by Sloan Davis
My father sat in the backseat as if I was his own private chauffeur. His White Sox ball cap sat on top of his head, covering his growing bald spot, and filling my rearview mirror. We pulled into Moscow, Idaho worn out from the weight of driving for hours in an August heat, and found ourselves stuck in a long stretch of stoplights behind RVs and semis. We were a couple of days out from the Oregon coast where we hoped to join other fathers and sons at the Iron John Jamboree. There, we would bond around campfires accompanied by acoustic guitars, and beat drums while talking about the frustrations and challenges of being a son or a father. An old man and his wife pulled out in front of us in their expansive RV, waving thank you, and pulling behind them an SUV with an “old people like it slow” bumper sticker.
The air conditioner whined against the black interior of our rental car and the dashboard radiated heat like a stove. I wiped sweat off my forehead. It didn’t help matters that at thirty I had recently failed another diet. Diet number sixteen, the radical Brussels Sprouts Diet, which involves eating little else than those leafy green bulbs. All I got was a severe case of gas.
My father studied me, turned to look out of the side window, and said, “For a grown man, you sure could use a bra.” His gray, two-inch ponytail stuck out from under his hat like the stunted ass of a raccoon, and I fought the urge to reach back and rip it out.
He was out to hurt, start a fight, convinced of tough-love therapy that I would somehow feel so demoralized I would lose weight through mere mortification. I exhaled and counted the way my psychiatrist had told me. I reached down and fiddled with my cell phone, remembering that Dr. Moore had advised me to call if the stress became too much, but I released it.
After some time fighting the tourist traffic, we pulled into a gas station to fill up and get a cold soda. My father got out and pumped the gas without a word. He was still sore at my choice of a rental car. I had picked a Hyundai Accent, your typical passenger sedan, albeit a bit small. The stunted hood and trunk curved to the ground, and gave the effect of a sad insecure car, but it was affordable. My father, taken aback when he first saw it, shook his head and said, “What’s wrong with you, Dumbnut? You want me to travel halfway across the country in a fricking tuna can?” I had refused to give in to his tantrum, and so for most of the drive down the Idaho panhandle we sat in silence.
I walked across the gas station parking lot, and opened the glass doors when I realized I’d forgotten my wallet. My father, finished with the gas, started walking towards me. I held the door open for a lady and her child and called to him. “Dad can you get my wallet out of the car?”
He stopped in middle of the parking lot and put his hand to his ear. “Out of the what?”
“The car,” I said, still holding the door open for people who came and went. It was a busy place.
My father put his other hand to his other ear. “The what?”
I smiled at a teenage kid whose arms were covered with tattoos. “The Hyundai, Dad, the Hyundai.”
My father shook his head with both hands still cupping each ear.
Many people stopped what they were doing to watch this banter. A tall pick-up pulled in behind my father and waited for him to do something because he blocked their access to the gas pumps. Two big fellas sat in the cab, and the passenger stared at me as if it was my fault.
I waved for my father to move. “Dad, come on, just get my wallet.”
My father threw up his hands in frustration. “What?”
“I need my wallet!” I ignored the old lady who stopped in front of me with two large drinks in her hands, watching my father in the parking lot.
“Where is it?” He spoke as if I had just asked him.
“In the car, Dad.” I jerked my head to the right to get the old lady to move on. She too gave me a strange look.
My father turned to the guys in the truck, shrugged his shoulders at them, and then turned back to me. “The what?”
Everybody had now stopped doing what they’d come to do. Even the cashiers looked over the candy racks at us. I ran a hand through my hair. “The fricking tuna can, okay. Are you happy? The fricking tuna can. The fricking tuna can!”
My father gave me the thumbs up. “Sure, no problema.” And he sauntered back to the car as if it was no big deal.
Soon after that embarrassing display, we made the deep descent to Lewiston and the Snake River. I had never been in that part of the country before, and it was strange to drop a thousand feet on a switchback road into a lonesome little community against a wide, slow-moving river.
The surrounding bald hills of dead grass reflected a gold hue from the setting sun. It was in that golden glow, driving west of Lewiston, that I first spotted them, a couple of dark specs up against the horizon, on a hill, with the western sky gradually melding from light blue to pinkish-orange. As I drove closer, they looked like two wraiths standing sentry over the road: one with a Mohawk, the other with long hair whipping in the dry wind. When we came up on them, I could tell they were young, at least a lot younger than me, and they were looking for a ride.
