Candy for Dinner in the Desert
February 18, 2020
by Rocky Halpern
There is a monk who prays at the top of the world.
Even though he is only made of rocks, people travel every year to the top of Camelback Mountain in Paradise Valley to pay their respects to him. The tragedy is that the closer you get to the praying monk, the less he looks like a praying monk at all. In close proximity, he is solid mush, a hint of a shape, an underwhelming formation. I’ve only seen him at a distance, but I’ve been looking for him in the shadows since I first came to the desert. The monk keeps his eye on Arizona, and the monk watches our story unfurl. I wonder what he thinks of us, of my family, of the state of mankind. What a blessing, to be made of rocks, I think, for the internal shifting of humanity is what makes it the most unbearable. That people can change their formation, and become unrecognizable to the shape they once fit, is devastating. A rock can change into a new kind of rock only through the immense stress caused by an increase of heat and pressure. That monk has remained the same on top of that mountain since I first saw him at four years old. I wish I could say the same for the other men in my life. It’s nice to know something that cannot change, even if it is a lie up close.
I’m not from Arizona, but it helped to raise me anyways. I feel oddly defensive when I have to admit that no, I wasn’t born here, no, I’ve never had a permanent address here—but listen: I have done my time in the desert. My parents met here, at a party while they were both attending Arizona State University in the eighties. My mother was a sun-soaked party girl with a brilliant smile and an endless entourage of girlfriends and gay boys to go out and dance with, and cute fraternity boys to kiss. People have always been drawn to my mother. Anyone who spends more than five minutes with her can see why. She is pure light: so kind, so forgiving, so trusting, so willing to believe with doe-eyed fragility that good things are still coming, even when all evidence suggests otherwise. Enter that man, scowling in a corner, nursing a beer, undoubtedly strung out on a combination of coke and weed, and looking like a crossfaded, Jewish Morrissey in a cut-almost-past-the-nipple T-shirt turned tank top.
It was a love so fast and pulsing that it gave my mother whiplash. She became consumed by my father and went home with him that night after the party. His roommates sat by the door in a circle, passing a bong around, barely moving, not acknowledging my mother at all. The room was almost empty, except for this mammoth, neon orange armchair. It was in the center of the room in front of a dinky television set. As the months passed and their tumultuous romance progressed, the orange chair became a point of contention.
My mother has always wanted so much for my father. She had this way of gathering up his pain and ennui in her hands and seeing flecks of gold where others could only see a light dulled by the suicide of his baby brother and being molested as a small child. The second one, she understood all too well. She believed there was a tortured artist trapped inside, who possessed an endless fountain of stories and songs and an unbridled passion for creation. Something wonderful coming out of something tragic: that was how my mother thought it could be. My father had some traits that suggested this un-reality to her. He was all at once sweet, sensitive, and romantic, but also crude, wild, unhinged, abrasive, uncaring. It was hard for her to reconcile that the man who would leave a single rose on her pillow and write love poems on napkins could also be the man who refused to stop driving when they were moving to Los Angeles and the U-Haul thrust open. My mother’s precious, glamorous eighties garb was strewn all across the highway, and my father screamed at her for hours as if she had somehow caused it on purpose. My mother’s friends and family spent years watching how my father treated her; they didn’t understand why she continued to accept so little. They saw an antisocial, twenty-six year-old college dropout with no future, someone who spent the first family party my mother invited him to sulking in his car and getting high for half of. She did not understand how a man with such a brilliant and misunderstood mind could be content not to create, but to sit in that garish orange chair, doing lines of coke, staring at the wall.
The abuse that my parents suffered as kids made them both crazy, but in different ways. For my mother, she became fiercely protective: a defender and avenger of those who (like her) could not speak up. My mother saw it as her burden in life to bear this secret so as to not destroy the family. She became a silent martyr, a statue, taking her cue from the silent monk. As for my father, the sexual abuse filled him with rage, and he took that anger out anywhere he saw fit. Nothing could ever be his fault ever again. It did make both of them more reckless than I think they might have been otherwise. Acknowledging what happened to each of them so early on in life would have been to accept death implicitly. Instead, they accepted each other.
My mother wanted my father to have a big life, with her, with me, even before I existed. Their relationship spanned an entire decade, two states, five cities, and countless breakups and makeups before I came along. I always assumed I had been an accident. And to my father, I was. But I’ve since learned that my mother messed up her birth control pills on purpose, “just to see what would happen”. After she took the test, she gave my father an out. My mother told him he didn’t have to stay. It was never about trapping my father. She felt she was supposed to be a mother; it’s what she wanted more than anything else, more than pretty clothes, more than him. At thirty-two, my mother was getting afraid she might never have it. My father couldn’t commit to anything or anyone in his life, and he was not pleased about my mother’s surprise. He left her, and she accepted it. I still don’t know why he came back. I’m not sure she understood either, but nine months later, there the three of us were.
