Danny didn’t hear the whimper inside the house when he opened the screen door. The door swung shut behind him, and the whimper stopped almost immediately, which, had he heard it, might have made Danny wonder if whatever was moaning preferred not to be discovered. But Danny was with Sasha who had just picked him up from LAX and driven him back to his dad’s house in Redondo Beach. Sasha, like Danny, was seventeen, and she was talking about the way the moon made her feel less anxious if she looked at it long enough, and he wanted to kiss her. He was not listening to the house because it was supposed to be empty.
His dad, according to his characteristically [No Subject] e-mail, had left for a retreat three days before Danny returned from Ecuador. Per his parents’ custody agreement, Danny spent his summers with his mom. He’d spent the first seven weeks volunteering for an NGO that was helping Andean villages implement sanitation systems, and he’d spent the last ten days in Quito getting stoned with his mom, going to museums, and watching movies starring Pauly Shore.
His dad would be gone for two months maybe three, which sounded like a really long time, even for his dad who, since he’d sold his contracting firm and stopped drinking alcohol, had traveled twice to India for month-long meditation seminars. His dad said that this retreat was particularly important, and that he’d left plenty of $$$ for Danny in the kitchen drawer where he kept the German knives that were designed for cutting meat. He also said that he hadn’t had a drink in 451 days and that God was Danny’s friend even if Danny didn’t, presently, want to be friends with God. Danny had thought that was odd—not his dad claiming God was his friend; he often said things like that—but that he’d put the money, folded between two blue rubber bands, beside the knives. Three of these knives, Danny noticed, were missing.
That’s a lot of money, Sasha said.
Danny nodded. He didn’t want to count the bills in front of her, so he stuffed them into his pocket and asked Sasha if it was okay if he took a quick shower. He felt dirty after traveling, and he was sweating. It was past midnight, but it was August, and the night was warm.
Of course, Sasha said.
In the shower, Danny felt free of worry and hesitation, which he attributed to the lingering effects of the fried-egg-and-psilocybin-mushroom sandwich that his mom had given him in the taxi on the way to the airport. She wanted to make her son’s flight more interesting, and, ideally, to guide him towards making a better decision about where to go to college, and if he would play football there. The clouds had gathered beside Danny’s passenger window and slowly transformed into a group of angels with demonic horns, or demons with angelic faces, he hadn’t been sure, but it hadn’t mattered what they were, his heart had been open and accepting towards them, as they’d watched him with the mute curiosity of manatees he’d once observed slowly swimming down a river on a trip to Florida when his parents were still together.
Danny watched the water from the shower bubble at his feet, and he thought about when the Earth was just a vast, steaming puddle of amoebas. He touched his face, and he felt grateful that his cheeks were wet. He cupped his hands around his ears and tried to listen to the blood circulating in his fingers. Danny couldn’t hear the blood, but he felt comforted by the knowledge that it was there, under his skin, migrating in patterns predetermined by his DNA. He kissed each of his palms and said thank you.
Sasha stepped into the shower. She didn’t say anything. She was naked, and he noticed a pink scar on the rib closest to her heart. The scar was vaguely shaped like the symbol for infinity. She looked shy and more than a little uncomfortable. Danny kissed the infinity-shaped scar, and Sasha took his hand and placed it on her breast. Danny felt her nipple grow firmer under his fingers. Sasha brought his face in front of her face, cradling his chin, so that he was looking directly into her eyes that seemed to be pleading, asking him, with an urgency that was scary because it was wordless and impossible to hide, to please, please accept her exactly as she was. Her mouth was warmer than the water.
Danny had hooked up with Sasha only once before. They’d made out, and she’d given Danny a hand job on an inflatable couch behind a garage at a party he’d attended the night before he left for Ecuador. They had enough mutual friends that they waved when they saw each other at school, and they’d talked a few times at lunch, mostly about music and having unpredictable, divorced parents. She was slim and very tall, taller than he was, close to 6’1″. Danny thought she wasn’t so much pretty as fierce looking in a way that gave him an instant erection, with dark hair that she kept cropped above her ears, and eyes that were always circled with mascara, and made Danny think of glaciers surrounded by volcanic ashes. Her parents were Jewish engineers from Belarus, but her mom now taught at a Waldorf school in Santa Cruz and lived on a Hare Krishna farm. Her dad designed robot drones for Raytheon in El Segundo and coached her little brother’s soccer team. Danny’s older sister, Josefina—people called her Jo—had recently joined the Marines in an effort to stop doing cocaine.
