Coos Bay, Oregon
By NICHOLAS DIGHIERA
I was five years old, asleep, my first night in a new sleeping bag purchased to replace my family’s repossessed bunkbeds, and I was awakened by something cold and wet. Before I opened my eyes I already knew I’d pissed all over the sleeping bag and that the urine had soaked through into the carpet. Earlier that afternoon while buying the bag, my father had asked me if I could, for once, act like a goddamn adult and not piss in my sleep. I had said that I wouldn’t. I’d promised. And I lay there in my mess thinking about that moment in the store and felt immense shame. What kept me awake, though, were thoughts of my father, a short, hairy man with thick forearms and scary teeth, doing what I later learned adult words for: Belittling me until I was so small that even my mother couldn’t scoop me up.
So I waited, shivering and wide-eyed, until morning. He came in. And it played out as I saw it earlier that night. It always did. I knew he loved me, which made it hard to understand why he couldn’t hear it when I said it was beyond my control. Eventually I gave up because I couldn’t penetrate his anger. It seemed nothing could.
I am 33 now. I’ve quit my job and am travelling with my two sons, Dominic and Finn, 8 and 5, across the American West for the summer. We travel, cook, wash dishes, get dressed, brush our teeth, and sleep in VW Vanagon.
We are in Coos Bay, Oregon and the wind has been cutting hard all day so we hide in a coffee shop and eat giant chocolate chip cookies. I have a cup of coffee. Dominic and Finn have some juice. We are the only customers and we finish up. There is an arcade down the street and we play pinball and arcade games like Donkey Kong and Joust.
We leave the arcade, chilled by the wind, and head to the van. I fire it up and we drive a little south of town to a campground on the beach. We find a spot and park.
I say, “Let’s go down to the beach.”
“Can I look for crab parts?” Finn says as he unbuckles. His hair is cropped but the copper color still glows even with the cloud cover.
“Yes,” I say.
“Can I wear my sandals?” He says, waving them around.
“Can I walk out into the water?”
“Man, you can do whatever you want. Let’s just get going.”
They both pile out of the van wearing their jackets and hats, but they are both wearing shorts. The wind is even chillier here with the nearby sea, but I let them make their own decisions.
We walk the paved road to the camp entrance where I hear the crash of the ocean below the cliff to the west. The wind is a constant force, tugging at our clothes. It’s blowing through chimes on an ocean buoy that we can’t yet see, making two distinct notes. One low, and then one high. It sounds like a church organ playing the theme from Jaws.
There is a steep trail leading down the cliff. I go first. The trail cuts straight through vines that drape down around us. I mash down a couple of banana slugs as I slide over them and cut left, stopping at a flat spot.
“Okay guys, one at a time,” I say. I turn and see Dominic attack the trail. He slides it like he is playing baseball and this is the game-winning run into home plate. His face is covered with dirt and his pants are now stained. He pops up, filthy, and jogs the last few steps, using my legs as a backstop. I catch him around the back and give him a hug.
“Did you see the slugs?” I point to where I smashed them.
He turns and says, “No. Where were they?”
“I think I ground them into the dirt. You probably have slug guts all over your pants. Gross, dude.”
He laughs and smears some of the dirt on his pants and says, “No I don’t.”
Finn descends now and he has opted for a more careful backward-stinkbug style.
Dominic whispers to me, “He’s sticking his hands in the slug guts, huh?”
“Yes,” I say. “Let’s not tell him.”
We both smile.
Finn stops and says, “I think somebody smashed a slug up here.” He holds up a mangled, gelatinous hunk.
Dominic laughs and so do I. I say, “Come on, buddy. Put that down. Let’s get to the beach.”
The steepness of the trail levels off and we emerge from the vines into a swampy basin with grass taller than Finn’s head. There are giant deciduous trees blocking out sun and their leaves sound like a jet engine in this wind but down here the air is stale. Small bugs take flight as I move through the grass and they buzz around us. I am in the lead with Dominic close behind. We step from tuft to tuft, avoiding bogs on either side of us. Finn is walking behind us, with his hands in front of his face, pushing the grass away.
“You got it, big guy,” I say.
“This is big grass, Dad,” he says. Then he says, “I stepped in some mud. Sorry.”
“It’s okay, buddy,” I say.
I watch him plod on, sometimes jumping, and he nearly falls more times than I can count but he keeps motoring forward while Dominic stays at my side, still talking about the video games he played at the arcade.
