Jan/Feb 2021  •   Nonfiction

Father and Son

by Wade Bell

Earthscape artwork by Andres Amador, 'Labyrinth at Wild West Festival', 2013. Tuscon, AZ

Earthscape artwork by Andres Amador

Sometime in the '90s...

A lovely two-lane California blacktop parallels the Arizona border. I was driving my father home. Arizona, California, Utah, Idaho, Montana, Alberta.

Some days earlier, on the tenth of March, he'd called me. His breathing was labored, his voice high-pitched and edged with fear. Twice that day he visited a hospital emergency department in Phoenix. The first time they gave him a prescription. Experiencing no relief, he went back. The prescription was wrong.

He'd had periodic breathing problems for years. In Edmonton, he was his doctor's longest living open heart surgery patient, undergoing the operation 12 years ago.

He was having a panic attack. I calmed him the best I could and heard his breathing return to normal as I answered Yes to his question: Could I fly down and drive him home in his car?

The plane made lazy circles, San Francisco 60 miles off. The time to catch my connecting flight was growing shorter. Above the clouds it was sunny, and for a time I didn't care if the Phoenix plane left without me. The airline would find me another flight. If I had to stay in San Francisco overnight, well, it was San Francisco, and it would be my first time there.

I was on this circuitous flight from my home, Calgary, because it was the only ticket I could get on short notice.

Things can always get worse. I was burdened with a heavy nicotine addiction back then. California had recently enacted puritanical anti-smoking legislation ("Fascistic," commented my seatmate, a Calgarian with a business in San Francisco). I would be allowed to smoke only outside the terminal's doors.

The plane circled and circled. To the west, cloud, to the east, sun. Over San Francisco fog that wouldn't lift. Then it did. Landed, there was only time to get to my gate for my next departure. Forget stepping outside.

The deserts of America are enormous. The cities planted in them have bizarrely large footprints. Irrigate the wasteland, plant citrus groves, and people will migrate for the heat. Then housing developments will chew up and spit out the orchards.

On the correct medicine, my father feels much better. He says he wants to stay until his lease is up. He doesn't want to leave the heat. Fine. It means five days in the sun for me.

Direct and hot, this sun is to be approached warily. My first morning I am content to sit in the shade on the patio in front of my father's bungalow and read and look. Palm trees tower above flat roofs. The walls of the houses are rough plaster, adobe yellow, easy on the eyes. The patio consists of stones and flowers in clay pots. Planted cacti grow through the stones as do grassy shrubs looking like cattails. A dove lands beside a cactus.

Getting used to living here would be easy. The streets are as quiet as a numberless prairie road, so when a van from the American Red Cross pulls up across the street, it's noteworthy. The man living there is ninety-six.

The Red Cross van soon leaves. An injection, some precious milliliters from a medical fountain of youth, has been administered. It happens once a day, my father explains. Nearby a radio plays Sinatra, Dean Martin, Vic Damone, all quietly. The dove coos with the music or against it. Four women walk by in the road. They wear knee-length shorts. One says, "Did you bring a piano?" I don't hear the reply.

People living in the compound are from different locales around the US. The mix of accents is a delightful salad. I seem to fit quite naturally into this walled square mile of the elderly. I read on the patio, lie down inside when I need to be cooler, and let time pass. Only the elementary senses are piqued: the skin by the dry air, the eyes by the straight, towering royal palms, the ears by accents and the cooing of doves.

The bungalow is not as tidy as my mother would have kept it. Not slovenly, just not cleaned to her standard. Scattered newspapers, unwashed coffee cups, bills to be paid before we leave. A heavy sweater over the back of a kitchen chair. Nights can be chilly.

Boredom makes me restless. I go back outside. The residents of these bungalows are various shades of European white. The only black people are part of landscaping crews. Sometimes I hear maintenance workers speaking Spanish and my ears perk up. I learned some Spanish living there for a few years. Five males stroll by in the street. Knee length shorts, sandals with white sport socks. Balding. Unhealthy bellies. Quintessentially middle-class Americans, I think, but their conversation, I hear as they pass, concerns business in Winnipeg.

We have dinner with friends of my father's. John talks about mourning doves, Aztec doves, mocking birds, roadrunners. Sharing binoculars we look at a comet. The desert dark is absolute.

In the morning my father and I drive south from Apache Junction, a suburb of Mesa, which is a suburb of Phoenix, to his golf club. I'm surprised by the amount of vegetation along the way. He names it for me: saguaro, sage, ironwood, chola. In shallow, dry streambeds, tall trees are lush with spring leaves, acacia bright with yellow ball flowers.

