Tom’s daughter called as he drove his father home from a doctor’s appointment for a scab on his shin he wouldn’t leave alone. She’d missed an exit returning from college. For some reason her GPS wasn’t working. She had no idea where she was, other than stuck in traffic. Now, instead of dropping his father off and heading home himself, he’d detour and locate Gabby. Half the week he spent at his parents’ house, the other at home with his wife and two other kids. He’d hunt for a pair of pants or boots and discover they were sixty miles away. Or he’d bring four shirts, one pair of underwear and no socks. His sister did the rest of the week. The two had been at it six months now with no end in sight.
His father shifted his cane from one knee to the other.
--Where are you? Tom asked her.
--How should I know?
--Pull over and ask for directions.
--Someone with a pulse.
He hadn’t meant to snap. Lately he’d been working on his anger, a long term project, according to Evelyn, where he’d make a bit progress before putting his tools away. Why, his wife wanted to know, was it so hard to be nice, to think before he spoke? Maybe then he wouldn’t have to spent so much of his life apologizing. He didn’t have an answer other than to say he was trying. He was always trying. Like now, for instance. He was hungry, exhausted and stuck in traffic himself, pissed they’d waited an hour to see the doctor who’d prescribed an antibiotic but hadn’t been much use otherwise.
His father still drove at 93. A year ago he’d managed to renew his license. He’d called Tom, excited with the news, announcing he’d passed the eye test with “flying colors”. Tom listened and wondered what kind of people worked at the DMV. He refused to offer congratulations. When he mentioned his father’s diminished reflexes to Doctor McKenna, he wouldn’t take his side. His father studied him from the examining table, a look that told him to mind his damn business. As his physician for over thirty years, Doctor McKenna marvelled at the fullness of old man’s arms and shoulders, his gift for banter and his quick wit. He mentioned a program in a nearby rehab facility where elderly drivers could have their reflexes tested. Insurance would cover the cost.
--My age hasn’t a thing to do with it, his father snapped.
--No one is forcing you to go, Doctor McKenna told him. It’s totally up to you.
His father nodded, a twelve year old summoned to the principal’s office for an offense he hadn’t committed. He had no intention of signing up for any program.
Fuck it, Tom thought, Go kill someone then.
When he was with his parents, his youngest, Emma, called to complain about the faulty valve on her bedroom radiator. It was his fault the room was always freezing. When he was home, his mother called to complain about his father shovelling snow off the front steps. How was she supposed to pick him up if he fell? The toilet was running after he’d left his house.
--Jiggle the handle, he’d texted Evelyn.
--Jiggle your own handle, she texted back.
She’d discovered a glass pipe with a plug of moldy hash in the bowl, hidden in the board game cupboard beside the chimney. Was it his? Whose was it then? He had no idea. He’d interrogate the three of them as soon as he got home, line them up and endure the screaming and countercharges only to regret having opened his mouth in the first place. Evelyn couldn’t wait three days. She’d deal with it. Just thinking about it gave her a migraine. What if they agreed throw the pipe out? What if they said to hell with it and never mentioned having found it in the first place? Tom was on board with that.
At his parents’ house he slept in a single bed in a small bedroom that overlooked the bulkhead and a couple of bird feeders. His father slept in a recliner in the den so he could breath, his mother in the double bed with dual railings and a commode by the nightstand. Every morning over breakfast his parents read the newspaper beginning to end, starting with the obituaries. Tom read it too, something he hadn’t done in years. He’s take a section, licking his index finger before turning a page, the three of them reciting what a shit show the world had become. What ever happened to civility and common decency? Of course to Tom the world had always been a shit show but joining in his parents’ outrage made him feel closer to them, a far cry from his youth when he’d informed them they were part of the problem, not the solution.
In the evening when this parents watched the local and national news, Tom went for a walk around the neighborhood. Out on the sidewalk he could still hear the TV. When he wasn’t taking them to medical appointments he worked. He’d had to install WIFI as his parents had no use for computers. They peered over his shoulder from a safe distance while he reviewed data, the technologies he took for granted bewildering them.
Gabby was nineteen, still a kid and no good at directions. He’d taught her how to drive but evidently hadn’t covered everything. He’d never taken her on a highway, for instance. How had he missed that? His father, on the other hand, had spent nearly half his life on highways, transporting galvanized pipe from Boston to Springfield and Worcester and back. He left early in the morning before Tom was up and returned in late afternoon, ten hours at a stretch. The yearly bonuses for accident-free driving he’d put toward renting a cabin in New Hampshire for a week every August. Now Tom achieved new lows on what seemed like a daily basis trying to convince him never to get behind the wheel again.
