There once was a man who was a family.
It was a wonder so mundane that he never bothered sharing it with anyone. The miracle encapsulated within him was that he had all the makings of a family; at any time, anywhere on earth he could stop and cultivate a seed. He could take a woman to wife, whelp new brats from her womb, kindle fire with a steady and firm hand.
His own father had not been a family. His own father had not been a father but an inconsistent drunk who laid his belt on like a broken sprinkler. His own father had been a pugilist and a pontificator and a lover of women who weren’t his wife. The man who grew up to be a family had several-odd castoffs that shared half of his genetic material, but no siblings. The man who was a family grew from the boy who had none. He spent most of his adolescence and early manhood building himself. His body became a fort, his mind like a siege gate. A family could reside within him a thousand years, safe from attack.
The family he cultivated was sadly insufficient to the level of his devotion.
It started out promising: he met his wife at a bible study meeting. Hers was a ground untrod by other men, he valued that. To build a house properly, one must have level foundations. She had deferred to him in all things, had borne him first a daughter and then a son to make up for it. The children had been apple-cheeked, hale, and his wife had kept them at a tolerable distance. In return, he had gotten a steady job that paid well enough that they could afford nice things. Occasionally one of his children would become too attached to a toy, and he would have to remind them of his love. The day after he brought the television home, no one greeted him at the door. He unplugged the set and explained to the kids that it would live in the attic until such time as he deemed it proper to return it. With every gesture, he sought to impress awe in his small family; not to tyrannize, but to love.
He did love. When the children were born he felt it: a hot, sick clench inside of him. His eyes had watered, but he hadn’t cried. The children cried more than enough for anyone, eventually it became bad pressure behind his eyes. But for those first few years, they were so new and pink that everything was a miracle. Every tear, every wail, each drop of waste was a tiny off-shoot of the miracle stored inside him.
But something happened as he grew older. The family began to turn away from him, diverting their tongues so that they spoke to him not with respect but indifference. The children complained about how other households had a dog, other households didn’t make their children do their homework without erasing, other fathers laughed and played with their kids. He tried, he tried so hard to coach them, but they were just so much weaker than he. They couldn’t catch the balls he threw, he outran them too easily, he tagged so hard he knocked them over. He tried to make more money, hoping it would sate their sudden hunger, but now they expected more from him. They expected him from him, to own his body as well as his sweat.
He never resorted to beating his family. He congratulated himself on that front; he was a head above his father. But they still flinched from him sometimes, as if he raised his hand to them regularly. He’d admonish them for retreating from him, but that only made it more severe. He still loved them, loved them despite their transgressions.
The first open transgression was his daughter’s defection into the ranks of the drama club at school. She’d come home past eight stinking of clove cigarettes. All she would talk about were midnight shows and Rocky Horrors and other oddities. She dyed her hair a deep red and started singing in the mornings, even when he’d pinch her bicep with his nails.
The second was small: his son. The boy no longer looked at him with son’s eyes, didn’t defer to his father in all things. The rebellion was not yet apparent in his voice, as it was in his sister’s, but it would come some day. The boy spoke a different language than his father now, full of mock words from popular cartoons, new words that the school instilled in his head, like “racist” and “bully” that he applied liberally to his father’s speech.
The final insurrection came over the barbeque, whispered as steak and vegan hotdogs spat at him.
His wife, reticent: “You understand?”
He felt the weight of her betrayal, a knife behind his left eye.
“No,” he said, “I don’t.”
“I suppose I can’t expect you to.”
His eye felt hot, threatened to drip. “Who is he?”
She sighed. “There isn’t anyone else. That’s…I feel like I don’t know you anymore. And what I do know I’m not sure of.”
“Never lied to you.” That was a lie, but a forgivable one. He only lied when it was absolutely necessary. Her untruths drifted from her in a constant, perfumed wave. The susurrus of her voice was like tide on a gravel beach.
“It’s not that. It’s not anything I could tell you.”
A blister of fat popped.
“I just don’t feel right with you anymore.”
As if he was a dress from a thinner year. As if he hadn’t expended every effort to make the family work.
“I see,” he said. His eye throbbed. The steaks wound up scorched.
