Wednesday, October 13, 2010

LITERARY DISCUSSIONS #2: "Car Crash While Hitchhiking" by Denis Johnson

Being the second in an occasional series of online chat sessions conducted by TST founders Duke Altum and Mutt Ploughman, in which we discuss literary works and post the transcripts up to these pages to further bore our readers...


DUKE: Well all right, welcome to our second literary chat session... Duke Altum here, and joining me as always is my partner in this endeavor, Mutt Ploughman... how things going up there Mutt?

MUTT: Going well. Looking forward to this exchange tonight.

DUKE: Likewise. Tonight I've picked what I think is a great story for discussion... it's the first story in Denis Johnson's highly-praised 1992 collection, Jesus' Son. The story is called "Car Crash While Hitchhiking." Could you give us a quick synopsis Mutt?

MUTT: I can attempt it!

DUKE: The floor is yours. Once you do, I will follow with a first volley....

MUTT: It's a brief vignette almost, concerning an unnamed hitchhiker that the reader assumes is a young man, who is basically out on the highway thumbing for a ride. He ends up in a car with a family of a man, woman, and infant, which subsequently wrecks on the highway. He gets taken to the hospital after what is described at one point as a "gory" wreck, and is treated. That's the bare bones. But Johnson transforms this framework into a kind of hallucinatory, near-religious fable, nearly.

DUKE: OK, great... good summary. By the way as always, there seems to be a delay here, but we'll work with it best we can.

MUTT: That works for me.

DUKE: OK you've already sort of anticipated my first question, which is this: upon your first read, or maybe even first few reads, of this story, you're struck most of all by the horror of the violence and the nightmarish quality of the episode in general. What, if anything, makes Johnson's story more than just a vivid and "gory" tale? Is there a deeper meaning here beyond the grisly violence, which Johnson certainly intends to hold at least some shock value for the reader?

Let me know if any of my questions are too vague...

MUTT: Well I think there is. I think there is in just about everything I've read from Denis Johnson. He seems to be the kind of writer who probes the mysteries in life, the unknowable things. These stories are very much like that. I think what separates this from just a short, bloody slice of reality are the frequent hints at a kind of omniscience or, dare I say, "divinity" to the character's voice. He seems to know things a "normal" victim of an event like this wouldn't know.

DUKE: Yeah, you immediately touch on one aspect of this story which I find fascinating and curious - that is, the narrator indicates at least twice early on, a kind of foreknowledge of the events told in the story. He says "I sensed everything before it happened... I knew a certain Oldsmobile was going to stop for me." And then when he gets picked up and sees the family he thinks, "You are the ones." What do you make of that?

MUTT: It's hard to know what to make of it. Because at certain points it seems clear the narrator is some kind of divine spirit. He tells the man his wife is not dead before he could possibly know it. At one other point he speaks of how he looks down onto "the great pity of a person's life on this earth." But at other times he admits he doesn't know things. So you aren't sure of the narrator's origins or his role in the event.

[fierce t-storm here]

DUKE: Right... yet there are certainly enough hints to make the reader think of it or at least question it. And then from there I think of the title of the entire collection, which also at least hints at some kind of connection to the divine... and yet, also I suppose allows the possibility of just being human too, since if Jesus could have a son, maybe he wouldn't be Divine at all... probably reading too much there, but it is interesting. Nevertheless I think the spiritual subtext is pretty blatant throughout this story. Even the cotton balls at the end in the hospital, which is darkly hilarious by the way!!, cry out "Oh God, it hurts." But the last line, which I want to come back to, also could be read from a divine perspective... "And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you."

Storm seems appropriate, BTW, as we are dealing with Divine mysteries here...!?! Hope you don't lose power or anything...

MUTT: It certainly reads like some kind of divine pronouncement or declaration at the end. I, too, thought a lot about the title of the collection with regard to this story. On one hand, you could take it literally and imagine that the story's told from a kind of "lost son" of Jesus, wandering around, not sure of who he is or what his role in the whole miasma is. On the other hand, you can take this story, and the whole thing, as a meditation or riff on the life of a drug addict, and Johnson could just be trying to put into words the state of mind of a person deeply addled with drugs. This story could be seen either way, I think. The cotton balls point easily to the second interpretation.

DUKE: I think he's consciously playing with both ideas... clearly, on the surface, these are the "adventures" so to speak, the experiences, of a drug-addled lost soul... but then of course, they're also, every one in its own way, meditations on our condition... God looms large in just about all of them... as does guilt, shame, the possibility of redemption...

MUTT: Yeah. It's really fascinating. You know going in, if you know anything about Johnson, that he had some addiction struggles. And yet he has this interest in faith, religion, theology, and that's quite clear. And I think maybe he is trying to articulate some of what he experieced as a drug addict himself, but also possibly examine a mysterious connection or relationship between the experiences of an addict and religious experience. It's a very, very fascinating brew. And his sentences and images are incredibly powerful.

DUKE: Indeed they are... spiritual concerns are all over this story and collection, from small details to major themes. For example, it's not a huge part of the story, but I thought it was a fascinating detail that one of the guys the hitchhiker rides with, the "family man," is talking about his life and he seems to go through a whole list of reasons why he should be happy - good job, great wife and kids ("I'm gifted with love"), two cars, a boat... and yet, he's going to see a mistress, is a drunk, and is obviously another lost soul. To draw from one of your favorites, the man obviously "still hasn't found what he's looking for." So that's a minor example. But then I have a more significant one...

MUTT: Well actually I hadn't focused so much on that moment, but you're right about that too. What's the "more significant" example?

DUKE: In terms of spiritual themes/concerns... is it me or could this story also be read, at least in part, as an interesting take on the Good Samaritan parable? Because I was very struck in my second and third reads at the narrator's worry that he was going to have to act somehow, or that "something was going to be required of me," and when it isn't his relief is palpable... now I don't know about that you but that made me think powerfully of another story set on a road, when a traveler is in trouble and physically wounded, the point of which seems to be our obligation to our neighbor... the more I thought about this connection, and then the collection's title again, and the last line again, I found some really interesting parallels and connections there.

Jesus said, "Which of these acted most like his neighbor?... Go and do likewise."

