KEITH F. STAHL
Everybody's driving around like nothing's happened. Dunkin' Donuts is out of crullers. Dad's dead. The Yankees won. It's not legal to operate a motor vehicle while peeling a banana, talking on the phone, checking your hair in the mirror. It's okay to be an indifferent ghost cast forever into the friendlessness of Limbo, guiding the wheels of two-tons of steel. Wade's not breaking any laws, driving to his dealer's apartment.
Wade's dealer might not remember him, might not sell to him. That'll be a sign. One of Dad's stupid signs. Dad put his back out, test-driving a Legacy, so he bought this Outback. If Wade can't score, he's not supposed to score. He's not sure what he's rooting for. It's a muscle-memory thing that's led him here. After staying sober for one year, one month, and eight days, his twenty-one year old muscles still have a very good memory.
Wade's dealer lies in a fetal position on the remains of a couch, snoring into a mountain of chicken wing bones.
“Wake him up!” the dealer's wife snaps from the kitchen.
Wade peeps out from his swaddling hoodie, fondling the One Year chip in his pocket. “Dude,” he whispers.
The dealer scratches his stomach. It's like one of those exercise balls from Wade's physical therapy, only hairy.
“Wake him up!”
A boy, too old to be wearing pull-ups, patters across the splintered hardwood floor with a plastic Scooby-Do cup from the kitchen, dried hot-sauce like war paint on his cheeks. He slowly dribbles water onto the dealer's face. The man jerks awake. The boy, with one frantic gasp for air and his eyes wide like dollar store paste-on wiggle eyes, sprints for the kitchen, dropping the plastic cup, a hollow drum-roll as it bounces across the floor. The dealer scratches at his baggy, yellow briefs, exposing his testicles. “I'll beat your ass!” He reaches for the Marlboros. Wade looks to the floor.
“Dwade's here,” barks Mother Teresa.
“It's Wade, actually.” It's been a while.
His dealer squints through cigarette smoke, like Wade's some undefined zoo creature but the man's too indifferent to read the plaque.
“Dude,” says Wade.
The man's crusty, red lips finally broaden into a wide smile. He slowly nods. “You're back.”
“Sorry, I woke you up.”
Wade puts the sensimilla down his pants and starts Dad's car. He should throw this shit out the window. But it's better than getting sloppy drunk and it's not like he's into the rock again, or the pills, and it's sticky and dense with tiny red hairs and smells like Christmas in Cambodia. Gateway drug. Gateway to the munchies.
He's driving past Unity Church. Sick of basement addicts and alcoholics sheepishly raising their hands, “I'm coming back.” At least Wade won't have to answer to Dad, aka Harry the Hippy—What did you pray for, before you went out? Who did you call? Wade's off probation, done with outpatient, and God dropped Dad—and Dad's twenty-one years of sobriety—on his head. Harry the Hippy fell off Chittenengo Falls, after he was diagnosed with liver cancer. The paper said drugs and alcohol were not a factor.
Wade death-grips the steering wheel at ten o’clock and two o’clock. State Trooper. He slows to thirty-four. Wade's afraid to look in the mirror. He senses the cop following. His wallet's at Mom's, he doesn't have his license. He might get searched. They'll crucify him again and he hasn't even smoked this shit, yet. Jail, bail, lawyer, court, re-hab, outpatient. Forced to raise his hand, “I'm coming back.” Even though he's been clean and sober for one year, one month, and eight days. Not like he wants to get high. Dad just died. Give him a chance to feel good for twenty minutes. Complete stop at the crosswalk. Look left. Right. Left. Continue forward.
Not the lights.
Alternating high beams, violent explosion of color. That invasive, pulsating, red glow. Wade's trembling hand flicks the turn signal. He rolls to a proper stop. There goes school. There goes Elizabeth, “I can never tell if you're high.” Dad was onto something, falling off Chittenengo Falls.
Of all the troopers in the State of New York, it's Trooper Bill, from the Unity Church basement. “Wade, I thought I recognized your dad's car.” He's going to know. Can't bullshit a bullshiter. He leans through the window, “I heard about your dad. Don't do anything stupid. Call me if you wanna talk or have a cup of coffee. You got my number.”
“You're okay,” Trooper Bill snorts in Wade's face. “Bullshit. You going to be at the meeting, tonight?”
“You'll be alright, Wade. Like your dad always said, 'God didn't bring you this far to drop you on your head.'”
Routine sympathy stop. One piercing electric siren blast and Trooper Bill disappears in a cloud of roadside debris, pursuing some Hitler-on-wheels. Wade exhales long and slow.
Dad and his signs. It's not like Wade's going to stay out long. This one bag.
