Dead Daddies and White Castles

This essay will have a dead daddy in it. There will be some other stuff in here, but it will mainly be about a dead daddy (mine). There are some who want to know the details. I am not one of those people. But I’m also not generally a reader of dead daddy stories. Add to that list, chronicles of dying relatives of any kind, memories about bad mommies, and random musings on the sanctity of Grandmomma’s cooking. But this is just my preference, and I like mustard on my French fries, so who am I to judge? But for those who can read these stories of dead and dying loved ones, of failed cobblers, of bad parenting, and don’t grow uncomfortable with the level of intimacy they require, who don’t squirm at the level of self-aggrandizing they inherently evoke, who don’t roll their eyes and think, “You and everyone else…”, I’ll give the following details. My father was sixty-two. [1] My father died at home in, and because of, his sleep. [2] My father lived by himself. My father was slightly overweight. My father liked a stiff drink. My father had just recently bought a bike. My father loved, in the following debatable order, the following things: himself (large break), me, his ex-wife (his second), [3] his other daughter, her children, the memory of his grandmother, female attention (which may or may not have included sex), Detroit, White Castle, poker, my mother (his first wife), his twenty-eight years as a cop, the Washington Redskins, a nice dark liquor, the Temptations, The Godfather, a good book. I won’t write about the ongoing legal battle between me and his second wife over his “estate”—basically a pair of socks and a Charles Mann autograph—because that’s even more boring and predictable than dead daddy stories. I won’t write about any of the other women in his life, including my mother and his other daughter (who was born when I was thirteen, and who I didn’t know existed until I was twenty-one). I won’t write about the team that plays football in Washington, because they really don’t play in Washington and they shouldn’t keep that name, and that’s just one of the areas where my father and I saw things very differently. But I will write about White Castle and my dead father, and if you read this as an apology of sorts, it is, but maybe not for what you think.

*     *     *

I won’t write about the ongoing legal battle between me and his second wife over his “estate”—basically a pair of socks and a Charles Mann autograph—because that’s even more boring and predictable than dead daddy stories.

There is a picture. [5]  In the picture, my father has his head braided into five cornrows. He is wearing a dark green dashiki that my mother made for him. My mother braided his hair. The image of what that entailed—he sitting between her legs, she parting his hair and oiling his scalp—embarrasses me. In one hand, he holds a long barrel rifle. In his other arm, he is holding me as a baby. The way he holds the rifle, the gun angles across his body. I have my tiny hand on the wooden barrel of the gun. My father is wearing sunglasses. His look says, “I will defend to the death, this baby in my arm.” The picture says, “I am willing to bleed for the revolution, so that this little girl will have a better world.” The gun says, “You had until April 4th to pull it together. Now, it’s a demand…”  I could say that I’m looking at the camera as if to say, “I was born in the Congo…” while djembes beat in the background. I could say that you look at the me in the picture and know that if I could talk I would say, “It is the right of the people to alter or to abolish this destructive government, Daddy, and institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form as to affect my safety— actually, our collective safety and happiness.”  But, I’m a baby, so mostly I just look like I’m ready for a nap.

*     *     *

My mother, who took the picture, says of it now, “We were always being so dramatic then. Like raising baby Kunta to the night sky. My God, I can’t tell you how many times that picture was reenacted.” My mother is not prone to high levels of sentimentality. Both my father and I are.

*     *     *

Or is it “were”? Or is it “I am” and “He was”? And how do you write that sentence? “It doesn’t matter,” I would tell my students, “it’s a fragment anyway.”

*     *     *

The closest White Castle to where my father lived is in Tom’s River, which according to MapQuest is about eighty-nine miles away. There is really nothing exciting in Tom’s River. We—my father, mother, and I—and later, just my father and I, have driven to Tom’s River with no other expressed purpose but to get a sack. I have not eaten red meat in more than sixteen years.

*     *     *

My father became a cop because we moved to Bridgeton, New Jersey, and he needed a job, and somehow his fifteen-year-old charge for trying to bring seventeen stolen guns [6] from New York City to Detroit in a stolen car hadn’t shown up on his background check. At my Daddy’s repast, a man wearing a gold tooth and a brown silk pantsuit sat next to me. “Your father was always a soldier. Extra food tray. Some more time on the phone. Once he saw me on the outside, at a store, and said, ‘I think I have some mail for you.’ He did what he could. Unlike—” and here he lowered his voice and nodded his head towards the table of cops eating behind us, “some of these other motherfuckers who get a badge and forget they niggahs too.”

*     *     *

My father and I hated that word. Whenever I argued that the name of the team playing in Fed Ex stadium was just as bad, my father would only sigh. My mother, when admonished about saying the word replied, “Context is everything, ‘Keng.”

*     *     *

The first White Castle opened in Detroit in 1929. When both my father and I were growing up, there were more White Castles in Motown than Burger Kings, Wendy’s and even McDonald’s. The basic design of White Castle, white sparkling tile and shiny spotless chrome, has stayed mostly the same over the store’s one-hundred-year history. White Castles (popular opinion be damned) were always so clean that when I was a little girl, walking into them on a sunny days almost hurt my eyes.

*     *     *

This is coincidence, but growing up, both of the bathrooms in our houses were predominately white tile. And this reminds me of the time, not too long after a school lesson on Sir Alexander Fleming, that I looked in our medicine cabinet and saw a prescription bottle for penicillin.

*     *     *

The following things, in the following order, make me cry for months afterwards: the chewing gum commercial when the woman goes to college with a box filled with folded wrappers, seeing a man holding his baby in an Ergo, hearing the Temptations play on Muzak, getting pulled over for not coming to a complete stop, the Extra chewing gum commercial when the woman goes to college with a shoebox filled with folded gum wrapper birds that had been lovingly folded for her by her father over the years.

*     *     *

My father had, by my accounts, sex with over twenty women during the time he was married to my mother. This is a surprisingly accurate guess considering that I was a child for most of my parents’ marriage. When, days after his funeral, I share my tally with my mother, she says, “Well, that’s probably a very conservative estimate.” But I said this isn’t about my mother and it isn’t.

*     *     *

My father’s favorite song was “Papa was a Rolling Stone.” [7]

*     *     *

It is five months after my father died in and because of his sleep, not because of his diet, and this man who loves me and whom my father liked, has never had a White Castle. So we drive to a White Castle, and I take great pains to explain to him how to order. No ketchup. At least four. A mixture of both cheese and plain. He orders two, plain. He slides the burger out of the thin cardboard box and looks at it, turning it around to inspect it. He peels off the bottom bun, and then (and this pains me to write), scrapes off the soggy part of the bun where the burger’s juices have soaked through. He wipes his finger on a napkin, spreading remnants of burger and bun onto the sheet. He then neatly folds over the napkin. I am watching all of this through the lens of my phone. I had been poised to take a picture of him eating his first White Castle. And somehow, I still click as he takes a bite. His face is pained, as if I have forced him to eat cuy or tripe or hog maws. He swallows painfully and then says, “Well, give me a Wendy’s any day.”

