Man in the Maze
THE RADIO BARKED that it would be 117 degrees, coupled with a smoky, swollen sky again. The mountains blazed to the east, causing my dad to kiss goodbye for a few days. Towards…? I asked my mom where, but she launched a guess too high for me to reach.
“He is where he is,” said Mom, "Now wash your cereal bowl so I can drop you off at Auntie’s."
Dirt puffed under our sneakers and powdered our scabbed knees. The fry of the red sun seared my dark neck. Cousin Junior tossed his hallow soda can in the greasewood bush. The baked leaves scuffed against tin; it hummed until the can landed in a crunchy quail's nest.
We dropped into the irrigation ditch. The milky water tasted raw, like a dust storm. I spritzed a mouthful of tepid water at Junior. We fired back and forth like cannons. Our shirts stuck to our chests like soggy skin. But under our arms, the fabric drooped. We felt like Grandpa Ike, in the way that his skin seemed to drool from his bones.
The ditch was ours. Our bellies ached from laughter. The sandiness of the ditch-bottom tickled my feet. Hours streaked by. But when too many cousins from Junior’s side crowded the water, and robbed our full bag of potato chips, Junior and I found our shoes thrown in a dry wash. We fled elsewhere.
We tripped through low-lying branches. The tips shaved our cheeks like razors, and its claws fastened to my rat tail. We barged into a clearing. Behind the greasy road, a fire chasséd in the brush, its toes wiggled during skips. With each foot strike, the flame birthed fresh dancers. The fire licked the trunks of mesquite trees and ignited tumbleweeds like matchsticks. But when the red trucks arrived, the yellow-uniformed ensemble had the curtains pulled within minutes.
My sleepover ended. At home my dad rested where I remembered him last, at the kitchen table reading. I spoke into his glossy eyes; I told him about the brush fire, then tried to explain the odd flavor of ditch water; I summoned the voices that whispered to Junior and I in Auntie’s haunted trailer. But he didn’t smirk or laugh. My dad folded his newspaper and ordered me to never touch the ditch. He jostled my shoulders and escaped to the backyard to eye the smoggy sunset.
I grew from boy to a young person. As it happened, I noticed my dad’s absence more and more each year. His disappearance always sparked in August, and during each absence he added a few more days. For what? During the celebration of my final year as a teenager, my dad was gone for two weeks. His seat at my birthday dinner was taken by a distant relative. I asked my mom where Dad vanished to. I was tall enough to listen.
It was to visit the uncle I never met. My mom’s words slipped through her granite stare. Uncle Jasper disappeared before I was born. The August day was hot enough to risk the ominous water. Behind the murky veil was the suction of irrigation pipes that trapped my teenage uncle under. But not my dad. My dad mourned at that canal. His Timberlands dangled over water. He grieved at the edge for decades while warehouses and gas stations sprouted like weeds around him; something in the desert had to flourish. He was absorbed into the abstraction of loss, and he began to go down himself.
His ankles were shackled to the bottom of the bottle. He was a slow, fitful sinker, enduring nearly thirty-five years of stewing. With legs filled with fluid, his body vanished under the roof of hospice care; for twenty-one days the white sky dried the horizon, and during my forty-minute drive to visit him each day, I saw wild horses twice along the highway; somehow they endured, if barely.
In his final hours, I bowed in. I whispered that it was time to let go. I kissed his cheek. Dark whiskers scuffed my lips. He tussled in his morphine slumber and he bubbled a whimper. There was a dire expression that cracked —his crinkled, with-worry brow, like a dog swimming in circles, tirelessly searching for the easiest way out.
Now I am my father’s age. Looking through my windshield this morning, sprinkles drip into the throat of the thirsty desert. The fevered-dawn lessens by a few degrees. I peer over the dashboard and eye the silky water. Sprinkles dimple the flow of the Grand Canal, while underneath, cinnamon-colored currents polish broken glass and bones. Frayed plastic clings to the concrete edges, like fingers clawing from a grave, where no absolution or reach will ever stretch home.
D.A. Navoti is an indigenous writer and educator. His work has been featured in The Explicator and NativeOUT. He holds an M.A. in English from Northern Arizona University and an M.L.S. degree in Creative Nonfiction from Arizona State. He writes and lives in Seattle, WA.