just right, is like a scoop of vanilla ice cream oozing down into the cone of her neck and shoulders. But her lips are frozen in place, an arched island of dry land in the middle of all that liquid. Peering closer I decide… it’s possible it could be some kind of plastic surgery. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone with plastic surgery in person before, but I feel that if I had it might look something like this. There’s a first time for everything. Her eyes may be misshapen, too… elongated in some way… She catches me ogling her. I look away. In the distance I see her huge rose Cadillac wedged diagonally across the parking area, pinned like a bulwark at the head of the line.

Round 11

“Lloyd. Lloyd!” It’s Louise. She is standing maybe six inches in front of me, cocking her head to the side and waving her hands. Her eyes, narrow and unblinking, are fixed tight against the sockets of her elastic skin.

“Yes? Hi. Is everything okay? Are you all right?” I ask.

“I’m fine. Are you okay?” she says.

“It’s just that your eyes…” I notice that she is staring right at my armpit area where a long string is dangling. It’s a very old suit, the one I’m wearing. I think it’s the one my mom bought for me when Grandma Pat died over a decade ago. I tug at the string, hoping it will snap off, but it must be rooted somewhere deep inside. I feel it resist. It’s bunching everything up, drawing the fabric taut against me. I give up. “Never mind,” I say.

“I called your name about sixty times. The funeral’s been over for five minutes. You’ve been standing here in a trance, gawking out at the road, like… like what? Gary, help me out here. Like what?”

“I was thinking about Dad. Do you remember the time we found him walking down the street naked looking for that blanket that blew off the back of his truck?” I say.

“Lloyd,” Louise says. She reaches toward the person standing beside her, latches onto his elbow and yanks him closer. “Gary’s here.”

“It’s just that he was so practical, wasn’t he? In hindsight, I mean. For example, that happened to be the only blanket, he said, that was really both comfortable and thermal. He should have never used it to cover up the lawn mower he was hauling. The nudity makes perfect sense to me now. He was dealing with some heavy regrets. Remember?”

“You’ll have to excuse him,” Louise says. “He’s having some difficulty focusing.”

“Well, remembering Lloyd,” Gary says, “I’d say he’s right about how I left him. It actually seems like he’s having one of his classic moments of clarity.”

“Gary,” I say, coming around and whacking him on the shoulder, “it’s so good to see you.” And I mean it. It really is. Gary’s one of the few people I have ever known who makes me feel at ease. “I’ve never seen you this dressed up before.”

Gary sticks his hand out to shake at the same time I lunge in for a hug. The fork of his fingers catches me right in the ribs. There are a few awkward moments as we fumble, trying to adjust, alternating shaking and hugging postures before I eventually grab his wrist and embrace just his arm. For some reason he kisses the top of my head. He is dressed in a wrinkled slate and white pinstriped suit. The vest is too small. The mound at the bottom of his stomach has popped loose a button or two down near his bellybutton.

“It’s my brother’s outfit,” Gary says. “I haven’t been in a tie since I don’t know when. Punk rockers don’t usually need monkey suits.” He steps back, grabs the hips of his jacket and flashes it open to give us a good look at the rumpled black vest and stained T-shirt underneath. Just then a breeze kicks up, and he’s forced to let go of the jacket and attend to the few wisps of hair that have come peeling back, like a soup can lid, from his mostly bald scalp.

Louise watches Gary as he tidies himself back up the best he can. She is sucking her teeth, looking on in a way that reveals both her embarrassment for him and her desire to flee the situation. “Okay, well,” Louise says, “I’ll let you two catch up.” She pats Gary on the back twice, then pivots and begins walking in the opposite direction. She looks over her shoulder. “Lloyd, I’ll see you later tonight at the hotel.”

“Bye, Louise!” Gary calls far too loudly. Spooked, Louise freezes. He seems to notice the high level of his volume and catches the final syllable in his throat, choking it back down at the last second. Louise gives him a mechanical nod.

“Okay,” I say. “We’ll talk about… um… you know,” I say. I draw a circle in front of my face with my palm and keep swirling the air there, trying to think of how to casually bring up her melting problem. “This.”

She doesn’t appear to have the slightest idea what I’m doing or saying.   And so after a few seconds of squirmy and silent indecision, joggled and nodding all the while, she concludes that turning and leaving would be her best option. The way her short heels keep stabbing down into the muddy field, jerking her off balance, makes it difficult for her to pull off a graceful exit. Gary tracks her halting motions until she’s almost completely out of sight. When she has all but disappeared, he turns to me, licks his lips and winks.

Round 6

There are maybe twenty-five or thirty people in attendance for the burial. Most of them only traveled a few miles. In my experience, people who are born in Elkhart, Indiana don’t leave. My sister and I did. Both of us have been gone for a long time. She flew in from Florida yesterday, and a week ago I drove the hundred miles from Chicago, which to most of our family and old acquaintances may as well be the moon.

It’s mid May, a bit windy. A nice thing worth noting is that father’s favorite flowers, honeysuckles, are in full bloom around the perimeter. They dance in the breeze, their tiny white phalanges soft and spongy like the head of a mop. The sky is clear and radiant blue, somehow exaggerating the cluster of black clad bodies gathered beneath it. The plain, modest clothing is of course a reflection of the occasion, but it could also serve as a map of sorts, a tourist’s guide to “The Small Town Charms of Small Town People.” The style of dress, much like the style of speaking, eating and observing, reveals a pattern of constrained emotions and abandoned passions. They stand close together with their lips pursed and their hands folded neatly behind their backs. I can see Dad’s normally wooden sister, Aunt Rhoda, in the front row, looking a little faint and wobbly. The frown on her face is so defined it’s as if it has been etched there by chisel and hammer. Large black flies gather and swarm atop her prayer bonnet. If she is aware of the assembling insects she does not show it.

Round 5

Though Dad was a man of several weaknesses, it is a testament to his benign spirit that all six pallbearers continued carrying him to his resting spot even after it was discovered that the crate was hardly heavy enough for four. That’s part of what death does. It renders people incapable of due cruelty. It’s enough to make you think that the world would be a better place if everyone was dead.

Round 9

I see several people at the funeral that I haven’t seen for some time. For example, Ruben, my father’s outcast brother. His hairy arms and barrel chest, along with his crusty teeth, enormous calves and lumbering stride create an arresting presence. It’s as if he is actively trying to turn himself into a grizzly bear. This is not the Ruben I grew up knowing. What I remember most about Uncle Ruben is that when I was younger he liked to dress himself in one solid color from head to toe. Despite his family’s strong theological objections, most of his outfits were loud and bright, canary yellow for instance or tangerine orange. He didn’t understand why everybody wasn’t doing it. To his brain, it only made sense to maintain a consistent thread of uniformity. Why would anyone want to throw off the balance of an ensemble by mucking it up with different patterns? Same was good. You didn’t drive a two-toned car or mix fruits and vegetables together on the same plate, so why would you want to do something like that with your clothing? Similarity was an attractive quality to Ruben.

