issue nineteen

art gallery
past issues
current issue
(7030 words)
WJ Rosser
In the Shade of the Ocotillo Hedge
Her eyes returned over and over to the needle that spun closer and closer to the red as we drove, but even the vaguest reference to switching off the air conditioner and rolling down the windows was met with steadfast refusal and an optimism for the head gasket's stamina that her regular glances belied; and in the backseat, Timothy commented on all my stories about the pall over the desert on a summer afternoon that I told him shrouds the bright, clear air and the heat so palpable it draws lines in the distance over the asphalt and the sand and how I told him from the time he was little that it leeches the salt from cheeks and back and forehead in great flowing streams fed by lakes of empty bottles, cups, and pitchers of aquifer water laced with extra fluoride and potash. He sat next to his brother and fiddled with the night-scope telephoto lens that cost more than my first car and the digital camera with optional time-lapse programming that had elicited yelps and shouts and I love you dad's as he read the back of the slick black package with silver lettering and discovered the listed features and benefits; and he asked again if we could visit the college student's grave and make the trip to Jumbo Rocks so he could lay his trap for the wailing phantom and capture definitive proof of the ghost's thirsty nighttime exertions.

I thought for not the first time that I had erred in presenting him with my hometown's jealously guarded folk tale, it's own parochial haunting that fueled snorting conversations among the town's dusty, parched old men in floppy hats and linen coats despite the heat as they sat in the donut shop and drank coffee in the morning and water in the evening and never ordered any of the pastries my father bought by the bag every Sunday morning for the family and by the dozen every Tuesday morning for the three airmen and the Second Class Petty Officer he inherited when he gained the right to add the fouled anchor pin on his collar to complement the crow on the rocker-topped chevrons on his sleeve. He directed his crew in the little Quonset hut behind barbed wire fencing and about a quarter-mile from the NCO housing development we'd left for the ranch-style house on a third of an acre on Sunway Drive to chase away the ghosts of townhomes emptied every three years by new deployments and to protect my brothers and I, as we entered high school, from another parting of friends and first loves; and I was just about the same age as the camera worshipping teen in the back, though we'd moved first to the desert when I was as young as his nine year-old brother beside him.

I remembered Carlos at nine, like I often did in the early years after we'd exchanged manicured lawns and concrete playgrounds scattered among orchards by highways and housing developments with aged trees transplanted to lawns to give the illusion of antiquity and depth to a neighborhood that was neither old nor rich in history, and the first time we stole beers from his father's refrigerator to sip at them in the fort we'd built by laying plywood over the side fence corner until it butted up against his garage and by propping an old pallet up against the makeshift roof, leaving just a two-foot gap for a door; and, of course, we hung our Shogun Warriors blanket from the top to close that gap and offer us some illusion of privacy as we sipped from the cans and pretended to each other we liked the bitter brew. Most of my pre-adolescent exploration occurred in that fort, from the fumbling kisses with Barbara Constance to the first stinging bites of the pickled yellow chilies from the giant jar on his kitchen counter and the trembling, late night, flashlight-illuminated recollections of the story of the Camarillo Witch, who jumped on windshields to provoke accidents among the cars touring Ventura County back roads; and according to his uncle, who always called him Carlitos, was especially interested in punishing kids who hide beneath blankets in station wagons to avoid paying for drive-in films -- never mind that it was the uncle who directed us to duck down among the Jiffy Pop, RC Colas, and Frescas for us and the Budweiser for him, and when we left Port Hueneme, the thought of the three years Carlos and I had spent in that fort weighed on me as no other leaving had.

Of course the two of us had promised to write and of course he would visit me in the desert wilderness that promised snakes and western whiptail lizards beneath every beavertail cactus and roadrunners and jack rabbits and antelope ground squirrels in the shade of every Joshua Tree, but we only exchanged a letter apiece, because a four hour drive is continents away to a child, and my attentions were fully focused on new forts and the exploration of Old West prospectors' abandoned cabins and the decaying skeletons of great depression shacks until Carlos became the idea of Carlos instead of the childhood friend and the desert became home and all life previous became memory. Still, I would occasionally broach the subject of a visit in one direction or the other, pestering my mother and never my father with the request, and demanding an answer like Timothy demanded for Jumbo Rocks and the Hiker, and since no maybe or we'll see or lemme think about it would quiet him, Nikki finally told him to shut up because we weren't heading to the desert for one of our alternating Christmas or Easter visits but for another ritual altogether, and I'm pretty sure she said it for the same reason she drove the car, to protect them and me from the bottles of pretentious imported Flemish beer I'd had in the morning to steel myself for the trip.

