A pipe fitter delegate for the Farmer-Labor movement, my father at the end of his life saw in my son at the end of his life a ready subject to be made more generous, more fair, more conducive to and mistrustful of particular systems of authority, and more purely appreciative of the good of work and the power of the common good. When the boy was gone, lung-punched by chlorine, my father wiped his nose with his cuff and said he had witnessed the loss of his own son himself years ago, so he’d come to expect that in most mainstream capitalist systems children die well in advance of their parents, certainly before their grandparents, and usually long before they’re even born. I subscribed that man that very night to a pornographic magazine.
I prefer a blend of signature tart and warm sticky bun, and my son the capitalist ghost cannot stand selecting anything consistently. We pump our handles side-by-side and slide in slow, grave lines to use the electronic rigged scale. He pays in cash, his treat, we eat, and we pretend the doors are not waiting for us. It’s usually temperamental out.
In those years, everyone had a good friend at the athletic club who subscribed to two life rules: Do not sweat the small stuff, and everything is small.
I did not know my son’s wife, or my son’s son. The child seemed lovely enough, a bad artist like the rest of us, and desperately incapable of focus. One day, for me, my son is just not coming to his bed. I have the kid’s teeth still in my sock drawer, and they scratch around in there beneath things, because I’m thinking someday it’ll be awesome to share these with him again, rejoin him with the teeth of his baby head. Instead, his bed is just perpetually made in museum style. I vacuum the comforter. I think of distended whale carcass, strangers in rolled-up pants walking around and touching his rubbery skin, running their fingers over foreign flesh in a foreign position on a foreign surface. And then suddenly one evening I am unmaking my son’s bed, pulling back the comforter and releasing these sheets with a pattern so childish it stings, and this little person who looks like my son but in incredible miniature climbs in and looks at me like I’m some alien-angel action figure he wants to manipulate.
The pipe fitter preferred I undress him without talking. When I’d finished redressing him we could talk again, but that often could not happen. His raised boils, they wept so badly I could not cover him in dyed clothing. They ran across his forehead and down his cheek. They ran across his torso in scarlet bolts of lightening. I just had to leave him naked, or I swaddled him in gauze, wrapped him like a mummy, or an infant, and one way or another he would fall asleep bound.
I was balling hard. I worked the post point after point. I could not see by the weak light on the garage against the night, but I backed her down hard, kept backing in harder, and I kept leading with an elbow until at fourteen-twelve my foot rolled over and off my wife’s Addidas and folded about 75 degrees at the ankle. She swore. She’s iron. She took the ball off the driveway and punted it into the dark heaven. The cement cooled the cheek where my tears pooled.
In the grim and dewy lawn, on the edge of that garage light, my father in a lawn chair and a baseball hat held a sparkler he did not seem to know how to light. My son sat beside him and just laughed at his mother’s outrage at my feebleness, and then he would look up to his old bedroom window and made a face, worried he’d woken the boy who slept up there behind that pane.
Then he was six again, and I could hear him ask my father, as the dead will, about death. When you finally die, he wanted to know, what do the rest of us inherit.
Christopher Merkner is the author of The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic (Coffee House Press, 2014), and his fiction has appeared most recently in Best American Mystery Stories, CutBank, Cincinnati Review, Fairy Tale Review, Gettysburg Review, New Orleans Review, New World Writing, Subtropics, and The Collagist. He is the co-director of the creative writing program at West Chester University.