By: Stephen Haines
My father sometimes drove my family from Port Orchard, WA to San Diego, CA in a single day. The distance between the two points is just shy of 1,250 miles. That’s between 19 and 20 hours of driving, if you are abiding the speed limit. My father, having no space for limits on all of the ground he wanted to cover per hour, rejected these restrictions.
I can see my mother gripping her seatbelt, jerking toward her rearview mirror to confirm, again, that my brother and I were safely buckled.
My father would accelerate toward a car in front of us in the leftmost lane on the freeway, scoffing at the driver’s gall: 70 mph in a 70-mph zone. But rather than change lanes and pass the slowpoke, dad would instead inch closer, closer, creeping until we were crawling onto the trunk. Changing lanes wasn’t our responsibility; this was The Fast Lane. Sometimes, stubbornly, he’d flash his lights on and off. When the driver eventually complied and coasted slowly to the right, my dad rarely resisted glaring at them as we passed.
Slow down, Ken!
I can hear my mother’s protests.
Was that necessary, Ken?
Ken, you’re driving like a Maniac!
We used to visit my mom’s side of the family in San Diego once a year. Most of the time, we drove there. I was young enough at the time that my memories of these trips are fragmented, scattered, like single panels in a comic or frames from a film. I hold each bit to a flame and sort out where it fits, try to make sense of it.
What is that?
A red nose?
A pale hand?
A checkered shirt?
A whiteout on a mountain pass. My father especially attentive, following brake lights, the road disappearing. Where did we have to cross a mountain pass? Siskiyou? The Sierra Nevadas? I can see my mother counting her rosary beads, the speedometer the lowest it’s ever been, while I stare into snow-encased oblivion from the backseat. I wonder what it would feel like to plummet over a guardrail, to perish in a car. I turn up the volume on my Walkman, and the track becomes soundtrack as I imagine swerving, correcting, rolling right side to upside down. I close my eyes and try to pretend nothing is wrong, that we aren’t even here, haven’t ever been here. Safe and sound on a beach in La Jolla. Already tan. My father shaking sand out of his wavy blonde hair, smiling as he watches me swim out and back to shore.
A single night in a hotel somewhere in Northern California. I can smell artificial lavender clean. My mom convinced my dad to stop for the night instead of driving straight through again. They argued about it, but Mom got her way. She’d never forgive herself for it the rest of her life.
The following day, my grandparents’ driveway in San Diego will be filled with cars. My Uncle Mike will be the first to come outside.
He’s gone, Patti.
Who’s gone? I can hear my mother’s voice.
Dad’s gone, Patti. He passed in his sleep last night.
Uncle Mike hugs her. Mom, his little sister, drops her luggage and goes limp in his arms.
A church in San Carlos. The whole family is waiting outside the front doors to go inside for my grandfather’s viewing. My father is holding my mother close. I’m eight or nine years old and, before today, I’ve never been to a funeral. Before today, I’ve never known anyone who has died. Everyone is weeping. And then the doors swing open, and my mother takes a step forward and immediately starts to laugh. Her laugh fills the room, echoing, her mouth gaping. She points toward the casket. From this distance, none of us can yet see my grandfather’s entire body, but we can see his nose. His schnoz. His proboscis. Protruding like a promontory, his prodigious nose gleams in red light from the stained glass like sunlight draping a peak. My grandfather always had a sense of humor.
A dark road at night. Is this the drive home after the funeral? I don’t know where it fits, how much of it I remember correctly. My father is riding someone’s ass again. He’s flashing at them. It’s their responsibility to change lanes, he reminds my mom. Then something happens, I don’t know what. The car in front of us swerves, corrects, and then loses control. It tumbles off the road and onto a grassy median. I close my eyes. Maybe this didn’t really happen, or maybe I wanted to forget.
Pale hands reaching out of upturned windows.
Shouting for help.
My father pulling over, sprinting out of the car.
Back in Washington State, my mother will sit for hours and hours in her favorite chair, for weeks or months, cradling a checkered shirt that once belonged to my grandfather. It still smelled like him. I can see her gulping it in, gulping it in, panting. Cradled with it in the dark. We didn’t visit California as often after that. My mother will tell me it’s because my grandpa was what held everything together.
One day, my father did the laundry and washed that shirt by accident. When he was done with it, it smelled like artificial clean. My mother wailed. That was a long a time ago, but this is how I remember it.
Stephen Haines is an MFA graduate of Western Washington University and the former managing editor of Bellingham Review. His work has appeared or is forthcoming at Epoch Press, Rathalla Review, Thin Air, Olit, Adelaide, Creative Colloquy, and Bright Flash.