Fiction
Fiction

Father Figure

OR, HOW TO HANG THE ARTWORK OF THE DECEASED IN SIX TROUBLE-FREE STEPS

Caleb Leisure


1. IDENTIFY THE SPACES YOU WANT TO FILL

 

News of my father’s death arrived via First-Class Mail, between The New England Journal of Medicine and the spring Agent Provocateur catalogue. We hadn’t spoken in half a decade. The funeral notice—a morbid little love note to himself—was clearly the deceased’s own design. It featured the notorious photograph of my father that ArtWeek ran some years ago: high on a wooden ladder in the sun-bright rafters of his studio, pigment-flecked pants crumpled around his ankles, pale, dimpled ass jutting out into the cosmos like Eros preparing to take a love-shit on humanity. The birds-eye angle reveals a canvas on the concrete floor below, onto which a kind of seizure of the color wheel has been indiscriminately (some would say artfully) applied. Typical of his later work. Typical of his later temperament. The notice was doctored with a talk bubble emanating from his buttocks: life was a riot. He smiles at the camera with his horse gums. This is what my father would have called his artistic license.

 

Such a funny man, said Jenny, my lovely Jenny, comforting me with fingers along the curve of my scapula. I wish I had known him better, she said.

 

My closet offered nothing that agreed with my father’s request (hawaiian attire ‘olu ‘olu!) so I picked the most colorful shirt I had, some awful teal thing with silhouettes of ducks and tall arching reeds that Jenny bought for me a decade ago.

 

It really brings out the color of your discontent, she said.

 

For the record: My father never set so much as a cheeky phalange outside the state of Idaho, let alone in Hawaii.

 

We buried his ashes in his favorite cookie jar—a large, hinged phrenology head. The earthly remains of my father copulating with shortbread crumbs. There is, my stepmother Suzie explained in a nicotined husk, a point where bad science becomes compelling art. Even the whites of her eyes tobacco-stained.

 

What about shitting paint? I wanted to ask. Where would you plot that point?

 

At the reception in the church basement mercifully few recognized me. Jenny and I camped out at the buffet table and tried to identify the foods floating in the Jell-O. If there were no Lutherans, she wondered, would green Jell-O survive? Around us, the insufferable mingling of the bereaved, of which there were two species: the small-town old-timers, familiar faces that had disappeared into the corporeal sinkholes of wrinkles and Solar Keratosis and Gravitational Eczema; and the younger, New York-hip disciples, their styles robbed of irony outside of urban context. The two phases of my father’s work and life had never been clearer.

I began to pass the time by diagnosing conditions of the geriatric bodies shuffling by. I whispered expected death dates into the curl of Jenny’s ear. Like my father and I on the red bench at Shoshone and Juniper, guessing the make and model of passing cars, little mountains of peanut shells building on our shoes.

 

Interesting, she said. So this is how you grieve?

 

Before we could implement the escape plan, my stepmother trapped me in a corner next to a dish of scalloped potatoes. You don’t see spring-loaded mousetraps any more. She delivered the message with a smoky mouth, sick with noir: You and me, kid, we have private business. I was surprised, not pleasantly, to learn that I was implicated in my father’s will. I’d hoped for a clean break, a complete fracture.

 

An hour later Jenny and I were in Suzie’s sputtering Volkswagen, listening to her curse traffic through two Lucky cigarettes, my father’s brand.

 

The studio was a large warehouse-like space, with a cracked concrete floor and a roof of colored, corrugated fiberglass panels that had a stained-glass effect. The three of us stood washed in separate bands of color, breathing the cold acrylic air. An artists’ pheromone. My first high.

 

As a child, the studio had induced the complete hemorrhaging of my imagination. I would lie on the floorboards of my bedroom, dumb with adulation, listening to the sounds of construction. My father, I was sure, was reassembling the world as it used to be. Before my mother left. I could feel the sounds hum through my body—the scream of the bandsaw, the scrape of a chisel, the rasp of sandpaper—and I imagined myself as the tools themselves, hot and dry as I labored against the wood. That he failed to reverse the spin of the earth seemed like my failure as well. Later, I came to perceive the studio as competition for my father’s attention, his artwork as conspirators, his tools as buffers between the helpless artist and the big, bad forward-moving world.

 

Now, some three decades later, this was the emptiest space in the universe.

