I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.
When Angie called he was washing the bottoms of his shoes, concerned that his soles were soiled with the runoff of other donors. Angie had tried to call his wife but couldn’t get through, she said. She quickly confessed that she and her husband were getting a divorce. The man wiped his tongue on his sleeve. He had a cat hair in his mouth. Angie asked if he was there. “Yes,” he said. “Can you meet me?” she asked. He had an appointment at the sperm bank later that afternoon. He wondered aloud if she’d drive to the parking lot of the strip mall, the one with the small movie theater. “Near the outer banks,” she confirmed. Yes. Okay. Three p.m. Three p.m. They hung up. He ran his hands under the tap water and washed them with Palmolive. He then removed the cat hair. Upon further examination he discovered it wasn’t a cat hair. It looked more like a sweater thread or the fiber from a carpet. He didn’t have a cat.
Months before, he and Angie had chanced a bottle of wine while Sarah was away. Angie had twirled her hair nervously with her forefinger, curling it over and over. She tinkered with the salt and pepper shakers, sliding them around like chess queens while she and Abe made small talk. When he asked if she was feeling okay, she admitted to a spate of recent panic attacks. She said she was afraid of her own pubic hair, scared to talk to men on the telephone. She’d come to believe her own menstrual blood was some kind of corruption. She looked into the mirror and saw a monster. The man listened sympathetically. He looked her in the eye affirmingly but kept glancing at her mouth. It was like the zipper of a purse with lots of money inside. She said that a long time ago she’d been afraid of losing her teeth, and remembered a childhood bike accident in which she skidded on sand and flew over the handlebars, smashing her mouth onto the curb. Her lip ripped into a chunk. At the hospital the doctor discovered two of her teeth missing and suggested she may have swallowed them. The man noticed the slightest furrow in her lip where the doctor had sewn stitches. Her makeup helped disguise the scar, but he could still see it. Angie drank her wine, resting the glass on her lower lip. Her eyes closed. Her teeth clicked against the glass. He imagined her eating a salad, the sound of the fork sliding from her mouth, the scrape of metal against her teeth.
“I don’t see anything,” he said.
“I know you can,” she paused. “It was when Sandy turned six that I became afraid of losing my teeth. I know those kinds of dreams mean you feel powerless, but then I remembered the bike accident, which happened when I was six.”
He reached for Angie’s shoulder and squinched it in his hand.
“Now Sandy’s got her period,” she said. “I think all these anxieties are related. I think I’m re-experiencing puberty because she just turned thirteen.”
The man did not have kids, but he’d heard of parents who rediscovered themselves when they had children. It always sounded like a wonderful experience. They found their optimistic purpose, they could see a million shades of green again. They were happy. But Angie sounded harried, like she’d split into two different people, one rooted in the present, the other drowning in the ocean of the past. He wanted to console her but he didn’t know what to say. It sounded so dramatic. He placed his hand on hers and raised his eyebrows suggestively as he tilted the bottle toward her, offering her more wine. She made fists inside her sweater.
“Just a little,” she said.
Shortly after she left, he finished the wine. It had been a gift, an extra bottle from a party, he couldn’t remember, something Sarah wouldn’t miss. He sat down at the table, thinking of Angie and wondering about his own parents, if they’d ever experienced similar anxieties. Counting back, his mother had been thirty-four and his father thirty-seven when he was born. In ten months he would be thirty-seven. His wife had never wanted children, but lately he’d become surprisingly enthusiastic. In his mind he saw a strange reflection of himself, a gruff figure holding in his arms a tiny piglet whose skin was downy pink. Delicate white lashes made abbreviated canopies over its eyes, and a soft flank draped over his bearish forearm. Though it was a slight inverse of what Angie had been talking about, his recent desire to have children and the discovered age of his father seemed like an odd coincidence, emanations of the same invisible government. He was half his father’s body, and he speculated there could be a time release in his DNA, contingent on the moment he transitioned from one parent into the other. Maybe there was a code inside him, an envelope mailed many years ago that had finally opened.
