March 14, 2014KR OnlineFiction

weekend-readsDivided Highways

From The Kenyon Review, New Series, Winter, 1996, Vol. 18, No. 1

I tell Mom she doesn’t have to come out for graduation, but she insists saying, “But Paul, what are families for?” When I break the news to Dad it isn’t well received. “Back here? To the big bad Midwest?” Dad says. “Nice of her to make the effort after what—six years?” I remind him I spend all vacations in Boston, so it’s not like she never sees me. “But why now?” Dad says. I ignore this and tell him Laura’s coming too. Early on, my sister and I discovered our parents’ questions are rhetorical, meant to educate us to the inadequacies of the other parent. It’s Gayla, my stepmother, who complains about Mom using my car. Gayla and Dad have been married five years, but according to Dad it’s coming to an end. “Can’t she rent a car?” Gayla asks. I point out that we have three cars and the Honda is considered mine—even though Dad paid for most of it. “Besides,” I say, “it would help Mom out.” Dad says, “Why would we want to do that?”

 

The morning of graduation, Dad and Gayla are gone when I get up so I go ahead with plans. I dump beer cans and Burger King bags at Bud’s Texaco, give the glove compartment a once-over for condoms and locate my sunglasses. Five dollars fills the tank. I’m at the airport early, so I climb the metal stairs to the observation deck and lean against the rail to watch the planes take off and land. From here, they look like toys complete with sounds of engines revving up or cutting back. Minutes later, Mom’s plane drops from the sky, all too real and on time.

The first out, Mom stops dead at the bottom of the steps and looks around. Laura gives her a push to move her along. I wave a semiphore and finally she sees me and waves wildly back. I head down to meet them. “With that cord on your sunglasses, you look like a librarian,” Mom says. “No I don’t, but you would,” I say, hugging her. She is heavier since spring vacation—and younger somehow. I peer down my nose at her, thankful that I’m taller than she is—and a better tennis player than Dad. I give Laura a hug. She’s probably good-looking in spite of braces. A jeans skirt rides high above her knees and her hair is in a fancy braid like my girlfriend Leafie often wears. “Let’s move it,” Laura says.

Mom waits with luggage while Laura and I get the car. It gives us time to bring each other up to date on facts—facts our parents view as tactical maneuvers. I tell her Dad’s company is about to go bust, that he hasn’t worked for the past two months. “So what else is new?” Laura says. I tell her there’s more. That Dad’s going to start over, try Texas where he has two brothers, uncles we’ve never met. “He’s also thinking about a divorce,” I say, “but he hasn’t told Gayla. I said the least he could do was wait till after graduation.” Laura rolls her eyes. “Gayla probably knows,” she says. Laura can roll her eyes like nobody else. Slowly, corner to corner. She used to practice in the bathroom mirror while Dad and Mom were fighting downstairs. I’d hang out at the top of the steps and keep her informed as to accusations and broken plates.

The car is hot so we open doors and talk across the roof. I tell her the rest of the news, that after the Junior Davis Cup matches I’ll be moving to Boston for good. Laura pounds the top of the car. “Hey that’s great! We’ll have a ball. Mom’ll give you a reading list and teach you how to fold towels. You can play chess with Fraser.”

“Wait till she hears Dad can’t pay for college.”

“Oooooh. That’s bad.” Laura’s eyes narrow. “But you know what, part of her will love it.”

“Well, it’ll keep till after graduation. I haven’t told Leafie I’m moving yet,” I say. “This better go smoothly.” “Yeah,” Laura says, “I warned Mom this might not be such a good idea.” We agree the parents shouldn’t meet. Laura volunteers for steering committee. “Divided highways,” she says.

When we pull up to the curb, Mom is fanning herself with the airline tickets. I put a towel over a rip in the back seat. “Jesus,” she says. “Can’t your father afford a better car?” Already the day is heating up.

The air is sweltering in the hallway to the gym where teachers are checking lists, pleading with us to stay in line. The threat of rain has moved the program indoors. Elbowing his way toward me, Dad looks different out of the warm-up suits he usually wears. A camera swings back and forth between the lapels of his new jacket.

“Take your sunglasses off to get your diploma,” he says. “And couldn’t you have managed a shirt and tie? Your mother will think I can’t afford to dress you.” Beneath my black polyester robe, I am wearing a T-shirt from The Far Side. Leafie and her friends are in bathing suits. I tell him that by now Mom must know I dress myself. “Why couldn’t she have stayed in Boston?” he says.

