from Body High
You can hear the ash—shhh—on the wide windshield of the Crown Victoria.
On the news they say the fire is dying.
Since the sperm bank we’ve been living in this car—FF, Jolene, and me.
It’s been three days of being bored out of our brains with nothing to do but hate each other, and watch the fire rage out of control in the national forest, raze half a decade of drought, rush at the edge of suburbia. Three days of watching the tract house in the Santa Clarita Valley where my daughter lives with her milf mom and old-ass dad. Three days of watching dad leave for work in his Bimmer, watching mom leave with her briefcase, dragging my little red-haired daughter by the arm into the Volvo, then watching the nanny pick my little girl up from first grade and take her back to the tract house, and out of the bad air.
Today, people are venturing out of their homes again, going back to routines. Finally the air is clear enough for the kids to come out and play. On the playground, in action, are stir-crazy children. Some wear little paper respirator masks. The air still maintains the quality of Hell, triple digit temperatures and a sulfurous yellow firmament.
I roll down my window and spit. The children’s cries leak in.
“This is so fucked,” I say, for the hundredth time.
“Shut up already,” FF says, and smacks the dashboard.
The glove box falls open. There is the gun. I want to point it at FF and make him take Jolene to the hospital.
He catches me staring.
“Go ahead,” he says, and nods at the gun. “Pick it up.”
Like I don’t know how to use it.
“You’re paranoid,” I say.
In the lenses of his cop sunglasses, I can see myself reflected. How skinny I look. The sores I can’t stop picking.
He says, “I know you want to.”
He’s right. I want to. I’m going to. I’m about to do it. Make him see I’m not afraid. But obviously, I am afraid. I’m so fucking afraid. For me and for him. And Jolene. But maybe, especially, for the little girl we’re about to grab.
I want to believe FF is scared too, that he isn’t such a meth monster. But he’s different now and so is our relationship. He only cares about Jolene, and as her life slips out of his control, he puts the squeeze on me. All Jolene seems to care about, atop her pillows, is getting our attention. How it makes her special, chosen, how it gives her power.
“Don’t be a jock, Jamie,” she says.
It’s weird to hear her use his Christian name. I haven’t called FF that since the seventh grade when he saved me from skinheads at the skate park, swinging his skateboard like Captain America’s shield. A real fucking freedom fighter.
“Leland’s just scared,” Jolene says. “He’s always scared.”
FF has been feeding her oxys for pain and it makes her mean. With effort she rises off her pillows. Runs a swollen hand through FF’s hair, smoothing the pomade. The pills get Jolene feeling better and then she gets bored and wants to play. She casts a side-eye at me. Eyelids flutter, as she hits him with a kiss. Lips and tongue, slopping.
“I am kind of scared,” I say.
Why am I bothering to lie? I’ve never been more scared in my life.
“Either you are, or you aren’t.” FF’s voice is cold as the a/c blowing. And bored. He turns his attention to the playground.
“I’m kind of scared,” I say. “Like how your sneezing powder kind of gets me high.” This isn’t true. I’ve been high for days. I am uncomfortably high. “And how it’s only kind of crank because you’ve got to take into consideration all the baby laxative and laundry detergent, all the hands it passes through, all the lower intestines and sphincters.”
FF stares out the windshield and smiles. The depression of his dimple makes an appearance on his cheek. He lifts his shades.
“That’s her,” he says. “That’s our girl.”
And there she is: my daughter. She swings from her nanny’s hand. Lightly hops. Yattering. Red hair pom-pom. She is even more pale and freckled than me. I have cursed my daughter to a lifetime of sunburns.
This close to her, all the reasons I have for being here burn away. Jolene, my mom, myself, every excuse is meaningless. I realize now that I was never meant to come in contact with this child.
The girl and her nanny, a short and sturdy woman in brown leather huarache sandals, settle in at a picnic table of other nannies. These other women slump at the table, surrounded by strollers and toys, looking exhausted and eyeing their phones. Every now and then, one of them looks up and scans the playground. My daughter’s nanny smears sunscreen over the little girl’s freckles.
“Thank you,” I want to say.
Released by the nanny, my daughter runs to the playground. Without fear. Without undue self-consciousness. Without having rubbed in the sunscreen.
I feel a substantial, maybe idiotic, sense of accomplishment. I’ve done almost nothing to help my daughter grow, but there she is, my little girl, my great triumph. I am her father.
I glance at FF, my best friend, to share the moment.
The cracks in his smile are full of plaque. He doesn’t see the little girl as anything but a kidney. I’d like to smash him in the mouth. Jolene’s reaction isn’t any better. She’s not even watching the girl. Instead she stares at me, trying to gauge my reaction. It’s pathetic.
Into my lap, FF drops a pair of latex gloves and a Mexican wrestling mask. He holds up Jolene’s makeup mirror. I do a line. He turns the key in the ignition and the engine throbs to life.
“If you get rolled,” FF says. “You don’t know us.”
“I don’t know you,” I say, believing it to be mostly true.
Outside the car, the dry heat folds over me like someone else’s skin.
