Sunday Drive

I get up and peer out our bedroom window, half expecting last night's storm to have washed the world away. Instead I see our lawn gnome, Jerry, grinning like an idiot as the morning sun burns leftover raindrops off his pointy red hat.

"What's our status?" asks Polly from the bed. I tell her that we still have a yard.

"How's Jerry?"

"He made it."

We decide to take a drive to celebrate. I maneuver our wagon out of the city and into the suburbs, past businesses that attach words like "factory" and "warehouse" to their names to lure consumers into their vague new industrial revolutions. We fall for it and grab 20-ounce coffees at the Latte Mill.

By the time we reach farm country, the air is hot and smells like cows and honey. I tell Polly that the rows of corn rising up from either side of the highway remind me of people waiting in line, but she doesn't answer, too distracted by her search for her favorite radio station, the one that plays songs that our parents did cocaine to in the '70s.

She settles for Mexican polka then goes into this whole thing about how she wants to be a farmer someday. She says farming is a stretched-out version of life, what with the land that looks like giant sheets of green apple Laffy Taffy, and the work days that go on forever and the fact that it takes a while to grow a crop. I offer to drop her off and she grins and sticks her arm out the window, letting her hand rise and fall in our homemade jet stream.

As the farm fields give way to foothills we turn onto a winding highway that runs alongside the river and limestone bluffs blanketed with pine trees. I point to a shadowy figure floating over the water and wonder aloud if it's a bald eagle. Polly frowns and says she hopes we never become the kind of couple that gets into bird watching. As I wonder whether or not we're already there, a Corvette the color of a Coke can pulls up behind us and moves into the left lane to pass.

Instead of speeding by it stays parallel with the wagon. We glance over and meet the gaze of a young kid, maybe fifteen, driving alone. His eyes are milky blue, his cheeks pockmarked and dusted with wannabe facial hair. A ratty ponytail pours out of the back of a baseball cap onto his skinny shoulders. Our drag race-staring contest lasts a few seconds longer and then he guns it like a badass and disappears around a curve.

Silence fills the wagon like a gas leak. Polly clears the air by saying that maybe that was a little too creepy for a Sunday drive. I nod, the kid's vacant stare burned onto my brain, and suggest we make up a story about him so we don't feel so weird.

After a half hour of brainstorming and conversational detours (turns out we can both remember the names of every teacher we had in high school)--we decide the kid's name is John, but his friends call him Johnny Racecar because he likes to drive fast. He's driving really fast this morning because he just stole his mom's boyfriend's mid-life crisis car and is heading down to Florida to find his dad, who he hasn't seen since he left years ago to be a full-time drunk and part-time fishing guide. At least this is what Johnny Racecar's mom told him. In his left hand he clutches a postcard with a marlin on the front jumping out of glass cleaner-colored water below the words, "Life's A Fish: Catch It." On the back Johnny Racecar's dad has scribbled, Hey Johnny, the hogs down here are ten times as big as those muskies up in Minnesota. --Dad. Johnny Racecar doesn't know what he'll do if he finds him. Maybe he'll punch his lights out, or maybe he'll ask him to buy him some beer and take him fishing.

As we get to the part about what he packed for the trip--three cans of Pringles, an old pickle jar filled with quarters, a little bit of weed in a metal one-hitter and a neon blue bathing suit--I spot a patrolman pulling over to the opposite side of the highway up ahead. We get a little closer, maybe fifty yards away, and there it is, front end smashed into a pine tree, hood curled up into an ugly metal wave. My insides dive bomb and I swerve to the shoulder to park. In a flash of selfishness I can't help but wonder if he did it just for us.

Polly is a better person and puts her hands to her mouth. I want to feel just as stunned but I don't know how so I blurt out that we've probably just stumbled upon the set of a made-for-TV movie about drunk driving. We watch as the cop, played by a B-list-looking actor wearing a fake mustache, runs up to the Corvette and looks into the passenger side window. He tries the door, then takes the butt of his big metal cop flashlight and smashes the window. After clearing the glass and unlocking the door, he crawls inside. I squint hard to try to see him in there, but we're too far away.

Moments later the cop jumps out and gets on his radio. I have the sudden urge to run out and deliver my first line: "We were the last ones to see him, officer. There was nothing we could do." Then I'd help him light a few flares and we'd investigate the scene, noting that he had avoided plunging into the river by a just a few feet. Satisfied with our observations, we'd wait for the ambulance in stoic silence.

But then Polly says, "Let's go home," which is her way of saying "end scene." I look at her then--a real person doing a real impression of a brave somebody--and I wish I could swallow her. Up ahead, the cop car's red and blue lights flash real coded messages: "Warning...this is bad...get away." So we go.

Driving back to the city, I picture Johnny Racecar speeding down those impossibly long white bridges that connect the keys in southern Florida. Eventually he'll cross over to Key West and he'll park that sweet stolen ride in the center of town. Then he'll slip his backpack over those bony shoulders and walk past Easter egg-colored bed and breakfasts, past bums that look like pirates, past fake Rastas hawking henna tattoos, past free-range roosters and bar after bar filled with fanny pack-clad tourists sucking down margaritas in plastic cups. And when he reaches the main harbor where fishermen keep boats with names like Net Worth, Dream Catcher and Get Reel, he'll pull out that little metal pipe and hit it over and over until his lungs burn.

About the author:

By day, Chris Clayton is an editor for a Minneapolis-based monthly magazine. By night, he doesn't write enough fiction.