My father taught me to count each line of memory cut into a woman’s wrists. The red, round sores beneath her tongue. The tiny pinholes behind her knees. Those hidden marks that remain hidden, invisible. The ones no one could see. Not with their eyes. The ones that can only be known through touch, a woman’s fingers wandering over her skin. Blind memories. Seeking answers to stories she would rather forget. Forging a new madness. This time of suffering. The scarred purple skin of her ankles. Rashes without origins.
“And,” my father said, “a man is no different.”
Marked by his desire.
Marked by a past refusing to disappear.
My father would scratch and scratch at his forearm until he came down to the bone. Years of taking it. Of opening. He counted as if he were going somewhere. He counted until one day he finally did stand up and go somewhere. Walked out the front door. Disappeared into darkness. He followed those two yellow lines on the highway. He followed endless telephone lines. He never looked over his shoulder. His skin on fire, burning and bleeding. He traveled into and through that darkness. Left my mother and me and my sister staring out the living room window. Staring. He waved as he drove down the avenue, leaving for the desert and a rumor. My father drove across country, on the road, state after state disappearing in his rearview mirror. He drove far, far away into that open desert of America in his rusted-out Chevy Impala, and that man, my father, he never came back. Not even for one final kiss.
Along his journey, he picked up strange women, broken women. He discovered these women leaning against lampposts, hiding beneath shadows in bars and on stoops. He searched out woman after woman, women whose names had been destroyed by sunlight. He met women who warned him to never repeat their names. They said their names would do the unspeakable to his heart and soul. Flesh crying out to flesh, daring a wound to bleed. He took these women off the loneliest streets in America and walked them into motel rooms. Stole them off behind bushes. Pushed them against brick walls in alleys. He invented new words for what he did to them and for what they did to him.
He told woman after woman his name was Grendel. He told them he had woken from a long dream, like Rapunzel, and that he had never seen a woman before. And then he said, “Show me.” He asked them if they believed in heroes. If they thought a hero could walk into their lives or the lives of any man or woman in America. Then he knelt at their feet and said, “Heroes need monsters.” And he waited for them to turn into monsters. Or he waited day after day until the day came when he turned into one.
When a man drives long enough and far enough into darkness, he comes to know that the only true limits to desires are desire’s needs. Desire begets desire. Bushes catch on fire, burn into the night.
My father wanted nothing more than to bring down the night with a howl of rage. My father made promises to these women that only a man gone mad from the moon and driven insane from dreaming year after year after year would be willing to make. He made the kind of promises only a father could make and only a father could break.
He left these women, each of them a little more disheveled, a little more doubtful of the existence of a god that must have been asleep while all that happened happened. Some acts frighten even a god who claims to have created a world in six days, who claims he rested on the seventh day and waited. My father left each of these women slightly more deranged and desperate than when he’d found them.
“Beauty,” he told them, “needs contrast.” My father left each woman he touched more alone than they had ever been before in their lives. And he scattered diseased children and the possibility of other children all along that stretch of highway between Pittsburgh and Phoenix. He left pieces of himself, of the man he thought he was and of the man he never imagined he would become, in alleys, in motels, along riverbanks. But not once did he cry. Not once did he regret the absurdities of his life. He did all he could to avoid the sunset of the man he might have been.
And when he was finished, when he had done all he felt was necessary, he crawled back into his maroon Chevy Impala and drove that car as far as it would go. Far away from memories of sons and daughters until he came upon an uninhabited, nearly abandoned, roadside motel. One with a broken-down name. A hollow horse. Vacancy. Neon gods in the sky. Lucy sitting beneath an apple tree, longing to prove Sir Isaac Newton knew more than god, longing for a man to fall prey to her desires, waiting for temptation. At least that is what the voices in my father’s thoughts said to him. Beatles songs blared out of a radio in a desert town outside of Phoenix. He drove through that town, out into the wild, until he found a place where music went unheard. Some lost memory drowned by the practice of solitude.
