Difficulty Swallowing

The story is a familiar one. Back in college, Dad had this roommate Hank: soft-spoken, respectful, grew up logging in Washington State and, age twenty, junior year, had arms like Lou Ferrigno (Mister, you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry. Rhrrr…). I hear again about the time Hank—wielding two massive, running chainsaw, one in each hand—tore through the bolted doors of a frat house (Dad: “I just happened to be returning from lab late that night.”) to find what he feared most inside: his beyond drunk fiancée in the arms of others, plural, and she without any awareness or clothes. No punches were thrown, though various pieces of priceless, heirloom furniture were turned into perfectly tidy blocks of wood by Hank’s methodical, mechanical blades. The campus police came. Estimates put the damages at about a quarter-million dollars all told. Parental political influence, a cover-up, and that’s where the story previously ended: she called off the wedding, dropped out of school, and was unheard from since. But (new twist) last month Dad, out early Christmas shopping in Biloxi, saw her with what appeared a teenage daughter (don’t ask him how, maybe she adopted but they have similarly nice legs; maybe she froze an egg) inside a lingerie store at the mall.

“Just goes to show,” Dad says. And stays quiet for a few seconds.

        “Speaking of, did I ever tell you about the time that one summer I interned for the Parks Service in college? Well, they had this piranha problem, you see, but don’t ask me how they got there. Mean little devils…”

        We sit, neither of us ready to call it a night, my first of four days in town, father and son in a sublevel garage surrounded by dusty fishing rods and deer antlers mounted behind faceless red felt. Coffee’s tepid. Room’s a few degrees above frigid. We’re both tired but awake seated where once a yellow bass boat—originally a sunflower hue, then a mustard color faded from hundreds of weekends of use—moored, but now a poker table sits and the two of us.

“That’s when Gustaf (yawn) hit upon this G.O.B.S., that’s what we call a ‘Good Ol’ Boy Solution,’ if you didn’t know. Meaning sticks of dynamite. Realistically, though, for the piranha, you gotta— (yawn) Excuse me. Here we go again.”

        He covers another long, lion-like yawn with a fist, back of his paw home-sutured with butterfly bandages from an accident fixing the timing belt on the truck. Yawn over, heater humming, Dad’s made uncomfortable by my stare, which has shifted from fist to face.

        He leans forward from his casual slouch to slide his coffee mug in contemplative circles and continue his story, which after a few words I’m pretty certain will end poorly for Gustaf’s furry companion.

“Boy did that mutt ever love going out on them pontoon boats. Loved to fish. When nothing was biting, Gus was teaching Hawk how to bird-dog. They’d play fetch out on the water. Well, on this particular day, Hawk went out with Gus and the raw meat bait and them sticks of dynamite…”

        Dad’s face has changed subtly. There’s the same dark spot on his forehead as last year’s visit but larger. When I asked Mom as we set the table whether he’d been to see a doctor, she shook her head and said, You know your father; it’s one of those things where he’s ten-foot tall and bulletproof. Oh, I’m sorry, no here: salad bowls go on the right and bread plates to the left like this here, see? So how’s Boulder treating you? You still liking it out there? (All by way of tiptoeing around my wife Kim’s absence and our pending divorce.)

        But what draws my attention isn’t a skin blotch. It’s his beak, that windsail of a nose, crooked, broken for the first or third or twelfth time in the growing portfolio of stories, its septum eventually partially replaced with Teflon. Maybe it’s the shadows of the overhead lights or maybe it’s the lateness of the hour, but, as he spins more fictions from his ball of yarns, that prominent Fleiss Family feature looks to grow.

        “Now the most unique athlete by far, hands down—anatomically-, academically-, and athletic-ability speaking—I’ve ever met was Mariciella’s daughter…”

        Mariciella, I’m being told, was the housekeeper at the weekly hotel where Dad had roomed for two weeks a few years back as part of a flood recovery crew. She knew Dad because he was the one lodger who always made his bed and asked her how her day was going and was kind and courteous, even letting her high school freshman daughter Skye use the desk in his room for her homework. (“It was better than having Mariciella hide the poor child in the janitor’s closet for hours until her shift was over.”) And so it came to pass that every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, Dad tutored Skye in her toughest subject: math.

        I’d prefer we sat in silence. Or even discussed his disappointment in my divorce, my dumb business trips’ one-time indiscretion after drinking in a bar, or my job. Past two years now the workload of three people to make perpetually nervous investors happy, shutting down two of our five domestic plants to meet margin, keep the business going, specializing.

