Our father kidnapped us on a January afternoon, the day before Faye’s eighth birthday. I was twelve and should’ve known better. A few days earlier, at the grocery store, Mom had bought yellow cake mix, chocolate frosting, candles, and icing. She’d asked me to please bake the cake when I got home from school, as I’d done a few months earlier for my own birthday. Birthdays weren’t a big deal in our new three-person family—money was tight, and Mom worked a lot of nights tending bar at Roughboys back then—but there was always a little something: if not quite a celebration, then at least an acknowledgment. A cake. A simple gift or two after a macaroni-and-cheese dinner, or hot dogs, or take-out. But for some reason I hadn’t connected those dots—that it didn’t make sense for him to take us on this unannounced trip while those cake ingredients sat untouched on Mom’s kitchen counter.
He was sitting in his ’67 El Camino outside our school in Emeryville, smoking a Kool, one booted foot up on the glossy dashboard heavily greased with Armor-All, “Southern Nights” by Glen Campbell crackling from the working speaker. It still seems like yesterday. A second cigarette was tucked behind his ear, the one with the ragged earlobe. A couple years earlier, at a backyard barbeque, he’d been toying with his new fishing rod, showing one of his friends how to cast properly. My mother had told him not to do that with so many people around, and, the way I remember it, about two seconds later he’d hooked his own ear, tearing the lobe clean away.
The junior high was across the street from the elementary school Faye attended. My job after school was to meet her so we could walk home together. I hadn’t minded this the year before, but by junior high I’d started to feel self-conscious: my friends were getting rides from their older siblings in high school, while I moped down the sidewalk alongside my little sister, with her pink boots and pink hair ribbons and pink Shaun Cassidy lunchbox.
But I never complained. My mother worked hard. A recent divorce, an ugly, court-involved custody battle, long and late hours at the bar, then putting a proper meal in front of us, making sure we’d done our homework and brushed our teeth: I knew how difficult this was on her. I’d seen the way she’d sit on the bed and listen to Faye read a story: nursing a drink and staring at the wall, absently rubbing Faye’s back, blinking and smiling when Faye broke from reading to explain something or editorialize, nodding as though she’d been paying attention the entire time. I saw the haggard strain taking its toll on her in those difficult months. No, I never complained.
“Hey there, partner.” My father flicked his cigarette butt out the window, and it disintegrated in a spray of orange sparks on the sidewalk. Large sunglasses sat low on his nose. I’d been crossing the street to the elementary school but stopped. The sun reflected off the windshield with a white-hot glare. I squinted, stepping toward the car.
“What are you doing here?” It wasn’t angry or accusatory. I was confused. I hadn’t seen him since Thanksgiving.
He turned the radio down and lowered his head, so he could see me. “What am I doing? I’m picking up my main man, that’s what. Go grab your sister.”
I didn’t move. I looked up and down the length of the car. “Are we going with you?”
“Yeah, you bet. You bet your ass.” His fingers drummed against the bottom of the steering wheel. He wasn’t wearing his wedding ring anymore, which made sense but still seemed weird. “Let’s go, time’s a-wasting. Go get Jelly Bean.”
My parents had separated almost a year earlier, the divorce finalized sometime late in the summer. For a while we’d spent every other weekend with him, sharing the second bedroom in a small apartment he was renting in Lafayette in Northern California. It had been cramped and smelled like decay, and I’d missed having my own room, but I’d reminded myself it was just a few nights a month. Still, it hadn’t lasted long. We’d stopped sleeping there altogether sometime in August and, for the next couple months, visited him only when some woman from social services accompanied us, and no longer overnight. From then on, we saw him less and less. When he took us out for pancakes on Thanksgiving morning, it was the first time I’d seen him in a month and the last time until that January afternoon in front of the school. He’d spent Christmas in Tijuana. At least that’s what I’d heard.
The El Camino had the familiar smell of cigarettes and sweet vinyl protectant. It reminded me of summer weekends, but it wasn’t the summer and wasn’t a weekend. Faye, from the backseat, hummed along to the radio, pushing the soles of her sneakers into the back of my seat. I tried to ignore it. She was annoying in the way all little sisters are annoying, but I was glad she was there, humming and carefree in a way I never was. My father lit another cigarette and cracked the window, not talking to us, deep in thought and distracted. He seemed to pay only half-attention to us in any given moment, always thinking ahead or reflecting or scheming or whatever it was he did in that head of his.
