Paternal Leave

Caroline Gioiosa

Giuseppe Penone, Maritime Alps. My height, the length of my arms, my width in a stream, 1968. © 2023 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

On a purple evening, my father buried himself alive. He wasn’t the first. It was a craze that swept the nation, a broom brushing dirt over the heads and bodies of dreamy Americans. But no one took the endeavor as seriously as my father.

Earlier that year, an ex-boxer outside Inglewood, California, had interred himself for fifty-eight days and made national news. ABC aired the whole burial, down to the funerary rites, and then they spliced in a clip of the boxer doing push-ups in his cushioned coffin. My dad watched the sweat drip down the man’s forehead on our TV, then called the radio station to inform them that he would bury himself alive for sixty days. The best camera crew my dad could snag was from the local NBC affiliate. But if my father could beat out the boxer for time spent underground, his story would headline the news, I was sure, maybe even statewide.

Now my dad ate his last supper—bacon, two hard-boiled eggs, a glass of raw milk—in front of spectating townies and the TV crew. At one point he sipped too audaciously, and the milk rode down his long, barren face. My mom frowned. “He looks like he needs a bib,” she told me, her nose puckered. “It’s unattractive.”

My dad went straight from the dining table to the casket. His racquet club friends carried his coffin from our dining room the whole six blocks to the Morrises’ backyard, which was really an empty plot that stretched from the side of the road into the desert hills. Neighbors shoveled scoops of dry soil over his grave and around his two pipes, one for ventilation and one for viewing. I leaned over the ugly, half-buried thing to write down his last words, peering through the periscope. The scope framed his face, like a Victorian locket does a portrait miniature.

The next day, Mrs. Redfield let me take a smoke break on account of my dad being buried alive.

Peter Carson, the youngest Carson brother, stopped digging and placed his hand on my dress sleeve. He said, “Hey, Jackie. I’ve got good money on your dad beating out the world record with this stunt.”

I put my ballpoint pen to my reporter’s notebook, shaking his hand off me. I’d met Peter in fourth-period Journalism. He wasn’t so talented; he managed to misplace his modifiers when announcing the start of football season. We went on a couple dates in the cafeteria. I taught him ledes and inverted pyramids. That weekend we made out in the backseat of his VW Bug.

“Would you describe this burial as ‘spirited’ and ‘sweat-inducing’?” I asked.

“I think it’s hard work and difficult,” he said, nodding.

“‘Hard’ and ‘difficult’ mean the same thing,” I said, writing them both down anyway. “But at least we’re burying him at the end of August. The night is temperate. The wind dries your sweat.” I squatted in front of his shovel and rubbed the dirt between my fingers. “Do you think this dirt looks like cocoa powder?”

“It sure doesn’t feel like cocoa powder,” he said, leaning on his shovel so it tore deeper into the ground. “It’s got roots. Why?”

That morning, after class, I’d told Mrs. Redfield that the story of the year was buried right in my own backyard, or at least in the Morrises’ backyard, or not a backyard but a slice of land. “I’m writing a feature. If Dad stays underground long enough, it might be my senior project,” I said.

“That sounds real smart. Your dad’s about to be a star, I think.” The sun dimmed, darkening Peter’s cheeks into beetroot. In my notebook, I wrote down: ground espresso; hardened brown sugar; an ugly shitmound in the middle of a sweaty field. The rest of the grave was filled in the dark.

in fact, the nbc affiliate and I were not the only reporters documenting the burial. After we threw pinkish rhododendrons over the gravesite of my still-alive father, I walked home in my smacking clogs with my mom and a reporter from the Tri-City Herald. He introduced himself as Charles Levy, first-year reporter, Princeton AB. In profile, his serious downturned nose and bushy eyebrows turned hard-boiled, noirish. His voice hummed calm in the sodium streetlights. He plucked his words only when they were ripe.

While eating my mom’s wild salmon with dill sauce, Charles Levy asked about my father. He set the tape recorder next to the fruit salad. The fire from our silver candelabra and the drip of its three blue candles reflected in the tape’s plastic eye.

