A story about marriage, fatherhood and the ‘husband house’
My father once said to me, “If you ain’t sexy, you’re nothin’.” I was six years old. I was standing in front of the bathroom mirror. I was making muscles. “That sure isn’t it,” he said. “Keep trying, pal.” Not sure why a father would say this to his son (especially when devoid of sarcasm) but it’s one ingredient that went into the enchilada. That enchilada is me — Michael Vincent Dabal.
I have a wife named Mattie and an eight-year-old son, Marcus. The three M’s. I’m making sure to mention Marcus right off the bat. It’s a conscious decision because I’m a pretty bad dad. My son tends to be an afterthought. I do a bad thing and only after the smoke has cleared and the blood has dried, do I think of him. But I’m working on myself. Currently I’m reading a book from the library, Wasted Miles of Weirdos Facing Complex Situations. It’s a self-help book, though I can’t seem to make heads or tails of it. For instance — “Wrap yourself in your wounds, fester till Spring and only then comb your hair.” That’s one of the deeper cuts. I’m pretty sure though, once I crack the code — hello, Mr. Fantastic.
My soon to be ex-wife, Mattie, and I own a small lot that now contains three occupied dwellings — the main house, once a horse stable that now looks like your typical everyday red barn, where I once lived, the garage that now functions as an Airbnb where I once lived, and the shed that is now a tiny house where I once lived. Fred, Ross and James have since staked their claims. I now live out of my car that sits parked in front of my previous homesteads. Sometimes, I imagine myself to be a disgraced cop who has been assigned to a stake out that has no foreseeable end, who is forced to stay put as crime erupts up and down the street.
Mattie always credited me for having a flair for the dramatic.
The ball of sticky wax that led me curbside, began careening through our lives the day I introduced myself to Sherri. We were two peas in a pod, the pod being the waiting room for digestive health at OHSU. She was suffering from an ulcer and I was suffering from a hernia as well as a massive erection triggered by the aforementioned patient. Red shimmering hair flowed down her shoulders like lava. She sat next to the obligatory fish tank like a little mermaid – I was at her mercy.
I stood in front of her. She peered over the copy of Highlights magazine that she held in her hands. “I want to singe my tongue on the fire between your legs,” I said. We kept our poker faces for three seconds before the giggles got the better of us. We left before seeing the doctor. Sherri switched out her Ibuprofen for acid blockers and I told myself to avoid squat exercises. Two hours later, my tongue rose out of the smoldering ashes of her vagina, brandishing third degree burns.
I had officially become a pyromaniac. Sherri and I continued to update one another on the inner workings of our gastrointestinal systems while cavorting in my garage. The garage had become our sanctuary. There were good, well thought out reasons why this was the case — it’s detached from the house, the garage door is manual and therefore never used, it’s a tight fit for parking a car, but works well as a home gym. It just so happened, Sherri enjoys working out and back in my college days, I was known for my anytime, anywhere libido.
We had been on a hot streak and the inevitable didn’t seem so inevitable. But alas, the cliché moment came when Mattie arrived home early from work. We were on the row machine. “Row you son of -. Row your balls off!” Sherri screamed to the rafters. A big shit eating grin was stretched across my face. “God damn it, look at me when you cum!” she commanded like a drill sergeant. The garage had begun a rockin’, but not to my credit. It was her — my wife. I heard the roar of her Camaro (a teenage fantasy come to fruition using last year’s tax return) rumbling towards us. My mind’s eye flashed a vision of the muscle machine smashing through the derelict structure, sending Sherri through the opposite wall and coming to a stop on top of my face. My wife’s lead foot pressing the gas pedal to the floor, transforming my mug into American chop suey.
Caught with my pants down, I had little choice but to push Sherri off of me. I ran to the one window in the garage and snuck a peek beneath the lowered shade. The weather had turned to rain. I watched as Mattie performed a frantic juggling act with her belongings and scurried into the house. I jerked my pants up and didn’t even bother to look at Sherri as I rushed towards the door. I told her to stay put.
Sherri did exactly that. The next morning when I went to place the recyclables in the garage (transients leaching in from the city had turned our driveway into an open market of precious metals), I was startled by a loud thud. I turned and watched as Sherri stepped over a bar bell and stared me down with sex crazed eyes. She grabbed me by the shirt collar and tossed me against the Roman Chair. The hollow clang of aluminum filled the air.