I glanced at him sidelong, at his profile while he drove. Sucking hard on his cigarette as though he were angry at it. Overgrown sideburns like weeds spreading down the sides of his face to his jaw line. His curly hair had turned thin and wispy in the last year, a casualty of the divorce, unkempt and dancing off his scalp with a static electricity of its own. He wore, of course, his dungaree jacket, the only jacket I’d ever seen him wear, faded and frayed like his hair, with peeling iron-on patches lining the upper sleeves like military badges, only these were rock bands logos, bands I didn’t really know, like Supertramp, Wings, and Steely Dan. The biggest patch, spread across the back of the jacket, was of the cartoon character Dennis the Menace (my father’s name was Dennis). He had used a black marker to draw slanting, angry eyebrows on it to enhance the “Menace” aspect.
We pulled into the long, cratered driveway of his friend Ken. I’d been to this house a handful of times before, tucked away in the dense California woods where the canopy of trees offered little sunlight. Moss speckled the sides of the house like a green rash. Everything felt damp.
“Where are we, Daddy?” Faye poked her face between the two front seats, jamming her cheeks into the gap.
He didn’t answer; his brow was crinkled and his lips were moving silently, his mind somewhere else. I turned halfway around. “We’re at Ken’s.”
“Ken’s? Who’s Ken?”
“Dad’s friend. You don’t remember him. Be quiet.”
“I remember him now.”
The last time I had been here—perhaps a year earlier—Ken and my father had watched a playoff football game on TV while I chased ducks around the backyard. For some reason I hadn’t been into football, probably because I’d known so little about it. I don’t remember ever watching it with my father or throwing a football around with him in the yard. I’d known that he and Ken had played together in high school and had a dim memory of once seeing a black and white photo of them in football jerseys and shoulder pads, my father’s hair much shorter back then, fuller too, neatly combed over to the side with no sign of those scouring-pad sideburns. But that’s all it was to me: a photograph that had little connection to the man I saw.
I’d always liked Ken’s house, liked that it was set off from the road, hidden in the trees, no neighbors around, a pond out back. It seemed like the kind of place I would want to own someday. He’d been a lifelong bachelor. I liked that too. After listening to my parents fight for so many years, I was pretty sure I wasn’t interested in marriage.
When we came around the garage and into the back yard, I saw a structure made of two-by-fours, scrap plywood, tree branches, and a stack of rotting wood pallets. It was taller than I was. “What’s that?” I couldn’t decide if it was a junkpile, a half-assed fort, or something else.
My father walked by it, not looking. “Bonfire,” he said.
Faye’s eyebrows darted up. “A bomb fire?”
“Bonfire,” I said. The smell of gasoline was strong.
My father sent Faye inside the house to fill some paper grocery bags with whatever was in the cabinets and fridge, anything that still seemed good. If it looked funky, he said, leave it. I stood in the kitchen with my hands in my pockets and watched her for a minute, wondering why we were raiding Ken’s supplies.
“Dad, why—” I began to ask this very question, backing up into the living room, craning my head to see where he’d gone. I could hear a noise coming from the bathroom, the grating sound of something ripping, like fabric. The bathroom door was wide open, and I saw him tugging long strips of gray duct tape from the inside of the door jambs. Layers of it. Along the top of the door, both sides, and a thick bar of it across the gap of the threshold. I couldn’t figure out why he was removing them or, for that matter, why they were there in the first place. I thought maybe the door was draughty and the tape was to prevent the heat from escaping, but as a system it seemed too messy and hasty. He stripped and then squeezed the tape into balls, his sunglasses still on his nose.
As I came closer and put my shoulder on the outside of the door jamb, I saw a charcoal grill standing in front of the sink and toilet. My father reached around it and, in a blur of motion, yanked the shower curtain closed, the metal hooks screeching across the rod. Something was in the tub.
“What the heck?” The linoleum floor was dusted in black charcoal pebbles, dirty tracks leading out the door right by my feet, tracks I hadn’t noticed before, though they seemed obvious now. From the kitchen I could hear cans thumping into a bag. Faye was singing “Do You Believe in Magic?” I looked up and saw black soot on the ceiling. “What the heck?” I said again.
