Nonfiction / Silas Jones
:: The Chino Center for Oral and Facial Surgery ::
Today, my dad got his tooth pulled. He had an abscess. Now, he’s lying down. It’s so fucking hot here. Here equals Arizona. All day, I’m waiting for the Arizona air to cool off and trying to decide what to put in the cardboard box I’m mailing home to my apartment in New York. A wig from college, my CD collection in two fat black leather binders, a couple half-full journals. My flight home is on Sunday and I don’t want to check a bag. All weekend, I’m waiting to leave.
How to get to The Chino Center for Oral and Facial Surgery (It’s way out on 89): Pass the church that used to be a movie theatre. Take the exit after Glassford Hill, the one that swoops you around to face Antelope Valley. Notice for the first time since being back at dad’s that Antelope Valley is filling up with houses, identical, unfinished, with temporary blue tarp roofs weighed down with black stacks of shingles.
Behind the houses, there’s Mingus Mountain, and behind that, there’s the Verde Valley. My sense of direction is like those children’s books with acetate overlays that can be peeled away one by one to reveal: the hold of a pirate ship, the inner workings of an oil rig, the anatomy of the human body.
Peel back Antelope Valley, peel back Mingus Mountain, peel back Verde Valley and see a 1000-year-old stone village beside a 50-year-old heap of grey tailings from the copper mine up the hill. Peel back the Mogollon Rim and see the woods on top of it, see the San Francisco Peaks. Peel back the San Francisco Peaks and see a wilderness of purple cinder cones with Ponderosa pines growing straight from their pebbled, volcanic flanks. Behind them, the Painted Desert and Black Mountain and then the Vermillion Cliffs, their feet buried in umber badlands. Peel back the Glen Canyon Dam and see Escalante and the white sandstone piled in mile-high drifts out along State Route 12.
On the car ride home, my dad speaks to me through a wad of bloody gauze.
Wait, flip back five or six layers and return to the Mogollon Rim; he says he’s considering moving up there. He’s thinking about Payson. He’s thinking about Pine or Strawberry. Hell, what about Happy Jack? Up there, it’s cooler and the development is under control. It rains still. He’s thinking of moving to the last intact colonial town in Mexico. There’s no airport; that keeps the riffraff out. We get off 89 and whip around a new traffic circle pinned down at its pea-stone center by a giant, bronze statue of a cowboy.
The Oral Surgeon was wearing square-toed cowboy boots and teal scrubs and a wedding band made of grey silicone. I wonder if, after he pulls his hand out of the last mouth of the day, he trades the silicone ring for a gold one before driving home to Antelope Valley.
“How are you related to the patient?” he asked me when I came to grab my dad. I look at his cowboy boots and weigh my options. I’ve made enough modifications to my body that I look, I think, approximate to boy; my ID says Sophie.
“I’m his, uh, daughter,” I said, trotting after him to a small room where my dad was reclined, fucking with his IV. The oral surgeon stands with his hands on his hips and looks at me. Behind him, there’s a framed portrait of his family: a blonde wife and three small brunette daughters posed in Easter dresses beside Granite Creek. In the building’s front office, less than an hour earlier, my dad looked up from paperwork to point to an identical picture and said too loudly, “Are they scoops or what?” Scoops is what my dad calls Mormons. Scoops missing from their brains.
The scoop surgeon was wearing a mask and so was I, but my dad wasn’t. He looked activated somehow. I adjusted my eyebrows to express calm obliviousness to any embarrassing residual disorientation he might be experiencing. I smiled behind my mask and tried to look like a daughter.
“When your father was going under, we noticed some irregularities with his heartbeat,” the surgeon said. I reoriented my eyebrows to show an appropriate amount of concern plus casual disregard, for my dad’s sake. “Your dad says he exercises all the time and that he’s a healthy guy,” the surgeon said.
“He is,” I said.
“I am,” my dad said.
“Well, it’s something he should follow up with his primary care physician about,” said the surgeon (the scoop). He held his hand in a fist; “the heart is like any muscle.” He opened and closed his fingers, squeaking his silicone band; “it tires, it gets spasmy.” I made a humming sound.
“Okay,” I said.
A nurse showed my dad and then me how to irrigate the hole where his tooth used to be. I wonder what they’ve done with it. She loaded my dad into a wheelchair and I held the door for her, all daughterly. My dad slid into the passenger seat of my Subaru, told the nurse that he can handle his drugs, thank you very much, and then we drove away.
“The development out here is just out of control,” he says several times between the Surgery Center and home. There’s blood drying on his lips.
Yesterday, my dad and me went for a bike ride through the raw pink granite boulders beyond Glassford Hill. The rocks emerge glittering from the eroding slope in a tumble, like mud squeezed in drips from a toddler’s tight little fist and left to dry in pillars and blobs. There are miles and miles of them. The trail is long, wide, and flat; it used to be a railroad for the mine. We pedal past four pairs of dads and daughters. The daughters are learning how to ride bikes, or how to enjoy it. Biking carefully behind my dad, I feel like the oldest member of a club.
