Black Road Home

You’d call it lost but that’s such an ugly word. Lost. What you are, where you are.

Endless black snake road.

So dark. Maybe you do know where you are but simply can’t see it.

No. You were surprised when your map apps showed you this back way down the mountain. Scenic route for sunset, yes! And a gradual re-entry to hustle bustle after your week of solitude at Ma-and-Pa spa. Low rent but impeccably clean. You’d needed both.

Was there anything more slimy than an ex- who acted as though you.

No. Don’t go there. You’ve worked hard to stop playing those broken theme songs. Change the soundtrack. End that movie. Live the sequel.

Reflectors snake down the road. You assume they mark the center. So dark, you can’t see the edge of your lane, much less across the road. Rectangular pyramids. Pyramidular rectangles.

Lane lozenges. How do they stick in the asphalt?

Orange, bright, flashing, glinting. Hypnotic. Nothing else to watch, but. Watching them. Thunk thunk swerve. You veer. You overcorrect.

Tree branch snags, takes the wiper when it rips free.

Alternatively. Tree branch grabs for you, settles for the wiper.

Note to self. Barreling forward doesn’t always get us there.

The reflectors give you hope. This is a known road with documented cars, else why the reflectors to keep cars in their lanes. Plurals. Cars. Lanes.

The reflectors give you pause. So many miles of reflectors. Come to notice it, asphalt well maintained and graded to gently slope away from the orange lozenges. No expense spared to keep drivers from head-ons? How many such collisions did it take to justify that expense?

No one would drive here without headlights, right? No, you won’t remember that Criminal Minds episode. Anyway, those killers preyed by moonlight.

No moonlight here. Branches scrape the roof, back windshield, trunk. A shuddering thud swerves your back end. Did that just happen? Did some massive tree collapse and smash the highway, a split second after you passed?

Branches gouge your roof. Scrape scritch scrape. Oaken kamikazes or you’re driving through a tunnel of trees.

You open the moon roof. The only sounds are your tires squelching, your teal paint job transferring from roof to branch. Teal, a green not known in nature. A sign you passed this way.

This way. Is this the route the map apps sent you on, before you lost service and blinded them? Or was there a fork you failed to notice?

How to retrace steps? How many miles have you come?

It’s been all downhill, right? If you turn and drive uphill, you’ll get back to square one. Right?

Scrape scritch scrape.

“Brand new paint job ruined.” His voice is disapproving.

When you hit the brakes, the tires carve a semi-circle. Headlights blare into tree trunks.

You punch the overhead lamp. The pale white light stings and catches him in profile. Drinker’s nose, judger’s lips.

Impossible.

“No! Get out.” You mostly keep your hysteria inside.

“Are you watching the gas? Don’t waste it idling, you’re going to need it tonight,” your father chuckles.

Your voice loses its volume. “Am I dead, too? Is that how I can see you?”

He gives you the look. Don’t give me that guff. He thinks you’re talking nonsense.

How to broach that difficult topic. When your parent doesn’t know he’s dead.

You should worry that this all seems so natural, your dead dad as hitchhiker. Maybe you’ve crashed and these are your own last instants, maybe this is your life flashing before your eyes.

He waves you downhill and you crank the wheel. Not because you’re obeying him. You were about to resume driving, anyway.

Except. The front tires are stuck.

You gun it and the car lurches back to asphalt. Sor-. Like hell. You bite your lip to prevent the escape of an apology.

He rubs his head like the jolt hurt. “You’re almost as good as your mother.”

It’s never a compliment. And maybe it’s true, sometimes. You’ve matched her stellar taste in men.

“You bought another Jap car. What kind of mileage does it get?”

“I don’t know. I don’t keep track.”

“A change in mileage is the first sign of -”

“I know, Dad.”

“Never. Interrupt. Me.”

You start to flinch then find your spine. He never followed through on that tone of voice when he was alive. Why would he hit you now?

Especially since what sits beside you is the rattling husk version of your father, the sour old man waiting to die, tallying survivors in his walks of life. Only 3 of us left from the ship, less than 20% got to the 50-year high school reunion, fewer than half made it from the office to retirement.

Where is the bitter furious dad, ranting about slights at your childhood dinner tables?

At some point you grew to recognize the rants as re-runs, the same handful of injustices repeatedly rattling his cage and imprisoning dinnertime conversations.

You’re curious. Do obsessive thoughts survive the grave? You suppress the urge to find out. If you trigger him, you’ll have to hear them again. How he warned the managers they were heading for cost overruns and they ignored him and then tried to blame him. How, the very day he shipped out, his mother gave away his things and SOLD HIS COUPE.

