W. Scott Thomason
The best part of summer is driving with Lucy. She has to stay at home with me since Mama and Daddy work, and she hates it because she’s seventeen and I’m only almost ten and there’s lots that she’d rather be doing, but she’s stuck with me because I’m her sister. Daddy tells her that she has to do things that she doesn’t always want to do. Mama leaves Lucy a list of errands to run, and we have to take Daddy’s old Buick, which Lucy hates because she says it’s not cool because the seats are breaking open and the doors rattle and the radio doesn’t work. Lucy hates the color, too, because it’s like a blue sky that someone painted over gray, but not all that great, like how my drawings turn out in art class. Mama says that if she wants a nice car then she can get a job and buy one. Lucy says she can’t get a job because she has to stay home with me and Mama says, “Welcome to life, honey.” I tell Lucy that when I can make money I’ll help her save and then we can buy a cool car together and drive around all summer if we want.
Lucy says she can’t get a job because she has to stay home with me and Mama says, “Welcome to life, honey.”
“Stop pulling out the stuffing, Mickey,” is what Lucy says to that. I don’t mean to, but when I’m sitting there my fingers just start pulling.
“Sorry,” is what I have to say, but I’m really not because it’s not her car.
One of the errands is going to the fruit stand outside of town, just as you get to the country. We used to go on Saturdays with Daddy, but now that Lucy can drive we go on Fridays because Mama says that’s when the best cantaloupes come in. Lucy says that that if we go one night without cantaloupe then we’ll obviously die. So it’s important that we get good ones.
The fruit stand is a big square of concrete with a metal roof on posts and the fruit is in crates in the back of an old pickup parked underneath. The truck is beat up and looks like it’s painted in rust. The fruit stand is run by this old man who always has his face wrapped in bandages and doesn’t have all his fingers. Mama and Daddy say that’s not unusual since refugees from the Goldsboro blast were sent here a long time ago, but it’s hard not to look. On the hand he takes the money with he doesn’t have a thumb or a ring finger, so he pinches the bills together with what he’s got. The skin on his hand looks like there’s bubbles under it and I want to watch them to see if they move like real bubbles. He never speaks and Lucy says he probably can’t because of what the bomb did. He sits in a folding chair beside the truck and always has paper bags around his feet. Lucy says we should use exact change with him because it’s hard enough being a bomb survivor with all his scars and burns, and that I shouldn’t stare because I shouldn’t stare at anyone. I’m always nervous when we go because I don’t want to be caught staring. But the old man sells the cantaloupes that Mama likes. He also has real good peaches. We buy some in a paper bag with wooden handles. Those peaches are always the juiciest and there’s nothing I’d rather eat in the summer. When I eat them the juice runs down my chin and Lucy tells me to get a napkin from the glove box because I’m embarrassing.
Daddy prays over dinner every night, and when he’s done giving thanks for the food he prays for our health, for the country, and for President Reagan. On Fridays in the summer he asks God to take care of the refugees who are still around.
After we get the right cantaloupes we drive out in the country past the fruit stand. Lucy says it’s boring at home and there’s only so much MTV we can watch, which doesn’t make sense because they play videos twenty-four hours a day. But I know that Lucy really doesn’t want to drive around in town because she’s afraid someone she knows will see her in the Buick. Mama tells us that we should come straight home, but Lucy says she worries too much.
“There’s all kinds of people who live out in the country, Mickey, and not just refugees,” Lucy says as we’re driving. “They’re regular people and there’s nothing to be scared of. They’re better than regular people, in fact, because of all that they’ve been through. It makes them more noble.”
I don’t know what she means by that, but I do know about nuclear bombs because they’re always talking about them on the news. Lucy tells me that I shouldn’t worry about another nuclear bomb accident because it only happened once many years ago and the government and the military says everything is safe now and it won’t happen again.
Most of the country roads don’t have names, just numbers, but we know where to go by what’s around. We know to turn left at the old barn when it looks like it’s leaning left, and to turn right when it looks like its leaning right. We’re okay as long as we’re home in time to start dinner before Mama gets off work. And as long as I don’t let the cantaloupes roll around and get bruised, because Lucy says if we take home bruised cantaloupes that’ll be the end of the world.
