by Alison Maeser Brimley
Clint fidgets with the radio presets as he lurches out of the parking lot. Habit. The owner’s taste in music is unimpressive; he scans a few soft rock stations playing bland ‘80s chart-toppers. The plastic panels that once covered the ignition cylinder lie between his feet, leaving wires exposed like the ticklish underbelly of an animal.
He’s driving fast, but not so fast as to make the engine whine, not so fast as to draw anyone’s attention. It’s two o’clock in the morning and already he’s too noticeable—the only car on the road, almost. There are a couple of cars in the Walmart parking lot. The couple of cars from which he’d made his selection.
He tries consciously to stop his hands tapping against the steering wheel, but when he holds them firmly against the leather the nervous energy slides up to his shoulders, then to his neck, then his head. Soon his head is swaying back and forth like a wild-eyed bobblehead, nodding and cheering himself on. And he does, in fact, feel a little swell of pride inside his pounding chest. His first time and he started the car in seconds. He’s impressed with himself—especially because he was only half listening when Gary explained the process to him.
He had listened to his uncle’s demonstration only to humor the man, and because he had nothing else to do. As Gary had showed him step by step, Clint had watched with no intention of following through. “Bring it to me. I sell the parts and split the money with you. 70/30,” Gary had said from the driver’s seat of a low-riding Honda hatchback with its plates removed. It was part of the collection of mostly dismantled cars Gary kept strewn behind his trailer. It was a nice trailer—nicer than Clint and his mom’s house. But the land surrounding it was a mess. A field of weeds, sown with tires and bumpers and watered with leaking motor oil.
“No, I don’t think so,” Clint said.
“65/35, okay? Don’t be greedy; it adds up, Clint.”
“No, I mean I don’t want to. I don’t think I could do it.” That was the truth.
“Now if you find one with the window down,” Gary continued, appearing not to have heard, “that’s a golden opportunity. All you do is—.” He stood up, grunting, and shut the car door. Its window was rolled down just an inch. He slid his fingers in the gap between the top of the glass and the weatherstripping and pushed back and forth, rocking with his whole weight until he had worked the window all the way down. He turned to Clint, raising his eyebrows and holding his hands out at hip-level as if inviting applause.
That was two weeks ago, the day after Thanksgiving. Gary had had the family over for dinner, and by nighttime Clint’s mom was too drunk to move. Gary let them stay the night. He liked company. The next day Clint had nothing to do but sit on the same couch he’d spent the night on, watching America’s Funniest Home Videos without ever laughing. In the afternoon, Gary had led him out to the junkyard. No one had ever actually told Clint where all the cars came from, and he had never asked, but at some point in the last couple of years he had begun to understand. Gary was mainly an auto-repair guy which was probably why his collection didn’t arouse suspicion. He didn’t make a lot of money, but enough to get Clint and Rhonda out of jams. Now Gary was standing there offering Clint the chance to contribute to the money coming in, and Clint felt almost ashamed refusing.
But then he wasn’t refusing on moral grounds; he wasn’t being a hypocrite. Clint didn’t think he was above grand theft auto; he just didn’t think he could get away with it. Something in his growing-up had instilled a fear of getting caught breaking the law, a fear that no one else in his family seemed to have.
But maybe, if he could sidestep that one decisive, loud, jarring obstacle—cracking a window—he could.
The car he picked tonight had its window cracked.
He has a good memory for mechanical, physical things. He congratulates himself on this. Each second the car remains moving is another cause for celebration. He lets a tense smile pull across his face. Now passing the state college campus, he reaches to grab the half-cylinder panel still rolling between his feet. He flings it into the back seat and is surprised to hear a nasally whine, followed by a sharp intake of breath, and then another long whine. Again and again and again the sound repeats like a busted machine—whine, breath, whine, breath, whine. But it’s not a machine, it’s a human— a baby! An infant in a car seat rudely awakened and revving to life.
