Fiction · 05/19/2010

The Future of Family Radio

Before his father ruins everything and they no longer have car trips, Daniel thinks about the future of family radio. When the whole family is in the car, his father rules a classic rock kingdom where everyone but his sister and her headphones resides. When his father is not in the car, the radio belongs to his sister. Daniel lets his eyes soften against the highway dividers rushing past him, blending into one line and jumping when the divider is dented. Years later, he’ll realize the car is the actual rushing object.

Before his father ruins everything, Daniel wonders when he will be old enough to choose the music. In three years, he’ll be granted this request and default to “his station” in the car. This will be long after his sister has left.

Daniel watches the divider turn to lightning bolts for a quick stretch and knows that soon they’ll have skunk air, hard ugly grass, and stinky shower water. That his mother will insist the beaches are better in Florida, though Florida has the same t-shirt shops, big brown bellies, and bikinis as Wilmington, the same all-day grease on his skin. His mother will say it’s the sand. The sand is whiter. His mother will say it’s the seafood.

And there will be TV. They’ll have cable to watch at night, and the air conditioning will be too cold and smell like chemicals. He and his sister will watch under blankets with squares like waffles, while his father empties fast food salt packets into beers and pays attention to his guitar. Daniel knows his face will feel warm and slept on, that he and his sister will feed potato chips to seagulls until the flock grows too large and aggressive, that he will close his eyes and bite the insides of his cheeks until she notices. She’ll pull him to the water, leaving the chip bag in the sand even though she hates litter.

His family’s eyes will be red that night, but not because they’re sad. They’ll like the songs his father plays and feel water-rocked when they close their eyes. It’s a little like being sick, Daniel thinks, in a good way, and maybe the beaches are better because they’re in Florida instead of where his family lives.

After his father ruins everything and his sister leaves, Florida will no longer be possible for Daniel or his mother. But this is before. This is now, and Daniel’s thinking about sound. More important than music in the car is the sound he will hear in the hotel room tonight. He will listen to his father puffing, the chipmunk teeth noises of his mother. He will listen for breathing. Daniel shares a room with his sister at home and knows her breath by heart, but not his parents’. He’s heard that kids his age sometimes sleep with their parents after bad dreams, but he has never done this because his sister knows he’s scared before he does. On those nights, he finds her face close to his, and years later, he’ll attribute this comfort to her face being a perfect combination of his parents’. He’ll never attribute this to the mirror her face is to his, and he will mostly be angry that she forgot him when she left.

But this will change too. Even more years after his father ruins everything, Daniel will remember him funding outings to baseball games and Red Lobster, buying flowers and steak for the table. He’ll remember his sister as the one who acted like a monster, kicking holes in walls, tearing up her clothes, and once pushing him down the stairs. He’ll remember his mother rescinding the no smoking inside rule and finding her at the table with an ashtray each day until eventually he asks if he can be the one to tap on the pack before she opens it. He’ll remember filling up the gas tank in college, pulling his jacket closer and squinting at the florescent gas station and fast food signs, his girlfriend asleep in the car. He’ll remember thinking every highway exit looks this way, that this could be the same exit he takes home, knowing it’s not, and wondering if his mother really couldn’t afford one car trip, even to Wilmington. He’ll remember his girlfriend waiting for the roadtrip to end before leaving him too, that she had stringy hair like his sister. He’ll think, if he were his sister, he would have left the same way.

But this is before. This is now, and the radio sings about smoke on the water. His father is well above the speed limit, and Daniel looks forward to hearing his whole family breathe in one room. This is more comforting than seatbelts, more than radio control, and he sleeps best in hotel rooms.

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Christy Crutchfield writes and teaches in Western Massachusetts. Publications appear or are forthcoming in Mississippi Review, elimae, Juked, and NOÖ Journal, among others.