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By Jordan S.
Please look. Can you see me, between sleep and consciousness? My shoulders curve sharply, made out of wood, and the shadows from the sash dimple my contorting frame. I have this problem where I shudder as I dream, usually becoming violent enough to pitch my blankets through the door, and this morning is no different. Each spasm of my calves makes the mountains dance. The thin drool escaping from my lips forms the fleeting rain clouds above the Sahara. My crucifix arms stretch forward, and the trees outside, once so ancient and stubborn, crash through my window. My unconscious mind molds the world around me.
I am unaware when my father knocks twice and enters, stepping over the leaves pooled on the floor.
“Wha?” I speak through my pillow.
“We, uh, we can’t make it to church today.”
I sit up. “Why?”
“All my button-downs are dirty, and my khakis are wrinkled. And…well, you’ve been sick.”
I have not, but I know the answer to this. “Sure.”
“Alright, so, you should get some more sleep.” He shakes his head and closes the door behind me. I turn around so he doesn’t notice my surprise.
My insides have this feeling, where I usually imagine the rest of my body to have a face. Right now, it’s fixed on a perpetual, half-moon grin. I hug myself. I dance around silently once I notice the drapes are closed. People would gawk and stare. People would be jealous.
But oh, what a biblical miracle! I mean, Hosanna in the Highest! Peace on Earth, and et cetera! My church does not produce these feelings of joy. I usually wake up each Sunday, grumbling for pancakes and a pair of jeans. I get neither.
So I grumble my way downstairs, tired from my morning exercises. Everyone’s accounted for, and I’ll make a quick description of each:
Taylor. He enjoys his body, living on the illusion that his malnourishment accounts for a firm physique. He thinks he has a six-pack. He just doesn’t have anything but muscle. If he turns sideways, we’ve lost him. My brother usually walks around shirtless, including now, and enjoys posing lewdly. Introductions to these poses are of this vein—
“Oops…did I drop the syrup?”
—and he bends over slowly, with an effeminate finger still poised on his lips. No one laughs. He gives a rebellious stretch, just to show who in the family has the body of a god.
Kim. My mom, whose home-made panacea brews in the coffee pot beside her. “Oh, mom, you know what they say—a watched pot never boils,” I suggest, with a kiss on the cheek, heh heh. She has the look of a starved lion. I back away slowly. Maybe she only detects quick movement.
Dad. My dad, near the griddle, gives me a sheepish grin from our conversation before. He pats me on the back, but sternly. Absence from church is a sin.
“You know, if we’re not going to church, we’ll at least have to go see our grandparents.”
I chuckle. Oh, my family—what is to be done? But I hold hands with them, my father unlatching the door in front of us, and we pick up speed in the air as I carry them for miles, my toes brushing the tips of the conifers, leaving a trail of December snow as we make our way to Virginia.
O O O O
His praise is progressive, with shuddering movements of approval like a caterpillar, or perhaps a leech: “valedictiorian” uncoils from my father’s arm, preparing to cross over to my grandfather; “varsity” winds tightly across my grandfather’s chest, beginning its ascent; “success” hangs like a mirthful noose across his drooping neck; “best” latches itself onto the base of his skull. My grandfather clasps his hands tightly, with a “well isn’t that wonderful” being the only benefit of this parasitic relationship. My grandmother stares at me approvingly, with one palsied hand stroking her chin. I want to hug her, to carry her through the door and to fly back to—no, somewhere else. We would begin anew, with no relation, our camaraderie bred from not blood—we would leave the rest of that family in this Victorian factory.
My father’s last words before we entered were “you don’t watch PG movies.” Ok. Right—but sure enough, this is dragged into the conversation. After that, my grandfather discusses the death of martyrs, of Jesus Christ—“I’ll admit, it would be hard to do the things he had done”—and his resurrection, the Iban culture (which my grandparents fervently study, and subsequently record in encyclopedias), and the rapid disintegration of Western civilization. My brother has slept for the last half hour. His yawns remind me:
“Oh, we had to write this poem and submit it for a poetry contest…it was about lapses in choice, and how unfortunate our hesitations can be.”
It was actually about a beach, but sure enough:
“Jordan…that’s so interesting.”
“Did you come in first for the contest?”
“Well…second, actually. Unfortunate, huh?”
Other than that, the silence is palpable. My father glares at me—what? You decide to bring that up, your failure?—and hopefully the subject is smoothed over. It is not. It grows increasingly awkward. I am reminded of a turtle, helpless on its back—
—and its subsequent hand gesture. I do this underneath my chair. But something else needs to be done quickly.
“But, I, uh, won in my expository writing.”
“Jordan, that’s so great!”
“We’re so proud of you.”
Later, my grandfather sits me next to him at the dinner table, clearing his throat, rumbling softly in baritone. “Jordan…you’re going to come to a point in your life where you are stuck between what is wanted and what is best. I understand you’ve wanted to write, and you are excelling at it. Perhaps it is your talent. But—are you still in choir?”
