The long way home


“Why are you always so grumpy?” Annie asked from the backseat.

She had taken to accusing me of grumpiness ever since she figured out that it hinted at senility and incontinence.

“I’m not grumpy,” I muttered and gripped the wheel.

It was raining and we moved slowly with the rest of the traffic funneled from Lake City Way onto the I5.

“You are,” she insisted and smiled at me in the rearview mirror. “And you stomp.”

“I’m very friendly,” I hissed, “most of the time. And I don’t stomp. Anyway, you’re nine. What do you know?”

“Aarghhh,” her brother JD groaned. “You’re a hundred and fifty-four. What do you know?”

We crept onto the freeway but the I5 was backed up to the Ship Canal Bridge. A caravan of indicators and tail lights snaked away into the distance.

“Google is red,” JD announced. “How does it know that?”

It had always struck me as amazing and yet deeply unacceptable that Google, in fact, knew. It showed me the traffic I could typically see for myself, but it never showed me what I really wanted to know—why it was there in the first place. I gestured at the cars around us.

“Who are these people?”

Mia looked at me as though I’d asked her to hand me a spanner.

“Why are they here?” I pressed on. “Who’s in this stupid lime green Prius in front of us?”

“Does Google know he’s here?” JD asked dreamily.

“What kind of person drives a fucking lime green Prius?” I asked. “Why exactly does he need to be right here, right now?”

“You’re a grump,” Annie chimed.

A pickup truck with double wheels thrummed past in the lane to our left.

“And this asshole in the huge pickup, why must all that heavy shit move around just because he wants to?”

“What shit?” JD asked and leaned into the space between the front seats.

“Don’t say shit,” Mia suggested. “You’re eleven.”

“Aarghhh—”

The traffic slowed and for a moment I toyed with the idea of ripping out the steering wheel and walking next to the car with it.

Mia leant toward me. “If you keep swearing like this,” she said, “the kids are going to end up just as grumpy as you are. And they’re going to get into trouble. This is America, not Africa.”

As we came to a stand still I mused in silence on the difference between First and Third World anger. In America one often heard about mass shootings and bombings, many of which I was sure had been inspired by the effects of traffic. In Africa, people had to content themselves with shouting abuse and fingering gestures at one another from inside their cars.

“What I want,” I said as we edged slowly forward again, “is a minor superpower that pops up a small speech bubble above each of these cars that explains who’s inside and what the fuck they’re doing here.”

“You said the F-word,” Annie registered. “Again.”

Beside her, JD imitated an airplane.

“I want to fly. Then I won’t even care about the traffic.”

“Can you stop with this superpower nonsense,” Mia said and patted my leg. “It makes me angry.”

The lime green Prius slowed down every few meters for no apparent reason.

“If I could do that,” I gritted my teeth, “can you imagine what we’ll see? It’ll all be bullshit—pure driven bullshit—with maybe one or two exceptions.”

“If I could fly,” JD bargained with the world at large, “I wouldn’t swear. I promise.”

“What would it help if you knew where everyone was going?” Mia asked. “Ours would read, Destination—Ikea. Reason—buy mirror. How’s that any better than theirs?”

“You’re missing the point.”

“What possible point?”

“It wouldn’t be symmetric. That’s why it’s a superpower. I’ll get to do it. Not them.”

“But you can’t do it. So stop thinking about it. Just drive.”

I gripped the wheel a little harder.

“If I could just drive I wouldn’t be thinking about it.”

The Prius in front of us hesitated into the lane to our left but then returned to sit in front of us.

“It’s an old man,” I concluded. “I can see his ears.”

You’re an old man,” Annie remarked. “A grumpy old man.”

“Your grandfather always said to be careful of old men in cars,” I told the children in an effort to ignore them. “He said they were the last fools in the world, and they were out to get you.”

“You’re an old man and you’re in a car,” JD observed.

“If you want to become old man yourself, stop talking like that.”

