My Father’s Buick
by David Gilman-Frederick
Cyrus could scarcely believe his ears.
“You can’t seriously be saying,” he raised both eyebrows, “that you don’t make any decisions at all? That the Lord Jesus Christ does all your thinking for you? I mean, he chooses your outfits in the morning; they, like, magically appear, all laid out on your bed? Do you do your homework, Jeremy – or does your Heavenly Father? What kind of grades do you get?” he laughed without amusement, a friend without an r. “I mean, God what, God brushes your teeth for you . . . .” He mimed this and then laughed again.
Sitting opposite him on the stoop, Jeremy slumped forward, pale and shivering. His skin was a sallow, hypothermic blue, despite the warmth of the early May evening. He focused on a spot on the step between his generic tennis shoes. He didn’t answer, just trembled and tilted his head in a gesture somewhere between a nod and a shake.
“But maybe he does have some higher power guiding him, Cy,” Brianna said, swinging a slow arc along the base of the stairs, one hand on the metal rail. “I mean, you know, like the prophet Tiresias or Joan of Orleans.” Her other hand, which was covered in rings, flew out into the sun as she swung again, and a thousand flecks of light scattered briefly across the building’s shadows.
It was a late Saturday afternoon, and the three of them had been sitting on Jeremy’s porch for a little under an hour. Cyrus was anxious to leave at first, but he gradually came to appreciate this opportunity to ridicule his would-be rival. It wasn’t that he was jealous – he had two years on the Christian, and varsity letters, and the keys to his father’s car – but it irked him that a chubby, wet lump of a sophomore like Jeremy could amuse his girlfriend at all. Brianna had called earlier to inform him that she and her “new Christian friend” were planning on hanging out “late into the night, communing with the angels and talking about spiritual things.” Cyrus had groaned.
“How about we go bowling instead,” he suggested. “Steve Corger is working over at Midnight Alleys now, and you know he still has the hots for you. I bet he’d spike our drinks if you bat your eyelashes.” Brianna agreed on the condition that Jeremy could come too, and so Cyrus had driven half an hour out of town on I-90 to get here. But this was good; now he had a chance to humiliate the Christian both in body and mind.
“Maybe he’s a true psychic,” Brianna said. She stopped swinging a moment to pull her paisley skirt against the breeze.
“Are you a psychic, Jay?” Cyrus asked. “Can you . . . tell me what I had for breakfast this morning?”
“Hair of the dog?” Brianna shot back to Cyrus, giggling. “I was surprised you were up when I called at two.”
Cyrus noticed Jeremy shudder and then straighten up a bit. He wore an untucked, generic polo shirt and khaki dickies, and his pants were smeared at the shins with either grass or green sweat. A school uniform, Cyrus thought – but our school doesn’t have uniforms. And it’s Saturday.
“I barely know you guys at all, and . . . I don’t know what to say,” Jeremy began without meeting their eyes. He was still quivering. “That’s just it; I don’t know much. It’s like . . . we only use ten percent of our brains, you know? There’s so much stuff about myself I’ll never even understand . . . it seems stupid to think that I’m the one in control of my life.”
Cyrus grunted. “I am in control, man; my life’s good. I’m sorry to hear about yours.” He flashed a trademark smile toward Brianna.
“No, no, listen; that’s just it,” Jeremy said. He flinched back at the same time, as if he was startled by the panicky pitch of his own voice. Cyrus smiled to himself, exulting in his victory. We absolutely terrify him. He can barely even speak.
“I do get by, you know,” he continued after a minute, still unwilling to meet Cyrus’s eyes. “I feel . . . stuff keeps moving, but I don’t think it’s because of me. It’s the same for everybody. It’s like . . .” Jeremy squeezed his doughy face shut and concentrated. “It’s like everything that happens in the world shares in the same meaning, and we all share it, we each take a small part. God is the only one who sees the whole.”
