Word Choice features original works of fiction and poetry. Read “Fill This Vast Hole,” a short story by Ryan Call, selected by Fiction Editor Rosie Parker.
Consider the inner sanctum of the modern American bathroom, and you might begin to understand that mine is a holy story, porcelaneous and grouted, a story punctuated by the various toiletries scattered across the tile floor, which my father had earlier angrily swept from the grimy sink.
Imagine now a pale boy, adolescent and unconscious, bleeding from the nose, his parents gently transporting his body into the bathroom, struggling to carry it past the pedestal of the sink, over the cumbersome bowl of the toilet, and then undressing it of robe and towel, before wedging it into the steaming bathtub.
Such was my true punishment: to be trapped among all these plumbing fixtures, my parents ministering to my every spiritual need.
And yet, I grew up with the vague misunderstanding that my parents forced me to attend church services in order to punish me for the various sins I had committed the previous week. Obviously, the newly terrified parent in me cannot maintain such an ignorant position any longer, for my mother and father have since proven to me the innocence of their faith, a faith which certainly could not allow for such a cruelly false application of its tenets, and so, in my own stubborn way, I forgive them. After all, to rend asunder seems a rather popular domestic production nowadays, one my wife recently pursued.
This is not to say that I cannot appreciate the disciplinary benefits of such an astonishing act of parental love. Do understand that I raise my children accordingly, though inconsistently; that is, a lesson occurs whenever I can lay ahold of their pretty little heads. Under my roof, theirs is a childhood fraught with cause and effect, righteous action and consequence; they suffer in a metaphorical time-out corner, over which the idea of a judicious God reigns supreme. My intent here differs from that of my parents, who sought to instill in me a sense of the purified, the divine. I prefer instead that my children understand how certain actions and their repercussions can uproot a person from the dirt of his life.
Church reinforces that idea, which I am careful to explain further as we drive through the crowded streets on our way to their mother’s house, where I deposit them each Sunday evening.
The situation with my parents, whose need for me to share their faith tainted even the most mundane of our activities together, climaxed during my junior year in high school. See, my parents had set about making me into some version of the son they wished they knew. I endured a restricted social schedule and the loss of my driving privileges. I grudgingly participated in everything to which they signed my name: a short-lived etiquette class, an expensive university entrance exam prep course offered by the community college in town, a job after school bagging food and chasing wayward carts at the local grocery. My father’s contracting company had graded the parking lot, if that gives you any indication as to the quality of my home life. However, it wasn’t until after each of these exercises failed to correct what they perceived to be a spiritual uncleanliness in my person that they planned the final intervention. And still we went to church. My church-going experience is nothing to speak of, though I did enjoy the many styles of architecture, the orderly rows of pews, the variously decorated altars, the stained-glass windows serialized into the walls, their arresting scenes colorfully refracted throughout the vast, dark worship halls. It all gave me something to appreciate while the services and masses dragged along. I said as much to my parents, I mean about the bits I admired, and they suddenly clung to this idea of architecture, of religious art, as if its whole purpose on earth were to save me, their only begotten son. So we began to visit other churches in the nearby area and beyond; we had a lot, even for a small southern city, and the car rides soon became a bizarre series of field trips. My parents ooohed and aaahed at the quaint cemeteries we sometimes encountered, puzzled over architectural terms, took photographs of me pretending to prick my finger on a spire, anything to keep me with them on Sunday, the Lord’s day. I had them fooled until my father asked me during one service about a particular structural element he had noticed on our way into the sanctuary, and I told him all about low flying buttresses, a nonsensical term I had stupidly created in my panic to answer his question.
But wait until you hear of my spiritual troubles. This was a time of my life when I had finally begun to appreciate the loneliness inherent in my attending after school fellowship groups and daily chapel services between morning classes. I sensed that here existed a spiritual world to which I had no access; no matter how intensely I made the inside of my head pray, I heard nothing in response. You can imagine, then, the frustration I felt at witnessing the expressions on the faces around me after a particularly moving song of worship.
In search of a foundational vision of the world on which to build my life, I devoted a considerable amount of time to exploring other possibilities. The eastern religions seemed to lack the usual kinds of guilt common to the religion of my parents, and because of this I found them quite agreeable. I overlooked the destruction of self for which they often called and took up meditation, the burning of incense, a half-hearted belief in reincarnation. I succumbed to the idea that chemicals might also bring me happiness and somehow stumbled my way into carrying a costly fake identification card, though I was too scared to use it. I looked younger than my age and this worried me. Pornography too seemed like a viable option; I reasoned that I eventually might need to apply a basic knowledge of all those moving parts, and I did not want to be unprepared. I enlisted my best friend in the cause, and he proved more than reliable in securing for us a steady fix. As a result, the girls in my life all seemed to gather around them this unnecessary sexual haze, an alarming development, I’m sure you will agree.
