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On the Odometer
Mathieu Cailler
Writer of the Month

At 18,000 miles, when my hair was still blondish, Dad flung me the keys to the ’53 DeSoto Powermaster. It was a voluptuous sedan, with a heavy chrome grille, painted in a deep red color that Dad called “Sophia Loren’s lipstick.” I was fifteen. It was a Sunday, and we were still wearing our suits from church. I didn’t know why he’d done it since the car was only a few years old, but it was my first ride, and I worked that beast all over Peoria—up and down the same streets—counting how many green lights I could rush through without finding a red one.

Somewhere along I-55, we hit 22,000 miles. Mom and Dad and me and Ricky were headed to St. Louis to catch the World Series. The DeSoto had never left Illinois, but it held up well, even in the cold, even with Ricky leaning over the front seat and messing with the radio. When Mom had to use the restroom, I pulled off around Springfield into a drive-in called, I think, The Cozy Dog. Dad popped out and lit a smoke, and I watched him brush off bits of ash that settled on his tie.

29,000 came just before I left for Purdue. Mom and Dad and Ricky helped me stuff the DeSoto, and Mom kept saying to call her when I got there, let her know that I’d arrived safe and sound, and to fill her in on what my dorm room looked like. Dad kept telling her that it would look just like any other dorm room, and I kept agreeing with him, but still, she insisted, and for some reason so did Ricky. I didn’t get too close to them. I knew all it would take was someone’s hand on my shoulder or a simple “Love you.” Ricky saluted me, his fingers tight and pressed against his temple. And I was off, out the driveway, the whitewalls gripping the road, onward to West Lafayette to become a Boilermaker, whatever that was.

At 33,000, I returned home for Winter Break. Christine, my girlfriend, came for a few days, too, and Mom finally had a houseguest worthy of the fancy soaps and towels she’d collected for years. I was a junior; Christine was a sophomore. I studied architecture, while Christine pursued finance. Mom had aged, I thought, her hair grayer, and I remembered thinking that for the first time she looked old—with her stubby eyelashes and veiny hands. Dad seemed the same, though. His glasses just kept getting bigger. Ricky was a senior in high school, and he showed me his letterman jacket, even let me try it on. The fire popped and Dad threw on another log. Mom kept swinging her eyes over Christine—up and down, studying the golden dove brooch I’d gifted her.

I married Christine at 40,000 miles in Evanston, Illinois—her hometown—at St. Mary’s on a Sunday in November. The time felt right—we’d grown enough and needed to grow some more. Mom had told me that she loved Christine, particularly the way she gazed at me like I could solve anything. Ricky got along well with her, too. She liked to give him love advice, and he obliged, taking it while most likely daydreaming about curveballs and splitters. After the sacrament, we were sprinkled with rice en route to the DeSoto. I opened the car door for Christine, helped her with her train, and then whipped around to my side. We drove off with rice pelting the roof and aluminum cans bouncing and popping behind the Powermaster. Christine clutched my fingers and I glanced in the rearview, brushing over all those cheering and clapping people on the church steps.

44,000 rolled around faster than expected. Christine and I moved to Indianapolis. She got a job at a local bank and I started at an architectural firm. We bought a house, a three-bedroom, at the end of a cul-de-sac. The place was white with green shutters and apple trees dotted the front yard.

The DeSoto served us well at 46,000 miles. Its trunk could’ve also swallowed Jonah, so it was good for Saturday garage-sale trips. Christine sat in the passenger seat with the newspaper in one hand and a map in the other, calling out “right” and “left” and “straight ahead.” We crammed the Powermaster full of furniture, and slowly, week by week, filled each room with dressers and beds and nightstands, till the house looked like Mom and Dad’s, till echoes no longer bounced around the floor plan. Each night, it seemed like Christine and I were playing house. We could turn the heat up as high as we wanted. We could stay up late. We could make love and pot roast.

At 53,000, Christine gave birth to Julia. I got ahead of myself and baby-proofed the sockets, toilets, and swiped knickknacks into boxes. I built a treehouse and even roped an old whitewall to the oak in the backyard—all that for a girl that didn’t yet have a laugh. We used the DeSoto less, and most weeks, it sat in the garage, under a blanket, waiting for Sundays and holidays. I found rust on the bumper, too, even though I’d always done as Dad had said and washed the rock salt off as soon as I got home.

