When James was in high school, his father had been called up to Iraq from the California National Guard and then returned with a head trauma no one could see but everyone could feel. The painkiller-fueled descent that followed ripped the earth open under James like a gaping mouth and introduced him to an empty space that he thought must be adulthood.
His father had left as a mighty pine, erect on the hillcrest, stretching towards the sky. He had come back a desert palm, dying of thirst, toppling headfirst into the dust.
Saving his father had taken many forms, like the unpredictable shapes and contours of love: James had played the role of taxi driver for a man too drunk to find his own way home; ambulance driver for a man too opiated to urge on the beating of his heart; counselor for a man wrapped in infinite loops of self-doubt who, to extricate himself from the deadening repetition of remorse, would gladly fall into the bliss of eternal forgetting.
But James could not save his father forever. The evening finally came when the malevolent ghosts that dragged his father down overpowered the gentle spirits that tried to lift him up. A last burst of strength kept down the Zoloft and Praxil and Tofranil and those small yellow pills whose origin not even James knew.
In the weeks that followed, many well-meaning individuals, mostly half-strangers, assured James that his father’s death was not his fault. Late at night, James told himself that they were right.
Now, a little over a decade later, James had pretended away his father’s death into nothingness. All that remained was the understanding that he could not save others.
He passed the required exams and was dispatched to do visa work at a small consulate in Mexico. It was just a stone’s throw south of the U.S. border, too close for him to feel that he had escaped.
Soon after arriving, James had been assigned as the consulate’s duty officer. He carried a cell phone where after-hours callers were directed. Any American claiming to have an emergency and coherent enough to convince the operator was patched through. It was James’ responsibility to help.
The phone had buzzed against his thigh like an angry hornet all Sunday morning, interrupting his vain attempt to read a newspaper article about a local geology professor. The professor had found a set of ancient shark teeth in the nearby Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains. They were millions of years old, preserved in a hunk of Paleozoic shale, still sharp enough to rip flesh from bone. James looked out his window at the saguaro-pocked Sonora desert whose sand broiled in the July sun. He wondered, between the buzzing of the calls, what his neighborhood might have looked like millions of years ago, buried under a great and vicious sea, an ocean filled with sharks and unwitting prey.
The people who called the duty phone lied. Like cautious defendants on the witness stand, they gave the truth, but not the whole truth.
The first call that morning had come at five o’clock, waking James with its unwelcome juddering against the faux-wood laminate of his nightstand. It was an American claiming to be locked in a cellar against his will. The desperate cry for help. The tremor of the voice. You have to get me out of here! I’m an American! I have rights! Then, the inability to answer basic questions, the unraveling of the plot. The caller’s confession that he was in a rehab facility, and yes, he had signed an agreement to be held there against his will. And yes, he wanted to leave now but couldn’t. That was the deal.
So it went with call after call. Each hapless American initially leaving out the specifics that made their story true, everyone needing something more than what James could give them over the phone.
James answered each call and heard each plea. He began to hope for a real emergency, if only to break the monotony.
The phone buzzed. Angry hornet. He waited, reached out, picked up.
“We need your help with an American at the bus station,” said the voice on the other end of the line. Some vowels a little too wide, some a little too narrow.
The sea life of that long-ago era must have been simpler, James thought. The laws of nature. Predator and prey. No asking for help. No asking to be saved.
“He’s not . . . good,” continued the voice. The pronunciation of “good” was off. It rhymed with “nude” or “brood,” as if expressing a different concept completely.
“Your name?” said James, beginning to take notes. Asking for a name had scared off the previous caller.
“Ingeniero Braulio, bus station shift manager,” the voice replied. Engineer Braulio. Everyone had a title. “The man, he’s been here for three days. The other customers complain about the smell.”
“Have you asked if he has plans to leave?” said James.
“I asked,” said Engineer Braulio. “He won’t go. He says his daughter will pick him up. But she doesn’t come. Then he asks for you.”
“He asks for his country’s representative.”
James represented his country. It was true. “Has the man been drinking?” he asked, his now-standard line.