At the edge of the swamp there are low shrubs and cobwebs and the boys laugh as I bend low and snag everything. They scoot through with ease. We emerge on the beach.
The chimes from the buoy are louder here, and it’s visible now, lolling back and forth and up and down in the surging waves. The beach is long and flat and the shorebreak travels thin like glass; the gulls overhead are soundless. Clouds feather the horizon and the sun is two fists high, giving us a few hours to play. There is a crowd of people on the right and smoke from their cookout wafts our direction. I see a parking lot there too and a road extends from it, slicing into the trees. This is probably where we should have walked.
I point down the beach to my left. The people are scant and tiny as pebbles. A jagged rock slices the sand in the distance. I say, “Let’s check out that rock.”
Dominic has been running in wide ovals making motorcycle sounds, but spins out of them and heads that direction. Finn stays with me, picks up a stick, and drags it in the sand while he walks.
He zigzags back and forth between the water’s edge and me. Dominic runs too far ahead, away from the water, jumping and rolling in the loose dry sand, and then he waits for us to catch up before he takes off again. And I walk between them watching the water connect and disconnect with the land. The rock grows as we move forward and the sun droops in the sky.
We approach the rock and Dominic says, “That looks like the back of a stegosaurus. Look, Dad, can you see the plates?”
He points and I can. The beach ends in a steep cliff and the rock juts out from it. It’s a rugged wedge, two different colors of brown, the darker of the two making the plate shapes along the top. It’s long, and narrows to a point that stabs into the water. We cross a small sand bridge at the tip of the rock. On the other side of the jut is a horseshoe alcove, steep cliffs all the way around. There is a line of driftwood and seaweed on the beach marking high tide. Two buzzards hop around, picking at something I can’t see, and a bald eagle swoops in and scares them away. There is no one here and I unzip my pants, back to the boys, and piss on the beach.
“Dad, can I go in the water?” Finn is looking at me when I turn back. He throws his sandals near me and then hikes his shorts up. I don’t mean he pulls up on the waist. He grabs the short-legs at the bottoms and hitches them up so that his hands rest near his crotch, making his shorts a pseudo-Speedo. In the past I have asked him why he does this; he usually laughs, head thrown back, and runs around kicking his pale legs high. This is enough for me.
I take my sandals off and throw them with his.
“Sure, buddy. Don’t get wet, though. You’ll freeze in this wind.” He laughs again and then runs into the water. I quick-check Dominic who is climbing over the rock-face and I look back at Finn. He waits until the water recedes and sprints to touch it. As it rushes back, he giggles and retreats trying to outrun it. Back and forth like this, he could do it forever.
I smile. This is that rare kind of day. Crisp and glossy, like a photo.
I climb the rock beside Dominic and he is playing a game where he is some kind of scientist. I ask if I can play and he says I have to be the hunter. I am unclear on the rules so I sit and listen to him play. He climbs again, going higher than he should. But I don’t stop him and soon Finn is climbing with us too. Finn is given a character, maybe the hunter, I don’t really know. They scramble back and forth over the rock. Then they dive from a point on the rock and fly like Superman and I catch them. Dominic tries to outjump my arms and I tell him how stupid this is but secretly I am glad he is doing it. Finn has to be talked into jumping, and when I catch him he seizes my arms in his.
We finish jumping and I gather our sandals and go around the other side of the rock, to the long beach. Dominic follows me. Finn stays behind, in the alcove. He is running around in circles and laughing. Dominic reverts to the scientist routine and climbs up the rock-face to the top and looks into the alcove. He is saying something about finding a T-Rex fossil so he can make a new dinosaur.
Then he says, “Dad, Finn peed his pants.”
I drop the sandals, go back around the rock, and Finn is standing there with a dark stripe down the front of his plaid shorts. He is frozen and staring at me.
My mind reels back. I am five years old again, throat tight with shame and fear, no words coming out. It’s slow motion now as my father is bent down, nose to nose with me, and picking me apart at the seams. Sometimes little pieces of spit fly out of his mouth and stick to my face. His hairy arms swim through the air his eyes are all the way open. I don’t attempt to tell him that I couldn’t help it, but I beg him with my eyes to understand that. He’s not listening anyway, and I can’t figure out why.