Last time I spoke with Ruben I asked why he thought the family kept such a distance from him. To be quite blunt, he had no fucking idea. Aside from my dad, Ruben swore more than anybody else in the family, which isn’t saying a whole lot. Anyway, it seemed like a load of bullshit to him. That his entire family was staunchly religious and straight-laced could have something to with it, maybe. They were all so reactionary, he said. If he had gotten married, that might have helped perhaps, but he had given up caring.

He did, however, share a story with me. A few years ago, during the winter, Rhoda visited him at the trailer park where he was living at the time. It was strange because she never came by, and it was some random night like a Tuesday or Wednesday around the dinner hour. Out of the blue her pickup appeared in the driveway and out she hopped, like she was in a rush to get the whole thing over with before anything started. She was all by herself. Peeking through the window Ruben could see that her arms were loaded up with something, and she was having trouble carrying the weight. He opened the screen door and came out to help her, and as he did he saw that she had a stack of firewood piled all the way up to her chin. He hardly had time to say anything before she was inside his kitchen area tumbling the wood onto his counter, clapping shavings off onto the floor. “This ought to keep you,” she said. “It’s cold outside, and you don’t want anybody thinking you aren’t warm enough.” Ruben thanked her and just as quickly as she had arrived she was leaving again. Right before she stepped out the door she spun around and came back. “Oh,” she said. “I almost forgot. I brought you these, too.” She reached into both pockets and slid out two big handfuls of shotgun bullets. Ruben took them, trying his best not to drop any as they made the hasty exchange. “For hunting season,” Rhoda told him. “It’s almost here, and they’ll be asking around.” She paused for a moment and cleared her throat. Looking him up and down she said, “well, at least you’ve got your flannel and some whiskers,” and then she climbed back into the truck and drove off.

When Ruben finished with his parable he made a point of coming very close to my face. It was like he was trying to look inside my eyeballs to see if anyone was home behind them. He wagged his finger at me and he said, “I don’t have to tell you that there wouldn’t be any fireplace in my trailer, and what I know about guns I could just about write out on a matchbook.” Even delivered in anger, it was still the same squeaky, incongruous voice for which he’d become known in the Foot family. He made an attempt at putting his arm around me but backed off, deciding to feign a yawn instead. “Sorry, about your dad,” he said. It seemed like a fitting metaphor for all the abridged emotions in the Foot clan, left to evaporate without comment.

Round 7

Both sides of the cemetery are bracketed by rolling pastures. They stretch on into the horizon like rippling lime waves of electrical current. Somewhere nearby a farmer has calibrated his new automatic bucket milker, the one with all the rubber cups and hoses that allow the cows to be pumped mechanically. His son, dressed in overalls and knee-high waders, changes the oil on one of the tractors while his mild, aproned sister stays inside to prepare lunches of kettle chips and fried bologna sandwiches.

I’ve seen the customs and recorded them enough times to know just how they play out. It all goes on and on like the humming of a deep freezer in the parlor out back. I’m picturing the one my father showed me as a child, the plump silver one packed with sealed pork cutlets that’s been part of his family’s dairy ranch since before he was born. Working all that time. A frayed cord covered in cobwebs plugged into the wall. I can see it. I can almost smell it, the oddly hormonal aroma in the dank room. The sound. The sound is clearest to me. Buhwhirrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…click.

Round 14

Gary’s apartment is located in the attic of a dilapidated building on the south side of town. It’s basically one big box with a stove, a toilet and a sink haphazardly situated in random, un-walled sections of the room. It’s like a house that is set up to only act as a makeshift model for what the official house might look like once it’s completed. The tiled floor in the kitchen area has been peeled loose, and half of it is missing. Gary can’t open the mini refrigerator without sliding the couch over to make room for the door. He hands me a beer, twists the cap off and tosses it into a corner where other scraps of food sit in an open garbage bag. The smell is a mixture of moldy fruit and dead flowers. He doesn’t seem to notice any of it.

“The record player is over here,” Gary says. He leads me toward the back where the lone window rests just below the peak of the roof. The sun is going down. A large oak tree covers most of the view. Everything is cast in leafy shadows. “Watch your head,” he says. We squat under the ceiling joist. Gary tips his beer forward, spilling some drops onto the floor.

Just beneath the window is a record player. It sits atop two red milk crates. Leaning against the side are dozens of vinyl albums, some of them in their sleeves and some not.   Gary grabs a pack of cigarettes from the windowsill. He taps one out and lights it. With the filter pinched in his lips he goes about searching the stack of records. I scan for a place to sit down, deciding on the armrest of a duct taped recliner. The cushion is covered in heavy metal magazines and video games.

“This is my favorite one of all time,” he says, gliding a record free from the pile. “This has influenced everything I’ve ever done.”

He holds it carefully between both hands, like somebody transporting a priceless antique plate. He blows some dust from the top and lowers it onto the turntable. Once he is convinced it is setting just right he lifts the arm and swings it toward the disk slowly. He dips his ear down close to the grooves as he drops the cartridge into place. A series of dull pops come first, then a soothing hiss. He turns the volume up. A familiar tinkling of harp chords, two drum claps and…

Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older

Then we wouldn’t have to wait so long.

And wouldn’t it be nice to live together

In the kind of world where we belong

           

“The Beach Boys,” Gary says. He sort of breathes the name, like exhaling it out into the room. He takes a drag of his cigarette, sinks down against the wall like lowering himself into a bathtub. His knees are up near his chin. He ashes onto the floor by his Converse. I watch as he sways his head and shoulders to the lush harmonies. He closes his eyes and sings. “Maybe if we think and wish and hope and pray it might come truuuuuuue. Baby theeeen, there wouldn’t be a single thing we couldn’t do.”

His voice is two or three notes too low. When he tries to raise his pitch the words get caught in his throat and cause him to cough a little. It doesn’t seem to faze him. He slaps at his knees and thighs, then moves up to his belly, patting along to some rhythm that is far too aggressive to match the song. His eyes are still closed. Whatever alternate song he is conjuring in his mind is getting faster and faster. He is in full-on head bang mode. If he still had the long, cushy mass of hair from high school it would be whipping all over the place.

“Do you feel it?” Gary asks, flashing his eyes open. “It’s beautiful.” He’s so excited I don’t know what to say. I tilt my beer back and take a long swallow. The only thing I can think to do is sort of arch my eyebrows and nod as I sip. If I keep the bottle up against my mouth long enough I won’t have to actually speak.

