Heat Treated Steel

There is a tree in my neighborhood that is a still image in my mind, by which I mean I can picture the tree in great detail from a particular position during a particular time of day. The position is about 15 feet to the southwest of it, the angle you would see it from as you approached it on the sidewalk. The time of day is mid-morning with a cold blue sky and retreating shadows on the ground, most people either at work or elsewhere, the neighborhood quiet and still in the way that makes you feel like a fugitive. The tree itself is stout, barely exceeding the height of the small houses surrounding it but with a wide expanse of branches that covers two front yards and nearly the entire frame of my mental photograph, though the tree is bare in my memory, so the branches are only a morass of tangled wood, the cold blue sky a pale backdrop.

The reason this tree has left such a strong impression on me is it presages two important events in my life though the tree itself has nothing to do with these events and is more akin to an extra in a movie, but I use that analogy to say the tree is like an extra in a movie not by design but by function, meaning I want to be careful not to imply that the tree is nondescript yet things would feel askew if it were missing in the same way a scene featuring an actor in an empty dance club might feel askew—rather I want to imply that the tree is insignificant but it drew my entire attention inadvertently, like the rare moments where you find yourself drawn into the couple laughing in the background as the stars of the movie have a germane conversation in a public place. In that instance, you are still listening to the germane conversation and you are still engaged in the purposeful strokes of the movie, but you are watching the laughing couple in the

background for no reason other than they happen to be there. For me, I was looking at that tree walking my dog one early December morning when I thought that our cat was probably fine and my wife was worrying over nothing more than an upset stomach causing the cat to not eat or drink for a few days, a thought that turned out to be so deeply incorrect that it now feels like a thought borne from an episode of pathetic mania with lackluster ambitions, as we found out later that same day our cat was suffering from acute kidney failure and would suffer a prolonged death which resulted in us spending thousands of dollars we didn’t have and was a time filled with false hopes and solemn vows, such as the time the emergency veterinary hospital called us to say that it looks like the cat might survive and we drove to pick him up in triumph only to learn he would spend the rest of his life with a feeding tube connected to his neck and his prognosis was six to twelve months (it ended up being less than that at three weeks), causing my wife to vow she’d spend that time in servitude to the cat, for she loved him very dearly and often called the cat her soul mate, something I didn’t find odd for I knew it was true, as she and the cat spent hours alone together and seemed to understand each other on a level beyond language, not to mention that the cat was undoubtedly a symbol of her own freedom and actualization after a dreary and troubled childhood during which she was not allowed to own a cat (though this was one of the lighter injustices), yet it strikes me as I write this that this describes many people’s relationships with their cat, especially in bad fiction, where an easy relationship between a character and a pet is established early on since, as I mentioned, this is a situation that mirrors many reader’s own lives, so let me try to describe with specificity my wife’s relationship with the cat who’s fate was decided the same morning I looked at the tree with two examples, the first of which was the time years ago when we first thought something was seriously wrong with the cat
because she found blood in the cat’s litter box and ran to me in the living room before throwing herself at my feet like an actress in a mid-century film where the performers still relied on dramatic and over-stylized play acting, her face red and her mouth twisted in a way that prevented her from speaking, her mouth emitting sounds that told me she knew the end was near (the cause of the blood in the urine turned out to be bladder stones, which was something curable and less insidious than we first assumed, but my wife’s reaction to her discovery bred a fear in me that I had carried with me ever since, for in that moment I saw her in true terror and despair, the twin black holes of the soul that give a lightless feeling to the base of your skull and close the walls in around you, and I knew that one day that moment would come for her again when the cat was ready to die (and it did—I can remember the long drive home from the emergency vet where she wouldn’t stop crying and hyperventilated several times) and there would be nothing I could do to ease the pain (and I didn’t—I could only sit there beside her like an invalid and listen to her cry)), the second example is more a description of a habit my wife had where she would name everything she had a chance to name after that cat, from the sobriquet she’d choose to display on screen when we went bowling to the names of hypothetical stores and clothing labels we’d concoct on long drives or dinner dates, a habit that was pervasive to the point there was something almost childlike about it and like the cat was totemic for her in a way it wasn’t for me and in a way I’ve never known an animal to be for anyone else, which is exactly why it was difficult watching my wife say a long good-bye to that cat over the last week of his life after it became unspeakably obvious that we would have to euthanize him as he stumbled in pain around the house, unable to move his legs correctly to make it to the bathroom on time, and frequently taking breaks by lying in the middle of the floor like a beached carcass, the most difficult of all
the day we had arranged for a service to come to the house and put him to sleep and with the appointment already set and the time arranged in advance, we woke up with nothing but hours ahead to spend with the cat, so my wife let him out into the backyard for the first time (he had desperately wanted to go outside his entire life but my wife was always afraid to lose him (he was rambunctious and was liable to take off running the second he set foot outdoors)) and slowly walked around the garden path with him as he sniffed each plant and rested every view steps, a sight I watched from our back porch as my wife looked back at me periodically with a strange smile on her face, happy to see her cat outside but with a void in her stomach at the same time for in a few hours he would be dead, and she asked me to take a picture of her holding him because she wanted a souvenir to remember the time Yuki went outside, a memory now that is so tender there are edematous divots in me after recall, and a memory that is presaged and bookmarked by the tree that captured my attention the morning I was walking our dog, thinking the cat would be fine.

