Sunday Stories: “The Width of Instinct”


The Width of Instinct
by Brian Gresko


I tell Max the whole mess starts with the goddamn cat. And then I thunk the bottle of rye on the table for emphasis. Max, following my lead, groans. “The cat?” he says. “Again, Max?”

We call one another Max. A nod to our favorite Woody Allen movie. You know, the one where he jokes that he’d never join a club that would want a person like him for a member? I love that line.

As for the cat? She’s a dead horse, so to speak. Still, I go into my schtick, warming up my audience for what’s to come. “That shitty kitty!” the bit begins. The infernal feline nips my heels when I step out of the shower. Sleeps on my head. Comes and goes when she pleases, as if it’s her apartment, as if I’m the pet. Even has her own door—she scratched a hole in the bedroom screen? Let’s hope she has cash to cover the security deposit stashed somewhere in that litter box. Miss Kitty, my girlfriend Laurie calls her. More like the Queen of fucking Sheba.

Max, who has more than an inkling where this is headed, says he told me before: “Never trust a woman with a pussy.”

I admit, as I always do when it’s just the two of us, that that’s a good one.

We’ve gotten trashed and talked chicks under the grease-stained fluorescent tube in Max’s closet-sized kitchen too many times for me to remember, or cop to, anyway. That’s right. Me, “Mr. Domestic Bliss,” at least these past five years—woman problems? Max knows playing house isn’t always as fun as I make it seem. We wouldn’t be friends if it were otherwise. He’s one of those life-long bachelor types. When Laurie and I hit turbulence, he keeps me from loosing my shit. She calls us Tweedledick and Tweedledumb.

I can come clean with Max. I don’t have to hide my feelings toward either Miss Kitty in particular or the animal kingdom in general. He shared a weekend with Laurie and me in the wilds of Vermont. That’s where my lovely baby-mamma-to-be was this past weekend, actually. Showing her family the bump. And getting a much-needed breath of fresh air, she said, from me.

Anyway, Max has heard my rant on nature—how even a stick on the ground poses a threat! An agonizing demise might begin with a simple twist of the ankle. Bears and bobcats, emboldened by the dark, prey on the weak and wounded. Hell, even squirrels become dangerous when cornered! They’ll go right for your jugular. We plunge into the abyss when we venture from the safety net of civilization. When we “rough it.” When we hike.

Max, consummate urbanite that he is, loves this kind of shit. Besides, he grew up Catholic too. He knows to distrust the wonders of the physical world.

Laurie, of course, gets all in a bunch when he laughs at my little routines. “Try living with him,” she says. “It ain’t all shits and giggles.”

She grew up feral in rural Vermont, practically raised by wolves. Has four brothers. Summers they’d sleep under the stars. A regular Norman Rockwell painting come to life, her family, all blond hair, ruddy cheeks, and applesauce. Some nights they’d hack through the woods to the lake and skinny dip. The water’s depths drop off to something like hundreds of feet. Wintertime, during deep freeze, locals drive ‘cross it to Canada. In pickup trucks, of course. Once this dude crashed his through the ice. He’s still down there. Flesh flaking off in water-logged strips, teeth mossy, eyes green with algae, hands ready to—well, let’s just say I skip swimming, no matter how hot the weather or what her damn dad has to say about me.

“Miss Dolittle,” Max calls her—privately, of course. Even he’s cowed by Laurie. An animal lover, and lover of all things animalistic, which has its charms, soft and sordid though they may be. But I don’t want to think about that. At least not till I put some distance between what happened tonight, otherwise I’ll end up scampering home, tail between my legs. “Limp dick,” my old man would say. A real romantic, my dad. A “sensitive man.”

“What she do this time, Max?” Max asks, meaning the cat.

I tell him how I come home with takeout and Miss Kitty’s sitting on the rug in front of the futon, staring at the front window. There’s a bird up there, perched above the molding. Looks dead. Feathers, all mottled grey, don’t flutter. Black eye like a glass bead. The blood red spot on its tail contrasts nicely with the green wall, actually. Almost looks like it belongs there, another keepsake to go with the seedpods and seashells and outdoorsy shit on the shelves. Then I notice its chest heaving up and down, and the pulse—the pulse! A spasm below its skin, that heart going, gushing blood. An unstoppable trembling.

Cue panic attack. For me, I mean. Fucking cat brought a live bird in the house? Probably crawling with germs—avian flu, sparrow HIV, I don’t know. I can’t think over my heartbeat, running rabid and hard.

From the relative security of the bedroom I call Laurie, on her way home. What the hell should I do, I plead. This bird—in her words, probably “migrating,” possibly “weary, weak, confused by the city’s lights and noise,” oh, she’s quick to lay out its defense, surprise, surprise—this bird crossed a line when it intruded on my demesnes, whether it wanted to or not. I shall not co-habitate with fowl! If I spray the thing with the fire extinguisher, I ask her, would that kill it or just make a mess? Kidding, of course. Kind of.