Somehow, I was stuck at the head of the table, where my dad normally sat. I spent the meal watching the tape’s wheels swallow my words and turn them around. Between pickled bites of fish, I told Charles Levy that my dad had spent many summer nights preparing for the burial, sleeping on the casket’s six-inch mattress and practicing his close-quarter push-ups and aerobics. I described the personal artifacts he had brought down with him: a miniature television, several mystery novels, and a radio. He had a hatch and a sixty-gallon chemical toilet, too, but my dad didn’t want that information public.

Tomorrow, I told the table, I was going to unscrew the glass periscope from his viewing pipe and lower a lunch bag with the leftover salmon and a blueberry yogurt. I would see him every day through the pipe’s peephole, which I had the privilege of doing for free, but which would cost any passerby—and here I was emphatic—one dollar per viewing.

“I heard his plan first on the radio,” my mom said, leaning back and pushing her chair out with her knotty fingers. “He couldn’t tell me in person. He didn’t think I’d approve.” She walked across the room and took her leather purse off the rack. After fishing out her silver cigarette case, she lit up in the living room. It was the first time I’d seen her smoke inside. “He has a degree in engineering, civil engineering,” she said, “but God forbid he ever uses it.”

“What did your husband do before this?” asked Charles.

Leaning against the warm oaken wall of the room, my mother looked foreign, severe. The truth was, my dad had been furloughed from his job at the nuclear site back when I was a freshman, some three years ago. Ever since, he’d spent his time on projects—he called them “entrepreneurial ventures.” He created odds spreadsheets for horse races and sent them to wealthy gamblers for arbitrage opportunities. He patented a low-cost, automatic cigarette roller. He put on a bejeweled cowboy hat and sold hand-carved spoons by the Columbia River. Last year the Department of Energy rehired him, on a part-time and purely contractual basis. Punch clock work, and the familial obligation to do it, left him oversleeping in the living room chair and slapping himself at breakfast—“Am I awake?” he’d ask, cheeks reddening. “Is this what it feels like to be awake?” He’d claim my mother had tried to kill him with the salt in his egg whites. Near the end of the spring semester, he started dropping me off at school on his way to work, and he would stall in our driveway, waiting for me.

Once, when I opened the passenger door, he swung his elbow around the back of his seat and then punched the steering wheel, hard, like an ungloved boxer. He limply shook his hand. “Life is very long,” he said, looking out the windshield. “You can’t just give it away. Yeah, your thoughts gotta be big. You should be gunning for the United States presidency.” Soft wind whipped dust onto our car, like a coat of finely sieved flour. He bruised his knuckles multiple times on our car rides. On those commutes, I looked out the passenger window and tried to come up with new similes to describe the branches of pine trees.

“He didn’t do much of anything important,” my mother said. “He quit his DOE job last summer to prepare for the burial.” Sharklike, she paced the room. The delicate smoke of her cigarette encircled us. I felt like the tip of a mountain, wearing its ring of clouds.

My mom stopped behind Charles Levy’s wooden dining chair and placed her hands on its back. The butt of her cigarette burned between her fingers, its smell crawling up Charles’s face. “I’m worried about my husband, Mr. Levy,” she said. “The more I think about him, the more I wonder. What if he has a heart attack? An infected cut? Night terrors? It’s just that I’d rather talk about something else.” My mom released his chair. The bones in her face were fragile and high, but there were hard things, like weathered stones, hanging in the lines around her mouth. She threw her cigarette butt into the round trashcan.

“Let me pull a bottle of wine out from downstairs,” she said. “I’ll be back soon.” She clicked into the kitchen, her heels descending the basement staircase. In her absence, I reached across the table and took Charles Levy’s tape recorder, holding it under my chin.

“I’m going to study journalism,” I said. “In university next year.”

“That’s great,” he said. He folded his hands in his lap. “I graduated last May. I took some journalism courses and edited the paper. On the Prince—that’s The Daily Princetonian—I had so much responsibility. I felt on the verge of uncovering something, always. It’s more like detective work when you’re on a campus.”

I nodded and held the recorder out towards him. “Do you ever use this for fun? Like for recording frog sounds?”

“Not really,” he said, smiling thinly. He took his hands out from under the table, digging out a pen and a receipt from his pants pockets. “Here’s my number in case you want to have dinner and discuss career pathways.” He spoke into the table as he wrote. “I recommend Princeton.”

