My father might be in trouble. We are on the phone at one in the morning—two in the morning where he is—and there is a pain in his chest. The pain is also in his left shoulder, in his left arm. All the scary places. I tell him to sit down and take deep breaths, shoot a few aspirin.
“Think I should chew or swallow?”
He sounds weirdly chipper, like it’s exciting to have options. We haven’t spoken in months. “Maybe chew,” I say. “Considering the circumstances.”
“I don’t know, Dad. I guess we play it by ear.”
I do and do not know how it came to this. Earlier today, he trapped a squirrel in his yard. He put the trap in the cab of his truck, put a blanket over the trap so the animal wouldn’t be frightened, and then drove out into the sticks. He was about to tip the cage at his usual spot—he’s done this three times already, he has a procedure—when he was confronted by an angry farmer. Apparently, the farmer didn’t appreciate having squirrels in his field, and my father’s concern about the car threat to those same squirrels in his subdivision didn’t stir up any pity. Apparently, my father and this farmer exchanged words, almost ended up hitting each other. The squirrel made it to the promised land, but now he, my father, has this pain in his chest. “Maybe you should call 911,” I say.
“I don’t want to be one of those people.”
“What people, Dad? Living people?”
“Alarmists. Can you just stay on the phone for a minute? I think it’s about to pass.”
“I’m in another time zone.”
“Just talk to me. Tell me about school.”
“No school now. It’s summer here too.”
“Then tell me about your new job.”
“It’s not a job.”
“Fine. What do you do with your life?”
The lunch rush comes at the shelter before I can tell Cherry the squirrel part. It would have been a better story if I had gone on, but shit gets crazy. By the time things settle down, we are too tired to talk. That’s one of the things I like about my new job: the tiredness. It keeps you from thinking. Still, in this particular case, it doesn’t serve me.
I shouldn’t complain.
After the rush, Cherry remembers to ask if my father is OK—as in, did he die while we were on the phone? I am surprised that she remembers. I’d almost forgotten myself in the hurry. I say, as far as I know, he’s doing fine—which is true in context. We talked until the pain went away—just going over the standard script, no what-does-it-all-mean dramatics—then said goodnight. Out of context, probably not so much, but who wants to hear all that? I like Cherry. She’s an older lady with blonde hair and an infinity symbol tattooed on her neck. When it’s hot in the kitchen—which is always—we talk about swimming. She used to skinny dip in the Clark Fork, and I think that must have looked pretty good: a younger Cherry, skinny dipping. Otherwise, we have a mother-son thing going—me being the son she’s never mentioned having.
“Parents are hard,” she says as we’re hosing down the dishes—whole galaxies of beef stroganoff swirling down the drain. “Kids too.”
“Who does that leave?”
“Dogs,” she says, “and the Holy Trinity.”
Through the wall, I can hear Rod Stewart on the radio asking everyone in the dining room if they think he’s sexy. The eternal drone of the kitchen fan drowns out the base. “You’ve got a girlfriend,” I say.
“I’d probably be better off alone.”
Cherry looks pained. I have stepped on something unacknowledged between us.
I shouldn’t call what I do at the shelter a job. It is court-ordered community service. It’s not voluntary, and I don’t get paid. I have to report my hours and I can’t quit—not unless I want to fulfill my debt to society in some other, less-desirable way.
That said, it is work—sometimes a lot of it—and I do it regularly. I have a schedule, a boss, and co-workers. Sometimes, if I hold the thing up to the right mental light, I can call it a job.
“That’s a good way to think about it,” my father said after the court date. “Just another job.”
“Sure. I hit a guy. They put me to work. Who knew it was that easy?”
“It’s not funny.”
And it wasn’t. I struck someone, a homeless man named Aaron Katzenbaum. I don’t remember doing it, but, according to the report, the blow was vicious. They can’t put you in front of a judge until your blood alcohol zeros out so I had a lot of time to sit in jail wondering about what I’d done. I didn’t think it would be anything violent. I don’t have a history. Instead, I remember worrying about job applications, how I would have to explain this incident to well-dressed, slightly frowning strangers for the rest of my life. I don’t know where the yuppie anxiety came from. My father makes ancient Egyptian pottery replicas for a living. I made the mistake of calling him from jail.