It was a nice start to the day. I didn’t ask any questions. The following three days proceeded in the same fashion. It wasn’t until the fourth day that even the fire of our loins could not mask the odor permeating the air.
“Why haven’t you showered?” I asked.
“And how am I supposed to do that?” she answered.
“When you go home.”
Sherri smiled. “How stupid are you?”
“Depends on who you’re asking,” I said.
All of the ingredients were present for a spectacular mess. I had made existence possible. Sherri had been out of work for six months and being a swell guy, I had begun to pay her credit card and medical bills. As to her living arrangement, she had been staying in a friend’s basement rent free, which was putting a squeeze on the relationship. And unlike myself, she was uncommitted, unless you factored me into the equation, which I had not done, but she had.
Because I was instantly hooked on the early morning delight, and didn’t want BO fouling up the festivities, I made Sherri a key to the house. At the time, it didn’t seem like a bad idea. I mean, initially, Sherri had been doing a great job of removing all evidence of her existence from the house while Mattie and I toiled away to make ends meet. She had been doing a stellar job up until the day she wasn’t and Mattie got the drop on her.
I remember the day clearly. Van Halen’s “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘bout Love” was playing on Spotify as my Subaru clipped the curb pulling into the driveway. Mattie and Sherri stood on the small patch of mud that lies between the house and the garage, which later became our version of the demilitarized zone. When I caught sight of them talking, face to face, my mind went numb. Having mentally short circuited, I shifted the car into neutral instead of park. The car rolled, slow and steady. As my two lovers loomed on the horizon, I imagined myself as a character in a story about time travel. Mattie was the past version of herself meeting her future self — Sherri. I was like, “Whoa!”
Just as the Subaru was about to roll over the pair of ladies, a switch was flipped and I was back online. I slammed on the brakes. Neither of them batted an eyelash. I put the car in park and sat there, staring. When the conversation ended, Mattie turned and walked into the house (she seemed almost to float, as though she was no longer tethered to earth). Sherri made her way towards the garage. I killed the engine and got out. I approached the house, my house, with caution and a sense of wonder — wondering, what just happened? What’s the judgment? How screwed am I?
“Where do you think you’re goin’, Chuckles? You’re with me.”
I looked over my shoulder and saw Sherri standing with her back against the door to the garage, propping it open. Sherri’s arm slid across her midsection gesturing towards the inside as if to say, “After you.” My marching orders were in.
Like a child about to receive a scolding, I moped towards her, dragging my feet. But before sentencing could commence, I took a look-see at the milk I had spilt. In the window set above the kitchen sink, I spied two small hands resting on the ledge seeking shelter beneath the partially closed blinds. Like two spiders whose spidey sense was tingling off the hook, they trembled and in a flash, were gone. My bad, Marcus.
That night, Sherri laid herself comfortably down onto a twin bed that had snuck its way in without my noticing. I stood bedside and asked Sherri about her conversation with Mattie. “All you need to know is that she’s been released and you’ve been snared,” she replied. I then attempted to lie beside her, but she hip checked me to the floor. In that moment, I could hear my mother sitting in her bedroom saying, “I hate you. I hate you.” Standing outside her door I would ask who she was talking to. Her reply was always the same, “I’m talking to myself.”
The next morning, I attempted to get some of my things from the house but instead I made the acquaintance of Fred. He was large. He blocked out the sun. He was a regular shadow giant.
“And where are you going?” Fred asked.
“What’s it to you?” I answered. Before he could respond, I summoned my inner Hakeem Olajuwon and broke into a spin move. But instead of going around him, I ran into a wall that bore an uncanny resemblance to his chest.
Fred presented me with a slip of paper.
“Here’s what you’re going to get, and what you’re going to do.”
I snatched the paper from his hand and took a look. It was all Greek to me.
- 1 x 800 x 800 under tray 20mm deep 2% fall
- 1 x Drain with stainless steel grid (horizontal)
- Jackoboard tanking kit
I stared at him crossed eyed.
“You’re gonna build a shower for your lady friend in there,” Fred said, motioning towards the garage. “Pick a corner and get the floor raised. The plumber will be here next week.”