*     *     *

This man, who I think loves me, was liked by my father because of a shared love of 1970s American History. My father liked this man, despite the fact that this man is white. My father liked this man, who gave him a copy of Detroit: I Do Mind Dying. My father liked this man, despite the fact that this man does not gamble. This man really does not drink. This man, I know deeply, purely, completely, would never cheat. He is as aghast at infidelity as I once was. His parents have recently celebrated their sixtieth wedding anniversary. But a week later, I’m looking at the picture of him eating his first slider and I know I’m eventually going to delete it, just as now I’m deleting text messages from another man I met six months before I started dating this man. And I hear David Byrne in my head and I think, “My God, what have I done…”

*     *     *

I think I love the following things, in the following order: my mother, myself, my father (large break), my best friend who lives in Detroit, the memory of my dead grandmothers, male attention (which may or may not include sex), White Castle…

I think I love the following things, in the following order: my mother, myself, my father (large break), my best friend who lives in Detroit, the memory of my dead grandmothers, male attention (which may or may not include sex), White Castle, Detroit, a nice glass of wine, a good book, The Godfather.

I know I don’t love the following things as much as I should: the man who doesn’t like White Castle, my father’s family, New Jersey, police officers.

*     *     *

When my father graduated from the Trenton Police Academy, we went to White Castle for his graduation dinner. This probably isn’t important, but I wanted to mention it anyway.

*     *     *

In what was probably my mother’s last stand against “the man,” she didn’t seek child support from my father when we moved out. (Perhaps, she should have. At that point, my father had already been in the system for six years.) The arrangement was that she wouldn’t get the courts involved, provided that my parents would alternate on paying for my college tuition. When my second semester arrived and it became time for my father to pay, he wasn’t able to pay. Somehow (credit cards, overtime, loans) my mother was able to get the tuition. In the fall, my father again was unable to pay his portion. I had to come home, to Bridgeton, for two years.

*     *     *

During that first summer home, my father came over to show me a brand new truck he and Madame Mastodon had just purchased. It was one of the Big Three’s finest—white, all chrome with custom details. I would like to say that I reasonably shared my disappointment with my father; that I calmly asked how he could afford a truck, yet, could ignore the bills from my university’s bursar’s office. But I didn’t. I cried, I yelled. I cursed. I slammed the door. I did not speak to my father for seven years.

*     *     *

In dead daddy stories, someone inevitably wishes they hadn’t said this or wishes they hadn’t done that. But, I’m not one of those people.

*     *     *

In dead daddy stories, someone inevitably wishes they hadn’t said this or wishes they hadn’t done that. But, I’m not one of those people.

So, yeah, this isn’t really about White Castle. But it should be. Those perfect little burgers, made square so that they can fit more on the grill. Those five holes in the center so that the meat melts, melts in your mouth. Those crispy, crinkly, crunchy fries. And the Coke. My God, the Coca-Cola.

*     *     *

Six months later, my closest friend, my friend who lives in Detroit, told me that White Castle was selling turkey sliders. And since I gave up red meat, when I go—nay, went—to White Castle with my dad, I’d have to order chicken (which is NOT the same thing). She called me, whispering on the phone from underneath her cubicle. She knew what hearing that news would mean to me. The next Saturday, after getting her call, I went to three White Castles in upstate New Jersey, with employees at each store looking blankly at me when I asked for turkey burgers. A year earlier, this would have been the perfect joke to play on me. Seven months earlier, I would have laughed when I went to my fourth White Castle, this time near Penn Station, and again, was met with confused faces when I placed my order. Four turkey burgers, no ketchup, fries, a Coke.

No turkey, the counter woman said to me twice because I just stood there, looking at her after she had said it the first time. She looked to her coworker as if maybe her English wasn’t getting the message across. I ordered fries, Coke, two chicken sandwiches, and walked to a table.

And I’m sitting there, in a booth, in a White Castle, and I’m thinking about my daddy. And for some reason, I remember something I had forgotten about, the way that it happens in dead daddy stories.

My father and I are at a beach, a lake, really, and he is trying to teach me to swim. And he promises me if I can hold my breath, if I try to swim just a bit, he’ll take me over to a sandbar that exists on the other side. And because my father knows me and because my father knows that I have never seen a sandbar, and because my father knows that in just the few minutes since he’s made that offer, I’ve imagined the sandbar to be much more than a patch of sand, he knows how much of an incentive that offer was. And so I try to swim much harder than I had been trying earlier. I make it halfway towards him where he stood, marking my distance. After I rest for a bit, he tells me to hop on his back and then my father dives in and swims towards the sandbar. I am scared. I am excited. I hold onto his neck too tightly, and at times he says to me, “Not so tight, Pooh.” But he keeps swimming, he keeps swimming.

I’m suddenly one of those people crying in public. I’m furiously wiping my eyes with a napkin someone left on the table. And I know the poor girl at the counter is thinking that I’m unstable or I’m taking their lack of turkey really hard. And as my number is called, as they tell me my order is ready, I’m crying in a booth in a White Castle because it hits me, really hits me. In dead daddy stories, fathers can be a lot of things. But the one thing they can’t ever be is alive.

 

Author’s Notes:

[1] The average life expectancy for black males in the United States is 71.8. This is about five years shorter than the expected age of death for white men, seven years shorter than the expectancy of black women and about ten years less than that of white women.

[2] His official cause of death was listed as sleep apnea. Who knew?

[3] The order of the next two things in his list is debatable. For the years 1998-2013, his ex-wife—the hideous succubus in the form of Mrs. Snufflelupagus [4] who he was married to during that time—might be third in this list.  For the years 1971-1987, my mother would have been third, and for a brief period, second in the list.

[4]  This is being unkind to Mrs. Snufflelupagus, who besides being a perfectly lovely beast, had the most exquisite eyelashes that were years ahead of the trend.

[5] In dead daddy stories, there is always a picture.

[6] “They must arm themselves as best they can (rifles, revolvers, bombs, knives, knuckle-dusters, sticks, rags soaked in kerosene for starting fires, ropes or rope ladders, shovels for building barricades, pyroxylin cartridges, barbed wire, nails [against cavalry], etc., etc.). Under no circumstances should they wait for help from other sources, from above, from the outside; they must procure everything themselves.” –Lenin “Sometimes you have to pick up the gun, to put down the gun.” –Malcolm X

[7] I cannot make this shit up.

 

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Special Guest Judge, Ana Maria Spagna, on “Dead Daddies and White Castles”:

“There is so much to admire in this essay: the lively voice, the powerful imagery (the rifle, the sunglasses, the cornrows, the soggy White Castle bun), the strong sense of context, the subtle humor, and most of all the devastating self-awareness of the narrator.”

Ana Maria Spagna is the author of six nonfiction books including Reclaimers and Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus, winner of the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize.

 

N’kenge Feagin is a Philadelphia-based, Detroit-born, Jersey-raised writer who spent most of her adult life living in Washington, DC. She’s been an adjunct, state park janitor, Girl 6, bartender, program coordinator, hostess, fugitive, waitress, comedy scriptwriter, nonprofit supervisor, restaurant manager, and to her five-year-old relatives, “The Best Cousin EVERRR.”

