Fiction by Vincent Barry
Ever since he saw his first automobile, the son couldn’t wait to ride in one; but the mother forbade it. She called the automobile a “killing machine.”
As the mother told it, between poems, the son’s father had given his life to make the world safe for democracy, not to make the streets of Ithaca unsafe for his only child. The automobile, the mother said, was an interloper, a menace; and—ahem— she drove home the point with a newspaper cartoon she pasted on the icebox door of the food storage compartment so that the son would glimpse it every time he reached to quiet his hunger. The cartoon graphically depicted a grim reaper at the wheel of an automobile running over children of his age. It worked. The image so spooked the son that he shed a pound or two for avoiding the macabre warning, which the mother had sprayed with an archival ink to keep the paper from turning yellow and brown. She could be that way, the mother—prudent for a balked poet.
“They should at least be fixed with some kind of gadget,” the mother opined of automobiles, while allowing for the inexorable march of progress that, she grudgingly granted, threatened to overrun anyone who stood in its way, “to limit their speed to twenty-five miles per hour— preferably less.” As proof of her proposal’s eminent sensibility, the mother extolled, when not composing jejune verse, a prohibition passed in, of all cities, Cincinnati, a place she likened to the wilderness.
“By God,” she’d go, retrieving her grade school Longfellow, “‘if the queen of the west, in her garlands dressed,’ can keep civilization from destroying itself, why can’t we in the Garden State?”
On his side, the son, who never mastered enough Longfellow to forget, spent his childhood coveting the forbidden fruit, . . . and more— pining for a father he never knew, a father he insisted wasn’t dead, only not yet back, and who one day, he wearisomely reminded the mother, would return from the Great War, likely as not “in a Triumph Two-Seater or a Willys Knight Twenty!”— the son’s way of throwing all of the mother’s fearsome admonitions about automobiles back in her face. And when the father did drive up like a conquering hero, he would banish from their household all of the mother’s ill-mannered for overfriendliness suitors, real or imagined, a sentiment the son kept to himself, though he did object to the swains’ presence as strenuously as did the mother did to automobiles.
And so, mother and son, sapped by a loneliness that blights, passed the years in the grey clapboard house at the bend in the lane off the main road, each attached in their own way to a man who went to war and never returned, neither able to see a way forward.
It was an unseasonable day for December, warm and jasmine-scented, that Sunday morning when the son, now a naive stripling stroking chin fuzz, bolted on a whim out the side door of the First Congregational Church, hurtled a roughly carved gravestone in the old cemetery, and hitched a ride in the back of a rusty wreck of a pickup to a nearby truck farm.
Finding the farm barren and boring, the son then hiked over to the Landmark to catch a western, and afterward hitched a ride back in a shiny proud vehicle with a high flat-topped hood and a heavy chrome grill which stretched out to meet two fat fenders that held two seal-beamed headlights with chrome shells. The black-and-white 1940 Ford Coupe also had a roof-mounted single beacon red light. Its driver was Ithaca’s one-man police force.
If you could get beyond the unlit cheroot he was ruminating, you could see that the phlegmatic cop was a beefy man with rosy cheeks and a thatch of crinkly red hair— and also, the round, frank eyes of a man who never agreed with someone before he knew what they had to say, one whose most fervid convictions turned, perhaps, on an unkept word or a broken confidence. Some said the cop’s voice betrayed a wounded soul, though they couldn’t say whether it was what the cop said, or how he said it. The more well-lettered among them likened the cop to a man who might recite impromptu the “Dear John” letter Hemingway received during the Great War from the inspiration for his heroine of A Farewell to Arms. They said this probably because the cop’s wife had run off with— was it a carpet salesman or-or a shoe salesman?— whichever, the cop’s wife had run off, that’s the thing, with some salesman or other with flat feet, they said, while the cop was helping to win the war to end all wars. Some heard in the cop’s laugh an echo of regret.
The son took it all in: the narrow cabin, the floor-mounted pedals, the split-glass, the Bakelite-tipped controls, the streaked numbers on the speedometer, the torqued flathead growling under the hood. All of it. The Ford Coupe, in sum, reminded the son of one of the mother’s favorite phrases: “steadfast dependability.”
The son settled in beside the cop and thought something of the sort, “A perfect chance to practice my social skills,” which—did I mention?— the mother claimed the son sorely lacked.
The mother, y’see, was a great believer in self-improvement, and tirelessly told the son, “In order to get along, you need to get along.” Such gnomic advice the mother culled from a popular maven of self-improvement, who insisted, as the mother regularly quoted: “Destiny is not a matter of chance. It is a matter of choice.”
The son figured that he could assuage some of the mother’s certain ire about his riding in an automobile if she thought that, while he was risking his neck, he was honing his social skills.
The cop was the first to speak. He said in a gravelly voice that reminded the son of Andy Devine, whom he’d just seen in Stagecoach: “So where are your tomatoes then?”
Of course, everyone knew full well that there were no tomatoes in Ithaca or any other Jersey town in December.