MUTT: That is a fascinating idea, I never thought of that. I think that holds some water. But then there are many mixed messages and religious "hints" in here. At one point there's an almost madonna-like image, where the narrator "standing out in the night" with the baby in his arms. The notion of the Good Samaritan is not one I thought of, but I think you definitely could take it as a spin on that. A great observation.

DUKE: Thanks... his great anxiety over being called upon to act or somehow be responsible for these hurt people is what got me thinking about it. "And you expect me to help you..." By the way I just want to state in passing that there are certain lines, as you know, that just seem to burn into your brain from the first time to read them... that phrase from O'Connor, I know, is a classic example for both of us: "he went around the countryside with Jesus buried in his head like a stinger." Well there's one in this that is not quite as great as that, but has nevertheless stayed with me from the very first time I read it: "Under Midwestern clouds like great gray brains..." Somehow that image is just perfect. Invokes kind of a dark omniscience almost, hovering over the proceedings as well... or maybe that's just my own take on it.

Anyway I can see those Midwestern clouds, from our own experience, in my mind...

MUTT: I agree, he writes astounding similes and phrases, and I'm glad you brought that up because it helps me point out that in some places, like the last paragraph, almost every word can just blow me out, even in their great simplicity. But, he also has the capability to just baffle you. Consider this utterly mystifying sentence, which i type in here: "My secret was that in this short while I had gone from being the president of this tragedy to being a faceless onlooker at a gory wreck." The use of "president" completely surprises me there. So he throws a lot of curves.

DUKE: Oh man, I'm glad you brought that up, because I utterly howled at that line... I don't know why... the use of the (agreed, bizarre) term "president" struck me as hilariously funny for some reason. But you're right, it's also totally enigmatic. Why is he the head honcho of the wreck? Isn't he just a random victim like everyone else? And yet, when you couple that with his supposed foreknowledge... well, it goes back to the whole God question again.

MUTT: What is incredible about this story is Johnson's ability to confound, surprise, frighten, and touch you all in a few pages. It's really remarkable. And the other point I want to make is, the writing in these stories, all of them, is like Hemingway, extremely clipped, with no words wasted. And yet Johnson is also a very lyrical and sometimes long-winded writer elsewhere. Take Tree of Smoke or Already Dead, both of these are sprawling, almost rambling novels. So the discipline, the skill, the WORK of writing is on glorious display in this great and worthwhile book.

DUKE: Yeah, these stories are very different from both the novels (Resuscitation of a Hanged Man) and the journalism (collected in his book Seek) I've read from him. In their clipped style, I mean. These are (and again, I quote your boy Bono... don't know where that's coming from tonight... maybe a kindred spirit to Johnson somehow in his sensibilities?) "miracles of compression"... I'll tell you what though, that line you mentioned above isn't even the most enigmatic part for me. For me it's when the narrator looks down at the dying man "with great pity," but then hastens to point out that the pity is not for the fact that he's dying... it's that "he couldn't tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn't tell him what was real." that's the line I've had the most trouble wrapping my head around... any thoughts? (There's an easy one for you!!)

MUTT: No. I can't really explain that line. That's where he sounds less like a "god" or spirit and more like a drug-addled junkie. But Johnson offers you no clues.

DUKE: The only thing I can say about it is that it somehow connects to the very end, when the guy is obviously slipping into some kind of hallucinatory state again (though who's to say, really, that he hasn't been in it the whole time??), with the talking cotton balls and the rain and the gigantic ferns (in a hospital?) leaning over him... BTW, interesting side note, in the last story, "Beverly Home," the main character works in a hospital, and at one point he has this dream/hallucination in the halls that it's raining... weird connection there...

Not sure I have a point, just making observations...

MUTT: Yeah, with some of those lines, I am not even sure an explanation is possible to find, or even needed. Interesting point there though about "Beverly Home". I just want to say, for the record, the simple sentence "The forest drifted down a hill" gets me every time. It feels like the story could literally "drift" right into the novel from 15 years later (!), Tree of Smoke, and be right at home. Amazing!

DUKE: It is... this story, all of 5 or 6 pages or whatever, could sustain us all night. It reads simultaneously as a fever dream, a nightmare and kind of a parable too, all in one. We won't get to the bottom of it here tonight, I know that... and I need to hit the rack soon. But one final observation: man, that part late in the story when they observe the woman go in to consult with the doctor, and the door closes and she finds out her husband's dead, and she shrieks... that might be the most unsettling and disturbing part of the whole story for me, and that as you know is SAYING something. It's in how the narrator observes it that's so dang creepy... first of all, when she comes down the hallway "glorious, burning" - that right there is another example of Johnson's very odd, catch-you-off-guard word choices. It almost evokes angelic figures, like the seraphim (literal meaning, "the burning ones"!!). Then the capper, when he hears her scream... "It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I've gone looking for that feeling everywhere." For some reason that is really disturbing to me.

[Editor's note: Apologies for the abrupt ending to this session... one of us had to attend to family needs... such is the life of the husband/father/blogger, which describes both of us! But we hope you enjoyed the discussion up to this point. Thanks for reading.]

Friday, October 08, 2010

A few thoughts on Mario Vargas Llosa

By the standards of our current 24-hour news cycle, it's old news already: Mario Vargas Llosa was announced yesterday as the recipient of the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature. An interesting and, by some accounts, odd choice - not so much based on his literary reputation as the timing. Why him, and why now - especially as he hasn't written anything that most literary critics from around the world would call a major or important work in a good 20 years? Well, after the Nobel Committee (in)famously awarded last year's Peace Prize to Barack Obama, well before he had accomplished anything of note as President, all bets were pretty much off. No one can fathom the murky depths of these white, left-leaning Europeans' reasoning.

Still, I'm not here to say he's not deserving of the honor. First, who the heck am I to say; and second, from the little experience I do have with his work, his talents and ability to craft an interesting story are indeed impressive. I own three of Llosa's books, and I've read two: The Storyteller and Death in the Andes (the one I haven't read yet - though my blog partner Mutt has, I note in passing - is The War at the End of the World). Both of these books in my opinion are noteworthy for the insight they provide into the culture, mythology and practices of various peoples indiginous to Peru in general, and the high Andes Mountains in particular.

