“It’s your fault,” the father said to his son. The father wore gold wire-framed glasses upon his bulbous nose. His neatly trimmed white beard covered a softness that often got him labeled as professorial. He sat up straight in his seat, but was still shorter than his son. “I told you to piss before we left.”
“Yeah, I know you did,” said the son, slouched on the bench seat of the bus next to his father. The son’s goatee was unkempt, as if he was afraid to trim it. His eyelids rarely raised more than two-thirds open and unless startled, he moved his head in an unhurried manner.
“Then why didn’t you listen?”
“I did,” the son said, looking out the window. “I did go.”
“Do you want to be like them?” The father motioned with a nod at the other pairs of riders on the bus. “Those idiots don’t know how to plan. That’s why they’re all here. Those are some of the ones you want avoid when we—”
“Yeah, I know that, Dad. You’ve said so.”
“Call me ‘Father.’ It sounds less—it’s just better for this crowd.”
“Fine,” said the son. He looked out the window at the dying vegetation and uneven horizon of dirt of eastern Washington state’s landscape.
“Let me try to get your—I know, I’ll tell you about the first time I had to take one of these bus rides.”
“You’ve already told me,” he said, closing his eyes.
“I’m just trying to help out,” the father said. He sighed and then asked, “Do you remember that trip your mother and I took you to in the Petrified Forest?”
The son opened his eyes, blinked twice, and said nothing. He forced his tongue against the inside of his closed teeth.
“You must have been 10 or 11, surely you remember.”
The son shifted in his seat and scratched his goatee on the shoulder of the rough denim clothes that weren’t his own.
“How about the Pow Wow? You loved that.”
“What about it, Father?” he asked and turned to look at his father.
The father smiled behind his beard. He nodded out the window. “Doesn’t this look like that part of Arizona?”
The son looked back past the speeding brown on brown blur of colors and was reminded of the desert east of Flagstaff. The sporadic talking of the other men on the bus made him look around. “I guess,” he said to his father.
“Heh,” he snorted and looked away, past the aisle and out the windows on the opposite side of the bus. “You ‘guess.’”
“You know, I can’t believe you sometimes.”
“You can’t believe me?” asked the son, pulling his knee away from his father’s.
“And what’s that supposed to mean?”
“It’s just that …”
“You’re not a teenager anymore.” He turned to look at his son. “You’ve not been one in a while.”
“That. That’s what I mean.”
“You should be past those surly, short answers.”
“I should, huh?”
“Yeah, try to have an adult conversation. You know, with complete sentences.”
“What should I say, Father? Since you’re the expert.”
“I’m not an expert. And all I want you to say is what’s on your mind instead of making me work both sides of the conversation.”
“You’ve never had a problem before.”
“What’re you talking about—you used to contribute more.”
“Yeah. Things’ve changed.”
“Take a look around.”
The father looked at the other men on the bus. “Hey, I told you this is just a short—”
“Don’t say ‘short pit-stop’ again.”
“It’s going to go faster than you think.”
“So you keep saying.”
“But yet you keep not believing me. Don’t you think I’ll know?”
“Oh, there’s no doubting that.”
“Then trust me when—”
“I think my trusting you is about tapped out.”
“Hey, I told you the risks before we—”
“No, that’s not what you said. You said it was going to be a ‘win-win.’”
“But I told you there was a slight risk that—”
“This is more than ‘slight.’ Don’t you think that’s something I’d know?”
“Of course, but—”
“No. No more.” The son shook his head and looked out the window. “I don’t want to hear your excuses and list of people who’re at fault for this.”
The son watched the browns shift to tans and blinked at the endless, choreographed rows of dirt that disappeared beyond his vision. After nearly three minutes, the father said, “You said yourself we got screwed.”
He turned to his father and said, “And you’ve never admitted how you screwed us with your greed.”
“My greed? Oh, but you’re a saint, right?”
“Oh, now who’s listing excuses?”
“I came to you for help,” the son said and looked again through the small valleys of the plowed earth. He added, quietly, “I needed help.”
“Didn’t I try to do that?” He leaned against his son.
