Deer piss and pond mud, my mom would always complain. She could never get it out of our clothes in one wash. Up on the line they would go, heavy and wet while she waited for the sun to steal their moisture, thinking surely, this time, the ‘new and improved’ detergent she’d gotten on sale at Wal-Mart would blast the stinking filth right out of our expedition clothes. She’d go about her day, eyeing the clothesline from a distance, as if it was a pot on its way to a boil and she was starving for some poached eggs. Much like a pot you are waiting on for a boil, the clothes would never be dry enough before my mom would walk herself across the lawn and put her nose right into their damp, and then with a “God DAMN it” she’d grab the plastic laundry basket and start ripping them all down. She’d whip each piece into the basket with a swear word. My pants would be “Fucker!” My dad’s jacket,“Bitch!” Our matching caps, “Assholes” and so on until the clothesline was bare again. On many an expedition, my dad and I would often take turns mimicking my mother swearing at our laundry. Even though I was only seven years old and a girl, he never seemed to care that I was saying things like, ‘motherfucker,’ ‘dick’ and ‘cocksucker.’ He’d only tell me, “Shhh…” followed by a wink I knew meant, “Don’t tell your mother.”
Deer piss and pond mud, I would never complain. Even when my dad would rub the mud onto my face, squirt the deer piss in my hair. “Can’t have ’em be seein’ us, smellin’ us.” Even when we’d be in the mountain blind, the one with no shade, sitting in it for hours, the heat making me, us, sweat so much the deer piss would run out our scalps and drip down our faces, mixing with the pond mud so it would look like the both of us were crazy melted things. I’d sit with it, the mess all over my face, stink filling my nostrils, knowing my dad had a purpose; we had a purpose.
On the hot days, my dad would wear his goggles so the pissmud wouldn’t drip into his eyes. He never wanted to miss anything. “He’s always gonna come when you think he won’t,” he assured me, and I’d peer out of the blind, thinking, ‘he won’t come now because it’s too hot out,” which was my way of imposing reverse psychology on mythology, I guess. Or, just when I caught myself falling asleep, I’d look out of the blind and try to catch him creeping by. I always figured I’d hear him before I saw him, his massive feet sending rocks rolling down the slope, his shoulders breaking saplings that had the nerve to grow too close together. He’d make his way with a rumble magnificent enough to equal his legend.
We saw a lot of raccoons, squirrels, and deer while sitting in those blinds. One time we even saw a mountain lion which was funny because we were in the river blind at the time. I told my dad, “Maybe he was a river lion,” and he laughed, probably too hard.
Every so often we’d see a hunter and my dad would get mad. He would say their human smells had infected our expedition. My dad would call them ‘dumbasses’ because they never saw us —well, except for this one time.
I would like to forget about that time: the hunter whose rifle stayed prone at his side while he cocked, aimed and fired his shotgun made of tongue, lips and teeth. The way the hunter used my father’s name, the way his laughter ripped, tore, spraying bits of my father’s insides bright on the imaginary wall behind him. Even though there was no blood, I could tell by his eyes and the way his body sort of crawled in on itself that my dad was hurt pretty bad. I wanted bandages. I wanted to tie my belt as a tourniquet. Most of all, I wanted my own shotgun, big enough to fire back. But I was too small to save my dad. I had no gun and I could never find the place he was bleeding from.
My mom liked to remind my dad about that event whenever she was drinking. “Remember when Burke Whistler called you the town nutjob? Told you how everyone was takin’ bets on how long before they put you in the loony bin?” She slapped her thigh. “Man, I wish I coulda been there!”
She would eventually segue into telling him how she dreaded going into town, all the whispers, the laughing, and how she hated eating out of dented cans, how she hated thrift store dresses and how she couldn’t do this anymore and then she would ask him, “How do my shoes feel, Gerald? Huh? How do my shoes feel?”
She would ask him this over and over. An automatic. No reloading necessary. Scatter shot.
In my bedroom I’d curl myself into myself under the blankets, too small, still.
Loch Ness Monster
My dad always said summers were for Bigfoot and fall was for the Loch Ness Monster. He had a sure sort of wisdom about these things that I never questioned. My mom would ask him what season was for working. My dad would answer by polishing his gun, or tapping out his pipe and shaking his head, quietly saying, “We catch one of these, Allison, we’ll never have to work again.”
