You are the Stepson
by Matt Dojny, recommended by Electric Literature
EDITOR’S NOTE by Halimah Marcus
As far as I know, Matt Dojny does not consider himself a member of the Oulipo. Yet “You Are the Stepson” contains the movement’s trademark elements of constraint, as if the story was assigned by the fiction gods of on high. Three stories are told, in different ways, using the same frame. They are variations on a theme, like movements in a symphony, or parallel universes, existing side by side but never intersecting. The opening to “You Are the Stepson” tips the reader off to the elements that will appear in all three tales contained herein: a cancer-ridden stepfather and his stepson, a bicycle and a gun, and the desperate need for an apology, “due to the situation with the ant.”
Matt Dojny then proceeds to deliver three perfect gut punches; the dissociative voices of the three stepsons contained, improbably, in the same narrative body. Each of their stories hums with low-level rage giving over to an explicit desire for revenge: a childhood betrayal, an unwanted secret, the confusion brought by a great loss.
One of the true pleasures of “You Are the Stepson,” beyond the story’s emotion, invention, and humor, is to consider the near-cosmic implications of its structure. I marvel at how Matt Dojny uses rules to flaunt fiction’s freedom, to contort reality, and yet he still manages to create a feeling of authenticity and documentation. Is it a structure that believes in the multiverse, or that worships coincidence? Or is it a structure simply designed to tell a story, to finally make us appreciate the gravity of situation with the ant?
Co-Editor, Electric Literature
You are the Stepson
The man is running, gasping, down a winding blacktopped road lined with monstrous, inexpensive-looking homes. It is suburban dusk in the springtime: the lukewarm air smells of sweet damp lawn-cuttings, virgin asphalt, and dogwood blossoms. Behind and beneath these smells is another smell — the acrid tang of burnt coffee, emanating, as always, from the man’s armpits and his breath.
For the purposes of this story, the man will be identified as L.
L. is nobody’s idea of attractive: avocado-sized Adam’s apple, birdlike wrists, curly orange-gray hair. His bony body is distinguished by a round, larded belly that appeared suddenly one day when he was 33 years old.
L. is possibly a sociopath.
He definitely has a cancerous lump on his person.
L. is running from his stepson, who is slowly pursuing him on a bicycle. The bicycle is too small for the stepson, and its chain is slightly rusted, which is why the stepson has not yet caught up with his stepfather. The stepson might be better served if he simply got off the bicycle and pursued his stepfather on foot. However, to be honest, he is savoring the slow-motion element of the chase, because it gives him pleasure to see his stepfather’s fearful expression — and, because the stepson is dreading what might happen next.
The stepfather stumbles and veers to the side of the road, coming to rest in front of a flowering dogwood. He leans into the tree, embracing it, fingers desperately caressing its bark as though attempting to read a message encoded there. The stepson drags his shoe along the paved road until the bicycle wobbles to a stop a few feet later. He’s almost disappointed that the stepfather has given up so easily.
Tucked within the stepson’s jacket is an M&P .32–20 that has never been fired. The stepson does not consider himself a violent person by nature, but he desires an apology from the stepfather.
Due to the situation with the ant.
Firstly let me apologize for my handwriting which I realize looks like chickenscratch. Unfortunately you can’t teach old dogs new tricks and I am past the point of no return in regards to penmanship. Secondly I wish to state that I have nothing but positive things to report regarding this fine Bed & Breakfast. Don & Marissa have been splendid hosts — the meals uniformly excellent (homemade blueberry scones) — and I have very much enjoyed exploring historic Downtown Newport. It fascinates me to imagine the history that has occurred in this town — During the Revolution, General Rochambeau, head of French forces assisting General Washington, housed two of his aides-de-camp in our Colonial Inn (says the brochure). I wonder if these “aides-de-camp” possibly slept here in Room Number Nine (aka The Captain’s Quarters)?