“I didn’t see him drinking anything. None of us saw him drink,” said Engineer Braulio, as if an expectant audience observed the scene.
“Have you tried to get him on a bus going back to the U.S.?”
“Every time we try, he says that his daughter will come to get him.”
“Have you received any calls from the daughter? Any contact from the family?”
James, now realizing that he’d spent more time on this call than on any of the others, found himself hoping again that there was a real emergency, if only to justify his effort.
Then he heard another voice from the other end of the line, weepy and distant. “Sofia?” the voice said, hopeful swoon of the vocal chords.
James had a sensation of déjà vu–something in that distant voice brought it to him. “If he’s causing trouble, then you might want to call the police,” James said.
“It’s not something for the police, not really,” said Engineer Braulio.
Then, the sound of the man in the background again. A half-lost murmur like flowing water.
“Is he safe?” said James. “I mean, is he hurt?”
“Nothing has happened to him yet.”
Before he could stop himself, James was saying, “I’ll be right there.” The exact words he had said to his father dozens of times before. Their bitter taste.
It was baking hot at the bus station. Cracked beige walls framed a dusty tile floor. The black hands of a heavy iron clock seemed to melt in place, threatening to stop the passage of time.
James, lean and gaunt in his blue guayabera and linen pants, went over and introduced himself to Engineer Braulio. As they spoke, James watched the man–the distant voice from the phone–out of the corner of his eye.
The man stank. It was true. Engineer Braulio had not lied. That was a good start, the not lying.
“He wasn’t any trouble at first,” said Engineer Braulio, standing stock straight in the presence of James. “He was clean, sober. He bought a cheese empanada and ate it on the bench, that same bench.”
“Most people, especially gringos–no offense–ask about their bus before they get something to eat. He didn’t. I thought that was strange, that he didn’t ask, but I didn’t say anything. He ate his empanada peacefully. He really enjoyed it, you know? I didn’t want to interrupt. That’s the last thing I saw him eat.”
“You don’t think he’d pay you back if you gave him another?” said James.
“No. I’ve seen gringos like him at my bus station before. Once he’s gone, I won’t ever see him again.”
It was fair. You couldn’t trust a lost American. The man, as if hearing his name called, gave the two of them a curious, asymmetrical smile from his home on the bench.
“Do you know where he’s from?” asked James.
“Most Americans who end up here are from Arizona,” said Engineer Braulio, adding, “There’s a bus leaving to Phoenix in about three hours.”
James thanked Engineer Braulio and walked over to the man. The man sat slumped like a sweaty walrus over the bench in the center of the waiting area, dampening the wood slats under him that were varnished black and soft. His eyes had the glazed-over look of someone witnessing a faraway scene.
“Mr. Robert Tagert?” James said, repeating the name from a driver’s license the shift manager had handed him. It was on odd, rhyming name. It had an industrial feel that the man appeared not to have lived up to. “My name is James.”
The man looked up at him. “Just Robert,” he said. “When people call me Mr., it makes me feel old. And before you say anything, let me stop you. My daughter is going to be here any minute.”
James nodded. He listened. This was the same daughter who had been promising to come for the last three days.
“She’s a PhD candidate in geophysics at Arizona State,” said Robert. “She’s working on her thesis. But she told me she was going to take a break and come down to get me. A drive through the Sonora desert would do her good. Clear her head.”
James nodded again, not questioning the scenario.
“Should we call her?” said James. “I just want to make sure she doesn’t get lost. Some people have trouble finding this particular bus station.”
“Don’t bother,” said Robert. “You know Arizona. She’s probably in a dead zone somewhere. No reception. Besides, she doesn’t answer her cell when she’s driving.”
“That’s smart,” said James.
“Hence the PhD candidature in geophysics,” scoffed Robert. “She studies how the Earth was formed. This desert, the mountains. Something you would never understand.”
Engineer Braulio, sensing tension in his domain, looked grimly at the two of them from the safety of his ticket booth.
