Issue 23 / Fall 2020
My mom’s biological dad, Don, dies in January. His wife calls me at 9 am and I pick up.
The caller ID says, “Calico Rock, Arkansas.”
I never visited him there, but my mom did. She came back home and told me about how they fished for catfish or noodled.
They pulled on plastic overalls with boots attached and wandered into the river; they were completely alone, minus the fish. The water was dark and murky, and his belly was round and protruding; it was either the sixty years of beer or his cancer, but it didn’t stop him from waving his arms out of the water, sweating mud.
His wife is quiet on the phone. “Cherie? Is that you?”
I move from the bed, careful not to disturb Massachusetts, my girlfriend, her body stuffed between the layers of blankets, one foot twisting out.
“No, this is her daughter. Is everything okay, Grandma Estelle?” I hear her bucked teeth chattering.
Estelle was Don’s wife, both before and after my mom was born. They were high school sweethearts, married with two daughters, then they separated before they were twenty-five. After their divorce, he met a woman in Los Angeles. When my mom was six months old, he went back to Estelle and they had another daughter.
“He didn’t make it through the night. I tried to call your mother yesterday.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.” I twist around to look at Massachusetts, who is squeezing her face in the light.
“It’s okay. Can you put your mother on the phone?”
The last time I saw him, I was twelve. He was living outside of Phoenix and I spent Thanksgiving running around with new family members, throwing cacti and yelling into the never-ending desert.
It was the first time I met my mom’s sisters, and they didn’t look anything like us. They were all sunburnt with blonde hair and small blue eyes.
I tell Estelle that my mom is on the west coast and still asleep. I’m not sure if she knows that I live in New York. To her, I could be sixteen or thirty. I still have bangs, my arms are a little long, and I am always fighting with my mother.
Estelle says, “Oh yeah. Please call your mom. I’ll talk to you later.” But I think that’s a lie.
I crawl back into bed with Massachusetts. My thigh drapes over her blanketed body. In Los Angeles, the sun would’ve been peeking in by now, warm and mustard, settling on our faces like honey. Instead, New York is washed out, foggy and grey.
Massachusetts peeks her eyes open. Her eyelashes are swarming, and towards the outer corners, they’re so thick that they cross over each other. The first time I stared into her eyes, I felt like a fly in a trap.
“Who was that? Your other girl?” Her cheeks are flushed and I press my lips to the meat of them, just below her eyes.
“Yeah, my mom’s dad and I are competing for her.” My ceiling has a crack that runs from my dresser to the window and I imagine how to move my body so I could step on it.
Massachusetts nods and doesn’t ask anything else. She moves my body off and starts pulling her clothes from the ends of the bed.
“I’m gonna go to the gym,” she yawns while standing. I lean over to where her shirt is riding up and I place my lips on her stomach. She swats at my head before pulling on her socks.
As she walks out, neither of us says I love you because it has been eight months and that is still too serious for her. Instead, I text my dad to tell him that Don is dead. I keep my mother’s number blocked.
Thirteen years ago, my father Googled every man named “Donald Pickens” in the United States. He paid for a service to get full records—phone numbers and addresses. Then for Valentine’s Day, he gave my mom the thick stack of names. My mom had never met him. She had never seen him or heard his voice.
My dad’s parents divorced, remarried, divorced, and remarried again. My mom’s mom lived with us, and we visited her stepdad and his new wife often. So when my mom started the hunt for her biological dad, I didn’t feel the need for a new grandparent.
My mom sat in a church parking lot, cold calling man after man, all named Don Pickens. The men were empathetic. Some took longer than others to rule out. No one was mean to the woman looking for her dad, and night after night, she sat in the car and prayed.
On the fifth night, my mom was almost through with the stack of papers. She knew that if she finished it, she would probably never find him. And then, she ran out.
There were four “Donald Pickens” with no listed phone numbers, only addresses. She called information to ask if they had a number for one of the Dons living in Sacramento. They did.
When he picked up, she knew instantly that he was her father. We drove seven hours to him the next morning. I watched Cars in his living room. I pet his black lab, tied to a tree in the back. A meth addict stole our car and my dad and I picked it up from the police station, splitting everyone into two pairs of father and daughter for the first time.
When I wake up, I still have a dead grandparent, which, at twenty, is more luck than tragedy. I know the cancer was in his body, somewhere in his torso. Estelle didn’t explain a lot, but she’s a widow now so I understand. I think he’s the Grover Cleveland of her life.
I miss a call from my dad, so I call him back. He tells me that my mother is already in rare form. She snuck out the bathroom window and walked two miles to the liquor store in her slippers.
Two weeks prior, while visiting for Winter Break, I went into her bedroom looking for scotch tape. She was in the attached bathroom with the door cracked. There weren’t any lights on besides the murder documentary on the TV and the end of her cigarette, orange and slicing through the rooms. I watched her hands and they peeled back a towel, fashioned as a curtain, and she blew her smoke through the screen. Every finger had a large ring, and when she was finished, she put the cigarette out in a pill bottle filled with water. I didn’t find any tape.
