Brett Riley

Salvation Is a Joke with no Punchline

As the sand blew over the mountains, my sixteen-year-old son and I drove west on Tropicana Avenue. I wore a Who t-shirt. Lucien sported sunglasses and headphones that blasted some godawful horrorcore act like Twiztid or Insane Clown Posse, no real melody, a singer gargling scrap iron. I turned up Led Zep, the’66 Dodge Charger’s Bose speakers thudding with Bonham’s bass drum. Bruise-colored clouds covered the sky. A strong wind gusted. In Las Vegas, the wind never really stops, and when it rains, drivers on the freeway creep along at thirty miles per hour. The smallest puddle masks a potential flash flood that might sweep you off your feet and down a wash. But I grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I’ve walked my dog during tropical storms. Lucien worried me more. He hadn’t spoken to me all day.

A spattering of sand pelleted the windshield.

That’s weird, I said. Must be a construction site around here.

Lucien looked out his window.

Then the haboob struck. The road started to disappear like an old Polaroid photograph in reverse, details blurring, edges softening. Everything turned dark brown except the pink glow of tail lights.

What’s going on? Lucien asked, taking off his headphones.

I turned Zep down. Help me find a place to pull over.

Lucien pointed right. A break in the curb, an entry to a strip mall or gas station. I pulled in and inched forward and stopped. I had no idea where we were—in a parking space, next to a gas pump, in the middle of an intersection.

What is this? Lucien asked.

Haboob.

What?

A sandstorm. It’ll pass.

I didn’t know what I was talking about. We seldom get haboobs in Vegas. Sometimes a thin brown haze obscures the Strip, but this—we might have been buried alive.

Hmph, said Lucien.

If we miss our reservation, I’m gonna have words with God.

Lucien put his headphones back on, looked out his window, and turned up his iPod’s volume.

What’s crawled up his ass and died?

I cranked up the Zep. Lucien clenched his jaw and turned up his volume again. I increased mine. Rock and Roll shook the car. Plant’s wail could have cut the air. Lucien hit max volume. I did the same, the music thumping my ears like something physical. Outside, the day turned darker. Wind rocked the Charger.

Finally, he yanked off his Beats and threw them in the floorboard. He punched my stereo controls, cutting off Zep.

What’s gotten into you? I said.

Like you don’t know. You act like eating out makes up for missing half my life.

He slumped in the seat and stared at the sandstorm like he wanted to kill it. He had never sounded so hostile. I looked at him for a long time, wondering who he was and what he had done with my buddy, my rock and roll partner, my son.

* * *

Sixteen years earlier, my wife lay screaming in a hospital bed, feet in the stirrups. Her brunette hair frizzed everywhere. One nurse stood over her, cooing about breath rhythms. Another crouched between her legs. I leaned against the wall, horrified and useless.

God damn, Talia grunted.

Just breathe, honey, the standing nurse said.

Piss off, Talia hissed, turning to me with a look that could shatter mountains. Get your ass over here, you son of a bitch. This is your fault.

I looked to Standing Nurse. No help there. I took Talia’s hand. She groaned and shrieked and tried to crush my bones as the contraction plateaued. Ow, I said.

Pulse and blood pressure and fetal heart monitors surrounded us. Everyone had donned surgical masks and gloves and shoe coverings and cloth aprons and those things that look like hairnets. I had come straight from band practice, so underneath all that, I still wore my ripped jeans and a Ratt concert shirt.

Talia moaned. You look like an idiot.

It’s only rock and roll, but I like it.

The baby’s crowning, said Crouching Nurse. It’s almost over, honey.

I’ll tell you when it’s over, Talia growled. I feel like I’m shitting a basketball. Where’s the doctor?

We do this all the time, said Crouching, peering at Talia’s vagina. We don’t need the doctor.

Then he won’t need to fucking bill us.

My hand had gone numb. I looked at the ceiling, hoping to see God up there, a kindly old man in a white robe who would make Talia let go of me. No luck. Somebody had tacked up a poster of a woman with glowing, air-brushed cheeks and blinding white teeth. She held a newborn with a wisp of blonde hair.