Billboards rotten from rain and termites. Promises that Fanta was more orange than ever. God asking if you had any idea where you were going. A sign wanting you to swerve off the road, take the next exit, come to the Land of Ice Cream. But my father didn’t believe in signs. He drove past sign after sign until he ran out of gas in front of a motel. Tilting windmills. A broken sign that once claimed vacancy or no vacancy and now only said: No. The motel itself a negation of what it once was. “Big Desert No-tell Motel” in bright lights. Shining into the night. Cutting into the darkness. Against the wall a disenchanted broom, an unplugged ice machine, and an empty Coca Cola machine. One single penny, completely alone, in the parking lot. Face up. “This is the place a man comes to when he needs to come to a place,” the manager told him.
My father fled into this existential emptiness of the desert. He had become nothing more than a ridiculous hero torn apart by the promises of poetry. Those pale, empty promises, that skin of words, which threaten to enclose a man in a coffin if he isn’t careful and begins to believe in the stories of his own heroism. No man can be a hero without monsters that live for their own death. The future, the past, are equally unreal. There is no truth beyond the existence of things that can be touched. Still, men everywhere wake up daily haunted by strange words of their own heroic actions. Tales of sound and fury signifying nothing.
Every day or two we received postcards or letters from our father. His handwriting was practically illegible. He crossed out as many words as he wrote. He said he had no choice. He worried that freewill was something of the past, something that had died when his virginity broke into tiny pieces. For the good of mankind, he had to censor his own writing. There were political and sexual reasons for crossing out the painful landscape of his words. Some words, my father wrote, were never meant to be read, and a father’s children shouldn’t be forced to carry the burden of his nostalgia for impossible things, a desire to return to what never was. Only he could be trusted to censor his own writing.
My father stopped trusting the postal service and the FBI in 1968; sometime in the early 1970s he gave up his faith in Jesus, the son of a god who seemed to be on a perpetual vacation, to censor his thoughts for him. And Freud? My father hated Freud. Despised him. Any time he found Freud’s books abandoned in thrift stores or in bookstores, he would buy all of them, then he would shred them and burn the strips of paper. Ashes to ashes. Little boys dreaming of their mommies burning in the flames. My father believed no one could stop a thought or a word before it existed. He believed desire had to be acted out and then erased. God denied man fire for a reason, and man invented fire for the same reason.
Often, while writing directly from the purity of his thoughts, my father’s pencils caught on fire, burning bright. He feared looking over his shoulder, looking back at cities set aflame by unconscious desires set loose upon the world. Towers burning. Women with snakes in their hair. And when he wrote, pencil scratching across paper, he felt the constant slow humming of bees chasing his soul. He pulled at his hair, suffering, drowning in the noise as he begged forgiveness. Our father. My father. The son of a mother who drank herself into an unbearable forgetting of love the evening she gave birth to him.
He forced us to make promises against the emptiness of the words he refused to write. “Promise,” he wrote, “that you will not read into what I am not saying.” All that he wrote. All that he didn’t write. All that he wrote under the marks of erasure. The very act of writing burned the words away. He set fire to letters and sent us the ashes in baggies. Then, he challenged us to read the unreadable, to experience what had never been thought before. He told us to rub these ashes onto our skin. He told us to bury these ashes out in the backyard and wait for a tree to grow. Watch for the ghosts. Keep an eye out for those who intended to do you harm. Look both ways. Love both ways.
“Find your own desert,” he wrote, “but stay the hell away from mine.” His spirit raged at the unsaid. He became known as the man who mistook an eraser for a pencil. He disappeared his writing. “I dare you to find me in words that you cannot see.” And along with one letter, he included a tape. His voice. “Remember all that I did not say, all that I could not say, must not be forgotten or silenced, but remember all that must be written without writing.” The letter in the envelope along with this cassette tape had been completely erased. Only traces of what once must have been words remained. At the end of each letter or postcard, he begged us to forget what we had read and all that he had not written. He said there would be time for understanding what must be forgotten.