After becoming pregnant, my mother realized that if she wanted this baby to have things like diapers and food and shelter, she would need to be the one to provide them. So, my father became the stay-at-home kind. In the beginning, the arrangement worked well: he was a doting caregiver who meticulously mashed peas by hand to make me organic baby food. Having a baby softened him, at least for some moments in between. My father is best with babies, and puppies. I suspect this is because they cannot argue with him. My stuffed animals each had detailed backstories and different voices, alternating from squeaky and high pitched to low and gruff. My father was an endless source of entertainment and imagination to me, and while I preferred it when my mother was there, he distracted me very well when she was at work. I loved adventuring through San Francisco strapped to his back, squealing and delighted as we zipped through the streets on his bicycle and he yelled out the different Winnie the Pooh animals he swore were just outside of my line of vision. Piglet and Owl did not live in the Hundred Acre Woods, but rather among the hippies and stoners lounging in the sun-glazed grass at Dolores Park.
I was eighteen years old when our family was canceled officially.
Never to be brought back for an encore performance or even a West End revival. The house in Orange County was the last place the three of us would live together as a family. The process of packing, sorting, untangling what was his and what was hers and what would be left for me was a messy affair that took us halfway through that summer. The lease on our house was running out, my mother had been out of a job for almost two years, and our situation became more precarious with every day that passed. I tried to explain to my friends why we were leaving, why we had to move yet again. “My parents are getting a divorce,” I offered cheerfully, lying to them. My parents wanted a divorce, but couldn’t afford it. Instead of divorcing, my mother and father were dissolving, slowly.
The last night we were ever together as a family, two of my best friends slept over. McKenna, Sayaka, and I claimed the single air mattress as our own, along with most of the pillows and blankets the movers had left behind for our final night. We tried to keep it as close to our normal as possible: a bucket of hot popcorn with M&Ms dumped in so they could melt, horror movies from the eighties, an abundance of shriek laughter, and, of course, our beloved Ouija board. We sat around the old thing, a staple of our friendship. I think we were trying to conjure a miracle that would allow me to stay.
My parent’s slept on the hardwood floor, no air mattress, one blanket, two pillows, and our three dogs surrounding them. It’s the last night of their lives together, ending just the way it started, on a floor together. At least the first night there had been a mattress. The house was almost empty. The movers took most of our belongings and the rest of our savings. The lease would be up in a few hours, and we would return to Arizona. My father would move back in with his mother at her retirement community, and my mother and I would be with her parents in a different part of Arizona. This was the plan for the foreseeable future. I had no plans for college, no idea what the fuck I was doing at all. I had graduated high school, but only barely, and with a 1.8 GPA. There was no college on my horizon, no plans made. Just a bed in a guest room I had to share with my mother.
The morning of the move, my father was angry, huffing and mumbling while pushing boxes with his knobly, ill-functioning knees. As afternoon approached, my good friend from show choir came by to cut off a lock of my curls to preserve my memory, he said in the kitchen, as my father tore through like a Tasmanian devil, still pissed and grumbling. He was so rude, so gruff, so disheveled, that my friend actually thought that he was a mover, and he was horrified at the way the hired help treated our family. I don’t know how to tell him that he was the required help; that it was his family that he treated like a burden, like a parasitic appendage he could not wait to bury in the desert and move past. Having a family, this family, had been my entire life thus far. But to my father, we were a failed experiment in homogeny.
We had one car, and one U-Haul, into which we piled the things the movers did not take. My mother and I took the car, loaded up with our dogs and a couple boxes that did not fit in the U-Haul, which my father was navigating. The drive from Orange County to Arizona is about six hours long. It is desolate and hot and we had made it many times before. Our golden retriever Dusty and bichon frisé Coco had the sense to lean into where the air-conditioning vents which were blowing cool air from the front of the car. But poor, skittish Nugget, our second golden, was nervous and couldn’t settle down. This made it difficult for the air to reach him. We almost didn’t notice until it was too late, at which point we pulled over to the rest stop and my father flung himself from the U-Haul, sprint-limped over to the back of the car and picked up Nugget from the trunk. He held the massive, blockheaded golden retriever in his arms, his face a red ball of sweat and anger and fear, and stumbled forward towards a water station.
The boxes blocking the air from circulation were no doubt filled with pictures, playbills, and memories of a childhood so distant and forgotten that it’s possible it may just have been a shared hallucination. My father began hurling things out of the trunk and onto the desert sand, cursing and screaming, as if the items had intentionally tried to kill our beloved family pet. My mother cried but didn’t try to stop him. Nugget looked worse with every passing minute. I wondered if we would bury him along the road, or keep his doggy corpse in the back of the U-Haul.