I’d like to rip that bitch’s head off and stuff her stupid baby down her throat, Talia said through clenched teeth.

Crouching looked at me. I shrugged and said, She’s not normally homicidal.

When the final contraction hit, Talia arched her back and shrieked. A sound like a soaked washcloth ripping. Then Crouching held up this slimy, little, alien-looking thing, all purple and bloody. The umbilicus trailed from its navel.

Talia panted, eyes closed. The baby’s arms and legs pumped like a marathon runner’s. It wailed at approximately the same volume as a jet engine.

Standing clamped the cord. Would you like to cut it? she asked.

No, I said.

They weighed the kid and washed it off and wrapped it in a blanket. Crouching brought it over, but Talia had fallen asleep or passed out. So they handed it to me.

Meet your son, Crouching said.

The baby opened his eyes and looked into mine. One little fist held the blanket. The other bobbed about his mouth.

Lucien, I said. His name is Lucien.

Talia opened her eyes. Pale and sunken, like the bed was swallowing her, she beckoned me. I knelt.

Promise me, she whispered. Promise you’ll always make time for us. For him.

You know I will.

Promise.

I promise.

Her eyes seemed sad and knowing, as if she could see the lie I didn’t even know I was telling.

* * *

Thunder boomed. Lucien wore his headphones again. I had switched to some Ozzy-era Black Sabbath. The first song? Snowblind. I should have laughed, but nothing seemed funny. A car crept by, hazards blinking. Someone honked.

Lucien was towheaded and six feet tall, wiry, all elbows and knees, with his mother’s perfect nose, my green eyes, cheekbones entirely his own. At six, he had asked for a drum set. I sent him one from the road. Talia emailed me pictures of him playing it. The band teased me about how he’d replace me one day.

It used to seem possible. By seven, he could play God of Thunder and Smoke on the Water.

God, Talia had said. Hard rock, yet. Did I snort some of your coke while I was pregnant?

Sometimes, I’d move his little kit into my practice room and we’d whale away on the same song, sweating and grinning like fools. Then, one day, I caught him playing the drum tracks to Anthrax and Megadeth. For me, it was like when other parents caught their kids smoking. I wanted to ground him until he got his head on straight.

He’s not you, Talia said. And thank God. At least now we’ll get some variety around here, Mister Alice Cooper. But even she couldn’t take the horrorcore shit. If you want to beat the hell out of those things as fast as you can, she told him, then save your allowance and soundproof your room. I feel like I’m living with a jackhammer.

In hindsight, it’s easy to see the correlation between Lucien’s devolving taste in music, his social life, and his look. When he liked the same shit I liked, he wore his hair long and begged for cool rock shirts, even when we had to special-order them in his size—the Ramones and Nirvana and Judas Priest. Once he turned twelve and started playing Pantera and Slayer, he talked Talia into dying his hair black and buying him a leather jacket he covered in safety pins and buttons for The Sex Pistols and the MC5. Speed sound, old-school punk look. He was trying on identities like I tried out bongos on this one shitty song we played maybe twice. At fifteen, he called himself a Juggalo and, according to Talia, wore clown makeup to the dinner table one night until she laughed him out of the room.

Unless you’re joining the circus, Talia called after him, wash that shit off. Maybe join an Insane Chess Posse.

He went back to his natural hair color, but he found an old army jacket at Goodwill and wore it everywhere, even in Las Vegas summers. Old sprung combat boots, a godawful homemade tat of what was supposed to be a snake and looked more like a free-range dick, pinpricked onto the underside of his wrist by some kid at school.

The classic rock phase coincided with Pop Warner football, Little League, soccer. Speed metal killed everything but the soccer, and after horrorcore, he quit that, too. He mostly just stayed in his room and played the drums. He never joined a band. He yawned when I told him stories from the road and shrugged off my technical advice. After my first stint in rehab, when he was maybe eleven, he begged off half his visitation. Then, after I got clean last time, he halved it again. Ever since, he had grown quieter and quieter. Now he said nothing unless it was openly hostile.

Fuck.

I tapped him on the shoulder. Son.

He turned off the iPod and hung the Beats around his neck. What?

No words came to mind. Snowblind bled into N.I.B.