60,000 was easy to remember because Mom got sick, lung cancer. She’d never smoked, but she had taken in a lot of Dad’s fumes. She never complained or talked about it. All the information came from Dad, quietly, quickly, over the phone or when she was in some distant part of the house. Ricky took her shopping a lot, said she seemed happy trying on clothes and buying outfits. A few times a week, she got her hair done, too—“a permanent,” she called it. Ricky joked that if it was, in fact, “permanent,” the upkeep shouldn’t have been so demanding. Whenever I’d get a job in Illinois, I’d stay with my parents and Ricky would come over. Since Mom was tired, I’d make omelets with Dad. We’d make Ricky’s really spicy and watch him try to be macho. “It’s not too bad. Really. It’s not bad at all,” he’d say, his face redder than brake lights. Mom would laugh and laugh.

There was a night at 64,000, when we’d just finished dinner and Mom wanted ice cream. We piled in the DeSoto and Dad caught my negligence, pointed out patches of leather that were cracking and beginning to rip. He told me I should’ve splurged for better tires. We grabbed some ice cream at Outlaw’s, which I thought seemed like a strange name for a place that dealt with sprinkles for a living, but the product was creamy and so cold, and we all sat there in the DeSoto, under yellow streetlights, with the radio soft, licking our chocolate cones.

Julia really got into art somewhere around 72,000. She especially enjoyed drawing trees. Christine always felt like staying in, having some time to herself, so Julia and I took off, wended through back roads, and stopped whenever she found an oak or pine with tormented branches. The bench seat was perfect, too, because I’d drive with Julia pressed right up against me, even swing my arm around her when the road straightened out. While she sketched, I closed my eyes and listened to a radio station that loved crooners. Perry Como leaked through, and I thought the DeSoto was at peace, piping in tunes from its generation.

At 79,000, Ricky was over playing HORSE with Julia in the driveway. Christine and I were inside, cleaning up after a dinner party. I wanted to touch her, but thought maybe she didn’t want me to. I was scared to ask her about it, and then, hours later, after Ricky and Julia headed to the mall to buy some softball gear, she said she was unhappy and didn’t love her life. There was a day, she said, when she got into her car, and started to drive off. I told her to stay, and she said she would. I touched her fingers and felt her nails dig into my palm.

Mom died at 88,000. I’d been over at the house the week before and she’d been dressed up real nice, all in turquoise with a black hat, like she was headed to the Kentucky Derby. She’d even wanted to go for a walk, but it was cold, so we only made it down the block. She was quiet, and whenever I glanced her way, she smiled with only her lips. “A blue jay,” she said. “A blue jay.” Every bird she spotted was a blue jay, and I didn’t say otherwise.

Somewhere around 93,000, when Dad was seventy-six, we moved him into a retirement home not far from our place. Living alone didn’t work for him any longer: He slept until noon, and a couple times I got calls from neighbors saying that he’d left the front door wide open for hours, days even, in the middle of winter. The doctors had fancy words for what was happening to his brain, but all I knew was that he started calling me Joseph, like the brother he’d lost in the war.

At 96,000, despite Christine and I attending therapy, going to Mass, and joining a nature club (per the advice of the counselor), she told me she wanted a divorce. It was a Monday afternoon. I was at my drafting table, designing the entry way of an apartment complex. Her blouse was buttoned incorrectly, and a few inked notes were scrawled on her hand: dry cleaning, checks, and something else I couldn’t read. I was glad my mother wasn’t alive to hear the news, and relieved my father wouldn’t be able to understand it. Part of me wanted to fight for Christine, but I knew that matters of love didn’t need the approval of both partners—that this wasn’t the usual swimming pool or ski trip discussion. “We’ll tell Julia when she gets home from school, okay? She probably feels it coming. She’s been smarter than us for a while now.” I nodded, and Christine let me know she was going for a walk. I tried to leave my desk, but couldn’t. My legs were numb. I reached for my ruler and pressed on, detailing the ramp for wheelchair access. Thirty minutes later, the phone rang. Christine had been found in the road. She’d struck her head on the side of a curb and wasn’t responding.

