by Mark Wisniewski
Sometimes I think everyone knows.
Sometimes I think my parents have been cheating on each other throughout my whole life and everyone’s known except me.
For most of my life, all I had was suspicion. But then I came home one afternoon and checked our answering machine, and it was blinking so I pushed what I thought was PLAY, but the machine was brand new and I’d pushed the wrong button—or my dad had when he’d been in our house having sex with the only girl I’ve ever been in love with.
Whose name by the way was Kat. Anyway, recorded maybe an hour earlier and now being replayed for my ears only was a conversation between her and my dad, and it obviously wasn’t a phone call but instead an in-person conversation because you could hear our first floor toilet flushing in the background, with its desperate sucking sound at the end. After that sound you could hear Kat, apparently leaving the bathroom, saying “Do I need to leave?” to my dad, then my dad pausing by clearing his throat.
It occurred to me just after I heard this recording the first time, moments before I saved it on my cell and deleted it from the answering machine, that my dad, in his post-sex-with-Kat daze, had been checking messages as Kat “freshened up” or whatever adults call it, and in doing so he’d accidentally pushed the message-to-self button.
And it occurs to me now that my whole life has been like this. I mean: odd. I mean accidents caused by my absent-minded father, or maybe it’s pure self-absorption on his part. There are also plenty of angry things blurted by my rarely home mother, and it also occurs to me now that if she, my mom, weren’t gone from our house so often, she’d blurt more angry things than she does.
Mostly it now occurs to me that, since my dad is such an obvious jackass, I’ve been going through a kind of adjustment period in which I’m becoming an adult with little or no association with him or my mom or the only woman I’ve ever been in love with, not to mention this adjustment period has lasted long enough that I’ve needed—as my school’s counseling center’s Prepare for Trauma booklet calls it—“support” from a guy named Craig-Jug.
Craig-Jug is called Craig-Jug because he juggles and his first name is Craig. He also has this godfather who plays hoop for A & M, and Craig-Jug always hits this godfather up for A & M hoops jerseys because Craig-Jug hopes to sell them, and the godfather sends them because he takes being a godfather very seriously. The point I’ve tried to make, to Craig-Jug I mean, is that he might as well donate those jerseys to Goodwill because A & M fans don’t care about hoops—to them it’s all about football.
Why, you might ask, am I bothering to explain the worthlessness of A & M hoops jerseys? Because it shows how Craig-Jug, being a little slow on the uptake about how the real world works, might not be the best advisor for me when it comes to how to handle this whole Kat-had-sex-with-my-dad problem. But see, now that Kat and I no longer talk to each other, Craig-Jug is the only person my age who wants to hang with me.
Anyway a few weeks after I heard that recording on my parents’ answering machine, Craig-Jug and I were in his basement while his parents and sister were out getting Mister Misties, and he was juggling four bananas (the banana, by the way, not an easy thing to juggle if you ask Craig-Jug), and he announces that he has this idea about how guys our age could, as he puts it, “maximize masturbatory pleasure.”
“Not sure I’m interested,” is how I answer him.
“Let’s get something straight, bro,” he says. “I’m not talking about jacking off together. I mean jacking off alone. Which basically is the only way to do it, since if there’s someone in the room with you, it’s basically the equivalent of having sex.”
Craig-Jug, by the way, is a “basically” guy. The word tends to be up there in his vocab. Anyway he keeps juggling the four bananas, and I frown at the A & M jersey he’s got on to remind him I think he tends to be a little wacky, so he goes:
“Let me put this in no-nonsense terms. I know where we can see professional strippers get naked.”
To which I say nothing, since I’m caught by surprise.
“Absolutely guaranteed,” he says.
“But you know I’m opposed to fake ID usage.”
“None needed, bro.”
“For either of us?”
“Plus no spying through a window,” I say, and a banana falls to the floor.
Craig-Jug keeps juggling, drops to one knee, gropes, then has all four bananas going again.