Suzie coughed and for a moment it filled the room. Early-stage metastasis, if I had to guess. Leaning against a white wall stippled with paint were a dozen or so sculptures mummified in bubble-wrap and masking tape. My father’s adopted, now-abandoned, children.

 

You’re taking them, said Suzie. Her lips in a lingering pucker, eulogy to kisses past. I don’t care if you don’t want them.

 

It took Jenny and me an extra day to drive back home from Idaho. Slowed by the small, lopsided trailer bouncing behind the Hybrid on fat little tires. Inside were heirloomed boxes of greasy tools, the burgundy roll-arm loveseat that helped claim my virginity, and my father’s sculptures. I was ready to desert them, these creatures, at the Mineral Mountain rest stop, but Jenny was persuasive.

 

You’ll regret it, she said, a Sugar Daddy gumming her teeth. Consider it the first step toward a healthy relationship with your dead father.

 

 

2. DECIDE ON A MOOD, OR IDENTIFY THE ONE YOU'VE ALREADY CREATED

 

My father’s career can be divided neatly into two phases, or “periods”: Pre-sphincter and Post. The change was instigated by two inches of small intestine. Specifically, the two inches of pre-cancerous polyps that were surgically removed from his body. Our relationship had been for years strained but it was those two inches (he kept the segment in a mason jar of formaldehyde, in the kitchen, on display like a goldfish) that severed my desire to be his son. After this dalliance with his mortality, he traded his chisels and brushes for his anus. Skill and dignity for the kind of stooged aesthetics in which paintings by Ruby the elephant go for six figures. Most significantly, he traded his earnest identity for a clown suit, for this caricature of an artist. And he got rich.

 

At the time of my inheritance, two of my father’s later paintings graced our walls. The pieces complimented the Modern Contemporary scheme Jenny favored for our dining room and she found pleasure watching guests squirm as she explained the creative process behind the work. How my father would insert enema bags into his rectum (this word is what did it) and fill them with paint. How he would place the canvas flat on the warehouse floor and skillfully climb high into the rafters, clenching his buttocks. She mimed with her porcelain hands. This was an effective technique. See the chewing jaws slow around the food, the eyes avert.

 

And so I tolerated the paintings, for her sake. Truth was I rather enjoyed hating them; they justified my rift with my father. Still, Jenny tried to sell me on the merit of the paintings.

 

They tell a story and they hide a story, she had said. Sometimes she spoke like an auction catalogue. Sweet Jenny.

 

Please, I said. Give me this one thing to hate.

 

She said, Nope. Hate doesn’t really jive with the color scheme. Too dark.

 

Before the funeral I’d nearly forgotten about my father’s earlier work—his skilled carpal-tunnel-meticulous wall sculptures. Forgetting these pieces meant forgetting the things I so admired about my father; I was comfortable with this arrangement. For the first two weeks I kept the sculptures in the garage, banished from consciousness. But one sculpture in particular began to prey on my sleep, trespass into my brain in a kind of nightmare remembering.

 

I tried earplugs, pillows stuffed with buckwheat, Doxylimine. Jenny threatened to withhold sex until I confronted the issue. An effective technique.

 

Just unwrap it, she said, tugging a hair from my chest. It’ll be healthy for you. It’ll help you reconnect.

 

I’m a model of good health, I said. My blood pressure is 120 over seventy-five. I don’t need more health.

 

I have the perfect place for it, said Jenny.

 

I waited for the shroud of midnight—wife asleep, grandfather clock alive—before dragging the concealed sculpture from the garage onto the zebra hide rug in the living room. It was a cocoon, the sculpture gestating inside. I unwrapped it quickly, violently, so it wouldn’t detect my nerves.

 

The piece was about the size of an adult torso, carved from basswood, rectangular in shape. Exactly as I remembered. Inset into the wood was a small, square window. Behind the plane of glass lived a leather purse, dark and bent like a kidney, contents unknown. Hovering above the glass, hinged to the wood, was a handmade mallet suspended by a short length of thread. The taunting gallery blurb: Over time the thread would yield, the mallet would fall, the glass would break. The overall effect of the sculpture was not unlike a snapshot from those magazines my father used to keep in the bathroom: a lion’s jaws frozen around the soft neck of a gazelle, taunting.

 

The sculpture was a promise. Patience would be rewarded.