It was a unique event, too, the beer, although not the drinking because I wasn't a stranger to alcohol but enjoyed it with or without Nikki on most afternoons or weekend mornings, and my tastes ran to gin and vodka and cocktails with olives rather than umbrellas; but my stockbroker, who earned enough from my trades to send both of his children to private school, subscribed me to an of-the-month club that delivered six-packs of ales or lagers or witbiers or lambics every four weeks or so even though the bottles usually sat on the counter for three or four days before I just delivered them to the next door neighbor, who drank beer like I drank bourbon. This pack, I'd put in the icebox the night before to chill for the morning because I knew I would drink and wanted to drink something that would remind me of dad, and when I thought about it, I hadn't ever seen him drink spirits or even wine, but just the beer, and he drank far more than a six-pack at a time and probably would've called the blonde barleywine with the unexpectedly heavy body, spicy depth, dark malt notes, and subtle finish the label promised a bullshit drink that didn't belong in the goat locker but in some oiled-up squid lieutenant's pansy-assed quarters where the officers pretended to be responsible for the work the NCOs performed.

It wasn't until I was fourteen that I realized I'd never seen my father without a can in his hand or if not actually held in his hand then in the cup holder of his truck or on a coaster on the mahogany bar my brother-in-law had crafted for him and finished with leather trim and intricate woodwork that made the piece look like it belonged in an eighteenth century men's club or a rich man's hunting lodge or even as a showpiece in an Afrikaner's parlor, but the value-priced generic lager in the brown can -- he never poured his drink into a glass, although he had steins, mugs, flutes, pints, and pilsners, a whole collection of sixty or seventy glasses lined up on the dark stained back bar hutch collected over the years at birthdays, Christmases, and anniversaries -- sat atop the wood and immediately returned the bar to the present, sitting on the bare concrete floor of the garage with about three feet of space between the accompanying barstools and the 1973 Volkswagen Beetle he'd decided to buy when I was nine in order to restore it for me or for one of my brothers, or by the time my wife delivered our second boy, for his oldest grandson.

I had just returned from school, walking the two blocks from the edge of the dark clay track that at just ten minutes after the final bell was already filled with teenage girls practicing for cross country, their legs moving with a strange grace that seemed out of place coming from their awkward, lanky bodies and entirely inappropriate in the desert with the sun turning the afternoon wind into the jets of a convection oven and perspiration already beading on my forehead as I scanned the girls for Rose Ellen, the current focus of my teenage amorous attentions, and by the time I realized I wasn't going to find her and walked through the gate onto Cactus Avenue to begin the short trip home my face was slick with sweat and my shirt hung wet from my shoulders. My father sat in the garage behind the bar as he always did, his beer in hand and his shoulders bare and a stark contrast to the background of black velvet filled with cartoon chiefs and labeled The Navy Chief as Seen by… listing those others who saw him beneath clever caricatures; and the shoulders showed above the white sleeveless tee shirt, one of the many he unwrapped at Christmastime, along with the beer glasses, Old Spice aftershave, and coffee mugs as my brother and I opened our books and models and baseball gloves and Star Wars action figures, and if my sister was home visiting the souvenirs from Washington State.

