Famine or (Get the Hell Outta Here While You Still Can) [excerpt] – Joshua Rodriguez
August 15, 2019
The thing about dad is he’s always been distant. Ken and I never had much of a relationship with him. But I swear he was different before he was reduced to rubble. Before the factory shut down and jobs evaporated the way crops do in a famine. Suddenly and without warning. He worked on an assembly line. Like his dad did. Like he probably wanted us to do. But that’s speculation. Conjecture. He never talked to us about the future really. I think it was too hard to confront. Like staring at the sun too long.
Dad always liked drinking. Everyone in town did. They still do I guess. But it’s different now. It’s not about enjoyment anymore. It’s about necessity. About severing connectivity with the outside world because it’s too hard and mean and unforgiving. It’s about conjuring your own eclipse to block it out. It’s about feeling abandoned. Because everyone seems to feel like that these days. Like discarded scraps of food left out for crows to pick at. So the contempt calcifies while we sit and brood.
I guess it got to be too much. The stress and consequent despair. I’m not condoning what he did. How he neglected us. How he got rough with us after a few drinks. How he treated mom. All I’m saying is I get it. I guess. He was victimized too in his own way.
He was sold a dream. From a young age it was instilled in him. Engrained in him. That there was a particular way of living. A particular quality of life. And it was all attainable. Happiness. Fulfillment. Et cetera. And then they just took it away from him. Just like that. Because we’re a nation of Indian givers that way: we’re fed empty promises as counterfeit sustenance.
And then The Dream is ripped from us. They reclaim it. And we’re discarded. Consumed and excreted. Like a bowel movement that follows a bender. Expelled. Into the dank margins. The detritus and dregs. Like hard and jagged truths. It’s easier to sequester us than confront what we represent. The cultural failures we epitomize.
Everything’s divested of meaning in a world unilaterally opposed to you and your success and happiness. I’m not making excuses for the bastard.
For dad. I did that enough when I was a kid. Before I learned that he was just a mean drunk asshole. I internalized everything. I blamed myself. I’m just saying: who wouldn’t be altered by that kinda thing? Who wouldn’t emerge angry and broken, scarified and mutilated, after that kinda devastation?
Sometimes all people can pass down is pain. It’s what happens when the world despoils you of anything of value. When the factories shut down and jobs go extinct and no one gives a flying fuck. The world keeps spinning on its nauseating axis. And you’re left in its wake. Like road kill. When you have mouths to feed and no means to do so. When this insatiable wanting hijacks your sensibilities. When everything manufactured is devoid of any real meaning. When authenticity and hope and heart are annexed somewhere out of reach. And everything starts feeling like static. Flat and vapid and insubstantial.
When everything manufactured is designed to be discarded and replaced in shorter and shorter interims. When heirlooms become obsolete. When the only heirloom a person has to bequeath is a collocation of cultural traumas. Abandonment. Abasement. And that’s all we ever got from dad I suppose. A whole lot of trauma and hurt. And not much else. But it ain’t like he had much else to offer.
But he was kinder once. Like the sun before it sets. When the sky is all red and orange and purple fragments. Lurid tectonics shifting. And then the world did what it always does with staggering efficiency—it reconstituted him. It turned him mean and dark and unresponsive. Sometimes I wonder what intercepted him first: the world’s insidious forces or the bottle? But that’s mostly an exercise in futility. It doesn’t make a damn difference really.
I don’t want to absolve him. That’s not what this is. He damn sure had an acumen for malice. A preternatural ability to dole out the devastation he was inundated with. To displace it. Onto Ken and me. But sometimes it makes me wonder what forces molded him into the monster he became. Sometimes I wonder what precipitated that ungodly metamorphosis. Because monsters aren’t born. They’re created.
I remember vividly. When we were kids. Ken was outside playing by himself. I was watching TV. Cartoons probably. My memory of the furniture in that apartment is all grey blurs. Cold and unwelcoming.
We didn’t have family photos hanging on the wall or displayed on end tables. We don’t really have photographs from our childhood. I guess mom and dad didn’t think we were worth commemorating. But I can’t blame them. I mostly concur. Or maybe they didn’t want reminders of a time we were happy. Innocent. Maybe it was like setting a standard they couldn’t achieve. Or maybe dad was just too drunk to give a damn about that kind of thing.
Dad was sitting on the couch. Drinking beer. And Ken barreled through the door crying. His legs were bloody. They were all cut up. It was the first time I saw blood like that. Juxtaposed against his white soft skin. Dad looked stunned. Like he was actually concerned. It galvanized him from his seat. I knew it was serious because dad actually got involved.
“What the hell happened?” Dad asked.
“They hurt me,” Ken wailed.
“I was out playing and these two boys chased and caught me,” Ken spoke in spurts between sobs.
“Who?” Dad was incensed. “What boys?”
