Oct/Nov 2022  •   Fiction

Harrisburg, 1965

by Peter Gordon

Organic mixed media artwork by Kay Sexton

Organic mixed media artwork by Kay Sexton

Five hours after he was supposed to pick me up, my father pulled into our driveway in his red Fiat Spider and blasted the air horn. From my bedroom window I saw him through the crystal-clear windshield of his beloved car, hunched forward, completely absorbed in the fiddling of the radio dial before he suddenly looked up. I waved, tentatively, mostly just to test if he noticed me. He immediately flattened his outspread hand against the windshield. Soon he was flexing his index finger, beckoning me to come down. When I shook my head, he smiled like in his mind the matter was already settled. The smile dissolved as soon as he saw my mother marching down the driveway.

I lay down on my bed, waiting for an explosion of voices and slamming doors that never came. If anything it only got quieter as though the whole neighborhood was holding its breath in anticipation of the same thing. A minute later my mother appeared in my bedroom doorway. "You're not going out there. Do you hear me?"

I didn't say anything because I knew there was nothing to say.

"He thinks he can just turn up any goddamn time he pleases and have you wondering if he'll even show up at all." She turned to walk away and then spun back around, her eyes glittering with tears. "You deserve better."

When I got up and looked out the window, the driveway was empty. I lay down again and waited for the thrumming intro music to one of my mother's favorite Motown albums she always played to chase away all the negative energy invariably resulting from any close encounter with my father. As soon as I heard the boom-boom-boom of the beat drifting up from the basement, I repacked my duffel bag as fast as I could and snuck out the back door. I headed along the Pearson's fence and across the Gustafson's open expanse of lawn. It was cold and cloudy, and the grass was sheened with frost, while all I had on was a t-shirt and dungarees with everything else including my socks and shoes stuffed into the bag. The road freeze-burned the bottoms of my bare feet, and I was almost crying by the time I reached my father's sports car now parked on the corner by the mailbox, just out of sight of our house.

The window went down. "Jesus, Steven, what the hell are you thinking?" he said. He reached across and shoved open the passenger side door. Once I was in the car, he took off his sports coat—his good one, the brown wool one—and deftly maneuvered it over my shoulders.

"Do you need a winter coat? I can buy you a coat, you know."

"I have one."

"Where is it then?"

Not waiting for an answer, he turned up the heat fan as high as it would go and bent the vent in my direction.

"Put your shoes on at least. That'll be a start."

While I was pulling on my socks, I looked behind me. Wedged between the bucket seats was a thick binder of road maps held together with string, and jammed into the narrow space of the rear seat never meant for humans anyway was an old brown suitcase, a black suit bag, several pairs of shoes, and enough cartons of Kent cigarettes to last a man a lifetime.

I had no idea where we were going, but that wasn't unusual. He liked to surprise me, though I long suspected his so-called mystery adventures were simply the result of not giving our time together any thought until the last minute. We got on the Mass Pike, which wasn't much of a clue since it led to just about anywhere while offering him an extra lane to drive even faster and more recklessly than he did on regular roads. We were heading west, which could mean the basketball hall of fame in Springfield, skiing in the Berkshires, the whole length of Connecticut, maybe even New York City where he took me once and we spent the weekend trying to find tall buildings where you could go to the top for free.

Less than three hours down the road, already in New York State, passing other cars as though it was our God-given right, he pulled into a rest stop to gas up, then continued past the pumps to a large, mostly empty lot shadowed by a great outcropping of black slate rock. He seemed a bit flustered, gripping the burnished wood steering wheel with both hands like he needed to hold on to something.

"I have something to ask you," he said. "Okay?"

Usually my father didn't preface anything, like saying he was going to ask a question before asking it, or telling you he was going to do something before doing it. Usually he just came charging at you unannounced.


"Do you want to come with me to California?"

I studied his face to see if he was joking and expecting a joke in return. Except he wasn't. "What's in California?" I said.

"Oh, let's see now, there's the Pacific Ocean, palm trees, sunshine 12 months a year... I'm sure I'm leaving a few things out. Don't they teach you anything in fifth grade?"

"I'm in sixth grade now."

He looked me up and down as if he might challenge me on that fact before he leaned in and lowered his voice. There was no other car or truck within 100 feet of us, but you would have thought he was worried someone might be eavesdropping. "Maybe you think there's still a chance we'll be a family again. Well, I'm here to tell you there's not."

If he thought he was going to get a reaction out of me, he was wrong. I didn't have to be told what I already knew. I wasn't one of those kids like David Canova or Stephen Eckling who clung to some stupid fantasy of their parents getting back together.