“You’re going to be a father,” she barks. No pity. Not even a hint of a smile in her tone. This is how she’s been recently. “Man up and deal with it.”

Boom—line dead.

“Ouch,” Max says. “Man up? You already got the girl pregnant. I tell ya’, you give ’em six inches and they want your soul. Ice cold.”

Right? That’s what I thought too, at first, but then reconsidered. It is just a bird, after all. Though the thing is, it’s not.

“Never is, with women,” Max says. “Hashtag that one, Max. #NeverIsWithWomen.”

That’s Max—a classic hipster misogynist. You know, the ironic kind? Never calls a lady a ho to her face. Blares hip hop but sports Hillary ’16 stickers. Always dating but rarely makes it to the six month anniversary. It’s why he’s the only friend I could come to tonight.

Seriously, though, I tell him, Laurie’s been knives out ever since the way I reacted to her “amazing, life-changing” news. Well, what’d she expect? I thought the pill was like, “ninety-nine-point-nine percent effective if used properly.” Either we’re a statistical miracle or else someone made a fucking mistake. (Get it? A fucking mistake.) Laurie claims it was biology conspiring against us, tired of being cheated its bounty after so many attempts. True: for someone who hates the idea of procreating, I do like to practice a lot.

But I’m a programmer, a binary guy. I deal in absolutes. I put my money on human error. If error’s even the right word. Could be she deliberately decided to put an end to our relationship discussions. You know, the “where’s this thing going” ones? Talk about biology—she’s got that clock ticking and all that. Instinct makes people do crazy things.

On top of that, she’s pissed cause I won’t rub her clammy feet or cuddle while she pages through these books filled with pictures that look like science experiments from hell. “Week Eight: your little monster has a tail. And eye buds!” Remember the creature from Alien? They basically just added teeth to a fetus. But while I’m fighting nausea, she’s stroking her belly and cooing like she’s getting off, all curled in a ball on her side of the bed. Have I mentioned she mumbles to the thing? I have no idea what about. Some fucking life change, eh?

The point is, though: Laurie’s right. I have to try more than I’ve been trying. So I gear up. Prepare for battle with the beast. I protect my skin by throwing on a hoodie. Shield my eyes with swim goggles. That bird’s got talons, you know? I wrap a towel around my face, bandit style. I sling a wet tea towel for a net, and grab a broom for a spear. A modern-day, domestic Gladiator, that’s me.

While I’m telling him this, Max has this look, like I’m doing another bit. He’s waiting for the punchline, you know? But I’m not laughing. Nothing’s getting through this armor. I’m fucking Batman.

What I don’t tell him is the whole time I’m thinking how my dad would’ve chased that bird out by sheer force of will. He’d have plucked it from its perch and eaten it like a fried chicken wing. Washed it down with a sixer. Wouldn’t have needed to get all gussied up either. Would’ve gone at it bare chested, gut in front like a battering ram.

One time—I must’ve been about six or seven—he found a baby bird behind our trailer and brought it in for me to see. Was a scrawny, featherless thing with bulging blue eyelids that didn’t open. Looked more rodent than bird. I refused to take the ugly thing in my hand, even when Dad assured me it was more scared of me than I was of it. He said what he always did when I didn’t listen to him: “Oh, you’re your mother’s son, alright.”

Told me it wouldn’t be let back in the nest since he’d touched it, so he wrung its neck. Didn’t give no warning either. Just gripped its head with two fingers and snap. Called me puss-boy when I started crying. Didn’t offer any hugs or comfort, just slunk off to grab a beer.

A man’s man—that’s what Dad called himself, anyway. As a kid, in the dark of my bedroom, stinging from the sharp crack of his wrath, I had other, choicer words for him. Words I never had the steel to say to his face, not before he up and drank his sorry ass to death.

You should’ve seen him lying in that hospital bed all shrunken and discolored, a skeleton washed with a highlighter, same shade of yellow as a sixty-year-old fall-out sign. So full of piss and vinegar, his eye-whites were cream color. Bruised easy, bruises that looked shit brown. Some man then. But I guess no one meets their maker talking smack, we all grovel for forgiveness, regret the compromises we’ve made. Avoiding that in life—now that’s something we can control, if we’re strong enough, if we’ve got enough iron in our constitution. Probably the only point Dad and I would agree on.

Funny thing is, Laurie and Dad would’ve gotten along peachy. She would’ve taken his bullying close-mindedness the way she does her own father’s: as proof of his homegrown, salt-of-the-earth, authentic all-Americaness. Oh, say can you see! And his eyes would’ve been all over her, even though he’d surely find her a bossy bitch. Then again, he always liked, as he put it, “a good looking cunt.” Told me Mom was the same. Though in the only picture we had of her she’s out-of-focus and scowling. He claimed pregnancy didn’t agree with her. Said she wouldn’t have even gone through with it, but hell if she was gonna murder his son. “You owe me your life twice, kid.” I used to mumble thanks, cause what do you even say to that?