The son pulled away, closer to the window and said, “Not in the way I would’ve wanted.”
“Maybe I was wrong in—”
“Thank you,” he said and looked at his father, smiling, “that’s all I—”
“Maybe I was wrong in thinking you’re an adult.”
The son’s smile fell. He said, “Oh. Really?”
“And why’s that?”
“Because I figured that when you came to me you knew what you wanted.”
“I did. I wanted help.”
“And what kind of help did you expect an ex-con to give you?”
“You’re my Dad,” he said and turned away from him, resting his forehead on the cool window.
“And I live—I lived in a fifth wheel that wasn’t even paid for.”
He turned to look at his father. “I still expected you to—”
“You’re 23, you knew what to expect.”
He stared at his father and said nothing.
“And you’ve got no response because you came to me because of what I could do for you.”
“Yeah, I haven’t got around to thanking you for this yet, have I?” He raised his hands the few inches they would go. “My bad.”
“I think I’d rather have the monosyllabic answers.”
“Bet you would. And I’d rather have my debt back.”
“You act like I wanted this.”
“And you act like this is a road trip to father-and-son camp.”
“Why? Because I don’t want to cry out the window? Because I’m trying to stay positive?”
“I’m not crying out the window and—”
“I can’t tell.”
“And you’re anything but positive.”
“Compared to you, I am.”
“Compared to me, you’re happy to be here.”
“You know, I am happy that we’ve got each other to make it through this ti—”
“I think you’re happy I’m turning into you.”
He glared at his father with his neck aimed forward and waited for a reply.
“And now who’s out of responses, Father?”
“I’m just surprised that you’d think being me would be such a horrible thing,” he said and began chewing on his mustache, trimming the ends.
“You’re surprised? You shouldn’t be.”
“Am I that bad of a person?”
“What makes you good?”
“I love you, Son. I always have.”
“And you loved Mom too. Lotta good that did her.”
“That’s not fair.”
“You read her note,” the father said quietly, looking at his lap.
“And I knew her. And I know how you treated her.”
“I … I tried.”
“Like you tried to help me?”
“Hey—” the father turned his head but then pulled away from his son.
“Like you’re just trying to stay positive?”
“Better than being like this, all negative.”
“I’m not negative,” the son said, sitting up as much as possible in his seat, saying louder, “I’m fucking awake.”
“I am too, but I think it’s better—”
“Better to forget the past? Better to find the easy way? The fast buck? And better to make light of the bad instead of dealing with it?”
“I think it’s better if you keep your voice down.”
“Why? Am I gonna offend these ‘idiots who can’t plan,’ like you said? Am I going to ruin your new friendships before you get a chance to do so yourself?”
“Knock it off, Son.”
“Just stop,” he said. He looked down at his lap and his immobile hands.
“Don’t you get it?”
“What?” he asked and looked at his son.
“I’m not like you.”
“I never wanted you to be.”
“Ri-ight,” the son said, smiling.
“It’s true. I wanted better for you.”
“Yeah, with your advice I’m sure I’ll get outta here and last twice as long as you did.”
“I never wanted this for you, Son.”
“But what’ll you do to stop it?”
“What’ll you do? Since you’ve got all the answers. And all the judgment.”
“You’re right. Listening to you was my fault. I won’t repeat that mistake.”
“I was wrong. I … I just didn’t know how to be right.”
“Oh, that’s beautiful. Very clever, Dad. Way to once again take the blame, and shove it overboard.”
“What do you want from me?”
“I want you to get up and walk with me so I can use the toilet. No matter how embarrassed you’ll be.”
“Then I want to go back to how our relationship was—”
“That’s what I want, too. I just—”
“Go back to how our relationship was when I moved out.”
“Yeah, I’ll acknowledge your existence on birthdays and Christmas.”
He looked at his son and opened his mouth, but said nothing.
“So when you see me in the yard, pretend I’m on one of your lists of people to shun.”
He looked away from his son, and out the window past the other restrained men, blinking at the desolate landscape.
“Now who’s crying out the window, Dad? Get up, I gotta piss.”