Good Intentions by Penn Stewart

wide angle of empty new mexico road with bright skies and few clouds

madelineH/flickr creative commons

There were five of us in a long, dark green sedan: me, my parents, and my brother and sister. Just another family on a family vacation. We sped across the Lone Star State in the ‘72 Ford Galaxie 500. My Dad was never one to dillydally. We were headed to Taos, New Mexico, to go skiing over the Thanksgiving break. Dad made us leave Dallas so early in the morning the sun wasn‘t even up. My siblings and I had stumbled down the walk hauling our pillows and blankets to the waiting car. Dad secured a ski rack to the roof as the three of us piled into the backseat and tried to recapture the comfort of our beds. The vinyl seats made the back of my legs sweat after a short while, and I never got comfortable. Our first Thanksgiving away from home didn’t feel much like a holiday.

Halfway across the second largest state in the union I began to get bored. “Did you know duck hawks can fly 160 mph?” I said.

Everyone laughed. I liked making my family laugh, especially after spending hours in the car, but I was trying to dazzle them with my knowledge. As we neared Amarillo, Texas, hunger had set in and everyone‘s mood showed it.

“Duck hawks? You mean chicken hawks?” my brother, Richard, asked.

“No! Duck hawks.”

“I’ve never heard of a duck hawk.”

“That’s because they fly so fast you can’t see them,” my father said and then chuckled.

“I know I’m right. I read it in the encyclopedia.”
“I don’t know what you read, but no bird can fly that fast,” Richard said, “especially one called a duck hawk.” He smirked and shook his head. He had an annoying habit of swooping his head to the side whenever his long bangs fell into his eyes.

“I swear to God,” I said.

Dad’s head jerked around and the car nearly went off the road. I slid across the slick backseat and squeezed up against Linda, my sister. Richard leaned in on me with all his weight, unnecessarily.

Dad straightened the car out and turned to me, his left hand on the steering wheel and his right hand behind Mom’s headrest, at the ready. “You watch that mouth, young man. You don’t swear to God. Do you understand me?”

“But I…”
“No excuses. Understand?”

I hung my head. “Yes, sir.” Out of the corner of my eye I saw Richard grin. He was happy because he squashed me against Linda and didn’t get yelled at for it, and because I was the one being scolded. It was a daily double for him.

Dad faced forward and an uneasy silence set in. The air in the car was warm and still, and I was stuck in the middle of the back seat. On “the hump” we called it. I wasn’t feeling thankful.

I hated sitting on the hump, but Richard and Linda fought all the time. Something happened between them long ago and I was a buffer. It was my place in the family. I always felt like I’d arrived late and missed some spectacular scene.

I looked out my sister’s window and saw a large blue and yellow billboard announcing: SOUVENIRS, ICE CREAM, PECAN LOGS. 1 & 6/8 miles to the next Stuckey’s.

“Hey Dad–”

“No. We’re not stopping.” He looked at his wristwatch. “We’re on a schedule, and we don’t have time to piddle around at some silly truck-stop.”

“We’re going to stop in Amarillo for lunch, John,” Mom said. “You’ll just have to wait, dear.”
“How far is it to Armadillo?” I asked.
“Amarillo, you doofus,” Richard said.

“Don’t call your brother names.”

“But he’s six. He should know the difference between an animal and a city.”

“Amarillo is Spanish for yellow,” Linda said. She had long dark hair and freckles scattered across her cheeks and nose. If I hadn’t been between them, Richard would’ve punched her in the arm. He called it a frogging, and it hurt.

I knew the difference between an armadillo and Amarillo. I’d seen enough dead armadillos on the side of the road. I wanted to make everyone laugh again and put the scolding behind me. We were stuck in the car together, and I tried to make the best of the situation.

The tires hummed on the road as I watched the flat, sandy landscape littered with sagebrush and scrawny yucca plants pass by. The roadrunners I saw darting here and there didn’t look anything like the one in the cartoon. The thin ribbon of blacktop cut through the country like a black leather belt. A little building with a blue roof and a huge yellow and red sign on top was just off the road. What kind of name is Stuckey’s, I thought. It didn’t sound appetizing. It reminded me of a dry peanut butter sandwich. I wanted to ask Dad, but the muscles in the back of his neck looked tight, so I just sat. He wore a crew-cut, and when he got angry his ears turned red, and the short hairs on the back of his head stood up like little porcupine quills. My Mom was reading her magazine and wearing big, dark, Jackie-O sunglasses. I thought they made her look like a bug, so I didn’t want to ask her either.