We don't play golf, for which I'm thankful. We have lunch on the clubhouse patio with some of his American cronies. They were with him last week, a foursome, when he holed an eagle. I find it disconcerting to be with people whose entire working lives were spent in commerce: a hardware store owner from Seattle, a car dealer from Ames, a meat salesman from Minneapolis. They aren't people to dislike but, in their insularity, in their distrust of the different—me, in this case, with my longish hair and scruffy beard—they aren't particularly likeable, either. This is short hair country. The more military the look, the more secure they probably feel.

My hair must be particularly grating. In their view, everything liberal this hair represents has long been defeated. Perhaps they feel the guard at the club gate let them down by letting me in. After introductions no one says a word to me. I turn my attention to the gardeners weeding a flower bed. It's good to hear the Spanish banter trimmed with humor.

For the three Americans, living long is what's important. Not laughter. Not wit. As if the energy required for either would delete precious days from the end. Their small talk consists mostly of complaining. My father seems so unlike them. But he is a chameleon, I remember. For one thing, he's a loner who is comfortable around everyone. For another, he's a Liberal in Alberta. He knows when to hold his critical tongue.

From the golf course we drive south and east. There's a place he wants me to see. We stop on the lower slope of jagged desert mountain. Beware of rattlesnakes, bullsnakes, kingsnakes and diamondbacks, reads a sign. I'd wanted to meander through a natural desert environment, and this is one.

He waits while I walk the trail, making sure my footsteps are light. The plants, for it turns out this is an arboretum, are marked with names familiar to me from books or seen only in photos. No snakes introduce themselves until at the end of the circular path where a man sits in a folding chair, a fat specimen coiled around his neck. It raises its head to look at me while he caresses it as if it was a pet kitten.

We stop for lunch at Los Hermanos, a country cantina a few miles inside New Mexico. The menudo, tripe with white beans, cilantro and chopped green onions, doesn't taste as good as I remember it from Spain. In the buzz of conversations, I hear no English, and I listen, pleased, though the Mexican accent is difficult for me.

Suddenly my father is not feeling well. If he needs to vomit, I want him to be in the desert, not in the cantina washroom where 45 gallon drums bisected lengthwise serve as pissoirs. We leave in a hurry.

On the highway his stomach holds. Nearing Mesa, a newscast tells me what his compound's residents are hiding from. A woman at an Easter pageant on the Mormon Temple grounds was struck in the leg by a bullet fired randomly into the air. Every night, the announcer says, people shoot the air at weddings and boisterous parties. A motorist has been slain in Chandler (like Mesa, a suburb of Phoenix). Yesterday in Chandler a storekeeper was slain. In the city proper a mall guard was shot and killed. A standoff in Mesa ended with a robbery suspect's death. A murder victim's body was found in an abandoned mine shaft.

As I sit outside in the last of the light reading an Ann Tyler novel about a peacefully eccentric family in Baltimore, a Cadillac with gold plated spoke wheels stops across the street. A wobbly old man gets out and labors toward a door where an equally old man waits. A plaster duck on the pebbled patio eyes a barking lapdog.

This evening my father is ill. I insist we leave in the morning. This is why I am here. To take a sick, perhaps dying, man home.

I drove on our excursion to New Mexico, and I drive this morning. First the insanity of a cross-town Phoenix freeway jammed at high speed, everyone apparently late for work, then an interstate where the traffic is light and I can relax.

Heading west, we cross the remains of the Colorado River. Whole and healthy, its waters would have irrigated Sonora. Gas at Ehrenberg, then north through flat and infinite high desert country east of the Big Maria Mountains on California 95. Freshly repaved two-lane blacktop. Overtaken at 75 mph by a bouncing, high sprung Mexican coach bound for Las Vegas.

I haven't driven an American car for decades. The Buick is smooth, powerful and comfortable. His first Buick was a gold boat in the era of decorative tailfins and colors bold as blocks of Mondrian's paint.

Well before the Buicks, with World War II coming on, he snuck into the RCAF. He was clinically blind in one eye. He convinced an optometrist to lie. A very persuasive man, my father. They didn't kick him out, or whatever they might have done, but they got their revenge. They made him a drill instructor. Five seven, maybe 140 pounds, an intellectual in pre-med at the University of Alberta, a mean ballplayer, and longing to be a pilot. But one lens was impenetrable to images, almost to light.

A drill instructor exercising each day at a training base in Ontario, he came home at war's end a Flight Lieutenant, stocky, muscled, and strong enough to dig trenches for sewer lines and build a house for his family. At the same time, and with some others from his Flight, he studied engineering at the University of Alberta. Some of those others were volunteers in the house construction. They worked together, studied together, and graduated together.