It’s quite a spectacle watching Gary get into the music. It’s really something. He closes his eyes again, croons out in a cracking falsetto. Through each faltering key he persists, renewing his zeal each time, really punching every word.

“Good night my baby!” he belts in machine gun fashion. He’s strumming some imaginary guitar in his lap – something much quicker and harder then anything coming from the speaker. “Sleep tight my baby!”

Round 2

If I were more of a visual artist, I’ve always thought, maybe I could have found some sort of release from the obstructions I have suffered, a self-portrait perhaps – a fat red and purple bottle with a corked top, bursting at the seams. But I’m not a painter, I’m a writer. I’m also a taxi driver. Sometimes the two things complement each other and sometimes they don’t. For example, if I’m daydreaming about the novel I want to write I might miss a turn or take the wrong highway. On the bright side, I get plenty of quiet time to think. Sometimes driving and writing have similarities. Like, sometimes I exert an extreme amount of energy trying to visualize certain routes before I pick one. Will this one or that one get me there faster? Which will be more scenic? Which one fits my mood or intentions better? Which one will have more fares? Should I try a new way I’ve never taken before in hopes that it will reveal something to me I never knew existed? Which of my predecessors am I most inspired to follow or imitate? For example, there is Afredo’s brusque, heedless method of driving which I quite admire, but I am also drawn to Xander’s more mellow, chummy style.

See, I’m attempting something ambitious. I want to write a book about my father, but at the same time I also want it to be about everything else in the world, like what it means to be human. But I also want to be a human, you know, participate in less intense, more frivolous pursuits, make connections with people who are not so trapped in their own minds. But what’s the alternative? Do I, for instance, really want to be more like Rhoda? What does it mean to be as disconnected as Aunt Rhoda? Should I try it on, her demeanor, masquerade around town for awhile to see how it feels? Would it behoove me in any way to obtain a richer sense… probably not. Best to stick to the old saying – “dance with the skin you came in.” That’s the thing, though. I’m working on it, you see. I’m practicing… But now this is the book I’m talking about here! You see? This is what it’s all about, right here. I mean…

Round 12

For the next few minutes Gary and I stand at the edge of the graveyard and chat about what we’ve been up to the last eight years since we saw each other. I’m not positive, but I think the last time I saw him was at his thirtieth birthday party. It was at his mom’s house where he was staying at the time. A couple bands played in the garage, including Gary’s own. Around ten o’clock the cops came over and broke things up, told us to keep it down. Some of us went inside and drank a little more, but soon after Gary was the first one to fall asleep. He snored so loudly that the rest of us packed up and called it a night. It wasn’t yet eleven o’clock.

Standing next to Gary, I feel like I’m sixteen years old again. Like, at any moment, he might drive me to McDonald’s and smoke a joint in the parking lot. If I’m being honest, I’m actually a little worried that could be a legitimate possibility, and it sets me on edge a bit. In the background we can see and hear the excavator rumbling and steaming over the trench, covering my father’s body with dark soil. Gary wants to know what I’ve been doing lately.

“I’ve been driving taxi,” I tell him.

“Taxi? Hahahaha!”

“I’m serious,” I say.

“You’re serious?” he says. “Really?”

“No joke.” Just then I see something on his neck. It looks like a small blue sticker. “What’s that on your neck?” I ask. I put my finger out to pick at it, but he knocks whatever it was off before I can reach it.

“It’s not important,” he says. “I thought you’d be a famous writer by now.” I’m searching the grass for wherever the blue sticker went, but I can’t locate it. Gary’s not annoyed, but he’s persistent. “I just always felt certain you’d be able to find it within yourself, you know. We all saw it. I’m surprised Lloyd Foot isn’t a hit.”

“I’m not.” Still scanning the ground I say, “I guess it isn’t… important.”

“You don’t write anymore? At all?”

“I write almost every day,” I tell him. “It’s weird how clicking keys or scraping a pencil over a piece of paper doesn’t automatically produce money, though.”

“Yeah, but… come on,” he says. “Haven’t you seen the way people shrivel up without their true ambitions? They wither.” Shaking his head, he adds, “You have to… not you, Lloyd…”

“I’m not sure,” I say. “In order to live all I really have to do is keep a roof over my head and food in the pantry. But I do it anyway. I’m a rebel.” I stop looking for the sticker. It’s not easy pulling my attention away, but I do it. I look right up at Gary who is starting to get a little shifty.

“Yeah, but… You’re so talented.” He puts his hands in his pockets, sheepishly. “You’re better than you think you are.”

This stones me for a second. He’s made a direct hit, managed to strike upon something I didn’t even know I needed, but I do… I really do. I chuckle a little, nod. I hold my hand up high, rub my thumb and forefingers together, making the universal sign for everyone needs cash.

“I know that’s right,” he says, “aaaaand…” Gary responds by making the universal sign for a curvaceous woman, an imaginary hourglass created by weaving the arms and hands through the air vertically, outlining a tall silhouette from head to toe. “Huh? Huh?” He jabs me in the side.

“That would be nice,” I say. We laugh. Seeing Gary is comforting, I’ll admit that. One thing about Gary is that no matter how down you feel he always has a way of cheering you up with his sunny attitude and kooky antics. It’s impossible to get too… serious with him. He’s one of those childish, frivolous types who eschews and avoids all things solemn. They’re everywhere these days if you think about it. Isn’t that something? Every time I turn around there’s another Gary nearby.

“Do you have a girl, uh, a lady friend?” Gary asks. He sees I’m not paying attention. Unsure of what course to take next he coughs a few times and then raises his voice. “Are you thinking about her? You were staring right at the sun.”

“Oh, no I was thinking about… a thought…” I wipe the sunspots from my vision, put my glasses back on. Hadn’t even realized I removed them… Had I been wearing them the entire time? “Actually,” I say, trying to get back on track. “I’m actually going to be writing a novel based on my dad,” I say.

“Oh,” Gary says. He makes a funny sour expression with his lips, bites down on the lower ridge.

“It’s okay,” I tell him. “I have to figure out what style to write it in. It’s got to reflect him in some way, fit his personality and his…”

“His wackiness! His beauty!”

“His idiosyncrasies,” I say.

“Right,” Gary says. “Man, I’m sorry. I sure did like your dad, man. He was so unique. And he was so chill. A free spirit, you know. What a comedian!”

“He thought he was Robin Williams, told people he was. He used it to justify his erratic spectacles. I think he believed it.”

“Yes!” Gary says. “He was a riot!”

“He was a great embarrassment,” I say.

