Tuke let Trajan drive him home from the casino Friday nights. Trajan had never applied for his learner’s permit, but then Tuke had never been one to follow any rule he felt he could get away with breaking. He sat pressed against the side door, his elbow perched on the armrest. He put his hand to work inside the passenger window directing traffic around them.
Tuke relished the extraordinary freedom the passenger seat afforded him to gaze, passing along familiar routes, soaking in waves of new detail. He allowed Trajan free reign over the car stereo as long as his grandson kept the volume well below mid-range. The WRIU mix, bubbling barely audibly over the strain of the car engine, went nearly imperceptible each time Trajan turned the car in the uphill direction. A stray bump or two rose above the whir of soft tires on the roadway—a soft pinging like those hearing tests administered by the school nurse as part of the annual physical required of all student-athletes. Then there it was again: thump, thump, thump, thump, the song impossible to identify at this volume.
Trajan sat stiff behind the wheel, his hands at ten and two, from the corner of his eye registering Tuke’s body language. A clenched fist meant to brake; an open hand that it was safe to proceed, his fingers extending down the roadway. Tuke tapped his foot in time with the metronome clicking of the turn signal, focused a narrow finger to ward off opposing traffic—Back off, you. Keep out of my lane.
“Whatever happened with the situation on your hands?” Tuke asked, his eyes still lost on the world outside the passenger window. “Your woman troubles.”
“What woman troubles?” Trajan asked, working to gauge the breadth of his grandpa’s suspicions.
“She’s your woman,” Tuke shrugged. “How am I supposed to know?”
Again, Trajan wished he’d said girl. “Oh, that. It fizzled.”
“Fizzled before getting off the ground, or have the two of you already had your fill of one another?”
“It just wasn’t meant to be,” Trajan conceded.
“That sounds like grown-up talk. What about you didn’t her folks like?”
Trajan did a quick recap inside his head. The situation with Mrs. Quigley seemed to have collapsed under its own weight, bloomed fast only to wither just as quickly. Things with Carmen had settled into a permanent holding pattern, her mother dictating every move between them or the lack thereof.
“It was just bad timing,” Trajan admitted. More grown-folks’ talk.
“I’ll tell you like someone once told me: It’s better to be out and know you’re out than to stand around trying when you’ve got no chance of getting back in.” Trajan took note of Tuke’s tone, the sentiment offered in obvious reference to his wife, Estelle. Trajan silenced his tongue, another lecture on tap about stirring up the dead had he elected to probe further.
“Sometimes all you’re left is out,” Trajan answered, melancholy of his own at work inside his head. He started to tell his grandpa. Saw an opening to shed the burden collapsing his spine, his desire to remain at odds with the world buckling under. But a nervous unrest intervened, Chester’s general sense of distrust encroaching on his son’s perspective. How might Tuke judge him in the end? Would he run and tell Dottie where her son had been?
“You know the trouble with youth?” Tuke wondered into the narrow space between the car’s front seats. “You’re in too much of a hurry to get beyond where you are in life to enjoy what you have. Life experience teaches a man to slow down, to appreciate the road along the way as much as the destination. You have plenty of time for misery. Don’t use it all up while you’re still young,” he advised his grandson.
Tuke reminded Trajan that everything is renewable, even a wounded spirit. “You’ll have ample opportunity for heartache, heartbreak hopefully with a fair share of joy mixed in to justify the ordeal you must endure on the way to finding your one true love. Just make sure you don’t get pregnant along the way.”
Tuke intercepted a minivan threatening to turn right on red in front of them. Snapped his fingers on the van, held it fast, pointing with exaggerated authority: Stay back, you. Let us pass.
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