by Kevin Sampsell
He wondered who they all were, this family of his. There were three clans here, clustered around several picnic tables at the largest State Park in Oregon, and he could barely distinguish his own. David was a Sullivan. Then there were the Cardells and the Wellers.Families confused him, mostly because he never gave them any thought. Shouldn't they all be Sullivans? Why are his aunt and uncle named Weller? Why are the Cardells mostly half-Mexican or half-black?
His mother, a small bear of a woman named Dora, tried to explain it to him before. But he was a young brat and refused to focus on the path of her words, their genealogy. He daydreamed until nothing real stuck to his brain. It would be uncomfortable to ask her now. He was 38, still working the kind of jobs that seemed cool fifteen years ago, but sad now—record store clerk, dance club doorman, stadium vendor/peanut thrower. Currently, he worked as a ticket taker at a discount movie theater. Just over nine dollars an hour, but he got free popcorn and soda. He had to wear a nametag. It said, David. . .Director.
David wondered if anyone else at the family reunion made less money than he did. He had learned you can't gauge how much someone makes by how they look. Some of his cousins, even a few nephews, looked poor as hell but made three times as much as he did, working construction or landscaping. Most of the Sullivan/Cardell/Weller family plodded their way through life with whatever rewards a GI Bill or GED could get them. College was a foreign concept to their teens, scads of pimply youths that viewed higher education with anxiety and suspicion. He counted ten of these kids among the fifty or so adults present. There were some younger ones as well. Two babies, a toddler with dirt or food caked around its mouth, and a pair of ten year olds who hovered around the picnic table of sweets, punching each other and sometimes swearing. One of the longhaired biker types of the family, presumably a father, urged them to "eat something healthy." He gave them each a carrot. They used them as swords before tossing them into a bed of burnt charcoal.
Shading the sun from her eyes, Francine, David's new girlfriend, grew restless in her lawn chair. David rubbed her shoulders from behind and wished he could remember more names. Some of them he hadn't seen in twenty years. A tall black man approached David and Francine. His t-shirt said King of Beers and he wore his kinky hair in a style that looked similar to a mullet. He held out a large hand. "Uncle David," he said. "It's been a long time."
David squinted and groped in his memory for a name. "Roger?"
"Ricky," the man corrected him.
"Oh my God," said David. "I used to give you basketball lessons. Now you're a foot taller than me. What happened?" His clichéd conversation skills embarrassed him sometimes.
Ricky rubbed his chin and smiled. "Once I got into high school, I just started growing."
David introduced him to Francine and then took the opportunity to get the lowdown on some of the others at the reunion. "Those are my two kids," Ricky said, pointing out two huge teens that looked like offensive lineman. "And you probably saw my mom, and there's Randy and Gary and Jeff." As his nephew pointed people out, David trapped each face in his sight, aging them backward like computer animation until he remembered them. David himself was young-looking and was convinced that he hadn't changed much besides the glasses he started wearing after turning thirty. "Here comes your family," Ricky said, nodding his head in the direction behind David.
David turned around and saw them, his brother Paul, his mother Dora, and his father, James. Paul lugged a large ice cooler awkwardly in front of him, banging his knees and shuffling his sore hands on the handles. He was probably the most successful of the family. At least the most recognized. He was a sports announcer for a local television station and he looked the part—broad shoulders, square jaw, easy-going eyes, coiffed hair. Paul was two years older than David. They were close growing up, playing football with the neighborhood kids, making up comedy routines, throwing snowballs at cars in the winter. Their father was a small but fiery man who commandeered their childhood home with an unpredictable temper and a Catholic style of parenting that stopped shy of compassion. His rule, when it came to what he saw as his children's bewildering behavior, was often denouncement before understanding. Once, when David and Paul were playing an imaginary ghost game in their backyard with some other neighborhood kids, their father came out yelling something about sacrilege and then spanked them in front of the other kids. Word got around the elementary school the next day and none of their friends would come over to their house after that. Talking to their father was impossible and it was never easy confiding in their mother.
When Dora and James started to sleep in separate beds, and later, separate rooms, it made the silence of the home even louder. David and Paul reasoned at some point, probably during their early teen years, that it was because Dora and James were older than most of their friends' parents. Dora was forty-three when David was born. He was an accident. Maybe Paul was too.