“Oh, well…” Gary cycles through some thoughts about how to proceed before offering, “I guess it’s always different when it’s your own dad.”

“I guess so,” I say. It’s not sitting well, though. I kick some mud and grass up under my shoe tip, launch it a few feet in the air. “You remember his roommate, Junior?”

“Yeah, he was the drag queen, right? With the drug problem?”

“Yeah. That’s the way they usually come. He had some sort of skin disease too, I think.”

“I remember him, yeah,” Gary says.

“Well, he stole everything from my dad – his TV, coffee maker, radio… everything. He even took the mattress,” I tell him. “Somebody heard he drove south maybe, but nobody knew for sure. Dad said he probably took his toaster oven to Mexico, you know, to get toasted.”

“That’s wild,” Gary says. “Didn’t he have a sweet Trans Am?”

“Junior?”

“Yeah. It had flames on it and shit.”

“I don’t know,” I say.

“Really? It seemed like something you’d get into,” Gary says.

“I don’t have a clue,” I say. “I don’t even… never mind.” I slice my hand through the air, like trying to swat a fly. I’d like it to signal a change of direction. This line of discourse will get me nowhere with Gary. I know better.

“Anyway,” Gary says, “my dad would have never lived with a guy like that.” He looks at the ground and sort of mumbles as he says it so it’s hard to tell if he means it in a positive or negative way.

“That’s true,” I say.

“I mean, it was like you could be or do anything around your dad, and he was just like cool with it. And so deep! He was like from another planet or something… like,” he clenches his fists and raises them to each side of his temples. Then he springs the fingers open, making a sound like something exploding. “You know what I mean?”

“Yeah,” I say. “I actually know exactly what you mean.”

“Maybe Science fiction, man,” he says. “It could be like a space odyssey novel.”

“Maybe,” I say.

I really think he has something there. Yeah… he’s onto something, no doubt… I get busy picturing it, imagining my dad as an astronaut in outer space, floating around in one of those bulgy white suits, complete silence all around… Gary starts whistling to get my attention. It works. “Hmm?” I say.

“Nothing,” he says, then all at once he turns jumpy and wired. He rolls his sleeve up to his elbow, and erupts. “Rattail!” he says it like trying to knock me backward with the word. There on his forearm is a murky tattoo of the logo for his band, a lightly scribbled rodent with human-like hair, braided and trailing down its back all the way until the hair and tail became one solid mass. “We’re still going strong,” he says.

“That’s good,” I say. “You guys have a label and stuff?”

“Not yet,” He says. “We’re working on it.”

“I remember when Rattail was the hottest thing in high school.”

“Yep. Rattail for life,” he says.

“What do you do on the side, for work?”

“What do you mean? I play in the band. Rattail, remember?” He squinches up his eyes, puts a hand to his forehead and gazes off toward the grave where the tractor heaves another scoop of earth up in its claw. “Hey,” he says, whirling back toward me. “Do you want to come over to my place and listen to some records?” He works furiously to unbutton his vest. When he’s finished he whips it open to reveal the T-shirt underneath. “Black Flag!” he shouts. He sticks his tongue out.

I don’t have the heart to tell him that the shirt is so old that the black flag being waved on the front is so faded it’s nearly white. “Okay,” I say.

Round 3

The casket is in place, resting on steel girders above the open maw of the grave. Any moment it will be lowered and vanish for all eternity. Unless of course somebody digs it up, in which case the sarcophagus will be visible but not the body itself. Or… perhaps science will discover a method of reanimating the dead and bringing them back to life once modern medicine and science have triumphed. Ha! This is my father talking, I know. Dad would get a kick out of pondering the “infinite possibilities,” as he would put it. I would put it this way: every day one more pine box outlasts another pint of coursing blood.

Along with Dad’s cousin, his uncle, his two best friends and a neighbor whose name escapes me, we carried my father’s body to this space in the middle of Wulmer’s Memorial Cemetery. It is a plot that is almost literally in the dead center of the land. To the left of his spot lies a married couple named Bucher, each having passed on separate dates in their mid-seventies. To the right a young child with the last name Finch who only lasted eight years has been honored with a tall stone spire engraved with a dubious quote from the bible: Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven. That we should allow them… that is no good. That is something of a vacuum in which my mind will surely be sucked if not forcibly retrieved. I do my best, and with great effort I steer my attention back to the service unfolding before me. Bishop Herman Shultz, waxy and sweating through his frock, is saying something patently untrue but endearing in that austere, fulsome way religious figures must be trained to emote. I can only assume that he is unaware of the fact that my late father would have much preferred a secular cremation ceremony. Nonetheless, his ardent sincerity is almost enough to convince me that I have been mistaking my dad for someone else my entire life. “He was a man pure of heart and yielding…” he states.

Here’s a thought that burrowed into me the other day while I was on the road and got me in trouble. My dad used to talk a lot about being a pacifist. Is somebody still a true pacifist if they spend the majority of their life dodging confrontations before they happen, making sure they are never around when a war breaks out? Is that still a challenging enough feat or a commendable enough quality to really salute? Hasn’t he, after all, spent a good deal of his life avoiding his family in an attempt to almost deny their existence altogether?

Well, I think you get the point. You can understand how long one could mull something like this over, and I did. That day I ended up driving all the way to Stony Island when I was supposed to be heading for Bridgeport.

Round 15

I stayed long enough to listen to the whole Pet Sounds album. The length of play made a good timing device, a perfect countdown to what I hoped was an inconspicuous departure. It was time to go. Gary had polished off four or five beers, six or seven cigarettes and a bowl or two of skunky marijuana. He was starting to get a little loopy and overconfident. Over and over he pleaded with me to let him come along to visit Louise at the hotel. It was a real task figuring out how to dissuade him without hurting his feelings. First I told him that the two of us needed to talk alone because we were discussing particulars about the will, but he said he’d just go over and put some money in the jukebox for a while and wait. It wasn’t until I was able to formulate a lie that he relented. I persuaded him to believe that my motives were romantic in nature, that I needed a chance to warm Louise up to the idea of going on a date with him, really chat him up and convince her of what a great catch he was. That sounded perfect, Gary said. He was twinkling. It was just the right idea.

Round 16

The hotel restaurant was desolate and dreary. All the lights were out save a plastic billiard lamp over the bar and a strand of tiny green bulbs tacked up by the ceiling where a beard of dust lined the shelves and fans. I found Louise slouched on a stool at the center of the bar, fiddling with the straw in her glass of amber booze. She was still dressed, as was I, in funeral attire. The resounding opportunity for anyone to come upon this gloomy scene and use it to compose a painting titled “Heartsick Hotel” was right there for the plucking, practically begging.

“Is this seat taken?” I asked, sliding onto the stool next to her.

