Nineteen Minutes

“Pass him, Dad!”

His father, lean and tan, squinting through heavy-black-framed sunglasses at the motorcycle and its two riders fifty yards ahead of them, dropped his hands to a more comfortable position on the bottom rim of the steering wheel. He let the distance between their car and the motorcycle grow.

“Dad, we’re never gonna get there.”

“Nah,” he said. “Too much traffic. It don’t feel safe.” He pulled a depleted and flattened red and white package of cigarettes from the pocket of his t-shirt and a lighter from his front jeans pocket. He glanced at his son. “What’s your hurry?” He lit his cigarette and returned the lighter to his pocket, inhaled long and deep. “What’s the speed limit here? You been payin’ attention?”

“Sixty-five,” said the boy.

His dad watched the speedometer for a few seconds. “And he’s slowin’ us down to… fifty-three.”

The boy watched his dad drive, watched the landscape sweep back past his profile. After a few minutes the boy turned his attention to the motorcycle ahead of them. He couldn’t see the man driving it, except his knees and hands and the top of his head, which was covered by a U.S.-flag-patterned bandana. The woman behind him had her arms forward around his waist. She wore a black leather jacket and pants and her hair was tied with a red bandana. Strands had escaped and were whipping in the wind and flashing reddish-brown in the sunlight. Sometimes the woman’s head would turn toward the fields to the left and right whenever there were cows or buildings or signs to look at.

The boy looked at the dashboard clock. It was three-fifteen. “When was Mom expecting us?”

“Oh, anytime this afternoon.”

“How far is it?”

“You have the map. We just passed Hillsboro. Do the math.”

The boy traced the map slowly with his fingers, whispering as he added numbers. “It’s over 90 miles.”

“Let’s say it’s a hundred,” said his dad. “And let’s say they slow us clear down to fifty.”

“Why?”

“It’s easier to calculate.” He rolled the window down a half-inch and squeezed the cigarette butt out onto the road, then rolled the window up. “You think those people are wasting our time. Let’s see how much they’re really wasting.”

“Why?”

“What else we got to do?” He raised his right forefinger from its position on the wheel in the manner of instruction. “Okay, let’s be exact and say ninety and fifty-three. I know that bike can do better than that, because your uncle Jerry had one just like it, and when he died he was doing eighty-five.” He drove silently for a few seconds, keeping the car a steady safe distance from the motorcycle. “But they are not interested in eighty-five. They’re okay with fifty-three. So they are absolutely robbing us of twelve miles an hour.” He squinted at the bike ahead and moved his hands to the top rim of the wheel. The forefinger rose again for instruction. “Now how long is it going to take us to get there?”

“How would I know!”

“If it’s ninety miles, and we can do fifty-three miles an hour, will we get there in an hour?”

“No.”

“How far will we get in an hour?”

“Well… umm, fifty-three miles.”

“Right. And that leaves …?”

“Umm… thirty-seven miles.”

“And how much of an hour will it take us to drive thirty-seven miles?”

The boy didn’t answer.

“I mean, if it takes us an hour to go fifty-three?”

Still no answer.

“Well, I’ll tell you. It will take thirty-seven fifty-thirds of an hour.” He pulled out the flattened pack, shook it, and caught another cigarette between his lips. The boy watched him draw out the lighter, light the cigarette quickly and pocket the lighter in a single smooth motion. “Look in that glove box. There’s a calculator in there.”

The boy found it.

“Thirty-seven fifty-thirds of an hour,” his dad said. “That’s thirty-seven divided by fifty-three.”

“Point six nine eight… rounds up to point seven.”

“What’s sixty times point seven?”

“Forty-two.”

“So we’ll be there in an hour and forty-two minutes.” He took a long drag, squinted suspiciously at the motorcycle. “An hour and two-thirds. Don’t put that away yet,” he said suddenly. “We’re not finished.”

The boy let out a long breath. “Okay. Now what?”

“If we could go sixty-five, how long would it take? We’d do sixty-five miles the first hour, leaving …?”

“Twenty-five.” Then before his dad could say anything the boy almost shouted, “And we’ll use twenty-five of the next hour’s sixty-five!” He pecked at the calculator. “Point three eight.”

“Good work. And what’s sixty minutes times point three eight?”

“Twenty-two point eight. Twenty-three.”

“Which is how much less than forty-two?”

“… Nineteen.”