“Thanks,” I said, taking the receipt in one hand and giving him back his tape recorder with the other. “How’s next Saturday?” In the room behind us, my mother’s clicking climbed up the stairs, staccato like a snare.

He raised his black eyebrows and nodded. “That works for me.”

My mother’s voice emerged from the doorway. “Do you want to stay for Black Forest cake, Mr. Levy?” she asked, holding a bottle of red by its neck. “A glass of wine?”

“I’m afraid I must get going,” said Charles. He let the tape recorder fall into his satchel. “It was wonderful to meet the family. Thank you for dinner.” He got up from the table and tucked in his chair. He hesitated, his shoulders thin and square under his jacket. For a second I thought he might bow, but he smiled instead, and shut the door behind him.

I watched my mother stack the plates in her arm. She deflated, quiet in the aftermath of the closed door. I had long believed that she was a creature of inertial habit. Everything had its place, on a shelf or in a paradigm, to which it must return. She fluffed every pillow she ever saw, she brushed her teeth six times a day, she vacuumed in the mornings and nights. She had never shattered a routine.

Emptied of my father’s voice, his sermons on the amino acids found in raw milk, his fantasies of investing in the right stocks at the right time, the living room yawned. I reclined in his leather living room chair while my mother washed the dishes. It was then that I thought that this scene, this room, this house, was now settled into its own place, that there was nothing left to rupture it. In this sterile silence, my mother was emerging, the way a figure pries itself out of a developing photograph. Or perhaps she had always been there, hidden behind someone.

the next day in Journalism, Mrs. Redfield let me take a smoke break on account of my dad being buried alive. She didn’t call it a smoke break, but I knew what she meant. The class was held in the white trailer near the soccer field; I rested on the dry lawn that bridged the two. I dipped into my corduroys and dug out a pack of lightly creased cigarettes. The trailer door swung open, and Peter sat to my right, the tips of his suede shoes mingling in the grass.

I turned to him. “Do you have a light?”

“Sure.” He tossed it to me. “How’s the first twenty-four hours going for the piece?”

“I’ve got promising angles.”

“Do you need to interview me about grave-digging?”

“If you’re less redundant this time.” The summer had left the grass starchy and stomped. With one hand I tore up patches and with the other I smoked.

“Jackie, I promise. All details I describe will be singular.”

I nodded, solemn. I held the cigarette in my mouth and found the notebook in my backpack. With the notebook balanced on my knees, I wrote PETER CARSON at the top of the page. “How did you end up joining the gravediggers?”

Over the next couple weeks, I kissed every part of Charles Levy.

“I was idling in line for gas at the Shell off George Washington. Your dad knocked on my window and I rolled it down for him. Earlier that day I was smoking a joint and blasting the car radio in the Howard Amon parking lot, and—well, I guess your dad saw me. I thought he was going to tell me off for doing drugs or wasting gas, but he was real cool about it. Instead, he offered to buy me a full tank if I passed him a puff. He told me about the burial thing in the passenger seat of my parked car.”

Over the summer my dad had worked long days without a job. In the mornings, he sawed and dusted the casket. In the afternoons, he wandered the main streets and the strip malls, sometimes bringing home investors like Mr. Alvarez, the used car dealer, or Mr. Finch, an engineer from the fry factory. “I was building a boat over the summer, so we had a lot in common, woodworking-wise,” Peter said. “You know, my boat can float the whole way across the river without going under, if you want to try sometime.”

“Had you ever met my dad before?” I asked. In my notebook I had written nothing. I flicked my cigarette into the field. I’d smoked too much. In my chest and in my head, I felt this heavy spinning, like clothes thrashed about in a washer.

“Sure. I served him a hot dog at the church’s sausage festival.”

“What would you say he’s like?” I asked.

“What is your dad like? You want to know what he’s like?”

“You’re not supposed to be redundant.”

“I think he rocks. I mean, he can be loud. He talks a lot about his projects, I mean his ‘entrepreneurial ventures.’ But I like him anyway.”

I closed my eyes. The sick feeling churning in my stomach embarrassed me. I was glad that it was Peter, and not Charles Levy, who was watching me in this moment; he was a person so familiar that I could practice adulthood on him. I said, “Peter, can you pretend to be my dad?”

