by Daniele De Serto
Translated from Italian by Wendell Ricketts
The whole inside of the car smells like French fries.
Sophie is extracting them one by one from the bag and then, after examining each one carefully, threading them into her mouth. I’m driving one-handed. My left arm is out of commission, and I’ve got it propped against the edge of the window, my elbow sticking out. Every once in a while I use my driving hand to reach for a French fry, which means I have to let go of the steering wheel for a few seconds. I’m doing it because it’s part of a show I’m putting on for Sophie, so she can see exactly what kind of cool and simpatico dude her dad really is. Which is also why my left arm has to stay put. Little details like that are important, especially because we’ve only got another dozen or so miles together before it’s bye-bye.
I won’t be able to see her again for the next six months. I’m on parole and can’t leave the state, and her mother, in that Chicago accent of hers, has already warned me.
“Not before Christmas,” she said. “And you buy her ticket this time!”
Of course I’ll buy her ticket. I’m a good dad. I wasn’t a good husband, I know that. And I understand you had to leave when things happened the way they happened. I’ve accepted all that. I’ve put my own feelings aside, and—see?—I’ve even learned how to acknowledge my limitations. You want some other examples? Let’s see … was I a good employee? No. Hey, did you hear that, boss? I know I was lousy at my job. I was a dick even before I started siphoning off your money. I was lazy, I was always late, and I hardly ever knew what I was talking about. Go ahead, sir, I’ll leave the rest of the list up to you. I’m happy to sign my name to anything. At this point, what do I care?
Above all, though, I wasn’t a good crook. That little flimflam with the faked receipts only lasted a couple of months before someone figured it out. It was classic case of cooking the books—that’s what they said during the trial. If I consider the taxes that didn’t get paid on the money I stole, I have to admit they went pretty light on the sentence. Six months in lockup. There’s no point trying to tell you how rough jail is. You’ve seen it in dozens of movies. Anyway, it is rough—just believe that. The other inmates called me “the bookkeeper.” “There goes the bookkeeper,” they’d snigger, “Hey, know where I can get any deductions on a life sentence?” or “I got an asset right here you can transfer!” and other pleasantries. Anyway, that’s all behind me now, and I’m out on parole. If you’re asking yourself whether anybody in jail tried to force me to spend some quality time with him alone, the answer is no. I’m too hairy and too out of shape.
This thing of not being in shape is kind of incredible when I think about how I feel when I’m with Sophie, though. Better than if they gave me a steroid injection. And I’m not just talking about the explosion of brute force that came over me earlier at the arcade. I’d never felt anything like that before. I punched the boxing machine so hard the robot voice barked out, SUPERSTAR! What I’m really getting at is the wild and impetuous charisma that seems to pour out of me whenever I’ve got her next to me. I admire that man in every mirror we come across. He’s intense, compelling, and self-possessed, whether he’s executing a pirouette or trying out a few measured but nonetheless magnetizing dance steps. If Sophie weren’t with me, there’d be none of that.
At the moment she’s staring pensively out the window. We’ll be at the airport soon, and she’ll get on a flight for Chicago and head back to her mom and her grandparents. A den of spiteful backbiters.
“Is it true you’re a two-bit horse thief?” she asks.
“Where’d you hear that?”
Spiteful backbiters. Black-hearted old snitches.
“Horses take up so much room. Couldn’t you steal kittens instead?”
“Good thinking. Next time, there’ll be a basket of them waiting for you.”
Sophie throws her head back and laughs out loud. Her cheeks are like a pair of tangerines. A stray curl has escaped from beneath her hair band and stirs on her forehead. We’ll go back to the arcade, I’m thinking. I didn’t hit that punching bag nearly as hard as I could have. This time, I’ll bash it to shreds. But no. I’ve got to be one of those well-trained dads who sticks to the agreements. And I’ve also got to call my wife before we get to the airport. She made me promise a thousand times. She doesn’t trust me. These days, no one trusts me.
I pull off onto the side of the road and get out of the car so Sophie can’t hear the conversation.
“Hello,” I hear my wife say.
“Where are you?”
“Just outside the airport. How are you doing?”
“I miss you.”
“I was thinking we should start over, from the beginning.”
“I’m not coming back to California.”
“I’ll move there then, in a year. What do you think?”
“We’re still husband and wife, aren’t we?” she asks.
“Exactly my point.”
“Then right now I need you to act like a grownup.”
Sophie and I drive off again; this time I put the radio on. I’m realizing that I didn’t like the way Julie said husband and wife, not one bit. It sounded like she was making it up. Like no one had ever said it before. But now’s not the time to get caught up in all that because the granite face of the mountain has loomed into sight on our left, ladies and gentleman, and on our right, there’s a breathtaking view of the ocean. Sophie has begun bouncing in her seat. Low waves chase one another diagonally across the shallows, and the sunlight comes crashing down so intensely that it blots out the edges of the world. Up until this point in the trip, all we’ve seen are parched fields and a boring series of vineyards, but this is more like it. Now we’re racing along, effortless and magical. We have super powers. If I got it into my head to turn off the highway and drive a few hundred yards, it wouldn’t surprise me to see the car surge through the waves and begin skimming across the surface of the water, with the surfers trying to keep up with us and finally letting us go on ahead of them, urging us on with upraised thumbs.
