~This story was originally published in Gulf Coast (2004).
When I was twelve years old and just getting over my unnatural fear of dogs, girls, and thunderstorms, I stumbled on my father's secret collection of Queen Elizabeth memorabilia. It was stuffed in a cardboard box in the basement of our house in El Paso, on a shelf behind some crusty paint cans. The collection consisted of several old, hand-colored pictures--one of the young queen-to-be in a white chiffon dress, another of a slightly older queen looking bored in front of a sweep of blood-red drapery--along with a varied assortment of royal souvenirs, including a coronation mug and a tiny silver spoon with a handle shaped like the monarch's head. When I brought the box upstairs to ask my father about it, his face fell. "So you found it," he said, embarrassed but not mortified, as if I had discovered his private stash of wholesome Victorian pornography. He put his drink down, took the dusty box from my arms, and set it on the kitchen table. Then he donned his thick, black-rimmed glasses and started rummaging through the items inside. "Take a look at that, Leonard," he said, holding out a photograph of Elizabeth inspecting the horses at Astor. "She's not a pretty woman, granted. But what a bearing!"
"Does Mom know?" I asked him, obscurely worried.
He didn't even hear me. He just kept staring at the photograph. "As if nothing in the world could ruffle her," he said.
A few months later, my father--Wyndham Hodding Stafford, the Canadian-born, Texas-raised owner of Stafford Printing Incorporated--was convicted in federal court on two counts of forgery and sentenced to five years in the federal pen.
Five years. It was the equivalent of a third of my life back then. By the time my father was released, the divorce had already gone through and I was living with my mother in a red-brick garden apartment in Las Cruces. I was a junior in high school, and had just won a prize for an English essay on what it was like to have an alcoholic felon for a parent. "Honor Thy Father?" I had titled it, with a meaningful question mark at the end.
He got out of prison in April 1987. For the next six or seven months, he honored my mother's request that we not hear from him except on holidays and birthdays. But eventually we weakened and started letting him back into our lives. And why not? Prison seemed to have changed him, to have made him savvier and more in control of his life. He'd stopped drinking, for one thing. And he'd gotten a job with a respectable printing firm in El Paso. "I've found myself," he told us during an Easter visit one year: "I'm in the groove." By the time I entered my sophomore year at New Mexico State, he'd put together enough money to start his own business again. There was even talk of his moving back in with my mother.
Then, in August 1991, he was arrested a second time. Forgery again. One of his partners, it seemed, had informed on him to the FBI. They picked him up--dead drunk--in a rental house on North Mesa with some fake Social Security checks and a superfast high-quality photocopier.
"Strike two," the judge intoned ominously at the sentencing.
My mother, sitting with me in the courtroom, looked down at her hands and whispered: "No, strike three."
My father tried to look dignified when they led him from the courtroom in handcuffs. It was his Queen Elizabeth look--as if nothing in the world could ruffle him.
There's an old Spanish saying that my Mexican mother-in-law likes to cite in times of trouble. Translated, it means: "Hope springs eternal." The first time she quoted it to me, I told her that an English poet named Alexander Pope had once said something very similar, but she looked so betrayed that I decided never to bring it up again.
It's the Mexican version I'm repeating to myself now, as I sit in the parking lot of the El Paso Federal Penitentiary on a Friday morning in late October. I'm twenty-seven years old, married myself now, and sitting in a brand-new, paid-for Toyota Corolla, waiting for my father to be released. I haven't seen the man in over 6 years--at least not without a bulletproof glass partition between us--and so I'm a little nervous. My wife, who's heard all about Dad from my mother, thinks I'm crazy to have anything to do with him. She's probably right. But somehow--maybe in penance for that essay I wrote back in high school--I feel I owe my father at least this little service. I figure I'll pick him up, drive him to a motel in town, get him settled, and then leave. A simple courtesy.
I look at my watch: Only an hour and fifteen minutes until my first class. I teach German at the community college in Las Cruces, and for some reason always get stuck with the 9:30 introductory class. "Verzeihung," I imagine telling my students, "aber mein Vater ist heute spät vom Gefängnis ausgelassen"--Forgive me, but my father was late being released from prison today.