At night I’d think about which shirt I’d wear when they took our picture for the paper. The headline would always be the same, but with a different photo depending on the catch “Local Man and Daughter Capture Legendary Monster.” My dad and I would be in the foreground of the picture and he’d have his arm around me. In the background would be whatever crumpled mass of whichever legend we’d bagged. My dad would look as happy as I’d ever seen him, like everything he’d ever wanted in life had finally come through, like he finally proved everybody wrong.
My dad had plenty of photos of the Loch Ness Monster; they were pegged all over the south wall of his workshop. He even had a map of Scotland where he’d colored in Loch Ness with a yellow highlighter, letting me draw Nessie in the middle with a black felt marker. The rest of the pictures were ones I had drawn with pencil or crayon. These he hung on the wall above his work bench.
“Masterpieces,” he called them.
Because we never would be able to afford a flight to Scotland, my dad said Lake Earle was the next best thing. He said the lake was made up of deep caverns and craters dating back to prehistoric times. He said we didn’t need Loch Ness to find a Nessie. We’d find an Earle! My mom always reminded him that there had never been any sightings of an “Earle Monster” and no accompanying legend, but that didn’t deter him. He said it was because nobody was wise enough to look for it.
“And I guess Gerald Whutt of Flatmarsh, Tennessee, who didn’t even manage to graduate from high school is the wise one whose gonna find that monster, eh?”
My father smoked his pipe, uncrossed his legs, smoked his pipe, crossed his legs.
“Worthless, loser husband.”
My father polished his gun, polished his gun.
“Wish I’d never let you stick that pathetic little thing inside me.”
My father picked up the remote, turned up the volume, turned up the volume.
My mother’s shotgun mouth. Her pellet words. My father’s chest full of scars.
Me without a belt or bandage.
It took an entire day to get to the lake. My dad would pull me out of school on a Friday and we’d spend the morning driving and the afternoon hiking until we reached the lake. We’d set up what my dad called “home base,” and then head out on our expedition.
With the wet, it was different. You couldn’t depend on the safety of sound for assistance. If any sound happened, it was far away on a surface that existed mainly in silence. You might as well have been deaf. With the wet it was all eyes. You’d stare at the green blue black until you made yourself see things. You’d figure as much, make yourself look away, and then return to whatever spot it was where you thought something happened and then, nothing. Watching water was a blinding task. It played tricks. It was not easy.
Saturday would be spent at the lake with our binoculars and a cooler filled with bottles of pop, a couple of sandwiches and some apples from our tree. My dad would carry his shotgun and a camera and I would carry the blanket. We’d set ourselves up on different high points on the shoreline and scan the water for any sort of movement. I would never spot anything but sometimes my dad would. He’d wake me up and tell me, “Shorty, you just missed it!” and then he’d point out at the lake to a spot I could never seem to pinpoint. “Right there! Straight up from that pine! Didn’t you see the ripples?”
“I think so,” I’d tell him. “Maybe… Yeah.”
“You best stop fallin’ asleep. You keep missing all the action.”
“Did you get a picture?”
“No, bastard was too quick.”
“Well, looks like the lens cap was still on anyway.”
My dad would pick up the camera like he was seeing it for the first time.
On the last expedition we returned late Sunday to my mom’s car not in the driveway, a couple of cold fried eggs left on a plate and a note on the fridge that my dad pulled down before I could read it. I watched his face crumple while I ate the eggs. I was only able to finish one.
Later that night when I woke to use the bathroom I saw my dad on the couch with my mother’s note in his hand. He was crying. I felt a sudden urge to grab the camera; his tears a rogue ripple in a lake, his sobs a thunder of great footsteps breaking saplings.
Looking for UFOs happens in the dark and it happens in the cold and out of all the expeditions it is the most beautiful. It is quiet and it is looking into the stars. It is feeling a slow separation from the heaviness of one’s body and everything that ties us down. It’s a transference to a world so far away and so full of light that soon you feel you are hovering among the glitter, their shine so fixed and reliable. It is not the stench of deer piss, the grit of mud in your mouth, or sitting hot and uncomfortable in a space small and cramped. It is not the mirage of unsteady lake water, teasing your eyes to the point of madness. It is daydreaming in the dark. It is other world possibilities and fearful, excited anticipation.