The beloved first car. He worked every waking hour for two years to buy that car.

You always knew what he was going to say, he spoke in loops.

But you never knew what he was thinking. Presumably there were thoughts below the obsessions. Unless. Turbulent water runs shallow?

Dad, don’t you get bored, thinking the same thoughts all the time? The wiseass teenage you made that inquiry, and got a response every bit as outraged as you must, at some level, have wanted.

You’ve had your own tangles with thoughts that won’t move on. So far, though, yours have been the exception; his, the rule.

Did his thoughts exhaust him? Now there’s a thought never thunked before. A feeling ne’er felt before. Sympathy for the father.

You brake, too hard. Oncoming car in your lane! No. Your own headlights blind you, reflected on – what is that? A sign?

End detour. Good news, or bad news. You were on a detour?

“Stop testing our seat belts and get us out of here. If you can.” He chuckles, repeats his witticism, chuckles more. “I won’t bother to offer to help, since I’m in no condition to take the wheel.” With sucker-punch sarcasm, he imitates the voice of your college years, when you insisted on doing the driving.

“Really? You’ve been drinking?” An afterlife with booze. Did that put him – maudlin morbid drunk – in heaven or hell?

The worst part about his drinking was how emotional he’d get. Weepy love, clinging regret. He couldn’t be drinking tonight, he was still sarcastic. Without the bottle, he bottled up, except for the occasional splash of mean.

And you plunge back to middle school, into the back seat of another dark car.

Your white knuckles clutch your seat, your lips move soundlessly, alternating fear and hate. Don’t kill us. Please die. Don’t kill us. Please die.

Beyond the windshield, the road slides sideways, to the right, to the left, to the right.

Your mother’s silhouette is rigid, staring forward, willing the route to straighten.

Your father’s silhouette is cockeyed, shoulders skewed.

“Interesting,” he says, “There are two lanes but I see four. Hnh.” 

He slides the car into a gas station. Your mother’s high heels tap tap tap away and she returns with a styrofoam cup that steams coffee aroma.

Your father gulps it, curses. “Too hot!” He shoves the door open, bends outside.

No one hears your mother’s apology under his wet retching.

When you finally make it to your bedroom, you kiss your pillow.

He insists on a goodnight kiss. He reeks of whiskey, coffee, vomit. In your deepest private mind you vow you will never ever forgive him.

You process your other failed relationships: friends, lovers, colleagues. They teach, you grow, you move on. But when you get to your deathbed, you’ll still be resenting your childhood.

(But damn. So many faileds. Did everyone have that many?)

Your foot presses the accelerator and you drive over your doubts. Doubt makes you vulnerable. He’ll sense it. He’ll say something that will hurt a long time.

The twisted thing is, he wounds you to get a sign that he matters. He hurts because he cares.

Your car picks up speed and you ignore disapproving grunts beside you.

A black mass looms in the road ahead. You have to hit the brakes hard. The back end fishtails. The front tires find another ditch.

In the headlights, the tree bark casts jagged shadows that slice the trunks into strips, replacing the thick old trees with weak welded saplings.

He mutters something about your mother.

“What do you want? What are you doing here?” Your tone is ugly so you know what will come next. The lecture about showing respect.

Instead, he muses, “I don’t know.”

You’ve never heard him sounding uncertain.

“The same day I shipped out. She arranged the sale before I left!” It could have happened yesterday, his mother selling his first car. Resentment fresh for decades.

He probably talked about it on his deathbed. You wouldn’t know. When you were around, he hid in his stroke-induced cave. You wanted last words with him. You got none. Your mother the wife received them. She never said so you never asked what they were. You were reasonably sure they weren’t spoken in anger. For once.

“Why did you and mom stay together? You were always fighting.”

“We were married.”

“Does that explain the staying or the fighting?”

Silence. Joking together is not part of your father-daughter repertoire.

A critter rustles the branches above the open moon roof. Your father looks up, around. His uncertainty crystallizes into confusion. He reaches to open the door, hesitates. “Are we here? Why aren’t we moving?”

You forgot you were stopped. Stuck again. You gun it in reverse to exit the ditch. The car inches downhill, around the black hulk that made you brake so hard. A big flat rectangle with sandbags straddling its metal feet. The back of a road sign, perhaps.

The dashboard warning light pops on and, in the dimness, you squint. You brake gently, try/fail to interpret the warning light symbol. “An exclamation point in a – horseshoe? Can you check the manual for what it means when that light goes on?”

His body remains solid but his attention has become translucent.

