On October 31, fishermen in Otay Mesa, California found a bloated body on the shore of Otay Lake. It was a white man with black hair and a mustache. The fishermen would not have seen the mustache because the face was rooting into the sand, having rocked deeper into pebbles and silt with the current since the gun went off in the man’s mouth. The fishermen had to drive four miles down from the picnic area to use a phone to call the police. The police identified the man by running the plates of the only car in the parking lot. It was unclear if the man died from a bullet into the head since there was no exit wound, or if he drowned after shooting himself in the head with a gun that was so old it couldn’t force the bullet through the backside of his cranium.
This is the man, about a week or two before he drove himself, in his grey four-door Chevy, to his family’s old picnic spot by the water.
Drunk in his shit-brown recliner, there was not much left to do but sleep. A cricket hummed outside and he wanted to tell it the rain wouldn’t come; it never does. He worried long and hard over dinner, fried steak and Fritos, even though he wasn’t that much of a worrier. He worried about his children and his job and the bills he wasn’t paying. He watched tv into the last hour of the day, worrying about the last thing he said to his girlfriend. She would leave him. It would be the best thing she could do for herself; it would be the worst thing she could do for him. Heavy in the chair, he hated the power she had accumulated over him. He worried about what he would do to himself at the point when she left him. He worried that it could be really bad, and that brought him back to his children. He worried about them, even though they had turned into creatures smarter, lovelier, much more competent than either himself or their mother, despite his and Elizabeth’s best efforts to rob them of all emotional stability. Could he hurt them any more than he had? He worried that he could.
A slow rumble of a delivery truck pulling into the store behind the house rattled the windows. The brakes squealed and the engine started to idle. He listened to the voices, as audible to him as the cricket, and as foreign. He thought of all the times he regretted living near the border. At least these guys had jobs, a place to be in the dead of night, sobriety. Well, maybe not that. But the job meant something. For him, there was nothing, but maybe sleep. It was that time. The news finished an hour ago, maybe more; the blue screen of the television was barely discernible through his dirty contacts anyway. He could just stay here until morning; he was half-naked already.
On his dirty plate beside him on the tv tray, a spider floated in a pool of beer. Did he do that? Two cans on the tray still; he lifted both—one with his finger in the hole and one with his thumb—to see if there was something left for him. The spider got the last of it. He gave the spider his last swallow. He was generous. There’s more upstairs.
Tomorrow, tomorrow. Tomorrow would be Friday. He would play golf in the morning, as he always did at the end of the week. He would meet his colleagues, enjoy a bloody mary, shoot a crap round of golf, ogle the waitress—an overweight smoker in her 40s with frosted blonde hair in lopsided layers, rolls over her tight khaki shorts, exploded veins in her overworked calves. She suffered through the taunts of petulant young golfers, bad tippers, cruel women on the course, but he always complimented her warmly like she was the belle of their inebriated party. He knew she found him kind. He did these things every Friday.
He stumbled as he rose from the chair. Newspaper spread wide on the floor crunched under him as he took unsteady steps toward the stairs. He kicked a can. Nothing in that one either. Over the mantle, he saw a picture of his children, not a recent one. All three of them stood confidently: smiling, beautiful children. How did they become themselves? Had he really screwed Elizabeth three times? He hadn’t screwed in so long; he felt something like a weak rise imagining the act of fucking his ex-wife. Neither of them really enjoyed each other much. The minor tingle he felt faded as he recalled her placid face under him one of those times that might have resulted in one of these lives. Biology’s capability fortunately doesn’t require that either party enjoys anything too much.
But maybe it made a difference. Maybe pleasure between the two of them, pleasure in Elizabeth’s loins, ha, could have made these kids more connected to him and their mother. Maybe? They might have had some primordial memory of love that created them, rather than, what? What did they have for their parents? Rather than disdain, distaste, dissatisfaction, embarrassment each of them surely felt in consideration of their upbringing. Who knows what they felt toward him. Probably nothing great.
He struggled for a moment to think about their ages now. Older than the photo, he knew, but he couldn’t picture them as they looked at the moment, wherever they were, far away from him, swimming along in their lives without him. He remembered all three of them as dependent little troublemakers, small, always in need of something, help with a zipper, a shoe-tie, a ponytail, a math problem. They would eat the ring, but not the onion. They never sat still. He could see them as each of them was just before bed, looking up at him with the same eyes, but dissimilar ways.
Three brown-eyed monsters shifted restlessly in their yellow fuzzy pajamas that zipped up from the toe. They always complained of being too hot. Didn’t he have a special method for pulling those things on? Of course, maybe it was only the youngest who wore those. She was so much younger than the other two. But he imagined them all in the yellow pajamas, immediately after he’d snapped the snap under their chin. He would say, “locked in and ready to rumble.” His oldest: respectful to his face, but a danger everywhere he wandered. The middle girl: not shy but certainly guarded, accommodating and sweet. And the youngest, his only blonde, always the baby but never accepting that she knew less than any of the others. Not for one moment did she allow herself to be helped without learning what it was that would keep her from asking again. He had not held her for long enough into her life before he had to move away, at the end of the marriage to Elizabeth. And on the visits the court sanctioned, the little one always acted more like a guest than his baby.