During the solemn shuffle of “Pomp and Circumstance,” several flashes seem meant for me. Dad and Mom will be seated far apart, so I don’t look for them. Mom insisted Laura sit with her, saying “Who do you think paid for your plane fare?” Soon the music gives way to the principal’s welcome and the speakers are droning through their platitudes—not one’s a match for Dylan or Thoreau. I wish I were sitting nearer friends or Leafie instead of this dork from physics who always borrowed my notes. Finally they get to the diplomas. “Graduation comes once a lifetime,” Mom said. “Of course we’re coming.” But I bet she’s reading a book while my class of 420 shuffles across the makeshift stage. Bored and oodgy, Laura will time ten diploma presentations to the second, average them out, then multiply in her head to see how long she’ll have to sit there. Dad will be checking out the girls or whistling at my friends.

When my name is called, I start across the stage. A little nervous. I smile. Nod. Reach for diploma. Shake hands. “Good work, Paul,” the principal says, generously laying our minor feuds to rest. Mom and Dad should be so easy.

Finally it’s over and we file out onto the grassy quad where we hoot through rolled diplomas and flap our sleeves like penguins. Leafie’s hat has lost its tassle and she grabs for mine. Parents and relatives stream out after us and Laura pokes me in the ribs. “We forgot about the photo-op,” she says. “Get ready.” “Jesus,” I say, scanning the crowd. “Can’t you head them off. . . . ” It’s too late. For the first time in six years my parents are about to come face to face. Friends turn shy at this reunion and Laura backs off to stand with Leafie and Gayla.

Mom and Dad move toward me but their eyes are on each other looking for signs of prosperity or failure, assessing haircuts, weight, and shoes. “I see we both lost the weight battle,” Dad says expansively, having lost a little less of the fight. “Exacerbated by others,” Mom says with her usual four or five-syllable words. Nothing good can come of this. They stop three feet apart.

“Hey you two,” Laura calls, using her rolled program as a megaphone. “Would you get on with the pictures.”

They retreat twenty paces from each other as if for a duel, turn, and aim their cameras. Randy and David pile their graduation hats on mine and Leafie pulls my robe aside like a curtain to get my T-shirt’s Larson’s cows on stage. My eyes are moist with sweat, my T-shirt soaked. I put my sunglasses on. “Say ‘shit.”‘ Laura yells. Dad snaps everything he sees while Mom choreographs kicks and waves, and finally a Blues Brothers Graduation Gothic—arms crossed, backs rigid, faces stern. “That’s all,” Laura directs, taking Dad’s camera. “We’re out of here.” She drags Dad and Gayla off—there are limits to a plane fare’s obligations—and Mom and I leave for lunch. She’d probably prefer somewhere with a wine list and tablecloth, but I want pizza with everything and I get it. “Well, that wasn’t too bad,” Mom says. “Not exactly like old times.”

“Thank God,” I say.

“You thought we’d make a scene,” Mom says. She squints at me across the table. “A T-shirt!” she says. “Didn’t your father tell you to wear a shirt and tie?”

The graduation party is all-night gambling, live music, and tons of food—dreamed up by the PTA to cut down on drinking, drag-racing, and drugs. The gym looks like a TV gambling casino with roulette wheels, blackjack tables, and bars. Off in a corner, the local band, already high, has given up calibrating their sound system to any setting but loud. Within an hour, the poker chip-business is a mathematical nightmare, which Leafie and I figured out in calc, but we also figured it would keep the parents busy. Mom is handing out prizes in the awards booth, grateful to be accepted by the local parents. She and Dad are not to cross paths. Dad is one row and three booths over, decked out as a blackjack dealer, snapping cards on the table. Mom probably thinks he looks a little too real.

Randy’s parents are still counting chips when the gang ducks out for Randy’s empty house. We load the freezer and fridge with beer while David puts on Talking Heads. The girls kick off their high heels at the front door. “We’re done with that place,” Randy yells, looping his cummerbund over a lamp. David hangs his sunglasses on a Seldon family photograph. I light up my water pipe and pass it to Leafie. Later, in the Seldon’s king-size bed, Leafie cries when I tell her about Boston. “When did you find out?” she wants to know. I tell her it doesn’t matter, although it does, and smooth her tears back into her long pale hair spread out on the pillow. I know what missing someone feels like, and I miss her already. “It isn’t fair,” she says. “They move you around like furniture.” We only use one third of the king-size bed.

 

Sunday afternoon Gayla knocks on my door to say that Mom’s on the phone. “I told her you were sleeping.” Mom wants to take me and some friends out for dinner. My hangover needs three more hours without sunlight, but I make the calls then shower. Laura is sitting at the kitchen table, learning a new stitch while Gayla folds laundry. Gayla taught Laura to knit which drives Mom crazy. “Read a book,” Mom says. Dad is having a drink with the newspaper. CNN is on, the sound turned off. Gayla snaps the sheets sharper than usual and says, “So you’re not having dinner here?” I tell her I can’t, I’m sorry, especially since she’s making macaroni and cheese, which Mom refuses to acknowledge is my favorite.