Four days after the party, Danny had sent Sasha an e-mail, telling her about Ecuador, the clean air in the Andes, a kind man nicknamed Murciélago—The Bat—on account of his ability to jump freakishly high while playing goalie, an e-mail that was really a roundabout way of gauging whether Sasha might be more interested in him than just drunkenly messing around. Two weeks passed, by which time Danny had assumed she wasn’t interested, when Sasha wrote him two e-mails that she sent within seven hours of each other. In the first e-mail, she wrote about her day working at Cold Stone Creamery, during which she hot-boxed the freezer then felt incredibly paranoid, like her customers were Nazi scientists who were going to take her back through time to the gas chambers of 1943. She then wrote that she wanted to get to know Danny better, and that she had recently moved up from a B-cup to a C-cup, and that her breasts wanted to be squeezed, preferably gently—she’d attached a picture of herself wearing a tube-top that said Yummy. In the second e-mail, she apologized for her first message, and told Danny that she was mortified by what she’d written, that she became a different person when she drank too much, that she wasn’t some dumb ho. She wrote about the books she’d read that summer, and gave Danny a detailed synopsis of two novels, one by Colette, the other by Phillip K. Dick, that, even though he now knew exactly what would happen in these books, he still wanted to read, which he thought was a testament to Colette and Dick’s respective imaginations. In the third e-mail, she sent Danny a questionnaire, and she said that he had to answer each question, truthfully, if he ever wanted to take her out on a real date. The questions included: Do you love your mom more than you love your dad, or vice versa? Do you have life goals? Do you believe in having life goals? What is your spirit animal? If I told you that I think football is barbaric, would you still want to go out with me? How many times have you masturbated to the picture I sent? Have you ever wanted to die? Do you believe in God? How big is your dick? Danny answered each of these questions—it took him five days to respond to them all, because he wanted to be thorough, and because there was only one computer that volunteers, like Danny, shared at the NGO headquarters. Sasha e-mailed him back that she wanted to pick him up from the airport, which Danny thought was a wonderful idea.
After they finished showering and dried off, and Sasha put on a pair Danny’s boxers and his Minor Threat T-shirt, Danny found some chocolate ice cream in the freezer. While they ate it, dipping their spoons directly into the carton, they talked about atoms drifting through the universe and forming new worlds for no apparent reason and how, in approximately 7.5 billion years, the Sun would absorb the Earth in an enormous fiery hug. Sasha used the word hug, which Danny thought was great.
He hugged Sasha, and told her this. She kissed his forehead then looked at him in her pleading way, and told him that though he was stronger than she was she was taller and a very good fighter, and she would kick his ass if he ever hurt her. Danny laughed, and told her what his newest stepdad, Humberto, a Mexican diplomat and an old family friend from Guadalajara with whom his mom had reconnected on Facebook, had said to Danny earlier that week. Danny had thanked him for taking good care of his mom. And, in a contemplative tone, Humberto, very stoned, had told Danny that it was easy to take good care of someone when you loved them. Danny thought that was a beautiful thing to say, and Sasha agreed with him. Danny said that he wanted to take good care of the people he loved.
The next day, after Sasha left, Danny didn’t hear any whimpering, but he heard the sound of a flushing toilet. The flushing seemed to be coming from inside the house even though Danny wasn’t in the bathroom. Danny told himself that the flushing must have been coming from one of his next-door neighbors, that it just was echoing in a weird way so that it sounded like it was coming from his own house. He studied the playbook that his football coach had e-mailed him—Hell Week, the fourteen days of three-a-day practices would start tomorrow—and Danny made himself a chicken-and-black-bean burrito for lunch. While he ate it, he watched a documentary about drag queens in Brazil who all seemed to approach the world with the sort of understated courage and dark sense of humor that comes from surviving extended hardship. Danny fell asleep on the couch and dreamt of a girl named Lisa he’d had a crush on when he was in eighth grade—she’d gone to a different high school, where, he’d recently heard, she’d gotten into heroin. In the dream, the sky was green, and Lisa was scratching at her arms and telling him about a birthday party she’d had when she was ten years old. She couldn’t remember anything that had happened at her party, other than that someone had given her a boa constrictor that she’d named Lucy Liu.
His phone rang and woke him up. It was Sasha, and she was on her lunch break at Cold Stone. They talked about the nature of fate and how she was thinking about applying to nursing school, which Danny told her sounded cool.
Then Sasha suggested that they play a game that wasn’t really a game, but she didn’t know what else to call it. All it required was that they take turns saying words that made them happy. She said the only rule was that you couldn’t think about what you were going to say, you just needed to say the first thing that popped into your head that made you feel better. She said Danny had to start.
Danny said, Sea turtle.
Sasha said, Orange Julius.
He said, Woody Guthrie.
She said, Dildo.
When Sasha said she had to go back to work, Danny told her how much he liked this game. He didn’t tell her that he was writing each word down on the back of a flier for a Tai Chi class that he’d found on the kitchen counter. He wanted to save these words for a day that he needed them more.
