- American Dream Serialization (Early Chapters)
- Introduction to Jim Chaffee's Studies in Mathematical Pornography by Maurice Stoker
- Introduction to Jim Chaffee's Studies in Mathematical Pornography by Tom Bradley
- Studies in Mathematical Pornography: American Dream Title Page by Jim Chaffee
- Studies in Mathematical Pornography: Chapter 1 by Jim Chaffee
- Studies in Mathematical Pornography: Chapter 2 by Jim Chaffee
- Studies in Mathematical Pornography: Chapter 3 by Jim Chaffee
- Studies in Mathematical Pornography: Chapter 4 by Jim Chaffee
- Studies in Mathematical Pornography: Chapter 5 by Jim Chaffee
- Studies in Mathematical Pornography: Chapter 6 by Jim Chaffee
- Studies in Mathematical Pornography: Chapter 7 by Jim Chaffee
- Studies in Mathematical Pornography: Chapter 8 by Jim Chaffee
- Studies in Mathematical Pornography: Chapter 9 by Jim Chaffee
- Modern Tragedy, or Parodies of Ourselves by Robert Castle
- Totally Enchanté, Dahling by Thor Garcia
- Hastini by Rudy Ravindra
- The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter Volume 5 Translation by W. C. Firebaugh
- Unexpected Pastures by Kim Farleigh
- Nonviolence by Jim Courter
- The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter Volume 4 Translation by W. C. Firebaugh
- The Poet Laureate of Greenville by Al Po
- The Apocalypse of St. Cleo, Part VI by Thor Garcia
- The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter Volume 3 Translation by W. C. Firebaugh
- The Apocalypse of St. Cleo, Part V by Thor Garcia
- The Apocalypse of St. Cleo, Part IV by Thor Garcia
- The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter Volume 2 Translation by W. C. Firebaugh
- The Apocalypse of St. Cleo, Part I by Thor Garcia
- The Apocalypse of St. Cleo, Part II by Thor Garcia
- The Apocalypse of St. Cleo, Part III by Thor Garcia
- The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter Volume 1 Translation by W. C. Firebaugh
- DADDY KNOWS WORST: Clown Cowers as Father Flounders! by Thor Garcia
- RESURRECTON: Excerpt from Breakfast at Midnight by Louis Armand
- Review of The Volcker Virus (Donald Strauss) by Kane X Faucher: Excerpt from the forthcoming Infinite Grey by Kane X Faucher
- Little Red Light by Suvi Mahonen and Luke Waldrip
- TEXECUTION: Klown Konfab as Killer Kroaked! by Thor Garcia
- Miranda's Poop by Jimmy Grist
- Paul Fabulan by Kane X Faucher: Excerpt from the forthcoming Infinite Grey by Kane X Faucher
- Operation Scumbag by Thor Garcia
- Take-Out Dick by Holly Day
- Patience by Ward Webb
- The Moon Hides Behind a Cloud by Barrie Darke
- The Golden Limo of Slipback City by Ken Valenti
- Chapter from The Infinite Atrocity by Kane X. Faucher
- Support the Troops By Giving Them Posthumous Boners by Tom Bradley
- When Good Pistols Do Bad Things by Kurt Mueller
- Corporate Strategies by Bruce Douglas Reeves
- The Dead Sea by Kim Farleigh
- The Perfect Knot by Ernest Alanki
- Girlish by Bob Bartholomew
- The Little Ganges by Joshua Willey
- The Invisible World: René Magritte by Nick Bertelson
- Honk for Jesus by Mitchell Waldman
- Red's Dead by Eli Richardson
- The Memphis Showdown by Gabriel Ricard
- Someday Man by John Grochalski
- I Was a Teenage Rent-a-Frankenstein by Tom Bradley
- Only Love Can Break Your Heart by Fred Bubbers
- Believe in These Men by Adam Greenfield
- The Magnus Effect by Robert Edward Sullivan
- Performance Piece by Jim Chaffee
- Injustice for All by D. E. Fredd
- The Polysyllogistic Curse by Gary J. Shipley
- How It's Done by Anjoli Roy
- Ghost Dance by Connor Caddigan
- Two in a Van by Pavlo Kravchenko
- Uncreated Creatures by Connor Caddigan
- Invisible by Anjoli Roy
- One of Us by Sonia Ramos Rossi
- Storyteller by Alan McCormick
- Idolatry by Robert Smith
- P H I L E M A T O P H I L I A by Traci Chee
- They Do! by Al Po
- Full TEX Archive
Believe in These Men
By Adam Greenfield
Rusty believed at any early age that banal and abrupt conversations were one of the cornerstones of male relationships, and therefore, any insight he might ever hope to glean about his father would have to be won by reading in between the lines. And being who he was, Rusty's dad made sure those lines were always blurred, or at the least did nothing to make them any clearer, and so as Rusty came into those years of consciousness when childhood is sluffed off like so much dead skin, he realized that he knew little of the man who called him his own and decided that was probably for the best.