Cyrus grunted. “So there’s some secret, magical plan for the universe, but none of us gets to see. So then, how are we supposed to know what to do all? Wouldn’t it be better to just sit back and . . . wait for Jesus?” He hoped there was enough scorn in his voice to make Brianna sorry for wasting his day. Maybe she’d find some elaborate way to apologize . . . .
But Jeremy wasn’t giving up yet. Oh well; the boy was just digging himself a deeper hole. He was totally oblivious. “Well . . . you’ve got your conscience, right? You know if what you’re doing is right or wrong. That’s a start.” He looked at Brianna, whose hand had crept up the railing near him. “And you’ve got your emotions, too, although those can be confusing sometimes.” He closed his eyes and squished up his face again. “When I’m not sure about something, I’ll pray about it until I feel convicted one way or the other. I think what’s important is that we just give God credit for caring about us, for knowing better than we do. But yeah, if there was some obstacle I couldn’t get around on my own, I would call on Jesus,” for once he met Cyrus’s eyes, steadying as he said the name, “to steer me past it.”
Cyrus held his gaze for a moment. When Jeremy turned to study the peeling paint on his doorway, he flicked a glance at Brianna, whose eyes traced his back and sent him a sly grin. “Let’s go bowling,” he said.
“I wanna drive,” the girl announced, leaping up the stairs towards Cyrus and landing with both hands on his shoulders.
Cyrus winced in spite of himself. “Flip for it?” He suggested tersely, searching his pockets. “I don’t have any change.”
Jeremy frowned, apparently trying to decide whether or not he was invited, and if so whether or not to come. Finally, he fished around in his khakis and held a newly minted quarter out to where it sparkled in the light. “Call it in the air,” he said, and then flicked it high into the sun.
“Tails!” the other two shouted simultaneously, as Jeremy caught the coin again. He lifted his left hand to reveal Washington’s shiny scalp on the back of his hand.
“It’s heads,” he muttered unnecessarily.
“I guess that means you’re driving, Christian Soldier.” Brianna eyed him up and down.
“Think you can manage this, man?” Cyrus asked, reaching around his shoulders and squeezing him firmly. “Getting all the way over to Midnight Alleys may require some fast decision-making skills.”
“Just give him the keys, Cyrus. He’ll be okay; it’s not like he’s brain-damaged or anything.”
Jeremy pushed the unlock button on the remote, and then walked around to the left side of the car. Brianna hopped into the backseat, pulling Cyrus in by the wrist before he could get a grip on the front side door.
“You be careful up there, all right?” Cyrus warned, giggling and trying to disentangle himself from Brianna long enough to get his seatbelt buckled. “This is my father’s Buick.”
Jeremy paused for a moment as he sat in the car. “I can’t drive,” he muttered, but no one heard him. He waited, hunched over, listening to the giggles from the backseat, staring down at his sneakers.
“What are you waiting for, Jerry?” Brianna called up to him. “Just put the key in the slot, and let’s get moving.”
“I can’t drive,” he said again, his voice small and his breath tight. No one was listening to him.
Closing his eyes, he put the key in the ignition and turned it on. He waited a moment and then shifted himself over the armrest into the front passenger seat. As he was moving he bumped the rearview mirror with his shoulder, and momentarily caught a glimpse of Brianna straddling Cyrus in the back of the car. He shuddered and sighed.
“Um, I can’t do it,” he said a little louder, his voice still nearly muffled by the sound of the engine. The Buick began to roll away from the curb.
“What?” Cyrus asked sharply, looking over Brianna’s shoulder, and then shoving her to one side. For a moment he couldn’t make sense of what he saw: The driver’s seat was empty, and Jeremy was huddled in the passenger seat, his head bowed. In the mirror, it appeared that boy’s eyes were closed. “What are you doing?” He demanded. He tried to lean forward, but was restrained by the shoulder strap of his seatbelt.