At 97,000, Christine was finally released. She’d spent four months in the hospital in a coma, and the doctors had performed two brain surgeries. She’d never again be my Purdue Christine, the one who drank Coke for breakfast and refused to write in anything but red ink. She was alive, but mostly likely would never walk or talk again. To my surprise, I enjoyed bathing her each morning, bringing her to the tub, and running the soap over her rounded ankles. She didn’t smile, but her eyes grew large and she blinked often, and I thought of it as our form of Morse code.

99,000 happened on our way to the creek. Me, Julia, and Christine sat up front on the bench seat, and Ricky took care of Dad in the back. When we got there, Ricky and Julia fished, while Christine, Dad, and I caught rays of sun on our faces. I thought Dad could make out the DeSoto. I thought he was happy to see the red beast at (almost) capacity, heavy with people, and he ran his fingers over the chrome handles and sweeping fenders. “Beautiful, beautiful,” he said.

The engine hit the 100,000 mark on the second of July. Julia and I wanted the milestone to happen on the 4th, but we had to take a detour one morning and the DeSoto tacked on a few extra miles. We cheered, though, and Julia kissed her mother. “Pull over, Dad,” she said. “I want to look at the moon.” She told me she’d read something in the paper about a super moon. She rushed out and took in the sky, and I aided Christine. The night seemed the same as the one before it. “Maybe I got the date wrong,” Julia said. But we stayed there anyway, running our eyes over the normal moon and normal stars, with several planes blinking and passing each other in the night, too, forming a sort of ephemeral constellation.

At 106,000, Julia enlisted in the Army. I’d always thought it was a bad idea for Dad to tell her all those war stories, because I saw the way her gaze narrowed and her attention span grew. Ricky’s face had done the same thing whenever anyone spoke about Stan Musial. “I’ll come home often,” she said. “And you can always drive down to North Carolina. It’s not that far. It’s nice there, warmer, and a lot closer to the ocean. Imagine the fish we can catch there.”

When the DeSoto collected its 108,000th mile, hospice took over for Dad. I sat by his bedside, my hands resting on his knee. I noticed he hadn’t been shaved in some time, and that light white whiskers had formed under his sideburns. I’d never seen him unshaven except for that one month when Ricky and I were boys and had given him the chickenpox. He couldn’t shave then, because he had a sizeable rash around his lips, so he grew a beard that Mom made him get rid of as soon as he got well. “That’s not the man I married. You look like Castro,” she kept saying. Even in that sterile room, with little to smile about, I managed. I stroked my forefinger against the grain of his beard. I did it for minutes, savoring the warmth of his face and the bend of his sharp hairs. It had been a long time since I’d kissed Dad. After I’d gone to college, we started hugging; later, we shook hands and patted each other on the back, like jocks. So, I hunched over and pecked his cheek. His scent was strong—a mix of cologne and night sweat—and I brought my lips to his soft skin again. And again. In his bed, like this, he was quiet and strong; he was the same Godlike man I’d worshipped as boy, from the doorway, when I would get up early to watch cartoons with Ricky and study the rising and falling of his chest.

At 109,000, Ricky, Julia, Christine, and I watched the Super Bowl. Julia was home for a week and seemed okay. She fed her mother, and it brought me back to Christine making her own baby food for Julia. She didn’t trust “company” baby food, so she bought her own produce—mostly carrots and squash—and puréed them daily. Now, during the million-dollar commercials of the big game, Julia returned the favor, brought spoonfuls to her mother’s mouth, minus the airplane noises. Ricky’s then-girlfriend Sam had seen the DeSoto when she’d pulled up and asked me if she could take it for a spin. Since the game was a blowout, I brought it up, and allowed Sam to drive the Powermaster. Ricky sat in the passenger seat, and I took to the back for the first time since “parking” with Christine at Purdue. I was young again on the rear bench seat. I put the window down, felt the rush. I was nine and ready for basketball at recess. I was twelve and bundled for hunting season. I was fourteen and dressed for the Strangers in the Night Dance. Sam laughed as she drove. “It’s so smooth,” she kept saying. “The engine sounds so good,” she kept saying. “Why don’t they make cars like this any longer?” she kept saying.

