Has Lineage an Angle of Incidence?
Sometime in my childhood I stole my father's smile. His smile (until he surrendered it) would come and go like the weather, lighting up (when it was here) its corner of the world, fooling all on whom it fell into believing they (and only they) had somehow coaxed this luminous, passing thing into being.
I had seen my father smile since I could remember, seen all the outrageous things his smile let him get away with—the women, the unpaid debts, the totaled car, the women. And then one night it hit me, like a smack another sort of dad might deliver to the back of the head of some disappointingly dim progeny. If I was truly my father's son, couldn't I swipe his smile and use it for my own? You should note: I wrote "swipe" and not "imitate."
As a general rule, the tighter the scrape from which my father had to extricate himself, the greater the effort he lavished on the smile he expected would melt him a way to a less unpleasant place. Not that the effort ever really showed, except in the splendor of what in the end he put on display, and maybe in the silence that surrounded it, our way, I think, to acknowledge the distance this marvel occupied from the world of dull fact the rest of us walked through.
The smile my father summoned up on the fateful night in question, in some true sense his last smile, rates among his more incandescent, meant to distract us all from a reef of intractable fact: the entire family was now stranded on a dark back road far from home. Slicing through the pre-dawn dread and gloom at a predictable clip, my father's latest confection seemed somehow to slip loose from the man's intent at some point—perhaps he'd strained too hard. An entity on its own now, the stray ray instead opened to me the hatch to a possible future. And in the light it shed, I thought I saw my dad crack and, for the blink of an eye, cower. Beaming back at him more brightly than the flashlight I tore from his shaky hand, I, as out-of-place as a sudden sun, lit up the night.
"I'll try to find help," I called out, and then I ran off. Did I in fact find help? I did. The radiance of my abruptly manifest but irrefutable charm warmed every heart it fell across, beginning that early morning. Our rescue party grew to the size of a small village.
From the first time I turned my father's (soon-to-be-former) smile back on him, my father in effect stopped smiling. Oh, he'd bare his incisors. But the resulting expression resembled less and less over time the smile that once dazzled us all into compliance with its hidden will. And the newfound horror that his every effort to grin fanned to life in his eyes, a fire growing higher with every fresh, more desperate attempt to recover what I'd taken—What monster have I spawned? it cried out—had the same effect on those who witnessed it as a mouthful of rotting teeth. Soon he was barely opening his mouth, and then it was never. The flare of dismay that had once attended his futile labor of reclamation, having no more reason to be, vacated his newly ashen eyes. There was nothing at all there.
I have neither the space here nor a good enough reason to list for you the lifetime of unspeakable stuff my father's smile has let me get away with. But I will tell you: I learned well my father's one true lesson. I will leave no one and nothing behind. Everything I've taken from dad (and I haven't told you the half of it) dies with me.
Jim Eigo has written on theater, dance, art, literature, sex and the design of clinical trials. He is an architect of two reforms of AIDS drug regulation, expedited approval and expanded access, that have helped bring many treatments to many people. That work is profiled in two recent documentaries, How to Survive a Plague and United in Anger. His short fiction has appeared in such volumes as Best American Gay Fiction, and in such periodicals as The Chicago Review. You can read his latest flash fiction at cleavermagazine.com.