Father comes back looking got. What got him? He doesn’t say it. Who got him? The Anasazi, I feel sure. They used to live up canyon, them Anasazi—a tribe dead, long dead. But what got father is what they left: live traps for men.
Climbing bait to fuck-you the yocals.
Here’s how their handhold tricks work: Start climbing with the wrong hand and you are fucked. Start with the right, what is left after wrong, and you still get stuck up there, easy. With only canyon lizards to hope toward until your muscles fail.
A long way from hospital.
But Pop makes it back. We make him camp. Mud is stuck on him where his shirt is not on him no more, and more is on his neck wet and drying. We make a stick-fire for him. Start it in the log-cabin way that he taught. Mother brings his coat. Rubs him with that warm-bear on papa-bear pawing. Mother—like she is good at. Father sits right there where he is standing without saying what he is feeling. So we guess at it.
Night falls over our tent, and I pretend the cliff is pebbling down on me. I try to suffer it. I think about father, so nearer to the roof of things? Up there maybe looking down? Or would he look up? One is the braver, I feel certain. Which? I know not.
Heart-pumping father, did you feel better so high? Or was your throat bleating—I wonder—with no ground underneath? Did you know you could muscle it, father? Bear it cliffside, with your hairs and stifferies kissing that rock?
I want to ask. I want to cub-nuzzle, papa-climb onto him. Hold chest and feel locked. But mother sleeps between us.
Morning we break camp. Father drives without stop. Me and mama, we are sedan-navigation-ready. We peer at roads over cards kissing lips. We flip tracks and store wipies for later. How father got back, we shall not breach it. No, pulling tricks we only whisper Yahtzee! into the vents.
Okay, we take picnic with our parking break on a runaway truck ramp. Father gets to telling us everything without detail.
“Mackerel,” he says.
The gravel on this off-ramp you could stick an arm down into if you wanted. Up to crook. I want to. But we are nitpicking like a family, eating front seat sandwiches from mother’s lap. They tack our mouths. We are gummy with each other, we are smelling each other, becoming less hospitable. My moving is careful. My weight, careful-falling. I have newnesses under my shirt, shhhhhhhhhhhhhhh quiet now. It is handhold bait I am growing fast for local boys. A sort of buck-off me balancing act. In rehearsal.
Mama is toothpicking, and father is telling me what-is-what-is. I feel in the details.
Buckaroo he says, “It’s like climbing,” he says, “It’s like fish-hooking or lacrosse,” he says, “It’s like tuck and roll before the tuck,” he says, “It’s about thighs.”
“There-there,” says mother. “Coo-papa.”
Father is in no shape for canyon sport, but he’s a contender, I’ll say that. He is in hibernator shape. Fatter ever than those Anasazi ever were—or could be, I imagine, with their small-gap doors. Father has a strong heart, too, one kept bull-hearty with elk jerky—we made some for the driving. Me and pop cutting strips in the garage (I played tough-arms then, strong-boy with the knife).
Sedan Camping is what he calls it, this driving we do and do. “And I’ve got a girl and a girl in tow,” he says, “A mother-daughter team,” he says, “You two have seen me shoulder it,” he says and says, “Remember?”
I remember. Bike-shop stairs. Trap door. Father’s legs up and up over the top of him. I remember what it felt like to watch.
Mother remembers too, “Hate to think about it,” she says, “Gives me chills just to think about it,” she says, “Ooph,” she says, and says, “Hate to think.”
“Head first!” says pop.
He really did shoulder it.
This winter, so especially this one, a contender. We are in Anasazi country competing with big drop nights. We have a low pass and a high pass to drive over to get out of here, and we are headed up. Through desert up desert, passing chokebrush to needled spots. Ankles first it is me who is first pricked by this weather. My skin is thinner, bone-nearerat the joints. They call me slow blood. A late child. I am a kick-her in the night.
Yes, father pilots us right southbound, which is up, and it is no matter what he got into wrong or worse back canyon. That was north and below us and past. It is frigid here, but we have him back. And we will get warmth where we are headed, I am so so sure of it. Ahead of us there is only everything. Mountains! Pop can get to telling us what-is what-is that needs the telling, just as soon as he feels on top of it. Yes, we will buck-up, drive-on like we are used to. Dragging sand in our snow tires. Caring for each other perhaps on fumes but caring none-the-less.
Okay, we’ll be sticking to each other full through it, like a stinking family.
How to explain the ground colder? Father gets back with marks up his back, and what are we to guess about it? “Like he was mating with the earth,” mama says. That is her word, mating. Sometimes she says ‘rolling in the sac’.
“Ooph,” I say, “Mother, what a stupid thought.”
“Like a mudwoman, climbed onto him,” she says, “Pawed for her life,” she says. She says, “For Christ’s sake, he had a hard on.”
“Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhh,” I say feeling hotter and hot, “Coo-mother.”
“Well something,” she says, “Something dirty all over him. I could smell it.”
What she smelled or saw, I cannot yet grab it—but yes something different all over. Makes me hot in my chest, all over my neck hot just to think about it. But soon-papa, I will get it. You best worry, I’m on your tail.
“Kamikaze,” says father, driving. “If you want to know.” His word, Kamikaze.
Me and mama are picnic-topped-off and strapped into our seats counting onsies-twosies Sly Jack! on the dash.
“What do you mean?” says mother, “Kamikaze?”
