When Robie Dubois’ father got home from work, he moved straight to the rec room where Robie was watching a movie. He came in the back door, not bothering to go to the living room where Robie’s mother and sister sat behind TV trays watching a soap opera.
“Allons-y,” Robie’s father said, standing in the doorway, still wearing the dark blue coveralls and heavy work boots he’d worn that day. “Let’s go.”
Robie could tell his father was drunk, the way he’d been a lot lately when coming home at night, long after he’d left the job site.
“Okay,” Robie said. “Lemme grab my shoes.”
Robie had been watching an old black-and-white western. Now his father watched the TV, standing there and leaning heavily on the doorframe; his breathing labored, as if he’d just run up a flight of stairs.
“You ever see this one?” Robie said, knowing his father had already seen the movie. Still, he wondered if his father might want to watch it again. He wanted to give his father a chance to back out if he didn’t want to go. It was late. Later, even, than all the other nights they’d gone driving. Being fourteen, Robie would be getting his driver’s license that next year.
“Seen that one a hundred times,” his father slurred, stopping short of saying he wanted to watch the movie now, the way he might have had the circumstances been different.
Robie’s cleats lay on the floor where he’d kicked them off after football practice. Realizing his father was intent on going, Robie put the shoes back on before retying the long laces. He hadn’t taken a shower yet and still wore P.E. shorts and an undershirt, which earlier had been soaked through with sweat, but had since dried and now smelled of a rank sweetness, not unlike the fieldhouse at school. His empty dinner plate sat on the coffee table where his mother had let him eat. When his father didn’t come home for supper again, she’d said “to hell with it” and let Robie and his sister eat in front of the TV.
Robie shouted at the living room that he was leaving. As he walked out the backdoor the damp winter’s chill gripped his bare skin. Beyond the arc of the porch light, he could just make out his father in the darkness at the bottom of the hill, standing on the bank of the bayou. He’d just thrown something into the river and Robie heard it splash at the center of the slow moving channel. Probably an empty liquor bottle, he figured, from the sound of it. His father then staggered back up the hill. “Your mother doesn’t need to know nuttin about that. Comprend?” he said, and he got into the passenger side of the pickup.
“We really don’t have to go,” Robie said, getting behind the wheel.
“Mais, sure we do,” his father said. “You wanna learn to drive, uh?”
“You don’t wanna grab something to eat first?” Robie said. “Momma made a shrimp and tasso jambalya.”
“I can eat later,” his father said. “Let’s go ‘head and go.”
Before cranking the engine, Robie went over in his mind everything he’d learned from the times before, not wanting to make the same mistakes. Then he flipped on the headlights and started the truck. He shifted into reverse and slowly backed out of the carport. His father remained quiet, still breathing heavily through his nose. Robie could smell alcohol, knowing it was bourbon because that’s what his father drank when he went to bars. It’s what was in the bottles he kept under the seat of the truck. On the boat, his father drank beer.
Robie drove out of the long driveway and onto Eleazar Street. As he approached the intersection he let the truck roll to a stop. He hoped his father wouldn’t make him go into town. The streets there ran around the town square and then again around the courthouse. There were a lot of one-way streets and a lot of traffic signs. Robie never knew when to yield or when to go or which way to turn.
“Where to?” Robie said.
After thinking a moment his father said, “Cross over to Pumpin’ Plant.”
Pumping Plant Road led out of town, and while it was a dark, narrow road flanked by deep drainage ditches, there wouldn’t be any town squares to deal with. No confusing signs all over the place. Robie saw no traffic coming from either direction, but he made a show of checking anyway. Then he proceeded across the intersection where Pumping Plant Road began, going south.
Driving was still new to Robie and he clutched the wheel tightly, feeling the power of the truck’s engine as he accelerated, like pent up muscle. The badly busted up road lay scarred with potholes because of the heavy tractor trailers that used it regularly, hauling petroleum pipe to Intracoastal City or transporting rice and sugar cane into town and to the rice mill or to Steen’s Cane Syrup plant.
Robie’s parents had been fighting a lot lately. Always after he and his sister went to bed. He could hear them in the back bedroom, their pained and oftentimes hurtful voices carrying to the rest of the house. Loud enough for Robie to hear behind his closed bedroom door. Even with the radio he turned up, trying not to hear. At that point, at the end of the day, it’s as if his parents could no longer avoid one another and finally had to be in the same room together. Then they’d have it out. Robie would hear parts of what was said, even behind his bedroom door and with the radio on and playing loudly.
His father had always drank a lot, but in the past he’d seemed happy when drunk, and that was the difference now. His father wasn’t happy anymore, no matter how much he drank. Robie didn’t know if he was unhappy in the marriage or as a father or with his job or else all of it. Robie’s mother said very little. She just cried a lot and when she did talk it was difficult understanding anything she said. It killed Robie to hear it. He hated that his mother cried, but he also hated that his father would be so miserable about anything.
Clear of the city limits now and in the country, the night had grown profoundly dark beneath the blanket of stars that scattered like birdshot across the clear, moonless sky. His father still hadn’t said anything and Robie continued driving, keeping both hands on the wheel.
Robie suspected his father gave him the driving lessons to keep from being in the house. To kill time before going to the back bedroom and having to face Robie’s mother. Otherwise, he might have to face her before they went to bed. In the living room or in the kitchen, in front of Robie and his sister, and no one wanted that.
“Coach let me play on defense today,” Robie said. He wanted to talk with his father and it was all he could think to say.
“He did, uh?” his father managed.