Wade drives to Mom's to tell her he's taking Dad's car to Michigan. He's going to swim out to Dad's Rock. Every summer, before the divorce, the family would drive through Canada from Syracuse to Harbor Springs. Dad and Wade went to Good Hart Beach at night with sandwiches from Gurneys. Dad grew up on Gurneys. Dad would tell him stories from the times before Wade was born and when Wade was a baby, and Wade would try to swallow the sandy bologna. Dad always begged Wade to swim out to Dad's Rock.
“It's too cold.”
“There aren't any sharks in Lake Michigan.”
“But there are other things.”
Dad's Rock is way out, deep under water. Once Dad found it, he could stand on it and rest in the middle of the lake with the stars and the quiet. If the moon was out, Dad could see the top of the white church steeple over the trees. Dad would swim out and stand on his rock while Wade poked around the sand looking for Petoskey stones in the dark. Fossilized jewels of the North. Wade never swam to the rock with his father. All those years.
Mom clings to Wade's body for a long time and then whispers, “Do what you need to do.” Mom never swam out to Dad's Rock, either.
Dad dropped Wade on his head in the delivery room, the day Wade was born. “By accident,” Dad always joked, his eyes dancing with evil. It was the first time his father had ever held an infant. While the nurses were showing him how easy it was, maneuvering his stiff mannequin arms, he dropped him. “That explains why Wade's so good at math.” That was the dropped-the-baby-on-its-head-thing. Later came the window-thing, the bike-thing, the hypothermia-thing. Dad meant well.
After the divorce, the only time the family was together was when Wade was getting cut open or sewn back together. The family reunited once for Wade's baseball-thing nose surgery; the three played Scrabble in the hospital waiting room. They hadn't played games together since Dad moved out. Dad put down reiki and Mom said, “Groovy.” Dad's next word was zip and Mom said, “Thou shalt not zip.” Dad put down god and Mom challenged. Dad said it was time to play a different game. That's when it was time for the anesthesia. Wade's almost through New York State and the signs for Canada are giving him the same burning in his stomach that Scrabble did.
He can't take the Ohio Route. That wouldn't be true to the ritual of Dad's-rock-thing. He needs to drive through Canada like Dad always did: Danny's Ho Ho Chinese Buffet in Brantford, Tim Horton's Donuts in Woodstock, lighting Dad's Players Cigarettes for him on Highway 402. He needs to find Dad some local Ontario news on the radio so they can laugh when the announcer says, “Eh?” He's taking his chances, driving through the border with a crotch full of dope, living on the edge. Like walking along the top of Chittenengo Falls.
At least his hair is short. Dad's hippy hair always got the car searched, but the family never got frisked. They have to find something in the car before they personally pat you down–a seed, a stem, a pipe.
Lane To Canada.
They'll want his passport. They'll ask, “Where are you from? Where are you headed? Do you have any alcohol or firearms? Have a safe trip.” It would be easier if Elizabeth were with him. Minty-fresh couple. Everybody loves Elizabeth, “It's me, or the drugs, Wade."
Last Exit In U.S.A.
Wade adjusts the bulge between his legs. He could have hidden this shit in his ass, but that's too hard-core. Just a little reefer. Elizabeth will never know. So fucked up. Elizabeth and Wade could have swam out to Dad's Rock together. God, he's tearing up, his eyes will be red.
Prepare For Inspection.
Wade maneuvers behind the rusting Volkswagen Beetle with the Sierra Club bumper sticker. CoExist. Obama Cares. Greenpeace will definitely get searched. They never search two cars in a row. No way.
Greenpeace is waved through. The border patrol guy is handing Wade a ticket. “Pull into Number Seven.” Totally random. “Give them the ticket.” They're going to search the car. “Have a safe trip.” What about Greenpeace? Wade should have taken the Ohio route; he should have avoided the border. He should have called someone, before he scored.
One night, sitting on Good Hart Beach, Dad told Wade the rest of the dropped-the-baby-on-its-head-thing. They removed Wade for “observation,” had to drug Wade's hysterical mother. Dad drove back to the house with a sudden urge to paint the baby's room. He dropped the paint all over the floor. Paint fumes would mess up his baby. If Wade even made it home. Dad was on his knees, crying in a puddle of Baby Blue. Wade had never imagined his father being afraid of anything, but when Dad told him the whole dropped-the-baby-on-its-head-thing-story, Wade felt important. Dad's only fears had always been about him. Wade's birthday is Dad's sobriety date.
What did Dad pray for, before he “fell” off Chittenengo Falls? Gateway drug. Jesus at the gate, leading all His sheep to slaughter.