In this moment I am both a child, with the memory of father bearing down on me, and a father, with a volcano inside about to erupt. And even though I know all the rules now, the words, the sentences for both sides of the conversation; even though I know that Finn could not help it, as this isn’t the first time, and that my father also could not prevent his reaction, I still cannot stop what happens next.
“What the fuck?” I say. “Why’d you do that?”
“I don’t know, Dad.”
“Look around, dude. You could have fucking peed anywhere.” I wave my arms around showing him the entire alcove. Showing him the world.
“I didn’t know I had to go, Dad.”
“How do you not know?” I snatch his hand and start leading him back. He stumbles behind me.
“I don’t know,” he says. And then he says, “I don’t know,” again, but I don’t think he meant to.
“I know you don’t know. That’s all you can seem to say.” Then I say, “Were you having fun? Playing here at the beach?”
“Well guess what, the sun is setting, the wind is cold and blowing a million miles an hour, and we’re far from camp. You’re going to freeze on the walk back. Fun’s over, buddy. You fucked up.”
He starts crying and we round the rock. I grab our sandals and thrust his at him.
“Put them on,” I say. “We aren’t going to have a fun walk back. We need to move.”
Dominic starts to say something, but I tell him to shut up and run ahead of us.
We move down the beach and I keep looking back at Finn. I wet my finger and hold it into the wind to check the temperature. It’s a frigid combination, the wet and the wind. We would have been okay if his pants weren’t soaked. But as it is, I’m scared.
I turn and say, “Walk faster, Finn.”
Dominic plays his motorcycle game out front. Avoiding.
I go back and forth between silence and berating Finn.
I know this is all wrong, the way I’m handling it. But I can’t reconcile the right way and the wrong way and verbal abuse is frothing at the edges of my mouth and flying out at a kid. My fucking kid. Who is absolutely devastated as he trots along behind me. But I can’t seem to stop.
As we approach the parking area, a large stream cuts down from the marsh and out to the ocean. It’s wide, but shallow. Six inches at most. We could walk a hundred yards upstream where a log is being used as a bridge. We could take off our sandals and ford. We could, at this point, do anything.
Instead, blinded by frustration and anger, I walk towards the narrowest part of the stream, about four feet wide. I know Finn cannot jump it. I ask Dominic to jump and he does, clearing it. Then I tell Finn I am going to throw him across. We have done this before, the throw, over shorter jumps. I think this will be fine. But, if I’m honest, I just want to get back to the van, clean him, make dinner, eat, and then go to bed. I want his piss-pants and my anger to end, even though I know shame will grow in its place. I want to leave those things behind, in this day, and move into the next where I will get another chance to be a better dad than this. Where I can be the dad he wants me to be.
So he grabs my right arm with both hands. He pulls hard. I swing him through the air and let go of his hand. As he lands I see his ankle twist to the outside in a way that makes my stomach flip and he is wailing before he comes to a complete stop.
The first thing that comes out of my mouth is, “Why did you do that?”
And as these words pass I know it’s not his fault. I know exactly whose fault it is.
I jump the stream and inspect his ankle. It’s not broken but he is crying hard enough to attract the attention of some of the people at the cookout. They are wearing matching blue shirts that say their last name and I think this is a family reunion.
“He’s fine,” I shout. And then I say with less gusto, “Just a little fall,” and wave them off.
They give me concerned looks but I think they can see the shame coming off me like heatwaves so they turn and leave. I help Finn up.
“Can you walk?”
He limps. This is a real limp, full slouch and whimper.
Then I hold his hand and say in a low voice, just to him, “We have a long walk in front of us, buddy. You’re gonna have to man up.” But right now I don’t even know what a man is.
He is awash in tears, wincing as he hobbles, and between high wails he sucks up his snot, his chin vibrating with emotion, and says, “I love you, Dad. I’m sorry I fell.”
And my heart breaks the fuck in two.
So I hold his hand and say, “I love you, too, buddy.”
I hold his goddamn hand so tight that I feel every shift of his body weight like a knife-stab in the heart. I hold him like this because that’s the only right thing I’m doing. Maybe the only right thing I’ve ever done.
I hold his hand so tight that he says, “Dad, you’re hurting my hand.”
But I can’t help that either. I try to explain why, but the words are falling out all wrong. So I stop trying.
For now, we walk uphill into the night. Dominic in the lead. Finn limping at my side. With a low and high whistle from the buoy rocking at sea.
Back and forth. Up and down.