We got back to The Pit Stop at ten to three. We found my dad at a table by the bar, wolfing down a bratwurst smothered in mustard. In front of him was a twenty-ounce clear plastic cup, empty save for a little lacing of foam around the bottom. The empty cup wasn’t a good sign. If he’d had any more than one of those over the past hour, we were in trouble. The bratwurst wasn’t a good sign either. He always ate a lot right after he drank too much in an effort to sober up more quickly.
“How was it?” he said through a mouthful of bun and brat.
“Good,” I said. “We had a good time.”
He swallowed his food and wiped his salt-and-pepper mustache with his napkin. “Good,” he said. “You ready to go?”
“I think so,” I said. “Are you?”
“Sure,” he said. He popped the last morsel of brat into his mouth. As soon as he stood, I knew he was drunk. He teetered a little on his feet and gripped the back of his chair to steady himself. I had the impulse to reach out and stop him from going any further, to take him by the arm and sit him back down, but before I could act, he lurched forward. He staggered to the door, one wobbly step at a time, paused at the threshold to put on his aviator sunglasses, and then stumbled out onto the crowded fairway. None of us made any move to go after him, and he didn’t bother to see if we were behind him.
Tony leaned over to me. “Dude,” he said. “What’s up with your dad? Is he drunk?”
There was no denying it. It was obvious. “Yeah,” I said. “He’s pretty drunk.”
“Oh shit,” he said. “How are we going to get home?”
That was an excellent question. “I have no idea,” I said.
Rashid turned to me. “We could call your mom,” he said. “I saw a row of payphones by the front gate.”
“I don’t have time to wait for Jim’s mom,” said Tony. “I have to get home by four thirty to watch my sister. My mom has to go to work.”
“What other option do we have?” said Rashid.
Tony chewed his lower lip and looked down at the floor. For a moment he was utterly still. Then he glanced up. His eyes brightened. He pointed at me. “You could drive the car home,” he said.
“My dad wouldn’t let me drive his car,” I said.
“It wouldn’t hurt to ask, would it?” said Tony.
“It would piss him off,” I said.
“Why would it piss him off?” Tony asked.
“Because he’ll know I think he’s too drunk to drive,” I said. “He always gets pissed when anyone calls him on being drunk. I’ve learned to just keep my mouth shut. It’s not worth saying anything.”
“Okay,” said Tony. “So make up some bullshit reason for wanting to drive. Tell him you want some practice for your driving test.”
“I’m pretty sure he’ll see right through that,” I said.
“Maybe not,” said Tony. “You’re going for your license in the fall, right? It makes sense that you’d want some practice.”
“He’s going to say no,” I said.
“You won’t know for sure unless you ask,” said Tony.
“I know for sure,” I said.
“Just ask,” said Tony. “If he says no, we just won’t get in the car. We’ll call your mom, and my mom will just have to be late.”
I rubbed my eyes. I could tell Tony wasn’t going to drop this. Fighting him any more would just be a waste of energy. “Okay,” I said. “I’ll give it a try. But I’m telling you, he’s not going to go for it.”
Tony grinned and slapped me on the arm. “We’ll see,” he said.
A young waiter, a thin, weedy guy in a striped apron, walked up to the table my dad had been sitting at, picked up his beer cup, and strode away. I wondered if he was the one who had served my dad. If it wasn’t him, I imagined it had to be somebody like him—somebody young and inexperienced and easy to persuade. An older, wiser waiter would have cut my dad off before he got really sloppy. He would have refused my dad’s requests for more, ignored my dad’s claims that he wasn’t even feeling it.
“You guys ready to go?” said Rashid.
“Let’s do it,” said Tony.
We caught up with my dad in the parking lot. He was zigzagging between rows of cars, singing the Marine Corps Hymn in a booming baritone, waving his arms around like an orchestra conductor. Apparently, he still hadn’t noticed we weren’t behind him. I thought I’d better announce our presence. “Dad,” I said. “Wait up.”
