I’m behind the wheel of my dad’s 1987 Bronco. It’s his weekend, and he’s decided that it’s time I learn to drive. I am eight years old, and it’s the middle of the night and the rain comes down in hard, heavy sheets. He’s drunk like he is on most of our weekends, a secret I keep from Mom because for four days a month he is there with me and me with him. He is slumped in the passenger seat, his breath coming in quick bursts and, in the glare of the porch lamp, his face shines. He is a tall man, and his knees are pressed hard into the dashboard as he tries to move the seat back; it’s stuck and he kicks the floorboard.
“Well, c’mon now, AJ,” he says. “Turn ‘er over.”
I sit on the edge of the seat, holding the steering wheel tight so I can see. I am tall for my age, taller than any of the boys in my class, but not that tall, and he hasn’t pushed the seat forward for me. His heavy fists rest in his lap, fingers curled around the glass neck of a bottle of Burnett’s Flavored Vodka. He’s lost the cap somewhere between the house and car, and now the car smells like peppermints and nail polish.
He raises his free hand in the dark and I turn the ignition like I’ve seen him do. I hold it for a second too long and the engine screeches angrily. My hands are shaking as I scoot off the seat.
“Hold your foot on the brake,” he says. He reaches between us and tugs the gear shift down three notches. “Let up now.”
I do and the car rolls forward. “Shit, fuck, brake,” he says. I jam my foot on the brake again as the Bronco’s cattle guard butts up against the gray lattice that lines the porch. He grunts and slams the gear up one notch. I feel us settle into reverse. “Lights and wipers.”
“Turn the lights and wipers. You wanna get us killed?”
So many knobs and switches. I pull the biggest one first because it has a headlight drawn on it and the lights flash on. Another knob dims the dash-light, a button turns on the flashers. “Dad?” I need him to show me, but he just runs his thumb around the rim of his bottle. I’m afraid of hitting the wrong button again, but I feel along the turn signal until I find the knob at the end. I turn it until the wipers swipe frantically across the cracked windshield. I’m relieved. “Now?”
“That’s my girl,” he says. His head sort of wobbles as he turns to look out the rear windshield. “You’re clear. Bring her back slow.”
I do. He slaps me on the shoulder; it catches me and I squeak. “Easy stuff. Now it’s automatic, all you gotta do it put it in drive.” I can’t quite get the gear to move down until I use both hands and he laughs at that, taking a drink. “Cooking with gas now, huh.”
It takes me a few tries with the gas pedal. First too hard, then too soft, stop-starting past his little gray house with the gray lattice. The Bronco’s wide tires crunch over the gravel drive at the end of his plot, and I get the car ambling toward the county road. It reminds me of riding the Go-Karts, the way you jolt at first. I’m glad there’s no one around to see us. For as long as I can remember, he’s lived out here in the sticks, with the coyotes and the rusted-out oil rigs, and every season the drive washes out until it’s just two deep grooves zig-zagging down the hill. Mom probably hated it out here.
I am afraid to do anything but look straight ahead, toes extended to press the pedals. The headlights bounce as the Bronco slides into the grooves in the road like marbles on a track. A pair of bright eyes flash in the ditch. I try to get a glimpse of my dad’s face. I need him to talk to me. He is a talker, and his quiet makes me doubtful. When he doesn’t talk, Mom says you can see the gears working, but I only see his long hair unraveled, a loose smile on his face. His white teeth shine in the dark as he twists the knob on the radio. A country song, a car dealership commercial, a radio preacher: bits and pieces of sound scramble into one another. He hums something.
“You’re doing great, kiddo,” he says. “A regular Richard Petty, huh.”
“Nah, the King,” he says. He clicks his tongue. “Only the greatest NASCAR driver of all time. Shoot, girl, I thought I raised you better.”
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“Oh, c’mon,” he says. In front of us, the headlights reflect off the T sign at the end of the drive. The sign’s dotted with holes from buckshot. “You’re gonna wanna stop right here, we’re making a left.”
I pump the brakes, bringing us to a hard stop. He reaches over me and flips the blinker. “That way.” The blinker is loud, adding a ticking rhythm to the static coming through the radio. Faintly, a Spanish song warbles in and out.
“Where’re we going?” Beyond the headlights is nothing but darkness and the far-away flicker of the wind turbines’ red safety lights. In the daytime, the turbines look like white stick-figure giants standing on the plains, watching, occasionally spinning their arms, but at night they’re invisible but for those mean red eyes. My dad calls them sentinels, which Mom said means they keep watch.
“That way,” he says. “Getting there’s half the fun. Your mama used to say that. C’mon, AJ, just take the turn slowlike.
Here at the bottom of the hill, the wind whips around the Bronco, whistling through the frame. The wet asphalt looks slick under the headlights. Cold blooms in my stomach and flowers up to my shoulders.
The turbines wink at me. “I’m scared,” I say.
