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It came over him in a rush—this overpowering urge to travel. He was speeding home on the turnpike, thinking nothing in particular, seeing nothing in fact, the highway one mechanical routine, when suddenly the monster seized him.
Sure, why shouldn’t he go on the road again, he thought. He had the money. College was over, for the summer at least. And he was free, wasn’t he?
Anyway, he was tired of fighting his natural impulses all the time. This feeling had not come over him in a long while. He had feared having lost it forever. And now that it was back, he didn’t want to risk losing it again.
Maybe he was ripe for the road. Maybe the monster sensed this, and it had returned to lead him. Certainly it came much stronger, much surer of itself.
And even if he couldn’t follow through with it, he could pretend and run with it for a ways, couldn’t he?
That was the problem, though. He had pretended for too long now. He had teased the monster within him. He had raced alongside of it, giving it rope, making it believe it was truly free, letting it carry him almost to the very brink, and then at the last moment always snapping the leash, bringing the monster to heel.
Maybe that had driven the monster away from him. Maybe he had abused it too often, tiring it. He didn’t want to abuse the monster within him again, ever. But he was afraid if he chased after it this time, he would not be able to make the final jump.
Yet, even as he thought this, he realized something that completely jolted him from his thoughts. He wasn’t heading in the direction of his apartment any longer. Where the turnpike divided and he normally went right, he veered left, toward his parents’ house. But why? The mere thought of visiting his parents set his heart racing and the blood throbbing to his ears.
Yet he did nothing to change the direction of the car.
It was as if he had suddenly lost control over his body, or something stronger now commanded him. He could relax in the seat and enjoy the scenery; the car would drive itself and deposit him in front of his parents’ house. At least, it felt that way.
James watched the road. It was late morning, and traffic was minimal except for a few commercial trucks and late stragglers. These looked like tiny black boxes in the shiny distance. And the sky, a crystal dome, glowed electric blue with icebergs of white cumulus clouds drifting low on the horizon.
It was all too beautiful. A perfect day for leaving. The type of weather one could ramble forever under without ever getting bored. It reminded him of other days and other highways. Other times. He imagined all great explorations had begun on days like this.
The thoughts set ripples of excitement pulsating throughout him. He might actually go on the road again. Might, could . . . damn, he would!
Still, fear washed at his resolution. Underneath the surface optimism lurked the suspicion that he would back down at the crucial point. That was always a possibility. Then deep down inside, so deep he could barely fathom it, sat the conviction that this time would be different. It was something hard and cold and small like a shiny pebble at the bottom of his stomach. Something special and excitingly new.
At Palm Drive, he exited off the turnpike and made a left turn towards his parents’ house. He would race the monster almost to the very brink, and then he would see what would happen. Maybe the momentum would carry him across.
One thing remained certain—he had never before let the monster run this wild and free since his first trip. Perhaps that indicated something.
Now at the corner laundromat, he felt his grip tighten around the steering wheel, and his whole body tensed. But he did not hesitate. He turned the corner, and his foot actually fed the gas.
He must be crazy, coming this close!
Fear overtook him at last like a huge tidal wave and submerged him. It tumbled the monster from his grasp and drowned James in its paralyzing fluid. Then it rolled on, leaving him bitter and nauseated with himself.
Enough, he thought.
But his body would not respond. His foot still fed the gas and his hands guided the steering wheel, against his better judgment, or what had emerged as his better judgment. It was as if he had truly lost control over his body or something weak within him were struggling for control. He could feel the two emotions battling simultaneously inside him, and all the while, the car crept forward the last block.
Then something snapped and something else relaxed, and a certain calm fell over him.
James focused his eyes straight ahead on the road and blanked his mind. He was vaguely aware of sunlight skipping overhead through the branches of the trees that canopied the little street. That and motion. Then he felt the car turn the last corner, and all motion ceased. A deafening quietness settled over him. He didn’t remember turning the steering wheel or stepping on the brakes. He was only aware of the oppressiveness of the heat and the silence around him.
The hard something inside him had fizzled and died. He could feel the hollow it had left behind. It was as if the monster, after having dragged him the last block, had momentarily collapsed and gone to sleep.
