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Jan/Feb 2013 Fiction

The Last Highway

by Jonathan Sapers


We get into the car. The entire journey should take us in the neighborhood of ten hours. We do not have very much with us. There isn't time. We linger by the entrance to the expressway as if hoping someone will come after us, calling us back with urgent news. This does not happen. Before noon, we are in the upper reaches of Massachusetts, preparing to enter New Hampshire.

"Did you see that guy?"

"Which?"

My father is looking through the rearview mirror on his side. I did not allow him to drive, much to his chagrin. I haven't seen any guy go past. I do not know what he is talking about.

"Driving like a bat out of hell."

"I didn't notice."

"You know, some guys feel they have to show off. I never felt that way."

"Comfortable with who you are, right Dad?"

"Yes, I was."

We're leaving at the wrong time of year, so the cool air we get in Bangor feels only cold. Usually we leave in late July or early August, so it comes as a relief. Now it's June: just colder than it was where we started and a little bleak.

"Will they be blooming?"

"I expect so."

"That will be nice."

"I don't think it will be nice."

"Isn't that why we're going?"

"That's not the point. If I'm going to die, will it be nicer if the flowers are in bloom? Or not? I don't know. In other words, I want to see the flowers in bloom before I go, but I don't really want to go."

The stretch between Bangor and Calais—a winding highway that used to be a country road—always seems both unfamiliar and new, as if I had never really gotten to know it, or during the winter it had been profoundly changed. There is a small lake with a dock and a boat, houses I can't remember. There's a new diner up on a hilltop offering free WiFi, some more houses. I begin to know where I am when we dip into a valley where the trees are always blackened and bare—as if from a recent forest fire—and travel along a ridge with lookouts to the left. Usually there's at least one car stopped to look; we always speed by.

Half an hour later comes a rest stop we like to use, and we pull over: a combination diner and gas station offering motorbike trails out back. The air smells of pine and wet earth. I go first. My father takes some time in returning. I get a coffee and stand outside. Cars whip by. A heavy set man emerges from the woods on a dirt bike.

He parks and goes towards the men's room.

"It's occupied," I say.

He nods and stops by me. We wait for a time, not speaking.

"My Dad's in there," I say.

"Older gentleman?" He shifts position.

"Yeah," I say.

He nods, companionably.

When at last I go to look for my father, I find him collapsed on the floor. I can't lift him. He carries the weight of inertia, of time spent waiting. The dirtbike man appears and wordlessly reaches down and helps me lift him.

We get him to the car. My father smiles meekly at the dirtbike man, and I thank him.

"A lot of meat on that guy," my father says.

"A lot of meat on him," I say. "A good thing, too."

The first part of this stretch feels as if it's all uphill. But the road winds left, then right, dips and climbs. You might be making progress, might not. Then all of a sudden, you come to a long, gradual rise. The ground is clear, hardscrabble: blueberry fields, stone walls. At the top, there's a high tech radio tower and a wooden observation perch, its ladders in disrepair, and a 360 degree view. Northeast, we can see the way out of Maine and into Canada, and we realize what we've done. We think about how it's possible again, how once more we've cheated the odds. My father, especially. He is going but not coming back.

"So there's this story about a blind seaman," my father says.

I have no idea how to answer this.

"He can't see. So how can he be a see-man?" He pauses here. Chuckles. I'm hoping this will be the end of it.

"Well, he can feel. He can feel what others can't. His hunches are good hunches. He doesn't make the kinds of mistakes we do running on instinct, which is not really instinct because we can always check it with our eyes. You know we make mistakes, human beings."

I look at the road. Two Mack trucks are just reaching the top, going in the opposite direction. They go slow, as if exhausted.

"Anyway, this blind seaman. You know what? He can't even swim. He's a blind seaman who can't even swim. Blind, landsman seaman. And he can't run the ship anymore. He wasn't always blind. Once upon a time he could see as well as you or me. But he remembers. How he did things before. He knows how it's supposed to work. And somehow because of this, he comes to know what's going to happen before it happens, just because he's so used to it. Because he's seen it happen before."

"He compensates?"

"No, he remembers. And because everyone knows that he knows about things before they happen, they bring him along for good luck. But he can't do anything at all. And he takes up space, and he eats a lot. Well, not a whole lot, but he eats, all right. And people say, well, that's him. Let's say his name is Mike. There's a problem with Mike's situation, and he knows it even though no one will say it. He knows that if something goes wrong, if someone has to go without food or be thrown overboard, or given as a hostage, or even be eaten if they get into a cannibal situation, then he's the natural choice. He's the sensible choice. But the thing is, unfortunately, he will know about that situation before it happens. Which would be a good thing if he could do anything about it, but he can't. He has to try to get others to do something. Or otherwise just wait for it to happen."