--You won’t be happy until you plow through a store front, he’d said a few days ago. Is that how you want to be remembered?
--I’ve never had an accident in my life.
--You can’t move, your reflexes are shot, you’re almost deaf and half blind.
He loved his father but he didn’t apologize. Getting the keys first required breaking his spirit. Then, maybe, he’d surrender them voluntarily. Tom wasn’t much of a driver himself, a fact his wife and kids were fond of pointing out. He drove too slow and was easily distracted. He’d just as soon give it up anyway, another chore he’d had enough of. These days all he did was drive. He was betwixt and between, a member of the Sandwich Generation, and doing a shitty job on both ends. Now that people lived forever and kids never moved out he’d have this job for the rest of his life.
Gabby expected him to come get her. He was thirty miles away, maybe more, closer to his parents’ house than his own.
--What signs do you see?
He put the phone on speaker so his father could listen.
--I don’t see any.
--Look around. There has to be something.
--I can’t help it if there are no signs.
He had trouble hearing her. She was crying.
Tom’s father reminded her what a good girl she was, how proud he was of her, etc. Grandfather stuff of no help whatsoever.
--Look harder, Tom said, an edge in his voice.
--I didn’t ask to be lost, you know.
--You just keep on driving, honey, her grandfather said. Many times I’ve been lost myself. I love you.
--I love you too Grampi.
Tom waited for his. When it didn’t come he asked his father,
--What ever happened to those folded maps that cost a quarter at gas stations?
Back in 1975, he’d called his father from a pay phone off the Southeast Expressway. The traffic was horrible then too, except he knew where he was. It was May, finals over and done with, his summer job starting the next day, a stock boy in a lumber yard, fifty hour weeks at minimum wage to pay for his junior year. A box of spiral notebooks, an old suitcase, a pair of sneakers and dress shoes, a Remington manual and plastic lamp filled the back seat. The family car--their only car, a ten year old blue Impala station wagon with Duct taped hoses--had overheated and stranded him in Chinatown.
--This car is a piece of shit.
--You can walk home if you’d rather.
--What do I do now?
--Put water in the radiator. The thermostat is stuck.
He hung up and dented a fender with his heel he would deny doing if asked. He nursed the car to a restaurant where no one spoke English. By gesturing he managed to get a pitcher of water from a waiter. He hated his father, the traffic, the heat of the afternoon, the girlfriend who had dumped him for a guy at the other end of the hall. But that was a long time ago. He was different now, he liked to think, calmer and no longer prone to pointing fingers, at least not as much.
He kept Gabby on the line. He loved the idea of being needed though not so much the task that being needed required. Whenever one of his children was in trouble, he was filled with dread something worse might befall them before they figured a way out of it. Anxiety was a bear that slept inside him until it awoke demanding to be feed. Tom’s bear didn’t sleep much.
Finally, a sign overhead.
--It says Route 133.
--Follow it east twelve miles to the house.
He was thrilled. He high-fived his father. He’d gotten his two hours back. All that worrying for nothing. His headache diminished to half its strength.
Ten minutes later she called again.
--I’m in Methuen.
Methuen was in the opposite direction.
The route twisted and turned and wasn’t well marked. He’d had trouble himself on it. His gut had told him to keep her on the highway, send her south into Woburn and then 95 North. There’d be traffic and it was twice the distance but she couldn’t go wrong.
--Turn around, he told. Home is the other way.
He was doing his best to keep his voice under control. Even so, she was sick of listening to him. His directions were stupid, he had no patience, etc. She’d have her boyfriend come for her. He’d understand. She’d call him. He’d be happy to do it, to drive an hour each way. Tom was fine with the arrangement. True love meant dropping everything in favor of doing the ridiculous. He’d give the kid twenty bucks for gas.
Five minutes later she informed him Cam had a stomach bug. He couldn’t get out of bed. There was a pause on the line. She cleared her throat.
--Please come get me.
Of course he would. He always would. Or maybe she could ask directions just this one time. What if he told her to figure out her own way home, a lesson in tough love for which she would always hate him? Was he really going to do all this driving because she’d spaced out and missed an exit she’d taken half a dozen times? He drew a breath. He calmed his mind. He’d drive then. It wasn’t the end of the world. He would enjoy this extra time with his father. And it was his daughter, not some stranger. Would he not then help a stranger?