Still, something of the original impulse lingered. Something pushed him on.
He opened the car door, hesitated, and then proceeded up the cement walkway to the front door. Another moment’s panic, and he knocked hard on the door. There was no answer. James knocked again, harder. Something gone within him, he began to take life again.
I tried, he thought.
But even as he thought this, he started around the side of the house toward the backyard. It was as if his legs had gained a mind of their own, and they were following their own whims now. James had nothing to say about it. He only hoped that the rest of his self would follow accordingly.
His father was standing out on the back patio, toying with a fishing rod. He seemed both surprised and pleased to see James. Then the initial pleasure gave way to a half-conscious scowl.
“What are you doing here?” he asked, cordially as possible.
“Just driving past,” said James. “I thought I’d stop by and see if there was anyone home.”
His voice sounded strange and far away to him now. Maybe it was the lie that made his voice sound strange. But the lie was out before he could even think it.
“Don’t you have school today?” the father asked.
“School’s over for the summer. Matter of fact, that’s where I’m coming from. I just took my last exam. This morning.”
“How do you think you did?”
“All right, I guess.”
“Guess!” The father looked up questioningly. “Don’t you know?”
“No, not yet.”
James moved around his father to the side of the patio table and stood in the breezy shade of the huge beach umbrella. Then he pulled a lawn chair from under the table and sat down. He could not bring himself to mention the trip. It was the foremost thing on his mind, and he wanted more than anything else to say it quickly and get rid of it. But the mere thought of confronting his father with it, actually saying it, stampeded his heart and set the blood rushing to his head so fast that he feared blacking out, and so he stifled the thought.
Still, the urgency remained. And the urgency coupled with his inactivity combined to produce an acidity that ate away at his comfort and his very peace of mind. It was a slow, agonizing pain nowhere in particular but everywhere, and it burned and drove him mad with anxiety.
“I’m surprised to find you home,” he said finally to relieve the torment when the silence promised to continue.
“Today’s my day off. Wednesdays.”
The manner in which his father said this offended James, and he immediately withdrew back into himself. Anger replaced fear and mingled with self pity to create hate. He was sorry he had ever come. Why did he always put himself in such positions? He wished instead that he had kept going when he had felt the urge. Now he had lost the monster again, abused it.
No, he had to do it. It wasn’t too late yet. He hadn’t come this far to turn back. It had become a test now, a challenge.
“Have a beer,” the father offered.
“It’s too early for me just yet. . . .”
“I’ll have one,” said his father. “Mind getting it for me? Inside the fridge. You know my cup.”
James got up and went quietly into the house, glad to get away.
The kitchen was dim and quiet, spookily familiar with its locked-in odor of ripening bananas and other fruits. But it also looked much smaller and old fashioned than when he had inhabited it. Twelve months hadn’t changed the place, and yet it had. The house already seemed alien to him. Something about it frightened him. It was too narrow, too confining.
“There’s Cokes in the fridge, if you prefer that,” James’s father called from outside.
“No thanks,” said James.
He opened the beer bottle and poured its contents into a battered tin mug that he had given his father one Christmas long ago. It baffled James why his father still insisted on using the worn mug as his drinking cup. Then recalling that early Christmas awoke in him other happy times together that he wanted to erase now.
James threw away the empty bottle and hurried out.
His father sighed. He had rested the fishing rod against the wall of the house and was seating himself on the cement steps outside the utility room. He looked exhausted. The perspiration rushed down his bare chest and rolled over his basketball beer belly and onto the patio floor.
James tried not to notice the gray hairs or the corrugated wrinkles under his father’s eyes. It always made him sad to see his father growing old. Somehow, he felt responsible.
“Well, did you get it fixed, or is it worse now?” he tried joking.
“It’ll do,” said his father, very serious. “It had a little quirk when I cast out, but I think I fixed it.”
“That’s good,” said James.
He looked at the fishing rod and the crooked shadow it made against the wall and nodded to himself. Then there seemed nothing else left to say, and feeling his father’s eyes on him, he looked away. He wished now he had a beer to keep his hands occupied.
