In my parent’s basement was a Stairmaster machine I rode daily. Cardio fit the regime of self-improvement I had imposed on myself since moving back in—I cut my hair, took school seriously, stopped drinking. Because the machine was in the basement, I exercised in my underwear. Sweat dripped from my body, but only after it coated my skin like grease. With barreled chest and skinny legs, I reminded myself of a rotisserie chicken. Who’s to say how I actually looked; there’s no mirror down there. I lost weight, however. The results phenomenal, the process unarguable against them.

While exercising, I watched an old tube TV that sat on a wooden nightstand from my childhood bedroom. The nightstand wasn’t real wood, rather particleboard coated with wax. My cousin Dana and I had used our fingernails and pencil tips to carve etchings into the nightstand when I was younger, the smooth shavings piling between nail and flesh, lead and wood. Some were sayings horrifically out of date—Kyle and Dana Rock the House Down is one—while others were inane: Dog, says another.

Aside from this early memory, the last time I can remember etching my initials into wood, the last time I had felt so bold, was on a dock railing some years ago, when I was still in college. I took a girlfriend to Inwood, a park some ways north of where my parents lived and far north of the city where I stayed. As everyone knew, a man once murdered his wife and strewed her dismembered body around the park, the criminal trial the sole focus of local news for weeks. It was unlikely we’d see a spot the murderer sullied—the park itself was big, stretching far beyond the trail that wound through it, and the murderer hid his wife’s body parts in places

naccessible to the casual hiker. Still, I told Ramona this story as we parked in the small lot outside the gate.

It was a melancholic day. The sky was grey, the air crisp, the red and gold leaves had begun to fade. Dead leaves, ones already shed, crunched against the gravel as we walked hand in hand, bulleting our conversation with the sounds of fall. Also near the park was a rifle range, and gun shots echoed in the distance. The main loop of the trail circled a small pond that looked dismal under the leaden sky; the cattails drooped, and goose shit littered the shore. A small dock extended onto the lake, and we stood there for a while, Ramona leaning against the railing, me leaning against her. Before long, we were having sex. Part of the thrill came from being outdoors, where sex was not normally allowed. There was little chance of being caught—ours was the only car in the parking lot, and the sun was close to setting, but we hurried and kept stopping to check the trailhead. It was so cold. The dock wood chilled the small of my back and the top of my ass as I slid my jeans down. Afterward, I carved our initials into the dock railing with a pocket knife.

Similar etchings to the one I made are on big, heavy bar tables, just as they are on doors, school desks, dock railings, trees, window sills, fences, and park benches, but are nonetheless far more prevalent on wood than they are on plastic or sheet metal. The softer a wood is, the more likely it will have etchings, which is why those big, heavy bar tables coated with wax or epoxy are absolutely littered with them. All sorts of etchings appear on bar tables, from the crude to the profound. Yet, despite their prolificity, I’ve never seen anyone in the actual process of etching a word into wood, only the aftermath. And even then, the etchings are never traceable. They are

always anonymous, or skirt anonymity; always initials, never the name. For example, though I etched ‘KC’ into the dock railing, I would never etch ‘Kyle Callert.’ In fact, if there were an etching somewhere that said ‘Kyle Callert,’ I’d assume someone was trying to frame me.

Had my father not pushed me into the wooden nightstand from my childhood, had I not knocked it over, I never would have seen those old etchings Dana and I made. In the tussle, the old tube TV fell and broke with a small puff; after the fight, we threw it away. When we righted the nightstand, Dad and I saw the etchings the TV had covered. We noticed them at the same time, I knew, for we both paused. Dad stared but ultimately said nothing.

He fought me because I dirtied his bike. Another pillar of my self-improvement regime was reconnecting with the outdoors. I took bike rides, quite far sometimes. Other times, only around the neighborhood, like I was a child again. I never rode all the way to Inwood, but sometimes came close. One day, my bike unexpectedly hit a snag, and the chain broke. Committed to riding, I took Dad’s bike, instead—a new, white Gary Fisher. At the end of the ride, as I neatly parked the bike back in my parent’s garage, I saw mud on the bottom of the bike frame.

