Below is the first chapter of The Laws of Inheritance, an unpublished, in-progress novel. Check back for occasional updates.
June 11, 2019
I wake on a Tuesday, sweat pooled in the crevasse between the small of my back and a musty white T-shirt, feeling odd. Not quite right. It’s my stomach. There’s a throbbing in my gut, slight but incessant. Not enough to wake me, but enough to demand my attention in the first blinking moments of the day. Before I even sense the sun I’m shaken by discomfort, my legs feel heavy as pillars and the space between my temples flares. But mostly it’s the bellows in my stomach, rising and falling with thunderous huffs, blowing toxic soot into my body.
I shut my eyes, clench my fists, and heave my legs up under me, thinking (because even my logic is weakened) that the mere exertion will right my physiological wrongs. But, I should have seen it coming, it only makes it worse. As my knees slide across linens and my legs swing into open air, the vicegrip clamped around my innards tightens catastrophically.
At this point, I’m not thinking about my father. My mind is concerned only with the agony swimming in my gut. My bare feet make contact with the cold-slab hardwood; my toes curl and my stomach tightens, fighting the fist inside of it. The outside world introduces itself, trying to claw through the pain: one solitary bird chirping in the sunshine, sounding a little too happy I think; an engine idling somewhere, lazy in the summer haze.
It’s not until I’m at the bathroom mirror—after an arduous two-minute shuffle, during which my stomach begins to tame itself—that my father occurs to me. The toothpaste is tumbling from my lips, a rabid froth, and I peer into my irises and wonder why they look so dull, and I think of him. The man I never met. The man I feel I should love, have some kind of kinship with, even though he died three months before I was born. I’ve seen him in faded photographs, dates imprinted on plastic snapshots, and heard a story or two—the Gulf War hero whose unclouded future was cut so unceremoniously short.
Sad story, yes—but that’s not why I’m thinking of him now. It’s something else my mother said during one of the rare moments when she speaks of him, whenever the loneliness becomes too much for her or my badgering breaks down her emotional defenses. He was so young when he died, she would say, her eyes liquefying and focusing on nothing. Exactly twenty-five, actually, to the day. He would have been a great father.
By this time I’ve sputtered out the toothpaste and wavered in the shower and dressed myself in something resembling adult clothing, a pair of black jeans with only two small stains on them and a white collared shirt missing a button. The throbbing in my stomach has completely left my mind, superseded now by a trickier concern.
On his twenty-fifth birthday, I say to myself again as I pour a heap of cereal up to the brim. The bowl is tangerine-colored and radiates warmth as the sunlight hits it.
On his twenty-fifth birthday from a genetic condition. That’s all my mother has told me, and even this nugget of information was gleaned only after an hour of protest, I’m his son and I have a right to know what happened to him. I was fourteen years old at the time I pried this information from her, and by that point I had figured out that my fatherlessness was peculiar; the coddling tone of my teachers and the cruel, sneering jokes of fellow middle-schoolers had made it unavoidable. My pleas and protests shook my mother’s armor, but only slightly. It was some kind of hereditary gastric disease, she had let slip before her battalions reassembled, turning her cold and distant. “What do you want me to say?” she had finished with a sigh. “He didn’t expect it. I sure as hell didn’t. But it happened. So what do you want me to say?”
The number 10 bus picks up two blocks away, at Frederick and Yale, meaning I have four minutes now to hurl sugary milk down the sink and grab my backpack and race out the door. Right foot slams the door closed behind me, right hand fumbling with stubborn keys. I bound down the sidewalk, boots clomping in the ninety-degree heat, feeling that pain in my stomach again, irritable little fucker knocking from the inside. I jog down the Baltimore sidewalks. Luckily, after taking the bus nearly every day for as long as I can remember, I know by now that this bus will be two minutes late at least, it’s been fighting with that mid-morning traffic downtown. Sure enough, it’s only chugging up to the intersection at 10:17, by which point I’m standing conspicuous at the bus stop, seven sweaty quarters clutched between my fingers.
The bus lurches forward before I find a seat, but I right myself and stumble onto some paisley orange fabric, pretending my sideways descent is intentional. I rummage through my bag, feeling outworn paper between my fingertips, and pull a book onto my lap, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, second reading. For some reason I’ve had the impulse to pick it up again recently. He felt a slight itching up on top of his belly, I read, and wanted to touch the spot with one of his legs but immediately pulled it back, for the contact sent a cold shiver through him.
