From the minute Dad and I left the house this morning, I’ve waited for our rusty ‘75 LeMans to break down. Dad has his tool box in the trunk, a Thermos of coffee next to him, and his nitro pills in his shirt pocket. A worn AAA map, thin and furry at the seams, sits on the front seat underneath the bread bag of sandwiches Mom packed for us. I’ve got my Replacements records tucked between a black garbage bag full of clothes and the back seat. I don’t know why I brought the records. I don’t have anything to play them on.
We’re driving up to Marquette, a college town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, for the beginning of my freshman year, something no other Vargo has ever done in the history of the Vargos. As we drive, I grow more ashamed with each passing mile marker. My father is old and we are poor and I am 18, trying to reinvent myself in a place I’ve never known. I feel like I’m alone on a roller coaster that’s click, click, clicking up to the top toward the first big drop that will never end.
The farther we get from the city, the more I begin to realize that I am simple white trash going where I have only pointed to on the same map that sits between Dad and me. Surely the school will find out who I really am and send me back to Detroit to screw nuts on bolts until I die. We are going to the place I’ve been told all my life that I don’t belong, by teachers and by neighborhood punks who will be getting two slices and a Mountain Dew for lunch from Vince’s Party Store on 8 Mile Road for the next 30 years, from Vince’s son and then his grandson. I’m ashamed because I am from this place and of this place, and I don’t know yet that I’ll never be able to change that.
But for now, the sweet stench of sewage that hovers over my hometown is behind us, and Dad keeps heading north: Flint, Saginaw, Bay City. My shame grows more vivid. Click, click, click, you sorry son of a bitch.
Somewhere north of Bay City, I doze. I dream that Dad is cooler than he is and that I am, too. I dream that we are quiet masters and stoic partners of the road ahead. He is the father he tells himself he is and I am the ancient son he wants me to be. And he and I are on a new path across America.
In my dream, we work odd jobs on our way out West. We stay in decaying motels with vertical neon signs in the Texas desert of Cormac McCarthy and Robert Mitchum, owned by strong, quiet women with names like Laverne or Thelma. Later, as the car travels north of the Mackinac Bridge, I envision us in the panhandle of Nebraska where unspeakable family secrets are locked inside the gates of one family ranch after another. The owner of a diner there hires us, me as a cook and Dad as a handyman, until we have enough money saved to move on. At night after the diner closes, we sit, tired and smiling, and talk over cold burgers and pie about how life will be when we reach the coast.
I wake up like a light moving west in a sea of pine through the rabbit-shaped Peninsula, a few city blocks from the big lake. My dream is smothered to death by pine trees as old as my Americanized last name. About an hour later, the old Pontiac coasts down the last hill into Marquette on US 41. It’s not 1940’s Robert Mitchum black-and-white freedom, but 1984 Midwestern Technicolor pressing down hard on me. We settle into a cheap wood-paneled motel off the highway on the far side of town. We talk about the weather and the sandwiches we brought from home. Later we’ll eat them on the orange bedspread that smells of body odor and air freshener.
We both know that we’ll wake up before dawn tomorrow so he can get an early start. We’ll move my few belongings into my dorm room, then Dad will turn the Pontiac around and go back to where we both belong. He’ll be rid of me, but the burden and stress that my presence brings will still radiate from my tiny bedroom on Barlow Street.
And I will be rid of him, yet my private shame and the public chip that hangs heavy off my young shoulders will come and go, shrink and grow, for many years. But because I am young and he is not, only he will realize what we are both about to do tomorrow and what it means. He will be gone, and I will be alone in Marquette with my bag of clothes and my Replacements records and nothing to play them on.
Copyright © 2020 by Lou Vargo. All rights reserved. Lou Vargo was born and raised in Detroit. He came to Nashville from Texas in 2003. He lives in East Nashville with his wife, daughter, stepdaughter, dog, and cat.