He was dreaming in green, of things aged too quickly and expired in shields of fuzzy mold, when he became conscious of a silence and awoke. The foreign room was too dark to make anything out. Pin-thick rays of sunlight pierced through an emerald sheet serving as a curtain, giving the room a faint glow. Jake lay on his side, waiting for a sound: the roar of his father’s snore, the rumble of a passing car, muffled music or distant conversations. But he was alone.
His father, J.B., must have left earlier that morning, probably to see the woman. The last thing Jake remembered from the night before, when he and J.B. arrived, was sitting in the passenger seat of the 1974 Cadillac Coup Deville as it slowly climbed a winding vertical road with cliffs on either side that descended into a valley of aspen trees. The car was at such a dramatic tilt that gravity pulled his brain to the headrest and forced him to watch the universe through the cracked windshield – space a white-speckled umbrella of blackness sheltering the world. He felt as if he was flying and fell asleep imagining Neptune, Orion, galaxies, black holes, and beyond.
Now Jake stood, readjusted and yawned, inhaling an air of dust, stale smoke and sweat. The stench made him smile. They were far from Boston for sure. The racket that began at five in the morning there – car horns, voices, construction, crashes all compressed into a single sound – were absent here at 10,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains. He had waited ten long years for this moment, to be living with his father again. He had prayed to God each night to bring his father back into his life, promising with each prayer that if God did this for him he would never again lose hope. Their stay in this remote mountain town would be temporary. They were on their way to Las Vegas, where J.B. lived. He said Jake could stay with him for a while, if the drive out went well.
Jake hooked the imitation drape behind a bent nail. Light from the outdoors rushed through the frosty plastic window and its sea foam green dream catcher, revealing the room that was no larger than the Cadillac. He opened the plywood front door and stepped into the sunlight, breathing in clean, tasteless air. The Cadillac was parked a few feet from him at the top of a golden dirt driveway as steep as the road they had driven the night before. The one-room house they were staying in fulfilled none of the requirements that were necessary to be deemed a house in New England. It was a collage of decaying wood, red and turquoise sheet metal, and a rusting orange roof. Above the door, written in delicate gold cursive, a sign read, “La Siesta: For Anyone in Need of a Rest.” He felt embarrassed staying in a designated free-loafers house, but J.B. said it was a rule of the town that all guests had a place to crash. J.B. had loved this area for years, mentioning it in his occasional letters to Jake, promising to teach him how to rock climb someday in the Rockies. Someday had arrived.
There was an old mining shack a few yards away with a half moon painted on the door. Behind it was a footpath leading through the trees. Jake considered going behind a tree, but didn’t want to risk being discovered by a crazed bear or mountain lion. Flies were circling the outhouse as he approached and its smell reached him before he got to the door. He held his breath, stepped in and, after a few splashes, flew out the door, pulling his pants up in one motion. He stumbled and felt eyes on him. He looked up to find a girl his age walking toward him down the path. Their eyes met and he turned away, heading back toward the house, his face cherried.
“Hey,” she said.
“Hi,” he said, stopping to face her.
“Are you staying at the La Siesta?”
“Is that the name of this place?”
He nodded, looked down and kicked a pinecone. She was pretty.
“Um, x-y-z,” she said.
“You know, x – y – z,” she said as she spelled out each letter in the air with her index finger.
He spun away from her, zipping up his fly and praying nothing but his boxers had been hanging out. She laughed lightly.
“So where are you from?”
“Boston. I’m moving to Las Vegas with my dad.”
“Is this on the way?”
“Not really. My dad is friends with Marianne Roberts and -“
“Most men are.”
He paused, hoping she would elaborate. She was strong and had dark red hair, not fire orange but red as New England maple leaves in autumn. Her hair was wavy and frizzy; wild strands whipped about her head in the breeze and glistened in the sun. She was wearing loose fitting cutoffs, some unknown brand of jeans from Kmart or Walmart or someplace like that, and a wife-beater. He realized she had nothing more to say about Marianne Roberts.
“We’re just here until tomorrow morning,” he said.
“Have you been to The Welkin yet?”
“The Welkin. It’s our café. Have you had breakfast?”
“Alright, I’ll come with you.”
“Cool. Let me just grab my wallet.”
They walked down the path to the Cadillac and he unlocked the trunk, threw his father’s climbing rope to the side, and retrieved his money from his backpack. Then he followed her down the driveway. The town came into view at the base of the driveway.