Truly this room has been like a home away from home for me. The 12-over-12 paned windows and authentic colonial cove moldings are absolutely charming. And I was surprised & intrigued to note the distinctive rose-patterned wallpaper on the walls which is curiously reminiscent of the wallpaper in my childhood home of Paducah, KY — in truth if I blur my vision these walls might be my own childhood walls. I say curiously reminiscent because it is the story of this rose-patterned wallpaper of long ago that brings me to Rhode Island in the first place. A coincidence that makes my visit seem all the more pregnant. Let me explain to you what I mean.
Following the death of my beloved father my mother remarried a man by the name of Dr. Lyman Winterbottom. Lyman insisted that I call him Father and because he was a man who did not tolerate disobedience I did as he requested. But in my heart and mind he always remained Lyman. When Lyman moved into our home in Paducah he immediately took to complaining about the wallpaper that covered nearly every room of the house. This wallpaper as previously noted was not dissimilar from the wallpaper here in The Captain’s Quarters where I now sit & write. It was of a yellowish hue with light blue vertical stripes and a decorative pattern of miniature pink & white rosebuds. This was the wallpaper that my mother & father had picked out together and that my dear old Dad himself had applied to our walls. From the moment that Lyman set foot into our home he began to grumble about being surrounded by walls that were so feminine and milquetoast and old-fashioned. My mother laughed it off at first but it became clear over time that Lyman’s grudge against the wallpaper was significant and not humorous.
One fateful day Lyman spotted a large brown carpenter ant on the kitchen wall and spontaneously crushed it with his thumb — leaving a faint brown smudge on one of the flowers. He was a tidy man and this smudge annoyed him to no end. My mother scrubbed & scrubbed and yet the stain remained. The fact that such a tiny mark was so disturbing to Lyman gives a sense of his character. He claimed that because the stain was adjacent to his breakfast nook and at the height of his eyeballs he therefore could not help but observe it daily while drinking his Chock full o’Nuts. Lyman had the notion to remove the spot of wallpaper where this smudge remained and so with hammer and chisel (and turning a deaf ear to Mother’s protests) he chipped away at the offending area. “See there?” he said. “Look at the improvement. Now what say we remove it all?” Mother simply frowned at her now imperfect kitchen wall and said nothing.
Time passed and then a few weeks later Mother & I traveled to Caruthersville to visit with my late father’s family. Lyman stayed behind explaining that he had too many things to attend to about the house. When we returned three days later it was readily apparent what Lyman’s scheme had been — for there was a man in a gray uniform in our living room steaming the wallpaper off the walls.
Mother began screaming & crying for the fellow to stop but it was too late. He had already removed the wallpaper from all of the other rooms. And so we now looked upon surroundings of white naked plaster. As you can imagine my mother was terribly distressed and very much heartbroken by this action. I recollect that she compared it to having her own skin unnaturally removed from her body. I think that in hindsight the wallpaper had been a Symbol of my father and once the wallpaper was gone it was as though his memory and his spirit had been violently exorcised from our home.
Lyman eventually vanished from our lives as well but not before he had left additional heartbreak & destruction in his wake. I will spare you the details as they are not pretty to hear. Sometimes I look back on those years and wonder if I am misremembering the man or making mountains out of molehills. But then I recall the wallpaper and know that a man who would do such a thing might surely be capable of anything.
At this point in my tale I must confess. My reason for visiting this unfamiliar but beautiful town of Newport, RI is related to this aforementioned stepfather. After some investigative research I have learned that Lyman retired to Newport approx. 3 years ago and has been enjoying his Golden Years here in quiet seclusion. I have not seen him since he abruptly vacated the home of my mother & myself in the year 1977 which is almost 22 years ago. I hear that his days are numbered due to a cancer and I intend to surprise him with a visit. For Lyman has been nothing but a stain upon this world — and before he departs, I hope to help him discover the shame that he should rightly feel.
The shame that must surely abide somewhere in his unfurnished heart.
Me and my mom bring Lacey to the doctor once a week because Lacey’s super fucking sick. Not sick enough, as far as I’m concerned.
On this specific morning, the lady at the desk tells me Dr. Pa is late. I go inform Lacey, and he says: “Where the hell is she?”
“I don’t know, Lacey,” I say. “She’s just late, Lacey.” Then I chuckle a small chuckle. I chuckle almost every time I speak Lacey’s name aloud. Cagney & Lacey. Lacey underpants. It’s a hilarious name.
