Jan held steady in the left lane. Beyond the gold-green shade of their neighborhood, the sun flashed in strobes between trees and buildings along the Kanawha River. Cars rushed up in the rearview, waited, waited, and then veered out and around her. She pulled down the visor and squinted, and maintained the speed limit of 45 MPH. The seat plastic had a crack from front to back and pinched at her leg when she moved.
Her son Jesse slouched beside her as if he wished he had a hole in his floorboard big enough for him to slide through and tumble under the rear wheels. Her husband Larry had wanted to make him ride the bus for the rest of the year but she couldn’t do it. She was already out every morning for the radio show anyway, so she’d decided to drive him to school herself in his own Volvo 240 wagon. Motorists were starting to ease off the gas in order to rubberneck and shoot her the stink eye.
“Mom?” Jesse said.
“Yes, baby.” She sat straight and gripped the wheel at ten and two.
“Could you at least get in the slow lane so we don’t cause a pileup?” His jeans were low on his hips, showing three full inches of his red and yellow tartan plaid boxers. His t-shirt was tight on his shoulders and chest.
“I’m going the speed limit.”
“You’re going twenty miles an hour slower than everyone else.” He waved his arm and looked out his window. The smell of his Polo cologne hummed around her head.
Before he heaved himself into the car that morning, it had smelled sour and smoky like a peed-on campfire. Jan had checked the ashtray, which only had coins in it. Jesse was an athlete, he wouldn’t smoke. It was his friends who worried her: they weren’t saved, and they were quite worldly, all of them. Jesse had stopped going to Youth Loft at church–and there was the incident with the vodka in the Gatorade. She feared she was losing him to the world.
She said, “You haven’t been late once since I started driving you. I’m not going to break the law.”
“Nobody goes the speed limit.”
“If everybody’s having an abortion does that make it okay?”
Jesse groaned and tugged at the strap of his book bag. It had a black and white patch sewn onto it that said KILL YOUR TV, with a picture of a stick man pushing down a TNT plunger.
He said, “Speed limits are arbitrary laws having nothing to do with morality. When arbitrarily set laws become ignored by the general population, it is the duty of their elected representatives to change them.” He held his palm out as if to offer her a mint.
A car zipped by and the man inside leaned and mouthed asshole at her. Jesse smiled at her while he acted like he was scratching his ear. He had braided leather bands on both wrists. Jan knew he was giving the man the middle finger.
She released her grip on the steering wheel, rubbed her fingers in her palms, and then re-gripped. The wheel’s rippled plastic grip was rubbed slick and shiny around the top. She said, “In Romans the Lord instructs us to submit to the laws of our government.”
Jesse rolled his head on the headrest and sighed. He said, “Yeah, and in Romans Paul says it’s the spirit of the law and not the letter that’s important.”
“Tell that to the officer.”
Jesse laughed. He said, “Appeal to authority. Logical fallacy. You just lost.”
Jan said, “This is not debate club, son.” She thought he was wrong about the logical fallacy but wasn’t sure why. She let it drop.
Jesse was on the debate team; he played varsity soccer, and hosted a radio show with another kid from ten to eleven every day (the broadcast reached a six-mile radius around the high school). Through middle school he had been best friends with Allen Green who lived across the street, but Allen joined the band, played drums, and was a surfer, so they split into different peer groups. Allen’s mother had come to Ladies Fellowship a few times with Jan. Jan had nearly won her to the Lord but she was too entrenched in Catholicism. Jan was glad now that the boys didn’t hang out. Allen was on marijuana.
That morning while she waited for Jesse in his car, Jan had watched Allen come out of his house, swinging his tangled mane of knotty hair and wearing those baggy brown shorts he sported in all weather, dangling his sunglasses from his mouth. He lobbed his book bag into the back seat of his little convertible that apparently had sat the night with the top down. He grabbed the driver’s door with his right hand and jumped, launching himself into the front seat, pulling up his knees as if he were doing a cannonball into the pool. At the end of the street Allen gunned his engine, sliding into a screaming fishtail on the smooth asphalt of the access road.
His driving had made her think of the way Jesse ran as a baby, just off balance, always on the cusp of a wipeout. Once he’d fallen down the basement steps and smashed his nose. Christmas pictures from that year showed his chubby face grinning around the nose, fat and red as a carnation.
Jan shook her head and laughed. She said, “The way you boys drive makes me think of babies running.”
Jesse let his head fall and his face lolled to a position facing her, chin pulled into his shoulder. “Babies?”
“Much better.” His voice was so deep now. Sometimes on the phone she mistook him for his father. “Toddlers. Much, much better.”
