The Nobody Fathers


fiction by Josh Peterson


Look at those two guys, standing at the bar. Those guys are the Nobody Fathers. They aren’t fathers, and they don’t have fathers. The tall one with the red, fuse-like hair, wearing a too-tight suit, that’s Johnny Tremain. Everyone calls him Johnny Threemoms, but never to his face. They call him this because he has three mothers: a biological mother, his biological mother’s lesbian life partner, and a transsexual father who underwent gender reassignment surgery shortly after Johnny was born.

The other guy at the bar, the drunk guy, the shorter guy, the guy with the deep-set eyes and offset smile, wearing torn jeans and a Frankenstein t-shirt, that’s Henry Fleming. Henry has only one mother and zero fathers. His dad left when Henry was three to become a Lutheran minister.

Johnny lives above this very bar in a studio apartment. They were both just up there, drinking on the cheap. About a year ago, Henry found a copy of Playgirl in Johnny’s apartment. It was still in the shrink wrap.

“What the fuck is this?” Henry asked.

“That’s for when I turn into a woman like my father.”

Henry put the magazine back where he found it.

“I have something I want to show you,” Henry told him later that day. The Nobody Fathers went to Henry’s place, a studio apartment over a different bar, a less trendy bar. Henry pulled an old steamer trunk from his closet. Inside was a Bible, still in the shrink-wrap.

“This is for the day when I become like my father.”

Johnny understood.

Now at the bar, the Nobody Fathers are discussing Henry’s Buick and a waitress that Johnny likes named Carly. The car will not start. Johnny will not talk to the girl.

“It’s probably your battery,” Johnny says. “We should go change it.”

“I need to use the can first.”

Henry goes. Johnny rubs his head and looks at a placard on the wall advertising Guinness. This bar does not serve Guinness.

In a bathroom stall, Henry takes out an Altoids tin full of cocaine, a small mirror and a dollar bill. He makes a line of cocaine on the mirror and snorts it through the rolled-up dollar.

Meanwhile, Johnny asks the barman for a refill of water. Carly approaches. She is lithe with blue eyes and a head full of brown curls. She smiles and says hello. Johnny forces a grin and says hello back. He pauses for one second, then two, then three. An awkward amount of time passes, but finally he asks her how she is doing. It’s too late. She’s turning to walk away. She doesn’t hear him.

Henry is back from the bathroom, bouncing on the balls of his feet. The Nirvana version of “Girl, Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” is playing on the jukebox.

“Me and Jim, our old high school pal, remember him?” Henry says. “We got really high one time and listened to this song. We cried for hours.”

“Wow, that’s not something you should admit to.”

The Nobody Fathers leave. Henry hugs a few of the waitresses on the way out. Johnny throws a dismissive wave to no one in particular when he exits. Once outside, Johnny looks into the window at Carly. It is a cold night and his breath clouds the window. He pulls his hand into his sleeve, in the way a turtle withdraws its head, and wipes away the mist on the glass. Carly is gone.

Johnny goes to the parking lot. Henry has to run to catch up. A brand-new BMW is blocking Johnny’s car. There is no one inside the BMW.

“Goddamn it,” says Johnny. He goes to the rear of the unmanned car and pushes on the fender and manages to move his feet farther away from the car. Johnny mutters and kicks at the car without hitting it.

“Goddamn it,” Johnny says. He pushes on the fender again. “Fucking help me, Henry.”

Henry gives the BMW a light push. “I think it’s stuck, Johnny.”

Johnny paces around the car. He shouts at a man walking through the parking lot. “Is this yours?” The man shakes his head and gets into a different vehicle. Henry sits on the hood of Johnny’s car.

“You know, if you want, I can help you get somewhere with Carly.”

“I don’t need any help with that, I need to move this car.” Johnny kicks the BMW in the tire.

“All you have to do is ask her out for drinks and let the alcohol do the rest.”

“Can this wait for another fucking time?”

“Just make sure to use one of these,” Henry says, lobbing a condom at Johnny. The packet bounces off Johnny’s head and lands in a mud puddle.

“Make sure to use that rubber, so you don’t get her pregnant. Not using rubbers is how you get girls pregnant.” Henry is laughing.