Two days later, Danny drove home to pick up a case of Gatorade for his teammates before the final afternoon practice began. He heard the whimpering sound as soon as he stepped into the house. He was in a hurry, but the sound was unsettling, especially since, now that he was listening, it was clear that the sound was coming from inside the house. Danny quickly realized that its origin was somewhere below him. He walked down the nine wooden steps—he knew how many there were, because he’d helped his dad build them—into the basement. He was no longer tired. His adrenal glands had released their hormones, and he felt very awake. The sound was more distinct in the basement, and the whimper became the hiccupping of sobs, the sound of someone trying to stop himself from crying. Danny looked around the small space that, besides a few cardboard boxes stacked against a wall, was empty—Danny’s dad believed in keeping his material belongings as minimal and organized as possible. The noise seemed to be coming from inside the boxes. Danny walked towards them, and the sound became louder. He moved the boxes, listening to three of them, marked XMAS LIGHTS, TAXES, and JO’S STUFF, before he realized that the sound was coming from the floor. Danny moved the boxes—there were eight—to the other side of the room, and then he pressed his ear against the concrete. The sobbing had stopped, but now he distinctly heard a person breathing on the other side. There was no visible door, but, after Danny felt around the floor, he discovered a metal ring painted the same color as the concrete near the wall. He pulled on the ring, and opened a trapdoor.
Danny climbed down a ladder, and there, in a room that was roughly six by six feet squared, was his dad sitting in a battered office chair beside a toilet that, like the trapdoor, Danny didn’t know existed. A single light bulb hung from a cord. His dad’s eyes were closed, but it was clear that he was the one making the whimpering sounds. His dad pretended not to notice, or literally didn’t sense, that Danny was there.
Danny looked at his dad. He was thin and pale, and, beyond the fact that his dad had been in the house, hiding since Danny had returned from Ecuador, Danny realized something else was very wrong. There were plastic jugs of water and cans of black beans stacked in a systematic-seeming ring around the room. There was a simple metal stool directly in front of the office chair. There was a medium-sized Tupperware container sitting on this stool. Things were moving inside the Tupperware. The Tupperware had a red lid.
Danny tried to think of red things—his favorite pants, the ends of flames—so that he didn’t have to think about the things that were moving in the Tupperware, and what else was inside it.
Dad, Danny said. What’s going on?
His dad didn’t respond. He kept his eyes closed. Danny looked at his dad’s hands. There was gauze secured over where his left pinky had been with Band-Aids that were decorated with cartoon horses. Danny noticed a first-aid kit near his bare feet.
Dad, Danny said. What happened to your hand?
Danny looked at the Tupperware. He opened the red lid, and the smell overwhelmed him. The things moving inside it were maggots. The maggots were moving over a finger, his dad’s finger, and consuming the flesh that now only partially covered the bones.
Danny vomited into the toilet. He felt overcome by the feeling that he was standing alone on one of those planet-sized meteors, hurtling through space in this room with his dad. He felt so distant from the practice that he needed to return to in less than fifteen minutes. He tried to think about football, about where he needed to be during a Cover 2, if he was supposed to play man-to-man with the running back or with the slot receiver. He thought about other red things. Christmas candles. Cardinals. Cherry-flavored popsicles. He looked at his father, then at the finger, then at the maggots. He put the red lid back on the Tupperware. He shook his dad’s shoulders. His shoulders were warm, but his dad refused to open his eyes.
In the car, on his way back to football practice, Danny focused on a group of pretty middle-aged women jogging in a pack down the sidewalk. They wore tiny shorts that made their legs look longer. Danny focused on the clouds passing over him and the Mahler symphony he was listening to on a classical radio station.
He thought about his dad’s mysterious charisma. He thought about how, even though his dad seemed obviously depressed to anyone who spent more than thirty minutes with him, Danny’s friends all liked him, their parents liked him, the lady with buzzed hair who delivered their mail liked him, etc., etc. Danny thought about watching Eraserhead with his dad when Danny was eight, and how his dad had repeated throughout the movie, You see, Dan, everything is possible.
Danny thought about a conversation he’d had with his dad shortly after his dad had stopped drinking. His dad had sounded like a college student who had just eaten acid for the first time. He was talking about misperceptions of madness and enlightenment. His dad had said something like, Insane is a highly contested word, Dan, based on the unhealthy and limited conceptions of the status quo, but you already knew that. Then they’d walked to Baskin-Robbins. His dad had seemed so energized, and Danny had mistaken his enthusiasm for a budding happiness.