“What would you do?” Annie asked.

I looked at her in the rearview mirror. She was staring out the window and seemed to have posed this question as a philosophical splinter.

“To JD?”

“No. If the cars had bubbles.”

“Oh. I’d—”

A gap opened ahead of the Prius, but the Prius hesitated and cars from the next lane poured into it.

“Jesus old man!” I cried. “Can you fucking move?”

“Beep,” Annie incremented her counter.

“Calm down,” Mia purred and patted my leg. “This is Seattle. People are calmer here. Be calm with them.”

“I’m calm—”

“Really?”

“But I don’t want to be with them.”

“What would you do?” Annie insisted.

“Well,” I said, “I wasn’t finished. This little superpower would come with the option to zap them.”

“Zap them?” JD asked before Annie could.

“That would be the whole point. If I don’t like what I see in the bubble—Zap!—and the car and everyone in it are back where they started—home, or wherever they’ve come from. It wouldn’t matter if they’d been driving for hours. Back they go.”

“They’ll crash!” JD shrieked and rubbed his hands together.

“They’ll be gone,” I said. "That’s all that matters.”

“You’ll zap everyone,” Annie remarked.

“Maybe.”

The lane to our left eased up and I edged across into it, but the lime green Prius did the same and slowed down in front of us.

“Calm down,” Mia hummed.

“What would his bubble say?” Annie asked.

“He’s a useless fart. I bet he’s going to Walmart to buy 500 pounds of Purina Dog Chow. Zap!”

“This is why your superpower talk makes me angry,” Mia said under her breath. “I start to imagine it, and soon I have to remind myself that it isn’t so. By then you’ve moved on to some other daydream while I’m stuck.”

JD pointed at a red Corolla. “And this one?”

“Ikea, to walk around and eat Swedish meatballs. Zap!”

“But we’re going to Ikea!”

“That’s exactly why I’ll zap them—so they don’t take our parking spot.”

“You’re so grumpy,” Annie said and looked out the window.

A gap opened in the left-most lane and I took it. Instantly, as always happens, the traffic in the lane slowed down and the lime green Prius edge ahead of us in the lane to our right.

“And this one?” JD asked of the SUV that filled our spot behind the Prius.

“Renton, to tell Mollie he’s sorry.”

“Who’s Mollie?”

“I don’t know. It’s what the bubble says. At least this guy has a reason to be here. I won’t zap him.”

“What did he do to Mollie?” JD demanded.

The lime green Prius looked ready to pry its way into the lane we were in.

“Oh no you don’t!” I cried and closed the gap between us and the car ahead.

We were now level with the lime green Prius and could see its driver. It wasn’t an old man but a stumpy woman, the kind who owned lots of cats and bred petunias and peered through the steering wheel to see out the front window.

“What are you doing?” Mia asked.

“I’m not letting this fussy spinster sit in front of us again—”

“Can you forget about this woman,” Mia said, “and drive our car?”

The Prius edged ahead again and started to turn in front of us. Just then the left-most lane widened into two lanes and I veered into the outer one to get around the Prius and its stumpy spinster. And with that we were swept onto exit 168B, off the I5 toward the 520 bridge across Lake Washington. The last I saw of the lime green Prius was its tail lights disappearing in the rearview mirror.

“You see?” Mia said as we drove across Portage Bay. “We might as well go home now. I’ll go to Ikea during the week, in peace, by myself.”

“Where are we going?” JD asked and looked around.

I didn’t answer him and tried instead to remember the name of a bridge across a river near Betties Bay on which I had once stood and watched a group of kayakers float by upside down. There was silence in the car until Annie spoke up at last.

“What would our bubble say now?”

I could feel Mia looking at me as I considered this. I wanted to ask her for a spanner but it wouldn’t have worked.

“Bellevue Orphanage,” I said at length, “to donate children.”

“Zap!” Annie cried.



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