Readers might be more familiar with Mark Leidner’s poetry than with his prose. But the beautiful, bruising hilarity of his poems carries over to his short stories. There aren’t many books I've recommended more often or more strongly than Leidner's 2018 collection, Under The Sea. The present story, “Hanging Out with Dad,” tests universality and particularity—the whatness of a father/son relationship and the thisness of a particular father and a particular son. In all of Leidner's work, a reader can draw general insight from closely-rendered moments, which might not necessarily be a balm for our abundant confusion, but will certainly make it more interesting.
I dragged my dad to the bathroom because the bathroom had good light. I took off my sock and put my foot on the toilet. I’d been whining for days about my ingrown toenail but hadn’t told him it was my third one that year. The other two I’d endured solo, but this one was ten times as painful. He grimaced when he saw the puffy, purple edge of my big toe. Then he grimaced again when he saw my other toenails. He asked why they were all ripped and tiny. I hadn’t realized all my toes would be scrutinized. I said I had a tendency to tear them off when I got stressed out. He laughed and said then I deserved all the ingrown toenails I got. If my whole leg fell off, I’d deserve that too, for being so stupid. I started to cry and said I couldn’t help it. He said why not? I said I just couldn’t. If I knew how to help myself, I wouldn’t need help. It’s how I am, I said, more upset. I bite my fingernails even though I know it’s gross. I pick my nose. And I tear my toenails.
His stony stare changed in aspect. He seemed to look right through me. I usually didn’t present to him so transparently the blubbering, self-sabotaging buffoon that I was. At least I don’t eat my boogers anymore, I said, trying to get him to talk. It was a half-truth, a half-truth I tried to paper over by quickly asking him if he remembered how I used to. He laughed and said I was hopeless. He wished me good luck with my life. If it wasn’t cut short, it was going to be a long one. He left me standing there with my foot on the toilet seat. Don’t you have any advice? I called after him. Aren’t you supposed to, like, help me? He just kept walking. Aren’t you supposed to be some kind of, I don’t know, father or something? I shouted. He took one more step then stopped. He turned around slowly. Why don’t you just use toenail clippers? he said. I glanced at the bathroom cabinet on instinct, but to be honest it had never crossed my mind before, and it didn’t even cross my mind then, how those tools could help me. I didn’t think I could stop myself from compulsively tearing my toenails, so what good were clippers? He mistook my silence for understanding. Your grooming habits aren’t your problem, he said, his half a smile revealing a big tragic dimple. The problem is you using up other people’s time for horseshit you could’ve fixed with half a thought and ten of your own goddamn minutes. People’s time is precious, son. It’s the only thing you don’t get more of. If it’s a problem you can solve with your own, don’t use up somebody else’s. Save that for the real problems. The ones you can’t control. Those are the ones worth asking advice for. He walked back to me, then reached into the medicine cabinet and pulled out the pair of clippers. He lowered them to me like a god annoyed to have to go out of his way to pass fire to a mortal.
Just like a god, too, he hadn’t listened. Or maybe I didn’t want fire. When I heard my voice, it was almost a shout. I already told you, I tear my toenails! What good is clipping them going to do? There’s nothing to clip! He frowned with immortal puzzlement and then with understanding, and a gentleness settled in his voice. Son, you don’t choose between clipping your toenails, or tearing them off with your fingers. You clip them so you can’t tear them off. I sniffled and snotted as I struggled to process what he’d said. But you don’t tear yours, I said. You’re damn right I don’t, he said, because I’m not an idiot, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to. That doesn’t mean I don’t have the idiot gene floating around somewhere inside me. He pulled off his slipper and put his bare foot on the toilet seat beside mine. Thin white crescents of uniform breadth capped the end of each long, straight toenail. They were perfect. It looked less like a foot than a photo of one, and the first thought I had was how I wished mine looked like that so I could rip them off. My own feet beside his looked post-apocalyptically broken, villainous even.
I know it doesn’t look like it, he said, returning his toenails to their slipper, but you and me aren’t really that different. You think I’m magically immune to the self-destructive impulses to which you so easily surrender? I’m not. You think you’re so distinct from people who have their shit together? You’re not. You gotta get over yourself. We all have the same impulses, the same urges. It’s not the impulses but how we meet them that makes us who we are. His eyebrow stabbed the air. I didn’t nod and didn’t not nod. I didn’t want to do anything. As far as I could remember, he had never said this many words to me in a row, and I didn’t want him to stop. We clip our nails, he said, so we can’t tear them, because we want to, in response to the urge to tear them. Now, you can’t expect clippers like me to admit that. If you ask them, they’ll say, ‘Eew, yuck, I would never tear my toenails. What a nasty little habit you have.’ But they’re lying, son. Just like you lie to yourself—‘I’m so special because of the particular pickle I’m in’—they’ll lie to you—‘I’m special because I’m not in that particular pickle.’ The truth is nobody’s special. Nobody’s pickle is even that particular. We’re all the damn same, and we’re all the same, damned. He lowered the pair of clippers again. They glinted in the light. The only question you gotta answer is, are you gonna clip, or are you gonna tear?
This time I took them.
Though maybe with too much hesitation, which must have prompted what he said next. It seemed to tax his deepest reserves, and for a moment in his eyes I saw fear where before there had been only judgment. You’re my son. His voice quavered almost as if he wasn’t sure. You don’t belong in the camp of those held back by easily remedied, self-inflicted wounds. You used to, maybe. Because maybe you didn’t know. Now you know. You’re going to clip from now on, kid. All ten toes. All ten fingers. Not because you’re better than anyone who doesn’t. Because you’re not better. You know what it’s like to suck. You’ve sat with that for ten fat years. But now, rather than run from it, or deny it, you’re going to face it. Every day, you’re going to face it so you can carry it. And that’s what’s going to give you back your humanity. That’s what’s gonna make you something more than an animal who only happens to walk upright, but a keeper of the flame. A link in the chain, that, being lit from one, lights another. So the torch of civilization never goes out. His stony aspect passed to the clippers in my hand then passed back to me. Am I understood? Yes, father.