A Slow Drive Home by Lauren Krauze
When Nate pushed the rental car above 65 mph, the frame started to shimmy. The gear shift rattled. The steering wheel shook. Each time this happened, Nate sighed a long, deep sigh, let up on the gas and readjusted the rear view mirror. As it turned out, the speed limit was our limit, and we did the only thing we could: we slowed down, then kept going.
He pulled into the right-hand lane. Trucks passed us. Other cars passed us. Everyone passed us. A frail old woman smoking a cigarette, a bearded man in an Oldsmobile, waving his hands, singing. A school bus full of children with sandy hair and wide eyes. Nate didn’t speak but looked out at the mountains that flanked the highway. He called them mountains, but to me they looked like steep, balding hills. Occasionally he craned his neck and peered up at the sky, like he was looking for something he remembered to be much taller. In the years he had been gone, whatever was up there seemed to have disappeared.
The night before we left, I couldn’t sleep. Nate was restless, kicking and shifting every few minutes. In between his heavy coughs and my thoughts about his parents, I listened to the refrigerator humming. Sometimes it sounded like crickets singing. Other times, in the deepest part of the night – when someone yelled on the street or when the garbage truck crushed whatever we left behind – it sounded like something breaking.
I fiddled with the heat, the defroster, the music. Co-captain. I put on some Neil Young. Nate asked for something harder. Metallica. Iron Maiden.
“Iron Maiden?” I chuckled. “I don’t have any of that.” I glanced across at him. He stared straight ahead, gripping the steering wheel.
It was the end of winter and as we drove farther into the country, the snow rose up around us. It was sunny, it was noon; it was unbearably bright. We pulled off the highway to a rest stop. We had been traveling for almost three hours.
“I need to get some water,” Nate said. He swung into a parking space, turned off the engine and quickly got out. He walked briskly towards the building, pulling his cap over his eyes and shoving his hands in his pockets. His pants fell much lower on his hips than the last time he wore them, his red sweater no longer tight against his chest. I leaned my head back against the seat and closed my eyes. I needed rest. The sun poured into the car, warming the skin on my face and neck. My body grew heavier and I slid deeper into this silent, comforting cocoon. Within moments I drifted away and found myself in the kitchen of my childhood home standing face to face with my mother, who was holding the phone receiver. I moved towards her. “Did you call me?” I asked. She shook her head, then lowered the receiver to her side. The long, coiled cord draped in small heaps across the tiled floor. She stood motionless while the cabinets, white and cubed, retreated away from me in sharp angles.
Nate opened the car door and sat back down. I opened my eyes.
“I got you some Milk Duds,” he said, handing me the box and placing two bottles of water in the cup holders. “Did you fall asleep?”
“Thanks. A little. I didn’t sleep much last night.” I put the Milk Duds in my bag.
“I know.” He turned towards me. “I could hear you worrying yourself wide awake.” He leaned towards me and placed his hand on my cheek, holding me there. I looked into his glassy eyes and reached my hand towards his mouth, tracing his lips with my thumbs. I gave him a soft kiss and then sat back in my seat. As he started the car, I wondered if my worrying sounded more like crickets singing or the refrigerator breaking.
We reached his hometown almost two hours later. It wasn’t how I pictured it. We entered not by way of a winding, tree-lined road that opened onto a quaint Main Street, but via a short offshoot from the highway that led us directly into a squatty, crowded neighborhood. Nate drove slowly through its narrow roads. The high snow packed everything in like it had fallen out of the sky all at once. Some of the houses were missing shingles. Others still had Christmas decorations up. Inflatable Santas lay flat, shrunken and withered. Dark, shadowed bulbs dangled from the eaves. I figured nobody could get through the snow to take them down, and perhaps nobody wanted to; it was suffocating. This year, too much had come down.
We drove by a square-shaped, brick building. “This is my old elementary school,” Nate said. Tall windows welcomed the bright sun. It was Saturday and the parking lot was empty, the swings frozen in place. The snow on the lawn outside the main doors sparkled with a pristine shimmer, imprinted with not one small footstep, not one messy snow angel, half-collapsed fort, or uneven pile where snow had been scooped up with tiny arms and tossed someplace else.
I glanced at the clock. 1:30pm. We were supposed to be at Nate’s parents’ house an hour ago.
“I know,” he said, catching my eye. “We’re so late.”
“Should we call?” I asked. I reached for his phone.
He shook his head. “We’ll be there soon. I just want to pass one more thing.”
We made a right turn and continued around a park named after Franklin A. Banks. He was a mayor, perhaps, or some person who once held a position of authority and did something important for the town. In memory of that something stood four picnic tables and an immense plastic arrangement consisting of tube slides, monkey bars, ramps, platforms, stepping stones and bridges. A bit farther into the park I could see a slight dip in the land, over which swayed four tall willow trees, their long branches grazing the ground below. They were old, solid, sturdy. I imagined Franklin A. Banks planting the seeds of these trees, knowing one day his legacy would rise towards the sun and root deep down into the frozen earth below.
We pulled off the main road and into a large parking lot.Greenville High School. Nate turned off the engine and we sat in the car for a moment, facing a football stadium, encircled by a track. The track was red, glaring, free of snow.