When the wine was finished he poured himself a whiskey. The late afternoon moved into the hollow blue of twilight as he stirred at the kitchen table, ruminating over the possibility of children. People called it a miracle. It seemed more like a pleasant math. When Sarah came home he got up from his chair abruptly, gripped her by the arms and pushed her against the stove. “I’m thinking about kids,” he said.
He found Angie’s SUV in the parking lot and pulled up beside her the way police officers do. Angie looked as if she’d been sleeping in the woods. Her hair was knotted and her eyes frenzied with makeup. He nodded and got out of his car. The interior of her SUV was disheveled, too, the floor flooded with maps, newspapers, Kleenex and plastic rings from six-packs. Angie had a beer in her hand and reached into the backseat for another. She smelled vaguely of chicken soup. Ash and white butts battled inside the ashtray. Marlboro Lights were the one cigarette he could resist. The uniquely acrid smoke repulsed him, or maybe it was the whiteness. With other cigarettes he smelled toast and firewood. With Marlboro Lights it was just chemicals. Angie lit one and resumed her anxious confession. She and Bob were getting a divorce. He’d told her they were intellectually incompatible. He was seeing another woman, a librarian he’d met on the Internet. Angie had threatened to give him a vasectomy with a kitchen knife. “Now I have to find a condo, something cheap for me and Sandy, and I have to get a better job, maybe doing data entry.” He rubbed his hand comfortingly across her thigh, smoothing errant bits of ash into her blue jeans. She mewed softly into her beer. He tried to console her, telling her it was not her fault. He never liked Bob. Barbeque Bob. No more big government Bob. But did he not like Bob because Bob was Bob? Or was Bob just in the way?
He couldn’t help but see the opportunity. Angie would almost certainly share his infidelity, he was confident, but it was an ugly thought and he tried to shake it by looking out the window. He listened to her detail Bob’s vulgarities, the disgust he provoked in her. Bob never talked to Sandy anymore. Bob never flossed and his breath smelled like bread products. The man floated between her words, her voice scratchy from crying and smoking. He turned back toward her. She had a good body, a little loose in the cage but nice. She reached for his hand. He felt himself uncoiling. He turned to the window, again trying to break the sudden swoon, and he saw the sperm bank out the window, the site of so much self-pleasure and guiltless benefaction. Angie stroked his wrist. A man opened the tinted door of the sperm bank and strode to his car, a dark blazer draped over his shoulder. He wore sunglasses. The man turned to Angie, reached around her shoulder and brought her closer. She looked frightened, a deer in the field that hears thunder, and he closed his eyes, found her mouth, and kissed her. The musty unwashed smell of her hair rushed into his nostrils. Her lips were tight but he could feel her tongue flicker. She suddenly relaxed. She surrendered quickly. He could have sex with her if he wanted. She was thirty-five. He would leave Sarah, or Sarah would leave him, it didn’t matter who left whom. He would have sex with Angie and then a child would come, a dream that Sarah didn’t share, and he would inherit Sandy, too, Angie’s daughter. He’d have two children. Love was specious. Sandy would become his daughter. His erection swelled. He imagined Angie and nubile Sandy, lying naked on a king-sized bed, side by side, their legs crooked in the air, both of them wet and open, supine and waiting for him to enter, mother and daughter holding hands, their eyes the same color, both of them ready.
Privately he had been charting Sarah’s period. He wrote down the days of the week in a blue notebook, marking with an “X” the days Sarah menstruated, and “O” on the days she did not. He read about ovulation and the mysterious LH surge at the library, and discovered there was a coveted window between the eleventh and twentieth day of a woman’s cycle, when the luteinizing hormone peaked and her fertility was maximized. The reference book discouraged couples from having sex every day. “Decrease in sperm motility acutely lowers the probability of achieving pregnancy. Increase in frequency of sex hampers the likelihood of fertilization,” it said. On a lark, the man went over to the library computer and fished around for pharmaceutical websites. He’d ordered Ambien before. Maybe they had fake birth control. Within a few clicks he found the familiar hexagonal packaging in a small photograph. It was the same pink cartridge Sarah used, but the pills were counterfeit. They were made of sugar. “For happy accidents,” the copy read. “Sometimes babies just slip through the cracks.” He was disappointed that a whole market had been designed for people like him, men and women conniving against their partners. He’d thought his sudden scheme unique.
