, September 2023

Carl was in his room, just having finished packing. In the morning he would be leaving for good. The house was quiet, his mother and sister at the mall, his brother downstairs watching TV, his “stepfather”, Rick “The Dick”, out in the yard doing something.

He’d been dreaming of this day for thirteen years, since 1983, when he was ten and his parents divorced at the beginning of the year, and, at the end of it, his mother married the man with whom she’d been having the affair. The lovers bought a house out in Massapequa, almost Suffolk County, and tore Carl from his life and friends in West Hempstead, none of whom he’d ever see again. Exiled in a higher tax and social bracket, he loathed everything about his new life, from the boozy Biltmore Beach Club scene his mother and Rick threw themselves into, to the broader suburban mall culture of The Greater Massapequas. He’d spent his adolescence counting down the years until he was finally able to escape to college upstate, only to find himself back four years later, the party over, less than broke, in a physical condition his doctor called “somewhat concerning”. He quickly realized he had to get the hell out of this place as soon as possible and started jogging, and quit smoking every couple of weeks. He got a job in the receiving department of a financial prospectus warehouse out in Melville and started saving money. He read the rest of the good Kerouac novels and some of the really bad ones, as well as Ulysses, Don Quixote, and Gravity’s Rainbow. He drafted the first ten chapters of the novel that was going to make him famous, and revised a few short stories he’d written in college. Finally, a year in limbo later, he’d saved enough and quit his job, and now it was only a matter of hours before he finally set out on the road to live his Kerouac fantasy, driving his grandfather’s Oldsmobile towards a new life out West in the Emerald City of Seattle, where Pearl Jam lived—

The quiet was broken by his brother shouting and storming up the stairs, Carl thinking he was about to be attacked—

“Rick’s passed out in the yard!”

“Call 9-1-1!” Carl said without hesitation, aware that Rick had recently been having chest pains and seeing doctors and that there was a history of heart disease in his family, yet he still continued to drink and smoke. His brother got on the phone in the kitchen and Carl went through the open sliding glass door out to the yard, and there he was on the grass, flat on his back, eyes wide open to the sky, but no life in them—

“Rick! Rick!” Carl said, but the eyes did not react, and the body remained still. He lightly slapped his cheek a couple of times, but it seemed futile. Carl’s brother said an ambulance was on the way, then started relaying CPR instructions from the 9-1-1 operator. Carl tilted Rick’s head back and held his nose, gave him mouth-to-mouth, then started pushing on his chest, but nothing was happening. At one point there was a slight gurgle, but he didn’t come back. Hearing sirens in the distance, Carl kept pumping, then his brother tried, until the ambulance got there and they stepped aside, knowing the medics wouldn’t be able to bring him back either.

*     *     *

Several days after the funeral, when things had finally quieted down and people stopped bringing food to the house, Carl and his mother were sitting out on the front steps, smoking cigarettes, listening to the Neil Young concert from Jones Beach Theater, “Like a Hurricane”—on clear summer nights, the music would sail four miles across the Great South Bay into the backyards of Biltmore Shores, sounding like a radio playing low, except the echo of the drums across the water had that sound that only live music has, and Neil himself was at the other end of it—

“What are you going to do, Carl?” she asked.

“I can stick around,” he said. “I was thinking of asking for my old job back, saving a little more money, maybe give it a go next year—”

“No, Carl. You should go now.”

“What about you?”

“I’ll be fine. I just need time. A lot of time, probably. You’ve been wonderful these last two weeks, and I thank you for that. But you have to go live your life.”

“Are you sure? I can stay—”

“Go, Carl.”

*     *     *

There was no speed limit in Montana. Setting out, Carl hadn’t wanted to push too hard his well-rusted 1981 Cutlass Supreme, the car his grandfather had bought less than a year before dying of cancer, now known as “The Green Car” for its shade of GM Forest Pine. He’d been careful thus far, but, after crossing the border into the Big Sky, he started going faster, not realizing it at first, on a long Interstate straightaway where it felt like he was hardly moving. The needle started dancing at 90, and at 95 the whole vehicle, weighed down by novels and a Brother WP-760D word processor, started shaking, but he was too close to 100 not to try and pressed pedal firmly to floor until the old beast made it, just prior to passing over a slight rise and sudden dip that sent her airborne, engine revving as tires lifted from asphalt, Carl finally free— ▪