At the end of the trail, you can see out across Antelope Valley. To the west, you can see almost out to Kingman, out to Baghdad and Searchlight. Cowboy towns. Peel them back and see the Mojave; see California (on fire), see the Pacific.
The land beyond the trail has been cleared and leveled and measured out in squares. In the thin strip of shade cast by the nearest granite spire, some kind of bad-looking machinery is parked. I can hear the beeping of something backing up. It’s been rainy this summer, and Glassford Hill is like Ireland: green and empty.
After I get him home from the Surgery Center, I make my dad a mango smoothie. With it, he takes two Tylenol and three ibuprofen because the scoop won’t give him opiates. Then, he goes to sleep. I drive to CVS and buy ice packs and navy blue liquid eyeliner that I spend all afternoon trying to put on right. When I am not yelling down the stairs to ask my dad if he wants anything, I am as quiet as possible. He’s reading a huge book called Nixonland, or maybe he’s sleeping. I avoid him because it feels like the kind thing to do; I don’t want him to see me see him in pain. I worry I’m being inattentive.
I used to date a boy with an illness that required him to sit on an IV drip once every six weeks. He was really sick, but he was also really rich, so the treatment was administered by a home health aide in the rec room in the basement of his parents’ brownstone. The home health aide was an older black man in navy blue scrubs and matching crocs named Wilson. The needle’s folded plastic sheath looked like a butterfly alighted on my boyfriend’s arm. It stayed there for hours. I stared at the TV. I was unsure of how much my boyfriend wanted to be touched, or of how much was appropriate to touch him. I didn’t ask. Wilson sat on a plush ottoman and when my boyfriend’s dad appeared with an armful of hot sandwiches dripping oil, Wilson chose turkey.
Last time I saw my ex-boyfriend, we wandered endlessly around Fort Greene instead of sitting down for a beer like we’d planned because he was in so much pain he said he couldn’t stop moving. He finished a pack of Marlboros; he started another. We bought a six pack at a bodega and split it, and then we split another one. When the sidewalk was busy, I fell into step behind him so I could watch him walk with a beer in one hand and his aching belly flat beneath the other. I realized I’d missed my chance to take good care of him. I put my hand on his back and steered him through a crowd gathered around a bad bike accident.
I used to think he was a girl because when he gets drunk (relaxed) he is flouncy and insecure. When he was sick in the rec room, he was too quiet and still, sat on the couch with his sandwich unwrapped and untouched in his lap. That’s how I knew he was a boy for sure.
My dad keeps the windows of his house open all day and all night. Indoors, it is cool. Except today, it’s not. When the sun finally passes overhead, I escape onto the shaded porch. Behind the house, the Bradshaw Peaks sling black shadows over the whole neighborhood. Hidden in their wooded slopes are shallow pits cleared by pioneers a hundred years ago. People call them mines, but they’re just hand-dug holes gradually refilling themselves with pine needles and crumbling granite and litter. In front of the house, across 89, there’s a huge machine smashing bedrock into level dust; they are building a hotel. This neighborhood is a fire trap.
I hear my dad come upstairs and I go back inside to ask him again if he wants soup, a milkshake, an edible from the unmarked jar in the fridge. There is sweat showing through his t‑shirt. He’s standing perfectly still over the kitchen trash can with his foot on the pedal so the lid is stuck open, like a mouth. His jaw is slack and his eyes are trained on the wall.
“Dad?” I say, “dad?” and he doesn’t answer, just moves his lips like he’s talking. It dawns on me; I am in one of those moments. In this moment, I am standing half on the porch and staring at my dad who is staring at the wall. I am realizing that something is really, seriously wrong. I am in the moment of everything getting fucked up. I am in the moment before everything changes.
I’ve been in these moments before; seeing my ex-boyfriend stagger back when he stood up too fast from tying his shoes; watching my sister’s luminous face grow smaller and greener the deeper she sank into the pond; leaving Andy alone for ten minutes, ten minutes I swear, to run to the pharmacy for anti-nausea meds. They’d just had top surgery and had been throwing up for hours from the opiates. I was supposed to be taking care of them.
From those times, I recognized the sensation of a life about to be different. But those times, everything had turned out okay, stayed the same; my boyfriend caught himself against the banister, I grabbed my sister by her wrist, Andy took the medicine, kept some water down.
Then, my dad straightened up. He opened his mouth wide and began to talk around the moving shape of his own tongue. “They pulled the wrong tooth, those fuckers,” I stared into the red black space where his molar had been. They had pulled the right tooth.
“It’s fine, dad” I said, and then I helped him put his earring back in. The scoop surgeon had made him take the silver hoop out of his ear and put it in a little dime bag.
My dad hated my ex-boyfriend, I think, but he won’t tell me for sure. They met once at my college graduation and then a second time here, when my boyfriend flew out to visit and got immediately sick from the dry air and high elevation. There was a distance between them, even though I imagined they’d read the same selection of nonfiction and novels that smart, sensitive boys feel obligated to: Vonnegut and like, whatever else.