It was a quaint town displayed on an ascending mountainside. A white church stood in the center surrounded by weathered homes of washed-out pastel colors. There was a library, white with blue trim, and a matching post office. They walked up the only paved road in town, which the girl referred to as Main Street but said it in fact had no name. A German shepherd was lying in the middle of the road. Jake could tell it was an old dog by its limpness, unabashedly bored with life. A car came down the street, the first he’d seen or heard all morning, and stopped in front of the dog, who did not move. The car gave a couple of gentle honks. The dog did not stir. The girl laughed.
“That’s Vulva. She doesn’t move for anyone, only gets up when she wants some water.” The car gave up and drove around.
They approached the general store. Four old men sat on a carved wooden bench beneath one of the storefront windows. They each had long white hair that contrasted with their stained beards, which were a yolk yellow. They wore fir coats with large belts and sucked on corncob pipes. Jake doubted it was tobbaco they were smoking. One of the men nodded to Jake, and gave him a look that Jake interpreted as pity. “You’re not alone if you’ve got yourself, Jake,” said the man.
“How do you know my name,” Jake asked.
“Word gets around quickly here,” the man said, grinning.
“Ok,” Jake said.
He told the girl he wanted to buy some gum and went into the store, but he came out after only a few seconds. The store’s selection was minimal: the only items for sale were baking ingredients, bottles of Pepsi, cans of baked beans, and dream catchers like the one at the La Siesta. The café was across the street and mostly empty. They ordered coffee and Frosted Flakes cereal and did not say a word to each other as they ate.
Afterward, the girl offered to show him the library. They walked through Central Park – a field of overgrown grass – where a man with long blond hair was wearing a kilt and thrashing the air with a sword. He was a blacksmith and swordsman from Scotland, the girl said, and this was the site of the annual sword fight, where the man and his brother were the undefeated champions who vowed never to battle one another. When they arrived at the library, the door was unlocked. Jake was surprised by its pristine condition.
“No one ever steals books?” he asked.
“Why would they?” she replied.
The library reminded him of the rooms in fairytales. It had three levels, all open enclaves, a spiraling wooden staircase, beams of curving carved wood, smooth and unpainted. They looked oiled from all the hands that had glided along them. Stained glass windows were on all but the back wall. Books popped out from every crevice. The girl sat in a mossy recliner and stretched her legs out to a short chunk of pine. He wandered, reading dusty book titles, inhaling the sunlight, as she rambled about the book club they had in there when she was young and how the only award she ever won was “Most Improved Reader: Summer 1989.”
He thought of the last honor he earned. He had been eight and competed in the school’s track and field events. He won a relay race, beating three older kids. He ran home excited and told his mom that they had to call his father – he had really good news and wanted J.B. to know that he would be the first to hear it. He handled the white kitchen phone with giddy fingers and dialed the numbers as his mother read them aloud. I’m sorry, that number has been disconnected. That was the first time J.B. had disappeared. They didn’t hear from him for seventeen months. Jake feared he’d never see his father again. For a year and a half, Jake’s daydreams revolved around what had happened to his father. Was his father mixed up with the mob and had they kidnapped him and would they come for Jake, pull him away in the middle of class one day, take him to a mansion in Europe, where he’d live for a month before his father flew through a window and shot every man in the room, scooping Jake in his arms? Or had his father been killed. Maybe J.B. was really in the CIA, that’s why he had to live so far away and he had been killed when he was undercover, pretending to be a compulsive gambler. As it turned out, J.B. was down on his luck and had forgotten to call or write.
Jake sunk into a recliner across from the girl. She brought her feet to the edge of her chair, her legs slightly parted, knees at chin level. He glanced at her, at the shadow created between the bottom of her leg and the drooping shorts. A ray of sunlight stretched across the room and spotlighted her.
She invited Jake to a party that night in the woods and gave him directions. He walked back to the La Siesta and found J.B. on the bed, passed out, a pipe lying by his head. His father was snoring, that lawnmower snore that roared with disregard for nearby dreamers. Jake curled up in the chair and watched J.B., who always seemed to maintain a look of class. His face was smooth and scented; his hair gelled into crisp streaks. His dress – khakis and a polo shirt – was both casual and sophisticated. At fifteen, Jake was frail and lanky. He fell asleep imaging himself as a man, closely resembling J.B.
That night, his father wanted to get high again. J.B. sucked from the pipe then handed it to Jake who inhaled and coughed violently. Jake had never smoked until he left Boston with his father and the thing he most enjoyed about it was the instant of suffocation that followed each breath of smoke. His father broke out in laughter.
“You know, this Marianne, she is something else.”
