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Kieron downshifted and floored the accelerator, the straight-six roared and the gas-powered automobile leapt ahead through the pre-dawn light. As the tires shook against the pitted and cracked pavement, Kieron fought the steering wheel and lurched 1500 kilograms of steel to the left, to the right, avoiding a especially dicey section of the road. The freeway was abandoned when the expressway went in, left to erode away. Already, the outer lanes had been reclaimed by the earth, entirely covered in sand and dirt, sprouting tall grasses and wildflowers. Like the car he had salvaged from an auto graveyard and restored from rust and decay, Kieron was saving the freeway by driving on it. He was bringing the road new purpose, a second life. A cloud of dust spun up from his wheels blooming into a contrail behind him.

Several hours earlier, when night was still night, Kieron had been tuning up that six-cylinder engine, he spun the last of the locknuts into place and fitted a torque wrench to tighten it down. He didn’t use the tension gauge on the wrench, preferring to let muscle memory tell him how gentle to be, how much force to give. He found himself admiring his hands, covered with a thin brown sheen of grease with thick black lines of grime under each short clipped fingernail, large and calloused, with strong fingers; they reminded him of his father’s hands. Kieron remembered, once, years ago, his father had put a hand on his arm, wanting to share something important, a life lesson. Kieron had found himself distracted then, admiring his father’s hand, as he did his own now.

Kieron had been in primary school when his father passed. What few memories Kieron still had of his father were cloudy, viewed through the haze of time. Kieron remembered visiting him, here, at what used to be his father’s garage. One afternoon, he and his mother had driven downtown, deciding to surprise his father with a visit. Dad had been standing here, where Kieron stood now, with a grin on his face. He’d wiped down his hands, strong and work-hardened, with a thick, grey, rag. Mother had asked how business was and dad had reassured her, but there had been sadness in his eyes.

Kieron lifted the hood and clipped the prop rod into place; he paused to inspect the engine, six cylinders of American-made internal combustion, a relic from a simpler age. He lowered the hood gently, then let it bang into place. He washed up at the utility sink, scrubbing away the grease with orange-scented cleanser and cleaning under his fingernails with a stiff-bristled brush.

Kieron walked to where he had parked his electric super-compact on the street. It was a cold, clear night. The moon, nearing full, blearily scowled through the smog. The sting of the air sparked a shard of his memory: He sat with his father, off the freeway; the hood of his father’s pickup was warm underneath, in contrast with the cool night air. The sky was full of stars.

The car started with a friendly chime, whirring down the street as he accelerated. He was turning onto the expressway when there was a low tone and the display flashed: Incoming Call. On the bottom right of the screen, a video feed showed an attractive woman in her 30s waiting for her call to go through. Vanessa. The autopilot mode engaged, efficiently slotting the Chinese import among the quickly moving expressway traffic, and Kieron tapped the display, enlarging the image to fill the screen and connecting the call.

“Hey, ” Kieron started “I’m on my way home now.”

Vanessa interrupted “It’s after 11. Working late?”

“No, I went out with the guys,” Kieron lied. “On the expressway. Be there in a minute.”

The screen went dark and the words “Call Ended” blinked in the center of the display.

Long gone was the cacophony of the freeway—screeching rubber on asphalt, honks of frustration, the roar of engines, the bone-shaking rattle of air brakes. Aerodynamic electric cars now flowed effortlessly down the expressway, carried like leaves caught in a current. When roadwork reduced the Expressway to four lanes, then to three, the cars smoothly interlocked like clockwork gears, their running lights crisscrossing and bobbing hypnotically.

In front of his apartment complex, Kieron docked the Chinese car in a charging station. As he walked to the front gate, the parking attendant operated the turnstile that lifted his car away, making the next charging station available. Again, something in the night air brought him back in time, sitting on a truck with his father. What had they spoken of, sitting there together, sharing the view? Kieron could not remember.

Vanessa was sitting on the love-seat pretending to read. Kieron went into the kitchen yawning loudly, feigning fatigue, noisily throwing down his coat and keys and rummaging through the fridge. He was prying the bottle cap off a beer when Vanessa slipped her arms around his waist. Kieron put the beer down, turned, and returned the embrace. He tried to kiss her, but she pulled away.

“You smell like gas. You were working on that car again.” It wasn’t a question.

“Hey—we’ve talked about this.”

Vanessa stiffly pushed herself out of Kieron’s arms. “It’s dangerous, and illegal. If they catch you, they’ll suspend your license. How would you get to work?”

“It’s not like—” He couldn’t interject. She wasn’t looking for excuses.

“What if something happened?” Now she was crying. “Working all alone. You could be trapped under a lift. Who would know? The gasoline— that thing is a deathtrap.”

“Twenty years ago, people were still driving cars powered with I.C.E.s every day. You’ve never even driven one!”

“Well. It’s not twenty years ago. Is it?” Each word was handed over strongly, coldly.

She let him hold her hands. They were small and soft, with perfectly manicured pink nails.

She stopped crying, but wouldn’t look at him. “I know it makes you feel closer to him. But your father’s gone. I’m not. I’m right here…You need to choose.”

She pulled her hands away and left, quietly. She was going to stay with her mother; he shouldn’t call. She would call him, when she was ready. Kieron was frustrated, angry; Vanessa couldn’t possibly understand the satisfaction that comes from working with your hands, mending something broken, making it new. And she’d hadn’t known the freedom and the power of 100 kilometers an hour on the open road, under his own control.

