Congratulations to Caitlin Brady, first place winner in the Mainstream/Literary Short Story category of the 91st Annual Writer's Digest Writing Competition. Here's her winning story, "The Lasso."
It’s nobody’s fault dad died on The Lasso. It was actually what he wanted. He told me, he said, “I want to die on The Lasso,” just like that. And I thought it was just him, a guy with dementia, talking his shit again. People wouldn’t believe me now anyway, with everything that’s gone on. I want to be clear, though, I don’t think anyone, other than me come to think of it, could’ve known.
The theme park was closed to the public that day and open only to a group of kids and adults with critical illnesses and special needs, who were invited to explore the park, sing songs, and take pictures with hula girls, cowboys, and this big beaver-looking thing. Dad’s dementia wasn’t our ticket in— it was his brother, my Uncle Luther, who is fifty-five and in a wheelchair. I don’t know Luther well and don’t remember the name of what he has, but he got a spinal injury as a kid and then had a bunch of complications from there. He’s in a lot of pain and doesn’t like strangers, but his nurse Nicole said a day at Hill Country Hollows would be good for him. She called and told us about the charity event and said we should come along.
Nobody knew about dad’s dementia but me, in part because he wouldn’t admit it. He said he was getting old, I’m a fogie, stuff like that—he was only 61, though. On top of that, he was never sober long enough to get diagnosed. People saw him as a drunk, a big goof. There he is, asleep on the lawn again or passed out in his driveway, what a character. His goofing career was long, and people were used to it. Except, I guess, when you goof by a kindergarten. Then people see you setting a bad example for the youth, you pissing in your yard in broad daylight, and it offends them.
Dad offered to fence his yard so the kids across the street couldn’t see him pissing, but the cops said that was skirting the issue. He also had it out for the parents of the kids, who tried to park in front of his house and blocked the driveway. He would call them profane names and, from time to time, direct the stream of his piss onto their cars. He also threatened to sick his geriatric ginger-blonde chihuahua, Munchkin, on them. Munchkin liked to bare her teeth.
I moved in with dad the summer after my senior year of high school, shortly after his arrest. His house is cottage style, on a quiet block in a nice neighborhood. Again, there’s a kindergarten right there. It was my job to watch the house and take care of Munchkin while he went to court-ordered rehab. He’d been caught driving drunk as well as parking drunk, or rather parking recklessly, or not quite parking but coming to a state of not driving anymore by the force of a motel wall, last May. He would be gone for all of June.
I guess some teenagers with a house to themselves would throw a party or something, but I was worried about our bat problem. There was a colony in the house, but you’re not supposed to kill them because of the ecosystem. Still, I killed one with a rolled-up magazine, a little guy hanging on the curtains. He squeaked his ass off. Another one got trapped and died in the Vent-a-hood above the stove, the thing that sucks up the steam. There was a tiny claw sticking out the edge of it. It stank like a human shit in the cupboard, it was decomposing in there. I wasn’t man enough to reach up and grab it, but one morning I walked in and maggot casings had fallen onto the range. The whole skeleton fell out soon after. Yet another one was curled up dead under the dining room table, like the butt of a chewed cigar in a thin sliver of light on the rug.
I replaced the broken refrigerator and threw out the molding food. When I first showed up, dad was gaunt. He forgot to buy food, then forgot the food he bought in the fridge, then forgot the fridge was broken and never had it repaired. Meanwhile, Munchkin was obese because he couldn’t remember if he’d fed her or not and he was leaving out two zillion portions. I had to diet her while he was gone, which made her hate me even more than she already did. I made her walk on a leash, too, and she fought it, planting her little legs firm. So, I dragged her. I dragged her to and from the park across the pavement, and we called this walking.
Dad called only once from rehab to say the thought of Munchkin was what kept him going. She was very old for a small dog, and he was praying she wouldn’t die, at least not until he got back. I was diligent in giving Munchkin her meds, even if I had to hold her jaw open and shove the pills past her yellow teeth. Her breath reeked of death and I too prayed, or cuss-prayed, she wouldn’t die mostly because I didn’t want to have to give him the news.
