My father died on a July day in Phoenix. When he was found, his temperature was 108. The medical examiner’s certificate listed the cause of death as hyperthermia.
I grew up in Phoenix and once the heat seemed ordinary to me. As children, my friends and I walked barefoot on asphalt roads that melted in the sun. We’d pick lumps of black tar from the road and chew them like sweet gum. It made our teeth black, and we’d smile cadaverously at one another and roar.
My father disappeared on a Sunday. The police report said he was wearing underwear, shorts, a knit, plaid shirt, and a pair of Reebok walking shoes. He had no watch, wore no jewelry. There were four cents in his pocket, and the pennies were given to me in a sealed envelope, along with a signed document attesting that they were his sole possession at time of death. The walking shoes were also given to me. A woman at the mortuary came out holding them gingerly by their heels, as though they were unclean. The underwear, shorts, and shirt were disposed of by the authorities — but the shoes were returned.
When my father disappeared, my mother was at the morning service at Mountain View Lutheran Church. My mother comes from a Norwegian Lutheran family. She has placed her faith in the church, offering it her strength and integrity.
My father was a Catholic. On holidays he took me to Our Lady of Perpetual Help: bells ringing, little buckets swinging on the ends of chains, smoke pouring through the cavernous room. We kneeled on hard wooden forms that made my knees ache. Our Lady of Perpetual Help was unpainted adobe, brown as the earth.
That July I was working in the mountains above Cody, Wyoming, near Sunlight Basin and Dead Indian Pass. Fires were burning in Yellowstone and in the Tetons. At Sunlight Basin I could stare straight at the sun, a crimson globe behind the pall of smoke. It looked as if the sky were deeply overcast and it might rain. There would be no rain.
The caretaker said there was a call for me on the radio patch to Powell. My stomach jumped. I picked up the receiver.
“David, this is your mother.”
“Oh, hi, Mom,” I said, still nervous.
“Pop’s disappeared,” she said.
“What?” There was no answer, then I remembered I had to push down the button on the side of the microphone. “What?”
“Pop’s disappeared. He was sitting at the kitchen table working on a tole painting. You know he’d gotten a nice desk to work at, but it was never quite big enough and he always ended up at the kitchen table. When I came home from church, he was gone. I found his paintbrush in a glass of water.”
My father never left a brush sitting in water. The hairs would get bent, ruining the brush. He always cleaned and dried each brush as he finished using it.
In his retirement, my father had become a fanatic about hobbies. Once, he made a series of kachinas, the Hopi dolls that represent the spirit world and are used to teach children the ways of their people. His were exquisitely detailed copies of kachinas as they are made by the Hopi, except that my father’s were made of styrofoam.
I pushed the button again. “What happened?”
“He’s been very depressed. He didn’t want to tell you, but he hasn’t been able to breathe. It started in April. He’d go out to mow the lawn and couldn’t hardly do it. He’d nearly pass out in the heat, but he wouldn’t stop. The doctor said it was a bad valve in his heart. He was supposed to go in this afternoon for an echocardiogram. If they couldn’t fix the valve, he’d have to take it easy. That would kill him.”
“If Pop isn’t back by tomorrow morning at eight, you call me again. I’ll come down to Phoenix. You call me at eight, OK?”
“OK. 6606 clear.” I pushed the button and hung up. “I might have to leave,” I told my boss. “My father’s disappeared.”
“Yes. Maybe he’s out somewhere. Maybe he’s lost, or maybe he’ll be back.”
I ran back up the road toward Sunlight Basin. Later, there was another radio call.
“David, this is Officer Romero of the Phoenix Police Department. I’m with your mother. Your father’s dead. We found him this afternoon around one o’clock.”
It was his medicine that identified my father. He had no wallet, no driver’s license, no credit card or other I.D. But there was an empty pill bottle in the pocket of his shorts, with his name and his doctor’s name on the label.
My father believed everything that was wrong could be fixed with medicine. In his kitchen window I found Xanax .25 mg 1-3 times daily, Restoril 15 mg 1 at bedtime, Pepcid 40 mg 1 at bedtime, Halotestin 10 mg 1 daily, Amitriptyline 25 mg 1 at bedtime, Metoclopramide 10 mg 1/2 tab before meals and at bedtime, K-Dur 20 mg 1 tab daily.
