Preview Empty Plastic Father
NOTE: THERE’S A 30% PREVIEW AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS POST. YOU SHOULD READ IT. YES.
A short story, about 3900 words.
Danny is a young man who doesn’t see eye to eye with his father. When dad won’t help Danny realize his college dreams, he does what any reasonable person would do: he cuts his dad out of his life and buys a new one.
Yes, that’s a picture of me on the cover, heavily digitally manipulated. It wasn’t my first choice for a cover, but my budget for cover art is zero and I was the only salt-and-pepper bearded guy I knew who was willing to pose for free.
This is a story about a son and a father and dreams that turn into precarious independence and an anxiety-filled job. Plus there’s alienation and social anxiety and plenty more things in that vein that tie Danny’s near future world to our present one. There’s a bit of Danny in everyone; a bit more for some, less for others, but still, he’s there in your late-night-alone thoughts.
You can find it on Smashwords for now; in a few days it will be distributed elsewhere and I will update this entry.
I’m six years old and already I understand how inadequate my father is. I do not actually know the word ‘inadequacy,’ nor do I understand all of the ramifications of the concept; I’m too young for that—but at some elemental level I know: I’m not so much a son to him, but more of an unwelcome object he’s burdened with. He takes care of me like he takes care of his job, which he also resents: half-assed.
I remember the dream that woke me that morning: my father opens the front door. He’s wearing his red and yellow McUniform, and the big winter boots he was wearing the day (many years later) I turned my back on him, but no coat. Cold air blasts in from the white snarling blizzard outside before he shuts the door; I can feel the chill redden my cheeks. Dad stomps crooked worms of snow out of the deep tread of his boots and, silent, holds his arms out wide to me.
I rush forward. He’s inadequate, he resents me; I love him and despite his other feelings I see a dull ember of love in him for me, not entirely smothered. His hugs, when the ember shines bright for a moment, are rare, precious, and I want to capture this one before the opportunity vanishes. He drops to one knee so I can reach him and I fling my arms around his neck, press my cheek to his cheek, and I gasp as I stumble forward, into him.
He deflates like the skin of a burst balloon and drapes over and around me, tangling my legs, and I continue to stumble, balance taunting me from just beyond my clumsy child feet, into the door. It pops open effortlessly and I am in the snow waist deep, holding up the limp plastic-bag skin of my father, turning it around and around in my hands, looking for the way to unzip it, for the way to put my father on and fill him like feety pajamas. The door is closed behind me, vanished; I know the apartment is gone, there is only the empty wide plain of cold white, and me, and the urgent need to put my father on before I freeze to death, and I can’t figure out how.
And I gasp awake, shivering. Wearing my blanket around my shoulders like a cape I open my bedroom door silently and walk down the short hall that links the bedrooms and bath with the generic square box of the living room. I’m walking up on my toes, quiet, I don’t know why; I am compelled to creep, secretive. I can hear the soft scuff of his mouse on the plastic computer desk. Something else says hmmm-skrit-skrit-hmmm-skrit over and over and over: the 3D printer.
Dad is awake, back to the hall, shirtless and cutoff pajama pants, the glow of the monitor outlining him around the small frayed black paddle back of the aging office chair, the fine dark hairs on his shoulders lit up gold as the images on the screen shift, shift, shift with plastic mouse clicks.
It’s late Christmas Eve, and he’s on the internet printing off free bootleg knockoffs of popular toys for my presents. He won’t even bother to paint them. I know.
I go back to my room, back to bed. I don’t bother to sneak, don’t care if my empty plastic father hears me. As I fall asleep I imagine throwing his emptiness into the snow, stomping over him, escaping into the trackless white snow.
“I’m not paying for this shit. I don’t make enough to pay for it even if I wanted to lay out that much scratch to make you a bigger smartass than you already are,” my father says, and he shoves the forms I’ve printed onto the yolk-smeared remains of his breakfast with the back of his hand. I’ve just turned nineteen, ink still wet on my high school diploma, headed for college.
First, I need financial aid. Grants, loans, scholarships; I need every penny I can scrounge. There’s no way I can pay for it myself; buying an education is like buying a house and you can’t do it on what the minimum wage no-degree jobs I can get pay. My fists clench. All I need from him is a couple of pages of paperwork. He won’t even look at them.
“It won’t cost you anything,” I say, keeping myself from screaming at him by sheer force of will. I’m still loud; the neighbors are probably hearing it whether they want to or not. Cheap apartment walls are thin. “All you do is copy down some tax figures so they can see that you don’t make enough money to send me to college. Then they loan me money that I have to pay back. I pay, not you.”
“I don’t trust no feds. They always find a way to make you pay. You’ll screw around for four years, get yourself a useless piece of paper, and end up making fries right next to me. And then the feds will find a way to stick me with the big fat debt you can’t repay. By the way, you know who’s working grill on my shift today? Guy with a history degree. Talks big. Lots of fancy fifty-dollar words, always wants to show off how smart he is, but I make a buck and a half more an hour than he does and I’m a tenth grade dropout. He’s just like you. A smartass who doesn’t have the sense to see how things really are. A book-smart dipshit. A degree means jack if you don’t have family connections. College is for politicians’ and bankers’ kids, not for working guys like me. Like you. Want me to sign off on financial aid? Go find a vocational school. Be a mechanic. Be a plumber. An electrician. HVAC. Good money for working class kids. Maybe your kids can go to a fancy university, if you do that.” He picks up the plate with my forms on it, walks into the kitchen with its two-burner stovetop and three-quarter size fridge, opens the trash can with a stomp on its plastic pedal and flicks my paperwork into the trash can with the side of his fork. He scrapes the greasy remains of his eggs and toast crusts on top.
“Case closed,” he says, and lets the trash can top shut with a plastic snap. “Want to waste your time getting your little egghead piece of paper, do it on your own dime.” He grabs his work hat out of the closet and leaves for the bus stop. I watch him walk out to it through the kitchen window.
While he waits, I make a call…
AND THAT’S THE END OF THE PREVIEW. As usual with previews, the most interesting bits are still ahead, farther into the story. You should definitely read the whole thing.