issue 11 FEATURE
Dustin M. Hoffman
“It’s for your own good, sweetie,” Father says as he tries to swallow me. I grab at one of his cavities, curl my fingers around the jagged edges, but his tongue dislodges me. “Strongest muscle in the human body,” he says. “Did you know that, doll? Did you learn that at school? I doubt that very much. Those half-wit teachers don’t know how to tie their own shoes. Like Mr. Curtis, whose shoes were untied at last month’s parent-teacher conference. I mean, both of his shoes, completely unlaced.”
I slide down Father’s esophagus. His words boom against my skin. His larynx quivers when he mentions Mr. Curtis.
“One thing that Mr. Curtis does know how to do is stare. He brought out a folded ultrasound picture. The man didn’t look me in the eyes the rest of the conference. He kept staring at your picture, calling me Cronie, as he unfolded another section, like a five-year-old unwrapping a candy bar. First, just your head, and then he unfolded, and there’s your shoulders, and he unfolded, and there’s your breasts, and he stayed there too long talking about how much Heart you had, poking at your left breast with his dirty yellow pinkynail, and I just stared at his damn untied shoelaces. Not everyone pays attention to the little things, honey. That’s important in life. Little things like aglets, and Curtis’ were frayed to hell.”
I linger at the stomach opening, clinging by that fleshy muscle, but I don’t know what it’s called. Mr. Curtis hasn’t reached that lesson in our anatomy unit yet. I want to understand my home better, Father’s body, my prison.
“Do you know what an aglet is? I very much doubt it, when that bastard-ass doesn’t know how to take care of his own aglets and only knows how to drool over fold-out pictures of my daughter.”
There is no use holding on. I let go, splash into his stomach.
We used to be a family. I used to hear Mother’s voice, trying to convince Father to eat yet another colt she swore was one of us. Brother and I hid in the herd of lambs, waited for her to return. Late at night, after Father fell asleep with a full belly of equine infants, Mother would let us light her cigarettes. We’d jump through her smoke rings. We’d stay awake talking about moving to big cities and becoming movie stars and changing our names. Mother would fit right in, her beautiful face, already as giant as a starlet on a movie screen.
That was before Mother left for the big city on her own.
That was before Father ran out of colts and found Brother.
That was before I grew up and stopped being a kid and Father needed to protect me from the world.
Father jams his pinkies into his ears while my guidance counselor advises me that one day I will kill my father. I never say anything about murder. But my counselor, Dougy, analyzes patricide from our chats about Mr. Curtis and Mom leaving and Brother missing and how if I had ten million dollars and didn’t have to work I’d pioneer a new wave punk rock klezmer band called Kill Your Daddies. A misunderstanding is all this is. Kill Your Daddies is meant to be post-modern pastiche of teenage rebellion.
“I think it sounds like a great name for a band, honey,” Father says, still pretending to plug his ears.
“Most likely,” Dougy says, “she’ll poison you. There’s an eighteen-percent chance she’ll hack through your rib cage, castrate you, and feed you to the neighborhood dogs.”
My counselor shouldn’t be telling Father any of this. He’s supposed to be deaf and dumb at these meetings. My patient confidentiality is sucked into Father’s mouth like everything else. Just because I’m in high-school, and Father is my father and I’m stuck inside him. Still. Dougy is bad at his job. Dougy’s eyes flit between Father’s stomach and Father’s eyes. He tells us this is very confusing for him. He apologizes for saying too much, but it’s hard for him to keep his mouth shut sometimes. Don’t I know how hard it is to listen all day and keep everything inside?
“Yes, Dougy. Yes I do,” I try to say from Father’s stomach. But my words are muffled. Father hugs Dougy, pats his back, and I am forgotten.
Father drives Miguel and Cindy and Stan and Laurie and me to the forensics meet. Cindy keeps crying because her mother is having an affair and her father eats carton after carton of Lucky Palace lo-mein. Cindy’s father’s stomach balloons. The judges deduct points because of her sniffling, because of her running mascara.
Cindy is lucky to be judged by her face.