For an instant Clint slams on the breaks—he feels he cannot drive and process the baby’s existence at the same time. But before the car even has time to slow down, he remembers he cannot stop—not here, less than five minutes from the scene of his crime. He swears, smacks the steering wheel. He wants to pull over to get a good look at the thing, to make sure it’s okay, but instead he speeds up, grateful that there’s no one else on the road except for a gleam of taillights far ahead of him. His eyes dart back and forth between the rearview mirror and the road, trying to glimpse the baby’s face. But he can’t see any part of it. The car seat is facing the rear window. The baby’s not even thrashing, not even kicking out a small bootied foot for Clint to see. Is it a boy or girl? he wonders. It could be a year old, it could be a day old, there’s no way to tell. Briefly he entertains the thought that it’s not even a real baby. It could be some kind of tricky car alarm designed to mess with a thief’s mind. It really could be, its wailing sounds so mechanical. What kind of person leaves a baby in a Walmart parking lot in the middle of the night anyway?
He chastises himself for judging the owner of this car for their questionable ethics when his are—. Still, mysteriously, he does not feel guilty. Terrified, yes, but not guilty. He feels somehow deserving of this car, deserving of the money.
He checks his mirrors and glances around even more madly than before—twice each second, it feels like—because he’s sure someone else can hear the crying. Some mother somewhere, probably still picking up whatever the hell she was getting at Walmart at 2 a.m., can sense her baby’s crying. In his heart he knows it’s a real baby. And its mother will be on his trail now, or probably she’ll have the cops on his trail. He pulls onto the highway, and two other cars pass by in the other lane as he merges. There is some relief in that—in being one of three.
The baby’s cry changes. Rather than a one-to-one ratio of whining to breathing, the baby starts releasing two shorter whines at fluctuating pitches, followed by a breath. Clint reminds himself to keep breathing. Without waiting for permission from his brain, his right hand flies off the steering wheel and pokes at the radio button again. He hits the preset buttons one by one until he lands on something he knows, as if he deserves to be able to listen to his choice of music on this illicit road trip, as if he, like any other driver, just needs something to help him pass the time behind the wheel. Perhaps he is trying to drown out the sound of the baby. Perhaps he is trying to distract himself. It doesn’t work. The baby’s two-to-one crying mingles with the sound of radio ads talking too fast and the DJ talking too slow, and they all seem to be arguing with each other. Finally Clint’s finger strikes a button that replaces the talk with actual music—The Doors, with their tense keyboards and anxious, driving drumbeats. It makes Clint feel even more panicky. The baby, however, slows its crying—like it’s heard Jim Morrison’s command to break on through to the other side—and then breathes out hard and stops altogether.
He wishes he could just see it. The baby is frightening and yet a little familiar. It gives him a feeling he has felt before, once, though he can’t place it.
Is it a boy or a girl? Clint wonders again. His eyes burn from forgetting to blink; he feels like he might tear up. The song ends and another one starts. It’s still the Doors, but a more obscure song Clint hasn’t heard before, or at least one he doesn’t remember. Clint was never as big a fan of the Doors as his father was.
When the song ends, the radio station plays a little jingle to announce itself and Clint recognizes the tune. It’s as familiar as if he’d recorded it himself.
It was funny—seventies rock music colored most of Clint’s childhood memories, even though he’d grown up twenty years after it was popular. It was his father’s music, and so it became his music. When he pictured himself as a child, he pictured himself grouting tile or removing painter’s tape, an oldies radio station playing not in the background but in the foreground—his father liked to turn the radio up loud enough to compete with his power tools. It always felt like Clint’s father let him work unsupervised, but in retrospect Clint could see that his father always put him on a job close by. And every time the song changed, his father would quiz him. “Who is it, Clint?” he’d call, keeping his eyes on his own task, spackling a ceiling or something, and Clint would respond “Fleetwood Mac!” or “Jefferson Airplane?” and his father would give a single nod of approval without looking away from his work.
The construction jobs took up most of Clint’s eighth, ninth, tenth, and eleventh summers—from the time his father decided he was old enough to help to the time his father left Milton. When Clint was twelve, his mother had fed him a tear-ridden revisionist history, and he’d re-learned who his father really had been. He’d eaten it up until he started middle school the next year, where there were computers that could browse the internet. Schizophrenia, Clint had typed into the search engine. It was a word that floated around his house like a pesky fly that could never be swatted. He had heard it, seen it in the mouths of his uncle Gary and aunt Patricia, but never when his mother was around. Clint had read the common symptoms: Paranoia and a sense of always being victimized.