There was a silence in which Peter stopped himself from repeating my question. “Is this part of the interview?” he asked.

“It’s a favor,” I said. “Please?”

“Okay. But it’s not going to be very good.”

I opened my eyes and turned to him. The creases of his eyes were a stinging red, and he was too long and lanky for the sleeves of his velour polo. I pressed a kiss to his bare cheek. “Thank you,” I said.

I got to my feet and took a couple steps toward the goalpost, leaving Peter behind me. The net cast a long spiderwebbed shadow onto the soccer field. The grass had stained the fatty, scarred bits of my knees and the backside of my skirt. I turned to face Peter. “Dad, why are you underground?”

“Look, I—Jackie,” he started. He pitched his voice deeper. “Jacqueline. My daughter, Jackie.”

“You’re spot-on.”

“All right,” he said. Peter took a slow, cylindrical breath. He lifted his moony face. He shut his eyes. His lips moved like something was crawling out of them. “Last spring, I turned on the TV and saw a man named Digger had put himself underground for fifty-eight days. When he got out, he made The New York Times and met Miss USA.”

I looked out at the lawn, which had been aerated, and these little cores of dirt peppered the grass, as if a marauding gang of puppies had pooped their way through the grounds.

“I decided that I wanted to do something extraordinary like that. I would participate in the greatest form of entertainment. I had the mental fortitude and the dedication. I could change my future in an instant. I wondered whether a life was worth living if you didn’t make some impression on it.”

I kicked one of the dirt cores, watched it tumble down a dip in the lawn until it landed behind the white of the goalpost.

“I think—I think when I come up, it’ll be the best day of my life. That’s what I think. Everyone will laugh and dance and there will be Miss Spokane, if Miss USA can’t make it. Everyone will remember the moment I came up for my first breath of clean air. And everyone will talk about it for the rest of their lives.”

“Did my dad tell you all that?” I asked.

“No,” said Peter. He touched his lips like they had surprised him. “I pretended.”

The bell rang then, signaling the break between periods.

“That was good,” I said. “It was like he possessed you.” I wanted something hot and sharp on my throat, like another cigarette. Instead, I walked over to Peter and kissed him on the mouth, feeling the softness of his clean-shaven cheeks, just like my dad’s before he went under.

after that I avoided Peter Carson. I told him I was too busy with my final project to sit with him at lunch. I sent his articles to the sports editor for copyediting. It was immature, I knew that, and I did feel bad, so bad that I confessed the whole situation to my mother, who patted my hand and told me that I had to follow my womanly intuition, which was not a phrase I had heard her use before. But Peter belonged to the life I had before my father buried himself alive, the one before Charles Levy, reporter for the Herald, gave me his phone number.

My dad had been underground for eight days the evening that I tapped on blush for dinner with Charles Levy. I told my mother I was going to interview my father’s friend from the racquet club. Instead, Charles picked me up at the end of the block and drove me to an Italian restaurant, Giacomo’s, which belonged to an old man named Giovanni. Hung on the wall were black-and-white photographs of Ellis Island Italians and Frank Sinatra. When I went to the bathroom, I saw myself in the white light of the mirror, looking marinara-red in all the wrong places. I rubbed the makeup off my face.

“I admire your way of speaking,” I told Charles Levy at the dinner table, after ordering the one entrée (lasagna) that Giovanni served on Saturdays. I had overestimated the amount of cleavage I wanted to show off that night, and I kept crossing and uncrossing my arms. “And your career.”

“A way of speaking,” repeated Charles. His redundancies didn’t bother me like Peter’s. “I like that criterion.”

“It’s my main one,” I said. “I’m always counting up the number of similes and metaphors and unique and multisyllabic words people are using in speech. I want to hear singular voices.” My father, I told him, spoke in many voices, though his manner of speech was simple, often monosyllabic, in a rhythmic and charming way. He never qualified himself. He was something, he had done something, he believed something. When I read my latest articles out loud to him, he hummed, affirmatively, at my hooks and then interrupted—is it true or isn’t it?—if I wrote a tepid word like “possibly.” He would have made a great news reporter, I thought, but he would never have graduated to features.

