But I know, it’s my own damn fault. – Jimmy Buffett
The lightning bolt lit up the parking lot, fizzing, spitting, then evaporating into the gloom. After my eyes adjusted, I could just make out Dad’s fuzzy supine form across the lot and the man still standing over him. Before that night I’d never seen the man, who looked a bit woebegone and clumsy and irresponsible, a bit stocky with a bristly mustache, but not like a truly bad person, even now in memory. I’ve tried to pull up anger at him but end up mad at Dad instead, at how he left me all alone in the teeming shopping mall while he ate his ice cream cone in the food court farther underground. Now he’s left us all alone forever.
Eventually I found him finishing his cone just through the sliding doors to the parking lot. They slid and slid. Then the man bounded up to us and said Dad’s name, who couldn’t shake hands because his were very sticky. The man’s hand hung briefly in the air alone. They got to talking, speaking as if they had this long history or rivalry together, referring to strange names and other things I didn’t understand. Actually, it kind of shed some light on Dad, who had always been so guarded about his life before Mom and me, to think of him in relation to this man, to think of them as basically similar.
But the crux of the encounter, from what I was able to make out after Dad ordered me back to the car, was that suddenly the guy got really dangerous and turned on Dad, a bit like if you get hopelessly lost on a hike, or if a drunken hookup with a stranger becomes violent. There’s this residual half-smile of disbelief on your face, but now the trail is gone, the trees are black, these hands are in your mouth and on your throat and here’s this seriously horrible thing happening to you.
Next morning Mom and I tried to speak but couldn’t, felt fewer by so many more than one. Household objects stood in for Dad wherever we looked—the stupid terracotta flower pots sculpted with faces with open mouths, a folk guitar, a leather chair—and Mom cleaned all the dishes while I tried to read. It turned out that all along our lives had been that stale gray dully glowing layer we’d sometimes taste just underneath.
It kept replaying in my mind. The glowing parking lines. The insectile shapes of cars. The weight of the shopping bags. When Dad gave the man a jovial pat on the back with the heel of his non-ice cream hand, he stiffened.
“Don’t touch the back,” he said.
I remember him saying “the back” instead of “my back,” as if it were no longer a part of him, as if every part of him were becoming progressively detached from his core of authority, and that all these fragments, the humid mouth, the oily face, the sex, the stomach and the hand, were subsequently going mad and turning back upon his inner core to take revenge.
I laughed nervously then, too loudly, and the man looked at me with his blue and beady eyes.
He described a surgery he needed but could not afford, involving the threading of inch-long steel needles through his spinal cord. Then he took a heated, whispered phone call, the blue beads rolling around the lot. But I looked at his phone, a flip phone, and he hadn’t even opened it, it wasn’t even on. It was squashed against his stumpy ear as he cursed and muttered into nothing. That’s when Dad gave me his bags (the milk bag, the veggie bag, the grain bag, the bag of foreign coins) and sent me to the car.
It was like in dreams, when the big things happen so fast you never quite have enough time to think or consult anyone’s opinion. At home I kept walking into rooms and stepping over different glowing laptops on the hardwood floor and barely noticing. I kept waiting for the police to come, someone from the government, to file a report of death. Sometimes I checked Dad’s Facebook wall. Mom would go to work or tie up her hair, which she had grown out in Dad’s absence, and lie with magazines across the couch in the living room. Lights from cars and street lamps through the windows sometimes passing over her and lighting up strange novel sections of her face. I always assumed that if Dad went away, Mom and I would hang out more. Then I felt the closest thing to a sense of purpose since that night: since I’d seen it all happen, and Mom had not, I had a story for her.
“Mom,” I said excitedly from across the room in Dad’s old leather chair. “As Dad sprawled out on the asphalt, clothes in tatters, bloodied and beaten, and that man stood over him, panting, eyes wild, holding the thrumming lightning bolt aloft, Dad never looked away, or closed his eyes, or moaned in fear, or pleaded or cursed or screamed.”
But Mom wouldn’t swoon at Dad’s resilience. She would not cry with me. I don’t remember her saying he was coming back or anything like that, but I realized that way back when I’d walked into the house without him and she hadn’t said anything or asked any questions and had slept that night in their big bed all alone while I hugged my covers to me on the far side of the house, the lighting bolt flashing repeatedly before my tight-shut eyes, and then the next morning when she and I sat at the table with our coffees just the two of us forever, Mom’d already felt something subtle about why Dad wasn’t there, assumed something that had nothing to do with death, at least death as I’d conceived it up until that time.
At high pressures, sadness begins to resemble dread. Memories that used to wet my eyes dried out and sort of wrinkled in relief. Dad’s scratchy falsetto singing “Margaritaville” in the basement, strumming his cheap guitar diffidently. I think Mom’s feeling was the kind that has to develop over a longish period of time, so you can refer back to things. And I did begin to get some sense of those old things—not a clear sense, just an outline, a hint—and they were the terrible complicated sick hot honeyed lovely things of love I knew I could never bear to think about my parents for too long. And I was surprised to feel my own feelings finally, to realize how hard Dad’s going had made me, how angry and stupid and slow, the fact that he was never coming back compressed into itself, away from anything unnecessary. And still how much it throbbed and hurt and made me scared, now maybe even more, that there was still so much out in the world of which to not be sure, of which I knew nothing at all.