It was only about a month ago when I happened to be reading Death in the Andes, and one night I went with a group of people I work with for drinks after COB. Somehow the rambling conversation got around to books and someone asked me what I happened to be reading. I told them it was Llosa's book, and a few people within earshot looked at me as if another head had just sprouted from my left shoulder. Because human nature is what it is, I felt initially a little sheepish, but then quickly recovered and explained that one of the main reasons I read at all is because I want to expand my knowledge of the world, I want to experience different worlds and cultures and ideas - if only vicariously, through the words and lives of others real and imagined.

Discovering Llosa's work is as good a chance as any for anyone who's of that mindset to do the same. Both of these books vividly portrayed a world of opaque, humid, mysterious jungles; ancient ruins and tribal rituals; poisonous animals and fierce, painted warriors disappearing like vapor into the dense foliage. Yet they also provactively juxtapose these remnants of an older order with more modern trappings and problems - chief among these being the encroaching machinery of Western civilization and warfare, and the ongoing struggle between democracy and dictatorship. I believe that Llosa overarching aim is to help those outside of his country to understand and appreciate the rich cultural heritage of Peru and South America in general; while at the same time encourage and rally his own people to recognize their own contributions to the world and not allow these to be tainted by the corruption and greed of the few rich and powerful.

One can also appreciate in Llosa's work a unique blending of popular genre fiction with the mythologies and traditions mentioned above. For example, Death in the Andes could easily be read as a detective novel, a whodunit of sorts, set in the exotic and mysterious setting of a remote Andean village. A modern policeman travels from the city (Lima) to investigate the disappearance of three construction workers, and finds himself dealing with ancient forces and beliefs well beyond his power to comprehend - or control. His latest book, The Bad Girl, was supposedly a modern re-telling of Madame Bovary, which is an interesting - and bold - choice in its own right. And his forthcoming novel, Celtic Dream, tells a story of the real-life historical figure Sir Roger Casement, an Englishman who supported the Irish rebellion and also, notably, defended the cause of native tribes in the Belgian Congo and the Amazon region against British colonialism and exploitation.

To sum up, Llosa, like other great Nobel laureates before him (Halldor Laxness, Sigrid Undset and Naguib Mahfouz come to mind), offers a treasure trove of experiences and stories - only available from a particular culture - to hungry minds that want to experience something new and different every time that they crack open a book. Take him on, or any one of the aforementioned writers for that matter, and you'll experience more than just a good read - you'll gain some wisdom, too. And who couldn't use a little more of that?

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

The Races

A short story

MUTT SAID HIS FATHER was helping him make a race car.
‘It’s something we can do together,’ he told my twin brother Tommy and I while walking to school one Wednesday. It wasn’t the first time we had heard him say something about his father that sounded rehearsed. His voice would take a tone like a parent’s, as if he was trying to convince himself.
For a moment neither of us said anything, because he mentioned Mr. Ploughman only rarely. We looked at each other but did not communicate anything through the glance the way we sometimes could. We had only seen Mutt’s father once, the year before, on the day our sister Katie was born. Mr. Ploughman had been like a frightening vision that day, seated in the shadowy living room with a drink in his hand, not looking at us. We’d come away with unknowable feelings, more questions than answers.
‘What for?’ I asked Mutt, to fill the silence.
‘The Pinewood Derby,’ Mutt declared proudly, ‘on December 10.’
My heart sank. I looked at Tommy again.
Oh crap.
—Not again.
—I hate it when he talks about the scouts!
—Me too.
The Pinewood Derby was an event for the Cub Scouts. Tommy and I weren’t in the Cub Scouts, but all of our friends were, so we were jealous. We had been forbidden to join by my parents because they didn’t feel that we were concentrating on our school work enough. Of course my older brother Kevin had been allowed to join ahead of us. His grades were top shelf. Tommy and I both struggled.
This turned the Cub Scouts into a target for our collective vitriol. Every time there was an event for the scouts in the afternoon or evening, all the boys would wear the uniform to school on that day to remind everyone that they were scouts. There may not be words to describe how much I coveted that uniform. The dark navy blue shirt, the yellow handkerchief around the neck with the metal Cub Scout clasp, the patches for meritorious achievements. After all, it was a uniform; it signified membership into something, a club, a boys’ organization, a league of like-minded pals.
The Pinewood Derby was an annual event where the scouts got to race tiny cars, crafted out of wood and hand-painted, against each other on a specially-made track. Each scout was assigned the task of building and painting their own car, with the help of an adult – ideally their father. Tommy and I remembered three years before when our Dad had helped Kevin build his car, an aesthetic insult that Kevin had inexplicably painted orange with black stripes and the random number of 17. That car lost every heat. We learned that even Kevin didn’t do everything well. But what I remembered more was that I was dying to reach the day when I could build a car of my own with Dad and race it.
This is why Mutt’s comment had made me so upset. I had forgotten about the Derby, because Kevin wasn’t in the scouts anymore (he’d gotten bored of it) and I had deliberately cast it out of my mind. Yet somehow I managed to mutter to Mutt:
‘Oh. Well. That’s not too far away.’
‘A couple weeks,’ Mutt said.
‘Should be fun,’ Tommy said in a tone that was like someone trying to sound positive about a visit to the dentist.
‘Sure wish you guys could go,’ said Mutt. For once, it sounded like he meant it.
‘Yeah,’ I said.
We crossed the street at the corner with the assistance of Pietro, the crossing guard, an elderly Italian man whose face looked like those parchments from ancient Egypt we saw in filmstrips during social studies. We were learning about things that came from before the birth of Jesus, and Pietro looked like one of those. He smiled at us and said nothing.
I felt a little bit guilty that I had been so angry at Mutt, now that he had said he wanted us to be there too. So I asked Mutt how far along they’d come with their car.
‘Pretty far,’ Mutt bragged, a flash of pride illuminating his face. ‘I’m sanding it now. Then we have to paint it, and add wheels last. But get this: my Dad is also helping me build a practice track! So I can test it out before we get to the Derby! Isn’t that great?’
‘Wow,’ Tommy said, curiosity overcoming other feelings. ‘I didn’t even know your father could build stuff.’
‘I didn’t either,’ Mutt said.

