A Short Story on the Website of
the Red Dirt Writers Society

by Ryan McKinley (Oct 2011)


The car hums smoothly on the hot road, a small comfort. It is the only possession I kept from my divorce, but at least it runs well. The drive to my father’s home is a long one, and memories of my failed marriage mix in with the issues I have from my youth. Self pity mixes with boredom I realize as I begin to count the stripes in the road. Soon I am creating fictional conversations about the encounter that awaits me at the end of my drive. To push back the anxiety I begin to itemize the ever growing count of bug smears on the windscreen. I turn on the wipers in a vain effort to clear their smashed bodies off the window, but their splattered guts are now just smears larger smears.

I am fully overwhelmed with memories, and the reflections of my past become more depressing as the odometer tallies up the miles. I can’t seem to avoid the dark thoughts that are filling my head, and so I give myself over to them completely.

 My father loved.

My father loved women.

My father loved women more than me.

 The list of names is too long to remember, though I’m sure dad would gladly provide a number. My own memory of his conquests faded years ago, leaving room only for the ones he married. I have known five; I am driving to meet Number Six.

Dad’s first marriage lasted the longest, nine years. “My first love,” he used to say. The first to leave. She had an old-fashioned name, Clementine, and he’d sing every time he spoke to me of her. Once I asked why she left. He only sighed and offered, “Life and love are long roads. She was just tired of loving, or living.”

Number Two stayed for just over a year. He said that he had moved too quickly with her, that he shouldn’t have married her so soon after his divorce. I never met these women; they were gone before I arrived.

Mom was Number Three. They met at my father’s office. He was a lawyer, the only one. Mom was his secretary. She felt sorry for him after his second divorce. A shared meal after work one day became a weekend wedding in Nevada. I showed up two years later.

We lived a perfect life: week-long vacations to the mountains, picnics on Saturdays, a home, a dog and a picket fence. Mornings and evenings were spent together over breakfast before school, and dinner after work. One morning when I was seven, breakfast wasn’t there and neither was my mother. I entered my parent’s bedroom, my father sobbing as he sat on mom’s empty side of the bed. She had died during the night—an aneurism. No pain. No suffering. No goodbye.

The years that followed my mother’s death were quiet. Dad made me breakfast, which I then ate alone. I made my own dinner. Every now and then he would take me out to dinner on Monday night, more than likely a guilty apology for the note he had left on the counter the previous Friday after school. It usually read something like: “Trial this weekend. Won’t be home until Sunday night. Here’s a $20—see a movie tomorrow and let out the dog.” Once or twice I followed his suggestion and saw the movie. I didn’t like to go by myself, and eventually I just put the money in my piggy bank. I had figured out on my own that Dad was working on the weekends because we needed the money, so a false sense of guilt prevented me from spending what I perceived as a generous sacrifice of scarce cash on Dad’s part. Once I learned where he was really going—not to court but to the bars—I smashed my piggy bank with a brick, pocketed the money, and bought a new bike. I rode that bike to the movies every Saturday for two years.

When I was 13 he married Number Four. I do not remember her name, only that she and Dad showed up to the house on a Saturday, rings on their fingers, and sent me to my friend’s house to spend the night. Shortly after she arrived, the old wagon I used to haul aluminum cans to the recycler was hit by car. A drunk driver jumped the curb and narrowly missed hitting me. It ruined the wagon. When I told the story to my father and Number Four, I was barely able to contain the tears. He was more upset about the lost wagon than my well-being. “That was a perfectly good wagon,” he had said. “You may have a brother or sister coming soon that would have enjoyed it.” Number Four laughed at the suggestion.

Number Four never woke up before noon, never called me by name, and one day after going out for milk and bananas, she never came back.

Number Five was an airline stewardess. Diane. She was kind but never around. When she was in town we felt like a family. When she was away on a flight Dad didn’t disappear on the weekends, but you would think that I had. He would sit in a chair, stare at the television and wait for Diane to call in after she’d landed in New York or Detroit or Saint Paul. My senior year in high school I overheard them arguing. He wanted her to quit the airline and spend more time at home. She wanted more time to herself when she was not working. She packed her bags while my father begged her to stay, weeping. She sent a co-worker the next day to collect the rest of her things. When I graduated from high school a month later, she sent me a card with $500 for college. I spent the money on a trip to Mexico instead.

My memories, sad as they are, have brought me to within five minutes of meeting Number Six. After ten years, the directions home come automatically though the motivation to use them does not. During my absence I have called dad three times and visited him once. On all three occasions, we spoke of work, politics, and how much longer the house can go before it would need a new roof/coat of paint/carpet.

An empty gas tank and a hungry gut prompt me to pull into a service station. I do not plan on being with my father long enough to share a meal. If I show up with an appetite, my plan may fail, so I decide to have a corndog and a bottle of soda while the tank fills. I recognize the attendant as an old friend from school. We laugh about the past and then move to my reasons for returning. The tank is full and paid for, but I am more than happy to stall.

“My father wrote and asked me to visit,” I explain.

“Who writes anymore?” she asks.

“Pretty old fashioned, huh?” I explain. “He’s never asked me to visit before.”

“Is he sick?” she asks.

“Oh, no. He’s remarried.”

“That’s right,” the clerk responds. “It’s quite a scandal.”

My interest is piqued. I ask, “How so?”

“She’s twenty-five,” the clerk answers. I smile at the thought of my 74 year-old father with such a young woman, and shake my head.

“What’s wrong with her?” I ask. “Is she sick? Or ugly?”

“Why do you say that?”

“After over thirty years of making women in this town miserable, who in their right mind would marry my dad? There must be something wrong with her.”

My ex-schoolmate pauses for a moment and ponders my statement. She rattles the coins in the “Take-A-Penny” jar, thinking. Her eyebrow rises. “Well, she’s new in town?”

I call Dad from my cell phone as I walk back to my car and start the engine. I leave the car in park, and seeing the dirty windows, I grab a squeegee and scrub the smeared remains from my trip home off the windshield. As I lift my window wiper blades to clean under them, I lie to my father about a last minute meeting, apologize, and offer to send a wedding card.

That’s a shame,” he says. “Madison really wanted to meet you.”

“I’m sure she did,” I say as I cancel the phone call and replace the squeegee into its blue bath. I enter the car and pull onto the exit leading away from town. The dusty road in my car’s rear-view mirror grows longer as Number Six’s name already begins to fade from my memory.

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Revised October 2011.