And vice versa. His father knew even less of him, the facts he did know having been pieced together during crazed lottery binges when his father would cull Rusty’s superstitions and physical dimensions for the winning six numbers, learning his son as a means to satisfy his own indelicate hobbies.
“What’s your shoe size, boy? What’s your favorite number?” This was the extent of communication between the two after Rusty’s mother passed away.
His father’s voice was a towering thing, all bass and anger, rising and falling as he clenched his fists into tight balls, as he gnawed on a pencil he usually kept balanced behind his ear. The man was all tension. It was sometimes impossible for Rusty to believe that his father’s little body could contain such force and mean-spirited enthusiasm.
They spoke a certain code, a father and son vernacular, a thing of vicious evolution and sidelong stares, body language that was all kinetic, always on the verge of bursting, of coming undone. It was a language that spoke volumes about no second chances.
“Rusty.” His father spoke his name like he was choking on gristle. “I’ve got to go back to work tonight to finish a few things. You don’t need a baby-sitter anymore, do you?”
Rusty shook his head, so afraid at twelve years old of spoiling any progress toward maturity he may have made in his father’s eyes.
They were all secrets to one another, but Rusty sometimes heard his father at night sobbing in empty rooms of the house that was slowly becoming too big for them, its empty spaces impinging on their daily lives. They both made wide arcs around his mother’s sewing room, treading lightly past the door. Certain things were sacred. The soft crunch of carpet. Wood settling against its own weight-bearing load. Houses breathe on their own. On more than one occasion, Rusty came down to the living room in the early morning and saw empty bottles of Maker’s Mark on the coffee table with its waxy red blister of a seal broken and torn to pieces. He’s seen old photo albums, too, their pages opened to better days. He’s seen his father passed out on the couch in dirty clothes and broken shoes.
He watched his father, could see him already getting angry, anticipating a problem. Maybe, Rusty thought, he’s mad, because if Mom was around he wouldn’t have to worry about this kind of thing. But cancer, he remembered being told, is nobody’s fault. So Rusty shook his head again. He spoke in a quiet, prepubescent voice.
His father grunted. Part of him thought that his son was becoming a pussy, or worse, a faggot. He put his belt on; the brown leather groaned as he bent it through loops. Pleated khakis. White-collared shirt. So ordinary, Rusty thought, and wished to himself for the rest of it, too.
His father stared. The stubble on his face was becoming more salt than pepper every day.
“I left something for you on the kitchen table to look at.”
Later, after his father left, Rusty walked around the house, his hand lightly touching picture frames, the china cabinet, the vase by the front door. Everything had a thin layer of dust on it. Everything, it seemed, was getting old and dirty.
He closed his eyes and the silence stirred him. The absence of sound a fine wind, something autumnal and mysterious. He hardly knew this place anymore and to amuse himself imagined he was the last person on earth as he walked from room to room hollering “Hello-elo-elo-o-o…” with the fake echo at the end like he was on the moon or in a forest that stretched out wider than a world.
He walked into the kitchen. The L.A. Times was strewn about everywhere. His father read the paper like he was disemboweling a corpse. Pieces of the sports section lay in tatters on the floor.
Next to the newspaper he found a stack of dirty magazines. He had never seen these kinds of things before. Kids at school talked about girls, about tits and pussies, but he had never actually seen these things up close. He flipped through the magazines and winced at the pictures of women who were splayed out in every different direction, their bodies shiny and plastic. Giant breasts and swollen sex, bulging, red and disgusting. Their faces were all smiles and ecstasy, but the fakeness bothered him, like looking at taxidermy, like something you’d have to really be talked into believing was once alive. In some of them men were sticking their huge penises into the women’s mouths and between their legs. The men looked healthy, their penises huge and unwieldy. He wondered if his father’s penis looked like that.
He only looked at the magazine for a minute or two. It scared him in a way to think about those women and their faces all twisted up. Of the fact that you never saw the men’s faces, because the pictures were always taken from behind them, facing the women.