Our lunches procured from a Carl Jr. drive-through sat by my feet, long forgotten by my parents in the shuffle of moving parts and dying dogs. I ate all three cheeseburgers and fries over the next four hours of driving. Even when the fries become damp with coolness from the air conditioner and the mayo congeals to the onions and the burger patties, I keep eating. When the food was gone, I didn’t know what to do with my hands.
Answering my father’s phone calls was a game of Russian roulette. If I picked up, I might hear a story about the time he was a limo driver and got smoked out by the entirety of Ladysmith Black Mambazo on the way to their concert. I might hear an inebriated ramble about the call center where he worked in the eighties, the one where his boss did lines of coke with him every morning at 5:00 a.m. to begin their day. It might be a story plucked from my own childhood, told back to me as a delightfully campy anecdote, instead of a traumatic memory where he was a bad parent to me and made me fear for my life. One morning the summer between my sophomore and junior year of college, I answered his call, and on the other end of the line, a bullet waited to pierce me through the head.
The phone call must have begun in a benign enough matter because I don’t remember much about the first part. I do remember, near what I assumed was the end of our conversation, him beginning to babble, repeating over and over the phrase “when you’re old enough, we’ll sit down and talk about everything that happened.” My father loves to make grand, vague proclamations, a secret that he uses as a weapon against you and himself at the same time. He wouldn’t explain any more than that at first, stuck in some back and forth repetition of wanting to tell me something but being afraid of the magnitude of his words. Eventually, we got there, to a place where I was in tears, knowing exactly what I was begging him to shut the fuck up and just say, but still being unprepared for when he used the words “grandfather, rapist, mom” all in the same sentence. My grandfather, a man I was raised to see as a beacon of goodness, strength, and integrity, had begun molesting my mother nearly as soon as she was born. My father did not find this out until after I was already born, around three years old or so. This is also when the rest of my mother’s family found out. And now it was my turn.
There is not much left to say after finding out your grandfather is a child molester. I sobbed into the phone so violently I thought I might vomit on myself. He yelled at me to stop crying, then immediately began crying himself. I felt sick for so many reasons, one of the main ones being that this was happening all wrong. What my grandfather had done to my mother was horrific beyond words. It did not, however, give my father the right to decide that I should know. It was not his secret to share, and he used it against my mother as a weapon, a punishment, a shadow cast upon her instead of the monster that hurt her.
Grandma was dead, and my father couldn’t eat solid foods. I watched him try and chew catered funeral deli sandwiches, mini black-and-white cookies, fat Gherkin pickles: pretending to be able to use his teeth while all of the guests pretended not to know that my father was a registered sex offender. His temporary front six teeth were for show only, they couldn’t be used for eating, and so he had to pop them out and mash his food together with his gums. He looked helpless, small, with his smooth gums and baldhead, like a little baby bird, newly orphaned, learning to chew on its own for the first time.
My father’s issues with his teeth were nothing new. I spent many afternoons waiting while a series of Puerto Rican dental nurses stuck their fingers and hooks into my father’s mouth. I would sit on the floor with a book and my back up against the wall of the receptionist desk, the nurses occasionally flurrying past me to offer a smile, or a little piece of chocolate from the stash behind the counter. After all, my teeth weren’t the ones plopping out of my mouth at random. It was my father, whose teeth seemed to exist in a permanent state of distress. My mother invested a fortune trying to fix his teeth throughout their marriage, crowns and drills and numbing agents and replacement teeth and then teeth to replace those replacement teeth. But no dentist ever seemed able to permanently fix the crisis of my father’s mouth. My mother’s teeth, in comparison, were a perfect façade: straight, white, and shiny where visible, with, deep, darkened cavities lurking inside.
The day before Grandma’s funeral service, my father picked me up from the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport in his shoddy, white Toyota Highlander. The same car he used to drive me to middle school in. The stench of marijuana still potent and skunky, even though my father wasn’t able to smoke or do drugs anymore. In those days, the threat of random drug screenings, court-mandated polygraph tests, house arrest, or returning to prison loomed over his head if he stepped didn’t follow the rules. Even still, during the car ride to my recently deceased grandmother’s apartment, he wanted to call his “dude” for me, offering to break parole to get me some pot. He didn’t want to smoke it (at least he said), but he was worried I would be bored with him. And it made my heart ache for us both, that the thought of spending time together should require augmented reality. It took every ounce of my resolve to say no, because the prospect of three days sober with him made me want to jump out of the car and into the feral Arizona wilderness.
