By E. J. Nash
According to my father, suffering was an essential ingredient to a successful road trip. If everything went hunky-dory, then it wasn’t a life lesson. “No one learns anything when things go well,” he said twenty minutes before we were stranded on the side of the highway. “You only learn when things go to hell.”
“We’re all going to hell anyways,” muttered my mother. She was missing Zumba class for this.
I was jealous of my classmates. During their road trips, they had gas station snacks and movies playing from the drop-down TV built into the ceiling of their parents’ SUV. My brother and I languished in the backseat of a Ford Pinto that should have been laid to rest in the eighties. Historically, the Pinto had the habit of exploding into a fiery conflagration. Most people feared this. I prayed for it.
Perhaps the journey would have been more manageable if we had a shiny destination: a water park, the beach, a cottage. Instead, we would be visiting my grandmother, who, despite my mother’s worst intentions, remained alive.
“Are we close?” Jason asked. My brother didn’t have any sense of time. We’d only left the house an hour ago.
“Kiddo,” Dad said to him. “Why don’t you help your sister sort the matches?”
Our car was stocked with survival kits that would keep us alive in the case of an earthquake, volcano explosion, locust swarm, or any other calamity that humanity had faced. Water purification tablets, bandages, a hand-crank radio, batteries, mosquito nets, coats certified for weather in the Arctic—these were all bundled into bags in the trunk.
“Kids aren’t supposed to play with fire,” I said as I took out the packs of matches that Dad had purchased yesterday. A week earlier he’d taken me and Jason to a scrubby field, where he taught us to build a fire by using Doritos as kindling. We couldn’t get the fire to catch, so we’d ended up burning through matches. Now we had to replace the lost matches in our survival kits.
“I like fire!” Jason said, which was worrying for a five-year-old.
“No, you don’t,” Mom said. “You like Paw Patrol.”
“I like Paw Patrol and fire!” Jason chirped.
Jason decided to eat the matches instead of helping to sort them, so I snatched them out of his mouth and finished my task quickly. Fifteen minutes before we got stuck on the side of the road, Dad quizzed us on survival strategies.
“What do you do if you’re lost in the woods?” he asked.
“Stay with the car,” I said, reciting what he had taught me.
“That’s if you’re older. You’re ten, last time I checked. You don’t have a car. You’re lost in the woods, and it’s dark, and the wolves are going to eat you. What do you do?”
“Jesus Christ, John,” Mom said.
“What do you do?” Dad asked again.
“Stay in one place, preferably near moving water. If I have a cellphone, I can try to send a text or call someone. Scream for help as often as I can. If there’s wolves, stand tall and look scary.”
Dad gave me a thumbs up in the rear-view mirror. “That’s my girl.”
Five minutes before we limped off the highway, Mom sighed as she checked her phone. “I don’t know why we’re doing this, John. Your mother hates me.”
Dad rolled his eyes. “She doesn’t hate you. She doesn’t understand you. That’s why we’re going, so that you can get to know each other better.”
Grandma lived in a shack with no running water and electricity that only worked in the daytime. This was marketed to me and Jason as an “adventure.” I just wanted Internet access.
Right as I was about to complain about the lack of Wi-Fi, the car slowed and sputtered. “What’s this?” Dad said. Most people would panic. There was excitement in his voice.
He hit the emergency flashers on the car as we stuttered to a stop on the side of the highway. Other cars on the highway flashed by in a blurry rush.
Dad dragged us out of our seats and made us watch as he did a review of the engine, the brakes, and the tires. Jason was more interested in eating the dandelions that grew in the nearby gully. For the better part of an hour, Dad looked over the car as if he were a surgeon, and the car was his patient.
“Here’s the problem, kid,” he said, slapping me on my back. “It’s the fuel gauge. It says we’re fine, but we’re running on empty.”
We called a tow truck to bring us more gas. As we waited, Dad drifted over to Jason and the dandelions, and Mom and I sat on uncomfortable roots underneath a tree that offered paltry shade.
I ripped up handfuls of grass and started a big pile near my feet. The longer I sat there, the more my mountain grew. In every car that sped by, I imagined kids with their snacks and DVDs and fuel gauges that weren’t broken.
But they didn’t have my father. They didn’t know what to do when they were stranded or when the wolves came. If I was chased by bees or if the power went out or if I ate a funky mushroom, I would always know what to do.
Mom sensed my thoughts. “It’s how he shows love,” she sighed. “He wants us to live. God help us all.”
We played Go Fish on the side of the highway with the cards Dad kept in the glove box. We ate the emergency rations when we were hungry. We even used the hand-crank radio to find what Dad referred to as “sweet tunes.” By the time the tow truck arrived, it was almost a party. The wolves never arrived.
I loved the dry humor in this story. Great dialogue. Dad was too real. Lots of truth. Excellent!
Great family dynamics. Love the parents’ dialogue.
Dad didn’t fill the tank! But he’s got a good family backing him. Loved this story!
Excellent story from start to finish. Really reveals the relationship between the father and his family.
Reminds me of a road trip once taken.. Well done!!
I thoroughly enjoyed this, and thank God the car didn’t explode in flames as I was half expecting. Nicely done.
A very good read!
This is so funny! I loved it.
Great character-building. I enjoyed your story.
I laughed out loud in several places. I went for the entire ride thanks to your great writing! A really fine piece.
Highway Wolves, lets the reader know, if we have a smooth
journey than there is nothing learned, we all want it easy
but taking a wrong turn and falling down may show the most
beautiful reflection of the sun in a puddle we may have not noticed
I love this. Made me smile.