by Desmond Peeples
Photography by Alexa Gaffaney
Dennis left his property by bicycle with a cigarette cantilevered from his lips. It was Tuesday, so there was little thought behind his hand signal from the driveway to the road other than the control of his joy. His daughter was waiting for him at their weekly post downtown—the restaurant with virgin cocktails and utensils large enough to make his gorilla hands appear small and gentle. As SUVs and folkish minivans herded his bicycle along the curb, he pictured himself in the restaurant and listened to his daughter chuckle over her teachers and schoolmates, comment on another color in the plaid shirt he always wore for her, clarify incidental facts: a six-screen movie theater is opening in the next town over but theaters aren’t even good for dates; bottlenose dolphins learn to use tools but they love infanticide and killing porpoises; the state university has no self-designed major but seniors host a daily naptime in the campus chapel. Dennis hoped that one day she would take up photography. When he was a teenager he took photos of his girlfriends and his parents, and he would spend nights arranging them on his bedroom floor to find a good geometry. The road emptied its contents into the aisling of downtown steeples and brickfaces—Dennis pedaled past the squat building where he tends clients’ finances, and he began preparing helpful gossip for his daughter: Mr Shelby is hearing voices again, but his gallery is doing better than it has in years; Mrs. Winslow is struggling to support her sixteen cats, but her house has finally been designated a historical landmark; a Ms. Ortega, new in town, is opening a store that will specialize in quirky sweaters and yarn, and she has three handsome sons. Dennis, too, could take pleasure in knowing more than others, and he feared it was dangerous to do so alone. He dismounted his bicycle two blocks from the restaurant—his daughter could be claustrophobic. As he secured the lock around a parking meter, he let himself marvel at the enormous rolling of his knuckles. From day to day they worked quietly to coordinate the safety of his bicycle or the filing of his records, but they were always humming with thoughts of their real proportion. Whoever had made them envisioned the wielding of great tools, the smothering of sudden fires, the cradling of good children. But into his pockets they went. In the restaurant, Dennis found his daughter at their proper table in the back. She was unusual, though—a young man was seated beside her. Dennis approached their table as she was whispering in this boy’s ear, and the boy giggled. “Hi, Catherine,” said Dennis. She turned to him smiling, and the boy stood up from his seat. “Oh—hey Dad. This is Seth.” The boy reached a normal-sized hand out to Dennis, and he took it and squeezed its softness. “Sorry to barge in on your dinner together,” said the boy, “but I’m glad to finally meet you.” “Oh, nonsense,” said Dennis. They took their seats. “Nice shirt. Nothing like a lot of color,” said the boy. Catherine laughed. “He wears it every Tuesday.” She rested her chin in her little palms and glanced at Dennis before fixing a smile on the boy. Dennis looked down into his lap and managed a breathy laugh. He did worry about garishness, but he had always thought it could be well-hidden in plaid. Across the table, the boy began explaining that he had dropped out of school to work for his father’s roofing business, the finances of which Dennis did not tend; that roofing was hard on his hands but would make him strong enough for the farm that he would start one day; that he had always wanted cows and sheep and generations of good herding dogs because it was easy to be kind to animals even though they don’t really need you there; that he didn’t usually talk this much but he could talk to Catherine for days and days and he wanted her to give him one of her beautiful paintings but she says they’re for showing and not having. And Dennis wondered where his daughter hid these paintings she had never mentioned to him. He pictured her lifting floorboards in her bedroom and adding paintings to a pit dug into the earth: this boy hammering away at rooftops, the facade of a movie theater glowing opera house gold, an SUV roiling silver steam past an abandoned bicycle on a forest road. Eventually the boy left the table to relieve himself of his virgin bloody marys. Dennis laid his utensils to rest and drummed the tabletop with his fingers and their paper cuts. He wished it was the sound of horse hooves cantering circles in a paddock. “This is your boyfriend?” Catherine used her knife to part her salad into two discreet gardens. “Well… he’s not my accountant.” Dennis spent his remaining time at the restaurant convincing himself that his daughter was more funny than cruel. While the boy drove Catherine home, Dennis smoked highways of cigarettes and rammed the butts into his bicycle’s handlebars. He rode around and around and around the ordered acres of his neighborhood until his driveway had emptied and his windows had been darkened and impenetrable for hours. He needed no light to abandon his bicycle on the lawn and enter his home, remove his shoes to whisper them into place under his hanging coats, and pass through the door of Catherine’s bedroom. As he sniffed through the crude black toward his daughter’s sleeping body, his knuckles began to roll. His knees pressed against the edge of her mattress, and he looked down and down and down.
