What We Pieced Together About Our Father After His Death

A father needs to have a secret room to do whatever it is that a father does in his secret room, so ours turned the oil-changing pit (six feet deep, eight feet long, three-and-a-half feet wide) in the garage into his secret room. It is covered up by three long wooden boards, the outer two of which he would carefully place on the edges at the pit’s opening. The center board he never removed, only shifting just enough to fit himself. He filled his pit with National Geographic magazines dating back to 1936, rudimentary pencil sketches of our mother, dried walnut husks, hideous gremlin statues, various hand tools, and two inscribed World War II-era accordions. He used an aged kerosene lamp to read A Farewell to Arms, the only book we ever caught him reading. If the power went out during a storm, he would manually crank open the garage door, climb into his beloved 1989 red Ford Probe, flip on slick headlights which jutted out from the hood, reverse into the driveway, and park directly beneath the shoddy-but-sturdy plywood canopy he built himself just so he could manually crank the garage door closed and slip into the dark privacy of his oil-changing pit while rain and lightning raged beyond its cozy confines, to do whatever it is that a father does in his secret room.

 

(originally published in Dual Coast Magazine, Issue #2)

Every Time I Look

You sat alone in bed as the others filtered out. You did not inch away when I got close. You said hey so quietly I imagined it. Your head was on my shoulder like in a dream. I said, “I’m drunk.”  You were, too.

I felt the roughness of your jeans. Your fuzzy sweater clung to my arm. Your hairs brustled my cheek.

I said, “I like you.”

A chill inflicted the room when you told me I should have saved it for another time.

From bed I watched the rest of the party dissipate into vast, empty space.

 

(originally published in Microfiction Monday Magazine, #5)

Seaweed

There’s a monster out here. I gasp for air that suffocates my wheezing lungs.

I’m still alive? Drifting onward, towards the part of the sky not covered in lumpy blankets of gray, to a place of grass and underbrush and orb weavers. I hated spiders and the thought of their thick bodies and hairy legs squirming into my nose and mouth when I sleep. Now I don’t mind that thought, because if I close my eyes, the water will rush in and I’ll drown and something will eat me.

The waves caress and prune my body. Salt and dirt grind against me, beating against depleted legs. Can’t kick at the sea anymore, haven’t for days. So I wait with the rain for something, anything new.

There’s a foggy outline of a cargo liner in the distance. Every now and then I shout. Save me. Help. Goddamn it. Raspy whimpers marrying the sound of wind. Mostly I shout not to be heard, but to taste the saliva against my tongue, hoping for drips right off of my mouth to lick and savor. I can cup the spadefish or the black bass with my hands, but they wriggle away to their own meaningless lives, to become something else’s dinner. The salt we take in, we share.

In the left peripheral, something is watching me. But in the outer regions of my right eye, I notice the currents waft a snotty piece of wood an arm’s length away. Remnants from my sailboat? No, there’s no way. Right? Excruciatingly, I guide my abscessed eyes over to the piece, but my neck strains as my head turns and I cough out blood, the taste of iron and iodine sticking to my mouth. Not again. Everything is graying what’s going on maybe let’s close my eyes for a moment

***

Eyes open with a snort of water, against the stillness of rain. The red drop of blood on the surface expands, further putrefying the murky depths, amidst the gentle, beating pitter-patter rain drops from above.

Something clutches my leg like a blood pressure monitor deepens into its patient’s arm.

WHOOSH

A geyser of red and muck encompasses the shadowy blob that emerges from the water.

From the gray, the outline of the beast becomes more lucid, as the mist clears.

“Water mammal,” I rasp out.

Its wide, stone-carved teeth and twin, ivory tusks belittle its childish face. It lunges forward, arms spread wide.

And it embraces me, pinning me onto its lukewarm body between its tusks.

“Human,” Walrus says.

“How…” I mutter, my head pressed against its squishy chest. “Do you…”

“Eat seaweed,” Walrus bellows, toothing a wide grin as it lets me go and recedes. “Lots and lots of seaweed!”

Vision blurs. The creature spins around, dancing like a tornado before I lose sight of it. The waves rush around my head, overcoming me. Water splashes into my eyes. Clarity. A hazy block descending upon my head. I close my eyes and move my hands to bat it away but

***

Right eye open. Modest sushine. The left eye is cushy, bleeding, and stuck. A searing pain in my forehead; think of something else. My tongue is parched, its dryness manifesting splits shaping themselves as veins would spread on a dying leaf, yet I lick the parched skin around my lips, still tasting the blood around my lips. A reminder of life. Dizziness and more blackness.

Light. The walrus leaps into the air with gobs of seaweed in its hands. Suspended in mid-air, it crosses its flabby arms before subsequently jerking them wide. Out of his hands fall massive lots of algae, a murky waterfall of algae.