Danny didn’t call Sasha that night. He didn’t shower or talk to any of his teammates after practice. He drove east, away from the ocean, through neighborhoods where every window was covered with bars. He felt complicit in an ugly crime spree. But what was he supposed to do? Wasn’t it more humane to allow his dad to destroy himself in private? Was it bad that he didn’t care to involve police or mental health professionals? Danny didn’t want his dad to be made a spectacle.
He thought about how he would respond to authorities if they asked him, later, why he hadn’t told anyone about his dad, but Danny couldn’t come up with any reasonable answers. He would take care of his dad—it was that simple. Taking care of him, as best as he could, seemed like the right thing to do, even if Danny couldn’t explain why.
Danny drove to Trader Joe’s and purchased frozen products that his dad liked. He microwaved chicken pot stickers while he unloaded the groceries into the refrigerator. He brought the pot stickers down to his dad on a yellow plate his sister had made, years ago, while taking a ceramics class—he hoped that the plate would remind his dad of people who loved him. Danny swept the tiny room. He told his dad about practice and about Sasha. He didn’t look at the finger covered with maggots, but he wrapped it in several paper towels and buried it in a hole in the backyard. He rinsed the Tupperware thoroughly with bleach, and, because he thought it was a kind of emblem for his dad, he brought it back downstairs.
Sasha’s voice was deep—it would be described as husky, if people still used that word—and it gave, Danny thought, everything she talked about, even the names of corporate retailers like Target or Costco, a certain weight. Maybe Danny was in love with her, because everything she said seemed to be layered with significance. Oh, Sasha, Danny thought, my father is cutting off his fingers in a secret room below the basement, and I’m falling for you. His English teacher was talking about Thoreau, about some mystical vision Thoreau had had while watching sand erupt in streams from snowbanks melting along a train track, how the streams of sand matched the form of the tree branches hanging over them, and how the leaves were a perfect model of the world, or something like that. Danny thought Thoreau was a huge pussy in comparison with his dad.
When class ended, he called Sasha’s phone, even though he knew she kept it turned off during school. Danny wanted to hear her voicemail greeting: It’s Sasha—maybe I’ll call you back. After he called her seven times in rapid succession, his mind, for at least the next half-hour, remained mostly still. He did this, between each of his classes, in an effort to keep himself sane until he saw her at lunch.
Later that day, Sasha picked Danny up from football practice, and Danny wished that the clouds would release a torrent of rain. He wanted to do something gallant for Sasha, something along the lines of holding his sweatshirt over her to keep her dry, and then, if God returned to His Old Testament vindictiveness and ordered the rain to continue for days, Danny would find a canoe and paddle with Sasha through the flooded urban sprawl, and they would save the shivering and hypothermic stranded on their rooftops, together, holding hands throughout the disaster. Danny didn’t tell Sasha about his dad, but he told her that he needed her right now, that he was having a hard time. She told him that they could talk about it, but he said that he didn’t want to. He just wanted to be near her.
So they drove silently to the Korean Bell in San Pedro. They exited the car and held hands while sitting in the grass and watching the ocean change color as the sun sank below the offing. They didn’t talk. They maximized the joint Sasha had rolled—Danny had admitted the week before that he was, possibly, the worst roller in the South Bay—by taking turns recycling the smoke into each other’s mouths. Nothing was more erotic than sharing smoke, Danny thought. He was not thinking about his father dismembering himself below the basement. He was not thinking about ethnic violence, or the catastrophic effects of globalization, or the Cuba-sized holes in the ozone layer. He was trying to think only about the smoke and Sasha’s wet lips, and he succeeded in feeling almost happy for approximately seven minutes, after which time he thought, while kissing Sasha softly, about a cartoon he couldn’t remember the name of, though it had been set in a near future that was mostly populated with androids and talking pandas. Then Danny thought about his dad—he’d noticed that there was something new inside the Tupperware on account of the trembling maggots—and he retreated from Sasha’s lips and asked her if she wanted to work on their Pre-Calculus homework together, which made her laugh and say, I’m too stoned, but maybe in an hour.
She took his hand and led him back into the car where she took off his pants and then took off her pants. They had sex with their shirts on. Afterwards, they drove to a nearby McDonald’s, bought unsweetened coffees, and tried to do Pre-Calculus.
On the way back to his house, Danny watched, from the passenger window, the moon and the stars and the big empty spaces between them that looked large enough to fit thousands of planets. Danny told Sasha that he thought those gigantic spaces were much more mysterious than the pretty lights they separated. Sasha nodded in agreement.