“Oh,” the son said, “I didn’t go for tomatoes and such.”
“Then for what then?” the cop said.
“Oh, I just went along for the ride, mainly,” the son said.
The cop looked at the son in an estimating way; then, his mouth working on one side, the cop said: “’S been my experience that people who just go along for a ride often end up in a ditch.”
“Sounds like something my mother would say,” the son said.
“Sounds like a smart lady,” the cop said. Then, “So whadya think?”
At that, the son opened up.
The son told the cop how much he liked riding in an automobile and about the motion picture he’d just seen . . . just to make conversation, y’see, which was something the mother said the maven said was essential for getting along. The maven, she said, put less store in what people said than how they said it. So, naturally, the son took care with his words and syntax so as to make a good impression.
“I understand,” the cop said, “they just opened a drive-in in Camden.” The cop gestured vaguely with the wet stogie, presumably in the direction of Camden, like a baby might blandly wave a pacifier before sticking it back into his mouth.
The son didn’t know where Camden was, but he figured it must be pretty far away since there was nothing like that— a drive-in, I mean— anywhere near Ithaca.
Before the son could ask the cop of the whereabouts of the one and the nature of the other, the cop spat a gob of tobacco juice out the coupe’s short window and said, “Trying to quit the snipes—” the cop’s word for cigarettes—“doc says they’re lung darts.” Then with a sideward glance of his keen blue eyes, the cop said, “You know grasshoppers spit this stuff?”
The son recalled the mother’s sharing another bit of the maven’s wisdom: Make people like you. Two ways to do this, the mother said, presumably plucked from the maven, were to encourage others to talk about themselves, but always in terms of their interests. She called it “the royal road” to a person’s heart. So, following the cop’s prompt, the son said, “Tobbaco juice?,” careful to make his inquiry sound as interesting as possible.
Sure enough, the cop’s face lit up like a full moon in a black sky, and he said, “I’ll show ya.”
With that, the cop artfully steered the Ford Coupe to the side of the road and parked.
“Follow me,” the cop said, rolling his hulking frame out of the vehicle with Trojan vigor, then striding with surprising grace a few feet off the macadam road into the brush.
When the son lagged, for he was mulling how easy it was to make people like you, the cop admonished, “Well, c’mon, . . . but take it easy.”
The son emerged tiptoeing, and the cop said softly, “That’s the ticket.”
By the time the son had caught up with him, the cop was already crouched over, his big oval face thrust out from the neck, one thick-fingered hand stirring the brush, the other unlimbering, primed for snaring a napping grasshopper.
In a fillip he almost had one, at the cost of the insect’s wings and hind leg. Though tattered and broken, the grasshopper could still jump forward, this time into the cop’s certain grasp. The son, a congregation of one, marveled at the feat.
“Now watch,” the cop said, as quietly as if in a church; and the son did, like a wide-eyed attentive infant.
Cautiously extending a well-toned arm, the cop theatrically opened a ham hand like a magician, and, sure enough, the insect shot a gob of brownish liquid his way, just missing the short sleeve of his starched, white shirt. A grin broke across the cop’s face, and he said, “Ain’t that somethin’?,” adding, “Just like he was spittin’ in the eye of what—”
“Destiny?” the kid said.
“Exactly!” the cop said, “Destiny!,” this time flashing a cloudless, gap-toothed smile, perhaps not as broad as Devine’s, or the son’s, but broad enough, the mother would have said, to win friends and influence people.
Then the cop released the dismembered Orthoptera and wiped his hands on a big red checkered bandana, which he seemed to produce out of thin air, though, in fact, he’d pulled it out of the fraying back pocket of his uniform pants.
“Wow! That’s quite a handkerchief,” the son said, trying, of course, to be agreeable. “Looks like something a road agent might wear to hold up a stagecoach.”
“‘Hands up! Hold over the gold, Slim,’” the cop jested, masking his face behind the bandana. “Ya mean like that?”
“That’s the ticket,” the kid said, appropriating one of the cop’s favorite phrases.
“I use it for the dipstick,” the cop said, rolling up the bandana and, failing to stuff it into his rear pocket, tossing it onto the solid back seat.
Of course, the son, having been sheltered all his life from the perils of the automobile, didn’t know dipsticks from Adam’s off ox, but he figured it must be one of the cop’s many interests, along with grasshoppers, tobacco juice, and drive-ins.
After the cop clambered back in behind the two stroke steering wheel, the son chose the third item of the aforementioned trinity for picking up the conversational thread.
Calculating his question to elicit an affirmative reply, just as the mother, channeling the maven, had advised, the son said, “That’s really something,” then clarifying, “about the drive-in, I mean.”
Sure enough, from the cop, taking up the chaw, “What’ll they think of next?”
With its wheels spurning gravel, the coupe lurched off in the direction of Ithaca.
The son asked the cop exactly how the so-called Camden drive-in worked, and the cop told him that it was an outdoor movie theater that charged twenty-five cents per person per car, not to exceed one dollar. And, also, that it had ramps for a vehicle’s front tires so that the people behind could see, and that it had three big speakers placed strategically below the screen.
