Bionic Man


My father’s penis is a great hairy walrus. I am three and my parents have decided that it’s high time I take a shower—no more of those coddling baths. We undress in the bathroom, my head at crotch height. This is the first time I have seen a naked man, and I am amazed by the sheer amount of body hair: vines crawling up his legs, a meadow on his back, brambles in his armpits. In a few weeks, I will crawl into bed with my parents, complaining of a stomach ache, and vomit into the hairiest patch on my father’s chest, that bowl at the base of the sternum. For now, we are in the shower, the water pummeling my eyes. I cower at the edge of the tub, unwilling to let him wash the shampoo from my hair. He counts to three, then scoops me up and holds my wriggling body under the shower-head. I am a whimpering Simba before the faucet.

Whose father is the tallest? The strongest? The smartest? On the playground behind school, I am my father’s most vocal supporter.

I am standing at the bottom of a ski slope in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, waiting for the black and blue parka with the red Atomics. A scrunched little form shifting my weight from ski to ski: helmut decorated with flame stickers, a fat wad of lift tickets bobbing from my jacket zipper, no poles yet. I watch the people in line waddle steadily forward until they’ve reach the front. In unison, they squat into waiting chairs and drift upwards, an endless conveyor belt of older boys with snowboards, little girls in pink onesies. A million hats with those pom-poms I’ve always hated. The older boys rock their chairs, making their neighbors bounce and sway. The little girls shriek.

I once had to jump off of a ski-lift from a height of around eight feet. I was preparing to board with an instructor, but reached for the bar with the wrong hand and accidentally displaced him as he was trying to sit down. I was too little to reach around and swing the flimsy guard bar over my head, so the operator stopped the lift. I swayed there in the cold afternoon as a man on the ground told me to kick off my skis by stomping on the bindings. Then I jumped. I don’t know if he caught me or simply cushioned my fall, but since that day, I have always tried to calculate if I could survive a drop from the chairlift at various points up the mountain. Would I land on that rocky outcropping littered with beer cans, get stuck in that grove of trees, impaled by an icicle? I run through the list of possibilities as a navy dot approaches from further up the slope. It grows larger, slows, transforms into my father. He unclips his skis, his face stiff with pain. “Can we get a hot chocolate?” I ask him. He manages to grunt a “no.” One of those pom-pomed little girls crashed into him, and now his knee didn’t feel right. He sat on the couch that night, swearing it would be fine in the morning.

What does it feel like to tear cartilage? Does it shred like a slice of smoked turkey? Or snap like a tired rubber band? Perhaps it ruptures: a packet of jelly squeezed in a greasy spoon in New Jersey, gelatinous purple grape stuff spurting onto your omelet.

I knock on my parents’ door. They’re not having sex; my father is sitting in bed, his back propped up with pillows, his other leg elevated. I am very young, not quite three. My mother is sitting on the edge of the bed, her hands in her face. A large bandage splotched with orange and brown covers my father’s forehead. The scene makes no sense. Who could have done this?

A crackhead with a knife, apparently. My father was leaving his favorite coke-bar, about to climb into a cab when a hand tugged him out and a knife flashed just over his eye. He kicked the man as hard as he could, again and again. I imagine they were the kind of kicks in a Marvel vs Capcom arcade game: high, medium, low, and the flying hurricane kick called “Tatsumaki senpuu kyaku.” He kicked the man until he broke his ankle.

My father is an accumulation of scar tissue. That jagged line that runs down his thumb, sliced open with a carpet scraper when he was fourteen. His Bobby Flay fingertips, singed so many times they’ve become impervious to heat. Screws in his knee. Fillings in his teeth. Do all men become bionic with age? Sober for years, his sentences are still filled with long ellipses and whatchamacallits. His mind is an old over-stuffed hard-drive whirring and clacking, searching for the right word.

My hands are so soft and small. My fingers thin and delicate, my palms buttery. Women shake my hand and ask me how I keep my skin so smooth, what products I use. “Writing,” I should tell them.


Rumpus original art by Paige Russell

Daniel Penny writes mostly nonfiction and poetry, and is particularly interested in the emerging form of the lyric essay. He was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, and currently attends Grinnell College where he is co-editor of The Grinnell Review. Daniel is the winner of the 2012 Norton Writer's Prize. His work has been published in The New Inquiry, The Grinnell Review, The Siren, and Berlin Independents Guide. More from this author →