But my eyes and brain can’t focus on the words, not today. The pages are spread open and my fingers trace the lines like Braille, but I raise my head and my vision becomes cloudy, barely taking in the jingoistic banners fluttering outside the bus windows—the ones with the mad-clown face of Trump inviting you to take part in the War with China.
Even these mean little to me today. I can only think of my dad on his twenty-fifth birthday. Was he thinking of me during his final hours, envisioning what kind of father he might have been?
The little bastard in my stomach, hearing this question uttered by my inner voice, scrapes its talons down the wall of my gut, creating an awful pain that causes me to groan in my bus seat. It’s gone within a minute, thankfully, but still there’s a scowl on my face. This is a pain I’ve never felt before, it’s unnatural. And—here’s the kicker, the thing that’s really been tormenting me—it is exactly six days before my own twenty-fifth birthday, that quarter of a century milestone at which my father met his fate.
The bus rumbles down Frederick Avenue, past chain-link fences and grand old cemeteries, through neighborhoods with starkly different demeanors—a visual spectrum of poverty and wealth drawn on scarred streets and centuries of architecture. It’s a long bus ride to work, nearly an hour. Still, all I can do is think.
I arrive at CGT Video Services nearly on time. We’re on the outer fringes of the city at this point, liquor stores and Volvo dealerships abutting each other. My workplace is a squat brick building that looks like a cross between a garage and a motel, but the environs inside are surprisingly pleasant: squares of thick carpeting, the flicker of projectors both analog and digital, old movie posters and memorabilia lining the walls. I pass a few coworkers on the route to my desk, offering a nod and a quick hello, but most of them have their eyes trained on a screen, observing someone else’s home movies. This is a job tailor-made for introverts. I could call a few of them friends, but our social hours are usually spent with solitary pleasures, movies and books foremost among them.
My workstation is a study in technology through the years, a looming Mac surrounded by old tape decks and projectors. Visions and memories are cluttered on my desk, taking the form of 16mm reels, tiny USB drives, obsolete videotapes and fragile DVDs. Currently I’m in the process of transferring a suburban family’s home movies from faded celluloid into the digital realm, an undertaking which comprises about ninety percent of our work here.
“Hey Darren,” someone says as they pass by my desk. I look up and see Shannon smiling in my direction, eyes gleaming. She’s older than I am, thirty-one I think, and has an air of disarming sincerity about her; she could turn a conversation about the weather into an earnest heart-to-heart. But she keeps on walking, carrying a coffee mug to her station before I have the chance to think of a charming response. Anyway, both of us might be happier with this fumbling, unspoken attraction; anything more than that comes dangerously close to real human interaction.
I spool one of the 8mm reels onto a projector, fitting minuscule plastic nibs into the brittle sprocket holes. An orgy of cables and wires stretches from the projector through a massive converter and into the rear of the Mac—chemicals and light becoming ones and zeros. The images now flickering on my screen, drunkenly appearing after a slight delay, involve an old man seated at a long table, birthday cake ablaze in front of him, seemingly hundreds of candles dripping wax onto frosting. His family surrounds him, three or four generations singing and applauding as he musters the breath to blow out the candles. It’s nearly dusk and the red-orange lighting, dancing in the grain of the film stock, lends the footage an appropriate oddness, turning it at once more real and more dreamlike.
The old man blows out the candles in a prolonged breath. He smiles, leans back in his chair, eyes glassy but full of joy. Next to him, a blond girl of about five or six clutches at his arm, grinning—she’s missing two front teeth. There must be eighty years between them.
The unbearable pain has settled, for the most part, into a dull and constant ache, dormant beneath the skin. I can tolerate it mostly, though adjusting in my chair has become a masochistic exercise.
Only twice today did I have to flee to the bathroom, hand trembling over my stomach as I hobbled down the hallway. Gasping, I lifted my T-shirt above my chest and peered at my torso, trying to identify the area where something festered and fumed inside. The piercing electric light made my skin look lifeless, sapped of color; I’m frequently self-conscious about the lightness of my skin, but today especially so and for entirely different reasons. Touching at my body gingerly, I thought, I was sure I felt something—a hard protuberance, my flesh transforming. But both times I forced myself to breathe in deeply, and though the sides of my body throbbed in response, I was able to go on with my day as though everything was ordinary.
