First place

Illustration By Jason Stout

In my son's story, the sun rises and sets without mention. Much of it takes place in a forest, but we hear nothing of the birds or streams. The characters are boys, young enough to punch or hug each other and be forgiven. In another story, they would hit trees with sticks and so forth and, in the end, come face to face with the nobility within themselves. They carry the confusion, fear and authority of one's first true looks at the world. In another story, it would before all else be fear of their own greatness, but my son's story cares nothing for the legacy of boys entering the world. There are no revelations – no emergencies or elk bugling at dusk, no quiet signs of brotherhood. Nothing, so far as I can tell, is overcome. The details are plastics – campfire weenies zipped into the flies of scout trousers, cigarette butts stuffed into the spout of the water pump. The dead crow they find awakes no awareness of their youth. It is something gross to fling at each other – why would boys crave anything more?

He gives us buccaneers but no buried gold.

I ask him. "Shouldn't something shine through the violence? A pay-off? A hint of something more high-minded?"

"Not everything is a lesson, Dad."

Meaning some things are plain meaningless. Meaning sometimes life has nothing to teach us. And this is your art and calling? I want to ask. Telling the stories of lives without meaning? My son, this is irresponsible. But now is not a time for such words.

As a child, every story had to have a moral – and if it didn't he'd invent one for it. When I started reading him chapter books, he'd insist we discuss the lesson of each chapter before moving on to the next. At age six, he'd turn our rambling dinner guests pink by politely asking what the point of their story was. And he was likely to have a fit if he thought that the meaning of even a sentence was being kept from him or was somehow beyond his understanding. The universe was full of meaning then, and he wanted complete access. Now, he reads Wittgenstein and excites over symbols that aren't symbols of anything, except perhaps, he explains, their own emptiness.

It is a short story, barely more than one event put in the right perspective. An overweight kid – dubbed Frank by the others, as if "Frank" were some kind of putdown – has the misfortune of being the reviled fat kid at a Boy Scouts overnight. His troop-mates are geniuses of torment. They warn he'll get rendered if he doesn't sit farther from the campfire. They compliment his bathing suet. They design a "beast of burden" merit badge and sew it to his shoes. They're relentless. Their magnum opus is this: They bake a potato in the campfire till browned and mushy; they let it sit in a cooler covered with bologna and orange peel and hot chocolate powder (so it can absorb hints of the food they've been eating). Then, at night, they coerce poor Frank into eating it in the dark of a very pungent outhouse. My son's story, in a phrase, is about boys who simulate the experience of eating poop for a fat kid.

The narrator is one of the skinny kids, years later, recalling. He offers no note of reprobation, no sympathy for the poor fat kid's trials. The occasion for remembrance is the sudden death of one of the other tormentors, who in the health of his thirties drops dead on an after-work jog. Never a good friend, just someone once known and now dead. The narrator is mostly emotionless: He doesn't mourn his friend, and he isn't struck by his own past cruelties. He doesn't reflect on the fact of death. Nothing could be more banal to him. Death is daily. This one has just happened to cast a current through his memory, and he's curious – nothing more – to recall what he recalls.

"It is funny." I let him know.

My son came immediately to be with us, on his own meager penny. He brought the skinny little journal in which his story was published. It's entitled "Tuber," and clearly he's proud of it. He should be – he's told me how hard it is to get into these journals. "Eating poop is funny, maybe not the highest form of humor, but funny." This is our short time to be together, we shouldn't pick scabs.

"Thanks," he says.

There's a bit where one of the boys – nerdy and eager to prove to the others that sadism takes brains – explains that odors are molecules passing into the body and that the nose has more influence on taste than the tongue. "So guys," he snorts, "it really is gonna taste like shit!"

"Wasn't there a movie where someone ate dog poop, on film?"

"Pink Flamingos." My son hands me my water from the nightstand and turns the straw toward my mouth. We are grateful to have this time together. And still, with all the vital conversations to be had, we talk of dog poop?

"It seems so easy to trump a gross out."

He smiles, "I'm not really going for a gross out."

Maybe he could explain what he is "going for," but he'd protest if I asked, and our conversation would spin out into a succession of postmodern detours on the location of meaning or something like that, and I exhaust easily these days. Intentions cannot govern words, this much he has brought me to understand. And he is more interested in their mischief than their meaning. But are there not words, meaningful words, which must be written about this world?

I don't disapprove. No, I have always supported him. He should follow his dreams. He has to write, I understand this. I'll have none of that my-son-the-aspiring-writer nail-biting. I don't kvetch about financial security; he is responsible, he will find a way. "Write," I tell him. "You have your father's blessing for what it's worth. Find your voice and speak to the ears of the world." I want to picture him waking each morning with words entrusted to his heart, gifted with purpose.

