Five Forgotten Instincts

by Dan Chaon

Appears in Other Voices #41


I like for people to look at my scars. I watch their eyes settle and a small bright spot opens up inside me, because for a minute it is as if they are at my mercy. They see the thick, furrowed line along my cheek, another cutting through my eyebrow, a jagged nick of missing ear. Jesus Christ, they think, what happened to him? They should see me naked.

Sometimes they ask, though mostly they don’t. I’ve developed a certain frank, expectant look, and their curiosity turns awkward and uncomfortable. Most of them think: A car accident? They wonder about plastic surgery, but I don’t offer any explanations. If you don’t like it, don’t look, motherfucker! But they can’t help it. They wonder.

It’s not as interesting as they imagine. I was six years old, teasing my grandfather’s Doberman. The dog just snapped, just tore me apart, and in a lot of ways I deserved it. I was a clueless little kid, willfully cruel and relentless. I pushed the bitch over the edge.

It was a miracle that I didn’t die. I imagine that people might think¾poor little boy, what horror he must have experienced! But most of it is outside my memory. I recall pressing a flap of my skin against my face, as if it were a puzzle piece I was trying to fit. I remember being hunched in the corner of the bathtub and striking the dog on the head with the toilet plunger as she lunged forward. There was a lot of blood, but very little pain. That didn’t come until afterwards.

People sometimes ask: who was supposed to be watching you? Where was your primary caretaker? This was my grandfather, but I don’t mean to implicate him in what happened. He was an old man, almost seventy, and he didn’t deserve to be saddled with the day to day care of a young child. He was a drinker, a morning sipper of Jack Daniels. It is a human urge to blame him, since no doubt he was in a state near sleep when I was attacked. It would also be common for people to blame my mother for leaving me with such a person, knowing as she did that he was a drunkard and a lazeabout. But what should she have done? She was a young woman with a child out of wedlock. She had to go to work. She had to earn a living.

When I tell the story, people imagine that my grandfather must have been in a state of stupor to allow such a thing to happen, and it’s true that he must have been on the couch, dozing in front of a game show. But I don’t remember if I cried out. I don’t think I called for help, or screamed, and I feel certain that if I had he would have awakened; he would have saved me. But the truth is, I don’t remember uttering a sound. Here was the dog, the sharp teeth, the heavy weight of her paws. I don’t think that most people understand what it means to be an animal¾to be prey, being eaten. A quiet peacefulness settles over you. Your body relaxes; you accept everything.


Of course I was ugly afterward, but I’ve found that it doesn’t matter. There is something about me that people are attracted to nevertheless, though I was taunted in the school yard (Frankenstein! Scarface! Zipper Head!) though people stare¾yes, you gapers, I did have plastic surgery. You should’ve seen me before.

But some people are different, as we know. Playing nurse makes them horny, and I can’t tell you the number of times a lover has touched my bare chest and drawn in that little intake of breath. Oh! As if desire is a little pinprick, a static shock. Oh! Tracing their fingers along the lines a dog’s teeth left in me. And these aren’t just the homely ones, not just the desperate, or the twisted. I’ve slept with a lot of very nice folks.

So why should I be angry or bitter? The world bestows its beautiful mysteries upon me, I tell some of my lovers. To other people I am more blunt: I can get it seven nights a week, I tell them. Look: I walk into a bar, and I know someone will come home with me. I can’t understand it, but I certainly accept it as my due.

I don’t mean for that to come across as crassly as it sounds. I’m not just some scar-boy Don Juan, some endlessly seducing appetite. And no, I don’t want to hurt you, or help you explore your darker side. I’m not going to tie you up and tattoo you, or let you wear a dog collar and nip¾“very lightly!” one lady once assured me¾on my skin. And I’m not the saintly type either, some Jesus-eyed frail flower, waiting for you to worship my scars. I am not interested in the secret desires of your warped and damaged psyches.

What we would do together, you and me, would be something else entirely. But I’d have to show it to you for you to understand.

The other day it was a college girl, Karissa¾I think she made up the name for herself, but she was a round-faced, honest-looking girl, with generous hips and black and blonde hair she said she dyed herself. I watched her in the morning, padding barefoot around my apartment with dirty, red-soled feet, and I was paying attention because I sometimes wonder myself why they come home with me. I observed as she gathered pills from her purse¾allergy medication, a Prozac, a multi-vitamin¾and swallowed them down with a little milk she’d poured into a coffee mug. She looked up, awkwardly, but I was wearing my T-shirt and jeans, politely covered.