“Again none needed,” he says. “And you’ve got to admit, man, that if you could watch an actual stripper do a professional striptease, your subsequent time alone with yourself would probably feel supercharged.”
“Possibly,” I say, but I think: Why does he want me to see the stripper?
“And I’m not talking about having some classmate phoning you videos of herself topless,” he says, and here he’s referring to Kat, whose name still kind of stings.
“Keep talking,” I say.
“Plus if you got to see several strippers?”
Craig-Jug grins and juggles on. It’s like he wants something to click in my brain. But Craig-Jug isn’t into brains. For him it’s all about juggling. And now, as he stares at me while waiting for an answer, he doesn’t as much as glance at a single banana. He’s been working on that lately: never glancing at what he juggles, since this indicator of skill, he believes, is the key to juggling professionally for a circus that offers comprehensive health insurance.
Finally he drops a banana, catches the others, and holds them.
“Well?” I say.
“All we need is a car,” he says.
“Plus you need a license, Craig-Jug.”
“We already know that, bro. So the deal is: you get your pop’s wheels and drive. In exchange for my idea.” He shrugs. “Everyone wins.”
“The strippers win?” I ask.
He holds out his hands, each now supporting two sedentary bananas.
“Dude,” he says. “Strippers always win.”
So Craig-Jug, I was sure, would wind up in the entertainment industry. Maybe he’d first need to bag groceries, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was I was thinking less about my dad, which might lead me to care less about Kat. Of course she’d probably need to change her name for me to forget her—as things stood now, when I heard the word “cat” I didn’t first think of an animal.
Then Craig-Jug and I approached my parents’ garage, which is directly under my parents’ bedroom. The big garage door was open, my mom’s car inside.
“Bro, your ma’s home.”
And Craig-Jug said this as if he knew my mom stayed late at her job—and I’d never told him this, so how had he known? From rumors? Had his parents heard something? Were there rumors out there because my mom was screwing her boss?
I walked inside my house alone: Craig-Jug knew to stay put. The shower upstairs was running. My mom showered before work and after. My dad had once complained about how she’d come home from work smelling like cigarettes, and all she’d done was shrug. My dad had then just glanced across the living room.
But now, every day, the shower after work.
And here was my mom’s purse, on my parents’ bed. I knew it was unfair—or something—to look in a woman’s purse. Women’s purses were sacred, or so Kat had said. I reached into my mom’s for her car keys, averting my eyes, but not soon enough, from a condom three-pack and a loose cigarette. I was bad. I was a bad spy who stunk at common courtesy: my mom had said we family members needed to be nicer to each other than common courtesy demanded. Finally I found the keys, in a corner with a piece of Wrigley’s that was unchewed but barely wrapped. Craig-Jug loved gum but screw that.
Out in the garage, I motioned for him to get in on the passenger side of my mom’s car. It was as if I could hear her footfalls approaching the small wooden door to the house. She’d open it in only her towel and Craig-Jug would see, and what would come of that?
But Craig-Jug was now seatbelted in. Albeit staring at the small wooden door. Then I was in, and I fired the ignition and backed up and had it in drive.
“Cell phones off,” Craig-Jug said.
“Take a left.”
I did. I didn’t care. I turned off my cell before Craig-Jug found his. I followed his directions through three towns east, which meant we were well into farmland.
“And cell phones in the glove box,” he said.
“Basically all they’ll do is help us get caught.”
I handed mine over picturing my dad pressing the wrong answering machine button. Dumbass, I thought. Craig-Jug stuffed the cells in the glove box, closed it. If he’d seen signs of affairs he didn’t say; we needed me to focus on defensive driving to keep my mom’s car undented. For more than five miles, he didn’t speak or juggle. I followed more directions: Craig-Jug pointing. Then we were so far east the sun was gone.
“There,” Craig-Jug said.
He raised his chin toward what looked like a two-story farmhouse, clapboard painted white ahead on the left. “That building,” he said.
“I see it.”
“Okay but we’re too young—”
“Take a right here.”