My father pushed his face to the window as we passed. “Pull over,” he said.
“What? No.” I gripped the steering wheel and shook my head.
He used my seat to pull himself up so he could speak directly into my ear. “Pull over,” he growled. “It’s about time we had some excitement on this trip, and those young ladies look like they need a ride.”
“What? Are you crazy? I’m not picking up hitchhikers. Do you know how dangerous that is?” I sounded every bit like the parent rather than the child.
My father slapped the back of my headrest causing me to jerk the car into the left lane. “Pull over, Dumbnut. Don’t be a pussy.”
I yanked the wheel toward the side of the road and slammed on the brakes. We were past the hitchhikers and halfway down the opposite side of the hill.
My father sighed. “Now, put it in reverse and back up slowly. Use your flashers. And for God’s sake stay to the right of the white line.”
I did this, weaving a little every time the tires caught on the edge of the blacktop, which caused him to grunt as he looked out of the back window. His tiny nub of a ponytail stared straight back at me while I bent around, my side pinching, trying to see through my father. A large, jacked-up 4×4 roared past us. Its driver blasted the horn, causing me to overreact and swerve into the highway.
My father grabbed my headrest for support. “For Christ’s sake! Watch what you’re doing.”
I slowed down to a crawl. The eastern horizon turned cobalt blue, and I couldn’t pick them out as we crested the hilltop.
“Stop.” My father peered out the back window. “Put it in park and honk the horn.”
“Dad, this isn’t a good idea.”
He waved his hand at me, blowing me off. “Honk.”
I tapped the horn with my index finger. It beeped like a toy penguin.
My father rubbed his face. “You got to be kidding me.” He reached over my shoulder and laid his thick hand into the horn. “That’s how you honk a horn, Dumbnut.”
We unrolled our windows and I prayed the hitchhikers hadn’t heard us or that they had been picked up by the 4×4 that almost ran us over. A hot breeze cut across the rugged ground. The land was silent and peaceful, but I felt a distinct unease creeping through the scrawny thin weeds that hugged the highway. They seemed to be lifeless, but small sharp leaves poked out here and there, and they whistled when the wind went through them, as if sharing a whisper.
My father, on the other hand, was all in a flutter. He could hardly sit still. As soon as we saw their silhouettes shuffling toward us, my father jumped out of the car and waved them over. They drifted to a stop a few feet from the car’s back bumper. I feared my father was going to hug them he was so excited. I leaned against the side pane, arms crossed over my belly.
They were attractive in a dirty sort of way and not as young as I first thought. My father bounced on the balls of his feet, standing way too close and actually sniffing the air. “You hipstas don’t happen to have any herb do ya?” my father asked lighting a cigarette.
Oh my god, I thought. Please stop right now. Do not bring back your Sixties swinging persona. When the one with the pink Mohawk answered, “We got a pipe, but no green,” my father said, “No problema.” He then proceeded to spin around in a circle snapping his fingers as if listening to some silent Miles Davis recording in his head. “Man, I dig a crazy day like today.”
I grinned at the long-haired hitchhiker who raised her eyebrows at me after witnessing my father’s inspired little jig. She had a pale face, with thin red lips and pretty, sad eyes. It horrified me that my father continued to think he was still hip and on the scene like some aged Jack Kerouac with gray, thinning hair and a round, overfed belly. I asked myself, when does it stop?
We stuffed Mohawk girl’s bag in the trunk. It might have been her dark eyes glaring at me, or the many facial piercings, or the fact she had distorted male figures and Asian symbols tattooed on her neck and pale arms, but she seemed angry at life. Her name was Roxy, and I trusted her not one bit.
When she saw our camping equipment in the trunk, she said, “Is Daddy taking his boy camping?”
My face flooded with heat. I would have told her to get her bag out of the car, but my father’s laugh cut me off. “Yeah, yeah, can you dig it? She’s got our number, doesn’t she? Man, crazy, crazy.”
He slapped his knees and retied his ponytail, hooting and hollering as if the world was one big comic strip. He walked over to Darla, the other hitchhiker, snapped up her pack and threw it in the backseat, so she would have to sit next to him. Darla didn’t seem to notice. She sat in the middle of the seat sandwiched between her pack and my father. Her pale, plump cheeks were baby-smooth and from what I could tell she had neither piercing nor tattoo. She might have passed for someone much younger except for the tiredness in her eyes.
