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“Don’t make me turn this truck around!”
Jude finally said it, completing the dreaded transformation into his own father. He released a long, defeated sigh. Jude’s son, George, continued to screech. At eight-years-old, the boy could yell on a professional level, and he had been at it for exactly forty-five minutes. Jude knew this for a fact: he had timed it with the tiny clock stuck to the dashboard of the truck with a suction cup. Forty-five minutes was a long time to sit with a screaming kid sitting between you and your wife in a hot truck. Jennifer reached across the headrest and gave Jude’s shoulder a quick squeeze, a symbol of solidarity between two soldiers in a foxhole.
They were traveling over the hills and through the woods to grandmother’s house. Although Jude would never admit it, not even to himself, he hated the trip. The previous night he had even relived the old nightmare, of parking the truck outside of the white house, only to find his mother dead inside, a skeleton picked clean. Still, he and Jennifer loaded up George and they made the drive twice a year–Memorial Day and Christmas. Since his dad passed, they simply had to do it
God damn, it’s hot, he thought.
“George. Just. Shut. Up.” He was not going to yell. But it was enough to earn the death glare from Jennifer, so he took a deep breath and counted to ten very quickly. Why did the AC always go out right before Memorial Day? he thought. The car smelled of sweat and his wife’s hair spray.
Counting to ten again, he reminded himself of The Situation. The boy could not help it. Three different doctors had been clear on that point. George had an emotional disorder, which meant that these outbursts would happen. The boy was also smart. Scary smart, Jude admitted. Smart enough that he ought to be able to occupy himself for a measly two-and-a-half hours. It’s not like we didn’t bring him toys and a new comic book.
In a moment of inspiration, Jude gripped the wheel firmly with one hand and reached into the abyss behind the seat. Digging in the deep pocket, Jude hid his disgust as he fought past used tissues and a miraculously still-sticky peppermint. He nearly dislocated his shoulder to do it, but he managed to drag out the prize and toss it on his son’s lap.
George picked up the red Etch A Sketch and fiddled with its two worn white knobs. Jude thought back to when he was about George’s age, taking apart the same toy to see how it worked. It was filled with something not-entirely unlike sand, and the knobs moved a little stylus that wrote in the gray sand sticking to the clear plastic screen. The red plastic frame held it all together. I control the vertical, Jude thought. I control the horizontal. You could draw anything you liked with a little difficulty, and–with only a quick shake–you had a clean slate.
The instant George recognized the toy, he was placated. “Dad! Thanks!” The boy doodled happily.
Jennifer smiled at Jude, and he returned her love with a wink. She reached over and gave his shoulder another squeeze, and everything was all right. Sure, it was hot. Sure, his mom’s skeleton was waiting for them. But this was his family, and he loved them. They loved him. He might only be a fix-it man working out of a beat-up old truck, but they had everything they needed. It would be okay.
“How about I turn the radio back on?” Jennifer asked. George had drowned it out so completely with his screams she had turned it off.
Jude wiped the sweat off of his forehead. “That—that would be great.”
The knob clicked, and they listened in peace as Charlie Van Dyke, sitting in for Casey Kasem, guided them through numbers thirty-seven to twenty-three on the top forty countdown. The station was finally lost to static, just as it always was at this stage of the trip, right in the middle of Jennifer singing along with John Cougar Mellencamp about the eternal domination of authority. Nothing was found to take its place but white noise, so click, off went the radio.
The car in front of them drove at a steady fifty-five. That damned law, Jude thought. He agreed with that new Sammy Hagar song. Fifty-five was just too damned slow. He glanced over his shoulder and started to move, only to hear the sudden blaring of a horn. His cheeks burning with embarrassment, he cursed whoever had knocked off his side-view mirror in the supermarket parking lot. Who does that and just leaves? he wondered for what had to be the millionth time. He let the car, a red Fiero, pass. The license plate, ‘2HOT,’ mocked him as it zoomed by. The driver’s hand waved out of the tinted window, as if it say, “No hard feelings!”