He hated these long pauses in their conversations. It seemed he should be used to them by now, but he could never get used to them. They always made him feel self-conscious and awkward. He wanted their conversations to run smoothly. Instead, they stumbled along.
James began to perspire. He watched the shadows hard-edge across the patio floor as the sun broke out from behind a flock of clouds. Then the sun hid again, and a soft breeze stirred the nearby trees.
“So, what are you going to do now?” the father asked, placing his mug down.
“I don’t know,” said James. “Probably nothing. . . .”
The father nodded slowly. He studied James a few seconds longer, looked down finally, then picked up his drinking mug again and took another sip. It was obvious he disapproved.
“I might . . . it’s hard. . . .”
It was no use trying to say it, thought James. The words just stuck to his throat. And he felt his stomach knot and pull taut.
“Are you going fishing today?” he asked for conversation’s sake.
“We were going to. Robert was supposed to pass by and pick me up about an hour ago. I don’t know what’s keeping him, though.” The father checked his watch automatically.
“Are you going out on a boat?”
“Nah, just out to the bridges.”
James nodded. “It’s a good day for fishing,” he said.
“If it doesn’t rain.”
“I don’t think it will.”
“Those clouds eastward look like rain clouds,” said his father.
James squinted up at the clouds. They did not look like rain clouds to him, but he did not want to argue. Conversation was just beginning to go good, and he wanted it to continue. But already, it had stopped. He looked down at his hands and studied the sky some more.
Robert would be coming any minute now. He could feel it, and it made him angry that he would not have time to work up to things. So why did he always have to work up to things? Why couldn’t he just tell his father straight out?
James stretched his legs and yawned. Then he sat upright again and looked around the yard once more, avoiding his father’s eyes. Always avoiding his father’s eyes.
Suddenly he jumped up.
“Let’s go have a beer at the bar,” he said.
“There’s beers in the fridge.”
“But the bar’s has better atmosphere.”
The father shrugged. “All right.”
“I’ll even treat,” said James.
And suddenly he felt very silly. What had ever prompted him to suggest a bar. And what did his father care for atmosphere. The whole thing was too fabricated. It was too unnatural. Surely his father saw through it all. It embarrassed James to think that he was being so obvious.
His father finished his beer and set the empty mug down gently on the patio table.
“Let me go inside and put a shirt on,” he said.
“I’ll wait in the car,” said James.
He had a half-baked notion to start the engine and leave. Leave and forget the whole crazy thing. Why go through this hell? It wasn’t worth it.
But sitting behind the steering wheel, waiting, away from his father, watching the sunlit little street, the pine trees swaying back and forth in the breeze, he felt confident again. First far away and so weak he could barely recognize the feeling, then much closer but still faintly, the monster stirred within him. It was all the encouragement James needed.
His father walked out presently, wearing a clean work shirt and a different pair of slacks.
“All right, let’s go,” he said, climbing into the front seat.
“What about if Robert comes?”
“My car is home. He’ll know enough to wait . . . if he even comes.”
“You direct me to a good bar, then,” said James.
“There’s no such thing as a good bar,” said his father. “Just drive down to Palm Drive and make a left. There’s one right across the street.”
James started the engine, went to gun it, then remembering, eased it into first and crept forward to the corner. He made a complete stop, checked both ways, signaled, and maneuvered a perfect left turn. He drove very cautiously now, the way his father had taught him many years before. It was important that he do everything right.
“Do you transport dogs and cats in this car?” his father asked.
“What. . . ?”
James looked toward his father, who gestured to the seat. Right where he sat there was a huge rip in the seat cover, and the cotton tripe gutted out of the seat.
“Oh, that.” James tried smiling. “Yeah, I’m going to have to reupholster them,” he said.
“You would do better to get another car,” said his father.
James nodded and looked straight ahead. Yeah, sure. But there were other things that were more important than ripped seats and cars. Things his father did not seem to understand. Things. . . .
James’s inadequacy to voice his feelings out loud further enraged him.
He began to think of his father sitting next to him, grading him. That was what it amounted to; his father graded him, and he performed for his father. It had been that way ever since he could remember. But why did he still play up to his father’s expectations? He wasn’t a kid anymore. It was getting to be a very bad habit.