“Ain’t no fear out there,” he says. He takes a drink from his bottle and smacks his lips. “You know Richard Petty got hisself in a bad one on his last ride--his car was on fire and he, what did he do? He climbed out the damn window.” He laughs and drinks again. Some of the vodka spills down his chin. “You got nothing to worry about, kiddo. I’ll drag you out the window myself. Remember now, no power steering on this old boat, so make sure you turn that wheel.”
I take a deep, shaky breath and let off the brake, letting the Bronco roll onto the county road. He’s right about the steering. I can feel the car resisting, and I use my weight to pull it out. For a couple seconds my foot isn’t even on the pedal. I steer us onto the road, give it a little gas, and he whoops. “I did it,” I say.
He bobs his head. “Yeah, yeah, you did,” he says. He points. “Take the center lane. These tires were expensive.”
“What if somebody comes the other way?”
“You’d see their lights first.”
“Even in the rain?” My chest feels cold again.
“You’d see their lights first, AJ.”
I do as he says, and press the gas until we’re riding smooth at 30 MPH. It feels faster, like the downswing on the spider ride at the carnival.
The radio whines as he flips it to an oldies station, to a song I recognize off one of his records. “This is a good one,” he says. His words melt into one another and he fumbles in his pockets, probably looking for his smokes. “Ophelia,” he sings, “Where have you gone, bap bap bada bap.” He taps the horn parts out on his knees, and when I look at him, his eyes are closed.
“Should I go faster?” I say. Part of me wants him to say yes, yes, I should go faster, I should press the gas until we’re both slung back in our seats like how they show people in a plane taking off on television.
He keeps tapping out the song. “You’re good.”
“What about when we get to the highway?”
“Speed limit’s 55.” He says it like it’s nothing and then laughs loudly, a full-on HaHaHa at me.
I grin, too, though the idea of the highway and the semitrucks that constantly ran up and down it make me nervous. “I could do it. I could,” I say. I don’t mean it.
“Yeah, yeah, save it for the judge.” He lights a smoke and the smell of burning paper and tobacco covers the smell of the candied vodka. “Don’t go telling your mom about this, yeah?”
“Yeah, I won’t,” I say. I am a good secret keeper and my dad likes this about me. “Thick as thieves,” Mom says about us. I like the way it sounds, the soft and hard syllables together like that.
“I was about your age when my old man put me behind the wheel, you know that?” This is the language of his stories, the opening to whatever story he’s planning to spin. Mom calls them tall tales, tells me I should mind less than half of what he says, but the language is special, and it is another one of our secrets. “We were down at McAlester, down there for the prison rodeo—your mama never’d let me bring you to one. They’re a hoot, a real good time. Guess she didn’t want you hanging around no prison, huh.”
Outside the Bronco, it is so dark that the sides of the road seem to come up out of the blackness and spill over us like a covered bridge, like we’re shooting through a tunnel of night. The engines roars as we climb a hill, then soar down the other side. A radio jingle plays softly. I wait for him to go on. I don’t interrupt when he tells his stories. My silence, too, is a part of the language.
“It got late and my old man had me watching his buddy’s horse trailer so he and them could have a few—did you know he had me riding bulls before I could shave?” I did. “Bulls broke my damn nose more than once. Cain’t smell for shit now, huh. But this prison rodeo. It’s inside, right, like inside the gates, the barbed wire, and all that. They got guard towers and them guards don’t fuck around, right. You’re a holler away from Death Row and some of them cowboys’re on the schedule, too. But if you’re not a prison cowboy, you’re there to ride and get wild and maybe win some money.”
An owl swoops into the headlights and just barely misses the windshield. It makes my chest squeeze, but I try not to show it. My dad sucks his teeth in the passenger seat, cracks his window and pitches the burnt-out stub of his smoke. “Best hope that’s the only one we see tonight.” He’s done with the story, the gears in his head are far past it. He’s talking about the owl now, and how owls, like all things, come in threes, and with them comes something bad, something dark. How on the day his old man died, he woke up to three owls sitting pretty on a powerline, like they were waiting for him to see them. Old man dropped not an hour later. “Never can tell what’s it they want you to know, owls. Could be death an’ dying, could be a bum radiator cap,” he says. “All you’re supposed to know is it’s coming fast.”
He takes a drink, and I see his hand shake from the corner of my eye. I look straight ahead. If his hands get to shaking too bad, I’ll have to light his smokes for him. I think how that would work, driving and lighting smokes.
The rain lets up, the wipers squeaking across the windshield. I turn the knob until they slow down. I hear him shift in his seat. “It’s just one owl,” I say.
“Huh,” he says. He lights another smoke but he lights the wrong end and it smells like burnt hair and plastic all in one. He curses, pushes it out the window. He drinks. “Only one. Huh.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. I have said the wrong thing by saying anything at all, and I feel like this is what he wants me to say. “Dad? I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt you.”
He squeezes my knee and it makes me press the gas a little harder. The speedometer ticks up to 45 MPH. “I know you didn’t, kid,” he says, and his breath is sour. His head wobbles from side to side. “You got your mama in you,” he says. When he drinks, his drawl, usually a soft twang, sounds like a fiddle in a country song feels. “You cain’t be perfect.”