I felt his physical power once. He slugged me, hard. I felt it for days. He was wrong to do it, and I have not forgotten it, but in the decades since I have not felt the need to discuss it with him. Now he's down and almost out.

Past Needles, then west on Interstate 40 and north into Nevada. We overnight in the south of the State. After a long day of endless desert, he's well enough to give the slots a few of his coins.

In the morning it's north and north again. Through Las Vegas and out of Nevada into Utah. Salt Lake and Ogden, dusty and austere cities. In the afternoon rush hour, mean faces in mean cars. My father says the rundown, vibrating vehicles that pass us are "rattletraps in wet dog vibrato."

Perhaps he's delirious. He claims he's not.

We twist through dry defiles up into the cold lonely loveliness of the Utah high country. At the base of mountains, in dry niches between buttresses, grow dwarf shrubs (creeping juniper, he informs me) and grass mowed short by sheep. A bitter wind sweeps up the valleys, hitting the mountain wall and almost knocking us off the road.

Basque shepherds tend the flocks in the chaparral, he says. It must remind them of home: the isolated mountains, the wintry weather. A unique iteration of the American dream. The high country is desolate and hypnotic. Vegetation is stunted or absent.

He looks unwell. He must fear getting sicker here. No gas, no food. Miles and miles without seeing another vehicle. No comfort beyond the car. Any American going to Canada for the first time must wonder what's in store for them if it's already this bleak and uninviting here.

He graduated in time to see Leduc Number One come in. The long boom was on. Not that he got rich. Comfortable was fine with him.

Eastern Idaho, Malad City, Pocatello, Blackfoot. The Snake River canyon stripped of vegetation by a flash flood that rolled boulders and uprooted trees, all streaming from the eruption of Mount St. Helens far to the west. Around each bend of the twisty river was a small flood plain repopulated after the ambush by nature. Butte, coffee and sandwiches. Then Homestead Pass, 6393 feet, Elk Park Pass, 6372 feet, MacDonald Pass, 6325 feet.

Breakfast next day in Great Falls, northern Montana. The waitress is not quite unfriendly, just cool, perhaps tired of Canadians passing through. I imagine her silent prayers, her longing for the day she no longer has to listen to the stream of pleases and thank yous.

Canadians, arrogant or unctuous. No tip tucked under a plate could be large enough to disprove that. To spare her feelings, I offer no thanks as she drops the change from our bill into my palm.

The temperature is plunging. I drive faster, due north three or four more hours to the border. There I have nothing to declare until my father says that, in fact, I do. Apparently, I possess two bottles of Scotch, as he does. He's only allowed two. Once across the border, he opens a bottle. Brightens as he sips.

Through Lethbridge on the bypass, then the road to Calgary. I don't slow. It's late, and I don't want to spend another night in a motel with him. He's a snorer. I think my driving frightens him. He has downed three quarters of the bottle by the time we see the city's glow.

It occurs to me: does he think I'm remembering the blow to my gut? We have never talked about it, but in the ensuing decades we have not been together this long at a time. Does he worry I might bring it up? Does he imagine he'll have to deal with a son's revenge?

We had been fighting with words that afternoon long ago, then, bam. The blow was wholly unexpected. I had never anticipated violence from him. In refusing to do whatever it was he said I had to do, I thought I was in bounds. But he was a drill instructor. Knew where to land a punch to double-over an unguarded, ectomorphic 15-year-old.

With swirling snow, driving the last few miles takes my full concentration. Home at last, it's difficult to wind down. Sally makes us dinner. It's three in the morning. He's drunk, reeling, as I lead him to his bed. Suddenly he grabs me as if to deactivate me. Do his thoughts include the need to take the offensive in case the son risks a run at vengeance? Is that what sons do in the stories they tell each other in the gated communities?

He's asleep in an instant.

In the morning I offer to drive him to Edmonton, then take the bus back to Calgary, but he says no. He feels fine after the sleep and Sally's good food. And the highway will have been cleared.

Four hours later he will phone to say he's there. "At that breakfast place in Montana," he will say, almost timidly, "I don't know if you heard it, but someone said of us that we are the Mexicans of the North."

"No, I didn't hear that," I will say.

"Yes, and do you know what? It made me feel kind of good."

I know he will say that because it's what he said last year when he and my mother got home from Mesa and telephoned. And what he said the year before that.

"I know you feel that way," I will say. "Mom knew it, too."

"She did, didn't she."


He'll say, "I'm going back next winter. I really like it down there."

And I'll say, "I know you do, Dad."

He will pause. Then, "Thank you," he will say.

And I will say, "You're welcome, Dad."