Fiction by Jason Graff
It wasn’t a garbage truck. Dad would show down against anything else: cars, SUVs, other pickups too. Beeping and cursing until they pulled into the nearest driveway or better yet, backed completely out into the street. The engine growled the whole time. He’d complain to the air afterwards about what the other driver tried to make him do. I knew it, could feel it, see in his eyes that he wasn’t always so set on being a dick. It was the rest of the world that made him that way; the school teacher with the thick glasses two doors down, the old couple in the Caddie at the end of the alley. He couldn’t back down from those kinds of people and be the man he thought he needed to be.
Where exactly we were going when these confrontations occurred, I can’t remember precisely. All that part of my life is one long drive with him to places so similar, they all bleed together. Dragging me along to sit in dirty corners of dark rooms and play games on his phone, which were always the lame free ones, he only asked that I kept my mouth shut. It wasn’t so bad when he was picking up envelopes, unless they were thin. Then I’d have to go wait in the car in the stinging Texas heat, while he straightened things out. He’d give me the key to put on the AC but only if I asked.
The card games he dragged me to were the worst. They went on for hours. Sometimes, I’d sleep on a couch or a cot in a crummy motel with the traffic of 75 hissing by out the window to fall asleep to instead of a story. Not that Dad read to me that much. If pressed, I wouldn’t be able to swear he could. Dad told stories. The ones I remember always in involved guys with missing limbs or eyes and tattoos on their faces, real nightmare seeds.
The other men made a joke of the no smoking signs in the rooms where those games were held. Not Dad, though. He’d squint through the blue curling fog, and later would sniff himself complaining. I don’t remember their names. Dad never made proper introductions. Those guys called me kid and were fine when I said no more than: ‘hey.’ I should swear more than I do, if only in tribute to all those nights spent with their curse-spiced babble washing over me.
I asked Dad what a fucking cunt was once. A mature one, he said. Then told me to look at this asshole, meaning the box truck that had cut us off. We followed it for a time. Dad got dangerously close to the back bumper from where a canvas strap snapped in the wind like a tail. The gun rack jittered over my head. It hadn’t been a good night at the table for him. I’d had a cheese sandwich to eat. Just cheese and bread. I was able to get those wherever he went. Every lowlife in the metroplex kept a loaf of mushy white bread and slices of generic orange-yellow slices around. Dad asked if it was good while I was eating it and again on the way home. The sun was coming up, a puddle of orange in the sky rising above the curved ribbon of the elevated highway. I shrugged. He was no demon for details my father. The cop who lived down the alley had to pull up into someone’s backyard when we came tearing by. He dinged his bender on their fence. Dad laughed. It didn’t make up for the whole night but nothing else would come as close.
The Soccer Field
Playing wasn’t my idea. Dad played football in high school until he quit or was kicked off the team, depending on whom you believed. He saw value in me getting involved in something bigger than myself. Whatever that meant. I hated the uniform and the cheap shoes he bought me but most of all the shin guards. They made my legs sweat and smelled terrible. When I played, Mom was still around, more or less, but she never wanted to go to the games. It was too hot out for her. Every week she’d wonder aloud why they didn’t cancel. It was dangerous for children to run around in the heat, she said. She cared about my safety. I’ll always remember that about her.
They made me play goalie that one game. The gloves I had to wear were already slimy with sweat. I didn’t have to do much, just stand there and look like I was paying attention. I squinted a lot and pretended to kick like I was warming up. I was so focused on my act that I didn’t even notice the game had stopped. Something was happening on the sidelines, where the parents sat. I turned my head just in time to see a cop pick Dad up out of his lawn chair. Screaming I went running at them, tossing my smelly glove at the other cop who was just standing there with his hand on his gun like some kind of dink. Call his mother somebody, Dad was saying struggling as both cops dragged him away. He came home later that night. He and Mom fought. She really screamed at him. I never had to play soccer again.
I was eight when I made my first confession. I thought I didn’t have any sins. Thankfully, the priest helped me out by listing a few any living, breathing human would’ve certainly stumbled into. It was astounding to learn of all the wrong I could do. I didn’t even know what an impure thought was yet, but it’d sounded like the kind of thing I’d be interested in trying to imagine. I wonder if my coworkers discuss my not knowing much about the savior; being close to some god, any god seems important to most of them. I want to help people the way they do and get beyond the limits of how I was raised, but I’ve never been allowed to approach the divine in a serious way. When you’re from where I’m from, you pray and repent and not ask too many questions.