“I don’t know.”
“What did they do to you?” Dad asked.
“They cut my legs up with pocket knives,” he said.
“Motherfuckers!” Something detonated in dad. He took a drink of beer. But he didn’t once try to console Ken. To comfort him. He never did. Like he was priming us for an unjust world. A world that waits around the corner until you’re vulnerable and then jumps out and attacks you. Like a mugger. Dad turned to me and gave me the directive: “Go out and find them. Bring them back.”
I didn’t say anything. I nodded my head and ran out the door. I didn’t even know who I was looking for. I just knew I had to find them. To bring them to dad. Where he would enact punitive measures. Probably disproportionately. He wasn’t a judicious guy.
Ken told me years later he made the story up. That he was playing and saw an empty, discarded fish tank by the side of a house. He wanted to stand on it. He didn’t know why. The impulse surged through him. He said he remembered hearing it crack. Like the sound ice makes in tepid fluid. Then he fell through it. The shattered glass cut his leg. He didn’t want to get in trouble is all. That’s why he lied. Why I was sent chasing nonexistent culprits. For vindication. Retribution. The shadow of retribution. A retribution that didn’t exist. Like I was hunting for Bigfoot.
When Ken told me this it broke my heart for some reason. Though it didn’t change anything. And I suppose things aren’t that different now. I’m still spending my life chasing the shadows of a dead or dying dream. A dead or dying truth. So I guess the apple doesn’t fall too far. I’m still chasing something I can’t articulate. Something that probably doesn’t exist. Propelled by my father for better or worst. And the motherfucker of it all is I don’t even think I’d recognize it if I stumbled across it.
I guess that’s what I inherited from dad. Hopelessness. Aimlessness. Emptiness.
But what the fuck do I know?
Ken calls late at night. I’m half offended he isn’t concerned about waking me. But he knows I’ll be up. It’s something we share. Something inherited from our father. Staying up into the capacious hours of early morning. When there’s plenty of room for sad drunk thoughts that proliferate like houseflies. Hatching eggs and buzzing around my head. Keeping me up unconscionable hours.
“Hello?” He says.
“Hello?” I don’t recognize him. He’s quiet.
“Is that you Ken?” I ask.
“Jesus,” I say, neither excitedly nor disappointedly. “It’s been a while.”
“Yeah,” he says. “It has.”
I don’t even know him anymore. Time and distance did a number on us. And there isn’t anything as corrosive as time once it starts wearing on you. His voice sounds haggard and worn out like a discarded leather jacket. I can practically smell the booze on his breath through the telephone. But I’m drunk too. We’re our father’s children after all.
“How’ve you been?” I ask awkwardly.
“Good. Just getting by. I have a kid now.”
“It’s been that long, huh?”
“It’s been that long.”
“Who’d you knock up? Sarah?”
“We split a while back.”
“That’s a shame. I liked her.”
“You met her once. For an hour. Before being kicked out our apartment for being too shitfaced.”
“Oh yeah,” a surge of shame rushes through me. I’d managed to expunge that memory. “I’m sorry about that, by the way.”
“It’s OK,” he laughs. “She was real uptight. I’m surprised we lasted as long as we did. I wasn’t any better.”
I laugh. I don’t know why. Mostly because it makes the whole ordeal a little easier on me. I’d like to think it makes him easier on him, too. Reconnecting has never been our strong suit. Our pedigree is more talented at severing ties and drifting apart.
“So who’s your Baby Mama?” I ask.
“Sherrel. You haven’t met her.”
“You guys tie the knot?”
“It didn’t work out.”
“Our family’s never been good at that kind of thing. It’s not in our blood I guess.”
“Yeah,” he sounds bummed I reminded him of our inherited inadequacies.
There’s a maudlin silence before Ken lightens up a little. “But the kid’s a real piece of work,” he says.
“Yeah, he looks just like me,” he says proudly. “But he makes some faces you make. Or used to, anyway. It’s a trip.”
“I probably still make them.”
“He started to walk. He’s trying to talk, too, but it’s just garbled noise.”
I light a cigarette.
“It’s like he has a lot to say but doesn’t know how to say it.”
“Don’t we all?”
He’s quiet. Thoughtful, even. Silence always gives a person away.
“But I don’t see him much,” he sounds small and spent. “As much as I want to. Or should, I guess. I only see him on weekends. Hell, I haven’t seen him in a couple of months. Every time I see him he’s more and more of a stranger.”
“That’s a shame.”
“I mean, I wanna see him. It’s just—” he sighs. “I don’t know.”
“I get it.”
“I just don’t feel like I live up to the standard.”
“The dad standard.”
“We never really had one to show us the ropes, huh?”
“I guess he only taught us the rudiments of drinking,” I take a protracted drag.
“I still have his flask.”