▫ ▫ ▫ ▫

I WAS AWAKENED by a low rumbling noise, rising from the depths of the house. Chains, gears, wheels; the machines of the dream world.
Darkness swam through the room. I flipped over in my bed and squinted at the Casio alarm clock, carefully positioned on the stool next to my head. 5:47 a.m. In three minutes that irritating little unit would blare to life, worse than a drill sergeant.
‘Crap,’ I said.
Then a second noise, this time a heavy thump, sounded off from below. Unfortunately, I now understood what was happening. The low rumbling noise had been our garage door. My father was awake and had yanked it up. The truth fell hard upon me: a new day had arrived. I had to get moving. If I did not, my father would be up to make sure, and I didn’t want to suffer through that.
I dragged numb-dead legs out from underneath the blanket and tossed them over the side. The air was cold. I could feel in my bones more than the air the impending winter.
The red second hand of the Casio swept along indifferently. With more force than I knew I had, I whapped the little lip on the top of the clock shut.
The sound of steady breathing, not my own, encroached upon the silence. Tommy lay next to me in his bed, dead asleep. I looked around. On the floor nearby was a rolled up sock I had worn the previous day. I plucked it off the floor and floated a light pass towards Tommy’ head. Terry Bradshaw could not have applied a sweeter touch. The sock unrolled in flight, and draped across his face.
‘Mwwf,’ he said.
‘Wake up, Tommy.’
‘No,’ he muttered.
It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Sundays meant the route took two times as long because the papers weighed about a hundred pounds each. Then we had to go to Mass at nine. By the time you got home from all of that it was about 10:30, and the day was practically half over.
Tommy made some sort of suffering noise, like a baboon having a baby. The sock slid over his face. ‘…..Whasthis?......aaagh……jerkoff!!’ He hurled the smelly sock across the room. I had managed to get him going on the wrong side of the bed too. When that happened we usually spent the morning insulting each other, or maybe pounding each other’s arms with our fists.
I beat Tommy downstairs by a long shot and started hunting around for the Sunday shoes, brand-new, that my mother had just bought the week before at Thom McAn. I rooted through our notorious shoe pile by the front door. My mother always said shoes grew there. Everyone seemed to dump their shoes in the same place when they came inside the door. Whenever we were seen walking by the shoe pile she would order us to stop and pick them up.
Lo and behold, my shoes were there. I yanked them out of the pile like twin Excaliburs. As I wrenched them onto my feet, Tommy came trudging down the stairs, dragging a brown leather belt. ‘Come on,’ I prodded, pulling my winter coat out of the closet. We both knew what would happen if we took too long.
Tommy dug his shoes out from the pile. By this time the integrity of the mound had been compromised and they were spread all over the place. He folded himself into a sitting position on the stairs. ‘This sucks,’ he declared.
‘Yeah,’ I concurred, pulling on some gloves. Stumbling down the hall, I opened the door leading into the garage and a blast of cold morning air assaulted me. My dad was restacking newspapers at the front of the driveway.
‘Let’s go, men!’ he hissed, trying, successfully, to put force behind the words without waking anyone. ‘Let’s get this show on the road!’
I watched Dad working fervently, full of energy. That was his way. The earlier the hour the harder he seemed to work. He was attempting to keep the ‘guts’ of the newspaper on top of his stack from sliding out onto the driveway. That’s what we called all of the junk they put in the middle of the newspaper: coupons, catalogs, Parade magazine. We could never get that stuff to stay inside the paper. Dad’s stack was drooping a bit and the guts kept sliding back out. Finally he grabbed the whole top paper and reversed its position on top of the stack.
I stood there in my green winter coat, plaid shirt underneath, corduroy slacks and Sunday shoes. My unbrushed hair was sticking straight up. I was more or less ready to go.
Dad laughed at my miserable demeanor. ‘Come on, Terry. Don’t look so glum!’ he offered. ‘Finish stacking these for me while I back the car up, will ya? These things are like cinder blocks today. Where’s your brother?’
‘Putting on his shoes.’
'Judas priest! What’s he using – his elbows?! If he ever does make it out, tell him to help you. I’m gonna back it up.’
‘All right,’ I mumbled.
We did the exact same thing every Sunday. Tommy and I had been delivering The Newark Star-Ledger for two years. On weekdays all we had to do was pile up the papers in the pull-cart we had purchased the year prior and drag them around from door to door. On Sundays, however, it would have taken all day to drag those bricks around. So we loaded up the Sunday Ledgers into the back of my parents’ station wagon, and Dad drove them around the route while we plucked them out.
The ruby-glowing brake lights glided steadily towards me as Dad slowly backed the car. It looked like the Millennium Falcon being sucked into the Death Star in Star Wars. Dad edged it very slowly right up to where the stack of papers had fallen over again.
‘Shit,’ I said, mainly because I was out of earshot.
Tommy finally wandered out of the house while I was straightening the stack again, his own navy blue winter coat zipped up, but without gloves.
‘Took you long enough,’ I said.
‘Shut up.’
My Dad came around the back of the car. ‘Keep your voices down,’ he said. ‘Let’s not wake up your mother. No one wants that. Hey, morning, Tommy! Look alive! Give Terry a hand … it’s almost 6:15. We’ve got to deliver the news.’
Dad walked over to where Tommy stood, looking as though the whole unfeeling world had toppled over on him. He chuckled and slapped him on the shoulder. ‘You guys are two of a kind. It’s not so bad, Tommy.’
Tommy said nothing. He bent over and started to help with the papers. We couldn’t tell which guts came from what paper, so we just shoved them in wherever. Dad lowered the back door of our old Chevrolet station wagon and we started piling them in the back according to our established system. Five stacks across the back of the car with five to six papers each, since we had a total of 28 customers. On some occasions our ‘manager’, this high-school dropout named Bronco, shorted us a few papers. But on this Sunday he had gotten it right.
The station wagon’s motor was chugging. It was suffering through its last few years of slow, cancerous death. I watched as the exhaust pipe coughed out gray smoke, feeling like I might puke at any moment.
‘We’re burning daylight here,’ Dad urged us yet again.
The weak light was beginning to breach the defenses of the wood line across the street. I yawned so widely that I thought my head was trying to turn inside out. Tommy was already sitting in front. I should have called shotgun when I had the chance.