The rumble of the truck had ceased and he’d heard it pull back onto the street. The wide suburban street outside his condo complex played host to the neighborhood’s boyracers. But it was quiet now.
He crossed over more paper to reach the mantle, to look at that time, captured and framed so daintily. He had no idea who had put that picture into that goddamn frame. He didn’t like it. It was too ornate, gilded and trimmed with silly painted pink roses. That wasn’t any life he’d ever lived, or given to anyone else. He grunted. Picked up the frame and struggled to figure out how to get the damn picture out of that cheap frame. His fingers were heavy on the small pieces of metal securing the picture behind the glass. Really, would this thing ever open? He raised the frame and after a sigh, he slammed it on the corner of the mantle. The picture bent under the cracked glass and broken wood. He picked out the suspended shards of glass and rescued his family. He had a faint laugh over that. He thought, long live me; I’m the savior. Would his kids agree with that? Shaking his head, answering his own slow thought, he looked at the picture, without all the ridiculous trimmings.
He could not remember the day, but he knew it happened because it had to have. Here was his proof. He had to have been there because it was his middle daughter’s graduation from college. She was in her robe still, standing between her brother and her sister. The older two wore sunglasses. The youngest had a mouth full of gleaming braces and a red pimple on her chin. Did she still have pimples? He couldn’t remember. He thought she didn’t have the braces, but instead the same large smile of her sister, the kind that shows two rows of teeth and a little bit of tongue. They have screaming smiles, he thought. How did they become so happy with me as a guide, he thought. And then he recalled that his guidance was paltry. He held the photo closer to his eyes, then pushed it far back, holding it with a straight arm as he steadied himself on the mantle. He was not focusing. He breathed, show me this goddamn picture; I want to see my kids.
His face became hot as he imagined the last time he had seen his three children together. It must have been Christmas, or was it more recent than that? The year was long, he knew the next day would be Friday, but was it June now, or September? The trouble with the southern California climate is its awful consistency. He glanced down at the newspaper under his feet. He got on his knees, still holding the picture. He exhaled hard, a guttural noise rose from his diaphragm and his knees cracked. It was September 30. It was 1992. His youngest would have a birthday in two days. That would make her almost 18. He brought his hands to his head, fat hands with short fingers and groomed nails. He rubbed the loose skin of his cheeks with his thumbs, his heavy, yellowed eyes with his fingers. His right hand clasped the picture until it folded into crackling lines.
He let himself sit on the newspaper, on the business section, like a dog, he thought. Something in him, deep in his throat, was closing. Maybe this could be his heart attack? Maybe this could be his graceful way out? And, if not, he would play golf tomorrow. There was nothing different just now, he reminded himself. He was the same as he was at work. It was September 30, he told himself. It was 1992. There was nothing big going on. He might lose his girlfriend, but he would still play golf. His children were doing things out there, somewhere in the world, better than he had known. They did it with him knowing or not. They did it whether he cared or didn’t care, assisted or didn’t. They did it whether he played golf or not, so he might as well play. He coughed into his hand to suppress a laugh, realizing that he hadn’t helped them in a long time. Not one of them. They did better without him.
When did he see them last? When was that? His youngest graduated from high school this year. It was in June, or May, maybe because she had agreed to leave him for that boarding school so far away. And she had called collect a couple times from there, he had noticed on his bill. He tried to remember the ceremony, her smile, her pimples or no pimples, her height, taller than him almost. She was no longer blonde. Maybe pink hair, or black, or something very different than the spun honey he saw clumped on her head as she played in the sand with her bucket, improving on his sand castles, demanding that he offer new ways to make it more beautiful. She must have worn a robe too. Certainly, he would have a picture. He looked at the mantle, but nothing really important was there. Three Budweiser cans and an old glass knickknack next to a book of matches.
He remembered the punchline to her favorite joke: it’s a knickknack, paddy black, give the frog a loan. He saw her eyes squint and her nose crinkle as her mouth expanded into that screaming smile, and all those teeth straightened over so much time and her pink tongue, bolting between her lips when she was happy or finishing up a good laugh. He used to say she would bite it off one day, or a bird would get it, or it would decide to stay in the sunlight and she would never talk again; it spent more time outside her mouth than in it.
He didn’t go to her graduation.
His chest closed under his chin and he let himself curl up on the newspaper. The heart attacking, he hoped. He put his head on his arm, his chest on the ground. His breath was short, his throat constricted. This might be it for him, or it might be the last bit of his heart simply shattering. He could sleep here because no one would know. His face was wet, hot on the hair of his forearm. No one would come home. This was no one’s home after his daughter had left. He would just take a moment to think, before going upstairs. He would just stay here for a second to look at the bent picture, to see his children, to just get his bearings, his breath, before he went to bed upstairs. On his side, he pulled his legs up tighter to his chest. He heard the light crunch of beer cans by his feet. He could have another one, before bed. He should, for golf in the morning. But he would just take one more moment, to see his children again.
Megan Doyle Corcoran lives in San Francisco