A light drizzle began to fall, a welcome break from the humidity. October and it was still sweltering. He hoped it wouldn’t be raining on Halloween so he and his friends could go out egging.
Long shadows fell through the windows and spread slowly up and across the wall. Come dusk everything changed. The shadows from the branches of the oak tree in the front lawn were especially creepy. They looked like long, skinny fingers to him, clairvoyant things that foretold the night’s fast approach.
He walked up the stairs and then down the long hallway which led to his parent’s room. On the way, he ducked into his own room and grabbed his old teddy bear that sat on a shelf next to a picture of him, his father, and his mother all together at Disneyland. Donald Duck is grabbing Rusty and his parents are pointing, laughing hysterically at the fear on his face. He took the bear down and gave it a tight squeeze, clutching it to his chest. He stepped back into the hall and made his way into his father’s room where he stood for a moment at the doorway, afraid to disturb the silence.
Finally, he gathered his courage and sprinted across the room to the bed where he jumped in and quickly pulled the soft sheets and down comforter tight over his head. It was still hot, but he kept the covers up high and close, smothering himself in their warmth and scent of fabric softener and cigarette smoke. The teddy bear, a gift from his grandparents at birth, was now a wrinkled, flaccid thing, devoid of fur, feet. Even its eyes were gone. He still loved it, though. He couldn’t imagine life without it. He clutched it tight under his neck, closed his eyes, started to drift, dreamt in tandem with his broken, dirty friend as the last of the sun bathed them both in sticky, Indian Summer heat.
His father came home after midnight, tired and sick of being angry. Sick of having a dead wife and sick of having a son he wished he could blame for everything that was wrong in their lives. He sat at the edge of his bed and watched his Rusty sleeping, the boy’s old teddy bear clenched in his fist. He went down to the kitchen and scooped up the porno magazines he’d left there and dropped them into the garbage. He poured a glass of Maker’s and took two sips before tossing the whole thing back, letting the liquor do its work. Hands to his neck. Loosened his tie. Groaned. Everything’s an effort these days.
He walked back up and sat on the edge of his bed considering his son. He reached out and touched his hair, the smooth skin of his face. Is that peach fuzz starting to sprout on his upper lip? He wondered, unbelievingly. Where did the time go?
Rusty stirred as he moaned his way into consciousness. He opened his eyes and was startled to see his father there. They watched each other for a few seconds in the blue moonlight that perfectly translated the vast silence of this too large house. His father took his hand away. He mumbled something and then in a soft, scared voice said,
“Go to bed, Rusty.”
Sometimes their encounters weren’t so benign. Sometimes his father went further, resorting to violence as a way to get his point across. He once hit 5 out of 6 on the Super-Lotto jackpot. $26,000. “We would’a been millionaires if you hadn’t a been so stupid.” He was referring to the fact that Rusty had run away when he had gone looking for him the day before to ask him what the number of his favorite baseball player was.
Rusty shrugged. He tried to be indifferent about his life where it concerned his father. It was a deep challenge for an eleven year old.
His father’s response was to unclench his fist and deliver a thunderous slap to Rusty’s upturned face, still round from baby fat. Feminine. He would always look more like his mother.
Rusty knew it was coming. He knew how to read his father’s body language better than he understood the man when he spoke. He saw the subtle hints: the pale blue veins standing up on his father’s forearms, his clenched jaw working like a piston made of bone, white knuckles, the blood disappearing to the parts of the body that engineered force and brutality.
Rusty’s response was to put his hand to face. He allowed his lower lip to tremble a little, ever so slightly. Just a whisper of hatred and fear. Just that lip. Heat coursed through his body that was equal parts anger, adrenaline, and motivation. He was glad they hadn’t hit the lottery, knew life didn’t change on a dime, but said nothing about that. To say it would be to invite more pain than he could handle. He knew his limits and so he left it at that staring contest, which he won, when his father threw up his hands and walked away, mumbling to himself about how life wasn’t fair.
Rusty went to the bathroom and locked the door. He looked in the mirror for signs of his father, some legacy of who he was. He took pleasure in the lack of resemblance as he examined every pore under the heat of the fluorescent lights that hummed above him like an army of insects. There was just the shadow of a palm print on his cheek, which he rubbed even though it hurt like hell to do it. Just that palm mark. He could get rid of that over time. He smiled as tears streamed down his eyes, one at a time, a leak in a dam, rubbing the mark on his face until it was nothing more than a numb smudge.