“Enough with the chuckles,” Lacey growls. Lacey’s super-touchy about his name. And who can blame him?
Lacey is actually Lacey’s first name, which makes it even more stupid. Lacey’s last name is Roommate, which is also hilarious. Lacey Roommate. (It’s actually pronounced roh-oh-mah-tay. But still.)
In my brain, he’ll always be Lacey Underpants.
“I guess let’s wait,” I say, and my mom and me and Lacey sit down in Dr. Pa’s waiting room. I look over the magazines: Yankee, Maxim, Sunset. The covers of the magazines are wrinkled, like somebody pissed on them a long time ago, so I don’t even pick one up.
“I’m dying of thirst,” says Lacey. “Get me a cup of water?”
I glance over at my mom. She’s reading an article in Cosmo about finding your man’s G-spot, or something, and isn’t paying attention to us. I turn back to Lacey and tell him: “They don’t have any water.”
This is a lie. There’s a big Poland Springs cooler in the corner.
I treat Lacey generally poorly because Lacey moved in on my mom the minute my dad died, and has been married to her for six years, and has been screwing around on her since day one. He’ll bone anything that isn’t tied down. He’s boning this woman Margaret who comes over and reads him books out loud; he’s boning his ex-wife, even though she weighs about 400 pounds; he’s boning the surprisingly hot docent who volunteers with him at the Nautical Museum. He’s boning Barry Fitzpatrick’s stepmom. And I’m pretty sure he’s even boning our female mailman.
Lacey’s super brazen about his lifestyle, and I see it all, and I know he knows I see it all, and he doesn’t care. He has no regrets. “I’m living life, kid,” he always tells me. “No retreat, no surrender. No regrets!”
My mom sees nothing. So I’m the one who has to keep Lacey’s shitty secrets — a burden like the weight of all of those women combined, including the fat one.
And that’s why I don’t get Lacey a cup of water.
Full disclosure: Lacey’s blind. Which is why he doesn’t know I’m lying about the Poland Springs.
Lacey and my mom met at Blind Checkers Night at Saint Spyridon Greek Orthodox Church, where my mom volunteers. Neither of them are technically Greek.
You wouldn’t assume a blind guy could get so much trim, but you’d be sadly mistaken. Females apparently enjoy boning guys who can’t see them. My mom says that doing it with a blind guy is amazing, because he’s like a true artist of lovemaking, due to being more touch-oriented.
Whenever she starts down this road, I tell her, “I do not want to hear about this.”
Case in point: we’re sitting there in the waiting room, and she’s eating a Cinnabon, and out of the blue she says: “You know, Lacey loves it when I bite on his bottom when we’re doing the sixty-nine.”
I cover my ears and grimace, which makes them both giggle, and eggs my mom on.
“Lacey likes blowing on my body,” she says. “He pretends he’s the north wind, and I’m a tiny moist sailboat.”
“Ma!” I say. “Please, just, stop.”
“Honey, don’t be such a prude,” she says. “You’re old enough now to hear these things. Human sensuality is a beautiful form of self-expression.”
Lacey strokes my mom’s face and says, “I love fingering your dimples. It’s the penultimate eroticism.”
“Lacey!” I yell. “Inappropriate!”
But the two of them just laugh at me.
Sometimes I wonder what Lacey and my mom have in common. Then I remember that they both like getting my goat. It’s a favorite sport for them. Also, they both like Chock full o’Nuts coffee. That’s about it, as far as I can tell.
Dr. Pa finally comes rushing into the office, ignoring all of the patients and scurrying into the back room. After a few minutes, the receptionist says, “Mr. Roommate, the doctor will see you now.” Pronouncing his name the wrong way.
“Thanks,” Lacey says, standing and walking towards Dr. Pa’s office, though he’s about to walk smack into a wall. Lacey is pretty bad at being blind.
“Go with,” my mom tells me, not looking up. “I need to finish my article.”
I pause, I sigh, I make a disgusted noise. Then I get up and grab the arm of my stepdad and drag him into Dr. Pa’s office.