“A homeless man?” he said. “How does that even happen?”
My father may be confrontational in person, but, in theory, he is a strict pacifist. “I couldn’t tell you,” I said.
“I mean I was too drunk to remember, Dad.”
My mother left him when I was thirteen. She took me with her because, at the time, he was very focused on his work. It was his one legitimate artistic period. He spent it producing numerous large, white clay orbs with single black dots in the center—symbolic of life, death, rebirth, etc. (This being before he sold-out with the replicas). She still lives in the same town as he does, but on the other side of it, with one Doctor Samuelson who got in on the grand finale of my explosive adolescence. She’s had two more children since, and I’m only welcome in their home for birthdays and Christmas. We also keep in touch.
Cherry’s girlfriend, Waffle, stops by the shelter during my lunch break. I’m on my way out but I say what-up because I’m doing the son-of-Cherry thing. Waffle has one of the most interesting faces I’ve ever seen. It is angular from all sides, like a pineapple. She reaches out like she’s going to lay a hand on my chest but she doesn’t. “Cherry mentioned your Dad on the phone,” she says. “Gnarly.”
Touching can be complicated at the shelter. Personal space issues. Personally, I have too much of it. I lean forward into her hand, and her sunburned fingers spread out across my chest. “I knew it was bad.” she says. “I could feel it.”
“He’s been playing Moses to a bunch of squirrels.”
She gently pushes me upright. “Like I said—bad.”
I have thought about Cherry and Waffle sexually. I haven’t thought about it a lot. I also haven’t been aroused since I woke up in jail. I don’t know what this means. “So what’s shaking?” I say.
This is when she tells me about the ceremony. She and Cherry will be going into the woods tomorrow night to draw down the power of the Moon Goddess. It is an ancient ritual—pagan, Wiccan, supernatural—the idea being to summon celestial forces that bring physical and spiritual healing. Physical and spiritual healing. She doesn’t emphasize it; I’m just susceptible to the idea. I get an image of Cherry reordering the heavens with a spatula, hairnet glowing with the power of the cosmos. I am invited, and of course I say no. This is a good example of where I draw the line between me and them. She tells me they need a priest, both of them being priestesses. The implication is that I am the man for the job, but this seems unlikely for a lot of reasons. I notice she still has her hand on my chest—fabric, nipple, heart. I’m just about to beat it for the Civic I always hide two blocks away—this is a good example of where I blur the line between me and them—when she gives me the hard sell.
“You can also call down blessings on family members,” she says. “Any loved one in need.”
“Can the Goddess do a triple bypass?”
She pulls her hand away, and I almost fall into her face. “You think I don’t know how this sounds?”
This is a big question around the shelter. Do you know how this sounds? It separates the lifers from those who are just passing through. I suppose it’s the same with my crime. “No thanks,” I say. “I need to stay by the phone.”
My father calls again that night. The pain is back, a shapeless hurt radiating out from the heart area. It is not hot, he says. It is not a burn. It is cold and sharp. If it was a color, it would be the color of the talc encrusted along the walls of his kiln. Polluted milk. “Bury my ash in one of my pots,” he says. “I want to die self-sufficiently.”
I tell him he has to call someone.
“I did,” he says. “I called you.”
I think of some of the times I have called my father. From my mother’s new house. From the backseat of a van headed for Portland. From a rest-stop in Butte to say I would be staying in Montana permanently. There was a lot of time in-between each call, but it all feels like one conversation. “Dad,” I say, “if you die, it’s going to be your own fault.”
“What else is new?”
“I’m just saying the poetic justice of the situation is not lost on me.”
“Now what does that mean?”
“I pushed you out of my life. Now you don’t want me to pull you in at the end. It’s not that complicated.”
I am surprised and embarrassed by where this is going. Maybe I should have expected it, but we usually don’t talk like this. I don’t like getting emotionally torpedoed. “How bad would you like me to feel?” I say.
“Awful would be a start.”
“You need a doctor.”
“Doc Samuelson is the only heart man in town. I don’t want his hands on my tits.”