My father stays fit, does three hundred thirty-three crunches every day. For you, darling, he tells me. Strong walls to keep you safe. I have mastered articulating through Father, but my hand gestures are dumbed by muscle definition. I’m reciting the introduction from Watership Downs, the part about how Frith blesses all the animals, and then blesses the rabbit’s behind. And I had this choreography worked out when Frith says, El-ahrairah, your people cannot rule the world, for I will not have it so. All the world will be your enemy. And while I’d say that I’d turn my back to the judges, and then I’d spin around and jag to the left and right and say, But first they must catch you.
The judges miss all of that, because of Father, and they just end up deducting points because they didn’t see how rippling abs had anything to do with my piece, besides the title maybe, and it’s not really about rippling water, about a watership, they tell me.
Yes, I nod, at my seventh place ribbon, I know it is not about waterships, nor is it about bunnies. This is fable. This is myth. This is myth that doesn’t involve Father. But, it seems, no myth is small enough to hide from Father.
Father snores rapturously. Father snores like an earthquake. And when he starts snoring, I climb up his throat. His whole body shakes. He squeals, whimpers, quavers out “Rhe” every now and then. Rhe meaning Rhea, his wife, my mother.
I climb onward.
His tonsils are tricky, so sensitive. I army-crawl under, hold my breath. From there, I tiptoe his teeth. They’re veneers, cost a fortune, but that was back in the days of Mom’s impervious dental insurance. His lips flop forward on my shoulders, heavy but dry. I’m stuck, and I wish I’d brought my pocket knife, could be hacking my way right now. Through his throat buzzes, “Sooorrrrrryyyyy.” His lips open, return to flopping in his snores, and I’m free.
I repel out the window, and when I run out of tied bed sheets, I jump, land on the back of Mr. Curtis’ motorcycle. He drives me out to the woods, out to where The Imperial Coronaries are playing a punk rock show miles from any buildings, powered by a Honda generator. I ditch Mr. Curtis. I won’t need him again until dawn, until I need a ride back to Father’s stomach.
Sometimes, I find pieces of Brother inside Father. Bones mostly. Brother’s fibula, Brother’s mandible, Brother’s skull case and phalanges. For a while, I was making a collection in one corner of Father’s stomach, arranging the bones like they used to be. I had a few dozen. There was an outline of Brother, and I wanted to wish upon a star for a real boy. But then Father got a bad burrito, and everything churned for two days. Brother’s bones disappeared into the acid muck.
Today, I take up the task again, kicking around until I feel something solid. I find Brother’s scapula. I find Brother’s trident and crown, which are not bones, are solid gold. Engraved on them: POSEIDON’S STUFF. I prod with the trident, then do a little number Brother once taught me where I raise the trident’s points and summon the waves and Father’s acids do a little swirling, eventually part. Then I can see all of Brother splayed across the stomach floor.
Trouble is: I can’t set down the trident to pick up the bones or the acids will tumble from their parted-sea crests.
Trouble is: I guess Brother is stuck there.
An antacid tumbles down, splashes. My acid seas fall. Brother is lost again.
“The trouble is,” Father says, “that your mother Rhea is never coming back, and the thing with your brother, well, that was an accident. It’s hard to teach yourself not to chew. I mean, do you think it’s easy to hold something delicious on the tip of your tongue and not chew it? It is in fact not easy. And that’s the problem with so many of you kids today: You have no appreciation for savoring. It’s all rush, rush, rush with your smart phones and your skateboards and your trapper keepers.”
I let him know he’s being predictable by ripping a hole in Father’s chest. I climb his bared ribs and perch next to his heart.
“Okay, ouch, yes, I hear you,” Father says, “but do you hear me?”
Father lifts his stone sickle to his chest so I can get a good look at it.
“Your grandmother made this for me, and do you know why? Why is because I appreciated responsibility, I savored it. Do you think it was easy for me to lop off Granddads’ testicles? Do you think it was easy for me to then toss those testicles into the ocean? And then your cousin Aphy was born out of Granddad’s foaming nards, and no one knows how Aphy fits in the family tree. My daughter or Granddad’s? There’s no telling.”
I lean into Father’s ribs, grind my heel into his spleen, let him know this isn’t what I want to hear.
“And, see, you’re rushing me. Yes, I realize you’re going to kill me or lop off my nards, so I’ll tell you about your dear lost mother.
“We fell in love out of necessity. She was my sister, but that’s all there was in the world then, sisters and mothers and, of course, the cyclopedes, but they hardly count. It was a different time, a slower time, and I can’t explain it to you, really.