The tree makes a second appearance a little shy of one year after the cat died, when my mother called to say she took my father to the hospital that morning because his right arm was numb and he was experiencing massive headaches. I again was walking my dog, and that week I had just gotten a new job I felt good about. My mother was convinced my father’s blood pressure was too high and he was at risk of a heart attack, whereas I was convinced it was something more sinister, such as a lurking stroke or the early signs of ALS. I was looking at the tree again, vaguely aware it was the same tree I had been looking at a year prior thinking that the cat was okay (this mental picture I had of the tree was only solidified when I thought of writing this story and realized I connected the tree to both memories), but this time I was thinking things with my

father were much worse than I thought, that this was only the beginning of a slow decline. And again, I was proven wrong. It was even worse than that. Hours later we learned my father had late stage glioblastoma and would be dead within the year (he would die four months later). My first reaction to this news was to drive to the grocery store and buy liquor. There was a table set up near the liquor section where an employee, a middle aged woman, was handing out samples of two new types of whiskey. It was the first and only time I’d ever seen such a station at the grocery store, and I told the woman I’d take both samples of the whiskey, actually, as I was having one hell of a day. She laughed and allowed me to take both, which were the two sips that began a drinking binge that lasted all day (at the grocery store I bought two bottles of a liquor I liked and spent the rest of the day drinking outside on our porch, sitting at a small rickety wooden table our landlord had built for his daughter when she lived in the house we now rented, crying and texting various people including my mother and father, a situation that nearly makes me cringe in embarrassment now for three reasons, the first being that I should have been inside spending time with my wife, as it was her husband’s father and it was her father-in-law who was dying and surely she needed comfort too (this was the first but not only time I failed to consider my wife during this period—I inadvertently turned away from her and isolated myself to the degree where she was not even in the same time zone as I was when my father finally died, their last conversation together a pathetic FaceTime call I forced on her while she was back at home, pathetic because she didn’t know what to say and because my father was so high on morphine he just started a bit into the distance beyond the phone with an annoyed look on his face, like someone was talking in a movie theater), the second because I said things to both my father that were over-the-top and not analogous to how I really felt at the time (for example, I remember
texting my father ‘all I know is if God had a face, I’d punch him in the nose right now’—a line that not only would reject this piece of fiction from consideration of any serious publication were it written in sincerity, but a line that betrays how I believe myself to actually feel about God, death, suffering, and even allegiance to my father, though it’s undoubtedly true that when I first texted that line, it was the most sincere thing I had ever said in my entire life), telling my parents I loved them and would be there for the family with the same naivety my wife displayed when she vowed to take her of our cat with kidney failure, the third reason being that the other people I texted were acquaintances I’d hardly spoken to before or since, nearly assaulting them in the fading afternoon with requests for sympathy like a panhandler painted with the dusky blue makeup of the sad clown, tears in my eyes as I told them my father had cancer and there wasn’t anything they could do for me except just one small favor to please give their own fathers a big hug next time they met, as if I really cared what anyone else’s relationship to their father was in the moment, as if I did not only want to be seen as someone who could keep the bigger picture in mind even in the midst of the worst personal turmoil and was thus a person more deserving of sympathy and validation that my father getting diagnosed with a brain tumor was the saddest thing to happen to anyone ever because it was happening to a person who carried the entire pain and suffering of the world on his shoulders, a person who’s father suffering hurt all the more uniquely because he knew this incident adding to the total sadness of the world, which is a desire doubly pathetic on my part, pathetic for the desire in itself, doubly so because it was directed toward people who thought little of me and even littler of my father, reflected in the amount of times they reached out to me after I first told them the news to inquire how my father and how many family were coping, which is to say zero times) and into the following week when I was in
San Francisco for a work trip I told my parents I couldn’t possibly reschedule (it was only a team-building retreat), so while my family sat at home in Michigan forming the last memories they would ever have together, I was in San Francisco getting drunk with my new colleagues and bosses, laughing too much and talking far too loudly inches away from their faces, asking questions that were oddly personal and leaving them to wonder why I seemed on the verge of tears describing my approach to building effective and profitable relationships with software customers before throwing up in my hotel room, waking up to a text from my mother saying my father needs me, and doing it all over again for the next two days until I finally went back home to Arizona to pack another suitcase and flying to my family in Michigan six hours later.