He and Sarah made love infrequently. When they did have sex, they performed dispassionately, their bodies efficient like machines. He’d come to want her only for production, and she used sex to disappear. They’d lost their common purpose. The man became lazy in his enticements, dragging his erection across her thigh while she read from her Coetzee novel in bed. He used alcohol as his only aphrodisiac. He offered to stimulate her with Altoids but she told him that was gross. His friend Wanda had mentioned it, and told him how her boyfriend seduced her. While they watched an NBA game on TV he’d scoop her off the couch and throw her onto the bed. Then he’d pull it out and slap her across the cheeks until he was fully hard. She’d scream and giggle, is what she said. He didn’t know why she told him. Maybe it wasn’t any stranger than a porcupine urinating on his mate, or a lake duck using his penis as a lasso, but it seemed brutish to the man. Sarah often put down her novel and slipped off her pajama bottoms wordlessly. What did it matter. In a million years what would anything matter, he thought, whether she wanted a child. They would be gone, all of humanity would be gone. The universe was contracting. Soon there wouldn’t be any stars to look at, to make patterns out of. Stars like a hundred million sperm scattered across the night sky.
Sarah didn’t want to make the sacrifice. She liked things as they were. She didn’t want a kid to vomit all over her cashmere sweater and leave crumbs in between the car seats. Kids were expensive. Her breasts would become spigots. The exterior controls, the murky cave, doctors and money, no wine, no sushi. She’d be forced to drink fish oil. It was the final frontier, the patriarch exacting control over the woman’s body, mandating her behavior, lording over her controls. He listened to her grievances and tried to persuade her. “It’s not a sacrifice I want to make,” she said. “And why do you want children now, out of the blue? They’re always sick.” He said once the baby came, their shared futility would disappear. She told him she didn’t “share futility.” He was surprised she didn’t want a child, even though they agreed early in their relationship not to have children. Women were supposed to have clocks. Instead, an alarm had gone off inside of him. The species was commanding his scrotal brain. He no longer cared who set the alarm.
Lobbying her was not going to help, he realized. Sarah would have to be pregnant to want a child. Over time the science would bear out. He just had to be patient. While he’d never know the exact day of her LH surge, if they had sex every other day between the eleventh and twentieth day of her cycle, the odds were fifty-fifty. Just a coin flip. He didn’t want pressure. He’d heard of couples who wanted kids too much, who were unable to achieve pregnancy because they fixated too hard. He took Xanax. He stopped at the local Qi Gong massage parlor, allowing himself to be handled by a brusque woman with shoveler’s hands. He smoked joints in the backyard. If Sarah got pregnant he’d have to dissuade her from having an abortion. He might not even know she was pregnant. She might not tell him, though she did discuss her menstruation with him, how her flow had gotten heavier. He eavesdropped when she telephoned her gynecologist. “I’m way off schedule and it’s just gushing,” she informed the doctor. In replacing her birth control with sugar pills he’d tapped into a violent flood. He didn’t know if that meant she was more or less fertile. Some women were just dead birds inside.
He was a primitive. A sewer. But Angie had talked about her subconscious connection with Sandy. It was her fault he linked the two. He felt the undertow of his desire pulling him down, his fingertips pulsing with caress as he slipped his hand under the fold of her blouse, spreading his fingers like a starfish over the round polyester cup of her bra. They closed their eyes together. “Open your mouth,” he said, and they kissed like teenagers in a dark van, their world small and meaningful. He was feeling her breast, the precocious eighth-grade breast of a girl he fooled around with in middle school who’d probably just gotten her period. He remembered Jessica, the first girl he’d seen shirtless. She’d shrugged off her oversized V-neck. She told him he could do anything he wanted and he’d frozen with opportunity. Her ribs, her collarbones exposed. A mole on her abdomen. She gave him too much power in her permission. He felt unprepared.
“Where are you going?” she asked, lighting a cigarette.
