Peeling the Onion is a backwards-moving novel-in-short-story form. The novel traces the path of the main character, Nolan, from his efforts to remain sober in the midst of a divorce back to where it all started.
Kevin called Nolan to warn him that the clock was ticking, that if he wanted to see Dad before he died, Nolan had better go through Mimzy to schedule an appointment soon. The slots, Kevin said, were filling up. Mimzy and Oscar were allowing one family member visit per week, only over the weekend, then Oscar had to have the rest of the week to recuperate.
Nolan’s father was dying of mesothelioma. Not much was known about it in 2000, but thus far, the survival rate for the disease was zero. Oscar had spent most of his life designing and working around industrial furnaces before asbestos became a dirty word, and apparently that had done the trick.
Mimzy was Oscar’s second wife. He’d married her three months after their mother had passed. Mimzy was a bottle-blonde, hairsprayed wisp of a woman who was somehow an oncologist in her previous life. She spoke in the hushed squeak of a four-year-old girl at church needing to use the restroom. Nolan had skipped their nuptials.
In fact, he hadn’t seen his father in over four years. Seeing as their last encounter preceded a depression that had culminated in Nolan on the rooftop of Doral Plaza in downtown Chicago with a suicide note in his pocket, he had thought it prudent to avoid Oscar after that, one day at a time, new meds or no meds. He stayed in touch over the phone, but that was the best he could do.
With Kevin’s news, however, the day had come. Nolan finished his beer, opened another and called Mimzy.
“Nolan,” she peeped. “It’s so good to hear your voice.”
Unsure how to respond honestly, Nolan said nothing.
“I know your father will be glad to hear you called. He’s resting now. Kelly and Stan were just here over the weekend. They brought Luke, of course, so it was a full house.”
“Uh huh. So, look. I hear he’s in a bad way. Is there any chance I can come down this weekend to see him?”
“Oh, I’m afraid not. Your brother Jack and Sarah and the girls are coming. Those girls are getting so big.”
Bitch, how long have you even known them? Nolan thought.
“Okay,” he said. “How about the week after that? Kevin was saying you’re only allowing visitors on the weekends.”
“So that’s okay?”
“I’m not sure what you mean by ‘okay,’” she said.
“Is it clear? A week and a half from now?”
“Oh. That’s Melissa’s weekend, I’m afraid. That one will be difficult for Oscar. We’ll see how it goes.”
Nolan took a long swig of Old Style.
“How’s the following week, Mimzy?”
“Oh. No. Jerry and the boys are here then, I’m afraid.”
“Good for them. And the next week? Think you could squeeze me in there?”
“Well, your brother Kevin is coming again, but this time he’s bringing Diane and the twins so they can say their goodbyes. Those two are so precious, I could just eat them up.”
Nolan took the phone away from his ear and stared at it.
“Week after that, would that be a wash, too?”
“I’m afraid it is.” Her squeaky whisper managed to become squeaky stern. “That’s Mother’s Day, so Rebecca is coming down in order to have some mother-daughter time. It’s very important for her. For the both of us.”
“I’m sure it is. I’m sure it is. What’s the following week look like down your neck of the woods, Mimz’?”
“That one’s booked, I’m afraid. Your cousins Susan and Eileen and her little one, as well as your father’s friends from Canada, the Michauds. That one shouldn’t be as emotionally taxing on your father, so we doubled up there.”
“Did we? Tell you what. We’re going to move backwards now, back to Mother’s Day. You’re going to break the bad news to your daughter that there’s going to be a plus two. Sheri and I are going to be there Mother’s Day weekend, and you’re just going to have to deal with that. We won’t even stay in my old room; we’ll stay in a goddamn hotel, but we are going to be there.”
“There’s no need for language.”
“You know what, Mimzy? No, forget it…No, you know, there’s an easier way of going through a schedule than what we just did. You do realize that, right?”
“So does everybody get that kind of bullshit, or was it just for my benefit?”
“Just you, dear.”
“So long, Mimzy. I’ll see you when I see you.” He wasn’t about to say the words “Mother’s Day” to her again.
“Bye, now,” she said.
They hung up. He had to hand it her. That was well played. Then again, it blew up her own plans.
“Mother’s Day, my ass,” he said to himself. “My mom would have hated you. And she didn’t hate anybody…Oh, and guess what. Dad’s dying. Hurry up and get home. In a month.”
Sheri was livid when he told her. “You had to fight for Mother’s Day? I’m sorry, has anyone else in your family not seen Oscar in the last four years? That’s bullcrap. That’s what my dad would call it. Bullcrap.”