“Praying,” Jeremy answered a little tensely, his eyes still closed. “I don’t know how to drive a car.” Slowly, dreamlike, they began to roll forward. The automatic locks clicked as the car crept up over five miles an hour.
“What the hell, man? Put it in park!” Cyrus forgot about buckling his seatbelt. He clawed for a grip on the front headrests and tried to pry his way through. Brianna clung to his waist, dangling there, giggling and preventing him from climbing forward.
“Chill out, honey. We’re going straight. And this is the friggin’ farm country. Afraid we’re gonna hit a cow?” She tried to coax him back down onto the seat, pulling at his waistband with her fingers. Her voice was sly and conspiratorial. “Let’s let his spirit-guide escort us. Let’s see how far this goes.”
Cyrus took his eyes off the road for a second to look down at her. “Don’t be insane,” he said to both of them, glaring at the road again from between the seats; “the car’s not being driven by some supernatural being in answer to boy wonder’s holy prayers,” he craned his neck, trying to catch Jeremy’s response; “it’s rolling, ‘cause we’re pointed downhill, and it’s totally out of control. Dammit, this is my Dad’s car!” He tried to shake Brianna off again.
She let go, and collapsed, arms across her chest. “Big deal. We’re going, like, ten miles an hour.”
Cyrus had one leg up on the cup-holder and was almost over, when Jeremy lifted his head and locked eyes with him. The boy had a strange, vacant, peaceful look on his face. He sounded far away when he spoke, but distantly confident. Not present and uncomfortable, like he had been on the porch steps. “There’s a hill ahead,” he raised his hand and pointed slowly. “If this car’s just rolling now, it’ll stop before we get to the top.”
Cyrus narrowed his eyes and cocked his head to peer up the road. Sure enough, it curved in a gradual, dusty ascent. He glanced at the speedometer: Twenty miles an hour. Somewhere, beneath the vacuous, absent mask, he suspected the boy was trying to laugh at him. “All right,” he said levelly, backing off from the front seat. There was no other traffic on the road. He was man enough to accept the challenge. “All right, Jeremy. Try it. Go ahead. Pray us all the way to town!” Slowly, he sat down in the backseat. Brianna giggled and took his hand in both of hers.
Rolling straight, keeping just inside the lane, the Buick sped up past twenty-five before it reached the incline at the base of the hill. Jeremy muttered in his mind, moving his lips without breathing. He closed his eyes, trying not to care whether or not he could feel the car slowing down. His stomach rose, and fell, and he drifted tiny, weightless in the massive exhilaration of his prayer. He peeked. The car was almost stopped – and just edging over the top of the hill. He sucked in a sharp breath, squeezed his eyes shut, and started praying more fervently than ever.
In the back seat, Brianna’s mouth gaped, and her grip on Cyrus’s hands had gone slack. Cyrus squeezed her. “Okay,” he said, “okay . . . so we had a little more momentum than you thought, Jeremy. So what? You think that proves we’re being chauffeured around by God?” he laughed derisively. “No way.”
“Maybe you should get up there and drive. Take the reins,” Brianna suggested, looking down at their hands. A car whizzed by them outside, going the other way. The Buick continued to pick up speed as it coasted down the slight slope from the top of the hill.
“Nah,” Cyrus muttered. He clenched his jaw and gazed into the rearview mirror, trying to catch Jeremy’s eyes. “Jeremy can pull us over whenever he wants. Isn’t that right, Jerry? Just grab the wheel, whenever you’re ready for this to end.”
“I’m not driving,” Jeremy emphasized, rocking back and forth slightly in his chair; “I can’t drive.”
Through the afternoon heat and the glare on the windshield, the backseat passengers could see they were approaching a slight bend in the road, headed right.
“Cyrus, Cyrus, we’re gonna run across traffic,” Brianna breathed, letting go of his hand and pulling her knees up to her chest. “C’mon! Do something!”