Lucien leaned his head against the window. Outside, shifting patterns of brown and red and near-white, all the colors of the Mojave, hurled against us.

Son—

Did you ever even want me?

What? Of course, I wanted you.

He turned back to the storm. The first raindrops hit the windshield and turned to mud.

Think, dumbass, Talia said in my head. You’re all into your son’s evolution today. What’s the missing link?

How the hell should I know? The kid’s lashing out when all I did was make dinner reservations. I always fucking showed up.

* * *

Well, there was his eighth birthday, when the band was in the studio day and night. A solid week of takeout and whiskey and session after session after session, sleeping on that goddam lumpy couch behind the mixing board, amphetamines and coffee. Talia called like forty times, and when I finally drove home, smelling like a homeless shelter, I didn’t even bring a present. Daddy, he said when I walked in, running to me and jumping into my arms. I was so tired I fell backward and banged my head on the door. He laughed. I missed you, he said. What did you get me?

Get you for what? I said, bright spots dancing in front of my eyes.

He looked at me like the oldest eight-year-old in the world. Then he got off me and sat down in front of the television.

Talia stood over me. Nice job, she said. Maybe next year you can throat-punch him.

Or Christmas when he was nine. We were on the road—Albany, I think, or maybe Boston. I lay in a sweat-stained bed, an empty vodka bottle on one side and some groupie with triple D’s on the other. My cell rang.

Hello.

Hi, Dad.

Hey, killer, I said, shoving the woman onto the floor and throwing the sheet over her, like he could see her, even though it was just a phone call. What’s up?

Merry Christmas, he said.

Is it Christmas? Jesus.

Yeah. When will you be home?

Not till after the New Year. I’m sorry, bud.

It’s fine, he said. He even sounded cheerful. But he handed the phone to Talia without saying goodbye.

So which one of you geniuses okayed the holiday gigs? she said.

Or that next summer, when Talia and I had separated but agreed to go on vacation together—Kauai, two weeks, learning to surf and deep-sea-fishing charters and snorkeling, just the three of us. We bought nonrefundable tickets, just to make sure we couldn’t back out. For Lucien, we both said, so he’ll know we’re always a family. If this works, maybe we can even do it every year. And then a week before, at some crummy local gig in a totally forgettable bar downtown, somebody handed me a needle and a spoon and a tie-off and I woke up in Reno the day after we were supposed to leave.

I showed up at the house, looking like death. God, I’m sorry, I said. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.

You’re a selfish asshole, Talia said. It’s not complicated.

Lucien just looked at me. He didn’t even seem surprised.

* * *

Soon, my eyes began to sting. Grit crunched between my teeth. Sand wafted, then exploded, into the car through the air vents and right up our noses, down our shirt collars.

Oh, shit, Lucien cried.

The dash swam out of focus. I pulled my shirt over my nose and clawed at the vents, accidentally directing more sand toward Lucien. I coughed. He hacked and choked. His hands thudded against the climate controls. The air blew harder, a mini-haboob.

I turned off the engine. My eyes and nostrils burned. My throat felt like sandpaper. From beside me, the sound of splashing, Lucien swallowing. A moment later, he handed me a half-full bottle of water. I swirled a bit in my mouth, spit into the floorboard, and drank. Then I poured some into my eyes and blinked like crazy until I could see again. Light brown mud covered Lucien’s face.

We looked at each other. I smiled. Then I started laughing. He watched me, the corners of his mouth twitching.

The car felt like a sauna. We sat there, tenderized by sand, brined in our sweat.

* * *

Ten years ago, before the missed birthdays and Christmases and vacations, I stumbled up the cobblestone walk to our house in Green Valley, a two-bedroom place, seventeen hundred square feet. The band had hit a rough patch—no tours, no opening slots for any act you might have heard of—so we had been playing a lot of off-Strip dives, including the bar where I had spent most of the night drinking cheap comped whiskey and smoking joints in the bathroom between sets. Around one a.m., somebody brought in some low-grade coke, and I played the next four songs like somebody punched fast-forward.

Now, as the sun peeked over the horizon, I barfed all over our desert landscaping.