The road goes by. Another house has two arrows on its front, pointing in opposite directions: Bangor is 54 miles behind and Calais is 54 miles to go. A little further along on the left shoulder is a house with a white sign with blue lettering: "Beware, Ducks, Daddy is Home."

I notice my speed: 75. I slow down. My father is against speeding. He feels it is dangerous and unnecessary. From his point of view, cars go fast enough already. Perhaps too fast.

"The question is, how fast do we need to go? What's the end point of it all?" he usually says. But this time I'm not sure if he even notices. Maybe he is thinking about his sailor. He stops talking for a while, drops off and begins to wheeze. Every time he wheezes, I think he is getting ready to start talking again.

Then he says, "Damn cop." I slow again. We pass a cruiser.

It was no surprise at all to Dad that he was dying. He had a plan, but he needed me to put it in action. "I want to die among the flowers," he said, right after the doctor's. I knew immediately what he meant. The flowers were in the yard, overlooking the sea, at our cottage in Mashinticook.

There's not much I can give him. To take him to die where he wants to is something I can do. I thought it was fair payment for a year's room and board.

Once we had so much to argue over, but now, with Mum dead and my wife and I broken up, we have run out of contentious subjects. There was a time when it was hard for me to spend time in the same room with him, but now, all that is over. It seems as natural as anything to wake up in the morning and make him and me a cup of coffee.

"It is a long way," I managed to say.

"I think I can make it," he said. "There's a chance I won't. If so, I would ask you to keep driving. Don't stop at a hospital, keep driving. Lasting won't be easy, but you leave the lasting part to me."

The debt one owes a parent is hard to measure and grows as long as they are alive. The debt gains on us, and we lose ground all the time. Especially if life has tossed us back up like some piece of driftwood, and we find ourselves living with the old guy. I was happy to get a chance to work some of the debt off, but it was hard to imagine driving a dead guy through customs.

My father does not drive. He would certainly like to drive. But I have seen to it for the past two years that he doesn't. He was never a very good driver, but he was given to strong opinions about how the rest of the people on the highway should behave. He reached the conclusion that the safest way to drive was slowly. This is debatable and drives other people nuts. Imagine my father's compact going 50 in front of an 18-wheeler, and you'll get the idea. I made him sell it.

My father always does things his own way. He once fixed up a car and drove it across the country. He never really had a conventional job. He kept cats. He didn't like to estimate how many he'd had, but there were a great deal. More since Mum died, many more. I came back in with the cats.

As I say, I left my wife. This was not entirely my own doing. She suggested it. I am not the easiest person to live with. But she had known that going in.

We were sitting at breakfast, and she said, "One of us will have to leave. You have your father to go to. I think it should be you."

I started to respond, but she held up her hand and said, "We both know where this is going."

We had been married for 20 years. After that amount of time, you have had every argument under the sun.

I took a backpack with my laptop computer, my alarm clock, a bunch of socks and underwear, and my good t-shirts and jeans. I took my favorite omelet pan and some coffee and the maker. Things it would be a lot of trouble and cost to get new again. And I took my car. An old Mercedes sedan I got second hand. Runs like a dream. Fast. It turned out he needed it more than she did.

The morning Dad and I were leaving, she called as if she knew something was up. When I told her, she was quiet for a minute. Then she said, "It's a good thing you're doing."

"I'm glad you think so," I said.

"Be careful," she said.

"It's what he wants," I said. "And what he wants, he gets."

"You never said that about me."

"I always meant it about you."

"But you never said it. So I never thought it. It wasn't that you ever said you wouldn't do anything in particular for me, it was just that you never gave a blanket guarantee."

I waited to be sure she wasn't joking.

"What did you want me to do?"

"I didn't want you to do anything."

"I did everything I could."

"That's not what I mean."

We are closing in on Calais. Everything is familiar now: Carlow's Cabins, the Paradise Motel. To look at them, you would think that only days ago these were active establishments, but their doors and windows have been boarded up since I was a child, and their signs advertise something it's been years since they could provide. One wonders what happened to Carlow; one thinks a little bit about Paradise. What keeps the buildings standing? Why haven't they rotted and disappeared? Perhaps the road itself keeps them here, evidence of its former incarnation as a cracked, ill-tended, vertiginous country byway. Now cars scream by on widened, refurbished asphalt, but the old landmarks remain, like the set from a forgotten movie.