Charles Levy told me about his college fieldwork experience, which involved interviewing World Record winners in the United States, but mostly he stared at me. In my experience (limited), staring was often the lead-up to a first kiss. Outside the restaurant I touched his elbow. His eyes had the sheen of olive oil, viscous on a white plate.

Over the next couple weeks, I kissed every part of Charles Levy. Once in a movie theater, again in the backseat of his car, several times in the Sand Dune OHV Area. With him, I felt my life’s pathways breathe, fuck, and multiply. It was as if fresh air circulated around me, cleaning out the dust I’d swallowed.

on day thirty-four, after having breakfast with my dad—bringing him two hard-boiled eggs and a sugar-free coffee cake; watching his newly bearded, dark face chew through the periscope; describing the floral leisure suit a classmate had worn for my fashion column—after all that, as I headed down the sidewalk toward school, I saw an eighteen-wheeler back over my father’s grave. I screamed. The truck driver looked down at me, brow furrowed, mouthing a question. An image of freshly sprouting French fries wrapped around the box of the truck. Then, having completed its turn, the truck peeled off, driving back down the street it came from.

I ran towards the grave. On the surface, it still looked like a pile of loosely packed dirt. I couldn’t find the glass eye of the periscope, nor the spout of the ventilator pipe. For a second I dug into the ground like an animal, trying to find the pipes, the loose soil falling between my fingers. Wrist-deep into the dirt, I hit upon something metallic and hollow. I shoveled it out with my hands until I could see the full, lacerated curve of the ventilator pipe. I thought if I could peer through it and see his face, his chapped and breathing lips, everything would right itself. But when I squinted through it, I saw only a grate, a blackened filter, and clumps of dirt, falling into the darkness like detritus falls down a bottomless well. I put my mouth to the pipe’s rim and shouted, then shouted again. Nothing came back up. I stopped, stood, and ran to the pay phone down the block.

I punched in the numbers. “The paramedics have already received a call,” said the woman on the phone, “actually a radio correspondence. Okay?” I pressed down on the telephone hook and slid a couple quarters into the slot. I typed in the number from the receipt that Charles Levy had scribbled on.

The paramedics came in a bright, many-eyed red hearse, ambulatory lights fixed above the windshield like an extra set of headlights. They radioed into my father’s casket. They lowered a long, long stethoscope, like a fishing line, down the ventilator pipe. They did the same with the blood pressure cuff. I bit my dirty thumbnail and tasted the bitter soil.

“Do you want to speak to your father?” asked a paramedic, handing me a radio.

“He can talk?”

The paramedic looked about Charles Levy’s age, though his arms were hirsute, like my father’s. “He sounds a bit shaken up, but he’s verbal.”

I took the radio from him. “Hi, Dad,” I said. “It’s me.”

“Yello, Jackie,” he said, crackling over the radio. He breathed more than spoke. “Over.”

afterwards, my mom spoke to the paramedics and asked Charles Levy to walk me home. It was mid-morning, and I felt like I’d showered in a stream of sand. In the light, Charles Levy looked pale and shy. For three long blocks we said nothing. I could feel the sweat under my arms, yet my teeth shivered.

I wanted to run home and instead that feeling poured out of my mouth. “I’d describe the incident as ‘frightening’ and ‘frenzied,’” I said.

A squat muscle car sped past us, growling. Charles Levy picked up the pace. “But would you say that it was a ‘gruesomely close call’?”

“Nothing less,” I said. “Death was at the door. Even Dad was scared. I heard him over the radio. For a second, I thought he might beg the paramedics to dig him out.”

For another three blocks, I told him the scene as I remembered it: the collapse of the ground, the heavy gait of the truck, how I imagined slicing open my father’s corpse to find sculptures of dirt where the flesh and lungs had once been. As I was reciting my father’s blood pressure, we arrived at the red door of my house. I walked up to the steps, then stopped and turned around.

There was a power in obtaining information that I liked.

“I’ll give you an exclusive insight on the story if you let me interview you,” I told Charles Levy.

“Now there’s an offer,” he said, smiling.

Inside, I sat at the head of the dining table kitty-corner to Charles Levy, close enough to hit him. Without my father’s presence, the table was clean enough to lick. “Do you have your tape recorder?” I asked.

