That Highway Sound
My aunt looks up at the low, gray sky swirling across the interstate, says to hurry our asses back into the convenience store. My brother Freddy (Walkman) and my sister Annette (Sweet Valley High #23) pay no mind —maybe because we’ve only met her twice before our dad’s funeral, maybe because this cross-country drive is bullshit, maybe because we don’t want to live in a split level in Bangor, Maine. But Aunt Doris grabs their bony arms like an angry gym teacher, whisks them across the macadam. Already sprawled in the passenger’s seat, I watch the sky thicken and drop. Pick-ups, trailer trucks, a Harley-Davidson motorcycle all slide off the exit a dozen miles west of Tulsa, Oklahoma. In the distance, a dark thread of sky teases down toward the roofline of a midrise hotel. A siren pierces the afternoon.
Other kids, other parents hop from their cars, rush for the doors of the Jiffy Trip. Dust devils whip litter through the lot. The flag above the gas pumps blows straight as a ruler. I watch tumbleweeds shoot past my aunt’s Toyota. Splashes of rain slap its windshield, pop off its sea blue hood. When I finally shoulder the passenger door open into the wind, there’s nothing to smell but ozone. Freddy and Annette huddle with Aunt Doris in the store near the ice cream cooler. Aunt Doris is frantic, scanning the parking lot. When she catches sight of me still messing by the car, she tries to elbow her way through the crowd, but the store is jammed tight with people and she can’t really move. I slowly let go of the door of the Corolla. The wind shuts it with a bang. I start toward the center of the blacktop lot to feel the heavy air brush my body like a hand, let it lift me into the sky green as a lawn.
When I was a young boy growing up in a steel town preoccupied with collapsing in on itself, I wanted to shoot my father with a .22 caliber rifle. He had given me the single shot bolt action rifle for my tenth birthday and for many nights afterward I fantasized about striding into his bedroom in the middle of the night and pushing the barrel flush against his chest and pulling the trigger.
In these imaginings I would give some impassioned, self-justifying speech right before squeezing the trigger and seeing the muzzle flash and hearing the crack of the rimfire cartridge propelled down the blued barrel. My father, a former infantryman in the Marine Corps, would have to listen to these speeches because he would be too scared to move. In my pre-assassination screeds, I would trumpet my secret strength, extol my individuality and rant about how I wasn’t going to take any more of his beatings.
Some mornings after nights like this I would ride in my father’s secondhand car down to the unemployment office. My father and his buddies, most of whom were also laid off from the town’s steel mills or the bituminous mines, referred to these trips as “going to town.”
Once, in the afternoon, as a boy growing up in a steel town pretty far gone irrevocably to shit, I attempted to stab an uncle of mine to death with an eight-inch fish filleting knife. My uncle was a large, bushy-bearded man laid off from his job as a railcar welder. I walked in on him beating my grandmother with a leather belt. She had fallen to her knees in the eat-in kitchen of her frame house. One of her brown hands gripped the Formica corner of the tabletop. She held her other hand above her head, elbow bent at an acute angle. My uncle’s voice filled the room like whiskey can fill a glass. My grandmother’s breath was all gasps. Tears streamed from her eyes. She pleaded, “Stop, Eddie. Oh, please, stop.”
Oblivious to anything but his own rage, my uncle raised the belt and brought it down again. I watched this happen once, then twice. The third time he brought the belt above his head I picked up the fillet knife. I ran toward my uncle, cursing him, fillet knife held out in front of me like a sword. My uncle turned. With the back of his hand, he knocked me sprawling. When my father came in from parking the car, he put my uncle in a wrestling hold, called the volunteer ambulance service.
What I’m trying to bring home to you is this: even though the biggest part of me feels like these things happened in another lifetime, happened—almost—to someone else, that’s never going to be the important part. Day or night, I can be inside out with the need to twist this darkness into some trompe l’oieil brand of virtue, into a mask I can wear like grace.
When my Uncle Edwin died suddenly, it took no small amount of effort for my father and other uncles to get him laid out in the courthouse down on Center Avenue in the heat of late July. But it wasn’t his backroom deals smelling of bribery and leaving him in semi-disgrace that bothered us at the end. It wasn’t that his heart gave out in the frame house of his mistress in Quecreek or that he was reputed to be in the pocket of the frackers from North Texas since a pair of Superbowl tickets magically appeared the year the Steelers womped the Cardinals. When we saw the National Guard troops in their wrinkly camouflage exit the halftrack and make for the hearse that hauled Edwin’s spindly body up from Indian Lake, we forgot about his years of shady doings. His brusque manner and grasping outside children were all but erased. Watching his coffin hoisted up the tiered marble steps and borne between the granite columns, under the semi-circle of portico and through the big double doors into the rotunda, we reveled, my cousins and me, in the sense that we were, at least by proxy, somebodies. That since our great-grandfather had been clubbed senseless on the steps of the company store during the ’46 coal strike, we had made progress enough for this. We listened as our shoes clicked across the marble floor in a haughty rhythm, felt our backs straighten, our faces suitably severe as we waited for the few mourners who would gather.
When the family of pasty English tourists fluttered through security, we wondered that they had gone so far astray from the memorial at Shanksville. Alien accents echoing off the walls, they chittered to each other, gawking at the bearded portraits of the 19th century judges, examining the mounted quilts, the framed treaty between the settlers and the Indians. Occupied with the bust of General Braddock near the door, they ignored Uncle Edwin completely until the boy pointed and whispered something to his wilting mother. The woman, white as flour—where she was not red as an apple—told her son not to be frightened, that my Uncle Edwin was just another curiosity, an exhibit made, likely, of wax. “After all,” she told him, “They wouldn’t just leave a body here. Not even Americans would do that.”
Damian Dressick is the author of the story collection Fables of the Deconstruction (forthcoming CLASH Books 2020). His stories and essays have appeared in more than fifty literary journals and anthologies, including W.W. Norton’s New Micro,failbetter.com, Cutbank, New Orleans Review, Hippocampus, Smokelong Quarterly and New World Writing. A Blue Mountain Residency Fellow, he holds a PhD in creative writing from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. Damian teaches at Clarion University.