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
“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
“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
“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,
“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
“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
“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.