With this he could put a label on her, on what had happened to her. And then he had two versions of history in his head. In one, his father was good and seemed to jive with his actual memories. This version was hard to square with his father’s sudden and unexplained departure. In the other, his father was the villain, which didn’t match Clint’s memories but had quickly gained ground over the other for the simple fact that his mother—who had stayed, who he needed, and who quickly grew to need him—told this version of the story. When he’d learned that this version could be little more than a symptom of what was wrong with her, he again didn’t know what to think. All his teenage years, though he had never thought of those years this way, had been a struggle for supremacy between one story and the other.
It wasn’t until last year that one version finally gained a decisive upper hand.
Last May, a week after he’d turned nineteen, Clint had gotten a call from his father. “You have a job right now?” his father had said.
“Not right now, no.”
“Well then welcome to the Davis Construction crew. We’ve got a job in Pace starting next week rebuilding an old dentist’s office. I don’t guess you got anything going on this summer. ”
“No,” Clint said.
Because he figured his mother would notice if he was suddenly no longer lying around the house during the day, he’d told her that he’d gotten a job. She was sitting in front of the television when he handed her a bowl of box macaroni and cheese he’d made her for dinner and said, “I got a job, Ma. I start tomorrow.” He hadn’t planned to tell his mother whom he’d be working for, and, conveniently, she didn’t ask. She just turned her face toward him, her eyes peeling reluctantly away from the screen, and a watery film of tears started to pool below her eyes. Her voice, though, betrayed no emotion when she spoke.
“Thank the Lord,” she said.
In the nights before he started work, as he lay down to sleep, he fantasized about his reunion with his father—of kneeling next to him to lay tile like they used to, his father turning to him to apologize for the last eight years. Sometimes in these fantasies Clint acted first. He would approach his father installing insulation, maybe, and ask him why in such a way that would break his heart. In one dream—one that he replayed often—when Clint asked why his father looked at him hard and said, “I didn’t leave my wife. That woman wasn’t my wife. She’d turned into someone else.” After months of replaying the scene, the sting of the revelation wore off because Clint knew it was true. He could remember a time when she hadn’t been the way she was now, when she had cooked him dinners instead of the other way around, when her face had reflected something other than the TV screen.
What made Clint fume now was thinking about what his father had said to him when he showed up at the construction sight for the first day of work. He’d made a joke. Said, “Can’t believe you gave me all those free hours of labor back when you were a kid.” Then he took slow steps forward toward Clint, holding his arms out as if welcoming him into a hug. “Guess my jig is up.” And then he let his arms fall to his sides.
Clint and his father had spoken on the phone several times each year since he’d moved away. When he was fifteen Clint had received a postcard from Miami. It was signed, “Dad & Tammy.” That was the first time his dad had hinted at his remarriage. In the next phone call, maybe six months later, his father spoke of Tammy as if she had always been there and needed no explanation. That was the way it’d been in every call since.
When Clint finally met Tammy, though, last summer, his dad had given him an almost too proper introduction. In the middle of the workday he’d taken them both to Waffle House. But he hadn’t left much time for them to get to know each other if that’s what he was hoping to accomplish. He’d spent the whole hour telling the story, in great detail, of how they’d met, keeping a mouthful of hash browns perpetually tucked in the pocket of his cheek. The air conditioning had seemed to freeze the construction sweat on Clint’s back and neck and drove him to eat his lukewarm waffle like a maniac. Tammy and his dad had met at a Chick-fil-A grand opening in Gulf Breeze. They’d camped out overnight, aiming to be two of the first one hundred people in line that would earn free sandwiches every week for a year. Their tents ended up next to each other. “And the rest is history!” Clint’s dad had boomed, shoveling another forkful of food into his mouth. He was living in Pensacola at the time and had gone because the new restaurant was so close to his house. Tammy, on the other had, was something of a habitual Chick-fil-A camper; she’d traveled three hours to be there. Her passion for the sport had infected Clint’s dad. “We’ve been to thirteen grand openings since then,” he’d said, looking lovingly at Tammy. “If it comes within two hundred miles of us, we’ll be there.” Tammy had gone red and smiled. “It’s just a fun thing to do,” she’d explained.
Clint wants nothing more than to pull over and look at the baby, now gurgling contentedly to itself. But his hands remain welded to the steering wheel and his foot doesn’t let up a bit on the pedal. Still, every moment he stays on the road feels like another nail in his coffin. He can’t go back to Milton, of course, but he can’t keep driving with this baby, either.