The night before all of this story happened, my best friend and I slapped together a clumsy movie theater in his bedroom with the help of his laptop, a digital projector he had stolen from one of the computer labs at school, and a white bed sheet that we hung on the wall. We spent that Saturday drinking his father’s whiskey and watching some pornography that we had downloaded off a virus-stricken file-sharing system. In the event of an intruder, either his parents or his fifteen year old sister, we had the whole setup rigged so that we could tap a button on the keyboard and suddenly project some two-dimensional game that he had running on the Nintendo emulator. Unfortunately we could not get the sound channels linked correctly. We had to listen to the electronic beeps of Super Mario Brothers while the bright fleshy activity played before us. This unnerved me for some time, but my friend, who had already consumed plenty before I arrived, insisted that he had grown to like it in a weird sort of way.
I am not turned on at all, he said in a robotic voice.
You’re an asshole, I said.
Look, he screamed, laughing, and pointed at the puckering scene.
Back then my teenaged mind lacked the ability to plan ahead, so the following morning began earlier than I expected. When my parents arrived to pick me up for church, I awoke disoriented, hung-over, and half-naked in a bean bag chair by the outdoor pool. How I got there, I do not remember, but I think I probably had the idea that I should sleep outside beneath the stars where I could possibly catch a glimpse of my friend’s sister through her bedroom window. I hurried back into the house in my bare feet, pulled on my clothes, and climbed into the car, only to remember halfway down the driveway that I had forgotten to remove a frightfully personal wad of tissues from the floor of the downstairs bathroom.
My parents greeted me happily from the front seats of the car. They ignored the stink of alcohol sweating through my skin, perhaps because they knew what kind of day they had planned for me.
We have a wonderful day planned for you, they said.
A day of rest, they said.
A day of regeneration, they said.
I feared that I might throw up as we drove along the mountain roads, so I nodded soundlessly at them in the rearview mirror. I do not believe they sensed my sarcasm. Such loss of subtlety is the sacrifice one has to make in the name of silence.
I have never raised a hand against my own children. Something about the act reminds me of that riddle about one hand clapping, though please do not ask me to clarify what exactly that means. Striking others’ children is perhaps a different matter altogether, but I have yet to encounter a situation requiring such strange discipline. My own children have thus far behaved relatively well—when I have to, I discipline them in a manner befitting the desires of a twenty-first century saint: I gladly let their teachers handle the worst of infractions so that I can go about my day undisturbed. I fear instead the drunken drivers and their sloppy sense of a brake pedal, those of the mid-life crisis masquerading as playboys, the adults who cannot even look out for themselves. These rougher characters of the world set in motion certain child-unfriendly events for which there exist no such terms as do-over, no such thing as a timeout.
Never mind that I am one of those characters, doomed never to learn from his mistakes.
After half an hour of vigorous driving, the last part of which I spent curled up in the backseat of the car, we arrived at our destination. I had expected the familiar building of a church, the numbing hymns of a choir, the monotonous drone of a minister: essentially, a chance to recover from the previous night and satisfy my parents’ sense of religious duty. Instead my parents had parked in some eerie corner of the city. They coaxed me from the car and guided my wobbly body towards the entrance of a hotel. With this new development looming before me, I made a show of dry-heaving in the parking lot so as to delay my parents and gather together the full extent of my faculties. I happened to gather together more than necessary, so much so that the hotel manager asked me to take off my shoes before he allowed me into the building. My parents clucked their tongues at me in the elevator, and at that moment I grew to suspect their intentions.
In the hotel room, we wiped the rest of the vomit from my pants as best we could. I lay down on the bed and listened to the sound of the tub running in the bathroom. My parents tugged off my clothes and swaddled me into a bathrobe. I got the sense that this had already happened to me before, perhaps when I was little, and a tiny part of me, perhaps the part of my brain just behind my eyes, strained, but failed to remember the details of that previous event. I have learned since to avoid situations like this, situations involving persons who claim to love me and the hotel rooms in which they appear.
We’ve brought you here because we love you, my mother said.
We’re worried about you, my father said.
I am tired and I do not feel well, I said.
That is usual for someone in your state, they said.
And what state is that, I said. North Dakota? Michigan?
We’re trying to help you, they said.
I threw off the comforter, but my father sat on my legs to keep me from getting out of bed. He shushed me with a raised hand. I wanted him to hit me. I think I was still drunk.
Your father and I have this idea, an idea that might give you the important turn around you long for, my mother said. We believe that we know how to fill this vast hole in the spiritual landscape of your life.
So you’ve decided to quote aloud passages from my diary, I said.
We consider it our parental right, my mother said.
I feel more than a little bit violated, I said.
You haven’t been the most charming of sons either, my mother said.
Is that what this is about, I said.
My personality, I said.
My charisma, I said.
It’s certainly not about your sense of humor, my father said.
Clearly your area of specialty, I said.
It’s about your spiritual health and cleanliness, my mother said.
We have a regimen to which we’d like you to commit yourself, she said.
I gather that this is an involuntary sort of program, I said.