The weather in Michigan was between fall and winter, a no-man’s land where the grass is dead and the leaves are fallen and brown but the snow has failed to arrive from the dark and heavy clouds that loomed over the day. This was poetic in a nice and classical way because my father was between the fall and winter seasons of his life and also poetic in a somewhat ironic and painful way in that the weather felt purgatorial and emblematic of the next plane my father would inhabit. I was surprised to see so many flowers throughout the house, big bouquets with purple lilies, auburn chrysanthemums, golden sunflowers, and white baby’s breath all arranged in the hallways with vases on every table surface. I was shocked but also heartened to see my father had so many well-wishers in his life. He was gregarious by nature and gained friends throughout the years in his line of work as a salesman who sold large furnaces to factories producing heat treated steel (when I was younger it seemed his job was nothing but going to sports games, strip clubs, and the golf course) and whenever his old high school buddies would come over to the house for poker nights, they’d keep me well past my bedtime by laughing loudly and constantly

opening the garage door to step outside and smoke cigarettes. When I asked my father who the flowers were from, he said he bought them all himself. He did not expect anyone to give him his flowers while he was alive, he said, so he decided to do it hisself. The remaining two weeks I was there, flowers arrived at the house multiple times a day. I figured the deliveries must have cost thousands of dollars, which was not even accounting for the food my father had shipped to the house along with the flowers, delivery from local pizza joints, Chinese restaurants, and sub shops, boxes of chocolate turtles and plastic tubs of seasoned pretzels from the grocery store, online delivery from eateries around the country that sent their speciality cheesecakes, lobster rolls, and pastrami sandwiches in time-sensitive boxes decorated with colorful designs and filled with dry ice. Whenever one of these boxes arrived at the door and my mother yelled at my father for buying more food than the refrigerator even had room for, he would tell her that he wasn’t going to die skinny, which is a line he repeated frequently when the guests started to arrive two days into my stay, people who came to say goodbye to my father and make small talk with me and my brother, people like our relatives, my father’s high school buddies, the men he met over the course of business, my brother’s friends who knew my father since they were kids, and even some neighbors who had previously held frosty relationships with my father, as he was always quick to confrontation whenever he suspected someone of disrespecting him or violating one of his perceived rules of subdivision etiquette such as not parking large trailer campers in a driveway, even those neighbors came over to offer my father condolences (these neighbors did not come to say goodbye since they had never really said hello to my father in the first place, which strikes me as a good summation of most of the relationships I myself carry), all conversations that happened around a small standalone steel fire pit in our backyard, where my
father held court from day until night, drinking bourbon and smoking cigars telling people he wasn’t going to die skinny as he grabbed a fresh lobster roll from a cardboard box that billowed a mystical smoke and as my mother sat inside the kitchen watching my father sitting around the standalone steel fire pit in backyard from the small window above the sink with tears in her eyes, every so often coming outside to collect the glasses and plastic cups my father’s friends used for bourbon, collecting them quickly and aggressively to suggest she wasn’t happy with the situation and wished the guests would leave, only for my father to call her a cunt and remind her that it was he who was dying of brain cancer, not her so he was going to do what he wanted for a little while longer, an outburst that created a brief pause during which everyone looked down out of awkwardness and because they were reminded why they were here in our backyard in the first place, but when I went inside to console my mom and tell her I understood that she wanted time alone with my father since he was her husband, she told me it wasn’t so much that, but rather she wanted the people to leave so she could have a moment to herself.

When the guests finally did leave each night, my father, brother, and I, were drunk. We would say goodnight to my father, walk him inside the house, and continue drinking on our own. One of these nights, I had my last conversation with my father. It happened on the couch inside the living room which was the closest room by distance to the stainless steel fire pit in the backyard, but for logistical purposes it’s far easier to imagine the conversation taking place at the fire pit itself but it just as well could have happened on the short walk to the door, for the conversation wasn’t so much a conversation at all but rather an exchange of the short phrase I know, which was all we had room for as the last conversation descended upon us like a weather pattern, meaning we both knew the time had come and it was meant to be me who instigated,

though when I opened my mouth to speak, I choked on my own words and could say nothing without my voice cracking in a painful way, so my father reached out and grabbed my hand and said I know, and I said I know, too. There was a lifetime of love and hate that flowed like an ocean between those two utterances, and I’m surprised to this day by the grace and literacy of the moment, much like I was surprised by the grace what my father said next, which was part of the last conversation but also the end of it, which was that he learned long ago that he had the easy part and I had the hard part, referring there to the death of his own father he suffered through when he was my age. That was the last time my father spoke in the formal sense. He was soon to have an unsuccessful brain surgery that would leave him imbecilic and regressive until he died, and if I had known that, I likely would have pushed further into the conversation, as I would have ultimately preferred to have a real conversation instead of a literary one.

