BY STEPHANIE LIDEN
A CLUSTER OF MEADOWLARKS covers the snowy highway in front of my father’s 1962 Ford Falcon. The birds flee the road just as I pass them by. I watch as the flock expands apart, and in the rearview, the larks regroup to pick at a frozen raccoon carcass. After I pass a small patch of pine trees, the wind forces the car to the center of the road, and I quickly correct. I wonder why these meadowlarks stick around, why they endure like they do. I shift on the white leather seat. I am in my father’s spot — the driver’s seat — seeing our rural prairie homeland from his point of view. My friend, Sasha, is by my side. We handed in our two-weeks’ notice at the gas station together. Today was our last day. Before we left, she stole our favorite postcard of a Malibu sunset, a lighter, and a pack of cigarettes. She put the card on the passenger visor, a glossy reminder of where we will go — palm trees and pink skies. I gassed up the Falcon, and here we are, on the way to pick up my father from treatment — one last thing before we leave.
“I love this car,” Sasha says, twisting the radio’s ivory knob, turning up the volume.
I thumb the smooth leather steering wheel cover and see my dad, a dirty rag in his back pocket, leaning over the open hood, up to his elbows in engine. The smell of turtle wax and glycerin. I twist the ivory knob back down.
“I’m warning you,” I say. “My father’s crazy.”
She blows an egg-shaped pink bubble, and it pops. “I have a crazy uncle. He lives in the desert, in a hut made from glass soda bottles.”
“It’s true. The bottles absorb heat in the day and keep him warm all night.” Sasha pulls a pack of Marlboro Reds from her purse and peels the cellophane.
“My dad would kill me if he knew we were smoking in here.”
She lights it with a gas-station Bic.
“He’s worked on this car ever since I can remember,” I say.
“Fuck him,” she says.
For a quick moment, I feel like I should defend him, but it passes. Sasha knows my father hasn’t been well for a while, but that’s it. I want to tell her the truth. That I remember the first moment I noticed something wasn’t right. I came into my room to find my father installing locks on the windows. His eyes wild, he said, “We need to take every precaution, kiddo.” I laughed it off at the time. The last time I saw my father, I came home from work to the red and blue cop lights flashing against the Falcon’s frosted windows. I could see the lights from the highway.
The officer said my father had been drinking when he threatened my grandmother with a steak knife, but we all knew it was more than booze. When he was admitted to treatment, my grandmother went to a nursing home, and I stayed alone on the farm. The farm where my father and I grew up, a rambler with a wraparound porch, surrounded by pines. One Quonset, one barn. My grandfather made my father a tire swing, and it hangs by the porch to this day, the ground beneath it worn away from years of our dragging feet. But the place never really felt like home. The stoic silence filled every room, and the walls are white and empty. None of my memories of that place are in color.
A gust of cold winter wind seeps into the car through the cracked window, and I tuck loose strands of hair behind my ear. I crank the handle on the door, and the window squeaks closed.
“Your hair is pretty. You should let it down,” Sasha says, tugging softly at my braid. Her touch is gentle, affectionate.
A truck passes us slowly. The woman in the passenger seat looks at me for a moment, and then speaks to the man driving. The look on her face is subtle, but I have seen it before. Once when my grandmother and her friends gossiped over coffee. The sheriff’s wife left him for another woman, and the whole town knew.
“Oughta be ashamed,” my grandmother said.
I tense, and Sasha stops touching my hair. I want to tell her not to quit, but I don’t. I am ashamed of that.
“Beautiful Arapaho hair,” Sasha says. The only physical part of me that comes from my mother’s Native American background. My father and grandmother insisted I never cut my hair.
“Keep it long or they’ll think you’re a boy,” my grandmother said.
“Keep it long; you look like your mother,” my father said.
The winter wind forces the car to shake even more as we pass miles of barren fields, empty brown and white space as far as the eye can see. I turn up the heat, and the windows begin to cloud. There’s an abandoned house in a clump of trees ahead. A small, single-story farmhouse, the white paint chipped away. The roof sags under the weight of snow. In the yard, there is a sign with faded letters that spell: “Velkommen.” Relics of another time, from uprooted Norwegian farmers.
“What a shithole,” Sasha says as we pass.