Talia burst outside, wearing a pink robe tied at the waist and white slippers. She stomped up to me and shoved me with both hands. I landed on the cobblestone drive, my tailbone shooting lightning up my spine.

What the fuck? I slurred.

She glanced toward the house. That’s what I want to know. That bar closed at two. It’s six-thirty. Where have you been?

That can’t be right. I loaded my shit into the van and got right on the bus. Didn’t I? I had definitely stepped off a bus a couple blocks away and staggered home, but I couldn’t remember the ride.

I grinned and shrugged. What do you want? I’m in a rock band.

You can’t keep doing this, she said as I got up. She sniffed me. Her eyes turned icy. You smell like pussy.

I didn’t do anything. That I remember.

Yeah, right. Just like when I caught you banging that tatted-up barfly in Flagstaff. God, you’re such a cliché.

Look, lay off. I didn’t touch anything last night except a joint and a shot glass.

I deserve better than this. So does Lucien. You remember him. Short guy? High voice? Doesn’t pay rent?

I brushed past her and walked into the house. She followed, breathing fire down my neck. I took my wallet out of my pants—they were filthy, like I had slept in an alley with a pack of dogs—and tossed it on the table. I opened the fridge, took out a quart of orange juice, opened it, drank.

Lucien walked in, rubbing his eyes, his near-white hair corkscrewed. He yawned. Hi, Daddy, he said, hugging me around the waist.

Hey, killer. How’d you sleep?

Okay. You smell weird.

Talia leaned against the counter and crossed her arms and mouthed pussy.

I scratched my nose with my middle finger. Some of the places I play don’t smell good.

Will you watch cartoons with me? His eyes were chips of emerald.

Not right now, killer. I’m beat. Let me sleep a few hours and then we’ll hang, okay?

Okay, Daddy.

Talia handed him a bowl and a box of something sugary. I got the milk and put it on the counter and navigated the darkened hall to our bedroom, where I skinned off my nasty clothes—they smelled like sour sweat and smoke and, yes, sex, what the hell had I done?—and grabbed some fresh boxers. I needed a hot shower and seven hours of sleep.

Talia blocked my way. Watch cartoons with your son, you selfish prick.

I said I’ll hang with him later. You want me to fall asleep five minutes in?

At least you’d be there. Do you remember the promise you made when he was born? The one about always making time?

Oh, for Christ’s sake. I made money last night. Now I’m here. What else do you want from me?

A life. A family.

Don’t be so dramatic. I slipped past her, power-walked to the shower, turned on the water, and stepped in while it was still cold.

Afterward, I threw on a pair of shorts and sat on our bed, my back against the headboard. I opened my nightstand drawer and pulled out a blunt the size of a hot dog. Lighting it, inhaling, holding in the smoke, I closed my eyes. My muscles deflated.

When I looked up, Lucien stood in the doorway. I exhaled and waved smoke away. He climbed onto the bed and over the covers and nestled beside me, leaning his head against my left arm. His hair felt like silk. I flicked some ashes onto the nightstand. The house was cool, the light diffused. I took another hit and blew smoke at the ceiling. Everything slowed down.

Then, blowing in from the hallway, Hurricane Talia made landfall.

What the hell? she cried, dashing to Lucien and yanking him away. You’re getting high right in front of him. Baby, go watch your shows.

She set him down. He left. I grinned. It’s just grass, I said.

If he tells anybody about this, the state could take him away from us. It’s child endangerment or contributing to the delinquency of a minor or something.

He wouldn’t even know there was anything to tell if you weren’t freaking out.

Her eyes glistened. Her lips were pressed into a thin, almost bloodless line. You need to choose, she said. I’m not saying quit the band. I’d never ask that. But all this other shit—the drugs, the drinking, the women—you’ve got to stop if you want us to be here when you come home.

I toked and blew the smoke at her. I don’t like ultimatums.

And I don’t like broken promises. I’m done with this shit.

I laughed until she left. Then I crushed out the joint with my thumb and forefinger. It raised blisters, but I didn’t notice them until I woke up that afternoon.

* * *

Fat raindrops splattered on the windshield. Lucien opened the glove compartment. He removed the owner’s manual and fanned himself with it. This sucks, he muttered.