Johnny picks up the condom, snarls and throws the condom back at Henry. The wind catches it and the condom lands in the street.

“Did I say take her out for drinks? I meant to say smile and show her your charming personality.”

Johnny was married once. His wife left him for a fat-face refrigerator-box-factory foreman. Johnny’s ex-wife, Rachel cited his emotional distance as her reason for leaving.

“But you knew I was emotionally distant when you married me,” he told her.

A few months later, Rachel came back, begging for Johnny to reconcile their marriage. Johnny said he’d think about it, so they had sex. It was his way. Two weeks later, Rachel said she was pregnant and the baby was his. Johnny didn’t believe her and paid for a DNA test when the baby was born. It wasn’t Johnny’s and they divorced. Johnny bought a frame and put the results of the DNA test in it. He keeps the frame on his desk at the insurance office where he works as a receptionist.

Henry is bent over with laughter. “If you used condoms, you wouldn’t have to shell out for DNA tests.”

Johnny is standing next to the BMW with his arms crossed. Henry grunts and points. A man in his late fifties is getting into his BMW. Johnny knocks on the window.

“Hey, guy,” Johnny says. “You can’t park like this.” He thumps his palm against the window. “A BMW does not give you the right to block people in, Fuckhead.”

The man rolls down his window and punches Johnny on the nose. Johnny falls on his ass and the BMW drives away. Henry laughs.

“That guy is dead.” The Nobody Fathers drive off in pursuit. Both of their noses are bleeding, Johnny’s from a blow, Henry’s from blow.

After patrolling the block twice, Johnny gives up. They head off to Henry’s Buick. The car is located across town in the parking lot of a grocery store. Henry works in that store as an assistant in the floral department.

When they get there, the lot it barren and dark. The only light shines from a double-headed lamppost, and it is several parking spaces away from the Buick. Johnny hands Henry a flashlight and opens the hood of Henry’s car. Henry takes out his cell phone.

“Get off that phone so I can show you how to do this,” Johnny says.

“This will only take a second.”

“So will this. It’s an easy procedure, one that you should know how to do yourself.”

Henry dials.

“Ok, Henry, shine the flashlight on the battery, so I can get these connectors off.”

Henry juggles the flashlight and the phone. He is talking to his ex-fiancé and talking loud, in order to make Johnny listen. Johnny is working on the battery and trying not to listen. Henry is saying something about “coffee” and “catching up.”

Two years ago, Henry knocked up his ex-fiancé Laura. They were both excited about being parents. She miscarried, and they broke up.

“That was my ex-fiancé. Today would be my son’s birthday,” Henry says, hanging up the phone.

“He was never born, so he can’t have a birthday. And there’s no such thing as an ex-fiancé. Either you were married or you weren’t. The possibility of an event is not the same as an actual event. It’s sentimental bullshit.”

“You’re a dick.” Henry throws the flashlight at Johnny. It bounces off the engine and knocks down the prop holding up the hood. The hood falls on Johnny’s left hand. The flashlight goes skittering across the parking lot.

“Goddamn it,” Johnny says. “You fucked up my hand.” Johnny takes off his suit jacket and wraps the wound.

“So what if I did?” Henry says. He takes a step back.

“All that cocaine make you brave?”

Henry takes a swing at Johnny, but Johnny catches it with his uninjured hand and wrestles Henry to the ground. Johnny pulls Henry’s hair, so Henry slaps Johnny across the face. The two men grapple, trying awkwardly to put each other in sleeper holds. They lie in the street, their faces inches apart.

Johnny kisses Henry on the lips. Henry kisses back. Soon they stop and scoot away. Johnny wipes off his lips with his suit jacket. He is sitting against the car. Henry squats and loudly spits.

“I’m sorry,” Johnny says.

“Me, too,” says Henry.

“I’m sorry about the kiss. I’m just trying to work some things out emotion-wise.”

“I know,” Henry smiles. “Me too, I guess.”

“Let’s get that car fixed.”

“Don’t you want to cuddle? Don’t you want to hold me and tell me everything is going to be all right?”

“No,” says Johnny. “I love you too much to lie to you.”