The Weight of the World
by Darren Morris, Winner of the 2011 Just Desserts Short-Short Fiction Prize
We were traveling in the Catalina Safari. Our red ’83 Pontiac station wagon had a V-8 with an automatic transmission and power brakes. I learned to keep gas mileage while my father drove the miles. Playing like an older child, my voice still high and unbroken, I learned to talk CB radio. Mostly I’d listen, but sometimes I’d ask a 10-20, or if there’d been any smokies up their way, on the road to Colorado. And the truckers in range would relay some coded jargon, mumble, and be done. But what I liked most was how their voices clicked off before my own entered the void. I could pierce through the silence, play the wave of a pause that moved over the motor’s drone, and turn back on again, breaking through with the light of my own language. All just by pressing a button.
When you’re a kid, the summer lasts forever, and that summer lasted two lifetimes. My little brother had died in the middle of it and we were not allowed to talk about it. I did not know that my mother had broken then, because I didn’t know parents could do that. Nor did I know that my father had made a swift and irrational decision to get us out of there, my older brother, me, and doubtless himself as well. Mom was diminishing, vanishing, and he lured us away by dreams of fishing mountain lakes. We were in the second of three states that we needed to cross before we got to Colorado.
Waking from a dream I crawled over the front seat and sat next to my father. He said he was tired of Kansas, and I told him I was tired of it too. We had taken to passing two other cars, and they passed us in turn, such were the distances, and the unevenness. We sped up and passed and then we’d forget and slow down. One car carried a family, both parents and three children, and a CB antenna like ours. We passed another with three sad men inside who seemed like they might be driving to meet their uncle in prison. We sandwiched between them.
With both in sight I contacted the family car up ahead, and like magic, the father answered. I told them I was homesick and they asked where I was going. Colorado, I told them. And that was their destination, too. Excited, a little boy asked me what school I went to, and I told him that my parents did not let me go to school. My father looked at me then, raised his eyes and smiled.
I asked them what they loved about Colorado, and they said, churches and good Christian folk. I told them we were lost pilgrims, headed for the promised land. They said Halleluiah. They told us that sometimes it seemed they had misplaced the world. Yet they could still remember the weight of it, like a dove in their hands. Christians talked like that. If only they didn’t long to feel the weight of the world, perhaps they wouldn’t be driving across this glorious America, offering child-strangers free advice over the radio waves. The prison family roared past us again and then cruised up toward the pilgrim car far ahead.
My father, now fully in on the joke, instructed me. Invisible clouds of hog excrement splashed through the windows and we rolled them up but it didn’t help. The world was golden wheat. Trees marked the boundaries along the access roads. Hey, I said, can you see my car? They asked me what we were driving and I described the prison car. When we pass, I said, wave real proud to let us know how much you love Jesus. The prison car passed and we could see the pilgrim family waving like the devil. The children pressed against the windows trying to remember the weight of the world.
Sometimes when I need to know how lost I am, how inconsequential, I drag out those tired men in the prison car and the expression on their faces, not knowing what to do when a carload of strangers waved at them like mad, like there was no road up ahead. For I could see those haggard men inside, and how the man in the backseat began to signal in return, before the driver gave it the gas. The pilgrims asked if I could see them and I said I could not, because I was in the trunk.
And suddenly, like battleships sailing toward us over the gentle and true contour of the earth, the continent had climbed to its feet, and the mountains appeared before us.
Darren Morris’ poems have appeared in journals including The American Poetry Review, The Southern Review, Hotel Amerika, 32 Poems, and Raritan. A sequence poem is forthcoming in the debut edition of Tongue: A Journal of Writing and Art. After he earned his MFA at Virginia Commonwealth University, his short fiction was awarded a fellowship by the Virginia Commission for the Arts.