Gleam
Bryan Jones
Break
Dad's gone Goth. He's walking around in mascara all the time now, black lipstick, vampire-in-drag clothes. If he had any hair left, he'd dye it raven black. Around the house, for effect, he's put out these tombstones he made out of Styrofoam. It's no secret he's having a mid-life crisis. I think it's because he's jealous of me.
I'm his only son. I’m on the high school basketball team. I get the girls he never got. Mom can't stand him, especially now that he sulks around the house despairing all the time. She's gone to a three-week get away in Colorado. Dad and I have the house all to ourselves. It's spring vacation and I'm home from school.
Dad comes down the stairs reading Nietzsche. Yesterday it was Sartre. He goes down the stairs to our basement. He says he only feels at home in the basement. He stays down there for hours, painting pictures of the wind, the insides of empty skulls, bleached stones on the shores of dead seas. He works in a self-imposed silence, under the feeble light of a 40-watt bulb.
It's Saturday and I've invited two of the best-looking cheerleaders over for a pool party. I'm standing near the backyard window when I see them let themselves in through the back gate. They wave for me to come outside. Jill just got a scholarship to Stanford and Suzie was voted runner-up for Most Congenial.
I serve beer, wine, and cheese. The girls don't eat much cheese. They get drunk right away. I put some music on and sit with them on the patio furniture. Jill lies on her stomach, and unfastens the back of her bikini top and then rests her chin on her folded hands. She motions for me to rub suntan lotion on her back. I move closer and squeeze some pink lotion into my palm, and close my fingers to warm it up. I wouldn't want it to feel uncomfortable on her back. As I start rubbing between Jill's shoulder blades, Suzie nibbles on the rim of her plastic wine glass and watches. Suzie's sandy blond hair is cut exactly like Jill's. Jill says something about one of the teachers at school who doesn't seem to own a pair of pants with a properly functioning zipper. We laugh out loud by the poolside.
It's not long and I see that look in their eyes. They want to be with me. We decide to take off our swimsuits and leap naked into the deep end. Soon, what starts out as an amorous water ballet is about to morph into a watery ménage à trois when suddenly the sliding patio door opens and Dad steps out. He stands there costumed in his ridiculous attire, his pathetic black overcoat, and his face all twisted with anguish.
I swat the surface and splash water up at him. He is unable to do anything except stare down at his damp black shoes. Jill and Suzie laugh and we all start splashing him. I watch their bodies in the agitated water. Finally, Dad waves an angry arm at us and he goes back inside.
Then Dad does something that concerns me. He comes out carrying a living room table lamp. The lampshade is missing, but the long extension cord is plugged into the living room wall socket and the bulb is glowing. Dad comes to the edge of the pool and lifts the lamp over his head. He stands there for a moment like he's going to throw the lamp into the water. This frightens the girls. They latch on to me.
"What are you going to do?" I shout up at him, throwing out my chest. "You'll only end up remembering us like this forever. We're more than you've ever imagined. More than you ever were. Be honest, Pop, that's what's bothering you."
He lowers the lamp, defeated.
"Laugh it up," he says. "You can’t burn the candle at both ends."
He hangs his head, turns, and the tails of his black overcoat swing round with him. He goes back inside and puts the lamp back. A moment later, he comes out with two giant Styrofoam tombstones, each bearing his name. The girls get scared again, and again, they latch on to me. I squeeze them a little for reassurance. They can tell I've been working out.
Dad comes up to the edge of the pool and drops the Styrofoam tombstones into the water. They float like paddleboards. He lifts an old hand and rubs his bald crown and then gloomy old Dad goes back inside to all his uncertainty and pain. I shove the foam tombstones to the girls. They slide up on them and start kicking their long legs in the water. I put my hands on my hips like some kind of aquatic superhero.
I'm better than my father. I’m not so full of fear and frustrated desire. I've got it figured out. I've gone beyond him. Unlike him, I'll be brave. Jill and Suzie are wobbling on their floats in the pool, flashing smiles and paddling around me in a tightening circle, and I realize my father is trying to turn himself into something he’s not. But I’m the one who is going to turn him into something he never expected. I’m going to turn him into a grandfather.
Short fiction by Bryan Jones has appeared in The Danforth Review. He lives and works in Central Texas.