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I wrote this as a student at NYU in 1992, with the encouragement of accomplished novelist (and teacher) Joseph Olshan. Exploring father-son drama was big for me back then.

Kansas, That Night

“Are you hungry yet?” Albert Baxter yelled to the back of the motor home.

His only reply was the rattling and clanking of the metal stove. He had stuffed dishtowels around the top and under the burners to muffle the noise, but it hadn’t worked.

“Do you want to stop soon?” Albert called. He looked out at the dusk, which was settling onto the patchwork of grassy fields on either side of the interstate. The Royals baseball game on the radio was beginning to break apart. A man in a beat-up pickup sped past him, its headlights already on.

Albert scratched the stubble on his cheeks and took off his baseball cap. His legs ached from hours spent behind the wheel.

“Dway--!” he yelled, but caught himself before the end of the word. His son slid into the front seat next to him.

“Who won the game?” Dwayne asked, hoisting his feet up onto the dashboard. Although he was only twelve, his legs could reach.

“I don’t like you sleeping so much,” Albert told him. He pushed up his glasses, which had slid to the end of his nose. Dwayne was staring out the window at the sun, which was slipping below the flatness ahead of them. He had bristly blond hair, and was wearing a green t-shirt with Baxter Family Video emblazoned across it in black letters.

“Put one of your tapes in,” Albert said. “I don’t mind.”

“You hate my music,” Dwayne replied. “Who won the game?”

“I think it was 2-all top of the 9th,” Albert said. “I can’t be sure,” he added quickly, after he saw Dwayne’s disappointed expression.

“I hate the Royals,” Dwayne said. He pulled at his bottom lip, then scratched at the freckles spattered across the bridge of his nose. He closed his eyes.

More sleeping, Albert thought. “You didn’t answer my question,” he said. “I think there’s a campground coming up. Do you want to stop?”

“I guess we have to,” Dwayne replied, without opening his eyes.

“You’re a big help,” his father said, flicking on his headlights and watching for their exit. A station wagon passed them in a rush. Albert could barely make out the worn Colorado license plate in the dusk.

“We can give your mom a call tonight,” he said. “Greg will probably want to talk to you, too.”

Dwayne opened the glove compartment, then closed it. “He never knows what to say to me.”

“Well, he’s never really had a chance to get to know you, except at the wedding,” Albert said. Maggie, his ex-wife, had remarried four months after their divorce. Greg, her new husband, had accepted a position in a large Denver law firm, and she had moved with him.

Albert let thoughts of Maggie fill his mind. It was still difficult for him to understand that she was gone. He imagined her cooking dinner for Greg in their house high in the mountains. He wondered if she was thinking about him.

He wanted to be able to explain to her what his life was like without her. He spent interminable days behind the counter at his video store, which was squeezed between a 7-11 and a grungy bar on the campus of the local university. His clientele consisted of giggling sorority sister and lonely blue-collar bachelors. Sometimes he would have no customers in the store for two and three hours at a time. Albert would watch the people walk past on the sidewalk, and he would think up imaginary lives for them, each more exciting than his own.

His nights were no better. After hours of tossing and turning, Albert would lie in bed, listening to the sound of Dwayne’s gentle breathing from his room across the hall. Albert kept the windows in his bedroom open, because he liked to watch the curtains billowing in the breeze. Sometime he would imagine that Maggie would appear from beneath them and close the window against the chilly night air, the curtains settling back against the sill. Maggie would walk across the carpet in her nightgown, lift up the covers, and slide into bed with him.

Albert would try to remember what it was like to feel her arms around him. It was only at night, with the darkness surrounding him, that the feeling would sometimes could back to him. He wanted to know it again, before it was lost forever.

He lifted his eyes from the pair of yellow lines that bisected the highway, and looked over at Dwayne. “I’m not going to make you call her,” he said.

Dwayne leaned back in his seat and scratched his knee. He opened his window all the way and stuck out his face. The air smelled of manure and gasoline.

“Mom says where she lives, you can drive up to the mountains and there’ll be snow, even though it’s summer,” Dwayne said.

“Greg used to camp with his first wife up near Mesa Verde.” Albert flicked on his turn signal and prepare to get off at Exit 23. “I’m sure he’ll take us to all his favorite places, that nobody knows about except for him.”

Dwayne stuck his hand out the window and tried to keep it from behind pushed down by the wind. “Will there be a TV?”

“Sorry. Maybe you should’ve brought your comic books,” Albert said sarcastically. The camping trip had been his idea from the start, and if his son was having trouble understanding his good intentions, Albert was running out of patience.

They slowed down the exit ramp and watched the quiet fields surround them. A two-lane road stretched to their left and right, and Albert came to a stop. The jangle of the stove gradually ceased, and they were overcome by the crackly drone of crickets.

