Art by Nicole Zaridze

The orderly’s green paper suit crinkled as he raised the gurney until Amber’s stomach blocked out the buzzing light from the hall, the way the moon eclipses the sun.

“Dr. Dave promised there’d be drugs,” she cried. 

“The child is to be born like Julius Caesar,” I explained. 

The orderly’s eyes widened. 

Amber pulled me close, or was she trying to free my arm from its socket? 

“Can I do anything for you?” That’s what Dr. Dave’s nurse said was the only appropriate thing to say to a woman in Amber’s condition. 

“I want Slim Jims and a Slurpee,” she said.  

This seemed like a task I could manage; unlike, say, being a successful father. 

“Okay,” I said, as Brutus wheeled her away. 

I secretly hoped he was taking her to a volcano.

I got on my skateboard — I was too old for it, almost thirty, but you don’t need a license — and rode past the reception nurse who was waving paperwork at me.

“I’ll be back,” I called. 

A sick child recognized my Austrian accent. “Look, it’s the Terminator!” she said, perhaps her last happy moment. 

Male nurses chased me halfheartedly in their squishy sneakers. 

Over the hospital intercom I thought I heard the pinched, robotic voice of my father: “You mustn’t abandon your responsibility.”

My mother preferred traditional modes of communication and had recently sent me a greeting card depicting Jesus Christ petting a Golden Retriever. Inside she wrote God had a plan for me which was why Amber got pregnant and I was going to be a father. 

Umm, Mom, I wanted to ask, aren’t you forgetting God’s plan for his only son and how that worked out for Jesus? No thanks!

Tonight I hoped my odyssey would take me to the Salton Sea, which, ironically, was where Amber had summoned me nine months previous. 

Since we first met at teenage rehab, Amber had surfaced every few years in my life, the same way the fires came to the canyonlands, drawn by the Chaparral, which contain flammable oils and resins in their leaves and regenerate after they ignite. How did she find me this time? I’d just moved out of the most recent Board ‘n Care into my first solo living situation – the meds were working apparently – and then Amber’s postcard arrived, a black and white photo of the great sea, her demand to Come Sea Me! written in lipstick. 

Amber and I found peace there in the Inland Empire, floating in the buoyant waters of the Salton Sea, copulating frequently, our home a trailer abandoned by some drug scientist acquaintances of hers, and somehow the compulsion to get high was lifted during our stay.

Why did we ever leave? We have low tolerance for good things.

Upon my departure from the hospital, I skated past cardboard crowded doorways where men lived like eels hidden in coral gardens. I rode alongside so many miles of chain link fence it is visible from the surface of the moon and looked through the iron-barred windows of California bungalows lit by canyons burning on giant screen TV’s.

Sirens screamed, copters chopped, the wind rushed, my graphite wheels spun and thunked but underneath it all I could hear my father’s voice, the muzak in the dentist’s office that was my mind, offering unwanted advice.

In search of relief at the 7-Eleven, I rode the wind to the warm glow of a strip mall and procured beer and Slim Jims. I remembered what Rick told me at the first rehab my parents sent me to, back in high school, where I met Amber for the first time, all those years before our lives made a Möbius strip. 

Rick was my drug counselor, and he told me that I have a cunning, baffling, powerful disease called alcoholism, and one beer is too many and a million is never enough. Rick would’ve got no argument from me as I sat down in the mercury light and leaned against that piss-sweetened stucco wall and drained three tall boys without even stopping to swallow.

Will I ever get any closer to experiencing what the Lord Jesus Christ would’ve felt like if right during the middle of getting crucified he’d yelled, “Fuck all you Romans,” louder than thunder and come flying off that wooden cross and pissed fire on all their cowering, scared little asses?

But that feeling passed as it always did, not unlike the elaborate design you would draw on your Etch-a-Sketch when you were a child and then the best friend you hated would snatch the tablet and shake it so you were left with the feeling of a dream not remembered. What if fatherhood offered a more permanent feeling of satisfaction and my disease was simply trying to keep me from the one thing that might save me?

Rick had also told me my mind was a dangerous neighborhood and I shouldn’t spend too much time there alone, so I got up and started skating. 