“Yeah.” It needs new shingles and some paint, for sure. As we drive by, I wonder if this place was ever a home.
I pull the Falcon into the hospital parking lot and find a place close to the sliding door entrance. I watch Sasha apply dark, black eyeliner in the rearview mirror.
“I can tell you’re a little nervous,” she says. “Let me help you.”
She slides close to me. She smells like cigarettes and bubblegum. She tells me to close my eyes, and I do. I think for a moment how my father hates when I wear makeup. He would tell me that naturally beautiful women don’t need it and that my mother never did. But I don’t look like her, and I don’t care what he thinks anymore. I feel Sasha’s soft fingertips on my cheek and then the sharp end of the pencil against my closed lid.
“There,” she says. “You look good.”
“War paint,” I joke.
We walk through the sliding doors, and my father is waiting by the nurses station, his army-green duffel in hand. I ask Sasha to stay by the door. My father smiles when he sees me, like he hasn’t seen a familiar face in a while, like a dog being picked up from the vet. He wears navy blue sweats, a dark gray sweatshirt, and heavy work boots. He still has a thick gray and brown beard, but a new thinning crew cut. He fidgets with a plastic bracelet that has his name and contact information for the hospital.
“Thanks for picking me up,” he says, and we shake hands for what feels like a long time. His skin is soft, and he smells sanitized. I search his face for signs that he might lash out, cry, yell, any indication of emotion, but there is nothing. He looks away, fidgets with his bracelet.
“Want me to get the nurse to cut that off for you?”
“Naw, I’ll keep it on for a little while.” He notices Sasha standing by the sliding door. She smiles, but her arms are crossed, and she leans on one hip. “I thought we would have some time alone on the drive, kiddo.” He looks at his shoes.
“We need to get going,” I say. “Getting dark.” When we get to the door, I introduce him to Sasha, and they exchange quick hellos. She looks him up and down, her eyes like a spotlight. He leads the way out of the hospital entrance. The name “Miller” is screen-printed across his duffel, but the letters are so faded now that you can barely make them out.
When we get to the car, he pats the trunk gently and runs his fingers along the subtle grooves. “There she is,” he says. “I’m driving.”
“You can’t drive,” I say and help my father pack his duffel into the trunk. “You need to take it easy.”
I open the trunk, and he puts his bag on top of the spare tire. He brushes the lip of the trunk’s hood with his hands. It’s rusting. Cars like this weren’t made for harsh winters. When I was younger, before we painted the exterior candy apple, we sanded all of the rust away together. He would say, “A little tough love, and she’ll be good as new.” But now the rust is taking over the body again, slowly but surely.
“I’ll ride bitch,” Sasha says.
She gets in and slides across the white vinyl seat to the middle. I start the car and crank the heat to “high.” My father slides in the passenger side and leans his head against the window. I start the car and pull out of the hospital parking lot.
“I’ve missed you,” he says softly.
I can’t tell if he is talking to me or to the Falcon. Sasha sits with her legs spread over the center console, one leg touching mine, the other close to my father’s. After a couple minutes of silence, I punch the buttons on the radio and watch the dial spring back and forth through static. I land on an oldies song and leave it. My father hums along softly.
“Your grandpa used to play this all the time,” he says.
“I like your car, Mr. Miller,” Sasha says. She talks to him like the orderlies talk to my grandmother at the nursing home. Like he’s a child.
“It was your grandfather’s pride and joy,” my father says to me. “When I’m gone, it will go to you.” He wipes his forehead and turns the ivory heat dial to ‘off.’
“When did you lose him?” Sasha asks.
“A long time ago, before you were born, kiddo.”
“Sorry to hear that. How did he die?”
I can tell she isn’t used to people ignoring her, and she isn’t about to let my father deprive her of a real story. My father moves close to the window slowly, his head turned away from us.
“He started the Falcon in the garage,” he says, “and didn’t open the garage door.”
I glance at my father. I can tell he’s uncomfortable because his knee shakes, and he begins to crack his knuckles. Sasha is pushing him. She wants to see if he is breakable. Part of me wants to know, too. But the way he tugs at his plastic bracelet and leans against the fogging window glass tells me it hurts.