I am telling you all this, not for your own good, but because I do not want my father’s death to go unnoticed. I do not want him to be a martyr, but I also do not want his death to have been in vain.
And I want all of you reading this to pay.
My father never sent us any of those conventional postcards with “Wish You Were Here” emblazoned across a picture of shiny, happy people on a beach. Such postcards lie to us. Instead of “Wish You Were Here,” they should say, “Aren’t You Envious of Us?”
My father never once hinted at a desire for any of us to be in the desert with him. He never suggested we join him. Until his death, we didn’t know where he was living. From the letters, it wasn’t clear if even he knew where he was living.
My father only apologized for leaving by saying that he needed stories. He had grown to fear living a life of knowing only the stories of other people, stories coming out of the television, stories printed in the newspapers, stories in books. He wanted his own stories. Tales that sprung right out of him living his life. And he wanted these stories to appear on his skin as much as in his words. He said perhaps one day he would return and show us these stories on his skin, the scars, the scabs, the broken bones. For now, he had to awaken his body to living. The time to hibernate had long ago passed. Some places in the heart will never be filled. He wanted to drive directly into the emptiness.
“Sorry, had to leave in a rush. I needed to drive a truckload of virgins into the wild unknown. We played harmonicas the whole way to protect us from the mountain lions and the coyotes.” He had left, he said, the Impala at the state line. But he also said his memory was playing tricks on him. That he felt days went on and on without night. He wrote that he was fairly certain nights had disappeared. “There is only daylight now, and the sun is angry, threatening to burn the earth, to scorch all of it like the desert.” Perhaps, he said, he had forgotten to leave the Impala behind. “Perhaps,” he wrote, “I am sleeping in it at this very moment as I am writing this sentence. What, then, does any of it mean?”
My father said he had begun reading poetry and writing on sidewalks. He told us we would be shocked by the beauty and unfamiliar kindness of his poetry. And the rhymes. He said poets today were too lazy to rhyme. The world needed rhymes. The world needed men like him and Merle Haggard. He wrote that poetry that didn’t rhyme was responsible for people like Richard Nixon and that he had bought knives to protect himself from people claiming to be poets who had never rhymed once. The day of reckoning for such foolishness was on the horizon. The rapture. He sent us pages he had ripped out of Dante’s Inferno, pages he had been revising, crossing out Dante’s desire and punishment and pain and replacing them with his own. He added a level to hell and populated it with poets who were unwilling to rhyme. Sex and poetry were the only ways to spit in the face of death. A mingling of beauty and perversity. One morning, my father wrote, he woke and realized he was no longer afraid of rain, but also that he could no longer understand morning dew. He sat on the porch and waited for the dew to dry. He heard that patience was a virtue. He didn’t believe in virtues.
Four or five years after going into the desert, he died. Leukemia. Cirrhosis of the liver. An irregular heartbeat that exploded in the sun. He left behind an abandoned cardboard box. One filled with ragged clothes. Johnny Carson suits bought at Sears. Too much polyester. Women’s lingerie, dated and with names written on the inside seams. Frightened moths. A few pebbles. Dust. Stories of my father’s children written in the hands of strangers. Disenchanted dreams. Fables of aggression. Tales of childhood love and loss. The day I dropped that bush-league fly ball in right field. My father’s world nearly ended that day. He didn’t speak to me for weeks. Just looked at me. Shook his head. The image of that ball in his eyes. Utter disappointment. Useless son, put on this earth by a ruthless god to torment him until the end of time.
No one wrote an obituary for my father. Someone called from the hotel.
The voice on the phone said something about a dead body.
The voice on the phone said the body of my father had a note taped to its forehead, with my mother’s phone number written on it.
The voice on the phone said this dead body claimed to be my father. Heritage. A beautiful loser with soft skin. We inherited his death. He never made his way home with the new stories of his body. The stories he lived through. The stories that killed him. I flew to Phoenix to claim my father’s body, to unpack his library, to sort through his belongings. I rented a car, drove out of Phoenix on a highway so lonesome and barren I understood exactly what the earth would look like if god had truly abandoned it.