There have never been any artists in our family before. We've mostly ended up social workers of one kind or another since we ascended to the middle class not so long ago. My father was in Buchenwald, and my brother and I didn't have to think abstractly about our responsibilities to society. We had 1960s socialism, the civil rights movement – it was obvious then what the world needed from you. But we're old now. And some things do run in the blood. My father's cancer took him before my son was even born. My brother's got him even younger. We grow old and die, and the world needs us no less.

"The right words can live forever," I tell him. "Do you think about that when you write?"

"That I sit in my room gambling youth's precious hours on something that might outlast me?"

He has this way with words, but see how he uses it? Some sarcasm for his old man or a young man's despair? He's content to sit on the edge of my bed and let me decide between the two. How many more conversations will there be? This is a time to express as best we can, not to play with the distance between us. This is our time, my son. Your father is trying to ask you what you hope to offer the world.

"Would you say there's a message that runs through your stories?"

I've set myself up: "The world has plenty of messages. They're actually instant these days."

I do my best to laugh, but he sees my uncertainty, my wincing eyes. Potato poop? He puts a hand on my shoulder.

"I have lots I want to say, Dad."

"Here." He takes a large breath that is careful to remain less than a sigh. He begins patiently to excavate meaning: "If we are what we eat, then we are what we shit too. Food, you could say, is the matter that comes to life inside us. Shit is the part of us that returns to lifeless matter. Shit is everyday death. So eating shit is necrophilia – it's making life with death, it's acknowledging and at the same time refusing to acknowledge that we die a little bit every day. And the potato is pornography, a way for the boys to stare at their deaths without burning their eyes."

He swallows, and looks down to read me. Has he found enough of a message for me? Has he struck too close to home?

I was a born atheist, but for my father, who had suffered for his faith, I had a Bar Mitzvah. Now my son, who plays in the wreckage of stable meanings, erects one for me. Some kind of bedside idol to lend me comfort? This kindness is infuriating. Does he think bullshit-artistry will soothe me? Can he not see that my questions come from care and concern about what my son will do with his gifts, what his contribution to a struggling world will be? Does he expect to appease his father with hasty CliffsNotes so he may lay me contentedly to rest?

Besides, who will understand this calculus of symbols? Necrophilia? Some young English professor will write articles about poop-eating? I could tell him that he got it wrong, that we are what we eat minus what we poop or something like that. But how could I keep up? And he would invent another interpretation just as quickly. Why don't you go to the Guggenheim and eat some poop yourself? Write a manifesto about it. Who needs to be taught that we die? What we need is to be taught how to live. My son, you must not make a game of finding meaning in life. But I will not speak such things from fear or spite.

This is what I should do: I should love and accept him, his life, his work. My son is 27. He is my only child. He has solid footsteps, arms like his grandfather. He bikes everywhere. There is nothing petty about him. He has no tattoos or piercings, he dresses simply. He speaks from the deep of his chest, even to strangers. In any room he is a monument of kindness and humility. His youth has a sturdiness mine never had. He is gentle and wise. But he has this penchant for the trivial. Last Father's Day, he sent a handsome black and white photograph of an arrow. "But which way is it pointing? How should I hang it?" I asked him in my thank-you e-mail. He wrote back, "very glad you like it. as far as i know, it's not pointing at anything." A minute later, he sent another e-mail: "or away from anything."

What if I cannot accept? What if it is not enough to spin a universe in which a moonrise and a flat tire and a fake turd all speak in the same voice? What if it violates my values to accept his? And what if this, right now, is my last opportunity to accept?

If I were in my son's story, I would take Frank on a walk. I would comfort him, rest my hand on his shoulder. I would help him to see the fear in the other boys. I would describe the strength I see in him, tell him that he alone has the power to determine who he is. I would challenge the narrator to acknowledge the death of his old friend and to reflect seriously on what their time together meant. But I am not in my son's story. My son speaks to a world in which I already do not exist.

"What if you'd had him look up Frank in the end? Or what if you'd had him drive back to the forest and walk along a stream, do some thinking?"

"You didn't like the ending?"

"It has no ending."

"There's an ending. He carries out the garbage and recycles the obituary."

"And this is an ending? What ends? What begins?"

"Maybe there isn't any transformation this time."

So things just stop. Perhaps it is so.

He gives me a look that understands, and says nothing.

It's not enough. I don't need angel songs or god light, but this is not enough. end story

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