“My dad and your dad are as polar opposite as they come. Oscar’s got to control things. Right to the end, even from his deathbed.”
Saying the word out loud had an impact. Nolan went to get himself another beer, forgetting he hadn’t finished the one in front of him.
“Grab me one?” Sheri called, not having to ask where he was going or what he was doing.
“Yep.” He opened the tallest kitchen cabinet, the one Sheri couldn’t reach, got out a bottle of Maker’s Mark, twisted open the little corktop and took a few quick pulls as he reached into the fridge. He had to grab one Old Style at a time, as his other hand clutched the bottle. He took one last swig, hid the bottle back in the cabinet, popped a beer and chugged half of it to mask his breath. He burped and through the beer the whiskey bottom burned his nostrils pleasantly. He brought Sheri her beer, staying at a distance as best he could.
“They can’t make, like, a prodigal son exception?” she asked.
“We don’t have the money it takes to be prodigal.”
“Wait. What the hell’s ‘prodigal’ mean?”
“Extravagant?” he guessed. “I think. Catholic school they’d talk about that story all the time, never bothered to tell us. I think it means extravagant, but I could be way off. I used to think it meant ‘lost.’ But, whatever.”
“Doesn’t matter. What I meant was…”
“I know what you meant. No.”
Two weeks later, on Saturday afternoon, Jerry called.
“Listen. I’m down here with the boys, and from what I’m seeing, and Mimzy agrees with me, Dad’s taken a real turn for the worse. You should get down here now.”
“What? Oh…You’re coming? Thought I was going to have to argue about it. I got myself all ready.”
“Nope. You won. How bad is it?”
“It’s bad. They’re not sure how much longer he’s got. Days…Hours.”
“That’s what I said.”
“Okay. We’ll pack a bag. Be on the road in…an hour. Got to find someone for Nitwit. Maybe an hour. We’ll see.”
Jerry chuckled. “Your dog? How’s Nitwit doing?”
“He’s an idiot. He’s great. He ate a condom last week. I’ll tell you all about it when we get there.”
Sheri put her hands over her face.
“I’ll pass,” Jerry said.
“Nitwit tried to pass it.”
“Nolan...” Jerry’s voice took on the warning tone he’d heard so often as a kid, which was typically followed by the phrase, “Do you want to get hit?”
“Sorry. I’m nervous.”
“That’s okay. I forgive you. So, you’re driving, then?”
“Yeah. Best I can do on short notice.”
“Okeydokes. Do what you can. We’ll, uh, see you when you get here.”
Sheri found a dog sitter – Jill, a friend of their old bartender who still sat on occasion. She said she could do it if they could get the dog over to her place immediately. Nolan grabbed Nitwit’s food, bowls, a toy and the dog and they were out the door while Sheri packed. Nitwit couldn’t have been more excited. He had seen the suitcase come out, and he bounced from the front seat to the back seat like he was a puppy again. Nolan thanked Jill for coming through at the last second like that, handed Nitwit over and headed back to the apartment. He had just gone up the slight hill on Winnemac at Clark and was stopped at the light when he heard a high-pitched whine coming from behind him. The light turned, he hit the gas, the whining pitch reached a scream and the car punked out. It coasted almost far enough to make it through the intersection, but not quite. Nolan’s face got hot and his skin prickly. He tried starting the car. Nothing. Tried again. Nothing. A third time, and the car started, but so did the whine, and when he hit the gas, it was touch and go. He spotted an open parking spot just ahead of him and coasted into it.
“Okay,” he said loudly. “Okay, okay…Fuuuuuck!” he screamed. He pounded on the steering wheel.
His mechanic Pong explained over the payphone that it sounded like the fuel pump, but he’d have to see it to make sure. Nolan asked if it was safe to drive the mile and a half to the shop. Pong said maybe, maybe not, no guarantees without taking a look first. He offered to send a truck up to get it, so Nolan took him up on it and rode with the driver down to Pong’s.
It seemed to take forever for Mr. Lee to come back with the final word, while Nolan and Pong smoked in his office. Pong was explaining it was too late in the day to do much; from everything Nolan had said it had to be the fuel pump, but they didn’t keep parts on site. They had to be ordered. He could help expedite the process, but the garage was closed on Sunday anyway. Upon hearing that news, Nolan panicked.
“There has to be something you can do, Pong. I need this car to work. My dad’s dying. He’s got cancer. Mesothelioma. Nobody gets mesothelioma and lives. They just told us we have to leave now. They’re not sure how long he’s going to last. Could be hours. I haven’t seen the man in over four years. I mean, we’ve talked on the phone but that’s it. We’re not…There has to be something you can do.”