He remembers suddenly why this all feels familiar. Once, a few years ago when his grandma died and Gary’s daughter by his first wife was in town with her three kids, Clint was assigned to cart the kids from Gary’s house to the church for the funeral. He had never driven with a child in a car before. The kids were old enough to not need car seats, but he’d still been nervous. In part, he’d felt a pressure to talk to them, entertain them. And in part he’d felt a responsibility heavier than anything. He’d taken his turns cautiously. He’d turned the radio down. He’d parented his own mother every day, but these kids were different, fresh, full of promise. They were quiet, anxious, blond, buttoned up. They had lives ahead of them.
Clint finds himself turning off the highway, frightened at the thought of what he is about to do. The pavement beneath the tires turns into loose gravel and then into gray dirt and his headlights carve holes in the perfect black ahead. He’s passing the turnoff that leads to Gary’s and wonders if it’s probably too late—he could still hand the car over to Gary for a few hundred dollars. But it is too late. Instead he turns onto Larrabee Loop and parks in front of the trailer, angling the car so that the headlights cast a little light on the trailer but don’t shine directly through the windows. He gets out of the car, leaving it running, and creeps to the north side of the trailer to Erin’s window. He taps quietly at the glass.
He can’t see her through the window, but he knows where her bed is, where she’ll be. He knows the soft rapping will not wake her. He knocks louder. He starts to jostle the windowpane, trying it to see if it can be forcefully removed so he can enter the room, when the light in the room flips on and he catches a glimpse of her by the light switch in the corner. She’s wearing a white tank top, no bra, and a pair of boxers with little multicolored stars printed all over them. She has her arms wrapped around her as if to shield herself from something, and then she turns to face the window and hisses, “Clint! What the hell?”
“Yeah, I didn’t think you would be that happy to see me,” he says, trying to smile, then stops when he remembers all the times she used to tell him how stupid his smile looks. “I really, really need a favor.”
She looks behind him, squinting against the blare of the car’s headlights. “Who is that in the car? Tyler?”
“Nobody. I drove.”
“What the hell are you doing here in the middle of the night?” She is standing at the window now, bending at the waist so that her face will fit into the window frame, arms crossed over her chest. Her long red hair, knotted from sleep, falls over her shoulder, and her face looks paler than usual. Her limbs seem to glow white.
“Erin, I need to ask you a favor, and I need you to promise you’ll do it, no matter what it is. Will you promise me?”
“No,” she spits. “I won’t.”
Clint closes his eyes and lets them roll back into his head as if searching for another strategy. Of course she isn’t going to promise him that. She isn’t stupid, and she doesn’t trust him. When he opens his eyes again, he tries to let them burn with earnestness, to let her know how much he doesn’t care about anything that happened before with them and how much he needs her right now.
“Okay, listen, and don’t—just don’t freak out, okay? I have a baby in the car. It’s not mine—I mean, obviously. I . . . took it.”
By the end of the sentence he is staring into the corner of her room, unable keep eye contact.
“You took it?” she repeats.
“With the car,” he says. “I took the car. From a parking lot.”
“Clint, you idiot.”
He hasn’t spoken to her for months. He remembers now how much she annoys him, how much she has always annoyed him. He hates her habit of overemphasizing certain words, slowing them down and moving her lips so emphatically it was like she was trying to teach him how to speak.
“I know,” he says.
“I mean, I knew you were desperate, but not that desperate.”
“Well it’s not—I mean, it is for money, but not like you think. I worked last summer for my dad and he—. Look, I’m not selling it—I just need it to get to Valdosta.”
“What’s in Valdosta?”
“A Chick-fil-A grand opening, tomorrow morning.”
Her eyes open into perfect circles and she lets her head fall to the side, as if to say, Really, Clint?
“Listen! My dad and his wife love those things. That’s where they met and now they go to every one within a thousand miles or something. If I’ve got any chance of tracking him down, that’s where I’m going to find him.”
“Clint, I don’t care.”
Clint feels like reminding her that she was the one who asked him what was in Valdosta, but decides against it. “Yeah, anyway—I need you to take the baby. Please. I’ll be a car thief, whatever, I’ll deal with it, but I don’t want to be a kidnapper.”
“Take the baby where?”