I don’t know if my father cheated on my mother or if she cheated on him. I think about this sometimes. Maybe there was no affair, but I doubt it. They are both creative, charismatic people. Maybe they cheated on each other. Maybe I’m not even his son. Maybe. I hope it wasn’t just things not working out. I’d rather they were both banging strangers at craft shows. Anything would be better than a fizzle. “Are you still relocating squirrels?”
“Hell no. They’re the only family I’ve got left.”
“I’m hanging up now.”
“Forget it. Watch out for something I’m sending you.”
“Not another pot.”
“It’s the creepy jackal for carrying organs into the afterlife.”
“Jesus Christ, Dad.”
He doesn’t know that I know he’s already been to Doctor Samuelson. He doesn’t know that my mother called me to say that he has major problems with his heart: the valves, the arteries—all the scary parts. That was the night I got arrested. He’s always been better at handling bad news.
Aaron Katzenbaum, the homeless man I hit, comes into the shelter the next day. I remember him from court. He looks like a celebrity in the way a lot of homeless men look like celebrities—Mickey Rourke, Mick Jagger—something ragged and memorable in the face. The possibility that this might happen never occurred to me. From the way he looks at me, it must not have occurred to him either. We stare each other down over the sneeze guard, with me poised to dump Asian vegetable mix onto his tray. Again, I am surprised by how big he is. In court he was in a suit, showered and shaved with a lily white bandage over one eye, a lawyer trick to do something for his vulnerability, but now his swollen neck stretches out his tee. He has, among other things, fuck you tattooed on his forearm.
“Hey” I say. “So I got community service.”
He thumps his tray on the rail once. It’s like the opening bell of a fight I don’t want any part of. Then he slides down the line. As he goes, I notice that none of the other servers say hey. Aaron is apparently not a regular. He goes heavy on the salad bowl and then sits down at a table by himself.
I point at his back. “I punched that guy,” I say to Cherry.
She looks up from the goulash and squints at Aaron’s gorilla shoulders. “You’re a fool,” she says.
“It was OK. The police broke it up.”
“Well the police aren’t here now, are they?”
When my shift is over, I go out the backdoor, but he’s waiting. He’s sitting on a tomato crate out in the alley, smoking a cigarette. I think about my Civic parked two blocks away. “My father’s dying,” I say.
I don’t know why I say it. It’s just the first thing that comes out of my mouth. He puts the cigarette out on the building and waits.
I try again. “Fuck you.”
Now he stands up, and I’m not under any illusion about where this is going, but he just offers me a cigarette. I’m so surprised that I forget that I don’t smoke. I stick the little paper cylinder in my mouth and realize it’s pot. There doesn’t seem to be anything to say about this. We sit down next to each other on the tomato crate. The sun is directly overhead, and it’s hot in the alley. The garbage bin behind us smells like the lunch I just served, the lunch he just ate. I’m still sweating from the kitchen, and a drop runs into my eye. “Sorry,” I say. “I say stupid things when I’m nervous.”
“Remember what you said when you hit me?”
“Not at all.”
“I didn’t think so.” He exhales, and the fumes are clear in the heat. It’s too bright in the alley for smoke. When the light catches the gray in his black hair, it looks like lightning. “You said, ‘Remember me?’”
“And we haven’t met?”
“Not in this life, brother.” He inhales and then let’s go. “I didn’t want you to get busted. I was hustling you for Grayhound money even though I knew you were gone. Totally wrong intention on my part. But the cops saw you hit me, and I’m on parole, so I had to make a big shit out of it.”
I nod like I know what this means.
“And you’re dead?” he says.
“Your dad. What’s wrong with him?”
The pot is good. I hold it in for another second and concentrate on the hairs on my legs—all of them. “Currently chest pains.”
“Shit, man, chest pains are no joke. My dad had a heart attack last year. He was fat and disabled though. Is your dad fat and disabled?”
I think about this for awhile, maybe a minute. “He’s a little fat,” I say finally.
“But not disabled? Like he doesn’t cash his disability checks to buy Cheetos and crack? Sorry, weird question. I’m still getting used to normal people.”
