My mother flashes the headlights on and off when we see the truck headed up the drive. We bounce in our seats and wave through the windshield, though in the slow rain and the overcast gray, a little fogging on the glass, I don’t know if he could see all that anyway. But he pulls to the house instead of turning toward the barn. Mother stands in the wet, tucks her hair behind her ear and explains to him that she locked the keys in the house. His red eyes turn us over a moment. He draws on a cigarette and then hands it to my mother’s grasping fingers. She takes a single drag and relinquishes it again. He runs the zipper of his coveralls to his throat and turns up the sidewalk. From an iron deckchair he boosts himself onto the lowest part of the roof. He disappears into the attic’s shaky old window, swift and smooth like he’s done this before, he knows our home that well. We wait.
The water eats up the pavement. Mother slows us before a lost portion of highway, a dip between two pastures where the creek, or the trees of its normal banks, lies in sight across the flooded bottomland. Her old blue Crown Vic idles around us, smokes a little in the cold summer rain. The orange pump-shaped light warning of a low tank flashes on the dash.
I can still see the road, she promises. She eases us forward into the stretched, pried, flung-open jaws of Richland Creek.
Later I tell her to drive more slowly, save the fuel so we’re sure to make it to town, but she says we’ll burn it either way.
In the sun we cast our lines out over the choppy lake and pull them back empty again and again. Once I snag a stick and loose it to the surface, panic and drop my pole thinking it’s a snake. I flee to the green, stilted house just back from the water. Everyone promises it’s nothing more than the lost limbs of a tree. They untangle the line and set me back to pulling the floater aimlessly along the bank. It happens again, another gnarled branch, and I’m just as scared. Someone shouts at me to cut it out. He leans over me, I can see his breath but not his face, and out beyond us somewhere geese and thunder call to each other across the breeze. There’s not a goddamn thing in this world to be scared of, he says, and with a jerk he rips my line free again.
We drive down the Interstate and pull in at the rest area just across the state line. A tall rocket points skyward, and we haul a basket of food from the car to eat in its shadow. We’re not the only ones to have this idea—other families lie scattered around us. Most of them have sacks of fast-food hamburgers, buckets of fried chicken, plastic containers packed with salad or pasta. We have sandwiches wrapped in thin, slick paper and a glass dish filled with cookies. There’s almost nothing to clean up after.
We’re still between cities, but we’re closer now to Huntsville and the Arsenal and the secrets buried in their deep governmental halls. The archaic, decommissioned space missile arching overhead, painted the flat colors of an old cartoon, feels cosmopolitan. I imagine a world of them lined side-by-side, walking between them and passing in and out of them. Traveling. Nearby there’s the hulking frame of a World War II jet, but it doesn’t move me. Mother insists on a Polaroid snapshot of me in front of it after we’ve eaten.
Before we leave we walk through the Welcome Center, use the bathroom and poke at the screen of the boxy, blue-lighted computer map showing highways across the state of Alabama. While she stands comparing its digital readout against the paper map glass-mounted on the wall, I pull a thick stack of glossy brochures from their stands nearby: space and rockets, cotton, catfish, the river, civil rights, colleges, a battleship, the sea. There’s so much of the world so close it’s hard to believe. I carry it all to the door and watch out over the dimming light of the emptying lot. The wind picks up, and a few drops of water land on the windows. She checks her watch and says give it just a little longer.
Marvin Shackelford is author of a collection of poems, Endless Building, and a forthcoming story collection. His work has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Wigleaf, Hobart and elsewhere. He resides in Southern Middle Tennessee and has no clue what he’s doing with his life, honestly.