Road

Driving, Mostly Riding, With Ross

TO TAMPA AND BACK

Ross the Boss

Eden Ross Bryan

My younger son Ross

is six feet, six inches tall,

has hair three feet long,

a beard that near reaches his chest,

and blue eyes.

Some of the hair

notwithstanding,

he has a face like mine

when I was 24.

 

Ross and I

just made a trip to Florida,

three days on the road,

to trade one boat for another.

Ross is a careful driver.

He has stamina too.

 

Going south,

he drove all but three hours

of the distance to Tampa,

pulling a heavy boat

at 55 miles an hour.

 

He has the ability to settle in

and concentrate

on whatever he chooses to do.

And he chooses carefully,

always has,

doesn’t change his mind

once he chooses.

 

When he was little,

I would take him,

his older brother,

and younger sister

to Walmart

shopping for toys,

one each.

 

His siblings would scamper

up and down the isles

choosing and abandoning choices,

picking up and putting down toys,

begging me for more than one,

unable to focus on the act of choosing.

They counted on me to relent

and buy each child two or three or six,

which too often I did,

training them in the art

of successful begging.

 

Ross never pleaded

for an extra toy.

 

He went among the shelves

browsing for an inspiration.

He touched different toys,

gazed and peered,

fondling possibilities.

Not choosing until he was sure.

Then he would have the one he wanted.

 

Back then,

the kids and I lived

on an island without a bridge.

We came and went to Walmart

across a body water that got rough at times.

Boats back then were part of our lives.

The one we pulled to Tampa

was a Mako 22,

big and heavy enough to cross bad water

keep us dry in the winter.

She went like a bulldozer in the chop,

throwing the cold spray high,

and never let us down,

except she tried to sink, six or eight times.

 

She had a small flaw in the stern:

sitting at the dock,

if the wind and tide were wrong,

the low-cut transom let the water in,

a flaw we couldn’t fix,

or never did figure out how.

 

We had to compensate with vigilance,

keeping an eye on weather conditions.

Of course sometimes the weather changed

while I took a nap.

I’d get mesmerized writing sometimes

and forget the boat was in the water.

I’d get a call from another islander,

“Hey, your boat’s sinking again.”

 

The kids and I

would scramble to the dock,

bail and pump

to keep the Mako floating.

Not that she would actually sink,

but could turn turtle, go upside-down,

if not bailed out.

 

Though a troublesome friend

sitting idle at the dock,

she never let us down

in Calibogue Sound,

going for the other side.

She just got tired trying not to sink,

not a new boat when we bought her.

 

The kids and I moved off the island.

The Mako boat went slowly down

sitting in the yard.

A few years back, I re-powered the hull.

Didn’t make much sense to do it,

mount a new engine on a boat so old.

I kept her where she couldn’t sink

on a trailer in the yard.

Of course,

she went downhill

form lack of use.

 

Ross and I had been looking at her,

thinking what to do?

Bring her back with paint and varnish?

Fix the deck?

Clean her up and use her?

Sell her off?

What to do?

The engine was hardly used.

Find another hull, Ross said.

Keep the engine,

find another boat.

 

And so we did,

in Tampa,

one without an engine,

a younger boat, not new,

built for speed in shallow water,

a Hewes 18, vintage ‘94.

 

In the pictures,

it looked like a new boat for sale,

they always do.

 

We wondered

how fast the Hewes would go,

with a 175 Suzki.

A boat half as heavy as the Mako.

It might do seventy, I thought.

Ross didn’t think so.  More like sixty,

he said, not as apt to fantasize

as I am.

 

We made a deal on the telephone.

The owner of the Hewes

said he would trade

if we paid some cash to boot.

 

Off we went to Tampa,

pulling the heavy Mako.

 

South,

down I-95,

past the road we took

to the ferry boat

to the island we used to live on.

Past the city

on the St. Johns River

where Ross was born,

while his mother and I,

still married,

lived on a cruising sailboat.

 

We headed for the turn to Tampa.