“In the glove box? Dad?”

Eventually, he extracts the manual. He studies the blank white cover then opens the book sideways like a centerfold. “I don’t get it.”

Can he no longer read? You tilt your head to read sideways and get his help to advance the pages. Eventually you reach the explanations of warning lights, and discover, “Something is wrong with the tire pressure.”

“The way you’ve been driving,” he agrees.

You hit your phone so hard, turning on the flashlight, that you knock it out onto the road. The light blasts the branches overhead. Much rustling ensues.

Driver’s front tire is going flat. You pop the trunk to get the toy spare.

He straightens from examining the passenger’s front tire. “Flat here.”

Two flats, one spare. You shut the trunk.

Behind you looms the black thing. That swerved you into a tire-killing ditch. That appears to be a sign.

Five long steps uphill and your flashlight illumines the business side of the road sign, facing downhill, away from where you’ve been. ROAD CLOSED. DO NOT ENTER.

You’re certain you saw no such warning at the other end of the road.

What the hell. You’ve been on a detour that ended without beginning. Now you’ve reached an entrance only visible upon exit. And last but in no way least, you’re traveling with your dead father. Is his visit the cause of all this weirdness, or a symptom of it?

He arrives beside you, reads the sign aloud, grunts. “Well that’s a silly stupid place to say so.”

“I don’t know what’s happening tonight.”

“You’ll figure it out.” His feet shuffle into the darkness downhill.

And you’re back in grade school, writhing on your bed in homework misery, tortured by long division.

“You’ll figure it out. Show me where you got stuck.” He sits you at his desk that no one else is allowed to use, keeps you company while you do everything but the last problem. “Forget that one, it’s stupid. Tell your teacher I said so.”

A car door slams. Something rustles the branches overhead.

You choke on a sob. You never have them yet there one was – a pleasant memory of your father. Modest as can be. No way does it balance the others. All those miserable times.

You think that, but for once you don’t feel that. In fact, your memories make you tired. The memory of your anger exhausts you most of all.

Unlikely that, over so many years, only one good time occurred with your father. Yet, this modest memory aside, you only remember bad times. Why is that?

A car door scrapes. His feet shuffle into view and he orders you, “Wait in the car. I’ll go for help.”

“No! You can’t.”

“Of course I can.” His voice is thick. You’ve insulted him. He thinks you doubt his ability to trek down the hill.

Actually, you’re thinking that since he doesn’t exist, when he leaves your side, the illusion of him ends. That could mean a long long wait for help.

You don’t know why you’ve manufactured this vision of him. What the hell, maybe he’s real. In which case, instead, you don’t know why he’s here. What you do know is that you don’t want to fight with him.

“I meant you can’t go because you don’t have a phone and I don’t want to give up mine even though it doesn’t have service here. Can’t we go together?”

“It’s too dark for you.”

“I’m not afraid of the dark anymore, Dad.” Disastrously, In your effort to sound calm, you come off as smug. Which requires him to put you in your place.

“Men don’t like an arguer. It’s no wonder you’re alone.”

That hurts so sharply that you feel nothing. “Guess we’ve got you to thank for that trait.” You deliver it lightly like a joke.

“If you say so.” He sounds distant. Worn. Perhaps he doesn’t want to fight, either. He shuffles down hill. “Thought that last one was a keeper.”

You pull your key out of the ignition and follow him. You vary your speed, to maximize distance without losing track of him. Maybe at this distance, you won’t hear what else he has to say. He always knows how to make you feel a hundred times worse.

Maybe the hurting isn’t on purpose. Does that improve anything?

Is this what forgiveness feels like? This empty space where your anger has always lived?

He shuffles in a circle, waiting for you. “Come along if you’re coming. No chance of getting there -”

“-if you don’t start the trip.” You finish his sentence with him. A saying you know. It’s almost wise. Is he quoting, or did you learn it from him? You scour your memories and almost extract a recollection. Farfetchedly, it feels like another pleasant memory.

You shiver. The temperature has made a sudden drop. The air feels fresher, too. If there are more trees overhead, they are too high to give a sense of branches. “Stars. I see stars.”

Looking up while stepping downhill. You stumble.

“Watch yourself. You and your two left feet. You’ll make yourself fall.” Injury infuriates him. Any accident would be your fault.

“Sky, dad. We’re out of the trees. Maybe I have service here.” You unpocket your phone, twist it from quadrant to quadrant. Almost maybe half a bar. Progress.