“Mr. Nolan, you need to learn how to meditate. Look at you. You not breathing. Breathe. Do it. In. Out. All the way. In. Out. You need to practice this. It unhealthy what you doing to yourself. That why you all bottled up. You not breathing.”
“I don’t think that’s it,” Nolan said.
“It all start there.”
Pong ran his hands through his hair and considered Nolan.
“Look,” he said. “Lee looking at your car. Okay I tell you a story?”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“Story about the Buddha and the little boy. Little boy goes to see the Buddha because his father just die. Little boy tells the Buddha his father was a great man. Everybody love his father. But now he died. There has to be something the Buddha can do. He believe the Buddha can do anything. He tell the Buddha, Bring my father back. He do not deserve to die. Everybody love my father. Please…bring him back.’
“Buddha think about it, say okay. I bring your father back. All you have to do is bring me a lotus seed. Not a big flower, just a seed, little tiny seed, from somebody’s home in the village that has not been touched by death. Anybody.”
“Little boy go to one home after another.”
Nolan nodded harder, trying to let Pong know that he got it, but Pong finished the story anyway. Little boy never found that home that hadn’t been touched by death. Even tried neighboring villages. Nolan had to admit it. He was fucked. His car was fucked. His life was pretty fucked, too, but goddamn, he had one unique top-notch mechanic. And if Pong couldn’t fix it right now, it couldn’t be fixed right now.
In time, it was confirmed; the fuel pump was shot. Nolan went home. He called Jerry and explained the car troubles and Jerry sounded deeply disappointed in him. Nolan didn’t sleep a wink that night. Or Sunday night. By Monday morning he hadn’t slept in forty-eight hours. The waiting around, unable to do anything, was horrible. All because he didn’t have a credit card, which meant he couldn’t rent a car out of Philadelphia or Baltimore, and he’d never ask somebody to drive all the way from the Eastern Shore to wait around for a flight that might be delayed, then turn around and drive back and then do the same thing in a few days. Plus, it would be humiliating. He used to have a credit card, in his twenties. But that didn’t end well.
So, they waited. On Monday, time seemed to stand still. He and Sheri stared at each other a lot, having run the well dry on things to say about the situation. He didn’t drink anything, knowing he’d have to drive at a moment’s notice and given the fifty-some hours of no sleep, he might get messed up too easily. They waited. Pong called at noon. It was ready. They ordered a taxi and waited some more. When the taxi pulled up, Nolan remembered to call Jerry and let him know they were on their way.
Pong had the car pulled out, ready to go. Sheri wrote them a check while Nolan thanked Pong and Mr. Lee profusely; they threw their luggage into the trunk and were on the road by twelve-thirty. Before they even reached Lake Shore Drive, they noticed traffic was heavier than usual. It was also heavy on Lake Shore heading downtown, and by the time they hit I 94 it was official. Traffic was pure bullshit. They crawled southbound through bumper-to-bumper, fuming at the cars and trucks in front of them and cursing their luck. As they finally reached the I 90 eastbound, the skies opened up in a deluge, which had limited impact on traffic – it was still stop and go regardless thanks to construction around the interchange. The downpour let up, but it never stopped raining completely, not as they pressed into Indiana, nor as they crossed the entire endless state of Ohio, nor deep into Pennsylvania. It never once stopped raining.
The wipers passed back and forth, back and forth, back and forth all day and late into the night for the entire drive all the way into the Pennsylvania mountains, and still the rain never showed any signs of letting up. As they climbed higher through the mountains, the water running down the highway made the car hydroplane over and over again. Nolan was forced to slow way down and get over into the right lane, where eighteen-wheelers passing on his left tossed enormous torrents of water onto his door and window so heavy they rocked the car. Each time it happened, Nolan flinched, wondering if this would be the time his window exploded from the force. Then the windshield fogged up and wouldn’t clear, not with hot air, cold air, nor any combination of air, recycled or fresh. Nolan could hardly see as the wipers kept up with their back and forth. He’d wipe the windshield with his hand when he felt safe enough to take one hand off the steering wheel, but it fogged right back over again. Sheri had to keep unbuckling her seatbelt to hop up and wipe the windshield with a rag, which might work for all of a minute before fogging back up again. Every time she got up to do this, Nolan’s heart pounded until he heard her seatbelt click again. And then it was back to barely being able to see the lane markers.
