w Larry Smith, Fiction: Issue 48 - The Cortland Review
August 2010

Larry Smith


Larry Smith is a retired professor of humanities from BGSU Firelands College in Ohio where he directs Bottom Dog Press publications. His most recent book is the novel The Long River Home (2009) in the Working Lives Fiction Series from Bottom Dog Press.

Night Driving

"Hey, Bonnie, let's just keep drivin.' Move on through this night, drive all the way to Chicago...get drunk in some roadside bar, sleep in some highway motel. What do you say?" I say this to her while staring straight ahead through the windshield at the road stretching out in the headlights. I got the radio goin' playin' old Bo Diddley tunes while we're drivin' home from her folks into the lake wind.

"Leroy," she says in this mother or teacher way of hers now.

"Yes, Bonnie Sue," I answer cute like, so's I don't step into her trap.

"Look around in the back seat," she says. "What do you see?"

And without looking, I know the answer. "Why, it's baby Alyssa," like that's supposed to be the answer to everything in this life.

"Correcto!" she mocks me for the second time, then adds, "We have a baby now, you know?"

And I answer quick, "Well, hell, she's invited. We can all take this wild road trip into the night."

No answer as we keep speeding along toward our little house along the lake. It's a summer cottage we rent from Bonnie's folks, winterized of course, but each room about the size of some rich guy's walk-in closet. I know this 'cause I set plasterboard for Harley's Construction during the days, work night watchman at the community college three times a week. Pays the bills and buys gasoline for this old gas guzzler. '96 Mercury Gran Marquis, got it from some old guy in the country. Saw it sittin' out on Darrow Road in the weeds, sign flappin' in the breeze—"$2,500... 100,000 miles." Got her for $2,000. Nicest interior of any car I ever owned. Could sleep in it easy.

Anyway, I say back, "No, Bonnie, I really mean it. I want to just keep on drivin' into the night, cut into this cool September air like a diesel engine."

That just lays there, then she touches my bare arm, my shirt sleeve I already rolled up around my shoulder playing like old James Dean in that Rebel movie, and she says it short, "Well, Mr. Hotrod Wonder, you just let me and baby Alyssa out on the front porch then. 'Cause we sure as hell ain't taking no crazy road trip with you."

Now I know right away she means it, but I do too, darn it all. I got the road before me—plaster dust, back ache, and lonely nights at my behind.

"I'll do just that," I say shortly and take the Route 61 exit on the right. "Only..." I say one last time, "I want you, Babe, to ride with me...like we used to, you know...before jobs and babies and bills become our life."

She don't even look my way, and I know it's all up to me, yet right now I'm listenin' to the night and feeling the engine of this old beater pulling me onward.

I leave her and baby Alyssa in her car seat on the front porch, and yes, damn it, I drive off west towards Chicago. Twenty minutes and I'm on the Ohio Turnpike clipping off the miles...got a twenty and a credit card in my wallet, though we're a payment behind. Got an old time rock-n-roll station on the radio, and I turn up old Chuck Berry and stop thinking for the next five miles. Then Muddy Waters comes on, and I'm good for another five. It goes on like that passing dark fields and stray farms, UPS and FED-EX trucks running on the left and right, till I'm in Toledo.

Bonnie's probably putting the baby in her crib and will be talking on the cell phone with her mom, telling her what an ass she thinks I am. Her mom won't argue that, though my mom would if she was still alive. Ah, I'm thinking again, I say to myself and lay my foot down harder on the gas pedal. This car is so tight, it's like ridin' in a cabin on AmTrak, speeding through the night, only my window is half down 'cause the AC died back in June. Ah, taking in night air, swallowing those marker lines like a magic eraser. Bonnie used to love this, be laughin' beside me here, yellin' "Go for it, man...Go for it!...Woowee!" No shit, she was a wild woman then, 'fore she, or I mean, we got pregnant.

Hey, looka there...gas is down to $2.25 a gallon...gonna get off and get some, make the trip worthwhile already. Yep, station's open, and they have beer...

Lady sells it to me looks real sad, like she wants to do something with her life too, maybe jump in the car with me and ride, ride, ride.

I shouldn't drink this stuff and drive. I know that. Hell, I got 2 DUI's already from before the baby. But this night is special...Chicago on the horizon...300 miles—I can do that.

Night's the same everywhere, you know, when you drive. You just aim and hold steady, feel the miles sliding by and under you. Good beer, good car, good roads. What more could you ask for? When I get there, gonna get me a room in some Motel 6 or somethin', just pass out watchin' sex movies—put it all on the card. By the time Bonnie sees it, it'll all be in the past.

