Cayden is obsessed with the digital sphygmometer that is blister-packed and hanging to the left of the pharmacy counter. A sticker on the front of the package shows a digital metric of a heartbeat—or maybe a blood pressure read-out (I’m not a doctor)—with systolic and diastolic peaks and valleys. It’s something topographic at least. Cayde is interested and traces the up and down lines with his finger. We wait. The pharmacist is exasperated with the customer in front of us who’s pushing a stroller and seeking medication that was apparently picked up yesterday. The pharmacist—she has red hair—sighs into the customer service phone and declares a need for assistance.
“Spanish-speaking, please,” she sighs over the PA.
Cayde turns and says, “Hey, Daddy…” which is his usual perambulatory way of saying he has a question, else some seven-year old insight.
(On the drive to CVS, it was ‘Hey, Daddy—did you know that T. rex had feathers?’ Which is true, and Cayde mentioned as much because we were playing an ‘Animal Trivia’ game. He knows I’m a bird-keeper and he fancies himself a burgeoning paleontologist. He picked up from some BBC documentary that dinosaurs were simply birds in the evolutionary making. Because dinosaurs came first, he thinks he has me trumped).
“Hey, Daddy,” he repeats.
“What? T. rex had feathers? We already covered this, Dude. I know.” The pharmacist is beyond impatient.
“No. Daddy.” And Cayde raises his arms and makes a triangle above his head.
“So this is what music looks like when you play something on a high frequency, and then it does this in the middle”—he holds his arms out flat—“And then there’s the low part.” It’s more difficult making an upside-down triangle, but he tries.
Cayde’s mistaken the sphygmometer for an audiometer. Amateur. At least he’s confused the heartbeat with music, which—come to think of it—is not really a mistake at all.
On the drive to the pharmacy, Cayde requested Spotify and, probably trying to please his dad, he asked for Kevin Drew. The album streamed and the song ‘F-cked Up Boy’ came on while we played ‘Animal Trivia’. Cayden read the song title on the dashboard read-out, filled in the ‘u’, and immediately informed me that it was inappropriate. But we were already parking, so the ignition killed the song before I could fast-forward; and then we were in line and waiting for medication.
The queue for the pharmacy begins in the skin crème aisle. I’ve always wondered if there’s a tonic for feeling comfortable in your own skin, an analgesic designed to treat what ails you. It could be in the next aisle over. I’ll have to check someday but, in the meantime, the lady in front of me is very confused that she can’t pick up her scrip. Red Hair pharmacist is frustrated with the language barrier.
On the PA again: “Spanish-speaking, please.”
“Daddy—are we here for your pills?”
I scratch my head distractedly; look sideways, and I pretend to consult the lesser PhDs, like Dr. Scholl and the who-some-ever Johnsons, who stare back at me for a second from the fluorescent-lit shelves. Oh, certainly I could use some foot powder. Um.
“Sure, Monkey. Yeah.”
This is a recent thing—the pills—but also Cayde recognizing the pills. And right away, because he’s smart and already manufacturing science experiments in his room. I’ll explain the difference between a sphygmometer and an audiometer later, to correct him for being seven, but in the meanwhile he gets things.
My grandfather was institutionalized when he was 37. This is family history I only now know of, my grandfather’s exact age at least. I’ve known of his time in the mental ward and I’ve always had this picture in my head of a van retreating down a road, my grandfather in it. Always: a dirt road, a tire gate, avocado leaves greening the manner way and thin tires (anachronistically thin, surely, for it must have been mid-century when he was carted away. Cars were low and tires were thick, then.), tires that rolled and spindled into the cinematic distance.
There’s a cow forever and stubbornly in the periphery.
The cow’s a dumb addition my mind inserts to create something bucolic of the scene. Also, my grandpa was a dairyman.
It’s surely something we don’t talk about, so I’m lost on the details. And I’m never sure if this is supposed to be something I think about in sepia.