He hadn’t thought of her in years until he was poking around the Internet one night, spying on old acquaintances. He found Krystyn living in California with a blank-faced computer programmer and two Dobermans. The website said she liked dogs and chocolate. He saw photographs of their house, tear sheets of Ikea furniture. Heather was an associate director at a marketing company in Boston. She’d always been a part of the solution. On a lark he typed Jessica’s name into the computer. She’d moved away in ninth grade. It was his long regret he walked away from her, afraid. The only link was to an obituary. Jessica had died of heart failure. She was only thirty-two. He stared at the screen, the pixilated photograph and scanned text. When they’d kissed he was peach fuzz. She smoked moodily and ate ranch Doritos, covering up the smell of both with Certs. In the photograph she was fat and smiled like a balloon. Three oversized children surrounded her. She didn’t look remotely the same, but she looked happy.
Sandy looked like Angie. He thought of the daughter as he began to unbutton her blouse, kissing her on the neck, smelling the perfume and smoke from her cigarettes. What would have happened to Jessica if he’d stayed? Would she have died? Angie’s hands wrapped around his head. She was locking her fingers into his hair. Lightly pulling tufts. He grabbed her hand and pushed it against his jeans. He wanted to show her he’d changed. She unlatched her seat belt from the cartridge and moved onto him, reaching for the lever to lower his seatback into a horizontal position. He felt the conflict of raw desire and futility. What do you shout. He massaged her shoulders, a distancing move, trying to buy time. Should he do it. She was Sarah’s friend. She was so yielding. He bit her lower lip. She pulled away, touching her mouth to see if it was bleeding. She stared at him with a suspicious slant.
He couldn’t count on Angie. She was the lottery. She might get pregnant but probably wouldn’t and if she did she’d abort it without telling him. There’d be no way to prevent it without being overt. Afterward she’d be ashamed of what they did and she’d feel repulsed by him. She’d think he took advantage of her when she was at her lowest point. The betrayal would be unforgivable. Angie moved back toward him and they began again. She reached against his thigh and he bit her lip again, an invitation instead of protest. Her eyes widened with enthusiasm. He covered himself in swathes of her hair so that she couldn’t see his face. Her unbuttoned shirt draped over him like two sides of a tent.
The sperm bank had offered fewer complications. It wasn’t parenting; it was rudimentary reproduction. He’d been going there for weeks, after a pregnancy never obtained with Sarah. He hadn’t enjoyed the deception anyway. Perhaps the deceit prevented pregnancy. Sarah seemed much happier once her cycle regulated, after he abandoned the sugar pills. She felt like herself again. When she remarked that the color and shape of her pills had returned to old, he said, “They probably were giving you a generic.” He’d already moved on to plan B. He’d reproduce himself in strangers. Weeks ago he’d made an appointment and drove there on a weekday afternoon. The sperm bank lurked anonymously between a dry cleaner’s and a Russian chess shop at the adobe-colored strip mall. He loitered anxiously outside, admiring a set of handsome pawns. He felt nervous. At the desk a young man in a pink polo recorded his name and handed him a clipboard with fill-in-the-blank forms. The room was painted dead salmon. Innocuous unframed prints of watercolor flowers papered the walls. He stared at the prints until a white woman with lavender scrubs called his name. She was not attractive. Her eyes sagged. He followed her through a long hallway. He’d come psychologically prepared to masturbate. There were doors to his left and right, and he imagined stubby men with their pants around their ankles tugging on their joints, every one of them ejaculating into a clear plastic receptacle. He was nervous about the cup. Would it run over. Would he fail to catch it all. They sat down on steel chairs in a bright examination room. The woman asked why he wanted to be a donor. The man explained his situation with Sarah. He wanted to contribute something meaningful to the world but he was only one man. He felt compelled, like it wasn’t really his decision. It was more or less the truth. The woman asked if he knew that some of the clients who sought out fertility centers were single mothers, lesbians, and surrogates for gay men. He shrugged his shoulders.
“I’m not here to judge,” he said.