He reached into his back pack and pulled out Guitar Magazine. He flipped through the pages. The cover photograph was black and white, a young Jimmy Page swinging his long hair as he played.
Jan said, “Led Zeppelin.”
Jesse looked at her, astonished.
“I remember them,” she said. “I didn’t grow up under a rock.” She said, “Heavens, are they still around?”
He shoved the magazine back into his pack.
Jesse was not allowed to listen to secular music, but she knew from his radio show that he loved old rock and roll—he and the other kid on the show joked that country and rap went together to form co-rap.
There was a green SUV behind her so close that she couldn’t see the license plate. It filled her rearview.
She said, “I haven’t said anything son, but I wish you would respect our rules about secular music.”
“I love music, mom. What am I supposed to listen to?”
Jan reached out and turned on the radio. The seat pinched her leg. The SUV pulled out and went around her and pulled back in front of her so close she had to touch her brake and it made her swerve just a little. Jesse sighed heavily. She found 96.4. A song was on and a guy rapped some, but it was a white guy, not the ghetto kind of rap, and he started singing eventually, Next thing you know, I’m high and flying, Next thing you know, my heart is in your hand… The music was catchy, she thought. The guy said, What’s your story, about his glory…
She said, “How about this?”
“It blows,” Jesse said.
The song went off and the DJ said, “A positive alternative. Encouraging. Uplifting. Spirit FM.”
They were in the thick of the morning rush now. Cars were stacked up behind them, weaving and craning to look. Jan focused ahead and tightened her grip.
Jesse said, “Contemporary Christian music is a stench in the nostrils of God.”
“It’s just plain bad, and surely God has to find bad art offensive. Never mind the irony of rich, rock-star Christian ministers.”
He sounded like he did when he was on the air talking about country music, or rap. Every morning since he’d started the show Jan had driven out to the Hardee’s, where she was within its broadcast range, got a peach milkshake and listened to his show in the parking lot. She planned her days around it, the way Larry did with “Car Talk” on Saturday mornings. Once she laughed a chunk of peach out her nose when Jesse said death metal singers sounded like demons with impacted bowels.
“This is sinful.” He flipped the radio off. “It’s crap.”
“How can you say that? The Lord uses that music.”
“You’re making people late for work.”
“They could have left their houses earlier.”
“They weren’t counting on you.” His Adam’s apple slid up and then down; his jaw flexed and his lips pulled thin.
When he was younger, he’d sat there beside her, laughing and talking away, smelling like grass and dirt and sweat and watermelon Bubble Yum, mud-stained shin pads and cleats between his rubber-sandaled feet, socks hanging loose around his ankles. When she’d had to brake, her arm always flew out and barred his chest. She’d seen a driver’s ed. movie back when she was in high school that proved arms were no more useful than wet noodles for restraining loved ones in a crash. It was instinctual.
Now Jesse was the big one. He rode with his knees high, filled the car like a man, his elbow on the console, energy emanating from him almost like a threat of violence. He smelled like too much cologne.
After a long pause, she said, “Please don’t be impertinent.”
Three more lanes of traffic appeared to the right, on the other side of a dividing wall, and ran for a mile; the dividing wall dropped away and the lanes swung over. Jan was now in the far left of six lanes, and more than double the traffic swarmed in around her. Sunlight flashed off cars and buildings.
Allen Green pulled alongside them in his convertible, surging as if his toy car were being borne along in traffic like an empty jug on a flooded stream. He smiled and waved, all sunglasses and teeth and wind-whipped hair—a life-sized Muppet doll.
Jan took a deep breath and readjusted her grip.
Allen surged along beside them, smiling, paying no attention to the truck bearing down on his rear end, threatening to crush him. Jesse gave a single wave with his index finger and thumb out like a gun. When Allen’s car surged forward, the truck pulled even with them. Jesse rubbed his face with both hands. The side of the truck had a picture of glistening fruit. Water drops as big as light bulbs glistened on a red apple three feet high.
“Drive however you want,” Jesse said. “You shouldn’t try to regulate everyone else’s driving. Obey the Apostle Paul in the slow lane.”
She said, “Last I checked, the speed limit applies to all lanes.”
He worked the leather bands around his wrists like worry beads.
A whole string of cars weaved behind them now. As cars moved out and around them, the drivers who didn’t shoot the stink eye or mouth something rude stared ahead with stone faces, expressionless as porcelain dolls. Jan held ten and two. A UPS truck sped past with two trailers on back, then another semi with a low trailer carrying two massive wooden spools of black industrial wire.