At the corner of Palm Drive and Fourteenth, James came to a rolling stop, glanced both ways casually, and gunned it across the street. He screeched into the parking lot of Ye Old Keg Bar and turned the ignition off. His father said nothing.
Inside, the bar was dim and cold. There were only two other men that James could distinguish, and they were standing at the far end of the room, under a bare light bulb, playing billiards.
His father chose stools near the entrance. There was a lit juke box behind them and a tiny window to their right. The window had been painted black. Sunlight glared through the cracks in the paint and made tiny silver worms. The barmaid was nowhere in sight.
James was glad for the darkness. He already felt silly about what he had done outside, and he didn’t want to have to look at his father. He was always embarrassed by such outbursts afterwards. Now he sat and watched the two billiard players. It took his mind away from his embarrassment, and besides, he loved the way the multicolored balls exploded and collided one against the other across the green felt table. He loved the bright enameled colors and the way the two men played.
“Want to shoot some pool?” he asked.
His father looked at him funny.
“I didn’t know you played billiards.”
“Not too well. But I play.”
“We’ll see,” said his father.
The barmaid came over now and began wiping the counter with a red checkered cloth. She turned the cloth this way and that, and all the while she chewed gum like a big lazy cow. She had a very huge bosom, and her make-up was very heavy, but there was still something interesting about her face. She looked like she had been a beautiful woman once.
“Two Budweisers, please,” said James’s father.
“Will that be all?”
The barmaid nodded, picked up her cloth and walked away. She looked very bored. James watched the way she moved and he liked something about her movement. But he disliked her attitude.
If you’re so bored with your job, quit it, but don’t make us suffer your misery, he felt like telling her. Then he remembered his own case and the anger ebbed away.
The barmaid returned with two frosty mugs and set them on felt pads on the hardwood counter. His father would not let James pay.
“But it was my invitation,” said James.
“Later. This one’s on me.”
He handed the barmaid two dollars.
“Keep the difference,” he said.
James took a long quaff of his beer and relished the first icy draught. The beer was deliciously cold, chilled to his stomach. He took another sip and rested the heavy mug down slowly, glancing around the room. The two billiard players were setting up a new game.
He turned back to his drink and took another sip. He knew exactly what he wanted to say already. It was all nicely packed and rehearsed in his head. Now it was just a matter of letting it slip out.
He took another quick sip of his beer and tightened his grip around the mug. Then another sip and he was no longer enjoying the taste as much. He was drinking for drunkenness now.
How stupid it all was to think he could really do it.
He watched the effervescent bubbles rocketing to the top, forming a suds head. He would sit here, drink a few beers, talk a lot of rot, and then go away without ever having mentioned a word about the trip. That was exactly what would happen. What always happened.
“Why did you bring me here?” his father asked. “What’s the problem?”
“I’m sure you didn’t bring me here just to share a beer and play some billiards.”
“No, not exactly. But what’s wrong with it? It’s something we’ve never done before. I just thought we should put an end to this war. . . .”
James looked down at the beer mug, embarrassed. He hadn’t meant to say so much. It had just come out.
“All right.” His father smiled, little-boy-like, embarrassed by his own interest yet anxious for the rest.
“It’s nothing, really,” said James, hesitant. There remained a strained quality to his voice, like it was being filtered. He stared at his drink and his father waited, watching him. It was a very penetrating stare.
“I’m thinking of leaving Miami . . . going out west.”
There. It was out. Finally.
“Permanently?” his father asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
His father turned back to his beer and pursed his lips. He took a slow sip of his beer. He had expected different; prepared for worse. But this was bad enough. He could not think of anything to say.
James felt the silence tightening around him, choking him. This wasn’t anything like he had anticipated. He wasn’t prepared for this. But silence could be just as deadly. What was that line from Macbeth—“to turn back now would be as tedious as to go on.” Something like that. He decided to continue.
“I want to go out west . . . to Houston maybe. I hear the jobs are plentiful there and the living cost is lower. Cliff moved there with his wife, and they’re pretty satisfied with it. I don’t know. I might not even like it there, but I have to try. . . .”
James looked up for the first time, staring at his father straight in the face. His father’s eyes shone slightly moist. But he managed to smile.