Pills, capsules, tablets. Round, oblong, square, oval. Some with score lines down the middle. Green, white, pink, gray, red. Red the color of oxblood and white the color of clouds. Capsules filled with globes the size of black mustard seeds but in the colors of children’s party balloons.
I picked up the bottles and went to the bathroom, where I emptied the pills down the toilet. Then I threw the amber plastic bottles in the trash.
I went to identify the body. They wheeled a hospital cart into the hall, apologizing for the lack of privacy.
“Just let us know when you’re through.”
Only his head showed, his body covered by a white sheet. His face was waxy, shiny, almost as if a sheen of oil had been spread over the skin. And there was a clear globe at the inside corner of each eye — like a painted-on tear. His eyes had been removed for the Arizona Lions’ Eye Bank. Each temple was marked by a purple bruise. His hair was wispy more delicate than I remembered. He had been made to smile slightly. It was my father.
No, it wasn’t my father. I recognized the face but something was wrong, as if some other dead man had been made up to look like my father.
It was my word. No one else in my family would see the body. I could identify a dead dog as my father. Or I could deny that this man, surely my father, was him. He would not be dead, only missing.
I lifted the sheet. There were spots on his hand; his arm was stiff and dry. I touched him and spoke. He spoke back. I told the attendant I was ready to leave.
“Yes, it’s Pop,” I told my mother.
Once, I went with my mother to drop my father off somewhere. He stepped out of the car and walked away. When we returned for him at the agreed-upon time, he wasn’t there. We returned a second time that night, then went home and waited. At 5 a.m. he called and my mother went alone to get him.
My sister remembers another time, going with my mother to pick him up at the jail.
“What was he in jail for?” I asked my mother.
“I don’t know.”
“Didn’t you ask the policeman?”
“I didn’t speak to anyone at the jail.”
There were many trips to pick up my father — sleepy rides in the back of the car late at night.
“Were these trips real?” my sister asked.
“Yes,” Mom said.
“Did Pop take off many times?”
“I’d say once or twice a year.”
“Where did he go?”
“I’m not sure. Sometimes I think he went to the Y and stayed the night. Other times I think he went to drink. His parents drank heavily. Made him a teetotaler, but sometimes I wondered.”
“Why did he take off?”
“I don’t know. I guess he couldn’t take it anymore.”
“Everything — me, you, us, his life.”
“You never asked him?”
“I never asked.”
My mother answered these questions as though she’d been rehearsing for forty years, getting ready for this day.
My sister sat on the couch. She was eight months pregnant. My wife, too, was eight months pregnant. Sister and brother, thirty-five and thirty-eight years old, after youths of rebellion, had suddenly both gotten married and were both expecting children.
“It’s so sad,” my sister said, crying. “He was afraid of being alone, and he died utterly alone in an alley, with no one to talk to him, no one to hold him.”
During most of his life, my father worked at any job he could find — as a laborer in the paper mill, cabinet shop, aluminum mill, on the loading dock; as a janitor, handyman, gardener, maintenance man, carpenter. When he came home from work in the late afternoon, we all sat down together for dinner. After dinner we watched television until bedtime.
For my father, the television was escape. Through it, he entered other worlds, and most of all, he left this world behind. For me it is the opposite. When I watch television, this world overwhelms me. I cannot stand it.
Officer Benjamin Romero, badge #1705, Phoenix Police Department, answered the call to an alley in the 500 block of North Central, behind Carl Black’s Lounge, across from the dumpster, in the weak, small shade of the telephone exchange box. It was from Romero I learned who had called the police. “The witness was reluctant to give her name,” he said.
On Thursday morning, my sister, my mother, and I went to Carl Black’s. The bar was smoky, dark, and cool, making the already-hot street seem far away; the sweat from our arms and legs began to chill.
Seven people sat drinking on black vinyl-covered stools at a black vinyl-covered bar. A couple of them turned to look at us, visiting dignitaries in a foreign land. I was nervous. I hadn’t come to lay blame, but was unsure what I had come for.
The bartender was an old woman, wrinkled, deep bags under her eyes, hair brittle like faded straw, black eyebrows painted on in a soft curve.
“I’m looking for Lilian Conig,” I said to her.