“You know damn well it’s not,” she said. She sighed, took a swig of her drink.

“I was being polite,” I said. “I’ve been practicing.”

“Well, stop,” Louise said. “Dad’s dead, we’re dateless and this place stinks. Let’s be plain and crass about it.” She called out for the bartender, a rotund, dim looking fellow with rosy cheeks and a mammoth block-head. “Two whiskey and sevens,” she barked. The bartender nodded but said nothing.   He was robotic in his movements, on autopilot – pick up glass on shelf. Reach for liquor. Must add ice. Pour three seconds. Walk with arms straight out like elbows need oiling, etc.

I was near enough now to see every pore in Louise’s sagging face. All the disfigurements… obvious now to the naked eye… right there in front of me, imploring me to comment… I restrained myself. Nobody really wants to talk about deformities and plagues, especially not at dinner. That’s what I told myself. My mantra. I was getting better. “How are you feeling?” I asked.

“Like getting drunk,” she said. “What else is there to do in this town? No wonder Dad slowly drank himself to death.”

“Sometimes it doesn’t seem all that slowly.”

“We’re not young anymore,” Louise said. The bartender delivered our drinks. His eyes looked so small placed in such a large head.   Louise immediately sucked down a good amount. “I’m not as worried about myself, but for you, Lloyd… I really wish you had a good job and a good girl to settle down with.”

“I know, but I’m not as focused on that at the – ”

“You don’t want to end up like the guys that were in here a few hours ago.”

“You’ve been here a few hours?”

“Yes!” She took another sip of her drink. “There was this pack, a gang really, of about four or five guys in here.” She twisted around on her stool and pointed to the darkest corner in the back of the bar. I craned around to look. “They were huddled over something back there, something secretive, talking all quiet, using some foreign language. It seemed shady as hell.”

“They were from another country?” I asked.

“They weren’t from the Unite States of Elkhart!” Louise said. “It was freaking me out.”

“Uh-huh,” I said. “I see.”

“I told our bartender here about it. I said, ‘Jim!’ or was it Bob… I forget his name. Anyway, I told him I just had a funny feeling.” She turned back around to face the bar again and I followed her. She pulled a small baggie out of her purse and a bulky leather wallet. From the wallet she slid out a credit card. The wallet was folded open in front of her where the baggie was sitting. She was using it like a shield of sorts. “Anyway, bartender Bob or Jim or whatever his name is went back to check it out, and next thing I know the derelicts, what have you, they were being asked to leave, escorted out.” She snuck another quick nip from her glass. “There’s no telling what they were doing back there. What I’m saying is…” she drained the rest of her drink. The baggie was upside down in her fingers. White powder dashed the table. “That’s what desperation does if you’re not careful.”

“It’ll get you confused for an illegal immigrant or something?”

“Don’t be a dork. Bob!” she hollered at the bartender. Whether that was his name or not he responded and teetered over, robot-style. “Get me another one, would ya please?” As Bob turned to retrieve a bottle of whiskey from the shelf, Louise moved like a cat. She flicked a dollar bill from the wallet, rolled it up tight into a cylinder, chopped the credit card through some chunky parts in the powder and vacuumed the remnants up through her right nostril. All this played out behind the crude cover of the folded wallet. Before Bob returned she already had the baggie sealed away and the wallet back in her purse. She was doing a lot of huffing sounds, bending back in her seat, running her finger under nose and swallowing. “I’m so sad about Dad,” she said. “It’s such a tragedy.” The new drink arrived and she took a hearty gulp.

“Yeah,” I said. “I know. Well, not in the classical sense, but…” I was darting glances all around the room, trying to understand if somebody had noticed the bizarre display or perhaps even set it up. I wouldn’t have at all been shocked at this point had someone leapt out from behind a wall and tackled us both to the ground. However, from what I could tell, there was nothing to be found for which to fasten my paranoia.

“It was… such a tragedy,” she said. I couldn’t tell if she was sniffling because she was crying or because of the drugs. “I miss him already.” She stared into her glass of whiskey as if she was seeing his face appear there on the surface. “Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could just tell everyone that Dad died of a broken heart instead? I mean, it always seemed like such a perfect way to explain things to people. ‘My mother left him and then soon after my father died of a shattered aorta. It was almost sweet in a way.’ I mean, we could do that; we could tell people if we wanted to. I’ve seen it work for others. They’re both gone now and it’s really just us left. Nobody would have the balls to discredit us. We’re bereaved for fuck sake.”

“Yeah, but for other people it’s true. Mom’s in Indianapolis,” I said.

“I know that! I’m just saying. She may as well be dead. I can’t believe she didn’t come to the funeral.”

“I can,” I said. I took another sip of my drink. I had a lot of catching up to do, but I wasn’t in the mood to really throttle into the stuff. I was feeling quite a bit worn out. “That’s really something, though, Louise. I should write that down.”

“Oh, you should!” she said, coming to life. “Are you writing again? Oh, Lloyd, tell me some good news. Tell me things are looking up for you.”

“Things are looking up,” I said.

“Are you just saying that? Don’t say it, dear God, if you don’t mean it. I’m okay, but I worry about you.”

“I’m writing a novel.”

“That’s fantastic!” Louise said. “Take a drink. Here,” she said. She raised her glass in one hand and lifted mine with the other, forcing me to grab it and toast her. “That’s it. Drink up! What’s it about? What are you writing about?”

“Dad,” I said.

“Oh,” she said. Her spirits dropped. She lowered her head toward her drink again. I tried not to notice, but for a second I almost thought the droopy skin around her cheeks might slide right off into the whiskey glass.

“It’s okay,” I said. “I’m not sad. I mean, I am sad, but… I think dad’s death might be good for my… my career.”

“That’s morbid,” Louise said.

“I don’t mean it that way. It’s just that… well, I think dad has been the topic I was sort of born to write about all along. That sounds wrong. Um, it’s just that… His whole essence… I mean, his life is ripe for fiction and… well, now I can feel free to write what I want about him, make it truthful without making him upset.”

“Truthful fiction. That’s a thing? Will it be marketable?” Louise asked, coming around a bit. “Could you turn it into a blockbuster? I don’t like picturing you driving around Chicago in that cab for the rest of your life.”

“There’s absolutely no possible way to make dad’s life into a blockbuster…” I was struck then with how unhappy the book would make Louise and the rest of the Foot family. There was no way around it if you wanted to be a true artist. Things needed to be realistic, accurate… Actually, if anything, it would be Louise’s character, if added, who might attract the most lurid, voyeuristic audience. That’s where the money was if I really wanted it. “People don’t rush the theaters for a subject like that. That’s not the point anyway.”