On another of these nights, the guests did not come over at all and it was only the four of us by the stainless steel fire pit—my father, my brother, my mother, and myself. My brother had a Bluetooth speaker and we each took turns playing music. When it was my turn, I picked a song written by a singer-songwriter me and my father both liked that was composed shortly after the artist suffered his own terminal diagnosis, so the lyrics were germane and mollifying, essentially asking any loved ones to remember the dead but also to know that their spirit will forever be present in the small actions of each day, such as a lover buttoning her blouse or a child watching the sunset. However, before the first verse was over, my mother declared the song too sad and had my brother take over music duties for the rest of the night. As we all kept drinking and talking, my brother at one point played a song from the time my parents first began dating, meaning it was mid-eighties R&B with a catchy and agreeable chorus. My mother then asked my

brother to play a song I’d never heard before, which was surprising as I had always considered myself a bit of a music buff (music never failed to unite me and my father, even if it was only momentarily, and most of our fond memories and later attempts at creating fond memories involve us going to a concert, listening to music in the car, or my father calling me into his office so we could listen to a song together, usually a song I had shown him myself weeks or months previous in a desire for connection or validation (so in some ways him showing me that he was indeed listening to a song I had recommended was his way of settling his end of the bargain), where I would stand awkwardly next to him as he sat in his big leather computer chair while we waited for the song to finish before I would say something polite but noncommittal and leave the room), and was even more surprised to learn it was my parent’s wedding song, which seems like a detail one should pick up through other means during the course of life. Like the song before, it was an 80’s R&B song that was smooth, sensual, and triumphant. The lyrics were about love, specifically about marriage, and it was easy to imagine a young couple dancing to it at their wedding (I later learned this was a popular wedding song for people that got married in the late 1980’s which took away much of the intimacy for me when I learned it and suddenly cast my parents as two people fulfilling a role in their milieu without much agency of their own or even without much opinion or will of their own, as if they got married merely because it was time to do so and had children merely because that’s what one does after marriage (I am aware this is not necessarily a bad thing and in fact is one of the beneficial functions of culture, i.e. it binds people together with similar life experiences that provide some structure to the stream, but I unfortunately only find value and worthiness in the incidents that are unique and specific and feel only that which is unique can be made into literature which in turn can be made into
culture), though at the time I did not know this about the song and assumed it was a tune that held a deep and secret meaning to my parents), and it put my parents in the mood for dancing, too. They both got up from their chairs and clung to each other in front of the fire, doing a short-stepped arrhythmic dance as their wedding song played in the background, both of them likely wondering if it would be the last time they would ever get to dance to their wedding song (it was), both of them likely wondering how many days my father had left (not many), and both of them likely wondering if moments like this would help make things easier (they wouldn’t). In short, it was a tender moment, something a hack would describe as achingly tender, and a scene I felt wasn’t mine to see. This did not stop me from furtively taking a picture of the moment, my mother and father two blurred figures in front of a stainless steel standalone fire pit that is smaller than I remember, my brother in the background looking up at them like he is watching a band on stage, a photo that is invaluable precisely for the reason that I don’t know what to do with it. After the song ended, or perhaps even before (songs were longer then they are now), my father kissed my mother on the head in a nurturing and protective way and our time by the fire subsided.

The night before my father’s surgery was quiet. The first night the fire pit was unlit. My mother and father were in their bedroom, nervous for the next day, my brother was asleep, and I sat alone on our living room couch, starting a fight with my wife over text message because I felt she was being insufficiently sympathetic and caring to my plight, when in fact she was hurt because both myself and my family were seemingly indifferent to her absence in such a time. I went digging around in my family’s fridge and found an edible that belonged either to my brother or my father. Half the label was torn off, so I had no idea of knowing it’s potency or

expiry date. I took the full thing just to be sure and sat down in our living room to watch a movie about a federal agent in Arizona on the front lines of the drug trade at the Mexican border. The movie began with an evocative scene of the agent finding dozens of shrink-wrapped corpses hidden inside the walls of a home in a suburb not far from where me and my wife lived and the film only escalated from there, with the agent eventually being contracted into working with some shadowy parapolitical figures that take her down to Ciudad Juárez, where the agent sees corpses strung from highway overpasses and young children outfitted with machine guns and iconic looking rifles, the cartels brazen with their violence in a way that was distinct from the shrink-wrapped corpses hidden inside the walls of an uninhabited home, the movie further emphasizing this point by way of a shootout at the border crossing, as if to say the drug cartels are not intimidated against displaying their power even in the midst of both nation’s security personnel, which is partly explained in the next set of scenes where the federal agent, now back at home, is nearly assassinated by a Phoenix police officer who later admits he was paid by the cartels to do the job, a confession that even further destabilizes the questions of authority the movie had so far been asking, questions that culminate in the final set of scenes which depict a final clandestine operation where the agent and her colleagues sneak into the compound of a cartel leader and the federal agent learns the shadowy parapolitical figures she’s been working with are actually the CIA and the only reason she was asked to join them on their missions is because of an obscure but apparently infallible law that states all CIA actions on foreign soil must involve other federal agencies in some way, an admission that to our federal agent feels like a betrayal, a betrayal that is doubled when she learns the entire purpose of the program was not to stop the drug trade once and for all, but rather the CIA hopes to consolidate the drug trade to
one or two cartels that are easily controlled, and thus their final operation is to simply assassinate the cartel leader which is done by one of the supporting stars of the movie we’ve been watching this entire time, who we learn used to be a cartel lawyer until his wife and children were brutally murdered by the same cartel leader he is now set to assassinate, so as a final act of revenge the assassin first murders the wife and children of the cartel leader and forces him to sit with that knowledge for a moment or two before eventually killing him as well, which I thought was a nice touch as I never feel trusty satisfied when a villain is promptly killed as it seems the best way to enact suffering upon someone is to keep them alive but inflict psychological terrors, such forcing them to watching their children die, and the allegiance I felt in that moment with the movie was aligned with how I felt throughout the entire experience, as I found the movie penetrating with subversive themes cloaked in a moody and oppressive cinematic experience. I was properly stoned by the time the movie was over, and as I sank into the couch and drifted to sleep, I primarily thought about how that movie was exactly the sort of thing I wanted to write, meaning something with intrigue and style but also something that told certain truths about the world, both tactile in that I think the movie was saying something close to true about the government’s role and objectives in the drug trade and abstract in that I think the movie suggested there are truths and complexities beyond our understanding. There was a melancholy to this line of thought, as I didn’t think I had the craftsmen-like skill needed to build the scaffolding and plotting such a piece of fiction required, nor did I have the confidence to declare that the world did indeed work in a way that I could accurately and artfully depict, but I thought maybe I could one-day write about myself wanting to write such a story and that perhaps I could
sneak an actual piece of fiction like that into a large piece of fiction where I could couch it between parentheses so it would not have to stand naked and alone in the light of failure.

