My brother told me that if I stood closer to the edge, it would make for a better photo.
Jake and I were running four hours behind on our way to see our father in Pueblo Norova. The twelve-year-old Toyota Camry we had driven from New York to Nevada had started making a gurgling sound that reminded me of the noises my boyfriend would make on the couch after a night out of drinking and Duran Duran karaoke, but we had an unspoken agreement to ignore it. In keeping with family tradition, we were prepared to ignore any and all signs of danger until confrontation became unavoidable.
Four hours from Dad was doable even in terminally ill Camry, but how we were going to get back to Syracuse was anybody’s guess.
Our detour was brought on by Jake’s insistence that we take a photo in front of the Grand Canyon. Part of me thought it was to provide photographic evidence of this unfortunate excursion. Jake had told his girlfriend that he had to miss her cousin’s wedding because his father had experienced yet another mental collapse and was being kept in a facility in a little town outside of Phoenix where Warren Beatty filmed a movie that nobody had ever seen. She told him she wanted to see photos of the trip--at least one for each state we passed through. This was most likely because my brother was a compulsive liar who had cheated on this poor girl multiple times in the one year they’d been together. That meant she was going to need to see visual proof of a family crisis each step of the way.
Jake being Jake, he saw this as an opportunity to buy a camera he couldn’t afford. Suddenly, I was traveling alongside a photographer. It reminded me of the time my Dad showed up at the house one day with a kayak in the back of his truck telling us he was going to be a river guide. I was five-years-old and it took me all of thirty seconds to find four separate holes in the vessel. Dad told me I was being a raincloud, but I never did hear about him taking that thing for a spin down any river.
I was the one who got the call from the place to Pueblo Norova to come pick up Dad, because his insurance had run out. Jake handled the dreaded call to our mother begging her to take Dad back even though they’d been separated for over three months.
“I told you, boys, I don’t want anything to do with that man,” she said, “But if you drop him off here, he can stay in the basement until he figures himself out.”
Leave it to our mother to think of mental illness as something you could figure out in a basement. With no other options available to us, we made the trek with a backseat full of dried raisins (for me) and chewing tobacco (Jake). Neither of us brought more than a few t-shirts and we were prepared to wear the jeans we had on for however long this little venture took. The lack of wardrobe wasn’t the only reason I wasn’t feeling photogenic. I was up most nights with my boyfriend screaming and threatening to throw him out. Those fights had left me with dark circles under my eyes and a pervading aura of hopelessness that showed up on film like a specter. A friend had taken a video of me at her birthday party as I was forcing myself to eat a thin slice of buttercream cake despite not having had an appetite for close to six months. She told me later she deleted the video because something about it unsettled her. I was unsettling to people. I felt that inside myself too. This tidal feeling that I was either pushing myself too hard or pulling in too intensely--and I couldn’t determine which it was.
For most of the ride, my brother would have me take photos of him. Photos of him eating at roadside trucks selling pulled pork wraps or chicken skewers. Photos of him pretending to laugh at tourist traps like The Giant Ball of Saran Wrap or the World’s Biggest Calculator (I’ve seen bigger). It wasn’t until we crossed into Arizona that Jake confessed he wanted to take a photo of me standing against the edge of the Grand Canyon.
“Why,” I asked, finishing up the last of the dried raisins.
He told me that his girlfriend wanted a photo of the Grand Canyon, but that it made him nervous. When we were kids, he used to have nightmares about falling. He was terrified of heights and every time we would go over a bridge, I would see him hold his breath until we were on the other side. During one particularly bad traffic jam, I worried he might pass out right there in the driver’s seat. I had no idea what holding your breath was supposed to do as a means of protection from a bridge collapsing, but our family had all sorts of superstitions that made no sense and were cherished nonetheless. Our father used to tell us that if we recited the alphabet backwards every night before bed, an angel would come to us while we slept and tell us a secret that we must keep to ourselves for the rest of our lives. Jake said he got a few secrets, but I always suspected he was either full of it or had inherited a little of what put our Dad in a facility in Arizona. I never heard any angels whispering to me in the night, but I already had plenty of secrets to keep.
By the time we arrived at the Canyon, night was fast approaching. I noticed that Jake had already adopted the language of a photographer based on what he’d seen in movies and on tv. That was how our father got by as well. Learn to talk the talk, and you can sail by for years before anybody actually expects you to walk. That was how our father did real estate without a license and worked as a physical therapist without any training and sold stocks and bonds without being able to do long division even on a good day. He put the con in confidence man and he never felt any shame in it. I was worried Jake would wind up following in his footsteps, and if he did, I wasn’t sure how many more rescue missions I had in me if it came to that.
I begged Jake to take a photo without me in it, but he said his girlfriend might think he pulled it off the Internet. When I saw how scared he was of going anywhere near the drop, I rubbed under my eyes in a useless attempt to scrub off the discoloration underneath them, and I put on the cleanest t-shirt I could find in the back. I don’t know why I wanted to look presentable in a photo only my brother’s soon-to-be ex-girlfriend would see, but for some reason, it mattered. The last time I had my photo taken it was at my college graduation. My mother was there, but Dad was somewhere in Seattle selling fake insurance policies to the elderly so he could afford to buy whatever drugs would help him sleep at night.
“Get as close to the side as you can,” my brother instructed me, “Come on, before we lose the light.”
I didn’t bother to look behind me to see how far up I was. There was a railing to prevent foolhardy visitors from falling, but it was at waist-level. One wrong move, and it wouldn’t be impossible to find yourself taking the long way down. Unlike Jake, I wasn’t scared of heights, but I was scared of facing death. I was scared that it might not look all that bad to me when faced with the alternatives.
My brother snapped a few photos as the sun was waning, and the few cars that were parked next to ours pulled out and drove away. He gave me a thumbs up and I took that to mean, he had a photo of me he liked. We hopped back in the Camry and began the four hour drive to reintroduce ourselves to our father. It had been two years since I’d seen him. Jake had paid a visit to him at Christmas when he was living with a widow in Los Angeles, but he left after they got in a fight over Jake refusing to lend him money to start up a new business involving protein drinks. The person who called me on the phone to let me know they’d found my father wandering the streets of Phoenix told me he might not remember me, and I should be prepared for that. I wanted to ask them how anybody prepares for something like that. I wanted to ask what I should do. What I should say when I saw my father. I wanted to know if I could pretend to be a stranger. Just a kind stranger who was going to give him a ride to his estranged wife’s house.
Children? No, sir, I don’t think you have any children. Just your spouse who’s going to let you live with her until you’re back on your feet again.
There were no lights for miles as we drove toward Pueblo Norova. Jake put on some music, but something about being so close to the goal of our trip was heightening both our senses. He mentioned the music being too loud no matter how low he set the volume and I felt like I could see shapes around the tunnels cut by the headlights. He stuck a wad of tobacco in his mouth just as Juice Newton popped onto his playlist.
“Just call me angel of the morning…”
My brother sped up just a bit--trying to cut that four hours down to three and a half. Trying to get there a little faster so we could get closer to forgetting. I took the camera off his lap and slid through the photos from the trip. When I reached the one of me standing there at the Canyon I slipped out of my breath. It was a good photo--way too good for an amateur. It wasn’t that I didn’t recognize the person in the frame. That I would have been ready for. No, I knew the man in the picture. It was my Dad. A lost traveler too close to the edge trying to get the shot before the light goes out.
“Hey,” Jake said, as he turned off the music--
“Tell me a secret.”