After a half hour of this complete insanity, he felt a calm come over him, and a voice that wasn’t quite a voice but not just a thought either. It said, “Look after the woman next to you.” Nolan jerked his head over to look at Sheri, then quickly back to the road. She hadn’t said anything, and he hadn’t exactly heard anything, but then the message repeated itself. It reminded him of his mom. Something about the “voice.” Nolan pulled off at the next exit, wide-eyed, and they stopped at the only motel in town.
“What are you doing?” Sheri asked. “You’re stopping? I thought we were…Oh, thank God.”
“We’re stopping. We could have died a hundred times on that drive. We’re stopping. It’s over.”
It was a fleabag motel, and they didn’t care. They weren’t watching those goddamn wipers go back and forth anymore, although when they lay down and closed their eyes, there they were again. The entire mattress reacted to the slightest of moves by either of them, bouncing up and down each and every time someone shifted their weight. If Sheri scratched her nose, Nolan felt it, and vice versa. Neither of them fell asleep quickly, the last few hours of the drive had been so traumatizing, so there was plenty of tossing and turning and minor adjustments that allowed the mattress to run haywire.
He was lying on that torturous bed when it happened. In retrospect, Nolan had to admit that he had not slept in over sixty hours, but that still didn’t explain the exact timing of the horses. He heard them before he saw them. The horses in question, white horses, to be exact, stampeded through the room fairly quietly but not silently, left to right, and they went on like this even after Nolan sat up in bed. They never approached him; the noises they made, the rumbling of their hoofs, was muffled; however, their simply being there at twelve-thirty in the morning, just after the two of them had reached safety and whatever that feeling had been that led him to pull off the interstate when he did, it all filled Nolan with the absolute certainty that his father had just died.
He got out of bed and smoked a cigarette. He was awake when it happened – as awake as he was, sitting there at the table next to the curtains, smoking.
The sun on the carpet woke him the following morning. Sheri was already up.
“I let you sleep in. You really needed it.”
“I did. Dad died last night.”
“Did somebody…how do you know?”
He told her about the white horses, and she believed him. She always believed him. Almost always.
The rest of the drive was easy in the sunlit blue skies. Nolan drove in the fast lane, where he always felt more comfortable, and they made great time. They reached the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake by ten-thirty that morning and pulled into the driveway in Still Pond just after eleven. There were only two cars; Nolan had expected to see more. A new red SUV had Massachusetts plates and must have belonged to Jerry.
Nolan and Sheri walked in.
“Hi, you guys,” Jerry said from the kitchen. “Dad passed away last night around midnight, Nolan. You missed him by about twelve hours.”
Silence. Nolan realized he’d made a mistake, and that his comment was guaranteed to warrant an explanation later, but perhaps now was not the time. Jerry walked over, scanning Nolan, then greeting Sheri warmly.
“Hi Sheri, how ya’ doing? How was the drive?”
“Long. Hi Jerry.” She hugged him.
Jerry laughed. “Was it long? I bet it was.”
He looked at Nolan and the smile left his face. “So, you guys got on the road yesterday afternoon?”
“We had to pull over last night, Jerry. We had to.”
This was not the time to discuss the voice, either, Nolan decided.
“The rain never stopped, then the defroster broke up in the mountains in PA. Piece of shit car. We were running blind.”
“It was scary,” Sheri assured Jerry. “I was…scared.”
“We both were.”
“I bet,” Jerry said to Sheri. Then to Nolan, “And you guys couldn’t catch a flight because…”
“It’s complicated,” Nolan said, sounding utterly defeated.
Jerry looked furious for a moment, then looked at Sheri and softened.
“Well, everyone’s out right now. Maria took the boys back to the hotel, so did Diane. She and the girls are there. Stan and Damian too. I think Jack and Kevin and maybe Kelly went to the funeral home with Mimzy.”
“Is that where we’re all staying?” Nolan asked. “There’s a hotel in Chestertown now?”
“I know. A brand-new Holiday Inn high rise. They finished it last year. There’s a pool, so the kids are excited. I’m pretty sure you guys are down in Rock Hall somewhere, though. I’ll have to check.”
“Yeah. I don’t know. I forget the name of the place. I’m sure it’s written down somewhere in the kitchen. By the phone, maybe?”
Nolan walked into the kitchen, straight to the fridge, and saw it was filled with beer. Kevin and Jack must have gone shopping. Jerry didn’t drink anymore. Nolan grabbed a bottle and chugged it down.
The stilted conversations with his siblings that followed left Nolan certain that they were upset with him. He couldn’t blame them a bit, but there were a few cold shoulders from Jerry that stung deeply. Then Kevin told him that Jerry had been whispering to their dad all night, “Nolan’s coming. He’s on his way. Nolan’s coming.” That about broke him right there. That was why Jerry was so pissed. He got it now.