Albert rolled down his window. To the right, the road reached on into darkness; to the left, he could see a grove of trees on the other side of the highway. He turned the steering wheel of the motor home and felt it surge into motion again.

He turned left at a huge teepee illuminated by spotlights. A sign bid them welcome in five different languages. He heard the scratch of gravel beneath the wheels of the cab as they eased to a stop in front of the manager’s office. There were tall shade trees spread out through the night, with a network of gravel roads connecting each site of the campground.

“Everybody out of the bus,” Albert said, and he heard his son groan at the familiarity of his words. Albert slid out the door and onto the ground, and he felt a twinge of pain shoot up both of his legs. The air was still, and he could hear country music playing from a tent nearby. Dwayne appeared beside him, kicking tiny stones with his worn soccer shoes. They walked past a lamppost just outside the building, with a cluster of tiny gnats darting around it in circles. He opened the screen door and stepped into the brightly lit interior of the manager’s office.

“Hi,” the young woman said from behind the counter. She had a wide smile and sandy hair tied up in a ponytail. She wore Oklahoma Sooners t-shirt and khaki shorts. “You folks like a site?”

Dwayne moved past him and headed straight through the aisles of bread and potato chips to the comic book rack. Albert ran a hand through his rumpled, graying hair and smiled back. A tiny television stood on a stool behind the counter, and was playing “Three’s Company.”

“Please,” Albert told her. “Water and electricity hook-ups, too.”

She pulled out a form from under the counter and began to fill it out. “Where are you headed?” she asked, smiling again. Albert felt his skin begin to tingle. Her eyes were green, the same color as Maggie’s.

“Will you buy me these?” Dwayne was beside him, holding two Daredevils and a Spiderman. There was a huge red mark across his cheek where he had been lying against his seat.

“You’ve got money, Dwayne,” Albert said, frowning. The woman behind the counter was watching them intently.

Dwayne scowled at him and went out the door without a word.

“Sorry,” he told her. “Did you ask where we were from?”

She laughed, and her eyes grew wide. “I asked where you were going,” she said, taking out a pink form and circling information on it. “Standard operating procedure small talk.” She scratched at the tip of her nose, and Albert noticed how long and slim her fingers were. He wondered how it would feel to have them caressing his face.

“My ex-wife lives in Denver. My son and I rented a motor home, and we’re going to go camping with her and her husband.” She asked for his name, and printed it neatly on the form.

“Three adults and a kid?” she asked. “Sounds like trouble to me.” She reached to turn off the TV. The door opened, and a tall man in a ponytail and work boots came in.

“Hey, Scott,” she said. “You’re all set,” she told Albert. “Site fourteen.” She handed him a map with the site circled in red pen. Scott came in back of the counter and kissed her. “Good night,” she said to Albert. “Have a good stay.”

Albert forced himself to reach for the doorknob. As he walked out, he saw Scott turn on the TV to the second game of the Royals doubleheader.

The motor home was making popping and pinging noises from under the hood as Albert opened the driver’s side door. The light above came on, like an uninvited guest, and he looked with dismay at the mess of soda cans, coffee cups, and sports pages that covered the floor. He turned to look toward the rear, at the small kitchen table and upholstered seats. They looked lonely, almost eerie. Dwayne was nowhere to be found.

“Shit,” Albert said. His stomach growled irritably. It was like pulling teeth to ask Dwayne to do any sort of navigation, even a task as simple as helping him find their assigned site. At the campground near Richmond, Indiana, where they had spent their first night, Dwayne had collapsed in hysterics after they had spent twenty minutes trying to find the site. Albert hadn’t thought it had been funny at all.

He slammed the door and brought the machine to life. Tiny bugs swirled in his headlights as he drove down the gravel road. A woman looked up from a campfire and waved. He passed the restrooms and showers and circled around to the other end of the grounds, struggling to read the numbers posted on wooden signs along the road.

He finally reached number fourteen, which, like the others, had a picnic table and fire pit. He carefully drove a little past it, then, saying a quick prayer, began to back in. Two girls on bicycles with training wheels stopped to watch him. He cursed Dwayne again for not being there to help.

Albert missed hitting the picnic table by a few inches, but managed to get the vehicle close to the water and electric hook-ups. He got out of the car and stepped down into the grass. His stomach growled again, sending a pain through his middle. There was a slight breeze blowing, and he turned to look at a small fish pond, which had been hidden by a mass of reeds and bushes at the rear of the site. The water looked black and still.

Albert found an opening in the weeds and walked down a steep, bumpy path to the shore. He saw three ducks on the ground, about twenty feet away. As he moved closer to the water, he stepped on a twig and they awoke with a start, sliding single file into the pond.

He looked across the water to the fields beyond. He saw the lights of houses in the distance, and thought of the girl back in the office.

“Evening,” a voice said from behind him. A man was coming down the path.