“Hey,” I said, and she smiled sheepishly down at the kitchen table, her eyes widening and unwidening with some secret thought.

“What?” I said. “What are you thinking?”

She shook her head. “Nothing,” she said, and then shrugged. “I was just wondering about your mom,” she said shyly. “I mean, what did she do when she¾saw you?”

“She screamed,” I said. And Karissa looked at me before nodding solemnly.

“Oh,” she said.

In movies, there are generally two types of mothers for handicapped kids. There are the good ones¾the brave, determined ones, the ones that tell you you can “be whatever you want to be,” and “you’re the same as everyone else underneath the skin,” and do a lot of supporting and nourishing, maybe giving up whatever dreams they might have had to support and nourish round the clock. And then there are the bad ones¾the smothering ones who don’t push you toward your full potential, who keep you down with their own guilt, sometimes even making you a prisoner until some light, free-spirited girl comes along and steals you away, teaching you to love yourself.

I think Karissa held one or both of these types in her mind as she looked at me, but in fact my mother wasn’t either one. She wasn’t much older than Karissa when I had my “accident,” and she didn’t know what to do. She was a poor, superstitious woman, vaguely a hippie, believing in astrology and some misguided notions of Celtic myth, and mostly ignored my scars once they healed. Sometimes she would tell me I was beautiful¾“like a rugged tree,” she said, and sometimes she thought that I might have special powers. In any case, her many boyfriends never bothered me.

“She wasn’t a bad woman,” I told Karissa. “She used to tell me that I was psychic. Or that now I’d be able to communicate with animals if I concentrated really hard.”

Karissa looked at me credulously, her big eyes interested in magic, and suffering. “That makes sense, I guess,” she said.

I smiled, pouring myself some coffee. “Actually,” I said. “I hate animals. Any kind of animal just gives me the creeps. If I could talk to them, I’d tell them to go screw themselves.”

She smiled, a bit uncomfortable with my jokiness. “Ha,” she said politely, and sipped her milk.

But somehow it reminded me of the man, Dr. B, who I’d been with a few weeks before Karissa. He didn’t like my jokes either, said there was something “passive-aggressive” about my tone. He had recently left his wife and four children, and was heavy with the significance of it. We rested there in my bed and he traced the thick line that divided my nipple in half, into two brown half-moons.

“You can see shapes there, you know,” Dr B. said, and I knew that. People saw rivers, and road maps, and constellations. “It’s like a Rorschach,” he said, and ran his finger over the center of my chest. He said the one that ran along my shoulder blade looked like the zodiac symbol for Leo. “The lion,” he said.

I shifted. “I’m actually a Cancer,” I said. “Which I think is more appropriate.”

He looked at me grimly, and I could see his fatherly eyes growing sad. “You sleep with a lot of people, do you not?” Dr. B. said.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I suppose.”

“Men and women?”


“And you’re not worried,” he said.

“Well,” I said. “Really, I’m very careful.”

“I’m not talking about disease, necessarily,” he said, and smiled thinly, since I was smiling. “I was just thinking that if you keep bringing desperate people home with you, sooner or later one is going to kill you.”

“You’re not desperate,” I said. And for the first time, he laughed at something I said.


I like the idea of kindness. I don’t know whether kindness appears in nature, whether it evolves out of some necessity or whether it is a human anomaly, but it seems to me that most people I have met have a secret need for it. Maybe my gift, if I have one, is the ability to spot this, to smell it out among the staring people I pass. I suppose the need to be kind is not much different than something like lust, though it might be rarer.

My mother used to fall in love with the most hateful of men¾drunks, druggies, liars, bullies with short-tempers who would hit her, smack her up against the wall, their tightened fingers on her throat.