Dennis Dennis Dennis, yes, Dennis from his cunt house but the bicycle too and the road the mamba road week by week uncoiling him to Catherine guzzling fake margaritas against tar night, tar and oil and flyaway feathers stick to scabby skin burn and burn, yes, pedal, Dennis. Cigarettes, at least. None to bury into his daughter’s jibbering throat for the red pearl necklace she deserves but one to taunt the cars lengthening a chain of anal beads behind him, a second to grenade the hood of the SUV at his rear tire, a third to fill the lung he shares with the muttering ghost of his wife, yes—horns and horns and her old kitchen shrieks, and he used to boulder knuckle-deep into her cave and his hands are now two raging meteors but they crash into nothing and nothing crashes into them they crash into nothing and nothing crashes into them. A red horned beast is bleeding in the sky, he is nearer and nearer and the town waits, hurry hurry Dennis the rumbling is you and your daughter and her sulking fangs and impotent fingers and the lingering of inane prepubescence, one day she will drink real booze and dribble beside you in the living room with nowhere to go but the black pit in the floor before you and each night you will gnaw mold off each other’s shoulders while something watches from over the kitchen door and licks its lips, but until then there is listening and chewing and ungarbling Catherine’s thrill for strangers in halls, in the streets, in her pockets, creeping into your home, and the neighbors do nothing and the government employees pretend to smile as they pass your papers round and round and have nothing to guard but what they are told and no one will tell you, no one will tell you, what you are told is not what they want, what you are told is not what you are. Tell her she is clever and she will ask if you’re sure, tell her she can make things and she will ask what you have made, tell her she is like her mother and she will ask if anyone liked her, so slap her head down onto the table and spit into her hair, hiss she is nothing and carry on through the trial. Enter your town, Dennis—Dennis, roll your rotten barrel over the firing line, no one will shoot what they think is empty, no one thirsts for what they cannot drink and blood is good salt but there are restaurants with refillable shakers so bruises can be only little algae blooms of distant oceans and you can let your neighbors trust you with their records and leave them be in their hovels, and the buildings can be arranged neatly and the mothers can be mugged at night and no one will know that the reek comes from you, your incessant scrubbing, you are close to her now, you must scratch a hole into your sternum to carry something there. Stop the bicycle, Dennis. Drop and abandon it on the curb, it is your aluminum skeleton and you must have meat. But in your restaurant, at your table, your daughter is not as alone as she should be. She is sitting beside a boy, and boys are full of happy thrusts and cum and uninterrupted spilling forth. Say “Hello,” Dennis. “Oh—hey Dad. This, uh—this is Seth.” Do not look at your hands, Dennis. They have shaken the boy’s, they are sticky with the blather he and Catherine have shared, they are collecting flies but you have no scabs for them to nibble. “Sorry I didn’t mention he’d be here,” your daughter says. “Bullshit, Catherine.” The boy laughs in assumption of either the best or worst of you and both are good enough for him. “Can’t get anything past an accountant, huh?” he says. Oh nothing will pass while the skin has room for tally marks, use the knives here, make a little note in your upturned wrists, metal is for remembering. Say “You’d be surprised,” if you must. Sit, Dennis. Watch roaches pitter from Catherine’s eyes and into this boy’s mouth and imagine her eczema flaking into his palms as she gyrates against him, he must be so supple to protect her writhing and lashing, they crumple her burning homework into ash and snort it hot together and you smell them cauterizing still. This boy wastes no time in school anymore, he is a roofer, he pounds and thrashes against the wailing of his joints and he feels the grit of the earth down below him in his ankles and knees and one day he will descend to meet it so a farm can grow out from his tenderness and animals will be gathered for him to shepherd, he feels like an animal yet corralled. Do not tell him his own nipples give milk when he is fearful enough, do not teach him how to gnash his teeth from morning to night, innocence suckles everything. One day Seth will have his farm and Catherine will be there or more likely will not, but for now picture her elbow-deep in cow shit and soil, her hands throttling two ready roots like cocks and they will be carrots. “And her paintings… Damn. She showed me that one of you—it’s beautiful. Kinda scary—like most of ‘em I mean, but I’ve never seen that kind of light on a person. She’s got a real eye… Are you a painter too?” A painter. Is that what Catherine is? Not for you, of course, but for those flitting twilight moments between the feathers and the tar, for the occasional bright boy on the street, for beasts appeased by ritual. No you are not a painter. And you failed to become the photographer that would see the people and the roads and the skies as they are, but what you could be is a bulb broken when you were a child and a puff of smoke, and Catherine could show you her paintings or just tell you they are there because you would never stay longer than the light good enough for seeing, and dinner continues without your notice.