Then came the wake. Hordes of family friends and neighbors, familiar with Nolan’s self-imposed exile, regarded him from across the room and whispered among themselves. Nolan’s grip on Sheri’s hand was vicelike. At one point he did let go of her hand to get another drink. “Please don’t leave my side,” he said, then left.
Those who approached Nolan did so memorably. Melissa walked up to them, dressed almost appropriately for her weight and the occasion.
“Man, it’s HOT in here. I need some water,” she said in her Philly accent.
“Hey Mel,” Sheri said. “You look nice. Let’s go find some water.” Sheri liked heavily medicated Mel. She never knew her before.
“Thanks, hon.’ How have you two been?” Mel asked. “How’s your ART coming?” she asked Sheri.
The two chatted about art, which Mel had always been interested in, and very talented at, from watercolor to photography to sculpture. In her early twenties she made Jerry an enormous chameleon that was terrifying and beautiful.
“I need a SMOKE,” Mel complained loudly once they’d directed her to the water fountain. “You guys still smoke?”
Nolan’s face got hot, and he squeezed Sheri’s hand.
“I might join you later, Mel. I’m trying to cut back.”
“Yeah. Yeah. Okay, Sheri. Nice talking to you.”
Sarah Booth Johnson’s face was a welcome one to see. He used to go over to their house in middle school and watch M.A.S.H. reruns with her husband John and stick around even when John was snoring. Sarah Booth always had the greatest homemade cookies just sitting around. Nolan felt a sense of relief as he saw her approach.
“Why, Nolan, we haven’t seen you in so long,” she lilted, turned and walked away.
Nolan watched her leave, utterly crushed. If her intent had been to inflict harm, she could mark that off as a success.
Part of Nolan felt like screaming, “None of you have the slightest idea of what went on between Oscar and me! I stayed away from him so I wouldn’t try to kill myself again!” Instead, he clutched Sheri’s hand and wondered where the nearest air-conditioner vent was so he could stick his face in front of it.
Later, when Sheri excused herself to use the restroom and Nolan stood there alone and terrified, his sister Kelly approached.
“How you doing, bucko?” Kelly asked.
“Just aces.” Nolan rolled his eyes.
“Yikes. Right there with you. I wanted to catch you when you were alone.” She lowered her voice. “I don’t think I told you what Dad said to me the night he died. We were alone for a few minutes, and he was very in and out, but he’d have these lucid moments where he could talk. He started to say something, so I leaned in and he goes, ‘Kelly, you disappointed me more than anyone else.’”
“Isn’t that wild? I mean, after Mom died, I had to really distance myself from him. I was fighting that whole ‘Daddy’s little girl’ role I’d played…my entire life, I guess. I guess he never got over it. Anyway, I thought you’d get a kick out of it. Oh, Patty and Mike are leaving. Hey, you guys.” She breezed off.
Nolan wondered if Oscar hadn’t been saving that bullet for him, but Kelly had done in a pinch. Her kindness in sharing such an intentionally spiteful message from Oscar meant the world to him. Just then, he spotted Mimzy alone in a chair by the wall and he felt he should act. He approached.
“Mimzy, I just wanted to…thank you for being there for Oscar through all this…”
“Oh, not you, too,” she snapped in her high voice. “Just…no.”
Nolan spun around, located Sheri, and grabbed her hand.
“Great,” she sighed.
When they returned to the dingy motel they’d been set up with, Nolan opened the cooler they’d purchased just to get through the week. He cracked an ice-cold beer, took a long sip, set it down on the carpet and put his head in his hands and rocked. They didn’t know Oscar. They had no idea how he would put down Nolan’s mother, bully and berate her into feeling stupid, reduce her to tears when her intentions were never anything but good. No one else in that room was stuck in the car with just the two of them, two hours from New Jersey to Maryland every Friday afternoon, two hours back every Sunday for the years it took for them to build their retirement home and every year thereafter. In between making his mom feel stupid, his dad would recite the litany of his siblings that were horrible and why, and the solitary one that happened to be in his good graces that month. Be like that one, not like the others, and then it would all switch.