Massachusetts comes back around one. Her hair is in a wet braid and she asks what I want to do for the rest of the day. I tell her I need a new rug.
We take an Uber to Ikea. In the backseat of the car, her hands jigsaw together a scarf, or a hat, or some article of clothing. I am never sure what she is making, but I watch her flutter between the stitches. She has a pink eczema scar on her right hand between her ring and middle fingers that I kiss when she lets me.
Massachusetts starts to tell me about her friends’ weekend and I can’t help but touch her, extend some part of me towards her. She sets down the red yarn and squeezes the meat of my thigh, exposed in my dress and high socks.
We get out of the Uber at the bottom of Ikea. Massachusetts thanks the driver. The wind is jabbing, and the hair on my legs stands.
There are two men in the elevator with us. One has pointed ears and stained teeth. There is a gap between them and I want to see something sliver out of it: a cello, an onslaught of meatballs, scotch tape. His hair is greasy and I know his home probably smells like weed and pepperoni pizza. The other man has a soft chin and smiles when he sees I am looking at him. His eyes wander down my legs to my hand brushing against Massachusetts and back up. We all exit the elevator.
The Red Hook Ikea is busy. There are hundreds of families and lovers and gapped teeth.
“There could be like famous people here, y’know?” I say to Massachusetts. Her front teeth actually are too close; they bump into each other, the left slightly ahead of the right.
“I can’t think of any famous people I like.” We don’t talk about pop culture because it makes her feel ashamed that I know more than she does. Sometimes, when I imagine our relationship, I imagine it broadcasted on a reality TV show.
The audience would have seen the months unfold in a series of cuts: Us on a carousel. Weekly picnics on our college lawn. Our first break-up.
“Should I put the ISFJORDEN above my bed to cover the crack?” I say, stumbling on the product name. We look into the mirror and then I remember that Don is dead, and his wife will never look at them in a mirror again.
I grab Massachusetts and guide her to the biggest bed I can find, tucked away in a corner. We don’t kiss in public but I place my hand on her neck and fiddle with her earlobe and the ends of her hair, certain that whatever audience is watching can feel my desire in waves.
For Christmas, I made her a chapbook where I compared us to William Henry Harrison. How after the night of his inauguration, he went to bed next to his wife, numb and unknowingly beginning to die. He was numb because he was making the people he loved comfortable, and I was numb because she would lay on my arm when we watched Netflix. For Christmas, she gave me a pair of socks.
Massachusetts doesn’t reach out to me in any way. She stares into my eyes for a few seconds, and then grabs her phone and starts scrolling.
I blocked my mom because she wouldn’t stop threatening me. At first, I thought it was funny. I would show the texts to Massachusetts and she would look at me and would go back to knitting. I replied things like “love you!” because I’ve been in the habit of saying that to people who don’t feel it back.
When I was ten, my mother wanted to bond with Don. She had been using his name her entire life and she wanted to see where it started, his hometown. Because even though he died in Calico Rock, and we spent Thanksgiving outside Phoenix, and his abandoned daughter found him in Sacramento, he was born in Independence, Kansas.
Don drove and Estelle rode shotgun. I was glad because her hands scared me. Her nails were tinged and smelled like cigarettes. Her teeth were fake, which made me sad because I could tell her dentist did a bad job.
The car ride was so long that my Game Boy died by the time we reached the next state. The Southwest consumes. At some point, it gets hard to convince yourself that you have driven anywhere at all because the dirt all looks the same and the roads don’t change and the roadkill made me sad the whole time.
Don and Estelle also brought their dog, Sassy, who I thought would be a fun buddy, but she needed hourly stops to pee. Don and my mom also peed because they had small bladders, and then they joined Estelle to smoke cigarettes. I sat in the car, gas station after gas station for miles and days. I ate beef jerky. I pet Sassy. I watched Estelle watch my mom and me in the rearview mirror.
We went to a giant store filled with guns and taxidermied animals near Fort Worth. It might as well have been a museum. Don and I walked around and he pointed out the differences in the rifles. He told me story after story of encounters with animals. Bears and mountain lions and hawks. And I didn’t feel like we shared any blood, but no one asked if I was lost, which always happened with my actual grandpa. Don had these big baby blue eyes and I thought about how they skipped over my mom and melted into my own face.
When we reached the giraffes, he laughed and said, “That’s you and your mama. Tall and longer than any of my girls.” I stared into the button eyes of the baby giraffe and then back to Don’s, and then I turned and walked back to find my mom. My body lurched and I pulled my shoulders in to make myself smaller.
We stopped at a motel. We had to find a place that allowed dogs and cigarettes. The numbers on the doors were falling off and there were roaches in the bathtub. I curled against my mom in an effort to make the space between us and Independence closer.
As Massachusetts and I are circling around in the kitchen section, my dad calls me. Massachusetts is looking for some sponges while I slip my hands between the folds of kitchen towels. I pick up the phone.
“Why hasn’t your mom been able to reach you?” he asks.
I tell him I am in an Ikea and maybe the building was blocking some sort of reception.
“I don’t know what to do with her,” he says.