Dr. Pa is a Chinese lady with a massive bosom. Or maybe she’s Japanese, or from Iran, for all I know. She’s 100% super-fine, whatever she is. She smiles when she sees Lacey.
“Mr. Roommate,” she says, pronouncing his name the right way. “How are you feeling today?”
There’s a Billy Joel song, “Uptown Girl,” playing over the speakers in her office, and Lacey starts doing a stupid-looking doo-wop jig along to the music. “I’m good,” he says, shaking his pear-shaped ass. “Whoomp! There it is!”
Dr. Pa actually laughs, like Lacey is so incredibly charming. Lacey sits down and he and Dr. Pa start talking about Lacey’s diet, sleep, pain, blah-blah-blah. Meanwhile I’m just standing there, staring at my shoes, thinking about absolutely nothing at all, wanting them to hurry up and finish up already so I can escort Lacey out of there.
And that’s when I see the Dorito.
It’s really just a little piece of a Dorito, and it seems to be dragging itself across the floor, like it’s haunted. It takes me a couple seconds to get that there is an ant underneath. My first thought is, it seems pretty unsanitary, an ant and a Dorito in a doctor’s office. But, it’s also undeniably impressive. I read once that ants can carry 500 times their weight — or maybe 50 times. It definitely had a five in it. Either way, it’s impressive. I weigh 184 pounds; times 50, that’s like 10,000 pounds. I don’t even know what weighs 10,000 pounds. A doctor’s office?
So I’m watching this ant, and it’s actually weirdly entertaining, seeing it struggling with this enormous thing, just doing everything it can to haul this little piece of food to wherever it was going — probably to some kind of nest to feed his millions of children. Now, I’m not going to tell you that I got all inspired and emotional, standing there in Dr. Pa’s office, observing the efforts of this random ant. But let’s just say I’m watching that ant closely, and I’m curious to see where it’s trying to go to, and if it’s going to succeed. Because what it’s trying to do is something that is not easy.
Then Dr. Pa says, “Okay, hop up on the table, and let’s take a look at you.” And then Lacey stands up — and he crushes the ant and the ant’s Dorito underneath his big fucking blind foot.
Oblivious, Lacey says to Dr. Pa: “Oh! Naughty woman are you!” Talking like Yoda, for some reason. “Wanting to inspect my body, do you?”
Dr. Pa laughs, and they’re both laughing together, and I’m just staring at Lacey’s foot, picturing the ant underneath. The ant that Lacey never even knew was there.
Lacey shuffles towards the table, and I plainly see the ant and the Dorito on the floor. The remains of them; just a brown smear and orange dust. I turn to say something to Lacey. Dr. Pa is helping him onto the table, and her hand rests on his knee for a second or two longer than seems necessary or appropriate. She smiles at him. And Lacey smiles back at her, like he can actually see her smile. And then they both turn to me and say, at basically the same time: “You can go back to the waiting room now.”
And I realize: Lacey’s screwing Dr. Pa, too. He’s literally screwing everybody he knows.
My blood boils, and that’s when, out of nowhere: a gun appears in my head. Lacey’s gun, that he keeps in the Reeboks box under the bedskirt. As if he could even shoot the thing. I think about that gun, and wonder about how Lacey might feel if it was pointed at his ugly backside. If he would still have no regrets.
It makes me smile, just thinking about it.
…SO — IF YOU FEEL COMFORTABLE DISCUSSING IT, I’D LIKE TO HEAR ABOUT THE EVENTS LEADING UP TO THE… INCIDENT. WITH YOUR STEPFATHER.
Yes. All right.
REMIND ME, WHAT WAS HIS NAME?
Liptauer. Peter Liptauer. I always just called him Liptauer, because it annoyed him — being addressed by his last name.
YOU ENJOYED ANNOYING HIM.
It’s funny, I’d actually call him Liptower. Spelled T-o-w-e-r, instead of T-a-u-e-r.
I’M NOT SURE IF I —
In my head, I mean. I’d change the spelling of his last name.
I SEE. THAT’S INTERESTING.
WHY DO YOU THINK YOU DID THAT?
Not sure. It gave me… satisfaction.