“He makes Egyptian pottery replicas for a living. He loves rodents more than life itself.”
“No shit? I’m in no place to judge. I’m just looking for a place to heal. Let the hate go. You know what I’m saying?”
I nod, and the tip of the cigarette, which is not a cigarette, bobs up and down between my eyes. Time is overheating in the alley. It is skipping and repeating itself. For some reason, I feel like we understand each other. “Healing,” I say, “like physical and spiritual?”
“That’s right, brother. No more anger.”
“I was in prison once.”
“Yeah, man. All fucking night.”
Waffle is excited that I’ve brought Aaron along to draw down the power of the Moon Goddess. She says that two priests are ideal. Two priests for two priestesses. I don’t know if I’m supposed to read anything into this, but I notice that Cherry is not saying anything. This might be weird for her: our relationship extending beyond the shelter into the world. By the time I come down from Aaron’s powerful weed, the four of us are already a mile out into the Rattlesnake Forest. A lot of the shelter people make their camps here during the summer, and every so often I see a tent through the branches a few yards off the trail. Last summer, there was a murder. Some unfortunate beaten to death—probably by another unfortunate.
Eventually we turn off the trail to follow one of the streams that cut down out of the mountains to link up with the Snake. The going is not easy, but Waffle moves with assurance, and the sound of Aaron smashing through the bush behind me is motivating. He has been telling stories about Grand Rapids, Michigan—a place I’ve never been or taken the trouble to imagine. Apparently, he had a nice garden there, in Grand Rapids, before it was vandalized by a rival gang. I am not a nature person, but the prettiness of the woods at dusk is not lost. Cherry’s legs moving up the path in front of me are also surprisingly excellent.
We stop where the stream pools in a lagoon surrounded by a grove of aspens. The white trunks are skeletal under the darkening leaves, a stand of bones ringing the water. The ragged leg of a deer hangs down over one of the branches. “Mountain lion,” Cherry says. “Must have drug it up there to eat.”
“That’s awesome,” Aaron says.
I tell him there are bears out here too.
“Awesome. Awesome. Awesome.”
My father called again before we left. When I didn’t answer, he left a voicemail even though I’ve told him that no one leaves voicemails anymore. He must have remembered because he texted me a minute later. 2 b n heaven, ur ♥ must b lighter than a feather. Ur thoughts?
I didn’t text back.
Still staring at the deer leg, I don’t notice Waffle taking off her clothes. When I turn around, she’s naked down to her hiking boots—long, tan legs and greyhound ribs. Cherry pulls off her shirt to reveal pink nipples pierced with silver half-moons. The effect is somehow elegant, and, before I can think about it too much, I kick off my shoes.
Aaron is staring at the point where the aspen roots flow into the water. He says, “I didn’t know it was going to be this kind of party.”
“Party probably isn’t the word,” Cherry says.
“It’s just, whoa, what am I seeing here? You know what I’m saying?”
I didn’t tell Cherry or Waffle about the prison thing. Maybe I should have. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe. Aaron peels off his shirt to reveal the expected number of anti-social tattoos. He points to the inky outline of a tree growing up his side. The tree is slender, upright, and surrounded by vivid, orange lips of fire. “Wanted a burning bush,” he says. “Got a flaming vagina.”
“We have to hurry,” Waffle says. “The moon is ahead of us.”
A revealing minute later, the four of us step naked into the water. It is cool but not cold. The aspen roots go down under the surface, and I cling to their knobby edges with my toes. We wade in up to our knees and, on some unspoken signal I can’t pinpoint but fail to miss, join hands. I’m holding onto Aaron and Waffle, neither of whom is giving me a heavy squeeze. Cherry is across from me. The dusk is at her back, and the red light coming through the branches pushes her shadow across the water to head-butt my knees. I have been around naked people in the woods before—hippie kids from the U dipping in the hot springs—but this is different. The four of us aren’t friends but we’re also not strangers. Something is at stake.
Waffle says. “We are gathered here to call upon the power of the Moon Goddess and seek her aid in our lives and in the lives of the ones we love. We ask that she bless us with her presence and grant us her healing powers.”