When I arrived at what appeared to be a motel, a man walked out of the office, handed me a beer, and said my father would want it this way. He would want me to drink a beer with him and listen to the night swallow our words until the dead awakened. So, we sat and drank in abject silence. The dark swallowed the horizon. The beers grew warmer in our hands. The hour of the wolf slipped away. Demons mingled with desperate mosquitos and fluttered around the candle the man had lit on the table between us. Burning their wings. Dropping dead on the table and the dirt.
“In the evenings, your father would caress mosquitoes,” this man told me. “Truth is, your father was the only man I’ve known who could do that. There are rumors in those hills out yonder past the flatlands that he deflowered a flea. His touch was that delicate. When the night turned cold, your father could read the accents of people by seeing their breaths. He was a hard worker, your father, and made all of the guests at the hotel smile. Made them feel like they were home,” he spit into the earth. “Home.”
What else is there ever to say to the survivors?
My mother wanted nothing to do with the death, the box that protects memory. My sister remained frozen. She had lost her ability to speak. She prayed, beneath her voice, to her delirium. Her mouth soiled and yellow. Her eyes crazed, but still eager. She was all prayer, all offering. What happens at night cannot be explained in the day because what happened at night no longer exists in the day. She rubbed the grimy bead of her little girl rosary between her thumb and her forefinger. “Father, I think of what suicide would feel like for the living.”
But she would always notice a tear in her nylons or a boot on the floor and realize there was so much more to be done. She rolled off her bed onto the floor. Prey to delirium. My mother said, “She’s got her father wrapped up inside her.”
Once upon a time, while lost in a locked closet, I wrote on a piece of paper I still keep taped to the wall of my bedroom: “December 31, 1988, Tucson, Arizona, a man explodes in some damn café.” A reminder. Dead memory. Heat.
Many years later, Lidia wrote to me from San Diego: “Remember, Doug, that some people go the desert to live. I want you to live. Drive to the ocean. Feel the salt in the water. Taste the saltwater on a woman’s body. Do this. Commit this to your skin. Remember.”
This desert killed my father.
The doctor had told him not to drink so much coffee. The caffeine made his body unpredictable. Refined sugars, he warned, just might send him over the edge. Give him serious visions of grandeur. The delusions of a god fallen on hard times. Be careful. And all this mixed with the beer; well, only god himself knows what might eventually happen. The doctor told him he had a hole in his heart. “I could drive a truck through that murmur. Get me some asphalt and fill it in.” The doctor had a sense of humor. The doctor is still alive from what I hear. Smoking cigarettes and coughing. He needs love, warm and tender.
My father’s last lover put her hand on his wrist and said, “I can’t tell you how to feel.”
The people who knew my father said he’d do anything for love. Said he was hopeless with just the right touch of self-deprecating humor. He dug holes in sand. Dreamt of China. Slept with coyotes. He shed a torrent of tears no one ever quite understood. Knelt in the wrong direction. Praised Buddha with the fervor of a born-again Christian. Handed roses to people in airports for no apparent reason. A confused man with clumsy stories. He ate spinach on rainy days. Stared at soap-on-a-rope as if it held mystical powers of invention. Touched a woman, woman after woman, down there. Past that place where god does not allow you to talk. Below, in the place where I can no longer speak. My mouth. Something stuck in between my teeth. A woman peeled skin from her fingers. Raw girl. Her skin. Callused desires. Thumb. My father fed on this skin. Stoned woman with a broken wrist. He fed on small pieces of her desire to devour his touch. Fed on the tiny scraps of paper she sent to him. Little ziplock baggies filled with words she had pulled off her skin. Words that had made her desperate late in the night. Words that never seemed real. Words that were always separated by concrete and misunderstanding. “I can’t breathe,” she once wrote to my father. Or at least one reincarnation of the words in the bag suggested this possibility.