Inside, I ate a light lunch: cold turkey on pita served on a paper plate with grapes and a dollop of hummus. Dipping the pita into the creamy hummus complemented the chilly bite of turkey, and the grapes were amazing. My mother had taken to buying concord grapes, different from the typical table affair. They had tiny stones of seeds, and their skin easily degloved in your mouth. The taste was musty and exquisite, far beyond the bland disappointment of the common supermarket grape. I ate these concords every chance I could. Memory grapes, my mother called

them, as they reminded her of her childhood. Apparently, my grandparents had an affinity for the concord, as well. This turn of phrase was an unexpected quirk from Mom, who was usually steady and tame, a supermarket grape herself. As a kid, I wanted a fun family, like the ones I saw on TV, or the ones I assumed all my friends had, with conversations, jokes, and warmth; I yearned for Mom or Dad to call something other than what it is, to give it a nickname that only we, the family, knew. This secret, shared information, I thought, is what brought people together. Once, when I was ten, I spent the night at Jordan’s, and his father drove us to a pizza place: not a chain, but a hyper-local one heretofore unknown to me. The pizza, which Jordan’s dad ordered with extra cheese and extra pepperoni, was heavy and warm through the bottom of the box. I got to carry it to the car and sit it on my lap as we drove home. It smelled so good. So spicy. On the way back, Jordan and his father sang a homebrewed song about a house with a tiny chandelier. How funny it was to me, this song about a tiny chandelier. I was in the backseat and laughed along with them. As they sang, I slowly opened the lid of the pizza box. My pinky tickled the edge of a pepperoni, and I picked it off the pizza. I laughed louder so they wouldn’t suspect anything, and one by one stuffed pepperonis in my mouth. When we got back to the house, the outer rim of the pizza was devoid of meat, but the extra cheese covered any potential bald spots. Jordan and his dad said nothing. The next day, I told Mom I wished Dad and I did those sorts of things, like sing songs about tiny chandeliers; my friend seemed happier than I did. Whenever Mom said memory grapes during that summer I lived with my parents, I felt a vestigial longing for that insularity shared my Jordan and his father. But more than that, I felt uncomfortable. Mom’s late blooming of personality was unnatural, and she said memory grapes with the veracity of a toddler who had learned a new word. This wasn’t my true family. When Dad and
Evan started saying memory grapes, too, it felt even more surreal. I steadfastly called them concords, and I ate them as much as I could. That day, I ate all of them.

After lunch digested, I stripped to my underwear and rode the Stairmaster. Soon, I heard the sounds of footsteps upstairs. Dad must have come home. Not long after, he burst into the basement exercise room, looking ferocious. His face was red, and his bottom teeth jutted out like a bulldog’s. We had the same eyes (this was a frequent compliment from strangers), but when he was angry, an iciness pervaded the usual deep pools of blue. His body was tense, his voice was strained.

Get the fuck upstairs and clean that bike right now, he said through gritted teeth.

The exercise room was the only unfinished part of our basement. While the other walls were painted a mellow, yolky yellow, the walls of the exercise room were the inversed face of drywall and studs. A space had been carved for the Stairmaster, but otherwise junk filled the room, such as old mattresses, ski sets, unused shed wood, dismembered weight sets, board games, paint cans, fishing rods, garbage bags of clothing, school books, gardening tools, water heaters, the sump pump, storage containers, Legos, picture frames, and the cat’s litter box. An unshielded lightbulb hung above the center, but most light came filtered through the thick glass bocks of the two security windows above, so it always looked white as it does outside on overcast days.

The thick glass blocks of security windows have always given me a malaise. When I was a toddler, both Mom and Dad resumed working, and the old woman across the street babysat me. My only memory from that time, perhaps my earliest memory ever, is the old woman sticking

me in a crib she kept in her unfinished basement. Laying on my back in that crib, looking up at the sun streaming through thick security blocks has always stuck with me as the loneliest I have ever felt. I thought I would die down there. Of course, I didn’t think this at the time—I was only a toddler, after all, but death pervades my recollected memory of the crib and security blocks. Remembering feels as if I’m interpreting myself, translating the scrawl of my baby mind. Apparently, the old woman hit me once, too, though I don’t remember this now. I allegedly told Dad about it after he picked me up one afternoon, and the old woman never babysat me again. Instead, my parents hired Dana, who taught me how to etch into the wooden nightstand.