My father drove himself to the hospital for brain surgery the next morning and the rest of us followed in scattered groups. I arrived last, having slept in from staying awake too late the night before watching my movie. I knew who was doing the brain surgery because while I was still in San Francisco before flying to Michigan, my father had texted me a photo of the surgeon that must have been taken from the hospital’s website though something had happened that degraded the photo into a pixelated blur (either my father incorrectly copied and pasted the image, it was a mischievous file type, or my phone wasn’t prepared to receive it), so I didn’t at first recognize the surgeon when he came out of the operating room to give us a brief update on how my father’s surgery was going. The tumor was in a trickier spot than they had first envisioned deep between both cortexes and it was difficult to scrape the cancerous cells out without cutting into the various nerve endings that controlled motor and other functions. In addition to the main nucleus of the tumor, there were secondary tumors spread across my father’s frontal lobe that were wispy and impossible to extract. These wispy frontal lobe tumors would likely continue to grow and eventually impair my father’s vision in a way that the surgeon struggled to explain to my mother and brother who were more curious than I was, as my father’s vision wouldn’t grow worse in a way that we would think of an elderly person’s vision growing worse, but rather he would still see objects but would be unable to recognize them for what they were and would instead only see a collection of shapes and colors. My mother and brother also had questions about the life expectancy of someone with the type of cancer my father had. The surgeon struggled to answer these questions as well as he was a surgeon and not an oncologist,

but he did say there was an annual fundraiser that was attended by those afflicted by this particular type of brain cancer and that some people attending that fundraiser had been living ten years or more after diagnosis. When he said this, my brother and mother looked up at him expectantly, my brother shooting my mother a quick glance and saying our father would be one of the the decade-long survivors, his voice casual and filled with confidence, my mother leaning on my brother’s arm and squeezing his hand as if to agree. I wanted to apologize to the doctor for my family’s stupidity and ask if we could talk somewhere in private where he could tell me what he had really discovered during his surgery, the extent the tumor pervaded my father’s brain and how long we could expect before it grew back, making sure he understood that any answers he provided would not be construed as binding prognosis but rather as his anecdotal, professional opinion. However, when it was my turn to look up at the doctor, who was not standing but rather sitting on a slightly higher stool than the couch we sat on in the comfortable surgical waiting room, dressed in scrubs and wearing an expensive watch, I saw him nodding along to my mother and brother, nodding in a wise and measured way, permitting them to hope. He even went on to say that the first thing he would do is send in samples of the mass found in my father’s brain to the laboratory. There was still an outside chance that the tumor was benign. With this, he left, saying the nurses would collect us when my father was awake from the anesthesia, at which point we could say hello before going home for the night. I excused myself while my mother and brother stayed on the waiting room couch hugging each other. I called my grandmother to let her know the surgery went well, and she told me to pray for a miracle.

My father’s head was bandaged up with some gauze covering his eyes. The television in his room had a tinted film over the screen, and we weren’t allowed to turn on the overhead lights.