 

To a ten-year-old, patience as a virtue is a tough sell. I was consumed by the mystery. My father refused to tell me what was in the purse, only that what was inside would complete the piece. I thought I might will the string to snap. In my bed, at the dinner table, on the toilet, I expended large amounts of nervous pre-adolescent energy weakening the string with the back and forth sawing of my mind. I employed sleepover guests as hitmen. I would hand them a pair of oversized scissors and crayoned diagrams, but always, always call off the job.

The thread will break, my father said. Time will tell.

 

The lenses of his  glasses wearing  a perpetual film of sawdust.

 

I woke Jenny with the terrible noise of masking tape and bubble wrap, a synthetic animal dying. She staggered into the living room, rubbing sleep from her eyes. The sculpture rested on the floor in a nest of ravaged plastic. Moses in his bassinet.

 

What’s in the little bag thing? she asked, her chin on my shoulder. Behind the glass?

 

Use your imagination, I said.

 

 

3. RESPECT SIGHTLINES AND CENTER POINTS

 

First, we tried it above the mantle. Jenny had been itching for something new there since she had reshuffled the living room furniture and moved toward a Contemporary Nordic décor scheme. She explained the sixty-six-inch rule. Average sightlines, the natural center of the piece. Very important. We measured scrupulously. We considered optimum viewing angles, natural and artificial lighting. I found the stud and hammered a thick nail into the wall and felt a masculine kind of order.

 

It enlivens the room, she said. What do you think?

 

I think it makes me nervous.

 

See how it works against the egg-tempura paint? The interplay of textures? Jenny understood these things.

 

To give it a thorough test I poured myself a glass of Laphroaig and sat down in the roll-arm loveseat. I consulted with my single-malt.

 

It seems a bit off, I said. I shifted in my seat. Do you see that?

 

Full disclosure: I’m in the business of diagnosis. I went into Radiology because it promised fixed, sane hours, nice pay, and minimal work with human orifices. But it also corroborated an innate tendency to seek and perceive error (these are Jenny’s words). In seventeen years I’ve made only one mistake. The clot wasn’t completely occlusive, but still. It was there in the MRI, a shy little jewel in the cortical vein. Treatment at that time could have prevented the hemorrhage. He was twenty-nine years old. Somebody’s father.

 

Such is the risk when you go snooping into the things that Mother Nature has sealed shut.

 

The damn thing just seems a bit off here, I said. Crooked. The ice cubes clinked.

You’re deranged, said Jenny. We’re not moving it.

 

For weeks I seesawed the sculpture against the wall. Chalk lines and levels told me nothing. What was level anyhow. It’s all relative. To prove a point Jenny bought something called the Magnetic Torpedo Laser Level, which looked like something NASA would be wanting back. We tried new angles, experimented with sightlines, played with lighting.

 

Straight! she said. Perfect! She threw her arms up. It’s all in your head, Doofus.

 

Maybe something’s wrong with the level, I said.

 

Is it really the level you distrust? said Jenny.

 

Don’t.

 

Fine, she said. You win. You agree, though, you’re a little early to dementia?

 

Location number two: the dining room, on the expanse of wall overlooking to the dining table. You owe me, said Jenny. This is major aesthetic compromise. And it was, even I could see that. The piece hung in stark contrast to my father’s two paintings. The proximity of these two styles was troubling; there was a kind of magnetic field created between these opposites that made eating in this space miserable. I felt sandwiched between my two fathers. If before, I could comfortably divide him into two distinct people, this little career retrospective in the dining room threatened to unify him.

 

As much as I despised the paintings, it was the wall piece that was hardest to look at: It complicated my absolute hatred.

 

Dinner guests were drawn to the new addition. They tried on gallery adjectives (ethereal, opaque, corporeal, etc.) between mouthfuls of Jenny’s butternut squash soup. And of course they always asked what was inside the purse. A lifetime of bad guesses, I would tell our guests, which was enough to pacify most people.

 

John Reynolds was not most people. Jenny hired him to put a price to the sculptures languishing in the garage. Because it doesn’t hurt to know what you have, she said. John was a jowly, red-bearded hedonist, a fire-crotched Santa Claus, who knew my father a bit in the early years. The sculptures were unwrapped and a relatively remarkable number was scribbled on the back of his business card. A few bottles of Grand Cru later, he was flirting with Jenny as though I wasn’t at the same table, eating the entire tub of raspberry sorbet.

 

You know, he won’t break the glass, slurred Jenny. He won’t open the—

 

It’s a purse I said. A purse.

 

You’re not at all curious? said John.

 

He’s beyond curious, said Jenny. He’s repressed.