I spent June mowing and vacuuming. I washed the floors and collected the mail. And let me tell you—when he came home, he said nothing about any of this. No acknowledgement, no thank you. He went straight to his bedroom and sat on the clean bed I’d made up for him without so much as a word to me. I tried to cut the tension by talking about the bats, calling myself the bat man. He just stared at the floor, the way he’d stared out the window the whole ride home: in silence. I had a lot of hope, though, because treatment changes people. With drinking out of the way, maybe he and the doctors would take his memory issues more seriously.
He was healthier after treatment, where he’d had to eat regular meals. I didn’t know what to make him now he was back, so we had spaghetti over and over. He didn’t complain. Sometimes we had rice mixed with mashed potatoes or macaroni and cheese with ranch dressing on top. He had these protein powders he said gave him all his nutrients— “Patriot Powders.” He ordered them off a conservative talk show he liked. It was pale blue salt sand, sugar and xanthum gum, with a jacked Uncle Sam flexing in a tank top on the front.
He’d signed up for and forgotten about his subscription, so Patriot Powders were coming all the time and piling up all over the house. I tried to call and cancel them, but the lady kept me on the phone too long and dad walked in and slapped the cordless out of my hand and then slapped me across the face and then picked up the phone and then tucked it in his back pocket and then walked out and was gone for many hours. When he came back, he was riding a brand-new motorbike.
“It’s all yours,” he said. “A gift.”
He’d also needed a way to get home from wherever he’d wandered to.
Before this I was living at my mom’s, an hour’s drive away. That was fine until graduation, when she started asking constantly about my plans for the future. My most immediate plan was clear, and it was “take care of dad.”
“I did that most of my life,” she said, “and that’s no plan at all.”
“Who will do it if I don’t?” I asked. He lived alone.
“That’s his problem, not yours. You’re a kid, not a nurse.”
But I packed a bag and was determined. The day I was going to leave, she left for work early, and on her way out, did not say goodbye.
If mom saw me going to dad’s as a betrayal, dad saw me having lived at mom’s as an equal betrayal, so he also gave me the silent treatment when I showed up on his doorstep. It took several days to get him to sit down and eat spaghetti in front of the TV with me, and to do this I had to watch the same show every night about Hitler.
He finally broke his silence by asking, “You know Hitler was a meth head?”
And I said no, I did not know that, and then he clapped me hard on the back and told me to keep my eyes open.
Once he started talking, he talked a lot about the past. That and lighting fires— he was always lighting those. I know leaves and yard trimmings generate lots of smoke and it isn’t city legal, but I’m just saying, sorry, he did it anyway. During one such fire, which he was building taller and taller with branches and twigs, he talked about Luther. And the thing is, he never talked about Luther, not ever, pretty much, in my whole life.
“I know I’m getting old and forgetting shit,” he said. “But shit if I’m not also remembering shit, too.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“Like Luther and me.”
I was watching the fire, nervous a neighbor might tattle on us. Then he said, “I did it to him.”
“You did what to him?”
“I pushed him.”
“Where? In his wheelchair?”
“No, you idiot. Off the ledge at Lake Mirage. I counted to three, and he didn’t jump, so I pushed him. He kinda tried to catch himself as he fell, he screamed, and then he didn’t clear it all the way and hit that rock down there. The one that’s partway underwater.”
Dad took off his shirt and threw it into the fire.
“What’d you do that for?”
“I was a kid.”
“No, your shirt just now.”
“Oh,” he said, breaking a stick in half. “I got hot.”
“Well, you’re right up against the fire, maybe back up some.”
“I will not,” he shouted. He snarled at me and the fire lit his eyes fiercely.
The branches went from glowing red, to black, to gray, to white.
“Listen, accidents happen—
“Wasn’t an accident,” he said. “I wanted to get back at him.”
“Now that’s the thing I can’t remember.”
A twig snapped, sending sparks into the air.
“I think it bothered me,” he said, “how scared he was.”
He was sweating and his white hair was in two unruly tufts by his temples where he’d run his fingers through it. His chest hair was matted and there were many moles on his ropey-tanned arms. His stomach folded over itself as he bent forward, squatting and resting his elbows on his knees.
“How old were you?” I asked.
His lips moved in silence as he did the math. “Twelve.”
I don’t remember how I ended the night or put out the fire or went to bed. My head hurt. I wanted to tell mom or to confess to somebody, but what’s the point in confessing if you don’t know it’s true?