 

The Space Between the Stars

My daughter, Angie, splashes in the swimming pool one minute, then jumps into the hot tub the next minute, at our rented beach house in Kea’au, a tiny town on the eastern side of Hawaii’s Big Island. Afternoon clouds break as she goes from one extreme to the other, sending herself into alternating fits of giggles and shivers. Beyond her, past a row of towering palms, lies the mighty Pacific Ocean, still roiling from a passing storm. Giant waves pound the jet-black lava rocks, fierce and curling, like a temper.

From this distance, I can hear the ocean’s relentless rumble, feel each wave in my chest like the after-boom of fireworks. I can also scan the horizon for signs of trouble. In 1946, a tsunami hit this part of the island, killing 159 people. Among the dead were twenty schoolchildren—all second-graders, just like my daughter.

But here on the island, we sit at the mouth of an angry sea, its churlish tongue lashing at the edges of the land.

That day in 1946, the wave hit just before 7 a.m., about the time Angie would normally be eating her scrambled eggs and drinking her chocolate milk at the kitchen table. I’m usually on my second cup of coffee by then, ready to swap pajama-bottoms for jeans and walk her to school. We live in Los Angeles, closer to the mountains than the ocean. The mountains have their own dangers: rockslides, wildfires, mountain lions, bears. But here on the island, we sit at the mouth of an angry sea, its churlish tongue lashing at the edges of the land.

And what if I were to see an approaching tsunami? Would there be enough time to react? Time to pull Angie from the pool? Time to alert my husband, James, inside the beach house? Time to jump in our rental car and drive to higher ground? Seventy years ago, the surge took residents by surprise, sending them scrambling for shelter. Those who didn’t find refuge in time were swept out to sea. Homes were destroyed. Buildings were ruined. Children were missing.

My child is safe. My child is secure. This is my mantra, recited daily whether she’s in school or at a friend’s house or climbing on the jungle gym at the park. The words are a balm, of sorts, for the constant worry that something bad is going to happen to my family. But she is fine. See? There she is on the deck, happy and healthy, hopping from the cold pool to the steaming tub, feeling one extreme and then another on her ivory skin.

*     *     *

My husband wanted to go to Costa Rica. Ten days in the rainforest, he said. Ziplining, snorkeling, trekking through jungles, swimming under waterfalls. Instead, my mind flashed to jaguars, monkeys and poisonous snakes, to vaccinations and passports and civil unrest in neighboring countries.

How about Hawaii? I suggested.

Sure, he said. Find a place to rent. Something on the water.

We chose the east side of the Big Island, mostly for its verdant landscape and lack of tourists—the perfect place to celebrate Christmas and our first wedding anniversary. For days, I searched online and over the phone, looking for a place for the three of us to stay. But with only three weeks to go before the holiday, everything was either booked or too expensive. I wondered if I’d have to face the wilds of Central America.

Eventually, though, I found the beach house in Kea’au, just south of Hilo. It promised quietude and privacy, two things lacking in suburban LA. I paid the deposit and exchanged email messages with the owner, who sent along photographs of coconuts and pineapples growing in the yard, of hibiscuses and bromeliads lining the walkway, of the setting sun glowing warm and orange over the water.

With my internet search focused entirely on rental properties, I overlooked an important fact: the Big Island is home to three active volcanoes, including one currently in a state of eruption. Videos from Hawaiian television stations showed lava flowing from Mt. Kilauea toward the remote village of Pahoa. Residents were evacuating. A handful of homes had already burned. All of this was happening eleven miles from Kea’au, our tropical island retreat, our safe alternative to Costa Rica. I wanted to cancel, but the plane tickets were already booked. The rental deposit had already been paid.

In the days leading up to our vacation, I lost sight of the bromeliads. I forgot about the radiant sky and the abundant fruit. Instead, I lay awake in the night thinking about Hilo, the foggy coastal town prone to tsunamis, and Pahoa, the tiny village in the path of an erupting volcano. I thought of riptides pulling my child out to sea, of storm waves flooding our beach house, of red-hot liquid rock blocking the only road out of town.

*     *     *

When I was a child, maybe six or seven, I told my mother something bad was going to happen. I didn’t know what, and I didn’t know when, but something terrible was waiting, like an animal ready to pounce. Now, as an adult, I wonder where that feeling came from. Was it inherited from my father, who unplugged the toaster and the television whenever we left the house? Or was it more pragmatic? In my hometown in rural western Maine, terrible things happened all the time. Cars veered off snowy roadways. Parents lost their jobs. Trailer homes burned down, sometimes even on Christmas Day. In our own trailer, which rested on blocks at the end of a dead-end street, Dad sometimes lost his temper. After his shift at the local shoe factory, he came home chatty or surly, depending on how many beers he’d had. Any little thing—unfolded laundry or a bicycle left in the driveway—could set him off. I learned how to be on guard, ready for anything.

*     *     *

The first newspaper story I ever wrote as a journalist was about death. It was August 1997, and the car carrying Princess Diana had just crashed into a tunnel wall in Paris. Her passing was sudden and grisly, and despite the geographical distance, it left people in the United States reeling. My assignment that day was to interview locals who were stricken by the loss, even though they had never actually met the princess.

After the story made page one, my reporting career comprised a slew of personal and national tragedies: fires, murders, assaults, even a kidnapping. Some of the incidents were high profile, like the crash of John F. Kennedy Jr.’s plane off Martha’s Vineyard or the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City. But most were regular people doing regular things. A Marine carjacked on his way home from boot camp. A nine-year-old boy with terminal cancer. A woman who lost her job and her lover after contracting Lyme disease. I listened to their experiences and wrote their stories, all the while wondering whether they had sensed something bad was going to happen. Had they felt dread or a sense of impending danger? Or had they been completely blind-sided, thrown off track by something too terrible to even imagine?

Sometimes after deadline, I’d sit in my car in the employee parking lot and crumble beneath the weight of their despair. I’d cry for them and for myself, because if something terrible could happen to such nice people, then something terrible could also happen to me.

*     *     *

When my daughter was born in 2006, I gave up news writing to focus on raising her in a world where good things happen, not just bad. By then, though, the damage was done. I saw trouble everywhere. My baby’s leg could get caught in the swing set. The blanket in her crib could smother her in the night. She might choke on a Cheerio or tumble down the stairs. Then what would I do?

That year, during the divorce, I had my first panic attack. As I stood at the kitchen counter slicing cheese for Angie’s lunch, a dark wave moved over me.

Her father, my first husband, worked as a boat driver, and when he went to work each morning, I worried he might fall off the vessel and drown. I imagined all the widows I’d met over the years, all the children whose fathers died in the World Trade Center, who had heart attacks at work or were killed in Iraq. I made urgent prayers. Please don’t let anything bad happen to my family. I crossed my fingers. I begged him to be careful. But in the end, it didn’t matter. Something bad happened anyway, only it wasn’t the thing I’d thought it would be. Instead of falling off the boat, he fell in love with another woman.

