Stay with me!

I recently drove down the long hill of North East 110th Street and veered a little to the middle of the road to avoid a pothole with a nasty edge. A Prius in the oncoming lane pulled off onto the shoulder of the road to let me pass. The driver was a young man who wore a mask even though he was alone in his car. He slowly shook his head at me. Somehow, these days, caution was the high ground.

Fuming about this as I drove on, I was reminded of a story I hadn’t thought of in years, one my father told about my grandfather who believed that it was best to pass oncoming traffic on dirt roads as closely as possible. This, he thought, minimised the chances of a stone being thrown up against his windscreen.

“I remember one time—,” my father said, “I must’ve been nine or ten or so—when we were driving down a long hill somewhere in the endless Karoo.”

We were ourselves driving down a long hill in the endless Karoo as my father said this, and so it wasn’t hard to imagine. All we had to do was replace tarred roads with dusty ones and we’d have the full picture.

“The road stretched to the horizon,” my father went on, “just like this one does now, down this hill and then up the next. Far away, falling from the horizon, came another car, dangling from a parachute of dust.”

“That’s nice,” I remember my mother said. “A parachute of dust.”

The N1 highway between Three Sisters and Beaufort West cleaved the barren landscape ahead of us. As if summoned by my father’s story, a car heaved into sight on the horizon and began to sink towards us.

“Your grandfather gripped the wheel,” my father said and gripped the wheel to demonstrate, “and leaned forward so that his nose was almost against the windscreen.”

He leaned a little forward as he got into the swing of things. In the back seat, my sister and I leaned a little forward to see better. The oncoming car was now a bit closer, still some way off, but close enough for us to make out that it was a yellow Beetle.

“He was a man of conviction,” my father continued. “Wrong was wrong and right was right and that was that. And the right thing to do on a dirt road was to pass very, very closely. Surely everyone knew that?”

My father steered our car to the middle of the road.

“But they didn’t. Your grandfather gritted his teeth and hissed, Sta-ay…sta-ay…stay with me-ee!

My father tightened his grip on the steering wheel as the yellow Beetle began to climb the hill we were going down and veered a little to the shoulder of the road. My sister and I gripped the edge of our seats and gave one another a quick glance.

“Stay, goddammit!” my father cried, now fully immersed in his memories of that day, and swerved even farther into the oncoming lane.

By then, the Beetle was close enough for us to see the people inside it. There were two of them and they appeared to be leaning away from us. Their little car was as far onto the shoulder as it could go.

“You yellow!” my father cried as we tore past one another and he waved a balled fist at them.

Two or three seconds later he added sheepishly, “My father did that.”

My mother lit a cigarette and opened her window a small crack. “Have you finally lost your mind?” she asked.

Now, turning off 110th Street, I recalled how they argued about my father’s past and its possible impact on our future, and how I’d ignored them to replay the moment we had sped past the yellow Beetle. Its wheels had run off the road in the last split second, making a little emergency parachute of dust. There had been a small boy too, in the back seat, like us, his terrified face pressed against the window. Next time I see a Prius, I thought, I’d know what to do.

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