For a few minutes, the only sounds were the wind and the tires on the road–and the scritch-scritch-scratch of George’s toy, of course. Jennifer broke the silence. “What do you think about the new school?”
Jude curled the toes in his left shoe. He noticed she avoided calling it the special school. “I dunno, Jennifer. They don’t even know for sure what’s wro—what the deal is with George. He could still adjust at the public school.”
“You know it’s not totally about that. It’s about how smart he is—the recruiter said he could be the next Einstein. The next whatshisname, the atom bomb guy. Oppenheimer.”
Jude grunted. “That’s exactly what the world needs.”
Jennifer ignored him. “And he isn’t adjusting.” She looked down to make sure that George wasn’t paying attention and leaned over toward Jude. She whispered, “Remember Linda, Joey’s mom?”
Jude nodded. “Sure. They’re the ones with the big house on Riverside Drive.”
“That’s right,” Jennifer said. “She told me that Joey—Joey said that every day in gym, anytime the coach left, the kids stick George behind the mats under the basketball goal. Then they take turns hitting him.”
“What!” Jude said it loudly enough that George looked up for a second before shaking his toy and starting a new drawing. Jude sighed and whispered, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I didn’t want you to get mad. I called the school, and they took care of it. I made sure.” She looked at Jude and frowned sweetly. “Jude, honey, you know he needs something different.”
Jude shook his head, but not in disagreement. “Okay, okay. We’ll think about it. They said they could get him a scholarship, right?” There was no other way they could afford it. Jude always had plenty of work, but the pay was never that high.
“Yep. A full ride.”
Jude grinned down at George. “He sure is a smart boy, isn’t he?”
“The smartest little boy ever,” Jennifer said in a singsong voice, patting George on the head. He did not seem to notice.
Jude smiled. Things are looking up, he thought. They were all healthy, and his one-man business kept them in the black, if only barely. He could fix anything given the inclination and half the parts. Heck, he could have fixed the AC if he’d just had some coolant. The truck was running fine despite the heat, lack of AC, and the missing side-view mirror. He patted the truck, silently affirming it. Good job. Just last us a little longer, okay? There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. 1984 was turning out to be a pretty good year, after all.
“Dad! Look!” George held up the drawing toy.
“What ’cha got there, Georgie?” Jude asked.
“I figgered it all out, Dad.” George pointed to a stick figure in the middle of the gray screen. “See? That’s the Me Now. I figured out how to be the Me Back Then.” He pointed to a stick figure on the right side of the frame. Jude glanced down for a second at the crude drawing, everything connected by a single unbroken line. It looked like the figure on the left was surrounded by numbers. It looked like actual math. George excelled at math, but this looked more complicated to Jude, maybe like calculus. But it was just lines on a toy. “When I grow up, I’ll go be the Me Back Then,” George said.
Jennifer smoothed George’s hair. “That’s great, sweetie. What will you do when you’re the ‘Me Back Then?’”
George beamed. “I’m going to be a fix-it man, just like Dad.” That made Jude grin, a mix of pride in himself and pride in his son. George added, “I’m going to fix everything.”
“Everything?” Jude asked.
“Everything.” George repeated. Jude and Jennifer smiled at each other. The exchange clearly meant, We really do have a cute kid, don’t we?
They came up on another slow car, this one going a full ten miles under the speed limit. Jude checked his mirror, glanced over his shoulder, put on his signal, and started to pass the slowpoke.
Honk! Jude pulled back into his lane and looked over his shoulder. It was a red sports car, a Fiero. It zoomed by, and a thin hand waved from the driver’s window. The car’s license plate, ‘2HOT,’ was just over-the-top enough that Jude took an immediate dislike to the owner.
“Wait a minute,” he said.
“Hmmm?” Jennifer looked up from her magazine.
“Didn’t that car just pass us a little while ago?”
“Honey, I have no idea. Maybe they got off the highway and got back on.”
Jude shrugged. “That’s probably it.” He checked his mirror again and passed the slow car.
“No,” he said, “something is weird. Could you turn down the air conditioner? It’s so cold in here my brain won’t work.”