He stopped singing and conducting and turned to us. His bald, sunburned scalp glistened with sweat. “Where the hell did we park?” he barked.
“B12,” said Rashid. He pointed to the left. “Just over there.”
My dad glanced up at the parking lot sign and hung an abrupt left, disappearing between a blue minivan and a maroon pickup truck. We hustled after him, first Tony, then Rashid, then me. We got to the car—a black 1995 Toyota Camry—just in time to see him open the driver’s side door and plop down behind the wheel.
“Get in kids,” he called through the open window.
We didn’t move. Tony patted me on the shoulder. “Go ahead,” he said. “Ask him.”
I took a deep breath and looked down at my dad. This wasn’t going to be easy. “Dad,” I said tentatively. “I was wondering—would it be okay if I drove us home?”
He gazed up at me. “Why the hell do you want to drive home?” he said.
“I just thought it might be good practice for my driving test in the fall,” I said. It sounded like a lie coming out. I had never been very good at lying. I should have made Tony do the talking. He might have actually convinced the old man.
My dad propped his sunglasses up on his forehead and draped his beefy red arm out the window. “I don’t think that would be a good idea,” he said.
“Why not?” I said.
“You’ve never driven before. It’s a long ride. Wouldn’t be safe.”
That was rich, I thought. He was so drunk he could barely walk, and he thought he was a safer driver than me.
Rashid spoke up. “Could I give it a try, Mr. Thompson?” he said. “I just got my temps. I’ve already driven quite a bit, but I could use some practice, too.”
“No you can’t give it a try,” said my dad. He sounded irritated now. “Nobody drives this car but me. Not my son, not Tony, and not you. Especially not you.”
“Why especially not me?” said Rashid.
“Because you’re a goddam Iranian,” snarled my dad. “I know the way you people are. I let you drive this car, you’ll probably drive us into the goddam lake just to get rid us. Death to America!”
Rashid blushed. I blushed, too. I couldn’t remember ever feeling quite so humiliated. “That was an ignorant thing to say,” I said to my dad.
“I don’t care,” he said. “Get in the goddam car.”
“We’re not getting in the car,” I said. I didn’t care anymore if I pissed him off. “You’re too drunk to drive.”
“So that’s what this is about,” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “That’s what this is about.”
“I only had a few beers,” he said. “I’m in fine shape to drive.”
“No you’re not,” I said.
“Get in the goddam car!”
“No,” I said.
He pounded the steering wheel with the side of his fist, flung open the door, and lunged out of the car. I backed up a couple steps and put my hands up in front of me like a nineteenth century pugilist preparing for a round of fisticuffs. I don’t know what I thought I was doing. My dad outweighed me by a good fifty pounds and was vastly stronger. If I had gotten into fistfight with him, I don’t think I would have lasted long. He didn’t give me the chance to find out. He just batted my hands away, grabbed me by the bicep, and dragged me around to the passenger side. “If I tell you to get in the car,” he said. “You get in the fucking car.” He opened the door and shoved me in. “You two,” I heard him shout over me. “In the car now!”
I waited for Tony to protest, to tell my old man to go to hell, to stand up to him like he’d stood up to that tall skinny kid in the Slipstream line. I waited for Rashid to give the speech about how he didn’t like putting himself in situations where he wasn’t in control. But all I heard was the sound of the back doors opening. Tony got in on the left and Rashid got in on the right. I glanced back at them. They were both sitting there with their heads down. My dad got back into the driver’s seat. “Okay kids,” he said. “Say goodbye to Buckeye Point.” He started the car and put it in reverse.
Sitting there beside him, watching him maneuver the car, I wondered what I should do—what I could do—to stop him. Should I try to talk to him again? Should I ask him again to consider letting me drive? I nixed that thought almost immediately. There was no way he was going to give up the wheel now. Asking him to do so would just infuriate him more. I had to think of something else. I could punch him in the face and try to knock him out. That could work, but it could also backfire badly. If I didn’t knock him out cold, if he retained any degree of consciousness after I slugged him, his retaliation would be brutal. He would break me, pulverize me—he might even kill me. Who knew how crazy he might get if I were to hit him in his current condition? Better not to risk it.