Seven years later, Rusty sat with his Uncle Paulie, his father’s older brother, at an outdoor café on a busy pedestrian thoroughfare, attempting to eat hot fudge sundaes as they enjoyed the light lift of perspective the half-empty packet of cocaine they shared was giving them. Paulie, who was in his early 50’s, but in reality ageless, smoked a cigarette through a long holder as he watched the crowds file past. He smiled once in awhile at nothing in particular and let his light blue eyes close to slits as he contemplated the day and this half-son of his. He was proud of Rusty, proud of his accomplishments, of his courage, of the unique nature of their relationship, and would be devastated when he left for college in a week’s time.
Rusty ran away from his father when he was thirteen, and to seek out his uncle, the man who his father seemed to hate more than any other, seemed the most logical thing in the world. And much to Rusty’s relief, when he finally met Paulie he was everything that Rusty’s father was not, and it was because of these differences, the obvious ones as well as the subtle, that life had been wonderful for Rusty the past five years.
Where his father was short, pug-faced, unconscious of his own appearance, Paulie was the complete opposite. Ever since Rusty met Paulie he appreciated everything about his uncle. The man’s white hair, his light blue eyes, the jaw that rode like a Green Beret at the bottom of his mouth. He dressed well, too, like a magnificent showman in linen suits whose qualities surpassed the seasons they were designed to be fashionable in and shoes that cost more than shoes ought to.
Rusty would miss his uncle when he left for college. This was their last big blowout together. A last hurrah to celebrate… ”Departures,” Paulie had said. “Let’s just leave it at that”.
Most importantly, Rusty didn’t worry anymore about the things that used to drive him nuts when he thought about his father. He didn’t have to fear Paulie or to fear himself for coming to resemble Paulie. In Paulie, Rusty had found a role model as well as a friend. A confidant and a guardian. Paulie understood that by the age of thirteen Rusty had been parented out. That much was plain to anyone. Rusty and Paulie were more friends, really, than anything, and in the process of fitting into one another’s lives had found that their friendship could sustain them through the new familial roles they had taken on so unexpectedly.
That’s why it caught Rusty so off guard when Paulie looked across the table at him, eyeing him carefully, squinting against the high noon sun like a scientist staring down the barrel of a microscope. He put the cigarette between his lips and asked as nonchalantly as he could,
“Do you believe in these men?”
Unanswered, it was a statement. Something physical. One of nature's most unassuming, but essential laws possessing a gravity of its own. To answer it would give it weight and motion, and Rusty was really enjoying himself far too much at the moment to commit to that much responsibility.
He tilted his head at a funny angle and it made him think about the feelings of rag dolls and children’s' toys, objects that get flung about with no consideration. Inanimate was the word. He felt like an inanimate object. It was just that kind of a day. Lazy. Sunny. Sunday. Go slow enough and maybe Monday won't happen. Too fast and there you are again smack dab in the middle of the shit.
Unlike with his father, Rusty never minded talking about nothing with Paulie. In fact, he preferred it. It was that way for a reason. A reason that would never be enough when it came to his father, or anyone else for that matter. Baseball. Barbecues. Gimme some of that. The strange chatter of men. What were they talking about anyway? His head lolled forward, tendons groaning for the good times and the humidity.
"Huh?" He looked at Paulie who stared back at him hard.
“Never mind.” Paulie pointed. He shifted in his seat. “How about that one?”
Rusty paused and pursed his lips. Took a good, long look.
“Really? You think? What gave it away?”
“The fanny pack, Paulie. No self-respecting gay would wear a cammo accessory with such little irony.”
“Oh yeah?” Paulie chuckled as he blew smoke rings into the air. One after another they traveled a short distance and then dissipated in a quick collapse. “What do you think he’s got in there?” Rusty licked his lips. They tasted like cigarette ash and sweat. The mixture was unexplainably sweet.
“Could be anything really. Dialysis machine. David Hasselhoff Underoos. Tickets to the Blue Man Group do Step and Fetchit. Doesn’t matter really. Point is, to figure this kind of thing out you’ve got to start at the midriff and work your way outwards to the arms, legs, head. Usually, though, you can tell by staring at the waist. All sex lives there. Plus, the Germans love the military. It’s all sex to them. Uniforms and well-defined hierarchies. That guy, for example, is a total private. That chick he’s with, though,” he points to a tall blonde Amazonian robot walking next to the man, “she’s like a captain or maybe a colonel. Later on at the youth hostel I wouldn’t be surprised if she fucks him up the ass with their map to the stars’ homes.”
