ROAD TRIP

By Luke Mitchell

In hindsight, it shouldn’t have surprised me that the cloudy skies had picked that day (of all days) to choke our solar cells off from their radiant benefactor. To put it in the immortally wise words of the man who’d given me life, it just figured.

“Just fuckin’ figures,” muttered the one and very same Jim Detweiler in the car seat beside me, as if he’d heard my thoughts and felt compelled to agree out loud. He scowled down at the winking alert on the dash display, shaking his head in disgust.

“Suboptimal Reserves,” read the glowing amber text. “Stationary Charge Recommended.”

The message pulsed a few more times before adding an additional query: “Would you like to pull over? (Y/N)”

“Say what you will about ‘old gas guzzlers’ and all the rest of your hippie shit,” my father continued, as I tapped an affirmative on the display, “but no truck of mine ever asked me to pull over just ’cuz the sun stopped shining.”

I felt the old swell of frustration and resentment, as tired and familiar as it was pointless. It was followed by a categorical (and purely mental) slew of reasons that this particular argument—like most of the pearls that spilled from my father’s mouth—was faulty, loaded, and generally lacking in a good deal of relevant background data. I wanted to remind him who it was who’d bickered about waiting the extra twenty minutes at the last charging station. I wanted to engage.

“It’s fine,” I said instead, glancing back at the twin sets of matching pigtails and attentive brown eyes watching us from the back seats—May and June, the two most compelling arguments for self-control I’d found thus far in my so-called adult life. “We’ll just…”

“Have a fuckin’ picnic, will we?” asked the man who’d ostensibly once looked at me in a similar light (probably right before cracking open another can of America’s Best Lite and figuring self-control was best left to the Jim Detweiler of tomorrow).

“A picnic!” June cried from the backseat, her untarnished optimism cutting between us and steeping my harsh thoughts in a thin layer of guilt. Grandpa Jim looked a shade guilty himself as he remembered our precious cargo and shot his own glance back at my twin daughters.

“Can we?” May added, eyeing first me then my father with a level of caution that felt entirely too astute for a six year old. It broke my heart—and, at the same time, bathed the pieces in an odd sort of pride, too. More by habit than conscious choice, I relayed her questioning look onto my father. Seeking permission, I guess, thanks to whatever stubborn remnant of my inner child still seemed to live under his critical eye. We exchanged one of those looks that somehow managed to convey an entire conversation in one go. A picnic? The four of us? Complete with conversation and a total lack of the two women who’d ever managed to keep us both in the same room for more than five civil minutes at a time?

We might as well have kicked on the backup reserves and ordered the car to drive us straight into the Great Northwestern Fire Pan.

But the cloud coverage was dissipating. No rain on the horizon. There were more than enough snacks tucked away in the girls’ day bag, and backup water and blankets to boot in the trunk. And more importantly—

The crack of a fresh beer can perforated the silent cab, filling my nose with the cheap tang of America’s Best Lite and my mind with a vivid swirl of snowy winter roads, games of catch in the autumn grass, dirty feet, and a thousand other childhood memories that all raced by too fast to tease apart. Before I knew it, I found myself staring at my phone, my fingers having apparently taken it upon themselves to conjure up the home screen newsfeed. I’m not sure what my subconscious had been hoping to find there, other than a scrap of soothing distraction. Instead, it got a flash reminder of the spreading fires and rising heat wave death tolls.

Death tolls we were all too aware of at the moment, said my father’s darkening scowl, as his eyes took in the newsfeed headlines.

“Get the blankets, girls,” I said, pointedly stowing my phone in my pocket.

“And then let’s see which one of you peanuts wins the race,” my father added, dark eyes still fixed in place on some unpleasant thought.

“What race, Grampa?” June asked, perking up in the backseat, a touch wide-eyed at the possibility that she’d somehow missed the memo.

“Well…” With an effort, my father pried himself from his thoughts and turned to the girls, swapping his scowl for a forced smile. “The race to the top of that hill, of course.”