Finally, at 8:25, I see my father's pink, balding head on the other side of the chainlink fence. He's wearing prison-issued street clothes--a checked shirt, black pants, and thick-soled black shoes--and is carrying a plastic shopping bag. As he goes through the exit formalities with the guard, I notice that he's put on a little weight. He must be 225 or 250 by now. He told me once that he actually liked the food in prison. "Reminds me of the stuff I ate growing up in Canada," is what he said.
The gate slides open. I get out of the car, walk to the front, and lean back heavily against the shiny hood, bracing myself.
"Hey there, Leonard," my father says. He's still wearing those same thick, black-rimmed glasses that make him look like a chemical engineer in the late 1950s.
"Dad," I say.
He looks me up and down, smiling. Then he reaches out and pulls me to his barrel chest. I imagine the scene from above: Two husky, straw-haired men--one young, one old--hugging awkwardly in a prison parking lot.
We get into the Toyota. "Nice new car," he says, tossing the plastic bag into the back seat. "I bet it's paid for, too. So how's Anita?"
"Big," I say. "The doctor says it might be twins."
"Twins!" He shakes his head. "Your life's about to change something drastic."
I swallow, tempted to say, "So is yours." But all I manage to get out is: "I found you a room at the Motel 6 on North Mesa. For a few days, until you can find a place."
"That'll be fine," he says.
We drive to town in silence, my father gazing out at the empty landscape all around us--miles of crumbly, dusty desert, punctuated by occasional wads of sage and creosote. He used to talk about the first time he saw the Southwestern desert, back when he was five or six and his family had just moved south from the damp woods of Nova Scotia. "I couldn't believe it, Lenny," he would say. "I thought it was God's idea of a joke."
I can feel his eyes on me now. "You think we can just make a stop or two before the motel?" he asks. "Seeing as I don't have any other transportation?"
I can hear the voices of my wife and my mother screaming: "No!" in my head.
But what can I do? This is my father; he hasn't been out of prison in over six years. "Sure, Dad," I say, and to my waiting students in Las Cruces I silently repeat: "Verzeihung." Forgive me.
When I was in grade school, my father had this trick--an animal trick. He used to do it for me when we were out together, usually after he'd had a few drinks. First, he'd find a dog tethered outside a supermarket or in a neighbor's back yard--a wild, barking dog, preferably one on the edge of hysteria. After hitching up his belt in preparation, he'd approach the dog. "Dad, don't," I’d say, but he wouldn't listen. He'd keep moving toward the dog, muttering gently and soothingly as he reached toward it, arms out and down like a diver preparing for a double-gainer. He seemed to be hypnotizing the dog, erasing the wildness deep within it. And suddenly--as if in a badly-spliced movie--the dog would go silent. It would stop barking, just like that, and my father would be on his knees, scratching it behind the ears, fending off its friendly licks.
"It's simple," he would tell me afterwards. "All a matter of confidence and attitude. You've got to convince the animal that you're in control."
I actually tried his trick myself once. After school one day, I saw a growling German shepherd tied to a parking meter on Montana. Imitating my father's technique, I walked slowly toward it--my hands positioned just so, my voice gently murmuring. But I must have lacked the right confidence and attitude. I remember watching, with an eerie sense of calm, as the dog's stained teeth closed around my outstretched hand. When it whipped its head to the side, I heard the crackle of bone and cartilage, the shredding of flesh. Strangely, the bite didn't seem to hurt at first. The sheer surprise of all that blood overshadowed the pain.
I still have limited mobility in my right hand, and an absence of sensation in the pinkie finger and the rounded edge of my palm. To this day, I have trouble writing longhand or handling a screwdriver or shaking an iron skillet full of eggs.
It was the last time I tried to learn anything from my father.
We pull into a diner on Gateway West where my father says he knows some people. It's a low brick building--big windows up front, completely covered with poster ads for malt liquor, car mufflers, and Mexican fortune-tellers.
My father and I head into the dark dining room. It's surprisingly crowded for 9 a.m. There are a dozen men at the mirrored bar, and several more scattered around the tables and red vinyl booths. My father takes a long look around the room, scanning the territory, then heads over to one of the empty booths near the window. "I should make a call," I tell him.
"Go ahead. What do you want?"
"Coffee, light and sweet." I head deeper into the restaurant, toward the pay phone near the rest rooms.