Jake said nothing. They sat in silence. It took them five days to drive from Boston to Colorado and they had hardly spoken all that time. J.B. said something that Jake missed and then his father began to laugh so hard his face turned red; he looked like he was dying. Jake thought of how much J.B. had given up to spend his life high. What was it about this state of mindlessness that J.B. enjoyed so much? Perhaps his father cared as little for himself as he did for his family.
As if his father knew what he was thinking, J.B. said, “I never hurt anyone. I know I was a shitty father and should have been around more, but at least I never hurt anyone, right? I never hit you, I never stole nothing or was mean.”
Jake wanted to explain that indifference is more hurtful than abuse. At least he would have existed if his father hit him. It almost would have been a compliment to be able to evoke that much emotion in J.B.
“I know that,” Jake said. “Besides, everybody has a rough childhood.”
They sat staring at the candles for a few moments.
“We should get going,” Jake said.
J.B. walked to Jake and placed a heavy sweaty palm on his shoulder. J.B. said nothing; he just stood there. Jake listened to his father’s silence, wondering if a profound heart-felt speech was forming, an authentic father-to-son moment.
“Let’s go,” J.B. said.
They drove down a narrow dirt road through aspen and pine trees that had been weighted down by that winter’s snow, their branches bent and forming a tunnel. After twenty minutes in the car, Jake saw an orange glare up ahead. The Cadillac was one of only three cars, but there looked to be more than fifty people there. The swordsman from earlier was joined by other men in kilts who were dancing around the fire, a slow-motion hopping dance from one foot to the other, their swords in dark leather sheaths protruding from their rears. Dirty kids with knotted hair ran around haphazardly. Three naked women held hands and swayed to the music. J.B. crept behind one of the women and grabbed her from behind. She had dirty blonde dreadlocks and more acne on her body than most boys his age. Jake watched his father throw the laughing woman over his shoulder and dart into the woods. The girl from earlier was sitting alone on a log by the fire and Jake joined her.
“You sure are quiet,” she said.
“I don’t know. Think a lot, I guess.”
“Life. The things I want to do.”
“I don’t know. Vegas will be fun. Maybe I’ll become a craps dealer like my dad. Gamble and get rich and buy mansions all over the world and travel and stuff. I really want to travel. I think the coolest people have been everywhere and know that people are the same all over, you know?”
“I think people are defined by who they live with, not where,” the girl said.
“What do you mean?”
“If a girl lives alone, she is alone in life. That is her. If a man lives with his wife, he is married, a partner, that is who he is. If a boy lives with his father, he is a son.”
“But you can’t choose who you live with.”
“Sure you can,” she said. “Everything in life is a choice. Free will.”
“A five year old doesn’t choose to live with his parents.”
“Well, not kids, no. But once you’re able to know what you want, if you don’t do it you’re an idiot.”
“Are you high?”
“I’m always high.”
He admired her honesty. He was rarely that bold. They sat quietly for many minutes, watching the flames jumping in sporadic directions. Then she said, “I like you.” He smiled back, unsure how to respond.
“So you and your dad are leaving tomorrow?”
“Yup, 5 a.m.”
She suddenly kissed him, her wet lips over his, pushing her tongue into his mouth and poking around. Then she pulled away and looked at him. He made an effort to smile and leaned toward her, then kissed her. This was his first kiss. She tasted of smoke, beer, and potato chips. When they stopped, they watched each other and then the fire.
“Do you want to go to the hot tubs?” she asked.
They walked to the Cadillac, which looked seductive and silver reflecting the moon. He did not open the door for her and did not buckle his seat belt. He pulled out onto the dirt road. He clutched the wheel and drove slowly, though he felt eager. He was too nervous to look at the girl. She was probably already creating the excuses she’d give him once they got there. She was not feeling well, forgot about her curfew, her parents would get mad. Bob Dylan was playing on the stereo. He rested his hand on her thigh. She did not move it away. He looked at her. She giggled. His gaze met her twilight eyes and fell to her small breasts. He wondered how far he could move his hand up before she stopped him. Then he remembered the road.
His eyes flung forward just in time to see that they were headed for a cluster of aspen trees. He spun the wheel hard to the right, the car fish tailed. He slammed the brakes and the car skidded into a pine on the other side of the road. Dylan kept singing, “But it ain’t me babe, no, no, no, it ain’t me babe…”
They drove the dented Cadillac back to the party. Jake saw his father watch as he parked. Jake’s heart stopped, sunk into his gut.
“Take the car home,” J.B. said.