“You can even bring your own food and drink,” the cop said, although, he noted, refreshments were available on site as well. The thing the cop liked best, he said, was, “Ya needn’t get all duded up like you do, y’know, with indoor theaters.”
The cop explained.
“When me and some duchess go out to a movie, she gets all dolled up, real spiffy like—-and me—well, I gotta put on a necktie— generally the one with the shimmery green and brown stripes –long and sleek, real snazzy, y’know what I mean?”
The son thought that over awhile, then asked the cop, “What kinda tie would you wear to a drive-in?”
“You miss the point, son,” the cop said, and the son liked it the way the cop called him “son.”
“You don’t have to wear a noose,” the cop said, “that’s the beauty of it, leastways as I see it.” Then, subjoining, “Why, you can go in your pajamas, if you want.”
“Whew—pajamas!” whistled the son. “That’s really somethin’!”
“You’re tellin’ me,” the cop said. “Why, you’re as free as—as that”—he jerked a bent thumb over his shoulder—“that grasshopper back there.”
“Free enough to spit in the eye of destiny!” the son laughed, and the cop responded in like strain, “That’s the ticket, son, right in the eye of ill devising destiny!”
Then they both laughed luxuriantly, high and thick, for a long time before silence descended on the coupe for an appreciable interval.
“You can drop me here,” the son said in fine.
“Here?” echoed the cop, looking at the son with quick curiosity. “But there’s nothing here but sprung-brambles and oak-bushes.”
He’s right, the son thought—a more desolate area could hardly be imagined. Still, it was a discreet distance from the house, and he could walk the rest of the way, and the mother would not be the wiser.
Then the cop dropped his voice and said, “Let me take you . . . all the way home.” The way he spoke, almost in a whisper antiphonal, seemed to the son less a proposal than a plea, and it struck in the son an attitude of deep thinking.
Eventually, from a thicket of disconnected thoughts and tangled emotions, there popped into the son’s head one clear and true message from the maven by way of the mother. It was this: “Be sympathetic with the other person’s ideas and desires.”
So, the son clapped a thigh and said, “Okay, all the way home it is!”
The cop sighed but said nothing.
The coupe spluttered on with a raspy sound.
At the bend in the lane off the main road, the son set himself to express his honest and sincere appreciation to the cop for the ride and for sharing his interests in grasshoppers, tobacco juice, and drive-ins. And just when the son was about to say all of this, the plaintive, heaving sound of the coupe stopping summoned the mother, hurried and flurried, out of the wintry clapboard house, piping in a piercing treble, “You missed it! You missed it! You missed it!,” her plump unringed hands flitting above her head.
The son had never seen the mother, unversed in happiness, so excited— her color rising, her agate eyes so laughing and alive, the soft plaits of her hair swinging this way and that, as if there was possibility dancing in her veins.
On his part, the cop—his mouth faintly ajar—beheld a dusky-haired, lambent shape of lingering girlhood who might, were he standing nearer, throw her smooth, plump arms about his neck, or slip one through his. And he thought: “Now, there’s the kind of woman a man could catch tight.” Then, as if bothering his hands to deflect the acuities of emotion he was starting to feel, the cop fumbled in his back pocket for— Finding it empty, he knuckled an eye as if waking from a dream, or perhaps stemming a tear.
What they’d missed, the son and the cop, was one of the mother’s poems, which she would soon report, breathing quickly with fluttering intonation, had just been read on Sunday Serenade, a popular bandleader’s radio program.
“To a Katydid”—that was the poem’s title, which the bandleader not only identified but named the poet as well.
“On the air, no less!” the mother would boast, her mouth wreathed in smiles. “Imagine!”
The son and the cop didn’t know all that then. They didn’t have to, however, because the son remembered that actions speak louder than words, and that the mother’s smile, a simulacrum of hope triumphant, reprised the words of the maven, whom, improbably, fantastically, the cop quoted in an almost sacerdotal susurrus in favor of what the bookish might call the phantom of delight that gleamed upon his sight: “‘I like you. You make me happy. I am glad to see you.’”
And so, for the rest of their lives together, each would tell you if you asked, as most people could who were alive back then, where they were, and what they were doing, and how they felt on that day of rest long ago when they heard the bulletin that broke into their Sunday serenade:
“The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, by air, President Roosevelt has just announced. . . .”
A retired professor of philosophy, Vincent Barry has published stories in numerous journals in the U.S. and abroad. He lives in Santa Barbara, California, with his wife and daughter.For some of Barry’s other stories, see: Tower Journal (“The Joiner’s Tale,” January 18, 2016), Fewer Than 500 (“A Late Walk,” March 2, 2016), Apocrypha and Abstractions (“Seduction or Something Else,” March 21, 2016), Bull (“Reading Hawking but Listening to Grieg,” April 2016), and The Saint Ann’s Review (“Internal Damage,” Fall 2016).