 

I took over driving

after the sun went down.

 

I never did have

good night vision.

 

I-95

was a river of trucks

doing 75,

cars flying 90,

us crawling along,

a hazard to navigation.

Everything behind us

coming up fast,

me uncomfortable driving.

A big-rig-trucker rolled around,

flashing his trailer lights,

Another trucker

blew his horn,

trying to tell us something.

The boat or the trailer was wrong

somehow.

We couldn’t tell,

peering in the rearview mirrors.

 

Up an exit ramp we stopped.

Discovered the trailer lights

were out.

 

We fiddled with the wiring,

found the loose connection.

 

I went rummaging

in the glove box for duc tape,

my mind spinning in consternation,

upset with myself

not having duc tape handy.

 

Ross tied the loose connection

with elastic cord,

a jury rig to get us there.

Otherwise,

we would have spent the night

up an unlit exit ramp,

no motel, no gas station, nothing.

 

Ross doesn’t get excited,

like I and his siblings do.

Acceptance of difficulty,

kindness, and caring

are his big league virtues.

For difficulties,

he has a saying,

“It’s the way of the road.”

He’s more intelligent than he knows.

 

Naturally perhaps,

he’s confounded by the choice

of how to live his life,

shopping for a purpose,

not a toy,

 

in a Walmart world.

 

Intelligence tells him

nothing matters very much,

and yet it does.

He wants to make a contribution.

He feels time pressing him to choose.

 

Relax,

I tell him often.

You’ll find your purpose,

like a Walmart toy waiting for you.

Be clear of mind and browse,

walk the isles,

fondle possibilities.

 

He plays the bass guitar,

loves to garden, planting things

for the pleasure of watering.

He’s a reader of serious literature.

An occasional poet

in the act of choosing.

He’ll know the purpose

when he finds it.

He’ll decide and be content.

 

He knows I’m tired of driving.

I’ve not been at it long,

a couple of hours maybe.

It’s slow to go at 55,

me 66 years old.

I didn’t sleep much last night.

Up since 4:30 this morning.

Didn’t take a nap.

Alone,

I would have stopped at the next hotel.

 

Ross took over

and we went on.

Into Bradford, Florida,

past a roadside cocktail joint

with a neon sign

like a fishing lure.

In a former incarnation

I would have stopped

to see if the fish were biting.

 

Ross drove on to Waldo, Florida,

in and out,

into Seminole territory.

The other side of Gainesville,

we called it quits at a Hampton Inn.

 

Ross was hungry,

He hadn’t eaten red meat for a while,

a former hamburger addict.

We loaded up with Steak n Shake

and went back to the room.

Figured to leave for Tampa early.

 

I slept like a rock for three hours.

Woke up hungry to write.

Left Ross sleeping.

Took the computer

down to the lobby, set up,

and went to work.

 

When the sun came up,

I opened e-mail.

Found a message that a friend had died,

back in August.

The sender had had to track me down.

 

I opened Chuck’s obituary.

The picture of him was taken in college,

ten years before we met in New York.

 

Brain cancer had killed him.

 

I thought of Ross looking for a way to live,

wondering how death would come for me.

 

Chuck got it in the head.

It couldn’t have been easy

lasting for a year.

 

Looking at the picture of him

I started crying.

Had to leave the lobby.

 

I told Ross about Chuck

over breakfast at Cracker Barrel.

 

“It’s the way of the road,” Ross said.

He and Chuck would have hit it off.

Not a sentimental molecule

thrived in either man.

 

Hooking up to pull the boat,

I forgot to lock the trailer hitch,

didn’t attach the safety chains,

plugged in the trailer lights,

thinking we were ready to go.

It could have been a comical disaster,

if there is such a thing.

 

“Did you padlock the hitch?” Ross asked.

I honestly couldn’t remember.

Both of us stepped out for a look,

and started laughing.

 

Ross locked the hitch

and put the chains on.

Thus the way of the road to Tampa

did not include a loose boat

rolling down the highway

55 miles an hour.