“So Rhea left, I suppose, because there suddenly became options. Before: no options. After: options. It’s simple. I was the best brother because I lopped off Granddad’s nards, and then suddenly I was just one man among millions and my famous rebellion turned into evenings of Chinese checkers on Granddad’s porch. Rhea left and then all I had were you kids. You can’t blame me, can you?”
I always can. It’s easier that way. I leap off Father’s ribs, snatch his sickle, and tear him from asshole to throat.
Or one night when I return from the party in the woods I feed him my clothes filled with stones, and he never knows the difference.
Or I make him a pie of salt and mustard and copper sulphate. I call it proto-post-mod-feminist cooking. He eats it because he pretends I’m still four years old making mud pies. Then out vomits Brother and Brother and Sister and Sister.
Or I slip out in the night, and spend all of twilight mixing martinis and gimlets. I arrange them like toy soldiers across the breakfast bar, the stovetop, the corkboard-topped island. Father can never resist. He slugs down each one in rapid succession, passes out, and I drag him out to the cave where he’ll dream forever and ever.
Or I lop off Father’s testicles, as he did his father, toss them in the toilet bowl, as he beget Aphy, but this time no foam and no magic birth of ultimate beauty. Father blames it on yellow dyes and microwaves and cell phones and bicycle seats. Such a plague of low sperm counts, it’s a wonder I made you, he tells me.
Father’s father, Dr. Uranus, Maker of All, his sperm count was astronomical. Father tells me while I’m stitching him back up:
“I had five brothers and sisters, and I loved them all. But then he just kept coming to Mother, your Grandmother, every night, making her wear that ridiculous French maid getup, and she’d still be wearing it in the morning, under her robes. When she’d lean over to help us cut our pancakes, I’d see the bone lace, the midnight satin, and I’d know another brother or sister was on the way.
“We started getting those damn Cyclopes. Every day a new one. Mother stopped naming them and just doled out numbers. Dr. Uranus hated all of us equally, but then he hated the Cyclopes less because he could tell we hated them so much. All day long, they clung to our ankles, hid in our school bags, inside toilet paper rolls. We’d find them under our tongues, our pillows, our fingernails. We began popping their heads like blisters. We lost the value for life.
“It got worse. Dr. Uranus went away for a few business trips, but when he came back, he’d keep Mother awake all night, and us, and the Cyclopes would moan from every corner of the house in chorus with their father. And then came the one-hundred-armed giants.
“So, you see, I had to lop off his testicles. We couldn’t handle any more giants. Mother couldn’t handle any more nights with Father. It was all about necessity. He was a cruel and terrible man. You should be grateful to have me. You should be grateful I allowed you to slice me open. And you should be grateful I dismembered your brother and roasted his limbs. I gifted you all of my attention. I gifted you solitude.”
I find Brother’s heart. It pulses under the bile, under my bare toes. Finally tissue among all those bones. Brother’s heart is strong, survived the acids, thumps harder the closer I hold it to my chest. Brother is waiting.
When night comes, I slide up Father’s snoring larynx, duck under his tonsils, shoulder through his lips. Mr. Curtis gives me a ride, but tonight we don’t go to the party. In fact, tonight, we don’t go anywhere. I slash Mr. Curtis in half with Father’s stone sickle. He slides off the front seat. I swaddle Brother in Mr. Curtis’ bloody tweed blazer, tie him to the motorcycle seat.
Tonight, I drive. Tonight is all wind and darkness and open. Tonight, I take hold of fate, realize unimpeded adult independence in all its splendor.
Brother and I go to the 24-hour doll store. I lift Brother to each porcelain face. I gauge his interest by how hard he thumps, how frequent. We devise a system of one thump for No, two thumps for Yes, yet still there are vast gradients of Yes and No. Few choices will ever matter as much.
I ask Father if I can join the track team, but he is unsure.
“I remember my Olympic days. Stark naked, sprinting stades from one end of Dr. Uranus’ freshly tarred driveway to the other. Then the discus throw, the javelin, the shot put, and you better throw as far and hard as you can, but if you dinged the good doctor’s Buick, good night. He’d go right to the belt or maybe tear off one of your limbs and pick his teeth with it. Worst of all, though, was the wrestling. He pitted us against the one-hundred-armed giants, three against one of us. And he’d laugh at the slightest struggle, jeer and swear if we didn’t crush them instantly. He’d shout that we couldn’t possibly be his kids. Where was our might, our strategy, and why were our bodies so soft and tiny?”