“Don’t you want to be in it?”
“Oh, well, you know, I’ll still be singing…in the shower…and what not.”
“I’m sorry sir. I just don’t think it’s for me.”
“But you are talented at it. And you’ll find, son, with your success, you’ll learn to love it. You’ll be the best, and that will be your driving force in life. The choices you make should not be influenced by favorites—it should be chosen by strength. After you do well, then you will be proud. Then you will be thankful.”
“Well, we are so very proud of you. And we wanted to get you something….”
Outside my grandmother butters and plumps the turkey, preparing it before cooking it in the oven.
O O O O
“The façade is obvious.”
My father and I are driving in the car on our way back, with the trees now looming over us. I decide not to carry us back—because, well, I’m exhausted. There’s so much I can do, you know.
But what is he talking about?
“What are you talking about?”
“This…this entire journey is so—exaggerated. Well, flying for one, which tips me off, but these attempts at postmodernism have already been done. I mean, the dialogue, the casual, off-kilter beginning, even this—this breaking of the fourth wall—all have been done by Eggers. Or as you like to call him, Dave.”
“Dad…you’re breaking out of character.”
“—But, sure, you say, it’s fine. You believe your writing to be phenomenal, and you are…so proud. But at the same time, it’s not good enough to match the original from which you’ve so heartlessly copied, and who cares? It’s not going to reach an editor’s eyes. No one else is going to notice.”
“You’ve overestimated your audience. So we go down the line, to your teacher. Oh, you think, I hope she hasn’t read his work! And even if she has, you justify: ‘This is plagiarism. But I plagiarize to prove a point, to develop my themes. My pride causes me to steal.’ Nope. This is copying, pure and true. What some will mistake for genius, for breaking boundaries, has already been done before. They’ll love you, you take credit. You do this in all your works—allusion, you say. No: lack of imagination. It does nothing to prove anything.”
“This is out of my hands—”
“Oh, Pontius Pilate are we? And I believe you’ve forgotten what really happens here. I listen to Michael Jackson and Billie Jean. You groan inwardly, until, in a sudden speech, I recount my days in college. I talk of Kate, and you wonder how life would have been with her as a mother. We continue, I with words and you with thoughts, and then I crack. She had died running across a street, and I began to weep. This confused you at first, and then shamed you. You couldn’t have a father with these flaws. So, in all your rage and power, you turned the music up to drown out my voice. This realization of your pride made you cry as well. But looking back, it wasn’t so bad, so you’ll amend here, exaggerate here. And you’ve got a story.
“That didn’t happen—“
“You don’t get it, do you? It’s disgusting, how you’ll make it tragically epic, labeling it ‘the loss of childhood,’ which I admit is kind of poetic, but you’ll use third-person to escape prying eyes—and then, when you’re famous enough, you admit to it cloyingly as ‘becoming my father’s equal,’ and thereafter refer to me as Thom.”
“That’s not it at all. Please—I just need a reason to why we’re separated. You, you take me for some kind of monster! I’ve created you, and you’re not exaggerated—the church incident actually happened, and your father actually told that to me—this is my right, as a writer. I am able to show you your true face, from an outside perspective—something you are unable to do. I am a mirror…I just choose not to show my own reflection.”
“Then you are a vampire, living off the blood of others. You choose not to do so because you are flawed, and we can’t have that, now can we? So you give justification for your inherent ‘quirks.’ The first is the hypocritical church incident. So, you say, I am right for going against these heretics, because they would spoil my religion. An image: ‘Do you know how many people in three-piece suits would burn for eternity?’ But the truth is, you condone such religion because of its blind faith. Christianity suits you, but the act of compliance frightens you. This superiority complex of yours causes doubt, because you believe you can handle yourself. Trusting in another is foolish. To take it further, you will refuse to worship—a mistake in itself—because it shows that you are weaker. Just a smug, rich atheist—wearing tuxedos to breakfast. So I ask you: ‘Do you know how many people in three-piece suits would burn for eternity?’”
“Father, we’ve missed the exit—”
“We’re not leaving. And the second, the grandfather incident, tries to persuade us how you are persuaded into leading a hollow life. But the truth remains: it’s not true at all. You love both your grandparents, consider them role models. Again, the excuses. All it is is this: You are wonderful, which causes you to be even prouder. No, you believe your accomplishments make you superior, causing your mind to subvert its thoughts into ones of praise, so nothing can go wrong, or at least unexcused. Which causes you to be even prouder.”
“No, you can’t—”
“Dad. Do you understand what I am capable of? I, the writer, can make us disappear from the face of the earth. I can cause the earth to flood, life to drown. This is futile, this incessant conscience. Your words may be permanent, but more of mine can cause them to be forgotten. You may burst into a million feathers, leaving us. I can be the only one left. Do you understand me? I can leave family, friends, everyone. I can be separated, gone from you all forever.”
“I can fix this. It will end with submission.”
“This, this is purgatory—"