But unbelievably, none of them ever hit me. None of them ever laughed at my mess of scars or teased me, and in fact the man who was worst for my mother, the one she had to get a restraining order against, Nat, was the one who I remembered most fondly. We used to go to drive-ins together, Nat and me, to see scary movies, and he would put his arms around my shoulder when he startled, tightening his grip when the killer popped out to slay a teenager; when I was eight, I sat in his lap and drove his car down the interstate, my hands on the steering wheel, his behind his head. The two of us sang along with the radio, and he was almost like another kid until we pulled into the driveway. We both looked to the door where my mother was standing, and then he wasn’t a kid anymore. He was gearing up for the inevitable fight, his hand already tightening with anger at what she was going to say¾whatever she was going to say.

I used to think of Nat. He eventually went to prison, not for hurting my mother but for something else, like killing someone in a bar fight¾and I would wonder if I should look him up, should visit him maybe. On TV, prison men met their visitors in small booths, separated by thick plexiglass. The prisoner pressed his hand to the clear plastic, and the visitor responded in kind, lining up fingers and thumbs as if touching, though in fact we never did this, never met again.

I once slept with a guy who looked like Nat, and I thought, O.K., this makes sense, maybe there’s a pattern here. His fingers ran along the ridges of my face as I sucked his cock. And for a short time I thought I had a handle on things, because the next one was a lady in her mid-fifties, about my mother’s age. She was wiry and athletic of body, and planted her fingers firmly into the skin of my unscarred back like stakes as I pushed inside her. I was pretty happy.

The lady was happy, too, at first. She told me that I would have been beautiful¾she liked my eyes, which are a very light blue, and my hair, which is black and curly, and my face, which she said would have been sleepy and gentle, like a surfer boy. “But now it’s something different altogether,” she said, and leaned toward me. “I can’t put my finger on it,” she said, and reached out and touched my lips with her index finger.

But then, afterwards, in the dark of my bedroom, she seemed sad and upset. She drew her knees up under the covers, and put her chin on them. “Uff,” she said, by which I guess that she meant “What am I doing here?” Or: “What have I done?”

“Are you O.K.?” I said. I was thinking of my mother, who used to sit like this, naked under the covers, drinking wine from a plastic tumbler and reading her books on unexplained mysteries. It occured to me that this woman had a son who was gravely injured¾killed perhaps¾and that she was thinking of him now. “Hey,” I said. “Don’t be sad. It’s O.K.”

“No,” she said, with bitterness. “It’s not ‘O.K.’ It’s actually something very different than ‘O.K.’”

O.K., I thought. What she was saying was probably true, and I waited for her to continue, but she didn’t., “You can tell me if you want,” I said at last, but she shook her head. “Sometimes it helps to talk about it,” I said. “Is it about your son?”

“I don’t have a son!” she said venomously, and when she looked at me a film of tear-water was thickening over her eyes and lashes.

“Jesus,” she said. “What are you?”

I was silent for a moment, not really understanding her question. “I’m just a person,” I said. “I’m not anything specific.” It made me feel weird. I think that sometimes, because of my scars, people expect an experience that goes beyond fucking. I have come to believe that I am a pretty decent lay, but sometimes that isn’t enough.

“Why do you think I have a son?” said this lady, who looked so much like my mom. Her eyes were wide and suspicious now, and she flinched out of bed when I tried to talk, leaning over the floor to pick up her clothes and press them against her breasts and crotch as if I had sneaked into her house while she was naked. She cradled her clothes as she backed into the bathroom and shut the door.

“What’s wrong?” I called to her, and I could hear her beyond the door, grunting and struggling into her clothes. “Are you all right?” I called. But she wouldn’t answer.


I am nothing. Just a guy. I work in a restaurant as a cook, mostly cutting vegetables, chopping: I’m good at my job. I can slice a mushroom into paper thin pieces, can reduce a head of broccoli into tiny flowerettes in minutes. The cuts on my fingers I barely notice, and people sometimes think this is funny, maybe because I am so scarred up. I think something is probably wrong with my nerves, because most of the time I don’t even notice pain, and I’ve sliced the ends off my fingers and it was only the blood that told me that I’d made a mistake. “Primo,” they call me. “Primo, you are bleeding.” Most of the men I work with are Mexican, or from Latin America or something, and they are always talking in Spanish and then looking at me brightly and laughing. I pick up a few things. I know words like cebolla and cuchillo and cabron, and sometimes they will teach me phrases¾like once they got me to say, “muchas panochas en America,” and when I repeated it there was an uproar of hilarity, and I knew it was probably obscene. But when I asked the line cook, Alfonso, what panocha meant, he was solemn. “It means ‘sugar,’ Primo,” he said. “Brown sugar.”