When she snapped at him, Timmy did stop his demands, and grew sulking and silent, and Nikki and I looked at each other, briefly because the highway wound its way through the mountains, and I expected to see the guilty resignation and hopeful expectation in her face we usually mirrored after discipline, the look that resulted in a nod or a wink and then some comforting capitulation to the scorned child, but though I know the look painted my face, hers was entirely focused on me and searching for some indication of the pain a son must surely feel and be completely unable to conceal at such a time; but her divination fell short because we reached the crest and began the descent into the valley and the engine changed its tone and demanded she return her focus to the gauge and whether the radiator would get us the ten or twelve miles left to the Denny's that had replaced the Cactus Patch when the owners finally sold and moved to Arizona. The car wouldn't ordinarily have given us cause for concern, but the utility trailer with the wooden side panels I'd hitched to the back so we could retrieve my father's handmade bar added weight and wind resistance so Nikki's focus necessarily remained on the wheel and the pedals and the dashboard and I assumed the nod or wink and told the boys the story again, how the college sweethearts drove into the Monument but only the girl came out alive because her boy died at the foot of Jumbo rocks after they fought and after he fell; and even though the sun was bright and I had no flashlight and we weren't in a fort, I lowered my voice as I spoke of their rock climbing and their argument and his fall and her leaving for the campsite angry as hell and not realizing the boy's leg was broken so he couldn't escape the triple digit heat and so died a half century before but still haunted the rocks and the graveyard where the local Congregationalist preacher had presided over his funeral while his girlfriend cried.

Of course the story only prompted renewed petitions for his camera investigations and Timmy was adamant that this time he'd succeed where his previous attempts had failed, that this wouldn't end as his night at Lemonwood Creek had ended with no sign of the Terranadon or the early morning photo sessions on the shores of the lake without a single sighting of the monster or the sasquatch-free week at Yosemite or the expeditions through the drainage ditches that failed to provide evidence of the giant alligators that surely lived there but had somehow managed to evade his lens; and eventually and only because of his importunity I agreed to a trip to the Rocks during the day and a midnight visit to the cemetery as long as he and his brother agreed to work diligently at wrapping my dad's steins and glassware carefully in newsprint while Nikki and I searched the house for anything else we might want to keep before handing the rest over to the agent who would handle the estate sale.

And of course my wife laughed silently at me and rolled her eyes at me, mouthing "patsy" as the boys celebrated in the back seat and she directed her eyes at the road ahead with an exaggerated sigh of exasperation at the facility with which the boys had convinced me, so I poked her side and told her she was as much a pushover as I and at least I had held firm against the quest for undisputable proof of space reptilian influence at the tar pits, and it was she who rented the infrared filter for the lens and took Timothy and his brother to La Brea; and she punched my arm and said it was an educational field trip, but I think she would have said anything just because I was smiling again. And later, while I ate chicken-fried steak with eggs and hash browns and gravy and she had grilled chicken and steamed vegetables from a can and we watched the kids eat hamburgers and drink milkshakes, I invented the story of the roadside killer that visits diners on the third shift and always orders eggs over medium and always kills a guest who sits at the coffee bar instead of a booth, and when Nikki saw that Timothy was taking notes in the little journal he kept for great unsolved mysteries she told me to stop and I had to tell them I made it all up; but the story of the hiker in Jumbo Rocks wasn't one of my fabrications but was our town's own boogeyman for children who refused to eat or clean or sleep and had been the staple of clandestine midnight high school pilgrimages for at least four decades, and maybe five.

Later, as I knelt over the toilet at my father's house -- no, not my father's, it was mine because he'd sent his savings to my sister before he died and my brother got the two-hundred acres in New Mexico and the cabin in the mountains -- and heaved the steak, eggs, gravy, potatoes, and Tabasco sauce out of me, I noticed the saddle-stitched travel book I'd purchased three Easter's ago at the Monument visitor's center, it's dust-colored cover shouting out about the Jumbo Rocks ghost and I remembered the typo-riddled interior pages; and I wondered why he'd kept the book and why he left it in the back bathroom that he used instead of in the bathroom in front reserved for guests, although I was pretty sure his only guests would use the toilet he'd installed the garage. I picked it up as I staggered out and put it on the kitchen table for Timothy, but he was sleeping and Nikki looked up at me and told me she'd pour me another single malt if I wanted it, but maybe I shouldn't because I'd had the beers and almost killed the fifth already, and I told her I'd have just one more glass to toast my dad and it was the house and the bar and the hunting lodge decorations in the front room my mom had installed the year after I left home with the duck decoys and wood trim so dark it almost looked black and the fact that the house was empty that had made me sick and not the scotch, and she looked doubtful but she still poured the drink and put her arms around me and kissed my cheek before she handed me the tumbler, and she told me she would unpack the suitcases since we'd be here for the weekend and she asked if anything was left in the car and I told her it was empty.

