Big Daddy Dreaming

by John Minichillo

Big Daddy’s shoulders were less broad than his hips, and he had the pelvis of a thin man. From his midpoint to the top of him, he became more slender, his feet together when he stood, a narrow banner that came to a point at each end. One could count the ribs of his sunken chest through the shabby dress shirts he wore. Mostly he slept on the couch in front of the TV, the shirts with faded stains, Big Daddy’s more gray than black. His dreams issued from some common moment during the day expanded in his sleep. He dreamed of lying on the couch while he slept on the couch. His breath became a cloud that flew out the open window and sped across the landscape to towns he’d never see, watching above it all and reporting back, like a long game of telephone, the cloud talking to him over a taut string and carrying an audible message to his ear. You married young, Jim. You gave in too soon. Who are these people you call your friends, Jim? There’s nothing sweet in this world for you, but you shouldn’t ought to cry about your lot. Nestle it like a tumor, get used to the aftertaste, buck up. This was a cloud talking to him, a cloud that had seen fireworks over Kansas City, the river reflecting colorful bursts, the buildings and windows lighting up and fading. A cloud that had seen football stadiums bustling at night, highways traversed with white and red pinpoints, a cloud that watched its own immense shadow during the day, and at night looked down on so much invisible darkness.

A cloud never squeezed from a birth canal, Big Daddy thought. A cloud with no hungry brothers and sisters, never named, it didn’t think thoughts, it knew no weight. Why should, Big Daddy, poor Jim, concern himself with its opinions, and why was he so easy to bring down? There was a part of him that would have dreamed of a healing woman, but it wasn’t the dreaming part of him, so it never surfaced in his psyche. If his skin could speak it would tell of a woman with a soft white hand and manicured nails. As her slow touch moved across his body his scars blemishes marks and bruises disappeared, his shabby dress shirt was discarded, the shirt made bright and returned to his frame until he became what he once was: youth, potential, beauty. Who would ever look at him that way again? So he never dreamed of this healing woman and she eluded him. He mumbled in his sleep about raising the child alone, where would he find time? We should resist doing things for money, the cloud said. Then the cloud added, as a way of knocking the gas out of Big Daddy and quickly reducing everything but money to words, But you can’t exactly take bread from your baby now can you, Jim?

John Minichillo’s flash has appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, Monkey Bicycle, Matchbook, JMWW, Mississippi Review, and Melville House Press, with two pieces selected for the Wigleaf Top Fiftly Very Short Fictions of 2012. He’s a regular columnist at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.

What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Big Daddy Dreaming”?

    This is an excerpt from a novel I wrote after I got divorced and moved to a new city. I wanted to do something nonrealistic and playful, something that couldn’t be filmed and was as unlike what was getting published as I could pull off. My working title was PLAY, a book that was meant to be fun to labor at, with no intention of getting it published but as a gift to myself. This was ten years ago.

    Soon after, I got the idea for my first novel, The Snow Whale, which was a book that could be filmed, and that I saw as most definitely being written for publication. As I worked on The Snow Whale I went back and diced up PLAY into pieces to send out as flash. Because it was nonrealistic, a reader didn’t need much backstory to ride along for a few pages and it lent itself to being excerpted as flash. Back then I was so happy with the way The Snow Whale was turning out that the idea of convincing anyone to take a serious look at PLAY seemed like such a chore that I was resigned to let it rest. There are pieces of it out there floating around as flash but I’m the only person with any sense of the scope of it. I’m still the sole audience.

    I was recently going over old files and I was curious if my idea of it matched what I’d done. I’d been away from it for years and had no expectations, so that it was like I was reading something someone else had written. Over time I had developed the impression that I hadn’t finished it, but I had. And in the years in between there were more small presses cropping up that might be open to work like this – so I did finally start sending it out, and I also sent out some of the excerpts that had come back rejected. I didn’t push them too hard back then, so it as worth another shot.

    This character, Big Daddy, has a very small part in the overall narrative. He’s a tragic joke. He’s the father of one of the main characters and the joke is that he doesn’t really have a story because he was a day laborer. In the South, a Big Daddy is a patriarch, generally one with a belly. The Big Daddy in PLAY is a waif who has been unable to provide in the way a patriarch should, by definition. Mostly, when he comes up in the book he’s a question mark. The narrator just doesn’t know about him, other than that he lived, he worked, he died. So as soon as he comes up, the narrator tends to quickly move on to someone else. This is a rare section where Big Daddy is given some space. His imagination is pedestrian and he can’t even sleep without the anxieties of his existence dogging him. He’s someone who, because of his material circumstances, would never dream of being an artist and also, as unexceptional, wouldn’t even be given a role in a book as a character. He’s meant to represent the overwhelming majority in the long march of humanity who lived only to be forgotten. The grand intentions of the narrator to want to memorialize him can’t be honored because there’s never much to say, and so he only ever gets a glance.

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