“Okay,” Paulie laughed. “And him?”
“Which one? The guy with the bulge, or…”
“No. The other one. The guy wearing those righteous BVD’s that could house a meth lab. What about him?”
“German. Definitely German.”
Paulie shook his head and sipped at his Perrier. He picked up a spoonful of his hot fudge sundae, looked at the goop, and put it back down. He laughed again and then caught a chill that made him shiver and lose his spoon. It clattered to the ground. Rusty saw this and started to giggle himself.
“What the fuck just happened? Did you just have a stroke or something?”
“No.” Paulie laughed from his gut. “I caught the fucking Holy Spirit. Went through me like a piss chill. I’m fucking electric, boy.”
“Tell me about it,” Rusty said. “Just don’t tell me you wet yourself.” He touched his nose, saw that it was bleeding, and then pressed one of the restaurant’s fancy linen napkins to it. “This coke is evil shit, Uncle Paulie. I’m tuggin’ at the giant’s sleeve. I feel like I’m gonna lactate Dr. Pepper or something.”
Paulie lit up another cigarette and offered one to Rusty who had also given up on his sundae. Rusty took it and flicked some of the ash into his bowl where it swirled for a moment before drowning in the muddy, gray goop.
“It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
Rusty stared at the melting dessert. It looked like something that belonged on the bottom of his shoe instead of in a fancy glass. He stuck the cigarette between his lips and put his hands on either side of his head and stared down at the mess. He sighed deeply. Paulie’s question, which they had both conveniently ignored, had made him think about his father and now he was hard pressed to make believe that it hadn’t bothered him.
“These things always do. Now then, back to our little game. By the way, Rusty, remind me again how you got so goddamned good at gay or German.”
“Oh, let’s call it asshole’s intuition.” He winked at Paulie and then looked down the street. The crowds he saw there upset him for some reason that he couldn’t quite place and his uncle picked up on his mood shift right away.
“Are you alright, Rusty? You seem like you’re upset about something.”
“No.” He shook his head and started to bite one of his fingernails. Growing up without a mother, Rusty had naturally looked to his father for support and guidance. As a child, he worshipped the man to a ridiculous extent. He once drank a mouthful of his father’s after-shave after watching him splash it on one morning before work. They had to pump his little five-year old stomach and his father had broken down at Rusty’s emergency room bedside, reliving in his mind some vivid memories of past hospital visits that hadn’t ended so well.
Rusty had once pressed his uncle for more information about his father. Paulie hadn’t wanted to talk about it, but when Rusty insisted, Paulie told him, “Let’s just say your father never won anything. Nothing ever came easily for him. He competed with me in everything — in games, in school, for girls. Even when there was nothing to compete in, he wanted a fight. And he always lost. It wasn’t just me, either. He wanted to take everyone on. So everyone was an adversary to him. And then when your mother died,” it was the only time he had ever mentioned Rusty’s mother, “it crushed him. Because here was finally a fight that he didn’t want. And he lost that, too. He loved her so much, Rusty. I think he just fell apart after that. I think he couldn’t deal with anything when that happened. But I don’t know him like you do, Rusty. No one can ever know him like that.”
Rusty’s feelings for his father changed over time. Where early on he had loved him unconditionally, he eventually grew to fear him, hate him, and finally to feel nothing. He reassured himself that this was a natural genesis, but never could admit that the evolution of these emotions was cumulative; one was never completely supplanted by the next, but dissolved within it for all times like an exhaled breath let out into the air. And as he grew older, he found himself beginning to display some of the very traits that he most feared and hated in his father. He was violent and short-tempered, uncommunicative and morose. In music class one afternoon, he had snatched a violin out of the hands of one of his classmates and smashed it against the wall.
He made himself remember his mother when things were at their worst. He thought about her more and more as time went on and wondered what she had been like. Had she been kind and generous? Would she have protected him and nurtured him where his father had made him feel like a son’s place was to be his father’s victim until he could grow old enough to create a victim of his own?
“Jesus Christ!” Paulie sat up, jerking Rusty out of his thoughts. “Is that the blues they’re playing on the stereo?” He put on his best disgusted with the world face. “Eww! I fucking hate the blues. Everytime I listen to it I start to feel like I’m retarded.”
