Fata Morgana

Matthew Young


What Happens in the VRBO…

After my grandfather’s memorial service in Arizona, in the high-ceilinged, dark-stoned, weighty kitchen of a vacation rental, my nurse practitioner cousin cuts a cyst three times the size of a bb from the top right portion of my head. She injects lidocaine through a twenty-five-gauge needle attached to a syringe into my scalp to dull the pain of the excision. A part of me wishes she wouldn’t. We’ve been telling stories about our grandfather all day—how he used to wash us behind our ears when we were toddlers with a soapy rag that felt covered in glass, how we’d cower and cry; how he sang the first few lines of Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” whenever he was thinking; how he’d send us boxes of old magazines and books he thought we’d like; how he was more a father than both our own estranged fathers ever were, even from thousands of miles away. When he left me voicemails he always ended with, Love you, Son. But I don’t feel anything about those stories. I’ve been trying to cry, to say poignant things in the middle of long silences, to conjure fond memories and nurse my loss gently because I think it’d be nice to feel something right about now.



At the memorial service, held in a regional park interpretive center, I read a placard that informs me the Sonoran Desert is the most biodiverse desert in the world. I think about how the night before, my family gathered in the middle of that desert at a sushi restaurant in a strip mall. Another placard tells me there are thirty species of fish endemic to the Sonoran—suckers, shiners, pupfish, chub, trout, catfish, more. I wonder if my grandfather ever caught any of those native fish with the fly gear he gave me two years ago. I wonder if he tied any of the flies himself. Then I wonder if I’ve already lost some to poorly tied knots or overhead foliage. I think of a large trout that broke my line a month back swimming somewhere in tributary river in Eastern Washington with a piece of my grandfather stuck in its jaw. I tell myself that’s where he’d rather be anyway. Don’t handle them too much, Grandson, catch and release, he wrote in a note that came with the gear. In his younger years he would’ve built a throne from their skeletons and not thought twice. He wrote, I haven’t trusted my legs against the river for a long time. None of the fish we ate at the restaurant were native—they were all caught, bashed over the head with a club, gutted, filleted, and shipped to what used to be a primordial ocean to be unceremoniously masticated in a mix of saliva and cheap beer. 


Heat Casualty

I scale a maintenance ladder and stand on top of the interpretive center roof and feel like a giant is tossing me through the air, aiming to pop me into her mouth and crush my straw bones between her boulder molars. The sunlight and the temperature and the three beers sloshing in my gut set my head buzzing. I want to walk to the mountains in the distance and look for petroglyphs like my grandfather and I used to before age ripened his legs to jelly. I want to be six again and I want his back to be straight and his hair to be more pepper than salt, but I want him to be the man he was later in life, not the man he was when I was six—who drank too much and worked too much and was a little too loud and a little too short-tempered. I want to fall the fifteen feet from the roof of the interpretive center and break something. Shimmery heat heaps solid on top of the peaks like watchtowers and I wonder what’s really out there. I could go find out, I think, and then a helicopter pushes through the heat wall and drops below the ridgeline. The craft lands, is obstructed by mesquites and palo verdes, and then takes off minutes later. I follow its silhouette up and up over the mountain range, its heat peaks growing, piling like bricks; geology in sixteen times speed. I’d be dead before I got half way. 



A placard on the interpretive center wall reads, Beware! Deserts might look empty, but they’re full of things that kill! More placards on the wall below show gila monsters and mountain lions and coyotes—which can kill in packs when they’re desperate. In the foreground of the placards is a poster board covered in pictures of my grandfather. Next to the poster board is a computer monitor playing a slideshow of photographs of him and our family on a loop. There is no placard on the wall of the interpretive center showing the pancreatic cancer that killed him—though neither is there a placard of a rattlesnake. 