“Amen,” Cherry says. And then Aaron says it. And I feel like I’m supposed to say it too but I can’t get there.
Waffle steps behind Cherry. “You go first” she says.
“Just a second,” Cherry looks at me. “Are we scaring you?”
“I’m OK,” I say, but I’m really not sure.
“Because you can take off if you want,” Cherry says. “Lord knows I wouldn’t judge.”
“It’s cool,” I say. “Nobody’s judging anybody these days.”
She smiles, but she doesn’t look happy. She says, “We don’t have anything to be ashamed of.” And before I can figure out what to say to this, or decide if it’s even close to true, she lays back into Waffle’s arms. Waffle kisses the top of her head and then crouches down, lowering her into the water. It’s not deep, and Cherry has to extend her legs forward as she goes in. They sink until Waffle sits on the bottom with the back of Cherry’s head resting in her lap. Only Cherry’s face and breasts break the surface. Her breasts float like two pink hills in a shallow sea, a silver weathervane stuck through each pointing towards the sunset. Her eyes are closed, and when she spreads her legs, just inches below the surface, it reminds me of a drawing my mother did right before I ditched out for the coast. It was called Birth Basket in the Rushes. I remember she sold it to some rich guy’s big-hearted daughter.
“Now I summon the presence of the Moon Goddess upon us,” Waffle says. “Priest and priestess alike, we stand before you as one kindred element.” She looks up at us. “Stand on either side of her. We’re going to draw down the power now.”
“Sounds complicated,” Aaron says.
“You have to believe in it for it to work,” Waffle says. “It’s like anything.”
My phone is ringing. I can hear it going off in my pants which are hanging in a tree next to the ravaged deer leg. I know who it is. I don’t have a lot of friends. “I should get that,” I say.
Waffle says, “This is a crucial moment.”
“It could be a crucial call.”
“The Goddess isn’t going to take a message.”
“She might,” I say, “if she were real.”
Waffle drops her head back onto her shoulders, and I think I see Cherry’s eyelashes flutter. Aaron is staring down into the water, a hulking monument to offended sensibility. Waffle says, “By diminishing us, you diminish yourself.”
The bank is not far away, but the water slows me down. It drags at my feet, and my toes crack on the roots along the bottom. My ringtone is nothing—a tiny, anti-ringtone—but it is brazen out here in the wilderness. It fills the grove with the urgency of trumpets, but the thing is silent when I take it out of my pants. I press the button to call back and cover myself with my other hand. It’s cold now among the aspens, a chill on my wet legs in the dusk. I duck behind the tree for some privacy, but no one answers. Just voicemail. The familiar voice, which is not really a voice, promising to get back to me as soon as possible. Too surprised to talk to the beep, I slip my phone back into my pants and then squat down behind the tree. The rugged bark scratches my ass, but I hardly notice. I’m in that gap before thought—the calm before the landfall of the one horrible possibility I’ve been watching through a telescope for the last three days. For a second I think I might still miss the storm, but then the proverbial shit tide comes rolling in—namely the knowledge that it wasn’t always like this. I don’t know what it was like. I was young, but I remember something better—and he was a part of it. Still, I’ve never complained, and he’s never explained. At this point I don’t expect him to. I just can’t believe he’s fucking up my life again.
“So we going to do this?” Aaron is poking his big head around my tree. He takes in my fetal crouch, the way I’m squeezing both hands into my crotch with my knees, a pitiful posture. I feel something like understanding pass between us. “Because I’m still in if you’re in.”
I squint at the chewed-up deer hoof hanging over my head. “What am I doing out here?”
He looks back over his shoulder like something might be crawling up out of the lagoon to eat us. Then he crouches down and whispers in my ear. “Shit, man. Who says you supposed to know? It’s just life, my brother.”
I can’t stop hugging myself. “I’m not your brother.”
But he’s already waving back towards the lagoon, signaling to the naked women that everything is going to be OK. He leans in again. “My brother’s dead, fuckhead, but you’re alive. Now get your little prick out from behind this tree and get in the pool. What would your Daddy say if he knew you was too chickenshit to save his ass?”