“If that’s what you’ve decided, why tell me?”
He no longer spoke as a father, or if he did, James no longer heard him as one. Instead, he saw a little old man, stripped of all familiarity. His father was a stranger sitting next to him. James saw how vulnerable the little man really was. And the transformation touched him.
“I’m telling you because you have a right to know,” he exploded.
Something inside him gave way. It was like a bottle that had lain corked and frozen somewhere for a long time and someone had finally popped the cork, or a pent up stream that had finally broken its barrier.
“I know how you and Mom feel about my leaving,” he said, choking on the words. “Mom especially. It isn’t easy, I know. Being an only child is rough both ways. I can even understand now that it isn’t easy for the parents either. It’s taken me a lot of pain to understand that. . . .”
At first, the words trickled out thin and jerkily, squeezed almost. But now they were beginning to gain speed and intensity, flowing freely, smoothly. It surprised James how easily they flowed.
“I don’t want to hurt anyone anymore,” he said. “And I don’t want you two to think I’m forgetting you. I know that’s one of your greatest fears, being abandoned in your old age. But if one is going to forget someone, you can do it living in the same city. And there’s always the telephone, and letters. . . .”
James paused. He had much more to say, twenty-one years’ worth, and his head swirled with words. But his father had stopped looking at him. He was staring into his beer mug instead, solemnly, as if he expected to find salvation there. It dismayed James to think he had been speaking for nothing.
“Well, what do you say?” he asked, a little perturbed.
His father smiled weakly. He rolled the mug between his huge callused palms, raised his eyebrows, and shrugged.
“It’s hard,” he said finally. “It’s a very hard thing for us to accept.”
James felt the dam within him closing again, tightening around his throat, choking him. He resented his father’s self pity act, or what he considered his father’s self pity act. But he forced the channel open again.
“I know its hard,” he said forcibly. “It’s hard for me, too. I’ve been turning this thing over in my mind for months now. It’s been eating me up. I’m tired of not sleeping nights thinking about it. That’s why I came to you. I can’t carry it inside me any longer.”
“It’s hard, all right,” agreed his father. He took a long sip of his beer, sighed, and set the sweaty mug down gently.
“It would be selfish for us to want you to stay here, especially when your career beckons you elsewhere. . . .”
James said nothing. Now that his father had finally opened up a little, he wanted him to empty out, too. There was too much stored up hostility between them. Too much silence. But his father didn’t say anything else.
James decided to wait and make sure. He swallowed the last swig of his beer and felt a tiny rush to his head. It was the slightest titillation, a minute swelling sensation, but he knew from experience that the beer had already affected him.
“How do you think Mom will react?” he asked.
“You know your mother,” said his father.
James nodded. How well he knew his mother. He had tried not to even think about her so far. Thinking of her would have only spoiled everything. In fact, he had forcibly rejected the subject from his mind until now.
Somehow, he wasn’t as frightened of the topic anymore. It needed to be discussed. Demanded to be discussed. And it surprised him how willingly he had brought it up himself.
“I’ll tell her if you like,” his father offered. “I’ll prepare her for it at least.”
“No, I’ll tell her myself,” said James.
It was something he had to do alone. Something he actually looked forward to doing. Something he had avoided too long.
There would be a scene, naturally. His mother would cry and carry on like it was the end of the world. Or maybe not. He could never really tell with his mother. She might take it as well as his father had. That was a surprise in itself. Who knew? Maybe his mother wouldn’t cry. He would certainly prefer it tearless. But if the tears came, he would be ready, too.
Then there would definitely be that last goodbye scene with the whole family. He would like to skip that one for sure. But he knew he couldn’t. He would just have to face it and then it would be past. Everything passed.
Sure, it would be unpleasant. But there were a lot more unpleasant things in life. Might as well get used to it now. Life was unpleasant from the moment you realized you were going to die until the day you died except for a few pleasantries along the way, and in time, even these turned sour sometimes. He knew that much from experience. But a man to be a man or stay a man had to learn to take it. Being a man wasn’t a simple end. It was a means to an end, the most important end—living.
James felt very philosophical. Beer always made him introspective. He wanted to share these new insights, but he knew his father would disagree.