I watch for Mom to pull my Honda into the drive. “All this back and forth stuff,” Dad says. “Why didn’t she rent a car?” He sends the Automotive section skidding across the table to the floor. He’s selling the Honda before he goes to Texas but hasn’t placed an ad yet. Gayla kicks the newspaper toward his chair. “I’m tired of picking up after you,” she says—probably to all of us. She’s wearing glasses instead of her contacts and they make her eyes seem twice as large, twice as angry. I fold a tennis shirt and add it to my pile, start on socks.

When the phone rings, I answer, hoping Mom hasn’t wrecked the car. It’s a wrong number, some guy wanting to know if Marty’s here. I say no but he insists. “Man or woman?” I say. “Look, wise guy, just get her,” he says. Dad, Gayla, and Laura listen in as I tell him Marty’s not here, but Dial-a-Lover has several other delectable choices. He hangs up hard. When the phone rings again, I say let it ring. “Your mother comes to town and all the nuts come out,” Dad says. Laura rolls her eyes. None too soon, Mom pulls up. She is peering at the house as if making a real estate assessment. The camera sits hot and black in the center of the front seat.

A Gilded Pig is crowded with parents, aunts, and uncles heaping gifts on some new dorky graduate seated at the head of the table. I am grateful Randy and David were tempted by steak because we’re missing a major beach party though we’ll catch it later. Beside me, Leafie just wants to get both events over with.

There’s no wine list so Mom settles for a carafe of red. “So your father never brings you here,” she says, pleased. She drinks two glasses of wine before her salad arrives, and questions us about stuff most mothers disapprove of. During dessert she says she hopes we’re all using condoms. Leafie blushes and Randy snorts into his Sprite. “No more wine, Mom,” I say, sliding the carafe to the end of the table where we finish it off.

After dinner, Mom suggests we play Fictionary. She tells them about the brilliant line I used from Grendel. “‘Pick an apocalypse, any apocalypse.’ We each had to make up a sentence with five words beginning PAAAA,” she explains. Randy begins, “Pretend avalanches are—” I punch his arm and usher Mom to her car, explaining about the party. I tell her to read a book and she laughs.

 

The morning sand is damp and storm clouds hang in the sky to the west. No school feels strange. We fold up the beach party and promise to meet again same time same place next summer. I hope it happens.

Laura is snoring on the couch, her braid fat and furry like the tail of a cornered cat. Dad, back in a sweat suit, has moved the stringing machine into the living room and is restringing my racquet for tomorrow’s match. Pale gut whips and dangles from the metal frame.

I take a bowl of cereal to my room and start to pack stuff for Mom and Laura to take back with them. Guitar, clothes, computer books, coffee mugs, tennis stuff hide my unmade bed, but at least it’s a bedroom. In Boston, I’ll be sleeping on a futon in Mom’s overstocked library. No pennants or posters on those walls.

Gayla helps me track down the duffles, then stands watching from the doorway. As I start filling the second duffle, she says my wool sweaters are in the basement cedar closet. “Might as well take it all.”

I look up, but her face doesn’t give anything away. She says she’s going out for groceries and what do I want for dinner. I say your chicken wings. She tells Dad, who’s taken time out for a martini, to keep his ex-wife out of the house. They never use each other’s names.

I’m in the basement searching for sweaters when a car crunches on gravel and a door thunks shut. I yell to Laura to tell Mom I’ll be right out, but she doesn’t answer. Mom knocks on the door and Dad calls out “come on in” like she’s the next door neighbor. I hotfoot it upstairs.

Swishing rain from her bangs, Mom stands in the foyer looking around at her old furniture. Dad doesn’t ask her to sit down. He’s probably feeling defensive about his martini, which she pretends to ignore. Now’s the time for him to deliver the news that he’s not paying for college but instead they talk about the weather, the cat purring in his lap. Laura, her nose in her knitting, starts to giggle in short nervous bursts. Dad raises an eyebrow and Mom turns to me to ask what’s up. My arms are filled with wool sweaters I’d like to bury Laura in. What a family. “Why don’t you help me pack,” I say, hoping she’ll retreat to the car.

She immediately sets to work, pushing a wastebasket into the middle of my room, pulling stuff off shelves. I tell her don’t throw anything away. “Like this,” she says, holding up a stiff piece of pepperoni pizza. “Just ask,” I say. When Laura comes by the door, I point to my watch. She shrugs.

“Uh, Mom,” I say. She’s wandered across the hall to the room Dad calls the library.

“Hmmmm?” she says, as if counting all eleven books.

“Mom, it would be better if you weren’t here when Gayla gets home.”

“Here?” She swings around. “Where?”