Two weeks passed, and Danny didn’t shave. Sasha said he looked way hotter with scruff. He called his mom, and listened to her talk about her star sign. He tried to call his sister, and he left her two long messages during which he realized that he kept repeating the words miraculous and fear. He made an effort to hold open doors at his high school, allowing dozens of people to pass by before following them inside. He had sex with Sasha underneath the bleachers twice during lunch. He visited his grandma in San Pedro, and brought Sasha with him. She cooked them scrambled eggs with potatoes and salsa that she made from the tomatoes and peppers she grew, and she asked Danny, as she always did, if he was gay, even with Sasha there. He quickly regained the weight he’d lost in Ecuador by drinking shakes he made with 2 percent milk and chocolate-flavored whey protein that he bought on sale from Walmart. His coach was pleased with his progress learning the new defensive scheme—Danny had recorded nine tackles along with a sack during the first game of the season. After practice, Danny took the briefest possible showers in an effort to conserve water, even if the effort was, in the end, negligible to the point of being meaningless. He removed the knives from the basement and cleaned them vigorously until his hands were wrinkled. But, until Danny returned them, his dad refused to eat, just as he had refused to talk to Danny when Danny would pour out the bottles that his dad used to hide around the house.
Danny returned the knives. He did his best to take care of his dad while ignoring what his dad was doing. He studied the scouting report regarding the next team they were playing. He visualized hitting the starting quarterback DeAndre Jones so hard that DeAndre’s collarbone shattered and exited his shoulder like an ivory spear that had landed its target. Then Danny felt bad for wanting to harm DeAndre, whom he didn’t know, and who probably had his own struggles that he kept to himself. Danny listened to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and felt briefly uplifted, and then decidedly angry and alone, even though he was falling even harder for Sasha. He heated up enchiladas verdes that he’d also bought on sale—he was trying to make the money his dad had left last as long as possible—and he brought them, along with a napkin, down to the basement.
Another week passed, and Danny couldn’t fall asleep, so he wrote his dad an e-mail in the hope that it might be cathartic. The e-mail began with banal small talk about the weather and Danny’s last game, how many tackles he’d made, the forced fumble he’d caused, the cheering, the feeling he’d had after he’d picked up the fumble and run for fifteen yards before being tackled himself, the feeling that he was releasing some of the evil inside himself, or, better, that he was shaking hands with the darkness of which he could never be entirely relieved, and, for this reason, he wanted to hit someone on the other team even harder, to become weaponized and unfeeling. He knew that he sounded ridiculous, but he needed to write these thoughts to his dad, or at least a former version of his dad, because he no longer thought of him as a person, let alone as his father. He thought of his dad as a sort of plant in the process of petrification. He wasn’t sure if his dad was devolving, or evolving, but he was certainly no longer living in the usual sense of the word.
Then Danny described an incident involving a cheerleader from the other team, who, urged on by her giggling friends, had given Danny her phone number written on a scrap of yellow legal paper. Danny had bowed when he opened the paper and saw the number and her name—Isabel—written over it. He said, Isabel is a pretty name, before he crumpled up the paper and swallowed it in front of her. Then he apologized to Isabel and her friends for doing that, explaining that he had a girlfriend, which didn’t make the cheerleaders appear any less creeped-out.
From that anecdote on, Danny’s e-mail became a series of questions that centered on the premise—an idea with which his dad had always been obsessed—that, to truly understand anything that a person did, to know what was meant by their actions or words, even if they were making an observation as simple as they didn’t like smoothies, you needed a total context of that person’s life, a complete knowledge of everything they’d ever seen, or said, or done, or thought, or even dreamed about, a knowledge that was, of course, impossible, which made it, in turn, impossible for intimacy to be absolute. Every person remains a mystery, Danny wrote, and he realized that he felt comfortable telling his dad anything, or at least telling the e-mail account that his dad would probably never again open. Danny felt noticeably better as soon as he hit Send.
Even after writing these nightly e-mails to his dad, Danny continued to struggle with insomnia, especially when he wasn’t with Sasha—she didn’t like sneaking out of her house, and she wasn’t allowed to sleep over at friends’ houses on school nights. He tried sleeping in the guest room. The guest room had once been his sister Jo’s room, but she was now stationed at a Marine base somewhere in Georgia, a state Danny had no interest in visiting aside from the town of Athens, where Neutral Milk Hotel, an experimental pop band Danny revered, had formed. He watched a shadow cast by a bookcase drift toward the window. The shadow climbed the ceiling like a child possessed by evil spirits. Danny looked at his hands, and turned them over and over again, while thinking about his dad’s missing fingers. He said bonerish in an effort to make himself laugh. He tried to masturbate, but he could only visualize Ellen DeGeneres’s face Photoshopped onto Sasha’s naked body, which made him think about copyright laws and feel like a photograph of himself. He pressed his hands against his ribs to make sure he hadn’t become two-dimensional. The shadows seemed to drip from the ceiling. Danny pulled the covers from his bed and wrapped himself inside them. He crawled under the bed and shut his eyes as tightly as he could. He realized that he’d forgotten to brush his teeth. He gathered up the courage to leave the room.