No, I told Dad. I will when I’m finished exercising.

Right now, Dad said. Right fucking now. He held his clenched fists at his side and stomped his feet like a toddler. His face redder, his eyes more icy.

I repeated myself and turned toward the TV. How thrilling it was to deny an angry person the thing they wanted! Especially your own father.

He punched me in the chest and pulled me off the Stairmaster before pinning me against the wall. His forearm pushed against my throat, my body wet with sweat. I could hardly breathe. He asked who I thought I was.

Next, he threw me. My body toppled the wooden nightstand from my childhood bedroom, and the TV broke with a poof. My underwear fell in the process, and the top of my ass peeked out. He swore some more and chased me. I’m going to kill you, he screamed. I ran upstairs, then upstairs again, to my childhood bedroom. By the time Dad climbed the first set of

stairs, his anger cooled. At the foot of the second set, he no longer had the energy to climb and just yelled at me—I asked you to clean the bike. You didn’t have to eat all the memory grapes.

Explosions of temper were nothing new, but never had he hit me, shoved me, threw me, or anything of the sort. Not even when he could have, maybe should have. In middle school, for instance, toward the end of the year, my advanced history class had one last test. Dad was proud of me for getting into the advanced history class; it signaled strong futures ahead, college credit, scholarships. In elementary school, I was in another advanced group, but an extracurricular one. Once a week, very early in the mornings, before school started, the group met in a spare activity room and did the things advanced students were meant to do. We painted, read music, preformed science experiments, wrote poems. Dad always drove me to these meetings and always drove me to the events that stemmed from them—Science Olympiad, Math Olympiad, plays, concert halls, museum visits. Likewise, when the advanced history class in middle school organized a trip to the University, Dad offered to chaperone. He got Jordan and I our own separate hotel room, a luxury the other students salivated for.

At night, after a day spent touring campus, the whole class met at the hotel pool. Puberty joined us, and seeing the girls in bikinis was a gift. Best of all, no adults came, so we could finally be ourselves. We swore and told dirty jokes as loud as we wanted; there was no fear of being caught. Those less exaggerated in adolescence did cannonballs and played Marco Polo. Some of the girls lounged on the cheap, plastic chairs the hotel had provided, imitating their sunbathing mothers without thought, for not only was it night, but the hotel pool was indoors. Some boys joined them. Me and Jordan, the tiny chandelier composer, kept our odd senses of

humor to ourselves, neither having what it took to grab a girl’s attention or boy’s admiration, and soon made a swift exit back to our room on the third floor. Off the elevator, there was a set of viewing windows to the pool below. We hadn’t noticed these while swimming. Without a word to each other, we stepped to the window and looked out. You could see everything. The girls on their lounge chairs, the group in the jacuzzi, secret underwater handholding. Not once during the minutes we stood there did anyone look up and see us, the two silent sentinels.

Months later, was that final test, our last of the year. I took the test like the rest, but on mine, I wrote the following at the top before turning it in: MBIABFBAIHSD. During my last class of the day, long after I had forgotten my actions that morning, I was suddenly summoned to the principal’s office, a place hitherto unknown to me. I had no idea what to expect, and burned as I walked past my classmates, burned as I was escorted down the hall by a liaison, and burned as I shuffled past all the secretaries quietly at work in the office. My knees shook. I felt like throwing up. On the principal’s desk was my test from earlier. He wanted to know what the letters meant.

They stood for a band I liked, I told him. What band? I couldn’t say. I didn’t remember.

Why, then, asked the principal, were there sad faces drawn all over?

Evan, my little brother, made me sad that morning. That’s why.

The principal perched his fingers and sighed. Here’s what we think it stands for, he said. Mrs. Brinich Is A Big Fat Bitch And I Hope She Dies.

I was had. That is what the acronym stood for! Mrs. Brinich was our teacher, and my patience with her that morning had run thin. She chastised me for being late to class, though it wasn’t my fault—Dad and I were slow to leave the house. How they at the office figured it out, I had no idea. I thought the acronym was anonymous enough.

