Non-Custodial Rites by Christopher Gonzalez

Abigail Sheaffer (c) 2017

Like the many other fathers in our neighborhood who shirked responsibility with Olympic athleticism, my father walked out on us. Years after his abrupt departure, after I had reached the peak of my teenage years, the city responded to the growing absence of fathers by opening up the Dome. Built at the end of my street, where the sagging houses blossomed into a vacant field, this Dome resembled a birdcage, its black skeleton rising up- and inward, twisting together at a menacing point. It had been open for less than a month when city officials found my father several states away. He was living his life with another woman and a kid, though who knew if the child was his. They stripped him from that world and threw him into a jumpsuit. I watched him and the other men, all chained together, march down our street, into the mouth of their new electric-fenced home. There we could expect our fathers to live uncomfortable lives—just as they had expected us to keep living without them.

I did my best to avoid the Dome: I entered our house through the side door instead of the front. I ran to the bus stop with my eyes squeezed shut, and some days, when I felt extra bold, I walked backwards from school, so that the last thing I saw before slipping inside was the open road curving back into town.

Even still, the Dome was inescapable.

I had my bedroom window boarded up with planks of wood to hide the view of the Dome’s silhouette, a shot of its spires scraping against the late-night clouds. But blocking out the image offered me little peace. I struggled every night to remain still in bed, causing the sheets to twist around my neck like a noose, the pressure from which dragged me into an unstable sleep. And if sleep never came, my body itched, overcome with an urge to move.

One night, after tossing and turning, I freed myself from the prison of sheets and shuffled through the living room, past my mom staring catatonic at the burbling television. Outside the air was numbing in the best way. I forced one leg in front of the other, keeping my eyes locked on the sidewalk below until I arrived at the Dome. It loomed over the street at full mast. Even at night we could peek through the gaps between its massive tines, see clear to the other side. The fathers were always on display. But in the darkness they all of them were indistinguishable, equally despicable.

Scanning the shadows that night, I thought about calling out to my father. Maybe he also stayed up at night with unwanted memories. Maybe they were about my mom, or about me.

The day he walked out on us, he didn’t say goodbye or anything close to that. When I couldn’t find him I panicked and tore off through our home. Could be he was playing a game of hide and seek, I thought, or he had taken an extended trip to the bathroom. I rifled through my parents’ walk-in closet, knocking over piles of clothes and boxes of shoes, pulling back dresses like tapestries in hopes they would reveal his hiding place. I found you, I found you, I might have screamed. Tag you’re it. But once the reality of his absence had settled into me, I cried out and collapsed inside the closet, waiting for his smoky scent to waft in through the front door. My mom was the one who found me, hours later when she returned from work. She did the best possible thing she could have done in that moment: she held me. Together we rocked back and forth until I had grown so exhausted from crying that she had to carry me to my bed. I don’t think either of us have cried about him since.

In front of the Dome, I wondered and continued to do so for the many years that followed—after my own son was born, after building mud-castles with him in our backyard, after I scolded him for breaking into our liquor cabinet and pickling himself in gin, after I greeted him at his wedding with a kiss on both cheeks and a palm on his shoulder, and danced with his wife—about what my father would have done or said if I sneaked into the Dome. A part of me wanted him to pull me in for a hug, no words necessary. I wanted to look him in the eye and see remorse, possibly some self-hatred. Shame. I wanted any indication that he was fully aware of the hole he created within me.

But the reality was so apparent from inside the shadows of the Dome’s belly: the father I wanted was a man who never existed. None of those deadbeat fathers could be that man.

There was a power source near the guard’s post, which controlled the electricity coursing through the barbed wires. The electric fence was set to pulse at a steady hum. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, if anything at all, but I needed to shake those men. Make them hurt. So I kicked the base of the guard’s post, my leg jolting back like a shotgun. Eventually the wooden shell cracked and split, revealing a circuit breaker box. The dozing guard snapped into fight mode and yelled some obscenities at me. I drowned him out by kicking and hacking away at the breaker box, until my leg muscles inflamed from the repetitive motion, until I wanted to vomit. It’s possible the structure was built for destruction. I’m sure of it. And after I had gotten the result I wanted, I backed into the street and watched as lightning rippled along the Dome’s black exterior, painting it with bright blues and white yellows, a satisfying orange fire. And finally, after years of so much goddamn silence, the voices of our fathers dared to cry out for us.

Christopher Gonzalez is a Cleveland-raised, Brooklyn-based writer. He received his BA in English from Vassar College, where he won the 2015 Ann E. Imbrie Prize for Excellence in Fiction Writing. His work has appeared in Modern Loss, The Vassar Review, and The Vignette Review, among other publications. Currently, he works on the digital production team for Macmillan Publishers and reads fiction as an assistant editor for Barrelhouse.