After brushing his teeth, he walked into the den and turned on the TV. He selected the most feel-good-seeming film that was on—Air Bud—a movie that concerned a boy and his dog Buddy, who, on top of being predictably mischievous and loyal, could play basketball by pushing the ball into the hoop with his nose, a trick he’d learned while working for a mean-spirited clown who’d abandoned Buddy in the center of a highway. The boy’s father had died in a war, and, at the beginning of the film, there was a scene of the boy weeping while studying a picture of his dad, looking stoic and brave in a military uniform. But by the film’s happy ending—Buddy guided the boy’s team to winning a sort of middle-school championship—the dead father had been forgotten. Danny imagined another version of the film narrated by the father’s ghost who became more depressed as he realized how quickly it was that the world, and even his own son, stopped thinking about him. Danny wondered about how few people had asked him how his dad was doing, or even where he was. He heated a glass of milk for himself, and drank it. Then he heated one for his dad.
When’s your dad coming home, again? Sasha asked Danny the following evening. She handed him a mug filled with something that smelled moldy. Danny made a face.
It’s healthy, she said, drink it.
Danny drank it, and told her that he didn’t know when his dad would be back. And he felt better because he hadn’t had to lie.
Another week passed, and Danny attempted to communicate with his dad face-to-face. He was feeling desperate.
Danny said, Dad, what the fuck. You’ve been in the basement for over a month. This is beyond insane. You can still come up and claim that you lost your fingers in a car crash, or rock climbing, or something. I can get you help.
But his dad remained silent, and his eyes stayed closed.
Danny said, You’re in the basement, Dad, dismembering your hand.
Danny closed his fist and hit his dad in the face, below his left eye.
His dad gasped, but he didn’t say anything.
Danny shook the hand he’d hit him with and apologized immediately. Then he left. He brought down an icepack and held it over the side of his dad’s face that was now swelling and turning a plum color.
Anger is a reaction to fear, he remembered his dad once saying. His dad had said it to a local surfer when he and Danny had paddled out to a well-known break in Palos Verdes that was patrolled by a gang of men in their late twenties who still lived with their rich parents and were known for slashing the tires of people who weren’t their friends. In the words of his dad, They’re just your average assholes. People who are truly fearless are never angry, Danny’s dad had said to them, before he and Danny got their asses beat. Danny had been both impressed and worried by his dad’s willful self-destructiveness. In the car ride to a different surf spot, he’d asked his dad why he’d chosen to go there when there were plenty of places where people wouldn’t mess with you. His dad had just smiled at him and said, Because it’s fun.
I’m sorry, Dad, Danny said, I’m sorry.
He touched his dad’s cheeks, then his own cheeks, and realized that both of their faces were now thoroughly bearded. Intuitively, Danny walked back up the ladder and back up the stairs. He brought down a razor, Gillette gel, and a large bowl of hot water. Carefully he began shaving his father. Then he shaved himself.
While working on his college applications, Danny imagined beginning his personal statement: This morning I put on my favorite red pants, and made an omelet for my dad who is dismembering himself in a secret room below the basement.
Or: This morning I retrieved one of my dad’s fingers, teeming with maggots, that he had intentionally severed, and I contemplated frying it, sautéing it with olive oil and garlic, and then eating it in order to get in better touch with the motivations of my progenitor, but then I decided not to, realizing, when I made that decision, that, really, life is nothing but a series of seemingly small decisions made according to a general worldview that may or not shift in accordance with lived experience, and that my worldview is definitely shifting towards something I can’t yet articulate other than that it is best to treat people with kindness.
Danny did not write these things. Instead, he wrote about Murciélago—The Bat—the man from the Andean village he’d spent almost every day with during his time volunteering that summer. Danny wrote about how, each morning, after waking at dawn to the roosters crowing to the mist, he would walk with Murciélago, and spend the day working with him, digging irrigation channels, sometimes playing soccer with him in the afternoons, sometimes playing the guitar-like instruments that his cousin lent him, sometimes reading to Murciélago’s two young children whom Murciélago took care of with his mother’s help. Danny wrote about how, not until two days before he left, did he learn where Murciélago went every weekend. He visited his wife who lived in a state-funded asylum. It was a four-hour walk each way. Murciélago didn’t have any family nearby or enough money to stay at an inn, so he slept in one of the plastic chairs in the waiting room. His wife was catatonic now, but she had once tried to kill him with a machete. Murciélago had a very deep scar over his collarbone. Danny wrote that one of the NGO’s program managers had relayed this information to Danny, offhandedly, during lunch, and that Danny had struggled not to cry. He had never met someone so humble.