We had already been late for our flight home when my boyfriend slammed his finger in my car door. From the porch, my dad saw it happen and threw down a bag of frozen peas that left smelly, wet spots on my boyfriend’s corduroy lap. Without taking my eyes off 41 to Phoenix, I lifted a hand from the steering wheel and rested it on his head. He radiated heat.
“Please, don’t touch me right now,” he said. The fingernail turned grey and fell off and a few months later, he dumped me.
The other night, perched beside him on a park bench, I asked to see it. His hands were long and bony and the same; his fingernails were uniform. We sat for as long as he could handle, and then we kept walking. He asked me if top surgery hurt, and I told him yes.
“You know how I am with doctors,” I said, “I’m a mess.” I looked at him to see if he thought I was a mess. He didn’t say anything.
“I don’t know what I would have done without Andy,” I said. I wanted him to know; Andy is my best friend. Andy had been unafraid of the IVs and hospital smells and asked good questions of the nurses; they’d brought a pillow for the Uber ride from the hospital and made me a little snack plate when we got home and had done every dish.
Andy got top surgery three months before I did, and I had done these things for them too. I wanted him to know: I had run through the wet snow to get the medicine, Pedialyte, and ginger ale, stuff I probably should have thought to buy ahead of time. For a terrible moment when I returned to the apartment, I was sure that they’d aspirated on their own vomit.
I didn’t tell him any of that.
“No one’s ever known how to take such good care of me,” I said. I laid it on thick.
I thought about him after I cut my tits off, when I was watching TV, high and nauseous. Even though we hadn’t spoken in nearly a year, I’d considered calling him the night before, when I was so afraid I could hardly speak to the friends I’d invited over. Andy noticed me wigging out and asked everyone to leave soon after we’d finished the pizza. I didn’t tell him any of that, either.
“You seem really happy,” my ex-boyfriend said over his shoulder. “Are you happy?”
“I am,” I said, scissoring two fingers together until he passed me a cigarette, already lit and canoeing in the breeze off the river. Peel back Fort Green and that big hill and downtown Brooklyn and the courthouse and the Duane Reed. Peel back Joralemon street. We had walked all the way to his parents’ house; he was spending the night there and meeting Wilson in the morning. We kept walking until we got to the river.
Once, on the way home from a party at a spacious loft that belonged to one of his friends’ parents, I’d thrown up right exactly here while my boyfriend watched nervously from far away. The party had been all boys and their girlfriends. The loft had been all high ceilings and polished stainless-steel surfaces across which our reflections slipped and slid like an upside-down reflection in a cereal spoon.
The window to the fire escape was so large that when I wanted a smoke, I simply stepped through it like a door instead of having to clamber or crouch. I remember how the wet metal slats left stripes on my socked feet, the flipbook flash of car headlights between the trusses of the bridge. Peel back the bridge and see ??? I was drunk and didn’t yet understand how anything fit together or stacked up in the city. I threw up and my vomit slapped the cobbled street below, scattering tourists taking photographs with Manhattan. My boyfriend walked me back through filmy acetate layers to his parents’ house. He washed my coat and my pants while I slept.
“I always knew you would transition,” my ex-boyfriend said, offering me another cigarette. “Of course,” he added, seeing my surprise in the glow of the river. Peel back the river, peel back the dock where we’d once caught a ferry out to the Rockaways, peel back the financial district, and Battery Park, and then another river. Peel back crowded state after crowded state until you get to the one where he and me met, at college. Peel back the woods and wide mainstreets and stately red brick and then peel back a few more fly-over states and see Arizona; see my dad on the porch reading Nixonland, his cat sprawled beside him.
“At your graduation, when your dad got so drunk?” he said.
“Yeah?” I said.
“I was a really good boyfriend then,” he said, “I took good care of you then.” I walked him back to his parents’ house. He told me he’d like to see me again, and then I walked home. He has a new girlfriend; they’ve been in love for like, a year. Peel back the fanciest parts of Brooklyn until you reach the Children’s Museum; turn left, and there’s my building. The next morning, I drove to visit my dad in Arizona. I texted my boyfriend from Pennsylvania; hi to Wilson.
From the writer
:: Account ::
I’m very attached to the landscape of the state where I mostly grew up. I listen to people I know from my life in New York talking about driving through Arizona on their way from L.A. to White Sands and I get really grumpy. Then, when I end up in the actual landscape, visiting home, I feel really grumpy too. It’s hard to be there because there’s no water and so much smoke and so many border patrol and the violence feels so present in general. I wrote this story about watching a landscape change, about seeing relationships change. I also grew up partly in Washington state and have always loved the way Carver throws around the toponyms I know from childhood to establish a scene. It reminds me of how my parents and uncles—outdoor guides and serious knowers of the West, hippie drugstore cowboys—talk about Arizona. I tried to do something similar here.
Silas Jones’s writing has appeared in Hobart and The Wilder Voice, and is forthcoming in this Fall’s Foglifter and in Ice Floe Press’s Pandemic Love anthology.