I am talking to keep Dad from talking because he will want to talk about the smoking. The hand not holding the steering wheel is bobbing with its tiny torch, making my points for me in the near-dark as I string anecdote after anecdote together. His shoulders are pushed forward and his brow is set in a maze of tense lines. In a few minutes he’ll uncross his arms and try to pluck the cigarette from my dancing fingers. I’ll tell him to stop, that I’ll lose control of the car. When I picture the car scraped open off the side of the highway and our bodies in desperate angles, us bags of dead blood still strapped to our seats, I feel something unworthy. The truth is, I realize while taking in the last drag, that I want it. I want a good death. I want to be right.
When I flick my butt out the window into the wet Mendocino night he flinches, chokes back an admonition. The tide of my anger recedes with a twinge of guilt then surges back in stronger than before. I want him to say something that will let me shout. I’ve been preparing retorts in my head from the moment Dad called and asked to ride home to the funeral with me.
I wonder if he’s prepared a eulogy. It would be strange to hear him say her name. I don’t know that I’ll recognize anyone in our hometown. I hope we’re not expected to view my mother’s body. When I stop talking he doesn’t start, and the silence hums between us. I have never learned how to switch him back on when he turns off.
I find a voice that sounds normal and tell him about my roommates, how one moved his pile of dirty clothes and found a dead mouse beneath it. I tell him about a near miss I’d had on my bike. I almost tell him about the guy I’m dating, decide against it. The guy wasn’t going to last long anyway. I talk to the silence for at least a half-hour, long enough for my throat to go dry. With one hand, I try to twist the cap off my stainless steel water bottle in the cup holder between us. With a grunt that’s not quite exasperation, my father pulls the bottle from me, takes off the cap and puts the bottle in my reaching hand.
“Thanks,” I say. My voice is so quiet the word is more like an open vowel.
This act of cooperation makes the silence between us gentler somehow, and a few miles down the road he begins to speak.
“Got a cat.”
“Really? Boy or a girl?
“Don’t tomcats spray? Your landlord won’t like that.”
“That’s his name, Tomcat.”
He doesn’t offer any other information. I try to imagine my father with a cat on his lap, making it purr with cautious fingers. I can’t. He is growing a middle-aged man’s experimental goatee, and it’s carefully trimmed into a point above his chin. I toy with the absurd idea of asking him if he has a girlfriend. We are approaching Willits, my traditional rest stop.
Highway 101 is a lonely stretch north through Mendocino and Humboldt County. In the dark the mountains hulk over you, state-owned land, devoid of a single man-made light. The river’s wink in the moonlight is unfriendly and cold. I have always found reassurance in gas stations, in the smell of diesel and clean fluorescent light. There will be someone inside to ring up my cigarettes, powdered donuts and coffee. Someone who will fortify me before the last stretch of lonely, lightless highway. Someone who may or may not smile at my jokes. Someone who will prove that I exist.
“I’ll get the gas,” my father says.
I open my mouth, close it and walk into the station without looking back at him.
The bathroom is propped open with a yellow caution sign to air out after being mopped, but I nudge it aside and let the door close silently behind me. I pull down my jeans and sit on the toilet seat with my forehead propped against my folded hands. I realize that I don’t really need to pee, but I do need to sit here for a few minutes. If someone were to observe me, it would look as if I were praying. I’ve been doing this a lot lately. Sitting in a posture of prayer. I’m not talking to anything or anyone though, and I’m sure as hell not asking for anything. I can’t even think. All I can feel is a great white buzz all through my body, like I’m one giant limb that’s gone to sleep.
The woman who called to tell me Mom had died was a stranger. I didn’t recognize her last name. I hadn’t made it home to see her after the diagnosis. I hadn’t been back to see her much before then either. The stranger said she’d known my mother from church. I was still taking in the news that she was dead.
“Church?” I asked the woman. My mother didn’t go to church.
“Yes, we came to know her very well towards the end. She was very brave.”
“Brave?” I repeated, stupidly. This woman obviously didn’t know my mother at all.
“Yes, dear,” the stranger went on, “Oh, she talked so much about you. She loved you very much, you know.” Her voice was sympathetic but uncertain. ‘Shouldn’t someone else be doing this?’ I imagined her asking, ‘Didn’t she have any other family?’
I thought about the time I’d started driving north to see my mother but stopped in Willits and couldn’t go any further. I called and told her that my car had broken down, that I wouldn’t make it up to see her after all. In the static-laced silence I could hear her inhale reflectively on a cigarette. There was a long pause before she said, “Okay.” She said it like a question, and then she said it again like a statement, “Okay.” I drove back down to the City. At the time it felt like the right thing to do.
The church lady asked for my father’s number and I gave it to her. I hadn’t even realized I had it memorized.
Until Dad called and asked for a ride, I let myself believe that the call was a mistake, meant for someone else. Someone who had a brave mother that went to church. Someone who could make decisions about cremation vs. burial, invitation lists, newspaper announcements, final plans for her belongings. I pictured myself and Dad standing in the front room of her little apartment with its nicotine-stained walls, each waiting for the other to make the first move, start putting her things in a trash bag.
Trash bags. The clerk at the counter says they don’t stock them, but he’d be happy to give me one if it’s just one I need. I’ll need a box of them, I tell him. He’s cute in his little grey uniform shirt and second-day stubble. I smile my first smile in hours. Without prompting, he starts drawing me a map to the nearest all-night convenience store.
Outside, my father has spotted me through the glass. He catches my eye and looks down, begins to wiggle one foot in the air. Then he wiggles the other. He moves his torso rhythmically, as though twirling an invisible hula hoop. The Happy Dance. He’s doing The Happy Dance.
This is the dance that he invented for my childhood tantrums. Wiggle the left leg, wiggle the right. Shake the hips. This dance is the closest he can get to an apology. It stopped working the year I turned twelve. Now a laugh I didn’t know I had comes rolling out of me, startling me and the cute clerk.
“That old guy’s really going for it,” the clerk says.
Tears are running down my cheeks. My father has started the second part of the dance, where he rocks from side to side on bowed legs, arms twirling in complex configurations. I see that he is crying too. I close my eyes.
I open them. My father has put the nozzle of the gas pump to his temple. He waits a beat, looks at me.
“Holy — ” says the clerk. My father closes his eyes. Pulls the trigger.
The gas gushes over his face, his shoulder and side. He stands and lets it happen without flinching. It will sting his skin. It will stain the seats of my car. The final hours of our trip will be silent and bitter, cold air pouring in through the car’s open windows. We will use his gas-soaked clothes to start a fire. We will burn the things of hers we cannot give away. We will not talk. I will not smoke.
And I’ll understand the last words I heard him say to her, words that leaked from beneath a closed bedroom door alongside her sobs.
“What would you do?” My mother asked him. “What would you do to keep her?”
“Whatever it takes.”
Featured image: Shutterstock
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