 

Aren’t you an X-ray guy? said John. Couldn’t you just slap a Johnny Gown on the thing and sneak it into work?

 

It’s not about that, I said.

 

What it was about, best I can figure: allegiance to my father, the artist, the magician of my early conceiving. In his studio, a maker and remaker of worlds, his skin kaleidoscoped with colored light. It was also about a great nagging fear: that the object in the purse was profoundly, extraordinarily, dumb.

 

No, said Jenny, It’s about driving his wife to the nuthouse. Her lips stained an expensive French burgundy.

 

That would kill me said John, playing with skin of his neck. That dinky little string. Of course, the value of a piece like this is much higher intact. People blow up their pocketbooks for a taste of the mysterious. But, seriously, friend, in case of emergency—

 

He made a scissoring motion with his fingers, across an imaginary dotted line, and mouthed, break glass.

 

John Reynolds: fine art appraiser, harbinger of doom.

 

I don’t have a sense of the time frame in which the proceeding events occurred. Insomnia will do that. After John’s visit my appetite sunk. I lost weight. My sleeping became fitful; I developed restless leg syndrome. Jenny and I entered a period of sexless bickering, followed by a period of sexless avoidance. We communicated through the sculpture: She would hide the piece in the garage; I would promptly return it to the dining room. In my world, once a problem is detected, you don’t simply ignore it, you don’t erase cancer by rubbing it from the patient chart. The piece needed to be confronted, properly diagnosed and treated. At some point Jenny evicted me from our bed. I spent my nights on the loveseat, in a spine-compacting half-sleep, feeling the heat of her frustration dress the walls. Obsessing over the purse and John Reynolds’ fingers slicing through the air.

 

At the hospital, squinting into the lightboard, my eyes felt stale, sandblasted. The exposures I studied seemed cataracted. So easy to miss something. Details hid from my scrutiny—they scuttled like mites into the invisible crevices of the image. I began to see parts of my father’s sculpture in the scans. The length of thread in a young woman’s abdomen. The textured chiselwork ornamenting a man’s replacement hip. The leather purse floating in a child’s cerebral cortex, like a tiny, extinguished sun. I imagined my father removing these objects from the bodies with the careful, expert strokes of his tools.

 

At home, Jenny left me messages fingertipped into the bathroom mirror, secret steam-released sentences. awaiting apology or i am selling it or dinner in  fridge.

Some weeks after our dinner with John Reynolds I woke to the sound of breaking glass. I felt it in my chest—the string, the mallet, the glass-dusted purse—as though that that funny little window belonged to my body. As though a vital organ had herniated. I scrambled up from the loveseat in bleary confusion, clawing at my sternum, thinking it’s ruined, thinking where is she, thinking I’m so sorry, Love. The sensation in my chest quickly sobered into fear. What was inside? My feet found the floor. A glow from the kitchen. Jenny, baby blue nightgown clinging to her body, hair wild, eyes swollen, smashing our Portuguese pratos to the terra cotta tiles.

 

 

4. OFFSET ARRANGEMENTS TO CREATE A DYNAMIC ATMOSPHERE

 

The sculpture, I could tell, detested its homewrecker reputation. Inviting it into the bedroom, into our most private space, seemed to me like a chance for reconciliation and forgiveness for all concerned parties. One morning I dropped to my knees on the hallway room floor, earning a patellar contusion.

 

We got off on the wrong foot, I told Jenny. It deserves another chance.

 

Are we talking about you or are we talking about the artwork?

 

I’m talking about us. The three of us.

 

A rational wife, she said, jabbing a finger to her temple, would be out the door.

 

You can barely see the cracks in the plates, I said. My hands were still superglue raw.

 

We talked for a long time but I don’t remember what was said; I remember studying her face, I remember thinking what a miraculous thing it was to affect another human being so powerfully. I must have said the right things because she sighed her surrender and allowed me back in bed. I wrapped my knees in icebags and gave her a massage with sweet almond oil: an omega-3 makeup, she called these massages.

 

It’s true, my father’s piece didn’t compliment the rustic Southwestern décor of the bedroom, it didn’t tie the room together, but the intimacy of the space seemed to temper it. Comfortable here, above the bed. Away from the other paintings. Centered, level. And I felt level, too. Sexually, the move was dynamite. Our activity was, after some weeks, active.

 

Jenny leaned over me, her hair clinging to her face in sweat-dark curls, and said, Who the hell is this guy?

