Each Little Piece Sewn
by Steven F. Gillis
Depending on the time of day, I have two kids, have eight, have fifty-four, thirteen or one-hundred-and-seven. My daughter, Sam, is three years old and eats Apple Jacks from a blue plastic cup. My daughter's twelve and dances in our kitchen, high on her toes. She's forty-six and prone to moods, is nineteen and comes home late with boys who stand out on the front lawn, finishing a cigarette while plotting their next move.When Sam's twelve she's a sharp piece of wood, but when she's nineteen, or worse, when she's twenty-eight and wears her hair short and her shirts an inch or three above the waist of her jeans, she's impulsive, a silver sugar weed given to urges. I've come downstairs when it's later than I like and found Sam with boys in tank tops, in cowboy boots, in black cords or flannel shirts, sitting on the couch, whispering or laughing loud when I enter the room. Sometimes, I think when my daughter's older, I'll have a talk with her about many things. There's much, I'm sure, she has to tell me.
My lover wears Ann Taylor dresses, wears jeans so tight they require zippers at the cuff, wears conservative cashmere sweaters and faded University of Renton sweatshirts. She's charitable and tender when we make love, coos then, clings and rolls herself against me. She's a whore and fucks me raw in the same way a jackanapes rubs the bark off a tree. She avoids confrontation, ignores me in restaurants or parties if I'm with my wife. She calls me late, shows no sympathy if I'm anxious and pretend not to know what she needs.
Dana, my son, is four and watches Sponge Bob on cable as if bearing witness to a deity. Dana's sixteen and sits with us at dinner, takes us through conversations about uniformitarianism, global cataclysms, the east Antarctic ice sheet crater and mass extinctions during K-T and Permian-Trassic events. When he's twenty he pines for a girl, and when he's ten he laughs and wants to know the rules for baseball. I've discussed Dana with my wife, with my lover, and the woman at work I want to take for a drink, have said,"He's an average boy. A remarkable boy. A puzzle." I watch the way he commits to everything and nothing in fits and starts, is interested in astrophysics, in Archie comics, in cars and sports, Penthouse magazine and Zen Buddhist retreats. I make an effort to be a good father, am friend and foe, fierce and indulgent, permissive and excusing, punishing and pardoning, diligent without ever knowing for sure I'm doing the right thing.
Lisa, my wife, is very beautiful. Lisa is hard for me to look at sometimes. When she laughs I see her teeth, white and wet, and when she barks I notice the curl of her lips and red of her tongue. We are the best of friends. We argue fiercely. We take trips and walk streets in unfamiliar cities holding hands, return and quarrel over old routines. Lisa's a lawyer, handles mergers and acquisitions, helps bring companies together, assists in cannibalizing the remains. Of my parenting, she says, "You're too tough on Dana."
I understand what she's trying to tell me, though I don't agree. "Dana's different from his sister," I remind her, say "I'm hardest on Sam." My daughter's hard boiled. With Sam I can shout, "What's wrong with you?" and know she won't take it to heart. Sam hears my words as a pitched howl applauding, her papa bear cajoling. She shouts back, "What's wrong with you?" and I laugh. She shouts and I take her words to heart. Dana in the other room doesn't like it when Sam and I shout. His personality is more impressionable, is soft shelled and idealistic. He's tried to explain to his sister and me about panspermia, the theory that life's origin started with crashing comets bringing organic chemicals to earth. He's asked us to imagine, but we can't quite rise to the occasion, the mystery beyond us, we aren't all that intrigued by what otherwise doesn't seem to matter now that we're here.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays I drive Dana to lacrosse practice where he plays on a club team when the school season ends. Dana's a good athlete, aggressive when he wants to be, a midfielder who covers ground, can defend as well as pass and shoot. He's comfortable on a team, does not like to stand out and hesitates to be demonstrative even when the game calls for him to jump and howl. In pads, behind his bird cage mask, with stick and gloves and mouth piece pushing out his upper lip as if sprouting a third row of teeth, Dana looks invincible on the field. A gladiator, I worry about him. The ball is hard and the game is fast. Each Tuesday and Thursday I leave work early and drive Dana across town. I own seven trade magazines in partnership with Gerry Henis, an old college friend. Our magazines print articles and advertisements we then distribute by subscription and place in grocery chains and bookstores. Gerry's meticulous in business, has made more money for me than I could have ever made for myself. Gerry's lazy and likes to work out of his house, leaving me to run the office. I'm closer to Gerry than any other friend. I'm often mad at Gerry and he's constantly annoyed with me. We work well together and laugh at our success.