When it’s my turn to go down in the water, I resist. I don’t know how to ask the Goddess into my body. What’s more, I am not prepared to try, but no one listens. Aaron waits behind me, his big arms outstretched to cradle me into a rejuvenating pool of moonlight. Cherry and Waffle are holding my hands, a combination of reassurance and restraint after my phone call freak out. They are squeezing in rhythm—first one than the other. I don’t know how they’re doing it. In my cell, the morning after I hit Aaron, all I wanted was water. I was thirsty enough to suck it up through the cement floor, but now I’m afraid I’ll dissolve if anything above my knees touches the surface. My thighs are shaking. It is more than a feeling. “I’m not ready,” I say.
“It’s not a question of being ready,” Waffle says. “You were born ready.”
But this seems unlikely for a lot of reasons. The sun is almost down, only a shard of red cracking over the mountains closing off the Rattlesnake Valley. Soon it will be dark, and I am afraid. “Did you know there’s water in the underworld?” I say. “Ra had a boat for getting through every night.”
“I knew a Ra from Detroit,” Aaron says.
“Ra is the enemy of the moon,” Waffle says.
Cherry pushes on my shoulder. “Down you go.”
And just like that my body goes limp. It’s like I’ve been holding every muscle rigid for years and then, boom, magic release. I collapse into Aaron’s chest, and the back of my head drags down his torso as we make the descent together. I have never been held like this before. It is surprising, but not unpleasant in the way I thought it would be. The lagoon slides up over my knees, then my thighs and stomach. It rises up to my chin which is tipped up towards the first surfacing stars. Now my head is lying in Aaron’s lap, and the world comes to me through the wavering suction of water. He looks down into my face, his shaggy outline looming overhead. “I got you, brother.”
“I’m scared, Aaron.”
“Sssssh. Just let it happen.”
Waffle begins to speak but, with the water in my ears, she sounds like a trippy mash up of her greatest hits: healing, spirit, harmony, etc. She’s said this part of the service three times already, but I haven’t been paying attention. I have been thinking about my dying father. I’ve been wondering if he heard my call. Now I’m supposed to say something to save him, but I don’t know what it is. I suppose I’ve never known, and, even if I did, I don’t think I’d be able to say it. In any case, my mouth stays shut. My body, suspended in strange hands, floats silently in the current of the underworld.
We wait. The light fades. The lagoon bottom, a soft pulp of mud and rotting branches, rises up between my legs. An aspen root digs into my spine, but I stay quiet. I can feel everyone waiting for me to say something—me included—but it’s not happening. It was the same in court. They asked me to explain myself, and I could have said anything—just I’m sorry and it would have tipped the scales, but I couldn’t do it.
I don’t know what they expect from me now.
When the sun is finally down, and the Moon Goddess has still not descended to pry open my lips, Aaron drops my head into the water. My face goes under and, for a second, I am dying. Then I come up. When I can see again, I spot a single puff of cotton drifting across the moonlit surface of the lagoon. In its center, there is a single, dark eye
The pot arrives three days later. It comes with a note dated the day after the night my father quit answering my calls, the night I couldn’t ask the Goddess to save him. He feels better but has decided to discontinue the squirrel exodus. He has also decided to stop calling me.
I’m not angry, the note says, but I’m done pretending that I know you. If you can do the same for me, you got my number.
The pot is the creepy jackal, a smooth clay jar with the alert, onyx head of a little dog. I turn it over in my hands and listen for the sound of something inside. Then I shake it like a cocktail mixer.
I don’t know why I’m nervous. There’s never anything in the pots he sends me, but, for some reason, this time, I’m not sure. This time, I’m worried there might be something stuck to the bottom—a heavy, black pulp baked into the clay. Or, worse, something lighter than a feather. It might float up in front of my face when I open the jar and hover there like an aspen seed, a single, dark kernel in a cloud of white.
I stare at the jackal’s face. There is no way to know without looking inside.
Craig Barnes received an M.F.A. in fiction writing from the University of Montana and a B.A. in history and English literature from the University of Iowa. He received the 2008 National Undergraduate Fiction Competition award from Cargoes Literary Magazine and placed third in Glimmer Train‘s May 2011 Short Story Award for New Writers.