He’d be there in an hour, give or take, depending on the traffic.
--Don’t go anywhere, he told her, as if she might wander off to a shopping mall or cineplex. What’s the address?
--A red brick building. A senior center maybe. Or something else.
--Don’t yell at me.
--I’m not yelling. What’s the number?
--I can’t see any number.
Let it go, he told himself, a command he self-issued with great frequency. He would shut up and drive. He would endure the traffic. He would talk to his father without whining about his daughter though lately when he spoke to him he found himself reciting facts. Anything deeper was awkward and painful. What he really wanted to know was how it felt to be 93 years old, to be near the end of your life, to read the obituary of a friend or a guy you’d worked with every time you picked up the newspaper. Was his father prepared to die? Had he made his peace, accepted death as part of a natural process and nothing to be afraid of? Or did he shove it to the back of his mind, never giving it a second thought, preferring to go in blind? When he was younger, Tom imagined the passing years would take the edge off the inevitable fact of his own death, that serenity would come to him as a byproduct of aging. He’d been wrong.
--There’s this show I saw. A couple of Frenchmen in wingsuits dove off the top of a mountain and steered themselves onto the floor of a small plane flying below them. The French are nuts.
--Who? said his father.
He pictured his daughter in front of the shuttered senior center. Had he told her to lock her door? Would she know enough to park under a light pole and not some dim obscure corner of the lot where she would be an easy target? Had he taught her that at least?
Thanks to the traffic he was going nowhere. By the looks of what lay ahead he would continue to go nowhere. He’d come to a dead stop. There were no accidents anymore, no construction sites, nothing to clear out of the way or maneuver around. It was congestion at its purest, too many people clogging too few roads. He depressed on the brake and thumped the butt of his fist on the steering wheel. All around him his fellow sufferers stared glumly ahead. What was it like to sit in traffic like this every day? He could feel, actually feel, brain cells dying off. Did it bother them to the same extent it bothered him? When the traffic started moving again, a motorist blinkered to change into his lane. Tom waved him over. He got a nod and wave in return. A simple act of kindness. You could do almost nothing and make the world a better place. Yet maybe karmically that kindness was being balanced out by a misdeed. Was that how the system worked?
All of a sudden everyone accelerated. Before he knew it he was going sixty miles an hour. He couldn’t believe how quickly it had happened. He scanned for a disabled vehicle, for orange cones and construction equipment. Nothing. That was traffic for you. It was a mystery, a force even technology couldn’t reckon with. Whenever he hunted for an easier route on his phone and took it, he encountered even more congestion. You just never knew.
His father looked around, startled. He couldn’t understand what had happened either. Trees whizzed by. Tom pushed it to seventy, giddy at having been bestowed the gift of motion again. Meanwhile, the other side was plugged solid. As far as he could tell no one was going anywhere. Was he ever glad he wasn’t over there with those suckers though of course it might well be him in another mile.
Fat sporadic raindrops the size of nickels blotted the windshield. Ahead of him traffic slowed to adjust to the conditions. He flipped off cruise control and eased it down to fifty. At first he didn’t need the wipers. Then he did. Then he didn’t. His father looked out on the roadway, commenting on the van’s heated leather seats with electric motors that slid them back and forth with the touch of a switch. Weren’t they a great invention? Tom mentioned driverless cars, soon to become commonplace, then thought better of it. Would his father be around to see them? He shouldn’t have brought it up.
--Orville Wright lived to see the jet plane, he said to make himself feel better.
His father nodded, unsurprised by the inexplicable. At his age nothing humans did surprised him. The future was up for grabs. In the morning Tom watched him boil his oatmeal and egg and sit down to eat, a dish rag spread on his lap, relishing every spoonful. He’d grown up poor on an Irish peninsula with no electricity or indoor plumbing. Put a bowl of food in front of him and he was happy, period.
Gabby called again.
--Why are you driving so slow?
--To ruin your day.
--It’s already ruined.
--Not for long. We’re ten minutes away.
--Okay fine, she said.