His shuffling is much fainter. He must be far downhill. You hurry to catch up and as prophesied, you trip. One knee and both hands take the brunt of your fall. Your keys skitter. Your rubber phone case bounces. It’s a slow noisy tumble and you expect him to curse you.

Your exhales are the only sounds.

“Dad?” Louder. “Wait up.”

You get lucky. Your first grope retrieves your keys, your second grope grabs your phone.

You shine your phone’s flashlight all around, zigzag down the road. No collapsed father. No evidence you have been anything but alone.

Now you’re the one shuffling. Despite the light from stars and phone, the road remains black.

You should go back to the car and wait for morning. But you won’t. You can’t admit why. Your unspeakable fear that if you go looking for your car, you won’t find it.

Your breathing is no longer alone among sounds. The road echoes with grinding scrapes. They grow louder. They clarify. Tires on asphalt.

Far below, light flashes. Again, from a new direction, and brighter. Again, from the first direction, and brighter still.

A car is driving up this twisty hill.

Your hands hold your lips to stifle a scream. You shiver again, your spine swept with terror, your head pounding with a single impossible thought. When the car turns the last corner you’ll see yourself heading your way.

It’s not a car, it’s a truck with an orange roof light, same color as the road’s reflective lozenges.

It’s a tow truck. The truck idles beside you and the driver leans out the window. You can’t see his face in all the gloom, but from the first syllable you know he is smiling.

He greets you, “You’ve got a car with two flats.” He adds conspiratorily, “Just a guess.”

His voice is so friendly and calm. Without hesitation you climb into the truck cab beside this unseen stranger. He switches on the overhead light, turns to face you. “I’m Steve.”

He’s got one of those forever baby faces that only men get, with a shaved head, stubble that’s blond or gray, cheerful set to his jaw, eyes that take it all in without needing to draw conclusions. You bet he says wow a lot. And means it.

“My name’s Alice.”

“Wow, that’s a good name. Good to meet you, Alice. Sorry for the circumstances under which. Want me to leave this light on?” (You don’t.) He switches off the light, puts the car in gear. “You found a real creepy spot for car trouble.”

“It gets creepier.”

He makes a spooky ghost noise like someone who is never afraid of the dark. “Reminds me of a Criminal Minds episode where –”

“Yeah I saw that one.”

“Good thing the old guy told me where to find you. I would never have seen this turn off and if I had, I would have given up and headed back miles ago.”

“Can you describe the old guy?”

“Tall if he wasn’t bent over. Blue cowboy shirt, white comb-over, jeans too big and bunchy around the belt.”

Dad.

“How long ago and how many miles away did you talk to him?”

“At least five miles. I’d say fifteen minutes ago.”

You knew the answer would make no sense: about the time you and your father were arguing about who should go for help, your father was at the bottom of the mountain directing Steve the tow truck driver this way.

“That was the biggest sigh I’ve ever heard,” Steve says. But he isn’t asking for an explanation.

Unconditional sympathy always makes you tear up. You can only shake your head, unseen in the dark.

The curves get tighter and the truck slows down. Steve’s sympathy persists. “Yeah, sometimes it’s just a long night. Wow, those tires are really flat.”

Your front tires are wrinkled as last year’s balloons and your scratched teal car tilts severely. The front fender kisses asphalt.

You watch while he hoists the car for towing. Steve has nice shoulders. In the truck’s industrial-strength headlights, the trees are so much cardboard lining the road. You’re in a movie with no budget for special effects. If only you knew the genre.

The ride back to town is mostly quiet and the silence is noteworthy for not feeling awkward, until he asks the question so obvious you’re embarrassed that it surprises you.

“Do you want the car dropped somewhere?”

“Oh. I. Haven’t figured that out.” You reach for your phone to search for tire deals then you remember this paycheck is already spoken for. You’ll have to get the money from somewhere. “Home. That’s simpler.”

No tires, no cash. The coming week just got a lot more complicated. Starting with the processing of this impossible evening.

It’s so late, only the streetlights are on in your neighborhood.

When your car is kneeling outside your own door and the truck is backing away, you call a final thanks and head inside. You’re focused on how good it will feel to collapse on the couch, so you don’t notice the truck pacing you, until Steve rasps your name.

“Alice,” he says your name with relish. “I’ve got old spares at the shop. How about I drop a couple by in the morning?”

“That would be fantastic.”

“Nine too early?”

“I’ll have caffeine ready for us.”

You match his wave. So-long. His wave continues until he turns the corner and accelerates away.

It is what it is. It will be what it will be.

You’re so tired. No thought can come between you and sleep.

As you drift, you let yourself imagine the first taste of tomorrow’s coffee.

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