Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

Lame                                                 

 

Just before my mother disappears around a corner on her way to the gate, she looks back at us with one of those fond maternal expressions—My two men. But then the words she actually speaks, in a voice vibrating with concern, are “You be good to each other.” We both stand there, on the non-passenger side of security, embarrassed, nodding like a couple bobble heads.

On our way back to the car, my father announces, “You and I are going to have a great time.”

“Right.”

“Two bachelors.”

“Uh, huh.”

“But first, hand over the keys. I’m driving home.”

“Why?”

“It’s my turn. You had yours.”

On the way to the airport, some asshole cut me off in traffic. I had to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting him. “Chad Hamilton!” the old man said, like it was my fault. A minute later we got stuck behind the same guy at a light, or what I assumed was a light. I couldn’t actually see it on account of this huge asshole was blocking my view. I’m like, “Check out the license plate.” The fumes from his exhaust are hitting me like an insult, seeping up through the floor of the clunky family wagon, a vehicle that attracts bullies like a kid carrying a lunch box. “CUZ I CAN,” the license plate says, and I start to inch up on his bumper, the heel of one hand poised above the horn. I catch my father’s eye in the rear-view mirror. “Shall I escalate this situation?”

“Don’t even think about it, mister.”  The old man used to share my contempt for vehicles like the one idling in front of us. He used to have an edge to him before his legal troubles. These days he’s a little fragile. Wants everybody to play nice.

“Change, light, change,” he says. It’s a trick he used to pull when I was small and gullible, making believe he could command the traffic signals to turn green.

“Guess what? It’s not working.” I’m gagging on exhaust fumes. “How ‘bout you change Mr. CUZ I CAN into one of those little chrome scooters with the colored wheels and I’ll flatten him.”

I look in the rear-view, but the parents have decided to ignore me. Got their arms around each other, if you must know. Not from fear and trembling over my road rage either. They just can’t wait ‘til they get to the airport to say their goodbyes, like normal people. Parting is such sweet sorrow!

They didn’t used to engage in such displays, but that changed with the above-mentioned legal troubles.

“You two kids behave yourselves back there.”

It’s probably a boost to my outlook on life, witnessing this blatant evidence that my parents don’t despise each other. Still I search their faces in the rear view for some sign they can’t be serious. But there’s not so much as an ironic kink in one of the old man’s famously bushy eyebrows, which used to have a life all their own.

Suddenly I feel tired—exhausted. My hand slips off the steering wheel and drags across the horn. The family wagon gives a pathetic bleat. I wouldn’t blame the guy up ahead if he backed over us from sheer disgust.

My father glares at me from the back seat. Maybe he thinks I’m honking at him.

 

* * *

 

Now here we are in the airport parking lot, haggling over the car keys, my mother’s parting words already a distant memory.

I go, “Why should you get to drive?”

“I’m the father.”

What he means is, ‘cuz he can.

He’s got his hand out, palm up. Jabs me once in the ribs for emphasis—gimme! He’d call this horsing around, but I want to slug him.

“Here, take ‘em.”

Like I said, he wants everybody to play nice, but that doesn’t necessarily include him. He used to tell me I’d never get my learner’s. Not that he’d stand in the way. The authorities, he claimed, simply wouldn’t allow me to get on the road. They’d find some excuse, some technicality, to prevent it from happening. “For the safety of us all,” he said. “You wish,” I told him. But sure enough, when we went to the DMV on my fifteenth birthday, I got turned away on account of a problem with my birth certificate: it had no first name on it, just “Baby Boy” where the first name should have been. Three hags behind the counter huddled over the suspect document, shaking their heads. They would have to confer with officials in Raleigh, they said. Come back next week. Next week!

My father found it amusing. “Don’t worry, Baby Boy, I’ll drive you wherever you need to go. That is, until you get married, then I suppose your wife can take over.”

“Shut up! You didn’t even have a name for me when I was born.”

