Presumably we had driven 12 hours to see Expo ’74, but as we crossed plains and topped mountains my father’s face seemed to grow heavy and on the final span of road near St. Regis not more than a few hours out from Spokane, it seemed his head was an anvil that rested above his chest. His eyes stared lazily at the road as if to announce a new pattern of sleep.
He was a big man, near 6 ½ feet tall.
His hands held the wheel with a looseness unlike him.
“Let’s stop here, Dad,” I said.
“Yes,” he said, “get a bag of cherries for the home stretch.”
The bag rested on the bench between us and we each took handfuls into our mouths and spit the pits out the window. The off-white Chevy Impala had cost him $100 and the road could be seen through the floorboards. The wind in the cabin was like something the Spirit of God blew in, set with sunshine and sent from somewhere up in the endless blue, but my father didn’t seem to notice.
“God is good,” I declared loudly, just as I’d seen him do countless times in the box kitchen of our trailer back in Lame Deer.
The Heart is the Door
He kept his eyes on the road.
These past three years, he had become that kind of proclaimer. Uttering strange new declarations since he’d found God, words my mind didn’t know what to do with. Watching him stand with his arms raised, his hands raking the low ceiling of that slender mobile home, it seemed he’d been turned from something bearlike into something akin to a warrior angel.
Face aglow, eyes afire with holy flame.
But today something in him was broken.
“What is it?” I said, and my voice hitched.
“Nevermind,” he said sharply. “Not for young ears.”
Placing my hands over my ears I turned my shoulders from him and stared out the window and pouted for a long time.
Lolo and the colored “Welcome to Idaho” sign.
Fourth of July Pass.
Trees like more women than I could imagine, staring up at the sky.
He set his hand on my shoulder, and I turned to him with my hands still over my ears, my eyes watering.
“Hands down,” he said.
The road fell to a long slender marsh opening on blue water that expanded suddenly into a vast body flanked by rock and pine. We sped past the north side of the lake and he mentioned the French word for heart, and spelled it for me: “C-o-e-u-r.” It seemed to hurt him to say the letters and I thought I saw him wince when he pronounced the word whole. “Coeur,” he said softly. “Like door.” He stared at me a moment while he drove and his face seemed about to break. He looked back at the road.
We rose from the water as the highway bent upward and finally plateaued.
“Your mom is leaving me,” he said.
“She’s at Aunt Lori’s,” I said.
“Son, your mom asked me to tell you she’s with your Auntie. She asked me not to hurt your feelings.” He touched his right hand to his cheek before placing his hand back on the wheel. “She’s gone,” he said.
He cried then, the first I’d ever seen him cry, and I cried, too.
High-pitched, the words tripped from my mouth, “What do you mean?”
“We’re getting a divorce.”
“Why?” I asked.
“She doesn’t love me.” His left arm was straight now, holding the wheel. With his right forearm he wiped his eyes. “She does,” I protested. My voice felt too small to be heard.
He gave a weary chuckle and smiled weakly at me before he put both hands on the wheel and looked straight ahead.
We rode in silence then until the edge of the city appeared and we slowed toward the center of town. We followed the cars and I looked out into each glass and metal encasement where I saw happiness on the faces of men and women, children.
He clicked on the radio and Springsteen rose like a message from a place we never knew. We went down to the river, and into the river we’d dive. Oh down to the river we did ride. And here, as if held by some miracle we topped a rise and descended again until the Spokane River lay before us in the distance, silver blue and christened by a flare of gold. Years later I wondered if it was really Springsteen or just memory crafting something from nothing. Something bitter, something true.
“Look at that,” Dad said, and placed his hand on my shoulder again. “Will you look at that.” Rolling lawns and big tents. All the colors of the rainbow. The river a gilded frame.
A different day than this one, 1974.
None of my friends’ parents were divorced. Montana lagged five years behind Washington, a decade behind California. In the coming years, every one of my friends’ parents fractured too, just as my mother and father.
My father’s chest was like a collapsed cavern that day.
When we got out of the car, he took my hand and we walked across the bridge to the U.S. Pavilion.
His shoulders were bent inward, his voice so quiet I barely heard him.
“Let’s see what the world has in store,” he said.
Shann Ray is a native Montanan who teaches at Gonzaga University. He is the author of the award-winning story collection “American Masculine.” A former professional basketball player, he once bet a carny he could go 5 for 5 from distance on those rickety rims. He went home with a bruised ego, came back, paid more dough and ended up with small stuffed fluorescent frog.
Lead photo credit: