For those of you close enough to me to follow me on social media, you probably know that I’ve entered NYC Midnight’s Short Story Challenge. I passed through the first heat unscathed, but the second really made me bite my nails. My prompt made me quite uncomfortable: a comedy about a butcher and learning how to drive. I wrote, scrapped, rewrote, submitted, and kissed my chance of the final goodbye.
But through the grace of the literary gods (hail Hydra), I scraped by fourth in my heat. The top five in each moved on to the final round, where the top ten (out of forty) will receive prizes. I’m not in love with this story, but hey, it served me well enough. Without further adieu, I give you “Four Step.”
As a single father of a teenage girl, I know that my child communicates in glares and shrieks. When my daughter bursts screaming from her room, I didn’t even stop pouring my glass of milk. I drank my two percent patiently at the kitchen island until she came racing in, socks struggling for traction on the linoleum.
“What’s up, babe?” I asked her.
Caroline stopped suddenly, holding the refrigerator door for support. “Fastahpahbah,” she panted.
I didn’t even try to make sense of what she’d said. “Let’s try that again. This time, use more consonants.”
“Four. Step.” The first two words completed, she began to shake like a small dog. “Pittsburgh. They’re playing in Pittsburgh, and I answered a question on the radio and I won a meet and greet there with the band. I’m going to meet Joey!”
My heart sank. Look, I’m a butcher. I get paid to take my knife to flesh and dole it out to customers. I get home every night smelling like blood and have never once lost my temper at a coupon clipper trying to get better cuts of meat with an expired offer. But nothing, absolutely nothing terrified me more than my teenage daughter getting excited about some crush she had.
Of all the musicians she admired, Four Step elicited the most asthma attacks. Four English boys who were barely old enough to shave wore tight suits, tousled their hair to impossible heights, mimed auto-tuned love songs, and made puppy eyes at girls who were too young to know any better. Joey Turner wasn’t the frontman, but his bad boy antics made him a clear fan favorite. He was also my daughter’s appointed soulmate for five consecutive months and counting.
Caroline was punching a number into her cell phone, but I snatched the device away. “Just wait a minute. When is this? And how exactly do you think you’re going to get there?”
“Next Saturday. There’s time to figure it out. I guess I could just get on a bus or something? I’d ask Amber’s mom to take me, but then Amber would want to come, and I only won one ticket. Do you think they’d let her in? They’d have to, wouldn’t they? They’re nice guys.”
“Honey, I don’t think they’re going to let you into any sort of event without your guardian. You’re not old enough.”
She set her impatient gaze on me, the one that said I was either too old to understand or too naïve to be part of her world. “Like it’s that hard to get a fake ID.”
“Excuse me?” The defensive part of me wanted to ground her and forbid her from leaving the house, but I knew she’d just sneak out and get herself in trouble. “Next Saturday, you said?”
“Yes.” She pierced me with her dark, suspicious eyes.
“I’ll have to see if Mike will let me borrow his car.”
She barely remembered to snatch her phone from me before she went stampeding into the living room.
“So, how long’s it been?” Mike rolled down his window to exhale cigarette smoke, but most of it seemed to blow back in my face.
“Seven years. Give or take.”
“Oh.” He patted my thigh and gave me a tight smile. “Well, it’s just like getting back on a bicycle.”
“I don’t know how to ride a bike,” I admitted. He choked but was kind enough to play it off as a cough.
Mike has been my best friend since my wife left me. She had been a dispatcher for a truck service until she decided to run off with one of the drivers. She even took the car, which I couldn’t afford to replace as a newly single father.
Mike and I have worked side by side at the Cogman’s meat counter for ten years, but we didn’t talk much at first. It was tough to know how to broach a conversation when chopping animals down to their most valuable parts. I was moping about the divorce when he came back to air drum with a couple of turkey legs. Since then, I’ve ignored his smoking and he’s refused my attempts to give him gas money for driving me to and from work.
“So, what has you getting back in the saddle? Getting ready to take a girl on the town?” he said, giving me a gentle jab to the ribs. “You should probably know that the drive-in theater has gone under since the last time you’ve gone on a date.”
“I have some business to attend to in Pittsburgh.”
“Business?” He dropped his cigarette out the window and looked at me seriously. “You know I love you, man. If you need a loan or anything, you know that I will front you whatever you need until you get on your feet again.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“You don’t have to turn to selling drugs. You have a daughter. What kind of an example are you setting?”
I sighed and focused on backing down his driveway. “You’ve watched too much television, man.”
One week was not enough time for me to prepare to get my license renewed, so I’ve been practicing to get good enough at driving to avoid general suspicion. There are plenty of idiots on the road who never get arrested. I just have to be smooth enough that I don’t attract any attention.
