GIVEN THE CHANCE
Alec Niedenthal

Later on I sleep in my father’s bed–this I do when I am scared. But for now I turn firm, curl in furled bedclothes, a staying-up son clogging the bed like dad’s twisted whips of hair whorled in the early-morning shower’s drain–when I am scared, when I wake to a morning-light father-gone house and sift my cereal in riffles of milk, when I redden in hot water, soft steam, when I knot my taut, rucked knuckles in a healthy puff of soap, scrub until my bed-broken skin is searing with heat; out of the shower, I wait for the mirror to clear. I wait a long time. I stand there and stare at the white glass until my body frightens me, pink and pitted above my swift and swinging sex, hair flaring wet like a virus. I am naked, leaking, leaning cracked palms on the counter, sexy, something insolubly loose–this when warts weakened secret places on me, of me, in this body, a fungus seeping out of tough teenage wax. Warts would trouble me, years hence. Ravage, rather, coax a family man out of me for at least a week of impending disease, with which the doctors deftly did away. When Mrs. Henderson honks each bright morning I hear her horn, so there’s no need to honk twice or three times, her minivan doubtless shouting gouts of winter exhaust, and the bristles haven’t even hit my teeth. I don’t panic. I take my time. I savor my face in dad’s shaving cream, even only with the barest bits of hair in grown-up bunches there, black tracks, patches.

This when fatherhood was not yet a huff in my head, a sigh of remotest succor–before the daily sweat of unsafety, of labile cubicle lust, before the reign of the wife–and what of this man, Mark?–who won’t answer to her name. Right when hairs had begun bickering off of my balls.

Mom is gone by now. Not dead, and though I do not wish her so, I can never forgive her for the sorrow and complaint that has furnished my life all the way till right about right now, now that my dad-duty days are done–but who am I kidding? Mom has about as little to do with this as my wife, or my actual son, who both have even less to do with this–even less, really, if we are, all of us, this brutish community here, saying the same stupid story here, into the one infant’s ear what will listen: sticking the sick of my fingertip into its hearing-hole until the sprawling thing begins to bawl.

I am not so good at sleeping so good these days is the bulk of it.

My father sleeps the way my son would sabotage sacks of trash: stealthy, sweet, stippled in sweat from the pressure, and inside building to burst. When one was not watching, my son would open holes in the polished plastic with, say, a held-hostage hand (he held fast to incontinence with these attacks); he’d tear the tall glassy bag, pierce an eye sized just right for stuff to spill, shovel fodder from that eye like wiping oversized tears. Food, rotted or new, lumped out, cupped first in his dirty little claw, then collected in these ghostly gashes of our family skin; beer bottles would wattle the floor, often blasting the tile with curved chunks of glass. He never stepped on any glass; I had raised a careful son with his heart generally thrumming in the right place. His fingers would fling forth sudden chunks of supper–this was usually after dinner when he did this, prized his plastic eye–which, in my last days as man-in-the-house, proved to be a sauce of some sort, unfrozen finger foods, and the unbidden rest, cresting in an every-color canvas, a mound, but more like a crusty sacrificial altar of what I, he, and sometimes Sarah, my wife, when there was no Mark to speak of, were afraid to let rest in our empty family stomach. He behaved this way until the last time I had dinner over there. That was not so long ago, relative to the length and pitiful longing of a lifetime.

I guess this is probably it for me as far as talking about these things as if I know something about them–as far as that goes.

I appear in dad’s bed this once in the starry guts of the night, fighting my cold-toed way with no light to guide. He’s all spooned up in mom’s corner, but, of course, mom has her own Mark to attend to, hidden, I’m sure, in the lonesome Marky heart of his house. I stand still in the doorway and see dad squirm in his sleep-space, boxy body rocking, a father listing like a baby’s back-and-forth in someone’s ugly arms. His head lolls forward, slumps and rolls in maybe a dream-seizure, but it seems to me a prayer, sent out like a sentry in sleep. I see his computer humming blue on its amber desk. I feel silence hush through me, a midnight siren, a fire scaling each rung of my blood. Or maybe that’s only how it is now, always, and I simply come to his bedside and speak his name to wake him up.

“Dad,” I say.

He pries his eyes open. The edges are encrusted with dust.

“Billy?” he breathes.

“I miss mom,” I say. I don’t really.

“Don’t miss mom,” he breathes.

We talk some and I end up crawling into the small soft spot which, before mom’s Mark, had been dad’s. The bedclothes, slippery nylon, are cold on me; my hands grab for as much as I can bunch, and I clench them against me, and bend into myself, I want to make me into a circle so no cold comes in any more.

“Tomorrow’s a school day,” dad says. “Waking up,” he mumbles. “Nothing will ever be like that again.” He’s looking empty-eyed at me, or maybe at the blue computer glow thrown over the room. His gooseneck twitches, stirs and stretches. His eyes fill with something extra, which is how you know he can’t hear you anymore, and you are safe, something special, and any given Mark is faraway and waiting, taking time off from taking every significant thing away from you.

Will someone–some great gulf of a nonsense soul–please answer these questions here? What does someone do when all of these Marks are everywhere, wheedling, breeding in your name–riffing in trademark falsetto through each cabinet of your life (any Mark’s cachet, the falsetto), stealing the seed you have lost between your teeth, breathing in this mouth undeniably mine? I’m not speaking of somebody else, because nobody–no mother, no son, no steep-hearted wife–will be had, will ever have my same story, sleep my same sleep. What the hell do you even do? Who do you ask for what you’ve never had back?

Would anyone believe me if I said I’m the child who poked the holes in the sacks with my hands, and not my poor son? Would they quit blaming him every time it happens?

We’re slow to outgrow that phase. It’s a phase. Keep in mind, will you, we have nothing better to do.

I am so cold under here, I am freezing here.

Slowly, softly, I fall asleep in the ease of my father’s breathing. I dream of Mark and my wife asleep somewhere east of me, and I am horrified, and my son, my trash-poking little son, he’s curled in the cavity between them. I jolt up once because it’s so, so cold in there and shake, I shake, and dad feels the tremble around him, that scared and awful tremor. I’m shaking, and thin dewy daylight climbs inside. He looks at me with the full of those dark, empty eyes. “Here,” he says, and he does what anyone would do, if given the chance.

Alec Niedenthal lives in Sarasota, Florida, where he attends undergrad. His work has appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, Sleepingfish, Caketrain, and other places. He is short and spends most of his time alone.