I drop Dana, then go and see my lover. Pam sells high-end real estate, condos and large eastside houses. She lets me know where she'll be and I drive through city traffic to reach her. Sometimes the haste of the commute excites me and I want to have sex right away. Other times, the drive exhausts me and I only want to go and eat. More and more lately, the sex is an afterthought, the urgency and danger no longer such an aphrodisiac. I've asked my doctor to prescribe something as I worry about losing my edge. I wonder about my prostate, wonder what will happen if my cock ever becomes an uncooperative soft muscle sag between my legs. I used to wake up hard as a beetle shell, could will my cock to erection with just a clever thought, but now I need further inspiration, wake with an urgency to pee and little else.
I take Viagra and my penis becomes inflamed like one of those purple balloons that clowns blow up too long and twist into dachshund dogs which everyone in the room fears will burst. Pam points at my tented pants and shakes her head. Lisa has forty-seven views about sex, thirteen of which are still active and another three we've tried that are currently dormant. She comes to bed without her pants and has me warm her ass. She's distant and tells me no even before I ask. I think sometimes I've known my wife forever. I think at times we've only just met. I do not like my lover as much as I love my wife. I do not like my lover as much as I love the idea of having a lover. I'm fond of Pam and don't want to lose her. I believe my seeing Pam does not diminish my love for Lisa. I rarely think of Pam when I'm not with her, though when I am with her I do think of my wife. This, I think, proves something, though what exactly I'm not sure.
The condo Pam's showing has vaunted ceilings and two long rectangular windows cut into the front wall. The rooms feel vast, as if we're standing neither inside or out, but somewhere in between. The owners are traveling and have not yet removed their furniture. Pam prefers showing a place this way, while I'm glad for any sort of bed or couch or chair and have no interest in fucking on the floor. Bending over the counter is all well and fine when expedience is required, but today I'm after something else and not quite sure what to think when Pam folds her arms oddly and tells me to, "Sit down, Bill."
I leave less than ten minutes later. Sam works afternoons at the Beat Box, selling used and new cds, posters and headphones, ipods and other accessories. She's a good musician and plans to sing and play guitar in clubs one day. She has friends who play in bands, practice their music in basements and garages and expect to sing and perform in clubs one day. I have an hour before I need to pick up Dana, and stop off at the Beat Box where Sam acts glad to see me. "What's up?" she wonders, and here I almost tell her,"My lover just gave me the boot."
The Beat Box is on the second floor of Dofferman's Bagels. The stairs leading up are narrow with carpeting so old and worn as to lack any real thread. Inside, the bins of cds are set out in six even rows. Sam's behind the counter, wearing three t-shirts of disproportionate size so that they shift and hang off one another in an unexpected symmetry. Her jeans are no longer blue but roughed out pale as an overheated sky. She has leather strings, plastic bracelets, a white and red sweatband around her wrists. The boys who wander in and out of the store flirt with her in different ways. Sam studies them, makes mental notes for future reference.
I do the fatherly thing, ask if she's eaten, if she needs any money, what time she'll be home. The music playing on the store stereo is Charlie Parker. The owner of Beat Box is a fan of the old stuff, sells vintage vinyl along with re-mastered cuts. Kids coming in have learned to recognize Parker's music, cock their heads, pretend to know more than they do. Sam says what she likes best is Parker's way of pulling melody from dissonance. (What she actually says is, "I like how the noise makes sense.") I'm a really bad sax player, a long time Parker fan. I tell Sam what I know, describe his genius, how he improvised chordal progressions in wildly archetypic lines and phrases. "Scrapple from the Apple," I name the tune playing.
Sam looks around the store, at the skinny skater boys, the college kids and other customers going through the bins. She takes stock, puts me into the mix and pulls me out again. Her expression never changes though there's a shift, clearly, a sense of what's happening in the moment and its relevance to all things past and future. She turns away from me and asks again, "What's up, Dad?"