“In the house.” I wave vaguely at the living room. Dad, still on the couch, waves back in slow motion so he won’t disturb the cat.

“Jesus. When is she going to grow up?” Mom is holding Dad’s old baseball glove probably thinking it’s mine.

I tap the glove. “Wait in the car. We have to leave for the airport soon anyway.”

For the second time today we all hear tires on gravel and the screen door snap shut.

“So where is she? Who let her in?” Gayla’s Reeboks squeak through the foyer and into the living room where Dad is making another martini. Like old times, Laura creeps into the bathroom and doesn’t shut the door. The cat heads down the hallway and I stoop to pick her up. “I told you I didn’t want her in here,” Gayla says to Dad’s back. Her shoulders are dark with rain. When Dad doesn’t answer, she turns and glares at me, her face splotched and red above two narrow grocery bags. “I thought I could count on you.”

“Calm down, Gayla. Mom’s leaving,” I say. “I told her. . . . ”

“This is crazy,” Mom says, coming up behind me. “Why doesn’t your father deliver his own news. Tell her HE’S leaving.”

“Mo—om!” Laura slams the bathroom door startling the cat who digs its claws into my shoulder and leaps to the floor.

I grab the baseball glove from Mom. “Out. This is Gayla’s fucking house.” I put a box of books in her arms. She hesitates as if deciding whether to bring up another subject Dad has clearly determined to avoid. “Mom, you have to leave,” I say.

“Paul. Get her out of here now,” Gayla says, her face hardened against us all. Then she whirls around and retreats to the kitchen. Groceries for my second graduation dinner crash to the floor.

I give Mom’s soft waist a push. She holds her head high as she walks past Gayla in the kitchen and then past Dad at his rolling bar. No one says good-bye.

“You shit,” I say to Laura when the bathroom door opens. “Did you have to tell Mom everything?”

“You didn’t say not to,” she hiccups through tears.

I watch out the window as Mom opens the Honda’s trunk and hoists the box inside, leaving the trunk open in spite of the steady rain. Then she glances up at the house before slipping into the driver’s side. Within seconds she has a goddamned book propped up on the steering wheel.

Dad resumes stringing my racquet, attaching and releasing clamps, his glass balanced on the machine’s rim. I carry my stuff out to the car in two trips. “That’s it,” I say to Laura. “You ready?” Laura hugs Dad, crying large shoulder-humping sobs. Dad doesn’t say when he’ll see her again and she doesn’t ask. Then she hugs Gayla, thanks her for all the knitting lessons. We all avoid Gayla’s red eyes. Next year, she’ll be floating free of us, no strings attached, not really family. But for now she must feel like the biggest casualty in our family’s war.

I tap on the driver’s window. Mom reluctantly slides across to let me drive. I wipe dry the lenses of my sunglasses, then start the car. Even at high speed, the windshield wipers slapping back and forth are only treading water.

“I guess I shouldn’t have said that to her,” Mom says.

“It doesn’t matter,” I say. “Dad should have told her. And anyway she probably knows. Wouldn’t you?”

“How can you drive in sunglasses?” Laura says.

I push the volume up on Talking Heads and drive to the airport on automatic.

As Laura checks the luggage through, Mom turns to me and says to take off my sunglasses. Her eyes glisten, her nose is red. She puts her arms around me and her chest heaves. “Oh, Paulie. What a shitty graduation,”

“That’s not for you to say,” I tell her, my voice breaking. “You make it sound like your parade got rained on. It was MY fucking graduation.” Her head is pressed against my dangling sunglasses so I can’t put them on.

“You should have had a big party with lots of gifts and tables of food. Aunts and uncles—”

“Hey, it’s OK, Mom,” I say, thumping her shoulder. “We don’t even have aunts and uncles. Just us. And you knew when you came we weren’t going to have champagne and a ten-piece band.”

“I know.” She pulls back and looks up at me. “We’re going to love having you in Boston,” she says.

“It’s only for three months,” I say. “Then I leave for school—maybe. Laura tell you that too—that Dad can’t pay?”

“That shit. Nothing changes.” She gives me another squeeze, her head nodding under my chin. “Never mind. We’ll figure something out.” Over Mom’s shoulder Laura mouths, “See.” I grin as I hug her next and tell her to cool it. She promises to find me a fake ID.

At the departure gate Mom says, “Well, Paul, I’m glad we came.”

“Me too,” I say, and we all laugh again. I put my sunglasses back on when their plane is called. Laura puts her arm through Mom’s and they start across the tarmac in the rain, shoulders bumping, heads leaning into the wind. I want them to turn once more, so I call, “Hey Mom,” and they do turn, wet and waving. Feeling dumb, I wrench my sunglasses off and now I have to say something. “Hey,” I call. “What are families for?”