Out for a Pack of Cigarettes
by M.E. Parker
The Murray Street Bridge transects a gorge bottomed by a rocky creek, narrow and shrouded in icy shadows even after the thaw. You're halfway across when a throng of snow-booted fifth graders clambers up the hill across your path, shrieking, arguing about something they found in the ravine: an old green Buick, not green—blue, and it was a Valiant crunched like an accordion with someone behind the wheel, a skeleton wearing clothes.Your heart thumps as you step up your pace, cane, skip, good foot, cane, all the way to the bridge abutment where the children left a trail through the brush. You slide down a chute of loose gravel, descending through a thicket, grabbing a sapling to slow your fall until you spot the car interwoven into the vegetation, buried to the axle, being swallowed by the canyon wall. You pass your hand along the hood, hardly able to breathe.
In the back seat you spot a cookware sales case. Its stainless steel samples smothered in dust stand out against a backdrop of withered vinyl upholstery, springs poking up through the seat. You lean in with care as though the glass in the windows is still there, reminding yourself that lots of people sold cookware door-to-door in the sixties, that blue Valiants weren't uncommon at all. Men wore fedoras and wing-tipped shoes. They smoked cigars and looked at girly magazines, all explicable coincidences, until you see a ball—the ball, halfway under the seat, Stan Musial's signature, his last season to play, your first season to care. It's the ball your dad gave you in 1963—the same ball you gave back to your dad in '65 when he was on the road for weeks at a time, so he wouldn't forget you.
It's your father's car, and he's still at the wheel, still late for dinner after nearly forty years. Four decades of questions answered, your missing father, absent; your derelict dad who snuck out on his family was actually a victim of circumstance with his hat still perched on his head. And if your mother hadn't passed ten years ago, you would somehow forget that you hobbled around on a cane, that you are fifty years old and not ten, and you'd scramble up the hill, shouting all the way to your mother's house, "See, I told you he didn't leave us."
And you know what she would say, "So you found him in the canyon did you? Well, he was probably on his way to skip out on us, just didn't get very far." You have no one left to tell that your father did care. Your own children listened to their grandmother, that your louse of a dad came home one evening after being gone three weeks and "stepped out" before dinner, on to a new life with a better wife, younger, she had assumed, different kids, ball players—what she got for settling down with a traveling salesman who deified Joe DiMaggio and drooled over Marilyn Monroe.
Rust and rubber, twisted metal under patches of spring ice, home to countless generations of raccoons in four decades, you see instead the sparkling blue Valiant in your driveway, your dad backing out, one hand on the wheel, the other tossing your Stan Musial ball up and down, and after a wink, is gone.
Birds have nested in his hat, tweed sports jacket picked apart, threadbare. Afraid to look until now, you peek at what remains of your dad. Pine needles blanket the ground, slick with melting snow. You position your cane to avoid the rocks, but it slips from your hand and slides onto the ice below. A statue beside your father's car, you hesitate to move, your father's memory admonishing, "You'll break your neck." Your good foot buckles—head smashes against your father's blue Valiant. You cry for help, hoping the children that found the car will hear, praying they won't wait forty years, praying your own children will miss you enough—won't just assume you've run off.
M.E. Parker has short stories that have recently surfaced or are scheduled to see daylight in Alimentum, Briar Cliff Review, Flint Hills Review, Quercus Review, Weber Studies, Whistling Shade, Straylight, 42opus, Barnstorm, Mad Hatters' Review, and other places. Visit him at www.meparker.com.