“Not true. You were Lee Chadwick Hamilton before you were even conceived. Your mother and I had that one all covered.”

“Swell! But do me a favor and don’t mention my conception ever again. It’s creepy.”

“Yessiree, Lee Chadwick Hamilton. All they had to do was ask.”

“Did you ever think maybe you were supposed to tell somebody?”

“Not the way it works, Baby Boy. Hey, they’ll get it straightened out.  It’s some glitch, is all.” He said the same thing about his legal trouble, right up to the time they slapped him with three years probation for improprieties in the trading of stock options and suspended his broker’s license. Now he fills in as night clerk at the Super 8 Motel, biding his time, he says, until he’s allowed back into the market.

Technically speaking, the old man’s a convicted felon, and so’s not allowed to vote during the term of his probation. He can operate a motor vehicle, though, which seems wrong. Does it make sense to you that a convicted felon gets to drop his son off at school every morning, passing through about three different “go-slow” zones in the process, dodging innocent child pedestrians all along the way? Especially when that felon’s son has several friends he could be riding with—perfectly trustworthy friends, all without criminal records?

Turns out he was right about the birth certificate though. It was a glitch; they did get it straightened out. I shoved the license right up in his face when I got it. “Eat my dust.”

“Well, not for a few months yet. It is just a learner’s.” He took hold of my wrist, moving it back to where he could get the license in proper focus. “It’s a good picture,” he said, letting go of my wrist. “It makes you look like this is the happiest day of your life.”

 

* * *

 

My dad seems to want to show me a good time. It’s like he’s afraid I’ll miss my mother, despite the fact she’s only attending a three-day business seminar. More likely, he misses her and realizes old Chad is all he’s got for a while.

The first night he cooks burgers on the grill, bakes cheese fries in the oven, and makes root-beer floats for dessert. “How are we doing?” he says.

“Good.” I’m hoovering the beige foam from the bottom of my mug with a straw. “When do the girls get here?”

“I don’t think your mother would approve of girls.”

“Bachelors need bachelorettes.”

“Maybe another night.”

Tonight he’s rented a movie. It’s about this creature that kills teenagers for their nubile body parts. The monster’s got this “look” he’s going for, see. Never mind he’s the ugliest son of a bitch you ever saw. About half way through, I’m thinking my mother wouldn’t approve of this ghoulish flick any more than bachelorettes. I’m not sure I approve. I mean the old man’s judgment is pretty flawed. Besides, I’ve decided this movie’s making me sick to my stomach. Or maybe that’s the root beer and cheese fries.

He seems to be enjoying my discomfort. After an especially disturbing scene, in which a bunch of kids—a good-sized glee club worth—have been discovered mummified in a cave, he looks over at me. “What about it, Chad-boy, we bonding yet?” He’s almost leering.

“I want my mom.”

“Ha!”

“I’m serious, you scary old man.” I am, too, partly. I’m thinking we need her for balance. She keeps us steady. Maybe prevents us from getting on each other’s nerves so much.

  

*  *  *

 

On Saturday, he agrees to drive me and a friend to a concert in a town forty miles away. Somehow he gets it in his brain that my friend Jeremy’s name is actually Jason, so he keeps calling him that, which is funny, considering Jeremy owns all the Friday the 13th movies and absolutely idolizes the killing machine Jason. (“Chad, man, he’s like your worst nightmare!”) So a few miles into the trip, Jeremy, who’s sitting in the back seat directly behind my father, starts miming all this Jason-violence, with the old man’s unsuspecting head as his target. He bludgeons him, knifes him, garrotes him. My favorite is the extra-long carpenter’s nail and hammer applied directly to the base of the skull.  Tap, tap, tap to get it started. Then wham!

Old man’s a warrior though. Completely undaunted. “So, Jason, how’s school going?”

“Jeremy,” I say. “His name is Jeremy.”   

“Hey, whatever,” says Jeremy, firing up what appears to be a large chainsaw.

“You introduced him as Jason,” my father insists.

“No, ‘Jeremy.’ Get a hearing aide.” Oops, maybe not. Jeremy just sheared off both his ears with the chainsaw.

Old man’s completely oblivious. “Jeremy, hey? As in ‘Chad and Jeremy.’”

“You’re babbling,” I say.

“A music group,” he explains. “Part of the British Invasion. Chad and Jeremy.”

“They sound sort of gay,” Jeremy says. “Were they gay?”

You can see by the way my father raises one of those bushy brows of his, pausing to check Jeremy out in the rear view mirror, that he’s pegged the kid for either a moron or a wise ass. (He’s both.) “No, Jeremy,” old man says, in a weary voice, “they’re not gay. At least, I don’t believe so. I never thought about it.”

Jeremy gives a self-conscious giggle and scoots back in his seat.

Old man tunes in one of the classics stations. Just the thought of Chad and Jeremy’s got him all tingly with nostalgia. Pretty soon here comes “Puff the Magic Dragon”—that old wheezer!—and immediately he jacks up the volume. At least he doesn’t start singing along.

Jeremy’s sticking his finger down his throat in the back seat. When the song’s over, he asks the question: “Wasn’t that written about drugs?”

I groan.

But my father, I have to give it to him, doesn’t stop the car and lunge at the kid across the back seat. He doesn’t even sneer at him much as he explains the innocent origin of the song, a song, by the way, we used to sing when I was little, although thankfully he omits this detail.

“Well, I heard it was about a kid smoking weed,” pouts Jeremy.

“I hope you’re proud of yourself,” I tell the old man. “Disillusioning my friend and all."

 

 

*  *  *

 

 

The concert’s at a bowling alley, but my father seems to regard the venue with as much dread as if he were dropping us off at a crack house. He’s grown more suspicious since he started working at the Super 8. The scum wads you come in contact with through the motel trade, he says, teach you just what human nature is capable of, or more likely, I suppose, what his son might be capable of.

Before we ever picked Jeremy up, he quizzed me as to what was in the backpack I was carrying. (“Stuff. Odds and ends. Would you rather I carried a purse?”) Next, he made me promise to call him if there was any “trouble.”

“And watch what you say at the concert. You’ve got a mouth on you. Some older kid might not think you’re so funny and decide to beat the crap out of you.”

Was it my imagination or did he describe this possibility with a certain enthusiasm? Anyway, for the record, I’m quite big for my age—six-four—though a little underweight, it’s true. “Don’t worry, I’m a lover not a fighter.”

“That’s another thing,” he said, and launched into a rant about safe sex, which I might actually have found encouraging if the assumption behind it—namely, the availability of a willing female—weren’t so farfetched.

Just before we get to the bowling alley, his paranoia kicks into overdrive. Do I have my cell phone? Do I remember what time he’s picking us up? Be ready! Otherwise he’ll have to come in after us! We don’t want that, do we? (We don’t.)

He’s regretting the whole thing by now, probably imagining the explaining he’ll have to do to my mother if anything goes wrong. “Thanks for bringing us,” I say, just to raise his spirits a little.

“Don’t make me sorry I did it.”

“You’re wel-come. Jeez!”

“It’s okay,” he says. “You are welcome. Have a good time. Don’t worry about me.”

Him? Why would I worry about him? Though, now that it occurs to me, what will he do for the next three hours in this podunk town not much bigger than ours?

The bowling alley, called Thunder Lanes (for real), shares a parking lot with the local K-Mart. We pull in the lot near the K-Mart. Thunder Lanes is lit up across the way. Above its entrance two neon pins tumble in opposite directions, sparks flying, as a big black ball jitters back and forth between the pins. There are some kids standing around in front of the building and others leaning against parked cars.

“You can let us out here,” I say. We’re maybe a hundred yards from the bowling alley.