Perhaps because of the anesthesia, perhaps because parts of his brain were now missing or altered, my father was not excited to see us when we came into the room. He acknowledged us, but continued staring in the direction of the television, except about four feet below the screen. We tried to make small talk with him like he was a child that had experienced something terrible beyond comprehension. At one point, I rested my hand on his bare shoulder, slipping my palm underneath the loose-fitting gown to do so, and slowly rubbed my hand back and forth in an attempt to balm and sooth. My father made a face like a stranger had just stepped on the back of his shoe and my mother chastised me for touching my father in that way. He didn’t like that, she said. This offended me then made me feel lonely. I’d been living away from my family for many years now. Perhaps in that time they would have frequent discussions on their preferred modes of love and connection. I felt both blame and guilt and decided to sulk in the corner of the hospital room until it was time for my mother, brother, and I to go home. When that time came, we had to discuss how to best drive home. We had taken three cars there, after all. One option was leaving a car or two in the parking garage so we could drive home in as few groups as possible. That option was vetoed by my father, who had slowly come to over the course of our visit. He did not trust to leave the cars in the city hospital parking lot. The other option was for each of us drive the separate cars and my mother would follow one of us home since she was not used to driving in the city, especially not at night. This was the option we decided on, and I was chosen as the guide for my mother since I used to live in the city, had frequently driven the highways, and was presumedly seen as the more responsible driver. I argued that we should take my preferred route home which involved merging between a few different highways but was faster and more familiar. However, this option was also vetoed, as my mother hating merging highways, so
instead we opted to take the slower route that only involved a singular highway. About ten or fifteen minutes into that drive, the car ahead of me swerved into the next lane, revealing a stalled out car without blinking hazards in the middle lane. I swerved myself, began honking my horn, and frantically scanned my rear view mirror to see if my mother reacted as quickly as I did. I called my mother, who did not answer. I called her again, it went straight to voicemail. I called her one more time, and she picked up. All I heard was screaming and crying. She said something to me, but all I could pick up were the words shit and fuck. I got off on the next exit before getting back on the highway in the other direction, struggling to look over into the opposite lanes as I couldn’t remember where or how far back the accident took place. Once I passed the scene of the wreckage, I got off the highway again before getting back on and driving toward my mother. I passed the accident site and pulled onto the shoulder. By that point, traffic had slowed to accommodate the stalled car in the middle lane, my mother’s car which had slammed into the stalled car, and the pick-up truck that had slammed into my mother’s car. I was able to run across the highway and find my mother in her car, crying and helplessly looking through the items of her purse like a teenager stood-up for a date. I led her back to the car I was driving on the shoulder as we waited for the police to arrive. When I tried to comfort her by giving her a hug or asking if she was okay, she pushed me away and told me to leave her the fuck alone. When the police did arrive, she told them her husband had brain surgery that morning, and the police told her that the people she had hit didn’t have any insurance and asked if she had a ride home. I looked at the people she had hit, who were standing around 30 feet up the road from us. They were a poor, older couple who looked both sorrowful and noncommittal toward the accident they had caused. Their car looked very old, and I could smell the cigarette smoke baked into the seat
fabric even from where I stood on the shoulder. The pick-up truck was driven by a father and his teenaged sons who must have caught a hockey game that night, they all looked annoyed sitting in the car, and the father looked like he wanted to punch my mother. As I drove my mother home, she sat in the backseat and asked me not to talk to her. When I looked into the rearview mirror, I could see her phone screen in the reflection of the window. She was texting someone, and I was reminded of an incident with an ex-girlfriend of mine who was also sitting in the backseat as I drove (though this was because we were on a long drive and she wanted to stretch her legs), and whose phone screen I could also see in the reflection of her window, and who I could also tell was texting someone, except when I asked my ex-girlfriend what she was doing on her phone, she told me she was playing a game. I did not ask my mother what she was doing on the phone, but for some reason it felt important when I noticed that, as if I was seeing a symmetrical refractor of a primordial moment that had happened to me years prior, just as seeing my mother sandwich her car between an older couple and a father on the same day her husband had surgery to remove a brain tumor felt synecdochical and perverted, and just as my father telling me what he learned in the wake of his father’s death was archetypical and literary. When my father eventually died and I told my brother that the previous four months had felt like a piece of fiction, he thought I was referring to the friends my father had over, the supposed legacy he left behind, the family bonding that had taken place, and the challenges and triumphs, when in actuality I was thinking of the substances of such events that could only make sense as fiction, not as reality. This is when I decided to write a piece of fiction about my father’s diagnosis, death, and what followed. This would eventually turn into three separate pieces of fiction, of which this is the first. This is also why it was important for me to detail the discussion that took
place around which system of highways to get home, as those sorts of conversations only happen in pieces of fiction, especially immediately following brain surgery, as they are often forgettable and mundane in real life.

The first thing my father did when he got home from the hospital is use the bathroom. The surgery had left him without control of his body’s left side and only marginal control over the right, meaning it was an ordeal for me and my brother to lift him onto the raised toilet seat we had bought in preparation for his return. When he had finished and called us in to help him wipe, we learned we had placed him on the toilet seat wrong and in fact his ass hung over the entire toilet seat, meaning he had shit all over the actual toilet with none of it landing inside the bowl. We had to lift him up and wipe what we could from his skin. My brother agreed to get him to the living room or another destination while I would clean the rest of his feces from the toilet. Because had had been constipated the last three days in the hospital, there was a lot to clean. It smelt so bad that it caused me to gag which in turn caused me to throw up. My vomit mixed with my father’s feces, and it made me gag again, perhaps psychically. My brother and father started laughing about the situation, and eventually I did too. I next saw my father leave that bathroom two days later while I was upstairs in the spare bedroom on a work call (I had not wanted to take off any time from work as I had just started the job I mentioned earlier and wanted to leave a good impression, which included attending calls with clients and other introductory internal calls), and my father yelled for help. I expected my mother to help him, as she said she would be the one watching him while I was upstairs, and she eventually did, but my father continued yelling, so when I ended my call early to lend my help, I saw my mother carefully walking my father back to the living room, except for some reason my father was completely naked and I

could see his penis. My father looked at me and asked my mother why I even bothered to come home if all I was going to do is fucking work, at which point my mother yelled for me to go continue working. When I look back on that moment now, I am filled with the same blame and guilt I carried in the hospital room, blame because I was their only son who had a stable, respectful job and I was suddenly made aware of just how important it was to provide for everything you needed, guilt because my job did not pay me nearly enough to justify any of my actions, leaving me to wonder why I did not tell my manager I needed to take some unexpected time off (double inexcusable as my manager and I were on the right terms for me to ask this sort of question) and whether it was indifference or fear that caused me to remain silent.