The bus ride home takes me seventy minutes—less than on many other nights. A book is spread open in front of me again, Gregor Samsa is acclimating to his new body, but the words just seem like empty shapes, abstract figures on a blank canvas. My brain is preoccupied with the concept of twenty-five years, the meaninglessness of that stretch of time. These years represent the blink of an eye when placed along some grand cosmic timeline, but also constitute, I think to myself, an infinity of moments and decisions. I cannot imagine my life continuing for two or three times as long as this.
During this musing, my eyes roam blankly. Now and then I catch the gaze of another passenger—three young black women eyeing me from the back of the bus, a middle-aged white man clutching his briefcase against his lap. I wonder what they think of me; are they focused mostly on my skin color, trying to fit into a neat category, or are they equipped with some kind of X-ray vision to detect my internal unease? Maybe they aren’t thinking about me at all.
I’m used to the scrutiny, this feeling of in-betweenness. When my father died, his military life insurance payout allowed me and my mom to live comfortably for a while. I grew up on the outskirts of West Baltimore near Tremont, where the liquor stores and security-gated church ministries of the city started to give way to wide streets and well-manicured parks. Suburbia loomed to the west, Shipley Hill and Lexington to the east. I was pulled in two different directions, unsure of who I was or wanted to be and given no guidance—not by my teachers, underpaid and overworked in public schools, more concerned with the students who posed an immediate threat (to themselves and others); and not by my mother, who within a couple of years was forced to work two jobs to provide for us. Would it have been any easier with a father figure around? It seemed too simple; how could the mere presence of another man have helped me understand myself?
The bus drops me off at Frederick and Yale shortly after nine. I wince in pain as my body contorts itself onto the sidewalk, but then I remember that I haven’t eaten all day—maybe this is a new, more explicable kind of anguish.
Summer is at its peak; dawn is settling in. The reddening sky teems with the thrill of a humid night, the trees shudder at the touch of a warm breeze. I walk two blocks north and half a block to the east, where the yards are tiny and the streets narrow but the stately old homes carry a modest elegance. Many of my neighbors are out enjoying the weather, conversing on front stoops or hosing down their backyards or leaning against chain-link fences. Black and white and Latinx and Asian faces and other colors in between nodding in my direction—my favorite thing about the neighborhood in which I live, the simple, undramatic fact of its diversity. My uniquely colored skin, for which they haven’t yet created an accurate name, and the curliness of my hair and my green-brown eyes seem to symbolize that pluralism, inheritances passed down from my black father and white mother.
The brief jaunt home from the bus stop has fatigued me, and as I thrust open the front door, toss my bag onto hardwood, and collapse on the poorly-cushioned couch, I realize that every last ounce of my energy has been spent.
My mind continues to wander, though, mostly towards the past. My inability to find an anchor for my identity was not for lack of trying. Middle-school years were spent with sports: hand-me-down baseball gloves and soccer pads and football helmets, halfhearted attempts to bond with other boys, mimicking their wolfpack confidence. But it never fulfilled me and I didn’t grow much during puberty, so my athletic career ended before high school. Around that time some of the guys in my neighborhood started gravitating east towards Lexington, where the allure of ground-level drug work—selling caps of low-grade heroin on street corners, acting as gopher and hired gun for men who considered themselves gangsters—was too much to ignore for someone young, without money or a sense of mortality. But I detested this world, more for its crudity than its violence; to me it was the lowest point of zombie capitalism, becoming a slave to the heartless master of money.
My stomach growls. With superhuman effort and a guttural moan, I raise myself from the couch and stumble to the kitchen, kicking off my shoes along the way. Mom has already been home, briefly: there’s a note telling me that she bought ingredients for tacos, that I should leave some for her, and don’t wait up because she won’t be home til after midnight. Sure enough, they’re lined up on the top row of the fridge: thawed beef and crimson tomatoes and fresh lettuce bought from Lexington Market. I don’t even know when she had time to buy food for us. She continues to work two jobs: the DMV from eight to four-thirty, south of the city in Glen Burnie; then a 90-minute break before her shift at Kibby’s, serving kitschy food to a crowd that’s only there for the beer. Seventy hours a week, easily. I tell her not to worry about me, I can provide for myself and it’s probably about time this twenty-four year old moved out anyway. But whenever I bring it up she becomes distraught (something she normally hides at all costs) and says she would go mad without my company in the house. She’s already lost my father; without me there, she says, it would be hard to find a purpose.