“That’s okay, I’ll drop you in front.”

“Stop, okay?”

But he doesn’t.

I open the door. “I’ll jump!”

So he stops with a jerk. “Fine, get out.” We both know I don’t want to be seen with him.

I half expect him to tear off in a snit, but apparently he’s in no hurry, because when I check a few seconds later, I can still pick out his tail lights, receding with maddening slowness across the lot. There’s a brake light out. I hope the cops don’t pull him over. Since his run-in with the law, he acts kind of skittish around authority figures. Old man might see the flashing lights and take off. High-speed chase. Resisting arrest. The whole nine yards.

 

*  *  *

 

The first three bands are lame, lamer, lamest; the fourth and final one is all right, but they’re from two states away, and I know what they’re thinking: we drove five hours for this? The all-purpose room in the bowling alley is maybe half full. Fifty kids, tops. The bowlers outnumber us.

The concert breaks up pretty early. Ringworm Catastrophe, the group from two states away, has a CD for sale, and I buy one because I feel sorry they had to come so far. Also, they’re not half bad.

“Like your name,” I say.

Drummer says, “Ronnie, show him your arm.”

Kid flips over his arm. There’s a tiny red circle just below the crease of his elbow.

“Cigarette burn?”

“Ringworm,” drummer says.

“Ooo-kay.”

“It’s not contagious at this stage,” Ronnie notes, like wistfully.

“Two months ago, though,” drummer says, “it got my man Ron-nay kicked out of school!” Drummer and Ronnie bump fists. “School nurse freaked. Said it was highly contagious, could spread in no time to the whole student body, which would be like a ‘catastrophic health event.’ That’s what she said. Shhiit, you know how these bureaucrats are.” I nod, remembering “Baby Boy” in the clutches of the DMV. “Anyway, they had Ronnie escorted out of the building by the vice principal and the school cop, one on each side. They wouldn’t even let him go to his locker.”

“I sneaked back in after school,” Ronnie says.

“Nobody got ringworm though,” drummer says.

I go, “Catastrophe averted.”

They look at me for the first time like, who is this guy, is he making fun of us? I remember what the old man said about watching my mouth. It occurs to me maybe the band members are a little touchy on account of the sparse crowd and the fact it’s probably costing them more in gas money to make this trip than they’ll earn from playing.

Drummer’s eyes wander around Thunder Lanes, sizing the place up. It must be senior-league night. There are a bunch of old guys in bowling shirts cradling balls against their fat middles and squinting into the distance with fierce intensity at the pins they’re supposed to knock down. Drummer shakes his head. “What a shit hole!”

I’m like, “I totally agree with you.”

But Ronnie says he can’t face the long trip home yet. “Let’s bowl.”

Drummer shrugs.

Ronnie turns to me. “What do you say, uh—?”

“Wick.” It’s a version of my given name I occasionally try out on strangers. Contrary to “Chad,” it sounds unburdened, ready for whatever.

“So, Wick, man, you want to bowl?"

I figure, why not? Old man’s not due for half an hour. Meanwhile Jeremy’s hanging out by the video games with a girl from our school he arranged to meet here without telling me. Her sister, who drove her, is supposed to be interested in me. She attends cosmetology school and’s got the damnedest fingernails—long and red. They’re perfectly maintained; she could be a hand model, really. The monster from that movie my father rented would kill to have this girl’s fingernails. Thing is, according to Jeremy, she thinks I’m older on account of my height. So I’m kind of avoiding her. It makes me nervous when people think you’re older, because then they expect you to act older.

I pick out this black ball with a silver swirl running through it. I dub it “the black pearl.” Classy name, but the ball won’t stay out of the gutter. Part of the problem is Thunder Lanes doesn’t have shoes to fit me (I’m a size 16), so I have to bowl in my sock feet, and I’m slipping and sliding all over the place. Also, I’m hamming it up for the amusement of Ringworm Catastrophe. Once, I try to roll the ball between my legs while jumping in the air and doing a scissors kick. I’m not real coordinated, and the black pearl, which is no pearl in size (it’s a seventeen pounder), slams into my left anklebone. “Man down,” Ronnie yells.