“Mom, please.” Jesse’s deep man-voice had pinched into an adolescent whine. He looked up and lifted his leg as if he had a charley horse, then let it drop.
They rode silently. The cars in all five lanes to the right flowed past; the cars in their own lane pulled up, waited, leapfrogged to the side of them. More glares, mouthed obscenities, hand motions, middle fingers. Jan maintained 45 MPH. Jesse’s jaw tightened, relaxed, tightened.
After they had gone several miles this way, without warning, Jesse pounced. He slammed his fist into the dash and shouted, “God damn it, get over.”
Jan gasped. The silent instant after his outburst felt as if all the air had been sucked out of the car. She glanced into her rearview and started her shift across the lanes.
A brown Honda Civic had been approaching fast and had pulled even with them when she veered. A man’s astonished face was inside the car, now beside Jesse’s head, so close to the glass that if the windows had been down Jesse could have given him a wet-Willie without leaning out. The man’s face wasn’t looking at them though. He was staring down at the fender of Jesse’s car, the point where the two cars were about to make contact. The entire order of objects in space was off kilter, like a stranger lunging into her personal space.
Jesse yelled, “Shit, mom,” right as she braced for impact.
They careened across all the lanes. Cars swerved to miss them, screeching tires, flashing sunlight, car horns wailing. She veered into the emergency lane and braked to a stop. Traffic rushed on. There was no accident.
“Thank the Lord,” she said. Out her window was a gravel hill down to a highway department fence. Beyond that an overgrown field the size of two soccer fields led to a decrepit housing project. The school was only a few miles away, out highway 114 toward Coonskin State Park.
“You okay?” she said. She put her hand on his forearm.
Jesse laughed and said, “Guess I’ll be late for school today.” He pulled his arm away and opened the door. He stepped his right foot out onto the ridged concrete emergency lane. A short piece of truck tire retread was by the guardrail, curled like a hand around a cup, stringy at the edges. He stood and looked over the car roof at all the traffic. He hitched his jeans so the tartan plaid boxers barely showed, slung his book bag over his shoulder.
She said, “You sure you’re okay?”
Jesse leaned in and looked at her. He said, “You okay?”
“Just shaken up.”
“Okay,” he said. With that, he walked around the car, slid on his feet down the gravel and grass hill to the highway department fence. He walked along the fence.
“Jesse,” Jan called. She shouted out his door, “Where are you going?”
He walked on.
She got out of the car and ran after him.
He walked along the chain-link fence. It was as high as his shoulder. Grasshoppers were jumping away from him as he waded in the weeds.
“Jesse,” Jan yelled. “Baby, stop.” She followed him: she had to make sure he was okay, keep him out of trouble, get him to school. She stood up and put her hands on her hips and yelled, “You stop this instant, young man.”
Without pause, Jesse tossed his bag over the fence, grabbed the top of it and launched his legs over as gracefully as a gymnast. As his body swung over, his shoulders bulged and moved under his thin t-shirt like a racehorse’s muscles slide under its own smooth skin. He walked straight out into the field, shrugging his book bag back onto his shoulder. The bag bounced gently against his hip as he sauntered off, cock-sure and fearless as a giant striding across the curving earth.
She started down the hill for the fence, slipped and landed with a heavy jolt on her butt, slid the rest of the way down. She yelled, “Jesse.” She got up and started climbing the fence. Her sneaker slipped and she fell. “Baby boy,” she hollered. Her voice vibrated, sounded like a kazoo inside her head. She tried the fence again. Her toe slipped out and the sharp top of the twisted link gouged a strip of skin off her palm. The cord was snapped and he was moving away from her; she had the sudden sensation of falling backward as her end went slack. She turned and looked up the embankment: traffic as unbroken and relentless as the crashing white water of the New River. What would she do now? What could she do?
When she turned back, Jesse was halfway across the field already, a shining apparition, a shimmering mirage. The long wet grass flipped as he kicked on, and grasshoppers jumped from him in the sunlight. They made an undulating aura around his legs, as if his heels were scraping up showers of green and golden sparks. He moved up and down, up and down, dew and grasshoppers and light and energy coming off him, a green halo of life that emanated from him and pulsed with his every step.
The traffic rushed on. His radio show. She would go to Hardee’s and listen for him. She stumbled up the hill and ran for her car. If she could just hear his voice over the air, she would be okay. She pulled forward, accelerating to 45 in the emergency lane. Her scraped palm stung as she gripped the steering wheel. She put on her blinker and watched in her rearview for someone to slow down and let her merge.
“Centrifugal Child” was originally published in The Dos Passos Review.