That year, during the divorce, I had my first panic attack. As I stood at the kitchen counter slicing cheese for Angie’s lunch, a dark wave moved over me. It seemed like I was going to die, not because I wanted to—I didn’t—but because everything in my body was happening too quickly. My heart slammed inside my chest. My skin felt hot and prickly, like electricity. My vision blurred. My hands trembled. Then, as suddenly as the feeling came, it stopped. I told the doctor it was a heart attack. She said it was anxiety.

*     *     *

On our first evening in Kea’au, instead of joining Angie and James on the deck to watch the stars, I search the house for anything that could potentially hurt my daughter: sharp knives in kitchen drawers, glassware on high shelves, electrical wires lying loose along the floorboards. Like LA, Hawaii is prone to earthquakes, and if something is going to fall during a jolt, I want to be ready for it. If I’m ready, then we’ll be safe.

Even as I go from room to room, restless and hyper-vigilant, the absurdity of the situation is clear to me: here I am, in a tropical island utopia, searching for things to worry about. I should be outside counting stars, but instead, I am relocating ashtrays, checking locks on windows and doors, and pushing Angie’s bed against the wall so she won’t roll out in her sleep.

When everything seems secure, I call Angie in from the deck, tuck her into bed and lie with her until she falls asleep. Outside, waves crash. The night darkens. Palm branches brush the tile roof, and coqui frogs chant their high-pitched calls. Ko-kee. Ko-kee. Everything is beautiful. Everything is scary.

*     *     *

The next day, strong winds blow from the west as the three of us sit by the pool playing Uno. Hurricanes are rare in Hawaii, but still, I wonder about the possibility. As Angie lays her card on the pile, a coconut frond the size of a bicycle crashes down onto the deck, just a few feet from where we sit. The clatter sends a clench to the center of my chest.

James and I have been married only a year, but he knows when I am uneasy. He sees me grip the seat belt when we drive along twisty mountain roads. He watches my hesitation when I’m about to try something new. He doesn’t always understand the origin of my anxiety or grasp how deeply it affects me, but he stays composed and logical, a welcome antidote to my agitation.

For a moment, nobody moves. But then James sets down his cards, walks to the frond in the yard and lifts it up over the fence, out of sight but not entirely out of mind. When we resume our game, Angie plays a red skip card, meaning I lose my turn. James studies his hand, and I wonder if the wind will get stronger, if more branches will fall. When my turn comes back around, I lay a blue seven, hoping it’s lucky.

*     *     *

After the weather improves, we go to a beach park in Hilo. There are no sandy beaches here, just rocky ledges and inlets. A breakwater protects the cove from pounding surf, but there is still a strong current and a rising tide. We lay our things on the rocks and make our way down to the water. James and Angie jump in right away, but I perch at the edge, dipping one foot and then the other.

Back on the rocks, a young man in a baseball cap sits next to our things. He is fully dressed, no swimsuit, with earbuds and a cellphone. Another man in the same attire stands on the street near our rental car. The agency gave us a red Mustang convertible—a virtual neon sign advertising our tourist status. The men make me nervous. I’ve read about pickpockets and thieves at Hawaiian beaches, how coordinated and covert they are with their hits. If these guys take our stuff, we’ll be stranded. No phone to call for help. No money for a cab back to the beach house. No identification to fly home.

I scramble back up the rocks to retrieve our things, then keep watch while James and Angie finish their swim. There is trouble everywhere, all the time. But if I’m vigilant enough, if I worry just right, I can save us.

*     *     *

Midway through our vacation, we drive to an abandoned transfer station on Apa’a Street in Pahoa to see the lava flow from Kilauea, which has been erupting off and on for thirty years. On Hawaii, lava is part of life, and locals have learned to live with it. When molten rock threatened their homes and their school, when it closed the highway, the people of Pahoa worked around it. They moved in with friends, relocated the schoolchildren, and built a bypass.

Because visitors are curious about the flow, county officials set up this viewing station, marked by ropes and metal fencing. The fencing is melted in spots where the molten rock advanced, then cooled into thick black slabs. The air is warm and slightly sulfurous, as small, scattered plumes of smoke still rise over the hardened landscape. Spectators are quiet and still, humbled by the sight of what nature can do.

Along the ropes lay piles of coins, fruits and colorful flowers—a stark contrast to the hard, black lava-rock. These are gifts, or makana, left behind to appease Pele, the goddess of volcanoes. Angie and I leave the only things we have in our pockets: two pennies and a piece of spearmint gum wrapped in silver paper—a modest appeasement for the deity of destruction and regeneration.

*     *     *

After the divorce, my panic attacks subsided. A general nervousness remained, though, as Angie and I restarted our lives. I rented an apartment, put her in daycare for the first time, and juggled part-time jobs. We spent our evenings on the living room rug, playing with blocks and reading books. Tumble Bumble and Goodnight Moon. When things got lonely, when life felt insurmountable, we finger-painted at the kitchen table and went for long walks through our small, quiet town.

When trouble comes, you can learn to live with it. You can build a road or make a bridge and find another way around. Or you can stand at the foot of what scares you the most, watching sulfur rise from the ashes, knowing you can rise too.

After two years on our own, Angie and I packed our things and got on a plane bound for southern California. She went to kindergarten and I went to graduate school, thanks to a scholarship from an organization that supports journalists. When we met James, I waited for something bad to happen, for him to reveal himself as untrustworthy or unpredictable. I waited and waited, but only good things happened. Card games and movie nights. Trips to the zoo. Christmases and birthday celebrations. Eventually he and I married, high on a mountain overlooking LA, the sky clear enough to see all the way to the Pacific.

*     *     *

One morning, we wade into a manmade lagoon in Waikoloa Village, on the west side of the island. The water is salty and clear, and we can see down to our feet. Tiny swimmers dart left and right. Saddle wrasses, triggerfish, small scurrying crabs. The lagoon is ocean-fed, meaning any creature that wishes may make its way inside. An octopus, perhaps. A jellyfish or a barracuda.  I worry Angie will step on a sea urchin or bump into an eel. I keep a close eye on her, trailing as she explores the shallows.

I want to pull them back, set them both down on the beach where it’s safer, but instead I follow. I follow because if something bad is going to happen, I want to be there to help.

Then James urges her deeper, toward the middle of the lagoon. He is more adventuresome than I am, with no compulsion for constant watchfulness. He takes Angie’s hand and moves her through the water slowly, gauging my level of nervousness. I want to pull them back, set them both down on the beach where it’s safer, but instead I follow. I follow because if something bad is going to happen, I want to be there to help.

As the current swirls around our bellies, then our shoulders, the water gets a bit murkier. Still, we see schools of brightly colored fish. Orange, yellow, blue and green. They swim between our legs and around in circles, shining like sequins in the sun’s refracted light. It’s like being inside a kaleidoscope.

Then, in the distance, a large shadow appears. It moves toward us, slowly—so slowly that for a moment I wonder if it’s moving at all. No one speaks. I imagine a shark or a dolphin, maybe some kind of ray. I glance back at the beach, wondering if we have enough time to make it back to the shore. I reach for Angie’s hand, readying myself for whatever is going to happen next, as James adjusts his goggles and dips his head beneath the surface.

It’s just a turtle, he says.

