Lodestar Quarterly

Lodestar Quarterly
Figure reaching for a star Issue 7 • Fall 2003 • Featured Lodestar Writer • Fiction

On the Boardwalk

Robert Glück

My father and I rarely spend time together, even in my imagination, so it's strange that this day and story are ours. He's almost eighty, discouraged, and he dislikes to walk, so it's strange to find ourselves on the boardwalk with the rest of the people. Even his cane seems to wince as it steps. I'm impatient as a demi-god who slows to a human pace; I feel ferociously expansive for no special reason than I'm walking with my fragile father in the sunlight.

We drift away from a band playing too loud: "Like, I have to be heard! No one's listening to me!" The sky is thin, the sand glares and a salty breeze carries whiffs of rotting watermelons and urine. Two shirtless young men toss a mango back and forth, self-consciously winsome. My dad is drawn to a group in a huddle. They crowd around a con artist who slides shells across a TV tray. My dad and I hang back but also want to be part of the excitement. The con gathers people to him with a gesture. He shoves a bill away. "No bets under twenty." His hands fly over shells that replace each other furiously and then come to rest in a row. The bettors try to guess which shell hides the bead, and when the young man pockets their twenties, they share sick smiles.

The con is all face, a young Alain Delon -- lavishly knowing features perched on a body without shoulders or hips. I have a mild aversion to the perverse man/boy. Even though he invites us to close in, my dad and I are afraid to make contact with a stranger who is after something. There's great refinement in his routine: he catches people looking at him, anyone would, then turns their interest into an invitation. He has an open manner, relaxed, not furtive or sly. The size of the group illustrates his allure (if I have to prove it), except to women.

And it's weird, but as I stand there with my father, my distaste for the con dismantles itself. I feel itchy and dissatisfied. Mentally I draw his waist to me so fiercely the two halves of his body fall backward. I wonder if my father is excited -- that's possible.

This configuration of father and son is an incitement: you kill your mother and your dad fucks you. That's not logical, but violence speaks in correspondence. I think, Huh, Dennis Cooper. I'm not sure how I mean it -- what would homosexuality be without Mom? I'm so aroused I'm panting. It tweaks me into the arbitrary. Why his body and not the table, the tree? My nostrils dilate -- I can smell the con's sweat, and the fact that it's sweet means he's ready.

What is the desire to penetrate? It takes shape as an empty shell. I'm too full and that makes the con too empty -- no way to break the tension except at the breaking point.

The offshore wind is exasperating. Two men continue betting. From the way they are dressed and from their wallets full of bills, I guess they are professors who have drifted down from the university. The con collects their money graciously. A bee drifts into the game; it looks stationary compared to the whirling hands and shells. The Hiring Committee debates, the left shell, no the middle one, the left. I call them the Hiring Committee because they confer, confer, then make the wrong decision.

The young white man provides ever-renewable hope; the older African-American calls the shots even though he doesn't say much. He's handsome and somber, not a man who puts his business in the street. That's why he looks so uneasy, more dismayed by the exposure than by the loss of money. The young man has the energy of a silent movie actor. He expresses: surprise, humor, thought, dismay. After listening carefully, averted and nodding, the black man prevails without effort and places their money on the wrong candidate.

Why aren't I attracted to the tree instead, or to the bike? I stagger a little, suddenly clumsy. I keep slapping my neck to kill a mosquito. As though responding to me, the con empties himself of past and future. There's no difference between the con and what I need from him. It somehow makes me angry and the thought of squeezing him out of existence occurs to me, under the eyes of my father. I remind myself to think about it later. It starts with my hands, wanting to steady him. It's strange, because you never get there -- he's hollow. Or do you touch him everywhere if it's from his inside? His body is not reached except through the show he makes of the intensity he feels, and what's that? How does that secure him?

A pale wraith roams through the crowd, too close to people, attending every conversation as though we were all on an outing together. He's will-less as a dust bunny. He carries a green plastic pail full of random stuff; maybe he lives on the street. I call him Lowly.

The con notices me studying Lowly. He invites me forward with a sweeping bow, a wad of twenties in his hand. The white professor keeps checking his friend's face. When the older speaks a few dry words, the younger laughs with relief. Although the young man is distressed by the loss, he's more distressed by his friend's reticence.

