after Joe Bucciano's "Mystery Drive"
Copyright ©2018 by Christopher Conlon
Back to The Bucciano/Conlon Project
It was a lovely drive, David thought-a long, gentle ribbon of smooth road surrounded on all sides by pine trees, deep green and packed so thickly that at times he could hardly see the blue sky at all. It was freezing outside but he had cracked the window to allow the fresh winter air into his lungs. He was wearing only a light blue windbreaker, T-shirt, jeans and sneakers, but the cold felt good.
Next to him sat his father. The man was eighty-eight years old, hunched over and sagging as if someone had drained most of the air from his body's balloon. His head was bullet-bald; his eyes were rheumy and colorless. He wore an old brown bathrobe and slippers.
"Where are we?" the old man asked, his voice whispery. The rock-sure attitude with which he had always attacked life had years before tottered and crumbled.
"Just wanted to take a drive with you, Dad," David answered. "We don't do this much anymore, do we?"
The elder man didn't respond. Instead he sat silent and motionless, staring out through the windshield at the unfurling black road before them.
They had been driving for hours. Many years before the two of them had passed through this part of the forest a few times—or rather, the three of them had, back when Mom had been among the living.
"Isn't it beautiful?" David asked, inhaling the pine scent coming coldly through the opened window.
Again the older man said nothing. His mouth gaped and David saw that he was growing tired; his head drooped to his chest and then popped up again.
"I wanna go home," the man said at last.
This time it was David who did not answer. In his mind he was imagining the times that his father and mother had driven into these mountains on their own, when he had been visiting a friend or at a movie. His father knew this road, whether or not he recalled it now.
The man was scowling and his body had begun to tremble.
"Where we goin'?" he asked finally, his weak voice anxious now.
"Almost there," his son replied.
They passed by still more trees, thousands of them, the car moving up and down hills of breathtaking beauty. David studied the late afternoon light as it flashed brokenly through the branches.
He slowed the car after a while, noting several unpaved access roads as they passed them by. Finally he chose one and, braking gently, turned onto it.
"Why are we goin' out here?" his father asked.
It was getting dark now and David switched on the headlights. The access road was narrow and poorly paved.
"When are we goin' home?" his father asked.
After a while David said, "Dad, do you remember Bruiser?"
"Bruiser. A yellow mutt we had for a while when I was eleven or twelve."
He scowled. "No."
"Or Patches? That old tomcat that showed up one day that I took in?"
The old man's lips moved, but no sound came.
"How about Cleopatra?" he continued. "That black cat with no tail? Do you remember her?"
The lips moved some more, but the old man said nothing. The woods were growing dark.
"They were my pets," David said, "and when you decided you didn't like them or they cost too much or they damaged the furniture a little or whatever, you and Mom would wait until I was gone and then take Bruiser or Patches or Cleopatra or whichever animal and it would disappear. I'd come home and it would just be gone, that's all. The toys, the food bowls—all gone.
"Nobody said anything," he continued. "Not one word. That seems impossible now, all these years later, but that's the way it was in our family, wasn't it? Things that were supposed to be discussed just weren't. When I would come home and find one of my animals gone I knew not to say anything. You and Mom would start your nightly drinking and I'd go in my room and shut the door. That was it. Done. As if Bruiser or Patches or Cleopatra had never existed.
"I never knew what happened to them. I tried not to think about it. With your love of guns...sometimes I'd wander in the backyard, not really looking but just sort of wondering if I could see any evidence of a freshly-dug hole. But I never found one. So I never knew...until just before Mom died."
A light rain had started. David rolled up the window and switched on the wiper blades. "I asked her. In the hospital. Just the two of us were in the room. I asked her what had happened to all my pets. Do you know what she said?"
He glanced over at his father.
"She said," he continued, "that she hated it, but you made the decisions in the family. And you did, didn't you, Dad?"
The road had grown even narrower now and was no longer paved at all. They drove on a dirt track.
"She told me that you two would drive into the forest for a while, take some access road, and then stop and dump my pet off and drive away."
He slowed after a while, as the rain began to turn to ice pellets striking the windshield with a sound of claws against glass.
"The same forest," David said, "where you and I used to drive sometimes. Do you remember that, Dad?"
The man made no sound.
"Did you ever stop to think of how that would affect me, Dad? The thought that my own father had taken these innocent little things out and dropped them off to wander lost for days or weeks, getting thinner and thinner, freezing, no idea how to live in the wild, until they either starved to death or were torn up and killed by some bigger animal? You couldn't even be bothered to take them to the pound, could you?
"Did you ever stop to think about the guilt that would grow in myself, that I was unable to save them? That my own parents took them away to die slow, horrible deaths while I was playing basketball at my pal's house? Did you ever stop to wonder what that would do not just to the animals, but to me? To my sense of—of self? My sense of being in the world?
"And for all I knew," he went on, "you might decide to take me out into the forest next."
They drove for a time. It was very dark now.
"Why do you think I've been such a failure all my life, Dad? No relationships that lasted, no steady job for more than a year or two? Couple of stints in jail? That's you, Dad."
At last he saw a slightly wider area in the road and stopped the car, leaving the motor running and the lights and wipers on.
"Get out," David said.
The old man looked at him, his eyes confused and helpless and yet, somewhere within them, defiant as well.
"Get out of this car."
His father did not protest; he almost seemed to have expected this. He opened the door and stepped slowly out of the vehicle, the icy rain pelting him.
"Close the door."
His father did. David then executed a smooth three-point turn that put the car in the same place it had been but pointed in the opposite direction, back down the access road they had just traversed. His father simply stood there the whole time, ice pellets falling into his hair and onto the shoulders of his robe.
David pulled the parking brake and climbed out of the car, feeling the frozen rain stinging his face."Get in," he said.
His father's wet face was confused now, but he did as his son instructed. David slammed the driver's door shut.
"I don't know how well you can drive anymore," the younger man said. "I know you don't have a license these days. But your eyesight is okay. All you have to do is go forward and drive back the way we came. When you get to the main road, turn left. You'll probably remember the way from there. If you don't, you'll come to a store or two and a gas station eventually. Stop and ask someone for help. You're an old man driving around in the dark in his bathrobe. They'll help you."
His father looked up at him, his emotions unreadable. He was trembling.
"Now I'm going to join them," David said. "The ones you abandoned. The ones you sent out to die. The way you would have sent me if you could. I'm going out there to tell them I'm sorry. I'm going to beg their forgiveness. And I'm going to stay with them. Forever."
David abruptly stripped off his windbreaker and tossed it in his father's lap.
"Here," he said. "You might need this. I don't."
He stood looking down at his father.
"Drive," he said.
The old man looked up at his son, then at the steering wheel, then at the dirt road illuminated by the bright headlights.
"Drive!" David said again, louder this time. He slapped the top of the car with his palm.
Finally the man reached over and released the parking brake. But the car didn't move.
"I..." he wheezed at last.
"Drive away, Dad. Drive away right now. Drive away or I'll pull you out of that goddamn car and kill you."
His father's mouth gaped. The looked at each other in the rainy darkness. At last the old man turned his head to the road and the car began rolling slowly away.
When it had gone some fifty yards it stopped again. David saw the brake lights shining.
After a minute or so it continued moving again.
He waited until he could no longer see the lights or hear the motor of the car. Then he turned away from the road for the last time and stared into the night. He had no idea where he was. Ahead of him lay only forest and frigid blackness and hard rain. The forecast called for heavy snow to arrive overnight. Temperatures would drop to near zero.
He walked off into the darkness.