“It’s cold, Dad. Can we go inside?”
My father took a swig from a mezcal bottle and grumbled, eyes bloodshot from drink or wind or tears. “No, we have to do this right.”
“But it’s so coooooold.” I clicked my teeth together a few times to drive the point home.
Hitting the bottle again, he just swore under his breath as the wind blew out another spark.
The sunset had painted the clouds pink, then purple, heading towards indigo. I huddled against my mom and found that place in her armpit where my eight-year-old head fit perfectly. My brother Rey, a head taller and three years older, stood next to Oceana and pretended not to shiver, but his own chattering teeth betrayed him.
Oceana’s whole name was Oceana Fast Wolf . She was a full-blooded Navajo woman, a kind of mystic who acted as a spiritual guide for my dad from time to time. Long white hair shot past her dark face and dark eyes, to the small of her back. She dressed in bright layers of white and turquoise linen, rippling like the sea.
We lived in Hana on the weather side of Maui, in a little brown house with a chicken coop, called “Big John’s Place.” Before that, we lived down the road in a two-story house with a view of the ocean called “Mike Coulter’s.” I never met Big John or Mike Coulter, but I’ll remember their names forever.
As the sun was swallowed by the sea, I pulled the blanket tighter around me. The white noise of waves crashing on the rocks below mingled with Oceana’s soft Navajo chanting and dad’s mumbled four-letter words, as the wind snuffed out another match.
Digger Bob had cancer for what seemed like as I long as I knew him, but I was deep in that elastic age when minutes, with their slow accordion drone, stretched days into weeks and years into lifetimes. Each slow hour seemed to overflow with captured geckos, overripe mangoes soaking my t-shirt sticky and skipped rocks on the last gasps of dying waves.
Bob got his nickname from The Diggers, a counterculture group in the sixties. They baked wheat bread in coffee cans and fed the homeless in Golden Gate Park during the Summer of Love. But, to me, he was always just Bob.
We used to play at his flat in San Francisco. All the kids piled on a loft bed in the living room while our parents flowed through the party below, like a tie-dyed river through a cloud forest of ganja.
We visited him there before we left for the island. When we walked into his room, he smiled wide like we were his own children. His salt and pepper ponytail thinning, his broad shoulders hunched. I couldn’t wait to get out of that room, the smell of death was there. I didn’t recognize it at the time, it just smelled like medicine and I hated taking medicine.
A year later, pulled in from a free-range afternoon, barefoot in paradise, my dad sat us down in the living room of Big John’s Place with tears in his eyes. He shook a little as he spoke,
“Bob is dead.”
I could feel he was in pain. His friend, one of the best friends of his life was gone. I wanted to feel that pain too. I forced a whine and we cried with him, cried hard, but I couldn’t make it real.
“I sent him a picture of you guys on the beach,” Dad said, crushing me and my brother in his strong arms. “He was holding it, he was looking at you two when he died.”
I felt nothing. I tried to feel guilt about that too.
It was fully dark with only the stars to guide my dad’s hand as he struck one of the few remaining matches. The fire was supposed to be lit in the traditional way, with no artificial fuel, but as my complaints about the cold reached a certain frequency, Oceana called him over to talk. He came back a minute later with some balled up pieces of paper and stuffed them in with the pile of twigs.
“Bob will forgive us,” he said.
Splashing some firewater from his bottle onto the kindling, he lit the last match. It smoldered, almost went out, then lit up like a Christmas tree when the flames hit the liquor. We had a fire at last, a fire to remember Bob.
Oceana chanted louder as we all pressed towards the warmth. I pulled my mom with me as a windbreak. Dad flopped down Indian style on the other side of the fire, his wet eyes searching the flames, and my brother went to sit beside him.
Without looking up, he handed the bottle to Rey and I couldn’t help feeling jealous. Not because I wanted to drink, but because he saw my brother in a different light. He was racing towards becoming a man in a way I would resist for years. Maybe I still am.
Rey held up the bottle to study the worm floating deep in the amber. The worm in a bottle of mezcal is rumored to have psychedelic properties; I always wondered if the mind-altering effects had more to do with drinking your way to the bottom. Either way, I tried to be there for those last few sips. To watch dad hold the worm in his teeth. His rheumy eyes wide, he would bite down and grimace for just a second, you would miss it if you blinked, then he would smile at us like the devil, and sometimes howl.
Mezcal had medicine, he would say. Not in the usual sense, of course, he never approved of hospitals, vaccinations for his kids, or doctor’s bullshit opinions. The medicine he talked about was old Indian medicine. The drink and the worm were a portal, a way to talk to the spirits gathered around us, good and bad. Ancestors that whipped through my blanket that night on the wind. Dad didn’t take medicine to calm the demons he carried but to speak with them, to know them, to try to understand.
This medicine would eventually help to kill him, along with a handful of less sacred poisons. But I don’t know for sure, I wasn’t there at the end.
I wasn’t in that room in San Francisco for Bob’s last breath either, but that photograph was. Rey and I smiling down at him, arm in arm.
Bob’s final thought may have been of us, but what about my dad? Were we the last thing he saw when he closed his eyes? Was my mother there too? Did he see all of us grinning on the beach, squinting in the sun?
I have a picture like that, the four of us on that same beach, I keep it in a frame. Dad’s Chilean skin deeply tanned, hair baked almost red. Mom in a bikini, her Norwegian skin only a few shades lighter. Rey’s arm over my shoulder, his hair platinum. Me, plum-cheeked and nut brown, smiling in blue shorts.
That photo has medicine. Sometimes I feel like I can talk to him through that small moment. Maybe, when I take my last breath I’ll be thinking of that day and looking at that picture. Or maybe I’ll think of my own wife and daughter, the family he never got to meet.
Then again, it could all just be chemicals on paper. Just some old cactus juice in a bottle. The ritual on the hill, just a show for those left behind. Maybe the dead don’t give a shit if you get the fire going or not.
Every year in August, my brother and I try to share a shot of mezcal on my dad’s birthday. We say his name and clink our glasses. I have no idea if he hears us, I don’t have that kind of faith, but my dad did. He believed in medicine. I’m trying to believe too.
Some years we forget his birthday, busy with our own kids and our own survival. I feel bad about it, I feel like we’re not remembering him right, but then I think of him that night on the hill in Maui, splashing fuel on those sticks to get the fire started. To keep his kids warm.
Whatever happens in the end, I hope I can focus through the pain and think of something good. Like Bob did with that picture of a couple scrawny kids on a beach in Hawaii.
I hope I can believe in magic like my dad, and find something special floating out there to anchor on to. Something that made it all worth it.
Like that worm at the bottom of the bottle.
RICARDO ZEGRI is a writer and musician with a deep affection for beer and burritos. His work has appeared in The Welter Journal,MindEqualsBlown.net, the indie journal Fnord, and various other coffee stained zines. He lives in Vallejo, California with his wife, daughter, and a pile of animals. Find him on twitter @Under_theTable.