That’s when we get pulled over.
A sweaty-looking cop gets out of the patrol car, which is now parked a short distance behind us, its flasher dark. All I’m hoping is that he doesn’t treat me like some asshole ex-con in front of Sophie.
“License and registration, please.”
The officer has a squared-off goatee and prominent pit stains.
“Coming right up,” I say and, while I’m digging out my papers, I decide that an expression of solidarity for them and their work might be in order. “You guys must out trying to catch some big criminal or something, right?”
The cop isn’t playing, though. He frowns suspiciously, looks at the photo on my license, then at my face, then back to the photo, once more at my face, and then he gives Sophie a lingering once-over and goes back to his patrol car.
We sit there for quite a while. I toy with the cigarette lighter, just to be doing something, but in the meantime I’m straining my ears in case one single intelligible word comes out of their shitty radio.
When he returns, his partner is with him, an older guy with a thin grey mustache, who starts orbiting the car. The first guy sticks his face through the window again and launches into interrogation mode.
“Who is this little girl?”
“Where are you headed?”
“To the airport.”
“She’s flying back to her mom.”
The older cop has finished his laps, and he comes over to relieve his partner in the cross-examination.
“You’re on parole, sir?”
I knew he was going to say it, pompous pile of crap.
“You know you’re supposed to report to your case manager.”
“I have until the 21st.”
“See you don’t miss your appointment.”
After I’ve opened the trunk to show them what’s inside, we take off again. Hot, sandy air rolls in through the windows. A parade of giant billboards lines the road as we turn away from the coast, our energy sapped.
Without intending to, I sink into a dismal silence, and it’s Sophie’s who finally breaks through.
“What’s a case manager?”
I snap to attention.
“My manager, right?” I say. “You know, like my agent. Cuz I’M A SUPERSTAR! We’ve got to talk about my next movie.”
“Riiiight,” she laughs, folding her legs up under her.
We get to the airport. When we go into the terminal, the refreshing sensation of conditioned air reaches out for us. The waiting areas are large and brightly lit, with yellow lounge chairs and powder-blue carpets. We decide to rest a few minutes there, where it’s cool. The whole place has a nice, calm feeling to it. Through the glass walls, we can see the travelator shifting passengers from one terminal to another. It looks like some kind of moving sculpture, one of those modern-art installations that Julie likes so much, something that’s supposed to make you think about contemporary identity or the sterility of some damn thing or another. Just for a moment, I’m convinced I’ve completely grasped the meaning.
I’m mulling over plans. The first thing I need to do is retrieve my satchel.
I dropped it off at the baggage storage window a few days back, just to keep anyone from getting nosy. Once we’ve caught our second wind, we’ll head over that way, through automatic doors and a room crowded with guys in beards and fleshy women with pink cheeks. I’ll hand over my receipt and take back my satchel, and we’ll walk to the check-in counter and get in line. There’ll be kindly nods all around, and no one will have the slightest idea that I’m in the middle of an escape.
In fact, the counter clerk is smiling. She recites her company’s canned greeting and looks up the reservations. When she finds them, she asks for our passports. Sophie is at my side. This is it. A few formalities, and we’ll be on our way to Mexico. Veracruz, mariachis, luchadores: here we come. I just have to figure out where I put those damned passports.
As I’m rummaging through my pockets, I feel an insistent tug on my arm.
It’s Sophie’s voice. She’s the one who’s yanking on me, and we aren’t in line. We’re still in the waiting area with the powder-blue carpet, and I’m in an uncomfortable position on one of those yellow lounge chairs, my jacket on my lap. Over the PA system, a commanding voice is urging Chicago-bound passengers to make their way to the gate. I guess I must have fallen asleep. Sophie is pissed off. “They said Chicago,” she grouses, goggling her eyes at me. “Come on!” A pair of German tourists wander through the waiting area.
I get to my feet with some effort. My mind is dull, and I haven’t entirely broken free of my dream.
“We should go to Mexico,” I say.
“Where’s that?” Sophie asks.
“It’s a place you’d like.”
Sophie looks at her feet. When she lifts her chin again, there’s no trace of grumpiness.
“Am I dressed okay for Mexico?”
She’s wearing a turquoise blouse with two vertical rows of red buttons that disappear beneath the bib of her overalls. I notice she’s chosen shoes to match the buttons. Over the loudspeaker, the voice is back, this time making it clear that matters are urgent. We’ve got very little time. Before she leaves, I’ve absolutely got to buy her an ice cream cone. One of those ones with six thousand flavors. Something that’ll make an impression on her for a long time.
Daniele De Serto lives in Rome (Italy). His work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as Portland Review, Saint Ann’s Review, Fiction Southeast, Litro Magazine, Granta Italia, Gravel, Cheap Pop, and Linus. He also works as an writer for TV shows.