On the road to Zion, my father behind the wheel
My mother and husband are negotiating the packing of the rented Suburban when my father pulls me aside.
“Ride with me,” he says. He has no intention of squeezing in with my brother’s family and mine, sticky-fingered children in car seats.
As if going off to battle, I kiss my husband and kids goodbye. I catch my brother’s look right before ducking into the Mustang. Better you than me, it says. Or maybe, you deserve each other.
We peel away from the curb, leaving the Suburban far behind. My father inserts a CD, presses buttons and the Beatles play. Come together. Right now. Intentional? Doubtful. When I say, “I didn’t know you liked the Beatles,” he tells me he met them once when he was shooting a movie in Copenhagen.
Singing along, bobbing my head, I think maybe the ride won’t be so bad. He and I, we always do better when my mother and brother aren’t watching. Without them waiting for us to turn on each other, I can like him as much I want. Like the kid you don’t want your cool friends to know you play with.
When we reach the highway, dozens of cranes dot the Las Vegas sky. “Wow, a lot of new construction,” I say.
“Naw, they’ve been idle since 2008,” he says.
Just as I catch his meaning — big dreams dead in the sky — we come to our own dead stop. Six-lanes of traffic. I wait for him to explode. When he was still drinking and driving his tricked-out Ford pickup around Los Angeles, my actor father on at least one occasion jumped out of his truck, pulled the handgun from his glove box, and leaned into another driver’s window. But now, he just noses his way from the fast lane to the right, waving and smiling at people who let him in. Once he’s all the way over to the slow lane, he cuts to the shoulder, picks up speed.
“Someone is going to shoot you,” I say, sinking down in my seat, wary of people who flick their heads towards us as we whiz past. He just laughs and I wonder if the gun is still tucked into the glove compartment, inches from my knees.
Sailing through the open desert, I text my brother to coordinate a lunch stop. We agree on a roadside Mexican place just ahead. The Mustang has been idling for about thirty minutes, lone car in the restaurant’s sweltering lot, when we see the Suburban pull up.
While the rest of us go into the cool cantina with its plastic tablecloths and baskets of chips, my father sits in his car. No one tries to talk him into joining us. He eats one meal a day, a regimen left over from acting when he worked to keep his weight down. That doesn’t mean he can’t come inside but he stays behind like a dog tied outside a shop. We watch him through the window.
At the table, my mother is already talking about our next family trip. Hawaii, she floats. We ooh and ah.
“Dad’ll never go,” my brother says.
“No,” she agrees. Even though he once filmed a TV pilot on Oahu, we can’t imagine him flying over the Pacific now, septuagenarian in his cowboy boots.
“Too far. No easy escape,” I say. We all nod, even my husband and my sister-in-law.
Through the sheer curtains, I see him get out of his car, lean against it, arms crossed over his chest staring at the restaurant.
“He’s welcome of course,” my mother says. We like the idea of inviting him knowing he won’t come — our collective magnanimity.
When I finally climb back into the Mustang, he doesn’t look at me. He makes the turn onto the highway and floors it. “I know you were talking about me,” he says, eyes on the horizon.
I lean back, settle in, slide my dark glasses into place. From behind my shades, I say, “Dad, not everything is about you.”
Andrea Jarrell’s debut memoir, I’m the One Who Got Away, was named one of Kirkus Review’s “Best Books of 2017”. Jarrell’s essays have appeared in The New York Times “Modern Love” column, Harper’s Bazaar, Literary Hub, Narrative Magazine, the Washington Post, and many other sites, journals, and anthologies.
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