Green sea turtles, or honu, are common around the island. Locals refer to them as great navigators because they travel hundreds of miles to lay eggs in their original birthplaces. In local folklore, they are considered good-luck symbols of a guardian spirit. In one story, a turtle named Kauila turns into a girl and watches over the other children playing along the shoreline.

My instinct, though, is to pull my daughter back and keep her away. Adult honu weigh two hundred pounds, sometimes more. The sight of the creature gliding toward us makes my muscles tighten, makes my chest hurt. It looks otherworldly and grumpy, a permanent scowl on its old-man face.

Before I can grab Angie, she lifts her feet away from the sandy bottom and paddles toward the animal. In a flash, they are swimming alongside one another. Sunbeams gleam into the water, illuminating the turtle’s marbled shell and my child’s golden-brown hair. She looks mystical, angelic.

Without thinking, I lift my feet away too, unclenching for the first time during our vacation. My body dips beneath the surface, where sunlight glistens through salt water. I grab my daughter’s hand and glide with her, awestruck by the incredible lightness in my own body. For once, there is no tightness in my chest. There is no dread or foreboding. We are underwater with a giant turtle, and for an instant, nothing else exists.

*     *     *

On our final day in Hawaii, we walk the streets of downtown Hilo, stopping for burgers at one place, ice cream cones at another. We peek inside an art gallery, wander a bookstore, and watch a barefoot man play ukulele on the corner. Along the roadways, blue-and-white signs mark the official tsunami evacuation route, another reminder of the ever-present potential for disaster.

After the destruction of the 1946 swell, Hilo officials redesigned the city’s infrastructure and buildings. They planted trees and set up a buffer zone between the shoreline and the business district. They built a seawall, raised the highway, and implemented a new tsunami warning system with sirens. When another wave hit in 1960, sixty-one residents died, despite all the city’s precautions.

*     *     *

That night, I tuck Angie into bed and slip outside to join James in a lounge chair on the deck. Strong winds are moving over the island again, pushing clouds across our field of vision. It’s chaotic and scary, but also exciting. Waves are slamming the shoreline. Palms are bending in the breeze, their fronds rustling in a wild crescendo. Now and then, we hear one snap, hear it tumble to the ground somewhere in the darkness around us.

As the storm pushes the clouds away, the stars come into sight—a few at first and then hundreds, maybe thousands, shimmering inside our sphere of uncertainty.

It takes all the strength I have not to run back inside and check on my daughter, to make sure she is okay and the noises haven’t startled her. What keeps me in my chair, though, is the night sky, how blue it is, how deep and eternal. As the storm pushes the clouds away, the stars come into sight—a few at first and then hundreds, maybe thousands, shimmering inside our sphere of uncertainty.

Anything can happen, at any time and in any place. A tectonic plate could shift in Chile or the Aleutian Islands, triggering an earthquake or a volcano or seismic wave in Hilo or Sumatra. Uncertainty is the natural state of our world. It’s what makes everything scary. It’s what makes everything beautiful.

I can’t stop bad things from happening, but maybe I can see my fear for what it is: the memory of disasters gone by. When I feel nervous, when I feel dread, I can hold the black wave in my chest, feel it swirl and churn. Then maybe I can let it go, just a bit, so I won’t miss the bright moments. So much lies in the blank space between stars. I am learning to navigate the darkness.

And if that’s what my anxiety truly is, the consciousness of prior catastrophe, then isn’t that also what stars are—celestial bodies that existed long ago, that exploded when I wasn’t paying attention, when I was sleeping or eating or worrying about something else? Aren’t they also memories of a different sort, still sending their light, showing me that the world, however frightening, is also divine?

I reach for my husband’s hand as even more stars appear, closing the distance between one bright spot and the next.

 

Wendy Fontaine is a Pushcart-nominated writer whose work has appeared in Hippocampus, Passages North, Readers Digest, Literary Mama, Brain Child, Role Reboot, and elsewhere. In 2015, she won the Tiferet Prize for creative nonfiction. She teaches creative writing and journalism, lives in Los Angeles, and is currently seeking representation for her memoir, Leaves in the Fall. Follow her on Twitter @wendymfontaine

Photo by Ali Dubin Photography

 

Rat Fink

My brother Mark is the essence of juvey cool, hair slicked back in a perfect duck’s ass, white T-shirt with a pack of Camels rolled up in one sleeve, Levis like the skin he was born in, pointy-toed shoes that the Mexican kids call cockroach killers. He is sixteen, months from dropping out of high school to join the Navy, one of the last recruits they’ll take under eighteen without a diploma. It is a time of screaming all over the house, wives throwing ashtrays at cheating husbands’ heads, acid-bitter grandmas pounding their canes against guestroom walls, sisters squabbling over trinkets, and Mark in a boxer’s stance, face hard, while Dad shouts about speeding tickets and F report cards and a room like a demolition site. “No more sitting back here in squalor messing around with this thing,” Dad yells, picking up Mark’s acoustic guitar by the neck from a pile of clothes and papers near the bed. Mark grabs the guitar from his hand, raises it above his head, and brings it smashing down on the bedpost. Sprong, go the strings.

*     *     *

He burns through life like it is a drag race down a Central Valley back road after midnight on a full moon with cop sirens closing in.

Mark is vivid in the family legend, the first born, the original in a bookend-set of two sons sixteen years apart with four daughters in between. He is a rebel and a scrapper, knows how to fight and to fix cars, falls hard in love. He has no use for his old man’s life-of-the-mind, expressed in hours of booze-fueled talk around the kitchen table, nor for the mild professional tolerance of his social-worker mom. He burns through life like it is a drag race down a Central Valley back road after midnight on a full moon with cop sirens closing in. I know all the Mark stories, and have a couple of my own, but mostly I associate him with absence: his first, then mine, then his again. That, and the passionate memories of others. I have scarcely any claim on him at all.

*     *     *

My older sister is born in 1953, five years after Mark, and occupies with him the temporary nucleus of a perfectly calibrated postwar family. My parents call her Eve, the first female, with a middle name of Adrian after the college where they met, from which they’d set out on bicycles to Oregon to start a new life of letters, running a weekly newspaper far from the sad snows of Michigan. Adrian turns out to be the name that suits her best, Mark agrees. Those Sandy, Oregon years set the template for who the four of them will henceforth always be to each other. The brilliant, reprobate father who would buy a horse for $10 from some Indian bar-buddy. The sensible wife who would laugh tartly that the office rent had yet to be paid, and no one in the family knew how to ride. The fearless first son, who would vault onto the pony’s bare back and lean forward into its mane, urging it forward. And the fierce first daughter who would chase behind, face to hooves, clamoring for her turn at the danger.

*     *     *

Family pictures tell a certain kind of story. There’s Mark at eight in his plaid cowboy shirt and six-guns, scowl-smiling under his cowlicks, hand on the shoulder of Ade in her braids, gazing up at him as if for a signal. Riley the collie is poised watchful at their feet. The house has a front yard with a red wagon and a couple of bikes. Mom has cat-eye glasses, Dad smokes a pipe. There’s rough newsreel glamour in their setting of type and running of presses, Mark helping deliver the paper they publish every week. Things start tipping out of balance when I am born two years after this photo was snapped, though Mark and Adrian are united as the big kids and praise the collie for keeping me herded in my playpen in that cluttered front yard. Then twins Merry and Melody come a year and a half after me, and the little house and the little town are suddenly too small, the books too short to keep it all going.