“Nineteen. Those people…” His dad jabbed his finger in the direction of the motorcycle. “Those people are wasting nineteen minutes of our lives.” He glared at them. A muscle in his jaw bulged, relaxed, bulged again. He took a drag, then took the cigarette out of his mouth and blew out a white cloud. “How do we feel about that?”

The boy looked at his father and said nothing.

“Another nineteen minutes sitting in this car together, instead of doing whatever you’ll be doing when you get there,” his dad said, thoughtfully drawing on his cigarette. “Maybe you’re right. Time is precious. Maybe we should pass them.” He cocked his head at the boy for a judgment. “What do you think? Is it worth the risk to get you there nineteen minutes faster?”

The boy looked at the couple on the motorcycle. The man twisted in the seat and turned his head. The woman hugged him closer, then sat back again. She looked to the right and pointed. The boy followed her finger and saw a small flock of turkeys far out in a pasture next to a line of trees. He looked back at the road. The oncoming car flashed past in the other lane. In the distance across the valley, two more cars were coming.

“I’ll have plenty of room.” His dad brought the car closer to the motorcycle.

The boy looked at the woman’s hair flashing bronze in the wind. The bike swayed gently left and right in the lane, then steadied.

“What do you wanna bet I’ll make it around him before that car gets here,” said his dad. “What do you think?”

The boy watched the motorcycle, the cars approaching over a mile away.

His dad put the cigarette in his mouth and gripped the wheel with both hands. “No guts, no glory,” he said. “Right?” He glanced at his boy, then ahead at the motorcycle. He took the cigarette out of his mouth to gesture with it again. “See, I think I can get around this bike and pull in front of them before those cars get here, without clipping the front tire of the bike.”

“Dad.”

“Because if I did clip it, it wouldn’t knock them off the road. It would turn the wheel to the right and throw their weight to the left, so they’d swerve across the center line.”

The boy stared ahead. The bike swerved playfully from side to side a couple of times and steadied again. The cars were much less than a mile away.

“But I think there’s almost no risk because I can dive back in with several feet to spare before those cars get here.” He put the cigarette back in his mouth.

“No!” The boy shrieked his horror right into his dad’s right ear. His dad jumped. “I mean, please. Please, Dad.”

His dad allowed the distance to the motorcycle to grow comfortable again. He looked over at his son briefly, then returned his attention to the road. The two cars passed — whoosh, whoosh — making the motorcycle waver slightly in the lane.

“What the hell, we ain’t in any hurry. And they look like they’re havin’ a good time.”

The boy kept his eyes ahead on the motorcycle.

“She looks pretty good, don’t she?”

“Who?”

“The lady on the motorcycle.”

The boy had nothing to say to that.

His dad rolled the window down a crack and expelled the cigarette butt, rolled it back up. “Ah, Joey…” He shook his head. “I was kiddin’. I know I shouldn’t kid like that.” He shot a glance at the boy. “Don’t you know I wouldn’t risk those people’s lives like that? After what happened to my brother Jerry?”

Joey had never met his uncle Jerry.

“And for what? To save nineteen minutes?” Joey watched that muscle flex in his dad’s jaw. “That happy couple on that bike up there have given me an extra nineteen minutes with my son.”

Joey thought of how his mother would meet them out in front of her house, like she always did, and would take Joey inside, and would not invite his dad in, and would not say anything more than necessary. She never did.

“And that pretty lady on the motorcycle?”

Joey nodded.

“She is absolutely nothing compared to your mother.”

Joey nodded.

© 2010 Greg Bryant under the Creative Commons

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About Greg Bryant

I teach writing and literature at Highland Community College in northeast Kansas.
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6 Responses to Nineteen Minutes

  1. bryon says:

    That’s … a lot of math (I rounded up). I skimmed the story problem in the story, partly from my deep aversion to such things and partly because I knew from the title what the answer was going to be. That got me back to the human story of the father and the son on a nice drive to his mom’s. And the character who isn’t really a character but was important to the story — Jerry. Given what happened to Jerry, it’s odd Dad would even joke about it, but people are different, and the father worked to recover from his joke.

    I’m left to wonder if the father still has feelings for his ex-wife or if his last line was just for Joey’s benefit. Doesn’t matter, of course, but it’s interesting for the reader to ponder. Nice story.

  2. bryon says:

    In thinking about it and rereading the story, there’s really nothing odd about the father’s references to his late brother. Ignore that portion of my previous comment. Joey will always know that saving a little time isn’t worth risking people’s lives; his father (sorry about this) drove that lesson home well.