"All right," I said.

"All right what?"

"All right I'll go with you."

"You will?"

"Where will we live?"

"I'm working on it as we speak." He was grinning now. "New house, new job, new life."

"Will I have my own room?"

"Damn right you will. Nice and private. Bigger than your room here. Way bigger."

He gave a little celebratory whoop and slapped me on the knee. Then he jumped out and walked across the parking lot towards the long, low public service building where I watched him smoke a cigarette under the overhang, pacing back and forth as he smoked, before going inside. While he was gone, I started getting a kind of panic attack, although I wouldn't have called it that back then. It was like I'd just run a great distance and couldn't catch my breath. My fingers tingled. My chest ached. By the time he got back in the car, I was leaning my head out the window, trying to suck in as much cold air as I could. He didn't notice anything out of the ordinary.

"No time to waste," my father said, putting us in gear. "We have a country to cross."

I assumed co-pilot duties with a map of the next leg—Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana—spread out on my lap. Really there was no need for navigation. The directions were laid out before us. We just had to follow the dotted line. My father said they built these roads to make it harder to turn around than continue straight. They wanted people to keep going and populate the plains and beyond, fill in all the empty spaces west of the Mississippi. He was reenergized, animated and talkative. For the next 200 miles as he shifted and changed lanes, cutting off other vehicles through the narrowest of openings, he kept up a steady patter about how this was how it should be, him and me and me and him, father and son, the two of us a team, and he stole glances at me to confirm I was on board with all of his rambling sentiments, and on board period. In between he twisted the radio dial back and forth to find the next raucous song to propel us down the road.

"When we hit the southwest, I just might let you sit on my lap and do a little steering through the desert," he said.

I never made it that far. Just past Philadelphia I started having trouble breathing again, and this time it was so bad, it caused me to open my mouth as wide as it would go and emit strange wheezing sounds with every constricted intake of air. My father told me it was simple carsickness and to put my head between my knees so the oxygen had a new route to follow. When that did no good, he handed me a plastic bag to breathe into. Finally, exasperated, he turned off at the first exit for Harrisburg and sped into the half-full parking lot of a A&P. He killed the engine.

"Okay, what's wrong?"

"I don't know."

"If you've changed your mind, just say so."

"I think I'm sick." I could barely get the words out.

"I need specifics, chief. I need details."

I couldn't look at him.

"Do you want to go back? Is that it?"

I closed my eyes and pictured my old bed, my team pennants on the wall above it, the solar system mobile hanging precariously from the ceiling. My whole body was shaking, and it felt as though I was being pulled apart piece by piece and if somebody didn't intervene, there would be nothing left of me.

"Wait here," my father said.

There was a single phone booth near the entrance to the store. He hung his head the whole time he was on the phone, nodded every so often, and constantly shifted his weight from one foot to the other. He seemed to be doing a lot more listening than talking, and when he got back in the car, he stared straight ahead for a couple of minutes before he spoke.

"You're going to be punished. Grounded. No TV. No comic books. No friends over. She isn't sure she can ever trust you again. You're going have to earn back a lot of things. Start from scratch. Nothing's going to be handed to you. She wants you to know things will be different from now on."

He didn't say it like he was trying to convince me life would be a lot more enjoyable if I just stayed with him. He delivered the news in a flat monotone the way a court stenographer might read back snippets of witness testimony.

That was that. He put me on the next bus to Boston. It took the exact route we'd just taken, except much slower and in reverse, like it was erasing every mile my father and I just traveled. The best thing was the big window where I could look down on all the cars and trucks and appreciate how small and ridiculous everyone seemed. I thought of the last thing my father said to me as I stood in the boarding queue, that he'd call as soon as he got to Los Angeles. It would be the very first thing he did, he promised. He wouldn't even stop to check out the movie stars on Sunset Boulevard. I could tell he was sincere, he had every intention of doing it, he meant every word.

Before we went to the bus terminal, he decided I couldn't go back east—he was already referring to it as a place in his rear view mirror—without a parting gift. He took me to a fancy men's store in downtown Harrisburg where he bought me a new winter coat. It was a beauty, a genuine wool, double-breasted navy peacoat with the image of a nautical anchor imprinted on every metal button. He deliberately chose one two sizes too big so I would have time to grow into it and it would last a good long while, take me right through junior high and with any luck further than that. All he asked was every time I put it on, every year the seasons changed and another fierce New England winter came charging in, I'd think of where we were that day, Harrisburg, PA, on the banks of the Susquehanna, the place where I turned back and he kept going.