*     *     *

In 1962, Dad gets a job at the Sacramento Union, a real newspaper, a daily where he won’t have to sell the ads, just cover his beat: state politics, the aerospace industry. I remember the trip south from Oregon, stopping in the redwoods, driving through a tree big enough to have a car-size tunnel in its trunk. Mark is thirteen. Does he roll his eyes and press his forehead to the car window while the old man plays tour guide to the squeals of us little kids? Or does he patiently read the explanatory placards with me, helping me sound out the hard words? I can’t recall. The snapshot only shows us all lined up against the Chevy in stair-step formation with Mark looking off to the left when the camera flashes.

*     *     *

Rat Fink has bulging pop-eyes and bright green fur, a long tongue lolling out of his maniacal grin, spittle flying while his pointy tail swipes back from his torn T-shirt. Rat Fink loves hot rods and hates rules. Mark draws Rat Fink in elaborate detail on his notes in history class, all over his math homework, and on the back of his report card. Rat Fink puts the school on notice. Of course, Mark is smart: our parents wouldn’t have any other kind of kid. But he’s restless, engine always racing. He’d rather have his head under the hood of a car than in a book. He’d rather act first and worry later. He’d rather leave the rest of us in his dust.

*     *     *

One hot Sacramento Delta summer day, my sister Melody and I, ages four and six, decide to run away from home. We’re bored. We’re tired of watching cars pass by outside the split-rail fence, bound for the freeway. We decide to visit our grandmother who has an apartment in town near the high school where Mark is in tenth grade. We pack some dolls into hobo sacks on sticks and load up a Barbie lunchbox, then head out down the frontage road. We get as far as the creek where some older boys stop fishing to watch us approach.

Where you going? they call out, sauntering up the embankment. Whatcha doing?

We’re frozen to the spot when a Highway Patrol car suddenly pulls up just ahead of us on the shoulder, Mark in the front passenger seat. He leaps out and grabs us both up, one sister under each arm. He slides us into the back of the cop car and orders us to sit while the officer radios to the general store, where Mark tells us our parents are assembling a search party. Mark paces alongside the car, stopping every few circuits to lean his head through the open back window and harangue us. “You little shits,” he says. “You should have seen Mom. What were you thinking?” We’re crying silently, too scared to make a sound, when suddenly he starts to laugh. “And Elk Grove! You could at least have aimed for the city. Maybe even San Francisco. That’s what I would have done.”

He slides his wiry frame into the back seat, scooching Melody and me to the side. “This is where I’m more used to riding,” he whispers to us, out the side of his mouth, then taps the glass separating us from the front seat. “Let’s get these little criminals back home,” he says.

*     *     *

In the fall of 1964, my parents finally have their last child, their second son. They joke that Matthew should have been born with the Pill in his fist, so unexpected is he. He’s also just golden and sweet enough to extend their marriage a few years beyond the end of its natural life. One day when Matt is two, he toddles out of the yard of the house we are renting in the middle of a dairy farm, drifts away from his babysitter, who is in front of the bathroom mirror perfecting her Cleopatra eyeliner. The corn is already a couple feet high; the pear orchard is leafing out; the silo door gapes open; the bulls in the big barn are pawing the ground and snuffling toward their lady cows, bumping together around the milking machines. The babysitter’s screams bring the farmhands running, and finally one of them climbs up to the top of the silo and spots Matt making his meandering way across the cornfield toward the county road. The Portuguese foreman and his teenage son bring Matt home howling with fury. Melody and I know Mark would have found Matt in an instant and made him laugh just as fast. But our tracker-brother is gone, off to the other side of the world. He left when Matt was barely a year old. Maybe that’s who Matt was looking for when he wandered off.

*     *     *

The Navy has Mark’s date of enlistment as December 15, 1965, five days after his seventeenth birthday. He serves most of his four years on a destroyer off the coast of Vietnam, listening through headphones for enemy subs, like his father in another war before him. “This is the USS Floyd B. Parks (DD 884),” he writes on the back of the regulation photo he sends home. “She was in WWII and Korea also.” On the front of the picture he marks with arrows pointing down below decks, “My sonar station,” and “Where I sleep.” He also sends a picture of the assembled 200-plus men on board, all of them tiny and practically indistinguishable in their matching crewcuts and white caps, with one circled near the left front: “I think this is me.” He gets an elaborate certificate the first time he crosses the equator. He is engaged for a few months to a bar girl in Hong Kong but breaks it off when she calls him another man’s name during one of their scratchy long-distance calls. My mother keeps Mark’s dress blues in her back closet. When we clean her house after her death in 2010, the wool uniform disintegrates at our touch.

*     *     *

She’d spent her teen years in a convent, which makes her role as a common-law co-wife all the more transgressive—or maybe not, since she’d previously been one of Jesus’s many brides.

By the time Mark comes home on leave in September of 1967, we’ve moved again. We’re in Sacramento proper now, giving a Summer of Love-style combined family a try: my mom, us five kids, my dad’s latest paramour and her three kids, all in a haunted-looking Victorian a few blocks from the Capitol. Carilla is in her late twenties, as close to Mark in age as she is to Dad, and beautiful in a sharp, freckled way, partial to white cotton shifts and gold bangles. She’d spent her teen years in a convent, which makes her role as a common-law co-wife all the more transgressive—or maybe not, since she’d previously been one of Jesus’s many brides.

Mark seethes around the house, chin out, cracking his knuckles and muttering imprecations about disrespect of our mother and neglect of our moral care. He’s in Dad’s face daily, seemingly trying to draw him past argument into an actual fistfight that Mark must figure he can win, muscled up as he is by basic training. After each near-blowup there are whispered kitchen conversations between Mark and Carilla in the name of restoring the peace. Soon the whispers are more frequent than the fights. When it’s time for Mark to report back to San Diego and his ship, he leaves behind a letter declaring his love for her. “I may only be nineteen but I am more of a man than he’ll ever be again,” Mark wrote in his all-caps hand on blue-lined loose-leaf binder paper. If she wrote back, there’s no trace of her letters in his small cache of papers. By late 1968, Dad has moved solo to San Francisco and Mom has transported us kids to Bakersfield. No one seems to know where Carilla landed.

*     *     *

The fall I am supposed to start seventh grade, I am instead in a body cast in a crank-up bed in our living room. I’ve broken my femur in a park-swing incident involving a boy I like and his miscalculated show of interest: Here, let me give you a real push on that thing! After four weeks of traction at the hospital, I am now encased in plaster from my chest to my pelvis and all down my left leg. It itches and I think I will go crazy from not being able to move more than a few inches one way or the other on my own, but my yet-to-be-met homeroom classmates write me nice get-well letters, and the visiting teacher keeps me sporadically busy with worksheets and paperback novels.