A week or so later, I drove dad to this bombed-out-looking strip center for an X-ray because he’d fallen on the porch and jammed his finger. The place was clearly out of business, the doctor’s office had screwed us with bad intel, and now I was trapped in the car with him in this salty mood. He was biting a hangnail as he stared at me unblinking, his eyes blue and aggressive.
“What the hell are we here for?” he asked.
“Ice cream, never mind,” I said, and drove him to the c-store for a 64 oz Diet Coke.
Once he’d had his Coke, I said I was glad he’d told me about Luther.
“What about Luther?” He asked.
He scratched the side of his face. “Something’s wrong with Luther?”
I had this sick-to-my-stomach feeling, like now I’d have to remind him about Luther’s condition and his possible role in it. But then he burst out laughing.
“You’re white as a sheet.”
He was laughing so hard he was crying. He did an impression of me, raising the pitch of his voice, “Dad, oh god, oh no, you don’t remember?”
Once he’d finally settled down, I asked if he’d ever told anyone other than me.
He shook his head no.
“Did you want to?”
“Wouldn’t have made it any better,” he said.
He slurped the dregs of his soda and shook his empty cup. Then he went inside for more.
By now, our house was covered in sticky notes. They scattered like seeds from the motherload: an over-stuffed day planner dad carried everywhere only to forget he had it with him. He’d driven away with it on top of his car and often left it at bars and restaurants. In it were appointments. Bank account numbers. Birthdays. Phone numbers. Check payments. When the planner couldn’t be located, we relied on the satellite sticky reminders throughout the house. One of them, which had fallen behind the coffee maker, said “go to bank.” We did, but three weeks after we were supposed to.
At the bank, I watched dad sift through every sticky note on every page of his planner, looking for the details of his loan for the motorbike. If he found a relevant sticky, he stuck it to me, onto my pants leg, or my shirt sleeve. He had missed a couple payments and interest had accrued. He said no one had told him about this, but he also didn’t seem totally sure of that, and I could tell. When he marched out of the bank, indignant, I had to chase after him, sticky notes fluttering on my arms like feathers.
Back at home, Munchkin had taken a shit on the carpet.
“It’s because you’re starving her!” he said. “She’s retaliating!”
“It’s because she’s old, Dad.”
He dumped more food in her bowl.
“Stop,” I said.
“Pick it up,” he commanded, pointing to Munchkin’s turd.
I refused. Munchkin was between us and as she ran towards her bowl, I grabbed her hind legs and ran out the door with her. I got on my motorbike, to go where, I don’t know. Munchkin was wriggling in my lap and not far from the house, I dropped her, or she sort of fell off the side. I saw her land and barrel roll on the pavement, but she got up and quickly trotted away. Our walks had been good practice.
I couldn’t go to my mom’s, and my friends were gone for the summer. So I drove to a park and sat there until the sun went down. I wondered if I could sleep there but was scared someone would steal my bike. After sitting in the 24-hour McDonald’s till midnight, I drove back to Dad’s.
Munchkin was snoring in her basket. The radio was playing, and a fire burned in the fireplace. Dad was on the back porch— I could see his outline in the window. He came into the kitchen and walked over to me, stopping to lean on the door frame.
“It will all work out,” he said. His eyes were glassy, and the slight tremble in his hands was gone.
But the next day, or maybe a couple days after that, Munchkin was no longer able to walk. We took her to the vet, who recommended she be put down. Dad held her as it happened, pressing his face into her like he might blow a raspberry.
Munchkin looked the most peaceful she’d ever looked, and dad, the most distraught. After we picked up her ashes, dad cried in the c-store. I found empty cans in the backyard, squashed into disks, and forgave them. It seemed like nothing would snap him out of it, so when Nicole called about the event, I thought it was like a thumb’s up from God.
Dad loved roller coasters and never needed an excuse to ride one. He said of all the ones he’d ever tried, and he was a—a coaster head—he loved how old-school The Lasso was. It’s a wooden coaster with one great peak and a drop, a couple tight turns. It’s very rickety and clackety. When you’re in it, you hear that click-click-click as it hitches you higher and higher into the sky. Unlike the more modern rides, like Superman or Steel Eel, with their corkscrews and harnesses to let your legs dangle, dad liked feeling as if he were in an escaped coal car racing down-mountain.
