I am in the car with my father. He’s at the wheel and he’s going fast. We’re both enjoying the speed. On the side of the road, the sagebrush is a blur. The high desert plain reaches off, flat and cold and dry, heaped with lava rock cairns. The mountains battle a pale sky. It is November and the peaks are powdered sugar. Ahead of us the road stretches out, straight and narrowing until it disappears in the distance.
My father has been working on this car for years. It’s a Volvo 544 coupe from the sixties. His care is evident in the gloss of the paint, the fabric of the seats, the dash console with its stark white numbers. I think it looks like one of those gangster cars from a black-and-white movie, with the headlights in the lobed wheel wells, the sloping tail, the hood like the nose of a surfboard. I told him that once, and I think he liked it, because he gave a little smile and then went back to talking about the exhaust manifold.
We aren’t talking much, just leaning back in the seats. The wind is howling over the hood. I think my father is slowly pressing harder on the gas.It seems like we’re going a little faster every moment but it’s hard to tell, like watching the moon rise. You can almost see it move, but not quite. By tomorrow morning it will be setting on the other horizon.
The telephone poles tick past my window.
There’s no one else out on the road. Almost certainly no highway patrol. This is a wild place, not even a ranch house or barn out among the scrub. My father can get all the speed out of his car that he wants here, no consequences.
I sneak glances at my father. He’s not young anymore. The skin of his hands is spotted and papery under the late-year sun. His hair is still ink black though his beard has gone silver. The waitresses at the diner, where he eats breakfast every day, assumed he dyed his hair, which offended him, though he didn’t really show it.
My father is sedate, measured, reasonable. The intensity of his feelings doesn’t often show on the surface. I know this is something we share.
I can tell we have sped up a little.
I always wanted to get this car out on the open road, my father says.
Before we left, he lifted the hood, showing me the double-barrel carburetor, describing how the cylinders were bored out. The valve cover was glossy black, the engine block a fire-engine red. A tiny strip of oil ran from a leaking gasket like a highway on a map. It didn’t detract from the feeling of power, the force it could contain, focus into forward momentum.
He liked showing his work to me, but it made me uneasy to look at it. With its snaking cables and hoses, its reservoirs of fluids, the way it sputtered and shook when it started, the engine felt incongruous and grotesque, like an internal organ exposed to the air.
The road seethes through my seat. I had wanted to come on this drive, it seemed like fun. Also I couldn’t say no to my father. Excitement had showed through his calm veneer.
It’s great to finally get it out, see what it can do, I say idly.
My father hums in his throat, in tune with the engine. I look down the road, straight as the arrow of time, the phone poles marching beside it. Another escarpment of mountains rises in the distance. The road seems to go over a rise and is lost from view.
How far do you want to go? I ask.
We can just drive, see how far we get.
The pallid sky is reflected in my father’s glasses, so I can’t see his eyes.
Want to turn on the radio? I ask.
It has a vintage face and dials, but is shiny with chrome.
I want to hear how she performs, he says.
I look back at the road and a yellow sign flies past. We must really be going fast. Then the words land: ROAD ENDS 2 MILES.
Dad? I ask.
He doesn’t answer.
Did you see that sign?
He takes a long time to speak.
Speed limits out here are just a suggestion, he says.
It wasn’t a speed limit. It said the road’s going to end.
My father is shaking his head.
No, no, he says. It’s an old sign. It’s not right.
Are you sure?
Yes. I worked on this car a long time.
I look at my father. His hands are gripped on the wheel. I think he is gritting his teeth. The tachometer is edging up toward the number 4, the engine sounds like it’s on a racetrack.
Dad, maybe we should slow down.
My father shakes his head hard.
We came out here to test her out. That’s the whole reason we came. The whole reason. It’s why we’re here.
I thought we were going to spend time together. I thought that was why.
My throat aches. I look out at the desolate scrub-land. I think I see a group of animals out there, a family of deer or antelope, but I can’t be sure.
We pass another sign that says DANGER – ROAD ENDS 1 MILE.
This car is my investment for the future, my father says, as if trying to explain.
I have stopped understanding what he means, and everything feels wrong, but I don’t know how to change it.
Dad, really I think the sign is right. Why don’t we stop and take a breather? Maybe turn around and head back?
DANGER – ROAD ENDS ½ MILE.
My heart is starting to hammer my ribs.
My father looks at me. I finally see his eyes through his glasses. His pupils are pinpoints. Sweat beads his forehead.
Stop? BACK? He yells at me. He looks away from the road for much too long. This is the way we chose to go! He jabs a finger at the windshield. THIS. WAY.
I think of the smile he had on when we met that morning. Was it a little crazed? How long has it been, since I felt I knew him? There has always been a hidden place in him, an unplumbed well. I thought he filled that place by working with his hands, tinkering with his car, focusing on the details. But maybe it was never filled. Maybe it is howling and empty.
I cover my eyes for a moment.
This is insane. Why don’t we just slow down and see if the road ends for real.
Insane? You want to take everything I have.
That’s not true.
DANGER – ROAD ENDS ¼ MILE.
Yes it is. It’s clear to me now. You always wanted this car to fail, you liked it when it was a broken-down shell. Well look at it now. It’s beautiful and fast. If we go fast enough we can fly.
That’s not true Dad, we have to stop!
After everything I’ve given you, you want to destroy what I’ve built.
I just want to turn, just slow down a little and turn.
There’s no road there. This is the road. This is the way.
I look ahead. I can see the fence at the end of the road, three orange diamonds hanging in space. We will be there any moment. Beyond it there is some unknown precipice, who knows what danger. I think about rolling out of my door. But there is only the high-speed gravel there, my skin would be ripped from my bones.
Dad please! Think!
It’s my investment!
My father down-shifts, the engine’s banshee wail. We are almost at the edge.
Dad! I shriek, and lunge for the wheel, trying to wrest it from his hands.