Robert, for no apparent reason, pulled a wristwatch out of his pocket and frowned at it. He lowered his voice conspiratorially, saying, “See, it’s Wednesday.”
James said nothing. He didn’t bother to ask why Robert kept a wristwatch in his pocket rather than wear it on his wrist. He didn’t mention that it was Sunday.
“Her mother picks her up on Wednesdays,” Robert continued.
“Picks up who?” said James.
“My daughter, Sofia. Pay attention, will you? I can’t keep going in circles like this.”
“No,” said James. “We can’t go in circles forever.”
“Everyone back in Phoenix is going nuts wondering where I am,” said Robert. “My daughter Sofia. My wife Sheila. I know they’re worried sick.”
James nodded along. He knew. He knew there was no one worried sick back in Arizona. No one anxiously waiting for the phone to ring. Not now.
Senior year in high school, James received so many urgent calls from his father that he assigned him a special ringtone, the brass theme song of the empire from Star Wars. It was kind of a joke, but only barely. Indeed, the music sounded the way James felt when he got the calls, the impending sense of doom.
In the beginning, it was his father’s voice on the other end of the line, or at least a hollow, seeking version of that voice. Later on, it would be someone else calling on his father’s behalf: a friend, then a “business associate,” then an unknown voice, no label, no niceties.
There was the brief phase, right after his father returned from Iraq, when James had yearned for those calls: the chance to save his father! James to the rescue! Then, later, there was the realization that shepherding his father home from his latest mistake was not the same as saving him.
There was also this: his mother’s desperate look when the two of them washed up late at night in the living room, shipwrecked sailors on a familiar shore.
The bus station got hotter as the day wore on. The beige walls cracking slowly like the topsoil of a parched desert.
“If I get on a bus, it’s so I can head farther south,” Robert said. He had left the topic of his family for a dozen others, and now expounded on the vast adventure that lay before him. He drank a cup of instant coffee that James had begrudged him. Directly south of them was the State of Sinaloa, home of the eponymous Sinaloa Cartel.
“South,” said James. “An interesting thought.”
“I hear there are a lot of nice beaches down there,” said Robert, winking at James. “You know, Pacific beaches?”
“Surely,” said James. The conversation had wended interminably, like the rivulets of sweat defining the curves of James’ chest and stomach under his guayabera. He was not trying to understand the insinuation of the winks. “But they won’t give you a bus ticket for free, you know. The shift manager over there, he doesn’t want to help you.” James pointed accusingly at Engineer Braulio, who gave them an impatient look.
“My wife, Sheila, she blocked my accounts,” said Robert, winking again for no discernable reason. “But don’t worry. I’m working on it. Soon I’ll be able to buy all the bus tickets I want. I could take a bath in all the bus tickets I could buy.”
James wanted to say something. He wanted to tell Robert that a bath was a good idea. He wanted to say that no matter how far south Robert went, no matter how many bus stations he wound up at, the day would come when he would have to turn around. James wanted to say that, but he didn’t. Conversations with his father had taught him to listen patiently through the denial, the diversion.
His father had also taught him about the descent. The way it claws you down.
As James listened, he considered the great sea that had once covered the Sonora desert, the fossil hunters who now discovered trilobites and the ghostly shells of crustaceans. What was known of these poor, forgotten creatures? Had they suffered at the moment of their demise, felt regret? What if James were discovered millions of years from today, frozen in conversation with this man, still trying to convince him to leave? What would the fossil hunter of the future think about his amalgam of spine and bones? His hands in their pleading gesture? How would they interpret this conversation, this perpetual impossibility to communicate? Would it matter if it were all washed back out to sea? Would it matter if there were no vestige of it? No memory?
He remembered the shadow of his father that had come back from Iraq.
He remembered the cold winter afternoon two days before Mom left, when his father had driven him to Lake Tahoe.
He remembered there had been a heavy snow, and the world had been white that day. Hidden.
He remembered the rural highway that cut through the chill, deeper and deeper into the woods.