Being with him was not wholly uncomfortable: familiar, but foggy, like a childhood night terror that once left you checking the closets for monsters, but now you cannot remember what all the fuss and screaming yourself awake was for. Then he would become angry at something small, a pothole, a line cutter, his own reflection—something so meaningless, and maybe a different person could let it go. He can never let go. Instead he erupted, and I began to remember all the intricate details of the nightmare, and before being able to find out what’s the matter, my hands are gently shaking just like they used to when I was six and for the first time, realized I was afraid he might hurt me.
Grandma’s apartment was the same as the last time I was inside of it: an inexplicable amount of duck statues, tidy but overrun with stacks of books and copies of the New Yorker, pictures of my two cousins and me draping ourselves in her vibrant scarves and playing our favorite childhood game, “hotel stranger.” My father and I stayed there because he was embarrassed to show me where he lived. After getting arrested and becoming a card-carrying social pariah, the kind he spent his life cursing the existence of, he had to move out of his former apartment in the nice part of Scottsdale. He wasn’t allowed to interact with children, or live near schools, playgrounds, or Chuck E. Cheese.
During the car ride to the Synagogue for the service, I plugged my phone into the aux cord and introduced my father to Spotify. His eyes lit up as I explained. Part of his ongoing probation was absolutely no internet, smart phones, and really any sort of technology that could make watching porn easy and accessible. With that went any kind of music streaming listening devices. He had been listening to the same Frank Zappa and Tom Waits CDs on an endless loop, and the prospect of something new softened him, if just for a moment. I turned on a Mountain Goats song and watched my father out of the corner of my eye.
I broke free on a Saturday morning
I put the pedal to the floor
headed north on Mills Avenue
and listened to the engine roar
In a delicious moment for me, I got to introduce my music-snob of a father to a band he had never even heard of. He wanted to act like he always acts, unfazed, blasé, only temperately interested, but I saw the way he thumped his stubby, calloused fingers against the steering wheel.
That night we ate dinner at a diner and I realized halfway through that he didn’t have any money. The realization that I would need to pay for his food, food that he couldn’t even chew, occurred to me and was a sobering realization to have at twenty-two. We spent the meal talking about the books he read in jail: To Kill a Mockingbird, the collected works of Joyce Carol Oates, three Ian Fleming books his big brother Billy sent, and a genre he described as “gangster shit.” He told me about how because of his age, he was considered an elder and treated with respect for the most part, that beating on an old dude was considered a cheap shot. He joined a white power gang until they found out he was a Jew, at which point the Latino gang adopted him. He started telling me insane stories, and getting animated, goofy, expressive, and this, this was the secret father that was seldom seen. The version of my father that my mother always believed in, the one who might get his shit together, who could get sober, who would write a book and tell a story that could help people, or at least make them laugh.
We got back in the car and began to head toward my Grandmother’s apartment. I would never get to say goodbye to her, and as the time neared to say goodbye to my father, I grew nervous. My eyes welled up in the car when I began to think about how he would spend the evening after I went home, smacking applesauce with his gums, sitting alone in his dead mother’s office chair, watching the same episode of Seinfeld that he’s seen at least forty times since my birth.
“Play that one song again.”
His voice shook me from the dismal picture in my head. I pulled out my iPhone and played his request. John Darnielle pummeled the refrain one last time, a triumphant, unvarnished whine that sparked a flicker of hope in my chest, albeit a foolish one.
I am going to make it through this year
if it kills me
I am going to make it through this year
if it kills me
I can’t say for sure we’ll ever see each other again: we haven’t since. There is nothing left to hold us together, no grandparents, no relationship to Mom, and thousands of miles between us with no reason for us to get together again. I must leave him where I found him, in the desert alone, both parents’ dead, living in an apartment complex overrun by addicts and sex offenders. He belongs to them now; I guess he always did belong with them more. I can’t save him, his life, his teeth, I can’t go back and time and stop his dentist from molesting him, or his brother Johnny from putting a bullet in his brain. Maybe one day it will be different, and he will be better, braver, and able to bear the burden of a life lived more gracefully.
Rocky Halpern is a writer and sex educator who recently earned an MFA in creative nonfiction at The New School. Their writing focuses on themes of transgenerational trauma, trans identity and gender nonconformity, and addiction. Rocky is a lifelong nomad, theatre nerd, lover of trashy celebrity memoirs, and the color pink.
The 2023 A Public Space Editorial Fellow is Lydia Mathis.
March 6, 2023
Stories Out of School is an annual flash-fiction contest created by the Academy for Teachers to honor "the most fascinating, difficult, and important job on the planet."
February 6, 2023