In Which the Passenger’s Seat is a Kiln for Every Fire
One of the last functional American cigarette machines broods in the corner of the saloon. The display boxes almost creak, unsmoked, untouched in fifty years. Winston Lites and Virginia Slims permanently study the dancefloor, now dormant in the midday slump. The neon Budweiser sign excuses the day drinkers, simulating a tipped bottle, lights clicking back and forth, interrupting the staleness in the bar. I eye the menthol Camels but I have no cash and end up bumming one from a guy in a green Gators jersey. Earlier, I forgot it was St. Patrick’s Day until my father walked out of his room wearing a plaid, buckled kilt.
“Remember, you’re in graduate school,” he flicks his head towards the cracked-jaw bartender who’s pouring a Guinness down the bar, unsuspecting of my father’s lie.
He does the convincing and I try not to slip up on my false persona. My father’s a good performer, at least in conversation—wherever he needs to get a one-up or one of his children drunk.
We’re sitting next to two older women, 60 years old or so, who are curious about the Irish car bombs we just ordered. The one in the too-fancy georgette blouse nudges my shoulder.
“Those ones wi’rip right through you. We’ve had two and don’t think we’ll make it to the airport tomorrow” she warns, wobbling her empty glass and sucking down the foam at the bottom.
“Cheers to that,” my father interjects and I glare at him for a moment before I drop the whiskey shot into the Guinness and finish the glass before he drinks half of his own.
The southern belles next to me whoop and chant, while my father sits in a half-serious loss and shakes off his scorn. I don’t know if I want to celebrate my victory or mourn that this is the only way I know how to impress my father.
“Dad, you better watch out for this one!” the bartender hollers after watching us both down the shots. I sit resigned, smirking for the sake of setting, like I always do when I’m with him. My eyes winnow over the shelves of dark bourbons and whiskeys behind the bar. The dust on the top shelf shifts side to side every time the bartender makes a round, like linted long grass in a drunken pastoral.
The bottles make me feel twelve again, staring at the distant aisles of liquor from the backseat of my father’s Prius. He sat in the front seat howling directions to the corner store at my brother. He dislocated his knee on a faulty indoor-surf ride after he promised (or, most likely, lied) that he used to shred fifty foot waves as a teenager. My brother was 17—the oldest and the only sibling who could drive. He suggested a trip to the hospital, because that’s what you do when someone’s biting a gritty beach towel to blunt their bodily screams. My father could afford to go to the hospital. He had great insurance; he was just stubborn as fuck.
So we drove to the corner store. My brother propped my father up on his arm and hobbled inside. I stayed in the car. My brother knew where to go—third aisle back from the entrance. The dark bottles inside looked like soldiers, lined rigidly on the shelves. Most folks around Southwest Florida are older and don’t drink hard liquor, so the dust was prominent even on the first Bulliet bottle. They bought two handles and a bag of ice. The polar bear on the bag stared at me the whole way home.
Now it’s spring break of my junior year of college, and I’m a few months away from being a legal drinker. I chug another car bomb and look at my father.
“So where do you think they’re shacking up?” he whispers, looking over at the man and woman sitting perpendicular to us at the bar.
“What do you mean?” I ask confused, trying to scan the two drinkers he’s talking about.
The woman wears a button-up dress with the first three buttons undone. She’s got minimal wrinkles compared to the man with pearl hair and eyes that glance at her chest every time she orders another Mai Tai from the bartender.
“They’ve been talking about the hotel they’re staying in, and that briefcase looks as empty as the third glass he just finished,” he says in a detective tone.
I shrug and try to forget my father’s nosy comments as I watch the two business bar-goers pull off their stools and pick a pool table in the corner of the saloon.
“I don’t know,” I say, forcing a laugh and switching the subject, “but he’s got a U of I keychain on his keyring which is pretty cool. Have I told you about the new library I found on campus?”
“Maybe they met at U of I, or his unknowing wife and him did. You don’t meet the mistress that far in the past,” he laughs into the sentence and stares at their posture across the room.
I sigh a bit and sip the last of my second Guinness. School is usually a comfortable topic, something I bring up to tame my potential irritation.
“How about we play some bags, Dad.”
We set up the boards and my father tries to show me how to throw, how to score. Instead of practicing my cornhole arm, I practice tuning out his slurred voice. I suggest bags so he’ll wear off some of the drunkenness. When we switch sides, he staggers and laughs, whacking my shoulder harder than an encouraging blow. He starts to ramble and curses playfully when my bean bag knocks his off the board.