Roxy sat up front with me, opened the glove compartment, snatched a pen and some matches, and stuffed them into her pocket. She gave me a funny look when I put my cell phone in my shirt pocket. As I got the car up to 75 mph I couldn’t help myself from staring at her, especially the piercings in her lower lip. And her clothes were soiled. I swear I caught the scent of fermented onions. I shuttered at the thought of germs.
“Where are you two young ladies headed?” my father asked, a dramatic look of concern in his eyes.
“West. We had business in Lewiston. Family stuff. We left ASAP.” Roxy’s voice shot out the words in a cold, none-of-your-business manner.
Above us, a grayish-purple cloud stretched from the south, surrounding the waning sun. The sun stretched into a flaming red stain behind the bizarre cloud. And it was strange, almost extraterrestrial: a Close Encounters of the Third Kind moment. It was in no way natural, and it added to my already heightened state of apprehension.
Roxy laid a hand on my arm. “So, what’s the occasion?”
I jumped at her touch. “What?”
Roxy leaned forward and looked me in the eye. “Don’t play coy. Why are you and hipsta daddy going camping? Is this an every-summer-since-you-were-old-enough-to-pee-standing-up event, or what?”
My father slapped my headrest. “She is something, isn’t she? Old enough to pee standing up, precious, man, precious.”
I shot my father an angry look through the rearview mirror. However, instead of giving him the seventh degree with a hateful glance, I instead watched him stretch and lay one arm around Darla’s shoulders. She didn’t object. She pulled out an emery board and started filing her nails.
I shook my head and watched the road. “No, for your information, we’ve never been camping together. We’re going to an important retreat.”
“A retreat? You mean like some kind of family get-together?” Roxy’s voice had a “oh no, you didn’t just say that” quality.
“I told you. She’s a dart, that one, quick as a chipmunk. Better watch yourself.” My father laughed and started playing with Darla’s hair. She giggled and held his hand.
I pointed through the windshield, hoping to change the subject. “Why is that cloud purple?”
“Smoke,” Roxy said.
“Smoke? From what?”
“A forest fire east of Walla Walla. It crosses into three states. It’s all over the local news. You need to pay closer attention.”
I fought the impulse to scream in Roxy’s face, and instead chanced a glance into the back seat. I couldn’t believe it. My father slobbered on Darla’s ear. No subtle nibbling, but actual devouring. Her entire ear vanished. Darla giggled and played with my father’s fingers. She pulled out her black nail polish and went to work on my father’s nails. I kept glancing back, especially when my father whispered, “groovy” or “far-out.” When she finished with his hand my father nodded his approval and offered his other.
Darla jerked her head back. “You’re missing digits—gross.”
My father laughed and wiggled his shortened fingers through her hair. Four fingers, from the index to the pinky, were cut off after the first or second joint, a drilling machine accident when he was in his twenties, so his stumpy fingers looked like Vienna sausages. Only the thumb remained intact.
He held them out for Darla. “Paint them.”
Outside, the sky darkened, and the rolling hills grew bigger and constant, but I couldn’t enjoy the view. I couldn’t keep my eyes on the road. I couldn’t help but watch this young woman paint little faces on my father’s fat bald digits while he slurped, licked and chewed on her ear. And all that time, out of the corner of my eye, I was aware of Roxy staring at me. I tried to ignore her, but as I did, she leaned closer, closer and closer until her face was centimeters from mine.
I smelled that fermented onion reek. “What? What?”
“I’m waiting for you to tell me about this retreat of yours.” Roxy sat back in her seat.
I wasn’t about to give Roxy one more bit of information on our trip, but my father was there to help. “Tell her about the Iron John Jamboree. She’ll dig it.”
I shot another hateful glare into the backseat, but immediately flipped up the rearview mirror when I saw my father’s fat tongue fill Darla’s mouth. “Your friend looks like she needs you.”
“She can take care of herself. What?” Roxy placed her hand on my arm again. “Are you jealous?”
I jerked my arm away. “No.”
“Tell her about the goddamn jamboree, will ya Dumbnut?” My father took a long breath before interlocking his tongue with Darla’s again.