▫ ▫ ▫ ▫

I was dallying down the left-hand curb of Magnolia Lane with two massive Ledgers, one under each arm. We were on the homestretch, and I was beginning to feel human. All I had left to do was stuff one of the papers in between the Jacksons’ storm door and front door, hurl the last one onto the Perrys’ front stoop, and I’d be finished. Every customer had their own preference about precisely where they wanted to find their paper waiting. When you first began a route, those specifics were important to get down, but after a while you did it by rote, like praying.
It was Tommy’s job to cover the even numbers on the right side. He had fallen behind somewhere. I had last seen him coming out of the Johnsons’ driveway several houses back.
At the end of the road, where Magnolia dumped back into Orchard, Dad pulled up to the stop sign and put the car in park. As we would wander on our own through the front yards of customers and non-customers alike to get to the next subscriber, Dad would pull the station wagon forward. That way, when we unloaded what we were carrying, he’d be there with the rest of the papers.
I labored up the Perrys’ driveway and tossed the paper on their doorstep like a hooked flounder. It landed with the open end facing away from me, and the inertia caused all of the guts to slide right out again. Every week we spent half of the time trying to keep that crud inside the paper.
After gathering all the stray guts and stuffing the paper again, I headed towards the idling car. It sat there like a sleeping rhinoceros. Dad saw me coming. I watched him prepare for the race.
With the car in neutral, he began to rev the engine. The brake lights flickered like flames. I knew he had his foot stamped on the pedal, just waiting to release it. I could feel him staring me down in the rearview mirror. I grinned and picked up my speed.
‘Tommy!’ I yelled over my shoulder. ‘Where are you?’
‘The Branskys,’ I heard him holler in reply from somewhere behind me, probably waking up the elderly couple that lived there. He was still a good ways up the street, most likely cutting through the side yards to save time. A few moments later he emerged, closer than I thought, shuffling down the driveway of house #10, the last customer.
We heard the station wagon’s engine growl again. The gauntlet had been chucked.
‘You ready?’ I asked Tommy, lifting an eyebrow.
We turned in unison and bolted towards the car.
I don’t even know how this weekly event started. But by that time it was a firm ritual. My father might have done something similar as a kid. Yet he insisted that this father never gave him rides anywhere. If Grandpa Meegan had been around I might have asked him, but he had died right before my family moved to River Heights.
This was the contest: whenever we’d finish up delivering the last papers on Sunday, Tommy and I would race Dad home – him in the car, ourselves on foot. The rule was that he was not allowed to accelerate. He could only let the car coast in neutral, because turning onto Orchard Street and then onto Arbor to get to our house was entirely downhill. All Dad was allowed to do was let up on the brakes and hit the gas once to get the car moving.
The station wagon, battle-tank that it was, started out painfully slow, of course, but always picked up a great head of steam at the end, barreling like Hell’s locomotive through the timid suburban void. Dad would have to stomp on the brakes again by the time he got to our driveway to avoid flattening my Mom’s smaller Toyota into scrap metal or busting through the garage door.
In the two years we had been racing, we had never beaten the station wagon. It passed us every time on Arbor Street, and Dad would honk and yell at us as he cruised by. The car was just too big and the hill too steep: it was probably a matter of cold physics. Yet week after week we could never resist the impulse, like Charlie Brown, to try it again. The result was always the same.

▫ ▫ ▫ ▫

Stumbling and tripping over one another, like a couple of maniacs unbound, Tommy and I tore down Magnolia Street. Just before reaching the car, we cut quickly through the side yard of the house on the corner. We dashed through a spot of brilliant sunlight that had powered its way through the trees; for a moment I felt its glorious heat. Tommy pulled ahead of me by a few strides, like John the apostle on the way to the empty tomb. The dew from the damp grass soaked my shoes.
Tommy hollered something at me over his shoulder. All I heard was the word ‘slow’, but I got the message. We reached the end of Orchard Street, but then had to halt, because Arbor Street was a much busier road. Tommy had to allow a red pickup to roll by at what seemed like the slowest possible speed. When I caught up I fake-tackled him.
‘You idiot!’ he hollered.
‘Mean Joe Greene!’ I cried.
Out of the corner of my eye I could see the station wagon slowly gathering momentum, rolling faster and faster. That familiar sensation seeped into my bones: we were going to lose. Even though it happened every time, it always felt like someone had dumped ice down my shirt.
The driver of the pickup evidently had never seen two boys standing by the road before. He crawled by to take a closer look. We glared back.
When the truck finally passed, we crossed and started sprinting down the hill with all our might. I knew I could stumble over my own feet and smash head over tail onto the hard black sidewalk at any moment. I’d probably rip my pants, and get creamed by my mother if not by the fall. But I didn’t care. I was caught up in the desperation of a race against something I knew I could not outrun, like the climax of a terrifying dream.
I was almost past Mr. Crowders’ house, right next door to ours, when the station wagon’s horn went off like an air-raid siren. It was always so terribly loud, enough to wake up the entire neighborhood. Tommy and I couldn’t even talk in the morning because we’d wake someone; but my Dad could trumpet victory over his sons throughout the neighborhood indiscriminately.
Tommy and I pretended to concentrate on the finish line. We ran like we still believed we could win. But the station wagon rolled unfeelingly past us. Dad knew we were looking. He waved his hand back and forth out the open window, and I heard him crying out, as he turned the car into the driveway, ‘Someday! Someday!’