A few minutes later, overcome by hunger, I liberated one of Amber’s Slim Jims. I couldn’t stop myself, and this seemed an ominous portent of becoming a selfish father if I couldn’t perform such a simple task, but I bent it over on itself a couple times and shoved the whole thing in my mouth all at once it was so good, my mouth working like a dinosaur.

Not long after I swallowed the Slim Jim I needed to lay my body down by a river, only there was no river handy, and the Los Angeles River has banks of concrete and was a good hour away, and during fire season it was a dry river, so I reclined instead on some sharp grass near a California bungalow and began retching. 

Hello tall boys and Slim Jim my old friends, I’ve come to talk with you again.  

I rolled over, my knees tucked under my chin, my arms wrapped around my legs. I got scared I was turning into the baby Amber was carrying and that I’d have her for a mother and me for a father. Even though I was bigger than it, that little thing scared me, and as I watched the ash falling gently from the sky I wondered if my father had felt scared the night my mother delivered me into the world. 

I couldn’t remember seeing him scared, not even when I was twelve, and my mom was in Australia with her church group saving Aborigines, and it was just me, my father, the Santa Ana winds and the brush fires, the neighborhood burning down around us, the man with the megaphone evacuating everyone but us, they had no jurisdiction over what we did, we weren’t quitters, not as long as we had water and our home to protect, my father said, and no, those weren’t tears in my eyes, it was just the smoke, and yep, it certainly would break Mom’s heart if she came back to no house.

I was in charge of hosing down the roof until three things happened: the sun and sky turned the color of blood, I could taste the air which was like when I opened our Weber grill when my father had burned the steaks, and the hose got weak like when you’re shaking out the last of your pee. I turned around to tell my father and he was standing there naked, wearing a scuba mask, a snorkel clenched in his mouth, holding out a matching set. 

I’d never seen my father naked and was alarmed because just the previous week Sister Donna, whose beauty kicked the plaid skirt wearing ass of any Corpus Christi girl and had played us her personal record of Jesus Christ Superstar if we promised not to tell the head nun, Sister Maura, had told us that while Jesus was groovy, the Old Testament could be icky, like the way some white people justified slavery with the story of Ham, who was the son of Noah, the dude who built the ark, and who “saw the nakedness of his father” when Noah was passed out drunk (apparently Noah had a worse drinking problem than Monsignor Cotter) and for that act, Ham’s descendants (who were the black people) were made slaves. 

I didn’t totally understand, but I was always distracted when she spoke, for Sister Donna was a stone fox, and I felt confused by how God had given her the calling as well as her fulsome breasts, which threatened the structural integrity of her polyester nun’s costume. But I wasn’t about to bring a curse upon my descendants, so I averted my eyes from my father’s nakedness.

My father seemed to be telling me something: “And the smoke of their torment rises forever and ever. Day and night there is no rest for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.”

At least I think that’s what he said. He had the snorkel in his mouth so he wasn’t entirely comprehensible, and with the helicopters you really couldn’t hear much, but I took off my clothes and donned the scuba apparel. 

The water looked like lava or perhaps a cherry slurpee and I liked the feeling of stepping into the pool naked because the warm water cupped my balls for a moment the way I’d always imagined Sister Donna might if she ever chose me over Jesus Christ. Speaking of the Lord, my father motioned me over and pantomimed for me to fall forward into his arms which were extended over the water and I thought of John the Baptist, my favorite Biblical figure on account of he got his head cut off because he wouldn’t give Salomé his man meat, plus he was the dude Jesus asked to baptize him which was like having Richard Gere ask if you’d talk to some girl for him.

I seemed to fall in slow motion, though really it was just the law of physics and the resistance of the water molecules. I enjoyed the taste of the sticky black rubber in my mouth and tried to breathe easy like my father had taught me. The funny thing is that I felt safe, it was my father I was scared for, and that’s when I decided to say a special prayer, it seemed like the snorkel would carry prayers right up there. “Dear Jesus, from one son to another, please bless my father. And yours, too.” 

