By Kenneth Lowe

RM Bulseco. Used under creative commons.

“Well, you’re home early,” Dad said as Riley trudged up the steps onto the front porch, using the tone of voice he’d cultivated across decades of bad dates and a failed marriage and dead-end career after dead-end career, that is made to sound as nonchalant as possible to hide the aching yearning of the speaker. The tone that, by the time a daughter is 16, she recognizes even if she can’t diagnose it yet. “What say we practice driving?”

Riley’s path home from the school that had closed its doors three hours early that day took her beneath an underpass of 80 West, and from their front porch she could turn to look up at the on-ramp to the highway and see the ocean of automobiles, motionless and powerless and angry. The big truck stop billboard that was always visible from inside the living room picture window was advertising a new low price on gas of $20 a gallon. CLEARANCE! roared the signs on the windows of the convenience store. HELP WANTED! HIRING IMMEDIATELY!

“Sure,” she said.

“I think we’ll practice on the Triumph,” Dad said, his voice full of the effort it took to get vertical from his usual position on the rocking chair, both hands planted on his knees. “You gotta learn stick sometime. Can’t let the drunk boy who wants to drive you home be the only one who knows how.”

This was the man who earlier that month had fist-bumped her when she’d told him she’d made out with Jenna in the back of the room during second period Chemistry while the teacher had slipped out of the classroom under cover of a movie to go cry in the hallway, the man who had then spent the rest of the day and the following morning making jokes about how the two girls must “have Chemistry,” each becoming increasingly labored and woefully easy to see coming.

He trundled over to the garage door, bent over to take hold of the handle, and heaved it up. His T-shirt rose up to reveal his gut at the same time the open door revealed the 2027 Ford Taurus, which would’ve looked twice its age even without the rust creeping along the bottom edges of the doors; the naked frame and tank of a Ducati with no wheels on it and its brake discs and drive chain sitting in a dusty puddle of oil on top of a towel on the seat; and the Triumph TR6, its dignified green paint waxed, its every metal part polished, the stain on its wood paneling catching the low sun of the winter.

“It’s even nice enough to drive with the top down today,” Dad said.


“You want me to back her out for you? Heh heh heh.”

“Jesus, Dad.”

Riley had never sat in the Triumph’s driver’s seat before. It felt like being hugged by your great aunt, if she was wearing a leather jacket. The street ahead of her stretched on until it dipped down a steep descent toward the lake, one that scared her on her bicycle when it was wet. She reached for the ignition.

“Ah!” he slapped her hand away and she rolled her eyes. “You’ve never driven this chick magnet before. What’s the first thing you need to do?”

“I don’t know, Dad.”

“You know, sweetie, come on.”

In the distance, somebody on the on-ramp was laying on their horn, long and loud and furious, joining a chorus of others. When she looked away from the worn grey man to her right, the only things she could see were the house across the street their neighbors had left abandoned last month in a tornado of shouting and broken dishes, or the sun, flat and dull and somehow still blinding, a whole astronomical unit away and yet right in her fucking face all the time. She put the visor down and then angled it over to the left to shade her eyes.

“You get ergonomical, honey. You get that seat where it should be. You check your mirrors. Go on now!”

She fumbled with the seat for a full minute before he got out of the car, walked around to her side, and helped her with it. A car tore past in the oncoming lane as he was in the midst of taking a creaky knee before her to do it, and the way the door obscured the upper half of his body must have suggested something to the driver, who hooted and honked as the other twentysomething guys in the back all made noise. Without looking up or interrupting what he was doing, Dad gave them the finger.

As he was walking back around (always walk around the back of a car, he’d told her when she was five, that way the dummy at the wheel is less likely to run you over), a police cruiser peeled around a corner in pursuit of the joyriders, sirens wailing.

“Mirrors,” he went on as he took his seat again and closed the door, timing his pause to give the sirens a minute to fuck along down the road, “mirrors being in the wrong attitude are not something you wanna discover doing 70 on the highway. Now, the best way to set things up is so you don’t have to turn your head. You should be able to see everything just by moving your eyes.”

Dad went on a bit about the first cars to have mirrors, about how they had needed to do it after they got fast enough to really be dangerous, and Riley had no idea how much of it was true or just made up. She knew he didn’t either. The mirrors were in the right place by the time he finally wound down.

“You start this one different than you do the Taurus,” Dad said. “The car can buck around on you because you’re driving it, not some fucking computer. Okay?”


“On the Taurus you need to have the brake down, on this one it’s the clutch. That’s on the left, all the way on the left. You use your left foot on that one, and you use your right for the gas and the brake the same way you do on an automatic.”

Riley was surprised by how firmly she needed to push down on the clutch.

“You gotta floor it.”

She did.

“You’ll feel it in your calf the first few days. You can also pop the transmission into neutral before you start it, that also works. What’s it in now?”

She looked at the stick, with its neat little lines pointing to numbers inscribed on the knob.

“First, honey, it’s in first, right?”

“I guess, Dad.”

“When it’s wiggly in the middle like this,” he popped it out of gear, “It’s in neutral. Here it is in first again. Keep your hand on the stick. It’s good to let it rest there. Keeps you from fucking around on your phone or eating a taco or all those things you see careless pricks doing while they drive, you see what I mean?”

“Uh huh.”

“When you start the car, you’re going to keep that left foot all the way down on the clutch. And then you make sure you’re in gear, which you are, and then we’re going to give it the same amount of gas you’d give the Taurus to get moving, and you take pressure off the clutch until you feel the engine catch the wheels. You look like you have no idea what I’m saying.”

“It can’t be that hard,” she said, and turned the key.

The car sprang to life, bucked 18 inches forward, and stalled immediately. The radio turned on, and remained on as the aftermarket electrics complained that the battery was draining.

“…of refugees being turned away from bunkers by security forces on the same day NASA has revised its projections to indicate landfall could occur as soon as this evening. Here in Denver, humanitarian observers estimate 100,000 people are camped outside the city, with ongoing violence between members of this group and—”  

He reached over to shut the radio off just a little too quickly.

Riley stared at the road ahead. The sirens had not really stopped, but sounded like they were chasing the joyriding car around the neighborhood. Their wail, the revving of engines, the horns of those trapped on the on ramp, the panicked beeping of the car seeming to scream the battery is RUNNING OUT, you need to DO SOMETHING—

Her father’s hand, which was bigger than her face, settled on her shoulder, and the other hand gently reached over and turned the ignition off. She found herself focused on the veins in the back of it, on the high school ring that was choking off his right ring finger, on the tan line from where he’d had the wearable until the day when it beeped at him angrily about having another beer and he stepped on it until it crunched.

That same hand reached over and cradled her cheek in its palm the same way it had when he’d woken her up on her third birthday, the same way it had when she’d sat on the front porch staring at the moon the night Mom took the van and didn’t come back.

“You know what driving is about? It’s not about turn signals and 10 ‘n’ 2.”

She didn’t say anything. He brushed away the tear that rolled down her cheek.

“Two things, kiddo. The first is awareness. The second is focus. Today we’re just gonna do focus.”

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