After the football season—Danny’s team lost in the second round against a school from Palm Springs—Danny drove to his grandma’s house. He realized he needed to tell someone about what his dad was doing now that football was over, and basketball wasn’t nearly enough of an outlet for his increasing anger and anxiety. Danny didn’t want to burden or psychologically scar Sasha. And he didn’t want to tell his mom, because he knew she would convince him to report what was happening to the proper authorities and to move to Ecuador immediately.
His grandma made him a huge sandwich stacked with turkey, salami, and provolone. She also gave him two tomatoes and a Diet Coke. While he ate, Danny told her everything.
His grandma nodded. Then she said, Jimmy’s always been troubled.
Yes, Grandma, but this is really messed up.
Sure is, she said.
She didn’t look at Danny when she said this. She was still watching TV. A guy with a bloody nose whom Danny recognized as Nicholas Cage was fighting in what appeared to be a crowded Middle Eastern marketplace.
I really like this part, his grandma said.
Danny grabbed the remote and turned off the TV. He said, Grandma, this is important. Are you gonna help me get Dad sorted out?
Why? she said. You take him out of the basement, and he’s still gonna be sad. He marries my pretty daughter, and he’s still sad. He divorces her, he stops drinking, he’s still sad. What do you do with somebody like that? Let him do what he wants. You come live with me if you don’t wanna live there.
Danny thought about spending the rest of his senior year with his grandma. Helping her plant her tomatoes and peppers, watching every episode of MacGyver, skateboarding at the park under the bridge near her house. Maybe he would stop smoking weed. Living with her could be all right. He thanked her for the offer, but declined.
Is it because you want to get high with nobody bothering you? she said.
That’s part of it, Danny admitted. But I think I can still help my dad.
People die from trying to live up to someone else’s idea of them, she said. Your dad would be less fucked if he just admitted he was. Stop worrying about him. Worrying is a waste of time.
Danny appreciated the way that his grandma said fucked with the casual authority of a country singer who can’t kick an addiction to painkillers and self-pity. He imagined his grandma writing a memoir titled Fucked, with the subtitle But I Don’t Care. He would buy that book, as would probably enough people for it to become a cult hit, and he would read it with interest, except for the parts that were basically rants against white people and free market capitalism, or the parts that were about her still active sex life, which he would skip over. Danny loved his grandma, but he didn’t always trust her opinions, and he didn’t want to hear about her sleeping with younger men, which may have been, he realized, because her opinions made him uncomfortable in ways that he didn’t want to assess. For instance, would the world really be better if people acted out their perversions in public, if his dad chose to cut himself apart in the living room, with the blinds raised and the windows open to sunlight and birds and Girl Scouts selling cookies? Would the world be healthier if we did in public what we felt compelled to do in hiding?
Hey, Danny, are you gay? his grandma said, finally turning off the TV. I know I’m changing the subject, but I’m still wondering, and my friends keep asking. You know, it’s okay if you are.
No, Grandma, I’m not gay, Danny said, realizing that his tone made him sound defensive. I have a girlfriend. You’ve met her.
Then he said, Grandma, I love you, and I’m going to go now.
He hugged her and tried not to hear what she said. He caught the words fucked, multivitamins, and happiness before he left her house and drove back to Redondo Beach along the cliffs of Palos Verdes, thinking first about veering wildly off of the road and into the water and the rocks below, annihilating himself in a violent, romantic way that made him laugh because it was such a seventeen-year-old thing to imagine. Then Danny turned the radio to a station playing techno-pop that made him feel calmer. He admired the contrast of the yellow mustard flowers growing against the greenish-brown scrub oaks that covered the hills. He felt genuinely moved by a lighthouse that had been converted into a museum—he’d visited it once, on a field trip in fifth grade, and, in the distance, he’d seen a gray whale turn a somersault before disappearing back into the water.
Danny stopped at a 7-11. He walked through the aisles and tried to remember why he was there, and what he wanted to buy. He didn’t know. He sat on the floor in front of the candy, and felt positive feelings towards the plastic packaging surrounding the processed sugars, plastic that would take centuries to decompose in enormous landfills and would continue to live, in the sense that it would not decompose, at least five, or even ten times, longer than he or any human currently inhabiting the Earth. He felt better knowing that this plastic would be around much longer than any of the contemporary members of his species (unless the few who were cryogenically frozen were able, at a later date, to be brought back to life, which Danny seriously doubted). He bought two large boxes of Junior Mints, one for he and Sasha to share later, and one for his dad. His dad would, as usual, keep his eyes shut when he placed the Junior Mints beside his chair, but he would eat them later, when Danny left. His dad couldn’t resist Junior Mints. That’s why Danny would bring the candy to him, and kiss the side of his head where his left ear used to be. Then Danny would write the essay that was due tomorrow about Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, a film that, Danny thought, did a decent job of showing, through its depiction of a race riot and the circumstances that precipitated it, how people could be heroes and villains and victims, all at the same time. Danny thought about Spike Lee and other people who had faith in the potential of aggressively political art to alleviate human problems, or at least to shed light on them, and he wondered how they would have dealt with their own dads if their dads had been cutting themselves apart below their basements during their senior year of high school. Political ideals, and ideals in general, were not helping Danny.
