A FAMILY MAN
by Theo Greenblatt
[TW: This piece includes sexual assault scenes that may be triggering for some readers.]
Many times she had imagined, graphically and in slow motion, the bullet penetrating the pale, soft flesh of his temple; she knew intimately the faint indent, how it was edged with a line of graying strands slicked back with a dab of Brill cream, the shadowy crater of a chicken pox scar between the hairline and the eyebrow. She saw the skin parting and gently enveloping the smooth, hot tip of the metal missile, as if the bullet were melting its way in, as if the flesh itself welcomed the intrusion. This was the extent of her fantasy. She had never imagined the bullet exiting, or the blood. There was so much blood.
She went to the kitchen for a bucket and some Mr. Clean; took a sponge from the sink, a yellow one with a green scrubbie side, and a roll of paper towels. When she returned to the den she set the bucket down on the floor and began to sponge the blood—and other matter, she noticed—from the wood-paneled wall behind his chair. She worked carefully and methodically, but not with any thought as to “covering her tracks” or destroying evidence. She had no intention of hiding, it was just that she could not bear the mess. She wanted the room, the “scene,” to look clean and well-kept when it was examined. She sponged the entire wall, where sticky flecks of blood glistened as high as she could reach, and down to the floor where it had seeped into the crack between the molding and the patterned carpet. It had a particular gamey odor that wasn’t entirely dispelled by the industrial tang of the cleaning fluid. She almost liked that smell; it reminded her of hunting trips she had gone on when she was small, tramping through cold woods in gray morning light, her hands warmed by the ham and egg sandwiches packed in foil which she was charged with carrying.
She had to change the soapy water in the bucket three times before the wall was clean. She used Windex and paper towels to wipe down the pinkish spray that by now had dried onto the computer screen and keyboard. She winced as her touch on the keys produced an electric crackle and an image came into focus. She spread her hand so that the paper towel hid this image from her view. She could do nothing about his clothes or the blood soaking into the papers on the desk where his head now rested. It created a slowly changing pattern as it oozed and dried across the pages. She did not want to disturb the position of his body. There was a satisfying irony in the way his left arm seemed to point at the hinged picture frame (all the family members in separate frozen moments), his right arm palm up in his lap, head directly face down on the blotter. Not a sleeping pose, not restful, but the grace of arrested motion, a dance collapsed. She felt that the mess was acceptably contained in that small area, limited to his person and what might be considered his personal space. This was, after all, a deliberate act, rich with intent, not some out-of-control crime of passion. This was justice, this was necessity.
It had never occurred to Frank that he could be aroused by the product of his own seed. True, he had felt repulsed by his wife’s body, hard and bloated like a badly upholstered sofa, but he thought that was a man’s natural reaction to pregnancy, and did not seem connected to what came later for him. When, as a young father, he noticed his reaction to the innocent touch of his small children he assured himself that this too was natural. For a long time he did not acknowledge that he moved around them in ways that resulted in their contact with his genitals; carrying them at a particular angle, holding them on his lap just so. When his son Tom was five, six, seven, he was entranced by the way the boy’s small penis evoked the shape of his own member; he could remember touching himself secretly when he was that size, thinking he must be the only person who could feel this because no one had ever spoken of such a thing to him. The two-fold thrill of touching Tom—feeling himself and the boy respond at the same time—was a pleasure he could not bring himself to forego.
As Tom grew older and more like him in size, more adult in his physique, the excitement diminished for Frank. His daughter Karen was beginning to appear less childlike at this time, too, but her maturing body had the opposite effect on him. She was not becoming womanly in the way that his wife Louise was womanly. Instead Karen had a spring-like newness, everything budding and blossoming at once. Her breasts were small and delicately formed, not heavy and pulpy like his wife’s; her limbs were smooth and ropy from outdoor play. Slowly Frank’s desire veered away from Tom and he sought time alone with Karen. At first he only touched her, held her against him for what he knew to be too long, and then secluded himself in the bath or bedroom to relieve his tension. He imagined over and over again the pale almost hairless triangle beneath her bathing suit bottom, and her slim legs parting like a cheerleader’s V.
The anticipation he created with this fantasy eventually became unbearable to him. Finally one night, fetching Karen from a late babysitting engagement, he consummated his need for her in just the way his imagination had detailed so many times. She had been asleep when he picked her up and he had suggested she lie down in the back seat of the Taurus on the way home. She didn’t question his pulling off the road or his clambering in on top of her. He avoided looking at her frightened face, pressed his mouth against her neck instead, feeling his own hot breath create a wet patch on her shirt collar. He drove the rest of the way home in red-faced silence, grateful for the solid seatback between himself and his daughter.
After the first time with Karen he could hardly bring himself to caress his wife. Louise was not unaccommodating, but he found her body grotesque in comparison with Karen’s. He developed the habit of staying up late to watch the news and Louise went to bed uncomplainingly without him. Nightly he would enter Karen’s room and, in the muffled dark beneath her flowered duvet, whisper hoarsely his love for her until he spent himself there.
Frank declined to examine this behavior in depth. He was sure he was a normal man with normal needs and desires. Just as no one had ever spoken to him as a child about the pleasure of touching himself, he assumed now that other men gave in to this uncontrollable urge and simply didn’t discuss it. Now that it had become part of his routine, he was able to set aside his thoughts of Karen during the day; it was a part of his life that simply didn’t touch on the rest.