I assure him our track teams will not be like this. We run mostly. No wrestling. Very little nudity, besides being outside of Father.
My body would be my body for one hour after school each day. Sun and wind kissing my skin. To breathe my own air, taste my own sweat.
“You’d just be training to run away from me, I suppose.” Father hangs his head, digs his chin into the fresh scar down the middle of his sternum. “Like your mother.”
“Not like Mother,” I say, “but in honor of you. I’ll run for you instead of from you.”
Father likes this idea and signs the permission slips. Next Monday, at our first practice, Father can’t bring himself to regurgitate me. So I trudge circles in Fathers’ belly, muck through the acids, and it is not like running, nothing like Mother.
Father lies down on the asphalt track, stomach first, so it will feel a little more like freedom. My feet find a semblance of hardness beyond Father’s flesh. My feet are almost there. I know this act of Father’s is one of kindness, but that doesn’t bring the wind and sun any closer to my skin.
Only a stone sickle or a knife or this shard of Mr. Curtis’ broken glasses will do.
Father must die. But we’ve been through this before. Every time I cut him open and escape he finds a way to trap me. He stitches up with Mother’s black thread or uses duct tape or the staple gun or just clutches his chest and blubbers.
Father is as big as a house, as dense as a solar system, his eyes two supernovas. You don’t kill that. That is unkillable and sadly beautiful and it’s difficult not to see myself made more beautiful reflected in those starburst irises. I look in and that’s my home, every bit of me. And then he opens up, says ah, and I slink back in. Over his tongue, past the gums, down his throat, until morning, when I can’t stand it again.
I try to sew quickly, but don’t skimp on the double stitches. Brother’s heart is slippery, and the arteries don’t take needle and thread well. I keep tearing through the tissue, and then I have to sew deeper.
But Brother doesn’t mind. He thumps pleasantly, his aorta humming a gentle tune.
I finish, close up the chest. Brother is a stuffed lobster. His choice. I’m not thrilled about it. He can’t really drive a car or go to prom or join the track team as a stuffed lobster. He clacks his claws, expresses that he doesn’t much care about those things. He’s just happy to see me again, even if through such tiny beads of eyes.
“Do you recognize the tune?” Brother asks me through a series of clicks.
I do not.
“Rhea sang that to us, well, to you mostly, when you were a tiny baby,” Brother clicks. “You were always her favorite, and I was always more appetizing. I have that. And did you know Father’s favorite food is lobster? He had a hell of a time eating me before, but it will be easier now, like this.” Brother swishes his tail.
I try not to cry. I tell Brother it’s been so lonely. I offer Brother his old trident. He scuttles toward it, but then waves it way with one of his pinchers.
“One must give up one’s second love for one’s first love, and one’s first love is always one’s Father because one’s Rhea neglected to hum beautifully to one while doing so later for one’s younger sister and then she left and only hummed to herself. And what is one left to do save become sustenance.”
I dive at Brother, snatch his tail. I work the needle madly, sewing and gripping as he tries to scurry away. The needle dives through his plush shell. I pull the thread. The needles stings through the skin on my thigh, my back, my cheeks, wherever I can jab with that needle. However I can keep Brother from being eaten again. However I can keep Brother closest to me. His heart taps lightly inside a stuffed cage of red dye and polyester fur. But Brother keeps clipping the stitches and soon breaks free. I know where he’s headed, and I know Father will oblige. No matter how many times I slice him open, Father will patch himself up, and Brother will scuttle back inside, where it is safe, where it is warm, where he is loved.
Dustin M. Hoffman spent ten years painting houses in Michigan before getting his MFA in fiction from Bowling Green State University and his PhD in creative writing from Western Michigan University. His story collection One Hundred-Knuckled Fist won the 2015 Prairie Schooner Book Prize and is forthcoming from University of Nebraska Press. His stories have appeared in Black Warrior Review, Phoebe, Puerto del Sol, Fourteen Hills, Witness, Quarterly West, The Journal, Gargoyle, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Indiana Review, and many other places. He lives in South Carolina and teaches creative writing and literature at Winthrop University.