I told him to get bent (when was the last time that phrase had been uttered?).
I never saw it coming, but at some point, Fred’s fist hit me like a brick to the jaw. And at some other point in time, I awoke to find Fred and Mattie staring down at me. I couldn’t feel my face so I employed my hand to find it. Blood dripped from my fingertips. Just beyond my hand, I spied Sherri stepping out of a porta-potty that now sat in the driveway. She joined the on-lookers. Storm clouds hovered above their heads.
“What’s everyone looking at?” I said. “I’m only bleeding.”
I went from being Sherri’s lover, to being her beast of burden. The garage was transforming into quite the suite. Toil and trouble on my end, standing at a distance in judgement on hers. Even worse, there were times when Sherri would stand bare-ass naked before my eyes. I yearned for that smokestack of lightning. Not to mention, sleeping on the weight bench was killing my back. Having become persona non grata in both the house and garage, I moved into the shed – the only structure on the land I technically still owned that was not occupied. Marcus and I had not spoken in three weeks despite my feeble attempts.
One afternoon, when returning from the store with groceries for the house and garage, I met the acquaintance of Ross. I was bringing bags to the garage and was stopped at the door.
“I’ll take those,” Ross said. I made no qualms and dumped the bags into his arms. He placed the bags inside.
“So, you’re the hotshot personal trainer Sherri talks about,” I said.
“She told you about me?” he asked.
He cut to the chase.
“Just so you know, I’m in, you’re out,” he said.
“No shit Sherlock,” I replied. And with that I took a shot to the liver. I held my side while clutching my jaw. Ross turned to leave.
“Wait,” I eked out. He turned. I had his attention. “We are all just particles of starlight,” I informed him.
“That maybe so, but you’re something less,” he replied.
I mulled over his words, but the jury is still out.
Despite my life having been crammed into 160 square feet, I felt there was a huge void that needed filling. One morning after a silent commute with Marcus to his school (Mattie, Fred, Sherri and Ross were occupied with an orgy, anyways that’s what I told myself), I made a friend. Her name was Tracy and she was slumped-up against a mailbox.
“Hey there, lemon drop,” I called from my car while sitting at a red light. In reality, she looked more like a lemon that had been squeezed of its last drop and its rind left soaking in a vat of sun tea one day too many.
“What do you want, creepo?” she replied.
“I want to see your what-nots.”
“Yeah, well my whats will cost you. My nots are even more.”
“I got a large pizza waiting for us back in my shed,” I told her.
“You live in a shed?” I watched as she crunched the numbers. “Well, I guess that beats my tent. Let’s go, I’m diminished.”
“You mean famished.”
It was a solid start.
A few days later, Tracy packed-up her tent and moved it into the shed. However, I was a bit peeved when I stepped into the shed and saw that the tent was fully assembled. Tracy told me that she would ditch the tent once she felt comfortable sleeping beside me and eventually with me (I still had not seen her what-nots. As retribution, in the middle of the night, I would pretend to be a wild animal clawing my way inside to maul her, which I hoped to do. During one particularly ferocious episode, Tracy popped her head out of the tent to confront me. “You are aware that one day we will all die, right?” she asked. I froze in my tracks. My claws hovered above my head dripping with existential fear. Was that true?).
As was par for the course, another stud hoofed his way onto the farm. I wasn’t exactly taken aback, but a part of me believed that Tracy and I could make it work — we had cultivated a healthy amount of disdain for one another. James, who resembled a twenty-year-old Kiefer Sutherland, waited for me in the backyard with his arms folded across his chest. The second I laid eyes on him, I sprinted towards him and pointed my finger into his chest. “Just so you know, you’re in, I’m out.” I said. I then threw a feint and he flinched.
The transition into my car was an easy one. With the aid of foresight, I had begun making preparations for my Subaru Outback to become a domestic domicile. This wasn’t exactly new terrain for me. When I was an undergrad, I lived with my parents even though I was attending a university whose campus was ninety minutes away. At least twice a week I would sleep in my car to avoid traffic and to take part in campus festivities. But despite a certain amount of clairvoyance, there remained unforeseen circumstances. The most significant being getting laid off from my job.