“You’ll take tests to determine your eligibility, and we’ll document your income, education history, medical history, hobbies, religious preferences, vices, anything pertinent to evaluate your suitability. You’ll need to provide photographs from different periods of your life. People will want to know what they’re getting. What does your wife think about this?”
“I haven’t told her.”
“That’s not a good sign. Also, I’m sorry to be candid, but you’re a little old to be a donor.”
The intake nurse scribbled onto a sheet of paper.
“Are you saying I can’t be a donor?”
“We’ll see,” she said.
The rest of the screening consisted of data surveys, blood and DNA tests, and a cardiac and respiratory discovery. Everything was in line. The man was cleared to donate sperm, but his file would be coded with an orange stripe, meaning his sperm was “mature.” Orange stripes were deterrents. Most parents-to-be wanted virile, twentysomething Harvard grads. The next week he dropped off a large portfolio of his photocopied transcripts, college degrees (not Harvard), tax statements, bank statements, broad brushstrokes of his medical and dental histories, proof of employment, and his birth certificate. He provided photographs of his infancy, childhood, adolescence, and a few from his twenties and early thirties, so potential parents could preview half the possibility of their future child. He included one his mother took of him at twelve years old, straddling his bicycle in the driveway with a bag of newspapers slung over his shoulder. He knew it would be appealing. In the photograph he looked dignified. Patrolling the streets early in the morning when the lawns were glazed with frost and everyone slept warmly in their beds, it was as if he were the only one alive, and it gave him a special pride. But in its sixth month the pastoral paper route was interrupted by a bellicose German Shepherd, which sprang from a set of hedges and toppled him off his bike, begging its sharp teeth into his upper thigh. The boy howled in pain. He tried to wriggle free but the dog clamped down harder and shook its head violently back and forth, trying to pull off a chunk. Suddenly the boy woke up, surrounded by adults. One of the men had a shotgun with its barrel to the blacktop. He strained to see the German Shepherd and found it lying parallel on the nearby grass. A woman handed him some paper towels. A week after the scabs healed he started to develop the scar. The dog’s mouth was imprinted on him, and would always be there, a tiny iridescent constellation of tooth marks.
He visited the sperm bank twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays. They requested he not ejaculate for at least forty-eight hours prior to appointments. Sex with Sarah suffered as a result, but neither seemed to mind. Soon the man developed a routine. The receptionist handed him a plastic container and directed him to the available room. Locked inside, he carefully removed his clothes, stepping on the tops of his shoes to avoid direct contact with the carpet, and he hung each item from a peg on the far wall. He placed them in the order of how he’d get dressed: sweater, jeans, shirt, underwear. He then replaced his shoes, standing otherwise naked in the room. Ignoring the tattered magazines, he played the same DVD on the all-in-one TV and skipped to a scene with a voluptuous blonde woman on her knees fellating a hairy man in a Mexican wrestling mask. The woman’s painted fingernails raked the wrestler’s vulgar abdomen, and he tousled her hair and murmured as she moved on him with a delicate rhythm until the wrestler raptured simultaneously with the man, the actor onto the blonde woman’s chin and chest and the man against the lip of the clear plastic receptacle.
That November he had gone to see his father. On the way he dropped by his old hometown, East New Chesterwick, a blip of fast-food restaurants and tangents of woods in southern Ohio. He threaded the streets until he came to his old neighborhood and parked his car at the turnoff. The streets were wet from a recent shower. Squiggled worms had emerged and many anthills pocked the edges. As a boy he’d fingered sand into their holes, spreading out the mounds, but the ants emerged resiliently from the cracks and scurried away. Their broad empire was never in danger. The sky was overcast, gray like faded clothes. The homes were evenly spaced apart as buttons on a shirt, and on his right thick pines made dark lines that grew into pallid shadows. He’d loved those woods when he was younger. He’d played war with his friends, splitting into teams and using sturdy Y-shaped sticks for guns. They smeared mud onto their faces and stayed out past sunset, arguing over who shot whom and where to store the munitions. When he was in high school, he walked through the woods alone, beheading ferns and skunkweed plants, filling the air with their foul defense. There was a faraway area he liked to visit, a campsite or a pagan place, he didn’t know, a semicircle of stones surrounded by mossy trunks and half logs. It’d been abandoned. Occasionally he removed his clothes and sat naked in the middle of the circle, listening to the quiet and feeling the cool air against his skin. Sometimes he made himself hard and rubbed it against the earth, as if trying to cross something out. The site was on an incline, and he stood on the edge and surveyed the expanse, pinecones and trees and poison ivy and downed branches replicating themselves far into the distance like a video game. He listened to the birds warn others of his presence.
