Our Knees Would Buckle and Bend

2014 Short Fiction Contest - Second Place Winner

This story captures the emotions of traveling across endless stretches of barren freeway landscape with a passenger you don't want to talk to, and the unstoppable personal-reflection monologue that takes center stage in the mind. In an intriguing combination that's less relatable, this story also features a fatal mouthful of Sun Chip crumbs, a Juggalo cousin and a 1989 Cadillac Deville. — CHEY SCOTT

Mile marker 170. According to several billboards, this is my big chance to see the world-famous "1880 Town," which I assume is sad, haunted by the spirits of incompetent I-90 entrepreneurs. I continue at 83 miles per hour. I can see the tourist trap from the road; to me the fake town looks like a rejected set from Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. In the passenger seat Kurt is either asleep or simply mesmerized by what I assume is a Best of Insane Clown Posse playlist in his earbuds. These first hours of our roadtrip, Kurt has been pleasingly non-interactive. My goal is to traverse the whole of South Dakota before he asks if I want to "talk about it."

"It" was a Sun Chips bag. They confirmed it, both the eyewitness lady and the official grand examiner of our friendly hometown death-cause bureau. Yes: as we suspected, my father, esteemed holder of two Master's degrees, was operating a motor vehicle while eating lunch. This is officially frowned upon by the highway patrol and other entities; it is unofficially normal. What isn't normal is that he apparently did what I had always made fun of him for doing. I can see him still, standing next to the trash compactor in my folks' kitchen. He tilted the bag up to drink what he called "the microchips." Otherwise, these especially flavor-packed crumbs would have been wasted. I remember calling him 'gross' when he did this. Such was our father/daughter banter.

This particular chip bag was no "grab bag" or a "fun size snack attacker" — this was a full-size bag. That was the problem. It was big. But it's not like he had eaten the whole bag. My dad was no fatty. He had just brought it from home as-is, no second baggie required because only one serving remained. Cost savings! My mom remembered him packing his lunch that morning, just a month ago now. Maybe it was actually two servings left, if you follow the FDA portion guidelines.

The point is not the fact that my dad actually cut a pretty trim figure for a 53-year-old American. The point is not that he was smart, or that he was tall with soft forgiveness eyes and salt-and-pepper hair that hadn't changed since I can remember. The point is that, while driving between the two hospitals where he worked, he tipped up the chip bag. Forever speeding and multitasking, he was traveling roughly 43 miles per hour on a two-way arterial as he focused on emptying the microchips from the full-size bag into his mouth, a bag large enough to obscure such items as a parking meter and the concrete stanchion near the sign for Golden Rule Brakes, the sign that always displays an inspirational pun. Cause of death: Sun Chips. Harvest Cheddar.

Now I'm looking at Kurt and trying not to look like I'm looking at him. I'm trying to focus on driving. Like me, he is in his early twenties. We are cousins; otherwise perhaps he would hit on me. He may still. Once, in a spurt of unsolicited girl talk, another cousin told me he had attempted a "make-out sesh" with her.

Kurt is not doing a ton these days. This is why he was enlisted — by unknown members of my extended family — to accompany me home in my newly acquired light-gold 1989 Cadillac Deville. The immaculate old beast belonged to my late grandparents, and was taking up space in a farm equipment shed. They called to tell me it was all mine, as long as I didn't try to drive the 1,200 miles home to Spokane from eastern South Dakota by myself. I could fall asleep from lack of conversation. The engine could stall, leaving me to freeze to death. I could hit a deer. Hence, Kurt. In each horrific scenario, Kurt's man-boy presence would be my saving grace.

I accepted the car graciously, as I had seen women in the Midwest graciously accept a platter of ham-and-butter sandwiches, dropped off when someone dies. I flew out, signed the title, and here we are. I really need a car.

Someone had free air miles for Kurt's flight from Spokane back to Sioux Falls. Kurt is from a very white, very rural area — flat expanses of corn and soybeans and cattle. Yet he wears large stud earrings (which I certainly hope are cubic zirconia) and a slightly off-kilter Minnesota Twins cap. His white T-shirt hangs on his rail-thin body, stretching down nearly to his knees, even as he slouches on the plush, velvety passenger seat. His pants are less baggy than I remember. I am planning for Kurt not to do any of the driving.

"Jocelyn, I thought you should know. They listed it on the Darwin Awards website," Kurt says now, finally. And then, "That was messed up."

"I agree." After some silence, I try a joke. "But unfortunately he had already reproduced. Here I am, carrying stupidity forward in our species. Maybe we should stop for some chips... to go."

Kurt is wearing his earbuds again, and I'm glad he didn't hear this last part. It's too soon to say a thing like that — at least by any normal standard. But I'm not too proper. I bowhunt, and I did before The Hunger Games made female bowhunting a thing. I'm working on coining the term "violent vegetarian" — except for wild game I hunt myself, I eat a plant-based diet. People need to be directly in touch with the losses related to their consumption. I told Kurt about it last night when he asked if I wanted the rest of his McNuggets. He offered to let me borrow his shotgun to walk the pasture, fill a cooler with pheasants I could take home. I told him I only bowhunt, no firearms. I could feel his smirk.

