I Am Pretending to be Something I Am by Tyler Barton
I Am Pretending to Be Something I Am
Since he was sixteen, my son and I have been playing this game I call Empathy Chicken. It’s a little like a staring contest, except the loser is who respects the other first. It’s not just that he’s twenty-nine and dressed like Shrek. It’s that he won’t talk to me unless I pretend, like I do this morning as we wait for the Houndsneck Leash parade, not to hate all his decisions.
He cracks a can of High Life and some passing long-boarders laugh. My son leans back, bellows: “They judge me before they know—” but Shrek’s classic quote is silenced by Turn six, dumbfuck! Skin painted sickly, the brown tunic gripping his chest like a broken bra, he readjusts the green rubber cap with its mini-trumpet ears sticking out like antennae. Sadly, I watch him, thinking of last night’s hatch-burying session at I-Ching Wok when I told him my fortune—NO MAN EVER BECAME GREAT BY IMITATION—and all he said was, “Yet.”
This annual parade is sponsored by a pet company founded by an old high school bully of mine. Every marcher gets connected to one long retractable rope. People think it’s fun, marching in time together, constantly falling over like slow dominos. In a half hour, the throng will worm its way through this prairie town—my son, the Shrek, somewhere in the middle, waving at children and puffing out his gut.
“Forget about them,” I say, proud of myself for saying anything at all.
“Duh,” he scoffs. “Already have.”
He goes hard on the High Life. He thinks it’s the gut. Everything else—the accent, the exact color of body paint, each famous line—is solid. The gut’s what isn’t quite full. That, he thinks, is his problem.
Here are mine:
- I love my son more than I love myself.
- I’m not allowed to ask What would your mother say?
- If I tell him what I want to tell him—that other, sensible sons would kill for the free tuition I could give him (being I’m the local college’s IT dinosaur) and in four quick years I could be gone forever, maybe down in Florida playing poker, arm around a woman who’ll re-teach me to laugh—he’ll stop talking to me again because he hates when I tell him that. And a secret I could never tell him is that, early as his teenage years, I used to conjure the image of him mowed down in the street by a passing truck, just to make myself cry. But I never could. Maybe he’s right that I have no imagination.
Instead I simply try to smile.
“You don’t look happy, old man,” my son says in an off-Scottish accent.
“Well, no,” I say, running my list of moves through my head like a chess-playing PC. “Just worried. I mean…” My son squints at me. “I mean…what if it rains?” I try to keep eye contact. Don’t blink first, I think.
But my son’s eyes, I don’t recognize them. They used to be blue. It was the first thing his mother joy-cried over when he was born. Now they’re brown, because, Shrek. Because his mystic life coach (a retired actress who moved into the apartment above his this past winter) demanded he become what makes him happy and gave him a ride to Lenscrafters.
“When you finally find the center of your soul circle, Dad, you’ll have no room for worry, work, or rain. Only bliss.” Maybe ogres never blink. My eyes are dry. It’s a race I could never win. “For real though,” Shrek continues to lecture, “your life needs work.”
Out of the corner of my eye: teenagers. The kind I always avoid on campus by walking through the snow. The kind who’re the age my son was when he stopped talking to me because I told him if he didn’t go to college he’d end up working at Kwik Trip. The kind who steal from the Kwik Trip, and the kind my son, being the only Kwik Trip clerk who didn’t read the handbook, chases into street in pursuit of the hot contraband (tacquitos, condoms, gum). The kind who will never realize their potential.
My son---his mother named him Chase---straightens his back, burps, and tosses Shrekisms their direction. “You know, sometimes things are more than they appear!”
And I have to say for a second he’s believable. Ugly, cute, and pitiful like a rescued dog.
The boarders pick up speed. I jump out of their holy way and watch as the girl boarder makes chit-chat with Shrek, while the youngest boarder sneaks behind him and crouches down. The kid’s like a table behind my son. The fattest boarder then shoves him hard in the chest. He goes down heavy, two more beers spilling from his tunic pockets. Each boy takes one. The girl grabs his ears.
The ears. They’ve always been the part of the costume I hate most, those floppy little rubber funnels. Often when I fall asleep at my work computer, I have daydreams of growing taller and louder than Chase, leaning over into one of the green trumpets and shouting into it like a bullhorn—YOU HAVE CHANCES OTHERS DON’T. YOU CAN APPLY TODAY. YOU CAN BE SOMETHING MORE THAN ME. I CAN RETIRE IN FOUR YEARS AND MOVE AWAY AND YOU MIGHT JUST BE OKAY.
But I’ve seen the green cap on his coffee table. Tried it on last night when he was puking up crab wonton and High Life in the bathroom—the funnels are solid, not hollow. There’s no direct pathway to his head.
I look at him in the grass, stunned, writhing a bit on his back. The kids laugh. “Snitch on us again, you little bitch,” they say.
The girl who grabbed his ears takes off down Locust. And before I can weigh the options, I’m running, somehow ready to sprint like this, after the bliss we’ve both lost, forever.
Tyler Barton is a cofounder of FEAR NO LIT, the literary organization responsible for the 2017 Submerging Writer Fellowship. He's a radio/podcast host for Weekly Reader, an intern for Sundress Publications, and a writing workshop leader at Pathstone Assisted Living Facility in Mankato, Minnesota. You can find his recent stories in Little Fiction, No Tokens, matchbook, and Midwestern Gothic. He's at @goftyler and tsbarton.com.