"Hi," I say when Anita answers.
"Hi, you. Your dad all squared away?"
"Not yet." I lean closer into the wall, hoping she won't hear the clatter of glasses and plates behind me. "Look, I'll be spending the morning with him. Would you call the department and tell them I'm sick?"
"Not yet." I lean closer into the wall, hoping she won't hear the clatter of glasses and plates behind me. "Look, I'll be spending the morning with him. Would you call the department and tell them I'm sick?"
Silence on the other end. I can imagine Anita with the phone to her ear, her fingers tracing the taut dome of her belly. There's something humbling, almost architectural about her belly now. Sometimes, in the morning, I like to just lie with my arms around it, my right ear against the little nipple her navel has become. I can hear my sons in there, shifting around. They sound restless, eager to come out and get on with it.
"Lenny," Anita says. "Remember what we talked about."
"I know, I know. But he's out after years behind bars. He just needs a little transition time." I like the sound of this, so I say it again: "I'm just giving my father some transition time. Later, after we've had a few hours together, I'll tell him that I won't be seeing him anymore."
A commotion has broken out in the bar behind me, so I can barely hear Anita when she sighs and says, "Okay, I'll tell them you've got the flu."
"You're a gem," I say. "Gotta go. Bye."
When I turn around, I see my father rolling around on the floor with a wiry young Mexican man.
"Oh Christ," I say, and break into a run.
It's already broken up by the time I get there. The bartender has the Mexican guy in a headlock, and two other men are holding my father back, pressing him against the edge of the bar.
"You fuckin' belong in prison," the Mexican says.
"Just tell the man what I said," my father replies. A piece of comb-over hair is hanging down to his shoulder like a torn spider web.
"Let's just leave, okay, Dad?" I say. I steer my father toward the door, nodding my thanks to the guys who had broken up the fight. "We'll find breakfast somewhere else--where you don't know anybody."
Ten minutes later, we're at a gas station, having coffee and donuts in the car. I'm a little nervous about messing up the new upholstery, but I don’t want to chance another public restaurant. I ask: "So what was that all about?"
My father's shirt is torn. His sweaty blond comb-over is now swirled into a G-clef across the top of his forehead. "Nothing you need to worry about, Len."
I look at him, sadness filling my chest like a warm liquid. "So what's the plan, Dad? What will you do out here in the world?"
He takes a sip of coffee and then wipes his mouth with a napkin. "I've got plans,” he says. "But there are a couple things I want to do first."
"Was getting into a bar fight one of them?"
"No, that was just a misunderstanding." He looks over at me. "I'll tell you what I want to do first." He puts out his hand and begins counting off on his fingers. "Number one: I want to eat a plateful of barbecue brisket at Buck's. Number two: I want to buy a pair of Florsheim shoes. And Number three: I want to play eighteen holes at Cielo Vista with my son. That, Lenny, is all I want to do today. Are you up for it?"
I think about this for a few seconds. The list sounds perfectly fine to me--just what you'd expect of a man getting out of prison. "Okay," I say finally. "As long as I'm home by five. Anita is so big she can't even stand at the stove these days. I've got dinner to make."
"Great," my father says. "So we have until five P.M."
Many years ago--during my father's first incarceration--my mother told me the story of the night I was born.
It was in May 1970, when she and my father were still living in a big apartment house on lower Montana Avenue in El Paso. They were renting a worn but sunny first-floor apartment with two bedrooms and a kitchen converted from a walk-in broom closet. My father had just gotten out of the Navy and was working as a typesetter. My mother was doing secretarial jobs for a Chevy dealership on Gateway East.
It was Friday night. My mother had wedged herself into the narrow kitchen and was trying to wash the dinner dishes. At about nine, just as she was turning to grab a dish towel, her water broke. She closed her eyes as the clear liquid ran down her legs and started to puddle at her feet. "Wyn!" she shouted. She dropped the dish towel and began using it to sop up the liquid, pushing the towel around with her bare right foot. "Wyndham! I need you!"
My father came running, an empty highball glass in his hand. He had been drinking, Mom said, since coming home from work at 6. As he reeled into the kitchen, he stepped in the amniotic fluid. His feet skated out from under him and he went down, hard. He didn't break any bones, but one lens of his eyeglasses cracked when they fell from his nose. "We've got to get to the hospital," my mother said, looking down at him. "Now."
