My mother went missing in the city of Milwaukee when I was three. I don’t remember this; it was told to me by my father as we drove through the desert of Utah on the way to Salt Lake City where I would have my superior vena cava bypassed.

She wasn’t missing-missing, but my father had driven up from Indiana to hand me over—their bi-monthly custody exchange—and she never showed up. Always late, my father said of her, so he waited around my grandparents’ house for a few days before he resignedly drove back to Indiana with me in tow.

We spent a lot of time in cars, he and I.

About the bypass: Every human being has small, dime-to-nickel-sized pockets of scar tissue scattered throughout their body. It’s the law of the land, this fibrous tissue filling inefficient gaps as our DNA unspools its instructions for creating these fragile bodies of ours.

One in twenty million people will have one of these pockets of scar tissue somewhere vital. In a lung. On the heart. On an ovary. Or, choking the superior vena cava, the body’s largest vein, returning oxygen-depleted blood back to the heart for replenishment.

Without the superior vena cava, blood backs up like the morning traffic switchbacking down the mountains into Salt Lake City, and like the wrecks of overzealous cars now fused together, the blood clots and one’s left arm, one’s neck, one’s face, swell and redden, overripe. As if you stood up too fast, consciousness tenuous, but all the time, sitting, standing, sleeping. And if a clot breaks and hits the brain, aneurysm.

Better get that taken care of, said my doctor. And he sent me to Salt Lake, to a friend of his from his residency, who invented the surgery to bypass the superior vena cava. My insurance would cover the surgery, but not the transportation, so my father in his self-sacrificing Piscean way, offered to use a week of his vacation time and drive me to the hospital in Salt Lake City in his blazing-red Pontiac Firebird.

I hadn’t wanted anyone to come because I fully intended to die there. But here was my father, the creases of gnarled, stubby fingers permanently inked black from years of machining, carving other people’s designs from massive blocks of steel. Those hands shifted his Firebird into a lower gear as we roared down the mountain, this last-minute slowness unbearable after the high-speed burn across the dry sepia tundra of Wyoming and Nebraska. Those hands smoothed back his hair, what was left of it—nothing on top, but still, his ’70s stoner ponytail clinging to the back of his head.

Getting my father to talk was the proverbial blood from stone. Years we spent together, the two of us, crisscrossing the Midwest, saying nothing. He listened to Meatloaf, to Heart. We’d stop for sausage biscuits at McDonalds before dawn. A Ford Pinto deserted us in rural Indiana when I was six. We hitchhiked to a junkyard, walked a pilgrimage through the cemetery of junkers, retrieved an ancient artifact, and hitchhiked back to the Ford where he finally said, people are friendlier to hitchhikers with children.

And then, in Wyoming, he said, I watched my father die from complications after a bypass. And now I’m watching my son.

As if he knew as well that I would die there in Brigham Young’s briny lakebed of the intermountain West. And then I asked, and I asked until he answered, about everything I couldn’t remember, especially those early years with my mother, who had never returned. Once he got going, his voice at first grit, mere rumblings, turned avalanche as his tongue and his teeth found their momentum. What do you remember, he asked, and I said only the piano, the one visit, the piano in her house, and the loose brick in her fireplace, behind which there was nothing hidden.

That, he said, was your mother, a mystery behind which nothing was hidden.

And to a boy who’d never felt kinship to his quiet, stoic father, that poetry sparked a confluence. Our ten thousand mile silence was broken. I should have known then, that the Firebird, the phoenix, that which burns up and is reborn, would bring me back.

Jeremy John Parker is a writer, book designer, and the fiction editor for Outlook Springs. His Pushcart Prize-nominated stories have appeared or are forthcoming in december magazine, The Normal School, CHEAP POP, The Coachella Review, Midwestern Gothic, and elsewhere. More: @jackshoegazer |

© 2019 Jeremy John Parker. Published by LITTLE FICTION | BIG TRUTHS, August 2019.




by Jeremy John Parker
The Phoenix is a fire bird