That was it. I jerked the car, just a little, so they stopped and looked around. When they relocked their lips, I touched the brakes. Again, they stopped and looked for the reason. When they went at it a third time I pulled the car over the white line, so the passenger side bounced in the weeds. Just before my father opened his mouth to speak, I turned up the radio and steered the car back on the highway.
I drove with both hands clenched to the wheel as Highway 129 pulled away from the Snake River. An explosion simmered inside me. It took everything I had to keep it in my stomach, but before I knew what I was doing, I turned off the radio.
“Robert Bly wrote a book about men called Iron John, a very good book, which inspired the men’s movement. The men’s movement? Any of this ring a bell? Probably not.” I gulped down large breaths. “Men have been led astray for generations. Robert Bly is a genius. He changed my life. He’s calling us back to follow the wild man. That’s why we’re going to this retreat, to help regain our masculinity that has been distorted by modern times.”
There was a long silence when even Darla and my father stopped eating each other’s faces. I had delivered my tirade like an auctioneer.
“Wow!” laughed Roxy. “Just holy bullcrap wow!”
“I know, I know.” My father laughed. “Crazy, crazy.”
All three of them laughed hysterically. It was several minutes before my father could speak again. He wiped a tear from his eye. “Yeah, somehow we have to learn to balance the insensitivities of Fifties-man with the over-feministic qualities of Sixties-man.”
I clammed up and turned on the radio. They teased and laughed at me, but I ignored them completely, and pretended to watch the trees on the distant hills.
The smoke cloud caused a premature nightfall. The sky turned dark gray. An acrid burnt smell permeated the interior of the car causing my eyes to sting and water.
“Hey wild man, how long are you going to ignore us?” Roxy poked my side. She did it once, but the softness must have surprised her because she did it several more times as if she was looking for a missing comb. “You can’t ignore us all night.”
I bit my lower lip, exhaled, and counted.
“Leave him be,” my father said. “He always was a pouter.”
I was pouting. I knew it, but I couldn’t stop. It’s hard to stop when you’re in the middle of a good pout. Still, this didn’t stop me from thinking up some way to retaliate, which Dr. Moore warned me not to do.
“Shut up Dad. I’m sure your fantastic fathering skills had nothing to do with it.”
My father threw up his hands. “See.”
I slapped the steering wheel. “All right, now you listen. Keep it up, and I’m pulling the fricking tuna can over and you and your hobo girlfriends can get out. You dig, Papa-Smurf-Hipsta?”
There was the expected uncomfortable silence, which I welcomed.
“Everybody just calm down.” Roxy’s voice turned motherly in tone. “We’re sorry. We didn’t mean to insult you. Okay?”
I stared straight ahead.
“You are so right,” my father said. “I dig your sensitivity.”
I flashed him a hateful glance in the rearview mirror, but he went right back to playing with Darla. I felt betrayed by the situation. And the last one to be consolatory and deliver calm should have been odious Roxy. It was a brilliant maneuver. She was now the voice of reason on the USS Nutjob.
She patted my arm. “Okay?”
“Okay, fine. It’s over.”
We pulled into a small town just east of the Umatilla National Forest. I didn’t catch the town’s name, but it was a scratch on a map: a cluster of a few shops and houses clinging to the highway. Surrounding a large gravel parking lot, sat three faded white buildings: The Bait Shop, The Antique Flea Market, and Bill and Ruth’s Eats. In the middle was a Shell gas station, which seemed to be the newest addition to the little town. The four buildings created the town center. Some of the locals stood talking to forest firefighters who dominated the place. They kept their fire trucks running. The big engines rumbled in the dust, and the headlights shined through the smoke-filled air.
We stopped at the gas station to fill-up and get supplies. Men in yellow hard hats and thick fire shirts loaded trucks or leaned against fenders smoking. Black charcoal marks covered their faces.
My father and our lovely companions climbed out. “Need anything?” my father asked. I ignored him and pumped gas.
A Forest Service truck pulled up on the other side of the gas pump. Four dirty firefighters slowly stepped out of the truck. Three made their way into the store. They looked exhausted.
I watched the driver pump gas. “Long day?” I asked, stating the obvious. I was desperate to talk to a normal person.
“You could say that.” The man’s voice was deep and rusty. He stood tall and straight. He stared at the ground with no focus in his eyes.
I tried again. “So, how bad is it?”