My granddad’s son watched the van disappear down what was probably a long asphalt driveway, and not a dirt road. He saw it in color.
There’s a way that sons see their fathers, as something both impenetrable yet castles to be sieged. With my grandfather in retreat and ferried down the driveway, with him most likely laying down in surrender,a bed in the back of the van, my grandad lacking the means to stand up to his misaligned chemicals; his having the need for it all to just be turned off; my granddad’s son simply saw his dad go away. There was a castle fallen and my granddad’s son suddenly didn’t have an Oedipal opponent or someone just comfortably smoking away in the Great Room. Damn it all. This is how children develop adult-sized holes. Jericho is trotted away in a van and it’s stamped ‘Edgemoor Mental Facility.’
I played a game of chess with my uncle when I was seven. My uncle was obviously much older. It was a long match and my uncle ashed his cigarettes into a Pepsi can while chuckling at my persistent game of pawns. He eventually won.
It’s said we—my uncle and I—resemble each other, and my grandpa all at once.
Walls get re-built. The body does this naturally with its own mortar. You build walls around infection to prevent further hurt. Like I said, I don’t know much about the day my grandpa was taken away. It’s sepia-toned to me, and everyone who saw it in color has the appropriate scar tissue and says nothing. We don’t even ask each other, “How are you?” Because that’s just way too fucking personal.
“I’m bored, Daddy.”
I’ll admit—it’s been a long wait. Cayde’s poking at the merchandise and we’re due at a birthday party. Lady with the stroller is genuinely confused and her baby can’t be more than two weeks. She has a sister? (friend?) with her and they consult worriedly in Spanish.
Red Hair shoos them aside with a wave of her Jam-berried fingers. “Next!” she says, smiling at me. A clerk with jangling keys appears in order to deal with Stroller Lady. “Qué?”
Cayde looks up at the pharmacy marquee, squints his eyes, and points to the subtitles.
‘Farmacia!’ he announces. (It says so, right above the counter). ‘That means pharmacy in Spanish.” Cayde prances off to worry some more blister packs and nuisance the diuretics. I think he just schooled the register clerk without even knowing it.
Red is relieved to see me, thinking she’s just had an ordeal. Behind her is a machine that auto-fills benzodiazepine bottles. It hums and clicks on the regular.
Red calls me ‘Hon.’ We transact. I give my birthdate to Red as is required when you are requesting chemicals.
“June four, 1977.” Cayde reappears to confirm his status as the mathematician qua scientist of the family. He holds the ledge of the counter and, barely peering above it, proclaims to Red: “1977. That means my Daddy’s thirty-seven. Star Wars came out that year.” If nothing else, I’ve trained him well.
The machine behind Red pours pink pills. There’s an audible click and a white cap is screwed shut on an amber bottle. There are people in white coats floating about like pharmaceutical ghosts and I have no idea what their jobs may be. Seems the machine has everything covered and the front desk just gets mad at not being understood.
Red: “Come back at three.”
It’s only ten-thirty. Machine must have a lot of work to do.
The birthday party’s in Lakeside, where my grandpa owned dairies, later real estate, and it’s where my mom and uncle and five other siblings grew up. The party is, in fact, oddly close to my grandpa’s old house. It’s at an indoor playground in an anonymous corporate park. The park is a lot of white asphalt just north of a very beige quarry. Red clay is closer to where I am and striated in cliffs up north. The quarry sits near where the San Diego River dips underground in a geographical phenomenon I still can’t figure out. Close by, there are the palm trees that I remember being planted when I was five. Full-grown Queens that had their crowns tied until the roots took.
I exit the freeway early so that we can drive through Santee—where I grew up—and so that I can point out the important things to Cayde. He’s been very interested in me in what I was like as a seven-year old: what television I watched, what foods I ate. A drive down Mission Gorge Rd. makes me a seasoned tour guide.