I was still trying to figure out what to do when we pulled onto the highway. My dad hit eighty at the bottom of the on-ramp, cut over to the fast lane without looking for oncoming traffic, and took the car up to ninety-five. We didn’t go any faster than that, but that was fast enough. That was faster than I’d ever traveled in a car before. That was faster than The Slipstream. The other cars on the highway looked like they were barely moving. Dad blasted by them one at a time. He almost hit a few. People laid on their horns as we passed. Each time someone honked at us, Dad hollered, “Fuck you, asshole!” and flipped the person off in the rearview mirror. I figured it was only a matter of time before the cops got us. I hoped they did—the sooner the better. Dad would get a DUI. He would get fined. He would probably lose his license for a while. But at least we would be alive.
“How about some music?” he yelled over the roar of the engine. He turned on the radio. It was tuned to a station I liked to listen to, a station that played mostly contemporary rock. The song that was on was “Alive” by Pearl Jam. The singer, Eddie Vedder, was belting out the chorus: “I, oh, I’m still alive. Yeah, yeah, I, oh, I’m still alive.” I felt like he was taunting me. He was singing those words in some cozy little Seattle studio, standing on firm ground, immobile, safe. He wasn’t hurtling down the highway at ninety-five miles per hour in a car piloted by a drunken maniac. He had survived. I might not. Vedder’s voice cut out, and the guitar player ripped into the wailing two-minute solo that ended the song. My dad turned the volume up all the way. “I love this part,” he screeched. “That sonuvabitch can play!” He began beating the steering wheel with his hands and bopping his head up and down. Normally, I liked this part of the song, too, but not at this volume. This was torture. This was like listening to cannon fire at close range.
Suddenly the car swerved onto the gravel berm. Instinctively, I reached out to grab the steering wheel. My dad swatted me away. “What the hell do you think you’re doing!” he yelled.
“You’re off the road,” I stammered.
He whipped around and jerked the steering wheel right just before the car slammed into the concrete barrier that divided the highway. I didn’t move or breathe. I just sat there, eyes forward, hands gripping the armrests, a mass of sizzling nerves and crawling flesh. When I’d regained my composure enough to move, I peeked back at Tony and Rashid to see how they were doing. They were both plastered to their seats, white knuckling their seatbelt straps. Tony’s bottom lip was quivering, and his eyes were cartoonishly wide. He looked far more frightened than he had on any of the roller coasters we had ridden. Rashid’s eyes were closed tightly, and he was whispering something under his breath—a prayer, I imagined. He looked more composed than Tony, but no less frightened. I should be praying, too, I thought. That was all that could save us now…that or the police. I closed my eyes and started thinking of something to say to God. I felt a pang of guilt. In spite of my eight years of Catholic schooling, I did not pray regularly. In fact, I hardly prayed at all. For the past couple years I had been telling people that I didn’t believe in God, that God was a fiction invented by humans as a way to deal with uncertainty. I hoped God wouldn’t hold my know-it-all atheism against me now. If He got me out of this, I swore, I would never deny Him again.
I began my prayer. Dear God. Please spare my life and the lives of my friends, Tony and Rashid. We are all basically good people. We don’t deserve to die. We are too young to die. We have a lot to contribute. If you spare us, I promise you I will not go astray again. I will go to church every Sunday and pray every day. I promise I will never tell people that you don’t exist again. All I ask is that you let us live. I will never ask another favor of you if you grant me this. Thank you for listening to my prayer, and thank you for all that you have given me. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I made the sign of the cross with my right hand and opened my eyes. Dad was beginning to veer over to the berm again. I heard a siren, distant but distinct. “Gestapo!” crowed my dad. “The bastard won’t catch me.” He choked up on the steering wheel and accelerated to a hundred.
