Out on the road, somewhere west of Tucumcari, New Mexico my dead son starts speaking to me through the CB.
I’m two days out of Salinas with a trailer full of avocados and Cole says, “Papa, get off next exit.” Like he’s here in the cab with me. Clear as a fucking bell.
I look at the CB as if I’d never seen one before.
I reach down and click it off.
“Papa, next exit.”
My whole body is going cold. My hands are shaking so badly, I’ll be lucky not to jack knife the rig right across Interstate 40.
The therapist AA set me up with said it wasn’t unusual for someone in my situation to have delusions, even hallucinations. Because of withdrawal, you see.
Or it might be that when you kill your kid, he comes back to haunt you.
“Papa turn here.”
Now I’m crying in terror and shame. “Cole? But how? Can you hear me? Cole, I’m so sorry I wasn’t there. I’m -”
I turn off where he says.
I know what lies down this road.
Cole traveled with me a few times. Janice and I let him take a couple days off from school to head out with the old man and see the world. Just regional hops. But it was a grand adventure to those seven year old eyes.
I remember how he’d just goggle at everything. Took him to the Canyon once. We hiked up over a rise and there it was, all spread out before us. Cole stopped. Didn’t say a word, but just reached out and took my hand. We stood there in the breeze, looking at those vultures riding the isotherms, and taking in all that color and majesty.
And each day I try to find my way back to that time. Because, I know what comes next and I want to make it not come. To do it over.
“Papa, the motel. Go.”
My skin is all gooseflesh. What’s going on? I start seeing Cole’s pale corpse on the seat beside me, out of the corner of my eye.
I won’t look over. I looked at that corpse a year ago, when I awoke after a boozy night to find the EMTs pulling Cole’s limp body out of the swimming pool at the Arrowhead Motel. Now the smell of chlorine makes me wretch.
I haven’t had a drink since that day.
My sobriety wasn’t enough for Janice, though. Can’t blame her, really.
I pull into Ray’s Long Haul. My hands shaking so badly I can hardly steer. I fumble with the door handle and try to push down the thought of a cold, wet hand clutching me before I can get out.
In the bathroom, I splash water on my face and look at myself. Without the booze, I look healthier. But there’s no life in those eyes.
Over the intercom comes Cole’s voice again. “Time to go, Papa. Just a few more miles.”
Can’t anyone else hear this?
I’m losing it. Toys in the attic. That’s all there is to it. I should just go check myself in somewhere until this passes.
Or better yet, I could drive the rig out into the mesa lands and ditch it. Just walk out into the desert and shoot myself under that blaze of stars.
That’s how I’d like to end it: under those stars.
What do you want, Cole? A life for a life? Or would a long life of abject misery do it? Misery for the long haul, unchanged through all the years of my life.
I hide in a stall and sit down, head in my hands. When I look up, the graffiti on the door says it all: PAPA, THE ARROWHEAD.
All right then, Cole. I’m coming. I guess I owe you that much.
When I pull into the Arrowhead, it’s already midnight. A few cars parked in the lot.
I check in and I’m not surprised at all to be in the same room as that night a year ago. I guess Cole has this all figured.
I’m coming son. You can do with me what you will.
I walk past the swimming pool. No one in it. Just checking.
I throw myself into the huge depression in the center of the bed.
Jesus Christ, I wish I had a drink.
I must’ve dropped off, because the next thing I’m aware of is the door to my room clicking shut.
No, it can’t be.
My back to the door, I can’t bring myself to turn around. I fix my gaze on the glowing numbers of the alarm clock. 2:45 a.m…
Something climbs into the bed behind me.
Now comes the stench of chlorine.
A thin, white arm drapes across my shoulder.
I reach out and caress the hand.
I realize I am crying now.
“I’m sorry, Cole. I am so sorry!”
“It’s alright,” he says. “Come swim with me, Papa.”
I have to look at him. My son.
I turn, expecting only a dead-fish grayness. Instead, a radiant Cole blinds me.
He leads me down to the pool.
The Arrowhead sign is off for the night. A few crickets. So peaceful.
We slip into the water.
He swims up to me and opens his arms wide. We hold each other tightly as we submerge.
At first I struggle. Only natural, I suppose.
Then, Cole releases me and I sink to the bottom.
I look up at those magnificent New Mexico stars. They send silver shafts dancing into the water all around me.