It wasn’t fleeing. It was a road trip. It was a chance to bond, an opportunity too rare to pass up, and I was blitzed out of my mind from the possibilities that lay before us: a grown, jobless man and his retired father on the way south in late spring. It seemed good. It seemed right.
It is difficult, of course, to pin down what I had hoped would happen on the trip. I needed to understand my father after so many years of never even trying. There was something screaming that now was the very last time to do so, and if I let the opportunity pass I would be marooned, left forever. By showing an interest in the old man now, there could maybe be the kind of reconciliation that afternoon television was made for, something all the more difficult to attain due to the fact that there was no single rift or place of tearing. What separated my father and I was more akin to miscommunication and the simple geography of distance. The idea that we could heal our rift through a road trip seemed symbolic. The geographical distance between myself and the Madison police didn’t hurt much either after the obviously ridiculous incident with Speedy Cash.
My latest employment in that long string had been terminated over the matter of my till and the whereabouts of thirty stupid dollars. All I can say about that is I’m not dumb enough to try and steal from a check cashing establishment, and even if I was, I find it hard to believe that anyone, really, could be so foolhardy as to do it from their own register—talk about asking to get caught. I don’t know what happened to that money, an explanation not good enough for my former manager—who was just as undeterred by my suspicions about the shift supervisor—and most certainly found lacking by the interested persons in the eleventh precinct called in on that ridiculous charge. No one seemed to understand. No matter how much I explained it to them. I was simply not the kind of person who would be caught doing something so dumb. They all wore the self-righteous smirk of habitual disbelief.
Compounding matters worse was the freak accident: a disappearance of the money order I had taken out to cover my rent and gotten two months past due. My landlord didn’t appreciate the disappearance, but he was kind enough to accompany me to Ace Cash, even though I really had to get my groceries into the fridge before they expired. When I showed them my receipt the lady at the counter said the check had been cashed already, which was impossible because I had made it out to my landlord, who was standing right there with me and who didn’t have his money. I demanded right there she return the full amount of money as was made out on the receipt, “money owed to my landlord,” and said I wasn’t going to move until we got it. I demanded to see a manager. She called the police instead, like I was trying to pull something on her, but I just wanted to pay my landlord, who looked less and less pleased with each passing moment. I thought about waiting for the cops, because then I could file a claim saying that someone had stolen that money order and cashed it, but of course I knew that would be a dead end, what with the terrible inefficiency of the Madison police department. They would rather persecute an innocent like me than spend the time bothering to catch the real culprit.
In hindsight, leaving said location at a sprint was possibly not the best or wisest response to the situation.
Matters like that do not make bonding all that easy, but I was there at least, with my dad, and that was really something. Who cared that I had come to my father in a state of mild, temporary desperation? I could have squatted in his empty house, like he had suggested when I told him I needed a place to crash for a little while, you know, as things had been going pretty rough for no real reason lately. But when I looked around that sparsely furnished house on Rushmore Lane, with the wild, dead or dying jumble of grass in the back yard, and the dearth of consumer electronics within—aside from the laptop he was bringing with him—crashing there seemed silly. I realized I didn’t just need a new base of operations, so to speak. I needed to connect with my father. Somewhere in the past, something had come undone between us, and since I was temporarily free from the constraints of the daily grind, I had the chance to fix it.
If I’m being one hundred percent, I suppose that the thought of answering my dad’s door one Tuesday morning, or whatever, and facing a load of B.S. questions from some detective so-and-so about the Speedy Cash business, or some old so-called friends looking for something I wouldn’t even know about might have been a motivator, but I would like to believe, and in my heart I truly know, that now was the time to get to understand my dad and his strange ways.
I didn’t have much of an opportunity to tell Dad about my plan on the road, but that seemed fine. We drove straight through to New Mexico in just over a day. I developed a headache along with a worrying tickle that I knew could be cured with over-the-counter cough syrup, plenty of water, and probably a few ibuprofens.
Since mom died, Dad had been stuck in a cycle of fascination, obsession and then boredom with a rotating gaggle of unorthodox beliefs. At first it had been the séances, which was actually sort of sweet. He and mom had gotten hitched right out of high school, one of those sweetheart romances, and that lasted thirty four years before the stroke shuffled her off the refrigerated coil of that Wisconsin winter. Shakespeare via Madison—Dad hadn’t appreciated that small joke back then. It made sense, anyways, that he’d try to get in touch with her in the afterlife, especially since I was in my own world of grief and personal interests, things that ate into my free time so that I couldn’t be there for him, like I maybe could have been. It was me and mom who fought, not Dad, he wasn’t the one who had kicked me out of the house when that one thing happened in high school, and yet I was skipping her funeral like it was punishing her and not him. Sometimes I look back and think of how foolish I used to be.