God and especially his son were big things for Mom for a while. She didn’t talk loudly, so it always seemed like she was praying even when she was talking right at me. I guess she needed something to hold on to. Maybe thinking she’d saved Dad was part of it, too. It was good what she did in the end. She didn’t live her whole life as some desperate cliché. Good for her, at least.
The small car weaved through traffic, passing other vehicles with a soothing whoosh. Honking at a semi the man I was told to call Robert explained that you weren’t supposed to go so slow in the passing lane. He was older than my real Dad with greasy slicked back hair and a lisp pronounced enough that he tried to use his eyes to communicate as much as he could. His wife or whatever, asked me to call her Kate and kept reassuring me that it wouldn’t hurt. I don’t know if they liked me or if they were just doing what they were told. They drove me to a dark building in the shadow of an overpass, which could’ve been a lot of places in Dallas, depending on the time of day.
The waiting room was too white and well lit. I felt dirty in my dingy tennis shoes and Cowboys shirt with the frayed collar. They had me sit between them. I wanted to ask about my dad but worried it would make them angry. I was young enough to still be bewildered by all that had happened two or three days before and old enough to surmise a rivalrous feeling would’ve naturally existed between these people and my father. At least, they didn’t ask me to call them Mom and Dad. I don’t remember their last names.
When the doctor showed me the implant, I had no idea which end was going into my ear and which was going to be stuck to the back of my head. I told everyone that I heard fine but the woman brought up the hearing test I’d taken the day before, and how I was doing in school, never supposing that I’d gone out of my way to mess both up just for laughs. The man told me I was lucky. The monstrous thing that I was to wear all the time was apparently as expensive as it was sure to be embarrassing. I flinched when the doctor tried to put it in. He told me it was going to open up my world and asked if I liked music. I repeated that my hearing was fine and was reminded again about that test and my grades by Robert and Kate. The doctor turned on the stereo on the shelf behind his desk. The Beatles, he said. I’d no idea. He gripped my head with a little more force. The plastic tube felt tight in my ear. I felt nauseous. I thought I might throw up. There was a click and then the music came in clear. I was hearing right for the first time. Good day sunshine, Good day sunshine, some old head was singing. I had no idea. The man and the woman took me home. It seemed that they were speaking louder, but I figured it was the implant. They lived in an apartment that overlooked 75. I liked watching the cars when they were moving quickly but even more during a traffic jam. Then they’d all clump together as if trying to make some great, massive mess of a machine.
Dad got out a few weeks later. They let me take the hearing aid with me when I left. He said, he didn’t like the thing in my ear. Not wanting him to get rid of it, I hid it, only breaking it out when I wanted to listen to music in the dark quiet of my room, where he left me alone more and more.
2485 Hillbrier Lane
My face was sweating under my plastic mask and it itched where Dad had taped it but I didn’t lift it up, just watched him drink with these two other men behind the bar. I’d wanted a new costume, but Dad said I’d finally grown into the one I’d worn for the last couple of years. He made it sound like a good thing, something to be proud of. I told him I needed colored contacts because Superman’s eyes were blue. He just laughed.
We’d only been to a couple of houses. It felt weird to be going inside one. Dad told me not to worry. I know these guys, he said loudly as we were invited inside, these’re good guys. One of them smelled of lemon and onions. He gave me a handful of Tic-Tacs. The men were drinking something blue. Dad kept trying to get me to sit in the barstool next to him, but I wanted to stay where I was across the room from them behind the kitchen counter. I dropped the breath mints into my pillowcase. Come on, he said finally leading me back out of the house. The men didn’t follow us or say good-bye. I asked who they were and he said associates. I asked if they were friends. Dad’s grunt discouraged any further questions.
At every house for the rest of the night, I worried he’d make me go inside. It was only that one though. Soon, my pillow case was very heavy. I took off my mask and handed it to him. It held up, he said smoothing down the tape. I dumped my pillowcase out on the couch when we got home. Years later, I found a Tootsie Roll between the cushions that was so hard, I broke a tooth on it. Mom had left us for good by then. I asked Dad if he remembered taking me into that house on Halloween years before and he smiled. I asked again who those guys were. He said they were old friends visiting town. It was someone else’s house, he said, they were housesitting. I complained about the Tic-Tacs. He laughed and said that some people were never ready for Halloween. The old Superman costume was still in my closet at that time. I never wore it again even though Dad had added more layers to his tape job. Apparently, it was important to him that the mask remained usable.