He looked up and examined me for a second before topping off his tank. “The Umatilla is only thirty percent contained. And Hell’s Canyon is scorched. It’s a tinderbox. Damn drought. We might get a break from the wind tomorrow, but we’re a long way off.”
The weight of responsibility hung on each of his words and I thought, if he had kids, they were sure to be proud of him. Who wouldn’t be proud of a father like that?
“Hey,” I said, remembering our plan to camp. “We’re trying to get to the Oregon coast. Think we’ll be able to get through?”
He nodded. “Yeah, highway’s clear.”
“What about camping? We were hoping to camp at Devil’s Den.”
“I believe Devil’s Den is still open, but…”
Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” blared out of my pocket. I reached for my cell. “Hello.”
“Thanks,” I whispered to the fireman. He nodded and turned away.
“…how are you?”
I straightened up, and cleared my throat. “Hi, Dr. Moore, I’m fine.” I tried to keep my voice as steady as possible.
“Hmm, are you sure? You sound different to me. I was starting to worry. You haven’t called.”
“Well, I wanted to, trust me.”
“You know how I feel about this trip. It wasn’t my idea.”
“I know Dr. Moore. I should have listened to you.”
“Do you think you should continue with this? Think about the stress and possible irrevocable damage this trip could have on your relationship with your father.”
“I know, Dr. Moore. But what can I do? We’re in the middle of nowhere.”
The fireman gave me a quizzical look before walking toward the store. As he approached the store’s entrance my father barged out of the door and almost knocked over the exhausted firefighter. My father didn’t notice. He had two big paper bags in his arms. The girls carried one each.
“I’ve got to go Dr. Moore, sorry.” I stuffed my phone into my pocket.
“We’re gonna have a good times,” my father shouted. “That store has it all, even ammunition. Load ‘em up girls. Let’s get this party started.”
The three of them piled into the car, their bags of groceries tucked between their knees. My father pulled a brown liquor bottle out of one of the bags and proceeded to make drinks in the backseat.
As I pulled onto the highway my father tried to hand me a drink. I declined, citing the impractical and silly law of drinking while driving. My father shrugged, pouring my drink into his, and then held up his drink for a toast. “Here’s to howling at the moon.” The girls cheered.
I drove silently, trying to figure out how our trip of masculinity had been so easily shanghaied. I thought of Dr. Moore, and how he had disapproved from the start. I should have listened, but it was too late. Way too late. We were too far along to stop. “Only thirty percent contained,” the firefighter had said. What would it take to contain three lunatics? I wished I could put Dr. Moore on speakerphone because I felt as exhausted as that poor firefighter walking into the store.
It took forty-five minutes to reach Devil’s Den, but the campsite was open. At the entrance a large wooden sign notified everyone that campfires were not allowed due to the fire danger. I didn’t care. I wasn’t planning on staying up for long.
Devil’s Den was a rustic place. Tall cedars and pines swayed in the wind and hid any fading light left. Each campsite had its own private, wooded lot and a picnic table near a fire pit with a filthy grill leaning over it. Pine needles littered the ground, but the expected, pungent smell of evergreen was camouflaged by smoke. It was coming in from the south. My eyes continued to water, and the back of my throat felt scratched.
Still, I couldn’t wait to get out of the car and get some sleep. With any luck, our drunken hobos would accidentally wander off. But sleep would have to wait because my father was no help in setting up the tent. He was too busy messing with Darla. They drifted into the dark woods.
I wasn’t much of an outdoorsman, and the tent’s instructions were confusing. I went to the Hyundai and turned on the headlights to see clearly. Roxy sat at the picnic table and watched. The wind shifted, coming from the west and gusting much harder than before. But I carried on, grappling with the tent poles, snapping smaller segments into a single long pole, and then vainly trying to hook each pole to a corner peg of the tent, but the poles would bend and snap free leaving me exactly where I was a moment before. The wind blew the canvas into a wadded ball. I threw down the poles and screamed. The woods instantly swallowed it up, making me feel completely alone.
“Here.” Roxy stood next to me. “Have a drink, Dumbnut, to calm your nerves.”
“Don’t call me that!” Spit flew out of my mouth.
She wiped a hand over her face. “Only Daddy, huh?”
“Shut up and leave me alone.”
“Listen, I don’t want to get caught up in some family quarrel. It’s obvious you could use a drink. If you can find a way to calm your oversensitive ass down, I’ll help you with the tent.”