In November, midway through month two in my cast, Mark finishes his stint in the Navy. He rolls into Bakersfield with his release pay in his pocket and a permanent scowl on his face. It’s 1969, and even here in Okie-from-Muskogee country, the war is unpopular. “Fucking hippie freaks, what do they know?” Mark snarls, tapping the front page of the newspaper with his cigarette hand. One night he storms through the park out by the river searching for Adrian when she’s late coming home. When he finally steers her through the front door in her beads and bell-bottoms, they won’t look at each other. They barely speak for the few weeks Mark lives on the couch, my living-room-mate, till right before Christmas when I finally get the cast removed.

The doctor comes to the house to saw the thing off, and once he leaves I am horrified to see my dead-white, atrophied left limb. I’d just started shaving my legs before the accident, and now I am convinced I looked like a diseased gorilla. I start crying the way only a twelve-year-old girl can, as if all life is ending. My mom and sisters are fluttering around, trying to console me, when Mark drains his beer and stamps out his cigarette. “Start the bath water running,” he tells Ade, who scurries off to comply. He scoops me up off the bed like a in a fairytale. “Time to get this one ship-shape again.” Ignoring my shrieks of mortification, he carries me into the bathroom and places me gently in the tub. “Don’t worry, I kept my eyes closed the whole time,” he tells me.

The next day he throws his duffel bag into the back of his Impala and heads out again.

*     *     *

There’s a girl in Milwaukee, the sister of a Navy buddy. They’d met by chance when Mark was on shore-leave six months earlier. Christine is dark-haired, dark-eyed, ivory-skinned, the kind of girl you’d drive all night and a day to see. They get jobs together at the appliance factory in West Bend. He fixes cars on the side. In their wedding picture marked August 1970, Mark in his white tuxedo seems to fade a little in the flare of Christine’s beauty. They have a baby girl the following May and name her Misty. We all take turns pushing her stroller to the corner and back in front of Mom’s house in Bakersfield when they bring Misty to visit as a toddler, the first grandchild. She looks just like her mother, who seems weary of childrearing already and is inclined to snap when Misty and her Uncle Matt, now eight, get racing too fast on the sprinkler-wet sidewalk. Mark draws a cartoon of Misty guarding her ice cream cone from our assorted pets. The posture is pure Rat Fink, though the face is essence of Veronica.

*     *     *

Something happens out there in the middle of the country, where life is supposed to be as reliable as brats and beer when the Packers play.

Something happens out there in the middle of the country, where life is supposed to be as reliable as brats and beer when the Packers play. Mark and Christine are in their groove, staggering shifts at the plant, kid-chasing, pillowing into a cluster of other young couples doing the same. Everyone in their twenties, smoothing out the rough winters and rougher childhoods by grabbing onto good times. At some point someone cheats a little, grabs a good time that’s not really theirs, and it starts a chain reaction. Next thing you know, Christine is slicing into Mark’s clothes with pinking shears and throwing them out onto the frozen lawn, then digging a scratch across the cherry paint-job on the hood of his Impala with her nail file. Mark moves in with Ellen instead, who is small and kind, with long honey hair and flowing skirts to contrast with Christine’s hard glamour. Once Christine sets her sights on her next husband and starts making it hard to see Misty—no, she can’t visit your house while that whore is there; no, Sundays won’t work anymore, Kurt and I take her to church now—there’s no point in Mark’s staying around. He makes his way with Ellen back to California, where at least there’s no snow, and no exes to trip over every time you go out to pick up a six of Schlitz.

*     *     *

That June, Mark and his Navy buddy Snakey lease a gas station together near Whittier. It is right off the highway, two exits from Disneyland, and a crushed empty’s throw over a concrete canal from East LA. Mark hires Matt, age eleven, to come work for him for the summer. Matt is thrilled to be hanging with the big brother he is just getting to know, but his real focus is saving up enough money to go to Disney. Matt paints the gas station bathrooms, and repaints them when they get graffitied the very next day. He sweeps the office and restocks the windshield washing fluid and once in a while gets to fill up a car, careful not to spill a drop of gas. On days off he sneaks through the hole in the chain-link fence and picks his way through the dust and sand to the trickling stream of the Rio Hondo Channel, a tributary of the LA River. Down there, the roar of the freeway mixes with the wind and water to make a sound like a good engine humming.

When they get to the last week of summer, Mark drives Matt to Anaheim, pulls up to the gates of the Magic Kingdom, and opens his wallet. “Here’s your pay,” Mark says, handing over $100. “I’ll be back to pick you up at 5 p.m.” The next day, he does exactly the same thing.

Matt figures out the first day that by stationing himself near the exit around mid-afternoon and looking forlorn, he becomes the recipient of every departing family’s unused tickets. He goes on his favorite rides three, four, five times. He eats his body weight in Matterhorn sundaes. And when Mark later gives up the gas station and moves to Bakersfield, he puts Matt to work again, this time sorting the seeds out of oversize plastic bags of pot.

*     *     *

By then what’s compelling is what father and son have in common: sonar, smoke, a string of wives.

In 1976, Mark and Dad are roommates for a few months. The Bicentennial is in full swing, Americans trying hard with fireworks and readings of the Declaration to poke through the funk of stagflation, the gas crisis. Mark and Dad wash up a few weeks apart in Bakersfield, where neither of them really belong; I am already gone, escaped to college on the other side of the country. By then what’s compelling is what father and son have in common: sonar, smoke, a string of wives. I imagine them as saloon buddies, road dogs, backing each other up with pool cues when things get ugly near closing time and knowing just how low to keep their voices pitched in the morning. I don’t know if Dad assumes that he and Mark will grow old on adjoining bar stools at the Woolgrowers Tavern. I just know that after Mark is gone and Bakersfield is out of the question, Dad becomes a magnet for young hotheads all up and down the West Coast, the first call they make from lockup. The crappy apartment they shared near downtown is an empty lot now next to a bail bond agency called Gotta Go.

*     *     *

Melody is barely able to sleep for a month after her twin dies in a one-car crash into a freeway embankment that Merry’s boyfriend is too dumb or drunk to see. Melody knows it could just have easily been one of many other things that took Merry out at sixteen: the wrong pickup while hitchhiking, a bad batch of pills, tightrope-walking over the Golden Gate. The two of them ran hard but Merry ran harder, and now Melody can’t bring herself to face junior year alone. Instead she buries her face into her big dog’s fur until the spins stop, and then lies on the bed in her deadly quiet room waiting for dark.

I can see Mark padding into the adjoining bathroom, wiping off the grease from his latest car salvation project. He usually has two or three hopeless cases going at once in Mom’s stifling garage out back on the alley. He pokes his head into what everyone is now reminding themselves not to call the twins’ room.

“You okay there, Mel?” he asks. He doesn’t expect a yes but he also doesn’t anticipate the wild glaze of her eyes beneath a nest of dark blond tangles. She’s wound and wound hanks of her hair around her fists to try to still her mind for the sleep that won’t come.

“Hey now, hey,” Mark says. He sits on the corner of her bed and lifts her head onto his knee. He sees her hairbrush in the dresser and can just reach it without dislodging her. “I got good at this with Misty,” he says, dabbing at each knot till it loosens and catches some of the tears streaming from the corners of her eyes.