“Oh you know,” says pop, “Someone looking to be killed,” he says, “Death pilot,” he says, “Japanese.”
“I’ll bet,” says mother playing without me with the visor at angles toward her face.
“Looking pretty, babe,” says pop.
She really is.
The gradient rising, can you feel it? Colder now this earth, and we are driving up something big. Out the window down the sides of our sedan I see over clouds we are overtaking. I push my cheek against the chill and whisper, “my father is a secret hero.” Kid thing to say, I know it, but sometimes a window is all you can hope toward, and all you can wish for is what everyone-anyone wants. Especially a kid still like me, or one still trying to be, but growing up fast. I am a kick you from the thigh girl. A girl with a father. Yes, I’ve got a chest pushing out on me and it feels like gravel. Touch it? No softy yet, not me. Not yet for the pawing in crannies, but wouldn’t you?—to the window like thatfor your father? We all suffer it.
Let’s say I have and have this feeling-in of detail. Father was at the base of the stairs. Mother went for help and I was saying, “Whoa there,” I was saying, “Hold mama,” I was saying and saying “Stop.” I thought not true, there in the bike shop, but I was feeling what if? What if his neck? His muscles were lax and I felt a giddy-up before the up—a sort of thrill at the sight of him. Father at the bottom of things.
“No mama, not so fast with the help,” I was certain. This is our game, it is and is. I’ve got this one, mother. It is my move now.
But father got up.
The whole chest of him—up and shaking it off, his face looking at me and looking so alive. I was playing strong-girl with my laugh.
“Roll the dice,” I say. I say, “Shake ’em,” I say, “Throw ’em down.” I say and say, “Pickled chips, Mama,” to jinx. We are coming to it now, riding strapped in—the first and low pass, father shifting into low gears, our sedan pushing hard to get up. The road is narrowing and we are playing a new game. We call it tap driving, and here’s how it works: I tap.
Mama is in the front seat rolling dice on father’s coat on her lap. I sit behind, her hand reaching back into mine. Us girls, touching secret-talk. I tap her, counting everything-anything of a kind out the window as we pass, to the dice’s count. She does the guessing.
“Mesquite trees,” she says after fast-tapping, “Road bends. Brittleshrub.” Then it is turkey vultures, mile markers, a family of mule deer, I smell rut. She is right even when she is wrong because everything she says is there to be seen. Father’s foot is pushing it, the car is bucking us, and yes, I am letting mama win.
Jack rabbits and soap trees—fewer for the tapping, but my eyes are getting keener and keen in this thinning air. My palm is hot and stinging. I am tapping boulders, tapping dark spots on trees, tapping the stiff breaths I hear from father. I am sly-girl, a budding cub. I am one to pick her fights. I tap out moles on mother’s neck, her dirty spots. She says, “Indian paintbrush,” she says, “Rockslide,” I say “Yes,” and “Yes,” and I say and say, “Roll.” I am tapping heart slaps in my throat, I am tapping clouds, the dribbles of clouds, the blue spots between clouds, the gray underbellies of clouds, I am tapping the wishes in my head, wishes filling my mouth, the kissing I have felt on my cheeks, the squeezes I make in my crotch that mean I want.
I look at father and father is not looking at the road. His eyes are closed and mama is rubbing her hands, blowing her hands, rolling and rolling the dice. Snake Eyes! we count, and I pretend there are lizards under the mat. Yes, father’s eyes are shut, his chest is at the wheel, and I am tail-squirming in my seat. We are over it, the first pass made of rock. Over the clouds too, over the road under our snow tires. We are dropping fast and we fast-climb again, engine getting hotter and hot up something bigger this time. We are making notches in our seats—the shapes of our bodies sticking small and medium and fat. We three human bears are unnavigating. Pilot-blind. Soon, maybe dead.
“Holy Holy,” says mother, “Christ!” she says, “What’s got into you?,” she says and says, “Jesus, stop!”
“Those dead fucks,” says pop, “Them Anasazi fuckers,” he says and says, “Those fucks, I will not stop.” There is a smell in the car, like mud and sweated shirts, like the smell of our mouths when we wake in the tent. Father’s eyes are squeezed like a Kamakazi. His muscles look blood-full, and I pretend his breathing is the screams of dead and hoovened things.
So near to it now, to the top of the pass, I look down and see ruins of people smaller than us. I look up and feel braver. I look forward and I see father, and he’s got a girl and a girl for each arm. The makings of a camp.
Yes, one of us girls is soft one, a middle-sleeper, a woman patted down and padded in thigh. She will help him, she has. The other is hard yet, a stick-arm, a play toy full of grit. She is the cold-one, a girl learning fast about curves and sport and the tricks of the road. Maybe the Anasazi did not get father, but something has got him scared for sure. And he’s got us, has got us always, but not for long, not me.
Catherine Foulkrod is a writer of fiction and essays based in Naples, Italy. Her words can be read in The Believer, New York Tyrant, Unsaid, Bookforum, El Malpensante, exhibition catalogs for Thomas Dane Gallery and CFA Berlin, and elsewhere. She is currently working on a psychosomatic novel called DON’T CURE ME, and a collection of small miracles. She has received fellowships, residencies, and scholarships from BRACT Tricase; Summer Literary Seminars in Tbilisi, Georgia; the Vermont Studio Center; the New School; and Brown University. She also serves on the Board of Directors of the Giancarlo DiTrapano Foundation for Literature and the Arts.