    • Greg says:

      It’s only fair to point out that when you went back and re-read it you were reading a revision of late last night, in which I toned down the man’s anger in a few key places and emphasized the thoughtful and instructional nature of the conversation, although I was wondering whether I improved the story or tore out its heart. From your response it seems like I may have improved it. When I first sat down to write it I didn’t mean to make the guy such a scoundrel. As you probably know, characters have a way of getting angry or excited or distracted without our permission. My original concept was more in line with your second reaction. Thank you for the feedback.

  3. bryon says:

    Yes, I’d say you’ve improved the story. The rewrite explains my confusion earlier; when I reread it I thought, “Well, this is fine. What did I think justified that first comment?” Glad to have that cleared up.

    I’m intrigued by what you said about characters doing things “without our permission.” I occasionally read other writers who say similar things about characters going off on their own, leaving the author the choice of whether to rein in the character and get back on the path the author intended or to follow the character to see where he goes. Of course, the character isn’t truly involved; it’s the writer who’s at odds with his own creation, or who isn’t reining himself in to keep on task. And yet it sometimes it feels very much like a matter of whose story we’re going to tell: theirs or ours.

    • Greg says:

      Yes, writers say this about characters so often it’s a truism, and it starts to sound a little self-congratulatory: “My imagination is so powerful my stories write themselves.” You’re right that it’s the writer, not the character, who’s at odds with his own creation, but it feels like the character is doing it. It’s a hilarious feeling. It feels absurd to assert such a fiction, as if you believed in the tooth fairy and Santa Claus.

      My original concept was that the dad in this story would take a teachable moment to help his kid analyze the situation and expand his awareness. A very pat story that probably would have been silly and dull. But early in the first draft it occurred to me that the reason the dad didn’t want to hurry was because this was “his weekend” to have his son and they were returning him to Mom. I don’t think I inserted anything about that in the story at that point, but as soon as I knew this about him, the dad started getting pissed off at little things. Eventually his spite and anger expressed themselves in such ominous and psychologically abusive behavior that anyone reading it could see why he was no longer married. I had to go back and tone down the anger. The first thing I did was remove the tattoos, which in the original concept just made him hip and interesting, but after the first draft looked like a cheap negative stereotype.

      Of course it was me anticipating how the affectionate couple on the bike would bring the dad a painful sense of loss, and how the kid’s irrational hurry to “get there” would hurt his dad’s feelings, but matters of character motivation naturally express themselves through the characters themselves in the imagination. I think it’s a result of the habit we’ve all learned of “show, don’t tell.” It’s an active axiom with a passive corollary, “watch, don’t judge.” Hemingway once said:

      If two men argue, don’t just think who is right and who is wrong. Think what both their sides are. As a man, you know who is right and who is wrong; you have to judge. As a writer, you should not judge, you should understand.

      We’ve practiced that so much that we’ve developed the habit of watching and keeping our mouths shut, figuratively speaking. So we forget it’s just a figure and fool ourselves into believing we’re watching people and not just making up a story.

      Psychologically, I think it’s possible to do this because our imagination “bodies forth the forms of things unknown” from a vast store of unconscious experience and musings that are mercifully hidden from the conscious mind, or we’d go crazy. It’s the stuff dreams are made on. Maybe writing is dreaming.

      Some of history’s names for this phenomenon are the Muse, “in the groove,” “in the zone,” “on a roll,” and the Transcendent Function (C. Jung).

      * * *

      Speaking of Hemingway, this story is my response to my own “genre shock” challenge. I said I wanted to do a “stream-of-consciousness story.” Instead I did a “fly-on-the-wall story,” an exercise in the third-person objective point of view, which Hemingway sometimes used to great effect (example: “The Killers”). I think there are a few violations of that perspective in this story, but in general I tried to keep from saying what people were thinking or feeling, only what they did or said, only what would come through the five senses of an uninvolved observer. “The boy turned his attention to the motorcycle ahead” could be a borderline violation. “Turned his head” or “shifted his position to watch” might be better.

  4. My initial thought about the math is that you could have used the 12mph difference between the two speeds to calculate the answer a little easier. After thinking about it, I think the 12mph difference is basically useless for the calculations though. Taking it to the extreme, the difference between 0mph and 12mph is the same as 53 to 65, but the result of the math is drastically different (it slows you down infinitely).

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