“I’m just so tired,” Melody whispers.

“I know what might help,” Mark says. “You just can’t let Mom know.” He puts down the brush and digs his Marlboro hard-pack and Bic lighter out of his back pocket. Fishing inside the pack, he pulls out a fat joint and lights it up.

“Two or three good hits ought to do the trick,” he says. Melody sits up a little and holds it to her lips. “I see you’ve already met my friend Mary Jane,” he laughs as she inhales, then lets the smoke roll out through her first smile in weeks.

*     *     *

The 7-Eleven is on everyone’s flight path. It’s where all his sisters and little brother buy penny candy or trade up for a Slurpee. It’s where you go when you’re a teenager and you need someone to make a buy: you hang out over toward the ice machine until someone with a real jones pulls up and is willing to make a deal, five bucks if you buy us some Boone’s Farm, a pack of Camels for you if you get one for me. It’s where frazzled moms pick up Pampers and milk after bedtime, praying the kids will sleep through their exit and return. It’s where local stoners go for Funyuns and Twinkies, and local bums go to pee and wash up.

Mark takes the graveyard shift, midnight to eight. He likes the quiet, the long hours broken by occasional headlights pulling up to the front, the jingle of the front door as customers float in and out, maybe two an hour. Plenty of time to read and do a little drawing, and time to chat if someone he knows comes in. Friends of his sisters’ out on the town, or the dudes living across the street, or a new buddy from the apartment on K Street he shares with Ellen and, astonishingly, his dad. There must be something to this idea of mellowing out, Mark thinks. The old man doesn’t piss me off anymore. Slow drivers don’t piss me off anymore. Christine doesn’t even piss me off anymore.

He catches sight of his face in the fisheye mirror behind the counter. Brown shock of hair, mustache and goatee, eyebrows that seem to move on their own. Ellen keeps telling him he’s too skinny, but that’s just because she’s starting to put the baby-weight on. He thinks he looks tough and interesting, like someone you’d want to have a beer with but never cross.

Mark looks up at the Coors clock. 5:20 a.m. Another forty minutes, Melody will jog by to wave hello and then the breakfast crowd will start filtering in. Better check the coffee-maker after I take care of this guy from across the street. He looks like he’s having a bad night.

*     *     *

The Bakersfield Californian, November 9, 1976 “Police Ask for Help in Death Probe”

The Bakersfield Californian, November 9, 1976

“Police Ask for Help in Death Probe”

Police today appealed to the public for help in solving what a spokesman called the “cold-blooded killing” about 5:30 a.m. yesterday of store clerk Mark L. ____________, 27. An autopsy by coroner’s pathologist Dr. Dominick Ambrosecchia disclosed ___________ had been shot once through the heart with a .22-caliber bullet. His body was found by a customer about 6 a.m.

Coroner Richard P. Gervais said the victim, who was employed at a 7-Eleven store, 2331 Chester Lane, was shot at close range. Powder burns were noted on ____________’s shirt. Also, a police official said, the clerk apparently was surprised by the action of his killer.

*     *     *

Christine takes over all the funeral arrangements. He is still her husband, though they’ve been separated for almost two years, though Ellen has been with him ever since. It is Christine who insists on an open casket at the Bakersfield funeral home—as we file by we can’t help joking that it is the only time we’ve ever seen Mark sit still. Then she has him cremated and stashed in a niche at Union Cemetery, where the mausoleum is something out of the Gilded Age though the neighborhood around it is getting ragged. There Mark rests in a drawer marked with his name and dates—December 10, 1948 to November 8, 1976—surrounded by other people’s dead devoted brothers and loving husbands and loyal sons for longer than he walked the earth.

*     *     *

By the time Mark’s daughter Merry is born in March 1977, Ellen has purchased an old bread truck and outfitted it for the drive to Alaska. Adrian is there now, in Ketchikan, a town that has bathtub races on the Fourth of July. It’s as far away from Wisconsin as you can get—far from Bakersfield too. Before Merry has started crawling, Ellen tucks her into the bassinet she’s built in behind the driver’s seat, asks Mom for directions to the freeway, and heads north.

*     *     *

Half-sisters who grew up separated by half a continent of silence, Misty and Merry make up for lost time. Ever since their father’s mother connected them, first by letter and then by cautiously orchestrated rendezvous at her house in Bakersfield when they were twenty-three and nineteen, respectively, they’ve been deeply intertwined. The tattoos are just the latest thing. There’s the elaborate one of a swallow—a perennial sailor’s favorite—with a Converse-red star and cherry blossoms that they designed together in 2008 in honor of their dad, and then got inked separately in Wisconsin and Seattle according to detailed mutual instructions. Then there’s the simple feather from 2013, also for Mark. Whenever they find a white feather in the street or the random back yard, they believe it’s him saying hello. And now he’ll be greeting them every time they catch a glimpse of their own forearms, or each other’s.

*     *     *

At about hour thirty-six of labor, Merry swears she sees her father in the corner of the delivery room, visible just over the heads of her husband and aunts and cousin as they cluster around her, urging Gemma into the world. Is it a ghost or a hallucination from the meds they’ve finally given her? Doesn’t matter. Though she’s never actually met him, she knows it is Mark. He is the age he should be in real time, in his sixties, his slicked-back hair streaked with gray, but his face has that same surprised look it has in the photo Merry props up in the little shrine she recreates wherever she lives. He is wearing a red flannel shirt, because it is Seattle in October, and he can be practical that way. Right before her wedding a year earlier, Merry saw him in a dream wearing that same shirt, sitting at a picnic table on the bluff near where the ceremony would take place, and now here he is again. Afterwards, when she feeds Gemma very early in the morning, Merry swears the baby always squirms to face the corner where Merry keeps Mark’s picture along with the latest feathers she’s found.

*     *     *

In July 2010, all of us who are left pool our funds and buy a cluster of four niches together at Union Cemetery, where none of us have been in three decades. We put Mom’s ashes in one compartment—what’s left of them after we fill nearly twenty small pouches for the siblings and grandkids and great-grands—and in the drawer next to her, the cookie tin of our dad’s ashes she’d been saving in her file cabinet since he passed in the mid-1980s. We make the third niche for the original sister Merry, though there are no ashes to put in it since we scattered hers in the Kern River in a special and wholly illegal ceremony orchestrated by Dad and abetted by Mark. We move Mark over from terra incognita and prop his door open so his daughters can add a poem and a ring and some feathers to keep his ashes company. Then we file out into the summer air thick as pomade, gun our engines, and peel out.

 

Mickey Revenaugh grew up in in various parts of California’s Central Valley and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. She served as a journalist and editor for many years before taking on her current work in global K-12 online learning. Mickey earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Bennington College in 2017, and also holds a BA in American studies from Yale University and an MBA from New York University. In addition to Lunch Ticket, her writing has appeared in Louisiana Literature, The End of the World, One-to-One Journal, Threshold, Catapult, Chautauqua, The Thing Itself, The Tishman Review, and LA Review of Books.

Photo by Zina Saunders