Nathan Leslie’s nine books of fiction include Madre, Believers, and Drivers. Root and Shoot, his book of flash and short fiction is due out at the end of this year. His previous book of stories, Sibs, was published by Aqueous Books in 2014 and his novel, The Tall Tale of Tommy Twice, was published by Atticus Books in 2012. He is also the author of Night Sweat, a poetry collection. His short stories, essays, and poems have appeared in hundreds of literary magazines including Boulevard, Shenandoah, North American Review, and Cimarron Review. Nathan was series editor for the Best of the Web anthology 2008 and 2009 (Dzanc Books) and he edited fiction for Pedestal Magazine for five years. He is also currently co-editor for a fiction anthology, Shale, also published by Texture Press. His Web site is nathanleslie.com, and check him out on Facebook and Twitter.
We construct ourselves, my father says. We’re in the den in the old house. Nobody lives here anymore and he can’t sell it. Shame. So he rents it out to whoever is available. He has built a fire.
Outside the air is damp and cool. A thin fog lurks in the maples.
“Let me put this one in the box,” he says. We talked about the mottled and imperfect void.
My father collects thoughts.
He never writes them down.
With his thumb he picks at his scalp until it bleeds. I’ve told him he should get dandruff shampoo at the very least. He says this is a mere Band-Aid.
“When I sell it,” he says. “Then you can retire then we can do this more often.”
By “this” he means speak to me. Collect additional ideas.
He refused to let me pierce my ears. I still haven’t and can’t bear to even look at earrings. He programmed me.
When mother died I was twelve, at the cusp. It was best that she died. She never smoked, so the lung cancer seemed especially shocking and catastrophic. This is an understatement. Listening to her breathe was an exercise in masochism. She was a drowning fish.
I take my father on walks through the park. The flowers coil and coalesce. They seem to crest over one another, seeking heat and water.
We live in the jungle of the megalopolis.
“You wonder about so many things when you reach my age,” he says. “The missing parts, all those gaps.”
A witness might comment that it is odd to hear a chicken producer speak in these terms. My father is number three after Perdue. He has met his goals. I would like to offer an insight to him, something to add to his collection. But I can’t. I’m weary from work.
I will be wealthy one day, but I don’t feel like a spoiled trust funder.
And my ears remain holeless, aside from the two canals God has given me.
My father has a way of lifting his head when he hopes to gain my attention. I notice these things. It’s as if he points to me with his chin.
“Have you spoken with him?”
My brother, he means. Zachary. I am in an unfortunate position.
Zachary is in Laos, living on a farm. Growing bamboo. Orchids. Hashish. Scruffy beards. Tofu and Thai basil. My father doesn’t speak with Zachary. They haven’t seen each other since 2007.
“No,” I lie. We usually e-mail about once a week. “You know how he is.”
“I do know how he is.”
My father stirs his iced tea with a butter knife. The ice cubes clink. He sniffs. I can tell this is a sniff of annoyance, of trying to keep it together emotionally/mentally/psychologically.
“I’d like to see him again.”
I don’t say the obvious—Zachary is in Laos. It’s not easy.
“I’ll let you know when I hear from him, Dad,” I say.
It’s not going to happen.
I am forlorn. I haven’t been touched in years, haven’t made love in more than years. When I think of my uterus I think of the Mojave in winter.
It’s okay—there is more to life than sexual fulfillment. Still, I am forlorn.
I have shown my father a few shots I’ve taken of myself. Not the full frontal nudes per se—but some of the others. I took one of the webbing of my right foot. I focus closely in on it in such a way that it becomes its own thing—an abstraction.
He appreciated the one of my right clavicle. It looks like a thick sewing needle, or perhaps something from a nautical exhibit on narwhales. My clavicle glows in the light, and the rest is in shadow.
I have sent some of the other images to friends—mostly women friends. This gives me some sense of uplift. I run my finger along my clavicle bone, sometimes without thinking. This alone, for now, is enough.
I don’t enjoy going there, but he needs my help. Mostly, it gives me nightmares—which stresses me out and exhausts me. But he needs my help and my love for my father supersedes my disgust for the “harvesting,” as he calls it.
This takes place in an immense building surrounded on all sides by pine trees. I’ve asked my father, and he tells me the pine trees are both a sound and (more importantly) smell barrier.
The chicken are killed quickly, as humanely as possible, my father says.
Still, there is something unsettling about seeing an animal hang from its feet, then dipped in scalding water, then electrocuted.
The scent of frying flesh sticks to my clothes, and I must wash them immediately upon my return.
I can’t eat chicken any longer.
I occasionally eat fish, but if I saw a fish processing plant I’m sure I wouldn’t. I try not to think of such unpleasantries.
My father needs me to help him look over the books. He has people to do this for him, of course. However, my father still likes to think of his company as a family business. He refuses to use a computer—so this entails files, reading a lot of numbers and digits. His eyes are feeding on him. Bifocals are not enough.