I notice that my father has been quiet for some time. I look over, and his eyes are closed and the wheezing has stopped. I check as well as I can that he is breathing, but I can't be sure. Luckily there is a store just short of the end of the road. I pull into the parking lot. We are the only car. I feel his pulse. It is fine. I stop the car and get out. To get to the end of the road feels like an achievement. Also, Dad is still all right. I go inside.

In the bathroom of this store, there is a sign which reads, "This bathroom—the water, the supplies, and keeping it clean—is not cheap. Please buy something." I always respond to this. Sometimes it's just candy. Other times, I try to buy something more substantial. I once bought a refill package for a sander even though I didn't have a sander in the first place. Another time, I bought a wrench. This time, I can't decide on anything, and I go up and down the aisles a few times before I feel my father at my side.

"I don't have time," he says.

Although he smiles, I can tell he is serious. I pick up the first thing at hand—a packet of toy soldiers—pay, and we get back on the road.

"One thing I'd like you to remember," he begins as we pull out. I try as hard as I can to shut my mind. This is the phrase which always starts the trouble. Over my wife, whom he never really liked; over his life, which I could never really escape; sometimes over the time of day. It's the way he says, it, really, as much as the saying. Roundabout, teacherish.

"Accumulation," he says. "It might feel accidental, meaningless. But when you buy something, you contribute—to the society, to the mindset that led to the production of the goods. A package of soldiers, for example: a minor purchase, really, in the scheme of things, but placed in context, it means something, and someone, somewhere notices. Maybe someone, somewhere is counting how many people bought toy soldiers, and perhaps that someone concludes with your purchase that it makes sense to produce two million more? It's possible. And then, of course, it's equally possible and no small amount more likely that someone, somewhere else is counting the number of people who buy toy soldiers as a vote on the number of people who like war, and then, of course, you're off and running..."

Off and running, I think, as he goes on. There are a number of ways I could respond, but don't. The old guy's dying after all. Maybe the final charge to pay is once more not saying what's on my mind. Not arguing. Accepting his pearls of wisdom without thinking about the source. But accumulation? What about the cats?

"Careful," my father says.

But I'm not and never have been. And I accelerate.

Within minutes, I'm caught—by one of the troopers who sometimes wait for drivers like myself whose patience for abiding by the law runs out as they close in on the highway's end.

His bright blue lights remain spinning for a time before he gets out and comes over.

"Don't worry," my father says.

I have only about a second to wonder what he means by this when I hear a tap on my window. I lower it.

"Nice car," he says, but then, "Do you know how fast—"

"Officer, it's my fault," my father interrupts. "My son here is a much more careful man than me. He is a better driver, doesn't like to speed. On the contrary. But he knows that I, his father, am very sick and do not have long to live, and I asked him to hurry, and very much against his will, he's been hurrying. I apologize and ask your indulgence, but having asked for it, I would also ask that you allow us to continue on—not so quickly, of course—to our little house in Mashinticook, just over the border, so that an old man may die among his flowers."

I look up at the trooper's face. His Ray Bans mask any expression. His jaw remains set, but he seems to grind his teeth for a moment as he takes us in.

"All right," he says and walks back to his car.

I turn the key in the ignition and drive slowly back onto the highway, unable to believe what has just happened. The trooper drives off in the other direction.

"So long, sucker," my father says.

A few minutes later, as we pull up to the customs line in Calais, he turns to me and asks me whether I know any jokes. I say I often wish I do, for situations just like this one. "I have forgotten the punch lines to most jokes," he says. "That's what getting older is like. You forget the punch lines. It's like you've been telling a very long joke, and all of a sudden, you're at the end, and you can't remember the punch line. So son, I would ask you to remember punch lines..."

Half an hour later, we reached the town itself. We come around the corner and take our customary right turn, and there, at the bottom of the hill, is the ocean. We turn left, and there it is: our saltbox on the water.

The harbor is in town, just a little further down the road. The harbor island is to the left, and to the right, a sandstone shelf and a football-field-sized expanse of reddish mud. Without stopping to unpack, my father moves through the house, grabs a deck chair, and makes for his spot in the midst of an explosion of red, blue, pink, and orange blooms. He moans a little sigh of relief, then rouses himself and looks about him.

There is the sound of birds and the swish of the ocean and then a profound hush. I understand that death, in and of itself, isn't so bad—it's the getting ready that's the hard part.

 

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