He’d asked me before to ride rides with him, but I don’t like the stomach flip in the plummet feeling, the near-death adrenaline. He said that was the best part, and it was in that conversation he said if he could die on, or of, anything, he hoped it would be The Lasso.
I’m unsure if he knew, with how much he was forgetting, that his forgetting might be fatal. I’ve heard dementia called ‘the long goodbye’ and The Lasso is not a long goodbye. It’s a very short one. I think going full speed, it lasts six minutes, and you usually wait in line for quadruple that. Since this was a special event, there were no lines for anything. The weather was clear and sunny. The wind was strong, and there was the early September tingle of fall.
When we met Nicole and Luther in the parking lot, everyone was in a pretty good mood. Dad had not seen Luther in many months, but he pushed Luther’s wheelchair and did so carefully, pausing at all the crosswalks. They looked like brothers. The songs and speeches were nice, and a couple times dad sang along. The whole day, up to what happened, had been one of our best, or least bad, in a long time.
Luther wanted food or to go to the bathroom, so Nicole took him to the café area and I waited in front of The Lasso for dad, who had walked right in because there was no line. He’d convinced the operator, and I’m not entirely sure how, that he had to ride this ride today, right now. I didn’t see that as odd because he was all about this coaster, and always has been.
The operator was a good sport and allowed him to board the otherwise empty train of cars. As it started, I watched dad, the lone passenger, this ruddy guy with white hair, leave the station. And then the coaster picked up speed, faster and faster—it’s hard to watch until it slows down as it ascends. I think I heard him shout woo! at one point.
The train of cars crested the big peak, and this must have been the moment he undid his seatbelt. Right then the sun was sharp, blinding white beams bright through the coaster’s girding. I couldn’t see him in the coaster anymore as it blurred, racing down the drop. Racing, racing. It looked like the white head of hair was gone. I scanned the area around the coaster, shading my eyes with my hands. I didn’t see anything and then I became too afraid to look. I rubbed my eyes and told myself the sun had blinded me, but when the train of cars pulled in, it was empty.
I ran to the attendant. He right away radioed for help and security came. He kept saying “he was buckled in,” over and over, and I believe he was. What followed was people rushing in every direction to close off the area and then police searching around and under the ride. They found him before long and a kind of hush fell over Old West Town in Hill Country Hollows. Except no, it didn’t, because sock hop music was still playing from 1950s town nearby. The big beaver-looking thing had removed its head and was drinking a Bud Light in the shade. I was led away from the area and a cop said he would come over soon and speak to me.
I waited with Nicole and Luther. Luther had a Styrofoam cup of ice with a tiny amount of water in it and a very large straw. Nicole had her hand on my shoulder, though I’d forget it was there until she periodically squeezed it. She was praying out loud with her head bent. Luther was still and quiet, chewing on a piece of ice and lots of saliva was running from his mouth. Nicole would normally wipe it, but she was so off in her own private prayer world, I got up and did it myself with my polo.
The cop approached me and said, “Son, your father had a bad fall from the ride and I’m sorry, but he did not survive. Rest assured we will figure out what happened here, and we’ll get to the bottom of it. We’ve got our best people involved.”
When I got back home to Dad’s house, I sat in silent shock among the protein powders for what felt like days. Munchkin’s ashes were on the mantle. Light flickered through the blinds. Mom came to get me and in reality, I’d only been there a couple hours.
For days afterward I dreamed of bats. In my dreams, they clung like oysters to the curtains. They poured forth in a cloud from the Vent-a-hood, chirping and circling around an illegal fire in the backyard burning tall and unattended. They dropped guano on the kindergarten’s bright yellow play structure and over the cars of the parents. They soared over the ledge at Lake Mirage and spiraled, fluttering, into the long shadow of The Lasso, swelling in a great wave towards its peak. In my dreams it’s daylight, but there they are, flying all around, up, up, and up and then diving low, and I startle awake with a drop in my stomach.
I keep wondering if Luther understood what was going on. I think he did because his chest was rising and falling very rapidly. From where I sat, I could only see his profile, the side of his wheelchair. The sun was getting low and his eyes were colorless where it shone through them. His hands rested in his lap, holding each other, and his chest went up and down, up and down. I couldn’t tell if he was laughing or crying, but his face was wet with tears. I went to use my polo again to wipe them, but when I tried, he turned away from me. We sat side by side as the people rushed around us, their voices lost in the roar of wind.