Jake forgot to say goodbye to the girl, he was too worried. He drove back to the La Siesta and thought of what the night might bring. His father would yell at him, tell him how disappointed he was, that Jake should be more responsible, that he was too young to drive and too young for kissing girls, that he had his whole life for that and right now he should just be a kid; that if Jake was serious about making things work in Las Vegas, he had to act like it; he’d have to earn his father’s trust. Then Jake would tell his father that he was sorry, he would try harder, he did not mean to be so irresponsible, he would be better.
Jake stood by the window when he heard his father coughing outside, and braced himself. J.B. walked in, passed Jake, and grabbed the pipe.
“I’m really sorry J.B. It was an accident. We were going -“
“I don’t care. It’s not a big deal.” He lit the pipe.
“We just wanted to go to the hot -“
“Jake, really, man, I don’t give a shit. I was pissed earlier cause Marianne was giving me a hard time, wouldn’t put out, you know?” He laughed. “Want a hit?”
Jake was stunned. “You’re not mad that I crashed your car into a tree?”
“That piece of shit, hell no. It still drives doesn’t it?”
Jake felt his legs begin to shake.
“Puff-puff give,” his father said.
He held the pipe in his hands feeling disgusted by it, as if it were a brother he was envious of. He handed it back to J.B. Jake had been so worried that his father would be angry, send him back to Boston, that he hadn’t realized how much he wanted to fight, to have a real interaction.
“Listen buddy, I’m going back up to Marianne’s. She’ll be easier to deal with high. Invite that little hottie over, if you want.” J.B. left before Jake could respond.
Jake became nauseous, the room tipped east then west; the disappointments too great. He realized he was not breathing, his heart had stopped beating. He fell to the floor and wept. He was as invisible to his father now as he had been when they were thousands of miles apart. He would spend his life after his father’s heart and never get it. Things were not going to be ok in Las Vegas; they would be as they always had.
Then something he had never considered occurred to him. It was not a feeling, not a thought, hardly a decision. He suddenly felt empowered, in control. He experienced in that instant only his father’s climbing rope, coiled in the trunk, and a desire. The longing could not be converted into logic; he did not feel one way or the other about it.
He retrieved the rope and attached it to the doorknob on the outside, knotted over and over in impulsive loops. He hooked the rope over the door and slammed it shut. He tugged. It was secure. He pulled the chair from its corner to the door, stepped onto it and carefully wrapped the rope around his neck so as not to scrape his skin with the coarse material. He slowly released the air in his lungs and kicked the chair away.
He hung there, trying to stiffen his body. It was angry, betrayed, trying to fight back. He gasped for breath, but denied himself. The bones in his neck were fragile and began to hurt. Hot tears oozed from his eyes and burned his cheeks. He stared at the chair before him, a few inches from his right foot, easily reached, but he held his head high with resolve, watching the chair, the drooping wax, his surrender, crying at the pins stabbing his lungs, until he lost his sight, then his consciousness.
When he awoke he found himself sleeping in the corner, a blanket with choo-choo trains had been tossed over him. The rope had been cut. J.B. must have ended things. He was asleep on the foam bed, his snore now weak and wheezing, almost a whimper. The green sheet was still tucked behind the rusty nail and moonlight seeped into the room, reflecting off the thick air and creating a twilight fog. He began to cry. Not like he had before, but gently. Though it saddened him, he felt a peace he had not known since he was a young child.
An old book was leaning against the window. The title had been crossed out with a black marker. Wild flowers were tucked inside. He opened the cover and found an inscription from the girl: To be alone is to be free. An unused pipe sat next to the candles. He reached down, lit it, and inhaled the sweet, thick smoke like honey rushing down his sore, bruised throat. It would be the last smoke and breath he took with J.B. He lit the candles, went to his father and looked down at him. Stubble had accumulated on his chin and around his nose.
A memory came to him. Cape Cod. He was two and standing in the ocean, the rolling waves gently passing by his thighs. A white wave, taller than he was, came up and crashed into him. He was pulled under, hit the dark sand, and breathed in water. His arm was grabbed by his father’s hands, “Jesus, Jakie, I’m so sorry, you ok buddy? Come here, I’m so sorry, I looked away, I love you….”
He looked at his father now – pathetic, aged, full of sorrow and remorse and regret, the way Jake had always wanted to see him. It was cold in the room; his father shivered and sweated. He wiped the moisture from his father’s forehead.
Jake looked at the candle light, a warm orange flame dancing to the Meringue. He turned from his father and left the La Siesta. The key to the Cadillac was in the ignition, but he did not twist it. Jake shifted into neutral, and descended the mountain.