We do this and then I’m hungry.
He offers to take me to a local grill, but we stop at a soup and salad place instead. I order lentil soup and greens.
My father is thinning, shrinking, condensing. I know this happens in old age, but my father’s case seems extreme.
He wears a size 29 waist slacks. Sometimes we can only find these in the boys’ section. He cinches his pants with a belt in which he has carved additional holes.
My waist seems to be increasing. Perhaps this is as a result of a lack of sexual interest. Nevertheless, it surprises me—I eat healthily, mostly vegetarian. I exercise.
I blame cheese—a guilty pleasure.
My father jogs five miles a day, every day. A day without jogging is, for my father, not a true day. I blame jogging for my father’s 29-inch waist.
Zachary is returning home—shockingly.
He e-mails me saying he “found some trouble,” and that the country is forcing him to return to the States. He won’t say what the trouble is.
Four days later he calls me, comes over. He is gaunt and weary and as scraggly as I’ve ever seen him. I feed him and he eats whatever I place in front of him.
I don’t ask him about the trouble.
I let him nap in the sunroom. The sunlight forms a triangle on his back as he sleeps.
When he wakes it is dark and I’m making lasagna.
“It was a prostitute, if you want to know.”
I raise my hand and wave him off.
“She was different. I...we had something beyond...”
“Zachary,” I say. “When will you grow up?” I immediately regret that.
I just don’t want to know. He tells me she had amazing thighs...and did...and she was especially...and I fade my mind from him. I go downstairs and watch the news. It is less depressing.
When I return upstairs the lasagna is finished. I serve him a square.
“Father wants to see you,” I say. And I don’t regret that. I wish it were easier.
Zachary doesn’t have a car, so I drive him to my father’s old house. The renters are moving in and he wants my help. I hide myself in the upstairs hall bathroom. I paint and let them talk. It is simple.
All I can hear are murmurings—mostly Zachary. His voice is much harder, ironically.
About half an hour later I hear a knock on the door.
“Let’s go,” Zachary says. His eyes are batting back and forth. “Can we go now?”
I want to finish what I’m doing. That, and my place is twenty minutes away—even if I want to come back the driving is going to take a chunk out of my day.
“Okay,” I say.
In the car Zachary tells me that our father read him the riot act—said he’s cutting Zachary out, that he doesn’t want to see him or speak to him, that if he were a Mafioso he’d break Zachary’s kneecaps.
“My father said this. Can you believe it?”
Zachary covers his head in the crook of his right arm, like a ten-year-old. He says he just wants to go back to Laos.
“That’s not a good idea,” I say.
“Be the opposite of a rolling stone. You should gather moss. Collect it.”
I drive fast, faster than usual.
When we get home we listen to Brian Eno and Zachary smokes pot. I pretend not to care.
“So now what?”
We are in the sunroom. The windows are open and the wind gusts. There’s a dog four houses up that won’t stop barking.
“I’m going back. I’m sorry, I can’t help myself.” He pulls one leg underneath himself. He grabs at his ankle and kicks off his sandals. He says he is always barefoot in Laos.
“Aren’t you afraid?”
He thinks about it. He doesn’t look at me. “No, I have to deal with it,” he says.
“Whatever trouble you had there is only going to be waiting for you,” I say.
“I know. I’m not running away from it. It was a mistake to come back here.”
“No, it’s been good to see you.”
“I know, that’s true. There’s nothing here for me anymore. I’ve built myself my kingdom somewhere else.”
It hurts to hear him say that. I’m not a priority to him, or not a high one. What happened to flesh and blood? That means something to me.
“Come and visit me any time,” he says.
“But I hate traveling,” I say. “It’s a lot of walking.”
“You get used to it,” he says. “You can get used to anything.”
That sounds like something our father would say, I think. I think Zach knows it.
When I wake in the middle of the night I am struck by the clicking of my toenails on the floor. I think of myself as some kind of nocturnal feline.
I go to the fridge and drink a glass of milk standing in front of it. I eat a few ginger snaps. This usually works.
When I return to bed, I dream the three of us are together—eating dinner at a family restaurant. We are laughing and telling stories and reminiscing. Piled in front of us is a giant pile of clams and we are opening them with our bare hands and sucking the meat from them and tossing the shells on the floor of the restaurant. The waiters scurry over and sweep them up and refill our water glasses. In the dream a jazz band plays a lulling sax and brush drum piece. We are the only diners in the restaurant.
My father’s smile is wide and relaxed and Zachary is healthy and wears a suit and tie, loosened just so.
I look out over the restaurant and through the far window I can see the ocean lapping gently against a rocky shore. Seagulls swoop down and rise again.
When I look back to my family, they are gone. I’m sitting there at the table alone, the mound of clams in front of me. I listen to the music and look at my feet. My toes glow in the half-light.
I’ll do something someday, I think. Then I wake up.