IT WAS EMPOWERING.
DID YOU FEEL POWERLESS AROUND HIM?
No. I don’t know. It was just a stupid kid thing. I’d picture — it’s funny, I’d forgotten this — I’d picture an enormous tower, made out of slimy lips.
IT AMUSED YOU.
NOW, ABOUT THIS STORY. REGARDING LIPTAUER —
Yeah. It’s… it’s a weird story.
THERE ARE ABSOLUTELY NO JUDGMENTS IN THIS ROOM.
It’s even kind of a boring story.
IT SEEMS IMPORTANT TO YOU. BUT IF YOU’D PREFER WE —
I was twelve.
ALL RIGHT. TWELVE YEARS OLD.
It was nighttime, and I was in my bedroom. Up in the attic. The walls were slanted because of the roof, and I’d covered them with posters. It had some serious shag carpeting. It was a pretty cool room. Anyway, I was writing a book report for Cry, the Beloved Country. Ever read it?
I BELIEVE SO, YES.
So boring. What’s it even about? Anyhow, I’m in my room, trying to write this report, and then, well, I see this ant. On my desk.
This little ant. A carpenter ant.
We used to get them every summer. Swarms of them. I’d put apple cider vinegar on a rag and wipe them up. Ants hate vinegar. It’s a good trick.
I’M NOT FAMILIAR WITH THAT.
Anyway, eventually, Liptower would get around to putting down some traps and they’d go away. So it was surprising to see this one single ant, because it wasn’t ant season. This was, like, a rogue ant. Flying solo.
So, it comes crawling across the desk towards me — and I was conditioned to kill these ants, because, like I said, we used to get tons of them. But for some reason, I didn’t kill this one. I just looked at it, and blew on it. Blew it backwards.
But then, after a second, it kind of got its bearings and started — you know, this is going to really sound kind of —
PLEASE, GO ON. I’M INTERESTED.
So — the ant was sort of running towards me again. As if it really wanted to come and see me, or something. So I blew on it again. And then it comes at me again. And I’m looking at it, thinking, this ant really wants to come over here. So then I put out my hand. Spontaneously.
TO PICK IT UP.
I guess. I just put my hand down, and the ant hopped right on it. Like it was a little dog or something. Some kind of pet. It starts running around on my hand, very excited. And I sort of studied it, and — it looked unique, somehow. Very black and smooth and shiny and streamlined. Kind of beautiful. Like, it looked like an alien robot ant. It just looked different from the normal ants we had.
It was as if my eyes were microscopes, and I could see the ant unnaturally well, in extra detail. It’s possible that I’d never looked closely at an ant before.
SOMETIMES, THE FAMILIAR CAN SEEM UNFAMILIAR WHEN WE INSPECT IT. BRINGING IT TO OUR FULL ATTENTION.
Right. Right. Like when you say a word so many times —
THAT’S RIGHT —
— and it suddenly sounds weird. Like… yoghurt. Yoghurt. Yoghurt. Yo —
Okay. So I’m looking at this ant, and then I’m like, What am I doing? And I put the ant down, and it runs around a bit, and then it starts coming for me again, and I blow on it really hard, blow it right off the table. Because I had to finish my book report.
Then, whatever, I don’t really think about it. I go to sleep, and the next morning I get up and I’m in the shower, and I start thinking about this ant again, for some reason. Just thinking about how it was strange. How it was acting like a dog. It was just an odd thing, the way it was acting. I know this sounds crazy.
IT DOESN’T SOUND CRAZY AT ALL.
If you did think it sounded crazy, though, you couldn’t say so.
I… so… anyways, so I’m thinking about this ant, randomly, and then I get out of the shower, and I’m drying myself, and then I… well, the ant was there. On the edge of the sink. Just sitting there. Like it was hanging out, waiting for me.
AN ANT WAS ON THE SINK.
Yes. But it was the same ant. I know, this is the part where it starts to sound crazy. It’s possible, I know, that it was some random other ant. But, the thing was, I just knew it was the same ant. It looked the same — all smooth and robotic-looking. It was like, this was the one ant in our house. The only ant. I feel certain.