We've made it to Wyoming, and I'm not excited about two things. First, a snow front, which the app on my phone insisted would stay south of I-90. Second, Kurt has broken the seal on what he referred to as his "fine spirits" — Courvoisier brand cognac to be exact.

"Was it P Diddy or Puff Daddy or Diddy Dirty Money who had a song about Courvoisier?"

"Shut up. It's good. Want a nip to sharpen your snow-driving skills?"

"No." I have no desire for the drink. But something transports me back to my grandfather's barn six years ago, when Kurt offered me a beer in front of all the cousins and guffawed when I refused. His reaction now is similar.

"That's you. Just say no!" He has taken more than a nip already. He continues in a prim, robotic voice. "I cannot eat food unless I have wrung its neck myself. I cannot drink the nectar of the demons. I cannot allow a man to drive my car. Because in all ways I am better."

"Easy, Kurt."

"You know, in some states — perhaps the one we're driving through right now — open containers are cool and passengers can drink. Even the driver can drink as long as she's not over the legal limit. For real. Beer in the cup holder and the state patrol guy can't say a damn thing."

"I think they are in the process of changing those laws."

"The process is incomplete," he says, waving his open cognac bottle beneath my nose.

"Out of my space," I say, more sternly than I want to. His earbuds go back in, and he sips again from his bottle.

The wind is keeping the roads dry, and the Caddy's dashboard reports an external temperature of one degree. The snow is blowing, swirling just above the road, weaving and dancing rather beautifully from the breeze and in the wake of semi trucks. My family went to church until I was twelve or so. I remember one Sunday school lesson near the end; I was bored until someone read those verses in Genesis. The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters. I tuned out the rest of the lesson, but hung on to that foggy spirit, swirling amid the chaos. Still not sure what I think of all that, but it's stuck there in my brain or my chest or somewhere, the feeling of that fog-spirit intriguing me far more than some bearded, white-cloaked figure up on a cloud, nowhere near the chaotic surface of things. Anyway, the snow-swirl looks like God right now, I guess. I reduce my speed to 60.

Kurt is asleep. I'm unsure whether it's normal sleep or passed-out sleep. The Courvoisier had led him to some dancing to the music in his earbuds. I laughed and it eased things a bit. I asked to hear the music in case I wanted to dance, too. I didn't dance, but it was a nice cousin moment. We each had an ear with music in it, and an ear to carry on a light conversation with each other, which consisted of me making fun of his bad music and him defending it.

Kurt wakes up now. "Where are we?"

"Crow Indian Reservation, between Sheridan and Billings."

"It's getting dark. We weren't supposed to drive in the dark."

"Thank you for your concern, Mr. Courvoisier. I'd like to make Billings so tomorrow is easier. It's not that dark."

"You should have woken me up in Sheridan to decide." His tone is fatherly, perhaps genetically so because his father is my dad's brother. It pisses me off.

"Back to sleep, now, Kurt," I say, motherly.

"You might take it a bit slower with the snow and all," he continues. "You don't want to run off the road in this part of the country."

Somehow, he is asleep again before I can blow up at him.

We're almost to Crow Agency, nearing the site of Custer's last stand. It is full dark. The snow swirl is more foreboding in the headlights than in sunlight. It's less certain now what is sticking and what is part of the cloud. I am glad that, in 1989, they had discovered front wheel drive. They hadn't discovered airbags. I look at Kurt's slumping body, picturing the worst. Because I'm glancing at him, I miss an ice patch.

This boat feels more boat-like than ever when it spins. There is a quiet now, and I'm waiting with my heart high in my chest. I don't scream.

We've done a 180-degree turn, and we're not done. Now at 270, still on the road but nearing the shoulder. I had been going about 65, trying to make Billings appear, so we had some momentum. We get to 360, then hit the weeds. We bounce on the couch-like velvet bench seat, and this wakes up Kurt, who does scream. Bouncing but not flipping. The slope is gradual. The snow slows us and finally stops us. It's quiet.

There is a moment after my arrow passes cleanly through the vital organs of a deer. It also is quiet. The rest of the body functions for a time, running perhaps, but dying. When a nail pierces a 2x4 it only displaces the wood in its path. The surrounding area is unaffected, and unless split, it functions forever, holding up the house.

I think a lot about the ability of anyone to do anything as the tragedies pile up. I was functional once, nodding gravely at my friends' various losses, then later watching my Netflix show and going to sleep. If we weren't so capable, our knees would buckle and bend daily from the weight. Our laughter and forgetting would be taken away, and there is nothing fair about that either.

The Cadillac has no airbags, but its seatbelts are made-in-America strong. They had pressed our wind out, but our bodies, our spirits if there are such things, went maddeningly untouched. The first breath comes, and then another. ♦

About the Author

Ross Carper lives in Spokane with his wife Autumn and their two young daughters. An MFA graduate of EWU's Inland Northwest Center for Writers, he currently serves as director of middle school and college ministries at First Presbyterian Church. He has previously published fiction, poetry and journalism in various small publications and newspapers.

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