His sister told him to be prepared. She said their old house would look very Japanese. He hadn’t seen it for twenty years. In their photographs it remained the same, a red ranch with evergreen bushes towering over a mum garden, and a blue Nova parked in the driveway. He could see the house in the distance, grayish brown instead of red, but he paused as something grabbed his eye. It was an animal carcass, a rabbit’s body crumpled on the short grass. When he got close enough he saw that its head was missing. On one end a bushy white-dot tail tipped into the air, and little legs built for bounding were now folded in sleep. At the front there wasn’t any blood. The neckline wasn’t raw. But the rabbit had been decapitated. The cut was neat and straight. He guessed a person had killed the rabbit and used an electric saw or a similar tool. He crouched and stroked the rabbit’s coarse dead fur. Fleas still swarmed through its hair. Flies buzzed near its tail.
He walked more slowly now toward his old house. He passed Frank Volvano’s driveway and surmised they no longer lived there. The Volvanos were not mini-van people. Many years ago he and Frank planned to go as soldiers on Halloween. In preparation he’d painted cadmium green and yellow patches onto a pair of blue jeans and sweatshirt to simulate camouflage. But his costume was the opposite of camouflage. He stuck out like a fire. The colors were intensely bright, and after the paint dried, his jeans and sweatshirt became coarse and stiff all over. The paint scratched his skin when he walked. That summer he’d discovered a helmet in his basement and planned to wear it. It was stony and grey and had a white eagle painted on the side. The helmet was heavy when he tried it on, like having two heads. He asked his father where it came from. It was his grandfather’s from the war. He thought that meant his grandfather had worn it into combat, but later he saw in an encyclopedia of World War II that the helmet was German, and he realized his grandfather had retrieved it off a dead man, maybe even one he’d killed. On Halloween he ate dinner at the Volvano’s house and was served chicken and Spanish rice, which inspired Frank’s brother Bon to spew vitriolically about Puerto Ricans. He claimed that Puerto Ricans wore pointed-toe shoes because they were always climbing chain-link fences to escape from prison. Then they’d go dancing. When Frank put on his outfit, he looked like steel, dressed head to toe in camouflage with face paint and a pair of black combat boots. He carried a fake M-16 and there were two plastic hand grenades clasped to his belt loops. In contrast, Abe looked like a mistake. He was like the scarecrow version of a soldier, a three-year old’s drawing of an army man. The only thing that gave him authenticity was his grandfather’s Nazi helmet. “Go get yourself some Ricans,” Bon said, punching Frank in the arm.
Six more houses and he came to his own. It was as his sister described. The red paint had been stripped away and replaced with taupe, and in the front yard bonsai topiary surrounded a petite rock garden. The new tenants had excavated the evergreen bushes and planted hulking stalks of thick bamboo. The house seemed much smaller than he remembered, but it was a completely different place. Whoever lived there was different. He could see a woman through the main window, white, with an ivory sweater, older by twenty years. She was looking into another room, dipping into a mug. He’d intended to ring the doorbell but changed his mind. The woman seemed so cozy. He stood there for five full minutes, just staring at the house, hoping she would notice him and ask him inside for cider. He would decline, and give her a strong, stoical look.
“Can I help you?” a voice boomed.
He was startled. He turned to face an obese neighbor, who wore a winter coat over his pajamas and was holding a silver thermos.
“This used to be my house,” he said defensively, pointing toward the Japanese home.
The neighbor scrutinized him. “Silva, is it? Abe Silva? Oh yes, about thirty years ago. In fact, you used to play with my daughter Anna.”