Of course, she knew the car was empty because she saw me lift out the last suitcase with a right hand that was still a little sore because of the punch I landed on Gene's cheek just a week before, and even as Nikki had straightened my fingers and dabbed the red knuckles with hydrogen peroxide and told me it was okay and that the asshole deserved it, I knew I was wrong, and he had always been loyal to Dad, from the years of calling him chief to the years of calling him friend, and what he said was normal for a man like Gene and even for a man like my dad, and if I had taken just a breath before I acted I wouldn't have cold-cocked him and wouldn't have hurt my hand and wouldn't have bruised his face; but when he said, "What kind of a prick goes and dies in August instead of in the fall?" I didn't think but just reacted, and he looked at me without any shock at all, reached out to shake my hand, and told me I was a good son and my father was the best man he ever knew. I was angry still, but not at the first comment or even the second, because outside of the reflexive strike, I'd heard the two say things worse to and about each other on lazy Sunday afternoons as they sat at the bar in the converted garage and drank beer from beige cans; but instead I was angry because I could see that Gene missed him, and I wanted all of the sorrow of his passing to be mine, to be my proprietary tragedy that weighed only on me and nobody else, and certainly not the man who had stayed in the desert while I left.
I handed the luggage to Timothy and he and his brother went with Nikki to the house, passing by the ocotillo hedge my father and my brother and I had planted years ago, Dad carefully instructing us to ensure the south facing parts of the plant faced south with the transplants and peppering his instructions with "watch out for the damned spines" and "one of those stalks blows back on your face and you'll be ass out of luck" and "the flowers are poisonous"; and the last statement was wrong, but I didn't find out until much later when I took a pre-Nikki coed out to a pretentious restaurant with periphrastic menu choices and told the almost-smart brunette with the open mind and heretofore closed legs she could order whatever she'd like and the strange part about it was that I think it was the flower salad that finally got her underneath me, and she was aggressive and wild and not at all timid as she'd seemed, and afterward she told me she was leaving college and she wanted to give me a goodbye lay which was strange because she hadn't ever given me the hello, and the tangy blooms atop that salad were ocotillo. I figured out a few years later that my father was thinking of oleanders, but I never said a thing because there was no value in proving him wrong and for years he'd known that if the spines of the hedge wouldn't keep out malefactors, then at least the poison in the leaves and the flowers would give them a hell of a rash, and the carpenter bees that never left the plants except in the winter when the skeletons would jut up from the ground in twisted masses of thorns and sticks that reminded me of the hedges Prince Charming battled to rescue Sleeping Beauty would land their giant black bodies on the scarlet flowers next to the hummingbirds and the lacewings and the movement around that hedge made the stationary plants seem somehow sentient and mobile, and the hedge itself was a great living rampart that somehow kept at bay the evil of the desert, although eventually that evil somehow claimed my mother while I was away studying Latin and Greek nomenclature for rhetorical constructs and my brother was just an hour's drive to the bottom of the hill, and when the doctors told us her heart had stopped, I first realized that the hedge wasn't impervious. 

I went straight for the garage and lifted up the heavy door, unlocked the padlock on the smaller entry, and stepped into the little room that was really my father's home, the four bedrooms, kitchen, dining room, front room, fireplace, and two bathrooms all but unused without mom except for our holiday visits and the daily cold water shower my father took because twenty-six years in the Navy bred habits into him that carried on for the twenty-four after he retired the same way he managed to look strong, his skin still taut over the biceps and forearms painted with ships and anchors and Beetle Bailey and Andy Capp, even as his body grew old and his hair grew sparse and his countenance grew frail; and the room was as I'd seen it last with dusty glassware on the hutch, coasters on the bar, his 30/30 mounted beneath my brother-in-law's antlers, and the shoebox filled with lighters on the little shelf he'd installed underneath the velvet painting describing how a chief is seen by his men and his equals. I smiled at the lighters because no matter how many he had, they always found their way to the box and he always found himself in need of a light and always bought another on his way home from the doughnut shop and whenever I visited I took five or six from the shoebox and always stayed lit; and I pulled a pack from my pocket and lit up with one of dad's lighters and realized the lighters were mine now, the whole box that sat on the shelf he'd installed to serve as a place for the beer steins with pewter caps he'd collected and never used over decades or maybe the special Jim Beam bottles with painted canvas back ducks and chipmunk squirrels and Indian traders and mallards and geese; and he never drank the bourbon, just poured it out as he did all hard liquor, but he liked the bottles and they lined the other shelves in his garage room.

