From coping with stress to building a support network, it’s important to set yourself up for success at the beginning of the semester. Read more →
On the way into town, spring tumbles across your face through the open windows of the turquoise Ford pickup. Mom sits beside Dad conquering the two lane, beer gut tucked under the wheel gripped precisely at 10 and 2 o’clock. Behind you, the window frames a gun rack sporting a .30-30 lever action rifle and a 12 gauge shotgun.
Fences and telephone poles punctuate the freshly plowed miles of Illinois farmland as you evaporate out the passenger window. The face reflected in the side mirror is not yours, the welt rising on the cheek not yours, the driver of the truck is not anyone you know.
You sweep the sunset landscape clear with your mind, erasing all evidence of human occupation. You imagine how it was before the insidious war on nature distorted the Earth’s face. Disengaged from the meat and bone strapped to the truck’s bench seat, you step into a pre-Columbian hardwood forest. Fire’s glow on smoke paints the sky across the Great River, illuminating the platform mounds of Cahokia, the setting you escape to in Mom’s whispered stories.
As a sign welcomes you all to town, the interior of the truck quivers in silent repercussion. It was already a suspect attempt at kindness—taking the family out for ice cream. Always a price to be paid, a sacrifice, before Dad heads out for a beer. For the night.
The truck glides into the parking lot. Fluorescent lights advertise spic and span cleanliness of the creamery. Mom releases the windshield from her gaze of amused detachment forged from a lifetime of ritualized humiliation perpetrated by men. Men claiming to love her, like Dad, who threatened to turn the guns on you all, including himself, if she ever even thinks about leaving. Her eyes call his bluff, say go ahead, do it, but her mouth just asks, “What kind do you want?”
He peels a ten from the roll in his pocket and says, “I’ll have mint chocolate chip, two scoops. Make sure to bring me the change.”
Inside, you and Mom wipe your feet on the WELCOME mat with synchronized, bird like movements. Superfluous air conditioning raises goose bumps on your arms as you anxiously look over the selection. Mom estimates the time it will take for the customers in front of you to complete their transactions, glances toward the truck. Dad’s distracted by a bent-over mother buckling her screaming child into the next car.
Mom chooses butter pecan and you cherry royale. The cashier hands her a few coins and a cone buried in two scoops of mint chocolate chip. You, already halfway through your own, grab Dad’s cone and head for the door. Mom’s face drops to her knees as the top scoop of mint chocolate chip swan dives onto the coarse grit coating the WELCOME mat. Without breaking stride, you swoop the scoop back into place, speed-walk to the truck, and proudly hand him the cone saying, “Look how much they gave you.”
Dad takes the cone, sighs as the woman he’s watching tugs the tattered elastic of her pants’ waistband back into place. “What took you so long? Did you get lost?”
Mom begins to answer for you as she slides into place. “There were a lot of people in …”
“Where’s my change?” Dad cuts in, starting the engine.
She drops the coins into his calloused hand.
“That’s it? That’s all there is?”
In unison, you and Mom nod your heads, eyes down.
After two miles of silence pass under the wheels, Dad asks her, “What did you get?”
“Of course. Same thing you always get. Don’t you ever get tired of it, the same old thing?”
You lean back onto the wood stock of the shotgun, the smooth grain caresses the back of your neck. You wonder what species of tree sacrificed its flesh. Crunching the last of your cone, you bury a smile thinking about the mint chocolate chip and grit Dad’s devouring.
See Douglas Suano Bootes’ story, “Interloper,” which earned honorable mention in the 2017 TCJ Student contest.