For the past fifteen years, I worked as the supply chain manager for CleanTech, a mid-size company in the clean water business. In my role, I was responsible for getting personal filtration systems into the backpacks of campers and hikers. But my professional relationships with vendors was about as healthy as my personal ones. How could I be expected to worry about Giardia when trying to manage three households.
Al, the VP of the company, was his usual sweet self.
“Take whatever time you need to correct course. You’re always welcome here,” he said.
My ears detected the sincerity in his voice. I felt them grow warm as they lobbied for my attention, which at the moment was focused on a photograph of Al’s daughter. In the photo, she’s seated on Santa’s lap and flashing a smile of pure unadulterated joy. For the past decade, the photo had remained displayed on top of his desk as if it were an Academy Award, but better.
“Thanks, but I’m not sure I can,” I said. “I feel as though I’m walking, and in the distance, I see a tack on the floor. I look down and notice I’m not wearing any shoes; my feet are bare. Then I think about standing still or searching for a pair of shoes, but before I know it, the tack is imbedded in my foot and I’m just screaming.”
“Well, maybe there are no shoes. Maybe you need to look for something else. Try walking backwards,” he said.
Despite another shortcoming, Mattie was being a super cool lady about everything. I was still contributing money to the mutual cause of our son, but a pitiful amount that certainly justified resentment. In fact, she was being so cool that I think she was even encouraging Marcus to reach out to me. Out of nowhere, Marcus shot me a text containing a video link. The link brought me to the Suburban Lawns’ song “Janitor.” When Marcus was a toddler, I would watch the video with him. He would crack-up whenever the singer made her voice sound like a kazoo. The boy has great taste in music.
I felt I needed to grab hold of the moment. My fingers tapped away with frantic speed as if they were attached to the hands of a teenage girl. When the arthritis in my joints finally got the better of me, a small essay remained. It attempted to explain my actions. It attempted to explain the man whom he calls dad. Thankfully, I hesitated before hitting send. Marcus isn’t a young man. He’s not twenty-one. He’s a little boy. I discarded the drivel and replaced it with an emoji of a thumbs up.
That night, passed out in the passenger seat with my phone still in my hand, I had a dream. Everyone was in the house. The big one. The real one. Mattie, Marcus and Ross. Sherri and her boy toy. Even Tracy and Kiefer. I stood at the head of a long table, one that could never make its way indoors. A white linen table cloth provided the foundation on which fine china, silverware, champagne flutes, a baked Ham, and a cornucopia that poured forth fruits and vegetables rested. Somehow, I knew that I was responsible for this Thanksgiving feast. And I knew that I was simply there to wait on those seated before me. I was actually pleased to pour Asti Spumante for Ross and carve off thick slices of ham for James. Tracy and Sherri’s faces wore smiles that maintained their integrity even when aimed at me. And I laughed. It was a laugh of pure unbridled joy unleashed upon the world, as I watched Marcus and Mattie fog up their spoons and hang them from their noses. This was all my doing. I had brought these people together, for better or for worse.
The next morning, I awoke feeling refreshed, the way you’re supposed to when you actually sleep. Like many people do when they first wake up, I looked at my phone. A text from Marcus let me know that he would be ready in five minutes for me to drive him to school. It was punctuated with a smiley face. Ten minutes later, Marcus hopped into the backseat and planted a kiss on my cheek. We avoided red lights. Traffic flowed. Marcus and I engaged in small talk in typical father and son fashion. He told me that his class was gonna watch Pocahontas this morning because they were starting a unit on Lewis and Clark.
A snarky remark regarding the teacher’s choice of materials was about to leave the chamber, but Marcus’ smile put me in check. I realized then what kind of dad I needed to be — the kind I didn’t have. Do the opposite of everything mine did, and do everything he didn’t. Mr. Fantastic is in here somewhere.
“That’s sounds like a pretty good start to the day,” I said.
“Yeah, and when I get home, Fred is going to take us to an Italian restaurant!” he said.
“Nice. What are you going to order?”
“I don’t know… Probably just spaghetti and meatballs,” Marcus said.
“There’s nothing wrong with that. Keep it simple. That’s the best way.”
Marcus nodded in agreement. He then turned his attention to the world outside. I watched with admiration as he gazed out the window, smiling and thinking.