by Jacqueline Burt
The TV was still on when I walked into my father’s bedroom at the top of that narrow, creaking staircase. The bedroom he shared with his brother as a kid, the bedroom he shared with my mother years later. I was conceived in that bedroom. And when I saw my father’s empty bed I collapsed on it and cried and wished I’d never been born.
They were already carrying his body out on a stretcher when I got there. Zipped up in a bag. I begged the police officer to let me see him. “I’m sorry honey, we can’t do that. We can’t do that.”
But the TV was still on, and the ashtrays overflowing. Glass jars filled with paintbrushes lining the windowsills. Piles of magazines and sketchbooks and journals everywhere. The smell of cigarettes was still thick in the air, the fine residue of crushed pills still visible on his desk. My father had been a mess, like me. And now this mess was all I had left of him.
It’s been nearly three years since my father died. I’ve managed to hold on to almost everything he left in that room, every unfinished watercolor and half-written essay…every faded photograph. He was telling a story, my father, in images and words…the story of his adolescence, of running away with Timothy Leary and drinking with Janis Joplin. He was telling the story of the years we spent apart…my childhood. It was better that way, he told me later — better that the darkest and most self-destructive moments of his life happened far away in the booze-soaked bayou. As a kid, whenever people asked me about my dad, I always said he was in New Orleans. It was true, but I didn’t know what it meant at the time. I would find out eventually.
I am my father’s daughter, down to the brittle bone. I am the only person alive who can finish his story. Through a combination of his artwork and writing and my own, The Sugarcane Hitchhiker is my attempt to do just that.