That old man, whoever he is, is not my father.

He spends most of his days and nights perched on a bar stool at a Mexican cantina at the strip mall up the road that used to be a cow pasture.  The old man orders a round of fireball shots that taste like cinnamon and pretends to be a wealthy rancher and land baron.  He is holding court at the bar, bragging about past triumphs that never actually happened, but his courtiers are sleazy sycophants who rub up against him and give him shallow kisses on his dentured mouth to score another free drink from “Earl Hefner.”

Little does his harem know that when the old man leaves the cantina and staggers out to his car, he drives to a dilapidated shack that used to be my home.  He parks away from the house, amidst the overgrown weeds, and limps toward the front door.  Dirt dobber nests line the stucco walls of the carport, and the white Dodge sedan my father used to drive is parked there, blanketed in green pollen from the oak trees. All four tires are flat.  The roof over the carport has caved in, and long wooden ceiling planks are falling down and resting on the trunk of the disabled car.

When the old man walks inside, a damp stench fills his nose.  The entry way is teeming with piles of clothes, broken appliances, and stacks of third-hand junk he bought for pennies at Goodwill.  He doesn’t need any of this stuff and he is drowning in other people’s garbage, but he keeps buying more so he will have an excuse to drive across town nearly every day.  He has to go somewhere, anywhere, to get out of that house or he’ll go mad.

Teetering piles of mail cover the dining room table.  Cards and letters addressed to my father with photographs of my children inside are buried at the bottom of the pile. There, at the head of the table, a half dozen second-hand coats and flannel shirts hang on the back of the chair where my father would sit and lead us in prayer before dinner.  The red brick tile that runs throughout the house is covered with a thick layer of dirt and dead insects, and the old man’s shoes leave an imprint as he moves about the house.

The kitchen where my mother used to make large Sunday suppers after church can barely be seen through the mountains of empty milk cartons, dirty dishes, and discarded food containers stacked on every square inch of counter space.  There’s a calendar magnet from 2004 on the refrigerator door and a gaping hole in the ceiling.  Pink insulation rains down on top of the refrigerator and settles on the floor below.

The old man shuffles past his bathroom on his way to bed.  Twin blue sinks, where my brother and sisters and I used to crowd around to brush our teeth before bed, are orange with rust.  An old paint bucket with a metal handle sits next to the disabled toilet.  The old man uses water from the sink to flush the toilet’s contents a couple times per week.

Down the hall in the last room on the right is the old man’s bedroom.  He bows his head as he passes the threshold to avoid the cobwebs covering the top of the door frame.  He steps out of his unlaundered, second-hand clothes and collapses into a dark slump on the left side of the bed where my father used to sleep beside my mother each night.  Baby photos of my father’s grandchildren hang from nails in the wood paneling beside the bed, their frames crooked and covered in dust and spider webs.  The popcorn ceiling above the bed is black with mold and is sagging from water damage.  The ceiling could open up at any moment and fall on the old man as he lay asleep, but he does not care.

As the old man tries to sleep, he worries about how he will afford his high blood pressure medicine when he has spent most of his Social Security check on booze for his false friends, but that does not stop him from returning to the cantina the next afternoon like clockwork.

Every morning around 8:00 a.m., the old man leaves the oppressive house, coughing and wheezing from a night spent breathing black mold, and sets out on his daily itinerary.  His first stop is the McDonald’s about a mile away.  He lingers there for several hours before heading into town to pick up more useless junk from Goodwill.  The last stop on his itinerary is the cantina where he will remain on his barstool for the rest of the afternoon and evening.  The old man has lived this way ever since my father left; nearly every day is the same, barely distinguishable from the next.

Every so often, I show up unannounced at McDonald’s to buy the old man a cup of coffee.   I cannot go to the house where my father used to live because the old man does not want anyone to know his secret.  No one can ever discover how the old man has allowed our family home to disintegrate into unfathomable squalor.  I cannot visit him at the cantina either because the old man would be embarrassed, and furious, if someone claiming to be his daughter interrupted him in the middle of one of his fantastical stories or disapproved of his pathetic attempts to flirt with the bottom-feeders at the bar.   The old man knows that my father would never condone of such tawdry behavior.

Sometimes, when I talk to the old man, I see a glimmer of my father peeking out from behind his cloudy green eyes and droopy eyelids, or I hear a hint of familiarity in the old man’s voice that reminds me of my lost father.  But just as I begin to sense my father’s presence, he vanishes and I am left again with the old man, the stranger who is not my father.