Not too far ahead, headlights tick up and down the highway. It’s a little two-lane highway, but it’s the easiest way to get between Mom’s house and my dad’s. About halfway between, there’s a Dairy Queen with a ball pit. I’m too old for the ball pit now, but we still meet there, me, my dad, and Mom, every other Friday unless the moon’s full. My dad doesn’t like to drive under a full moon; he says it’s bad luck. Mom says he’s superstitious, but she doesn’t push it. I didn’t see him for a month and half one year. “The moon’s getting in the way,” he said.
“Your mama,” he says, finally. He turns the radio knob again and settles on a country station playing an old Merle Haggard song. Another one of his favorites. “How’s she doing?”
Mom says not to talk about her to him. “Your father needs boundaries,” she says. “If he has anything to say,” she says, “he should ask me.” But he doesn’t.
“She’s okay,” I say. “Should I turn around?”
He rolls his window about halfway down and sits there, his hands in his lap, two fingers tracing the rim of the vodka bottle. I imagine for a second that the bottle is singing, but it’s just the wind whistling over his unbuckled seatbelt. The wind gusts and the belt snaps a few times. “There’s a road coming up. Right. Take it right. You’re gonna love this.”
“It’s late.” Last year he got me out of bed and we drove to Amarillo, Texas to eat at the Big Texan. He ate a 72 oz. steak in under an hour, but turns out it’s only free if you eat the salad, the bread, the potato, and all of it. He didn’t remember it the next day, but we had sundaes from Braum’s on the way back and I pinky-promised not to tell.
“It’ll be early soon,” he says. He leans his head back and flecks of rain splash off of him and onto my arm. It is cold and sharp against my skin. “You don’t like driving with your old man?”
“I like it fine,” I say. I wipe my arm on my pants and swerve the Bronco a little. My dad clicks his tongue at me. “Where’re we going, Dad?” He covers the top of my head with his left hand, tangles his fingers in my hair.
“Don’t worry about that,” he says, leaving his hand on my head. His hand is heavy but I don’t try to shake him off. “Here, turn here.”
If I live a hundred a years, I think, maybe then I’ll know the roads out here like he does. Roads without names, cow paths, shortcuts driven into unfenced pastures; I shiver and do as he says. It’s a dirt road, and the rain’s made it slick down to the red rock. I go slow, steering around puddles and potholes. Trees line the ditches on either side and the rain slides off them in heavy swats, pelting the Bronco’s steel roof. I know it’s steel because my dad told me when he put in the roll-cage. He wasn’t going to drive no aluminum can piece of shit, he said, only American steel.
“I used to take you out here on nights you were crying,” he says. He drinks. “A real screamer you were. Couldn’t keep you quiet for nothing. Ain’t been back through in a coon’s age.” He turns the radio volume all the way down. “You hear that?”
I listen. Water sloshes against tires, trees shake in the wind. Softly, uneven thumping beneath the sound of water on water on water. “What is that?”
“You hear it?” he says. “Do you?”
I brake to a stop when the headlights flicker over a dip in the road. The water looks deep there, twisting and turning in on itself. The thumping is louder, more distinct here.
“Well, go on.”
“Nah, just a little water, kid,” he says.
“It looks deep,” I say.
“No. What if we get stuck?”
He opens his door, swinging his bottle wide as he gets out. “Jesus fuck, AJ. Fucking shit.”
I dig my foot into the brake pedal. P is park, but the shifter won’t move for me. There’s a trick to it, probably, like that car Mom had that didn’t need a key. Mom could put the Bronco in park, I bet. My dad kicks at the headlight and misses, then brings his bottle down on it. The bottle shatters, and he drops the broken neck in the dirt. “Fuck,” he says. He looks up and grins. “Oops.” He raises his hands, blood shining brown in the yellow of the headlights. “You hear that, AJ? Do you? Bullfrogs, ya know ya used to love it here.”
I want to get out of the car and go to him. There’s probably an emergency break but I can’t see it in the dark and I don’t even know what to look for. If he walks beyond the headlights, I won’t be able to find him. I can’t breathe, my throat closed up tight. I bite the inside of my cheek hard to keep my chin from quivering. He walks ahead into the dip, his hair wet and covering his face, his arms out wide and open. The water is up to his knees, but he keeps walking, bringing down the rain. It’s like they hear him, the bullfrogs, and they croak louder and louder until I can feel them in my chest. Here and there one hops out of the water before splashing back beneath the surface. There must be thousands of them all around me, hunkered down in the wet dark, talking to one another, telling secrets.
My dad yells something, but it’s swallowed by the bullfrogs and echoed back in a chorus.
About the Author: Savannah Johnston is an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. She completed her undergraduate degree at Columbia University and received her MFA at New Mexico State University. She was most recently the Managing Editor of Puerto del Sol, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Lunch Ticket, Gulf Coast Online, Moon City Review, and Portland Review. She can currently be found shouting into the void on Twitter.