My father died in February and at first my mother was set against having a funeral for him. We had him cremated and kept his ashes in the box the crematorium provided. It was more of a cylindrical tube, really, and the cardboard was printed with an image of a beach that wrapped around the tube—near the bottom of the tube you could see the yellow sand which gave way to the bright blue water and even bluer sky dotted with a few laundry white clouds. Inside the tube was a much less ceremonious plastic bag, and I remember thinking that when we had gotten our cat cremated one year prior, his ashes came in a carved wooden box that itself came in a velvet pouch, though inside that box our cat’s ashes were also stuffed into a plastic bag, which seemed to be the only way to prevent the ashes from escaping their container. I went back to Phoenix and a few months passed. That summer, I read a book with a provocative title that was about the drug cartels in Mexico, the book stating that cartels, in fact, did not exist at all. Since I had watched the movie mentioned earlier in this story, I had found myself thinking about the drug trade more and found myself holding an odd, weak obligation to know more about it

considering where I lived, so when I found the book with the provocative title, I had no choice but to order it and begin reading it as soon as it arrived at our house. The book was written toward academic critical theorists and the writing reflected that aim, meaning there were parts of the book that left me disoriented and bewildered, but I did understand the main thrust of the book, which was that drug cartels as we understand them, which is to say powerful clandestine organizations that outgun, outfox, and outprice the state at every turn, are a myth concocted by the state in order to perpetuate state control and further bolster the state’s monopoly on violence (the author claims that the violence and murders we contribute to cartel wars are more faithfully contributed to state actors, a claim corroborated with evidence showing the violence rate in multiple Mexican cities in the north of the country increased only after the state stepped in to intercede), and this state-favored myth is spread by novels lionizing the detectives who try to capture the dreaded narcos but are handcuffed by red tape and corrupt local officials protecting the cartels, movies and television shows depicting the decadence and raw power of the cartel, and unthinking journalists who regurgitate the state’s offerings and explanations for the violence and loss of control in the country (the movie I watched was one such offender as cited by the author for reasons that will become clear in the next sentence). The author went on to say that one reason the state has for upholding such a myth is because they want the public to believe extreme measures must be taken in order for the state to regain control of society from the lawless cartels, but, the author says, this is false on face because the state can surely capture the supposed leaders of cartels and disband their organizations at any time because the state is the state, meaning they have access to arms and resources beyond imagination and the supposed cartels are only criminals who sell drugs, which is why the state finds it useful when the arts and
media portray the cartels as paramilitary operators instead of showing us that disorganized and loosely raveled confederacies of different drug dealing crews are all that actually exist, there are no cartels. After finishing that book, it was hard for me to both take the author seriously and to think of anything else. It was hard for me to take seriously because it marked the first book I’d yet to read on the drug trade, so I was wary of taking it’s iconoclastic conclusions to heart (not least of which because I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of someone who knew more than me, or worse yet someone who had lost a friend or loved one to cartel violence—that may be the worst person to confess my new belief that cartels did not exist), yet I constantly thought of the book because it became hard to ignore the lurking hand of state influence and subservient admiration of power in every piece of art, especially the art that was decidedly against something, such as violence, greed, or anger (these thoughts carried themselves so far within me that I began to formulate an argument stating no art could truly be anti-war art, for war (I assumed) was so horrific and nonsensical than any art depicting war was propagating society’s acceptance of the notion merely by giving war a comprehensible aesthetic shape, such as a scene with actors that the eye can follow, or a sentence with a subject, verb, object, and ending, though this argument was not well-received amongst the few people I wielded it against), eventually bringing me to a point where all I could admit was no one could claim to know anything at all and any narrative we attached to the world was a vain attempt to provide structure and explanations to systems that had spun out of our grasp and morality. At another point during that summer, my mother changed her mind and decided we would have a small celebration for my father in our backyard. She took care of scheduling the ceremony, and she made a few calls that offended me and my brother for some reason, such as asking one of our father’s friends to
coordinate a guest list and arranging the date to fit when one of her siblings would be in town without checking with either me or my brother first. In a story about coincidences, I’ve been most wary of including this one because it is coincidental to the point of spiritualism, so I want to experiment with form here in a way that I think would be more appropriate to the moment as the character experiences it (having already done a bit of minor experimentation (though intention might be a better word than experiment in both instances) when I described the mother’s car accident, having switched to short, relatively punchier sentences than the preceding and following), which I think may be a nice flourish on a story mostly concerned with the substances of events over the events themselves:

Kyle was walking his dog earlier than he should have been. The desert sun baked into the pavement over the course of a day, leaving the sidewalk at scorching coal temperatures that took hours to cool. He should know, too. He’d seen the signs in the city parks with cartoons of eggs frying on dog paw pads, he’d read the neighborhood Facebook group posts that threaten to call animal control on anyone walking their hound before nightfall. But Kyle wasn’t like those sorts of people. He loved his dog. Ever since he set his eyes on that beautiful hound, Kyle knew they had a bond harder than steel. They did everything together.