She looked at me with some suspicion, like maybe I was a cop or insurance investigator, but then she answered strongly, “I’m Lily.”
“My father died in the alley behind your bar a few days ago. I heard you found him. Can I talk to you? This is my sister and my mother — his wife.”
Before I had finished, Lily was crying. She turned to a man in his fifties behind her, and said, “John, you remember that poor fella that died, was it Monday? This is his son and daughter and his wife.”
John said, “That was bad, real bad.” Shaking his head, not drinking.
Lily reached for my mother’s hands. “If I’da only known, but I thought he was just some drunk sleeping it off — excuse me for saying that. You know, just another poor old guy. I came to work just before six that morning and saw him lying there. When I went out at noon for lunch, he was still there. Oh my God, I thought, that man’s gonna die if somebody doesn’t do something. His arms and legs were blue and purple. If I’da known, you know, but around here — just this morning there was a man asleep on the grass out front.”
She cried, was quiet a minute, then asked, “How old was he?”
A dismayed “Oh” came from her mouth. “He was a young man.”
My mother explained that my father had a heart condition, that he must have gotten tired and sat down to rest. She left out the strange disappearances, the embarrassments. She left out the fact that he’d been depressed, that he’d had an appointment with the doctor on the day he died, that he was to learn whether it would be possible to get a new heart valve, and that, if not, he would never be able to physically exert himself again. She left all this out. Is it our place to lay the burden of knowledge on strangers?
“This last year,” Lily said, “my son was bit by a bunch of black-widow spiders. I took him to Paloma Blanca Medical Center. He always said to me, ‘Ma, if anything ever happens, don’t go to Paloma Blanca. They give you the wrong medication, don’t take care of you right, screw up.’ But when something happens you get panicky, and Paloma Blanca’s closest to our house, so I took him there and he died of those black widow bites.” She leaned close to my mother, still holding her hands.
There was a shout from down the bar. “Hey, Lily, I’m getting thirsty.”
“Go to hell,” Lily shouted without releasing my mother’s hands, their faces close. Then she looked sheepish for a moment. The thirsty customer let it go.
“Well, thank you,” my mother said, and told Lily not to blame herself.
As we walked out, a man spoke to us. He looked thirty-five going on sixty, had curly black hair, with the clothes and bearing of a person somewhere between full time on the street and regular day labor. Seasonal, maybe — grapes or citrus.
He said, “I’m sorry, folks.”
We stepped back into full sun, summer Phoenix heat stirring up from the earth. My mother told us that the police said it was a bad neighborhood, that neighborhood residents were reluctant to get involved. My mother said, “A bad neighborhood doesn’t mean that bad people live there.” Maybe this lesson she’d taught all my life still needed a little reinforcing.
My father had hoped I wouldn’t be what he had been — a man who worked with his hands and back. He expected me to get straight A’s in school. He started me on music lessons when I was six. He planned what I would do. I did almost none of it.
“Brains to burn,” he said, “and you can’t make a living.”
Eventually, he gave up on changing me. He became interested in who I had turned out to be. He listened to what I said, seemed to accept my opinions as if I knew better than he. It made me uncomfortable, but encouraged me to talk more about myself. Each year I let him see a little more of who I believed myself to be. We began to speak. Then he died.
A month after my father’s death, the fires are still burning in Wyoming. It’s the hottest, driest summer in many years. As though this were Arizona, cantaloupe is ripening in our garden — knobbled, veined globes surrounding brilliant orange flesh. In the Bighorns, above town, another fire started. Thousands of acres have burned and the air is smoky and filled with ash.
In August, our first child was born. We were told not to take her outside, as the ash might damage her lungs. There is too much that will forever remain unexplained.
Downtown Phoenix, at the Maricopa County Office of the Medical Examiner, the door is locked. We have to push a call button, give our names and business before the door is unlocked electronically and we are allowed to enter.
“It’s a bad neighborhood,” the clerk tells me. “And we’re all women in the office.”
I fill out the request for release of public documents and pay five dollars for a photocopy of the medical examiner’s toxicology report. I sign a form accepting this as the photocopy I want to see.
The report is a two-page form with nine boxes to check for cause of death. Box six is checked: suspicious, unusual, unnatural. Written after that, “Possible hyperthermia.” He lay on the melting black tar in an alley on a July day in Phoenix. His arms and legs were burned and his body temperature was 108.