I wonder why the Hiring Committee can't locate the bead. They lose again -- say two hundred dollars by now -- yet I know exactly where the bead is hiding. Standing away from the table, I can follow the bead dancing through the con's fingers. So that's why he gathers the players in close -- you can't see from above, but you can easily see from the side. I show this to my father and demonstrate that we can always tell. I propose a counter swindle -- "Let's con the con." My dad will bet, and I'll stand behind him and let him know which shell covers the bead by putting a hand on his right shoulder, neck, or left shoulder. I want something from the con. My dad is doubtful. "Com'on, dad, let's con the con."

My dad and I have a moment of solidarity. It's my father who asks how everyone is, how Ed was in his sickness. He is loyal to individuals in recognizable trouble -- disease, unemployment. He visits friends in the hospital. When he had money to give them, he reached for his worn-out wallet.

My father's life -- I draw the words from a deep well: The Great Depression. A brief respite of big bands and fat paychecks. Dissatisfaction at work, chaotic anger at home where ignorant armies clash by night. Then grievance and physical pain and his stories losing value like bad investments. Who can increase their worth now but myself?

So my father reaches for his wallet with that sigh. In his mind, he's betting on me, Bob, no sure thing. He puts down a twenty, the Hiring Committee does too. The con's hands fly over the board, the shells jump to life below them. I see the bead clearly as it comes to rest under its shell, and I place my hand on my father's left shoulder. The Hiring Committee goes into a huddle -- they choose the center.

Hands rear back exposing the empty bellies of two shells for all to see; the left shell still covers its secret, secret no more. My father gets two twenties and a smile, and he looks back at me with a bright face, full of appetite. We play again. The hands fly, I have a clear view, my dad puts forty on the center, the Hiring Committee bets twenty on the right, and my dad is holding eighty dollars.

The con takes us in at a glance. I catch his eye and he nods, amused; we share eyes for a moment. There he is, his face and his body. He can see I'm a fag. He makes me believe that only my father stands between us. A man too close to me asks, "Do you have a pencil?" It's Lowly; before I can answer, he cries, "I do, but it's at home!" His face hangs open, weirdly expectant and apologetic. I wonder if he's carrying all his possessions in that pail. If so, why is he so larval? He's dressed in a black suit. Light sheets off the ocean in a rapture -- only the bead sits in darkness.

After a conference, the Hiring Committee decides to bet with us. The professors lay down three twenties, so I will be helping them recoup their loss. They are success stories, but only that; they don't recognize themselves in loss. I resent them, their wallets packed with bills. I'm proud they're betting on me, I'm a winner, but I want to teach the professors a lesson. I want to exhibit the bitterness in my heart: here's my class anger in the form of my dad and here's my sexuality, a handsome thief, an enemy of the common good. My dad puts down our entire winnings. My father rocks on his cane, counting on me at last. At this late date, is it possible to turn the tide of discouragement? Do I want to side with such defeated hope?

The con's hands zigzag in front of the inexpressible. One of his nipples slips in and out of his tanktop -- I wonder if that isn't distracting him. Its tip, chafed by the fabric, gathers itself up to ward off the attention. Or maybe it's perturbed by the salty wind? When he pulls the fabric away from his nipple, the helpless cloth retains its dent.

I'm taking in more and more light, looking away from the game, losing track of the bead to gather light into me. Pleasure makes the light go into me as though I were harvesting it by the eyeful, closing my eyes, sealing the pleasure inside. Ed died not long ago; maybe that's why I'm seeing the world through his eyes. It's Ed who eats up the light and flirts with the con. And Ed who betrays his father? The father who forced him sexually. The incredible lawlessness of the family.

I tap my father's right shoulder; my reward is a nod from the con as he scoops up our money. The crowd blurts laughter as though it's a laugh track. The Hiring Committee is solemn, faces drained.

"Wow, Dad," I say, "I guess we struck out." He's naked when he turns to look at me. He shakes his head, incredulous, yet he's also smiling: something has been confirmed, torn down. The con holds his hands up as though to hold back the crowd as it pulls itself apart. Now that he has our money, he's full of relation. "Do you come here often? Your father? -- Yes, you have his eyes."

My father has diabetes. He needs to eat right now and it's not a joke. His legs are no good. We go to the nearest cafe. It resembles an old Chevy with red upholstery and gleaming chrome knobs. For some reason it smells like sawdust. The hostess's hair swirls in a huge wave around her head, but the restaurant is closing. My father tells her that he's sick and must have food. The alarmed hostess parts like curtains before the manager, who ushers us in with a bow.