“Craig-Jug, this is a cornfield.”
“Take this right!”
I braked. To the right was a skinny dirt road. “You mean here?”
“Yes. No one will see the car here. Just park it.”
I needed to back up slightly to turn. On the skinny dirt road I braked hard. I said, “I thought we said no looking through windows.”
“Correct,” he said, and he was out of the car, so I got out also. I would follow him, I thought, only to convince him to forget his idea. Then I followed quickly since I could barely see him: weaving his way around cornstalks, generally perpendicular to the furrows. I felt no trust yet believed I’d see skin. Otherwise why would he bother?
Craig-Jug stopped in a furrow, glanced left, walked ahead past four cornstalks, stopped and pointed down a furrow toward the highway—at the white place, which was old and wooden and had one of those big front porches you’d expect a swing on. Maybe it was also a hotel? Its front door was propped open by a wire milk carton containing what looked like a rock, its doorway lit red by blinking lights inside.
“And what,” I said, “they step out on the porch topless to smoke?”
“Dude, that’s the stage right inside there.”
“Right. Placed so you can see it easily through the front doorway.”
“Craig-Jug, who gives valuable product away for free?”
“Guys come here for more than just the visuals, dumbass.”
“I guess that’s true,” I said, though I knew few details about what guys came there for.
“Plus an open door is free advertising,” he said. “Every car that drives past with a guy in it has the sonofabitch craning his neck. I mean, come on! That’s just crackerjack business!”
“Yeah, but a slight problem,” I said. “I can’t see the stripper. All I see is blinking red.”
Then, back in the redness, a human figure appeared. From our distance, she was more like the motion you might see on a microscope slide. She was definitely female, though—months of admiring Kat had taught me that shape.
And this woman was dancing.
Craig-Jug said, “Bro, she just unhooked her top-thing. Bro, she’s topless.”
“Yeah. Can’t you see?”
He moved aside slightly, to let my eyes have the straight-on. I could see through the doorway but could not make out breasts—these were the first moments in my life I knew I’d forever need glasses. I blinked hard and repeatedly, but it was true: my eyes were crapping out right when I needed a safely distant striptease to save my severely depressed soul.
Then Craig-Jug said, “Bare. Freaking. Pussy.”
“Check. That out.”
“That is so great,” I said, though even my best squint was worthless. A vagina was in plain view, but not for me. And now I couldn’t make out the curves. Still, I had a slight erection, maybe because I now understood the appeal of strip joints, their lack of game-playing, their assurance that no woman there could con you into love. Screw Kat, I thought. Screw my parents and all two-faced people.
Then the doorway darkened. Was an actual stripper approaching us? Nude? The doorway was certainly blocked by a human figure, and that figure walked out and onto the parking lot. But it appeared to be wearing a sports jacket. This was a man, just a guy who’d paid to see what I couldn’t.
“Dude,” Craig-Jug said, “was that your dad?”
“Hell if I know.”
“You just saw the guy!”
“Couldn’t see him clearly.”
“He was right there! Outside the doorway! And now he’s getting into that Lexus—that’s your dad, bro! That’s the old Popper! This is so freaking cool!”
“No, not cool,” I said. “Because he’ll drive right past my mom’s car and see it and bust us.”
“He’s not gonna see your mom’s car.”
There went a white Lexus, yes, probably my dad’s, zooming onto the highway. Brakes screeched, maybe his. Had he hit something? This, I thought, is how you learn if he wears seatbelts. But there’d been no thud, only the sound now of acceleration. Bits of light appeared to my left, through the cornstalk rows Craig-Jug had led me through: someone’s car, my father’s no doubt, was on the skinny dirt road, to check out why my mom’s car was there. He would call her with his cell and she’d say she was at home, and the blame would finally fall my way.
“Those are my dad’s headlights, Craig-Jug.”
“Bro, you’re cool.”
“Your father was here.” We were whispering now. A fat bug landed on the ampersand on his jersey. “Inside the strip-joint.”