“Just, I don’t know, take it back to town, to the police, make sure it finds its mom.”
He had known she would be a hard sell. But for some reason he isn’t prepared for the narrowness and hardness of her eyes, the firm thin line of her mouth, the face that makes him feel so ridiculous he can hardly keep talking. It’s a feeling he remembers well from when they were together, though at least then she treated him like her pet idiot. At times her hard-pressed lips would break into a smile and she would tilt her jaw up to kiss him under the ear. He imagines that happening now. It doesn’t.
Instead she folds herself in half and climbs out the window. She goes to the back door of the car and pulls it open. She looks down at the baby.
“Is it a boy or a girl?” Clint asks.
“Can’t tell. It’s bald,” Erin says. “And it’s wearing yellow, so . . .”
“How old do you think it is?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know about babies, okay? It’s not a newborn. And it doesn’t look like it’s gonna be walking around anytime soon. But I don’t know. Why are you asking me about this damn baby? It isn’t mine.”
“But you’ll take it?”
Erin strides back to the trailer. Clint stands facing the baby, as if he expects it to explain something.
It was about this time last year that Erin had gotten pregnant. Clint had started a running list of songs to sing to the new baby when it was born: “I Will” by The Beatles, “Don’t Be Shy” by Cat Stevens. Erin had skipped school for a week and hadn’t answered his calls. “It’s not fair,” she’d said one day, about two months in, after reconciling with the fact of her impending motherhood. They’d been at the mall shopping for new clothes. Clint had tagged along dutifully. He’d sat on the bench in a tiny dressing room while she pulled her old jeans off. “You have your fun and I get all stretched out by this thing inside me. Everyone that looks at me will know while you go on like nothing’s different, ‘cause nothing is different for you—you deal with the baby if you want, don’t if you don’t want.”
“I’m gonna deal with it. I promise,” Clint had said.
“What I don’t understand is why can’t it be fair? Why can’t men have half the babies and women have the other half? Why do we have to suffer through one hundred percent of the babies?”
“I’d have this one if I could,” Clint had said. He’d wanted badly to make her laugh. He hadn’t been able to do that much since they found out.
She’d turned to face him full on and glared. She might have looked funny with her pants off in this attitude, but she didn’t. “Wow, Clint, that’s so sweet of you.” Her lips had pulled back from her teeth when she spoke, like a dog about to attack.
Two weeks later she lost the baby. Even though she had never wanted it, she cried, and nothing Clint could say to her after that was right.
Now he stands looking into the hard face of the woman he had almost shared a tiny person with. Instead, there is nothing between them but a warm wind blowing in the dark. “Erin, I need help. I know you hate me—though I don’t know why, actually—but I just need you to have some compassion on this freaking baby and realize that I can’t take care of it. You are literally the only person I could think of to ask.”
For the first time that night, she stands very close to him. He can smell her shampoo. He misses it. He wants to reach out and put a hand on her pale, spotted arm.
“Clint,” she says, “I am not an idiot. I am not going to show up at the police department with a kidnapped baby. Sorry, but I just don’t feel like getting investigated right now. This is your problem.” She goes to the window and hoists herself up onto its frame, slithering back into her bedroom. The car door is still open, and the baby starts to whine.
She turns to face the window and puts her hands on the frame, ready to push it closed again. Clint’s breathing grows quicker. “So you’re getting out of here, huh?” she says. “Going to stay with your dad and his new girl?”
“No, not getting out. I just need to find him and get my money.”
“Mm. We’ll see.”
Clint stands in place, silent. He had held out hope, still, that even if she hated him, she would take pity on an innocent, kidnapped child. He figures the best way of letting that pity work itself up in her is to stay silent.
“Good luck, Clint!” she says, her voice thick with mock enthusiasm. “I always knew you’d be a terrible father.”
Back on the road, Cream on the radio, Clint tries to decide what to do next, but all he can think about is that time, a year ago, when he’d wanted the baby—the other baby. It was near the end of senior year, and Erin wasn’t going to have to drop out of school or anything. He was ready to get a job, to struggle to pay the bills, to come home to Erin every day, to wake up for the baby in the middle of the night. He was eager for his dad to call again, his twice-yearly call, so that he could tell him what he was going to do. In a strange way he was eager for his dad to call again every year for the next twenty or thirty years because, while his dad would be calling from a different house every time, Clint was going to be in the same house with the same woman and the same baby, growing older and older, and it filled him with a thrilling sense of superiority to think that. Then, two weeks after those visions had begun to fill his head, they stopped. When he closed his eyes it was like he could see his future stretching out before him in a long, unbroken roll of tape; when he had found out there would be no baby, the tape broke off and fell to a grand cosmic floor and became an amputated, alternate future to be swept up and thrown away. He could no longer see what was coming.