“We’ll get you an apple fritter from there someday,” I say, pointing to Mary’s Donuts, which is a sturdy concrete building in the middle of Santee’s new architectural bent. Everything else around is looking like a Safeway; Mary’s is the one stodgy throwback. They serve good coffee there.
Speaking of: Wellbutrin and caffeine don’t mix. Not for me at least. Ads end with: ‘You may suffer from…’ And what are listed are the affordable side effects because ‘suffering’ is the strong word that gets you on pills in the first place. I’m nauseous—a little—and I’m still figuring out the whole homeostatic thing. At least my body is. Sometimes I feel I’m me from the neck up and everything else is a hitched-up trailer.
Let it figure itself out.
‘Side effects include’: nausea, tremors, inappetance. I have all three, so, as I’m pointing out Mary’s to Cayde, I certainly don’t pull into the driveway with its faded parking lines and weedy side-lot. A cruller would be cruel. Caffeine jets the Wellbutrin into a strange place and, though, I’m perfectly safe to drive, there’s this frenetic yet harnessed energy all at once. I want to round its corners, but you can’t ask the barista: ‘Leave room for IPA.’
We pass the Ottavio’s Pizzeria, which is not an Ottavio’s anymore, but a Fillippi’s.
‘That’s where we used to get pizza, Dude.” ‘We’ meaning a ‘we’ that doesn’t include him so I shut up for a minute. The road bends and it whitens. There’s a Creation Museum on the left hand side of the road. Goddammit, there are dinosaur models.
Cayden points out that T. Rex didn’t live in the same geologic period as the Stegosaurus, both of which menace the topiaries in front of the Museum. The plastic T. rex doesn’t even sport feathers, a fact that is quickly pointed out. Meanwhile, I have absolutely no problem with faith and,with there being a drive-in movie screen next door to the plastic dinosaur. We talk about movies instead.
“We need to see a drive-in movie some day, Dude.”
“I liked Big Hero Six.”
“That was a good one.”
“Are we almost there, Daddy?”
The highway planes into a flatter part.
I was worried about pills flattening me out: the thought that there would just be days, never good ones or bad ones. Just days. Before, I couldn’t stand the thought of prescribed numbness. This is a good day and I can feel it despite the pills. In which case the medicine isn’t exactly working. Genetically, I’m a red-head—a C-16—therefore I’m almost immune to anesthesia. It’s science. So: fuck you, pills.I win.
In three months I’ll be 38 and outside the window. I drive with my hands on the wheel and past the quarry. Cayden and I remark the machines that dig the earth and they’re rusted and probably still the same ones from when I was younger and when I used to pass this upside-down river every week.
“Daddy—I can’t wait for Fun-believable.”
It’s where we’re going and it sounds like an advertisement for Prozac.
“Me neither, Dude.” I mean it. I truly mean it, actually.
Afterwards, after the party I mean, we take a drive. Because we’re near to my grandpa’s house, I idle the car at the base of a long asphalt driveway.
“That’s where your great-grandpa and grandma lived.” Cayde’s impressed because there’s a house there now very different from what used to exist. A satellite dish, an RV out front. The landscaping is currently terraced where before my granddad had just planted sea fig.
I drive onto the dirt road circumferencing the property and try to show Cayden the pepper tree that I used to climb. But it’s gone. There’s a stump and a sapling, though.
We drive bumpily on the dirt road until we again meet asphalt. I suddenly remember Posthill Rd. which is across the street from my grandpa’s house and where there used to be avocado groves.
I click the blinker and tell Cayde to hold on.
He says, ‘I can’t wait!’ and braces against the seatbelt.
He says, ‘I can’t wait’ a lot so I’m in my own personal Groundhog’s Day. I probably repeat myself too—actually, I know I do, usually in the negative—but we launch the car down Posthill Road and through the switchbacks, past the stratified and half-quarried rock, on down to the highway. I know this road and we hit the 67 dramatically; but then we even out, and more evenly we drive back home.