Under the Overpass
Some old crook Dad met in jail got us word as to where we could find my mom. Dad didn’t want to go. She was part of a life he was trying his best to leave behind by then. More than the tents, I noticed the Kroger and Target shopping carts everywhere. ‘Wreckt’ was spray painted on one of the highway support columns. Another had ‘NO BOUNDARY’ wrapped around it in a tight, surprisingly legible cursive. Circles of battered furniture were here and there occupied by people who didn’t want to be seen even more than I didn’t want to look at them. I didn’t know how I was supposed to find her. The tents seemed to stretch out endlessly under the overpass in both directions.
She looked older but still how I remembered her, laying on a leather couch with her hand over her eyes the way she used to in the living room of the apartment whenever she got one of her headaches. Mom, I said going over to her. She bent her knees up to make room for me. There wasn’t much leather left on the couch. Look at you, she said. Her face was sun-worn and tired, her eyes the color of pink lemonade. We hadn’t seen each other in years. The cushion squished with something wet when I sat on it.
What took you so long, Benjamin, she asked. Benjamin’s my dad, I said, I’m Martin. Your son. You used to call me Marty. Well, obviously you look just like him, like I remember him, she said, he keeping out of trouble? For the most part, I said. You go to church, she asked. Not really, I said, do you still? When I want a hot meal, she said and turned away from me to face the back of the couch.
When she asked me to repeat my name, I couldn’t answer. She didn’t do much to stop me from walking away, just kept trying to guess my name, shouting wrong ones at what was left of the couch’s back cushion. It made me wonder if I had brothers in the world. I asked Dad when I got home. He didn’t think so, but then the two hadn’t spoken or seen each other in years. He told me I’d make a good older brother but said nothing more. I acted sad, slumping around like my body was heavy. I wanted him to notice, wanted him to be curious about her. He just heated up some leftovers and told me I could eat what I wanted. He’d get something later.
Dad claimed that mathematically speaking, he was too young to die. I told him for like the fiftieth time since he’d been admitted that he wasn’t dying. I asked why he wanted it to be otherwise so badly, and he told me yet again about his debts. Life had been tiring him out long before I got my own place and moved out. It couldn’t have been my fault.
He pulled his hand up from under the covers and offered it to me or really kind of begged me to take it with his eyes. He’d been drugged so they were just naturally heavier and more pleading than usual. I thought he was going to say something, but he gripped my hand and looked at the ceiling. He muttered he didn’t know how we were going to pay for this. I knew he meant the room but so much of life, his and mine, seemed to consist of bills already run up. I took my hand away and switched my hearing aid off.
On the main floor, I sat at a table in the cafeteria that was covered in crumbs. The rest of the hospital was so antiseptic, it was a relief to sit down to a little filth. The coffee wasn’t bad but I added another sugar packet anyway. Gathering up the crumbs in the middle of the table, I thought about blowing on them but then saw a guy emptying the trash and decided not to. I didn’t want to go back upstairs but didn’t want to go to work even more, so I texted my boss and told him my dad was sick. He got right back informing me it would count as a sick day for me and then wished my dad well.
Lingering at the door of the hospital’s chapel, I watched the shadows play against the small stained-glass window behind the altar. A couple of candles flickered in the corner. It made me think of how Mom had once told me that she prayed every day for Dad’s timing to improve. I thought it strange and not the type of thing any god should’ve been bothered with. By the time of his hospital stay, Dad been in the wrong place at the wrong time so often that I squeezed out a couple of prayers of my own.
Dad was asleep. I turned the hearing aid back on. The guy behind the curtain in the next bed was coughing and playing some game on his phone. He was doing both at a volume that didn’t seem appropriate. I sat in the bedside chair, took out my phone typed I QUIT to my boss but didn’t send the text, even erasing it so it couldn’t accidentally be sent. When Dad woke up, I wanted him to find me there. Grabbing the remote, I turned on his television. It was the news. A story about a teenager getting shot while leaving a party. The back of a police car turned red and blue from flashing lights while some cop next to it talked. The guy on the other side of the curtain cussed and hit his mattress with something. I shushed him through the curtain but quietly, so he probably didn’t hear me.
Jason Graff’s debut novel Stray Our Pieces concerns a woman extricating herself from motherhood. heckler, about lives colliding at a struggling hotel, followed. His short stories have appeared in places such as Willow Springs, Tiny Molecules and Exacting Clam, and will appear in the upcoming issue of Door is a Jar. He lives in Plano, TX with his wife and their son.