“He wasn’t well,” I say and pinch her thigh.
“Jesus,” Sasha says.
Just then, we pass through more meadowlarks. One nearly hits the windshield. I swerve a little. Sasha screams.
“Damn birds all over the highway,” my father says. “Don’t they have the sense to head south?”
The birds disappear in a cloud of snow behind the Falcon. The endless snow-covered fields are going gray as the sun falls.
“I can hardly get a word out of your daughter about her mother, Mr. Miller,” Sasha says. “Where did you two meet?”
I can feel my father shuffle in his seat.
“I met her at a bar somewhere near here,” he says. “She was the bartender, and I was — ”
“The pool tournament champ,” I say.
“Did you know the minute you saw her?” Sasha asks. “Sappy romance novel and all that?”
I glance at him, wanting desperately to see his reaction. My father nods once and softly runs his fingernail across the window, small shards of frost falling into his lap.
“Did people treat you poorly because you were different?”
“Sasha,” I say, my voice louder than I intend.
“People say what they want,” my father says. “Didn’t affect me.”
He speaks clearly now, and I can feel him looking at me. My grandmother used to say leaving was in my mother’s DNA, that all Arapaho people are born with natural wanderlust given to them through ancestors who followed herds around the prairie. My mother left when I was three. I have a picture of her in my mind, but nothing else. She has a strong chin, dark flowing hair, almond eyes. My father always said she was wild from the beginning — stealing, raising hell in the Falcon. I used to tell myself she was kidnapped by cowboys. I glance at my reflection in the rearview mirror and don’t see the beautiful Arapaho woman from my imagination. I see my father’s pale skin.
“I’m tired,” my father mumbles and tells me to wake him when we get to a good place to eat.
Sasha moves close to me. “He seems harmless to me,” she whispers.
Massive dark clouds gather, stretching across the prairie, casting the fields, like moors, in shadow. We drive in silence as the wind picks up and yesterday’s snowfall starts to blow, covering the countryside in a thin, white veil.
“Are you going to miss this?” Sasha asks.
I can feel her play with my hair again. She starts slowly, waiting to see if I will stop her. I let her this time; my father is asleep on the other side of the car. I picture us together on the beach in California. The sun sets just like it does on the Malibu postcard she stole. We share a towel under a palm tree. There are people like us, happy and sharing towels, building castles. The sand is warm beneath our bodies, and the air is moist. I feel lightheaded, scared and excited like I did when I finally said out loud, “I need to get out of here,” and Sasha hugged me for the first time and said, “Fuck it, let’s go,” and I felt her soft body against mine, her hair sticking to the sweat on my neck. I would have told her I loved her right there, but the storefront bell above the door dinged, and the moment passed.
I would trade these dark clouds for green mountains and these fields for golden beaches any day. I shake my head, and we drive in peace for a while until I see a sign with the symbol for food and gas.
“Let’s stop at that diner,” I say. I need air, and it seems like as good of a place as any to tell my father I am leaving. I don’t know how he will react to the idea of living on his own. Perhaps in public, he won’t make a scene.
We drive past a church sign that reads, “Prayer is the Best Wireless Connection.” Sasha snorts and says, “Amen.”
The diner’s parking lot is empty except for a couple of semis and a church van. My father shifts in his seat and lifts his head.
“World-famous Sour Cream and Raisin Pie,” he reads on the diner window.
We cruise past a hand-painted mural of Santa serving pie and find a parking spot close to the door. My father urges us not to slam the doors when we get out. We walk through a wooden archway covered with dusty plastic ivy. Shelves with antique teacups and Norman Rockwell tin paintings cover the soft gray-and-white-checkered walls. Sasha chooses an empty booth by a window with a white plastic tablecloth. It is close to a bar-style counter, and in a revolving case at the end, there are three pies glistening in the fluorescent light. A sign above the window is written in loopy black calligraphy. It reads: “Home is where the heart is.” The paint is cracked. She slides in first, and I sit next to her. Our legs touch. Her naked arms are warm against mine.
My father sits across from us. “Is that a tattoo?” he asks Sasha.
Sasha tugs at the neck of her shirt and reveals a small shamrock. “My first,” she says. “I’m 100 percent Irish.”
