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Grey Sparrow Journal

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
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Mileage 
 

by Nancy Skinner

 

 

 

      “Dang it! I missed another one!” Lindy says letting the Instamatic drop in her lap as the New York state Welcome sign gets smaller and smaller behind them.

 

      The boaty Impala’s slipstream flattens the summer grasses at the side of the interstate, then releases them – bobbing and bewildered – as the car barrels on.

 

      His daughter had wanted a picture of each Welcome sign they passed. Yesterday, seeing her first failures, Duane had suggested just buying a postcard when they reached a new state.

 

      “Da-ad. That’s not the same thing.”

 

      These moments still stun Duane -  the sudden, staggering divide.  His daughter looking at him as if here, on his side of the deep chasm, exists the source of all ignorance. But he’s given up asking what he’s said wrong.

 

      He worries instead about the car. He’s had to push it harder than you should a car this age. Barb’s itinerary for The College Trip allows no time for the engine to cool; his wife’s only concern had been maximizing the number of colleges he and Lindy could visit in a week.

 

      The styrofoam cooler Barb provisioned them with upon their departure two days ago squeaks insistently against the sticking vinyl of the back seat; the cereal, Tang, and lunch fixings rattle and fuss like squabbling children, disturbing his ability to hear the engine.

 

***

  

      Hanging backward over the bench seat, Lindy roots in her College Material bag. She extracts a rubber-banded packet of catalogues then plops back onto the seat. As she turns the pages, Duane sees that easily half of them have been dog-eared; sees Barb’s writing all over them. What had she written? He’d never even laid eyes on these catalogues.

 

       Not to him, exactly, Lindy reads aloud: “Nestled in the mystic beauty of the Hudson River Valley, Bard has nurtured the intellect of promising young scholars for over 120 years.”

 

      “I think I like Bard, Dad.”

 

      “That so, Honey?” he says from where he’s twisted slightly toward his side mirror.

 

      Lindy pages through the catalogues for another thirty miles, poring over pictures of attractive students on stone walkways or in medieval dining halls.

 

      Duane wonders if he should have prepared somehow for these visits. He’d accepted Barb’s pronouncement that these schools were hungry for bright midwest kids like Lindy with her 99th percentile scores; that they should be trying to impress us, not the other way around. He remembers her saying this as she packed his suitcase with two brand new pairs of slacks onto which she’d pinned slips of paper that read “Tuesday -Blue: Cornell & Bard,” “Wednesday - Tan: Wellesley & Harvard.” 

 

***

   

      She orders fried clam strips. Duane’s eyebrows draw together briefly in surprise; to his knowledge his daughter has never tried seafood in her life. He says nothing; orders his cheeseburger.

 

      “You always have cheeseburgers.”

 

      “Why mess with a good thing?”

 

      “Da-ad.”

 

      While he’s doctoring his burger, he sees Lindy glance quickly around the Howard Johnson’s, scanning the other diners before she eats. She dips a pinky in her tartar sauce, grimaces when she tastes it, then with pronounced elegance shakes the ketchup bottle, smothering her clam strips.

 

      After dinner, as Duane counts bills from the envelope in his billfold, he notices the clams moldering undisturbed in their swamp of ketchup; Lindy has eaten only her fries.

 

      Outside in the parking lot, the soft summer evening strikes Duane as perfect. Full and content, he rests an arm across his baby girl’s shoulders. Lindy wriggles free.

 

      “Dad, I’m not a little girl any more.”

 

      Duane keeps his face in neutral. “Sorry, Honey,” he says and engages in an intent study of his keys, the same ones he’s carried for more than a decade in his pocket. For the first time they seem bulky, leaden, sharp.

 

      On reaching the empty Impala, he discovers he forgot to lock it. I’m such a blockhead. Anyone could have waltzed right in here.

 

      Then he opens his daughter’s door and stands aside as she flops in.

 

***

 

      As they drive away from Cornell, Lindy sits turned away, toward her window, the hazy summer landscape rushing by outside.

 

      “Dad?….what if I’m not as smart as the kids out here?” quietly she asks, into the window.

 

      “Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that, Honey,” he reassures. “You’re top of your graduating class, right?”

     

      “Well…I mean…what if they don’t like me, Daddy?”

  

      Her back seems tiny to Duane. He feels, like a gut punch, the agony born years ago when he and Barb would stand over her crib, their firstborn, and watch the miracle of her sleep. They couldn’t believe they’d created something so wonderful; privately he’d worried that he could never make life good enough for her.

 

      “Listen, Sweets. It’ll be great.” He gives her knee a little squeeze.

 

      His daughter turns back from the window and looks at him.

 

      “But Dad… it’s so far from where we live.”

 

      This will be the memory that will often return to pain him after Lindy has left home: her face framed against the square of blurry green countryside, her eyes beseeching him to clear away the doubt that has sunk a creeping root into her heart.

 

*** 

 

      Duane’s windshield has become almost opaque with bugs. He hadn’t prepared for it, this long haul. He’d like to stop, give the windshield a good cleaning, fill the radiator while he’s at it. But there are still 79 miles to Wellesley. He keeps driving.

 

      He’d gotten this Impala the year Lindy started Kindergarten. He’d been so proud; it would be the only new car he was ever to own.

 

      He watches the highway now, as he has for years, above the gently vibrating blue hood; steers the steady car with only a thumb on the familiar wheel. He remembers the day he’d driven this car off the lot; remembers the feeling, driving a new car, that everything in the world seems possible.


      Now here the thing is, practically old already.

 

      When they stop tonight – the Lamplighter, is it? – he’s going to check out the engine. He can definitely hear the Impala laboring. His chest is aching at the sound.