I tell him I have to go, but I will call back later. My free hand is shoved into the pleats of a towel with a small cat on it. Massachusetts walks towards me and waves, but I don’t remove my hand or lower the phone from my face even though the call is over. Instead, I think about the last text I received from my mom before I blocked her.
Quick question I know your not crazy about me being your mother and that’s totally cool. I’m sorry scientology brain washers DRANK THE PURPLE FUCKING KOOL-AID I WON’T BOTHER YOU ANYMORE. I’M MOVING. DO NOT TELL YOUR FATHER NO NEED TO UPSET HIM. MAYBE YOU WILL SOON FIND OUT WHY I MUST LEAVE. I WILL NO LONGER BE CONTROLLED. MY PARENTS NEVER TREATED ME LIKE A CHILD. I KNOW YOU WILL UNDERSTAND WHY SOON. UNTIL WE MEET AGAIN.
She didn’t go anywhere anyway, so it was all just for show. When I was in middle school, she would actually run away and my dad and I would have to drive around to pawnshops or the houses of my brothers’ friends who sold pills or people she had met from AA, and ask if they had seen her. She always turned up fine.
Massachusetts and I find the rug towards the child section. It is pink and green and has a little room on it. After I pay for it and the cinnamon rolls that she promised to heat up, we call another car.
I turn to Massachusetts and say, “My coworker is from Red Hook and he shot someone last summer.”
When we reach our school, we grab the rug and thank the man. She gives him five stars and when we are alone in the elevator, she kisses me. I say, “I always think of Silence of the Lambs when I’m in elevators.” She doesn’t get the reference.
When we unfurl the rug, the edges curl slightly, so we lay down on it.
“What did your grandpa want this morning anyway?”
“Oh. He thought it was my birthday and wanted to remind me of the time that he took me to a racetrack to celebrate. I didn’t know how to tell him that I was afraid of horses. He wouldn’t have understood.”
She laughs and grabs my hand; our feet tangle, even though I hate feet. Massachusetts and me and the frozen cinnamon rolls sit on the pink and green room rug. There is a little bed and a little kitchen that we are giants against. The day fades to orange outside.
Last summer, when we first started dating, I went home for a few weeks. My dad was on a business trip, so I watched a movie in the living room. My mom walked in and told me that I was the devil, and I would burn. She tried to grab me, but when I got away, she threw some dog toys and a remote at me. Then she called the police on me. When they showed up, they saw the scratches on my arms and asked if I wanted to file a report. I said no because I had done that before and nothing changed. Instead, I packed a bag and went to a friend’s house. I told Massachusetts about it when I got back to New York. She held my face in her hands for a minute before taking off my clothes, and then we never talked about it again.
I roll towards her, place my hands on her stomach, and imagine her being pregnant. What we would name our baby. If she would knit little socks in every color. If she could ever love part of me enough to carry it inside of her.
On the road trip back to Long Beach, the car was drenched in ash and tobacco and, on occasion, Sassy’s bladder. I wanted to be home. I was afraid to stop back at the motel and I was afraid of this white woman parading around as my mother’s mother. Grabbing our hands and telling strangers that we were hers.
Don sat in the passenger seat and looked at me. I thought one day, when I am done growing, we might have the same nose. As he and my mom talked to each other through the seat, I saw how their hands worked the same way. They both loved strangers and parties and alcohol that might kill them. I didn’t belong in the backseat of that Honda.
Independence was fine. Don took us to where he grew up, and where his cousins lived, and where Laura Ingalls Wilder once lived, and I told him I had never read her books.
“Oh Gabby,” he started because my memories of him are blurred and rubbed raw from the years of not being next to him or his belly, “you love her, I know you do.” And he pointed to the clearing, and the sky was blue, and my eyes hurt, because that was the same blue as those eyes of his, and I thought, I might die if I have to think of this any longer.
Then back in the car, the window was down because they didn’t have air conditioning. A fly crawled in. He floated around for a few minutes before landing on the suede seat next to me. I grabbed him.
I held the little fly in my hands and let him taste whatever beef jerky was left on the cracked skin of my palms and watched him lick his oily antennas. His name was Junior. I pulled him up to my lips and told him about the dreams I had in the motel. Or the fields of Independence. I explained the family dynamic in the car. How I was afraid of having blue eyes so I told everyone that they were green. How my parents had dark hair and dark eyes like the rest of my family, but they all said that I was more beautiful for my whiteness. He was my confidant, trapped in my hands.
Then I realized that Junior being with me, probably meant that Senior was out there alone. And even though the states in the Southwest blurred, we must have been in Amarillo or Albuquerque or somewhere far from where Junior was from. They probably touched their faces in the same way, and I started to cry. I was ruining his life, this little bug, and I rolled down my window and tossed him outside.
Alex Juarez is a Chicanx lesbian writer, editor, and pop culture enthusiast from Los Angeles. A recent graduate of the BFA Writing Program at Pratt Institute, she has edited for GLAAD and Lambda Literary. She currently serves as an assistant CNF editor for Pithead Chapel. Find her on twitter @alexbethjuarez.