My brother retreated to his corner of the backseat and read his book. It had a cowboy on the cover that was crouched behind a bolder, shooting his rifle at someone. The cowboy’s hat was tipped back a bit, one eye squinting as he aimed.

“Mom? Does bloodthirsty mean you drink blood?”

Richard rolled his eyes. She put down her magazine and turned to look at me. “What?”

“On the back of Richard’s book it says, ‘One man fights a tribe of bloodthirsty redskins.’”

“That just means they kill people,” Dad said.

“Dick!” Mom said.

He laughed, his body heaved up and down like a little kid. Mom pushed his shoulder and he slumped against his door. He couldn’t stop snickering.

Mom turned to me. “It’s just a novel, honey.”

Richard hunched his shoulders towards his window so I couldn’t see his book anymore.

I turned around and sat up on my knees, scanning the road behind us. There was a VW bug following us. I always thought that the headlights looked like eyes. After I saw the movie, The Love Bug, I believed that all VW’s had a secret soul. That they had some mystical power that only came out at special times. There was a man behind the wheel, and when he saw me he smiled. I waved to him.

“Hey,” I said.  “It’s Herbie’s cousin behind us.”

“Son, turn around and sit down.”

I nodded. “How long before we eat?”

My father peered at me through the rearview mirror. I knew that look and sat back in my seat. His ears were getting pink. I closed my eyes and listened to the sounds of the car and wondered what type of secret soul our old Ford had.

I was jostled awake when Dad pulled off the road and onto a rutted shoulder.

“What are you doing, Dick?” my mother asked.

“You know one way to celebrate Thanksgiving is to share what you have with those who are less fortunate.”

The car stopped. My father opened his door and stood up, resting his elbow on the roof. “You need a lift?”

I turned around in the seat to see who he was talking to. Richard and Linda looked, too. An old man in blue jeans and a red shirt stood with a rusty metal gas can in his hand. He gave a little nod and came toward the car.

“Linda, hop up here with us,” Mom said as she pulled her over the front seat. I moved over to her spot next to the window, happy to be off the hump.

“Scoot over, son,” Dad said.

Before I knew it, the dusty stranger opened the door and took a seat where I had been a moment before. I wondered if he would’ve sat on me if I hadn’t moved. His blue jeans were faded and tucked into worn cowboy boots. His hands, which were larger than Dad’s, rested on his knees. The skin on the back of them was dry and cracked, and his nails were almost yellow. His big, reddish nose had stiff black hairs poking out and gray hairs formed a nest in his ears. The gas can sat between his feet. Even though I was staring at him, he didn‘t look at me, he just gazed out the window. His long black hair was pushed back behind his enormous ears and flowed past his shoulders. He wore an old cowboy hat that had holes where the creases were, and he smelled funny. A sweet smell that was kind of salty. It reminded me of the way Mom smelled whenever she came into my bedroom to check on me after she and Dad had gone out to dinner by themselves. Heavy, sweet, but sharp.

“What’s that smell?”

“Hush up, John,” Mom said.

The car was quiet. Then it hit me. The stranger was an Indian, even though he dressed like a cowboy.

“Are you an Indian?”

“John!”

The stranger peered at me through squinted eyes and nodded a little bit. His face looked like flesh that had been turned to stone by the west Texas sun.

“Do you live in a teepee?”

“John!” Mom said.

The man looked at me for a long moment. His eyes dug into my head. I couldn’t look away. It was like he was holding my face, keeping me from looking away, but he didn’t touch me. And then he winked, and I was released from his gaze.

A little later we pulled into an old Texaco station. The stranger and my father got out of the car while the rest of us sat in the shade of a large triangular awning. Dad walked quickly inside and the man walked slowly.

I wished Dad would bring out Cokes for everyone. I liked the small bottles because they fit my hand, and Richard liked the bigger bottles because after he drank one he could burp the whole alphabet.