"A little help," Paul said to David, nodding at the cooler. David jogged over. He grabbed one of the handles and they made a space on one of the tables for it. "I'm not as strong as I used to be," Paul joked in an old man voice. He stuck his hand out to his younger brother for a shake. They were not the hugging kind of family. Their father would not allow it. "You keep staying away for longer," said Paul. He searched his mind for a calendar but gave up when he noticed Francine. David introduced them.
"I've heard a lot about you," Francine said. She was already starting to feel a little boxed in, like she had to be the polite girlfriend with a smile on her face. She wasn't part of the family and wasn't sure if she'd ever be. Everything she did felt like it was from a script she didn't have a chance to read before the reunion.
A crackle of feedback sounded behind Paul and David. It was their father. David turned and saw how he had deteriorated since he last saw him. He was in a motorized wheelchair now, the result of a stroke the year before. Although his body was always small, it now looked slack and lifeless instead of sturdy and strong. His spotted right hand rested, twitching next to a controller that powered his chair. A pilled wool blanket wrapped around his waist and legs. He wore a blue flannel shirt that looked too big for him and a brown newsboy hat. Because he could barely speak above a whisper, Dora had recently bought a headset microphone that he struggled to use. An amplifier, the size of a first aid kit, hung squealing from the side of his chair. His left hand swatted helplessly at the volume knob. "Hello, David," he was finally able to say. It sounded like someone dying of thirst, alone in the desert, throat full of sand, walkie-talkie to his dry lips.
"Hi, Dad," David said. He took his father's hand and shook it. It felt like picking up an empty glove.
"Are you. . .going. . .to stay. . .weekend?" It seemed to take him forever to say these few words.
"We have to leave on Sunday." David looked at Francine. Talking to his father was already excruciating.
"I'm. . .James," David's father said to Francine. He tried to smile but even that was a challenge.
"Hello, Mr. Sullivan. I'm glad you were able to come out." Francine felt sad for saying such a thing.
"James," David's father said again. "I'm. . .James."
"We'd better help with the food," said David. He gently pressed Francine to where his mom stood.
"I'll get the football," Paul called over to him. "Let's show some of these kids how to play." He ran back to his car.
David could sense that Paul wanted to get away from their father too. He remembered one time when their mom and dad got into a fight that Paul tried to break up. Their father slapped Paul over and over, daring him to slap back. "This is my house and nobody attacks me in my house," their father said. "This house needs order." David hid in his bedroom when these fights happened. He put his hands over his ears and cried. Later, Paul told David that the fight was about another woman. Their mother said he was having an affair with someone from church. David wasn't really sure what an "affair" was. But that summer before junior high school he learned the definition of that word and one other: will. Paul surprised David one night when he asked him to write out a will with him. David thought it was just a game until they signed each other's will.
"Well, hello there, David," his mom said, walking over to them. "This must be Francine." They stood there, in the middle of all the picnic tables, talking for several minutes. David found himself relieved to be talking with a relative he actually knew and it seemed like Francine was finally comfortable. Just a few feet behind them, he noticed his father nodding to sleep in his chair. Every once in a while, even when he wasn't trying to speak, a yelp of feedback came out of his amp.
"Is this thing on?" Paul said, pretending to tap on a testy microphone. He had snuck up behind David with the football. "It's just like in the movies," he said. "I have an announcement to make." He made a high-pitched feedback sound in his throat and laughed. They walked over to the area where the grass was greener and softer and began tossing the ball. David saw Francine watching them from the drink table.
"Did you hear about Bo?" Paul asked him. Bo was a Cardell. A Mexican with a wife fifteen years younger than him named Janey. Distant hairy cousins.
"I heard Janey left him for a P.E. teacher," David said.
"Then Bo tried to commit suicide by jumping off the roof of their house. On a pile of bricks and glass."
"Shit. Is he okay?"
"No, but he's not dead."
Roger and some of his family came over to start a game. A couple of the young boys were just friends of Roger's kids. David wondered why they would come to someone else's family reunion. One of them had a girlfriend standing away from everyone else. She was sunning herself in a small red bikini that barely held her. David couldn't help looking as she rubbed lotion across her chest and belly. She had dyed blonde hair and the body of a personal trainer. Even though she was wearing sunglasses, David could tell that she had caught him gaping at her.