It didn’t really matter, though, because he felt very close to his father suddenly. Closer than he had felt in a long time. Then, he had never spoken so honestly with his father before. It was all a matter of communication, or the lack of it. For the first time in a long while, he could view his father as a fellow man rather than a threat. And there were things he wanted to say to this new friend that he had hoarded too long.
The beer had begun to wear off. He felt flushed by it, but the initial high was gone.
“You know, we’ve been fighting each other for so long now and have accomplished absolutely nothing but hurting each other. I think it’s time we forget our differences and become friends. Friends can have differences and still respect each other.”
It sounded corny, but he didn’t care. He felt what he said.
“That’s all I ever wanted,” said his father. Then, rather abruptly, he added, “What about your college?”
“College?” It caught James off guard. “Well, if I get a good job, I won’t need to finish college. Otherwise, I can always finish my degree elsewhere. I really don’t know yet. But it’s something that will have to wait.”
His father nodded, not exactly pleased, not condoning the decision, but merely nodding like a man who has no other choice. He was remembering another boy saying something similar to his father many years before. That had been a mistake, he realized now, coming to the city. A country boy had no business in the city. The city was hard enough on those born in it, let alone outsiders. But once a boy became a man he had to make such mistakes. It was the price of knowledge, mistake making. And James had certainly come of age.
James’s father nodded to himself, thinking. Maybe he had been too hard on James. Maybe he had tried too hard. He had tried not to make the same mistakes his own father had made with him, but maybe he had erred in the opposite direction, over-protecting James.
It was hard bringing up an only child. It was the worst mistake he and his wife had made, having only one child. But then, it hadn’t really been a matter of choice. The doctor had told them another child would kill her. Maybe they should have adopted a child, though.
So many doubts now. He knew they expected too much of James. When you had only one child, you did that; you put all your dreams and hopes into that one chance. It made it hard indeed, both ways. But you really couldn’t blame anyone, though; it was just the way things happened.
He had known for a long time this day would come. He understood James was running away from them as much as he was running toward anything. It was his way of establishing his independence. But it was too late to do anything about it now.
He wished he hadn’t been so strict. He wished he had been a better friend. So much he understood now. But understanding didn’t take away from the pain. And it was painful, losing James.
He smiled to himself, ironically. Funny, he had waited so long for this moment—to be sitting in a bar with his son, sharing a beer—but now that the moment was here, it was not exactly the way he pictured it. Things seldom came the way you wanted them though; he was old enough to know that. At least, there were speaking again. Be thankful for that, he told himself.
Who knew? James might not even like Houston. Sure, that was always a possibility. The traveling fever might be a passing thing. There was always Cindy. He had forgotten about Cindy! He had not seen her in a while. But James would never leave her behind for long. They had been going together too long. Unless . . . maybe they were getting married!
Suddenly he felt very light-hearted himself. There was no sense to make a rainstorm over a glass of water, as his old man always used to say.
“Miss,” he called. “Two fresh beers.”
He picked up his mug and drained the remainder of his beer in two easy gulps. It had become an important moment for him and he wanted to celebrate it the only way he knew best—with a fresh beer. But to the barmaid, the occasion meant nothing. She came over very bored looking and refilled both their mugs then left without even waiting to collect the money.
Her attitude was very antagonistic. James took a sip of his new beer and savored its coldness then looked around the room. The two billiard players had gone. Now would be a good time to suggest a game of billiards, he thought. But he didn’t feel much like playing anymore. He noticed that a couple occupied one of the booths along the wall. He hadn’t seen them come in. Or maybe they had been there the whole time and he hadn’t noticed them. They were a very merry couple. In the ensuing silence, the woman’s shrill voice became very dominant.
“What about Cindy?” his father asked suddenly.
“Is she going with you, or. . . ?” He couldn’t say the rest.
“Neither,” said James. “That’s all finished.”
He saw the shocked expression which crossed his father’s face and he wished a million times he could have spared his father that hurt. He knew how fond his father was of Cindy, and his dream of grandchildren. But he would have found out eventually. It was better that it was out now. He couldn’t lie anymore, even if lying made matters easier.