He unfolded the packet of cocaine under the table, put a dot of the stuff on his pinkie, and inhaled it deeply. His nerves twitched like a busy intersection for a split second and then relaxed, easing him again toward benevolent conclusions about this life and an overwhelming sense of slow-moving sadness that, for a short time anyway, let him feel like he was saying goodbye to an old friend eight days before they actually had to leave.
“Epiphanies are contagious,” Paul mumbled like a punch-drunk revivalist. “I remember how the kids at school used to catch them like hard-ons. The older you get, the more difficult they are to come by, Nephew. You should cherish the feeling. And, “ he points his finger at an apparition perched somewhere just past the bridge of his nose, “may I remind you that we are at the precipice of mercy here, privileged and omniscient. This patio was built for people like us. We’re taking full advantage of a regal opportunity here; surveying the crowds, outing fathers with children, casting aspersions with full karmic immunity. Don’t take these things for granted.” He fumbled with a stick of Big Red. “Things could be worse. Don’t laugh at me. I saw Oprah the other day and that fat cow reunited a brother and sister who hadn’t ever known they were siblings. Turns out they’d been fucking for the past 20 years. Think about that the next time you want to get all down in the mouth.”
Rusty chuckled and flicked some cigarette ash on the floor.
“I’m not down in the mouth. It’s just that these people seem so satisfied with what they’re doing. Shopping, gabbing, believing that the world is their short-order cook, just waiting to serve them up a greasy omelet and another dose of home fries. Shit%hellip;” he leaned back in his chair and bumped the man behind him, “…excuse me, Madame. I’m too young to be this bitter, right?”
The check came. A tall, good-looking waiter brought it. Paul gave him a large helping of male gaze and then made a big show of going through his wallet, trying to decide which platinum card to use.
“Eeny-meeny-miney-mo. I pick you.” He stared through fuck-me eyes at the waiter as he took out the card and handed it to the man. Rusty laughed as the poor guy walked away.
“Restrain yourself, Paulie.”
“I will not. It’s my right to be as genuine as I want to be. Consider it self-expression at its most refined. You wouldn’t tell Frank Gehry to stop designing the same building over and over, would you? Fine then. Don’t tell me to stop flirting with young men. I’m just exercising my dignity, dammit.”
“Alright, alright.” Rusty put up his hands. “You win.”
The waiter came back with the check, which Paul signed with a flourish. He took his copy and thanked the server.
“Thank you, my dear. That sundae hit the spot.” The waiter looked down at the melted pile of ice cream and chocolate that had clearly never been touched. “I feel like a new man. Now, if you’ll excuse us.”
Paul and Rusty walked out onto the street. The smell of suntan lotion and cheap cologne was overpowering.
“How did you sign your name back there? I couldn’t quite see it.”
“Miss Carriage. I hope he liked it. That poor guy looked like he needed a little something to brighten his day,” Paul said as he angled them through the crowd with expert agility.
“And you’re just the guy to brighten anyone’s day, right Paulie?” Rusty stuck his hands in his pockets and tossed his head back to feel the sun on his face.
His father and Paul were complete opposites and Rusty supposed that was why they didn’t get along. Not because Paul was gay, which was the reason Danny, Rusty’s dad, gave. He didn’t want “any more shame on his family.” That was bullshit, because it was plain to a ten year old kid who the real shame was. He heard stories about his uncle, salacious tales of little boys and drugs, of time in jail and even of hideous fingernails that grew in greasy brown curls seven inches off his fingers. None of it was true, of course. Leaving his father drunk and asleep on the couch, Rusty sought his uncle out one Christmas after finding out that the man lived in Los Angeles only twenty minutes away from them. He showed up unannounced at the door, panting from having ridden his bicycle at top speed, his hair a wild nest of excited worms.
Paulie took him in. They had never met, but Rusty felt instantly at home with Paulie and Paulie’s boyfriend Don. They even took all of the still unwrapped presents and crossed out each other’s names and wrote Rusty’s name in. There wasn’t anything for a thirteen year old boy, but he loved the clothes and the naughty board games all the same. He had found peace.
There was a time when he was about fifteen or so when Rusty would have given anything to be gay. To feel the touch of another man and tingle with excitement instead of dread. To anticipate pleasure instead of pain. To be a little more like Paulie. Oh, how Paulie had loved Don. How he had loved him through the diagnosis, the drugs, and finally the hospice, those dire days of mysterious groans when it was all they could do to guess at what was the matter this time. Love until there was nothing left. And then he loved that, too.