“Well, but…” Louise paused. She put her hand over her mouth, scrunched up her eyes and nose. “What if you added in mom? You could balance it.”

“No, I don’t think so. It’s not like an act of any kind. There are no scales.”

“Why not? Why can’t there be?”

“It’s just that… well,” I couldn’t think of the right way to explain it. “I love Mom. She’s good and nice… and well… I don’t know. Those things, those descriptions – good, nice, love – they’ve been done before. I want… more.”

“Maybe it’s because I’m drunk or maybe it’s because I love you… no, wait, not love; I need a better word for it… Um, I weeeeep for you.” She threw her arms around me and squeezed. She let go. “In any case, I somehow see what you’re saying. It’s like a shooting star.”

Though I had no idea what she meant, I responded, “Exactly.” It was the foreigners all over again. She was sauced.

“When can I read it?”

“Well, I haven’t even started yet.”

“When will you start?”

“Actually, I think I might start tonight.”

“Aren’t you leaving tomorrow?” Louise asked.

“Actually, no,” I said.

“Wait, what? What do you mean? What are you saying?”

“I’m saying that I’m staying here for awhile.”

“Here? Here here? In Elkhart? Home of the bloody beating elk heart? Have you lost your mind?” she said. “Look around. This place is a land of woogies. A land of woogies!” She spread her arms wide, spun around two full times on her stool. “No offense, mister Bob Jim,” she called to the bartender. She snapped her attention back on me. “How will you be inspired?”

“This is where dad grew up. It’s where we grew up. I need to be in the element.”

“Where will you stay?”

“I’m staying at Dad’s for a few weeks until we can decide what to do with the place. I figure it will help things along if I’m surrounded by all his stuff… our stuff. I’m going into the heart of things.”

“My God! The belly of the beast. The throbbing elk heart! And what about your taxi job?”

“I’m taking a sabbatical.”

“Oh! I love that you call it that!” she said. “No, no, I swooooon! A sabbatical from taxi driving!”

I watched as she leaned back on her stool and howled. Twice she kicked her heels up, almost knocked over her drink. I moved it out of the way. I waited until the mania died down. “Are you okay?” I asked.

She didn’t seem to hear me at first. She stared off across the bar. It was a vacuous, thousand-mile gaze, like she was seeing something through the wall on the other side. Then she started rooting through her purse again. She pulled out the baggie and the credit card, fanned the wallet out in front of her like before. The hyper speed with which she moved… it was like she was a character in a video game, someone else hitting the turbo keys. She slammed back her drink. “Bob Jim,” she shouted. He looked her way, started to come over. “What’s that over there?” When he turned to see where she was pointing, which was somewhere high up in the rafters, she snorted up another line from the table. When he turned back around she was back ready again. “Never mind,” she said. “One more please!”

“Louise,” I said. “I’ll ask again in a different way. Are you well?”

“I’m fine,” she said. “My sabbatical is over. Business in Miami is booming!” she said.

“That’s not what I mean,” I said. “Let me try again. Are you – ”

“I know what you mean, but let me tell you a story. You like stories. You’ll like this. You should come down to Miami and get yourself into Realty. I could hook you right up. You’re my little brother. I’d do anything for you, but I digress…”

I can’t say that I’d ever heard her say something like that before, anything for you. Though there was no chance I’d be interested in moving to Florida, it felt good and… cozy. The truth was I had never felt close to my sister. Being seven years apart in age, everything about our relationship seemed distant and fuzzy… like blank and fuzzy. Most of my memories involving her center around the battles she’d have with Mom about sneaking out of the house or swearing too much. Dad would enter the room, walk right back out… It’s like I’m always seeing images from far away, down a long hall or something… cloaked behind a sheer, fluttering curtain of some sort. They’re there… then they aren’t. They’re there again… then they’re gone…

Meanwhile, Louise had turned into a statue, index finger notched in under her chin, face stuck in a grimace. Then she popped out of it. “Anyway!” she burst, “the story. A few weeks ago at the office our boss, Big Tony we call him, he decided he was going to teach some of the employees a lesson. We’d been having a drought I guess you could call it. Most of us were in a slump. I don’t know if anybody had sold more than one or two houses in over a month.”

It’s like, in my memory, she’s always leaving, never coming, Louise. She would disappear from the house for hours, sometimes days and nobody knew where she was. Then one day she was in Miami.

“I got there early, to the office. It was a Monday. Soon as I get in the door, Big Tony is there. He’s like on top of me. He leaps out and grabs me. It’s clear he’s hopped up on something. His eyes are all buggy and bloodshot. His clothing is all wrinkled and untucked. He’s got like this madness about him.” She’s standing on the lower rungs beneath her stool, hovering over the bar with her mouth open and her fingers curled like claws. She’s doing a “hungry wolf” impersonation or something.

I don’t think she could handle Mom’s depression or Dad’s drunkenness, and so she would just… she’d leave. She took off, got adopted into some other family, I guess you could call it. I think she had some friends who were dropping off and trying to escape around the same time, and they gathered at someone’s house and they all just… checked out together. But I was back at home… I was absorbing everything in the house, going around from room to room, sopping up every little emotion and any other detritus… Mom’s empty pill containers, Dad’s deserted bottles… like some big, dumb, shell-shocked sponge.

“So then the other employees start arriving,” she continued. “Big Tony rushes over to the door and blocks the entrance. He grabs the door handles and holds on with everything he has. He doesn’t lock them, just like… he puts his foot up on the glass for leverage and he’s just gripping and grinding.” She was still acting things out, roosting on the rungs of her stool. She made a pained, distended expression, like trying to open a jar of pickles, then plopped back down on her seat again. “Well, you can imagine the look on everyone’s face as they tried to come into the building. They sort of amble up to the door, and they see Big Tony there, and then they have no idea what to do. There’s this moment of uhhhhh duh? Haha! You know? So, they try the door but they can’t open it of course, and then they just step back and stare at us, me and Big Tony, like they got electrocuted or something!” She was shrieking with laughter.

When Dad really started getting sick, I was the one who came to visit every month. Louise was trying to finalize her divorce, she said, with a man named Brandon who none of us had ever even met during their four year marriage. I kept trying to tell her how bad it was getting, but she just didn’t want to believe it… just kept changing the subject all the time. It was a downer of a topic, she said…

“Three or four people had arrived and of course each of them had met the same fate. They were all just standing out there looking in, dumbfounded. ‘You don’t deserve to come in!’ Big Tony yelled at them. ‘Why should I let you in?’ He was sweating by now, seething. ‘You’re all fired!’ he said. Then he turned and looked at me. He said, ‘Do you want to join them? You should be out there, but you’re in here. You can go stand with them if you want. I’ve got something I have to do here, and I’ll understand.’ No way, I said! I’m staying right here with you. I was like burning with exhilaration. I was on fire! ‘Look here!’ Big Tony yelled through the door. ‘If you don’t want to be axed, you’ve got two options. Either cut off the tip of your nose or slice off one of your toes!’”