The séances didn’t work, of course, and Dad eventually gave it up, dispirited, and moved on. Instead of coming back to reality though, he went from one crazy idea to the next. He was into voodoo and ghosts, chi energy and breatharianism, crystals and aliens and Native American mythology. Bigfoot only barely escaped his scrutiny. It wasn’t just an interest, even if it began casually, it was quickly a full-fledged obsession until Dad was so immersed that when he couldn’t find the results he was after he had no recourse but to reject the idea wholesale, moping about the house in a near catatonic depression until the next idea, the next great hope came along.
This is what brought us down to New Mexico in the first place, in search of the Chupacabra.
This is what brought us down to New Mexico in the first place, in search of the Chupacabra. The problem was there weren’t any real sightings in the state. Sure, there were sightings, but even as far as monsters in the dark go, they were ephemeral, the same sort of imagined fancy as my former manager turning the matter of thirty freaking dollars over to the police, like it was a real crime or something. He said that there had been some question over other registers in the past weeks, and that with mine coming up short led him to believe it was a systemic thing that had its radii squarely centered on my noggin. He must have been born of the same stock as those morons on the internet posting about a reptile-like creature lurking outside of Ruidoso. Any real hard look would prove to anyone of even moderate intelligence that what was happening was the misfiring of some delusional, overstimulated mind, seeking an elaborate answer to something pretty straight forward. Me and Dad eventually decided that there was nothing to see in that sleepy New Mexico town, and so we loaded ourselves into the truck, headed to more likely places of interest, a technique the Madison PD could take a lesson from.
We went to Texas. They should have gone to that slimy looking supervisor. Before the goatsucker had become Dad’s latest raison d’être, he had been on an extremely long and arduous UFO kick. Things had gotten pretty desperate by then, enough so that his old friends had looked me up, looking for anyone to make Dad shut his yap while at work. It was the kind of crazy, they said that could annoy someone upstairs enough to get him canned without the compensation his forty years of service deserved, and the dumb bastard only had a year left before retirement. I hadn’t talked to my father for nearly three years, but even then I knew that he hadn’t really been friends with those men since mom died. God, how long had that been? He hadn’t really been friends with anyone after that, actually. Even after all the bridges he had burned with those people due to his whackadoodle obsessions, the foundation of friendship had somehow survived. It bothered me, I remember, because my own friends would have sold me down the river for a bump. Talk about predicting the future.
Well, I had called the old man up, being in a rare state of clarity after his old buddies had given my cage a good rattle, and he invited me right over. Just like that. So I came on down and we sat in awkward silence in that old living room, not talking about mom or the years or the times. When I broached the topic of his UFOs, he leapt at the opportunity and led me on a tour of his study, eager to regale me with the details of his unsightly passion.
I would guess it began like everything else, with an honest, simple interest. Right before we had fallen out of touch he’d given me a call and encouraged me to install S.E.T.I. at home. I didn’t have a computer then, but he’d told me about the theories of alien contact anyway. I’d ignored him out of apathy and because I had my own obsessions, which was why we drifted apart in the first place. Plus, he’d always played the good cop to mom’s bad, and without her the dynamic felt wrong. It wasn’t until I came over, though, for that tour of the study that I realized things had spiraled out of control. He regaled me with his ideas on crop circles, which I was in no real condition to make coherent, having taken something for my nerves before stopping by to see him that day. He told me about which ones were fake and which weren’t; how even most crop circles were obviously hoaxes and others were simply less obvious ones. There had to be the real deal out there, especially when they first began to appear in anonymous farmers’ fields—what were they, he wondered out loud to me, what were they trying to say? You had to look at them as signs, he told me, an obvious olive branch of communication, even if it seemed incoherent.
Worse was the group he’d gotten involved with. They were searching for proof of contact; they believed that aliens were on Earth already, in one capacity or another, and it was their job to establish a means of communication. The depths of self-delusion were so deep I felt like they must have looped into infinity and I didn’t like the abyss in which I stared. I made excuses and got out of there, making sure, in a stroke of lucidity, to eke out a promise from Dad that he would calm things down at work so he could remain gainfully employed. That was something, as it came at the cost of me promising to stop by more often. I didn’t hold up my end of the bargain, but since he wasn’t fired, I assume Dad had held up his.
Dad kept asking if I was all right, because I would drift off on the long stretches of road, going somewhere in my head, he’d say, or else passing out and drooling all over myself. I was fine, just fighting that flu, you know?