Ringworm Catastrophe—all four of them—half drag, half carry me back to the scorer’s table and lay me across it. I lift myself up on my elbows and survey the damage. The left ankle has a knot jutting out from it that’s twice as big as the normal-size anklebone on my right foot. “Ouch,” I say. The boys in the band are laughing their asses off. “No, really, ouch.”

“Get your friend off the table.” It’s a security cop, come over to investigate.

“Uh, officer, I think I may have injured myself.”

“Get the fuck off the table.”

So there I am, hopping up and down on one sock foot. I put a hand on the scorer’s table to steady myself, and because the table has a projection screen, the shadow of my hand appears suddenly magnified overhead, blotting out the scorecard above our alley. I spread the fingers wide and all of Thunder Lanes seems imperiled. Drummer goes, “Awesome!”

Security cop is looking at me like, you piss ant troublemaker, unaware of the giant looming hand, which could shoot bowling balls like marbles or squash him like a bug. “Get your shoes on, lamebrain,” he says. “You’re done bowling tonight.”

That’s when I flip him off via the projection screen. Biggest bird of his life, I bet. The condor of birds. Lucky for me, he doesn’t notice.

It’s a pretty good farewell to Thunder Lanes, if I do say so, and Ringworm Catastrophe seems to agree.

“All right, Wick!”

“Wick, man, later!”

*  *  *

 

I’m a little late meeting the old man, but he doesn’t comment on my tardiness or appear to notice my limp. I start to climb in the back seat (so I can put my foot up). “Hold it,” he says, sticking his hand out like a cop halting traffic. “Where’s Jeremy?”

“He’s got another ride. Somebody from school.”

“That wasn’t the plan.”

“Well, the plan changed. He met somebody from school.”

“Who?”

“Some kid, you wouldn’t know.”

Old man drops his chin on his chest and sighs. “This is not the way we do things. Do Jeremy’s parents know he’s coming back with somebody else?”

“Probably.”

“Which means, ‘Probably not.’” Old man goes on about how he feels a responsibility to Jeremy’s parents. He drove their son here, he should bring him back. “That’s only right.” Man of principle. Quite the stickler.

“Can I get in the car now? My foot hurts.”

“Nope, here’s what you do. Go back in there, tell Jeremy he’s coming with us—unless he wants to call his parents and ask their permission to ride home with somebody else. In which case, they need to call me on my cell to confirm their intentions.”

The scene he’s just described, and especially my part in it, is simply too weird to consider: hobbling back into Thunder Lanes, tracking Jeremy down, dragging him away from his girlfriend, insisting he call home, etc. And that’s assuming I could get past the security guard! “No can do.”

“Why not?”

“He left already.”

“Chaaad!”

“It’s the truth. Go in and check for yourself. He’s gone.” This is a bold but calculated move on my part. I figure, one, the old man doesn’t want to jeopardize our camaraderie, our so-called bachelorhood, by calling my bluff and tipping off what a liar he thinks I am, and two, he doesn’t welcome the idea of collaring Jeremy in the bowling alley any more than I do.

“Fine!” He snaps his head around and jams the car into gear. “Get in!”

But there’s a snag. Several snags, actually—my conscience, my foot, my backpack. My bad conscience and my bad foot have the combined effect of making me sluggish, impeding a clean getaway, so to speak. Then, complicating things, my backpack catches on the doorframe and keeps me from climbing into the car, though I don’t know it’s the backpack holding me up at first. For a terrifying instant, it feels like the long arm of the law. (I’m thinking somebody told that security cop how I flipped him off.)