“Yeah, defensive end. He says if I work on my form, I might even be a natural.”
“Mais, how ‘bout that,” his father said. He sounded like he might say something more, but he didn’t.
Robie had hoped his father would tell him what was wrong. They were alone in the truck a lot lately and there was always the opportunity to talk if he wanted to. It got so that Robie expected it. Robie would be fifteen soon and in high school. He wasn’t a man, exactly, but he wasn’t a boy anymore either. In fact, Robie had begun noticing the differences in the way his father treated him. In small ways, sure, but in ways that were monumental to Robie. His father had begun cussing in front of him, for example, even using the word “fuck” in place of words he might have used before; harmless words, words that didn’t carry the same shock or ferocity. His father wasn’t choosing his words so carefully anymore, the way he did when Robie was a boy, only a year earlier.
Robie’s father shifted in his seat before punching in the truck’s cigarette lighter. He bit off the tip of a cigar and spat it into the darkness at his feet. When the lighter was ready, making a sudden popping sound as it ejected, his father pulled the plug that glowed orange from the dashboard ashtray and lit his cigar. Robie lowered his window an inch. Seeing anything in the night outside the truck was hard enough without having to see through the cloud of blue smoke that he knew would soon fill the cab.
Robie’s father had given him a cigar in the blind the last time they’d gone duck hunting. To repel the mosquitoes. On that same hunt, he’d given Robie a slug of bourbon to warm him up. And the fact that his father didn’t make a big deal out of it—handing over the flask as nonchalantly as he might the Thermos of coffee—made it a big deal to Robie. These were the little things his father did that had Robie feeling their relationship was changing. In many ways, Robie’s father now treated him the way he might treat one of his hunting or fishing buddies, and that made Robie eager to grow up. He yearned for more of the relationship he caught glimpses of and had him feeling like he might know what it was to be a man.
“How’m I doing?” Robie said. Not that there was anything in particular his father could comment on. At the moment, Robie kept to the center of the lane on a dark, lonely straightaway, rice fields and crawfish ponds on either side of the road; the swarms of night bugs drawn to the headlights and smacking hard and wet against the windshield. His father, still breathing loudly, didn’t answer and Robie glanced at him to see if he were asleep.
Just then, the truck came to a bend in the road. As Robie took the curve going a little too fast, the tires crept onto the loose gravel of the narrow shoulder.
“Sorry about that,” Robie said, guiding the truck back into the lane. No harm done.
His father cleared his throat before swallowing something thick. “Whatchyou wanna do is accelerate through the curve,” he said. “You know what I mean when I say that?”
“I think so,” Robie said.
“If you take anything away from tonight, I want it to be that. Comprends?”
“Okay,” Robie said. It was quiet again and, wanting to keep the conversation going, Robie added, “So, where we headed?”
The night before had been the same. His father wasn’t talking and Robie just kept driving and they ended up in Forked Island. If Robie had not said anything, they might have gone as far as Pecan Island, where the road meets the Gulf before curving westward, hugging the marshland and heading toward Cameron Parish and then Texas beyond that.
“Mais, you’ll see,” his father said. “What we’re doing is making a big loop. We’ll pass Grand Bois and then come back into town through Mouton Cove. You’ll see, just keep drivin’.”
It made no sense to Robie. He’d ridden on these same country roads a thousand times, but never behind the wheel. He’d never paid attention before, he’d never had to, but he wasn’t worried. He knew his father would tell him which way to go, and Robie continued driving, keeping a vigilant eye on the speedometer, not wanting to speed by even a single mile per hour.
Some time went by and now Robie recognized where they were as they approached a nightclub located in the middle of a cow pasture; a converted doublewide, jacked up and resting on cinderblocks stacked three high. The nightclub sat on a long quarter-mile curve and was called T-Man’s. Robie had always thought it a funny name for a bar. He’d always wondered what T-Man might look like. “T” was short for petit, so it might indicate that T-Man was little in stature. Scrawny. But Cajuns often nicknamed people contrarily so that T-Man could just as likely be big, even obese. There were never any cars parked outside in the oyster-shell parking lot during the day, but there were a number of cars and pickups out in front of the bar now. Neon beer signs illuminated the small windows all along the side of the trailer.
“I didn’t think that place was ever open,” Robie said.
Robie’s father rolled his head on the seatback and looked in the direction of the trailer, a mask of smoke lingering motionless before his face in the warm, dead air of the cab.
Then it all at once dawned on Robie and he had an idea. He thought his father might like to stop at T-Man’s and get a drink. He just wanted his father to be happy again, the way he used to be, and if he needed to drink to be happy, then that was okay with Robie; then that was the way it should be. Even if his mother didn’t think so and was always yelling at his father because of it.
The pickup reached the beginning of the long curve and Robie let up on the gas as they neared the parking lot entrance. Robie’s father removed the cigar from his mouth. He turned away from the bar and looked at Robie. “Mais, got-damn, Robie,” he said. “What’d I just tell you not ten minutes ago, uh?”
Robie realized his father didn’t understand. But that was okay. As Robie began accelerating through the curve, he still thought stopping at T-Man’s had been a good idea. He thought maybe he could try again some other night. Maybe the next time they came out that way, he could try then.
David Langlinais’s work has appeared in South Dakota Review, Los Angeles Review, Prick of the Spindle, Saint Ann’s Review, Dos Passos Review, Big Muddy, The MacGuffin, and others. His short story collection, “Duck Thief and Other Stories” (UL Press) is due out this spring. He currently lives in Dallas with his wife and daughter where he works as a freelance copywriter.