“Seaweed!” Walrus shouts again, remaining frozen from its point in the sky.

The faunas creep along the water towards me, as if they have legs or minds of their own. Various kelp drag onward and lily spores march with their armies.

Food.

I pain to grab a seaweed, open my mouth to more chapping lips and my right eye diverts to the walrus.

Nothing there. Gone. Not even a splash.

Back on the water, I look toward my food. Missing. Instead, small crustaceans slink toward me; their thick, white exoskeletons skulking closer; tinny white legs paddling nearer.. nearer…

Crawling onto my clothes. Trampling upon my skin. Hunger in their tiny eyes. As they squirm up my neck, my mouth remains suspended.

 

(initially published in October 10, 2013 in ‘100 Doors to Madness‘  [Forgotten Tomb Press])

Bee

“Floccinaucinihilipilification,” Danny repeats. “F – L – Um, can I have the word repeated?”

Christ, Danny. We went over this word last Thursday, thank God. It’s the longest non-scientific word in the English language. This one’s important, bud.

“Floccinaucinihilipilification,” restates Ronald Hanson, the word pronouncer with a fancy Ph.D.

I flip my blue, custom-hardcover Oxford dictionary to the F-words.

Danny fidgets with his thick, wire-framed glasses, which magnify his brown eyes even more on stage than they do normally. Patches of sweat on his cheeks and his forehead coat him like honey under the key light.

“F – L – O – um,” Danny starts. “Mr. Hanson, may I please have the definition?”

“Cut it out, Danny,” I mistakenly say out loud.

Megan leans over to whisper into my ear.

“Shut up, Daniel,” she softly but sternly says. “We don’t want anyone to think that he might be cheating.”

I push her face away.

“No one is going to notice us. There’s a kid spelling,” I quickly speak.

“Yes, hon,” she says, moving her mouth back to my ear. “But didn’t you notice that there are cameras on us, too?”

I push her head away and notice the kneeling cameraman at the side of our row pointing in our direction.

“Um, can I have a sentence, please?” Danny asks, rubbing his bright yellow cardboard identification number against his oversized, “official” yellow-and-brown striped polo.

“God damn it, Megan,” I loudly whisper. “You made me miss the official definition.”

“Oh well,” she whispers. I sense a tone of malignance in her voice. “You know what the word means already, so…”

“The official definition might be unclear. Or wrong.”

“You’re being ridiculous.”

“I’ve told you a thousand times the spelling bee is rigged. They probably want that ethnic girl to win.” The foreigners always win, ever since the year I should have won and before that, too.

“Would you shut the fuck up?”

I gasp and cover her mouth with my hand. “Shh! Language! There are kids around!”

A middle-aged woman with honey-brown hair in her “official” polo suddenly appears at my side.

“We’re going to have to ask you to keep it down,” she says through big, gritted teeth in the fakest smile I’ve seen. “Or leave.”

“Well, what definition did he give?” I say, pointing to Ronald.

“Excuse me?” the lady chokes out, her fake smile making way for a squinty glare.

A swift glance reveals that people are now looking in my direction. It almost seems like people are more interested in me than my spelling child.

“I said, what definition did you give?” I repeat, much louder, directly confronting the official reader. “In the interest of fairness, I want you to repeat that definition. I didn’t hear it.”

A couple of the judges at the long white table stare ineptly at Ronald, who shakes his head no.

Danny helps me out. He asks for the definition again. With hesitation, Ronald looks at his dictionary.

“Floccinaucinihilipilification. Noun. The estimation of something as valueless or worthless.”

The eyes of the audience watch me still. I glare at anyone who looks at me, but the definition Ronald gave me was word-for-word what it said in my dictionary, so I’m content enough to proceed with watching Danny spell the word correctly.

“Floccinaucinihilipilification,” Danny says quickly, wiping his sweaty, tear-soaked face. “F – L – O – C – C – I – N – A – U – C – I – N – I – H – I – L – I – P – I – L – I – F – I – C – A – T – I – O – um.”

Come on, Danny. Come on, buddy. Finish it. One more letter and we get to proclaim: Daniel Johnson, Jr.: Spelling Bee champion. I’m so proud of you. Just finish it. One more letter and we get to hold that beautiful trophy together and be happy for the rest of our lives. Wait, buddy, are you crying? What the hell?

The Oxford dictionary is gripped tightly in my hand, pollinated with sweat.

“Uh, floccinaucinihilipilification,” Danny finishes.

DING.

“Christ!” I shout, rapidly standing and throwing my massive dictionary in one swift motion. It hits the chair in front of me with a thud and crumples to the floor. The fat parent in front of me spins around and says something I don’t hear.

Megan pulls at my shirt. It takes all of my strength not to hit her, but the camera is on us. I sit down. The people grumbling and whispering around me can kiss my ass.