I glance over my shoulder, realize there’s no cop, and see the backpack’s zipper has caught on the doorframe—well, not the zipper but the gaggle of dinosaurs, like key chain tokens, that dangle from the zipper, which I transferred to this backpack from my grade-school one as a sort of ironic comment on what a dork I used to be.

The point is, I’m slow getting in the car—and the car’s moving, and I’m still snagged on the doorframe on account of the ironic dinosaurs.

“Uh, Dad.” But it’s too late. “Daaaadowwwshiiit!”

Back tire goes right over my foot. I can’t believe it. Same damn foot I nailed with the black pearl.

“Oh, Chad! Jesus, Chad! I’m so sorry. I thought you were in the car.”

I sprawl across the back seat, having finally unhooked myself from the doorframe. Old man’s anguished face appears over the top of the front seat. “Did I get your foot? Are you all right?”

“Calm down,” I tell him but don’t sound calm myself. “What are we going to do? I think you broke it. Oww, jeez! I think you crushed the son of a bitch.”

“Listen to me. I read that shock is the real danger to be avoided in an accident. You want to avoid shock.”

A thought knifes through the pain: two bachelors, my ass! I wish my mother was here.

Meanwhile the old man pulls himself together enough to call 911 and get directions to the nearest hospital.

“Take it easy,” I say, as he peels out of the parking lot. “We don’t want to make it worse by getting in a wreck.” But at the same time I’m really pissed. “I can’t believe you ran over me.” The words are like a whip; they make him go faster. So I keep my mouth shut, taking comfort in the shit load of trouble I know he’ll be in once my mother finds out what he did. She’s forgiven his failings up to now, but surely her mercy is finite, and I’m convinced the reckless endangerment of her only child’s life goes beyond the limit.

Old man, you are so busted.

*  *  * 

Emergency room doc says the damage is minor: a few contusions and one broken bone in the left foot. “You should heal in a couple months. What did you do to your ankle?”

“Bowling accident.”

Is that a smile on his face? Some bedside manner.

“Can I drive?”

“An automatic.”

“Damn.” Maybe I can guilt the old man into leasing a car. Come to think of it, where is he? They paged him half an hour ago, when we were in X-ray, and he hasn’t turned up yet.

Doc says, “One caveat.” (I like the fancy word, which helps make up for the poor bedside manner.) “Your family doctor will want to order another X-ray in a month to make sure the bone is knitting properly. Sometimes in these cases there can be damage to the growth platelets. You don’t want to end up with one leg shorter than the other.”

“No problem. Look at me, I’m finished growing.”

“I doubt it, judging by the size of your foot.”

We both consider my bare, bruised foot, dangling almost to the floor. It’s huge all right. And pretty ugly. A monster’s foot. Toes as hairy and knuckled as an ape’s.

Maybe they’ll put a plaster cast on it.  I’d rather not have to look at the thing, to tell you the truth. But no, I get one of those orthopedic sandals instead, all foam and fiberglass. It looks clunky and stupid but not pathetic, so there goes the sympathy factor. In a couple days, after I’m used to it, even I’ll have trouble feeling sorry for me.

They do give me a ride in a wheel chair though. My father winces when he sees me in it. With a nurse’s help, I’ve found him in the hospital’s lobby. He’s with a cop and looks like a man in custody, sitting with his head bowed and his wrists together, as if he’s been manacled. No handcuffs are visible, however, except the ones hanging from the cop’s big leather belt.

“So how you doing, old buddy?” my dad says, not sounding very chipper.

“A few scrapes and bruises. No biggie. Plus, they gave me drugs.” I look at the cop, who doesn’t smile. “What’s up?” I ask my father.

“Oh, nothing, nothing. Apparently, the hospital reports accidents whenever a child is involved. The officer here wants to make sure that—”

“Sir,” the cop interrupts him.

“—there’s no negligence or abuse . . .”  Old man trails off. He sounds whipped.

“I’ll conduct the interview, if you don’t mind, sir,” cop says.