“It’s real pretty if I’m being honest.”
We’re quiet for a while. “What about Jane?” he asks eventually.
“And the baby?”
“The baby split, too. With Jane. I wasn’t in a position to care for her,” I start getting this strange, lonesome feeling I’m usually able to eclipse with a few drinks. “I’m still not in a position to care for her if I’m being honest.”
“Was it the drinking that did y’all in?”
“I guess. Probably.”
“It’s always the drinking.”
We’re quiet. I open a beer. There’s a case on my coffee table. My apartment is sparsely furnished and filthy. Dirty laundry and empty cans and bottles and garbage and dirty dishes cover every surface. The white walls are blemished by years of negligence.
“What the hell happened to us?” Ken asks.
“Beats the hell outta me.”
“I have this one vivid memory from our childhood,” he says. “Sometimes I dream about it, but I mostly just think about it. We were living in that shitty apartment complex. Wood Creek Apartments.”
“That place was a shithole,” I laugh.
“Mom was outside doing something. Taking out the trash or whatever. She left the door open. It was one of those shitty doors that locks when you close them because they’ve been slammed so much.”
“They were piss poor excuses for doors.”
“I remember them spreading like cancer through the whole complex because people kept slamming them. Like a contagion of broken homes. Or some shit.”
“I guess,” I say.
“Anyway,” he continues, “I ended up climbing out of the play pen and over the baby gate. I was mobile as hell. Remember that?”
“Still are I bet.”
“Barely,” he says through a hoarse laugh, “but I managed to reach the door and close it. So it’s just you and me locked inside and mom can’t open the damn thing. She’s freaking out.”
“She did that a lot.”
“We worried her.”
“Probably shaved a few years off her life.”
“I miss her something awful.”
“I do, too,” I say, “but she probably doesn’t miss us. Wherever she is. Remember how mean and distant she got before she offed herself?”
“Let’s not talk about that right now,” he says. “I don’t wanna talk about that.”
“Anyway,” he says, “she eventually managed to call the cops and have them help her get into the apartment. And she’s at the back window telling you to move all the dirty laundry from the couch to her room. To straighten up around the house. Before the cops arrived. You remember how she was about impressions and presentation.”
“I swear she had OCD.”
“Probably,” he laughs a genuine laugh I haven’t heard since I can remember. Probably since we were kids.
“Meanwhile, I’m in the kitchen,” he says. “I have the fridge open and I see the food. I wanna surprise her with dinner. I wanna cook her something real nice. She always took such good care of us that I wanted to take care of her. At least back then she did. Best of intentions, right?”
“You always were a sweet kid,” I say. There’s something sad about the words as they vacate my mouth. How the heartbreaking past-tense and harrowing present circumstances of our lives coalesce.
“So I spread everything out across the floor. All the food I can manage to pull out of the refrigerator. And then the cops eventually arrive and help her enter. I remember that you cleaned up real nice. You were damn proud of it too. But when they found me, I was on the kitchen floor with all the food spread out at my feet. Considering the endless culinary opportunities.”
“I remember that,” I say. “Feels like a lifetime ago.”
“It’s pretty much been a lifetime.”
He’s quiet. I hear him refilling a glass. Humming to himself. Just like he did when we were kids and he made a PB & J sandwich or poured milk into his cereal.
“Mom said the cops didn’t consider it an emergency and didn’t want to help at first.”
“I took the eggs to my room, though,” he says. “I hid them around the house. I wanted to see them hatch.”
“Did they?” I ask like I don’t know the answer for some reason. I don’t know why. Like I’m hoping against hope that the past can be amended. Because sometimes I feel like it’s too late. That if the past can’t be amended then I’ll be destined to reside in this private piece of oblivion I’ve carved out for myself.
“No,” he says. “We sat or stepped on them all.”
“Damn,” is all I can articulate.
“What the hell happened to us?”
“I don’t know,” I sigh. “I don’t fuckin’ know.”
“Once upon a time I was happy.”
“That doesn’t count for a whole lot right now.”
“Once upon a time used to mean something.”
“Now it’s just an empty promise.”
“I think empty promises are all I have to offer these days.”
“I guess it ain’t so bad,” I feel like crying. So I guzzle my beer and open another. “Empty promises spin this damn world on its axis.”
There’s a long silence. I can tell his drunk brain is turning inward. And then he says it: “Oh yeah. Dad’s dead. Aunt Claire told me. I’m taking a greyhound down to meet you so we can drive together to take care of his affairs.”
I don’t say anything. I light another cigarette and lean back in the couch concaving from all the nights I sat up drinking alone and staring at the wall while my mind slowly faded to black. Tufts of cotton stick out of the cushions. We wrap up the conversation, but I don’t remember much of what we said. I just kept thinking about how plain and flat he announced it. And how I couldn’t hold it against him.