“C’mon, grab that end.”
I tried to help carry the grill, but he did most of the work, muscling it forward and over the lip of the doorway, nearly running me down while I tried to keep pace stepping backward. I kept looking back at the shower curtain, a crudely painted topless mermaid that Ken had made himself on a plain white curtain. Her lips were grotesquely huge, sun-yellow hair splaying all around, her nipples cherry red. There was something amateur about it, and I wondered why it deserved such a large canvas and prominent display. I managed to lift the grill, but my thin arms were pulled taut, elbows locked. I wanted to ask him to slow down but didn’t. In the kitchen Faye knelt on the counter in front of two open cabinets, her Dr. Scholl’s abandoned on the peeling linoleum floor. “It’s a cook-out not a cook-in,” she said, then dismissed the whole weird scene and went back to collecting groceries.
We left the grill under the deck. An invisible spider web brushed my face. I swiped it away.
After, he put his hands on his hips and looked at the bonfire, considering. He lit a cigarette. “Okay,” he said. “Listen. I’m gonna need your help with one more thing here.” He took a draw from the cigarette and then sighed, smoke pluming from the corner of his mouth. “Fuck.”
I shrugged. “Okay.”
He took a long drag from his cigarette, eyes squinting. He kept looking at the stack of wood. “I’m only letting you help because you’re a man now. You’re thirteen. And we need to protect Faye.”
He looked at me, sizing me up, smoke trailing from his nostrils in two plumes. “Don’t split hairs. You’re a man, aren’t you?”
I shrugged again, looked at the wood pile, then down at the black charcoal powder on my hands. I wondered what was behind the shower curtain. “I guess so.”
We went back inside. Faye was on her knees, tongue poking out, still packing chips and cookies and canned pears into brown grocery bags. “Almost done,” she said.
“That a girl,” my father said, walking past. “Hey, Jelly Bean, come here a minute.”
She stood and followed him into the living room, running with excitement, her plastic sandals slapping the floor. Whatever this adventure was, she was digging it.
He went over to a wall of shelving and turned on Ken’s stereo. It glowed with blue life, humming. When he plugged a set of beige headphones into the jack, there was a loud pop and the volume needles jumped.
“Are we listening to music, Dad?” Faye asked.
“Yes,” he said, sorting through a stack of eight-tracks. “You are.”
He looked at her. So did I. “For what?”
“Ambience.” She twirled in a circle for no reason. “It means mood. The vibe.”
He went back to the tapes and pulled out Wings at the Speed of Sound. “Have a seat, Little Miss Muffet, right there in the captain’s chair.”
He gestured toward the cracked leather seat next to him. A spider plant hung over the back of it, casting its shadow. A full ashtray sat perched on the armrest. Faye hopped onto the chair and scooted back, her feet kicking with anticipation. I stood in the doorway and wondered what was happening.
“Here we go,” he said, fitting the headphones over her ears. “Showtime.”
“Showtime,” she said, clicking her sandals together.
He pulled a wrinkled blue bandana out of his back pocket and snapped it open, then folded it over twice. “Okay, Jelly Bean. This is just for a few minutes.” He tied the bandana over her eyes. I wondered if he’d used it to blow his nose. “We got a surprise.”
“What kind of a surprise?” She licked her chapped lips. “Like what?”
“You’ll see. Sit tight and listen to some tunes.”
“Are you leaving?”
“We’re not leaving. We’re right here.”
She tiled her head in my direction. “Are you leaving, Jerry?”
I looked at my father. I had no idea what was going on. He shook his head. “No,” I said.
He turned back to the stereo and pushed play. The needles popped to life. I could faintly hear the beginning of “Let ’Em In.” Faye adjusted the headphones on her head. They looked massive framing her tiny face.
My father headed back to the bathroom, jacking his thumb toward me to follow. I looked at Faye, the huge headphones and bandana masking half her face. Her foot tapped the air to the music, her tongue clucking against the bottom of her mouth.
Back in the bathroom I was hit again with the bitter smell of burning. Black soot powdered the floor. “What the heck’s going on?” I said.