So even though my stomach shudders and moans with each movement, and all I really want is some soup and dry toast, I dutifully cook the shells and meat and dice tomatoes and chop lettuce. Before returning to the couch I Saran-wrap everything, return it to its refrigerated habitat, and leave a note for my mother on the table, scrawling a quick “Thanks Mom, love you.”
Flick on the TV in the living room. We only get the major network channels, and since funding for PBS has been slashed to nothing, it’s almost all fundraisers and serials from the ‘60s that nobody wants to watch. But tonight, blessedly, they’re playing I Walked with a Zombie, and I thank some nonexistent god for this temporary diversion.
I force myself to swallow some food, chewing small, uncertain bites, and it plummets down my esophagus and lands with the force of an A-bomb. Shockwaves of pain course through my stomach lining, climbing up the walls with serrated talons. A feral growl comes from within, and I don’t know how to describe it but it feels somehow sentient, as though some inner being has resented this intrusion.
I return the taco to its plate. Juices flecked with meat and spices drip down my hand. I figure I’ll give my body a rest before attempting another swallow.
The lustrous shadows and monochrome faces on TV are inviting, but still I sink deeper into memory. Maybe my impending birthday has put me in a reflective mood. Sports and crime did nothing for me, they were lives I couldn’t take seriously. And while most of my father’s family bowed down to the gods of war, viewing the military as some enshrined community where the brave and dedicated could achieve their true potential, I couldn’t buy in to the usual jingoism. Is it brave to serve as a pawn for an empire that couldn’t care less about you, sacrificing you for the idols of money and power? Is it noble to kill a stranger in another land who has been fed the same lies of duty and nationalism? My mom’s father fought in Vietnam, my dad’s brother in the Gulf War—he served in the Navy and never took part in ground combat, unlike my father. They tell me not to dismiss it, the armed forces might be just what I need, especially now that our country has leapt into a senseless war with half of Asia. Freedom is at stake, they say, and it takes all of my willpower not to laugh in their faces. I know my father died from a genetic condition, or so I’ve been told, but maybe, irrationally, I still feel like the Army took him from me. He fought in Iraq, came home, and died eight months later. Enough time to bear a son who would soon be set adrift in the world.
I lean forward and take another bite, trying to tame my stomach into submission. This one is more successful than the first, though I still get the sense that molten magma is expanding and solidifying inside of me.
All of these wayward years in my youth left me with art as a sole trusted companion. Having been left alone for most of my childhood, I grew accustomed to solitude. Art was the obvious course of action, a refuge for the aimless and disillusioned. I drifted to movies first; the tiny Hollywood Cinema was a short bus ride away in Arbutus, and it was relatively easy to sneak from one theater to the next. The only true friend I’ve ever had, an awkward redhead named Mikey, loved movies even more than I did; most days after school we’d hightail it back to his house and watch old action movies on his dad’s entertainment center, sometimes sneaking sips of beer and whiskey. Mikey moved to New York for college years ago; we haven’t talked sense, and I get the feeling that he wants to put his Baltimore roots behind him.
Soon, though, my tastes turned towards the literary, probably because books allowed me to retreat further within myself. The Enoch Pratt Library was close by on Edmondson, and by the time I reached high school I would spend most of my time there. A sympathetic librarian started sliding me books she thought I’d like: first Animal Farm and Monster, then the really troubling stuff, which she recommended in hushed tones as though they were illicit materials—Camus, Faulkner, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin. I believed in the goodness of people as a literary concept, but it was harder to maintain this faith in reality, especially whenever I would feel dirty looks from strangers of all colors, or spot another array of blinking police lights surrounding a freshly strewn corpse. Why would I not want to exist in a world where I could shelter and preserve my ideals?
Back in the present, in a dark living room on Massachusetts Avenue, there’s another wild contortion in my gut. A throb emanates through every nerve ending. Somehow I rise and shuffle to the kitchen and scrape the rest of my food into the garbage can. This is all I can tolerate today. Before retreating back to the couch, I ball up my fist and punch my stomach three times, hoping to bruise myself as a manifestation of my anger. What the hell is going on inside of me? For the first time, terror mixes with pain.