▫ ▫ ▫ ▫

Early on in the following week we saw Mutt often, mainly in school where he was in my class, but the subject of the race car did not come up again. This was true even on Tuesday, when the Cub Scouts were having one of their weekly meetings after school. Mutt came in wearing his over-sized blue shirt and the neck kerchief proudly, but knew better than to talk to me about it. It was bad enough to see him and all the others dressed in their uniforms. In Mutt’s case it looked like someone had taken a ventriloquist’s dummy and dressed them up to join the scouts.
Mutt’s real name was Matthew. We called him “Mutt” because he was rather miniscule, in both height and weight. Also he had been born with slight deformities in both forearms that made the bones slightly crooked. This impeded his development in sports, except no one ever told him that, so he acted like he was the greatest in every game even though he could barely throw. Kevin had once said that he was that way because his mother smoked a lot, but he got in trouble for it. Yet Mutt always did have a chip on his shoulder, as if trying to compensate for what he had been cheated out of.
We would have been jealous of the other boys anyway, but my resentment whorled like a mental hurricane whenever Mutt had something I didn’t, or seemed to be making out better than Tommy and I. Part of me secretly believed that I was somehow superior to Mutt; that I actually deserved better. I didn’t acknowledge the feeling, let alone ask myself what it might have been founded upon.
I wondered how Mutt and his father were faring and would have loved to have seen the car in progress, but I certainly was not going to ask about it. Truthfully, Tommy and I were just as curious to find out how things were going between Mutt and his father. We had been astounded to hear Mutt say that Mr. Ploughman was helping him build it in the first place. I had gotten the impression that Mutt was just as surprised himself as we were to hear about it.
This fascinated me, because I could not conceive of a life where my father did not help me when I needed him. Every single week my father had no other purpose than to help us deliver the Sunday papers. If anything was clear to us, it was that he enjoyed that ritual far more than we did. So what was Mr. Ploughman’s purpose, if not to go to work (we did not know if he had a job or not), or not to help Mutt get along in life?
By the middle of the week, I was almost desperate to think of a way I could ask him about it without having to talk about the Pinewood Derby, which was less than a week away. But I never got the chance.
Mutt acted normally from Monday until Wednesday, but was inexplicably absent from school on Thursday and again on Friday. We had seen this before. There would be sudden absences for anywhere from one to three school days with no explanation to anyone. Tommy and I did know that most of these absences had nothing to do with illness, because we would see Mutt later in a supermarket or outside his house. It had something to do with the Ploughman family and how they all got along and what they had to do to get by. We knew this by the way Mutt would shrug off questions when he came back. He’d look away, or shift his feet, and often would do or say something stupid to distract your attention.
Friday afternoon found us walking home from school, throwing suspicious glances down Arbor Street at the entrance to Mutt’s driveway and speculating about what must have been going on in the house.
‘Maybe Mutt’s parents let him stay home so they could work all day on the race car,’ Tommy said, without much conviction. He booted an empty can of Miller High Life along the sidewalk.
‘No way,’ I scowled, looking at Tommy like the idiot he’d suddenly become. ‘Come on. Even Mutt’s parents wouldn’t let him do that.’ I pushed him away and kicked the can myself.
‘How do you know?’
This was a good question. I really didn’t know. But it seemed inconceivable. Also, whenever Mutt came back before it didn’t seem like he’d been home because his parents had inexplicably offered him a few days’ reprieve. It was clear that whatever he’d been doing, even though he hid this from most people, he would rather have been at school.
So I answered, ‘I don’t. But you can tell it’s not that.’
Tommy nodded. ‘Yeah, you’re probably right. I don’t know. I guess maybe we’ll find out on Monday.’
We were approaching the crossing guard. Tommy kicked the beer can with force. It skidded out into the middle of the street and was immediately flattened by a passing UPS truck.
Often on Friday nights my mother didn’t feel like cooking, so it had become ‘Pizza Night’ in our house. Especially during Lent. That was certainly okay with Tommy and I.
Early that evening, Dad walked into the family room with car keys jangling to find us sprawled on the couch, watching a rerun of The Jeffersons after the rigors of the school week. I didn’t even know Dad had come home. Out of instinct, both of us straightened, as if we were caught in the act of something.
‘Hi Dad,’ we said in unison.
‘Hi guys.’ He was still in his work clothes: rolled up shirtsleeves, no tie, collar unbuttoned. His formidable six-foot, two inch frame obscured the open doorway. I could feel him staring at us, thinking his unknowable thoughts.
‘Pizza Night,’ he said, continuing to jiggle the keys. ‘You boys want to go with me to get the grub?’
‘Sure,’ we said, or one of us said it. Dad would often ask someone if they wanted to go with him on such nights, even though it only took about ten minutes. It seemed to be his way of re-connecting with us at the end of the long week. Sometimes he asked Kevin instead of us, if he was around; other times he’d ask only one of us, not both.
We grabbed our coats and stepped out into the darkened evening to a dive-bombing temperature and a sharp, clear sky not yet punctured by stars. We took my mother’s tiny Toyota. I grabbed shotgun while Tommy was forced to the back seat.
As soon as we got in the car and Dad had backed out, he startled us by bringing up Mutt and his family.
‘I read about your friend Matthew’s father. Or what is it you guys call him?’
I felt Tommy’s eyes poring into my head. I swiveled around.
—What is he talking about?
—I don’t know.
—Did something bad happen?
—I don’t know!
‘Mutt,’ I said.
Dad chuckled. ‘Mutt. That’s right. Boy, that’s kind of funny.’
I smiled.
‘Dad, what do you mean you “read about” Mutt’s father?’ Tommy interrupted impatiently. We had no idea was he was talking about.
‘Didn’t he say anything to you?’
‘He hasn’t been in school the last two days,’ I said.
‘Dad, what do you mean? What happened?!’
‘I’ll tell you,’ he said, slowing down for a red light. He turned a bit to face Tommy. ‘But you’re going to be surprised. There was an article in the paper this morning. Apparently he’s gone missing. Or, he skipped town.’
I was astonished. Missing?! It sounded like something out of a movie. Missing, or gone. One was an accident, one was intentional.
‘I can see you guys are shocked. I was damned surprised myself. I’ll have to show you the article.’
Downtown River Heights surrounded us. It only consisted of a few main streets, a couple of miniscule strip malls, a movie theater, a library, a post office, St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church, gas stations. The sidewalks were blank owing to the frosty air, but there were plenty of cars at the Foodtown. And at The Back Alley, the town’s cheesy watering hole, for that matter. But I was not paying much attention to these things. My brain was struggling to accept the information I’d just heard.
‘What happened, Dad?’ I asked.
‘It seems that he got into a car accident. But while he was being questioned by the police, he flew the coop. You can read the article at home. I don’t remember everything it says.’
‘I wonder if he killed somebody,’ Tommy thought aloud.
‘I doubt that, Tommy. The paper probably would have said so.’
Or maybe he hurt someone, I thought. Then I thought of Mutt. And his race car.
‘Here we go,’ Dad said, pulling into the pizza joint. ‘You guys stay here.’ He got out of the car and went in.
‘Do you think he’s really gone?’ Tommy asked me.
‘I have no idea.’
‘Guess that’s why we haven’t seen Mutt.’
‘Do you think he went with him?’
‘I don’t know anything. I haven’t seen him in the past two days. Do you?’
‘I don’t think he did. It sounds like just his father took off.’
‘Why would he do that?’
‘Especially if he had just hit somebody or busted his car.’
There didn’t seem to be much use in talking about it more. But it felt to me that the news somehow expanded, or maybe confirmed, a feeling that I was already nursing about Mutt, his father, and the race car. Since he had first mentioned the week before that his Dad was helping him, he’d brought it up a number of times, with the requisite predictions of a stunning victory. But even I could tell that his pride didn’t have much to do with the car or the race. It had more to do with the fact that he was teaming up with his old man. I could understand that.
Now, the races would come and the races would go, but there would be no victory for Mutt’s joint creation with his father, and there’d be no victory for a Meegan brother either. We were linked uncomfortably with Mutt in a kind of fraternity: those who had lost the race before it even started.
My Dad returned and we drove back home in silence. The pizza smells rushed against our senses like successive waves on the coast of ‘the auld country’, as my Dad sometimes liked to say. My hunger rose Godzilla-style from the depths of that sea and threatened to consume everything. But even that failed to dispel the strange melancholy that had spread through my insides like a crawling fog on the ragged shoreline.