The whole Chupacabra fix was just an offshoot of all that alien business. I heard about it all on that interminable drive from the far north to the Deep South. It was bad enough when we were alone, but worse was when he used that over-knowledgeable banter, the kind that could easily secure a seventy two hour involuntary, with every farmer and outskirts drifter he could get to listen. It surprised me how many people listened, how many were willing spin their own yarns for him. There was nothing in the great wasteland of New Mexico, as far as Dad could figure—to which I supplied a necessary guffaw of obvious agreement—but the people certainly had their stories, nearly all of them contradictory and illusory. When Dad had had enough of their imaginations running wild with hope and myth and the occasional outright fabrication—which Dad could stand less than anything else, I should know—we skedaddled out east.
Here was the point that confused me. Despite the absurdity of the idea in and of itself, and despite the degree of his obsession, Dad never really went over, not fully at least, to the dark side of credulity, holding on like a lunatic with his blankie to the fringe of understanding reality. Despite the money he’d sunk into his explorations for alien life, among all the others, and despite the time and dedication, he never fully fell for the snake oil or hopeful fantasies. His UFO group interviewed probably hundreds of people who claimed to be aliens or in contact or able to get in contact with them, but they were all dismissed, sadly, as crackpots or over-credulous. Dad would have made a great cop, superior to the North’s current breed. The UFO group’s crowning moment was going to be a young man who’d claimed to be in contact with extraterrestrials through unnatural vibrations in his teeth. They investigated and found out it was only that the man was, for reasons understood by only electrical engineers and adherents to late night B-movies, picking up the signal for a local Spanish language radio station through his fillings, poor kid. I guess Dad learned pretty well from my teenage years how to decipher the truth from what he wanted to believe, even when the proof came from the deluded mouth of a still-believer.
I remember the beginning of our Chupacabra trip: coming to Dad a few months after I’d been evicted, my reserves of cash burned through in ill-advised ways. Seeing that look, it was a little like what he’d give to the farmers with their Mexican Monster stories, designed with the obvious purpose of fooling the simple. Except that there was something different in Madison then, something that had to do with me in particular, that I still can’t quite figure.
It was this unforeseeable skepticism that always killed his grand ideas. The hopes got bigger and more unwieldy until there came a point where rational thought had to admit that the ground was not going to shake and the earth was not going to open up to reveal some profound mystery of being. Dad would know in those moments that he’d been deluding himself, trying to believe in something he wanted too desperately.
As we crossed the border and left behind New Mexico, I breathed a sigh of relief, glad to be rid of its Martian landscape and limitless heat. With a knowing smile and a wink, however, Dad let it be known that we were out of the frying pan and into Texas, so I better calm my jubilant exhalations a bit. We moved into the armpit of the state and it grew muggier and hotter, the AC in the decrepit Dakota struggling to keep pace with the sun. By the time we rolled into Granbury, Texas, Wisconsin a mere tres dias ancient history, I was in a pretty bad state. I’d been buying up Nyquil D, two bottles at a time whenever I could find it. I’d been trying to keep my deteriorating health from Dad because I figured it would screw up our bonding if he worried about me. He’d noticed right away, though, with the sweating and the abundant stops at gas station restrooms. Dad said he was pretty concerned, but I told him there was no need to worry. I wouldn’t slow him down, the Nyquil was helping lots and I didn’t really have a fever, per se, so much as I was just sensitive to the heat. You couldn’t blame me for not liking the heat, and it was so goddamned hot. When the Nyquil dried up, I wasn’t sure what to do.
I soon discovered that the Chupacabra of Texas was a different beast entirely.
I soon discovered that the Chupacabra of Texas was a different beast entirely. After we had passed through Coleman and Blanco and into the outskirts of San Antonio, the beast was just an ugly sort of dog, not the lizard of South American legend we’d chased before, with an unusual method of killing cattle. Dad really locked onto the idea. It wasn’t what he wanted, but it had a ring of truth, the weight of substantiality. We talked to farmers who’d shot their share of wild animals and to them the Chupacabra was not some alien looking creature with big black eyes, they had enough of black eyed aliens if you know what I mean, nudge-nudge, they would say. God. Their Chupacabras turned out, upon expert inspection, to be a coyote with a vicious case of mange or else a malformed raccoon. A few of the supposedly mythical creatures that had been preserved in giant walk-in freezers were merely Xolos. Dad let me know how unbelievable it was to him that this close to the border people didn’t know a simple Mexican hairless dog, how they should understand what was right there in their faces, but that only got me wondering about just how much Dad knew himself.
Driving out to Cuero I took a turn for the worse. I’d been on so much Nyquil to keep my symptoms at bay that I had probably gotten addicted to the stuff. Dad told me that he needed to take me to a hospital but I told him no. I didn’t have the money to pay for those kinds of bills and I didn’t have insurance. I had lost that safety net when I had lost my job. I toyed with the idea of going in and giving my ex-boss’ name and social security number on the hospital forms, ignoring for now why I had that memorized, because it was his fault in the first place that I was in this situation. In the end I figured it best not to get the police in Texas interested in me as well. I was probably through the worst anyways, so I told Dad he didn’t really need to worry. Sure, I had dropped a few pounds since we set off on our road trip, but I had finally put things behind me and was beginning a brand new life where me and my dad were united, and those pounds needed dropping anyways.