If he finished this essay by 10 pm, which he would, Danny told himself, still sitting on the 7-11 linoleum tiles, he would then skateboard to Sasha’s house and climb the tree up to her room, where he would hold her, and she would hold him. They would share the box of Junior Mints, eating one mint chocolate candy at a time. Then they would probably have slow sex during which he would tell Sasha that she had the best eyebrows, and Sasha would laugh. He would tell her that he loved her, and he would mean it. She would ask him how much. And Danny would tell her, without being able to maintain eye contact while he said it, that he loved her at least seventeen times more than he could ever love himself, which would make Sasha look at him a little funny, and ask him to fuck her as hard as he could, and Danny wouldn’t say anything else. He would do what he was asked and grab her skinny arms, even though he always felt guilty and unclean after having rough sex, like he imagined what a werewolf transforming back into a man might feel like when the moon vanished at sunrise. When they finished, Danny would wrap his condom in toilet paper and put this trash into his backpack in order to hide any evidence from Sasha’s dad that he had been sleeping with his daughter. Then he would pretend to fall asleep. He would leave when Sasha began to twitch and shudder, which meant that she was dreaming, probably about being a horse galloping through a desert of blue sand, which is what she usually dreamt about, and Danny would open the window quietly, and climb carefully back down the tree.
He would skateboard back to his house, with the roads mostly empty, so that he could make wide, flowing turns, and, if he wanted, close his eyes for brief one-second, or even two-second, intervals without worrying about being hit. At his house, he would walk down the basement steps as quietly he could, moving the cardboard boxes aside quietly, hoping to catch his dad, with his eyes open, in the act of butchering himself—he still hadn’t seen his dad with a knife in his hand. But his dad would be perfectly still, as always, like a slowly diminishing Buddha. Danny would, once again, sweep the room and bring the dirty dishes back upstairs. He would scrub the toilet if there was a ring around the bowl. He would stand behind his dad. He would rub his shoulders, and then stretch his dad’s arms and legs. He would watch the maggots chewing the remaining flesh from the last finger that his dad had severed, revealing the shocking whiteness of the bones beneath the tissue.
Danny would then watch his dad’s closed eyes. He would study them as if they were doors to a different, more honest, and, as a consequence, more terrifying world. He would consider prying them open them with his fingers, and begging his father, again, to cease performing this awful procedure, or penance, or meditation, or whatever the fuck it was that he was doing, to stop for the sake of Danny and his sister and anyone who had ever felt any fondness for him. He would ask him to be his dad again, to try to live a normal life, even if it felt dishonest and made him miserable. Plenty of people are miserable, Danny would say, and they don’t exile themselves into a secret room below the basement and cut themselves apart.
But then Danny would stop himself, realizing that it was wrong and selfish to force his dad to talk or to open his eyes. It might even be dangerous, because, by now, though Danny knew it was a silly thought, his dad’s eyes might be totally empty, even of their pupils, void of everything except a light that, like the sun, was bright enough to burn Danny’s hands as well as blind him, and Danny didn’t want to be blind.
A middle-aged clerk tapped Danny’s shoulder and asked him if he was okay. The man spoke with a heavy Chinese accent and was very tall for an Asian man—at least 6’4″. Danny thought about Yao Ming, and felt bad for the former NBA All-Star whom God hadn’t blessed with durable knees. He told the clerk that he was just having a hard time deciding what candy he wanted to buy for his dad.
The clerk nodded and said, in a serious, almost meditative tone, Jolly Rancher—they very good.
Danny bought the two boxes of Junior Mints, along with the smallest available package of Jolly Ranchers. He wanted to give the clerk the impression that he had been helpful. Danny thanked the clerk and wished him a wonderful rest of his day. Then he drove home, wishing he hadn’t spent the money. He needed to apply to jobs soon, or start dealing weed, which is what he would probably do. He was running out of funds.
While waiting for the stoplight on PCH and Hawthorne to change to green, Danny realized that he was resisting the impulse to speed through the intersection and meet the oncoming traffic head-on. He contemplated pleasant things until this compulsion left him. He thought about how warm Sasha’s mouth was and about how they both wanted, one day, to hug a koala. He thought about the only time he’d ever dunked a basketball during a junior varsity game. He thought about his dad ascending the ladder and then the basement stairs, with footsteps that would be lighter now that there was less of him to carry.