“Yeah,” I said. “But how does he know I saw him walk out?”
“He doesn’t. But after you tell him you saw him walk out, what’s he going to do? If he squeals on you to your ma, his ass is grass also. I mean: guilt by proximity, right?”
“Craig-Jug, the guy will be home before I will. He’s got the head start even if we sprint to my mom’s car. He’s going to get to her first, so she’ll never believe me. She’ll think I’m lying to get myself out of trouble.”
“Then we’ll call your ma right now,” Craig-Jug whispered.
Which caused our faces to sour: our phones were in my mom’s glove box.
“Then, man?” he said. “We need to stop the guy!”
And off he went, past cornstalks. I felt screwed to the wall but followed. I knew I had only one trump card, Kat, and when I emerged from between cornstalks, Craig-Jug was trying some good old-fashioned begging. And of course begging a jerk only makes the jerk jerkier; already my dad was huffing off to the Lexus, his flipped-open cell in one of his hands. If I yelled at him about his affair with Kat, Craig-Jug would hear and then always know, and Craig-Jug would tell all my friends. Everyone’s texts would joke about my gene pool, not to mention Kat’s vagina. My whole life and hers would be ruined.
But if I didn’t act now, who knew how things would go. My dad was obviously a serious perv; if I didn’t tell him I thought so, he’d end up on one of those sex offender lists.
I grabbed a cornstalk and yelled, “Dad, I know about Kat!”
And this stopped him.
Craig-Jug, too, pretty much froze.
My dad turned around. He wouldn’t face me directly, but he’d turned.
“What about her,” he said, with maybe half of his composure.
“You had sex with her,” I said. “Or maybe I should say an affair. Anyway I heard you and her talking about it on that stupid answering machine in the kitchen. You pushed the wrong button just after you…took her. You recorded yourself while she was putting her clothes back on.”
For once, my dad was completely still.
“Dad, I’m saying this in front of Craig-Jug for your own good. From now on, Craig-Jug and I will be watching you. So maybe you’ll quit being such a prick.”
My dad flipped closed his cell phone.
“I understand, Son,” he said.
“So I don’t know,” I said. I was yelling now. “You want to tell Mom I watched strippers from a cornfield, go ahead. But then I’ll just tell her whatever I feel like telling her.”
“Ditto for me, sir,” Craig-Jug called. “And of course what I mean by that is that my own parents, who are of course subject to various heart ailments, don’t need to know any of this.”
This was easily Craig-Jug’s best bullshit ever. Could juggling actually make a person smart? Then, as if to prove he was the smartest of all three of us, he added:
“Sounds fair, doesn’t it, gentlemen?”
My dad moved just enough to look me in the eye. The way he stood there, with a corncob near his face, made him appear genuinely lost. He seemed too stupid to think of a way to save himself, and I sensed he believed I should help him think of one since I was, after all, his blood relative, though what really got me was, if he’d called over to me right then, even to just cuss me out, I would have listened and possibly obeyed him.
But the longer your father’s a jerk and also a dope and more of a loser than you—well, who needs that?
“Sounds fair to me,” I called to Craig-Jug.
Then, like some half-assed farmer, my dad moseyed to his Lexus. He opened its driver’s side door, got in, started it and backed it up until it sat on the far emergency lane, facing the correct direction. He craned his neck to check for oncoming traffic, or maybe for a last glance at the strip-joint, then sped off, headed home.
Craig-Jug was already inside my mom’s car, removing our phones from the glove box. He handed me mine as I got in. He sat texting, maybe to the whole world about Kat and my dad. I almost tried to stop him but didn’t since that would simply cause him to text like mad later.
So I just started my mom’s car, then let it run in park. I really didn’t want to go anywhere. It seemed smarter to delete my photos of Kat, and there were plenty. I’d clicked up maybe eight when it hit me that, for this purpose—looking at things up close—my eyes worked fine. I mean, when it came to things like knowing if a girlfriend was smiling or topless or nervous as hell around me in a photo, I could still see perfectly.