We live in Carolina, which used to be separated into North Carolina and South Carolina, but they don’t call it that anymore since the blast wiped out everything down east. Lucy says Virginia is the same way. Everyone knows about the blast but Lucy was in US History this year and she learned all the details. A bomber came apart in the air and one of the nuclear bombs it was carrying fell on Goldsboro. That was a long time ago but no one can live in what used to be those parts of North Carolina or South Carolina or Virginia. Lucy taught me a rhyme to remember it: “Richmond in the north / Florence in the south / East of Raleigh the teeth fall out your mouth.” I asked Lucy if that meant the old man doesn’t have any teeth and she said he probably doesn’t. I then asked how he ate and she said to be quiet.
The people who survived were burned and scarred. The army had to kill all of the animals left, like pigs and cows and horses and even the cats and dogs, but they didn’t kill the people because that’d be wrong. The government sent the refugees out to the country to be sure that they wouldn’t contaminate anyone. After a while the government said it was safe for them to live in towns again but a lot of them stayed where they were. Everyone knows they’re there but we don’t talk about them at home much unless I ask questions or we’re praying on Friday night. Some of the refugees work for the farmers out in the country and that’s how the old man gets his cantaloupes and peaches. Mama says he gets money from the government, too, but it’s being cut back because it was decided the refugees who are still living are getting too much for having a nuclear bomb dropped on them. Lucy says we don’t see as many now because most of them have already died.
I like driving in the country. When I was little Daddy would let me sit on his lap and hold the steering wheel and it’d be like I was driving. I liked the way everything looked from the steering wheel, how it felt like the outside was moving past you instead of you moving past it like it does in the other seat. Sitting there made me feel like I could watch the road in a different way and I could think of anything I wanted. That’s the best, when you can think of anything you want and everything just moves.
One Friday I asked Lucy if I could sit on her lap and drive. She said no. I asked her again and she said no, because if we had a wreck she’d get in big trouble. So I asked her again and again and again and finally she said she was going to stop the car and put me out on the side of the road if I didn’t shut up. So I stopped, but I knew that she really wouldn’t, so I decided I’d ask later.
That Friday we got only one cantaloupe from the old man, which Lucy said was gonna have to do because it was the only one he had. Everything else had been bought up already, including those good peaches. After that we went out into the country and everything was like normal. We were heading back towards home and I was thinking about asking Lucy about driving again when we saw the truck from the fruit stand. It was off the road but a lot farther than if it had pulled over to the side. Lucy stopped the car.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe we should go and see.”
“Are we supposed to?” I bet Mama would tell us that it wasn’t safe.
“Wouldn’t it be wrong to just leave? What if he’s hurt?”
I told Lucy that it might be a trap because this year in school we saw a filmstrip about criminals faking accidents so they can trick people into getting robbed or kidnapped.
“Not in the country, Mickey. That’s just big city stuff. And refugees aren’t like that, not after what they’ve been through.”
Then Lucy pulled off the road so fast that I thought we were going to hit the truck and then she stopped suddenly and we jerked forward and then I dropped the cantaloupe in the floorboard. I was looking at it, thinking how bad it was that I dropped the only cantaloupe we had, when Lucy got out. “Stay here, Mickey,” she said, and went over to the truck. It didn’t seem right for me to have to stay, but that’s what she told me to do. So I rolled down my window. Lucy was by the truck and I couldn’t see anyone in it, but it was running. Lucy stood up on her tiptoes and looked in the driver’s window, and then opened the door. The old man was leaning across the seat, but I couldn’t see most of him. Lucy kept looking in.
Then she said, “Hey.” Just like she was seeing somebody in the hall at school. The old man didn’t answer. Lucy leaned in and tapped him on the side with one finger. He didn’t move. Lucy turned around and looked at me.
Then the old man coughed so suddenly that Lucy and I both jerked. She turned back around, but real slow. The old man was still on his side, but he coughed again, and it sounded real wet, like the kind when you have a really bad cold and you have to go spit in the bathroom and when you wash it down you have to run the water a while to get it to come loose from the sink.
Lucy came back to the car.
“Should we go get help?” She was whispering.
“From where?” I whispered because she was doing it. There weren’t any houses out there, just fields and trees and falling down barns.
“Should we drive back to town and get someone?”
“Is he really hurt? Maybe we should stay here and see.”