Are we friends, myself and these men? I suppose, since I spend so much time with them, that we are close in a way, but most of the time I don’t really know what they are saying. I have thought about trying to learn Spanish, but I actually think that if I could speak their language they wouldn’t like me as much anymore.

None of them seem curious about my scars, though once a little dishwasher, a wiry, high-cheekboned Mayan-looking boy named Ernesto had pointed to them. He balled up his fists and made a soft “tok” with his tongue, miming fighting. I shook my head. “No,” I said.

I showed him my teeth, tapping them.

“Dientes.” he said.

“Woof,” I said, imitating a dog. “Arf, arf.”

“Perro.” he said.

He nodded solemnly, apparently understanding, though also wary. He reached out and ran his finger along the thick, pale raised skin that ran along my forearm. “Perro?” he said again, uncertainly, and I nodded. I unbuttoned my shirt and showed him a little of my chest. “Ay,” he said, and I smiled at him, shrugging. I waited, not breathing, while he touched my skin. “El Lobo,” I said, which I knew was the Spanish word for wolf, and he chuckled, drawing away a little. “It’s O.K.,” I told him, and he smiled back at me. He puffed out his chest and drew an “X” over my bared skin with his finger, swip, swip, like Zorro. “S’O.K.,” he said, repeating, imitating me as if I were full of bravado. I figured it was the beginning of something.

But a few days later he was gone, and I learned from Alfonso that he had been killed¾stabbed in a fight outside some bar in the Mexican area of town.

“Jesus,” I said. “He was just a kid wasn’t he? How old was he?”

“I don’t know,” Alfonso said, and looked at me heavily. “Old enough to die, I guess,” he said, and showed me the palms of his hands. It wasn’t my fault, of course, that Ernesto was dead, but the way that Alfonso looked at me left a film of guilt over me for the rest of the day. I thought of that woman, backing away from me. “What are you,” she said.


I ride the bus home from work, and it takes about a half hour, so I read the newspaper. People will sit next to me, or they won’t. Sometimes they will start to talk to me but when they see my face their voice will trail away. Sometimes I fall asleep and let people see me there, in my seat, my eyes closed, and it is as if I am naked because they can look for as long as they want and I will not know. I get off the bus at my stop and walk about three blocks to my apartment. I have my keys ready. I unlock the door and then lock it again. I am not happy, but I am not necessarily sad, either.

My grandfather died, he killed himself about a year after I was hurt. By that time it was clear that I’d be O.K., and I guess he was waiting to hear, to be certain that I was out of the woods. His dog, the Doberman, whose name was Elizabeth, had already been put to death for her crimes.

In the bathtub, he cut his own throat with his razor. Then he sank down into the warm water and bled, letting his jugular pump pink curliques, eddies, into the water. When my mother found him, I was still in the hospital, watching educational puppets on television. Their mouths moved like a thumb and forefinger in a sock.

I was happy then, adrift in my hospital bed, just as I am perhaps happiest now, in my bed, with the television running, silent like a hibernating creature. I am quiet, and sometimes I think that all I know is instinct¾all the instincts we are born with, that most people forget about. I can hear him in there sometimes, the bath water running, the soft echo of his body sluicing against the porcelain.

My grandfather used to tease me all the time. It wasn’t mean-spirited, I don’t think. Just something to amuse himself with. I remember on the day that I got torn up, not long after my mom left for work, he called me to the window. He lived in a house near the railroad tracks, and he pointed out to where some boxcars were parked. “I see the carnival came through here last night,” he said. “Look at that! They left an elephant here!”

“Where?” I said, and tried to follow his finger.

“There! Don’t you see it?”


“It’s right there¾where I’m pointing. You don’t see it?”

“No....” I said doubtfully¾but I craned my neck.

“You mean to tell me that you don’t see an elephant standing there?” he demanded.

“Well...” I said. This was only hours before the dog, Elizabeth, would tear me apart.

“Well...” I said. I scoped along the lines and shapes outside the window again. I didn’t see the elephant, but then, after a time, it seemed that I did. In my memory, there is still the figure of an elephant, standing at the edge of the train tracks. It curls its trunk languidly, thoughtfully, and brings a piece of hay to its mouth.