 

 

I didn’t feel much like an old man

most of the time,

I told Ross.

It took looking in a mirror to remind me.

That and having to stop every forty-five minutes

to pee.

Driving the final miles to Tampa

we passed through cattle country

and orange groves,

me driving the daylight hours today,

keeping Ross in reserve

for going home after dark.

 

“I hope this guy we’re trading with

sticks to the deal we made on the phone,”

I said.

“If he doesn’t

we’re not giving away the Mako.”

 

We had a lot of  memories

tied up in this boat.

 

“If we have to,” I said,

we’ll turn around

and drag it back to South Carolina.”

 

“If he wants more money,

how much do you think we should pay?”

Ross said.

 

“I don’t know, it’s a good old boat.”

 

“Are you going to cry

if we have to leave it there?”

 

“No, but I’m just saying what’s fair is fair . . .

Remember that time . . .”

 

“It was mostly a disaster,”

Ross said.  “When you think about it,

everything happened.

The Coast Guard stopped us.

We got lost in Winyah Bay . . .”

 

“Remember the mosquitoes?”

I said. “And the engine quit in Charleston.

We had to change the fuel filter

and bleed the lines . . .”

 

“We kept going,” Ross laughed.

“That was a good day.”

 

“We’re not giving away this boat,” I said.

 

“Don’t cry, Daddy.”

 

“I’m not.  I’m just saying,

if the deal falls apart . . . ”

 

“I don’t think it will,” Ross said.

And it didn’t.

The dealer turned out to be a fair man.

 

We shook hands,

and left the Mako sitting on styrofoam blocks,

on the ground.

The boat seemed animate to me,

as if it were alive,

and couldn’t understand my leaving,

like an old dog tied to a tree.

 

Headed for home,

Ross and I

kept looking back,

trailing a Hewes 18.

We imagined

the big Suzuki motor

mounted on the stern of the Hewes,

a hundred and seventy-five horses.

The hull was ultra-light,

high strength-to-weight-ratio,

just enough boat to get the job done,

nothing to slow you down.

At seventy miles an hour,

it pulled like it wasn’t there.

 

I’d been two days on the road without an afternoon nap.

Leaving Tampa,

I was optimistic at the wheel,

my turn to drive, far as Savannah

or Hilton Head,

there to spend the night.

 

Coming out of Tampa,

we hit heavy traffic.

Then stopped at another Cracker Barrel,

not having eaten since breakfast.

 

After the meal, I was sleepy,

two days on the road without a nap.

I knew not to get back under the wheel.

How to tell Ross?  How to ask him to drive?

We were having a smoke,

standing beside the new boat,

me stalling, waiting for Ross to offer,

so I wouldn’t have to ask.

Do you want me to drive? said Ross.

Sure I did,

however far he wanted to take it,

I was wasted.,

two days without a nap.

 

He took the wheel

and drove as far as Savannah.

 

I stayed awake to keep him company.

 

Over-tired that night,

I slept a couple of hours only.

 

Up again at daylight,

Ross and I took off for home,

me behind the wheel.

At first, I felt like driving all the way.

I wanted to.

 

I made it

as far as Lake Santee,

forty miles short

of the turn that would take us home.

I got dizzy at the wheel,

almost panicked,

coming to a bridge.

 

There was road construction,

narrow lanes and concrete barriers,

traffic unimpeded, going sixty still.

 

I stretched my eyelids

and shook my head,

took the first exit I could.

 

Stopped and got out slowly.

 

Ross watched me,

seeing I was done,

he volunteered of course.

 

My son, my buddy,

“You’re a good road partner,”

I told him.

“So are you,” Ross said.

“You should have slept last night

while I was getting us to Savannah,

but no,

you were singing and laughing

the whole way.”

 

“Keeping you awake,” I said.

 

Ross laughed at that,

“You’re something else, Daddy,

you really are.”

 

He always had both hands on the wheel.

 

For me at that moment,

the purpose Ross was looking for

had found him.

 

I closed my eyes and rested.