I need water to breathe.
Your skin and water.
In the water with me.
“I know how to suffer and to beg.” Her voice trembled on my father’s answering machine. “Never home. Why are you never home?” This woman’s voice was the only voice on my father’s answering machine. Find her. Follow the trail of her words. “This woman,” the man who managed the motel said, “only appeared in the morning.” Always sitting against his door, waiting for him to open and let her inside. She never came out of the night.
“When,” I asked him, “was the last time she came to my father?”
“A week before I found him dead.”
“Does she know?”
“No one knows. I guess she’ll return.”
We waited in the dark for the night to do something with the silence. A coyote in the distance. A star falling out of the sky. The hum of a light.
“Maybe you oughta wait.” Your father was a man who didn’t mind waiting. He was a patient man when he knew something would come from the waiting.
You can’t know.
No, you can’t. You can only wait.
“Imagine all that’s out there that ain’t no one come to know yet. Your father was out there looking for that. So, you got to wait. He’s dead now and he’ll be dead tomorrow and it don’t seem like your mother cares much about it one way or the other.”
I looked at him, or at least I looked in his direction. The dark was beyond dark
and there was no hope to see in such a darkness. His eyes had disappeared. His voice had grown quiet.
Can you remain quiet?
As long as it takes. As long as is necessary.
He pushed his body up out of the chair, handed me a key and said I could stay for a night or two and straighten out my father’s room. Take what needed to be taken. “No charge,” he said. “Your father did things that I’d never known a man could do. He renewed my faith in God. I always figured there had to be something bigger than me, bigger than all this, but I didn’t know it until I come to know your father. He had something of God in him.”
He started walking toward the office, stopped, looked over his shoulder. “You get sleep now. Be careful. Maybe she’ll be leaning against your father’s door in the morning and maybe she’ll tell you those things you fear knowing. Maybe not. A man’s gotta die with some secrets. But you sleep now. I’ll open up your father’s room in the morning after it’s been light for a while.”
He walked off. I made my way to my room. Looked off into the desert thinking my father would walk out of the darkness. But god had done away with that possibility. God puts an end to as much as he creates.
To this day, god knows nothing of his son’s true longing. No father can know his son, and no son can know his father. For thirty-three days. Nights. For thirty-three years. He went into the desert. There, a woman waited. She had never been kissed. Her fingers became rose petals. My father remembered the touch of her skin in his blood. Ruby girl in the dark wanting to speak words that cracked open her throat. That made her into bleeding. She lingered. Her mouth. Her lips parted. Separated at birth, by birth. She wanted to know the kind of speech that startled birds. She leaves her skin on thorns and she cries. Grows terrified of the branches that sleep within her. In the distance, something—a house, a longing for his touch—falls from the sky.
I saw my father’s dead body on a slab in a laboratory.
Zipped in a black bag.
I was the only witness to his corpse. With these eyes. Ashes to ashes.
I had come to think of my father as a rumor, some late-night accusation uttered beneath dark breathing and impossible fists. Your father wanted nothing to do with me. Just to use my body. He came home with all kinds of ideas. He wanted me. He wanted. The body, of this my father, scattered, thrown into the dry winds. My mother’s voice. All he did. You don’t know the things he did. Then he took the television and left.
Now and then, in the dark night becoming day, I imagine him. This father moving inside me.
You can’t escape blood. Always blood.
Awkward old man holding himself up against the wall. Bones into the plaster. Midway down the hall and he has to stop to try to find his next breath. His shoulder pressed against the wall. Against the screaming voices of dead saints. One night and then another night and other nights and night after night and he just wanted to find ways to silence me. To stop my body becoming speech, to quit my body, to send my mouth into the quiet.
A mother only knows the stories she tells herself again and again. Lullabies. So she can find sleep and escape all she thinks is true.
This return of my body to the place where desire has no voice.
I collapsed into what once-upon-a-time was my father’s bed.
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