We don't talk about my betrayal, but I wonder, Can I describe my life without altering it? Does a dream change anything if you decline to understand its meaning? I want to run away before more can be said or not said -- About sex? My dad's cock, rolling like a sunken log in the tub, flopping in the hallway like a dog's. When I saw that thing, I hid my own by pulling my scrotum over it -- my most sincere attempt at drag. In the overheated summer, in a second floor bedroom, the whole world fixed its eyes on me. -- About money? My father is from the Depression, an ethnicity. Then Hitler Americanized him by murdering his European relatives.

I've said the name Hitler yet continue to be in the wrong. Our fat waiter takes our order, practically French in his exquisite service. My dad solemnly chews a flap of skin on his cuticle. The con is grit on my skin from the ocean wind. The few diners are finishing up, and who do I see sitting in front of a cup of coffee? It's Lowly. He has a life of his own, a weak one. His green pail of belongings sits beside him. He's writing something in the margin of a paperback -- so he has a pencil. He turns to the next table, enthusing in his stagy voice as though he's part of the diners' conversation, "I do too," and "Actually, I must disagree," though no one notices him.

My dad eats slowly and I drift off. He's telling me about a "dip" he knew in Las Vegas. If a mark complained to the management about his missing wallet, they said to the victim, "Your wallet will be in your room in two hours." My dad chews till the last fry is gone but there's coffee to be sipped. "Vegas ran better when the mob had it." Lowly, my dad and I are the last customers, and Lowly may not be a paying one. The staff has finished sweeping the restaurant, the cash register is closed out, our fat waiter hangs off the counter, dead on his little feet.

I stare in disbelief when my dad summons the waiter for a refill. He pours coffee from a plastic thermos with incredible grace. My father slowly drinks, then looks around, daring anyone to complain. The hostess has gone, the music has been turned off, I can hear the dishwashers say good-bye. Lowly keeps exclaiming, "How very interesting!" He turns to me, urging, "In the bathroom, in the bathroom." I look across the cafe, there it is. Lowly sneezes loudly and that blast propels me -- I'm jumping to orders. I excuse myself with needless formality as though I were going away.

The tacky little room smells flowery like a new magazine. I look around -- is there some reason for me to be here? It's cool and quiet. I just rest for a minute. A shell sits on the stainless steel shelf, one of the con's shells. It looks like half a nut. I pick it up and see it's filled with something, it's filled with sperm. I'm in a dream: the con stops squirming once I jam my tongue in his mouth.

The sperm is warm. I look around as though the con were still here. It's beginning to separate into a plug and clear whey. How did he get past me? The little square window is fastened by a grotty iron handle. The tacky bathroom, my father sipping coffee, the manager waiting by the door with his coat over his arm -- it's so unacceptable, so hard to endure, that I lean back against the scuzzy tiles, cover my eyes and cry a little from lack of relief. All bets are off. I don't have the strength to drag myself forward to the next moment. The shell still carries warmth from his inside. I sniff it: sperm. No way am I going to dip my tongue in, but once I have the idea, I have to go swimming in that tiny sea.

I raise my face to meet veils of awfulness falling from on high. Awfulness on my skin. At the same time I'm laughing -- hah! -- as though this ceremony were wedding and ring! A fitting end to a day packed with cheap moments. Something happened, the con had an orgasm. An orgasm is something. I have no idea how to think about it, except it's certainly mine even if it's meant as ridicule -- given to me, earned by me, my share of the spoils.

Robert Glück is the author of nine books of poetry and fiction, including Denny Smith, Jack the Modernist, Margery Kempe, Elements of a Coffee Service, and Reader. His work has also been published in New Directions Anthology, two volumes of Best New Gay Fiction, Best American Erotica 1996, The Faber Book of Gay Short Fiction, and other anthologies. His critical articles have appeared in Poetics Journal, The London Times Literary Supplement, Artforum International, and The Review of Contemporary Fiction. Mr. Glück was previously an Associate Editor at Lapis Press, Director of Small Press Traffic Literary Center, and Director of The Poetry Center at San Francisco State University. He was the recipient of a California Arts Council Fellowship in 2002, and a San Francisco Arts Commission Cultural Equity Grant in 2003. He prefaced Between Life and Death, a book of Frank Moore's paintings published by Twin Palms.

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