“Sure wish there was a bar in here, huh?” I chuckle to the parent sitting to my right, who has refused to acknowledge me this entire time. “Because of drinks?”

The only other contestant left in the contest, the girl, comes up to the microphone.

“Floccinaucinihilipilification,” Ronald pronounces again with his fancy Ph. D.

She pronounces it and spells it quickly and clearly into the microphone.

The ding of doom doesn’t sound.

“Congratulations to Ecchumati Nityusander, the 2009 National Spelling Bee Champion,” a voice says over the loud speaker. An old, shriveled-up woman hands the winner the coveted, golden, glistening, bee-shaped trophy. The object of every kid’s desire. The girl lifts it up above her head, glowing, smiling so wide the tears on her face feel wrong. If I ever had the chance to hold the trophy, I sure as hell wouldn’t cry.

Rowdy, deafening applause. I feel myself falling into a dizzy spell.

“Bullshit!” I shout.

Everyone seems to clap in spite of me. Even Megan claps. “What the hell is wrong with you?” She doesn’t hear me.

“Fuck this!” I can barely hear myself.

I leave my seat, nearly tripping on one of Megan’s annoying feet. But I don’t. The high I get from keeping my balance while feeling dizzy makes me feel like I have wings. I effortlessly fly to the front, getting on stage.

The excited roar from the audience turns into a confused, worried, murmur.

“You can’t even spell your own name!” I yell at the girl.

Her smile twists into a fearful grimace as I effortlessly wrestle away the trophy from the young teenage girl. The bronze statue! I’m holding it! I’m actually holding it!

It’s lighter than I expect. I run to Danny, who is still seated, face buried in his hands, sobbing.

“Do you want to hold it?” I ask him. He doesn’t look up. The trophy sticks to my hands from sweat.

I plant a kiss on the bee’s forehead. I linger. It tastes like that new penny smell. I lift it high above my head. I wrote a speech for this moment when I was eleven. Seeing the occasional camera flashes nearly brings me to tears.

There’s chaos up here. The cameras want to capture it. The officials want to stop it.

“Put the trophy down and get off stage,” a short security guard warns me.

“I’m finally living my dream,” I tell him.

The police filter in from the back.

I don’t have much time.

“Danny, why did you purposefully misspell that word?” I ask. Danny’s face is uncovered, but he still refuses to look at me.

Three policemen swarm onto the stage.

“Put the trophy down!” the large officer orders.

I hold it tightly.

“Because I didn’t think you deserved to win,” Danny finally answers.

The trophy is wrestled out of my possession effortlessly. My hands are cuffed. I watch an officer bring the prize back to the girl. She takes it into her arms and hugs it. The audience erupts into cheers, again to spite me.

Cavity of the Soul

“You have very nice teeth.”

Wayne’s eyes darted open. The forgotten pain from looking into the bright light above him for too long allowed him to focus on the dark shadow looming above him, the one with the dentist’s facemask, the one holding what could be incisors in his patient’s mouth, dry as sandpaper.

“I’m sorry, I seem to have taken you by surprise. I said you have very nice teeth,” Dr. Hakoum Gibran said, tapping slowly on one of Wayne’s bottom teeth. “Has anyone ever told you that?”

Wayne let out a noise etched from the depth of his throat, the most complicated sound he could muster with the man’s finger in addition to a pointed metal object in his mouth.

“I have very nice teeth, too,” said Hakoum. The doctor took his finger out of Wayne’s mouth but kept the metallic thing in there, resting. He used his now free hand to pry his own mask away from his face.

His mouth now shown, Hakoum flashed a smile. His mouth stretched out as a rubber band would with fingers pulling it apart to meet the ends of his face, revealing perfect white teeth in aligned harmony within the unreal oval.

Wayne nodded his head as much as he could. Rather, he tilted his head an inch up and, through sheer discomfort, immediately back down onto his head’s initial resting place.

Hakoum covered his face back up and took the utensil out of Wayne’s mouth. The disheveled patient quickly used this opportunity to close his mouth for a short second of respite, trying his best not to swallow in his parched state.

“Hey man, just clean my teeth,” Wayne said.

“When was the first time I cleaned your teeth?” Hakoum asked, spinning the utensil in his hands.

“This is the first time. My regular dentist retired,” Wayne blurted out. “Sorry. I haven’t had my coffee yet.”

Wayne pretended to yawn but his hand was covered by a bib, making it difficult to cover his own mouth. As a result, his mouth hung limp for a few seconds before closing back up.

Hakoum adjusted the light to flash more brightly in Wayne’s eyes. He could only squint now. His mouth curved into a disgruntled frown.

“That’s funny,” Hakoum said, puzzled. “I recognize you when you squint and shudder with your eyes. It’s probably nothing. Open wide.”

Wayne opened quickly. Time is molasses in the dentist’s chair.