It’s not that Kyle didn’t care about the heat or his poor dog. He just needed to get out of the house, and walking the dog was a good reason to do so. It gave his walk a sense of purpose, a beginning and an end. In that way, it was almost a necessity. Plus, he thought to himself, if any neighbors dared to question his pet ownership skills, he would point to the sun currently setting behind the mountains to the west. Not only would this show he had taken the temperature into consideration and waited, but the saturated fructose pink of the sky mixed with the soft pale greens of the palo verde trees would surely provide a moment of calm to any heated confrontation. This allowed him to relax and feel relief flow through him like cool river waters.

Summer evenings never failed to make Kyle think of Detroit. There was something about that city that kept his mind coming back to it, even all these years later. Something about the people, something about the music, or maybe it was just that special something you get when you’re swimming in youth. Summers that lasted forever, even through every night was over in a second. Drinking with friends, dancing with girls, figuring life out before the sun came up. There was just that something Detroit held over him. He hadn’t found it anywhere else, but then again he knew he wasn’t the right age to be looking, either. At least he still had those summer evenings, and this one was no exception.

Kyle’s dog pulled on ahead. It was strange, because he already went to the bathroom. That usually signaled an end to the walk, but the dog trudged on like something propelled him. He carried on that way, pedal to the metal, until he got to the end of the block. The dog stopped right in front of an apartment building further down than their normal walk. In the parking lot was a man sitting in his car with the door open. Kyle had never seen the man before, but he immediately recognized the song playing from the man’s car stereo. He’d heard it himself for the first time a year prior. It was his parent’s wedding song, and he watched them slow dance to it with tears in their eyes. By his count, this was the second time he’d ever heard the song. For one brief second, he allowed himself to wonder if the man waiting in the car was about to go on a date. He allowed himself to wonder if there were other people out there with things to be optimistic about. If there were people who chose happiness.

These thoughts didn’t last long as Kyle turned away from the apartment building. That song only brought him sadness now. It was hard to hear, and he couldn’t imagine choosing to listen to it for himself. But at the same time, maybe there was a reason he’d heard it. Maybe it was a message. Just then, he felt his phone vibrate in his pocket. It was his mom. His mom rarely called him. Had she felt the message too? He could hardly believe it.

“Hello, Mom? You’re not gonna believe what’s happe—”

“What the fuck is wrong with you, do you fucking think you can fucking do whatever you want?” His mom was screaming and crying. Her voice was at a high pitch, and it was hard to hear what she was saying.

“Mom? Are you okay?”

You and your fucking brother can just fuck off! I hate you both! All you want to do is fucking talk shit about me!” She was screaming louder now.

“Mom, what are you talking about? Mom? What’s going on?” Kyle pleaded with his mother. He was confused, and his dog even sensed this confusion, looking up at him with that tilted head look dogs always do.

“Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you! Never come home!” His mom screamed one last time before hanging up the phone.

Kyle stood in the middle of the block. He could still hear the man listening to the song in his car, but it was fainter now. The song must had been close to over.

He took out his phone to call his brother. The dog pulled him forward.

“Yo,” Kyle’s brother said.

“Hey, Evan,” Kyle said. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing, man, I’m just driving home from the bar.” Evan sounded drunk.

“Be careful, you know I worry.” Kyle thought back to the DUI’s their dad had got back in his day. He wondered if Evan was trying to follow in their dad’s footsteps.

“Yeah, yeah bro, you know I’m good. Just like Mr. Anderson in elementary school was good for all those pizza parties he promised!” Evan laughed.

Kyle couldn’t help but smirk at this bit of history. “Alright, fine. Did you talk to mom recently?”

“Yeah, I just called her.”

“What’d you guys talk about?”

“Just everything you and I have been texting about. Just all that bullshit, you know. I told her like it is.”

Kyle felt his stomach sink. “I see. Well, she seems pretty mad.”

"I bet,” Evan said. “She’ll get her bitch ass over it.”

“Yeah, I suppose you’re right. It was just kinda a weird moment when it happened.”

“What the fuck ever man. Life is weird.” Evan hung up.

By that point, Kyle’s dog had brung him all the way to the other end of the block. They were right in front of a large tree with branches that extended across the front lawn.

Kyle’s dog sat down for some reason, and Kyle took the moment to look at the tree. It was filled with branches that were filled with leaves and budding flowers. For that moment, it captured his entire attention.