The prison sits forty miles north of Las Vegas. Surrounded by nothing but sand, cacti, and tumbleweeds, the 35-acre complex was home to my father.
I am driving there alone, my mother too broken by the news to come along, in the same Wrangler we drove to visit him the first time, fifteen years ago. Time hasn’t been kind to the vehicle. It creaks and groans with every passing mile, and its once bright yellow exterior has become a somber beige.
For months, I had pleaded with my mother to scrap it and she promised she would. But it never left her garage. Every time I brought it up, I’d catch her stealing a glance at the photos hanging on her living room wall—faded memories of a road trip across the Pacific Northwest, her and my father holding hands amongst the Redwoods.
Now, as I watch the Vegas skyline recede in the rearview mirror, a conversation from our first visit plays in my mind.
We were driving through the desert with the soft top down, my face slick with sweat, as I fidgeted in the back seat—doing anything I could to assuage my growing agitation. We had been on the road for hours at that point and all I wanted was to see my father again.
“Ma,” I’d said. “Why did Dad have to move so far away from us?”
My mother’s eyes met mine in the rearview mirror but she said nothing, and I knew better than to ask again. By then, I had grown accustomed to her silences, to the prolonged gaps of nothingness that began to punctuate our conversations shortly after my father was taken away.
“Your dad was chosen to be an astronaut for a mission to Mars,” she finally said. “That’s why he’s living out here. It has the same conditions as the red planet.”
I remember looking out onto the harsh, alien landscape that surrounded us and imagining my father in a space suit, driving alongside us in a massive space rover. He waves to us and we wave back, and although his face is obscured by his helmet, I know he is smiling.
“Do you think he can get me an autograph from Neil Armstrong?” I asked.
My mother never answered me.
When I finally saw my father that day, I didn’t recognize him. He wore a beige jumpsuit and his long, curly hair had been shaved down to a buzz cut. Behind the glass partition, he motioned for me to pick up the telephone receiver, and it wasn’t until I heard his low, gruff voice that I realized the strange man sitting before me was my father. He looked tired and frail; his smile—which had always brought me comfort—was a pale imitation of what it once was.
There was no apology; no mention of his three-month-long absence; he pretended as if nothing had changed. He asked about school, my hobbies, and if I was taking good care of my mother.
My responses were brief and monosyllabic, my mind still struggling to comprehend this new version of my father. Perhaps it was because of my terse responses or my blank stare, but my father began to cry.
“I’m so sorry,” he finally whispered through the phone. “I’m so sorry.”
My mother, who’d been standing behind me the entire time, began to cry too. And soon, all three of us were sobbing inside the visitation booth. It was then that I realized there would never be an autograph from Neil Armstrong; that there would never be a mission to Mars.
I would recall this moment many times throughout my life, and I would resent my mother for having lied to me each time. But now, as I feel that familiar desert heat pressing down on my neck, I can only wonder what was going through her mind during that time, how she must have felt knowing she’d have to tell her six-year-old son that his father was never coming home.
I arrive at the prison around noon and check in with the officer at the visitation center.
“Sorry for your loss,” he says with a straight face. “Please sit. I’ll bring him out for you.”
When the officer returns and places a smooth, copper urn onto my arms I am taken aback by how weightless my father feels. How inconsequential.
This was the man who, on a whim, called off from work and drove my mother and me down to Port Canaveral so we could watch the Discovery launch into space. I still remember the rumbling of the explosions during liftoff, the way he cheered until his voice grew hoarse, and the suffocating smell of sulfur in the air. I had never seen my father so excitable until then, like a man possessed by spirits.
“Thank you,” I say to the officer.
I place my father inside a duffle bag and secure him in the passenger seat of the Wrangler. The drive home was going to take three hours, so I put on an audiobook of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, one of my father’s favorite books. Before he went away, he would read me different chapters of the book every night before tucking me into bed. I never forgot that one passage he quoted over and over again: Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.
“Remember,” he’d say, “life’s too short to hold grudges.”
We had only driven five miles before the Wrangler wailed and came to a sputtering halt. I didn’t need to look underneath the smoking hood to know it was finally dead. I call the closest towing company I can find on the internet and they tell me a tow truck won’t arrive for another hour.
“You can’t come any quicker?” I say. “It’s a furnace out here.”
“It’s the best we can do right now,” the raspy voice on the other end says.
I sigh and leave the Wrangler with my father in tow. The last time we were together like this was over twenty years ago. It was one of those rare nights when he didn’t have to work the graveyard shift so he set up his telescope in our backyard. We took turns peering through the viewfinder, our sight set on Mars, as my father drank his cans of Bud Light.
“It looks red because its entire atmosphere is made of rust,” he said with his head tilted toward the night sky. “Can you imagine?”
“One day they’re going to find a way to fly all of us up there,” he continued. “We’ll be able to see that red sky for ourselves.”
Looking up at the sky now, I don’t see red but an endless blue without a single cloud in sight. The Nevada sun sits alone, directly overhead, singeing my skin and heating the asphalt beneath my feet. I get off the road and walk into the desert, my shoes leaving behind imprints with every step. An expanse of sand and stone surrounds us, and in the distance, a natural arch juts into the sky. I bring my father closer to my chest, his cool exterior a welcome relief from the heat, and make my way toward the landform.
The arch doesn’t appear too far away but I am drenched in sweat after covering only half the distance. When we finally arrive at its base, I realize it’s larger than I expected—it stands about thirty feet tall, rising gradually at an angle that makes it quite easy to scale.
“Hold tight,” I say.
We reach the top of the arch and I sit down cross-legged to rest. I place my father in front of me so he can enjoy an unobstructed view. Up here, everything looks smaller and more insignificant. Even the Wrangler, which is only a few miles away, appears minuscule when contrasted against the sea of sand. And although the landscape is barren, dotted by the occasional shrub or cactus, I can’t help but imagine my father blissfully driving through this vast desert in a space rover. But this time my father isn’t driving alone, this time he’s driving with my mother in the passenger seat. They are laughing and smiling, their fingers tightly interlocked, neither wanting to let go.
My father and I sit atop the arch for a while longer and when I finally feel the hint of a gentle breeze, I stand and take him into my arms. Removing the lid from the urn, I gently pour his ashes on the ground. The breeze soon returns, this time much stronger, and scatters him into the open sky. As I watch his ashes drift in the wind, the world around me begins to take on the hue of muddied clay, the sky now the color of rust. I can no longer make out where my father’s ashes are but I know he is finally home.
“Welcome to Mars, Dad.”
About the Author
Chiyeung is an Asian American writer from Queens, NY. He is an alumnus of the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop and his work can be found in Ghost Parachute, Newtown Literary, and more. He currently lives in Philadelphia with his partner and two cats.