“It’s a problem I have,” Hakoum spoke as he tapped at Wayne’s teeth. “I’m always remembering patients I’ve never had.”

“Ouuaghh ahh,” Wayne blurted out, best he could with his mouth being worked on.

“Who was your previous dentist, if you don’t mind me asking?”

Wayne was done answering questions with his powerless mouth.

Hakoum one-handedly tapped on different teeth like an incompetent man playing a xylophone.

After a sufficient number of clinks, Hakoum took the tool out of his patient’s mouth.

“You can answer now,” the doctor said.

Wayne closed his eyes to relax himself, to stop himself from kicking Hakoum in the teeth. “Ken Burns.”

A few seconds passed before Wayne opened his eyes. What he saw was Hakoum doubled over on a chair, head down, sweat gathering in beads on his neck.

Hakoum ripped off the mask covering his mouth.

“I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry,” Hakoum chanted.

Wayne lifted his head up to try and get a better grasp on what exactly was happening in this little nook. “What’s wrong?”

Hakoum’s face was a fiery red when he looked up. “Dr. Burns passed away after retirement. I’m so sorry.”

Wayne sat up fully now.

“Dang,” Wayne said, his fingers adjusting his brown, plastic-framed glasses. “That is depressing. Wow.”

“I’m so, so, so, sorry,” Hakoum descended upon his patient, giving him a tight squeeze.

“It’s okay. Really,” Wayne blurted out, startled. He did not encourage the hug. He didn’t wrap his arms around his dentist. He let the hug be. “We really weren’t that close. He was just my dentist. I didn’t know him.”

Hakoum ended the hug, leaving the room unexpectedly.

Wayne thought about following the doctor, but thought it best to wait it out.

He looked around the room. Ads for teeth whitening. Ads for root canals. Ads for everything tooth-related. Do you or someone you know suffer from a bad smile?

Walls adorned with children’s pictures. Crayon-colored people stepping into a yellow tooth-shaped house, nearby other tooth-shaped houses, sitting atop pink, gum-like grass.  A humanoid, plaque-free molar with teeth for eyes and a similarly plaque-free smile. A dentist drilling into the mouth of a patient, red blood spurting everywhere. “Anything for my teeth.” -Brandon, Age 9.

Wayne was in a daze, staring at these images, his mouth numb, each of his teeth aching to the core, feeling the emptiness in the spaces between his teeth…

 ***

Hakoum came back into the room, wiggling a small white bag labeled Colgate. The bag’s dance brought Wayne again to the land of the living.

“So, I have a goodie bag for you. Floss, toothpaste, and a toothbrush. Excited?” Hakoum continued shaking the bag as if he now had a wild case of Parkinson’s.

“Oh,” Wayne snapped out of his daze. “Yeah. Of course.”

“One condition,” Hakoum continued.

Wayne nodded for him to proceed.

“Your teeth, while incredibly glamorous on the outside, are very, very ill.”

“What does that mean?!” The aches in Wayne’s teeth began to throb.

“There’s a small hole in your teeth that we need to take care of. Probably as soon as possible.”

“You mean a cavity?” Wayne rubbed his right cheek.

“Yes,” the doctor answered. “Can you come back tomorrow morning?”

“Is it that much of a concern? It’s just one cavity, in one tooth, right? I work tomorrow.”

Hakoum sat down. He no longer shook the bag, but now he shook his head slowly, depressedly, and said, “A cavity today, gingivitis tomorrow.”

“Well, that seems a bit of an extreme to me, doc.”

Hakoum shrugged. “Maybe it is. You’re right. Right now the hole is tiny, but tomorrow it will be a little bigger. Every day, the plaque eats away just a little bit more of your teeth. The hole gets bigger, little by little. You don’t even realize you’re losing anything. Everything’s fine. But then one day you wake up and all your teeth are black. You’re errantly submerging your mouth in Listerine, trying to reverse the effects of negligence but still your teeth fall out of your mouth, to become food for worms, if you’re lucky enough not to choke on a tooth that dislodges from your gum and slips into your throat while you sleep. Suddenly, the empty space occupying the cavity is bigger than itself. No longer self-contained. And there you sit helplessly on a park bench in a big, lousy city, regretting your life, regretting that you didn’t do what was healthy — what was right — though mildly inconvenient, your mouth dry as puck despite your excessive salivation, waiting for the next charitable person to walk by and save you with porridge or baby formula or some other crap food that you’re able to swallow. That is dentistry.”

The aches in Wayne’s mouth pulsated, panning from one side to the other.

Hakoum slowly moved his hand with the goodie bag close to his patient. The bag dangled close to Wayne’s face. “So, Wayne, will you be in tomorrow?”

The dentist’s previously perfect white teeth looked yellow and crooked in dimmer light.

Wayne quaked. He could hardly stand to sit in the dentist chair anymore. He took the goodie bag into his hand.