El Camino Real

In 1979, when I’m eight years old, my dad, drunk out of his gourd on Schlitz and high on crank, runs over some guy with his brand new El Camino. I don’t know this when I’m eight. I just think his car is cool. It’s cherry-red with a huge, white vector stripe and vaguely resembles the Gran Torino from Starsky and Hutch. He drives it as he leaves town and us later that year.

Five years later, I’m thirteen and visiting Dad for an assigned two-week stint at his crappy apartment in Indy. This guy Snyder is there — as always — and Dad’s drunk — again — but it’s Milwaukee’s Best this time, not Schlitz. Dad throws me one and tells me to drink up. And he tells me the story.

This guy’s sprawled out in the middle of the road, in the pitch black. Dad’s blitzed as he’s driving down Meridian, so he doesn’t see the guy until the last second. He doesn’t even try to brake, he says, just cruises right over him. Dad stops, gets out of the car, walks over and gives the guy a once over.

This is what he sees. The guy’s naked, hog-tied and has a curling iron shoved up his ass. Every time my dad mentions the curling iron, he makes this uppercut motion with his fist like he’s actually the one cramming the thing up the guy’s keister.

I’m sure Snyder’s heard this story a hundred times, but he still spits his Beast and slaps his knee.

“I tell you what,” Snyder yells. “That was one sorry motherfucker.”

Dad does the uppercut movement again and says, “I’m just glad the fucker was already dead when I hit him or I would have been in serious shit.”

My thirteen year old mind processes the information, thusly: driving around drunk and stoned at three o’clock in the morning is not serious shit so long as the guy you run over is already good and dead. Or like this: it is better to be lucky than good.

This is a maxim I repeat and live by for many years, even though I don’t like the taste of beer — Schlitz or the Beast or even Heineken. I begin to think at some point that this is the only life lesson I will ever learn from this man, my dad. It is hard to learn life lessons, I guess, when you no longer talk.

But then, twenty-five years later, I talk to my dad for one last time and learn something new. He has just bought a small-town convenience store and invites me over for a tour. I peek in and see about what I expect to. Overpriced packages of diapers compete with Fig Newtons for space on crowded metal shelves. Stained linoleum runs under our feet, not completely intact at the seams.

As we walk through the store, he explains his hopes for expansion — into gas and liquor. He pauses for a moment, stretches his arms wide and grins. Without looking at me, he says the thing to me that I will always remember. Without irony, he says this thing. In complete seriousness, he says it. This is what he says, as he stands in the middle of his run-down mini-mart: “Son, it’s all legit. Not a single black market item in the place. Your step-mom insisted. How do you like that?”

I don’t know how I like it. I ask him if it is a rhetorical question that he asks me.

He walks over to a cooler, pitches me a beer — PBR — and says, “What the hell are you talking about?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “I have no idea.”

I toss the beer back his way and tell him I have to go. And this is what I learn: as good as it feels to go, it doesn’t feel that much better than staying.

On that day in the convenience store, the El Camino is long gone. Not just Dad’s, but all of them. Erased from the automotive memory of a nation. But not from mine. I love that car, no matter how many people he ran over with it.

– Jason Stout lives in Atlanta, Georgia with his wife and five children. His works have appeared in Every Day Fiction, Twelve Stories, Flashquake, The Battered Suitcase, A Thousand Faces, Loquacious Placemat, Shine! and Pequin. He can be contacted through his website: jasonstout.jimdo.com.

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