A cherubic waitress approaches our booth. She wears the cliché diner staff uniform — polka-dotted dress, black and white saddle shoes. She has a pin on her apron with a picture of two overweight pugs that reads: “Pugs and Kisses.”
“What can I get for you?” she asks. We order three cheeseburgers and Cokes. The waitress puts her pen behind one ear and leaves.
“What does your father do?” my father asks Sasha. He avoids looking at her directly for too long, like she’s the sun. But at least he isn’t ignoring her anymore.
“My dad’s an engineer,” she says. “He develops technology that they use in space. My grandfather was an engineer, too.”
This is a lie, but I let her tell it. I try to imagine being her. Beautiful, outspoken.
“Fixing’s in your blood,” my father says. He taps his fingers on the windowsill for a moment, then studies the caulking.
“Isn’t that great, Dad?” I ask.
He doesn’t respond. He has bags under his eyes, and his mouth hangs open slightly.
“What are you doing?” I ask, nudging him under the table.
“Nothing, kiddo.” He snaps out of his daze.
“Is it the meds?” Sasha asks.
He blushes and shrugs. I wonder if he will be okay on his own. I try not to think about it.
“I’m going to the bathroom,” I say. I look over my shoulder. My father runs his thumb along the window’s seal again.
“I’ll come with you,” Sasha says. We pass a table packed with kids who appear to be on a youth group trip. They are blowing straw wrappers at one another and laughing.
“What time is it?” I ask Sasha when we enter the ladies’ room. There are three stalls, one without a door, and a window, open a crack.
“I don’t know, getting late. Your father seems okay. I know a guy who was on meds for a while and — ”
“Hey. That was true.”
“My father’s schizophrenic,” I say, “and so was my grandfather.” And one day, it could be me. I search Sasha’s face for any sign of fear. This is her out. “Do you still want to leave with me?” I ask.
Sasha takes cigarettes out of her purse and taps the pack gently. I look out the window. The snow has started to fall and the wind forces snowy pines to shift. I pull the window closed and lock it. And then check the lock.
“Hey,” Sasha says and moves close to me. I feel her hand against my back. “You’ll be fine.”
Her hand is warm. Goosebumps creep up my neck. She hugs me, and I feel her chest against mine. Every place she touches tingles. After a minute, she pulls away and slides two cigarettes between her lips and lights them. After the ends burn and glow red, she hands me one. I watch her take another drag, and then she applies more lipstick in the mirror. I mimic her movement. For a moment, I don’t see my reflection anymore. I am a beautiful Arapaho woman with flowing dark hair and skin like rich soil.
“Relax,” she says, pursing her lips. “Your makeup is running.” She licks her thumb and wipes my cheek with her wet finger. She kisses me; her lip ring is cool against my skin. I can almost hear the ocean waves rolling in and out, and I can smell the sea-salt air.
Just then, the bathroom door swings open. I pull away from Sasha. The “Pugs and Kisses” waitress stands in the doorway, her apron stained with ketchup. I tuck my unkempt hair behind my ears.
“Can we help you?” Sasha asks. She takes a long drag of her cigarette. The waitress’ eyes narrow. She shakes her head, but says nothing and backs out the way she came.
“We should go,” I say.
My face is hot. Sasha throws her cigarette out the window. We pass the front counter, and I notice the waitress talking to the cook in a hushed voice, watching us as we head back to the booth. The food is at the table, and my father is almost done with his burger. I slide in close to Sasha.
“Where you been?” he asks. “Food’s getting cold.” Before I can reply, the waitress approaches our booth. “Hey,” my father tells her, “can we get a slice of that world-famous sour cream and raisin pie?” My dad seems in better spirits.
“We’re out,” the waitress says, scratching her taut brown bun with her pencil.
“You mean that case over there on the counter is full of nothing?”
The waitress shifts her weight to one hip and avoids my father’s eyes. “Look, sir, we don’t want any trouble,” she says. I can see the cook. He listens in the kitchen door, his burly arms crossed. “We got a van of church kids over there. We think you should all head out.” The waitress looks at Sasha and me.
My shoulders ache. Sasha looks at her lap, quiet now. The muscles around my father’s mouth tremble.
“Let’s just go,” I say, inching toward the edge of the booth.
