When no one was looking, he took Mother from her bowl and crushed her beneath the weight of his social studies textbook.
Dad knocked on Joel’s door while Joel was masturbating. Joel had suspected the squeak of his bed springs was audible from outside his bedroom and had suspected his father might wary of washing cum stains from the pillowcase. Even so, Joel had hoped it was one of those things that he would never have to talk about with his father.
To his credit, Dad didn’t say anything, and Joel read the knock as a warning sign, like the police cars that waited in plain sight at the side of the road. The good cops cared more about maintaining order than collecting fines.
Joel met a purple-haired girl in his dorm, with white scars on her thighs like veins. Like lightning. He liked to touch them, just the way he played with the indentations the elastic waistbands of his tighty-whities left against his skin. She asked him not to touch, but he touched her anyway when he thought she had fallen asleep. She cried.
She told him she used to cut herself.
She asked if he wanted to go.
That she would tell him this made him feel like he might cry. This trust. This knowledge. It had to be love.
The next girl was softer. Her hair as brown as tree trunks and smelling of honey. She wore it long, often braided. They caught the biggest, coldest snowflakes of the season on their tongues.
Joel’s hands bled when they climbed trees that spring. He had never formed the calluses she had. Never been an outdoor child.
They spent the summer apart, but talked on the phone most days, until he ran out of things to say and she said that was okay, it was enough to hear him breathe.
In the fall he got drunk on whiskey for the first time and told her that he didn’t think she was very pretty and that her feet smelled.
Joel wrote bullet point descriptions for a company that sold traffic cones, hard hats, safety glasses, and harnesses.
Selling durability. Selling comfort.
He never slept enough. Started each day with a Centrum and a cigarette. The combination of the two on an empty stomach made him nauseous.
They couldn’t afford a honeymoon so they each took two sick days after the ceremony and fucked one another raw. Joel littered her clavicle with bite marks. Amy slept with her cheek on his chest, frizzy brown hair in his face. He sneezed, but didn’t move her. Dried the mucus with the back of his left hand. Petted her hair with the palm of his right.
Joel managed salesmen of safety vests and work boots. Same company. Different hallway. Office with a window. Sometimes he squinted his eyes and tried to see past that same lot where he had parked his car year after year, and tried to see back to the moment he became this round-bellied, gray-haired thing.
His stomach pained him. Like usual. Amy started his days with eggs or pancakes or French toast or corned beef. He ate it all. Without fail, between nine-thirty and ten-thirty he needed to shit. Sometimes, when he knew he had a morning meeting, he tried to force it out before he left home, or first thing in the office. It never satisfied him. Nature had to run its course. By the end of the meeting, sweat streaked his back as he squeezed his ass cheeks shut, smiling, red-faced, waiting it out.
Joel’s daughter peed all the time. They called her Penelope and he wondered if the name sounded too much like pee-pee and tempted the gods of urination. He had thought he’d relish the day she graduated from diapers, but it only meant that he needed to pull over the car more often, stop in the middle of grocery shopping to find the ladies room.
Still, he loved her. They taught her how to ride a bike. How to build snowmen. Against his wife’s protests that one or both of them would end up with a broken neck, how to climb trees.
They called their second daughter Jessie. The sound of a boy’s name in lieu of a boy. All of these women. Joel didn’t know what to do with them past a certain point. The great divide between child and woman where everything changed.
But before she grew, while she belonged to him, little Jessie seemed to crave him. She nestled at his side while he watched baseball. Fell asleep, the back of her head to the space just outside his armpit, knees tucked beneath her chin. He held her close. Through the rain delay. Through the final innings. Through the late night news. He would not risk moving and waking his perfect girl.
As his bladder filled and his eyelids drifted shut, he ran his fingertips over the ridges her socks had impressed on her little ankles.
Seventy-four minutes into the DVD, Joel realized that Penelope hadn’t gotten up once to relieve herself.
He sat on the couch with a big red plastic bowl of popcorn.
Penelope sat on the loveseat. Green bowl of popcorn on the floor. Cuddled close under a red and black plaid blanket with her boyfriend. Their whole bodies were covered, faces peeking out, colored in flickering TV light.
Joel suggested they take off the blanket.
Penelope said she was cold.
Joel said they could get up and get another blanket. Have one for each of them. Two even. The hallway closet was full of them.
Joel made eye contact with his daughter and he knew what hatred felt like. He shoveled popcorn in his mouth and sucked the butter from his fingers.
Jessie, Joel’s golden child, made good. She delivered unto him a grandson, called Bray.
He asked her what kind of name that was. She said it was a roar.
Joel shrugged and held the boy face to face, when his roars had not yet evolved to words, but remained whimpers and wails. When he could open his eyes just wide enough to see his grandfather. When the child might just recognize the feel of human hands around his tiny rib cage, and just might begin to know love.
When Bray was five Jessie brought home a puppy, and the boy got to name him. Joel sipped coffee, turned beige with so much cream—the only way his stomach could handle it. He listened as Jessie explained that you named creatures after people you cared for. After people you admired. It was a way of distilling your love. Spreading that name so it might touch others.
Bray named the dog Grandpa. From that day forward, the boy and his dog were inseparable.
And Joel knew then this boy would do it all better.
originally published @ Extract [s]
Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and currently lives in Las Vegas with his wife and son. He has three full-length short story collections on the way: You Might Forget the Sky was Ever Blue (Duck Lake Books) available for pre-sale HERE, Circus Folk (Hoot 'n' Waddle), and The Long Way Home (Cowboy Jamboree Press). He has also published three chapbooks: Autopsy and Everything After with The Florida Review, Distance Traveled with Bent Window Books, and The Leo Burke Finish with Gimmick Press. Find him online at miketchin.com and follow him on Twitter @miketchin.