Clint had lived in a sort of dread that at some point during his year-long relationship with Erin his father would come into town and meet her. His father would not like her. For everything he had done to them, the fact remained that his father was an almost gleefully abrasive person—the kind that always wore a full beard and maybe seventy-five extra pounds, the kind that you couldn’t imagine ever having been a young person, like Santa Claus or John Goodman, the kind that wouldn’t understand the appeal of a person like Erin. He was the kind that understood the appeal of a person like Tammy, Dolly Parton-like in her looks and liberal with her hugs and kisses. Tammy couldn’t have been more unlike Clint’s own mother—that had been Clint’s first, unyielding thought when he met her. His own mother, waiflike during her marriage, had swollen around the middle from the beer and self-imposed confinement since being abandoned, but there was still something cadaverous about her.
Soon he has driven out past the houses of anyone he might possibly know and is on his way over the county line. It looks as though the baby is staying with him. He feels like he has been on the road for hours, though it is still dark outside. The road cuts a thin swath through a forest, yet the only trees he sees are those caught by the edges of his headlights. The baby remains mostly quiet in the backseat, gurgling occasionally as if it is trying to say something. When it starts to fuss, Clint turns up the radio and the baby calms down.
Yes, the weight of an undersized body in the backseat is familiar to him. He is becoming almost comfortable with it. But he is realizing now that there is something else that makes this eternal, late-night drive feel a little like a dream he has had before: it’s a revenge trip. If trips could be placed in genres, like songs, this would be the genre of his journey—revenge trip—and it is the second of its kind he has taken. He is reminded of a recent yet nearly forgotten drive he had taken with Tyler—his childhood best friend he now seems to have little in common with except for the fact that they are always together. He’d been with Tyler at a party, a little bit drunk, in the middle of the night—though Clint didn’t enjoy parties, he enjoyed them more than being at home—when this girl that had never talked to Clint before approached them and asked Tyler where Angela was. When Tyler said he didn’t know—Tyler and Angela had broken up the week before—the girl swirled the beer around in her red plastic cup keeping her eyes down on her drink while she raised her eyebrows. “Maybe you should go ask Darwin Jefferson,” she had said, and the name fell hard on Tyler with all the force she had intended.
Tyler had laughed lazily, but it was a ruse. He rolled his head around on his neck and by the time it fell forward again he had a violent gleam in his eyes. Darwin Jefferson was a black kid, second-string lineman for the football team, arms as big around as milk gallons. Tyler was like Clint—people thought they were brothers—thin, toneless, washed out. They walked around like shadows of one another. But now, against all reason, the beer-swirling girl, who Tyler seemed to know, had given him the idea that he needed to find and fight Darwin Jefferson. So Tyler became fixated and he and Clint left the party in Tyler’s truck, on the hunt for Darwin and Angela.
It felt like a crazed, doomed mission. Tyler drove, spurred on by revenge and a fearlessness borne by alcohol. They drove in the dark for hours. Clint persuaded his friend to stop for a break at Taco Bell, but he couldn’t distract him to the point of quitting. They never even found Angela or Darwin—together or otherwise. What would they have done if they had? Maybe nothing. But Tyler’s revenge trip and Clint’s own are the same. He sees it now. They are missions to hunt someone down and tell them, “You gave me the best time of my life and you didn’t let it end the way I wanted.”
Or maybe that wasn’t it. Maybe it was a trip to say, “I gave love to this endeavor and I was not compensated.”
Of course that’s it, he thinks. Don’t try to complicate it. That is what this trip is for: compensation.
He imagines arriving at Chick-fil-A, picking his dad and Tammy out of the crowd—he hopes they will be sitting in camping chairs and not inside a tent—and approaching them with the baby in his arms. He will have to say it is his. And then what? Keep it forever?