“Yeah, that’s what we’ll do,” is what she said, which was amazing because she was agreeing with me. “Come with me.” She opened the door and I got out and we went over to the passenger side of the truck because that’s where the old man’s head was. She opened the door and knelt down near his face. “Are you okay?” she said to him real soft but worried, too. The truck smelled bad, like vinegar and spoiled eggs. There were paper bags in the floorboard, and brown bottles, too. The old man looked like a mummy with his face wrapped, but his eyes were open. He didn’t say anything because of the bomb, but he was breathing so you could hear it real clear. Lucy started rubbing her hand over the old man’s head bandages, like Mama runs her hand over our hair when we’re sick and have a fever. That always makes me feel better, to know that Mama is there.
The old man coughed again, but not as hard this time. While Lucy was rubbing his head he put his hand on hers. It was the one he took the money with. He wrapped his index and middle fingers around her index and middle fingers. Lucy stopped rubbing his bandages and just stared at their hands. Lucy was shaking. I didn’t know what to do, so I got as close as I could and put my hand on top of the old man’s.
His fingers felt rough, like they had been scraped and scabbed up but then never got better. I stared at the bubbles on his hands. They didn’t move like I thought they would. I touched one. I didn’t think about Lucy seeing me. It was like we were driving again, and I could think of anything I wanted, and I was thinking about those bubbles. They felt like if you pressed too hard they would break. I didn’t like it.
I didn’t think about Lucy seeing me. It was like we were driving again, and I could think of anything I wanted, and I was thinking about those bubbles.
The old man started coughing again, but that wasn’t all. All of a sudden he threw up really hard. The first of it hit the dashboard and splattered. I closed my eyes and I could feel a bit of it on my face. I pulled my hand away and clenched my fists and stood there trying not to smell the smell of it and then he did it again and it smelled so bad that it made your nose burn all the way up like it was in your face. I put my fists on my face but it felt dry but I was sure the throw up was on me. I opened my eyes real slow and Lucy was standing there with her eyes closed, too, and her hands clenched up. The old man was sitting up, back in the driver’s seat. I looked at him and he was looking back at us. One eye was more open then the other, the one that had been close to the seat, and he looked right at us.
“Are you okay?” Lucy had her eyes open again.
The old man cleared his throat. He nodded and reached over the seat with his two good fingers and pulled the door shut. We almost didn’t get out of the way. He backed up the truck real slow. He turned around and headed to the road. As he went he scraped the Buick on the back of the passenger side, but he kept on driving. He wasn’t going very fast but he was in the middle of the road doing it, going down where we had just come from.
I looked at the car with a big splotch of rust on the side. Lucy walked over and ran her hand across it, like she was trying to rub it off but she couldn’t. I reached over and felt it, too, and it was rough and scraped real good, the kind that you can’t fix before Mama and Daddy get home. Lucy rubbed her hands down her shirt and I looked at mine and there were little dots of vomit.
We didn’t say anything. I went to my side of the car and opened the door. In the floorboard was the cantaloupe. Its side was dented in. As Lucy got in she saw it too. I picked up the cantaloupe and held it out so I didn’t get juice on my shirt or throw up on the cantaloupe.
When we reached the fruit stand Lucy stopped the car. There was nothing there now, just the concrete and the cover. Lucy reached over and grabbed the cantaloupe out of my hands. She got out and walked into the fruit stand and threw the cantaloupe down on the cement. It burst open so loud I could hear it in the car with it running. She got back in.
“Come here,” is all she said. She motioned for me to sit on her lap. I crawled over and put my hands on top of hers on the steering wheel. Her hands were soft, like they always are. We drove out on the road. I wasn’t thinking of the old man or the bomb or the cantaloupe or the scrape on the car or what Mama and Daddy would say when we got home. I just thought about the road and how everything looked different from the driver’s seat, like everything was moving except for us. I felt Lucy’s cheek against mine and her chin on my shoulder as she hugged me around the waist and pushed down the pedal so we could get home.
W. Scott Thomason is a native of Winston-Salem, NC. He holds degrees from UNC-Greensboro and an MFA in fiction from McNeese State University. His fiction has appeared in Broad River Review, The Lindenwood Review, The Louisiana Review, and The Sierra-Nevada Review. He teaches at Swarthmore College outside of Philadelphia. "Driver's Ed" won the 2014 Vuong Short Story Prize from the South Central Modern Language Association.
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