My mother nodded and looked down into her hands. They trembled slightly; a finger bled where she had ripped out a hangnail. My father shifted his bloated weight across my shins, and the cartilage in my knees popped messily. Old cum stains spotted the sheets on which we all of us three sat, and there in that hotel room, I began to worry about family, the word I mean, and all of its linguistic possibilities. There seemed to have been a shift in its use, a renewal of that awful word, its part of speech. It had finally and underhandedly become a verb; of this I had long been afraid.
Your wife, I said to my father, suddenly giddy with the thought that I could do anything with my life, that I could one day be President of all things, if only I put my mind to it and wanted it badly enough, is a self-righteous cunt.
Don’t, my mother said, but my father did, had already made a fist and brought it down upon my sodden face.
I have since developed the habit of distributing presents to my children at the end of the weekend. Such behavior guarantees that I will remain somewhere in their sugar-addled memory until they can visit me again, though I cannot bear to think what their mother must tell them about me as she closes the front door, shuts them into the house for the week.
It’s enough instead to believe that I am able to tease them with the anticipation of what’s next. When I pull away from the curb, I am already shopping around in my head. I could get them matching electronic toothbrushes, a pair of wooden rubber band guns, one of those kits that allow you to make an enormous soap bubble out in the street.
I have five days to decide.
I woke up in the brimming tub to find that my headache had nearly doubled in strength and that I could only breathe through my mouth. I reached up to touch my face and discovered a wet cloth on my forehead and a thick bandage stretched across my nose. At the other end of the tub, my toes wiggled at me from beneath the faucet. They seemed to work correctly. A relief, indeed.
I’m sorry, my father said.
I didn’t mean, he said.
How hard did you hit me, I said, covering myself. You bled from your nose, he said.
I thought of a friend I knew from church a few years ago: his parents had convinced him to circumcise at age thirteen—as he recovered in the basement of the house, his father shuttled to and from the video store, bringing back movies for his son to watch. My friend said that the old man often mixed soft-core porn in with the other tapes, as if to tempt his son to brave the stitches. They finally moved away from our neighborhood: the mother and son in one direction, the father in another. What it takes for a family to split apart these days you can grasp in the palm of your hand.
We think it’s the music you listen to, my father said.
Why’s that, I said.
He quoted some lyrics at me. He had the liner notes right in his lap. The words sounded awful coming out of his mouth, and I felt embarrassed for him, this man who had taught me to tie my shoes. He could take things so literally sometimes.
Give me a towel, I said and made to stand.
He reached forward and pushed me back into the water.
You can’t get out of the tub yet, he said.
When can I get out of the tub, I said.
When I let you get out of the tub, he said.
The door opened and my mother entered the bathroom. She wore those bright yellow rubber gloves you might find in the cleaning supplies aisle, and about her head she had wrapped a clear, plastic shower cap. She sat down on the toilet lid, which my father had vacated, and peered seriously at me.
I forgive you, she said.
It wasn’t really you who said those things, she said.
Yes it was, I said.
You’ll feel better after a hot bath, she said.
I’m done with the bath, I said, again trying to get up.
My father stepped forward and, placing a hand on my head, gently held me down in the water. His fingernails dug pleasantly into my scalp, and goosebumps rose along the backs of my arms, the base of my neck. I shivered, once, and looked up at my parents, awareness having quickly taken hold of me.
It’s going to be like this, isn’t it, I said.
We don’t know what else to do, my mother said.
Let me say one thing before you begin, I said.
We’re your parents, my father said stupidly, sadly.
If you go on with whatever you plan to do right now, I said. Later I recalled that I had begun to cry and could not complete the sentence, though at the time I thought of myself as announcing coldly and authoritatively an ultimatum.
My parents too began to cry.
We don’t know what else to do, they repeated. They each carefully bent down to hug me. I kissed them both on the lips and slipped back into the tub, my pale body suddenly infirm, mechanically fatigued.
Sobbing loudly now, my mother reached forward and turned the knob, sending more terribly hot water cascading into the tub. She squirted a bit of dish soap under the running faucet and then dipped a sponge between my legs. As the bubbles rose about us, my father began to pray, a low-pitched, clotted sort of prayer, and I closed my eyes, felt my mother’s gloved hands, her abrasive sponge, scrub up and down my legs, between my toes, across the soles of my feet. She raised my knees out of the water, ran the sponge against my penis, beneath my scrotum, and wiped tenderly the flesh around my anus, as though I were again her baby boy, her innocent child. Then my father raised my lower half higher into the air and slowly forced my head under. Against the thundering sounds of the water, I listened to my heart beating dully in my ear, and I began to count its heavy thuds: one, two, three, four, and onward, each number marking a certain station through which I had to pass before my parents could release me.
Ryan Call is the author of The Weather Stations (Caketrain). His stories have appeared in New York Tyrant, Mid-American Review, Conjunctions, and elsewhere. He teaches high school English, coaches cross country, and lives in Houston with his wife and daughter.