He knows that he can’t go back to Milton. Ever. He has burned that bridge by taking the baby. He’ll have to start a new life now, whether his father invites him to stay or not. For this he feels a gentle surge of something like gratitude for the baby.
He decides he’ll call his mother in a week or so. He’ll probably call her at Gary’s house. That’s where she’ll go, almost certainly. He’ll call and check up on her every few months. Not too often, because there won’t be much to say, but often enough to know whether she is okay.
Pink Floyd is on the radio and the baby seems to have fallen asleep again. This is perfect lullaby music, Clint thinks, and adds it to his mental list of songs to sing to future baby. This is what he thinks just before he sees lights behind him flashing red and blue with the rhythm of a casino sign. He sees the lights even before he hears the sirens. It’s like watching a firework and waiting what seems like forever for the audible crack that matches the spray of light. He fully intends to surrender himself. To pull to the side of the road, step out of the car with his body tensed and ready to be flattened against the car window, his wrists twisted behind him and cuffed. Instead his foot falls harder on the gas pedal. He doesn’t know how much power the car has or how long it can outrun a cop. The car accelerates quickly, and soon he is doing 115 as he takes off down the empty stretch of highway. He comes up behind a car inching along and swerves around it. His hands are sweating so badly that they lubricate the steering wheel and make it hard to hold. The baby’s awake and agitated and starts up an anxious grousing that quickly grows into a full-on howl. Clint reaches for the radio dial and turns the music all the way up, as if hoping to drown out the wail of the baby and the siren.
Run, rabbit, run, Pink Floyd urges coolly while Clint keeps steady pressure on the pedal. Cops have always been kind to him. His mother has been arrested twice and both times the cops seemed sorry for him.
He lurches to the right, dodging a car in the left lane, and then, on an impulse, takes off down an exit ramp. He’s going to Crestview. He isn’t sure if this is a good idea, but a real town might allow him to lose the cop. Better than a deserted two-lane highway. Then he remembers that towns have traffic lights. What do people in car chases do at traffic lights? Certainly they don’t stop. Clint decides to deal with that problem when it comes.
He flies off down the exit and almost immediately hits a red light, but no cars are approaching in either direction, so he rushes right through it, making a wide, wild left turn and laying on his horn for good measure, as if the cry of the siren isn’t enough to alert drivers to stay away.
Still, these streets are deserted and thin; at first there is nothing surrounding him but trees. Then some signs of civilization start to appear: gas stations, little restaurants, an EconoLodge. Then the buildings grow taller and closer together. He’s flying past strip malls and billboards plastered with lawyers’ vengeful faces and enormous phone numbers. He’s looking for somewhere he can turn to disappear. This is not the dizzying metropolis he was hoping for. Finally, he makes a sudden, sharp right in hopes of running the cop into the curb. The further into town he gets, the more cars materialize, though still there are not many—this road has only two lanes traveling in each direction. He dodges them swiftly, darting briefly into oncoming traffic, and plows over a median to flip a split-second U-turn. His skill surprises him. He’s talking through every maneuver with the baby. “That’s right . . . let’s go—this way! . . . Excuse me, please . . . and thank you. . .”
The baby’s screaming and Janis Joplin is shouting herself hoarse on the radio. It energizes Clint. The solitary wail of the siren now grows into a chorus. Clint glances into the rearview mirror and sees that he is now being tailed by three cop cars, the up-and-down laments of their sirens creating a horrible modulating harmony. “Let’s try . . . here—” he says to the baby, swerving in a wide arc to the right of a bus stopped at the intersection. The street he turns on to, however, is not empty. There’s a car stopped behind a delivery truck, and by the time he sees it it’s too late. He’s moving too fast and the steering wheel is too slick with sweat. Everything in his vision flashes white and he feels a crack from his collarbone to his eyesockets.
It takes someone pulling him by the arm to make him realize he’s still alive. Pulling him from the driver’s side window—first his right shoulder, his right arm, twisting him to get a grip on the other side of his body. There are two people pulling, shouting, trying to pull him right out the window. “The door,” Clint says, and when he moves his mouth, he tastes blood.