The school suspended me for the rest of the year. Since I couldn’t clean out my locker with the rest of my classmates, Dad, always the driver, took me one day after school was let out. The short trip was excruciating. He had already yelled at me plenty. Now, all he offered was silence. When he parked in the school lot, emptier than I had ever seen it, free from busses and faculty cars, I fooled myself into thinking his silence meant he was no longer angry, that his frustration had dissipated over the drive, that now he felt bad for me and my fall from grace. This presumed tenderness, along with the shame of suspension, made me cry, and I tried to hide my tears as we walked toward the entrance of the school. The snot was too much, though, and I sniffled.

Proud fucking day in your life, he said as he turned toward me.

As Dad and I screamed at each other the day of the fight, I could have said the same to him. Mom came in from her garden outside, must having heard our voices, both of us loud. She tried to intervene, but it was no use. We yelled over her. I at the top of the stairs, he at the bottom. Fuck you, I said. Fucking asshole, he replied. You hit me, I said. Silence. Is that true, Mom asked. Dad said nothing.

Before I was suspended from middle school, before I was even in middle school, Dad bought a shed for the backyard. Mom wanted to garden and needed a place to store her eventual

tools and other supplies. It was a nice shed, a wooden one, and on the day laborers installed it, Mom and Dad painted the living room. This was the summer of home improvement, and painting fit their regime. Building the shed took the men no more than three hours, by which time my parents were still applying tape to trimming, meaning Evan and I had the whole shed to ourselves. The walls were covered with pink insulation underneath a layer of shiny foil. It was soft, you could easily dig your fingers into it and rip out chunks. This process was quickly integrated into war general, our favorite game. We used the pink insulation to chart out battles, visualize troop placements, and simulate carnage. If you just traced with your fingernail, you could imprint the shiny foil covering the pink insulation. We wrote Fireball and Taz, the secret nicknames we had given ourselves. The fluffy pink insulation was everywhere.

When Mom found out, she was so upset she cried. Dad almost gave himself an aneurysm. We had never seen such terror. Evan ran to his bedroom and imitated Dad’s anger. I made him do it, he said. It was my fault. Butthole, he called me. What he said wasn’t true, we had both come to the decision, but losing my brother’s support was a blow to morale. I felt guilty sitting in my room (it was right next to his), and the tension choked me. Elsewhere in the house, I risked running into Mom or Dad. With no place to go, I snuck out and climbed into the backseat of Dad’s car and slid onto the floor, ensconced by the back of the driver’s seat. My body crumpled like paper, and breathing was difficult in such a position, but I felt safe in the car, like I didn’t exist. Soon, however, the door opened. It was Dad.

I didn’t say a word and neither did he. He was punishing me with his silence, and it was working. I felt ashamed and stupid. As he drove, I sunk lower and lower, until I was laying on

the floor. He parked and left. Perhaps he’s leaving me here, I thought. He wants no more to do with me, and he’s willing to lose the car, too. But soon he came back in with pizza and sat the warm boxes on the passenger seat. I could smell it from the floor. It was Little Caesar’s, the cheap kind, the kind I hated. This was further punishment, and I had to fight back the tears. I knew Dad wanted me to complain, to ask for better pizza. But I still didn’t say anything and neither did he. Back home, he took the pizzas inside. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I stayed, my back starting to ache from the hump in the floor.

I woke to Mom and Dad screaming my name. I opened the car door in a haze, my ass numb. They had no idea where I was; they thought I had run away. Dad hadn’t seen me back there at all, then. For that brief drive, I was truly hidden. Truly anonymous.

hen Dad punched me on the Stairmaster, it hadn’t hurt; when he threw me, it hurt a bit, but not that much. I sat in my childhood bedroom with my back against the door, refusing to open it, refusing to let it be open. Both Mom and Dad stood outside, Dad begging me to let him in so he could apologize. He was crying now, but this, too, I refused. I was angry and still in my underwear. Mom tried to reason with me. Let your father in, she said. He’s sorry.