Jennifer reached over and turned the knob down to medium. “How’s that?”
“It’s still weird. Something’s off. I can’t put my finger on it.”
Jennifer closed her book and looked at him, her eyes serious. “Honey, are you okay? Do we need to pull over?”
Jude shook his head. “No, no, I’ll be fine. It’s probably nothing.”
Jennifer shrugged. “It was sure nice of the boys to cover for you at the shop so we could visit your dad.”
Appreciating her attempt to keep things positive, Jude agreed. “Yup. There are times it’s nice to be the boss.”
But for some reason the subject made him uncomfortable, so he turned on the radio. A catchy tune came on that he hadn’t heard before. The car bounced along to the music. “Hey, that’s pretty good. Who is that?”
“It’s that new Janis Joplin song. They play it all the time. Jude, are you sure you’re okay?” Jennifer put her hand on his forehead. “I think you should pull over.”
Jude looked into the back seat of the car. George was intent on his finished drawing, tracing the lines with the nail of his index finger.
Jude suddenly felt dizzy, and the car swerved over the yellow line in the road. Jennifer grabbed the wheel. George was already crying hard by the time Jude pulled the car into the dirt beside the road. His stomach churning, he fumbled out of his seat belt and fought with the car door. He couldn’t find the handle.
Mercifully, the door popped open just in time for Jude to lean out and lose his breakfast.
Laying his head on the steering wheel, he became aware of Jennifer calling his name. “It’s okay, it’s okay,” he said, but his voice sounded far away, where someone was crying.
When he finally looked up, Jennifer was pulling out her cell phone. Putting his hands over hers, he said, “Honey, no need for the cavalry. It was probably just those eggs I had this morning.”
This did nothing to calm Jennifer. “Jude, you know you didn’t have eggs this morning. Your doctor said no more eggs until you get your cholesterol down. I’m calling him right now.”
“No, no, no, it’s fine. Let’s just sit here for a minute, and I’ll be fine. Could you call my mom, tell her we’re going to be late.”
Jennifer did not answer.
“Jen—?” he asked, looking to the passenger seat. It was empty.
“Jen!” he yelled. That set off George again. He yelled bloody-murder from the back seat, his arms thrashing.
“Shhhhh, Georgie, it’s okay,” Jude said, trying to be soothing. Why had he started yelling? He knew it always set George off. It had for years. Ever since his wife—
“Jen?” he said again, not sure why he should be asking for her again after so many years.
“What?” she answered.
Jude’s eyes bugged out as he looked at his wife. She looked worried. “Honey? Are you ready to get going again?”
“No. Something is wrong. Call the doctor.”
Jennifer laughed. “‘Call the doctor?’ Sure, let me just pull out my magic phone and I’ll have him come right over.”
“Just a minute ago. You said—” But what had she said? he wondered.
Turning around, Jude said, “Georgie, please stop yelling. Honey, could you—” But, of course, there was no one else there to help. George was yelling so hard that he was going hoarse, and his face was turning bright red. Jude climbed out of the car. The light rain that had been building overhead all day finally started to fall. When it rains on a sunny day, that’s when the devil beats his wife, Jude thought. That was what his mom used to always say, when she was alive. He went to the back door, trying to think ahead to how he was going to sooth George, but the crying stopped as his hand touched the handle.
Jude opened the door into an empty back seat.
He looked around. What am I doing here? he thought. Why am I driving an empty car in the middle of nowhere? He looked around, but there was not another car in sight, and he could see for miles. Threatening clouds were building up to the west. He could not even see the damn road he had been driving on.
“Jude,” a woman’s voice called from inside the car. He ducked back inside but it was empty. There was nothing in the car but fast food bags and a toy in the back seat. What’s that doing in there? he wondered.
He took the Etch A Sketch from the back seat and looked at two stick figures. One was surrounded with numbers and symbols and letters. Jude’s eyes stung from the wind.
“I’ll fix it,” he said, and started to shake the toy. But there was nothing there to shake. The car was gone, too. And then there was just an empty stretch of ground.