This story is by Robert Burns and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The blue Mercury coupe took to the two-lane easily and flew across the desert blacktop. Easily doing 80, that is, as it came up suddenly on the old Ford ahead. Alvie had to brake and quickly change lanes. As he passed the Ford, he glanced over at the driver: an old guy just like his dad. Same bald head, white hair around the sides and back. Same black framed glasses. Same stern scowl at the impertinence of someone daring to pass HIM. Kind of like the old character actor Charles Lane, only angrier, much angrier. As a kid, he would ride in his father’s Buick way out into the countryside, silently beside him in the front seat. They never talked, his father insisting on paying attention to his driving. Alvie would just look out the window watching the oncoming billboards, counting the grain elevators and out-of-state license plates.
The oncoming car jarred the young man back into the present and Alvie quickly retreated to the right lane, just ahead of the blaring horn. He had been driving for several days and had not slept.
“Yeah, yeah,” he muttered under his breath, pressing harder on the gas.
He rubbed his eyes. The encounter took him back to the long drives with his father again. He remembered the billboards. In hindsight, they seemed to tell the story of his life.
To the right
Of the oncoming car
Get your close shaves
From the half pound jar
He watched for those billboards, keeping a keen lookout. He wondered where Burma Shave was, picturing Bengal tigers and elephants with Indian princes on their backs. Burma Shave must have been some important place to have all these signs.
He heard somebody say one time that the desert has no memory and it sure seemed that way in the old westerns that he and his dad would take in at the Strand Theatre back home. The movies were about the only thing that passed for weekly entertainment back in those days, besides the radio. The westerns spoke a common language to the two of them, Randolph Scott and Tim Holt (and John Wayne, of course) as they sat side-by-side, silently munching popcorn in the dark. Today’s desert just seemed bleak and barren, and brutally hot, the heat shimmering off the blacktop in the distance. It was the same as in the movies, but different. At the speed the Mercury was travelling it didn’t much matter. Alvie couldn’t see the intricacies of the landscape anyway.
The sky spread out ahead of him much like the land did. The sky and the desert extending out into the distance in equal measures brown below and blue above. His father had flown fighter planes in the war. Fast and agile, flamboyant even, not anything like their stern and serious pilot. When he came home from the Pacific, Alvie’s dad promised that he would take him up flying, even teach him to fly, but he never did. He was angry all the time back then, ever since his return from the war.
To go by air
If we could put
These signs up there
So Alvie had to satisfy himself with flying in his Merc. It was a 1948 Mercury Eight coupe with a flathead V8, in Barcelona Blue, that he bought used out of high school with money he had saved up over long years of after-school work and odd jobs, his first and only car. He would have liked to have shown his dad the car, but the old man was long gone by then.
It was love at first sight and Alvie bought the Mercury on the spot. He taught himself how to work on the engine and fine-tuned it into a great running car. Lightning fast and agile, flamboyant even, he flew everywhere in his Merc. His father might have been proud, but probably still wouldn’t have shown it.
The Last Gas for 75 Miles sign came up quickly on the right and the needle on the gas gauge told Alvie that he needed to pull in. Joe’s Service was a weather-beaten old place that looked as if it had serviced Wells Fargo long before Mercury. Weeds grew through the cracks of the broken pavement. The attendant was an old man in faded blue coveralls with Joe on the pocket in script letters. He ambled over, taking his time in the smothering heat.
“Help you?” Joe asked, as he leaned into the window.
Alvie could smell the whisky on his breath.
“Geez. This guy is smashed,” he muttered to himself, then said out loud “Fill it with high-test. You got a bathroom?”
“Around back over there. Key’s by the door.”
Alvie walked across the searing concrete toward the bathroom and found the key. Inside he pissed and washed his neck and face with cold water. The water felt cool and refreshing as he washed the miles of dust off of the stubbly growth on his face. He surveyed his face in the mirror, the genetics were unmistakable.
“Looking older, Alvie,” he said to his reflection. “Looking older.”
He pulled open the creaky door and stepped back out into the blinding heat. He had to get out of there.
Alvie returned to the car and paid Joe, the unmistakable stink of the liquor on his breath even worse now. Shifting the Merc into drive, he sped off west, tires squealing off the pavement. Joe just watched him go, shaking his head.
The one who
He’s been drinking
Depends on you
To do his thinking
The encounter with the old man brought Alvie’s troubled past roaring back to him, his brain pounding as he raced down the road. He remembered what would turn out to be his dad’s last night at home as if it were yesterday, huddled under the bed in the dark room, the only light from the occasional lightning flash through the curtains. Alvie held his little brother tightly. Tommy sobbed quietly in his arms.
The angry screaming from the living room danced with the storm, overlapping at the edges with the thunder and lightning. The boys shook with silent horror under the bed. And then, suddenly, the breaking glass, the slamming door and, finally, the deep, deep silence.
After what seemed like hours, Alvie crept out into the hall and peeked around the corner into the living room where his mother sat on the floor weeping in the corner, head in hands. The fragments of the shattered vase lay scattered about her. The storm subsided. They were all alone.
Alvie drove faster now, anxious to reach the end of the road.
Does your husband
Grunt and grumble
Rant and rave
Shoot the brute some
Alvie had tried, off and on, over the years to find the strength to forgive his dad for the crime of being a terrible, abusive man, husband and father. Every time he picked up the phone, though, he always seemed to find some excuse not to call.
The heat lightning off in the distance triggered Alvie’s thoughts back to the last week: the midnight call from the police, standing in the pouring rain watching the firemen pry the charred body from the twisted wreck, the broken bourbon bottles. Alvie knew right then what he had to do.
You can’t reach 80
Hale and hearty
By driving 80
By the time the Mercury finally reached the end of the road, the desolate brown of the desert had been swapped out for the deep blue of the Pacific Ocean still under an endless blue sky, but now tinged with the pink of the sunset. The scorching heat of the desert had been replaced by a cool sea breeze.
Alvie stood at the end of the deserted pier and leaned over the railing, studying the water. The ocean was every bit as deep a blue as his father had told him years before. The setting orange sun caused sea and sky to blend together as one in the hazy distance. The gulls screeched and wheeled overhead.
“Made it, Dad,” he said aloud, to no one in particular.
The young man took the vial out of his pocket at last and let the breeze scatter the ashes up into the sky. The dust cleared quickly and, climbing up onto the rail, Alvie stood for a moment surveying the scene before diving quickly off the end of the pier. The briny cold of the seawater made him feel alive as he swam deep. Bobbing to the surface, he looked back toward the pier and watched the town lights beyond twinkling on, one by one. His journey was at an end. The chains that had bound him for so long were finally broken. He was free.
A father’s love
Is hard to see
A son’s forgiveness
Will set him