There were times when I would beg Dad to go see a doctor. It was just like me, trying to get logical with a walking corpse. But he was too stubborn, the mort. All he wanted to do was keep the conversation light and merry, typical cadaver. He didn’t want to talk about himself. How was Louise, he wanted to know. Had I spoken to Rhoda or Ruben? There was a special fondness for Gary, who he inquired about often. He even wanted to know how mom was doing. If I’d had the energy to tell stories about myself, he’d have gladly listened all day long. He was most happy when he was cheering for others, even and especially when others didn’t deserve cheering. That’s when they needed it the most, he’d have said. I can hear him… God damn him. It was so hard to be mad, to be severely and properly livid with a fading man like that. It wasn’t fair. After sustained, exhausting days with Dad that left me feeling feverish and wounded, I didn’t have the resolve to argue with Louise. I couldn’t convince her of anything she didn’t want to see or play tug-of-war with her about coming home quicker.

Round 17

As we waited in the lobby for the elevator that would take her to her room we hugged for a long time. When the doors opened Louise staggered into the car. As the gates closed she stuck her fingers up in the peace sign and kept them there until she disappeared. I stood and stared at the beige doors for awhile, not really thinking about anything other than maybe a sort of generalized loneliness. The clerk at the front desk saw me and asked if he could help me with something. I told him I wasn’t sure, and somehow he translated my indecision into a request. He read my mind, or maybe wrote it for me. “Yeah,” he said, “I’ll call you a cab.” I told him that was a brilliant idea, and then I dragged my weary self outside to wait.

Round 16 (Cont.)

“That’s insane,” I said.

“I know!” she said. “It was incredible. He told them that if they were serious about their job, they’d do it. He didn’t want anybody who wasn’t serious.”

“Did anybody do anything?” I asked.

“One of them, this lady named Sandy, she pulled her keys out of her purse. She held the sharpest part up to her nose and started sawing.”

“No!”

“Yes!”

“Nobody fought him? Didn’t anybody stop him, call the authorities?”

“No!” She said. “There was this moment where all of them looked at each other. It was mesmerizing. They could tell and Big Tony and I could tell, we all could tell that… if they wanted to they could overpower us and break inside. All they had to do was pull at the same time together. They outnumbered us.”

“Yes! Did they do it?” I raked my hands down my pants, trying to dry them. The story was getting to me, making me clammy.

“Noooooo,” she said.   She slapped her knee.

“Why?” I said. “They were confused? What?” Sweat broke out on my forehead, funneled south. I picked up napkins from the table, blotted myself.

“They went a different direction. After the next lady, Elizabeth, got her keys out, others started following what she was doing. They all got their keys and – ”

“They didn’t!” I said.

“Absolutely they did. But then Big Tony let them in after that.”

“A nightmare,” I said.

“Well, he was only joking, of course. He had one too many Red Bulls or whatever you call them. He was having a moment or something,” she said. She took another sip of her drink.

“Wow,” I said. It was almost too much. I took a deep breath, let the air out slowly. My collar and chest damp with perspiration, I went limp and ragged on my stool. The weariness hit me. I was spent. Had I run a mile, I could not have been more sapped. Louise looked tired also. She nudged her drink around in a circle pattern on the bar, yawned. We were silent for awhile.

“Anyway,” Louise said, pepping up a bit, “that’s when I decided to get my face lift.”

“Oh!” I said, zapping back into shape with an elasticity I wouldn’t have thought possible.

“Yeah, I didn’t want anybody to ever even think for one second about threatening any nonsense with my face. I wanted to make it perfectly clear that my face was pristine and not to be messed with or even jested about being messed with. Nobody would ever even dare ask me to scar it!”

“I was going to ask you about that,” I said. I moved to touch her cheek, but she jerked away.

“What? You were?” She said it with such tremendous shock and vehemence, like she’d been slapped.

“Yes, I noticed it and – ”

“You noticed it?” she said, interrupting. “Really?”

“Yes,” I said. “I was going to bring it up, but – ”

“You shouldn’t have been able to tell,” she said. She was scolding me now. “Nobody has any idea. They’re not supposed to.”

“I noticed.”

“Well, you really shouldn’t have. You shouldn’t do that again.”

“What?”

“People will think you’re unnecessarily complicated and difficult,” she said.

“Oh?”

“You could really get yourself in trouble.”

“I see,” I said, though once again I didn’t.

“Somebody is liable to think you’re against the wrong things, you know… anti,” she whispered. She turned away from me, cuddling her drink to her breast as she slurped down the rest of it. She turned back around, locked eyes with me.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s a plague.”

Without blinking, she reached her finger out and tapped me on my chest. “It’s a curse… for you,” she said. She smiled wide. Gradually it thawed, softening into a frown. “Don’t I look all right?” she asked. She wouldn’t take her eyes off of me. I noticed for the first time that she must have been crying earlier. Her face was puffy and pink… melty. A thin line of mascara leaked out from beneath her left eye and oozed down her jaw.

“It’s just… I’m your brother,” I said. “I need to make sure.”

“You are my brother,” she said. She put her hand on top of mine, angled in close so that our eyelashes almost touched. She pulled back slightly but kept the same intense proximity and concentration fixed on me. She studied each aspect of my face as if she were meeting me for the first time, and I thought… it really did somehow feel like that. It felt like that for me, too. We didn’t know each other all that well, did we? It’s so odd sometimes, you know, how people can have the same parents and they can grow up in the same house, but then somehow, some way… I wanted to mention it so badly. I wanted to name this new sensation, this warped perspective that seemed so important to discuss and figure out. We needed to get to the bottom of it, I thought. I could feel the pull toward something major cracking open, something philosophical and intriguing… but I didn’t do or say anything.   I was getting so good at staying disciplined and quiet. But then I couldn’t help myself any longer.

“Am I,” I started. “Are you? Are we getting better at knowing… at being accurate about ourselves? Are we who we think we are? Do we know things? Are we as good or as bad as we imagine? Are things expanding or shrinking?”

Her body relaxed. She scooted back on her stool, but kept her hand on mine. “We’re accurate in that we can’t know for sure. But please, I don’t want to talk about the details. The devil is in those for certain.” She nodded her head. It was a pointed, rhythmic nodding. Her eyes and nose and chin were all aiming at me as she did it. “I think you’re good,” she said. “You’re a good person, Lloyd. Okay?”