“Stop the car, Jeremy,” he said, trying to sound disinterested; “Don’t drive us into the gutter.”
“I told you, I’m not driving,” and Jeremy put his head down and began muttering again. Smoothly, evenly, the car entered the curve at thirty miles an hour. The wheel shifted slightly, and they turned just inside the lane, the passengers jostling left as the car gently careened right and then straightened itself back out. It was a perfect turn. Again the road was flat and straight. The speedometer approached thirty-five miles an hour.
Cyrus leaned forward to see if he could catch sight of Jeremy’s hand surreptitiously letting go of the bottom of the steering wheel. His jaw was clenched and he squeezed Brianna’s fingers until they cracked like ice. “It was the grade,” he muttered; “it was a . . . a sunken grade along the right side as we turned back there. The road was slanted; that’s why the car completed the turn. That’s all.”
But Brianna had gone white and started to tremble. “It’s like the chariot of the sun,” she said quietly, staring wide-eyed at the road.
Cyrus shook her. “What?” he demanded. Jeremy continued to pray.
“The chariot of the sun,” she looked into her boyfriend’s face, but her eyes did not seem to refocus, “you know, the Greek myth. There was this kid, and he was, like, the son of the sun god. Son of Apollo, right? But he stole his father’s chariot because he wanted to drive it. So he flew in it way up in the middle of the sky, but then he lost control! The flying horses got out of control, and the chariot broke into pieces, and everyone descended to earth in chaos and flames!”
Two more cars whizzed passed them, heading the opposite way. Cyrus leaned forward to look at Jeremy, who flicked him an incurious, almost bovine glance, and then continued praying. “All right,” he sighed. He stood again to climb over into the front seat, but Brianna grabbed him urgently.
“No – wait! Don’t touch it!” she cried, wrapping both arms around him and tugging him back down. He fell, warily, trying to disentangle from her desperate grip.
“Jeremy,” he said in a stern voice, trying to sound like his father; “this is enough. You need to pull us over now. Highway 10 runs into I-90 in a minute, here.”
Jeremy gave no response. Brianna still clung to his waist, trembling, her face buried in his jacket. Giving up on freeing himself from her, he raised both his hands in a gesture of surrender.
The traffic was getting more frequent. The speedometer crept above forty miles an hour. Ahead, the highway rose in an overpass and looped around until depositing its travelers onto Interstate 90, the freeway they would have to take to get to the bowling alley on the other side of town. I-90 was constantly busy; even with the windows closed, they had already begun to hear it roar.
“What are you gonna do, Jeremy, just let the car roll onto the freeway?” Cyrus tried to sneer aloud, but his voice was a little uneven, laced more with trepidation than scorn.
Jeremy gave no direct reply, but raised his head, eyes closed, and repeated a psalm:
“Some trust in chariots, and some in horses,
but we in the name of the Lord our God.
They are brought to their knees and fall,
But we rise up and stand firm.
“O Lord, save your servant!
Answer us when we call. . . .”
The Buick had reached the overpass and was curling right, and then left, slowing as it curved uphill.
“That’s it!” Cyrus shouted, standing up again, as best as he could in the car with Brianna’s weight dangling off of him. “Let me go!”
But Brianna had her elbows locked around either side of his waist. She was in tears. “Don’t touch it!” she screamed. “It’s some sort of evil spirit! There’s a demon or something driving this car!”
“Shut up! Let me go!” Cyrus leaped forward with all his strength, wriggling free of her grip and landing with his forearms on the steering wheel. He heard the honk of a semi’s horn as he jarred the wheel sideways, and he felt the car begin to peel down the ramp.
“Look out!” Jeremy shouted. “Get off! You have to trust; you have to have faith; you mustn’t . . . !” All traces of his passive, disinterested gaze were gone, and it was once again with fear that he stared up into Cyrus’s eyes.
There was another blast of a horn, and then all three kids spun out of sight into oncoming traffic.