▫ ▫ ▫ ▫

Shortly after we got home we all sat around the table. Kevin materialized out of nowhere when the pizza showed up. Katie made only a brief appearance in a zipped-up sleeper to receive my father’s kiss before being whisked to bed. My Dad slapped a folded newspaper section in front of Tommy and I. A small headline jumped out:


I plucked the paper off the table. ‘Let me see it,’ Tommy protested. Instead, I read the article aloud:

A local man whose vehicle was struck by an elderly motorist unexpectedly Wednesday evening eluded the police after they arrived to investigate, witnesses said. Fifty-one-year-old James Ploughman, an unemployed industrial machinist, did not appear to be at fault for the collision, but behaved ‘strangely’ and seemed ‘distracted’ when questioned by police. The other motorist, 82-year-old Mavis Bodnar, suffered minor neck injuries, and was taken to Overlook Hospital for treatment.
The accident occurred when Bodnar, a resident of Saltbrook Meadows long-term care facility, took her vehicle out unauthorized, and ran through a stop sign located at Pine Street and Passaic Avenue. Her vehicle struck the right front bumper of Ploughman’s Oldsmobile as he was passing through the intersection.
Witnesses say that Ploughman did stop and exit his vehicle to see to Bodnar. Noting her condition, he waited until police arrived. But Ploughman appeared anxious and elusive when they began to question him.
According to Joel Duvell, 33, an eye-witness, ‘the police asked him to wait while they filled out some forms and questioned the woman. He didn’t want to do that. He kept saying he wouldn’t press charges and that he would take care of his car himself.’
Ploughman ‘was obviously impatient to leave’, one officer stated. He apparently became such a distraction that the police instructed him to sit in his car and wait while they radioed for medical assistance. They said they would question him once they had attended to Bodnar.
When Ploughman returned to his car, he ‘bolted’, Duvell said, departing the scene.
River Heights police had not taken Ploughman’s vehicle information and were unable to comment on his whereabouts at press time. Ploughman lives in River Heights with his wife and one son, but did not return to his home and is now listed as ‘missing’. He is not wanted in connection with any criminal charges. Police declined to speculate on whether any alcohol or drugs were involved.
Duvell described Ploughman’s behavior as ‘bizarre’. ‘I don’t know where the guy was going,’ he said, ‘but he wanted to get there pretty badly.’

I laid the newspaper down on the table. Tommy stared at me. The pizza cooled.
‘What an idiot,’ said Kevin.
‘Kevin,’ my father said. ‘Come on.’
‘Well, why would he just take off like that?’
‘Obviously, the man is having difficulties. You have no idea what they might be.’
I swallowed. I couldn’t understand what I had read. No wonder Mutt was weird. His father was …. I didn’t know what. It seemed unreal and sad and frightening at the same time.
‘How’s Mutt going to race his car now?’ asked Tommy.
‘He’s not,’ I said.

