The Setting Sun by Nathaniel McKowen

My dad’s van was gunmetal grey. We had dubbed it the “Dutch Oven” because it had no AC, and the windows didn’t roll down. The engine sat between the two front seats. A cracked engine cover leaked the type of heat you could smell. Periodically, my dad would have to pull over to pour water in the radiator or else the van would sputter to a stall. If we sat idle too long, the tailpipe backfired, barking at us to get a move on.

My dad was homeless. We still spent the weekends together every now and then. We called it camping.

“Your dad’s here,” my mom called when his van pulled into the driveway.

I tossed my phone on the counter, arms extended, as if to say, “See what deprivation I must endure.” I didn’t get service on the other side of the mountain. No doubt there would be a thousand missed texts when I got\ back. She would be all drunk at 2:30 and want me to sneak over to her house. I would be . . . camping.

I climbed through the side door because the passenger side didn’t open, tossed my sleeping bag in the back. I thought about how lucky other kids were who had divorced parents. They could say they were going to their dad’s house for the weekend. I couldn’t say that. I was going to where my dad “lived.” His house rolled with himchipped, dented and gunmetal grey.

“Hey, bud,” he said, shifting the Oven into drive. He appeared almost as defiant as he was. A mountain-man beard and long hair framed a face wrinkled by countless hours in the Arizona sun. His skin was cured cowhide. As he drove, his crooked fingers bent around the steering wheel, armored in callouses, and his shoulders hunched forward from a car accident that had crushed his spine when he was younger – or maybe he
was weighed down by a lifetime of disappointment.

“Hey,” I said back.

The ride out to the Valley was quiet. We sat in silence, listening to the rattle of the engine, engaged in a mental tug-of war, judging how the other felt and imagining what sort of walls had been erected between us over the past few weeks. At the freeway exit that led to the Tucson Mountains, we passed a derelict waterpark. I liked to imagine that normal families had spent the weekends there, dads doling out bills so the kids could get ice cream, applying liberal amounts of sunscreen and the children laughing like they do on commercials, and then everyone would pile in the SUV for a comfortable ride home in the AC, content that life was as it should be. But I could never really know what might have been. The waterpark was a scar on the side of I-10, and that green waterslide that cut through the trees stood like a broken monument to what it was not.

Picture Rocks was about 45 minutes outside the city. We headed west over the Tucson Mountains, and since we always went in the afternoon, the sun blinded us as we rolled over the crest of the mountain. The Saguaro National Monument spread out before us, bathed in dying light, untouched and unspoiled. My heart always lifted at this moment, like the strings of expectations had been cut and all my pressures released. Although, more likely, it was because the van was going downhill.

This part of the trip never failed to make me feel like I was in a Western movie. We were two cowboys riding into the setting sun, leaving the world behind.

Maybe this is what men do, I thought. They don’t talk about how they feel. They keep their faces passive, a taciturn demeanor. Words are cheap. Life is too complex.

After the monument, rows of trailers sprouted here and there along the road. Confederate flags flew proudly in most of the front yards. Picture Rocks reminded me of a bandit town, full of outlaws, outcasts, and those who had denounced the world. This is where I was born, though I had moved to the city long ago. This is where my dad lived.

We stopped at the Wagon Wheel to get some coffee. Once we climbed back into the Oven, my dad broke the silence. “How’s school?”

“Alright, I guess.” It was my sophomore year in high school and I had straight As. No one really pushed me to get good grades; I was just deathly afraid of failure. “How’s things with you?”

He made a sound that was half grunt, half sigh, and we lapsed into silence again. Manly, or not, I didn’t like the silence. After the quiet snuggled itself between us, I said, “When the water rises, so too does the boat.”

“What’s that?” he said, distracted.

“From the Book of Five Rings. Some famous samurai wrote it.”

The corner of his mouth pulled up, and I knew what he was thinking. Me and my Eastern philosophies were a point of humor with him. He thought it was just a phase I was going through. Even if he was rightbecause I had found all the same faults in those religions as I did hishe didn’t need to know that.

Our main form of conversation had always been debate. Religion was a frequent conversation piece between us. He was raised Roman Catholic, I wasn’t sure what I believed in. When I was five, my dad told me that Santa Claus wasn’t real. I wanted to return the favor. My position had three points. One: I told him it was hard for me to swallow a story that God had spoken to a few guys and told them to write down what he said. To me it sounded like an early case of schizophrenia. Two: Men were fallible creatures, and if they wrote a book, it was for their own agenda. Three: For millennia the Catholic Church had used that same book to further their own ends, saying it was “in God’s name.” In my adolescent arrogance, my argument was flawless. He usually agreed with what I said. However, that never shook his faith. He was too stubborn to admit defeat. He said that for 30 years these arguments had kept him from God. That had all changed the night those three guys attacked him.

