napalm, the '77 mercury cougar, and the king of wands
Dad gets me a job waiting tables for a catering company, after that Dad’s putting a .38 to my head, safety on, and saying, if you don’t get scared then the gun loses some of its power. Control yourself to control the world. And then he made me a playlist called When I was you… Volume 1 because he was me at one point and soon I’ll be him.
This isn’t Fight Club. We don’t have a club.
My father can’t make me do anything. We both know this. I’m just like him and nobody can make him do anything, either— we both know this. And when you can’t make anyone do anything, what you do is give them the tools to be capable of doing it, and then you won’t have done anything and the blame, if any, will be on the other person. Accountability is a burden we don’t have to shoulder if we don’t want to. This is how we do our work.
He hands me the knife. I accidentally cut myself. He patches the wound by rubbing superglue into it and asks me what lesson I’ve learned, and I have an answer— cut away from yourself— and he says that’s right and I never do it again. Small things to make me learn how to be able to pick myself up whenever I fall. He wants me to be prepared to handle myself and I love him for it because I can’t imagine anything scarier than being unprepared.
He says, “When you punch someone, you want to twist your hand as you make contact. Dig your knuckles in. It’ll hurt more.”
He says, “If you cut a tennis ball in half, you can pop the lock on some of the older cars.”
He says, “The key to cooking pork is to do it slow and low. Same with grilled cheese.”
He says, “I used to carry a couple rolls of quarters with me in case I got into a fight. You form the fist around it and it supports the hand. Keeps you out of the hospital, keeps things unbroken.”
He says, “If your fan belt goes out in the middle of nowhere, you can make a decent replacement with a pair of tights. Should get you to the next town, at least.”
He says, “Melt styrofoam in gasoline and you’ve got yourself some homemade napalm. For whatever purposes needed.”
And when my mother launches into a rage upon discovering that I shoplifted something, I look to my father and see that he’s proud, and the next time we’re at the store together he steals a bag of gummy worms and gives it to me to eat on the way home. And he can’t make me do anything, so I do it because I want to. I fucking want to.
Summer came in as restless, ready to make the city intangible and shimmering like a highway mirage. The days blend together. The sun is always violent, saturated. Smoke from nearby wildfires turns the light into liquid gold. Dad stops wearing a shirt around the house. I start wearing swimsuit tops everywhere. This is the same cadence that the summer has always taken, and we slip back into it like an easy routine.
I’m at the top of the stairs, in the doorway of my room, and he’s at the bottom. It’s good for us to communicate like this, in some ways. I like to be above him, to make him have to look up at me. My mother had asked him to follow up and check if I had done something she wanted me to do. She always wants me to do something, so we spend a lot of time in this position— my father as the messenger I would never shoot, and me as the miscreant personal assistant, and both of us as people stuck in debtors’ prison.
“I did. You can ask Mom, I swear,” I’m half-yelling. Projecting. I am in a theater if I think I’m in a theater.
“Well, I don’t want to talk to her. She’s mean,” he says, and it breaks something in me. Maybe my heart. Because in the half light at the bottom of the stairs, no shirt, backwards snapback, he looks like he could be 20 again— this hologram of the past could be doing anything right now, going snowboarding or getting stoned or heading out to the beach to catch some waves— the permanent efficacy of grace sits in the hallway and is laughing, laughing, laughing.
You know, he never wanted to have kids. Then he had one. Then he had another.
I wouldn’t call myself a believer. In anything, really— it’s not suspicion, it’s something more along the lines of unfaithfulness. There’s no good word for that. I don’t believe in anything, which oftentimes includes reality, dreams, what I see, what I think, who people are; that I am never seeing the full picture, which is true considering there are always incommunicable parts that are inaccessible to an outsider. This doesn’t mean I believe people are bad or that things are worse than I think. The kicker here is that I don’t believe anything.
I don’t believe my dad is exactly who I think he is. I want to see behind the curtain. I want to autopsy him for the sake of autopsying him. Something deep down tells me that he shouldn’t get to hide things from me, that he made me in his image and now I should get to know everything he does— that I deserve to know where he goes wrong so I can know where to go right— kicking and screaming at him that I deserve to know, I deserve it I deserve it, fuck you I have a right. It’s understandable. Sometimes I feel like we’re a Venn diagram that’s just a circle inside of another circle, like he completely envelops me and goes beyond me in places I can’t reach. I deserve it fuck you I have a right. Equivalency, equality, all the other E words that don’t apply here. It unbalances me.
Now, I’m not a believer in anything, but now is when I pull out the tarot cards to see if they can glean something I can’t. Upright King of Wands, reversed Nine of Cups, upright Star. Loyal, honest, fair, intuitive, occasionally insensitive, blunt. Fuck you, I already know that and I don’t believe you. I don’t believe you.
There’s a chance that I could just know my father well and any feeling of unknowing is the alarm bell that goes off in the back of my head whenever I actually enjoy the presence of a man. There it goes— your extended name is Dolores, you were a baby girl named Dolores, fresh as a daisy, daisy fresh, you were twelve and daisy fresh and he was the only one who didn’t call you the bad name which means there’s something else bad, something else sinister, something else wrong, you will get blindsided and taken advantage of and you won’t be able to do anything because you are a teenage girl and he is thirty-something years older with money and power, nobody would believe you if something happened. There’s a chance that he might try something, but the bigger, more likely possibility is that he won’t.