This is how Kieron found himself driving down abandoned lanes in the dim of the early morning. By breathing new life into a weatherbeaten steel corpse, he was desperately trying to turn back time. Although he knew no matter how fast he drove he would never bring his father back from the dead, he hoped going through these motions might bring a long lost piece of his father back. He pushed his vehicle harder and harder, while rotating a catalog of fragmented memories through his head: playing catch with a hardball, his father—gloveless—catching it in the palm of his hand; lying on his stomach in the living room, watching his parents talking through the arch of the kitchen doorway; sitting on a flat rock dangling his feet into a cold stream while his father stood nearby, knee deep, pant legs rolled up, hurling rocks sidearm, skipping them off the water’s surface.

The car lurched violently, lost in thought Kieron had failed to notice a jagged chunk of metal, flotsam on this abandoned route. A hubcap and something else shiny, a piece of the bumper perhaps, bounced past the window. The car slid left toward the berm throwing shreds of rubber, the tire flapping wildly like a wounded bird. At the speed he was going, the low mound of earth might as well have been a concrete wall. Kieron’s head struck the driver side window, which bloomed in a web of cracks. He struggled to regain control of the car but his vision dimmed and he saw stars. The car slowed, making a wake through accumulated dirt, gradually skidded to a halt and stalled. “Fuck!” Kieron beat the palms of his hands on the steering wheel in frustration until they stung. The cooling engine steamed and clicked in the chill morning air. Eventually, he took a deep breath and threw open the door.

There was no spare. It had taken him many long nights of searching through trash piles to locate four tires sound enough to ride on, finding a fifth had been out of the question. In riding alone on the freeway, isolation was his goal and he had found it. He had brought neither satellite phone nor personal computer. The last exit he passed was 20 miles back and another 15 winding miles through decrepit neighborhoods to civilization. The next exit ahead could be 5 miles or 50.

Kieron’s head throbbed; it felt like the skin of his scalp was trying to pump the blood in his brain back to his heart. His hair and forehead were sticky with congealed blood, and each step sent a vibration up his spine that rattled his skull. He was walking east, the sun informed him of that as it crept over the horizon and hurled searing javelins of light at his eyes. He was sweating, even thought the air was cold. After walking for an hour—maybe more—Kieron stumbled to the side of the road and found a place to sit and rest.

He sat with his father as the sun set over the highway. His father had driven, it seemed, for hours. He’d brought Kieron to see something special, a surprise. Kieron watched as his father squinted into the setting sun holding a cupped hand to his brow. He grabbed Kieron’s arm: “Look!”

Kieron looked where his father was pointing just as the sun was becoming little more than a red sliver resting on the hillside. Down those slopes poured hundreds of black shapes kicking up clouds of dark dust in the waning light. They burst into the light beyond the shadow of the hillside—a herd of antelope traveling together at tremendous speeds, each handsome wild animal running free, leaping again and again. Kieron felt that the herd would run directly through the valley, up the slope on this side, and overrun him. As one, they bent to the right and followed a course parallel to the road and up the next hillside. Kieron watched until the last bounding white rump disappeared down the other side. He knew this was the last herd of antelope; animals that had once thrived in herds of thousands now numbered in the hundreds. Soon, they would be gone.

He woke to the shrill blast of an electric horn. Kieron noticed, with amazement, that he was sitting on the hood of the rusted out old shell of an antique pickup truck. A smaller, modernized, version was pulled over to the side of the road and the older man inside—a farmer—had rolled down his window to peer at Kieron with concern.

“You O.K.? Need a lift?”

Silently, he said goodbye to the freeway as he walked toward the pickup truck. It wasn’t likely he’d return. He wasn’t likely to return. As Kieron placed his toe on the aluminum step bar the old man smiled, leaned across, and offered him a dirty, callused, liver-spotted hand.

12 responses to “Six-Cylinder”

  1. Avatar lee lee says:

    I love the metaphor of the crashing car as a bird. HEART. and Vanessa’s a Bitch! I would let Kieron tinker away to his heart’s content…

  2. kfrayz kfrayz says:

    Bravo McKnight~
    Two thoughts:
    ~It may be the Social Worker in me…but this just gets at me guts…”mending something broken, making it new.”
    reflecting on those lost to us:
    ~In the physical sense, no longer present, remaining still, to “mend” you in moments of “isolation”.

  3. Avatar Erin says:

    Emotionally powerful and very nicely written. I felt that it gave me a window into how guys feel about their fathers and their cars. Obviously, I understand Vanessa’s viewpoint first-hand but I also see Kieron’s need to work on his car and drive it.

    • Avatar Mark says:

      Thanks Erin! I certainly have a much different relationship with my father than I would expect Kieron had with his but I tried to evoke some aspects of our relationship in the story.

  4. Avatar ecrussell says:

    Just catching up with some blog reading. Thank you McKnight! This was brilliant.

  5. Avatar PK says:

    Just got around to reading this Mark. What a great story – I guess I have had my head in the sand because I had no idea you were such a great writer. You and lee lee really should write something together – I mean a book or short stories – something to sell and make money and share your talents with the whole world. I love you. PK

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McKnight About McKnight

By day Mark McKnight is the Principle Software Engineer at the Yale Institute for Network Science. On the side, he organizes Netrunner games and fixes bugs on this and other websites that his partner, Lee Lee, has dreamed up. Somehow he also manages to keep a cadre of growing boys (humans and dogs) alive and happy.

Read more by this author on 30POV .


December 2009
Season Finale
November 2009
{Seven Deadly} Sins
October 2009
Mischief Making
September 2009
Green Ethics
August 2009