Darla and my father’s laughter echoed in the woods. My stomach tightened. I grabbed the drink, and followed Roxy to the picnic table. Her pink Mohawk stood out like a neon sign under the car’s headlights and against the dark forest green.
“You’re unhappy,” she said.
“You’ve noticed? Wow, how insightful.”
“Look. I don’t want to be at war with you. Okay?”
Roxy reached out and placed her hand on mine. Her hand was small, her fingers slight and child-like, and her nails painted pink to match her hair. It was such a contrast to her armored exterior.
“Okay.” I took a long drink.
Roxy leaned back and looked at me. “So, you and your father like to get on each other’s nerves.”
I laughed and nodded. “You’ve seen us at our best. The funny thing is all I want to do now is go home and not look back. And to think this was all my idea.”
My father’s throaty growl of a laugh split the trees. I looked up into the dark, smoke-covered sky. “This, from the road trip, to camping, to the Iron John Jamboree, everything—but you two.”
Roxy laughed, a good belly laugh. I enjoyed it, especially since it was the first time it wasn’t pointed directly at me.
“I guess it’s not supposed to be easy,” I said, more to myself than her.
I took another drink. “Iron John.”
“Yeah, so tell me, what’s with this Iron John?” Roxy lit a cigarette. A red halo gleamed around her face.
“Well, all right, but don’t laugh.”
She put up two fingers. “Scout’s honor.”
So I told her the story of Iron John: about the coming of age of a boy. I explained how the hairy, wild man embodied masculinity, how the boy’s golden ball rolls into the wild man’s cage, how Iron John offers the boy a deal: freedom from the cage for the golden ball. I told her the key was under the boy’s mother’s pillow, and for the boy to steal the key was in fact a way for him to cut the umbilical cord, and start the journey into manhood. “It’s supposed to be symbolic.”
I shook my head. “I’m a thirty-year-old man still looking for answers.”
Roxy had a funny look on her face. I thought she was going to burst out laughing, but she said, “I know how you feel: looking for answers, that is.” She got up, turned off the car’s lights, grabbed the bottles of bourbon and coke, and sat next to me. “Let’s get drunk.”
We drank two strong drinks in silence, listening to the night and blinking smoke from our eyes. My father and Darla were somewhere out there, but they too were quiet. I rested my arms on my belly, letting my elbow touch Roxy’s arm.
At last, Roxy broke the silence. “You know, you’re not the only one having a hard time connecting with someone.”
Roxy swirled her drink with her index finger and stuck it in her mouth. Darla’s giggle came floating out of the woods. Roxy looked up and caught me staring at her. She nodded her head.
I opened my eyes wide. “Does she know?”
“Oh, she knows. We’ve been together for quite awhile now, but mainly as friends. She’s experimenting. I want more.”
“Experimenting?” I pointed into the woods. “So, a guy who could be her grandfather qualifies?”
“You don’t know Darla. She finds beauty in everything. That’s what attracts me to her. And I guess, that’s what attracts Darla to your father.” She looked away.
I could feel the warmth coming from Roxy’s body. My mouth went dry and my throat closed. I sipped the bourbon to cover my nerves, but then I acted without filtering. I laid my right arm over her shoulder. She leaned into me. Who was this guy? A calming sensation ran through me. For the first time in my life, I felt a sense of masculinity coming from me.
We sat like that for several minutes until my bladder betrayed me. I went behind the nearest tree. After a moment, I stumbled back, feeling the bourbon.
Roxy stirred my drink with her finger. Her other hand tucked something into her shirt’s pocket. “Just refreshed your drink, you were getting low. I think I might have made it a bit too strong though.”
I sat down. My head felt very light. “That’s okay.”
I woke with the afternoon sun baking my back. I felt horrible, hungover. I opened one eye: nothing but woods. At first I thought my eyesight was cloudy from the night before because it looked as if a light fog pushed through the trees, but then a metallic, acrid smell burnt my nostrils. A loud gurgling growl sounded right behind me. I rolled my head over and found my father’s face centimeters from mine. His sour breath almost made me puke.
I rolled over and mumbled, “Dad, wake up.”
He didn’t move.
I forced myself onto one elbow and looked around: only the picnic table, the grill and the woods. I shot all the way up. The tent, our gear, even the Hyundai was gone.
“Dad!” I slapped his bare ass. “Wake up! They took everything!”