We stand outside at eight, waiting on Mike to drop off his car. I told Caroline that we’d head up to the city the night before so we didn’t have to worry about being late. Really I’d just rather travel under the cover of night. Yes, there’s some added danger with the reduced visibility, but I want to avoid major morning traffic.
A large, white vehicle labors its way up the driveway. I squint at it, but Caroline has already thrown her suitcase down by her feet. “Dad, I can’t be seen in that!” she cries.
The box truck shudders its way in front of our house and seems to die on the spot. It’s only at this angle that I can see the logo of Cogman’s. “No. We had a deal, Mike. No.”
My friend hops from the driver’s seat and presses his hands together to plead or pray. “I’m so sorry, man. The transmission on the car is shot. This is the only thing I could borrow at the last minute, and I didn’t even tell them that I was loaning it out to you. If they knew that you were getting behind the wheel, it would be my balls.”
“Are there dead animal carcasses just swinging around in the back?” Caroline shrieks.
“Of course not,” Mike reassures her. “We only use this truck for the eggs. I think. But the back’s locked, so you’re better off not trying to get back there anyway.”
What Mike has failed to tell us is that the radio and heater don’t work, there is no cigarette lighter for Caroline to charge her much-abused cell phone, and the back of the truck makes the rearview mirror useless. For the past week I’ve dedicated myself to learning the eccentricities of his car, and now I’m in a truck, spluttering along around fifty miles an hour and ignoring coronary pains each time we approach a tunnel.
“Isn’t this fun? You know, my first car was missing one of its windows,” I say to spark some conversation.
Caroline rolls her eyes. “You are so. Embarrassing.” She returns to texting as she mutters about her diminishing battery life.
The drive should only take us about two hours in good conditions, but between my inexperience and our lack of a GPS, we’re pushing three without the rivers in sight. I think Caroline has given up on me and fallen asleep, but soon I hear her voice muffled by the window. “Would you pull over? Those police lights have been flashing behind us for miles.”
“What?” I roll down my window and tap at the mirror, bringing a squad car into view. “Why didn’t you say anything sooner?”
She shrugs one shoulder. “I dunno.”
Biting back the profanities that have made their way onto my tongue, I flip my indicator and ease to the side of the road. I grit my teeth as we cross over the rumble strip and come to a stop.
“Do you know how long I’ve been following you?”
To tell the truth would be to look like an idiot, but lying would make it seem like I don’t take him seriously. “No, sir. I have a bit of a big load.”
“And you weren’t looking at your mirrors? Do you know why I pulled you over?”
“No, I’m not sure.”
“You’ve been driving about fifteen miles per hour under the speed limit. It’s incredibly dangerous for the drivers around you. Also, your right blinker is stuck on.”
“Mike,” I mutter under my breath. The officer fixes his gaze on me, no longer amused.
“Could you please step out of the car for me, sir?”
I struggle with the lock of the door but play it off as nerves. The drop to the ground is longer than I expect, and I stagger. When my eyes lock with the officer’s, I know what he must be thinking.
“Sir, could you please recite the alphabet backwards for me?”
“Excuse me? I don’t know the alphabet backwards on a good day.”
“And is this a bad day for you?”
“It is. I mean, it isn’t. Not like that.” I feel panic building within me. “It’s just been a while.” He looks from me to the vehicle, and I feel my stomach flip. “No. God! No. She’s my daughter. I just haven’t been on the road in a while. It’s a special occasion for her. I can take a Breathalyzer if that’s what you want. I’m not drunk, officer.”
“I see. Could you please show me your license and registration first?”
Panic tingles through my body. I have no clue about the registration, but my license is long expired. I reach for my wallet knowing that it will seal my fate as a criminal.
From the truck, Caroline wails. Her cry is the sort that can only come from a teenager, at once furious and filled with grief that no adult can understand. She leaps from the truck and jabs her finger at me. “I can’t believe you! You ruined everything! This is why mom left you! You’re just some smelly butcher and you have this disgusting meat truck and I hate you! I’ll never see Four Step!”
I look back to the offer and hold my hands out in apology. “I’m sorry about this. She won a contest up in Pittsburgh, so we were trying to get there.”
“Yeah. I have a teenager myself. Had to tell her she couldn’t go camp out days in advance.” The cop shines his flashlight at my outdated license, then glances back at me. “So you’re a butcher for Cogman’s?”
“I’m definitely not a chauffeur.”
“Tell you what. We’ll forget about this, but as soon as you get to Pittsburgh, you call some buddies to drive you and this truck home. And when you get home, if you could set aside a couple of really nice cuts of steak for me, I’d appreciate it.”
I don’t even know what to say, so I put my wallet away and nod. “That’s very good of you.”
“We have to stick together. Besides, I hear Four Step are coming back to tour in the fall.”