Fiction First Friday: “When Cronus Met Tartarus” by Casey Childers

Francisco_de_Goya,_Saturno_devorando_a_su_hijo_(1819-1823)

It starts with a speech about your shortcomings.

You hear the words, but it’s more than you can process in the moment.

Before now you’d never considered what the term father meant to anybody other than you, and it still seems too loaded a concept to approach with any effectiveness.

You offer the standard feeble apologies, but they come off hollow against the sucking void of the bottomless pit behind you.

“I was young,” you say. “Impetuous. I’m sorry I tried to eat you, I guess. I’m sorry you had to be raised by a goat. It seems silly, now, but at the time it made sense. I wish there were better words, but sorry’s all I got, pal.”

“Save it,” he says. “It’s too late for that.”

Over his shoulder, in the far flung distance, you spot the sharp outline of your Eichler-inspired ranch on the summit of Olympus. It’ll be his place, now.

You look him in the eyes, grasping for some sense of the young man behind the stormclouds.

“Son,” you say.

He stops you. “No. You don’t call me that. Don’t ever call me that. My name is Zeus, old man, and you’re no father of mine.”

Then comes the push.

That’s how it starts.

It ends with you in a Target parking lot, crying.

Maybe you’ve been there for hours, days, years even.

It’s not like we’re watching the clock, and besides, this isn’t about judgement — that time has passed.

It’s about you. Alone at the wheel of your Subaru, crying.

It’s the sort of sensible car a sensible person buys before becoming a sensible parent in a sensible world.

Hold onto that thought.

You had every intention of epitomizing sensibility in the months leading up to the birth of your first child, and if you’re to be judged for eating her — and, you know, the five brothers and sisters that followed — then at the very least the side impact safety rating of the car you chose before all of that should count for something.

And hold onto the thought of the Target parking lot, while you’re at it.

It’s not like you want to be here, the only creature alive in a vast, dead world, crying while you wait for some morning shift-leader to flick on the lights and signal an all clear for the miserable fathers of the day to come shuffling in for whatever shortcut they can find to their children’s hearts.

But the lights won’t come, and the radio is nothing but an endless loop of Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s In The Cradle” on every station, and the glow of the instrument panel is no match for the pervasive darkness of a starless sky and an absent moon, and the only thing you can make out with any clarity is how old your hands have come to look in the days since your son tossed you down here.

It’s hard to fault him. He is your son, after all.

I mean sure, you were raw about it for a couple days, but one of the better things about falling down a bottomless pit is the time it affords you to reflect.

Another nice thing is that your phone stops working.

I’m not a phone scientist or anything, but I figure it’s like how your phone doesn’t work in the underground garage at Whole Foods. I mean it works, like you can check your shopping list or play Crossy Road, but Facebook is useless.

No check-ins in the bottomless pit. No pithy status updates. No tweets.

The drag is that bottomless pit time is pretty much the perfect time for scarfing down another season of House of Cards, but once you get past that dead-time-fidget of begging the internet for a worthy distraction and give in to the reality of a long way to fall with no 4G LTE coverage a calm comes over you reminiscent of some distant part of your life when you weren’t always within reach.

It’s just you, the pit, and the growing sense that you’d die of exposure or dehydration long before you hit bottom if dying was something you were even capable of doing.

Also your phone’s only got like fifty percent battery, so maybe lay off the Candy Crush until the existential boredom really sets in.

How did people do bottomless pits before iPhones? It’s hard to imagine. You could probably ask when you get to the bottom if there was anybody down there to ask.

I mean, it’s not like bottomless pits are even a thing. Inevitably there will be a bottom. When people came up with these things it was before the notion of eternity had ever really occurred to anybody, so everything they came up with had its practical limits.

In this case the limit is nine days of air time.

At least that’s what it says in the brochure.

What it doesn’t say is the incredibly specific figure of nine days was determined by dropping a bronze anvil from the edge of the earth and that heavy-ass bronze anvils are way less susceptible to the buffeting winds of this particular pit.

Before getting tricked into vomiting up your kids — ok, five of your six kids and the swaddled-up boulder your wife somehow convinced you was a newborn — you might’ve had enough heft in your gut for the bronze anvil express to the bottom, but since you only had a few sips of 7-Eleven coffee and half an apple fritter on the morning of your unceremonious push, it shakes out to something more along the lines of three weeks till groundfall.

I mean it sounds pretty sinister — YOU ATE YOUR KIDS — but it’s a sinister world full of sinister stuff, and what it really highlights is how suddenly life can take a turn.

One minute you’re the prom king, a young Titan in his prime — making out with your hottest sister in the Elysian Fields, sun glinting off the windshield of your Iroc Z parked just so in the distance with the t-tops popped, and the next minute you’re picking out onesies with dumb phrases like “Daddy’s Li’l Thunderstorm” stitched above grinning cartoon clouds.

So yeah, you eat your kids.

You eat your kids in a desperate attempt to stave off the grim reality that at best the whole of your life can be summed up with the epitaph “For he so loved his children that he got the fuck out of their way.”

You eat your kids and things are just fine for a while.

Yeah, your marriage is a shambles and your prospects are thinning faster than your hair, but fuck that noise you’re the clumsy anthropomorphization of time itself and you castrated your own father to take your piece of this tired world and you’ll be damned if you did all that just to let a bunch of newbie thumbsuckers unseat you as the rightful king of the universe.

A golden age. A fucking golden age you ushered in, trains running on time, unemployment at an all time low, but yeah, feel free to take the reigns kids. It’s all yours. My gift to you in the form of a perfect, lawful world of wonder and beauty without a day of work in your sorry fucking existences.

Yes, you eat your kids.

And they turn out fine despite that one little parenting hiccup.

Hold onto that thought.

Hell, maybe the only reason they turned out as well as they did is because of your intervention — steeled against the rigors of a thankless existence by the warm and acidic embrace of your belly.

And what do you have to show for it? A nice long fall without a single bar of coverage.

But that’s a shitty way to look at things. This is about letting go. It’s about accepting the consequences of your actions. How it starts; how it ends — that’s already done.

All that’s waiting for you when the falling stops is an artfully crafted hell of a Target parking lot, no voice to cling to but Harry Chapin and his maudlin nursery rhyme refrain that was tiresome the first time it played and becomes exponentially more tiresome with each repeat.

That’s how it ends. You, head pressed against a sensible steering wheel, crying, wishing you could take it all back and knowing the world doesn’t work that way.

So enjoy the freedom of falling for a while. It’s yours. You earned it, and there’s a long way down yet to go.

Casey A Childers put Shipwreck together with Amy Stephenson, and is the author of Pictures of the Floating World, She Said, and I Pretended to Understand. He tweets @cachilders.

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