But he hoped his father would not ask him further questions. Embarrassing questions. Cindy and he were finished. But it was still a fresh wound. And he did not want to make it bleed again.
His father understood. Anyway, he didn’t ask anything. Suddenly, the happy mood which had alighted on him flew as quickly. He nodded into his beer, and the subject was closed. Everything seemed closed. The beer drained out of him and left him weak and hollow inside. There remained only one question left to ask. And he wasn’t sure he could ask it.
“When are you leaving?” he asked finally.
“As soon as possible. Friday morning if I can manage.”
James’s father nodded. He started to say something else then changed his mind and said nothing. There seemed nothing left to say. He glanced at his watch, feigned surprise, and downed the remaining beer in three hard gulps.
“I’d better get back,” he said. “Robert should be there.”
“Yeah, I got a lot of packing to do myself,” said James.
He had dreaded this final moment, and now that it fell upon him, he didn’t know how he would behave. Goodbyes always gave him a lump in his throat. Besides, things were going so good now he didn’t want them to end. It seemed they had just started talking. There were still so many things he wanted to say. Things he would never find the time or the courage to say again. And other things stored so deep within him he could never bring them up again, not even to himself; not now at least. And maybe never. He had only skimmed the surface.
Still, the relief was monumental. He had gotten out the most important thing. And it gave him a drained out, empty type of feeling, pleasant but not as completely satisfying as he had expected. He didn’t feel ecstatic or anywhere near it. A little high, maybe, but not ecstatic as he had expected. It was all very anticlimactic. And all the while, he could feel the little high leaving him.
James guzzled down the remaining beer to bring back some of the high. But the beer only made him feel bloated.
His father had already paid the barmaid. He sat waiting for James. Now he dropped a fifty-cent piece on the counter and they both walked outside into the blinding light. It was like stepping into an open oven. The heat blasted them and penetrated through their clothes to their chilled skins, warming them. It felt pleasant after sitting in the icy bar so long. They stood there on the blazing sidewalk and let the sun sift into their very bones, baking them.
“Do you want a ride home?” James asked.
“Nah, I’ll walk. It’s only a few blocks. You will pass by the house before you leave?”
“What do you think?”
James’s attempt at old-time kidding fell flat. His heart wasn’t in it, no more than his father had meant what he had asked. They were only words now to fill the time, to postpone the inevitable. And the heat hung over them like a blanket, smothering them.
“Be careful driving home,” his father cautioned. “You’ve had two beers already.”
Before James could reply, his father turned and started away very fast. A few feet further he waved his hand behind him in a goodbye gesture without ever looking back. Then he ran across the street, gained the other sidewalk, and continued with his urgent pace.
James watched until his father had disappeared around the laundromat. Then he climbed into his car and started the engine. He backed the car very fast into the street and gunned it out.
Seeing his father hurrying away like that had ruined something within him. It had spoiled the last grain of triumph. No doubt, his father had done it on purpose. He couldn’t help resenting his father and yet he couldn’t help pitying him at the same time. He was especially angry at himself, but why he didn’t know. And the high had completely worn away now.
It already seemed like days since he had first felt the monster and he was afraid it would not come back to him. He didn’t want to think he had lost the monster. He didn’t want to remember his father hurrying away that way, either. Especially, he didn’t want any more scenes.
Maybe he hadn’t done the right thing. Maybe the trip to Texas wasn’t such a good idea. What would he do in Texas? It still wasn’t too late to cancel his plans. No, there was still plenty of time for that. That thought relaxed him.
Then the thought of a strange city and old friends began to excite him. In any case, there was the trip. For a few days, at least, he would be traveling on the open roads again. Maybe he could even extend the trip a little; take a little swing into Mexico. There was a thought, Mexico! Who knew? He might decide not to stay in Houston after all. He might decide to come back.
That was always a possibility.
James felt the monster stir within him. It came from a great distance away, a minute tingling sensation in his stomach, crawling up his spine, gaining speed and intensity, rising, rising—
It rushed upon James and swept him along again.
Sure. There was always the possibility that he might not stay in Texas.
That was always a possibility, now.
This story originally appeared in Phosphene magazine and is reprinted in The Best of Phosphene.