 

I’m a bird, baby, I’m a plane, I whispered.

 

About this time my father began his mid-coital visits. Medically speaking, intercourse increases the supply of oxygen to the brain cells and stimulates activity, so one explanation is that his appearance was a kind of oxygen illusion. But I don’t know. His presence felt real, in some ways more real than any of our interactions before his death.

 

It was the same every time. He’s in his white canvas suit, arms crossed, hair stiff with paint, and he leans back as though inspecting one of his paintings. His expression is wrenched in scrutiny but there is pride there as well, buried in the corners of his mouth. A face I barely knew. He leans over our bodies for a closer eyeballing. He waits for objectivity. His gaze is electric. He whispers pointers into my ear: a bit off, don’t you think? he says.

 

In Jenny’s words, I became a sexual hysteric. I wouldn’t call it that; I would say I was newly inspired. Words that once caused me to blush now sent blood in the opposite direction. Anatomical charts in the hospital made my heart thunder. The invasiveness of an X-ray seemed to me a kind of sex. I found secondary uses for my medical instruments, even snuck in a portable ultrasound into the bedroom. Jenny asked if one of my doctor friends had turned me on to an experimental drug. She said that I couldn’t get enough of the headboard-bashing stuff. She complained that I didn’t kiss her anymore. I complained that she wouldn’t let me put it in her ass.

It would be several weeks before I caught onto myself. I was on top of Jenny, nothing fancy, watching my reflection in the small window of the sculpture, a framed torso: naked, miniature, bronzed with sweat. The piece bounced from the wall with my thrusts. Then her body went stiff, a kind of rigor mortis of desire. She slapped me hard across the face as I was about to finish. Not a sadomasochist slap, but a get off me you sick fuck slap. That’s what she said. I looked up at my father’s sculpture. Face tingling, I retraced my methods. How I had hung the sculpture. How I had used smaller, weaker nails.

 

You’re trying to break it, she screamed.

 

How I had ignored the studs. How I had cheated the sightlines. It hit me then, as Jenny kicked me away in a flurry of Egyptian cotton: I had been conspiring with the accidental. I wanted the sculpture to fall, the glass to break.

 

I wanted to know without knowing the want.

 

I felt it like an aneurysm. A hot spilling into the brain. It wasn’t the sculpture that was off, it wasn’t the level. It wasn’t Jenny or my father. But I wasn’t about to own up. Not to the naked body curled in the bed. Not to the reflected face in the tiny window, floating over the sealed purse.

 

I spent the next few days alone with the sculpture, in a therapy of calculations. I measured every edge, angle, and curve. I tested the dexterity of the thread. I calculated the density of the glass. I needed to know when. That would bring some order.

 

At nights I drove the sleepy roads with the sculpture as my passenger, the hospital my destination, and then not my destination. It was all I could do not to abuse my MRI privileges, to see inside. I would wake parked in the Primary Care lot, on my keyboard in the office, at the kitchen table at home, paper and ink stuck to my forehead. I pieced together an algorithm in hopes of predicting the deterioration of the thread. It spat out numbers. It told me nothing.

 

Time will tell, my father said.

 

I miss you, she said.

 

Jenny invested herself in an Asian Oasis garden project, a fantasy of some years. She hired two widebacked, potbellied men to haul a six-foot Buddha into the backyard. They dug a mote and slipped Koi fish into the water. Big, nasty things, orange like sun turned to muscle. She named them after sins: Despair and Indifference and Envy and Denial and so forth. Jenny would shake a bag of wheat pellets at her side and announce that she was going to go feed her vices. I wonder if they’re still alive.

 

She cooked more, filling our kitchen with celebri-chef cookbooks and ethnic spices, and I, like the Koi, dutifully ate. This is how we feigned civility. It was over dinner, chewing salmon and pulling translucent bones from our mouths, when Jenny betrayed her silent discontent.

 

Sabbatical, she said, and let the word sting the air, is their small-dicked way of saying you’ve lost it.

 

My father’s sculpture was again in the dining room, a bit higher this time, and I looked to it for counsel.

 

What do you know about small dicks? I said. John Reynolds?

 

She slapped over her glass of Chambertin and stormed into the kitchen. You don’t do that, I told her. When she came back into the dining room she was clutching the meat shears so tight that her hands looked like a flame, white and yellow and red around the knuckles. She strode past me, ramming her shoulder into mine. Her eyes  locked on the sculpture.