At the time, he was camping out under a tree just across the street from the Wagon Wheel. Most everyone knew he was out there, including the cops, but they didn’t bother him because he kept to himself and didn’t cause any trouble.

One night three drunk idiots stumbled into his camp. He woke just in time to see the blade of a shovel slam down on the crown of his head. Lights out. When he came to, he told me, he just planned to lie there and bleed out, slip into oblivion, that the peace would be nice. They took everything he had, which wasn’t much. He did what most men do once or twice in life. He asked God for a sign. Then, he decided that he wasn’t going to give up yet. He hauled himself up and staggered across the street. They took him to the hospital. Even though he didn’t have insurance, the doctors stitched him up and told him he was lucky to be alive. The cops came and asked him if he knew the guys who did it. He said no, and even if he had, he wasn’t the type to point fingers. A few days later a little girl at the community center handed him a bible, told him to keep it. To hear him tell it, he never saw that girl again.

No one could understand the random act of violence. Everyone liked my dad because he was one of the few guys in the Valley who wasn’t strung out on heroin or meth. To me, that seemed worse than if he was. At least that would explain why he was homeless.

We pulled into the place we were going to make camp for the night, a little patch of desert far away from everything. He started a fire. I dragged two boulders to each side of the pit and we set a rusted grill on top. We ate London Broil that night. The musty scent of creosote filled the air. Above, the night sky disrobed and showed us her secret that she saves only for those who venture outside the city. The stars were brighter than I could ever remember.

“That’s what capitalism does,” my dad said. “For someone to win, someone has to lose.”

Even though I wasn’t much of an economist, I liked these discussions. I sat with my back straight. Just two men talking about the state of affairs. “Yup.” I shook my head in agreement.

“It’s like a country club,” he continued. “You’re either one of the boys, or you’re everyone else.”

We let the obvious hang between us. My dad used to play golf at a country club when he was my age. My grandfather had been a member, owned an insurance company, had a license to fly a private plane. I had learned this from other family members because my dad never talked about his father. I only knew that my dad hated country clubs.

When the steak became pieces of gristle on the grill, I asked him a question that I had never voiced aloud. “Why do you live like this, Dad?” I felt I had a right to know.

He considered it a moment. “Money’s tight.”

“So, get a job.”

“Any job I know how to do would leave me crippled in a week.” He fidgeted a bit. “You know, you sound like them.”

“Then get disability,” I told him.

“I’m not disabled.”

“Neither are half the people on it.”

He looked me in the eye. “I’m not a liar, either.”

Because I, too, wasn’t a liar, I told him how I really felt. “What kind of footsteps are you putting down for me to follow in?”

He got quiet. I regretted saying it immediately.

His voice came in a whisper. “I’ve always been honest with you. Never tried to pull the wool over your eyes. I’m sorry you don’t like the way I live, but this is how life turned out. This is me. This is God’s plan for me, apparently.”

That made me mad. “That’s bullshit. Don’t hide behind God. If you wanted to, you could get a job bagging groceries or something.”

He snorted. “Bust my ass for 200 bucks a week? I wouldn’t be able to get an oil change with that. I make more money selling metal.”

“You sell wrought iron javalina on the side of the road. That’s not a job. That’s like a . . . gypsy or something.”

He looked at me hard. A smile cracked through. He laughed. I couldn’t help but laugh too.

“Wanna go fishing tomorrow?”

“Sure,” I said.

Our fishing hole was the C.A.P., a concrete waterway that diverts the Colorado River through Arizona. It’s gated, so we had to squeeze beneath the fence to get in. We would post up beneath a concrete bridge to keep out of sight of any authorities.

I baited my hook with kernels of canned corn and cast my line in. My dad set up his portable radio. We always listened to the blues station. We didn’t say much, but the silence was like easy conversation.

The sun was on its way down, and the light jumped around the top of the water. In this moment, with its simplicity, I was content. Waterparks were overrated. “It’s getting late, and we have to drive back to town tonight,” my dad announced.

“Nope,” I said, “not until I get a fish.”

He smiled. “You’re stubborn, you know that?”

I wasn’t stubborn; I just wasn’t one to give up. “What, you don’t think I can catch one?”

“I have faith in you.”

It wasn’t until well after dark that I got a bite. It was a bluegill.

“Set the hook,” my dad said. “Good, now bring him in easy. Watch out for the spines on his back.”

“Yeah, I know,” I said impatiently.

I reeled her in. It was a tiny thing, and at first, I was disappointed.

“They can’t all be wall-mounters,” my dad said. “Want to toss it back?”

“No way,” I told him. “We’re keeping it.” The fish might not be a mantle piece, but I couldn’t imagine letting it go.

“We ought to gut it here,” he said. “Want me to do it?”

I gave him the look. “I gut my own fish.”

He clasped my shoulder. “Well, at least I taught you to do something right.

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