I didn’t much like the new Chupacabra. It was too ordinary, too mundane. It wasn’t that it was plausible that bothered me, but that this seemingly plausible explanation was linked to such extraordinary circumstances. Even though it was just a derivative of a dog, there were still the three-holed exsanguinations. The nod to reality made the whole situation even more farcical. Dad just shrugged, like maybe he was on the way down from this particular obsession and told me that everyone has some myth, some legend that they choose to believe. That the particulars get changed doesn’t seem to matter much. The important thing was understanding something difficult to comprehend, and these people were doing the best that they could. I guess I agreed with him, but I still didn’t like it. I wished people would simply call a duck a duck, or in this case, a monster a monster or else a satanic cult or a couple of kids with a box of syringes and too much time on their hands. Dad grunted his agreement, and I knew that our bridge had at least a foundation, if not the arch and span I envisioned.
It was the same story in Cuero, only the weather was even worse, the southeastern section of Texas being the swamp ass of the United States, I decided—though I had never been to Louisiana, so I might have been wrong. I don’t know. Like everywhere, Dad grabbed his doodads and whatsits, grabbed baggies for samples of whoknowswhat, and took notes with his pad and pen. I started feeling a little afraid by then, both because I felt like my guts were being liquefied and because I didn’t want the trip to end. There was still some barrier between me and Dad that I needed to eliminate, but I still couldn’t place it. I needed more time. Home seemed a worse and worse place to go, not only because I had no apartment or job, but because I’d exhausted all my friends and favors. It wasn’t just that the Ace Cash problems had snowballed into the Speedy Cash ordeal, or that this had morphed into some sort of larger case file, which included other former places of my employment and my various check cashing habits—I didn’t even get the money from Ace, so what was the problem? The real, honest to god, swear upon my life reason was that this proximity with Dad was going to be gone, he was my traveling buddy and my confidant and we were connecting in ways before unimaginable. Sure, I was sick now, but I would get better. I was probably getting better already.
The last farmer we talked to was a conman through and through. He tried to sell us a story so patently bogus my eyes rolled into my head on their own volition, like an animal afraid of bullshit. I happened to have been a person in my old life that needed to stretch the truth a bit to get by. I knew the difference between the semi-believable and the outright chain yankers, and this was off the charts. Dad kept taking his little notes. He was even suckered into buying a few pieces of the crap that man was hocking, so-called genuine shards of nails from the Chupacabra. I confronted Dad, even though I felt like my eyes were falling out of my head, and told him I couldn’t believe that he had fallen for such an obvious line. He told me that sometimes stories didn’t add up, but that didn’t mean that a kernel of truth wasn’t there. He told me how Mountain Gorillas were considered a myth for hundreds of years, and it wasn’t until 1902, when one was shot and killed by a European that the tales of the savages were finally taken seriously.
There’d been too many disparities, too little fact mixed into the stories told, but it had been true all along. There was, he told me, the pearl to be found in the mud, but only if you looked. It was hard work looking at dirt and shit all day, but it could be worth it. I told him the money would have been better spent, maybe for some medicine for his son, for example. I told him that when he knew a line was bogus he should nip it in the bud, because if you didn’t stop chasing lies, you would spend your whole life staring at nothing but shit, and then where were you? He didn’t say anything, but I know the words hit home.
Later that night, at the hotel, Dad told me that he wouldn’t be heading home yet, which was fine with me until he told me he was going on into Mexico and he might keep going south after that. I didn’t have a passport and besides I didn’t need the hassle of trying to get myself through official checkpoints, sometimes things didn’t necessarily stay localized, though I just told Dad about the passport. He shrugged like always and gave me a thousand dollars stuffed in a white envelope he had pulled from absolutely nowhere, and told me it should be enough for cough syrup or whatever, and a flight home. He said I should probably go to a doctor and have them take care of my flu when I got there. He said he would be back in maybe a month. He wanted to hear the stories of the lizard Chupacabra, he wanted the tales of the Central American alien, the raw and horrible thing that made people afraid to leave their house, even if his Spanish was of the high school yooper variety, and he hoped to see me when he got back.
I was walking in the dark for my medicine when I saw it. It wasn’t more than twenty feet away, slinking out of the tree line. It was the eyes that gave it away, the eyes that changed everything, that shone like the world was ending, like it knew. I stood there until it slunk back from where it had emerged, the twenty in my hand gone sweaty and crumpled, and I thought, Dad, you are not going to believe this, but I have to tell you something.