“Well, to answer another question you posed earlier,” Paul answered him, “you know, about whether or not you’re too bitter. Whatever the fuck that means,” he added under his breath. “For an eighteen year old, I’d say you were sufficiently bitter. Anymore so and you’d be too angry to hang out with. Any less and you wouldn’t be any fun.”
“Thanks. I guess.”
He watched a pretty girl approach him and immediately felt a nauseous wave of self-consciousness and inadequacy wash over him. As she passed he turned around to watch her swaying hips disappear into the rush of bodies.
“Subtle,” Paul scoffed. “And you’re welcome.”
Rusty blushed with shame that he’d been caught staring at the girl. He hated to be thought of as a pervert or a typical male. He wanted no part of the stalking and trapping elements of courtship, the predatory necessities that made his self-doubt that much more pronounced. He had so little experience being around women. His father had only had one girlfriend during the time he lived with him. One night he listened at his father’s bedroom door as the two made love. It was loud and violent, even an eight year old could tell that by the sounds. When they stopped he thought he heard his father crying and then there was arguing and yelling, and something hard hit the wall. Then shouting and mad assertions and promises of hell and eternity spent one way or another. He heard his father scream through gritted teeth, “Don’t you make me hit you.” Rusty tensed. The response from the woman came like a steel fist. “How do you know that’s not what I want?” Nothing was the same anymore. Nothing felt as it should. That night, like no other before it or since, he had feared for his life.
But here was this pretty girl, so naïve seeming, so free from having to think about anything. All smiles. Tight clothes. Skin like fine Hawaiian sand. It all made her that much more unreal. He remembered all of the war movies he’d ever seen where the drill sergeant tells the recruits that you can kill the enemy because they aren’t real people. They may look like you and me, but underneath it their robotic hearts ticked in time to a vicious melody that wanted nothing more than to see you and your family dead. This girl wasn’t a person; it was quite simply the other. Maybe indifference was the best he could muster given the circumstances.
Paul watched him with uncertainty.
“What’s wrong with you, Rusty? You’re a good-looking kid. There’s no reason why you can’t ask her for her phone number. Take her out on a date. Get a little action before college. You have plenty of time to love her and leave her. Is that what you’re worried about?”
Rusty glared at him. Paulie was just teasing, but he didn’t like anyone to even suggest that he’d ever do anything like that. Every valiant notion he stood by was rooted directly to his feelings for his father for the question Paulie had asked him earlier that day that still nagged at him…Do you believe in these men?
The sun began to set and tourists shuffled back to their hotels, a little dazed from how quickly the sun can disappear, how much heat it takes with it as it melts in its pinks and reds and oranges along the coastline. Rusty and Paulie walked to the parking garage where Paulie’s car was parked. Rusty kept his hands in his pockets as they strolled along.
“What’s wrong with you, Rusty? What’ve you got on your mind?”
“Why won’t you tell me?”
“It’s nothing,” Rusty sighed. He was tired of going over the same old things. He felt like a broken record sometimes, like this was the only subject he ever thought about. “I’m just thinking about dad again. I worry sometimes about what I might become, you know. How much of dad is in me? How much of him is me? I feel doomed sometimes, Paulie. Not to get all existential or anything, but sometimes I wonder if I’m up to it. You know, being a man.”
They got in the car and started to drive.
“Rusty, let me tell you something.” Paul’s long, black Mercedes glided down Santa Monica Boulevard like a dangerous animal. He angled it in and out of traffic as skillfully as he had maneuvered through the crowd on the Promenade. “Whatever you think…;” but he didn’t finish his sentence. He started to cough violently and the car careened to the left almost smashing into a brand new Jaguar. An old lady with blue hair stared at them like they were crazy. Rusty reached over and quickly grabbed the wheel. The street was thick with traffic, but he managed to steer the car over to the right. A light mist of blood glistened on the dashboard and windshield. He could hear Paul wheezing, trying to suck in air and barely succeeding.
He pulled the car under a freeway overpass beneath the 405. The air here was heavy with soot and grime. Graffiti was sprayed across every solid surface, threatening trespassers in secret street languages, a thousand anonymous tags made more anonymous by the writing no one could read. Cracks in the cement sprouted ivy and other weeds that took refuge in the shade and the sound of the traffic was noticeably dulled, like they had entered through a secret door into the center of the city.
“Paulie! Paulie!” Rusty turned off the motor and leaned over his uncle. “Oh my God! Are you alright? I knew this was a bad idea.”