My dad liked to call them Bulb-Heads. He said that when they come they’ll look like burned out light bulbs on beanpole bodies with black, almond eyes. “Like the Chinese,” he’d say. I would picture Darren Cho, the only Chinese boy in my sixth grade class, stretched out skinny, gray skin, head bald and bulging, walking towards me with outstretched arms like Frankenstein.
“Do you think they’d hurt us?” I’d ask, glancing at his shotgun lying in the bed of the truck next to us.
“They may come in peace, they may come otherwise, whichever way, we’ll be ready when they do.”
When he would come to pick me up, my mom made me wait on the porch. She didn’t want him knocking on the door, didn’t want him even setting foot on her walkway. It would be that way even if she didn’t have a new boyfriend —she despised everything to do with my father. She hated how I “indulged his bullshit,” and had no problem letting me know. She would turn up the television as loud as it would go so she couldn’t even hear the clanking rumble of his old truck pulling up to the curb. She came out only once, the first time he came to get me, wearing a new dress, blue with tiny yellow flowers. It dipped low in the front and tied tight around her waist. She stood on the porch, hands on her hips, as he got out of his truck and walked around to the curb.
“Nice dress,” he said.
She didn’t say anything. She just kissed the top of my head then turned and walked back inside the house.
My dad just stood there for a minute, staring at the space she left.
“Let’s go, Shorty.”
Dad would drive outside of the town on winding dirt roads where no streetlights would disrupt our view, to places that left us alone. We’d lie on sleeping bags in the back of his truck.
“Mysteries and legends hate crowds, Shorty,” he’d always say. “You and me, we ain’t a crowd, we’re company. Two’s company, three’s a crowd, Shorty. Remember that.”
I thought how my mom, dad and me made three. I thought about my mom, her new boyfriend and me and how that also made three. I thought about my mom’s boyfriend and me and how my dad was wrong about two. I thought about my dad and how he was a one, like Bigfoot, like Nessie. I wondered what a one was and then I wondered what a one was when nobody was looking for you.
It was dusk by the time Mike dropped me off. After he pulled away my dad asked if he was my boyfriend. I tried to explain he was just a friend.
“A boy, that’s just a friend, in a car, alone with you?”
“Dad, he’s just a friend and he’s the only friend I have with a car who’s willing to drive me out to the middle of stupid nowhere because you wanted me to be here.”
My dad scooted off the truck bed, his boots puffing dust as they landed. “Sorry, Shorty. Jeez. You don’t have to come if you don’t want to, I just thought, well, it’s just been a while is all.”
His voice was smaller than it had ever been. I looked at him for a minute, wondering when he stopped being so much bigger than me.
“No, dad. It’s fine,” I sighed. “Let’s do it.”
His face cracked into a grin, “Okay.”
“Please stop calling me Shorty. I’m 17.”
“Sure, Maddie. Sorry, I forgot.”
He pulled some black bags from the back of his truck explaining that they were infrared cameras some guy traded him for some roofing work. “Now, if you can just keep it from your mom, I would appreciate it. You know how she’s always after me for my monthlies.”
“Sure dad,” I said, shaking my head, knowing his ‘monthlies’ had actually become ‘yearlies.’
I picked up my pack and followed him towards the dilapidated old house.
He broke a back window, crawled inside and opened the back door to let me in. The place was filled with busted, rotting furniture and the smell of mold baking in the bottled up heat. I started to sweat. I remembered the mountain blind, our matching caps, the goggles my dad used to wear. I shook the memories away as quickly as they came.
After a search of the first and second floors we set up camp in an upstairs bedroom.
While the sun set my dad rambled on, things about people following him in an attempt to get his ‘data.’ He kept reminding me of the photographs I still needed to go see. The ones he took of what he was pretty sure was a Bigfoot. He recounted the same story he’d been telling me over the phone the last two times he’d called. A lot of his babble trailed off incoherently. I wanted to put my head in my hands.
