My daughter’s bare feet rest on the seat back between my son who’s driving and me riding shotgun. It’s a Tuesday in early Fall and the interstate south of Montgomery is wide open, practically deserted. I sip my water and watch the trees that border the roadway reflect in the glossy clear coat on the midnight blue hood of the 442, painted after almost thirty years when my son turned sixteen. The boy drove it for eighteen months until he’d saved enough at his various jobs to buy the truck he’d always wanted and have it lifted and modified proper. He just enlisted, intent on becoming a Ranger so he wanted to be the one driving down to the gulf for this long weekend before he has to report. The girl never wanted to drive it but made me teach her how the Hurst shifter works.
“Just in case,” she had said.
“In case of what?” I asked, laughing.
“I don’t know,” she admitted. “I just want to know how it works.”
But she didn’t care about how it worked. She wanted to know how I work, wanted to know me and how my son knows me.
We cut the music off south of Birmingham and put the windows down to catch some airflow. It’s still just warm enough and the moving air whips through making talking difficult, which is fine. We said all we had to say for now the first hour and a half and talked ourselves out. My phone beeps and I check it. Email. Wife’s lawyer finally sent the divorce papers. My son hits my shoulder and I look up. I’m keeping this down. Can he see it in my fucking posture?
“Read that shit later,” he said. “We got nothing but time.”
My heart is broken for these kids. They’d made it through some bad years with the wife and assumed nothing but blue skies ahead. For some reason, I had, too, but the family is gone, exploded. I hate that they’ve lost that. That we’ve all lost that. What most people don’t understand is that when a family fails, over the long run there is usually no “better” solution. There is simply swapping one set of difficulties for another and it changes everything. But the world doesn’t quit spinning out of spite or pity. It keeps pushing the future at you. If my daughter sees me the least bit shaky, she bursts into tears which only breaks my heart more. A vicious circle.
My wife thinks the boy enlisted as some kind of reaction or something. She doesn’t know he’d been talking to me about it for a year and had asked me to keep it between us for now. Not sure why he hasn’t told her the truth. He’s a good boy, ready to conquer the world. Just out of high school and doesn’t really know the real education is just beginning.
My daughter just wants to finish school. This should be her final year if she keeps the momentum going. Dean’s list, all that. The boys she’s brought home every now and then have said and done all the right things. The ones she’s brought home. She talks to me about some of them but I don’t know what I don’t know. Not sure I want to know and pretty sure I’ll never know. But I am happy she’s in the Olds with us, her red, white, and blue toenail polish upon on the seat next to my son on his way to basic in a few weeks. It’s a memory I immediately know is one I will have as long as I have a memory, and I put the phone in the glove box and settle back into the seat, thinking about flags and family as the warm air flows through the car and I drift off to sleep.
When I wake up the air is salty. I sit up and see we are winding down the peninsula to our neighbor’s beach house. That neighbor couple is older than me. The boy and I have always helped them out with their vehicles and big projects, and they’ve always given us some time at the beach. They have the oldest house on the beach, almost a shack, really, compared to all of the new construction, but we’ve helped them keep it up as well.
We keep fishing gear there and the gulf always feeds us. Whiting. Pompano. The occasional flounder. We’ve been coming here near twenty years, but never without her until now.
“Some things never change,” my son says as he pulls into the slanted driveway and makes the tricky move in tight space to roll perfectly into the parking space under the porch on stilts. I watch him expertly turn the wheel and guide it back. We all get out and they start unloading the trunk. I take a deep breath and just watch.
I marvel at the both of them. I know I’ve accomplished something here but I’m not sure what anymore. I know that will change, that my compass is just spinning right now. For now, we’re together, the three of us, and that’s enough. I’ve kept them together all these years and kept the Olds together, too, and they all three look good. Everything looks good except that old, chipped suicide knob.
That old thing is starting to look out of place.