The man pretended to have trouble remembering.
“Anna is a lawyer now.”
“I’m a lawyer, too,” he lied. “Did Anna used to call you by your first name? Stan? And your wife is Gail?”
“She still does that. It drives us crazy.” The neighbor paused. “You sang ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ in our living room. Into a carrot.”
“I don’t remember that.”
He smiled nostalgically. “The last time I saw you, you asked Anna to be part of your private club, you and Frank,” he said, pointing to the house in the distance. Abe flushed slightly at the memory. “I don’t know if you heard what happened to Bon Volvano?” the neighbor asked.
“A few years ago he hiked up the highway ravine and shot himself in the head.”
“Bon killed himself?”
“Yes, with a shotgun. He put it in his mouth.”
It seemed an awful detail to share. He paused. “What kind of law does Anna do?”
“Boat law,” her father answered. “You were going to initiate her, remember? You had a stick that was cut and bent in the middle. You were on my front steps and threatened to pinch her arm with the stick. You didn’t see me standing behind the screen door and I scared the shit out of you. Scared shitless. You ran all the way home.”
“I hid in the basement.”
“And then you moved that year?”
He looked back at his old house, then turned toward the neighbor. “Bon killed himself?”
A few hours later he stood in front of his father’s house. He’d already rung the doorbell six times and there’d been no answer. He stood away from the door, looking for movement inside the window. Weeks ago they’d made a plan to move a credenza into storage, then watch the Ohio State-Indiana game. Probably they’d order the pizza with fried vegetables from Little Tony’s. Because his father’s car was in the driveway, he began to worry. It was possible his father had suffered a head injury and was bleeding on the floor inside. He could be dead in the bathtub. Or in bed, having passed away in the night. A heart attack. He imagined his father sleeping, or appearing to sleep, the long hump of his body covered with a yellow wool blanket, the one they made him use when he’d been ill. It was the extra blanket. His father never threw anything away. He probably had the same long johns from forty years ago. The man called his father’s landline and could hear the phone ringing inside. His cell phone had gone straight to voice mail. Consistently his father had denied him a key to the house, and similarly, he’d refused to hide a spare, the way other families did, like under the ceramic chipmunk named “Nuts” that guarded the entranceway. His father had acquired custody of Nuts after the divorce. It was a spiteful request as part of the settlement—his mother had once thrown Nuts at his father’s head. His father claimed it would ward off “other evil spirits.” He considered it a talisman, a mark of his survival, and bitterly he’d placed it on the lawn.
The man felt a nagging sense of urgency. When he’d imagined his father injured on the floor, it had been a fleeting thought, but the longer he idled on the stoop, the more he believed in the possibility. How else to explain the car in the driveway? He considered his options. Calling the police, breaking in, waiting, leaving, checking with neighbors, or yelling out his father’s name. He did not think positively, and did not believe himself an inviolable force the way many men do, and so he resigned himself to a paradox: If he broke into the house, his father would be fine, and would have a very rational, unexplored reason for having locked the front door, left the car in the driveway, and not answered his phone. As a result, the man would be embarrassed. But if he didn’t break into the house, or if he waited for the police or a neighbor, his father would die, and he’d have lost the opportunity to save him in these critical moments. He would feel guilty for the rest of his life. It was like the probability equation about God, that it was better to believe he exists, because the reward for having faith was so much better than the punishment for not. The man did not believe in God, but he decided the obvious thing to do was break in, ensuring the safety of his father. He hurried to the front door and hurled Nuts through the window. Glass shattered in and outside the house. A shard raked the back of his hand. He pulled the cut to his mouth and sipped, grabbing jagged pieces off the frame with his other hand and flicking them onto the lawn. Removing his jacket, he laid it across the window and hoisted himself up, ready to enter. Suddenly he was yanked back by his belt loops. He was pulled from the house before he’d even managed to get his head inside. The man turned around. It was his father.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“I thought you might be—“
“This is my house.”
“You didn’t answer the phone.”
“Fuck the phone. This is my house.”