“I left it at home, I’m afraid.”

I leaned back in the chair and crossed my arms. “That’s fine. Let’s make this an off-the-record interview. My first question is, where’d you go to high school?”

He laughed, and I did not. “A public school in Clinton, New Jersey. It looked not too different from the one here.”

There was a power in obtaining information that I liked. I could go soft, dillydally in a conversation, or I could go hard, spit out with force. I pressed my hands flat into the chair seat until the circulation around my wrists cut off.

“Why do you think my father buried himself alive?”

“He’s upset with his life and wants to prove something to himself,” he said, easily.

“You have to tell me the truth, or I won’t tell you my big secret.”

“Sure.” He leaned back in his chair and looked up at the ceiling, his tongue touching the top of his lip. “From what your mom has said, I’ve gathered that your father is frustrated. That he sees the world in a particular way, in a dominating way, like a game in which you lose or win. And he feels like he’s lost, over and over. He’s willing to sacrifice his daylight if it means he can tell a winner’s story about it later. But I don’t know if that’s the only reason. When I talk to him, he is not so black-and-white. He’s optimistic, underground. He’s proud of his personal ability. He likes to speak with passersby. He says many women, through the periscope, show him their breasts. He earns easy money. He’s successfully doing nothing. Sometimes a life’s purpose is an arbitrary goal, that’s what I think. The thrill of a temporary narrative thrust.”

“Okay,” I said, quiet. Things were always being brought into the light, I thought, dug up and rinsed off. Under the table, I placed my hand on Charles Levy’s knee, rubbing the vulgar twill of his trousers. When he didn’t push me off, I placed my other hand against his cheek, wiping its velvety softness with my thumb. When we kissed, pale faces and dry lips, I swung into his lap, and it was there that I told him. “Dad did beg the paramedics to let him out of the casket. It was me that convinced him to stay inside. I like it better when he’s underground.”

I expected Charles Levy to throw me off in disgust, but his arm was still around my waist, making me unpleasantly aware of my own smallness. “That’s not so bad,” he said, grinning. “I think we all want our parents to leave us alone.”

Over the radio, my dad had told me that he thought he’d died and that the groan of the truck’s wheels was the devil introducing him to hell. He couldn’t blink the falling dirt out of his eyes or hack it out of his lungs. He pushed at the lid but felt himself sinking deeper into the soil. Terror wrapped around him like a shroud. He wanted me to understand that this stunt wasn’t about death, that no part of him wanted to be for-real buried in a makeshift coffin with a chemical toilet. “No,” I repeated to Charles Levy. “I really, really like it when he’s underground.”

and so he was. On day forty-five, my mom baked cupcakes to lower down his periscope. When she wasn’t looking, I licked the butter-and-brown-sugar mixture with a spoon. Light filtered through the kitchen windows, striped from the blinds, but I saw only blankness in the air, none of those dusty flecks that caught light and floated. I sat on the kitchen island stool and watched her fold the liquids into the solids.

“Mom, why do you think Dad buried himself alive?” I asked, kicking my feet.

She turned to look at me. Her cheeks were rounder, not as severe and sharp, her upper arms and thighs plumper. In the weeks since my father had gone underground, my mother had grown soft. “Off the record?” she asked.

“On,” I said, taking out my notebook and my pen.

“He’s testing himself,” she said, pouring the batter into the muffin tin. “It’s silly, but he’s making a marginal name for himself, doing something he’s good at.”

“Sure,” I said, not writing any of that down. I hopped off the stool and stood by the oven. “Now off the record.”

“Oh,” she said, opening the oven and releasing its heat. “That’s my answer for both.”

“I want the off-the-record.”

“You don’t need to hear it.”

“Please,” I whispered. My mother slid the cupcakes into the oven. She took out a cigarette from her apron and lit it on the stovetop.

“Okay,” she said, taking a drag. “The way I see it, when you’re going underground, you’re choosing to reject the above ground. You’re turning off the lights. If you like it down there, I don’t think that says anything good about you. Nothing good at all.” A glassy look broke on the surface of her face. “It’s like you’d rather stay dead than come alive.”

“Oh,” I said.

