The doors opened and a billowing torrent of children poured down the flared stairway and into the schoolyard. I scanned the thinning crowd from behind the wheel, searching for his downy head of blond curls, and found it bobbing down the cypress-lined footpath to the gate. He walked briskly with lowered chin and thumbs lodged beneath backpack straps. I leant over to open the door and called out to him.

“Matty! Over here!”

His face lit up and he dashed to the car, backpack swaying wildly, cheeks flushed pink.

“Hey buddy, we said the parking lot, remember?” I ruffled his hair as he climbed in and settled himself in the front seat.

“I’m sorry, dad. I got lost. It’s a big yard with lots of tall trees.” His voice was wistful.

“It’s alright. It’s your day. Just make sure you meet me here next time. Now go sit in the back,” I motioned behind me and put the car in gear.

“I want to ride in the front today, with you,” he said clasping his backpack with interlocked fingers. His gaze followed the grimy cracks in the dashboard. I let out a deep sigh and rubbed my eyes with thumb and forefinger. The sweltering afternoon sun hung low on the horizon.

“Matt, we went over this in the morning, son. We had this whole conversation and I ended up dropping you off late on your first day of school,” I paused to let that sink in. “You’ll get to ride here with me in a couple of years when you’re old enough.”

“I didn’t see any policemen on the way in the morning,” he said.

“Yeah, well, they could be there now. You don’t want me getting into any trouble, do you? I’m starting the car.”

“I don’t want to sit in the back. I’m staying here,” he moaned and folded his arms over his bag, furrowing his brow in affected discontent.

I scratched my chin for a minute and looked out the window as he grew silent and sank his head ever deeper in his chest. Then I reached over and brought him closer, our brows touching.  “You have got to listen to me, little man,” I said pleadingly. “We’ll need to work together if we want to make it here. Be nice.”

After an eternity fidgeting with the aglets of his backpack’s laces, he unpursed his lips, turned around and made a show of squeezing between the seats to land in the back. “Buckle up!” I said and caught his fierce blue eyes in the rear-view mirror as I pulled out of the parking lot grinning.

Out on the freeway I switched on the radio and tapped away at the steering wheel. I drove fast and the caramel sunrays cut through the noise barrier gaps, streaking bands across Matt’s profile. With his chin resting precociously on a closed fist, he seemed absent and heavy with thought. I wound down the window an inch and the air rushed in dense and cool.

“Did you take your pills today?” I interrupted his reverie, hollering above the music and draft.  

“No,” he said with his chin still propped.

“Why not?”

“I couldn’t find them.”

“What do you mean, kiddo? They’re right here where I put them last night,” I pulled out a furled Ziploc from his backpack’s side pocket and tossed it back to him. “I showed you last night and you just kept nodding away and saying ‘Yes, dad!’ and ‘Got it, dad!’”

“They hurt my stomach. I don’t want them,” he said through a frown.

“You need to take them with food. Why didn’t you have them with lunch?”

“I didn’t have lunch.”

“Well, why not, Matt?” I said after a long pause and turned down the radio.

“The cafeteria smelled funny, like vinegar, and the kids were stupid and ugly and I wouldn’t sit with them. So I don’t want to go there. It makes me feel alone.”

They can’t all be stupid and ugly.”

“They are. All of them.”

“What about the teacher? She seemed nice at the open house,” I said, vaguely recalling a bob cut and V-neck.

“She said school is like our second home and I didn’t like that. I don’t want another home that smells. Why can’t I stay home with you, dad?”

“Because you have to go to school, Matty.”

“Why?” he insisted.

“First,” I started solemnly, “it’s the law. And second, if you don’t go to school, I’ll have to homeschool you and that would make PTA meetings a sad, sad thing for your old man.”

He crinkled his nose at this and said, “I went to school already today. Why do I need to go again?”

“Because that’s not how it works,” I shook my head. “It’s not a doctor’s appointment. You go there every day and you learn things. That’s just how it goes.”

“And then what?” he persisted.

“And then,” I mulled this over some, “you get to have a car. Like your dad here.”

“This car is old,” he said as if with seasoned distaste.

“It all depends, you see? You study hard and you’ll get a better one when you grow up.”

“Why didn’t you study hard?” he asked innocently. I chuckled and kept silent. His eyes were expectant in the mirror.

“I’ll tell you what, how about we grab something to eat,” I said, “and you’ll take your pills? You know what happens when you don’t take your pills.”

I parked at a drive-in and we had burgers and fries on the hood of the car. He beamed contentedly as he washed down a pair of pink pellets with soda, his dimples smeared with ketchup. Against the backdrop of the humming traffic he told me about his day at school. He said he liked math class the most and his teacher called him ‘a clever one.’ He promised to get along. I watched him as he clutched his burger with both hands and flailed his dangling feet back and forth, all the while drumming his heels on the tire. A gust of wind rolled down from the hills and the street lights came on.

Time to go home,” I said and helped him off the hood.

We reached the entrance to the subdivision shortly after nightfall. I took a scenic route to our house over a mound sloping into branching streets. The green-shingled roofs snaked across an arid landscape like leaves of creeping ivy.

I cruised past bay windows, inflatable pools and toy-strewn porches. Turning the corner into our street, there were whirling colored lights and commotion at the cul-de-sac. Things came into focus and I hit the brakes and cut the headlights. I backed the car into a vacant lot, beside a tall hedge, and turned off the engine. I checked on Matt. He’d been sleeping since the meal, curled up in the backseat, nuzzling against a shaggy prize he’d won at the drive-in.

I sat there for a moment with beaded forehead, kneading the steering wheel, breathing heavily, taking in the whole tableau playing out on my lawn. The squad car’s rotating light casting reds and blues on buttoned-down men with inscrutable faces. The screen door propped open with stacks of cardboard boxes. The cop doing laps with a German shepherd around the yard. Mrs. Milford with her tennis visor and wide-eyed disbelief as she answered a ponytailed patrolwoman with a pad. And all the other neighbors’ wives cupping an elbow and voicing condemnations through their fingers. I bowed my head and muffled a sob then started the car and drove out the way I’d come. The sky was dim and starless.

I threaded through freeway traffic mechanically, my limbs rigid and foreign, obeying instinct and habit. The black hills ahead traced a faint silhouette of someplace we hadn’t been. I threw a glance at the fuel gauge. The needle pointed reassuringly rightward. A trailing pickup’s high beams flooded us with light before racing by in a flash. I was driving past the county line signboard when Matt stirred in the backseat.

Are we home yet, dad?” he asked half-asleep.

“Just a little while longer, Matty,” I said and turned to look at my son but stopped midway.

I heard him say something else. His voice came to me from a faraway place.

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