I turned and peered out the back window. About a hundred yards behind us was a small white truck with a bright red light whirling over the windshield. “It’s not a cop,” I said. “It’s an ambulance.”
Dad eased up on the gas and relaxed his grip on the steering wheel. “Too bad,” he said. “Not as much fun outrunning an ambulance.” He chuckled a little and then grew silent. “Shit,” he said. “I have to take a piss. Keep your eyes peeled for an exit.”
I couldn’t believe it. We were going to stop. God had answered my prayer. I might survive this after all. I silently thanked Him and began scanning the roadside for exit signs.
The next exit was about two miles up the road. We pulled off the highway and followed the off-ramp to a bumpy two-lane country road. For a few minutes, we rolled along looking for somewhere to stop, a gas station or a McDonald’s or something, but all we saw were fields and trees. Dad squirmed and groped his crotch. “I can’t wait any longer,” he said. “I’m just going to have to do this the old fashioned way.” He pulled over onto the side of the road and put the car in park. “Be right back,” he said. He opened the door, shimmied out, and wandered into a nearby thicket of trees.
As soon as he was out of sight, Tony piped up. “Okay,” he said. “Who’s driving?”
“What do you mean who’s driving?” I said. “Nobody’s driving. My dad already vetoed that idea.”
“Who cares what your dad vetoed,” said Tony. “He’s not coming with us. Fuck him.”
“We can’t just leave him here,” I said.
“Why not?” Tony said. “He almost killed us. I have no problem at all with leaving him here.”
“You don’t have to live with him,” I said. “He’ll kill me when he finally does get home.”
“No he won’t,” said Tony. “By the time he gets home, he’ll be sober. He’ll understand.”
“I’m not so sure,” I said.
“If he’s still mad when he gets home, you can crash at my house until he cools down,” said Tony.
“Can’t we just get out of the car and walk to somewhere where there’s a phone?” I said.
“No we can’t,” said Tony. “We’re in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t see a single house between here and the highway.”
“We can walk to the highway and hitch a ride with somebody,” I said.
“I’m not hitching a ride with anybody,” said Tony. “You know how many wackos are out there? Hitchhiking might be the only thing riskier than riding with your dad.”
“There’s got to be some other way that doesn’t involve leaving my dad here by himself,” I said.
“There’s no other way,” said Tony. He turned to Rashid. “Rashid, back me up on this.”
Rashid scratched his precociously stubbly chin and gazed out the window at the desolate road. “We’re still about forty-five minutes away from home,” he said. “If we let your dad drive, there’s a good chance we’ll get in an accident. Personally, I would rather leave him here and take the car. But I understand why you wouldn’t want to do that. I don’t like the idea of leaving him here either. If I thought there was any chance that he would let one of us drive and just sit in the passenger seat, I wouldn’t even consider leaving him here. But there’s no chance of that. He made that pretty clear.”
Rashid was the most levelheaded kid I knew. He never acted without first thinking carefully. I couldn’t think of a time he had ever done anything rash or impulsive. I couldn’t think of time he had ever made a poor decision. If he thought taking the car and leaving my dad out here was the best thing to do, then it was. Still, just the thought of abandoning my dad made me feel like a traitor. The old man would never trust me again. But then, I’d never really trusted him. So I guessed we’d be even. “All right,” I said. “I’m in. But I don’t like it.”
“You don’t have to,” said Tony. “So who’s driving?”
“I’ll drive,” said Rashid. “I’ve probably got the most practice of anyone here.”
“Great,” said Tony. “You look the oldest, too, so you’re probably less likely to get pulled over by the cops. Go ahead and get up there.”
Rashid hopped out of the back and got into the driver’s seat. He moved the seat in closer to the steering wheel, adjusted his mirrors, and put on his seatbelt. “Here goes nothing,” he said. He put the car in drive and pulled into the road. He looked confident and relaxed behind the wheel. His arms were steady.
“If you want me to take over at any point,” I said to Rashid, “just let me know. We can pull over and make the switch.”
“I think I got it under control,” said Rashid.
Photo by Jonathan Spence