Paul organized everyone into teams. Five on five. Since he was the sportscaster, they listened to his organizing and rule making. They had about thirty yards to play on. The end zones were marked by a barbecue pit and an inexplicable patch of dead, brown grass, where it looked like a UFO had landed. David was on Paul's team. He lined up in wide receiver position with Paul playing quarterback. There were no huddles, but Paul yelled a play over to David before each down. Deep post, hitch, quick slant. Plays they perfected when they were younger, quicker, and more in shape. They played for twenty minutes before David started to feel his right foot cramp. He quit playing after diving for a catch that skimmed off his fingertips. He walked lightly over to Francine, trying to hide his pain. She seemed distant and cold to him. She got up to help his mom set out more food.
"You work in movie place for movies?" someone called to David. It was another cousin or nephew. David wasn't sure. This one was Korean and very short. "Movie guy," he said to David. He struggled with his English.
David was trying to figure out who this man was. He figured he was probably about twenty years old, though barely five feet tall. "I'm David," he said in a loud voice. He noticed some of the other relatives watching them with pained concentration. "I work at a movie theater," he said a little more quietly. Was he a Weller, he wondered. No one stepped in to help.
The man said his first name and held his hand out. David wasn't sure if he heard him correctly. "Phat?" he said. The short man was doing that thing where a normal handshake turns into a series of complicated positions and gestures, before frowning and letting go suddenly.
"David," his mom shouted over. "Take your father for a walk."
"Okay," he said back to her, though he wasn't sure what she meant. He walked over to where his mom and Francine were cutting sandwiches into tiny squares. His father was just behind them, his wheelchair possibly stuck in the grass.
"He's getting bored," his mother said. "Just go push him around the park or something for a while."
David looked at Francine, who gave him a serious look. He didn't like being around her when she had that look. Maybe she was just bored too. He felt like he was disappointing her somehow. He looked over at Paul and saw him still playing football with the others. After each play, his brother would lift his shirt and wipe the sweat from his face. "Okay," said David. "I'll be back."
He pushed his father through the grass a little until they got to a narrow path. It looked to be paved with black tar and made the heat feel more intense. He never liked to be alone with his dad. Before the stroke, his father would start every conversation with, "Are you still going to church?" But that would take him too long to get out now. Every word was an immense strain for his father. David enjoyed the silence.
"Baff-room," his father then said. He pointed a frail hand at a gray brick building. David pushed him in that direction. He noticed then that he could hear his father's breathing through the little speaker, brittle and hoarse. They tried the door to the men's room but it was locked. David knocked to see if someone was using it and a string of grunts answered his query. His father looked wearily to the women's door. "I don't care," he whispered.
David tapped on the door before pulling it open. "Girls," he called awkwardly into the empty space. He pushed his father in and opened one of the stalls. "Stand or sit?" David asked him. His father was already unzipping his pants and trying to stand. David locked the wheels on the chair and gingerly grabbed under his arms and tried to pull him up. He found it more difficult than he expected. Dead weight, he thought to himself. His father braced against the toilet paper holder and David moved behind him into an easier position. He heard his father urinate in the toilet. He thought about the times his father shamed him for wetting his bed as a child. "You're not a young man until you stop that nonsense," his father had told him. "I guess you're a baby until then," he would say with a smirk. He heard his father sigh and slowly zip back up. David helped him back into the chair. He wished someone were there to help. His father looked pitiful and slack the way he sat in the chair now. He crouched in front of the wheelchair and tried pushing him into a better posture. The girl in the red bikini came in and saw them this way.
"Oops," she said, and backed away.
"Wait," said David, but she was already gone. He unlocked the wheels and pushed his father back outside. He saw the girl dart into the men's room and heard the door lock. He grabbed the door handle but didn't pull. It felt warm.
He went back into the women's room and washed his hands. "Sorry," he said to the wall, wondering if the girl could hear him.
He came out and saw his father scooting back in the direction of the picnic area. "Hey," he shouted, and was surprised at how angry he sounded. He jogged to his father and stopped him. "I want to keep going," he said. He turned the chair around and watched his father's hand drop helplessly away from the motor control. The sound of the crackling speaker mixed with the sound of the hot wind through the trees. It sounded like a small fire. David reached over and found the volume knob. He turned it up until the speaker squealed. He thought his father said a word underneath it all. "Don't" or maybe "Damn it." David laughed a little before turning it down. He looked back at where the reunion was and saw that nobody was watching them. He pushed the chair in the direction of the water. There was an empty dock a little ways down, swaying like a mirage.
