Issue 14 — Thaddeus Rutkowski, Christopher S. Soden
Late one afternoon, my mother arrived to pick me up from school. When she saw me on the otherwise empty sidewalk, she pulled her car to where I was standing.
I had my learner’s permit, so I got into the driver’s seat, and she moved over to the passenger side. I drove a short distance to pick up my brother and sister.
On the way home, I misjudged my speed while making a turn, and the car swung wide of the intersection. I applied the brake, but it didn’t help. The car shot across the shoulder and rolled onto a grassy patch. Here and there in the field, apple trees stood.
“Turn!” my mother said. “Turn!”
The car passed between two or three of the trees as I steered in a rough circle to get back to the road.
At home, my sister told our father what had happened. “He almost crashed,” she said.
“What did he do?” my father asked.
“He drove through an apple orchard, but he missed the trees,” she said.
“He could steer, but he had no brakes,” my brother said.
My father took me with him while he made his rounds in the public library truck. His job was to drive the truck from town to town, stopping an hour at each place. There was no seat for me, so I sat on the floor and leaned against a bookshelf while he drove.
On this day, his route extended to the edge of the county. The last town on the road was filled with houses that looked like roofed boxes—barracks for company workers. People still lived in the houses, but the company had left long ago. My father parked in a turnaround at the end of the road.
One of the book borrowers was a teenaged girl. While she waited to check out her selections, I asked where she lived. “In the old hotel,” she said.
I hadn’t even noticed the hotel, but then I saw it, beside the dirt clearing that marked the center of the town. All of the paint had flaked off the outside of the building.
“Why do you live in the hotel? I asked.
“My family owns it.”
“If I come back, will you still be here?” I asked.
“No, we’re going to the city soon.”
“For how long?”
“For a year.”
My father wanted me to drive on the way out of the town. He crouched behind me while I positioned myself at the controls. I’d never driven a truck, and I was clumsy with the gears. Whenever I worked the clutch and shifter, metal ground against metal.
The library truck weighed tons, and when it gathered speed, its momentum was prodigious. When I tapped the brakes, books flew off the back shelf.
“Don’t drive like you’re hell-bent,” my father said.
I cruised for about an hour, following my father’s instructions. When we arrived at our home, my father told me to get out and go inside. He took the wheel and continued on his route.
At night, a school friend came to pick me up. When I looked into his car, I saw he was also carrying a girl passenger, someone from our class.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“I’m taking her home,” my friend said.
He turned on the dashboard radio, but only static came through the speakers. As we approached town, the signal got stronger and songs became recognizable.
“I went parking last weekend,” the girl said.
“What’s ‘parking’?” I asked.
My friend pulled off the road and stopped. “Get in the back,” he said.
I opened the door, got out, and slid into the back seat with the girl. Cars whizzed by in both directions.
“This is parking,” my friend said.
She and I looked at each other.
“Don’t mind me,” our driver said.
I wanted to hold her hand, or put an elbow around her neck, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t connect with her. I stayed on my side of the seat and looked out at the valley.
“We can go now,” she said.
Soon after I received my driver’s license, I took my parents’ car out to the highway. I pulled off the smooth blacktop and onto an old road—a narrow, twisting two-lane—and raced against the cars that were cruising next to me on the highway. The speed limit was about 40 on the old road and 55 on the highway. I took the old road at about 70. I drove down the middle of the pavement, hoping that another vehicle wasn’t approaching. I could glimpse the cars I wanted to beat in the gaps between houses and trees. I gained ground as I accelerated.
I went full-tilt for about four miles. Then the old road ended and I had to come to a stop before re-entering the highway. At the intersection, I looked out my side window and saw that I was ahead of the cars I’d started behind.
I went with my father when he took the family car to be inspected. The station was in a neighboring valley, in a garage next to a house. We waited in the driveway while a mechanic examined the vehicle.
“The car needs new brake shoes and a wheel alignment,” the mechanic said.
“How much will it cost?” my father asked.
“Is it necessary?” I asked.
“If you smack her up,” the mechanic said, “and the work isn’t done, you’ll be in trouble.”
One night, I went to pick up my sister. I found the address she was visiting and waited outside for her. After she got into the passenger seat, I turned and headed for home. After a few minutes, I noticed that she had fallen asleep.
I wanted to save time, so I took a detour to avoid a construction area. I left the highway and followed an unpainted two-lane. The road was wet from rain. I thought I knew the route well, so I drove without caution. I didn’t see the stop sign that marked where the road ended.
I applied the brake, but the car proceeded without slowing. The front bumper hit a guard-rail post, and the vehicle spun around. The back end went first over an embankment and down the slope on the other side. My sister woke as the chassis bounced against earth and stones.
When we came to rest, she asked, “What happened?”
“We went over the side,” I said.
We opened the doors and climbed out of the vehicle. We used our hands and feet to climb up to the road. At the level of the pavement, we saw the neon of a bar on the other side of the highway. We walked toward the lights.
Inside, men were drinking and music was playing. I found a pay phone and made a call.
