Nick Ostdick is a husband, runner, and writer who lives and works in Western Illinois. He holds an MFA in creative writing from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale and is the editor of the hair metal-inspired anthology, Hair Lit, Vol. 1 (Orange Alert Press, 2013). He’s the winner of the Viola Wendt Award for fiction and a Pushcart Prize nominee, and his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Exit 7, Annalemma, The Emerson Review, Big Lucks Quarterly, Midwestern Gothic, Fiction Writers Review, and elsewhere.
So in the middle of the day my old man calls and tells me to come straight away—he’s ready to give it up, the truth, voice coming in white-hot and then falling away like slag from a weld. I tell him I’ll swing by my apartment and change first and he says no, that it makes no nevermind what I’m wearing, that time is of the essence, but I know better. He hates dirt. Grime. The stuff of work. The sight of it drives him as crazy—well, as crazy as a near-sighted, middle-aged philosophy professor can be driven, anyway.
Later, we’ll sit on perfect white lounge chairs near his swimming pool, our mouths coated in Mai Tais or daiquiris, watching those helicopter leaves spin down to the water’s surface in the late-summer breeze. He’ll run a hand through his thin, white hair and place one hand on a copy of his book at a nearby table as if petting a loyal dog and say, Writing this book, it was the best time of my life. For about the zillionth time, he’ll tell me about his days in graduate school and post-graduate school and post-post-graduate school, sweat soaking into the armpits of his silk cabana shirt. It was invigorating to be around people who do something, he’ll say. People who think about things, use their brains. I wish you could know what an experience that is.
I won’t say anything. I’ll want to tell him everyone uses their brain all the time—that if I don’t use mine at work I could lose a finger in one of the presses or a hand or maybe even a leg, wind up being called Lefty, skin burned until it drips right off the bone.
To me, there isn’t something one man builds that another can’t figure out, but I’ll know by the way he’s twirling his sunglasses between his fingers that he won’t really want to talk about this stuff. He’ll just be in the mood to hear his own voice. It’s probably why he went into teaching in the first place, and before she left, why moms would always say he’d marry the damn thing if the Bible allowed it.
I just pray you never find someone who likes it as much as me, moms’d say, and I remember he’d wink at her, maybe kiss her knuckles, which she drove hard against his cheek the night she found out about him and his student in the men’s room of the AMP down the street.
He’ll make himself another drink. A Piña Colada, a Bora Bora Horror, a Singapore Sling, lemon rinds and lime rinds and oranges slivers collecting on the ground near his bare feet.
He’ll say, You know, this whole thing would actually make a great subject for a book, a fascinating case study of why people do what they do, and he’ll still be holding those damn sunglasses in one hand and angling his hand into the air to block the sun.
Plagiarism is a tricky thing because of intentionality, he’ll say. Of course, by plagiarism, I mean using someone else’s work without consent. I assume you know what intentionality means?
He’ll start to explain it. He’ll slide his sunglasses back on, probably just so he can take them off again no more than a moment later. My heart will pound and I’ll cut him off at the pass and tell him I know what that word means. He’ll just nod and keep explaining. The sound of his own voice thing again.
And I’ll imagine him years earlier, long before I was born, sitting alone amongst a stack of books in some grand library with stained glass ceilings that seem to stretch into the clouds and brass railings and bookshelves that bounce echoes through the air for days. I’ll imagine him reading with this sticky, salesman smile and furiously copying down entire passages word for word into this notebook, so goddamn sure of himself, this man of great confidence and volume and breath, that twenty years later when the phone rings and he finds out the technology has caught up and he could very well be stripped of his cushy, cushy tenure, his job, his mantle’s worth of awards and plaques and grants, that when all this happens it’s like a semi-truck crashes right through his life, running him straight over—and not just him in the now, but the him back then too. The memories. The best times of his life. Like the semi not only rips through your current house, but also barrels right into your childhood home, everything crushed into these fine little pieces.
I’ll laugh at this, the imaginary sound of an air horn as the semi of bad news rumbles away from all the debris, and when he’ll ask what’s so funny, I’ll tell him he wouldn’t understand—that with all he knows and has experienced, he could never fully grasp the irony of being the son of a scholar and realizing how much smarter you are than him.
Except here’s the thing: When I leave work and finally get to his house, he’s lying on his back right near the edge of the pool, one hand on his chest and the other dangling in the water. His book is lying next to him, an old, weathered copy. The sky’s turned dark and lowered upon us and the wind’s gotten more determined, chimes tinkling on the neighbor’s back porch more like a warning than a song. He’s not drinking, not a drop to be found, and his breathing is kinda tragic sounding and irregular. I kneel down next to him. His chest lifts and then goes flat again. He takes my hand and squeezes it hard as if he doesn’t know how much I can take—as if he doesn’t know what I’m made of. I tell him to watch out, that my hands aren’t clean, that he’ll get dirt on his if he isn’t careful, and he glances over at his pool for a moment, at the impossibly blue water blown cluttered with leaves and sticks and other foreign objects, and then looks back at me, says, Can’t you see, boy? I’m filthy all over, snatching up the book with his free hand and tumbling it over the edge.
I feel his grip loosen then as if to pull away, but suddenly realize I’m the one who isn’t letting go.