“I want to walk down there,” he said. He took a sharp, deep breath and looked at me with heavy, apologetic eyes. I wasn’t invited.
“Okay.” I tried to smile. “I’ll wait here.”
He got out of the car and shut the door softly behind him, sealing me in. He took a huge step over the edge of the parking lot into the snow, trying to find his footing. Some chunks of ice fell onto the pavement and I heard the muffled crunching of it under his feet. He took another big step in, pushing off with the other foot as he started to sink. He pranced forward through the snow, trying to stay light and high above it. His arms flailed wildly as he moved, his warm breath rising above him in small clouds.
When he reached the track, he pulled his sweater sleeves over his hands and carefully opened the metal gate. He stepped onto the red rubber and walked to the starting line. He pushed his sleeves up his arms, bent down and placed his right toe on the line, stepping his left foot back into a lunge. He dropped his head.
He then lifted up, looked forward.
He suddenly sprang forward into a full sprint, taking huge steps, pumping his arms, holding his head back.
He was fluid, he was fast; his arms only moved slightly and his feet – there was no pounding, no slamming into the ground. No impact whatsoever. He turned the corner of the track and kept sprinting. I could no longer see his breath or his feet, just the outline of his body moving against the snow.
I then felt it, deep in my stomach, the center of my chest, between my ribs and moving up into my throat: that slow, deep ache. I wanted him. I wanted his full gaze, his deepest breath, his entire body – awake or asleep, restless with exhaustion or holding me close to him, his warm hand sweeping my hair away from my eyes. He rounded the next corner and pushed on. The ache started to fade and I could see him struggling, slowing down, his face red with try. As he pushed on, lumbering towards the finish line, I felt myself cheering him on just so that he would run his fastest, and then slow down.
He crossed the line, slowed a bit then jerked to a stop, like he had run into a wall. He bent down, placed his hands on his knees and coughed, his whole body heaving. As I reached to open the car door and yell to him, he stood up tall and arched his neck back, breathing in deeply. He walked to the gate, closed it behind him, and then hopped back into the snow.
I felt a buzzing in my pocket and pulled my phone out of my coat. The caller ID said “Home.” I placed the phone to my ear.
“Hi, Dad,” I answered.
“Hi, Becs. Am I calling at a bad time?”
“No,” I replied. “We’re on the way to his parents’ house. We just stopped to rest for a bit.”
“Good.” He paused for a moment. “Are you telling them today?”
“That’s the plan,” I said. “I’m nervous. It’s like, hi, it’s nice to meet you. Then…this news.”
“Is he there?” he asked quietly.
“No.” I watched Nate step through the snow. “He hopped out of the car for a minute.”
“Okay,” he said. “Well, it’s hard news for any parent to hear, as you can imagine.” He fell silent. “Are you staying the night?”
“No, we’ll be driving back late. Nate has his first chemo appointment early tomorrow morning.”
“I see.” He let out a long, slow sigh. I pictured him sitting at the kitchen table with his head in his hands.
“I’m gonna run,” I said, my voice wavering. “I’m so glad you called, Dad. Love you.”
“I love you too, sweetie. Drive safe.” I stayed on the line to hear him hang up the phone.
As I put my phone back in my coat pocket, I watched Nate veer to the right and run towards a large pile of snow that had been plowed against the stadium. He hopped up in three steps and stood at the top, facing the field. He then turned around towards the car, bringing his hands to his face to shield his eyes from the sunlight. He met my eyes, smiled and waved. I raised my hand back. He then swung his arms, tucked his knees into his chest and cannonballed into a nearby snowdrift. It sucked him in. I could see him swinging his arms and kicking his legs to smooth out the snow around him. Tiny, bursting clouds of hot breath rose out of the snow, disappearing immediately into the frozen air.
The car was now warm. The sun fell onto my thighs, stomach and chest. I took a deep breath, rested my head back against the seat and closed my eyes. The warmth started to spread from my chest into my arms and neck, from my thighs down into my feet. I slid into this hot mass of cloud, letting it wrap around me until my body no longer remained. The car fell away. The snow dissolved. I felt myself floating into a deep, bright expanse. I recognized this -- I had been here before. I moved within it – weightless -- floating in its limitlessness. The brightness was black, was gray, was very deep and I felt like I could move forward whenever I wanted. I didn’t move towards that depth, or back away from it, but just noticed it from midair, expanding from the center of what felt like my chest, but also felt like nothing at all. I wanted more of this for me. I wanted even more of it for him.
The car door opened and Nate fell into the seat, gasping. The cold rushed in, chilling my face and neck. I kept my eyes closed as he shut the door and collapsed back into his seat. He sat back, motionless, breathing deeply. He coughed once more, then turned the keys in the ignition. Car engine. Gearshift. Neil humming, guitar strumming. I didn’t know the song. I opened my eyes.
“Ready to go?” Nate asked. I nodded. We slowly backed out of the parking lot, the tires crunching the snow that had fallen from Nate’s giant leap into the shining, white field.
© Lauren Krauze, 2014
Lauren Krauze writes short stories, essays and short poems. Her work has appeared in Painted Bride Quarterly, Three Line Poetry and various blogs and websites. She received her Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from The New School and lives in New York, NY.
A Slow Drive Home was read by Erika Iverson on 1st October 2014