Our diet then consisted of whatever misshapen fish Father managed to bring home from the polluted estuary by our neighborhood. He had grown worried at the inconsistency with which the government delivered our rations, and so one night I found him out in the yard, his head under a decayed log, night crawlers knotting themselves together in the beam of his flashlight. These he pocketed when he saw me peering at him from beyond the vinyled side of the house. I asked him if he planned to eat them all by himself, but he only shook his old fishing pole at me and disappeared down the dirt path.
Later, as my sister and I bathed sick, sleeping Mother, I whispered that I hated to imagine what went on beneath the surface of the water, the quick choreography of a strike and all it entailed. My sister thoughtfully dipped her sponge into the bucket and then asked me why.
Because neither of them have a chance, I said.
That’s the beauty of it, she said. That’s something worth imagining.
Years later, after all of this had happened, I began to understand her words, why a worm will wrap itself around the same hook that stabs its body, why a fish will inhale fully a barbed lure. When you have hung long enough at the end of a wire, you tend to forget that the force traveling along its length belongs to a life not your own.
When we had enough fish in the ice chest, Father took time off from the estuary to travel the streets of our subdivision with an axe in one hand, a large net in the other. We watched him with an old pair of field glasses. We sat on our roof and tracked his progress through overgrown backyards, around the weed-filled hulks of outgassed cars. We marked down in a little notebook the paths he traveled to get an idea as to the extent of his comfort zone, how far he seemed willing to wander. As we watched, he waded through the various drainage ditches that cut between the sagging homes. In the mud, he draped his net. The channels of frothy water carried the neighborhood’s detritus to his feet, and when he was satisfied that enough time had passed, he bent down to sweep away with the back of his hand the urine-colored foam that had gathered around him.
Father filled the toolshed with the spoils of his hobby. Each time he returned home, an old burlap sack stuffed with goods draped over his back, he rested in the mudroom of our house, his breath snorting through his nostrils, before sifting through the muddy junk. As his collection outgrew the shed, he dumped whatever new things he had acquired into our house, and we soon lived in a museum, a memorial of sorts to that old past time called citizenship. Lining our shelves, hallways, and counters, tucked into our cupboards and closet space, tripping us up as we walked across the carpets were the following: variously shaped wads of tinfoil, rusted television antennas, broken fanblades and electric batter mixers, those little magnetic clips that attach to refrigerator doors, three baskets full of dolls and their busted parts, a prosthetic arm, eighteen hamster wheels, those colorful plastic salad spinners one used to find in grocery stores, stacks of dinner plates, mismatched pairs of boots, cardboard sheaths of windshield wipers, boxes filled with chewed up clothing, a lawnmower engine full of beetles, various sports trophies and lampshades, moldy books and picture frames, bottles of unknown liquids that choked the house with fumes on the hotter days.
Father wandered through the rooms at night, his arms cranking through the humid air around him, and muttered the names of the objects that appeared in the beam of his flashlight. We liked to hope that the ritual relaxed him somewhat, gave him a brief respite from the challenges of shepherding his family through this latest, murderous century. My sister and I believed maybe he thought that by stacking the world around him, he could somehow control it, keep us safe.
We had not yet learned to interpret the expressions on Father’s face – indeed, so poorly did we manage to judge Father’s moods, that we perceived him to lack all sorts of emotional mechanisms: forehead, eyebrows, nostrils, lips, chin. These a more informed son and daughter might use to navigate their childhood. Instead, we often flailed blindly beneath the weight of his wrath, his sadness, his joy.
The fault, however, belonged to us.
Our development as young human beings suffered until my sister created a system of evaluation based upon Father’s bodily attitudes. She charted certain positions of his limbs, the heaving of his torso, at what angle his spine came to rest, and then she cross-associated these with his known personalities, his various temperaments, his ability to love us and to hurt us. Certain postures meant that we should refrain from treading too heavily in his presence. From others we knew that we might eat that day and go to sleep satisfied.
We found him thus amongst the rubbish of our yard, neck outstretched, arms above his head, his fingers curled and broken. This position we had come to associate with the idea of surrender, with the phrase PLEASE HELP ME. He had vanished several days ago from our lives – we had lost him through the field glasses during a particularly smoggy afternoon – and certain of his responsibilities had become our own until his muted return.
What horror he had pursued during his absence we did not discover until too late.
Our supply of food had dwindled away, so we led senseless Father to the water’s edge the following morning with the hope that he might catch us dinner. Behind his back, he clutched a coffee canister full of worms so as to prevent their seeing the rippled surface of the estuary.
Father had not spoken to us since he had appeared in the glare of the floodlights the night before, unshaven, his face flecked with spit, his body hair missing, the stink of burnt flesh all around him. We had spoken quietly to him, reassured him with the kindest words imaginable, words like fluorescent and uranium, recycle and pasteurize. He had clenched together his fists, stomped into the mudroom, and fallen asleep against the wall, his hands never releasing that bulging burlap sack from their wicked grip.
Father grunted, his feet in the water, the sky above him devoid of any life except a few seagulls flying aimlessly, without purpose, miraculously wedging their way through the air. The canister shook in his yellow hands, and his knuckles clicked under his skin, crunched together like pebbles beneath a shoe.