Number Seven. Go nuts. This geezer, like a Walmart greeter, is drowning in his big blue uniform. If you don't return his Hello, your wrists will be cuffed behind your back while your vehicle's impounded. Osama Bin Laden, Mrs. Bin Laden, and all the Little Bin Ladens: Welcome to Canada! Wade is a threat to national security, because his father literally just dropped dead and he's got a gram of sense down his pants. Taking too long. They must have pulled this guy out of retirement. The car is clean. Unless . . . Dad.
“Will you open this suitcase for me?”
The lock. It's just the lock. There's nothing in the suitcase. He's been through the whole car, so let Gramps into the suitcase and he won't search Wade's crotch. Probably. The combination is 0-0-0. It's always been 0-0-0.“I don't know why it's not working.” Wade's hands are trembling. 0-0-0. “God, do you have a crow-bar, or something?” Wade's voice just cracked. 0-0-0. Wade feels blood rushing from his face. He's afraid to look up. God, is his eye twitching? He's going to get himself patted down.
Mom will say, “Why don't you ever let me help you?” She always says that.
Elizabeth will say, “I'm done.” She always says that.
“That's okay.” The guard puts his wrinkled hand gently on Wade's shoulder. The man's touch triggers a tightening in Wade's neck and chest. God, is he going to cry? “You don't have any drugs or alcohol or firearms, do you?”
Wade gives up on the lock. Without looking up, he shakes his head.
“Didn't think so. Have a safe trip.”
You're kidding. That suitcase could be a dirty nuclear bomb, destined for the Evil that is Toronto. It could be full of ravenous boll weevils, genetically mutated to wipeout the entire Canadian wheat crop.
Dad almost got Wade busted at the fucking border. It's not 0-0-0, anymore. Dad changed the combination to 7-4-9, when they packed Wade for re-hab. It's Wade's sobriety date. It's Independence Day. How could Wade forget? Having a sobriety date like Dad's was like getting his own razor. A rite of passage.
While there's still a chance, he should throw this shit out the window. In three hours, he'll have to cross the border again into Michigan. But then he can't do this Dad's Rock-thing. Good Hart Beach, get high, just once, get connected, swim out to Dad's Rock. For Dad. Say good-bye to Dad.
Two Budweisers when Wade was thirteen and everything was connected. The trees and the bonfire and the stars and his friends. He was walking with God. Glowing. The buzz made it okay that his sneakers weren't Nike, that he was good at math, that he had a limp from that skiing-thing. Elizabeth Stuart was laughing at his one-liners, “I always thought you were shy.”
The beginning of a beautiful relationship. Wade stumbled home that night, while Dad was still at his meeting.
Welcome to the United States.
Wade's waved through the border. So much for 9/11. He was eight-years-old, in the TV section at Sears that night with Dad, tearing up while staring at a cluster of George W’s babbling about terror and evil and prayer. The grownups had closed the mall. It meant Wade couldn't get ice cream like Dad had promised. Dad thanked God that Sears was still open so he could get new tires on the car, but Wade didn't give a damn about tires. He didn't talk to Dad for the rest of the night.
Wade's driven over six-hundred miles to Good Hart Beach and tonight happens to be the Perseid meteor shower. Dad would say, “It's a sign.” A sign that he's with God, or something. That everything is okay. Wade would say, “It's a sign,” pointing to the letters on the gate that read, Beach Closed After Dark. Readmond Township has finally civilized Northern Michigan, building parking spaces along Middle Village Road and a boardwalk through the poison ivy from St. Ignatius Church Cemetery, the “Indian Cemetery,” down to the shores of the lake and posting hours of operation. Wade is relieved his father didn't live to see his boyhood playground progressed into the twenty-first century. “How do you close Lake Michigan?” his father would have whined. Wade would have argued public access and liability. He climbs over the fence. It is weird, though, all the shooting stars.
He kicks off his Converse All-Stars, the chilling sand between his toes. Tonight, there is this In-the-beginning darkness over the still lake. The empty void is pierced by shooting stars lighting the horizon. The waves on the shore sound like gentle canoe paddle strokes. Hard to imagine these waters rising up and snapping huge, steel ships in two. Wade remembers Dad telling him about the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Now he's got Gordon Lightfoot in his head. The remains of thousands of ships betrayed by these waters are at the bottom of the lake. Along with Dad's Rock. Searching for Dad's Rock is going to be like searching for a shipwreck. In the dark. Why didn't he, just once, swim out with his father? What was he afraid of?