“There are easier ways to earn a buck,” she said, sucking on the cigarette again. “I almost think he wanted to get away from me. Not you, sweetie, of course. Just me, or maybe this house.”

I didn’t like watching her like this. I touched her arm and then let go, like it had stung me.

then, on day sixty, my dad told Mr. Morris and Charles Levy, reporter from the Herald, that he would resurrect himself in the next forty-eight hours. He did not break the endurance burial record, which was one hundred nineteen days, and he went unrecorded in the Guinness World Book, which, regardless, did not track dangerous and/or inadvisable stunts, including voluntary live burial. But he did beat out the man named Digger, from Inglewood, California, the one who had buried himself for fifty-eight days and then reemerged for his divorce hearing.

Out in the field the day of his excavation, people drank from kegs of beer and clapped each other’s arms. Kids made snow angels in the dusty ground. Charles Levy stood behind Mr. and Mrs. Morris near my father’s grave. There was Miss Spokane in a jumper and a long skirt. There was the Fermi High School marching band, trumpeting brass. In the air I tasted a bit of carnival, the sugary dust of kettle corn and blue cotton candy. Between the red sun and the ground’s drought, it looked as if we were barbecuing on Mars. That was what I planned to write in my article, anyway. Peter Carson and the neighbors dug up my dad by hand.

“Hey, Peter,” I called to him, looking down at the blond swirl of his hair. “I’m sorry. I’ve been ignoring you. It’s just I’ve had a lot going on.”

He turned toward me and shrugged. Pink crowded the corner of his brown eyes, dark as dirt. “No biggie. Your dad did it, sixty whole days, y’know. I won my bet. It’s crazy—I do think it’s the best thing he’s ever done. There’s just some chemistry between your dad and that casket, right?”

When he was unearthed, my dad was blinded. Unused to the sun, he placed an arm over his eyes and waved. His black hair was long, busheled on the chin, and his linen robe, once white, was stained with yellow rings of sweat. Townies cheered, a pinkish shout, all open-mouthed. Three TV crews filmed it, even the ABC affiliate from Seattle.

It wasn’t professional to hug a subject, I told myself.

My mother walked up to him, took sunglasses from her pants pocket, and slid them on his nose. Behind them, Mr. Morris, Charles Levy, and a few men with reporters’ notebooks and cameras stood, watching politely. Then she kissed him, dry and desperate, her arms wrapping around him. I felt the sickness spinning in my stomach. The embrace confirmed what I had suspected—the experiment was over. That evening we’d return to our places around the dining table. I’d eat my dinner and finish my homework. He would sit, sweaty with odor, in his living room chair, infecting what was once there, the open-aired freshness. In a few days, his burial would recede into the abandoned outposts of our memories. I coughed. Dust rose in me like a sore throat.

I caught Charles Levy’s eyes. He waved with his tape recorder. “Are you going to interview your father now that he’s out of his grave?” he asked.

“Okay,” I said. I slid my notebook out of my pocket. “Dad, why did you bury yourself alive?”

“Heyo, I just wanted you both to be proud of me,” he said, placing his arm around my mother’s shoulders. He offered his free hand to me.

I looked at his hand and didn’t move. It wasn’t professional to hug a subject, I told myself. I gripped my ballpoint pen. “Did you like it under there?” I asked.

“Sure, it’s not so bad,” he said. “It’s first-rate, really, except there’s not enough space for moving around.” He flexed his arm, his veins a cold blue under his linen-white skin. In my notebook, I wrote that his grin recalled an Olympic silver medalist’s, asymmetrical and angling for the next thing, with an exaltation that didn’t set into the cheeks.

I held filth in my mouth, my dad’s sweat tingling in my nostrils. Mr. Morris’s plot spread out wide beneath us, hitting the horizon. The expanse led to shrub-steppe slopes, slippery dust, a thousand sunburnt worms, yet standing on it now, it seemed to me like a treadmill, the same stretch rolling under us, a kind of claustrophobic endlessness. It almost felt like being inside a coffin. I’m not really sure how else I’d describe it.

Caroline Gioiosa received her MFA in Fiction from New York University, where she was a Goldwater Fellow. Currently, she is NYU’s 2023-2024 Axinn Writer-in-Residence.
Originally published:
September 18, 2023


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