“You got a problem?” My father throws his napkin on his plate of uneaten fries.
The waitress backs up a little and says, “I’ll call the sheriff. We have the right to refuse service to anyone.” The waitress shuffles back to the kitchen for the phone; the cook follows.
“Dad,” I start to say. But he gets up from the booth.
“We’re leaving,” he says, “but before we do, we’re taking a pie for the road.” My father heads to the counter, and takes a pie from the revolving case. For a moment, I see blue and red flashing lights. We need to leave. I pull Sasha toward the door, keys in hand. My father follows.
We slam our doors, and I drive away, gripping the steering wheel. We drive in silence, no questions from Sasha, no music, nothing.
“That’s just like these small town ignoramuses to have a problem with the mentally ill,” my father finally says. “Must have seen my bracelet.” He tugs hard at the plastic. It snaps in two.
I take a long breath. “Dumb hicks,” I say.
“That was incredible, Mr. Miller,” Sasha says, a small tremble in her voice.
I glance over to see him smile. I think he feels like a hero for the first time in a while. I can feel myself growing calmer. The more road between that place and us, the better. Sasha and my father share the sour cream and raisin pie, eating it like children, scooping it up with their fingers. I’m not hungry.
After twenty or so miles, Sasha, content and full of pie, falls asleep on my shoulder. The complete pitch darkness of the prairie reminds me of waiting to see my father when he got home late from work. When he worked construction in the winter, when farming was slow, he didn’t get home until after my grandmother put me to bed. When the prairie winds rapped at the windows of our farmhouse. I pressed my face against the frosted window, waiting to see the Falcon’s lights at the end of our driveway.
My father whispers from the passenger seat, “I’m sorry I’m all you’ve got.”
I look over. I can barely see his face in dark, but something in his voice tells me he’s sincere. “It’s okay.”
“I want you to know I’m sorry for disappearing on you. Doing things like this with you, well, reminds me of being with your mother.”
I pull my dark hair to one side. “You should know why we got kicked out of there,” I say. “It’s because the waitress saw Sasha and me together — ”
“When we get home, things will go back to the way they were,” my father says.
I imagine going back to the farmhouse. The grandfather clocks, the rock-bedded garage, the tire swing by the woodpile. The overgrown hay fields, the sunflowers hanging low. The thought of going back there makes me feel drained, bloodless. I think this is the moment. I should tell him now that I’m not coming home.
But the snowflakes fall and melt almost as soon as they hit the windshield, and I don’t say a word. I’ll leave in the morning. He’ll figure it out. He’ll find my clothes and my suitcase gone. Imagining my father finding my hollow closet and empty bed isn’t what makes me shudder. It’s that I’m able to go so easily. Like cutting my long, dark braided hair with one snip.
I brush my lips against Sasha’s forehead, while she rests on my shoulder. I look over at my father; he’s asleep now and snoring. His head rests on the white vinyl seat. I try to make out the image of the paradise postcard. It hangs from the visor a foot from my father’s face. Cruising through the darkness of the prairie, with the dim light of the Falcon’s radio, I can see a palm tree and maybe some sand, but just barely.
The 2015 Luminaire Award for Best Prose
THIRD PLACE WINNER
We are pleased to announce the third place winner for The 2015 Luminaire Award for Best Prose, honoring the independent press’ best short stories and hybrid prose works of the year. The winners are selected by an external panel that judges all pieces blindly and selects the full list of finalists. Alternating Current does not determine the final outcome for the judging; the external judges’ decisions are final. The third place winner receives a printed certificate, publication on Alternating Current’s award page, publication on The Coil, and publication in our forthcoming Luminaire Award print anthology collection.
STEPHANIE LIDEN was born and raised in Northern Minnesota. She received her B.A. in journalism and recently her M.A. in English from the University of North Dakota, where she completed her thesis-style portfolio, entitled “Americanization and Assimilation,” in which she presents a critique of popular immigration narratives in American Literature. She contributed as a reader for North Dakota Quarterly and the student-run literary magazine, Floodwall. Liden is currently living in a small Minnesota farming community and continues to write.
This story first appeared in Control Literary Magazine and was originally published by Alternating Current in Go Read Your Lunch on 5/12/14