Why did he not say a word, we wondered. Had he suddenly lost his familial vocabulary, traded it off for another sort? Had he frittered away his language in the remoter parts of town, the lifeless areas of the city in which the street people dwelled? In which the bodies crusted over and sizzled, slackwise and pasty?
Had we the ability to see his eyes, I like to think they would have glistened at our questions, at our attempts to bring him back to his son and daughter, to the reality that was our shitsoaked little cul-de-sac.
Voluminous, my sister said.
Dutch oven, my sister said.
The canister shook behind his back and its contents plinked against the tin.
The awful sounds a worm will make as it nears its fate.
Then came time to bait our hooks, which we had gang-tied into pairs and rock-sharpened especially for the occasion. Father suddenly broke his silence, spoke at length of the various types of worm presentations we might create: the weoasvknjdsiosdf, the oenwfiudftrog, the adsarad, and other gibberish names we could not fully understand. He stood upright in the shoresand, listing somewhat to his left like an overburdened tree. His eyeflaps fluttered innocuously in the morning sunlight as he spat and mucated his way to a conclusion. We hoped that his brain had begun some elaborate rebooting process, that soon he would return to us as the father we had known: perhaps laugh, tell a story about the dangers of the rare treble hooked lures of his childhood, lures we had never seen, but in our need to remember better, past lives, associated with the musical scores that had sprung into our heads each night Mother sang us to sleep in the cramped berth of Father’s long lost fishing trawler. Those nights we cherished as the happiest of our lives.
Father bowed to us, tossed the fishing rods upon the ground, and revealed the canister of worms he had been hiding behind his back. He set it upon the shore and bent upon his knees, carefully picking through the canister as if searching for the perfect bait with which to garnish his own hook.
As he bubbled away, slobbered upon his chin, my sister and I looked down into the jar to discover slick masses of bloody fingers: long, gnarled fingers; short, rotten fingers; the stubbiest, fattest fingers we had ever seen. We saw pale, pinkish fingers, perhaps from children no larger than ourselves. We saw fingers with nails gnawed down to the quick. And upon one finger we saw the golden glint of a simple ring, an odd, startling delight in all that gore.
The fingers seemed different, though, as if they had been prepared in a certain way. Only when Father finally found one that suited him and easily slid it onto his own hook, did we realize that he had cauterized them, deboned them, leaving behind their slippery meat and skin.
What Father had suffered during his brief absence, what he had inflicted upon others in his derangement, my sister and I could only imagine. We each held for his abilities a newfound, horrified respect, and with this respect we carefully guided him away from the estuary when he grew distraught by his failure to draw a single bite. He had suddenly cracked the rod over his knee, ran with the canister into the shallows, and crazily tossed handfuls of the fingers into the air, pattering them down into the water like some fleshy waterspout.
My sister distracted him by locking her thumbs together and flapping her delicate hands softly about his face to coax him onto the pathway home. And I pressed lightly my tiny head into the small of his back and motored him along, occasionally losing my footing in the fetid mud, sobbing, filthy.
We locked him in the toolshed in our backyard, and my sister stood guard that night, leaving me free to crawl into Mother’s bed until the sodden morning. Mother awoke at the frantic scrubbing of my body against hers and loosed a hand from the damp sheets to cover my ear. Despite the pressure of her palm against my head, I could still hear the mangled shouts of Father come rattling through the windows. His screams recalled in my head the sight of the fingers as they bobbed about the estuary, the day’s bloody punctuation against the surface of the water, and the occasional glint of a strike as the fish rose to meet them.
My sister did her best to keep me away from the toolshed and the awful scene within its warped walls. She feverishly nailed shut the front door, spray painted the musty windows, tried to distract me with promises of honey for my oatmeal, but she soon had to tend to Mother, who awoke suddenly, jerking with pain, shouting hoarsely and rending the bedsheets between her cracked teeth. As my sister dealt with the seizure, I snuck into the backyard, pried away the nails in the doorframe of the toolshed, and then slipped inside to investigate.
I stood in the weak light and saw that Father had completely dismantled himself overnight, had stored his bits and parts around the toolshed, as if he meant for us to use him later on, perhaps to build some heartstopping machinery: his torso, he severed cleanly in half and hung by the door; across the wall, one muddy foot and shinbone twirled from a length of twine; between them, the shiny knob of his shoulder and its rigid arm dangled from a crooked hook.
I looked at the surface of his skin, the suncrazed, ridged landscape of it, with its hairs and moles and discolored scars. I looked at the hands, at the fingers twisting off of the palms. And I reached up and broke one off, put it in my pocket to celebrate the only way he had ever loved me: the beckoning finger, the shaking finger, the magic finger, the pointing finger, the goose finger, the trigger finger, the walking finger, the puppet finger, the tickle finger, the double-jointed finger, the lightswitch finger, the finger pressed to the soft pulp of my trembling lips.
Pocketfinger was originally published in October 2008 as part of PG's chapbook series.
Ryan Call's stories appear in Caketrain, Hobart, Lo-Ball, The Collagist, Mid-American Review, New York Tyrant, The Lifted Brow and elsewhere. He is the Associate Editor of NOÖ Journal. He and his wife live in Houston.
Christy Call lives in Chattanooga and at www.ChristyCall.com.
November 2010 marks four years of PGP, and Everyday Genius is marking the occasion all month by publishing work from its archives as well as IsReads, Chapbook Genius and excerpts from some of PGP's books.