I watched the water turning more colors, it was like a Big Stick melting but reminded me of something else, or somewhere else I remembered but couldn’t name, and I kept reaching my hand out to touch my father and I felt myself falling asleep, even with the helicopters, the sirens and the crackling timber, the pool growing warmer.

Later, when my father delivered me out of the pool and we stood on the warm, ash-covered decking in bright yellow beach towels, our house was the only thing standing as far as you could see and he smiled at me the way I’d always wanted, as if seeing me for the first time. 

Years later, I recounted this story in one of my rehabs and said I felt like it was all a dream, and this dude Randy said no, he saw it! Turns out when he was a kid, Randy liked to watch Scooby Doo after school but one day the news interrupted and there was footage from a helicopter looking down on this one swimming pool with two people in it, a father and son they said, while the canyon around them burned. Later in rehab Randy and I smoked some nasty skunk weed together, and I shared how the weed singeing my lungs reminded me of the burning canyon and we’ll say it was fate that brought us together. 

The people who owned the lawn I was napping on eventually turned on their sprinklers to encourage me to leave – a real no-no during fire season – but I was grateful for the encouragement and eventually found my way back to the hospital, which required as much skill and luck as my favorite childhood explorer, Vasco de Gama, needed to find the Cape of Good Hope and the continent of India. In the meantime, the Santa Ana winds had dried off my clothes!

An orderly directed me to a hallway and the quality of light there was the same as you get being underwater in a lighted pool at night.

The hall seemed to be miles long and I drifted across the green linoleum on my skateboard, the wheels clicking soothingly. I had a feeling there was something important I’d forgotten to do, and then I had a dream, the kind you have when you are awake. I was trying to teach my son to throw, only I could never get a proper grip on the ball, it kept slipping from my hand, and then suddenly I was an old man and my son, who was me as I was at that moment, was demanding to know why I had chosen to pass on my genetic code.

I skated faster, past rooms with ten beds of patients waiting for new parts with TV’s tuned to different operations.

Finally I pushed through swinging doors into a yellow corridor. I was standing in front of a big window labeled NICU, looking at a room full of plastic cars, each one with a little driver inside.

A nurse came up to me and asked me if I was a relative.

“We are all descended from the apes,” I explained.

When I told her about Amber she said, “Follow me.”

Amber was asleep on one of those beds they advertise on late night TV, connected to an IV drip. I was jealous but thought better of asking the nurse if I could get some, too, especially when she plucked the bundle from Amber’s arms and brought it to me.

“Your son.”

She passed him like a joint.

“Bean,” I said. 


I meant to say, ‘That’s what he looks like,’ but instead I said, “That’s his name.” 

She showed me how the reclining chair worked and said it might be good for me to do some bonding by holding my son. 

Sometime later, I woke with a start to find Amber’s father looking down at me. I was reclined in the kind of vinyl reclining chair the elderly are depicted getting trapped in on late night television commercials where they cry, “I’m reclined and I can’t get up!” I had fallen asleep with Bean in my arms, I thought, but he was gone. This was different than losing your keys or your dignity! But then I saw he’d been reunited with Amber, who, even in her sleep, wore the happy expression she always did when heavily medicated. 

Amber’s father’s face resembled a marshmallow when you roast it perfectly over a fire pit on the beach but you get distracted by the crashing waves in the moonlight and when you jerk your stick out of the flames it’s a tad crisp in places. His hair was unnaturally blonde streaked with silver and face work gave him the look of a 1960s astronaut in a gravitational force machine. He wore the kind of watch that affirmed he was a man of substance.

“Hello, donor,” he said. “Kimmy and I have been praying that my grandchild won’t inherit any of your compromised genetic code.” Kimmy was his third wife and they subscribed to the belief that Jesus answered prayers. 

When, some months before, I’d asked Amber why she didn’t want her father to know she was with child – I admit I was already looking for some sort of deus ex machina regarding the fetus – she’d said, “Little Miss Kim Bitch, daddy’s new Stairmaster tit-job wife would love to snatch the zygote from my womb because she’s scraped herself infertile with too many diets and abortions.”