The form tells me what time my father was found, what time he was moved, what time he was admitted to the hospital, what time he died, what time his dead body was examined. I know what time it was when these things happened.
At the hospital, we walk down long winding corridors into a sub-basement where medical records are kept. The staff refuses to release these records to us.
We refuse to leave.
They escort us into a small room. A hospital employee gives us each sheet of paper in the report one at a time and stays in the room with us. The employee answers no questions. We can look, hand back the documents, and leave. This is the kind of thing we read:
Interp of blood gas analysis — severe hypoxemia
despite supplementary O, pH in mildly acidemic
range, CO2 tension moderately elevated due to
alveolar underventilation, nonrespiratory
bicarbonate levels within normal range, acid base
pattern is that of respiratory acidosis with less than
adequate metabolic compensation.
On the medical examiner’s report there are other boxes under Description of body with the words hair, beard, mustache, eyes, teeth, weight, length, body heat. Typed near these boxes, seemingly referring to nothing, is the word, Fair.
Another box is labeled Rigor, with choices for jaw, neck, back, legs, arms, chest, abdomen. A box marked Liver reads “partially blanched.” This means that the blood in the liver at time of death was discolored. In other words, there were no foreign bodies in my father’s system — no drugs, no alcohol, no alien spores.
The section marked Circumstances of death is blank, as is Found dead by, and Last seen alive by, and Witness to injury or illness or death.
The man at the mortuary wore polyester — pastel shirt, deep burgundy tie with a pattern of tiny fleurs-de-lis, pale suit. His clothes were crisp and tight in contrast to his body, which had the mushy look of a person who gets no exercise. He smelled of cologne and antiperspirant.
His behavior was thoughtful and kind. He didn’t push us to do anything in particular with my father’s body. My mother thought cremation would be best. We were told the different prices, which depended upon what kind of box was burned up with the body.
He asked what we intended to do with the ashes. We thought we’d scatter them up on South Mountain, where my parents both liked to walk. Also, my father was a gardener — I saw him happy only when he was gardening — and it seemed right to give his ashes to the earth.
“Would you like me to take the ashes up in my airplane and spread them over the desert?” the man asked.
“No, we’d like to walk and scatter them.”
“It’d be no trouble for me.”
“We’d prefer the walking.”
The man was quiet for a moment, then said, “Technically it’s illegal to spread human ashes on public land. A man took his father’s ashes up into the Kaibab Forest to spread them. Some hikers reported him to a ranger.”
The grieving man was made to sweep the ground where he’d spread the ashes, to pick up the remains of his father along with dust and twigs and bits of leaves, and take it all away to be legally disposed of. He was fined for illegal dumping.
The man said, “Be careful. Go to a place where no one will see you.” He gave me a brown plastic box labeled Cremains, and he showed me how to open the lid with a car key or butter knife.
About twenty miles from Sedona, we pulled off the road, drove up an abandoned dirt track, and stopped at a barbed wire fence. We got out and crossed it, then walked down an embankment and across a dry riverbed. We climbed uphill through dense growth, stopping beside a steep, rocky wash. Dry most of the year, when water came, it crashed and tumbled.
I pried the lid off the box with my fingers. The ashes were powdery gray and creamy white, mostly residue of bone. I scattered some in the wash, some along the bank, some under nearby plants. Some I threw straight up into the wind, toward the sky. I spoke aloud, saying, “Go, dear father, back to this earth.” I wished for him a safe journey, some kind of peace, and love at any price.
It took only a few minutes. Then we sat down and were silent.
“Is that an animal?” my mother said, looking down across the valley to a light spot on the hill facing us. We all stared. The spot didn’t move, but it did look like an animal. We kept watching. Birds landed in the branches near us, a lizard scuttled along. The sun was warm but not hot.
When we got up to leave, I took two rocks, each about the size of a large lemon. One rock was dark, a reddish brown, pocked by holes as though drilled by many small nesting creatures. The other rock was the color of the earth here — a dusty white going from gray to rose. This rock had sharp angular lines, as though it had been cut rather than worn down.
Driving back, we looked for the spot where we had scattered the ashes. Somehow we missed it. How could we not recognize the place we’d been only a few minutes earlier? We lost it — the now secret spot where my father lies.