When Karen started high school, he forbade her to date; she was allowed out only with groups, and kept to a strict curfew. Louise concurred unquestioningly with this. For Karen’s safety, it was understood. During these years Karen’s body changed, became hardened to him, and when at last she left for college, Frank had steeled himself to the loss. By this time he had outfitted the den with a home computer, and was finding his consolation online. Here in the privacy of his home office, while Louise assumed he was paying bills and poring over sports scores, he was able to find hundreds upon hundreds of pictures of boys and girls like his children had once been—gentle, delicate-looking children whose bodies appeared soft and compliant. He gazed with unstinted longing at their tender private parts, imagined their small hands running over his flesh, and was content to massage himself to climax this way rather than resort to relations with Louise.
For several years Frank looked no further than his computer screen for fulfillment of his sexual desires, and the period of his nightly conjugations with Karen faded into a blurry, unreal memory. It was easy to pretend it had never happened since he was certain that he shared the secret with Karen only. Karen herself never alluded to it, although relations between them were always distant and a little formal. He was not close with Tom, either, although no real animosity ever surfaced, and he had truly forgotten the extent of his earliest preoccupations with his son. Occasionally it occurred to him that this was not the sort of father he had set out to be, aloof and forbidding, but he did not really feel that he could have done anything differently.
When grandchildren came into his life, Frank allowed himself to be carried away by the same sense of fatefulness, of life’s inevitable course. At first when Tom and Karen visited with their own young families, he stayed out of the way, allowing Louise to sponge up the milky pleasure of having babies in the house again. But as they grew into toddlers and older, he felt the children sought him out. Louise’s attention was not enough for them, or it was different. They asked him for things—candy and pencils and piggy-back rides. They bumped into him, they snaked their slightly sticky fingers into his sweaty palm with no hesitation, they hugged him, pressing their faces to his corduroy-covered thighs, causing him to swell inside his briefs. It was like a rerun of his early parenting years and when the first cloud of guilt had passed he began to feel rejuvenated by these new stimulations. Clearly this was not something he controlled, this reaction of his, he was just wired this way. He allowed his anxiety to dissolve into enjoyment but at the same time he was careful in the presence of family and noticed that he was not often left alone with the children.
Louise had given him a digital camera for Christmas and it occurred to him that he could take pictures of his grandchildren and look at them whenever he chose. Frank became the family chronicler, taking pictures at every gathering and on even the smallest occasions. Many of these photos he sent out to Karen and Tom but there were some he kept to himself as well. Since everyone was so accustomed to seeing him with a camera, no one noticed his attention to particular details as he documented the children on film. He had countless images of his grandchildren at the beach, in the bath, getting ready for bed—images that fed his desire and held him nearly captive at his computer, with one hand pressed into his lap.
Lying in bed he thought he heard a sound like a firecracker, but it was muted by the comforter he had pulled up over his head. He wedged himself further into the corner where the mattress met the wall and tried to silence his own breathing so he could hear what was happening downstairs, or if anyone was coming up. His sister was snoring lightly in the bed next to him, making little “puh” sounds when she exhaled. He had trouble falling sleep with her in the room. At home he had his own room, and he would always be alone when his father came in late at night. Last night his grandpa had come instead, and he had been nervous that his sister would wake up. He thought he understood that this night-time thing was something grown-up men did just with boys—at first he thought it was only his dad, but now he knew that grandpas did it, too. He also knew it was supposed to be a secret; probably because girls spoil everything, that’s what his dad would say, only half-joking.
He couldn’t make out any people sounds from the rest of the house, so he carefully eased the blanket down just past his ears and turned his head toward the door. A line of light shone along the bottom; not all the grown-ups had gone to bed. He couldn’t distinguish between their footsteps here because all the floors were carpeted, so he didn’t know who was still up. Everyone stayed up later when they visited at his grandparents’ house, he had noticed. He did hear a door close and someone moving about in the kitchen, which was directly below him.
At home he knew all the night sounds: the creak of every stair, the squeak of the floorboards by the bathroom, the furnace going on and the steam tapping in the radiators. Here everything was different and the unfamiliar noises made him anxious—the metallic knocking of the blinds against the window frame from the wind outside, the humming and clunking that he now knew was the refrigerator making ice. A lot of things were making him anxious, not just the noises, but the worst was that he really didn’t want his grandfather to come in again. It was different with his dad, he knew what to expect, but his grandfather was shaky and smelled of old man sweat, and it scared him. Also his father wouldn’t come in unless he was alone, but his grandpa clearly didn’t know the rules.
He shifted his head to look at his sister and watched her lips puffing rhythmically in and out for a while. He decided if he heard someone coming, he would reach over and pinch her to wake her up. She would cry and his grandpa would not touch him. Once he had this plan firmly in mind he felt better and relaxed his grip on the edge of the blanket. He waited a long time and finally someone was coming up the stairs. He tensed his whole body, ready to lurch forward, his fingers clenched to grab at his sister’s flesh; but the footfalls went past his door and there was a soft click as the hall light went out. Still he waited, lying flat on his stomach, watching the door, until it had been quiet for a long time. At last he felt sure his grandpa wasn’t coming. He pulled the blanket back over his head and began the slow drift into sleep.
Theo Greenblatt’s prose, both fiction and nonfiction, appears in The Normal School Online, Tikkun, Salt Hill Journal, Harvard Review, and numerous other venues. She is a past winner of The London Magazine Short Story Competition. Her collection Rescue and Other Relationships was a finalist in the recent Autumn House Press Full-Length Fiction Contest.
Theo teaches writing to aspiring officer candidates at the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, RI.