Just Say Cheese

The best way to remember that trip is in Dad’s smile as the raindrops watered his phoenix hair. I say phoenix because after he quit chemo his hair was about the only thing rising from the ashes.

Or maybe it’s the glow of the Sterno under Dad’s chin; the way the light caught his eyesockets like all those childhood flashlight stories about child murderers who targeted kids who kept their dad up all night by farting in the tent and then laughing when he told them to cut it out.

The tent went up in pieces and then not at all. Dad took two breaks while I pored over the instructions (“just need a breather”), and each time his hand froze mid-grab for a pack of smokes he wasn’t allowed to have: an emaciated cowboy getting ready to draw.

Or maybe it’s the way the turkey burgers oozed through the griddle to sizzle on the flame, beef like so many other things off limits. And how Dad forked out charred chunks of it and piled it onto a bun. Drew and I tried for solidarity but only got like two bites in before relinquishing it to a pack of hungry squirrels.

We had this thing where Drew, Mom, and I would gather firewood while Dad chopped. After Mom died, Drew and I would grab double our usual haul, gnarled sticks and kindling spilling from our arms and leaving a wooden trail. Dad showed us the angle necessary to cleave the wood at max efficiency, citing old boy scout lessons. He could only get halfway through the first log before he had to stop this time. Drew waved me off when I tried to take the hatchet.

Or when we finished our s’mores, my marshmallows of the barely-touched golden variety and Drew’s and Dad’s blackened beyond recognition. When Dad went to shut off the Sterno, how it fell from his shaking hands and tumbled, down a hill and into a ravine, still lit, pilot light streaking flame onto errant branches, the only word Dad knew then being “fuck.” How I remembered that only you can prevent forest fires.

Or maybe it’s how I slipped my concern in while the three of us peed on trees: Dad a captive audience, me insisting the clinical trials looked promising. That it wasn’t like it was when Mom passed. And the way he looked at me after he zipped up, like we’d just met and I’d insulted his mother. Eyes trailing over the burned-out hole where the Sterno was, after the rain drowned out the fire. The way he said he couldn’t waste away like her, his voice calm and quiet as if he were coaxing me to sleep.

Or Drew and I playing War with our old childhood deck. One of the Jokers in there with “oker” sharpied out to stand in for a Jack long since lost. Eating scrambled eggs with our hands out of plastic cups notched for alcohol: mine a shot and his a full cup. Me amassing a pile of Drew’s cards and Drew watching the way the cardinals dip in and out of view, under pine boughs and into the light of the morning. How Drew said he gives up. How I said he couldn’t, that we’d see the game through to the end.

Or even the damn fishing. Dad going bobberless because he wants to “feel it,” me using one and reminding Drew of the time we discovered that Poké Balls were just a ripoff of these things. How we used to turn every caught fish into a Goldeen, or a Gyarados if we were lucky. How Dad would sit for hours, his only sustenance watching the pull of his line across the water. And the way I kept asking Dad if we were through, with “just a minute” as his go-to for the next hour. Me swiping through my feed so I didn’t have to see him hunched over on a rock, chest caving in on itself. How Drew kept casting out with him.

Or his smile when he brought the sturgeon to shore, like his composite parts had been scattered and only this fish could return them, could put them back together again.

Or the way he goaded me to get in the frame for a pic outside the bait shop. How we all needed to get a hand under it. To feel the weight of this thing together. How it’d make a great shot.

And me flanking Dad, with Drew on the other side, wondering all the time if I should laugh, or cry, or just say cheese.

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