I understand it’s theoretically possible that this was a different ant. A second ant. But it wasn’t.
I know, you’re thinking: Sure, whatever…
NOT AT ALL. GO ON.
I see the ant, and I put my hand out, and it climbs right up on me again. And it’s climbing all around on my hand, and my arm, like it’s… like it’s at Ant Disney World. Just, so happy. And the particularly weird part was it made me really happy, too. Having this ant on me. And…
I… I don’t know.
TAKE YOUR TIME.
No, it’s just…
I CAN SEE YOU’RE BECOMING EMOTIONAL.
IT’S ALL RIGHT. IT’S ALL RIGHT. TAKE YOUR TIME.
…Okay. I —
DO YOU WANT A —
No. I’m fine. This just sounds ridiculous. What I’m about to say.
It’s just, I knew that the ant was…
YOU’RE SMILING. I’M SO CURIOUS — WHAT WAS THIS ANT?
It’s just, the ant, I knew — it was… well, I knew it was my dad.
THE ANT WAS… I’M SORRY, DO YOU MEAN —
I don’t necessarily believe in, you know, whatever, but this wasn’t even about that — it was just, I recognized him. He —
YOUR FATHER PASSED AWAY WHEN YOU WERE… LET’S SEE, YOU WERE —
AND YOU REMEMBER HIM WELL?
You know, yeah. Pretty much. Semi-well.
YOU WERE CLOSE?
When he was home, yeah, we were really close. He was very — you know, loving, etcetera. But he wasn’t always around, consistently. It’s not all rose-tinted memories. He wasn’t… he didn’t, like… he traveled. He wasn’t in the backyard every weekend, teaching me how to throw a football, or whatever. I probably still can’t really throw a football the right way…
DID YOU LOOK UP TO HIM?
Yeah. No. I don’t know. Maybe let’s save, like, the dad-talk for another session.
WHATEVER YOU WANT.
I mean, the gist of it was, I missed him, and I was living with stupid Liptower, with his fucking opera music and, whatever, macrobiotic crap, and I don’t know… Can I just tell the story?
It’s fine. I’m sorry. I —
JUST SO I FULLY UNDERSTAND — YOU BELIEVE THAT THIS ANT WAS… HOW WOULD YOU CHARACTERIZE IT? SHALL WE SAY, HE WAS THE REINCARNATION OF YOUR —
Well, when you put it like that, it sounds —
I’M JUST TRYING TO MAKE SURE THAT I —
All I can say is, it was just obvious. That he’d come back. And he was an ant. It was just something that I knew, positively. As sure as I’m here right now, sitting here, I was sure that he was my dad.
AND HOW DID THAT MAKE YOU FEEL?
It was… I mean, great, you know?
TO BE WITH HIM AGAIN.
It was one of the best moments in my life, being there with that ant. It felt like pure… love. Like he was the essence of love, there. Concentrated. And I started… I mean, I just started bawling. Standing there, naked, with this ant on my arm, crying. I had to sit down.
I’M SURE IT WAS VERY EMOTIONAL. IT SOUNDS AS IF —
It was just crazy, I know.
I felt like I was losing my mind with happiness. I kind of held my arm up to my face, and — I know how this sounds, but — the ant and I, like, touched noses. Like it gave me a kiss. I see how you’re looking at me…
IT’S ACTUALLY VERY TOUCHING.
SO THEN —
And so then, of course, there’s a knock on the door.
WHERE WAS YOUR MOTHER?
I don’t know. Work. I’m sure. Working.
SO, YOUR STEPFATHER —
So Liptower knocks, acting all concerned. “Heyyy. You okay in there, buddy?” That’s how he talked. Mr. Sensitive. “Heyyy. Buddy? You all right?”
HE WAS WORRIED. HE HEARD YOU CRYING.
Yeah, but, no. Liptower… he was one of these people who wasn’t some obvious asshole — he wasn’t some evil stepfather in a movie, screaming and beating the shit out of me or whatever. He was the most normal, vanilla, boring-seeming person you’d ever meet. But there was something missing. If that makes sense. He acted very regular, but he had a weird emptiness. He was like a blank slate.