June exploded from the car almost before the words had finished leaving his mouth. She bounced around in the grass at the base of the roadside hill, looking impatiently back for May, who’d gone to fetch the blankets from the trunk, as requested. A light smile pulled at my lips. My father shot the charging dash display one last disgusted look, threw back the remainder of his beer like an championship chugger, and climbed out of the car to join them.

I let out a sigh in the resultant silence, then moved to follow.

#

“I’m not eating that sh—that stuff,” my father said some thirty minutes later, once the afternoon sun had reappeared, and we’d had enough time to move the supplies to the top of the hill and let the girls run themselves out of breath enough to stop for a snack.  

“But it’s good, Grampa!”

Papaw Detweiler just shook his head, beer can held close to his lips, as if to ward off any unwelcome intruders. “It’s unnatural.”

“But we made it, and we’re natural,” May reasoned, offering a packet of the snack in question to my father with her usual beyond-her-years calm.

“So it’s natural too!” June concluded, clapping her hands in victory.

My father accepted the compostable snack sleeve and regarded it with hazy-eyed skepticism. I could smell the alcohol just looking at him. Right up until the weight of the open can in my hand reminded me I was hardly one to talk. I scowled down at my beer, then back to my father, reminding myself that at least I wasn’t the one keeping drinking pace with the number of laps the girls had done up and down the hill.

Idly, I wondered if the grumpy mule would’ve entertained the girls’ request if only they’d remembered to call him Papaw, like he preferred—just like he and his father had done with their papaws, and so on and so forth, all the way back to a time that no one ever seemed to bother referencing for any reason other than to tell the youngins how they were messing it all up.

“Bubblegum jerky,” he finally muttered, still frowning at the package with an almost accusatory intensity. “What’ll they grow next? Rainbow cows?”

I sighed. “That’s the entire point, Dad. You don’t need to grow a whole cow anymore. Don’t need to go and subject it to—”

“Torture and carbon footprints and a whole buttload of other bull… fooey that no one ever thought twice about in two thousand years of civilization,” my father finished for me, with a dismissive, beer-sloshing wave of one hand.

I clenched my jaw, resisting the urge to point out that civilization stretched back a bit further than that, and that—contrary to the unspoken and hey, it never bothered anyone, did it in his tone—nearly a fifth of our proud country was in fact actively on fire at that very moment.

Hell, I almost even found the stones to remind him where it was we were headed on this merry road trip of ours, and why.

“It’s better this way,” was all I said instead. “Someone’s generation had to start caring.” I looked down at my mostly empty beer, feeling some combination of emboldened and betrayed by my loose tongue, and fully expecting a scolding comeback. When I looked back up at my father, though, I didn’t see the stern jaw and angry eyes I expected. Truth be told, I wasn’t sure what to make of his expression.

“Tell you what, girls,” he finally said, turning his attention back to May and June. “How about you skedaddle on down to that field and tell me what kind of tree that is over there—That one right there, yep. You tell me that, and tell me right, and I’ll go ahead and eat this here pack of Frankenstein’s Finest Cotton Candy. How’s that for a deal?”

The girls traded a look of calculated mischief—May for once looking her actual age—and then they were off in a flurry of motion and gleeful cackles. We watched in silence as they darted down the hillside, strides adjusting to accommodate the steepening slope. It was only as June abandoned her feet for an epic hill roll—giggling all the way—that I realized my phone was missing.

I spotted it in May’s hand a second later and felt a hot spike of irritation. It faded as quickly as it came. I resumed breathing, chiding myself for being careless with the device that was, admittedly, a bit too addicting to be leaving around for the girls to tinker with as they pleased. It was hard to stay negative too long, though, watching my twin daughters flow from the base of the hill out into the field, moving through the tall grass in some beautifully organic combo of dance, tag, and whimsical make-believe.

It was only when May paused to take out my phone at the base of the tree that the spell broke again.

“The hell are they doing?” my father asked, though I’m pretty sure he already knew.

The first traces of a slur were creeping into his voice. 

“Lensing the tree,” I said, half-hoping that would be the end of it.