He hated how Oscar would dismiss Sheri, Mona, Eve, and every single woman he ever dared to introduce to his parents. His mother would be gracious and kind, and his father would judge and grill and lecture them on their own area of expertise, be it poetry, art, anthropology, Israel, absolutely anything. None of them ever wanted a second visit. During Rebecca’s lone visit, his father made Nolan paint the rear exterior of the house. Rebecca told him later that he’d stood at a distance, arms crossed, frowning at Nolan for the better part of an hour while he worked. She had stood upstairs watching him watch Nolan. Rebecca had lived on a kibbutz in Israel for two years, and yet she received the lecture on Judaism and Israel. Nolan simply shut down during Oscar’s lecture. He stared at his food for the entirety. He still dissociated whenever he felt he was being lectured.
He hated his father. When they were in eyeshot, he hated his big nose, and his big ears, and his skinny arms and legs and his potbelly. He hated his clothes; his lime green or mauve pants he wore to announce he’d arrived in polite society or the white t-shirt and khaki shorts with black knee-high socks he wore when he was working in the yard. They embarrassed him. He fretted insecurely about what it must say about himself, to have a father who dressed like that. He hated his conservative politics, his denigrating looks and behavior, and he absolutely hated how he demeaned his mother like she was too stupid to share the oxygen he breathed. Most of all, perhaps, he hated how his mother would react; apologize or nod or even cry. Never stand up to him. Not once. And when Nolan would sometimes do the unthinkable and step in to defend her, she’d take Oscar’s side every goddamn time. She should have known better, she’d say. She was being dumb. Your father’s right. She was his punching bag, without his ever raising a fist.
Still, the man was his father and he also loved him. He just couldn’t take being anywhere near him. He had been a remarkable provider and took them on all sorts of strange and wonderful vacations and he loved each and every one of them despite his personal opinions of their life choices.
During Nolan’s freshman year of college, he would call home, drunk and stoned, and when his mom wasn’t in the hospital and they’d go on and on about anything, she would eventually hand the phone over to Oscar if he was around. Nolan took a verbal cue from overhearing students in the dorm talking to their own parents and he would end the call by telling his father that he loved him. Oscar’s reply was to simply hang up the phone without another word. Click. Again, and again and again. It just went on like that every time for the entire year. Sophomore year Oscar turned the click into silence. Nolan would say “I love you” and was met by no click and dial tone – just endless silence. So Nolan would hang up, frustrated. One day he’d finally had enough.
“I know you’re there, goddamn it! I can hear you breathing! I said, ‘I love you!’ You just keep doing this! I say, ‘I love you’ and you just sit there not saying a word. I know you do too, but you’re just holding onto the phone saying nothing. What the hell is wrong with you? Why can’t you just say it?”
Silence. And then, quietly, gravely, “I love you too, Nolan.”
It might have been the greatest victory of Nolan’s young life.
Nolan screamed and fell to the motel floor and wailed at the carpet, pounding it. “AAUuungh!!!” He screamed again and again. He grunted and howled and wailed some more. He snorted and he slobbered and kept pummeling the floor. He made such noises that went on until tears came out of his eyes. They startled him, but he let it happen. They ran down his face and he wailed again and grunted again and gasped for air and his snot ran down to the floor. And he cried.
He had not cried since he was six or seven years old, and although of course he had no idea what he might have been crying about back then, he would always remember how his father had scolded him. “Quit being such a baby,” Oscar admonished him, and Nolan bottled it up on the spot, and never shed another tear.
He attempted to cry on occasion, through his teens some, over Mom’s first cancer diagnosis, but more so in his twenties. He just couldn’t manage it. He’d even set the scene: get extra high and kill the lights and turn the red light or the lava light on and play Leonard Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat and try to cry over something that was hurting him, Mom’s never-ending health crises, a failed relationship, whatever. At best, his throat would get tight and sore, but that was it. Sometimes he feared this meant he might be a psychopath. Old girlfriends all through the years, women he cared for deeply, would bawl in front of him and want to know what was wrong with him, did he feel nothing? Of course, he felt something. He just couldn’t access the outlet.
But there on the floor of the musty motel room he broke through the panel. The noises Nolan made didn’t sound human. They were more primal. Truly primal. Sheri told him later how much it scared her. That he sounded like a wounded wildebeest, and it just went on and on and she had no idea what to do. Of course, she’d ended up doing the exact right thing and just let it happen. He’d forgotten she was even there as he wept. He just wanted to assure his father he loved him one more time, but Mimzy hadn’t allowed it. His car hadn’t allowed it. Ghost mom hadn’t allowed it. Eleven goddamn hours hadn’t allowed it.
The funeral was on a Saturday, and it was a funeral. Kevin delivered a funny eulogy, which included a deathbed story wherein Oscar had suddenly opened his eyes, sat up in bed and demanded to know of Kevin, “Who’s in charge?”
“You are, Dad. You are.”