It’ll pass, I said, sipping water.

He snatched the bottle from me, drank the rest, and dropped it in the floorboard. No. I mean it sucks being here. With you.

Have you ever been kicked in the balls? Waves of pain and nausea radiate from your nuts to your guts, your heart, your lungs. Your whole body folds. There is no question of will. Your mind can scream to get up, walk it off, don’t be such a wuss, but the body doesn’t listen.

I watched the sand blow. We sweated.

I started making stupid choices before you were born, I said. I did coke, whiskey, grass, heroin. A little meth here, some crack there. Your mother took you away because I was poisonous, and she was right to do it.

He brushed wet hair from his eyes. So, what? Am I supposed to feel bad for you?

No. I laid my hand on his shoulder. He pushed it away. But I’m trying. Why are you so pissed off?

Because Mom’s sick, he spat. She’s got stage three breast cancer. She might die, and then all I’ll have left is you.

* * *

Five years ago, after those aborted birthdays and Christmases and vacations, I sat at a circular aluminum-cast table and held a cup of black coffee in shaking hands. At nine a.m., the morning sun had already burnt off the mist. Cool wind blew down the Sangre de Christo Mountains and over the stone fencing separating us from the world. Behind me, Cactus Blossom Rehabilitation Center hummed as methheads vomited in the hallways. The fluorescents hummed like mosquitos in your ear, their glow highlighting every deepening line in every haggard face. Alcoholics trembled and ground their teeth, and junkies took one step at a time, one day at a time, in the antiseptic building with its off-white walls and blue tile floors and a constant scent of cleanser and stomach acid. Some ate breakfast or stared at their plates until a scrubs-wearing orderly came along and scolded them. I had already forced down an egg-white omelet and wheat toast that tasted like cardboard. In half an hour, individual counseling, in which a therapist who looked like the actor Arliss Howard would ask how my meds worked, if I had made my amends list yet, whether I could sleep.

Sure, Doc, but I wake up screaming.

And how does that make you feel?

At eleven, I would join a group session that included an Academy Award-winning actress and a mother of four who had not seen her kids in two years and the head of a Fortune 500 company whose name everyone on the planet knew. Grownups crying like babies. This one woman, with gray and broken meth teeth and a face like a deflated football, swiped rolls of toilet paper and tore off one sheet at a time and then ripped each sheet into precise inch-long strips, perfect rectangles, which she would line up along the baseboards and around the floor’s tile borders like she was re-grouting, and when somebody kicked the paper around as they walked by, she patiently put each strip back. She almost never washed her hair and looked like that chick from The Ring. All she needed was a well to crawl out of.

We’d have a lunch of hay and flavorless gelatin, free time I would probably spend reading Elmore Leonard under a tree, an hour of yoga and an hour in the gym, a dinner that seemed edible at least seventy percent of the time, an art class in which we were supposed to paint our feelings, and I always seemed to draw giant screaming mouths full of dull teeth or square abstractions in black and shades of gray. Then lights out.

In the six weeks since my arrival, I hadn’t looked in a mirror, afraid of what I’d see. My face gaunt and skeletal, my arms and legs like sticks. When my lead singer found me unconscious in a dive bar’s restroom, I weighed a hundred and ten pounds. I had fallen off the toilet and lay in water and piss, my eyes rolled back. The paramedics say my heart stopped in the ambulance, that no oxygen reached my brain for four minutes. They could barely place an IV because most of my veins had collapsed. They kickstarted me in the ER and took me to the ICU and strapped me down. I woke up three days later with a deep, unsettling feeling that stretched from my heart down to my balls.

I had been in rehab before. At first, I thought of nothing but getting high and felt like spiders were crawling under my skin. After two weeks, drugs only crossed my mind once every five minutes or so unless something triggered me, in which case I begged the orderlies for an opioid, and when begging didn’t work, I tried bribing them, and when that failed, I fought them until they strapped me down. After four weeks, I only shook in the mornings, when my nightmares were fresh.

My bandmates visited. Our manager stopped in twice and called half a dozen times. Now I had finally gotten around to wondering if Talia and Lucien even knew where I was. If they cared.

Imagine my surprise, then, when Talia stepped onto the patio.