She licked her lips, kept nodding, waited for me to reciprocate. Instead, I put my other hand on top of hers, like a stack of crimped flesh, and smiled. I didn’t believe her, but I was very grateful anyway. I tried to convey a closeness then, a compassion for her that I had never revealed before. There was no way to tell if it was working without speaking about it, but it didn’t matter. Either it was happening or it wasn’t, and all I could do was try. We stayed like that, transfixed by each other’s gaze, wondering why it was that we felt so foreign and familiar at once.

Robo-bartender returned. He didn’t say a word at first, just arrived and leered down at us from above until we noticed his shadow.

“The band’s here,” he said. His voice was rough, gravelly.

Louise and I surveyed the room. There was no sign of any band.

“If you want to stay you’ll have to pay the ten dollar entry fee,” he said.

The place was dead silent and still. Somewhere in the distance an air conditioner switched on and rumbled to life.

“Jim Bob,” Louise said. She looked up at him and frowned. “Jim Bob?” she whined.

“Sorry,” he said. He tossed a grimy rag over his shoulder and wobbled away.

“We’ll have to take his word for it,” I said.

“I guess so,” she said.

Round 13

I take Gary up on his offer to drive me over to his place. He’s got a Ford Bronco from about 1995 – a tan sputtering number, dented and covered in sludge. Along with a few busted knobs and switches on the dashboard and a couple empty coke cans and fast food bags pressed into the ledge below the windshield, there is a cassette tape player. Gary swerves all over the road. He’s hunting for his Rattail tape, plunging his hand all up and down the console area, the backseat, between his legs. Once, we nearly clip a young girl on her bicycle. Another time he comes within an inch of side swiping a parked van.

“Your dad used to come to our concerts,” he says in between death swerves.

“Are you trying to kill us?” I ask. I didn’t know Dad went to see Rattail. Knowing it now makes me feel kind of nauseous. I get a knot in my stomach like indigestion.

When I’m not sure I can take it any longer he locates the thing under his floor mat. The look on his face is sheer elation and victory as he pops it into the deck. The cab fills with a sound like pots and pans being smashed onto a concrete floor. The guitar kicks in. Somebody must be trying to rip the strings off of the instrument in a fit of rage. Gary’s vocals follow. It’s nothing offensive, though it sounds more like talking than singing at first. Something about the voice seems too soft, like maybe he’d intended the song to be a lullaby but couldn’t get the message across to the rest of the band. There’s too much going on to hone in on any one aspect of the music.

“There’s so much here,” I tell him. “It’s overflowing.”

“I know, right,” Gary says. He smiles, drums his fingers on the steering wheel. The voice on the recording grows louder. It’s a yowling of sorts, almost like somebody crying out in pain, a man passing a kidney stone maybe… It’s a sound that if someone else produced it in a normal setting you’d ask him if he needed a doctor. Gary drums faster, beaming, bobbing his head to the beat as everything accelerates.

Round 17 (Cont.)

It’s a brisk, refreshing night. The sky is vast and clear, dotted with what looks to be ten million beaming stars or more. Alongside the parking lot is a low rising hill with newly mowed grass. I sit down on the slope and soon find myself lying down, stretching flat on my back. It feels like I have never been this tired in my entire life before. There’s little chance I’ll have the strength to start the novel this evening. How many nights have I felt like this in the last five months? More than I care to think about now.

This world is too many worlds for me. That was something Dad used to say. It was a line, a quote from some book he’d read but couldn’t recall the title. I concentrate all my focus on the sky for a long time, and eventually it does the thing I want it to, that thing I remember from childhood where its enormity spreads and grows until it begins feeling as if the entire thing blooms out and cascades down and it envelopes you on all sides. From this vantage point I can maybe start to see what Dad was meaning about many worlds. It’s going to be the best and the worst endeavor of my entire life, this project. I’ll start tomorrow morning. For now, just unwind, I tell myself. Let yourself breeeeeeeeathe…

I remember the first story I ever wrote. I couldn’t have been older than ten years old. It was called Fire Breathers From Zolamar. The plot was basically that a bunch of aliens had come down from an imaginary planet named Zolamar to make friends with humans on earth and join forces. They were very kind aliens, and they were desperate to form bonds with people. The only problem was that every time they opened their mouths fire would come out. So, even as they were trying to tell humans that they were coming in peace, their actions were causing great devastation. An alien would approach a house and knock on the door. When the human came out the alien would try to communicate something like: “We mean no harm. Can we come in and get to know each other better?” But in the process fire would come out of their open mouths and burn down the human’s house. The aliens were making it impossible for the humans to have a nice, happy life, and so the humans all gathered together and killed them. There was dancing in the streets. People had finally rallied, harnessed their collective potential.

“That was the most amazing story I have ever read,” Dad said after he read it. He loved it. It was obvious. He was smiling a shimmering, glistening smile. I recall his breath smelled of hot, cheap beer and tobacco. “It is maybe the most perfect story ever told. It speaks to everything there is about the experience of wanting to be accepted despite all shortcomings or misunderstood intentions.” He really meant it. I could tell how proud he was of me. He took his moist, scaly hand and ruffled my hair, then he gave me a sloppy kiss on the forehead. “It’s in every creature’s nature to want to feel like he is appreciated unconditionally. It sums everything up, Lloyd. You’re a genius.” And then I watched him stumble and sway against doors and walls as he somehow made it out to his car in the driveway and started it up.

I couldn’t tell him that I had a totally different take on the story. I was on the humans’ side all the way. The story was supposed to be condemning the foolish aliens for not understanding what it meant to be considerate or ignorant or… something. I don’t think I knew just what, but I knew he was getting it wrong. Still, I wondered if he was going to tell everybody at the bar about it. Maybe he’d entertain the whole crowd with a tale from his son, the genius. He might have, just to feel linked, united. It was in him to do it… He had always wanted so badly to feel less alone in the world…

And now I’m crying. Shit, it’s bad. A river. I try to swab away the tears with the side of my sleeve but they just keep coming. Hahahaha… fuck. It didn’t sum up everything grand or special about what it meant to be alive – I’m telling the stars this. I’m speaking to Dad. It’s not out loud but in my head. That story could have never expressed all you thought it did or wanted it to. It was a totally inadequate thing, but… I think it’s still okay that I love you anyway.

Simon A. Smith writes and teaches high school English on the west side of Chicago. He lives in the Logan Square neighborhood with his wife and a murderous orange tabby named Cheever. A graduate of the Columbia College Chicago fiction writing department, Simon also holds an MAT in secondary education from Northeastern Illinois University. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming on/in Hobart, Quick Fiction, Keyhole, Chicago Public Radio, Juked, Whiskey Island, PANK, Curbside Splendor and more.
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