I keep up with him for a few more rounds, but he’s still glossy-eyed and trying to throw in unknotted shoes. He suggests we leave soon. I’m not as drunk as him, but we came in the rental car he won’t let me drive. My father will use the rental car driving law as an excuse, as if the drunk-driving thing is more legal. I go to the bathroom and smoke another cigarette to buy both of us time. I grip either side of the white pedestal sink and look into the mirror, washed with the fear of my father again, for what isn’t the first time.
The same fear rose in my throat when I was thirteen and my father burned rubber across the Peace Highway. He erratically pumped the gas pedal in a long stretch home. My sister and I jolted around when he braked quickly to slow up or cut off the car next to us. Crumb-filled ziplocs peeked out of the seat back pockets and the sun visor hung like the molar I’d been trying to pop out of my mouth for weeks.
“Please, just slow down. You’re making me nauseous, Dad,” my sister pleaded from the back seat, grabbing the Jesus handle above the door.
His eyes glazed over and he didn’t speak. We rolled through the residential area, Florida lanes narrow and unforgiving. He kissed the edge of the road with the bumper and crashed into a mailbox, which took off his side mirror. We sat there blinking in shock.
We wailed and he cussed about the mirror, avoiding eye contact in the rearview. We walked the rest of the way home.
Now, I walk out of the bathroom, pale and hoping the next hour doesn’t end with us in a ditch on the side of the road.
“Dad, we should really wait to go home. You can barely fucking walk dude. Let me drive the rental car, it’s only like two miles.”
I start a familiar beg again. I curse at myself for not grabbing the keys earlier.
“I’m fine, kid. I need like, ten beers to get me gone. Let’s just get in the car.”
I’ve got no other way home. I get in the car with him. I buckle my seatbelt and sit, fiery and silent in the passenger’s seat.
I think of 2014, sitting in his car again. We were heading home from a kayaking tour on the Myakka river.
“I’ve gotta piss. You need to drive faster, Barrett,” he groans lowly.
Then he gripped the Jesus handle, slightly squirming, giving directions to my seventeen-year-old brother.
“Go fucking faster, Jesus Christ, go!” he grumbled again, raising his voice louder than before.
I made eye contact with my brother in the rearview mirror and glanced at my other siblings in similar, familiar distress. He bore the brunt of the abuse as the oldest son, and learned to handle my father’s volume, but he still looked at me for a relief I wish I could have given him. We were a mile away from the house and my brother tried to squeak by other cars where he could.
“You fucking jag-off, you’re fucking doing that on purpose, aren’t you?” my father growled in between slamming the dashboard and digging his feet into the chipped floor mats.
When we got home, my father rushed inside, knocking over a milk crate in the garage, which made him curse even louder. My siblings and I exchanged the look specific to this type of situation. Each time it became more of a joke. He’s fucking crazy. That’s Dad for ya. What the fuck was that?
My siblings slowly stopped visiting. My sister stopped talking to my father altogether. My brothers stuck to jokes about dad-related anecdotes, some casual and some tinted with grief.
I’ve given my father more chances than anyone else. When I’m twenty and he’s having heart problems, I plan a trip to see him again after three years of not seeing him. I think about losing my father after I’ve already lost him before. I apologize to him for not making more of an effort. Even when he punctured the child in me. When he is dying. When I blame myself for my father. I apologize to myself in his passenger’s seat when he is winding out of downtown Arcadia buzzed on five car bombs and four winning rounds of bags.
We creep out of the town center and into the backroads. He’s yelping to Hotel California in the wind of the convertible. I’m there, muted. I’m just there.
“Watch this babe,” he cheers, then looks down at the speedometer.
He bolts the car through the farm roads. He goes ninety and flirts with a hundred on the straightaways. I’ve never driven this fast. I never wanted to.
“You need to fucking slow down” I howl when he’s drifting around corners of stop signs and red lights.
He gets that same glaze in his eyes. His sockets like pottery again. He’s clicked into the rush.
“I need you to stop, dad. I’m serious. Dad, please,” I plead into the wind whipping the sound of my voice into shreds.
He’s still speeding. He’s speeding and he doesn’t look at me. Just like I’ve learned to tune out his cursing and slurring, he’s learned to tune out my pleading, my wanting.
He keeps going. Then I stop. I don’t ask anymore. I sink into the same glaze of my father’s eyes. I swallow my words like gasoline. I am twelve, I am thirteen, I am twenty and I am in the seat of my father’s control. I’m in the seat of my father’s car.
Leo Flood is a Nonbinary poet and student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They are Leo sun, a Taurus moon, and a Capricorn Rising, long-time dancer, tattoo artist, barista, cook, and spend most of their time petting the tiny head of their kitty named Soup.