Dana's still in his practice clothes when I pull in to get him. His club team rents the high school field but is without access to the showers. My seats are leather and the sweat from Dana's back and legs sinks in. He puts a towel down on the seat but I tell him not to worry. "It's a car," I say, only Dana's more practical, sees no reason to cause damage when damage can be avoided.
"How was practice?" I make myself sound upbeat, my disappointment about Pam notwithstanding. Her dumping me was inevitable. Her dumping me was not what I expected. Her decision created a void. I think about taking up golf, of learning to fly a small plane, of lifting weights and giving my arms muscle. I tell myself I'll focus more on work, that I want to expand our company, produce a mainstream magazine, something with articles on music and books and celebrity gossip to help us compete in the market. I wonder what the woman from my office who I want to ask out for a drink is doing at that moment. I wonder if she plays golf. I wonder if she likes to fly in small planes, or go to the gym, or has any interest in jazz.
Dana has a welt on his thigh, a fresh one, red and hard. I look at his leg, ask "Does it hurt?" suggest ice when we get home. He ignores the bruise, pulls at the front of his shirt to let the cool air inside the car reach him. "I'm hungry," he says. "Can we stop?"
"Sure," the simple way Dana has for addressing his needs fills me with great affection. I'm hungry myself, famished even, I suddenly realize. "We won't tell your mother," I create a conspiracy, head toward Burger Barn before going home to Lisa's dinner. I feel I've achieved something in making this decision, a bit of harmless deception, a new way of bonding with my son. I'm excited to see where this leads and ask eagerly,"So what's up?"
Dana gobbles his Barn Door burger down before we get home. I eat a few of his fries. Lisa's in the kitchen and Sam's still at work. I touch my wife's shoulder. We have a routine we follow in the evening, a system we're constantly adjusting on the run. When Lisa works late, I take care of dinner. When I can't get home, my wife's in charge. Lisa plans her menus days in advance. Rarely do I think about dinner before I leave work. When I do think about dinner, I go and shop for what I want.
Dana heads off to shower, comes back and asks,"What are we having?"
"Hungry?" I say as before,"Me, too," and wink. I am by nature ravenous, my hunger constant. I am by nature easily sated and disinclined to gorge. In the twenty-two years I've been married, I've had several thousand lovers. In the twenty-two years Lisa and I have been together, I've had only Pam. I think sometimes my cheating had nothing to do with Lisa. I think sometimes my cheating had everything to do with my wife. I suspect my sleeping with Pam was more about opportunity than need, the proximity of certain like-minded women allowing me to indulge my appetite as if standing at a buffet starved.
Lisa has had many lovers, all before we were married. She tells me stories about sowing her wild oats. I remember my own oats sowed and wonder if this is why I'm restless now. A few years ago, Lisa's firm brought in a lateral hire, a junior partner, handsome and unmarried. "I like him," Lisa told me.
"Do you think of him?" I asked.
"Not like that," she was trying to be honest but having a hard time. I questioned her later, "You must think of him, if you like him."
"Sure," she said. "Sometimes. But only that."
I don't know why leaving things in my head has never been enough for me. I suppose this is a flaw. I think this is a good thing, the way I need to touch and taste and feel. A month after Lisa told me about her crush, once she laughed it off and insisted the whole thing was natural and harmless and how, "I'm sure you've done it, too," I went for drinks with Gerry and was introduced to Pam.
I bring food to the table, return to the kitchen for napkins and plates. Sam comes home and says she has to leave in twenty minutes. Lisa pretends not to hear. When Lisa has to work late, she apologizes sincerely. When she stays downtown, I think about her and the junior partner, see how long I can go before I call and ask how everything is. On nights Lisa doesn't have to work, if Sam has plans, we tend to rush through our meal. This makes Lisa sad. Before Pam dumped me, if she was free on nights Lisa was home, I'd make excuses, first to one and then the other. When I made excuses to Pam, I thought little of it. When I made excuses to Lisa, I felt sad.