“Checking the internet for a match,” my tipsy tongue added anyway, when the blank look on my father’s face didn’t budge.

Papaw Jim considered that for a stretch, narrowed eyes flicking from me down to the girls, and back again. “Goddamn phones,” he finally muttered. “Another generation, and ain’t no one gonna be able to figure their ass from a hole in the ground without their goddamn phones—Just you wait.”

He took a long pull from his beer—his fourth or fifth, I thought—and crushed the empty can. I took a sip of my own, and didn’t argue.

“Guess it’s not all bad, though, right?” I asked, brandishing my own empty can in evidence. “If that car wasn’t gonna charge up and drive itself the rest of the way, we couldn’t sit here getting drunk in good conscience.” I gestured toward May and June, as if the point actually needed to be driven home. My father just grunted and held out a hand for the empty.

I felt a rare tinge of something like camaraderie as my father crushed my can and tossed another beer my way. I only hesitated a second before cracking it open. Miracles of modern technology, I thought, watching as May finished her digital tree inspection, glanced mischievously our way, and proceeded to get distracted by her howling sister, who was running tight loops around the base of the thick trunk.

“You should be more careful with those things,” my father said.

I didn’t need to ask which things he was talking about. Phones were anathema to the man, and frankly, I couldn’t argue with him on that one. Not where the girls were concerned, at least.

“Used to be,” he pushed on anyway, “a man had little girls to take care of, he didn’t have to worry about more than a buncha randy school boys sniffing around.” He shook his head, cracking open a fresh beer. “Nowadays, though… Kids and their damned phones, and their social media…” More head shaking. More drinking. I figured that was that, until he focused back on me with a sudden, rheumy-eyed intensity.

“It’s up to protect those little girls and make sure they’re provided for, Scott. You know that.”

I held his drunken stare through a confusing rush of emotions.

“I know it’s up to me to teach them how to protect themselves,” I finally said, “and then to get out of the way with all the misogynistic bullshit.”

Just like that, the silence settled back in, thickening in the hot sun. I felt myself deflating. Felt woefully inadequate about all of it. We watched the girls playing in the shade of the tree, rolling around in the grass, tossing acorns back and forth, thoroughly sidetracked from their original mission. It felt like my father and I always ended up this, one way or another—once we’d spoken our minds and came yet again to the inevitable conclusion that we simply existed on two sides of a rift that would never be closed. We watched the girls, we drank our drinks, and we kept our mouths shut.

I sighed and stifled the habitual itch to check the car’s charge on my smartwatch, knowing it would let me know when it was ready to roll. Anything before that was just an invitation for another round of disdain and judgment from Papaw Jim. So, I drank my beer instead, munching on crackers between sips, and wondering how the hell we’d survived thirty-seven years of life on the same planet—not to mention what would happen to dear old Dad and all of his cognitive dissonance when finally we arrived to our destination that evening.

“You think I don’t see what’s happening in the world, but I see more than you think. More’n you give me credit for, at least. I see it just fine.”

I blinked, my sun-baked mind groping an extra few seconds to process my father’s words before the irritation set in. I opened my mouth, wanting to point out all the myriad ways in which he so clearly didn’t see jack shit when it came to how and why the world had needed to—and, in many ways, still did need to—move on from his beloved Old Ways. Something in his eyes drew me up short, holding me there on the end of his stare. When he finally turned back to watch the girls, I couldn’t have said what manner of expression was etched across his brow. I’m not sure it was one I’d ever seen before.

“You remember that old computer store Mr. Hillbrook used to run back home, ’fore he croaked?”

“Old Bill Hilly’s Hillbilly PC Emporium,” I recalled aloud, not really following my father’s train of thought. There was a flicker of annoyance at the memory of that fading, hand-painted sign hanging over the grimy shop door. I wasn’t sure why. Maybe because the memory almost brought a smile to my lips. Maybe just because that place had been, without a doubt, the least modern tech store in the country till the day it’d finally gone under with Mr. Hillbrook’s passing.