You’re not going to be a vagina, are you? asks my cousin. When I cut it out? She points to my head over dinner and bourbon at an outdoor mall. I want to say something to her about how vaginas seem pretty tough to me, but I shake my head no and say, No I’m not going to be a vagina. My cousin cared for our grandfather while he died. She bathed his withered body and cleaned his crevices with baby wipes when he couldn’t make it to the bathroom. She says, Before he couldn’t get out of bed I gave him a shower and asked him if I should wash behind his ears. She buries her face in her bourbon. When he was no longer ambulatory she monitored his vitals, administered pain medication, changed him and his bed sheets for ten days, and then had to fly home and resume care of other people’s grandfathers while ours died without her. 


Flash Burn

Large crepe paper spheres filled with warm incandescent bulbs drench the adobe and dusty-tile outdoor mall courtyard in buttery light, making long stark shadows in the corners. A band plays soft acoustic elevator covers of pop songs. The four of us stand on the balcony overlooking the courtyard and I imagine us zooming up, up, up in that easy- listening elevator only to come crashing down in the middle of the father-daughter dance like the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs. We’d accelerate beyond maximum velocity, fueled by our sadness, by our anger at the wedding guest’s happiness. The crater would be beautiful. We’d turn the desert to glass, boil the fish in their rivers. 


Disk Not Ejected Properly

The forceps find their mark. There is no pain, only pressure from my cousin bracing my head while she applies upward force. I worry the removal of the cyst will mean a removal of many other things. I joke that without it I won’t ever write again. There is a large part of me that believes that in so stating, I’ve created a truth, and then worries about how easy truth is to create, how selective memory can be. There is part of me that believes also that the removal of the cyst might be a removal of memory. I wonder if I’ve maybe run out of room in my brain. I picture the cyst like a USB drive—pull the device out too soon, and all the data will be lost.  



My cousin tells me caring for our dying grandfather was good, necessary, logical, a no-brainer. I think she is telling me this because he didn’t die while she was there, didn’t accept her coaching—or coaxing. Maybe she thinks she wasn’t enough comfort for him. She says, It would’ve been weird if it were someone else—a hospice worker, a stranger. I want to tell her I’m glad it wasn’t me, that if it weren’t for her it would’ve been a stranger, then I’m ashamed because I know it’s true, and I wonder if that means she loves him more than I do. She says, Sometimes it feels like the family blames me. And I know she means she blames herself and my shame rushes out like a tide that’s left soft sea creatures to bake on exposed rock and I tell her what she did was good, necessary, logical, a no-brainer. And then I tell her that she’s allowed to think it sucked too. After a moment, she agrees. 


Three Thousand Four Hundred and Three Feet

At five in the morning, hours before the memorial, my cousin, her husband, my uncle, my wife and I scale a small mountain my grandfather liked to look at. My uncle carries my grandfather’s ashes in a pack. At the peak, he takes a handful of ashes and scatters them, then my cousin does the same. I hold back—not sure I want to know my grandfather’s incinerated weight. Fuck this hill, I think. We skied mountains together five times this height, I think. This is kindergarten bullshit. The sun pushes arid wind over the mountain. My wife leans in to me and says, This was all under water once. Later I’ll imagine fish swimming around our ankles. 


Clean Up, Row 10 Seat A

A dull pop. A release. A blood trickle breeches my hairline. Night air breezes through the patio door into the living room, over the bar separating the dining room and kitchen of the vacation rental. In eight hours I’ll be climbing to forty thousand feet, cruising over the Sonoran in a plane heading north, back home to mountains and rain and Northwest rivers full of sea run trout and spawning salmon, and I’ll think about all the things I can still remember about my grandfather and more about the things I’ll never know. I’ll think about the voicemails he left for my cousin and me that we played for one another so we could hear his voice again. Back in the vacation rental I want to hug my cousin, but she’s too busy sopping up blood and preparing the sutures for the work that still has to be done. 

 About the Writer
Split Lip Magazine

Matt Young is a veteran, writer, and teacher. He holds an MA in creative writing from Miami University. His work can be found or is forthcoming in Consequence Magazine, The Rumpus, Word Riot, Tin House, River Teeth, and others. His memoir, EAT THE APPLE, is forthcoming (2018) from Bloomsbury. You can find him on Twitter @young_em_see.