One Friday night in my summer between elementary and middle school, the Tigers had a firework show after the game. Me and Evan were too young to enjoy baseball, and Mom couldn’t care less, but we all agreed to go if it meant we could watch the fireworks afterward. Dad got us tickets in the cheap seats, so far up that me and Evan spent most of the game running around in the empty rows, climbing the concrete steps all the way to the top, standing underneath the giant, monolithic floodlights that lit the field. Dad diligently used his scorecard to keep track

of runs, hits, and more obscure stats. Mom kept half an eye on all of us. Preparing the diamond for the show afterward took such a long time that most of the crowd left before the fireworks began. Not us, though. We walked around the concession area and looked at the statues and plaques as Dad got himself another beer. Since so many left the park, Dad led us to the lower deck, where the seats were far more comfy and closer to the field. This will be a much better spot to watch the fireworks, he said. During the game, this section had their own private usher who checked your tickets to ensure you belonged. It seemed very exclusive. Now, most ushers were sent home along with the fans and these luxury areas were left wide open. We sat there patiently in our new reclining seats painted a deeper green than our old ones. Men in neon yellow shirts rolled out heavy burlap across the manicured lawn. Karts motored out boxes of what Evan and I assumed were the world’s most powerful fireworks. One by one, the industrial lights above clicked off with a poof. They were starting soon. A group of four men came to the far edge of the row and accused Dad of stealing their seats. No, Dad said. These are our seats. He gestured toward the empty rows around us. They made a comment I couldn’t hear, and not even a beat passed before Dad stood nose to nose with one of them, screaming. I hated this. I hated when Dad did this in public. He always embarrassed me. If a cashier couldn’t honor a coupon, he’d cause a fit. If he thought someone was being an asshole, he’d say so. He’d flip someone off in traffic and lay on his horn for what felt like minutes. He had no sense of social decorum; if he did, he swallowed it until he got what he wanted. Now, he was fighting four people whose rightful seats were occupied. Why else would they be fighting? Mom closed her eyes and hid her face. Evan picked his nose. I jumped up with tears in my eyes. Let’s just move Dad, I cried. Come on, Dad, let’s move. He wasn’t listening to me, too involved with the issue at hand. I
needed his attention and grabbed his arm. Let’s go. My face was red. I tugged. His full cup of beer went everywhere. All over him, all over me, all over the floor. The men he had been fighting with laughed and pointed. Listen to your son, man, they said. Dad grabbed me by the elbow and led the family out of the stadium as the fireworks started above us.

When I finally opened the door, Dad was lying face down on the ground. Down his cheeks streamed tears, and he mumbled into the carpet, his face muzzled. I’m so sorry, Kyle. I did a very, very bad thing. I picked him up from the arm—no easy task, for Dad was twice my size, has always been a big man, used to lift me up from his biceps when he came home from work. I told him it was okay, I forgave him, that these things happened. This, it seemed, only made him cry more. He blubbered and couldn’t control himself. Shh, I said, as I patted him on the back. Don’t worry about it. We walked downstairs together. By now, I had changed into clothes, unable to withstand the indignity of underwear any longer. At the bottom of the stairs, where he had yelled at me only moments before, Dad gave me a hug, gripping me harder than my body wanted. My chest stung after I peeled away. He gave me a welt when he punched me, I realized for the first time. Looking down the neck of my shirt, there was a small, pink imprint of his fist.

In the principal’s office, after I had done my crying and been forgiven, or at least understood, I was given a lecture. You should never write something, the principal said, that you wouldn’t want on the front page of the newspaper the next morning. Nothing you wouldn’t want your grandmother seeing, nothing you wouldn’t want preserved. The lecture stuck with me, and for a time it worked. When I wrote my mandated apology letter to Mrs. Brinich, I labored over

each word. The next school year, I was more subdued, careful not only with my words, but with my actions and thought. I kept my head down, especially when me and Mrs. Brinich crossed each other in the hallway.

This was my mode through high school, but it changed afterward. I was a new person in college, as most are, and relished attention. Loud stories were my forte, along with jokes, vulgarity, and non sequitur statements meant to steal the spotlight. Alcohol fueled this behavior. Before moving back in with my parents, I lived with friends in houses that were robbed, served eviction notices, transformed into party palaces and dens of iniquity, destroyed. My grades slipped as we moved from one house to the next; nothing but F’s one semester. Coleman, who always made the basement his bedroom, brought a case of wine home one night. Fifteen, sixteen bottles of red. Not one of us had a corkscrew, so we went outside and broke the bottle necks over a fence post, picking out the biggest pieces of glass when we poured the wine into cups. Four of us drank every bottle that night. Shortly thereafter, I called Dad and asked if I could move back in.