Ah, how I love the night. Train's whistlin' beyond the bluff there, moving west to Chicago with me. AmTrak gray—red and blue streak lines. I rode it once to Chi-Town when I was a kid visiting my dad. My old man meets me at the station, hands me a grocery bag with a pair of sneakers inside. I figure he bought them on the street or lifted them from some store. His sorry ass always bound for trouble. "I hope those fit," he says, "I didn't know your size." And how could he? Me and my brother, we'd see him maybe once a year, if that. Them shoes—they didn't fit—but I stuffed them with packing and wore them a month till the soles come loose and peeled off. His sorry ass making me sadder every time. Maybe he was doin' me a favor stayin' away like that, like he knows he wasn't good for nothin'. I finally threw them shoes in a dumpster. I couldn't even talk about it for days.

I should stop, get some coffee. All of a sudden I'm feelin' tired. I'd like to get off of the Thruway and see some small towns—diners and people out walking the streets, but I'll never make Chicago tonight if I do that. Got to take the road as it goes. What's that line? "Got to be the goin', not the getting there that's good." Old Harry Chapin song lyric—man, that guy could write good songs that tell a story, get people's lives into them. That "Taxi" song of his was one of the best: "And me, I'm flyin' in my taxi,/ takin' tips and gettin' stoned/...such a long long time ago."

Well, here's a stop just off the Thruway. I'll stop there and get some good coffee—not that Starbuck's mud either—what I really want is some Speedway Dark Roast. Pull up here and see what they got for me.

Good to get out and walk a while. Well, hey, look at that big roller—sixteen wheeler all lit up—maybe that's what I'm bound to do, get my trucker's license and haul a big rig all over the place—everywhere and back.

I pick up a pack of Marlboros, first pack I bought in two years, but hey tonight is special. Can't smoke them here at the counter, but I'll light up on the road. Ah, now that's a real cup of coffee—stir a little cream in it, dark and delicious like Beyonce. Damn that woman is fine.

"Hey, buddy, hand me the sugar would ya," this guy says, so I do.

"Hey," I say back, "how you go about gettin' a rig like that?"

"You talkin' to me?"

"Yeah, I'm thinkin' about becoming a trucker...live the road life...what's it take?"

This guy gives me the once over, says, "Well, fella, you know I been on that road for thirty-five years, and I can tell you it's a long haul. Away from your family all week, try to get home on weekends. You got any kids?"

"Yes sir, I do have a pretty little daughter."

And he grins and looks me in the eye, "Well, do yourself a favor and find work closer to home or you'll miss her life."

"I know, I hear ya, but, listen, I love the open road, see—just the mad wonder of drivin' into the night."

He lets out this deep sigh, "Well, son, I knowed it too and done it, and I'm tellin' you it ain't easy. Divorced three times—takes a special woman to put up with that kinda life. Got four kids spread out somewhere across Indiana...hardly see a one of them for more than an hour or two." He picks up his heavy cup of coffee, "Think her over. That's all I'm sayin'."

"I hear you."

"Son," he says, leaning my way, "that open road stuff soon fades into the pain in your legs and down your back, the burning in your eyes you got to ignore to keep going. And listen here, the whores you meet on the road as soon kill you and sell your organs."

"Holy shit, man! Why you tellin' me all of this?"

"I don't know. Maybe it's that gleam in your eyes or the wild hair you got from driving in the wind. But you remind me of someone thirty-five years ago had that same wild dream to drive all the roads in this big country forever."

"Yeah, well you got that part right. I love the feel of drivin' the road. You know what I'm talkin' about, I know you do."

He sits there lookin' at his big old hands wrapped round his cup of black coffee. Then he looks up at me and nods. "I do, son. I can't deny it," and then he takes hold of my forearm hard like he's about to lift something heavy, and he rises to look me right in my face. He bites off these words, "Listen, just consider what you trade for it," and he passes me and is gone 'fore I can say another word. Just like that. And I'm left sittin' there staring at my own cup of coffee, my own hard workin' hands, when I swear I see the face of baby Alyssa come before me and I start shakin' in my seat there at the counter till I get up and walk to the men's room. Inside is just me leanin' on the sink and some fella fartin' in the toilet stall. Then something comes over me, so's I look down at the gritty tile floor, feel the hard cold porcelain, and turn away from my reflection in the mirror.

When I head out to Chicago again, it is raining, a light drizzle covers everything, and I can watch the windshield wipers flapping like tiny arms. What does that old trucker know about my life, a guy worn down like an old tool. He played his cards, now I'm playin' mine. Got miles to go before I sleep, miles to go into the sweet, deep blackness of this night.

It's about four in the morning when I crawl into bed alongside of Bonnie Sue in her thin nightgown. I try not to wake her, just lie here in my underwear breathing kinda hard from the road and all, till I feel her arm go round me softlike, so's I know she's welcoming me home. I sleep like that for an hour, just us and the baby softly breathing, till I rise at five thirty and head on into work.



Larry Smith: Fiction
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