She looked like a hallucination—framed in the sun’s nimbus, skin healthy and supple, veins full and ripe, no missing teeth or blue prison-style tats. She carried two cups of coffee. Steam rose off the Styrofoam cups. Can I join you? she asked.

Please, I said, still stunned.

She sat across from me and passed me a fresh cup. How are you?

Better, but a motivated Girl Scout could kick the shit out of me.

She sipped her coffee, then gestured at the building. What about all this?

They’ve kept me alive. I’m off the junk and gaining weight.

That’s good.

The worst part about being sober is remembering the high. All that peace, the way the worst news in the world rolls off you like water from a duck’s back. You could live with yourself because you did all that bad shit when you were high, but now you’ve got to spend every second inside your own miserable skin.

Wherever you go, there you are.

We drank our coffee and looked at each other, at the distant mountains, at the flawless sky. Someone passed us and stood at the far edge of the yard, smoking. After a while, I said, I’ve got a lot of amends to make. Mostly to you and Lucien.

She studied me over her cup. What about the music?

On hold until I can stay clean. Which means indefinitely.

She took my hand. That’s good.

How’s Lucien?

Still driving me crazy with those drums.

He didn’t want to come?

She looked away. No.

I’m glad. He shouldn’t see all this.

And then I blubbered like a baby, snot running into my unkempt mustache, the ache of all I’d lost bursting out like pus from a lanced boil. Talia held my hand, even after all I’d done.

You’re okay, Talia said. You’re good.

Thank you for taking care of our son.

Always, she said. She held my hand until an orderly called me in for therapy. When she left, I wept into the afternoon, until I feared I would turn to ash.

* * *

Now the addict in me gibbered, Talia could die. What will you do then?

While I sat mute, Lucian said, Fuck this, opened the door and fell into the storm.

Get in the car, I yelled. But he stumbled into the darkness. Goddammit, I said, and followed him.

Sand scoured my skin, filled my nose and eyeballs. I pulled my shirt over my mouth and nose and trudged forward. I must have looked like a mime walking against the wind. I screamed his name.

No answer.

I held my arm over my eyes. The wind screamed. Mud fell everywhere. I slipped and skidded, pinwheeling my arms, shouting Lucien’s name, spitting sand.

I bumped into him and grabbed him. Get off me, he cried, shoving me with both hands. I lost my footing and fell on my ass, the shock traveling from my tailbone to my skull. Mud everywhere, perpendicular to the sand threatening to scrape off my face. Lucien disappeared again, yelling things I couldn’t hear.

Barely able to breathe, I got on my hands and knees and then pushed myself to my feet. Fuck. Then I staggered in the direction I hoped maybe Lucien might have taken. My hip struck a hard object, probably a car, and I spun, nearly losing my balance again. I passed several dull glowing eyes in the dark—headlights from parked vehicles. Wiping my eyes with my grit-caked shirt, probably just making things worse, I trudged forward, calling my son, hearing nothing but then wind.

Then I tripped over something, a form huddled on the ground. Twisting in the air, I landed on my left arm instead of my face. It hurt like hell, but nothing popped or broke. Lucky. I sat up and scooted closer and grabbed the shape squatting in all that sand and gunk. A person, about the right size.

Lucien?

What? he said, as if I had called him out of his room.

Are you okay?

It’s raining mud. What do you think?

I hugged him, expecting him to shove me again or pull away or curse me. Instead, he sat still, his entire head pulled into his shirt. Mud fell like God had scooped out a riverbed and dumped it on our heads. Every drop splattered and spread, covering the ground, our car, us. I shielded him so most of the filth would fall on me.

I’m here, I said.

So what? You never stay.

I will this time.

He leaned against me, his head on my chest. He gripped my arm, holding it like a lifeline, squeezing tighter and tighter. His nails dug into my bicep.

The skyborn mudslide fell and fell. And when the haboob moved on and the thunder stopped booming, we sat there, still and quiet, while Las Vegas dug itself out of the muck.

 

Comments
  1. Richard on

    Very interesting ending. Or is it a new beginning? Or is it going to be more of the same? Very interesting. Hope? Or more muck?

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