Suddenly I wish I hadn’t mentioned that about drugs. I wish I weren’t wearing a holey, black t-shirt that says “Dead Hate the Living.” I wish I could appear as a more credible witness to this officer of the law. Cop’s not that old but’s got these dead-looking eyes that remind me of the vice principal back at school, Mr. Yee, aka Ming the Merciless.

I’m like, “You’re kidding. You think he ran over me on purpose?” Whoa, I think to myself. Not the most diplomatic approach, implying Officer Dead-Eyes is an idiot. 

“Listen, I’m the one,” I say, not knowing exactly where I’m going with this. “I’m a total spastic. What happened isn’t his fault, it’s mine. He thought I was in the car, but I got stuck.” All of which is the purest truth but sounds like lies because I’m panting like crazy. I’m hyperventilating, I’m so freaked. It occurs to me, what if the cop runs the old man’s name through the computer and it comes back “convicted felon”? What then?

My father’s not helping the situation. “I should have checked to make sure you were inside the car, Chad,” he says, like resigned to his fate. “I should have listened for the door to close, at the very least. I’m sorry I hurt you.”

“Hell, no! The whole ninth grade could have climbed into the back seat in the time it took me!

“Look, here,” I say to the cop, grabbing my backpack off the floor from between my father’s ankles. “The zipper got caught on the doorframe. See all the prehistoric creatures?”

Cop considers these mementos of my childhood with utter indifference, but my dad appears to snap out of his funk. “My gosh,” he says, examining the dinosaurs on the zipper, “I didn’t know you still had these.”

“Sir, mind if I check the inside of that backpack?”

“What?” the old man says. “What for? Oh.”

I’m guessing the old man caves to the illegal search. (Not that I’ve got anything to hide.) Instead he looks the cop right in the eye. “No,” he says, “no, I don’t believe that’s necessary.”

 

*  *  *

 

We’re let off with a warning. What warning? “Try not to run over your son anymore.” The god’s truth.

When we get to the car, there’s a ticket on the windshield. Seems that, in his rush to get me medical attention, old man parked in a loading zone. “Oh, well,” he says, “sometimes you can’t win for losing.”

“It could be worse,” I say. “They could have towed us.”

“Yeah, that’s what it says on the ticket: `Next time—tow!’”

“What ‘next time?’” I for one can’t wait to get the hell out of Dodge and never come back. But hold on, a traffic light stops us at the exit from the hospital parking lot. Which is ridiculous, because there’s no traffic anywhere. Hospital is like in the middle of a tobacco field. Plus the light is forever.

“Maybe it’s not working,” I say.

“I could run it, but we’ve had enough brushes with the law for one night.”

“My foot hurts. The pill they gave me must be wearing off.”

“I’m sorry, old pal. You should take another one. They said you could have two at a time, being so big for your age.”

I don’t feel big. I’m thinking, okay, the hospital’s behind us, but home is still forty miles away, and in between’s nothing but empty countryside and darkness. I remember Ringworm Catastrophe and all the distance they’ve got to travel tonight, and I’m glad I’m not them. I’m even glad my father’s the one behind the wheel instead of me, though judging by this absurd traffic signal, we’re not headed anywhere fast.

Old man seems content to wait. His lips are moving silently and his fingers are lightly tapping the wheel. The radio’s not on, so whatever music he’s hearing must be inside his head. I’m guessing, “Puff.”

Me, I squint hard at the red light. Change, light, change.

 

 

 

 

Bill Oliver is the author of Women & Children First, which won Mid-List Press's First Series Award for Short Fiction. His stories have appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review, New Letters, Indiana Review, Carolina Quarterly, Florida Review, Cimarron Review, and the Laurel Review, among others. He teaches writing and American literature at Washington and Lee University. His recently completed novel, The Lives of the Saints, tells the story of Al Capone's post-prison exile on Palm Island (Miami) amid the paranoia and patriotic fervor of 1942.