The room we were in was dark and I knew he couldn’t see my face very well because I couldn’t see his. I didn’t want to see his face. I didn’t want him to see mine, what he would find there if he really looked. Most of all I didn’t want to see any stupid pictures.
When he started to take the fancy cameras out of their cases —so expensive, so useless —I wanted to ask him if he knew how my mom had to pick up a third shift just so she could afford to fix the car we both needed to get around in. I wanted to ask him if he even cared that out of all of the seniors at my high school I was the only one that had to go to the library to do homework because I didn’t have a computer. I wanted to ask if he knew how it felt to be known as “Whutt The Nutjob’s Daughter” and how it felt to be made fun of for bringing a sack lunch to school with the same old government cheese sandwich every day.
I looked at those cameras in my dad’s dirty hands and I want to ask him all of the questions my mother used to ask him.
The taste of gunpowder began to creep across the edges of my mouth.
I bit it down.
It didn’t matter how badly we wanted each expedition to be successful, or how many small glimpses we thought we got, the bottom line was: all of those quests went nowhere.
I learned that sometimes it isn’t all about the finding. Expeditions for Bigfoots, sea monsters and spaceships are the search for something bigger than oneself. They are faith-based quests soaked in a tea of magic, wonder, legend and hope. They bring with them an excited tremor and a clamor in your belly in the belief that what has only been glimpsed might actually be seen, and then, having been seen, believed.
I cannot look away. My son pulls my shirt and pulls my shirt and pulls my shirt until I finally lean down, my ear even with his mouth, and he whispers, “He looks like a scary man, mama. Is he a scary man?”
My son is afraid of his grandpa.
I stare at my father lying shrunken in the hospital bed wondering how to answer him.
My father’s face resembles a dried up apple head like the ones displayed at the county fair we’d go to when I was little. His skin is thin, pulled tight where it isn’t loose and spotted with years of too much sun and now, age. His mouth is open, his eyes closed, his breathing intermittent and hitched. I think of Munch’s “The Scream” and how I just finished teaching my students about it, how Munch’s inspiration for this painting was a sense of ‘screaming through nature’ and how some of the biggest inspirations in life can come from things not seen, but felt.
I should have expected this, his appearance. My mother warned me. What lay before me was so different from the man I remembered. My memories were not of this man, a man withered by age and sickness.
No wonder my four year old was scared. I am 37 and I’m scared.
I tell my son, no, this is not a bad man, but if he is scared he can join his daddy in the hallway. He does.
I am alone with my father for the first time in 12 years.
The last time I saw my father was a month after what the lawyer referred to as ‘The Incident,” but what my mother called “When Your Dad Finally Lost It and Shot That Poor Boy,” and what my dad called “A Goddamn Alien and He Was Goddamn Comin’ For Me, What Did You Expect Me to Do?” I didn’t tell her what my dad called it because that would’ve just proven her right and I was worn down with how right she had always been.
Sometimes you just want to be wrong.
There is only so long one can hang on to the shred of something that used to be hoping it will become what you want it to before you finally realize it never will or can’t or never was. It finally took my dad being put away for me to realize I couldn’t keep waiting around hoping to get my father back. I questioned if I ever had one. Maybe I was just a little girl who wanted to believe in magical things more strongly than my father did.
Three weeks after visiting him I moved away. I didn’t tell him where. I didn’t want to become another quest for him one day.
I pull a plastic chair to his bedside and I sit. I tell him I’m here, “Dad, it’s Shorty.” The name comes out of my mouth unexpectedly. It feels like an old photograph. He does not stir. I take his hand, weightless, in mine. His one becomes a two.
I study his face, the ghost of a man he has become. The doctor told me I came just in time; he had days, if that.
Soon he will face the biggest mystery of them all. I want to take him out of the blur of the bed sheets and dress him in his bitch pants, his cocksucker shirt, his asshole cap. I want to hand him his shotgun, his goggles, his camera, lens cap removed. I don’t want him to miss this one. I want him to be ready.
© Tracy Gonzalez 2012
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Tracy Gonzalez has been published online in PANK, Smokelong Quarterly and others. She is trying new things. Visit her at www.trust-fall.blogspot.com