They have him out on the street, lying in the turn lane when someone socks him in the stomach. “Don’t,” he protests delicately, half-stunned that the police are actually beating him in the middle of the road, and half-afraid for the baby. He cranes his neck back toward the car and is socked again, drawing his head into his chest. He cranes back once more, searching for the baby in his blurry field of vision. He sees the car accordioned from tip to windshield. He wishes he knew the baby’s name—he doesn’t even know if it’s a boy or girl. He’s socked again.
Only then does he strain for a good look at his attacker and sees that it’s not an officer; it’s a meaty, red-faced man, a dirty yellow t-shirt stretched across his enormous stomach, a sparse goatee covering what would have been his chin, if he’d had one. At his side is a woman, similar in girth, a fire of revenge in her eyes, shouting unintelligibly in a high, thin voice. Uniformed men pull at Clint’s assailant—two or three officers on each arm, wrenching him away. The large man gets in one last punch to the stomach. The woman at his side claps like a happy baby.
At the edge of his consciousness Clint hears the sirens still. Just closer is the indistinct buzz of walkie-talkies. Now the uniforms pull Clint to his feet; his stomach throbs in protest. He lets them drag him. They push him against the window of the car and wrench his arms behind his back, thrusting his wrists together.
For a moment he forgets he did not make it to Valdosta. He looks around for the Chick-fil-A sign, a red and white beacon, surrounded at its base by a mound of camp chairs and little tents like the stem of a flower. He’s afraid his father will see this, or Tammy. What would Tammy think?
With his face turned at a hard angle and his cheek against the window, he sees that the fat goateed man is being arrested too. His wife continues to squeal. Suddenly Clint understands that the car he hit was theirs. They are vigilantes, personally seeing to it that justice is served. Still, Clint stares blearily in their direction, as if listening for some explanation in their shouts—they mystify him. Perhaps they saw he was being chased and thought he would try to run. No matter now.
He turns away from them. He presses his nose, tender from the air bag’s walloping, against the glass of the window. This way he can see the baby. The pane of glass and the pain in his face seem to muffle the sound of its cry. He cannot hear, but he can see the infant’s face—the hard, fierce, dimpling of the chin and the space between the eyebrows, the narrowing of the eyes, the grotesque contortion of the bottom lip. The eyes are ringed in red, shiny from tears. A string of saliva drops from the mouth. Clint stands, feeling the metal close around his wrists, watching that string grow long, then short again when the baby takes a breath. It’s like watching a silent film. Nothing about it is cute or soft.
Something snapped in him when he decided to leave his house in the night and “shop” for cars in the Walmart parking lot, and it’s snapping back now. It’s like his brain has shifted in his head, dropped into gear, and is starting to grind again the way it is supposed to. Again he can see his future, and again it stretches out long before him, an unending reel.
The instant he chose to leave seems like a hundred years ago—in his bedroom, unable to sleep, smoking the last joint Tyler had given him on credit, the electricity turned off. It was not the first time this had happened. Sometimes the darkness lasted a day or two before Gary could get them the money to pay the power bill. The worst part was that the TV was off, and when there was no TV she would just talk. It was worse than when she was silent—even when she was silent for days—because when she talked there was no ignoring the way she was. And when she talked too much, filling their little hallway of a house with her voice, Clint would start thinking like her—her syntax, her suspicions. He needed the TV as much as she did. Tonight, thankfully, she’d been asleep on the couch, basking in the residual glow of the TV. Clint, head bathed in his last beautiful cloud of smoke, had peered out the door to glance at her reclined there, and something in him had started to churn, overheat. He had the money. He had the money to pay for this—he had earned it—but it wasn’t in his hands. Yes, he could ask Gary, but he didn’t have to. He shouldn’t have to.
Clint slipped on his shoes, tied clumsy knots, and bounded out the front door, unconcerned now about waking his mother. Even when he realized the walk to Walmart was much longer than he wanted it to be, he didn’t stop. He walked along stretches where there was no sidewalk. He was spurred on by something consuming. Somewhere on the road he had understood himself. He’d realized that he had no hope of returning home triumphantly with money in hand, but hadn’t had time to think about this. The parking lot was in sight, and he had already begun to scan. His brain was grinding, grinding, a slipped gear, grinding madly against—nothing.
Yes, whatever had snapped was snapping back now. Oh, what this baby’s mother would want to do to him if she ever saw him. Something worse, probably, than the fat, goateed man had done. Clint feels water stinging in his own eyes.
The pain is finally coming to him, he thinks.