But all this I keep to myself. Instead, I tell Max how I get decked out and then head back to the living room, where not much has changed. Miss Kitty takes one look at my get-up and I swear to God rolls her green eyes. I could kick her. The bird’s dropped a load on the molding, probably out of fear. At least, I hope fear, and the fucker’s not getting comfortable.

I creep close and slide the window down, the one below the bird, so it has a way to exit. That’s my plan, you see: scare it into the air and then herd it out with the broom. Command and control. Shock and awe. Mission accomplished. But the bird just sits there, checking me out, sizing me up. “Your move,” I finally tell it.

And Max, I say, no shit? The fucker winks at me. Like this is some kind of joke, not life or death. So I jab it with the broom, and it’s on. You know our place—there’s hardly room for two in there—I’m talking hand-to-wing combat in close quarters. It’s flapping in my face while I’m flailing about with the broom trying not to break shit. When the feathers clear, Miss Kitty’s staring daggers at me from under the futon, and I’m on the floor in a fetal position. The bird’s trapped itself between the hot water pipes, the ones for the radiator. Seizing my tactical advantage, I toss the tea towel, trapping its little body beneath five ounces of damp Pottery Barn gingham.

At this point Max is leaning in, hungry for the money shot. Though maybe he’s getting bored, hoping I pick up the pace. His phone’s vibrated a few times during my tale, and I know why. I’m sure he’s anxious to check it.

Here’s the thing, though, I tell him. And then I pause for effect. I’ve got the situation in hand, if only I can bring myself to touch it—but I can’t. Every time I try, the bird shrieks in this awful, totally un-birdlike way and thrashes around. Bone, wing, beak, claw—it’s all hard and frail feeling, like if I got a good grip I’d break it, which is honest-to-God the last thing I want to do. I mean, I’m no monster. But even though I hulk over the bird, I feel like the tiny one, all helpless and shit, like I’m six years old again. Seriously, the thought of feeling its life in my hands makes my stomach heave. It’s weird.

Max nods, but I don’t know if he gets me or I even get myself at this point.

That’s when I figure to scoop the bird up with something flat, that way I don’t have to touch it at all. I can just flip it out the window and be done. So I go to the kitchen and get a cleaver. Problem is, the blade doesn’t fit between the pipes—it’s too wide. Alright, Plan B: hit birdie with the dull side, then grab it when it’s stunned.

Max’s phone’s going again, but he’s all ears now. So I draw it out a bit, describing the weight of the cleaver in my hand—it’s that hefty stainless steel Japanese one, the one that makes easy work of dismembering chicken carcasses. The first time I whack it, kind of tentative, the bird cries like a bitch-ass baby. Which is about the time I lose it. I mean, I kind of go fucking nuts. I pound the little fucker again and again with the cleaver, till it stops moving, till the towel sinks into the floor, and the thing shuts the fuck up. Then I take a couple more shots, just for good measure. I mean, what the hell, right?

“Dude,” Max says. “That’s so wrong.”

I show him my hands, trembling just thinking about it. I’ve gone hot with remorse and pleasure, which I don’t share, of course—that I loved hitting it as much as I knew it was a sin.

When I say that’s not the end of it, Max guesses Laurie came home, catching me in the act, driving that cleaver down for the last time. But no. By the time she rolled in, I had the mess cleaned up. Washed my face. Had pretty much regained my cool.

In fact, we have a fine chat, Laurie and I. I’m the picture of the engaged boyfriend as she gives me the news from Lake Champlain: who’s coming to the baby-slash-wedding shower, who’s scandalized by the pregnancy, how there’s this old church she thinks we should get married in, and these new eco-friendly produce bags her mom found on Etsy, “Aren’t they sweet?” I play so nice, one thing leads to another and we start getting it on. Absence makes the dick grow harder, right? And have I told you how much I love her new tits? My Lord, Max, I don’t know why I didn’t knock her up sooner.

Max thinks this a hoot, and so I go on, about how big pregnancy boobs keep men in check. Keep ’em docile. Keep ’em from running out as their lover’s lower half widens then distends and becomes all lumpy, almost inhuman feeling. Even her breath smells different! Sour. And that’s the whole evolutionary purpose of titties, really. They keep daddy’s dick hard, and therefore he’s happy, he sticks around, no matter what the hell’s happening to the rest of her, no matter what having a brat means for the rest of his life, from now till the day he dies. The fact that breasts feed babies is secondary, just something to do with all that milk.