“Oh,” Oscar said, “Okay,” and thus satisfied, lay back down and closed his eyes.
“You’re in charge,” Kevin said quietly.
The one word that was repeated the most, from the wake and the funeral, was “complicated.”
“Your father was complicated.”
“Oscar was a complicated man.”
Complicated. Not “adventurous” or “interesting” or “funny,” or “hard-working,” or “friend.” He could be all those things, and they got their mentions. But “complicated” ruled the day.
Afterwards, back at the house, Sheri and Nolan stood around and ate and eventually said their goodbyes. They had to be back at work on Monday, and they were numb. They would drive home on Sunday.
Three-thirty in the morning they pulled out of the motel driveway, ready to beat any possible traffic up to the interstate. A deer lunged out from the blackness right in front of them, and Nolan slammed on the brakes. He felt them pop, and the pedal went all the way down to the floorboards. Still, the car drifted forward.
The deer was gone. They hadn’t hit it, but with the pedal now down as far as it could possibly go, the car was still moving. Nolan tried pumping the brakes. Nothing. The car still drifted. His hands tightened around the steering wheel, and he pulled hard on it, trying to rip it from the steering column. No. No, no, no, no, no. They were leaving – going home. This wasn’t happening.
Dazed, Nolan kept driving at five miles an hour. He accelerated to ten, then twenty. All he needed was some distance between them and…this. He pushed it to thirty, then thirty-five. They were the only car on the road. Today was…Sunday. Pong’s was closed on Sunday. Garages were all closed on Sundays. Everyone knew that.
“Can you talk to me?” Sheri finally asked. “Is something happening? Are the brakes…?”
“They’re fine. Not fine. They’re…there’s something going on with them. It’s okay.”
Sheri inhaled through her nose sharply. Nolan frowned. He shouldn’t have said anything.
“Can’t we get them looked at?”
“It’s Sunday. Garages are closed.”
“All of them?”
“Yes! Look, we’ll just stick to the highways and go slow,” he said. “We’ll get there. I can’t stay here another second.”
He came up with a plan to slow the car down when necessary, and they drove south without seeing another vehicle for nearly an hour. Even then, it was traveling in the opposite direction. Still, Nolan put his flashers on as they approached each other, as if to announce “I’m only going thirty-five over here. Careful.” He left them on.
They crossed the Annapolis Bay Bridge in the dark and coasted downhill from its peak, while Nolan swerved the car back and forth, giving the tires some extra friction to keep them from gaining too much speed. It worked well enough, and by the time they reached the tollbooth, they were down to fifteen miles per hour. He pulled up on the emergency brakes, and they slowed further. He had the bills ready, crumpled up slightly in case he needed to throw them.
“Take the wheel,” he told Sheri at the last second.
“Just take it!”
“Goddamn it.” But she did, and Nolan climbed halfway out of his window, holding out the cash. The toll-booth operator was startled but took the money and pressed the green light.
When Nolan climbed back into his seat, Sheri was livid.
“You can’t…just…do that.” She struggled to contain herself. “I want to get home as bad as you do, Nolan. But that shit’s not fair. Talk to me. Before you pull something like that, you talk to me. Tell me what you’re doing first. Clue me in.”
They finally headed north towards the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Nolan had chosen the more circuitous route in order to stay on the highways. No traffic lights. That was the plan. He’d deal with Chicago when they got to Chicago. All the stop and go traffic. Red lights. Later.
For now, they were moving. Thirty-five to forty miles an hour, but moving. And the sun wasn’t close to rising yet. This early, Sunday morning, they were nearly alone.
They hit some traffic on the beltway around Baltimore, which let up some on I 83 north towards Harrisburg, where they planned to hook up with the Pennsylvania Turnpike. They just had to stop for gas first. Sheri spotted a station close to the highway and Nolan swerved back and forth, back and forth, and used the emergency brake to slow down to about ten miles an hour. The incline into the gas station helped slow them to a crawl. He disengaged the hand brake and reengaged it as they crept up to the pumps. The car stopped.
They filled the tank and Nolan splashed water on his face in the restroom. He avoided looking in the mirror. He often did.
Back on the road, they drove up to the turnpike entrance. Nolan thought he was really getting the hang of the swerve and hand brake routine. Still, after snatching the ticket from the toll-booth operator, they nearly hit the gate before it rose. They squeaked under it and headed westward at a crawl for the long haul to Chicago. The right lane of traffic was not Nolan’s comfort zone. He’d spent his life speeding in the left lane. Add to it the stress of traveling thirty-five to forty miles an hour while cars and trucks zipped past at eighty, and he was wound up tight. Eighteen-wheelers still shook the car every time they roared past, but the blinding splashes were gone. The roads were dry now.
