A FEW DAYS GO BY AND I have almost forgotten about the day Mom threatened to leave. Dad comes home unexpectedly one afternoon and asks me if I want to go for a ride.
“Where?” I ask.
“What do you care,” he says. “Come on. Go for a ride with your dad.”
I feel a little anxious about committing to something as visible as a trip with Dad, but I decide I don’t have much to lose. This summer I am spending most of my time at an apartment down on Front Street, smoking cigarettes and attempting to impress two young ladies who are somewhat older than me. My sister Terri, my primary ally in the house, is only now just beginning to shun my company for the company of our next door neighbor. Although Terri and I are not disdainful of one another yet, our relationship has devolved into constant pestering: I bum cigarettes from her while she chides me to help her clean. I hold a vague hope that I can hide my travel with Dad from the rest of the family, but especially from Terri.
Jumping into his Gremlin, I slink down into the passenger seat, furtively looking out the windows. How will Dad feel if I ask him to drop me off up the block when we get home?
As it turns out, none of that matters. This is the first of many car trips for me and Dad that summer. At the start of each trip, I am always a little hesitant to get in the car, but once we pull away from the curb, everything changes: I am on the road with Dad.
I get to operate the radio and the 8-track tape player. He teaches me how to read a road map. If we stop for gas, I watch as he jots down mileage and time in a little spiral notebook he keeps in the glove box. We always go to his brother or one of his sister’s houses, just like the whole family did when we were kids; only now, it’s just me and Dad.
I never know exactly where we’re going, until we’re already on the road. When I ask Dad for our destination, I like to hum the Mission Impossible theme song under my breath. I pretend I am Jim Phelps receiving another impossible mission. We listen to Dad’s 8-tracks: Jim Croce, Sly & the Family Stone, and Mowtown’s Greatest Hits. Left untouched, 8-tracks play endlessly, and I quickly memorize the order of all the songs. When Dad gets tired of the tapes, he asks me to switch to radio.
On one of our first trips that summer, I switch to radio at Dad’s request, and then start humming along to an old Simon and Garfunkel tune from the 60s. My window is open. I am watching the scenery go past with the wind on my face, when suddenly Dad turns down the radio. I cut my eyes at him, annoyed. As I turn the radio back up, Dad slaps my hand away and clicks it off.
“No man is a rock, son.” Dad says this and points his index finger to the roof. “No man is an island.”
When Dad tries to sound profound, it makes me feel self-conscious. To make myself feel better, I consider telling him he has the lyrics wrong. At the last second, I decide to just smile and nod my head.
“Cool,” I say.
Dad wants to talk about my behavior, but I don’t have any explanations for him. I hum songs about feeling lonely and isolated, as if they were theme songs written expressly for me. Any irony in the lyrics about what happens to people who feel this lonely and disconnected sails right over my head. If he is going to reach me, this is what my father must overcome.
“You think,” Dad says, “you’re not as good as Tom and Tony, but that’s not true. You’re just different. You can do things those two can’t.”
Looking out the window, I pretend what Dad is saying doesn’t even matter to me, but I am listening carefully to every word he says. The wind rushing in the window makes a loud noise. I wait quietly for a few minutes. When I finally speak, my voice sounds creaky and dry.
“Like what things?” I ask.
I have waited so long to speak, my father is caught off guard. As he stumbles for words, I click the radio back on, keeping the volume low.
“I dunno,” Dad says. “Drawing? Reading?”
Bad answer. My interest in these things is well-known, but both have proved to be poor substitutes for athletic prowess. I look at Dad with such disdain he immediately begins searching for something else to say. After a few minutes of hedging, Dad zeroes in on one thing with confidence.
“You can make small talk,” Dad says.
I look at him warily. I am not even sure what small talk is, but at least it is unexpected. I sit quietly while Dad recounts an incident that happened weeks ago when his sister called, but his hands were full, and he couldn’t take the phone. I chatted with her about the weather and school for a few minutes. Small talk.
“That don’t sound too important, if you know what I mean.” I tune the radio to a pop station I like.
“Your brothers can’t do it! If they took that phone, they’d be like two lumps on a log.”
I patronize Dad with a smile. I like hearing him call Tom and Tony lumps on a log, but this small talk thing sounds desperate.
“Come on, Dad.”
Putting my hand out the window, I let it coast in the rushing wind. Dad protests about the inherent value of small talk for a bit, but then he sighs. He gives up and the car goes quiet. On the radio an advertisement plays for a charitable foundation called, Save the Children. It must be a well-funded campaign, because the radio stations play this ad constantly.
I am humming along with the radio when suddenly my father’s hand comes crashing down on my thigh. I look over and he has a wide grin.
“You,” he says, “are special.”
His hand clutches my stinging thigh and he squeezes hard enough to make me wince. “And you’re gonna do something none of them others can do. I know it.”
I turn my head so he can’t see me grin. When I have my face under control, I look back again.
“Like what?” I ask.
I know this question puts him on the spot. I know I probably shouldn’t even ask, but I can’t resist. Waiting patiently, I look to him for an answer.
He thinks for a minute, then he says, “Save the children.”
I laugh, astonished.
“That’s a radio commercial,” I say. I am looking at him incredulously, but still chuckling. “You just told me what was on the radio.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Dad says. “It’s important. And you’re gonna do it.” He grins at me. There is nothing in his manner that suggests he is unsure of any of what he is telling me, despite how stupid it all sounds.
I am pretty sure he is patronizing me but not completely certain. I don’t know how I feel about any of this. Finally, I decide I am annoyed. I tell Dad to cut it out. To just quit.
“It’s a commercial,” I say. “Stop.”
“You don’t want to save the children,” Dad says. “Alright. Don’t.” He keeps his eyes on the road. I hear the rhythmic thumping of the tires on the highway.
“Sit on your ass,” he mumbles quietly to himself.
When I hear this, I feel exasperated. His disappointment consumes me. I find myself wanting to explain to him why I cannot save any children. Then I realize how ridiculous it is to justify this nonsense with an explanation, and I give up. The car goes quiet. I feel a mixture of relief and frustration. I tell myself I can at least feel grateful we have put this uncomfortable conversation behind us. There is the tiniest hint of disappointment, lingering at the back of my mind. No sooner do I think I have won, than Dad’s big hand comes crashing down on my thigh again.
“You’re special, son,” he says. “I know it.”
He says this with such enthusiasm and sincerity it takes my breath away. I have to use both hands to push his meaty palm off my thigh, but even two-handed, I never try too hard. I can’t. I have to keep turning my head, so he can’t see me grinning.
For the rest of that summer, save the children becomes a sort of code word for Dad and me. I never say it once, but I long to hear it from him. When Dad says it, I always do one of two things: I either turn my head away and grin, or I search Dad’s face to see if he is pulling my leg. Although I look often and hard, I never find any hint of insincerity there.