When the universe became vapor and all of space was diminished, whether this individual got enough sleep or why that person committed murder would no longer be relevant. It never was. Yet the man felt burdened with his private obligation. Everything was a metaphor, a transparent imitation of life. Only his purpose, his desire to have children—ordered by nature, his ancestors, caprice, or whatever—mattered. When that mission was accomplished, he could rest.
He pushed Angie away and stared at her with cold neutrality. She moved off him and rolled down her window, letting in a rash of sunlight. She looked like a violent afternoon.
“I can’t do this,” he said.
“Why? Because of Sarah,” she muttered.
“Not because of Sarah,” he answered begrudgingly. “Because I don’t think you’d go through with it.”
She smiled demurely and grabbed his hand to demonstrate her permission, to show him she’d have sex with him. She was vulnerable like a teenager, feeling the sand of her desire passing through a stranger’s fingers. “Please,” she said.
“No,” he said curtly, pulling it back. “The only reason I want to have sex with you is to get you pregnant.”
Angie paused before answering, allowing time for the sounds of the words to fulfill their meaning. “For fuck’s sake.”
“I want a fucking baby. I want to fuck you and make a baby.”
“I’m like a single fucking arrow.” He paused. “You and Sandy should stay at our place.”
She threw her half can of beer at his face, partly because she was so angry and partly because it would snap her back into reality. It bounced off his shoulder and splat against the window. Everything he said was absurd. “Why should I stay there?”
“Because I’m not coming back,” he said.
He was late by fifteen minutes. “Door six,” the receptionist winked, handing him a plastic container. When he entered the room he tried to let go. The sperm bank was a kind of sanctuary for him, a place of pure male purpose. He washed his hands in the small basin opposite the wall of magazines. He was no longer hard from the car. There was a full size mirror near the television—apparently some guys liked to watch themselves, or maybe it was just for grooming—and he smoothed the hair above his ears, the way men did in movies, by spitting on his hands, rubbing them together, and flattening the sides. Occasionally when he masturbated he spit on his hand, but he tried to resist that urge because as a lubricant spit was short-lived and afterward his hand smelled like something worse than drool. He kept looking in the mirror. He felt guilty about Angie. He’d been rude. He had started to use her, had wanted to, he’d almost gone through with it. He felt like a thousand puzzle pieces. Sarah would know. Angie would tell her. But he’d already left her long ago, in trying to get her pregnant. He’d been in disarray, scattered like the stars, arranged imperfectly and with violence like the constellation on his thigh.
He left the room and returned to the receptionist, asking for additional containers.
“What happened to the one I gave you?” the receptionist asked.
“I just want to have a lot of them,” the man insisted.
“You can only make one deposit every three days. Otherwise the count will not be high enough.”
“Just give them to me, prick,” he said tersely.
He loomed over the desk and the receptionist appeared intimidated. It was an awkward request, but the receptionist shoved a half dozen more onto the counter. The man ferried them back to room six, where he placed them in a row on top of the television set. There was no lock on the door, so he dragged a metal chair and clipped it under the doorknob, barricading himself in. He pushed the television console against the door, too, and the fire extinguisher, the DVD shelf, the magazine shelf, and a space heater. It wouldn’t last forever. In fact the receptionist had probably reported him to the security for behaving strangely. Whatever. He removed all his clothes like usual, stepping on his shoes, preventing his feet from touching the carpet. And then he kicked his shoes away. And took off his socks. He no longer cared about the runoff. He began to stroke himself, and it jumped up quickly, enthusiastic after such recent discard. He masturbated, bringing himself to climax right away, ejaculating into one cup, waiting, repeating, and then into another. He imagined nothing. There were no images, just the room. He stared only at the cups, filling each of them to the level marked “Full.” On the last one, as gruff men shouted outside and bashed their shoulders against the door to his room, he thought of the man his grandfather killed, the soldier lying stiff on the sidewalk with a bullet in his heart, a city of cement around him. He could almost see the German’s face.
Trey Sager is the author of Dear Failures and O New York, both from Ugly Duckling Presse. His romance novel The Fires of Siberia will be published in the summer of 2013. He edits fiction for Fence.
I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.