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Jim Krusoe

‘Traffic’: 2015 Best American Essays Notable, Issue No. 101

I can’t remember exactly how old I was—I’m guessing eight or nine—when I first learned that my father had killed a child. The actual event, if I can call it that, took place before I was born, I think, but I can’t be absolutely sure. In any case, it wasn’t until I was in primary school that my mother mentioned it, almost in passing. After that, when it came up now and again, it was never as a shameful thing or a crime, but always as an example of the unfairness of the world: a parable about traffic safety and greedy parents. The boy, the story went, had been lurking behind a parked automobile and, just as my father was driving home from work, dashed out in pursuit of a rubber ball with such little regard for his own life that my poor father never had a chance to stop. This would have been before, or maybe during the Second World War, and somehow that came into it as well.

The child died, though I was never told the details, only that afterward his parents had the temerity to take my father to court—criminal or civil, I’m not sure which. In the end, my father was found not guilty because of his car’s skid marks that, I was told, showed he could not possibly have stopped in time. Or maybe they showed he had not been traveling that fast in the first place. In any case, it was the skid marks, along with a good lawyer, that kept him out of jail, and clearly, this child’s parents had been monsters for thinking that a man as nice and as good as my father was would somehow strike their child on purpose.

And so it happened—although I certainly never connected these two things—that shortly after I first heard this story I started running out into traffic. Not traffic, exactly, but in front of single cars, like a bullfighter dodging a bull, on a narrow highway near my house. I would hide behind a bush, and then, when it was too late for the driver to hit the brakes, jump out and run straight across the road, as close to the car as I possibly could. Sometimes I did it alone, but usually with a friend who could watch and describe the expressions on the panicked drivers’ faces, because I was too busy trying not to be hit. If I were hit, though, the knowledge that it would be their fault was a powerful attraction. And so, over the space of about a month, one summer I got into the habit of doing this two or three times a week, until one driver, after an especially close call, turned his car around, pulled up and yelled at us, at me. He was red-faced and trembling and furious, his eyes nearly popping out of his head, and I was scared to see anyone so angry; I quit then and there.

But there is one more piece of information to this story, one other fact I’m not quite certain about, but which I almost completely believe is true, one that nobody ever spoke of. Namely, back when I was a child, there were a lot of places people called “neighborhood bars,” where men would stop after work to have a couple of shots, down a few beers, and talk. The places were—to use a curiously modern word—spots for them to network: to hear of jobs, of cars for sale, of houses for rent, or just to talk about current events and share complaints. By those standards, my father was a good networker. I don’t think I can ever remember him coming straight home from work without the smell of whiskey on his breath, and there were countless nights I remember my mother complaining as the supper she’d prepared was left out cold, waiting for his return until nine or ten o’clock.

In other words, my father was an alcoholic, although in those days the only way I ever heard the word applied was to men like my Uncle Louie, who, my father said, “couldn’t handle the booze.” Which was probably true enough, because after Louie joined Alcoholics Anonymous he used the meetings to build a network of his own. Louie networked himself into such a career as to leave the rest of our family standing open-mouthed in awe. Louie had a racing stable, a country house, and his kids went to private schools—all unheard of in my world. At least until the day they found that my uncle was a criminal and had used his position of trust, the one he had established through countless AA meetings, to steal the company blind.

But my father could handle the booze; he kept his job even though many was the night or morning I would hear him in the bathroom vomiting, something I took to be the price of being an adult male. These were the days, and maybe still are in some quarters, when, at least for a certain class of people, the first thing you did when a guest walked through the door was to offer them a drink. Then people would reply, “I thought you’d never ask.” Those were the days that drunk-films—W.C. Fields and The Thin Man—were considered charming.

So I’m as certain as I can be that my father had been drinking the day he killed that child. That would explain, for one thing, why the boy’s parents felt they had a right to make their case; some witness or another had undoubtedly smelled the liquor on my father’s breath. That would explain how the whole thing got as far as an actual trial, and maybe it would also explain why my mother, a legal secretary, kept slaving at her job in the firm that had defended him, even as my father complained about her bosses being pigs.

And it would also provide the answer as to why my father kept on drinking for years after his family and his doctors told him he had to give it up. To quit would be have been for him to admit there was something wrong with alcohol, and therefore when he’d struck the child that he’d been wrong. That would have been more, I think, than he could have borne. So instead of quitting, when I got a little older, he would encourage me to take a sip of a ginger ale-and-rye highball, or beer, or wine—though he wasn’t much for wine—to “keep him company.” We were co-conspirators, in a way, and then afterward, for many years, for nearly twenty of them, it was the alcohol that kept me company.

I’ve noticed that in America no one admits to being old, and I can’t blame them. The old are just repositories for loss, or worse—endless and self-congratulatory memories. When it comes to my choice of reading material, or even watching, I much prefer stories of the young caught up in their first flashes of excitement, or about the middle-aged in the first dawn of disillusion. Still, I find plenty in old guys like myself to listen to, mostly in the locker room of the local Young Men’s Christian Association (three out of those four names untrue). In that context, I’m happy to report my fellow oldsters seem to have learned little, or if we have, we sure don’t speak of it. So at the Y, the guys in the locker room talk about sports or food or nothing much at all, but certainly not how they have lived their lives in blindness, and not how the person they thought they were and the person they turned out to be is different. I don’t blame them; it’s not a subject for mixed company. And as for my part, I ask myself: do any of them need to know that while I lived much of my life thinking it was one kind of book—an adventure story, I suppose—it was already a sad history, one with whole pages torn and missing, with sentences, some mercifully and others not, illegible?

My father, my own son, and I have this in common: we are all dog lovers. My son was raised with dogs his entire life, and I’ve kept dogs for at least fifty years. But what strikes me as strange about my father and his dogs is that right until the end of his life, his animals would often get away. Sometimes a gate would be left open, sometimes there would be a hole in a fence that should have been mended but wasn’t, or, walking out of the house to check his mail, my father, who should have known better, would leave the front door wide open. And then his dog would be running down the street, into traffic, with my father shouting after it, sometimes catching up to it, and sometimes not. Sometimes, arriving too late, he would watch it killed.

Or such is my conjecture.

You can order a copy of Issue No. 101 here.

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