They gathered their things and helped each other out to their used Impala parked on the street. My father was in no condition to drive, but at that point my mother couldn't even fit behind the steering wheel, so she had no choice but to give him the keys. Moving with the exaggerated care of the lush, he got in, started the car, and pulled out into the road. Almost immediately, they were hit by a delivery truck from a local brewery. The Impala did a half spin and smashed into a mailbox on the sidewalk. Nobody was seriously hurt, but the car was so smashed up that the rescue workers needed the jaws of life to get my parents out.
And so I was born, about forty-five minutes after nine, at the intersection of Montana and Targus, my first breath a lungful of diesel and stale beer.
"You're off your game, son," my father says, watching my little orange ball bobble past the eighteenth hole. He's still dressed in his torn checked shirt and black pants, but now he's wearing the oxblood Florsheims we bought him downtown after lunch. We've had a busy day--a plate of brisket at Buck's, a little shopping spree, a tour of the city he hadn't seen in years. "Go ahead and knock it in," he adds.
I tap my ball into the hole for a bogey and then watch my father putt for par. Behind him, sprinklers are sweeping the fairway of the sixteenth, throwing a whole cathedral-worth of sparkly white arches in the sun. "Too bad, Lenny boy," he says, sinking his putt. He retrieves the ball, puts his arm around my shoulders, and kisses the top of my head.
We start walking back toward the clubhouse. I decide to try again: "So really, Dad, what are you going to do now? Any leads on a job?"
"I've got a few things in mind," he says. "But finding work is a tall order, you know. Given my--" He hesitates. "Résumé," he says, at the same time I say, "Record."
My father frowns. "People don't want to give you a second chance."
Thinking about my mother, I can't stop myself from saying: "Third. A third chance."
"You sound like my probation officer."
I know it shouldn't by now, but it still surprises me that my father can say the phrase "my probation officer" without a twitch.
"Are you thinking about the printing business again?" I ask. We're headed down off the fairways now, wheeling our rented bags of clubs.
"Printing," he says, as if I'd just said something funny. "Everything's done with computers nowadays. There's no art to it anymore." He sighs. "No, this is more like a temporary thing. A stopgap measure."
I'm not sure I like the sound of that. "So what is it?"
"I'm going to help a guy," he says. "A guy with a new venture."
"Can you be more specific?"
He looks out toward the 15th green. "I thought a lot about things in prison, Len," he says. "All it takes is a few wrong moves early on, and you're sunk. But you can't lose your dignity. With me, my problem was always two parts weakness, two parts bad luck, three parts Jack Daniels."
"You stopped drinking in prison, I assume. Unless you found a way of smuggling bourbon into your cell."
"You're hard on me. That's to be expected." He cracks his knuckles loudly, a habit he's picked up in prison. Then he turns and breaks my heart: "My only goal in life now," he says, "is figuring out some way to make you less ashamed of me."
I remember the one time I really understood why my mother married him. It was four years before his first conviction--a Saturday in July, one of those torpid El Paso mornings when the powdery heat can stun you into a daze. I was in the basement watching television; my mother was pulling wet laundry out of the washer. My father came down the stairs, shook his head at what he saw, and announced, "This is no way to spend a weekend. I think we all need an outing. Meet me in the driveway in ten minutes. And bring a hat and flashlight." Then he disappeared upstairs.
My mother and I exchanged a look, but it was too early in the day for him to be drunk. And so, ten minutes later, the two of us were standing on the gooey asphalt of the driveway, hats on head and flashlights in hand.
"Good," my father said when he saw us. He shooed us into the station wagon and then took off east out of town, hot air blasting into the windows. "Lenny, my boy, we've never taken you to Carlsbad Caverns, have we. That's about to be remedied."
"Wyndham," my mother said. "Carlsbad is a half-day's drive from here."
He smiled and asked: "You'd rather be doing laundry?"
We got to the cavern by mid-afternoon. I remember almost everything about the descent--the eerie feeling I got as we stepped into the coolness of the cavern's gaping mouth; the cries of the cave swallows streaking feverishly overhead; the sweet, musty odor of guano. I remember once looking up and seeing a lone bat spiraling toward the last pinprick of natural light far above. My mother must have seen it too, because at that very moment she grabbed my hand and squeezed.
