The night before I turned thirteen we were speeding through Ohio, the radio pulsing with The Doors, the highway cutting a thin black knife through the flattest land I’d ever seen. I was sitting in the backseat, my forehead pressed against the window, waiting to spot swaying corn or, better yet, a scarecrow. Mostly there were just gas stations, appearing as exciting dots in the distance and rushing up on us with yellow lights and greasy men dragging long, uncombed beards. When I asked my father if we were going to stop, gesturing to the Jolly Rancher wrappers crinkling across the backseat, my mouth frozen with a cherry taste, my tongue permanently purple—the candies were all we’d eaten in days—he handed me a roll of bills and asked me to count them, and I did, thinking all the while of the city we had left and how, this time tomorrow, I would be thirteen and a grown-up and I would see the world with different eyes, the way you probably look at things differently after you’ve held a gun in your hands or watched a man killed. The way you look at people and think, I can make you disappear, although I would learn later that you can’t really make anything disappear, not even the mother that you’ve never met, not even when you sit in the dark and close your eyes.
“I’m already at six,” I said, meaning thousand, and the sun was at the point of setting when there weren’t any colors, just a grey sky and a hint of a moon. My father took a sharp curve that made me fall sideways across the seat, pumping his foot on the gas, saying he loved Jim Morrison because the music made him feel like everything was about to start, like the fires hadn’t been lit and the road was waiting for us to drive over it, all that blank space we needed to fill. When he talked like this he would cock his head to the left side of the car like he was hoping someone other than me would answer, like these were things a kid couldn’t understand. I rested my elbows on the grey felt between the driver seat and the passenger seat, trying to swallow the music. “Sometimes,” my father said wearily, “he just makes me want to have a cigarette.”
Later that night, when the sky was as black as the road, my father pulled into a gas station with a Tiger Mart attached and told me to wait in the car. He was getting smokes, he said, but I knew he was also buying something for me, a surprise, or else he would have let me come inside with him. I wondered if he was buying a birthday cake. I wondered if he remembered tomorrow was my birthday. I crawled into the driver’s seat, put my hands on the steering wheel, and turned the wheel to the right and the left, thinking of all the places I could go if I was old enough, if I could see above the dashboard, if I could tell the gas from the brake, if I could choose songs of my own to push me from one life to the next.