I guess. Like, you could imagine him being a great guy, but you could also imagine him torturing kittens in the basement or something. And, talking with him was like talking to someone from outer space. Some alien who had watched movies about humans, and did a pretty good impression of a human, but just wasn’t quite there.
HE LACKED EMPATHY, WOULD YOU SAY?
Empathy. Maybe. He was just a creep. He literally gave me the creeps — I’d be sitting somewhere, reading a book or something, and then my spine would start tingling, and I’d turn around and see Liptower standing behind me, watching me. He was always creeping around the house. And he’d say, “Howdy, partner, whatcha reading?” as if it was a normal thing to sneak up on somebody like that. But I knew what he was doing.
WHICH WAS WHAT?
Which was… I don’t know. I don’t know what his goal was. All I’m saying is that this wasn’t someone just innocently walking around the house. He was watching me. Following me. Waiting for something.
I SEE. THAT’S INTERESTING.
SO… HE WAS OUTSIDE THE DOOR —
So he’s knocking, and I freeze, with my arm outstretched, and I immediately stop crying. And I’m like, “I’m fine, Liptower,” and he says, “Are you sure, pal?” And I tell him yes, and then he stands outside there for a long time. I can hear him, just breathing. And then he finally goes away.
BUT YOU FEEL CERTAIN THAT HIS CONCERN WAS NOT GENUINE.
Exactly. Why? Do you think that I’m —
I’M NOT SUGGESTING ANYTHING. SIMPLY CLARIFYING.
Trust me. Liptower was none too worried. I’m not making this up. About him being a closet psychopath.
I KNOW YOU’RE NOT.
But you’re thinking, maybe Liptower was actually a totally normal nice innocent guy, and maybe I’m —
I don’t care if you are thinking that. I know what I know.
PLEASE, TELL ME WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.
What happens next is, I’m in the bathroom, and I have to figure out what to do with him. With my father. Because — this ant is tiny. That’s the thing. It’s, like, about this big. I’m terrified I’m going to accidentally hurt him. So I put him carefully back onto the sink, and I throw on my clothes and rummage through the drawers of the little cabinet, and I find a box of matches. Matches for when Liptower would use the toilet — he’d light a match afterwards. Freak. So I throw the matches out, and I coax my dad into the box. And I whisper, “Dad, just hang out in there for a little bit. I’ll get you out soon.” And I slide the matchbox shut, and put it in my pocket.
HOW ARE YOU FEELING AT THIS POINT?
I’m feeling, I don’t know, nervous, but mostly just very happy and excited. But, definitely nervous.
SO, YOU —
I walk into the kitchen, and Liptower is there, eating some muesli or whatever. And he tries to still be all like, “Hey, kiddo, everything okay?” but I just ignore him and make a beeline upstairs to my room. I kept an old Chock full o’Nuts can full of spare change, and I dumped the change into a drawer and started making a nice little home in there for my dad. Because, the thing is, I had to leave to go to school, and I didn’t trust carrying him around in my pocket all day — I was terrified of crushing him. I had this fern on my windowsill, so I rip off some leaves and put them in there, just to give it a natural feel. And then I put some Kleenex in there as a sort of bed, and I put this little wooden train in, because carpenter ants like to chew on wood, for whatever reason. And I spit into a bottle cap and put that in there for him to drink, and I put a couple of Mike & Ikes in there, because I knew ants like sugar. So I figured he had enough to eat and drink for the time that I was at school. Then I take out the matchbox and slowly slide it open. And he immediately climbs out onto my hand, all excited. “You go in here,” I say, and I show him the coffee can — and then I very carefully put my dad in there. The ant.
And then I put on the lid, and poked a ton of holes in it. I thought about leaving the can on the windowsill, because I had some dumb idea that ants maybe needed sunlight. But then I thought some more about it, and I realized that’d probably cook him alive. And I thought about how carpenter ants spend a ton of time burrowing underground and into floorboards, and that he wouldn’t mind being in the dark, and so I put the can on the top shelf in my closet and tell him I’d see him soon. I stand there for about a minute, just talking quietly to my dad a little more, because I don’t want to leave him, then finally I say goodbye and start to shut the closet. And just then, I hear a sound, like footsteps on the stairs. And I get a terrible feeling in my stomach.