In the cabinets built into his leather and mahogany bar I found two cases of his brown label beer, and that was anticipated, but I hadn't expected to find the twenty-five year old single malt, still in the oak box with logo and slogan burned into it; and when I slid out the thin plank that served as a lid I saw the two fifths with the Scottish highlands appliqué and the frosted tasting glass etched with bagpipes and I smiled because I had bought the damned thing for him nineteen years earlier because it was the first Christmas I was twenty-one and I bought alcohol for everyone that year, feeling like a man because I could buy single-malt scotch for my dad, blackberry cordial with desert glasses and a bright ceramic decanter for mom, tequila with margarita glasses for my brother, and champagne with a charger and fluted glasses for my sister. I'd already decided to leave all of the bottles my father collected but to take his steins along with the glassware, but I picked up the scotch because those bottles were different and I realized that he hadn't poured out the contents as he had with all of the rest and I remembered reading somewhere that unopened scotch stored indefinitely in a dark place, and in a box in the cabinet in the bar in the room in the garage was certainly dark so I poured a few fingers to toast my dad, and nine or ten toasts later Nikki found me crying on my father's chair.

I wanted to tell her all about him, about when she was pregnant and we hadn't yet gone to Vegas to stand in front of Elvis for our vows and he handed me one of those generic beers and told me not to make his grandson a bastard and how he told my brother and I to man up every year when it came time to cut back the catclaw acacia and the desert willow that always scarred us as we used the trimmers or the clippers or the chainsaw, about the day he found Midnight wandering behind the housing and the dog looked like it had been abandoned for months, but in the desert that could mean weeks, and his black fur was matted and dirty and ticks filled every joint but in two weeks he was sleek and healthy and how the probably-a-retriever-mix never let anyone get close except for the family and how I first saw my father cry when the mail truck killed him or how my mother told me in whispered tones to just tell dad a car hit him so he wouldn't know who to blame and she wouldn't worry that he'd kill the man who did it. I wanted to tell Nikki about the Christmas mom bought me Robert Graves and how I sat in the garage while Dad smoked and drank and I told him about the gods and heroes and because I didn't know what likewise meant, I thought it was a euphemism for sex and so I snorted a little when I read to him "he loved her and likewise, she became with child" and how he never read anything as far as I could remember but he still handed out stacks of bills so we could buy books for ourselves at the Book Worm or the Paperback Exchange and even made three silver swords from dowels and Styrofoam and paint so Bob Greskin, Todd Fletcher, and I could reenact Romeo and Tybalt and Mercutio for our 9th grade English class; but instead I just looked up with eyes red and puffy and told her, "I miss him," and she nodded and gathered me up and took me out of his garage and into the house where I sat at the table until I ran to the bathroom.

In the car on the way to catch his ghost, Timothy asked why his grandpa hadn't come to live with us when his grandma died, and I told him that enlisted men didn't live with officers, only the way I said it was that grandpa wouldn't want to live in a city or in big fancy house with all the black and white framed photos and the computers and the wide screen television and built in backyard gas barbecue complete with a deep fryer and warmer drawer or closets filled with brushed cotton slacks and oxford shirts but instead wanted to be in the desert with his sailor friends, and Timothy finally asked me after fourteen years of pressure from me for him to join the Navy at least to pay his way through college why I hadn't donned the blues myself and why there were so many sailors in such a sandy place; and I told him that the knee I cursed and Nikki fussed over had kept me from the service but nothing could keep the Navy from taking care of its Marines who were left in the desert. Timothy told me that he would make sure his house was just like mine so if I needed to move in I would be comfortable and I told him that his grandfather once told me to live my own goddam life and since I had something going with the numbers and the equations and all that I better not end up like just another military brat who spends a lifetime not succeeding because the only thing his family ever made him good for was swabbing decks and saluting and drinking, and really, I thought he'd eventually have to come live with me and maybe the only thing that made it easier was that he'd never moved in with my brother either, and that made it my father and not me; but I still wished over and over that he gave a bilge rat's ass about computers so he could understand what it was I'd created and why it had made me rich.