Flakes of blood dotted Paul’s white suit like cheap sequins. Rusty opened Paulie’s jacket and searched for the pills he knew he would find in the inside pocket. He took two out and forced them into Paulie’s mouth with his second and middle fingers. Paulie continued to writhe and sputter and instinctively resisted taking the medication. His body was deciding its own course of events.
Rusty finally got the pills to go down and after a few moments Paulie started to settle down. He took deep breaths and looked around dazed. He could have been on the moon for all he knew.
“Rusty,” he murmured.
Rusty grabbed his hand.
“Yeah, Paulie. I’m right here.”
Paulie searched the car with his eyes and then patted himself on the chest. He was shaking and gripped the bloody steering wheel to steady himself.
“Can you imagine,” he said with a shaky breath, “what anyone would think if they could see us now. In this car. With all this blood. It looks like…I don’t know what it looks like? What does it look like, Rusty?”
Rusty couldn’t move. He looked deep into Paulie’s eyes and saw the essence of life, crystal clarity that resonated with everything he held dear and still wanted to be. In that moment he also thought of his father and of the importance of circumstance and luck. He was lucky to have Paulie. He was lucky to be going to college. He was lucky that he had seen a girl today with a smile so sex-filled and good that it reminded him that the word fun could also be a verb. And then he laughed. Long, loud, and hard, and leaned over the armrest and hugged his uncle and thought that he might be the luckiest bastard in the world.
Paulie laughed too and hugged him back. After a few moments they let go of one another and Rusty said,
“Maybe I better drive. I think you’ve had enough fun for one afternoon.”
They got to Paulie’s house and Rusty opened the door and helped him inside. He laid him on his bed and got him a glass of water.
“Rest now, Paulie. We’ll talk tomorrow. I think we overdid it a bit today.”
Paulie took a sip of the drink.
“Yeah. Of course we did. But that’s what we intended, wasn’t it?”
“Rusty, I want to ask you something.”
Rusty slipped his hands into his pockets. They were still trembling.
“Do you believe in men?”
The question caught him off guard once again even though it shouldn’t have. He gave no answer.
“I just mean,” Paulie went on, ”when all is said and done, did we do a good job with you? There were no women around to spoil your upbringing, so…” He chuckled. “I’m kidding. I’m sorry. Your mother was a fine woman and I’m sure she would have been a great parent. But in her absence,” he struggled to sit up, “did we do okay? The men in your life?”
Rusty didn’t know how to answer. It was a question that probably didn’t have an answer. Everything he was as a person was tied to it. Paulie was right, there had been no women in his life. Everything he was came from the men he knew. Their actions, their expectations, their legacies, good and bad, were realized in him. He had inherited a destiny, to a certain extent, and now wanted to be able to reign it in, go off on his own and create a new way to assess his progress and achievements, his loves and fears, independent of all that he had gone through. He understood right then that he would never be rid of those things, and decided that he wouldn’t want to be even if he could.
“I don’t know how to answer that. I suppose you did, but I’m also kind of fearful of what’s expected of me as a result. Do you know what I mean?”
Paulie coughed. Rusty waited for another fit, more blood. He was relieved when it didn’t come.
“Yeah. I do. Don’t worry, though. Everyone’s like that.” Paulie took another sip of water. “You know, I never expected to have to raise a kid. I wasn’t ready…”
Rusty shook his head. He interrupted with a gentle squeeze of Paulie’s thin wrist. Had his wrists always been so small? So bony?
Paulie dabbed at his eyes with a tissue. He looked so weak, Rusty thought.
“We’ll have a great big dinner before you go, all right? I still can’t believe you’re going off to college. Don would have been so proud.”
“I know. Yeah, of course we’ll have dinner. I’ll call you tomorrow, okay?” Rusty smiled at him.
“Okay, Rusty. Take care. I’ll talk to you tomorrow. I had a good time today.”
“Me too,” he said as he got up and walked to the door. “Bye, Uncle Paulie.”
Back at his apartment he laid down on his mattress, kicked his sneakers off without untying the laces, and flipped on the T.V., the last thing he’d ship before leaving for school. Parent’s Weekend wasn’t too far down the road. You never know what might happen on neutral ground.
He glanced at the tube as his eyes fluttered. He was feeling tired, but good. Good like he could feel something all around him, enclosing him in warmth. Oprah was on and he watched it for a minute before turning it off to finish with his packing.
© Adam Greenfield 2010