He pulled the shower curtain back, its hinges screeching like birds, and there was Ken, slumped awkwardly in the dry tub, his head jacked to the side, one eye open, the other puckered. He wore only a pair of underwear and, strangely, a necktie, though the tie was just draped around his neck, not quite tied. It had dozens of little pumpkins on it, which I found strange too.
I couldn’t take my eyes off him. “Is he dead?”
“Yeah, of course he’s dead.” I noticed a bottle of whiskey on the edge of the tub, half gone. Black soot freckled the tub and the bottle, and Ken’s skin, now that I looked more closely.
Dad shrugged. “Don’t know. I don’t know.” He put his arms out and gestured vaguely around the bathroom. “Asphyxiated himself. Found him this morning.”
I kept staring at Ken. I’d never seen a dead person before. He looked uncomfortable. “What’s…what’s that?”
“What’s what? Asphyxiation? It’s when you can’t breathe.” He dropped his hands onto his hips and stared at Ken too. Neither of us moved. I kept staring at Ken’s bare chest, watching it for a sign of breath, but nothing happened.
My father’s sunglasses had slid down his nose. He pushed them back up. “Okay. Let’s do this quickly, if we can. I’ll get him under the arms. You take his legs.”
He muscled Ken out of the tub, and the whiskey bottle tumbled to the floor and broke in half. It smelled sweet but strong. Ken’s head fell straight back, his hair sticking out all over the place.
“Get his legs,” he said.
“I am.” But they were heavier than I’d thought they’d be. I had him under the calves but couldn’t keep his ass off the floor. “His skin’s cold. Like really cold.”
“Just lift those legs up. Lift!”
“I am,” I said again.
He backed out of the bathroom, shouldering the door so that it smacked the wall and the room shook. I looked over at the back of Faye’s head, then followed him, struggling to keep the legs as high as I could so Ken’s ass didn’t drag.
We half carried, half dragged Ken past the sofa and behind Faye. She turned her head just the slightest bit as we passed, as if she sensed our presence behind her. My father grunted with the struggle, his footsteps leaden. Faye tilted her head the other way. She felt us there. I couldn’t stop looking over at her. “What are you doing?” she asked too loudly.
My father stopped, readjusted his grip, and heaved Ken off the floor. “Nothing, J.B. Listen to the music.” He gestured with his jaw for me to keep walking. My arms were starting to shake already. It was the heaviest thing I’d ever had to carry.
Faye lifted one of the earphones off her head. “What?”
“I said keep listening to the music. We’re almost done.”
Together we worked Ken out the back door, down the rotting steps, and onto the pile in the backyard. I stepped back, rolling my shoulders in their joints, aching. I was tired, but tired in the way one is after completing a tough job. I think, oddly, it may have been pride.
My father adjusted the wooden pallets and scrap wood. Ken looked as if he’d been discarded. I watched for a minute or two, until my father noticed I was still there. He told me he’d meet me in the garage and waved me away, slipping a book of matches out of his pocket.
Inside the garage was Ken’s old ice-cream truck, a relic from the early sixties, diseased with rust and sitting lopsided on bald tires, the whole frame sunk low on deflated shocks. It had been sitting in here for years. Once I’d thought Ken was an ice-cream man himself, but I later found out that he’d salvaged it, used and abused, and as a pet project repurposed it as a camper. The logo was still visible, albeit faded, along the front and both sides—Frostytime, written in a blue block font with a small pile of snow atop each letter. The ice-cream stickers along the side of the truck were still there, though most were either faded beyond legibility or peeled away almost completely. The backside was littered with newer bumper stickers like “Niagara Falls, Canada,” “Flick my Bic!”, and “Impeach Nixon.”
I’d seen the truck a few times before, always in the mustiness and shadow of the garage, another ancient artifact among the hundreds Ken had collected. I used to think of his property as a sort of live-in junkyard, but I think he saw it as a museum. Road signs, tractors, various rusty motors half-buried and forgotten in the weeds. The truck was just one more thing he’d found abandoned somewhere and nursed home. Maybe he’d traded a stack of water-warped wooden pallets for it, or one of his crippled lawnmowers. He had plenty of those.
My father came in the side door of the garage, grocery bags under each arm. Behind him I felt a wall of heat from his bonfire, orange flame fluttering toward the sky and turning him, momentarily, into a silhouette. I stared at it, hypnotized, imagining Ken at the bottom of all that, until my father nudged me with a grocery bag. “Let’s go, there’s work to do. Load up the truck.”