From my reclinement I watched like in a dream when you can’t scream as Amber’s father approached her automatic bed and plucked Bean from her sleeping arms. Had Amber called her father when I didn’t return or had I accidentally written his contact info on the paperwork the head nurse handed me? I wasn’t sure. A nurse appeared next to him and unwrapped Bean and I saw Amber’s father counting Bean’s fingers and toes and then, as she removed his tiny diaper, he nodded in approval at what he saw there. 

As the nurse began to affix a new diaper and roll Bean back up, I saw Amber’s father hug his daughter as she slept. I saw something in his eyes before he squeezed them shut. I think what I saw was hope, the kind parents like ours must count as a curse. I wondered if I would be so lucky.

Bean’s grandfather returned to my recliner and thwacked my chest with a meaty envelope. I could feel the weight of money inside it. 

“This is to make you disappear, like the master illusionist David Copperfield does on his television specials. Only my magic is capitalism. You see, Kimmy, my incredibly hot wife, is unable to produce a child of her own and so we’re going to take your offspring into our five bedroom home with the marble foyer and the jacuzzi in the en suite bathroom off the master bedroom and the Sub Zero, and the wine cellar, and make sure that the child has what he needs to grow up into a son that a father can be proud of.”   

He delegated responsibility well, one of the keys for success in business. 

I finally found the lever that launched me into standing. I shoved the envelope down the front of my jeans and savored the violent turn my stomach took whenever I came into possession of money. Suddenly Amber’s father hugged me. “Maybe you’ll even do the right thing and use some of it to get yourself neutered,” he whispered, his breath hot in my ear. “Meanwhile, I’m sending Amber to rehab in Scottsdale, Arizona and you’re going to stay the heck away from her.” He punctuated these last six words by tapping my chest with his stubby, manicured middle finger. One more tap and I would’ve gone full Bruce Lee on him. 

Scottsdale, Arizona proves God is practicing for hell – I’d awakened from a blackout there. 

The Vietnam vet with the wispy ponytail I’d once had as a sponsor in AA said that sometimes God did for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves and I wondered if Amber’s father was proof of that triteness. Amber and I had a deep and abiding love for pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization, but nobody else suffered for our actions. Bean, however, would. I rejected the idea that somehow my love for him, if that’s what I felt, would overwhelm and negate our addiction. I was already jealous of Amber’s IV drip and I knew it would incite in her what we called the craving. 

Sure, Bean would have to play Little League, and Pop Warner where he’d learn shame for being a pussy, or, worse yet, AYSO, attend some Christian school where they blamed Jews for Jesus’ death and believed God rewarded his followers with cash and prizes, and he’d be subjected to the horrible fashion choices of Kimmy and cringey photo shoots at the mall, but he would not go without shelter or food, and he’d have a pediatrician and all the other things children were entitled to. 

Of course her father had paperwork for me to sign before I could leave. It was only one page and transferred rights to the child to Amber’s father and Kimber-Lee. I saw the names Kyler/Braden/TBD on the paperwork and asked what that was about.

“Kimmy hasn’t decided on the name yet.”

“His name’s Bean.”

Amber’s father snorted. “No son of mine is being named after a legume.”

“He’s your grandson. Then it’s his middle name. I won’t sign it without that amendment.”

He scribbled something on the page and initialed it, then held out his fancy pen for me. 

“Good luck getting Amber to sign it,” I said. 

He looked at me like he knew this was a factual statement and there was exhaustion and resignation in his eyes. I realized we did have something in common. But he took the paper from me with a satisfied look on his face. Apparently, Amber’s father did not yet understand that the yearly Santa Ana winds were Amber’s whisper, reminding me we’d be together again. I had a vision of the three of us, Bean, Amber & I, on the shores of the Salton Sea.

“I’m going to say aloha to Bean,” I said. Aloha means both goodbye and hello in the language of the Hawaiian people.  

“He does look bean-like wrapped up like that,” Amber’s father acknowledged when the nurse was done and handed him to me.

 For a little thing, Bean was dense and exerted a strong gravitational pull, not unlike a black hole in outer space. I imagined I could remember my father holding me like this. “Who are you?” he’d asked. Now, I wondered the same thing. Maybe my father thought I might wind up doing anything I wanted. 

I guess I have, in a way.