We spent most of the day underground. My father showed us all around the cavern--its lower caves draped with melted stone, its so-called Big Room that was tall enough, he said, to contain the dome of the Capitol Building in Washington. Everywhere there was something he could give a name to--flowstone, soda straws, draperies, popcorn. My father explained the process of cavern formation, the genesis of stalactites and stalagmites, the strange way stone could seep through soil. My mother and I were both amazed that he knew such things.
Later, after a huge steak dinner at a restaurant in Carlsbad town, we drove back home through the nighttime desert. I was sitting in the back seat, drifting in and out of consciousness as I listened to the low murmur of my parents' conversation from the front seat. Just as we reached the outskirts of El Paso, we came up behind a slow-moving truck. The wind was blowing hard by this time, strewing the road with twigs, leaves, and garbage. "Those brakelights are like two red eyes, don't you think?" my father asked me. I leaned forward, and just as I did, a cardboard box blew into the path of the truck. Its front wheels hit the box, sending up a flurry of styrofoam peanuts that caught in our headlights--weightless white dots swirling around us like sparks, like windswept snow, like stars passing on a space flight. I looked at my father, feeling breathless, as if he had planned this, as if he had juggled the far-flung elements of chance for my benefit.
I was asleep by the time we got home. The next thing I remember was waking up in my own bed the next morning, still dressed in my caving clothes, unsure how I had gotten there. My father was awake already. I could hear him downstairs in the kitchen, frying up a panful of hash browns.
We pay our check at the Pecos Grill at a few minutes past 11 o'clock. It's been over 14 hours since I picked my father up at the federal penitentiary. Three times I've had to call Anita to put off my return home. The last time she hung up on me and then refused to answer the phone when I called back. Which was probably justified. Tonight I missed our last Lamaze class.
My father comes back from the pay phones. He's been making calls all day--"setting up business," as he calls it. I wonder what kind of job interviews he could be arranging at 11 o'clock at night. "So, are you ready to go to the motel now?" I ask him.
"Sure, sure," he says, looking distracted and agitated.
"Fine," he says. "No problemo."
I drive him over to the Motel 6. As we pull into the parking lot, I can see someone--a man about my father's age--standing on the concrete balcony, silhouetted against the rectangle of light from an open door. There's something pathetic in the image, and suddenly I think, Am I going to end up here, too? Lately I’ve been waking up at three or four in the morning, thinking about the twins--planning, worrying, asking myself if I'm not just giving myself more ways to fail, more trusts to betray. Maybe, twenty-five years from now, it'll be my sons dumping me at a Motel 6, the profound relief plain on their faces. Maybe I'll be the old man starting over at a cheap desert motel, my new life defined by takeout ribs and machine-bought sodas, worn toilet seats "sanitized for my protection," and the constant growl of tractor-trailers on the interstate, heading out to parts unknown.
"Lenny?" my father asks then, as we're sitting there, listening to the quietly idling engine. "Can I ask you for one more favor?"
"Dad, I can't. It's late."
"An hour, Lenny. I need your help with something. After this, I'll be all right. I'll have some money and I'll be all right."
I hesitate. "What's this about?"
"Something I arranged back at the restaurant. I didn't want to ask for any help, but it'll be a lot easier if I don't have to rent a car."
I don't answer for a few seconds.
"Please," my father says. "The last time. I promise."
I think of myself on that balcony again. "Tell me where to go," I say finally.
He directs me back toward El Paso, then east toward the foothills near the university campus. The Toyota labors as it climbs toward the twinkling lights of the high, expensive neighborhoods overlooking the city. "Where are we going, anyway?" I ask.
"I've got to see a man about a bird."
"At this time of night?"
He nods toward the windshield, sweat beading on his forehead.
We drive down a street of large, hacienda-style houses surrounded by gardens that don't belong in the desert--gardens with azaleas and rhododendrons and lush, green lawns. After a few more turns, we're in an even more exclusive neighborhood. High hedges and adobe walls hide the houses from sight. It's dark here: no streetlights, no cars parked on the street. My father tells me to pull over next to a huge bank of yews. I stop and turn off the engine. "This is it," he says.