 

I should have done this a long time ago, she said.

 

I thought about that short length of thread, about my father attaching it, about the jaws of that lion snapping down on the gazelle. I pounced. As brainless as a knee-jerk reflex. It wasn’t the sculpture in need of protection, but that small boy flat on the floorboards of his bedroom, listening, loving.

 

She split her head on the hardwood. I had her pinned, her limbs in a kind of jointless arrangement. I don’t understand you, she said. Don’t you want to know? Just break it. Her fists thudded into my chest. Just finish it you fucking fuck, she said. Blood blackened the seams of the floor. I let her hit me until her arms went quiet and her breath steadied. I stitched up her head myself.

 

 

5. SECURE WITH HOOKS RATED TO THE WEIGHT OF THE PIECE

 

I didn’t argue when Jenny called John Reynolds and told him to bring his checkbook. Her forehead was healing nicely and you couldn’t even see the wound with the hat, a high-steeped contraption she had worn at the Royal Ascot races on our honeymoon. The doorbell rang, The Yellow Rose of Texas, and John kissed Jenny on both cheeks, a little too long, a little too European.

 

You held out this whole time? he said, crushing my hand with his sold-your-soul handshake. They should make you a monk.

 

The sculpture was in the living room, alone and screaming on a white wall. It had repelled all objects of décor, or else consumed them. John Reynolds slipped off his loafers and sauntered into the living room. When he stepped on the zebra hide he made a face like he had sex glands on the soles of his feet. The sculpture looked uncomfortable. He examined it closely, eyes practically cartooned with dollar signs. It’s beautiful, isn’t it, he said, moving his beet-face right up to the window.So—bodily. And the chisel work, look at that. The glass clouded with his breath and his scabbed, predatory lips tickled my father in his grave. There’s so much—movement! There was nowhere for the piece to go. He bent down slightly and turned his head as though listening to its heart. I imagined vitals racing, NIBP monitor beeping in panic. John tapped on the glass and looked at me and flexed a flabby, freckled arm.

 

Such willpower! he said.

 

Please don’t tap the glass, I managed.

 

He’s just lost interest, said Jenny.

 

I don’t believe that for a second in hell, said John. He wrote a number on the back of his business card and handed it to Jenny. His oily fingers stroked the sculpture.

 

The piece no longer fits into his personal aesthetic, said Jenny.

 

  • I stuffed olives and Brie into my mouth like I was trying to undo the very concept of gastronomy. When Jenny led our company into the garage to discuss the other sculptures, to bang around some numbers, as John said, I excused myself. In the kitchen I found a clean rag and a bottle of disinfectant and I scrubbed up in the farmhouse hand-hammered copper sink. Through the dining room, over the zebra skin, and then I began to gently eradicate all John Reynolds-related contaminates from the sculpture. Slow, methodical strokes. I could feel its anxiety. Certain patient-doctor guidelines had to be observed:
  • *Patient does not want to be here
*Patient has good reason to be here
*Patient does not want to feel stupid
*Trust what patient feels
*Visit is about the patient
*Patient pays for plan of action

 

It was clear to me that the sculpture was in danger. I could see it slipping from its hooks. I grabbed the Norwegian blanket draped over the couch and used it to lift the piece from the wall. The bottle of disinfectant glugged into the carpet. Wrapped in handwoven chinagrass warmth, safe from John Reynolds, the sculpture and I slipped out the front door.

 

The hybrid came standard with seven electronic seat adjustments so the piece was situated beautifully into the passenger seat. Comfortable, secure, safe. We launched out of the driveway, spitting gravel, and zipped along Lander Drive. We drove without destination, as though we were inventing the roads. The electric motor and its teakettle whine.

 

Your secret, I said. It’s safe with me.

 

West on College Ave toward Glen Street. Merge onto US-101 South. My hands moving without me now: Exit onto I-80 East.

 

I know where you’re taking us, I said, resetting the odometer.