“Whole town called him crazy for ever opening that damned thing,” my father said, shaking his head, the ghost of a begrudging smile pulling at his lips. “What use did a buncha roughnecks have for a damned computer store? Especially when there was a perfectly good TechWorld next town over.” He huffed. “’Course that was back when brick ’n’ mortars were still alive and well in this country.”

“Don’t see many TechWorlds around these days,” I agreed.

“No, you don’t.” My father looked down to where the girls had moved on to plucking dandelions. “Can’t help but notice you don’t see many of your so-called environmental warriors balkin’ at tossin’ another phone or computer in the dump each year, either, right before climbing right back up to beat the drum about dangerous waste this, and responsible reuse that.”

“Things get outdated pretty fast.”

“So they do. And you know why old Billy Hillbrook was able to keep on kicking despite that fact?”

Probably because rent in that town wasn’t much more than two spits in the can, I didn’t say.

“You can flaunt all the newfangled enlightenment you want in the world’s face, but you know what? I ain’t never met a man who changed anyone’s mind talking down from some white tower, trying to make folks feel stupid just ’cuz the soil went and changed right beneath their feet. Billy Hillbrook understood that. And even when he knew better than us, he never forgot all the ways we knew better’n him, too. He respected his customers enough to meet ’em where they were comin’ from.” My father shook his head and spat on the ground—an old habit from his chewing days. “Never saw no TechWorld employee do that when they looked across the counter and saw a dirty roughneck standin’ there, askin’ about computers.”

For a long while, I just stared at the man, unsure what to say. It was hardly the first time I’d listened to him rant about all that was wrong with the world and with “kids these days.” But at the same time, this felt strangely more… I don’t know what. More vulnerable, maybe—almost as if he were flirting with the idea of actually admitting that maybe it did bother him sometimes: that feeling that the world he so often criticized seemed to have left him behind without a second thought.

I forced my poised lips to relax, forced myself to sit there and wait. I wasn’t sure what he was trying to tell me—was pretty sure, in fact, that he was just about to sweep this whole moment right back under the rug with a derisive snort and a hearty swig of beer. But I sat and waited anyway, curiosity getting the better of me, pretty sure that, whatever this was, it was about more than old Billy Hillbrook’s down-to-earth business acumen.

Down in the field, the girls were laying shoulder-to-shoulder in the grass.

“I’m not blind,” my father said softly, almost to himself.

I know, I almost said back.

The silence was a quivering tension wire between us, so stark and monumental I couldn’t help but wonder how it’d snuck up on us so fast. I set my beer down in the grass beside the picnic blanket, wondering at the unexpected gravity of this moment—whether it was something that’d been a long time coming, or merely something precipitated by the weighty purpose of this particular road trip. Probably, I was just misreading the whole thing.

“What if it’s not enough?”

I broached the looming tension long enough to look at my father, clueless as to which what he was referring, but caught nonetheless by the slight quaver in his tone. He just watched the girls, lost in thought.

“What if it’s too late to change any of it?” he continued, eyes tracking to the horizon, decidedly avoiding mine. “The wild fires. The rising oceans. People dying in their damned homes like a buncha couped up rats…”

The last words came out thick and choked.

I’d never heard him choke up before. And that wasn’t even to mention the outlandishness of hearing all these words coming from his mouth, of all mouths. I felt my cheeks flushing as I realized there were tears brimming in his eyes. Some part of me surmised I must be dreaming. Too much beer and sunlight. Another part urged me to spring to my feet and lay into him—attack his upturned belly like a ruthless predator. I wanted to scream at him. Demand justice for twenty years spent on the other end of his relentless ridicule and ignorance.

The voice that won out, though, was the one telling all the others to shut the hell up and pay attention.

“What if it is our fault?” he asked quietly. “My fault. My generation’s. What if those girls have to grow up packed into some overcrowded, underground…” He sloshed his beer through the air, like you know what the hell I’m trying to say.