I can hear the sputter of unseen sprinklers in the night. They must run 24 hours a day, keeping the desert green.
"You stay here," my father says. Then he reaches behind my seat and brings out a burlap sack I've never seen before.
"Dad," I say. "What is this about?"
He looks at me. "This is about a bad man with money," he says. "And another man with no money who has a score to settle."
"Oh Christ. You’re about to do something stupid, aren’t you.”
He shakes his head. "You've never made a mistake in your life, I guess, Len. It must be hard for you to understand."
I'm about to answer when he reaches out and puts a big hand on my arm. "Do this one thing for me, son. And then we're through with each other. You've got babies coming. I understand."
He folds up the sack and then climbs out of the Toyota. I watch as he moves furtively down the thick row of hedges. When he finds a gap in the foliage, he slips in and disappears from sight.
I look down at the keys hanging from the ignition. I could just drive away if I wanted to. I've done more than my share for him already. And who knows what might happen if I wait for him? I imagine us being stopped by police as we tried to leave the neighborhood. I'd spend the night in jail with my father. Anita would go into labor, give birth to my sons, and have a story to tell them just like the one my mother told me: How your father screwed up on the night you were born.
After ten minutes, my father reappears through the same gap in the hedge. He's carrying the burlap sack in both arms now. It's obvious that something big and alive is inside. Great, I tell myself. This is why he'll go back to prison—for stealing a turkey. I can't believe I'm helping him do this.
He climbs into the back seat. "Okay, Lenny, we're in business. Take us out toward the airport."
"Fuck," I say aloud, starting up the car. I drive--quickly but carefully--down from the cool hills and into the shabby downtown streets. I can hear the bird in the burlap sack making frustrated, hissing sounds. "So this is how you're starting over, Dad? Stealing turkeys from rich people?"
"What turkeys?" he says. "This is no turkey." I hear him untwisting the top of the sack. "Take a look at this, Lenny."
I check the rearview. A long, blue-necked bird is peeking out of the sack, its feather-crowned head moving side to side like a cobra's. "Oh God," I say. It's a
peacock--Pfau in German. I just taught the word last week to my third-year students.
My father is grinning at me, looking proud of himself. Suddenly, the peacock strikes out and pecks him savagely on the cheek. "Christ!" my father shouts. There's a commotion in the back seat that I can hear but not see.
I pull the car to the curb. "You all right?" I ask my father.
He's got a handkerchief up to his face. Blood drips down from his chin, pattering my new upholstery. "Keep driving," he says. The bird is back in the sack now. "Keep going past the airport. Let's just finish this."
I pull back into the road and drive on. Beyond the airport, the buildings and traffic thin out. We're heading into real desert now. There's nothing out here for miles. "Where are we taking this thing?"
"Just keep driving. I'll let you know."
I press down on the accelerator. The last time, I tell myself. The very last time.
Then, a few minutes later, I see some lights up ahead. At first, I think it's a town out there, but then I realize it's a checkpoint--one of the surprise checkpoints that the Border Patrol sets up to catch people transporting illegals. "Hey Dad," I say. "Look."
He leans forward and peers out the windshield. I can see the gash on his cheek where the peacock nipped him. The blood is dry now, but the cut looks like a little purple S on his cheek. "Oh jeez," he says. "Pull over. Quick."
I stop the car by the side of the road. The checkpoint ahead looks like some kind of oasis in the desert--an island of brutal light in the darkness. "What do we do?" I ask, feeling dizzy suddenly. I'm an accomplice. The peacock is stolen property. "They'll get us for larceny or something."
"Turn around. We'll just go back."
"It's too late for that. They always station a patrol car back a mile or two, waiting for people who turn around when they see a road check."
"Damn," he says, and starts to run his fingers through his thinning hair. The peacock flutters inside the burlap sack. "I guess we let it go, then," he says.
"Let it go?"
"Well, we can't get caught with it. I'm on parole, Lenny. What else can we do?"
"But it won't last a day in this desert. It's not made for this environment."
"Oh, stop worrying. It'll be fine."