I’d never seen the inside of it before, and it looked small. The stainless-steel freezers had been removed and replaced with two stove-top burners, a short refrigerator, and a tiny sink. A few cabinets lined the wall above, and a booth table was up front, its bench seats covered with orange cushions, stained and peppered with cigarette burns that reminded me of bullet holes. It smelled bad in here, like we’d just opened a tomb. A framed felt painting hung askew on the dark-paneled wall, a desert scene of a cactus in dusky blue. On the opposite wall hung a calendar, curling with age at the corners—a topless woman kneeling in a rowboat, a red flower pinned in her long brown hair, matching her red skirt. She looked down at the water, her fingers tracing the surface. I found it more sad than sexy, and felt bad that her breasts were so exposed.
“We’re taking Ken’s ice-cream truck?”
My father, coming in behind me, put his hands on his hips and looked around the small space, considering. He was narrow-shouldered and lanky, much too tall for this claustrophobic cell. When he finally turned to look at me, his forehead banged against the plastic cover of a ceiling light, knocking it to the floor and leaving a pair of mini light bulbs exposed. “Shit.” He rubbed his head and then checked his fingers for blood, though he didn’t seem to have hit it all that hard.
He picked up the covering and began tinkering with it, trying to snap it back into place.
“Are we taking this truck?”
He gave up with the cover and put it on the counter. The bulbs looked too bright now. “I just said yeah. We’re taking the truck.”
“Oh. I thought you meant ‘yeah’ like a question.” I backed away from the door, so he could step out.
“You what?” He walked over to Ken’s workbench and picked up a screwdriver.
I pushed my hands into my dungarees pockets. “Nothing. Forget it.”
“Here.” He put the screwdriver in my hand. “Take that plate off the Datsun and put it on this.” He pointed with his chin toward the empty brackets at the back of the truck where a license plate was supposed to go.
Alongside the clutter of tools on the workbench was a vice grip, patched with flaking blue paint and bolted to the ledge. Ken’s glass eyeball was wedged in its clamp.
“I’m gonna go get your sister,” my father mumbled.
I said okay and tried to turn my attention to the license plate and the rusted screws fused to the bracket, but as soon as he left I stopped and turned back to that eye.
Jerry Digby knows something is wrong that winter afternoon in 1978, when the estranged father he hasn’t seen in months picks him and his little sister up from school, drumming his fingers against the steering wheel with a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth, promising adventure. Something isn’t adding up.
Riding in a camper converted from an old, beat-up ice-cream truck, the three set off on a cross-country trek that ultimately takes them into the teeth of one of the worst blizzards ever to strike the east coast. But the storm outside pales in comparison to the storm brewing inside, as their father unravels with each passing mile, leaving Jerry and Faye vulnerable and exposed.
Land’s End derives from an old photograph of my little sister and me standing at the back of my family’s motor home in a New Jersey parking lot during the throes of the Blizzard of ’78. We were in the first days of what would be a cross-country trip to California, and seeing overturned cars and rigs on the shoulder of the snowy highway left me wondering if we were in safe hands. Dad couldn’t get the generator working, so we spent the long night cold, waiting for the storm to pass. Lying in the dark, the wind outside howling, my sister asked aloud what I’d been thinking: were we okay? I jumped to my father’s defense: Of course we’re okay. Dad knows what he’s doing. But I wasn’t sure.
I began what I’d thought might be a short story during an in-class exercise given to us by Steve Almond. I was taking a GrubStreet workshop called “You’re Obsessed with It, Now Write It.” A year later, still very much obsessed, I had a full-length novel manuscript.
Sean Conway lives outside of Boston, Massachusetts. He holds an MFA from the University of New Orleans, completing much of the coursework in France and Spain. His short fiction can be found in Solstice: A Magazine of Diverse Voices, Glassworks, Digital Americana, and the anthology Mental Ward: Stories from the Asylum, among other publications print and online. He teaches literature and writing at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, both on campus and in San Sebastián, Spain. His website, as well as his travel blog, Map & Compass, can be found at sean-conway.com.
Embark, Issue 5, July 2018