But Dad came out empty-handed before the stranger even made it to the door. Dad pointed to the gas pumps, and he told the man something. The stranger moseyed over to the pumps with his gas can and started to fill it up.

I rolled down the window. “Hey, Dad, can we have a Coke?”

He kept walking to the car and shook his head. “We’re stopping for lunch soon.”

The man was at the pump for a long time, and I wondered if the bottom of his gas can had rusted through and the gas was coming out as fast as it was going in.

The stranger finally finished and walked over to the car. Mom was talking to Dad in hard whispers, like she does to me in church. I heard her ask, “How much?” I wondered if she also wanted a Coke.

The man got in with his gas can and Dad pulled back onto the highway. After a while Dad looked over his shoulder and asked the stranger where he’d left his car. The man grunted and pointed down the road with his chin. After we drove past the place where we had picked up the stranger, Dad asked the man again. The stranger leaned forward and peered around Mom’s seat and then looked at the road behind us.

“Turn aroun’,” he said.

“Are you sure?” Dad asked.

The man nodded. The gasoline in the can sloshed as my father turned the car around.

Suddenly, the stranger began to sing. He had a low voice and he didn’t say any words that I knew. It reminded me of a movie I once saw. Indians stood around a campfire, beating on drums and singing. But this was a slow, sad type of singing, as though the man was missing someone. No one spoke. My head felt funny and it seemed like our car was floating down the road.

Dusty dirt roads branched off the highway. My father’s head and shoulders moved with quick jerks. He ducked his head down like he was walking under a low hanging limb, looking to one side, then the other. His ears started to turn red.

The singing stopped and the Indian pointed. “Here.”

My father turned the car onto the road and it bottomed out on some rocks, making a hollow scraping sound. My mother looked at him. “Dick?”

The road was rocky and bumpy and my sister woke up.

“Where are we?” She stretched her arms over her head.

Everyone was awake, but we couldn’t answer her question. I looked out the back window and a huge dust cloud rose behind us. To the side were ancient wooden fence posts crackled by the sun. Thin, rusted strands of barbed wire were stretched between the posts. The land was flat and barren. I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to put a fence up around nothing.

“You’re not bloodthirsty, are you?” I said to the stranger.

“John!” My mother exclaimed. “Not one more word out of you, young man.” She turned to the man and gave an embarrassed smile.

He didn’t look at her. He just stared at me again. I felt myself sink into the seat. His eyes made me feel heavy. It was as though he were a hypnotist who had suggested to me I weighed three hundred pounds. He looked away and began to hum. It was a low kind of hum, sort of like his singing, but a melody that was different from anything I’d ever heard. I thought maybe he was calling to some ancient spirit to help us find his car. I hoped it would work, soon.

Suddenly, he sat up like he was spooked by something and looked around. “Turn around,” he said.

My father looked back at him. “Jesus. Are you sure?”

We headed back through the dust cloud that we made and got back onto the highway and then turned down the next dirt road. My father kept speeding up and slowing down. It was like he wanted to hurry up and get someplace, but was afraid that he would miss something.

“Turn around,” the Indian said again.

Dad’s ears were red and some hairs on his neck were standing up. He pulled the car around and the rocks rumbled under the car like thunder.

“Dick!” Mom said, holding onto the door as the car swung around. I was pressed into the stranger and my brother into me. “Jeez, Dad,” Richard said. Dad didn’t say anything. We got back onto the main highway and at the next dirt road the stranger said, “Here.”

Dad pulled over to the shoulder. He put his arm up on the back of the seat and turned around to face the man. “Are you sure this is the right road?” he asked.

Once again the stranger looked around. It was as if he hadn’t been paying attention. He nodded and pointed through the windshield with an ancient, crooked finger.

Dad turned down another road. Mom was holding Linda close and Richard was looking out his window. I noticed that his book was tucked under his leg.

We came to a crossroads: four dirt roads met and there was nothing around for miles. The roads all looked the same. My father stopped the car in the middle of the intersection and sighed. Mom looked over at him and tilted her head down a little. She reached past Linda and put her hand on his knee and raised her eyebrows. Dad nodded briefly and then scanned each road. He was squinting his eyes as if he were trying to figure out a really hard math problem. Mom leaned over Linda again and said something in a low voice. “Enough,” was all I heard.