We get out of the car and stand by the side of the road, looking out into the darkness. There's nothing out there but agave and saltbush. I feel idiotic, absurd. I think of Anita at that exact moment, sitting home alone in the only chair wide enough to contain her, waiting for me to come back. I think of my mother, too, and of the babies who will soon fill my house with their ravenous needs. I don't deserve any of them. And suddenly I feel grateful that I'm a man, and that the real responsibilities of life are vouchsafed to women.
My father kneels by the side of the road. Whispering gently, he places the sack on the ground and opens it. The sleek blue head of the peacock darts out, followed more slowly by the body and then the long, endless tailfeathers, bent up into rainbow tangles. "Go ahead," my father is murmuring. "There's nothing to be afraid of." They're the words he used to whisper to hypnotize the barking dogs, to hoodwink them into thinking that all would be fine, that there was no need for panic.
The peacock looks around warily. It takes a few tentative steps, its horny feet clicking on the asphalt. Then, looking more confident, it flourishes its ravaged tail and starts marching with ridiculous dignity out toward the darkness.
"We might as well just kill it," I tell my father. "Ten-to-one it'll be dead by morning."
"So you say," my father replies. He stands up again and wipes his hands on his prison pants. His comb-over stands crumpled on his head now, like a limp, disheveled crown.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
Fiction is created out of so many scraps and odd pieces of experience that it’s often difficult to tease out the individual elements once a story is finished, especially after some years have passed. If I remember correctly, the initial impulse behind “Rara Avis” was a newspaper article about a man who kept peacocks on the grounds of his house in the hills above El Paso. The idea of a peacock in the desert—an animal totally ill-suited to survival in that forbidding and uncongenial environment—piqued my interest, and the story grew from that germ.
This was back in the early 1990s, when I was still doing a lot of travel writing and getting as many assignments as possible that would take me to the Southwest. I would spend a week researching a magazine piece about, say, Albuquerque restaurants, and then spend an extra week in a rental car, aimlessly bumming around New Mexico, Arizona, and west Texas. I’d drive to far-flung state parks and make solo hikes out into the desert, soaking in a landscape that spoke to me (and still does) for reasons I’ve never been able to figure out. I was also just about to become a new father at the time, and was dealing with uncertainties and insecurities about my readiness for the new role, so I’m sure all of that played a part in the father-son issues at the center of “Rara Avis.”
Like many of my short stories, this one gestated for a long time. I drafted it in the early 90s, but it went in and out of the proverbial desk drawer for a decade after that, as I worked on other projects. Finally, when Viet Dinh, an editor at Gulf Coast, contacted me in 2003 about possibly submitting something to the magazine, I decided it was time to let go. I gave the story one final edit and sent it off.
I’ve always liked Milan Kundera’s observation that “the novelist destroys the house of his life and uses its stones to build the house of his novel.” And, in fact, it would be possible to trace so many elements of the story—German language classes, Carlsbad Caverns, that depressing Motel 6 in El Paso—to pieces of my own life. But I suspect that revealing too much about the individual stones might undermine the integrity of the house I’ve tried to build with them. Suffice it to say that there is only one component of the story that comes directly from life, without any kind of transformation or reshaping. Early one windy evening in 1990 or so, on a stretch of desert road just outside El Paso, I found myself driving behind a slow-moving dump truck. Just as it does in the story, the truck hit a cardboard box in the road, bursting it open and sending up a cloud of Styrofoam peanuts that swirled around my car “like sparks, like windswept snow, like stars passing on a space flight.” It was one of the most strangely exhilarating moments in my entire life, and I knew instantly that I would have to use it in a story someday. It took me a while, but I finally found the right place for it in “Rara Avis.”
ABOUT GARY KRIST
Before turning to narrative nonfiction with The White Cascade (Holt) and City of Scoundrels (Crown), Gary Krist wrote three novels--Bad Chemistry (Random House), Chaos Theory (Random House), and Extravagance (Broadway)--and two short-story collections--The Garden State and Bone by Bone (both Harcourt Brace). His stories have appeared in GQ, Boulevard, Playboy, Hudson Review, The Quarterly, and Tikkun. They have been featured on NPR’s “Selected Shorts” and have also been anthologized in such collections as Men Seeking Women, Writers' Harvest 2, and Best American Mystery Stories. He has been the recipient of The Stephen Crane Award, The Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Lowell Thomas Gold Medal for Travel Journalism, and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. He lives in Bethesda, Maryland.