Driving East at Christmastime
My father is outside the car, hugging the guardrail on the I-35 bridge. Cars are honking. He’s under a lot of stress, Mom says, like we haven’t noticed this festering since Thanksgiving. We’re driving home from Fargo. The sun blinks through pregnant clouds, melting snow on the shoulder. Stay here, Mom says, like there’s someplace we can go. The car idles.
Hey, fag. My older brother, Kyle, punches my shoulder. I twist to return his blows, and he spits a Skittle that strikes the bridge of my nose. I swing at his face, but he ducks and pounds my thigh and yells, Charlie horse! My brother, Kyle, only fifteen, already a hyper-masculine caricature of his younger self, the Kyle who only a year ago planned D&D campaigns with me, whom I once believed would protect me from anything.
I can see Dad’s shoulders heave. Mom crouches next to him, rubs his back. Whispers into his hair. Kyle unbuckles his seatbelt and climbs over me and into the driver’s seat, kicking at my face.
I ask him what he’s doing.
Getting away from you, he says.
I catch Mom’s eye, and she winks. It’s going to be okay, she’s saying, to all of us, to everyone on the freeway. My mother, the steadfast. Unfazed, as always. It’s going to be okay. I climb into the front passenger seat.
Dad is yelling at the clouds. Under stress. This all began when Grandpa—Mom’s dad—died. We were packing for the annual trip to visit Dad’s family in Wautoma when Mom’s phone rang. A stroke. Seventy but healthy. So of course, plans change. We head west instead of east. In Fargo, Dad called the office and said he wouldn’t be in on Monday. On Monday, they said come in or don’t come back. And, of course, he couldn’t. And he said as much, but they wouldn’t back down. So then there’s the stress of holidays plus death plus, now, what we can and can’t afford. He said we’ll need to cancel our summer vacation. That Christmas might be leaner this year. And Mom doesn’t even blink. A rock, always.
And then there was the flat tire on his motorcycle. The car broken into, the driver-side window smashed (still covered with fluttering plastic and duct tape). All this in the last month. So of course, after he received pity money from his widowed mother-in-law; and traffic has been stop-and-go for four hours; and at last there’s a respite, a sigh of collective relief: finally, let’s floor it; and then brake lights re-emerge like angry fireflies—of course he was going to snap.
It began with yelling, with cussing. And Mom whispering sternly: Jeffrey. And then he started smacking the roof, the dashboard. Alternating open palm and closed fist. And Kyle and me in the back seat, silent for once. And then he stormed onto 35 and left the door hanging open; 35, packed with its slow and stopped cars and Minnesota plates and Minnesota Nice yelling and honking, and he’s on the guardrail letting God know.
Cars begin veering around us, the gap between their fenders and our bumper shrinking with each pass. Kyle engages the emergency lights like he knows what he’s doing. He’s quieted, and the space in the car seems endless. I’m startled to feel lonely, to feel nostalgic for the times these trips weren’t so miserable, when we would lean our heads together and he’d read from The Two Towers or Dune.
I crack the window and press my face against the cool glass. Dad hasn’t moved. A cop pulls behind us on the shoulder, lights flashing.
Good afternoon, sir, Mom says. He’s just stressed is all, just stressed. You can understand. The cop’s stride is measured, and he hasn’t said a word. He tips his cap. My brother is holding his breath. There’s tension in the car I can’t grasp. It’s all above me, like I’m submerged beneath the Mississippi. But I’m buoying toward the surface, about to break through: Kyle’s hands are on the wheel. Everything registers at once like oxygen flooding my lungs. My parents on the shoulder. The cop, mid-stride. The car casting its long shadow across all lanes of stagnant traffic. The smell of a warm winter, of exhaust fumes and evergreens.
This is what will happen: Kyle will put the car in gear. We’ll jolt forward, the pedals unfamiliar beneath his adolescent foot. He’ll swerve, smash the taillight ahead of us. And we will be rear-ended by the impatience behind us. And the cop will ticket everyone, and traffic will crawl and crawl and crawl, and my father on the bridge will call a tow truck.
But first, the cop approaches my window. He instructs Kyle to turn off the vehicle, to please remove the keys from the ignition. But first, the sky sears open and heavy raindrops spill down. And my father, this large, aching man screaming at the sky, feels he has rent the heavens. He releases the railing and sits on the shoulder. He begins to laugh. It will be okay.