When my boy and I drove past the gates at the end of the trail that led to the monument, I could still taste the scotch, and I'd brought along the unopened fifth as well as the tent and the marshmallows and the chocolate and the graham crackers and Timothy brought his tripod and his camera and the time lapse device and it was already dark but I promised him a chance to see the rocks in the sunlight in the morning and I pitched the tent while he pitched the camera and then I built the fire and made the treats while he talked incessantly about definitive proof and real evidence and getting the pictures viral and maybe getting a cable show to do a special if he could find the proof; and when we sat in the tent by the light of the six-volt lantern, he asked me how the woman could have left him alone in the crevasse in the heat of the morning with a broken leg. I told him the woman didn't know he was hurt and didn't know that he was fixed to the rocks and didn't know that he wouldn't move and couldn't have moved and didn't know that she was heading away from him forever and probably thought that he'd walk into the camp a little sweaty but safe and healthy and beg her forgiveness for his slight and they'd probably end up kissing and being lovey-dovey and it wasn't possible to know that he was left in the desert while she was leaving to have her own life; and my boy seemed to understand but he still asked what it must have felt like to her to live her life while the one she loved was in the desert forever and I told him I was sure it was hard and then I told him to go to sleep and I stepped outside and put a water bottle in sight of the camera so if the ghost drank that night he'd be captured on film and Timothy could make supernatural history.

Even over the tarp and the tent and the air mattress, a man can feel rocks in the desert, especially when he's alone and used to the weight of his wife's body leaning against him, and I didn't sleep but thought about the campout with my brother and the neighbors our first summer in the desert and how they smoked cigarettes that the neighbor stole from his grandfather and I wouldn't because back then it seemed wrong and I hadn't learned rebellion, but when they did they choked and coughed and tried to look tough and in the morning when we packed up and the youngest neighbor felt angry, he threatened to tell but my brother said he'd get in trouble too; and it didn't matter because in the afternoon the boy knocked on the door and told my dad and my dad whipped my brother and made him smoke two packs in a row and I thought it was strange that the boy told the truth, that I hadn't smoked, because I think I was the one that had offended him in the first place. And even though I wasn't in trouble my father told me I was on thin ice because I knew about it and didn't tell, but I think he respected that I hadn't because he was enlisted and not an officer and enlisted men kept their secrets; you kept your secrets and you stowed your undershirts sleeves over the back folded over once on each side, once on the bottom, and once through the front and your pants were always hung (on rugged wire hangers, not pansy-ass plastic bullshit) according to the seams and skivvies were folded over twice and socks were always bound together in a ball; and you always stood for officers, but you never stood for other squids because they were men and worked for a living; and if you brought your son to the Chief's Club, the bartender made him a Roy Rogers and everyone stopped cursing for a while and if you took him to the barber, he was gruff with your boy but he also held back on the profanity even though he told your nine-year old he could look at the girlie magazines if he wanted, and if your son was hurt and you took him to the hospital to set the bone or to get stitches, you always took him to the fights right after so he could see that men got hurt but still fought back, but above all else, you kept your secrets.

In the morning, Timothy played the digital photos in a constant stream and he didn't see the ghost, but he did see the water level in the bottle dropping and he yelled and hooted because the cap was on and it couldn't have been evaporation, and he told me he would string the pictures together in a video and add scary music and post it and probably get a million hits and he hugged me and told me I was the best father in the world, and I thought of the father who had lived for seventy-two years and now lay for two weeks in a cemetery about twenty-three miles from our camp; but I didn't tell him about my father and instead just told him to pack up his stuff and then the tent because I was feeling lazy and wasn't going to do a damned bit of the work and he owed it to the best father in the world and we'd better hurry so he could explore the rocks before it got hot.