After Pam told me she'd met someone new, I wished I'd broken things off with her first. "Is it serious?" I asked. I had an erection and couldn't get it to go down. I wondered if her new boyfriend was married. Somehow this seemed important. I was curious, and jealous, was curious why I was jealous. I stood and the bulge in my pants hurt. "Congratulations," I said. "So what am I supposed to do now?"
My daughter is eating her chicken at a speed which threatens to produce sparks off her knife and fork. I ask Sam, "Where are you going tonight?" and she tells me, "Nowhere really."
I ask,"How is it possible to go nowhere really?" and she rolls her eyes and smiles as if I've caught her in some clever trap. "I have a date," she says.
I picture my daughter dancing, picture her in clubs and bars and at parties in the apartments of friends. I know my daughter is intimately active though I don't picture this. Sam tells me about boyfriends serious and otherwise. We're close enough that she informs me of things she thinks I need to know. She's nineteen and keeps secrets from me. Her current boyfriend is a swimmer with bleached blond hair. Her current boyfriend is a musician with three visible piercings and a voice raw from screaming backup in a group called 'Puppy Mustard.' Her current boyfriend drives a blue Chevy Wrangler and calls me sir.
The phone rings and both Sam and Dana race for it. I think it might be Pam calling. I know it won't be Pam. I don't want it to be Pam. I wonder if it's Pam. Lisa sits across from me at the table and says,"So, what did you do today?"
There are moments when I can't help feel I've done everything right. Despite myself, I seem to have landed on my feet without too much damage. I'm satisfied and this is something. There are moments when I look around and am convinced I've done everything wrong. I think about learning to sail in deep waters even though I've never once piloted a boat. I imagine what it would be like to write a novel, or open a restaurant, or dance by the light of the silvery moon.
Dana comes back to the table and we all hear Sam on the phone. "OK, OK," she says and laughs. When she returns, she rises up on her toes and tells us,"I have to go."
"Just a minute," I don't want her to leave quite yet, am thinking about what Dana said the other day, about panspermia and the Barringer Crater in Arizona, how scientists now reject the idea that large craters were caused by ancient volcanoes erupting and believe instead in impact cratering. Dana says data confirms all hard bodies in space were struck by meteors over time, creating and altering life. To assume Earth had somehow escaped bombardment defies logic; the Chicxulub Crater, mass extinctions, the Pangaea supercontinent divided, the moon and stars each offering proof.
I think of my own bombardment, the way things come at me and how life grows out of each hail and blitz. I think of what I love and don't love, what I know for sure and never will. I hear Charlie Parker improvising lines of music I could never on my own imagine, and what a crazy trade-off, as Parker died at thirty-five. I picture neighbors down the street, in houses not dissimilar to mine. I watch Dana finish the food on his plate, am glad he's hungry, is growing and eager to eat what's there for him. I nod at Sam, know she's impatient to be with her friends, how it isn't that she doesn't love us anymore but that she has her own life now.
"Today?" I want to answer Lisa and nearly tell her about Pam. I think briefly about the woman at work, the one I imagine asking for a drink. The effort does nothing for me however, and just as quickly I put her out of my head. I think how crude I am, wonder sometimes how my cells stay together, how I don't just fall apart and turn to dust. I feel so much. I feel so little. I forget about Pam. I look at my kids and wonder what they think of me. I see Lisa across the table and want to tell her everything but don't know where to start.
Steven Gillis is the author of the novels WALTER FALLS and THE WEIGHT OF NOTHING, both finalists for the Independent Publishers Book of the Year and ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year 2003 and 2005. Steve's third novel, TEMPORARY PEOPLE, will be published by Black Lawrence Press in 2008. Steve's stories, articles and book reviews have appeared in over three dozen journals. A six-time Pushcart nominee and 4 time Best Of... Notable Stories, a collection of Steve's stories—titled GIRAFFES&$8212;was published in February, 2007. A member of the Ann Arbor Book Festival Board of Directors, and a finalist for the 2007 Ann Arbor News Citizen of the Year, Steve teaches writing at Eastern Michigan University and is the founder of 826 Michigan—www.826michigan.org—and the co-founder of Dzanc Books—www.dzancbooks.org—in partnership with Dan Wickett. All proceeds from Steve's writing goes to his nonprofit programs. [email protected]