 

It was a long drive to Idaho and I grew nervous in the widening silence. My hands like flypaper on the steering wheel. I thought about all that I had never said to my father. The opportunities to forgive and to understand: lost like tools in the black hole behind his workbench. I thought about the time I came home from high school with a pulverized boxer’s face and a pink suspension referral. Remember? Mom was a memory by then. I hadn’t been adjusting, evolving, fumbling for breasts in the back of parked cars like the other boys. Some critical step in my assembly had been flubbed, and that day I thought maybe you saw this, too. You sat me down next to the fireplace, arranged my limbs like so. You stuffed cotton balls in my bloody cheeks because you didn’t know what else to do. And then you sketched. Large sticks of charcoal assaulting sheet after sheet of paper, breaking like ash in your fingers. You made me into lines. You tried to make sense of us, two boys without a mother. This is how you grieved. I remember the taste of blood and the draft from the fireplace cooling my cheek and thinking, as you crumpled another sheet of paper between your palms, that we were kindred failures.

 

 

6. ENJOY, ENJOY, ENJOY!

 

My stepmother had knocked out a wall between the dining room and kitchen and removed some of my father’s artwork from the house. Death turns me into a claustrophobe, she said, taking a long drag on her Lucky. Do you ever feel that? Ghost shapes of sculptures and paintings blushed the walls. I tried to fill them with memory.

 

We’re assemblying a retrospective in New York, she said. You’ll come, yes?

 

I’ll come.

 

We were sitting at the sunny kitchen table dunking shortbread into Echinacea Chai tea. The health benefits of Echinacea, I explained, are all but bullshit. Placebo. Yes, I was sure. There were studies, there was hard data. My father’s piece sat stiffly in the third seat.

 

I’m glad you’re here, she said, sizing up the sculpture through a cumulus of smoke. Although I’m not sure why I am.

 

I think Jenny’s going to leave me.

 

Ah, she said. You came for a drink.

 

She bought a Buddha. Taller than me.

 

She studied her cigarette now, as if to implore some maternal instinct.

 

Women, she said, are—

 

Show me the studio.

 

Our eyes met and the mother-son charade happily dissolved.

 

Sweetheart, it’s as empty as my heart. It’s a fucking mausoleum.

She leaned toward me, as though to exclude the sculpture from the conversation. I could see that she had once been very attractive. If you weren’t your father’s son, she whispered, pricking the air with a lavender-varnished pinky nail, I’d take you for an utter lunatic. Just so we understand each other, kid.

 

The French Doors banged behind me. I slid the lock into place, as my father had done countless times before. My fingers moving into the space of his fingers, as though the air itself was worn smooth, broken in like leather. It was peculiar to be on this side of the locked doors. Adolescent fears awoke. The thrill of doing something forbidden, that adrenal high of making a mistake on purpose.

 

I set the piece on the cold concrete floor. A thick galvanized nail jammed in a crack in the floor caught my eye. I clawed it loose and pushed it into an old hole in the wall, one of thousands in a universe of nail-hole constellations, a universe willed by my father, the Maker.

 

I hung the piece right there—screw sightlines and weight distribution—and stepped back several paces to admire it. Only the sculpture and the great expanse of white in my vision. The studio had expanded since the funeral, I was sure. Grown into its emptiness. Spaces that large and vacant have a diagnostic quality: I could hear my breathing, feel my pulse. Involuntary bodily functions had to be willed into action. I became acutely aware of the strangeness of the human body—I could feel the radical shape of my limbs, the weight of my organs, the countless synaptic messages firing through my prefrontal cortex, the impossible biological coordination it took to raise my hand to my brow and shield from my eyes the psychedelic light streaming through the fiberglass above.

 

I found my reflection in the sculpture’s window. Locked in this half-forbidden room, whose walls held the soot of my imagination , I saw myself as a specimen. Something tilled from the earth and put on display here behind this square of glass. I felt the weight of observation: my father’s eyes, clear as a glass of water.

 

He stares at me as he did that night by the fireplace. The shoulder straps of his canvas overalls dangle from his waist. He holds his hands out in two Ls because long ago that’s what artists decided they must do. To really look. To see. A bouquet of chisels and files are clenched in his left hand. His pink tongue fidgets at the side of his mouth. He’s looking for something to fix. What a gift the artist is given: this license to alter and tinker and make mistakes.

 

There are some patients who, when loaded into an MRI scan, go into claustrophic fits. They scream, they cry, they loose control of their bladder and bowels.

 

My father walks toward me, confident and eager, a small jewelry hammer in his hand.

 


 

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Caleb Leisure grew up in Northern California. He recently received an MFA from New York University, where he was twice a Starworks Fellow. In 2011 he was selected as a New York City Emerging Writers Fellow by the Center for Fiction. He's at work on his first novel.

 

This story was originally published in Issue #8 of The Literarian