Nikki was already up and awake and had a few boxes packed with my father's medals and planks and his other decorations, my mother's photo albums, and a whole set of Charles Dickens published in 1882 that I didn't even know they owned and none of the old furniture and fixtures that didn't add up to the cost of the seventeenth century Dutch roll-top desk in our bedroom that Nikki used to do the monthly bills; and I sent Timothy to get his brother from the garage, where he was living up to his promise about the newspapers and the glassware, and I opened the bottle and poured a shot past the etched bagpipes and let the scotch warm away the headache as Nikki put toaster pastries on paper towels, and we took them into the front room and watched old episodes of Star Trek as we ate, and the boys asked if we could take home the hundreds of movies my mom had collected but I told them no because they watched too much television already and Timothy didn't care because visions of the Hiker were already back in his head. He attached cords to the VCR and the camera and showed his brother and his mother how he'd documented the ghost, and his brother was wide-eyed but Nikki just inclined her head at me and I raised my eyebrows and shrugged as he talked about the upload and the conclusive proof and the hits and the subscribers who would surely flock to what was before just a user who uploaded gameplay set to music; and I walked into the garage with the glass and the bottle and I sat on my dad's stool behind the bar and drank the scotch and looked at the half-packed box of newsprint wraps and felt the trepidation growing for the graveyard visit and thought I might lie about the hiker's gravestone location, pretend it wasn't just a row from my father's; but that dissemblance wouldn't work as easily as the water had because my boy knew the ghost's name and I couldn't etch marble as easily as driving a needle into the bottom of a plastic water bottle just enough to allow for a slow seep, so I steeled myself for the midnight run.

I wasn't afraid of the marker, because I'd been to the graveyard every other Easter and every other Christmas with my father when we walked to the grave and left ocotillo flowers and snapdragons and tulips, which were her favorite, but I was afraid the boys would see in me the weakness I saw in him as he stood in front of the stone above the grass above the dirt above her and couldn't hide the pain on his face, and I was glad it was dark when I got there with the boys because I couldn't see their features at all and that meant mine were hidden and we stayed from a half hour before to five hours after midnight and the younger boy was asleep in the car by two o'clock anyway and I never actually visited Dad's grave and since nothing out of the ordinary happened Timothy said the ghost had water last night and didn't need to haunt the grave and he smiled at me and said he was going to be more famous than the Area 51 whistleblowers; and when I asked him who they were, he admitted he didn't know their names but everyone would know his; so I told the future celebrity to get in the car and we'd go get famous doughnuts and I decided I'd never tell him that I gave the water to the ghost, that I wanted it to drink and have some respite from his abandonment in the heat of the rocks. If I were ever asked to testify, I might swear that the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth was that the old men at the tables of that doughnut shop were the same men I'd seen on the occasional Saturdays my father let me tag along and not new men who'd migrated there since and now sat drinking coffee as I ordered a dozen of all sorts and made sure to get a few maple bars that Nikki loved the best and a glazed old fashioned or two for myself and my own coffee that did nothing to kill the single malt headache and probably made the echoes of nausea sounding in my stomach worse and not better, but I was only a few minutes away from a frosted tasting glass of dog hair, so I shook it off and tore my son away from the half-naked girls on the posters on the wall and headed back to the empty house protected by the crimson-colored ocotillo ramparts.

Five hours later, when the doughnuts were gone and the tarp was tied down, I backed the car up against the trailer and hitched it to the rear and told Nikki that the sooner we left, the sooner the heat would be behind us, and she corralled the kids and bribed them with lunch at the dinosaur truck stop if they were quiet and she told me she'd drive if I wanted a final drink in the garage that seemed too empty without his bar and his glasses and his steins, so I pulled out what was left of the scotch and took the bottle inside and drank from its neck and thought about telling my father something, anything, because it seemed like there should be words other than now that it's all packed up we'll be selling the house and completing a 1031 exchange for income property in Nevada to avoid the taxes, but I couldn't think of anything that either of us had ever left unsaid, and when Nikki came back in and said she was ready when I was, I put the fifth on the floor and kissed her. She smiled and looked around and asked if I wanted to take the painted bottles with their birds and varmints and Indians and cowboys, but I told her my dad didn't drink what I drank and I didn't want them, and she looked at me with a curious look, the look of mixed empathy and fear and love that said she was worried and I told her that there wasn't a thing in the garage or in the house or in the place that I needed to remember my father and if he were watching from Heaven or from some ethereal part of the garage he'd tell me to turn off the waterworks and go back home to my family because really, the garage wasn't his goat locker anymore and even if it was I had my home and my wife and my kids and my work and there wasn't a goddam thing I could do for him anymore and anything he was going to do he already did.


M  C  R

This work is copyrighted by the author, WJ Rosser. All rights reserved.