        But Dad won’t. After thirty-seven years of knowing each other, we still don’t talk. We don’t talk about his hours playing video lottery (on a Saturday or a Sunday or any weekday evening: “Mom, it’s Bobby. Dad there?” Her voice, after a sigh, “I can’t say quite exactly where your father is at this very moment. Must be out running errands.”) or his 401(k) going poof, voilà, vanished in this decade’s bubble so his once early retirement plan’s pushed back again another 4 to 5 years, another 980 to 1,225 workdays, another 7,840 to 9,800 working hours. We don’t talk about my older sister Katey’s abrupt “marriage” now six, seven years ago or her and her wife’s excuses every Christmas not to visit, that their life’s hectic right now, or seeing their vacation photos to Mexico available on social media. We don’t talk about, years ago, my losing my scholarship or his own shot at going pro he gave up for a steady job with the government because Mom had gotten pregnant. We don’t talk about his belief (conviction?) that the world was created in six days or how national health care’s a plan to kill fetuses and old people. We just don’t.

        “Now Skye was, as they like to say these days, just a little ‘developmentally challenged,’ mentally, you know.” Yet, thanks to Dad’s patience, the young basketball star came off academic probation, so naturally Dad accepted the free ticket to her varsity game.

        “Now while just a freshman—all of fourteen, fifteen years of age—Skye was taller than your old man and could dunk by just barely coming off her tippy toes. Never seen nothing like her before, on the court or off. With those long legs, that girl could fly across the planks like schwoom.

        “Now that little lady was really something else. But that was the problem, you see, she was so unique.”

        I could punch him. Probably the first time since high school, I’ve the urge to lay my dad out, hurl my fist into his fibbing face. My right hand’s clenched with knuckles digging into the tabletop’s felt. He pretends to sip from his mug of cold coffee, attempting to recall another tall tale to fill the void as he brings Skye’s to a close. I breathe deeply, evenly, keep fixated on his face, his nose, which is not just shadows under the basement garage’s fluorescents or my recent months of not sleeping well but is definitely growing.

        Skye—who developed in Mariciella’s womb during some troubling times, a teenage mother addicted to crack cocaine—was born with only three fingers on the right hand, two and a half on the other, but they were long phalanges (except for the half-finger) and could palm the ball.

        “And if that weren’t bad enough for the kid, Skye was born with just one lung, and asthmatic at that. She plays hard, you see, but she’s got in her just a few minutes before she gets winded. But once she catches her breath, boy howdy, watch out. Yup, wouldn’t be too surprised to see Skye on TV one day playing professional ball for the WNBA if they’re still around by then. Just hope she remembers me. And her teachers. All those others who helped her go on to get wherever it is she wants to be.”

        Our eyes lock. I feel organs in my chest not in any biology textbook drop into my bowels and lie there heavy and wet. It’s late. Storytime will be over soon and nothing will have been said. Like last year and every year, three or four days of this and then I’ll be back on a plane. And we wouldn’t have communicated a goddamn thing.

        I push the coffee cups aside to lean across the green felt. I reach for his nose, red, tumescent, remembering how confused I was when Grandpa Fleiss would put his thumb between his first two fingers and say he’d stolen mine. Dad jolts back, startled.

        I see myself doing it before I do and then find it’s impossible to stop. His hands grip the arms of his chair as I crawl along the table, placing my hands over his wrists. The panic in the room grows. I swallow hard, wet my lips, and kiss the tip of his nose. It quivers, and I rub it against the traveler’s stubble along my cheek. Son, he says. Relax, I say.

        Once he won a peanut butter-eating contest in college. Thirty-two sandwiches in ten minutes. The peanut butter was spread this thick. (I ignore the initial impulse to gag.) No jelly. It got to where you couldn’t open your mouth; stuff was like spackle. Of course, they sliced bread bigger back then. (A vein throbs against the roof of my mouth.) His competition, nicknamed Blobby Kennedy, an all-state linebacker weighing in at over two hundred and fifty pounds, must’ve thought, “What, this skinny basketball star? This is going to be a walk in the park.” (His nose extends back past the hinges of my jaw.) They were only given a shot glass of water. (Deeper: untrimmed hairs scratch my tongue.) The trick is to gargle with a little bit of baby oil before the competition. (I take it in some more, alternate my tongue between nostrils.) All the proceeds went to charity. (I begin to cough.) The trophy’s still on display at the LSU Geology Department. (And choke.) The governor presented it to Dad and shook his hand. (I can’t.) This same governor later ran for President, lost in the primaries, but did mention Dad in a speech once.

        What’s inside snaps off, lodged mid-throat, releasing a warm putty. My eyes water and I choke. I fall backwards in my chair.

        “Are you alright?” he asks.

        I nod, coughing, trying not to cry, trying to swallow once more.

THOMAS LOGAN has worked in various capacities for small and international journals. He currently serves as the Fiction Editor for The Grove Review, published from Portland, Oregon. He is a member of Buntho SF Writers Group, which grew from an Ursula Le Guin class at PSU. His work has been published or is forthcoming in Far Hotizons, Surreal Worlds, Amok!, Big Pulp and Brief Grislys among others.