You’ll have to forgive me for channeling my inner Howard Stern here—gotta blame my old man for that. We used to listen to the “King of All Media” while eating breakfast, and then on the drive to school. Wasn’t much of a Woody Allen fan, my dad. Humor-wise, he ran more to Benny Hill and Archie Bunker. The guy thought Streetcar Named Desire was a comedy. Didn’t appreciate Woody until he ran off with his adopted daughter and Stern got to calling him “Wood-Yee,” even had a guy imitate the Woodster getting hot whenever an Asian chick came on—now that, he liked. Charming, eh? My dad. My fucking old man. Though I seem to remember snorting milk during some of those Wood-Yee bits myself.

Seriously, though—and apologies if this is too much even for you, you perv—but as I’m pounding away at Laurie doggy style, I’m filled with disgust and loathing. At my own spineless self, I mean. Because I do know why I didn’t knock Laurie up before—I never wanted to knock her up at all. You know me. Can you imagine Max, the Family Man? Max from Vermont. Max, Man of the House, I’d have a hammer in one hand and an oversized grilling spatula from Williams-Sonoma in the other! Look what I did to that poor bird. I’d end up killing something else. Myself, most likely.

So after I buttoned up, I bolted. Flew the coop, let’s say. That’s why I’m here, I tell Max. I need to crash on your sofa for a few days, at least till I figure something out.

It takes a moment for Max to realize I ain’t smiling ’cause I’m putting him on, at which point he becomes, well, not as supportive as I’d hoped. “You ran out? On Laurie? You kidding me? That’s the mother of your child, man.”

Oh, you Catholics, with your morals.

Then he wants to know what she did, how she reacted. And this is rich: I left when she was in the shower! So God only knows. But Max doesn’t share my mirth.

“Dave!” Max is kind of yelling at me. “You can’t just abandon her. She’s due in, what, three, four months? That’s so… dishonorable.”

Relax, I tell him. I’m not Ser Max, this isn’t Game of Thrones. And where does getting secretly preggers fall on ye ole’ honor spectrum? I’ve never shared the diabolical pregnancy theory with him before, but he doesn’t seem to want to follow my logic, how really, baby ain’t my fault. Laurie’s just trying to force this perfect little life she’s always dreamed about, a life she knew I never wanted to have.

He gives me the whole “it takes two to tango” spiel, and then goes off about how sick I am, putting on a fucking show for him while—he shows me his phone—Laurie’s left like fifteen, twenty messages, probably scared to death something’s happened to me. He calls me callous, and I admit, my armor cracks a little. This is Max, after all. I do love the guy, even if he does sport a chubby for Laurie, so might not be the most objective of judges. And for all my bitching, I’ll even admit I love her, too. In my way.

“Come on, man,” I tell him. “Where’s the love? Remember that time you fucked that red-head on her birthday, then told her you didn’t think things were working out between you? What was it you said on the way out? ‘Guess your year can only go up from here?’”

He shoots me this look, like the two are apples and oranges instead of shades on the same spectrum. “Dude. If she was carrying my kid, it’d be a whole other story.”

Alright, I understand: I put myself in a difficult position, playing the villain. But don’t we all secretly like when Hannibal Lector gets away at the end? No matter the collateral damage he leaves in his wake. Takes balls to be the bad guy. To walk the talk. To do what you want, irregardless of what people think you should do.

Before running to his room to call Laurie, Max says, as anyone would, that I’ll feel different in the light of day. “It was just a weird night, you’re all riled up.” But I’m not so sure. Because people also say that it’s the child that makes the man. Or unmakes him, as my Dad claimed. Said he lost his grip on the toilet seat of life when I was born, fell into a shit-pile of responsibility. “Your mother always said I’d be a lousy father,” he told me the last time we talked, when he needed machines to keep his withered body alive. “I should’ve listened to her and pulled out, I guess.”

He tried to laugh, but the sound that came out was the bastard son of a Wookie growl and a seal bark. There was no mirth to it. Just pain. Real, horrible, physical pain.

“But you were there for me, man,” I told him. “While mom…”

At that late point in the game, there was no need to reopen old wounds for either of us. So I took his spindly, dry hand in mine, something I don’t remember doing since I was a kid. Touching him, I mean. We just sat there wet-eyed and quiet for a while, till he drifted off. I wish now I had actually thanked him. He did the best he could for me.

Sitting at the kitchen table, nursing my whiskey, I imagine Dad across from me, pursing his lips like he did when thinking real hard. I could almost hear him: “You’re your mother’s son alright.” And goddamn, though I wish it weren’t so, the lousy sonofabitch would be right on that count. Shit.




Brian Gresko is the editor of When I First Held You: 22 Critically Acclaimed Writers Talk About the Triumphs, Challenges, and Transformative Experience of Fatherhood. He has written for Poets & Writers Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, Slice Literary Magazine, and many online publications, such as Salon, The Atlantic, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. You can find him online at


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