Through the window, Jolene blows me a damsel’s kiss.
“Remember, don’t get caught,” FF says. “In prison they’ll wear your ass like a condom.” He starts to reverse the car out of the parking space. “And those bunks aren’t comfortable like futons.”
Even after he’s down the street, only the dinged bumper visible, I can’t stop shaking.
Alone, it’s easier to breathe. But no joy. The air so choked with ash.
I roll a lopsided cigarette, light it, and turn my attention to the playground. The red-haired girl is playing with a half-dozen kids atop a jungle gym built to resemble a pirate ship. She seems popular with the other kids, playing sea captain at the ship’s wheel, and barking demands at her crew. I find a bench far off from the playground and sit, conscious of how I must appear, lonely, lurking.
The burnt San Gabriel Mountains loom over the playground and the children. The mountain’s soft slopes and summits like contours of a giant, shrouded body. I try to view the children and the fire with detachment, but it’s impossible to escape the enormous image of the corpse.
I take another drag, but everything feels too terrible. I imagine my lungs burning like my mother’s bedroom. Disgusted, I flick the cigarette into the dry grass and head to the water fountain. The spout is clogged, so I stoop down to the child’s fountain and drink. Hunched over, I let the cool water drench my face.
How is it that I have ended up here?
Head under the water, I think back to my baptism: Sunday afternoon in an office park church, my mom in a floral dress, the eternal life that was promised. And what kind of life am I promising my daughter? As her father, about to traumatize her, aren’t I cursing her to a life like my mom’s?
I can’t do it.
I hear Gickle’s voice like a drum beat. Quitter, quitter.
But it doesn’t have to be like that. Not if I pick up the phone and call the police. Tell them about the gun with no numbers in FF’s glove box. I would lose my friend. Maybe worse when he gets out. But I’d save Jolene. And isn’t that what she wants? To be saved? Suddenly it dawns on me that I don’t know what she wants—I’ve never bothered to ask.
Water goes up my nose.
“8–9–infinity,” a little brat says, behind me. “Water hog.”
I’m about to tell this jizz squirt what’s up, but when I turn around, it’s her.
“There’s a drought,” she says.
She squeezes past me and dives on the faucet. Lips touch water in a kiss.
I can’t help but be in awe of her, what I’ve made—a living, drinking person, embodying such astounding beauty. With the gentleness of a humming bird descending on a sugar feeder, my daughter indulges at the fountain.
Yes, drink, drink deeply, I think.
But her mouth is coming too close to the spout. Perilously close. Then finally, her mouth engulfs the entire spigot. The whole apparatus. Who is raising this kid to fellate water fountains?A burp rumbles out to announce she’s done. It’s impressive. She skips away in unrhythmic hops.
I watch her go for a few yards, then stretch on the latex gloves with a hard snap. I try not to think about prison, but the rubber gloves have the unhappy odor of a condom, and I can’t not think about what FF said. I can’t not think about my ass being worn like a condom.
The hot pink wrestling mask slips over my head, easy as anything. Too easy. It’s at least two sizes too big and smells like microwaved fish. I adjust the eyeholes and trot off after my daughter. The poisonous air burns my lungs. But I run. My knees, sore from the long hours in the car.
She skips ineptly, lacking coordination, and I wonder if this too is my fault. The mask slips a little into my field of vision, but I can still see her clumsy hops. She’s oblivious. I’m getting closer. The mask continues to creep into my eyes. Closer. Across the playground, a woman’s scream shreds the afternoon. So close.
I’m blind. Everything is hot pink.
In the collision, my daughter and I entwine. For an instant that I will remember until the day I die: we embrace. Our first touch. Our relationship deepens. Because even though the touch is a violent twisting of our bodies, it is born out of love. For her. For Jolene. For my mom. And I want to believe this moment is the first on the way to healing, the start of our convalescence.
I also know this can’t be true.
“MOLESTADOR!” the nannies cry.
They rush across the playground like the forest fire swept down from the mountains. Through the mask’s eyeholes I see their huaraches kicking up sand. I scoop my daughter and run into the street, five short-legged nannies in pursuit. Sandals slappping blacktop. I carry my daughter through the intersection, sprint across the lush lawns of anonymous tract homes. With so much sameness camouflaging the homes I feel all the more visible, pursued, carrying a lifeless child.
Up the block, I see FF’s car drool exhaust fumes out of the tailpipe, a burrito wrapper taped over the license plate. That cop car with its spray-paint paint job is the shittiest, most beautiful car in the neighborhood. I feed my daughter through the open window into Jolene’s waiting arms.
I want my daughter to know how much pain this is causing me. Want her to know I feel her anger, fear, and pain. And that I understand. I understand the pain of every living thing. I’m alive with pain.
I fall to my knees and scream. A Taser barb in my back.
“VIOLADORS!” the nannies cry.
On my knees, paralyzed by electric jolts, I’m cold-cocked with a toy dump truck. It drops me to the street. Under the car, through the wattage, I see FF’s boots. He’s surrounded by huaraches. Before my eyes slam shut, a nanny collapses to the asphalt. Then another.
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