Fuck you, though.
I don’t believe you.
Sitting at his feet on the living room floor, I say, “Wasn’t Farrah Fawcett in the Mercury ads for the ‘77 Cougar?”
Dad says, “I dunno. Was she?” and he pulls up the old video on his phone and we watch as tiny blob Farrah Fawcett, with her massive hair blob and her white dress blob, opens the doors with her big poofy-sleeve blobs. It’s so pixelated you can hardly make out her face. You could put me in a wig and wedding dress and I’d look like her if the pictures were that grainy.
He says, “That’s one ugly fuckin’ car,” and I can’t tell if it’s a compliment or not.
We listen to the tinny, staccato cougar scream that plays every time the logo flashes on screen. I wonder if it was an actual cougar scream, taped for our delight and consumerist pleasure, or if it was just the recording of a woman alone in a room. He hits the replay button and we watch it again. I laugh whenever the scream sounds. It doesn’t even last a single one Mississippi. It just goes off like a gunshot.
He says, “One more time.” The swaggering narrator. Tiny, undefined Farrah. The car, the car, the car, the car in different scenarios, the car taking Farrah Blob-cett somewhere, the car as a family vehicle, the car with a mechanic putting a spare tire in the trunk.
He says, “Piece of shit,” and he says it so lovingly I don’t believe him.
And he’s laughing and there goes the logo and the gunshot scream again. I look away from the phone, lowering my gaze to the muscles in his wrists flexing and relaxing as his fingers make miniscule adjustments along the edge of the phone. Most of the hair on his arms is gone from working in kitchens. Burnt off, never grew back. I push my gaze lower to his intentionally hairless legs. He’s been shaving them since before I was born. I’ve never asked why. Maybe that’s why everyone called him a metrosexual in the 90s. Pretty face, skinny, smooth long legs. Dates women only. Yeah right.
My mother is silent across the room, sitting on the couch. She’s not here— she’s as good as not here because my father and I are having what’s known as A Moment and there’s no room for her in The Moment. I think she’s beginning to understand that we can only exist in her absence. I think she’s beginning to understand that the people we are around her are different from the people we really are.
The panther screams one last time. Blam.
He says, “Nice pull on the ad. Nice memory,” and he says it in a way that implies he had acquired this information before I did and had passed it on to me so that I, the beloved secretary to his archive, could pull it out for him when relevant. Hi, I’m my father’s living memory. Hi, I’m my father’s storage unit, nice to meet you too, how’re you doing today, isn’t the weather soooo nice?
We were talking about his brother’s high school girlfriend Karen, who drove a ‘67 Mercury Cougar. Mercurial Karen who had a temper. We were talking about Karen because Van Halen started playing and Brian was obsessed with Van Halen while they were dating. Karen has become Farrah Fawcett to me— lily-white and gesturing, stepping into the Mercury and fading into the opaque blackness of the offscreen.
“Hey,” I say, still on the floor as the music resumes, “Isn’t this When It’s Love? From OU812?”
He says, “Nice pull.”
All is fair in love and war and all is fair in my mother’s house when you aren’t my mother. Binary code. Everyone makes up the zero, except for my mother, who is the one— a step above everything else, the autocrat of our home. Unintended consequence of this is that it brings my dad and I closer, bonded together in solidarity against her, and it pushes her out of the family. It’s sad, really. She could come back at any time, but she’d have to lower herself to our level to do that and that’s the one thing she can’t do, because God forbid she’s not always the shining star. Unintended consequence of this is that it turns my father into my brother and me into his wife.
It’s alright, I guess. It works for us. As long as he doesn’t make good on it, it works. And I think my mother hates me anyways, so we might as well add another reason to the list.
We’re sitting outside, him in a lawn chair behind me and me on the grass, both staring at the uncovered underside of a tarp where a colony of ants have laid a swath of eggs. They’re frantic from exposure— hundreds and hundreds of black dots are swarming the eggs, picking up anything they can and carrying it to safety, wood from the fire, children from car crashes, the ants are gonna save everything because it’s their job.
Dad says, “You should kill them,” and I say huh? and he says, “You should kill the ants.”
“What if they have a whole entire ant culture that we don’t understand? What if I kill the greatest thing to happen to ant music ever, and we don’t even know?”
Dad says, “The ants don’t make music.”
I say, “Maybe we’re just too big to hear it,” and we both go quiet like we’re trying to hear the ant music. Sometimes I think I would make a good God and then I change my mind.
“The ants don’t make music and they don’t have culture,” and I look over my shoulder at him and I’m winning, I’m winning, yes I am.
“How do you know, big man? You know a lotta ants?” I ask, and there we go, over the finish line, no ants will die today.
“We’re all ants to something, aren’t we,” he says. It’s not a question.
“Mongo only pawn in game of life,” I say, and he cracks a smile at that, face hidden behind dark sunglasses.
“Mongo only pawn in game of life,” he repeats. In the sun, I can see the difference between his real teeth and the fake teeth he has to replace the ones that got knocked out in brawls. We sit there and watch the ants, and when all the eggs have finally been carried away to safety, I pick up the tarp and carefully shake it off.
“Would you save me from a burning building?” I ask.
Dad grins. “They’d have to kill me to stop me.”