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Story by Chris DeWitt (Read author interview) February 1, 2021

Art by Nathan Dumlao

I didn’t know about the tattoos. Ribbons of black snaking around his torso and shoulders. He must’ve been working on them for years. So when they called me to tell me what happened in a parking lot days ago, and they asked me if there were any identifying features to make sure he was my kid, I told them about the mole on his left cheek, the freckles that made a perfect line along his right forearm, the scar on his left knee. But I didn’t know about the tattoos.

I hung up and held the phone tight in my hand. I watched the storm clouds gather across the mountains to the west of town. I didn’t move until the storm let up and the early morning sun made everything glow orange. My neighbor across the street was already up cleaning branches from his lawn. He waved. I nodded out of habit and went to pack a bag.

Mark had moved back to Albuquerque last year to save some money and get clean again. Denver wasn’t helping in either of those areas. I wasn’t helping. The last time I saw him, there was a lot of yelling. I can’t remember what was said, but I heard in his voice the same rage and self-loathing I used with his mother when we were still together. But I heard he was doing better.

They found him in a Safeway parking lot in Raton, just off the highway over the mountain pass. Maybe he never even made it to Albuquerque. A cop found the van with curtains in the windows illegally parked overnight in the far end of the lot. When he rapped on the passenger-side window and there was no answer, he called a tow truck and a locksmith and there was Mark, on the floor inside. The coroner had to sort out if he belonged to anybody and that took a couple days. That’s when they called me.

The sun was high when I pulled into an empty corner of the lot. I stood between two faded yellow lines, picked up a handful of gravel and weighed it in my palm. I’d gone to the mortuary first and they let me see him before the cremation. I touched his shoulder, traced those lines hoping they would tell me something. But maybe it was only skin. I flung the rocks into the dirt and walked across the parking lot to the grocery store.

“A little help, boss?” A sunburnt young man with a pillow of sandy hair called out from his seat on a cement bollard near the door.

Surprised at myself, I paused. “What do you need?”

“Anything, really,” he said, grinning widely. “Headed north—change, food, weed, I’ll take it.”

“Do you remember seeing a blue van parked over there? Sometime in the last week or so?” I asked.

“Blue van? There’s a lot of vans, man.” His giggle was insufferable. “Sorry, sorry. Uh, blue van blue van ….”

“It would’ve been parked right over there. My son. He shot himself in it a couple nights ago.” It was the first and only time I’d ever say that out loud.

“Oh shit,” said the traveler. He seemed suddenly young and helpless. “Shit, I guess I haven’t really been … you know. I’m sorry, man.”

I could have wept or pried his eyes out. Not wanting to do either in public I turned and went inside. I ordered a small black coffee from a green-haired woman with gold flecked cheeks. She said something but I didn’t hear. I bought a muffin and gave it to the kid on the way out.

I sat in my car for a while, burning my mouth on the coffee and staring at my phone. The missed-call reminder. Days old. I didn’t pick up, I was still pissed. I didn’t want to bail him out again, couldn’t stomach another reminder of our family’s fuck-ups. My fuck-ups. I’d call him back when I wanted. I didn’t know. 

I went and picked up the urn from the mortuary and parked at the Super 8, but I didn’t get out of the car. I thought about calling his mom, but I wasn’t good at talking to her even when we were married and I sure as hell wouldn’t be any good now. The sun set and I decided to drive back tonight. I buckled the urn into the backseat and pulled onto the service road to 25. One light away from the on-ramp I saw the Safeway and pulled in squealing across three lanes of traffic. I went straight to concrete bollards at the front door. The shaggy-haired traveler was still there.

“Get in, I can take you up to Denver.”

About the Author

Chris DeWitt is writer, educator, and musician based in Austin, TX. His works of poetry and fiction can be found in Barren Magazine, Suspect Press, and elsewhere.

About the Artist

Nathan Dumlao is a brand consultant and content creator living in Los Angeles.

This story appeared in Issue Seventy of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Seventy
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The SmokeLong Quarterly Comedy Prize 2021!

This competition is no longer accepting entries. Watch for the long list coming soon! The four winners of the competition will be featured in Issue 74 of SmokeLong Quarterly coming out near the end of December.