When my father and the police arrived, my father seemed hyped. “He’s on drugs,” he said to a trooper. “Give him a test.”
“Have you experimented?” the trooper asked me.
“No,” I lied.
The trooper walked back along the road where I’d lost control. When he returned, he said, “I was going to cite you for going through a stop sign, but the sign is hidden by leaves.”
At home, my mother asked me, “Are you on drug?”
I wanted to correct her. I wanted to tell her she should say “on drugs,” not “on drug,” but I didn’t want to comment on her foreign accent. So I just sat and said nothing.
Soon after that, my father lost his job driving the library truck. My mother told me why. “It was because you drove off the road,” she said. “Our insurance went up, and the library would no longer cover your father.”
“What if I’d died?” I asked, “and my sister, too?”
“I don’t know,” my mother said. “I’m an atheist. Your soul might go into the soul of another person, or into the soul of an animal, but it’s not going to heaven. It’s not going to hell, either. It’s going somewhere on earth.
“Someone or something on earth became me, and likewise I’ll become something. Maybe an elephant, or a cat, or a stone. This is what I learned from the Buddhist monks.”
I decided I would be more careful when I drove.
Copyright 2007 by Thaddeus Rutkowski.
Thaddeus Rutkowski grew up in central Pennsylvania. He is the author of the novels Tetched (Behler Publications) and Roughhouse (Kaya Press). Both books were finalists for an Asian American Literary Award. He teaches fiction writing at the Writer's Voice of the West Side YMCA in Manhattan, where he lives with his wife, Randi Hoffman, and their daughter, Shay. His Web site is www.thaddeusrutkowski.com.
Visit this author's homepage at http://www.thaddeusrutkowski.com
Christopher S. Soden
the hand i was dealt
i knew you in halls and tawdry yellow
gloss of first school days ashen sky
of recess before i understood words
like queer sissy faggot bruiser too cool
for smarts while i failed to comprehend
the history of our transaction: fathers
conferring failure upon sons and sons
transmitting futility to other sons of living
up to our dicks repugnance of thinking
another boy had anything for you the hand
withdrawn the other lad forever backing away
smiling you spat the words of estrangement
before realising i had made some kind of choice
i might say the clock and personal witness
have only vindicated me though what to make
of your clammy paw priming my languid
manhood under god’s cold mercury vapor
angels in parking lot of cruise park
and rest stop i could not begin to say
the hand i was dealt first appeared in Poetry Super Highway (website), April 21-27, 2003.
Copyright © by Christopher S. Soden.
I am the immediate fact and instance of myself
as a man, apparent or essential, reed and reed
music (trembling from gift of wind) somber or
rhapsodic, net effect of pendulous genitalia,
hood of peter, pleated shaft, testicle bells,
blossom of father gift, usher gift, y to x,
son being arbitrary transmission of lover,
luck of Cupid's draw, swing of hammer.
I am the step again, again, of surname,
on a ladder woven by my father, Jim,
and his before him, and his before, and his
before him, Where was I before I was and
where will I be when I'm not? I am the male
cut into air, the arm reaching through
the space around me everywhere I step,
furry leg pounding the earth in despair,
in rancor, kicking up for pairing times,
reaping times, nuptial times, leaving times.
I am male choice and must choose from
acts of men before me, acting as I act,
sum of my actions in the equation
of males who've come and will follow after,
caught in that cage of expectation
from males and the others who are not.
I am the male dripping seed, mixing spit mixing
sweat mixing hurt and succor through blow jobs
and hand jobs and from behind and up against
and kisses and caresses and licks and friction.
I am the man sharing shower space with other
guys, lathering pissing singing jostling lapsing
gas in a boisterous chorus of ducks
and lions and operatic tenors and baritones.
I am the man who must know who must know
the texture of his spirit, the ripples of his
impact, dropped into the river we trouble,
scuffling somewhere between seraphim and our
last father first father father before father.
I am the man who yearns for a way back
to himself and actual wings, and so pulls
other men up close to taste and see
who I am as it comes back in recognition,
reflection, or mocks the rhythm of breeding.
I am the man who gasps and sobs and guffaws
and counts off the moments in smoke ends,
songs and jokes. I am the man who lets go.
Manifestation first appeared in The Chiron Review, Summer 1997.
Copyright © by Christopher S. Soden.
Christopher Soden holds a Vermont College MFA in Poetry. He has written film critiques for AfterElton.com, Blogcritics.org, The Fort Worth Ally, and Tribune, performance pieces and dramaturgy. Honors, positions and awards: Poetry Editor: Espejo. President Emeritus: The Dallas Poets Community, The Poetry Society of America's Poetry in Motion Series, Fourth Unity’s Annual Unity Fest and The Dallas Public Library’s Distinguished Poets of Dallas. Publication Credits: Gertrude, Windy City Times, The Chiron Review, Sentence, Borderlands, New Texas 2002, Off the Rocks, Poetry Super Highway, Touch of Eros, Gents, Bad Boys and Barbarians, WordWrights!The James White Review and Best of Texas Writing 2.