What is he afraid of now, Whitefish? This spring, he'll have a BS in Biology. Next year, he'll be studying Genetics. There's nothing in this lake that wants anything to do with him. He can't shake his childhood terror that some slimy thing that can't see him, because it's night, might bump into him by accident. He'll never see it coming. He runs his tongue along his chipped tooth. That ice-hockey thing. He grips the grotesque scar on his arm and makes the tendons dance by opening and closing his fist. Freak show. Dad hated that. That tree-house-thing. What if his bum leg cramps up before he finds Dad's Rock? Probably shouldn't swim alone. Dad's Rock is kind of far.
He pulls the zip-lock baggie from his pants. Virgin bowl. Mini-lighter.
It was weird, that night on the beach, discovering that Dad and Wade shared the same memory of Wade on the changing table. Dad saying, “There's got to be a clean diaper around here, somewhere.” Dad had been terrified of Wade rolling off the changing table, so he kept one hand on him while he searched for a diaper. That's when Wade peed on him.
“That makes us even,” Dad said, sitting on the beach with his son. “The changing-table-thing.”
The Chittenengo Falls-thing. Did he jump? Did he fall? Does it matter? Dad could have drowned any one of those nights, swimming out to Dad's Rock, and left Wade helpless and alone on a dark beach. Dad's Rock-thing. Wade's going to do better, when he and Elizabeth have kids.
He should throw this shit in the lake. Swim out to Dad's Rock. Sober. Mr. Fucking Sobriety. That's what Dad would want. But then, Dad knew the magic of how this shit transforms everyday life into presents under a Christmas tree. You need a little help, sometimes. It's not like one year, one month, and eight days is a long time. Dad would understand. Dad's going to decompose like dead Whitefish.
That's not a shooting star. That's a flashlight. On the beach.
Cop. Waddling through the sand.
Wade drops his dope, buries it with his foot. He'll find it. He'll find it.
“Sir, you're not aware that the beach is closed after dark?”
“No. I know. It's just so nice.”
They're searching Wade's vehicle. Crackling radios and floodlights. Hands on the hood, legs spread, Wade's One Year chip.
“My dad died. I drove from New York. We used to go to this beach.”
“The neighbors get nervous if someone's parked here at night.”
Wade's sorry. They're going to cut him a break. He's welcome to come back when the beach is open. His dope will end up the drawbridge to some kid's sandcastle.
Wade's about to drive away. The cop comes back. He leans into Wade's window.
“You know, if you park at Sunoco, it's an easy walk to the beach.”
It is an easy walk. Wade's back on the beach, on his knees, delicately sweeping his hands through the sand like it was full of landmines. The dope's got to be around here, somewhere. Finding a bag of sense on the beach on a moonless night is going to be harder than finding Dad's Rock. Sticks and clumps of dried seaweed, maybe a few Petoskey stones. They're hard to tell in the dark, especially if you're not really looking for them. Finding a fossil isn't going to fill the hole, anyway. He's not eight-years-old.
Why didn't he get drunk? It would have been easy. Why do some people fail at suicide? How hard can it be?
When Wade came home from the hospital after the dropped-the-baby-on-its-head thing, Dad finally got to hold his baby and he sang “Help” to Wade, because he didn't know any genuine lullabies. Now Wade's got the Beatles in his head.
He hasn't checked his cell since Dad died. So many missed calls, so many messages. Elizabeth. Trooper Bill, “Why aren't you at the meeting?”
Maybe he's in the wrong spot. Maybe the dope's somewhere else.
How is he not locked up? Dad and his signs. He's meant to be on this beach.
He sits in the sand, but can't be still. There's sand in his clothes.
He pulls off his hoodie and strips to his boxers. He'll look for the dope later. He stands at the edge of the great lake. Like standing at the edge of the universe. Like standing at the door to his dealer's apartment. Just do it. Like Nike. Just do it.
The water might be full of Whitefish and blind monsters, but it's warmer than the air. He wades to his chest and then plunges his head underwater. The Novocain of submersion. The water is a poultice, drawing out the poison of the long drive, the police searches, the image of his father falling to the earth. Like when Dad taught Wade how to swim, that instant when Wade and the water became friends, the epiphany that it wasn't a struggle. The graceful ballet of the breaststroke, effortlessly being moved through the water. He is a child on the beach, absently searching for Petoskey stones with his hands, while he strains to not lose sight of his father swimming out far into the lake. He is his father, periodically looking back to see if his son has become brave enough to join him in the magic. Nothing matters but the water and the night sky. Can Elizabeth see this meteor shower? He treads water under the stars, water swooshing through his fingers, his toes searching for Dad's Rock.
It's got to be around here, somewhere.
KEITH F. STAHL recently sold his small restaurant, after eleven years, to pursue an undergraduate degree at Syracuse University and devote time to creative writing. Some of his pieces have appeared in specialty magazines. “Dad's Rock” is his first publication in a literary journal.