I waited for more, waited, and finally let out a pent up breath—it felt like I hadn’t breathed in minutes—and searched for where to start. The chime and buzz of my smartwatch broke the silence before I could. I cupped a hand over the small display, immediately guilty for the technological intrusion on what’d probably been the most genuine moment the two of us had even come close to sharing in our adult lives. When I met my father’s eyes, I fully expected to see his disdainful scowl back in place. And it was there. But only to an extent. Like the booze and the afternoon heat had somehow diminished the bottomless intensity that’d been fueling it all these years.

What if?

I glanced at my watch display, mind still swirling with all of the general apprehensions I perpetually held for the girls’ futures in what too often felt like a too little, too late world… and felt myself wanting to smile at what I saw there. I was just holding the green “Sufficient Charge” indicator up for my father’s begrudging inspection when motion and a whispered hushing drew our attention back to the hill—the girls arriving back from their little field trip. I hadn’t heard them coming, but the sight of my phone in May’s hand sobered me quickly enough.

May deposited the phone in my waiting hand, somehow managing to look both apologetic and also like I probably should’ve known better by now than to leave such things sitting within easy reach.

“Car’s ready,” she said, matter-of-factly. Then, looking to my father, she added, “We decided it’s a white oak, but we cheated with Dad’s phone, so you don’t have to eat the jerky, Grampa.”

I traded a look with my father, half-hearted admonishment dying on my tongue, and saw my own quiet surprise reflected in his eyes. He gave a little huff, shrugged, and began tearing open the compostable snack sleeve. “Deal’s a deal, young ladies,” he said, shooting May and June a wink. Then he took an unceremoniously giant chomp of the lab-grown jerky.

The girls clapped and cheered, laughing in delight as their roughneck Papaw Jim took several over-pronounced chews and proceeded to make a show of exaggerated faces at the bizarre flavor experience. I found myself smiling—found myself in danger of actually tearing up a little, if I’m being honest. Enough so that I almost felt like the bad guy when I finally spoke up to get us moving back toward the car.

With May and June parading down to the car, laden with what blankets and few supplies they could manage, I turned back to find my father facing the setting sun, beer in one hand, frowning at the empty snack sleeve in the other. He shot me a sideways glance, swallowed the last mouthful he’d apparently gobbled up without prompting, and shrugged. “Not half bad.”

I chuckled and shrugged back, oddly reticent to break the strange peace that seemed to have settled over that hilltop afternoon.

“They’re gonna be just fine,” he said, looking down at the car now, where May was trying to convince June to properly organize the scattered picnic remnants they’d hauled to the trunk. “No thanks to us, maybe. But fine, all the same.”

“I don’t know, Pops,” I heard myself saying, as the rest of my mind tried and failed to arrive at some conclusion on how I felt about that. “They wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you,” I finally added. “Hard to say anyone did all bad, considering that.”

“Yeah, well…” He finished his beer, crushed the can, and was a quarter of the way into the residual reflex of tossing it aside before he caught himself, shot an almost guilty look my way, and stowed it in our clattering recycling bag with an amused huff.

“C’mon,” he said, starting down the hill. “Car might drive itself, but not if our lazy asses don’t get there first.”         

I watched him go, shuffling down the hillside a little unevenly. Heard him chuckle to himself, muttering something about losing precious daylight. I blew out a light chuckle of my own, knowing that we already had more than enough charge to make the last leg, not to mention any number of charging stations—and knowing that he knew it damn well, too.

In hindsight, maybe it hadn’t been the worst day for those cloudy skies to choke our solar cells and give us a moment’s pause.

I still wasn’t looking forward to what awaited us on the other end of our drive. Not by a long shot.

But at least we’d had a nice picnic. And that was something.

“Papaw?” May asked quietly, once the car had awoken from standby and zipped us back onto the empty road. “What was it like, living without a phone?”

Beside me, my father paused from reaching for his next beer long enough to shoot me a laughably incredulous look. Then he straightened, and I couldn’t help but smile as he turned to face the girls full-on, drawing himself up like an eager scholar approaching the lectern.

Sometimes, it really does just figure.


-THE END-


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