He loved hearing those words. Okay fine. The deal sealed, everything in order. She could have been five or thirteen. She’d sound the same at ninety. As an eleven year old she’d spent six nights at Children’s Hospital in Boston with a fever that wouldn’t break, bags of antibiotics, surgery on an infected gland. He’d driven an hour back and forth everyday, through city traffic, half-crazed, splitting the nights with Evelyn. During those nights he wandered the corridors with the rest of the half-crazed parents while helicopters delivered sick kids to the rooftop next door. The sound of the rotors penetrated his bones yet filled him with hope. He never let Gabby see him cry.
One evening, taking her to the cafeteria for a frozen yogurt, they’d gotten stuck in the elevator, just the two of them. He always imagined such a terror. The sealed box came to halt. There wasn’t a sound. This can’t be, he thought. Nothing happened. They waited. She looked at him. What now? He grew dizzy and lost his breath. He forgot about his sick daughter. Somehow he willed himself to press the emergency button. Then she took over.
--We’re lost, she spoke into the speaker. My dad can’t breathe.
--We’ll be right there, honey, a voice said.
--Okay fine. She reached for Tom’s hand.
He heard workmen. Then sets of fingers pried the doors apart. The elevator had stopped three feet above the floor. Tom drew a breath. He waved off help. He nodded he was okay. Gabby, IV pic taped to her arm, leaped off the edge no problem. Tom was sure he’d break his leg.
--You’re in the right place for that, said one of the rescuers.
She was waiting for him under a light pole in front of the senior center.
--There she is over there.
--That’s her indeed, said his father.
He pulled up to her window.
--It’s about time you got here.
His father was between the two of them. Tom had to lean forward to see his daughter.
--Well, his father said. Is it who I think it is?
Gabby smiled. Charm always came easy to him.
--Can Grampi ride with me?
--I most certainly can.
Tom unbuckled his father’s seatbelt. With his good shoulder the old man shifted his weight against the door handle. The door swung away, his momentum carrying him out and straight for the pavement like one of those crackpots in the wingsuits. Tom lunged for his collar and missed. A shiver of fear ran through him followed by a rush of clear headedness. Without thinking he released his own seatbelt and bolted around the side of the van, prepared for the worst. What else could be waiting for him? In those few seconds he contemplated the proximity of the nearest hospital and how to break the news to his mother. How would he explain to the ambulance crew his father tumbling out of a stationary vehicle? But when he rounded the corner, the old man was waiting for him, somehow on his own two feet, his hat and his eyeglasses gone but none the worse for wear. It was a magic trick that froze Tom in his tracks. He paused to get his bearings. What had he missed? It was then he spotted Gabby on the other side of her grandfather, her runner’s build with its deceptive strength secured to him, her knees bent, feet spread apart, arms tight around his waist.
--Good God, his father said. Where did you come from?
--You caught your foot on the way out, Grampy.
--Didn’t I give us an awful fright?
--Are you okay?
She kept hold of him while Tom retrieved the hat and glasses.
--Hand me my stick, his father called over his shoulder. I’ll be fine once I have my stick.
Tom went back for the cane. He tried to calm himself. He’d been granted a miracle. He offered a quick thanks to whoever.
--In all my years I’ve never seen a person move faster than a jackrabbit, his father proclaimed.
--You’re not hurt, are you? Tom asked him. He gripped his father by the shoulders to confirm his physical presence. You’re sure you’re okay?
--We had it all planned, Gabby said.
--Would you believe it? her grandfather added. Would you believe she was capable of such a thing?
She smiled at Tom, her place in family lore secure. For his part, his father, in some cosmic sense, had offered himself up to be saved as a gift to his granddaughter. So at least was Tom’s murky understanding of the situation.
--Stay behind me, he told the two of them.
--We thought we might drive to Alaska instead, Gabby said. Are you fine with that?
--Not funny, he said.
--Cheer up, Mr. Grumpy.
He could just as easily be dialing 911. His daughter was safe and sound. His father was alive and well. What was the matter with him? Evelyn was right. On the way home he’d get out his toolbox. Bumper to bumper traffic would be the perfect place to start. What if he could learn to accept a congested roadway as something over which he had no control, like the ebb and flow of the tides, like life for that matter? What if he came to understand the mess consisted of people like himself simply trying to get home? Where others were driven to commit random acts of mayhem out of a sense of frustration and powerlessness, what if he could manage to stay calm? What clarity would then arise out of that? He’d give it a try. He really would this time. He put his seatbelt on and waited behind the wheel as Gabby helped her grandfather lower himself into her car.