▫ ▫ ▫ ▫

Two days, later, Sunday morning, was the day I should have won the race. In fact, there are times when I think I should just count it as a win. It would have been, under normal circumstances.
It was early December already, but the temperature hovered above the freezing mark; the sky was overcast but without precipitation. Dad got us moving along with the brick-laying procedure of loading up the Sunday Star-Ledgers. I was feeling better rested and more alert than usual.
Aside from the tiresome ritual of the morning papers and the obligatory attendance of Mass at St. Francis de Sales, I loved Sundays, especially during the fall and winter. After Mass, as soon as twelve o’clock hit, the news shows went off and the football came on. Tommy, Kevin and I were all big football fans. It was only a matter of time before we’d spill out the doors and start tossing around the pigskin while the leaves cascaded slowly down from the boughs or the snow flurries began to sift like flour from the gunmetal sky.
Tommy and I rolled through the paper route, tag-teaming along either side of the road. Papers were tossed perfectly into position with no spillage of guts; the station wagon would roll into view just as we were emerging from one driveway to grab another armful. It was the sort of morning where everything was clicking, and we were finishing off the route in what seemed to be record time.
I found myself at the end of the route, where I experienced a sudden burst of inspiration. I don’t know what prompted the thought. But the moment the paper slapped onto the Perrys’ front porch and the sound ricocheted off of the façade of the house across the street like gunfire, it occurred to me how to beat Dad in the race. It was simple. It had to be done independently of Tommy.
Swiveling on the front walk, I bolted across the grass as fast as I could and stumbled, arms flailing, onto Magnolia Street. It was about 7:10 a.m. and the skies were only just beginning to brighten. I did not wait for Tommy. He would have to catch up. Where was it written that we had to do everything together?
Pale light was gradually drawing shapes out of shadows. I heard a hollering behind me and I knew Tommy had seen what I was doing. The station wagon was waiting at the stop sign. I saw Dad look into the rear view mirror, then crumple a newspaper rapidly and fling it aside. He yanked the gear shift on the side of the steering wheel and revved the engine once. I cut through the yard on my left and barreled towards Arbor Street. I was past him and he hadn’t even switched gears.
Behind me I knew Tommy was running with all he had to catch up. I thought he might be able to at Arbor Street, or maybe even on the way downhill. He was going to be angry as hell if I won the race without him, but it wasn’t my fault he hadn’t figured out how to win. I thought Dad might accuse me of cheating, but in my mind I was being pretty clever. The way I saw it, if I won, I deserved to win.
When I got to Arbor Street, it was as if the town had been evacuated. No cars were visible, and no one was out walking their dog or jogging, which was unusual. But it filled me with all the more elation. It was destiny! Brisk wind rushed towards me in what seemed like great, sweeping gales due to my extraordinary speed. I’m sure I bellowed a victory cry the likes of which had not been heard since the age of the Vikings. I made it across Arbor Street and began the final leg of the race. It seemed victory was mine.
Then I made the mistake of looking over my shoulder, and saw two things careening after me, as if I was Adam and God was chasing me out of Paradise. One was Tommy, about thirty paces behind. The other was the station wagon. The car was just rounding out after the turn. I could see Dad’s form hunched over the wheel, as if he were urging on the old jalopy like a wild hitch. I experienced a sudden rush of panic, the white-blinding fear that overwhelms the hunted. I turned back. All that mattered was reaching the driveway.
Just as I was about to pluck the sweet grapes of victory from the vine, I noticed something that nearly brought me to a complete stop. Just like that, I forgot everything else. In the stillness of the early morning, at the end of a driveway up ahead, I spotted something moving slowly in labored progress. It was not our driveway, but the one that belonged to the fourth house down Arbor Street from ours.
From a distance, I could not tell, at first, what the tiny form was. It looked like a small dog or other creature was pushing a heavy object, a crate or a box, towards the curb. The apparent weight of the box and the slight incline of the driveway made this task a challenge for the under-sized thing. Then I realized it was Mutt’s house. I stopped entirely.
At that moment, the station wagon rolled by. Dad pounded on the horn and waved his arms wildly, gleeful that I hadn’t beaten him even with my best jump ever.
Tommy stumbled up behind me, out of breath. ‘Terry! What are you doing?? You had him! Why did you—?’
‘Look,’ I said, my eyes fixated on Mutt’s driveway.
Tommy looked down the street.
‘Hey. It’s Mutt. What’s he doing?’
He was straining to push a large cardboard box, at such a low angle that I thought his elbows were going to scrape the ground. He wore a dark brown coat and a hat. There, in the early dawn when I didn’t think he’d even be awake, the tiny friend we hadn’t seen for three days was, apparently, determined to put something out for the garbage men. Tommy and I were still a couple hundred yards away up Arbor Street.
He never saw us. It was clear from his demeanor, even at such a distance, that he would not turn or look around. I’d seen this from Mutt before, too. He shoved the box with the same determination he had in backyard sports games, the will of someone out to prove he’d been underestimated. He muscled that box all the way to the end of the driveway.
Tommy and I watched in silence, dumbstruck, as he straightened himself, stared momentarily into the box, then turned and walked back with his head down.
Our own house appeared on the left. Dad had pulled into the driveway. He stepped out of the car and went into the garage.
Tommy was looking at me. —What’s he doing?
Let’s go.
—You want to go down there?
—Yeah. Let’s find out what’s in the box.
—We can’t do that.
—Yes we can.
Nothing was going to prevent me from discovering what had gotten Mutt out here so early. I knew I would have to be quick about it. It seemed risky. But something about the way Mutt had struggled to shove the object up the paved tarmac made me want to investigate all the same.
So I walked right past our house, and Tommy followed, casting a nervous glance over his shoulder. Dad was still in the garage. Or maybe he had already gone inside.
A soundlessness had again fallen over the sleeping street. Still no cars went by. Light from an afflicted winter sun that seemed to lack exposure to itself permeated the houses and the trees. Tommy, deferring to my lead, was a few steps behind.
As I came closer to the box, I was fixated only on it and the objects within it. There were jagged fragments of what looked like kindling sticking out of the top. The box itself was a nondescript, cardboard container that said ALLIED VAN LINES on the side.
It was not until I was almost on top of it that I finally understood what the wood pieces were. I stopped short and gasped. Tommy stopped next to me. A turtle dove wailed, high on a distant branch. We stared down through tiny puffs of breath we both were expelling into the graveyard air. Mutt’s house loomed next to us, silent and imposing like a forbidden fortress or a dark ship. No one came out.
It was clear the destruction was Mutt’s work. He hadn’t been lying about the race track. From the number of shattered pieces in the box – the thin wooden dowels that had been intended to elevate certain sections of the track above others; the chipped, gouged lengths of the track itself; and the painstakingly crafted little curbs on either side of each section to prevent the cars from slipping off the side – we could tell that Mutt’s father had been making something special.
But the track had been decimated. Not only were the segments broken in many places, but they had been mercilessly hacked apart by something sharp, such as a hatchet or even an axe. Huge gashes, ruts, and scratches had been pounded into every piece. Portions of track that had been melded together with glue had been smashed by a foot or a hammer. Splinters jutted everywhere from compound fractures.
I couldn’t go any closer. But Tommy had suddenly lost his qualms. He leaned over the box. His eyes spotted something. Glancing first at the house, he reached into the thicket of broken-boned sorrow and pulled out a small, battered race car. It had no wheels. It was crudely shaped, and had been painted a strange maroon color.
The car looked as if it had been chewed on by a Tyrannosaurus. It was riddled with gouges, cuts and pounded-in nails. Round, sunken hammerhead imprints pocked its surface like craters on the moon.
Along the side of the car, still legible, a silver paint-pen had been used to inscribe the words MATT’S PHANTOM. Tommy held it up to show me. I stared dumbly. Then he tossed the car back into the box. It hit one of the shattered pieces and bounced onto the driveway. Neither of us moved to pick it up.
‘Wow,’ Tommy said.
We turned and began walking silently up the hill. A dark river of shame coursed through my blood and spewed bitterness onto my tongue. The cold air gripped my cheeks like an elderly hand.
As I walked, I lifted my eyes. At the end of our driveway, though it seemed like a long way off, our father stood watching, waiting for Tommy and I to come back home.

(c) by Jude Joseph Lovell