He remembered how his father had promised a father-and-son lunch by the lake–the trembling, manic, naïve joy!–but kept passing restaurants and not stopping, not saying, Just around the corner. I promise I haven’t forgotten.
He remembered they had turned down a side road. It was a road they’d never been on before. Or maybe it wasn’t a road at all, everything so covered in snow.
He remembered sitting in the car and feeling the snow push up from under the skid plate. His surprise that they didn’t get stuck, just as each day that his father survived was a surprise, a wonder.
He remembered they’d parked by the lake and his father had gotten out of the car. He’d walked out onto that sheath of ice covered in fine white powder. The freezing cold water beneath it all.
He remembered that his father said, “Walk with me,” smiling giddily, and James–knowing that he shouldn’t, not wanting to, regretting it as he did–had gotten out of the car and walked out onto the ice.
He remembered the faint crackle under his feet. His father walking farther out onto the lake, not looking back, saying, “follow me.” The ice, surely thinner there, each footstep a fragile prayer.
He remembered walking slowly, cautiously, trying to catch up, but then losing him. Seeing his father become smaller and smaller, and then disappearing into the distance.
He remembered fearing that the ice would crack under his father’s feet, and then hoping it would.
He remembered heading back and waiting by the car. The sun falling. The darkness descending. The chill.
He remembered drifting footsteps approaching in the softness, hours later. His father walking past him, getting back in the car, not saying a word.
He remembered the crispness of air that comes after the snow.
James remembered all this as he looked down at Robert. He wondered if Robert had a daughter, or had ever had a wife. If he’d ever earned love.
James began to cry.
It had been years. The tears came out in a weepy, awful way, as if James were learning to cry for the first time: the plaintive gasp, the exaggerated downturn of the lips, the unburdened openness of that ocean of feeling that unexpectedly bursts from deep inside, because it was never meant to be contained.
As he cried, James spoke. “When my dad went to Iraq, he didn’t have to,” he said, not caring if he looked like a fool, if Robert couldn’t understand his mournful dirge. “He was in the National Guard, but there were ways to get out. There’s a whole list of exceptions. We’re not talking about World War Two. The wars we start, no one really needs to go to them. Besides, my father was doing better for the world at home. He was a high school guidance counselor, if you can believe it. The good kind. People looked up to him.”
James gasped, swallowed, wiped his teary cheek with his sweaty forearm. “Being a good man wasn’t enough, though. I don’t know why, but it wasn’t. He felt that he had to go. Maybe he was trying to teach me something. Maybe he felt it was his duty.”
James felt a relief that he thought had been lost to him. “Duty is such an unimpeachable virtue. Who can say that it’s wrong? But what about his duty to his family? What about his duty to me?
“He was different when he came back. He had lost himself. Not just that, he had become lost to us. He didn’t appreciate the little joys any more. Aren’t the best things in life the little joys? Wouldn’t they be terrible to lose?”
James had finished crying. “I guess what I’m trying to say, Robert, is that you can’t run away forever, no matter how hard you try. Whatever it is that’s clawing at you, it’s on the inside. You have to turn towards it.”
James, clear-eyed, having finished his monologue, looked down at Robert Tagert to see his reaction. But there was no gaze there to meet his. Robert had fallen asleep.
James bought Robert’s ticket to Phoenix. Forty-six dollars. He didn’t keep the receipt. He didn’t want to be reimbursed. He wanted to lose the money and never get it back.
Robert got on the bus. More precisely, he was carried onto it, just barely held up by the shoulders of James and Engineer Braulio.
As the bus pulled slowly out of the station, James waved to Robert’s sleeping face. Robert seemed to give back a smile, though it was probably just a trick of his lips as the glass of the window pulled them up.
James had shepherded this man onto the next stop in his journey. Whatever happened afterwards was out of James’ hands.
It wasn’t his fault.
It wasn’t his responsibility.
J.D. Michaels is the pen name of an Oregon native and stay-at-home dad with a creative writing degree from Stanford University. When he isn’t taking care of his daughter, he steals away to read, write and sleep.
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