My father looked at her for a moment, his shoulders seemed to fall. He pounded on the steering wheel and looked back at the stranger. “I think I see your car down there,” Dad said. He pointed down the road to his right. “Is that it?” he asked.

The stranger looked to where he was pointing, but didn’t move.

“Is that a Ford?” my father asked.

The Indian gave him a long look and nodded.

“Well then, you’re right down there. See it?”

I looked too, but I couldn’t see anything.

“Dad, I don’t¾” My father shot me a look, and I shut up. The stranger didn’t see the look because he was bending over pick up his gas can. He opened the door and got out and didn’t look back. He just started walking down the road.

My father put the car in drive and U-turned in the middle of the crossroads. I looked out the back window and the stranger disappeared in a cloud of dust.

“I didn’t see a car,” I said. “Did you see a car, Richard?” Richard pulled his book out and started to read.

“It was an old Ford,” Dad said.

“Well, what color was it?”

“It was,” Mom paused. “Tan. That’s why it was hard to see.”

I looked back out the rear window but there was nothing to see except the dust cloud.

“Your father has excellent eyesight, John. He was in the Navy,” Mom said.

I knew he had been in the Navy, but I didn’t understand what that had to do with anything.

My brother finally looked up from his book and swooped his hair to the side. “You got to have good eyes out on the ocean. Otherwise, you can run aground, or into another ship. Not to mention pirates.” Richard grinned.

“Pirates?”

“And Indians. You got to have good eyes to watch out for Indians, too. Because they might be bloodthirsty.” Richard grinned wider and showed his braces.

“That‘s enough, Richard,” Mom said. “Stop teasing your brother.”

“Daddy?” Linda said. “I’m hungry.”

“Hush baby,” Mom said. “It won’t be too much longer. Why don’t you lay your head down in my lap and go back to sleep?”

My father was in a hurry to make up the time we had lost. He drove very fast on the dirt road. Every now and again a large rock made a hollow knocking sound on the floorboard of the car, but he never slowed down. We finally got back to the blacktop highway and the car was quiet.

I wondered about the stranger we left behind. We passed a brightly painted billboard, and I announced that it was “only six and a half miles to the next Stuckey’s.”

My father glared into the rearview mirror. My smile went away, and I wondered how many Stuckey‘s there were between Dallas and Taos and if I‘d ever get to stop at one.

I rested my chin on my forearm and watched the scenery rush by as my father tried to make up time. I was happy to be off the hump, but I felt funny inside. We passed another dirt road, and I saw my mother point at something. “Dick,” she said.

Dad gave a quick glance and then looked straight ahead. On the shoulder an old car was parked. I think it was a Ford. Mom glanced over at my Dad, like she expected him to say something, but he kept his eyes on the road. I leaned forward and watched as the orange needle of the speedometer passed the 70 mark.

“Sit back in your seat,” he barked, staring straight ahead.

I sat back in my seat. I thought about the old man we’d left behind at the crossroads. He was probably just trying to get home. I got on my knees and looked out the back window. The car started to go up a slight hill and I could see for miles and miles. Thin dirt roads branching off the blacktop highway looked like the veins in a dried-up leaf. A huge fall leaf that didn’t belong there, but had fallen into the desert and was baked dry. It reminded me of the autumn centerpiece Mom always put on the table for Thanksgiving. I longed for cranberry relish and sweet potatoes with melted marshmallows on top. The Galaxie 500 crested the hill and then it was all gone. The road dipped down quickly and my stomach felt queasy. I turned around in my seat and leaned up against the door, enjoying the time I didn’t have to sit on the hump. The west Texas landscape rushed passed the window as I thought about Indians and pilgrims and things I should be thankful for.

penn stewartPenn Stewart lives and writes in Macomb, Illinois and is currently teaching writing at Western Illinois University.  His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Word Riot, Prairie Schooner, Dogzplot, 4’33”, Front Porch Review, Fresh Yarn, The Meadowland Review, and elsewhere.

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  • Risa

    Lovely story–such vivid detail.Perfectly captures the family road trip, being stuck in the back seat with siblings, the silent communication between parents, and the mysterious stranger–all from a child’s perspective. Well done.