Now in its fifth year, Summer Stories is our annual short fiction series. This year’s theme: The Road Trip. We’ll feature stories from some of the region’s best writers about road trips that are memorable, strange and sometimes a bit of both. Buckle up!
Two days before the bike tour, a group text from Ruth: She was so sorry, but she was spread too thin – had really hoped she could rally – but needed some self-care this weekend. They understood, didn’t they? Then a flurry of response from the other women. Jen felt terrible, but she had just been about to ask if they could reschedule for the same reason – had so been looking forward – but was worn out by the world, needed to recharge. Ditto, Dana.
Maggie rolled her eyes at her phone. Typical middle-class, white women: They go to one protest, post photos on social media for a day, then they need a week to recover. She was so irritated she didn’t respond for 10 minutes. Of course, she was a middle-class, white woman, too, so she spent that 10 minutes vacillating between judging her friends for their flakiness and judging herself for not making it to the protest.
Totally get it! Do what you gotta do, ladies, she typed back. Will send pics from the road! xo. Hating herself as she hit send.
Emily reached out, turning the radio’s knob with a snap. “Happy?”
Her mother chuckled. “Happier,” she said.
Emily shifted the gigantic Impala into reverse. She hadn’t driven her mom’s car for at least a year, and the three-on-the-tree gearshift made her nervous. She backed out of the driveway smoothly, but when she shifted into first the car groaned in protest.
I watched my mom do it my whole life. She’d call her sister, or her sister-in-law, or my grandma, or one of her old coworkers, or the woman who used to babysit me, whoever, and make up some story about her car being impounded, or a need for a medication that wasn’t covered by her insurance, or an illness that would keep her away from work for several weeks. And it would work. They would scribble into their checkbook or wire her money. Same day, sometimes – $500, $800, sometimes a couple thousand. Once my grandma didn’t have any cash so she gave her a car. Once she got the money, my mom would leave the house, tell me she was going to happy hour at Chevy’s or something, and would come home two days later, all smoky and dehydrated-looking.
Life was different for robots back in the 1980s. I was a baby, and Dad was a brand new father. Our relationship was strained from the start. Dad seemed paranoid having a state-of-the-art infant son crawling around the house; I was just further proof he was becoming obsolete. I can’t blame him for thinking this way. Back then even well-functioning robots who passed perfectly as human could be snatched in the middle of the night by the robotics companies who had created them. No warning. No explanation. “Robotic rights” had yet to enter the American lexicon. We were property. We were part of grand a social experiment to determine if autonomous artificial life could be created. Well, yes, but then what? This existential uncertainty haunted Dad. I often try to imagine the look on his face when I first arrived at the apartment, packed into that cardboard box along with a set of instructions. Dad must have thought it was some kind of sadistic punishment. He let Mom do all the parenting. In fact, the first time Dad spoke to me was on my first birthday when, like all baby robots, my vocal speakers finally switched on. I opened my mouth and recited the business address of the company that had created us: “Gravy Robotics, 1717 Starline Avenue, Detroit, Michigan 48207.”
It was Sheila, 10 years younger than I was, 60 pounds lighter, and nimble as a goat, who first had the idea, and watching her get a good grip on the lowest rail, take a little leap, and begin climbing up the stacks of that car-hauler, I remembered what she told me when we first met at the soup kitchen in Fargo: that she had once worked at a fancy Seattle supper club, doing solo trapeze acts while swinging from ropes above the heads of diners. Now, she was dangling from the trailer’s framework, silhouetted by the truck stop’s glare, testing each door in turn until she reached the red Ford Fiesta perched atop the cab like a baby turtle, gave a silent fist pump, and waved for me to follow.
Thirty-three. Still single. Driven, overly driven. So much head work, and such solitude, but now into his self-doubt, love. Real love. A love he could hardly believe after such drought, but yes, he believed. He’d even gone home to Montana and borrowed his long dead grandfather’s black Florsheim wingtips from his recently dead grandmother’s bedroom closet, and from her bureau the diamond ring she’d kept through two foreign wars – his mom wanted him to have it – the ring he’d be giving to his bride.
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The cops want my dogs. Your whole adult life you wonder where the line is. You surrender pieces of yourself until you resemble that knight in Monty Python who loses all his limbs but still wants to fight. I swallowed my tongue each instance a job or the wife rubbed out what I once identified as the boundary of my tolerance. The dogs, though, who’d have thought it?
Dad never bought what could be bartered for.
“I bet I can pull that tumor from your brain,” he said to the elderly man gassing up the blue truck, a lacework of rust cupping each wheel well. “In exchange for that truck.”