His family no longer worked. The machine he made was broken, and he had no way to fix it. They did not want to be fixed. He could no longer sleep at night; he lay dry-eyed next to his wife, watching her snore, watching her puffy, compromising face shift in the light of the television screen. He agreed to go to the optometrist appointment she’d arranged to appease her, and then sat in his car at the train depot for an hour and a half.
“Doctor says it’s nothin’,” he told her, and then watched the white cliff of her back, daring her to deny it, to call him a liar.
When his children asked him for help on their homework, he gave them the wrong answers and waited for them to correct him, to blame him for getting them in trouble. They barely even looked at him.
Pressure built like a thunderhead behind his eye. His job was no longer satisfied with the work he did, as ravenous for his labor as his family. They laid restrictions upon him, expecting effort where he could give none, and with every demand he felt his body grow more reluctant to respond. Someone tried to hand him a sheaf of papers and didn’t see that he left his arms hanging dead at his sides. The papers fanned out beneath his feet in a cool, white river. When they called him into the office, they made all the necessary excuses: downsizing, automation, apologies, etc. Throughout it all his gaze remained on the clock on the far wall.
3:15. His son would be home from school.
3:15. His daughter would just be doing warm-up exorcizes with the theater folk.
3:15. His wife might be starting dinner, or pretending she was away shopping for dinner when really she was out with friends.
3:15. He was cut off from the last thing that gave definition to his life. He was not enough.
3:15. It was 3:15 and it would always be 3:15. He was never enough.
He thanked his former boss and shook his hand. He refused a reference.
3:15. The air in his house was stifling, even the dust motes did not move.
That night he tucked his family in for the last time and left.
He did not act according to the miracle in his body right away, that would have drawn attention. He wanted to start anew, therefore no one could know how special he was, the man who had already been one family and would be another. He examined women for their qualities. What he had found so readily in his wife were growing scarce with the moving times. Women he found were frivolous things, thinking only of themselves and what he could do for them. They were not proper soil, a tree from them would grow crooked as a juniper.
He found one, once, who seemed as if she might be a good match. Shy, obsequious, completely without friends. It was only the day she said she had someone she wanted him to meet, when he saw another man’s child come skipping out of a car to wrap around the waist that he himself had just grasped, that he realized. The child had another man’s blunt features. The difference was hateful.
He didn’t look back.
The man who was a family could afford to be picky now. The family was taking shape within him, losing and borrowing features with each successive potential conquest. The family would be worth the endless tide of scraped knees, snapped kite strings and broken promises, because there would be none.
Summer deepened and he threw his back out for other men’s families, laboring in hot fields and dust and wind and sun. He picked tomatoes, watermelons, and oranges. He baled hay. The fake tan he’d slathered on faded to a real one. His hair recovered from the buzzcut he’d imposed upon it, showing grey for the first time in his life.
He found another. The town was smaller than the suburb he’d left. The woman seemed smaller. Her smile was a crimp in her mouth, as if she was apologizing for life. He lifted things for her, opened jars, worked on her car. On Sundays they went to church. She was devout, she was obedient as to have no opinion, and she was just pretty enough to think she wasn’t.
Then one day, one horrible day, he stepped into her house and found a nightmare. He could almost smell that something was wrong, a sickly acid smell a reptile would put out when scared. She was in the kitchen red-eyed. Her brother, driven up from Menomonie, had a guarding arm around her. Before he could turn to run, he was on the floor and the cuffs bit into his wrists.
They had to drive him to the next county to get a holding cell.
“I don’t understand,” he told the detectives, “I don’t understand any of this.”
The detective was younger than him and about twenty pounds lighter. The sharp tang of his cologne was like a knife in the eye. The detective leaned across the table, hands clasped as if beseeching.
“Know what we don’t understand?”
A Polaroid hit the table in front of him.
Two more joined it.
His eyes swamped over. It was disgusting. It was a disgrace. After he’d taken such care to protect them so they weren’t smeared across the evening news along with the junkies and gang bangers and celebrity meltdowns.
“How dare you?” he whispered, “How dare you.”
The detective shook his head and sighed. “We’re done. Get him out of here.”
His family cried out as one as they took his shoulders. It had not been enough. He was not enough. He cried out as they made to drag him away.
“Wait—God, wait! I have a family!”
Tragically, they did not listen.