"I have some things to say," David started. He was glad he didn't have to look at his father's face as he spoke. "When I turned sixteen, I decided I wanted to kill you, or something like that." He caught himself backing away from his words as soon as he said them. His father didn't respond though, so his confidence came back, like a tide crashing into sharp rocks. "I wanted to poison you at first but I didn't know how. One time I put firework powder in your soup but you just got sick and went to bed early. Do you remember that?"
The speaker filled with heavy breathing but no words.
"The next morning I was in the kitchen and I thought you were dead because you usually got up earlier than I did. I sat there and I ate about five bowls of cereal in a row. I thought if I could finish the whole box of cereal and you still hadn't made it out of bed, then you were probably dead. But then you came in right before I finished and I just started crying and ran to the bathroom and threw up all the cereal. The bathroom really stank because you threw up in there too that morning. You just yelled at me and made me clean it all up."
David stopped a moment, wiped some sweat from his forehead. He took a napkin from his pocket and dabbed his father's forehead too. He looked over at the bathrooms and saw the bikini girl, watching them and talking on her cell phone. "It's getting fucking hot," David said. It was the first time he swore in front of his father. He started pushing again.
"Didn't you ever know you were a shitty dad?" David asked. "I want you to answer that question." His father started to say something but was stuck, dry-mouthed, on some hard consonant. "It's a yes or no answer," said the son. "Well, I thought you knew the answer. You always had the answers back then. You were never wrong."
They were getting far away from the reunion. He looked back and saw Paul running in their direction. He pushed the wheelchair faster.
"About a month after that, I was going to suffocate you in your sleep. I walked in your room one night with a pillow. I even had duct tape so I could tie you down first but I started to worry about someone finding the duct tape with your hair on it or something. I was going to ask Paul to help but I never did." He looked back and saw Paul talking to the girl by the bathroom. "Paul did pretty good for himself," David said. He stopped and turned the wheelchair 180 so his father could see Paul and the girl, just far enough away so they looked like small blurry shapes. "Paul did pretty good for himself," David said again. "I never really knew what I wanted to do. I felt stuck because I was preoccupied with killing you." David turned his father's chair back toward the dock and started toward it again. They were silent for what felt like a long time. "I didn't know I was going to do this," David finally said, and more long silence followed.
By the time they got to the dock, David's mouth felt dry and his father seemed to be dozing off in the heat. David knelt down on the end of the hard wooden dock and reached a hand into the cool water. He splashed his face and let some of the water get into his mouth. He swished and spit back into the river. "So I killed someone else," said David. "I thought that would help me over the hump, you know. Like, I could just imagine that it was you or something. But it didn't really work that way. I still feel stuck. That was ten years ago." He walked over to his father's wheelchair and pushed it to the end of the dock. He was lying about the murder but he wanted his father to be scared of him, to feel fear in that same sick way he felt as a kid. "If I stand behind you here, do you see what that feels like? You don't have far to go. You're stuck now too."
His father's hands started to shake wildly and the volume was turned up on the little speaker. "Sorry," the voice said. It screamed on top of the feedback like an awful bird. "Sorry," it repeated.
David backed away and started crying. His eyes were blinded by tears and sweat and he couldn't see. The sound of his father's wheelchair crunching over the wood made him cry harder. "I'm sorry, too," he answered quietly. He wiped at his face in a panic and started hyperventilating. He couldn't hear anything except his own grief. When his eyes were finally able to dry, he saw his father steering his wheelchair back off the dock and onto the trail.
David sat there on the dock, wondering if he should go after him. The sun moved behind a cloud and the pounding heat let up for a moment. David thought he heard a splash behind him but saw nothing when he turned around. He looked into the water, concentrated on it. After he jumped in, he struggled to paddle in place. He scanned the water for any living thing. Something to save him.
Kevin Sampsell lives in Portland, Oregon and runs Future Tense Books, a micropress. His fiction and essays have appeared widely. His books include A Common Pornography, Beautiful Blemish, and the story collection, Creamy Bullets (Chiasmus Books).