By the time 110,000 rolled around, Christine and I had a steadfast routine. Each day began with breakfast for the both of us at a nearby diner followed by eight a.m. Mass. We’d arrive at quarter till and sit in the back. I’d wrap her in my arms and she’d stay pressed against my side, never drifting away. I’d grip my rosary beads and Father Raymond would come by during communion and hand-deliver a Host to Christine’s mouth. Occasionally, her tongue would slide against Father’s fingers, but he never said a word. He always bowed his head and muttered to himself. My prayers were fourfold: Ricky’s happiness, Julia’s safety, Christine’s health, and my parents’ peace. Julia worried me most. She’d been deployed to Iraq. It was sometimes weeks before I heard her voice. I always expected to see soldiers knocking at the door, standing straight on the welcome mat.

Finally, at 113,000, Julia came home. She wasn’t my little girl any longer. She was distant, only speaking when spoken to. Her eyes were sunken and wrinkles had claimed her forehead. I often heard her wake up in the middle of the night and head to the kitchen. Sometimes, she cried. Whenever I asked her about it, she just told me it was hard coming back and that “reheated food never tasted the same.” Ricky brought out the Julia I knew, though. With him, she was younger, freer, and the two of them would read on the back porch, and I come out and struggle with the crossword just to sit next to her.

It was at 115,000 that Ricky moved in with me, Christine, and Julia. I was out in the garage, trying to figure out why the DeSoto had quit. It had been running well. Sure, it leaked, but few cars from Ike’s first term didn’t. The engine wouldn’t start. Not even the prelude to its hearty grumble. Ricky came out and took a look, called a buddy of his from the Y, a mechanic. When the mechanic arrived, he plopped down on his creeper and slid under the Powermaster. With each sweep of his flashlight, he said, “Oh, Jesus.” Ricky asked him what he was talking about, and the man answered. “Rust,” he said. “A good amount of buildup along the undercarriage. No matter what you do, it sneaks in. Surprised you made it this far.” I didn’t say a thing. Ricky slammed the hood and caressed the side mirror.

At 115,000, a man drove over with a flatbed truck. I’d gotten an estimate to fix the DeSoto, but it was expensive, silly, too, since I didn’t drive it that often. Money these days had to flow towards Christine and Julia, who was now seeking professional help, and the DeSoto still had some value to collectors and hobbyists. The man with the flatbed backed down the driveway. He wore a patchy beard and a red-and-black Paul Bunyan shirt. I helped him with the Powermaster, dropped the gearshift into neutral, and pushed it out into the driveway. “The owner’s real happy about the deal you gave him,” the man said. “Told me he’s gonna repaint it midnight blue and reupholster the interior. Suede, I think he said. He’s gonna enter it in car shows every now and then, too.” I nodded and felt a burn behind my eyes. Once the DeSoto was up on the flatbed, he shackled the wheels with heavy chains. It was cold and shoved my hands deep into my pockets. “Be well,” the man said, hopping up and into truck, my keys jingling in his hand.

At 115,000, a couple days after Thanksgiving, when all the dishes were scrubbed and stacked and returned to their cupboards, the postman came to the door with a box. “Got another one, Julia,” the postman said, and she thanked him, rushed into the kitchen, and followed Ricky and me to the garage. We ripped open the box, and I placed the new air pump Julia had found online alongside the other shiny parts. “Only a few more now,” Ricky said. I smiled. Then, not understanding why, I climbed inside the DeSoto, turned the key, and listened to the scratchy radio. Ricky and Julia joined me on the front bench seat. I stared out the windshield at the garage wall, gripping the steering wheel, my fingers deep in the grooves. I was back on I-55, heading south, flying fast, with all those miles to go.

*Odometer was originally published in Marco Polo Arts)

Mathieu Cailler’s poetry and prose have been widely featured in numerous national and international publications, including the Los Angeles Times and The Saturday Evening Post. A graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, he is the recipient of a Short Story America Prize for Short Fiction and a Shakespeare Award for Poetry. He is the author of Clotheslines (Red Bird Press), Shhh (ELJ Publications), and Loss Angeles (Short Story America Press), which has been honored by the Hollywood, New York, London, Paris, Best Book, and International Book Awards. His poetry collection, May I Have This Dance? (Black Magic Media), is slated for publication in December of 2017.