He parked the U-Haul near the curb and unlatched the slick loading ramp from the back. It had started snowing. The big tree in the front yard collected piles on branches. A neighbor walking his dog watched it piss yellow into a mound. I wasn’t wearing a coat, and instead of shoes, I wore cowboy boots. Carrying boxes down the front steps was dangerous; I almost slipped multiple times. Eventually, Dad stopped me and did it himself. He moved nearly every box that day, along with my bed and broken furniture. He seemed happy, I think, to be driving everything back home instead of driving me to another distant corner of the city with cheaper

rent than the last. He never mentioned my failing grades that semester, though he was the one paying tuition.

Never write, my principal should have said. Never write anything at all. Not for private, not for public. Never speak, either, he should have continued. Never say anything at all. Not to yourself, not to others, not to nothing. Words, when they leave your mouth, are etched into the minds of others, just as they are etched onto wood and paper. They will be manipulated and used against you. I, who, at that moment, was moments away from soiling myself, would have stared gap-mouthed back at my superior; those words and their seriousness would have meant nothing to me without the practicality of his actual lecture; they would have been wasted. However, they needed to be said.

I’ve failed to mention the following: a day before Dad fought me on the Stairmaster, he found a journal of mine. Or, at least, I think he did. When I came home that afternoon, I found it on the kitchen table. Had I been writing there? I couldn’t recall. I usually wrote at night in my childhood bedroom on my childhood desk. My last entry, I checked, had been about Dad. Just as it wouldn’t have been like me to write in my journal at the kitchen table, it wouldn’t have been like Dad to read it. He never showed an interest in that secret side of me, unlike Mom, who was always asking me how I really felt, what I really did. Evan, too, had more curiosity than Dad—his grubby finger prints were the ones I usually found on my laptop keys, the screen of my phone. But neither Mom nor Evan were home. How, then, did my journal get to the kitchen table? Who brought it down, if not me?

Not that it matters if Dad read it, and if it upset him or caused him pain, if I broke his heart, or hurt his feelings, or betrayed him, or sullied myself, or acted the fool, or disrobed my reputation. None of that matters at all, or would matter, if what I said and what I wrote were true. But truth is what speaking and writing fail to penetrate. Like crestfallen warriors with dulled spears, writing and speaking are forever forced to circle truth, like two silent sentinels.

If we were promised truth, whoever was hurt or betrayed or poisoned or shot or choked or killed or stabbed in service would be casualty to a noble cause, a body draped over memoriam. But we are not promised truth. And this is what bothers us. Or me, anyway. I don’t know what facts I am missing, what things I fail to see. Thus, instead of clean and clear arrows, every word of mine is a misfired bullet, a purpled neck, a limb dismembered. I don’t know how Dad saw his eldest son, exercising in his underwear after eating all the concords, refusing to clean a bike, and how this sight would vary had he read my journal, had he read what I wrote about him, the words I’m too cowardly to repeat verbatim and can only approximate in this story. I don’t know what he saw when I lived debauchedly, using all his money, burning through the world’s goodwill. Likewise, I don’t know if he knows I thought about him as little as I could during all those years, during that time. He was less a father to me than a strange man standing on the third floor looking out into my pool, except I wasn’t unaware—I sensed him there, and I tried to hide from him, tried to run away, tried to obscure my games, my underwater handholding. I don’t know if he knows that now, despite all this, this attempted vanishing act, I finally realize he is forever etched into me. The sober traits I try to cultivate are a fight against what is naturally inside me: his passions, his righteousness, and his failures. This fight was and is the raison d’etre of my regime. I needed to finish riding the Stairmaster before cleaning the bike because exercise was my way of permanence and differentiation, and habit was the discipline needed to carve even deeper into myself, to penetrate the etchings Dad left in me. I did something that Dad, a big man twice my size, did not: cardio. And I couldn’t stop on account of anything. I don’t know if Dad knows any of this, and my ignorance thus makes writing impossible, for it is impossible to birth the truth behind these thoughts into sentences. Any attempt is only an initial, never the name.