By Matthew Sharpe
Brought to you by the Guernica/PEN Flash Series
I was visiting my father in the psychiatric hospital when I saw my childhood enemy walking toward me down the hallway. He was wearing a thin robe, his head was shaved, and he had a thick scar that started at the top of one ear and arced over his head to the top of the other like a rainbow. I hadn’t seen him in forty years but I’d have known him anywhere. “Chris Markham!” I called out, and pointed a finger at him. He didn’t even look at me. He just kept moving slowly forward, mouth open, bloodshot eyes to the front, a slight jolt with each footfall as if he were walking on stilts. He’d hardly changed at all, still underhanded and duplicitous. My visit was ruined and I didn’t know how I’d ever come back to this place. My father was doing sad, almost immobile jumping jacks when I entered his room. His eyes and face looked less blurry today than usual but he was an old man who’d had a hard life. “Buddy, hi. Your friend Chris is here. Great kid.” He sat down on his narrow twin bed and pointed to the one of hard-backed chairs for me. He said, “Nice to have some company in here. He’s good at conversation, ping pong, and backgammon.” For two years Chris had beaten me whenever he caught me alone, and he always emphasized this—“It’s just you and me now, Buddy”—which made the beatings more frightening, no one to intervene, nothing to stop him from hurting me but his own maimed morals. I never could think of what to say to my father on these visits so we just sat there in silence, me wanting to throw my chair through the window and watch it break apart on the dirty concrete floor of the alley below. Chris shambled in and my father pointed to the hard-backed chair next to mine. Chris sat. My father leaned forward and slapped him on the knee. Chris’s eyes were still vacant, his mouth open, the red scar moist and new, but I saw what was going on. “Chris, this is my son I was telling you about, you remember him?” Chris, who hadn’t looked at me the whole time, said, “He fell down a lot.” Well that was too much. I stood and punched him in the jaw as hard as I could, or would have, if he hadn’t caught my fist in his open hand. “Buddy,” he said, “let’s not do this, I’ve had a hard year.” My father said, “If you can’t forgive, the past is going to eat you up. Anyway, I’m just glad to be here, like old times, with my two boys.”
Matthew Sharpe works include The Sleeping Father, Jamestown, and You Were Wrong. He teaches creative writing at Columbia University.