Nolan kept a minimum of ten car lengths between them and the vehicle in front of them. But he still worried that if anything sudden happened in front of them they would never stop in time. They’d have to drive off the shoulder and hope for the best. That was Nolan’s plan. Now, on the Pennsylvania turnpike, navigating mountains, he realized what a stupid plan it was. Sometimes there was barely a shoulder at all. Just a guard rail, and beyond that, a perilous drop. Nolan tried to put it out of his mind, squeezing the steering wheel tighter and tighter. They crept onward. Forty miles an hour. They easily reached forty-five or fifty on the downhills, which was out of Nolan’s comfort zone, and he’d swerve back and forth and fiddle with the handbrake until he got it back down to forty.
Driving the length of Pennsylvania took forever. At one point, during a long downhill section, Nolan saw in the rearview mirror two eighteen-wheelers side by side, rapidly approaching them. Rapidly. He stopped looking at the road in front of him, he was so focused on the rearview. He swallowed as they closed in. His flashers were on; it wasn’t as if their car was invisible. Closer and closer at their high rate of speed, the two massive trucks seemed oblivious, and Nolan thought about jerking the wheel over and ditching it. Only there was no ditch. Just a guard rail to grind into, on Sheri’s side of the car. The truck behind them zoomed up to their bumper and downshifted in a screaming “Mennghh!” Nolan jerked the wheel but stayed in his lane. Then the trucker pulled his airhorn, which sounded like it was mounted inside their own vehicle.
“Fuck you!” Nolan yelled.
“Asshole!” Sheri joined in.
They were together on this. Still shaking, Nolan was slightly heartened by that fact as the truck went around them.
As Pennsylvania came to a glorious end, and it came time to hand over the ticket and pay the toll, Nolan made use of the wide shoulder to the right to pull over and slalom the car until a break in traffic emerged. They eased their way up to a tollbooth as slowly as possible, and hand braked to a stop.
Ohio sucked, too, but at least they were finally out of the mountains. They stopped halfway through the endless state to get gas and something to eat. Arm-pumping fast walks to the restroom came first, though, as they’d both been holding it in for hours and hours. Nolan’s fingers were sore. His back was sore. His neck was sore. Even his armpits ached, which made no sense. They also reeked, as the sweat and tension hadn’t let up for a moment. He’d never spent so much time on such high alert, so stressed, and had no strategy but to press on across the country at a snail’s pace.
So they trudged onward, through the balance of Ohio’s interminable miles, into Indiana, where the view from I 80 was uninspired, at best. Nolan had spent some good weekends in Indiana; this wasn’t one of them. The closer to Chicago they got, the more nervous he got. Late afternoon and evening traffic on a Sunday was going to be stop-and-go heading north into the city with packed cars returning from weekend getaways, and it wouldn’t get any easier once they made it into the city proper. They were going to hit someone, at some point. It was just a matter of when, and how bad it would be. He didn’t want to think about it. He needed a drink so goddamned bad. Sheri would lose her shit, though.
Then he figured it out. Two birds. One rest stop. He pulled off at one of the last rest stops in northeastern Indiana – a real sprucer-upper near Gary – and informed Sheri of the plan.
“Traffic into the city’s going to suck. I don’t think I can do it. But if we hang out here till about eight o’clock or so, it’ll have a chance to clear. I think that’ll work.”
“Fine by me. I’ve been terrified just thinking about it.”
Nolan took the keys out of the ignition, reached back into the cooler and cracked a cold one. He handed one to Sheri, so she wouldn’t judge. They opened the windows a bit and put their seats back.
Nolan stuck to only eight beers, painstakingly pacing himself, and his hunch paid off. They hung around at the rest stop until nine, just to play it safe, and Sunday night traffic into Chicago was smooth as could be after dark. He wasn’t even the only idiot driving forty on Lake Shore Drive. He thought mostly about the whiskey in the top kitchen cupboard. They only hit one red light between Lake Shore and their apartment. When they finally reached Ravenswood Avenue and found a two-car-length parking spot, Nolan drifted into it, pinched the tires against the curb and jammed the parking brake up for the final time. He looked over at Sheri, who looked ready to cry. She didn’t look back at him, but rather opened her door, got out and knelt shakily on the grass, then got down on her hands and knees, breathing through her open mouth.
He got down next to her on the grass and said in a deadpan, “I don’t know. I think I might be getting tired of this car,” hoping like hell she’d laugh.