He grumbled in his sleep.
“Your girlfriends took all of our stuff, even the rental car.” I stood up. My naked body stung from pine needles sticking to my stomach and legs. They had dragged us to the farthest corner of the campsite where nobody would see us if they drove by.
“Oh no, not my phone, not Dr. Moore. Please tell me they didn’t steal my phone.” I ran around in circles. Pine needles, rocks, branches blurred before me.
My father sat up and stretched, rubbing his face. “Crazy.”
I stopped. “Crazy? You bet your bare ass it’s crazy!”
I ran and grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him hard. I wanted him to shove me. I wanted him to take a punch at me, but he didn’t do anything, so I pulled back and slapped him hard across the cheek. The sound echoed against the woods. “You son-of-a-bitch.” My voice was low, almost a growl. “You’ve fucked everything up.”
I slapped him again. The muscles in his neck flinched. I curled my fingers into a fist and swung right for his nose. He caught my arm. “Are you finished?”
I stopped struggling, and he let me go. I walked away, throwing up my arms in frustration, and shaking my head.
I picked up a rock, and threw it into the woods. I went for another when I heard a strange noise escape my father’s lips. At first, I couldn’t believe what I had heard, but then my father said it again: “I’m sorry.”
This was the moment. This was the moment I had been waiting for my entire life, the moment to finally connect with my father, but then Michael Jackson’s preteen voice blared in the silent woods.
I walked over to a trunk and found my phone sitting there. So, our hobo hitchhikers weren’t absolute evil. They’d left us a way to call for help. Dr. Moore’s name lit up with each high note. I let it go to voice mail. I turned, prepared to embrace my father, but it was then, staring at my stripped father, pine needles sticking to his body, that I noticed the message. How could I have missed it?
A shaved oval in my father’s chest hair revealed the word, HIPSTA. It was written in bright pink nailpolish and outlined in black. My father pointed at my chest. The word DUMB was written in the same fashion.
“Turn around,” I said.
On my father’s back, which was also shaved, giant letters spelled DADDY. “Hipsta Daddy,” I whispered.
My father faced me. I didn’t need to be told. I turned around. My father spelled NUT. I nodded. All of my heightened emotion left. Our moment to unite flitted away with the graffiti on our skin.
And then reality came rushing back with a thick wave of smoke. Branches popped in the distance. I looked into the woods and saw fire licking the base of a sapling.
We ran, naked as newborns, our manhood flapping in the wind. All of the campsites were abandoned. Devil’s Den was empty. They must have issued an order to evacuate first thing in the morning. Our hitchhiking buddies did well in hiding us.
The gravel bit our bare feet, and our ankles turned white with dust. The smoke grew intense as the rushing fire took over the campsite. We raced around a sharp bend, and down a small hill to put some distance between the fire and us. I heard trucks, deep rumbling engines: Forest Service trucks.
We stopped to catch our breath. In the gravel, I spotted a long piece of string. It looked like a string off our tent. I ripped large leaves from a nearby bush, bit the dusty string in two and attached a couple of leaves to one half. I wrapped the string around my waist: a crude loincloth to cover up.
I ran to catch up with my father. “Dad, here let me help you.”
I held out the string and leaves. “With this, to cover yourself.”
He pushed my hand away. “I’m not wearing that. Could be poison oak.”
“Dad, it’s not, come on. We’re almost to the highway. You need to cover your shame.”
“My shame? I’m not ashamed of my manhood.” My father laid his hand on my chest. “Son, it’s you that has shame. Embrace your manhood, son. We’re not perfect, but it’s who we are.”
He straightened himself up, lifted his chin proudly, and marched toward the highway. Dirty, naked, with hair sticking out everywhere, my father cut through the forest like a wild man. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
Michael Jackson’s high-pitched voice sang from my phone again. I opened my hand and stared blankly at Dr. Moore’s name flashing at me.
I looked up at my father strolling casually, as if he and the woods were inseparable.
He waved his Vienna sausage fingers. “Come on, son.”
I glanced back and forth between my singing cell phone and my father, until he turned and walked toward the highway.
I ripped off my makeshift loincloth, dropped it in the white gravel at my feet, and threw my phone in the direction of the fire. Michael Jackson’s voice faded away as I ran after my father, the word “Daddy” glistening pink in the hot afternoon sun.