BECAUSE YOU THOUGHT YOUR STEPDAD —
Well, I wasn’t totally sure what I’d heard. I didn’t know if he’d even come upstairs — or if he had, what he’d seen, or what he’d heard. My door was wide open. But I was late for school and I just chose to believe that I was imagining it. I should’ve known. So I went downstairs, and Liptower was in the living room, rummaging through the hall closet. He said something about doing some spring cleaning. Liptower was sick at the time, which is why he just hung around the house all day, cooking and cleaning and listening to opera.
HE HAD CANCER.
That’s right. I guess I told you that before.
So I went to school. And I felt awful all day. Just an awful feeling in my gut.
YOU WERE WORRIED ABOUT —
Yeah, just a general worried feeling, all day long. It was torture. When the bell finally rang, I rode my bike home as fast as I could, though the chain was all messed up, so it took me forever. I burst into the house, and Liptower’s at the table, reading the paper. He says something to me, asking what I’m doing, but I just run past him upstairs and to my room. The door to the closet is wide open, and I’m already crying when I go look in there. And the coffee can’s gone.
IT WAS —
And I run downstairs, and I say, “Fucker, what did you do with him?” And Liptower’s smiling and frowning at me, in this fake calm way, and says, “Whom are you referring to?” And I know he knows. I know he knows what he did. “The coffee can,” I say. “Where is it?” And he’s like, “Coffee can…?” And he looks all pensive for a minute, then says, “Oh, in your room? Yes, I was cleaning. The can just seemed to be filled with trash. I tossed it.” And I can barely say anything. But I know. I know he’d been watching me, at the door. “Where’s the trash?” I ask him. I can barely talk. “I put it out,” he says, “Sorry, was it something important…?” And I’m running outside before he even finishes the sentence. And then I stop dead on the lawn, because there’s nothing on the curb. It’s empty. And I say, out loud, “Today is Monday.” Because the garbage men pick the trash up on Monday. And… I knew he was gone.
YOU SUSPECTED THAT YOUR STEPFATHER HAD INTENTIONALLY DONE THIS.
There was no suspecting. I knew it. I knew how he was. It was like, he’d been following me around for so long. Waiting for something like this. A chance.
So, I’m just standing there, totally frozen in place. And then Liptower comes outside, and he tells me he’s going for a stroll, to get some fresh air. Super casual. He doesn’t even ask me why I’m freaking out about this coffee can. See? He knew. And he starts walking down the street. I think he’s literally whistling a little tune as he walks. Not a care in the goddamn world.
AND THEN, WAS THIS WHEN YOU GOT THE —
Yeah. I ran inside. To his bedroom. When I got back outside, he was already halfway down the road. I can picture the scene exactly: Liptower ambling along, in his ugly yellow shirt. Blending in with the flowers on the trees. And I had this clear vision — a premonition — of him getting away with what he’d done. I couldn’t let that happen. My bike was still sitting there from before, so I got on it. I went after him. I had to. You see? Because he knew exactly what he’d done. He knew. He knew exactly. Don’t you see?
L. has started running again, though even more slowly now — so slowly that it might be more accurate to say that he is walking, or staggering. The stepson, who had been waiting patiently for the stepfather to catch his second wind, resumes his leisurely pursuit.
Despite the fact that he is barely exerting himself, the stepson is drenched in sweat. The air has become a few degrees cooler; his damp clothes cling uncomfortably to his flesh. Suddenly he wants this to be finished.
L. turns his head in the direction of the stepson — then, comically, trips and falls, letting out a yell as he crumples onto the asphalt. He makes no attempt to stand up again.
The stepson dismounts and approaches the man on the ground, tapping the gun against his leg. The stepfather forms a lattice with his fingers, covering his face. He says that he doesn’t understand. What is it, he says. What is it.
“You’re sorry,” says the stepson. “You’re sorry. You’re sorry. You’re sorry.”
The stepfather removes his hands from his face. He sits up.
He says: “For what?”
You are the stepson.