“Hello,” Albert replied. He couldn’t see what the man looked like, but Albert could tell he was smiling. He wore shorts and a bandana around his head. He came alongside of Albert and looked out onto the water.

“Didn’t even know this was here,” he said. “Been here since 6:30 and didn’t walk over this way. Cooked hamburgers for me and my brother, so I’ve been busy.”

“It’s kind of nice here,” Albert said. The fireflies had come out and were signaling lazily in the grass around them.

“Hot, though,” the man said. “Hot as hell. We came up from Tulsa this morning, me and my brother, and we had our shirts off the whole time.”

“I can believe it,” Albert said. He picked up a stone from the rocky beach and threw it into the water with a plop.

“Kansas is always like that in the summer,” the man told him. “Hot-ass Kansas,” he said, and then grinned in the darkness. “Flat.”

Albert heard a noise from behind him. Dwayne stood at the top of the path.

“Dwayne,” Albert said. “Where the hell have you been?”

Dwayne walked down the path. He stooked beside Albert, staring at the man.

“This is my son,” Albert told him. He scowled at Dwayne. “I need your help.”

“Sorry,” Dwayne said. He was sucking in little breaths, and rubbing his elbow.

The man scratched under his bandana. “It’s a hard thing, traveling. Lots of work.”

Albert felt a mosquito on his arm, and smacked it. “What happened to your elbow?”

Dwayne moved away from him. “Nothing.”

“You remind me just like my brother’s child,” the man said to Dwayne. “He’s about your age.”

“Let me see,” Albert said, reaching for his arm.

“No,” Dwayne said. A bat darted above their heads, then dove close to the water, skimming a few inches above it. It disappeared behind them.

Albert grabbed his arm again, and felt blood on his fingers. Dwayne reached in pain. “Let go!”

“What were you doing?” Albert asked him, straining to see his son’s arm in the darkness. “How’d his happen?”

The man pulled a flashlight out of his pocket. Albert had quick look at a face covered with a three-day growth of beard as the man turned on the flashlight, and handed it to Albert.

“Let’s take a look and it,” the man said. He shined the light on Dwayne’s elbow, and Albert saw a ragged scrape, the skin bloody and torn. Tiny gnats were circling around it.

“Shit,” the man said, a touch of concern in his voice. “That’s a bad one. Better go clean that up.”

Dwayne pulled his arm away. “It doesn’t hurt,” he said. “I was just climbing, that’s all.”

“Damn it, Dwayne,” Albert cried. “Would you come inside and let me clean you up?”

“Just leave me alone,” Dwayne told him. He turned away and ran back up the path, his untied shoelace flapping on the ground. Albert stood, cursing to himself, and watched his son vanish behind the reeds.

“No way in hell I’m ever having kids,” the man said. “Nothing but aggravation.” He took off the sweatshirt that was tied around his waist, and slipped it on. “Listen,” he said. “If you haven’t had any dinner yet, me and my brother have a few extra burgers left over. Some coleslaw. You and your boy are welcome to them.”

“Thanks,” Albert said. “Thanks a lot. I’d say yes, but I’d better go look for him.”

The man stuck out his hand, and Albert shook it. “Evening,” he said. “Good luck.”

Albert watched the man along the shore of the pond, whistling softly. His shape was soon swallowed by shadows.

* * *

Albert lay in the bed above the cab in the motor home, listening to the metallic patter of raindrops on the roof above him. It was not late; he had gone to bed right after eating his supper of macaroni and spaghetti sauce, which he had cooked in a tiny pan on the stove.

He began to drift off to sleep just as the rain began to fall harder. He heard the back door of the motor home open, and the sound of the rain was louder as Dwayne slipped inside, breathing heavily. Albert heard him kick off his shoes and stumble into the bathroom.

He heard the drone of the pipes as Dwayne drew water from the connection outside. The door opened a few minutes later. He watched Dwayne walk past the stove and climb into bed in the darkness below him. He smelled sweaty and wet.

They lay there for a few moments, listening to the rain.

“I looked all over for you,” Albert said.


“You weren’t in the game room,” Albert said. “I thought you’d be there, watching the doubleheader.”

“I went walking down the road,” Dwayne replied. “The other way, past where we came down off the highway.”

“Is that so,” Albert said. He tried to picture Dwayne lying on the bed beneath him, his hair still wet from the rain.

“Mom says to tell you hi,” Dwayne said. “She caught a cold.”

Albert smiled as he stared up at the ceiling, which was just a foot above his face. “I was worried,” he said. “Don’t ever do that again.”

There was silence from down below. He wondered if Dwayne had fallen asleep.


“I paid for the call myself,” Dwayne said. “I didn’t buy those comic books.”

Outside, they heard some call for someone else to get the hell inside. A breeze made the curtains at the feet shift in the wind. Albert turned over, and tried to let the darkness surround them. He thought of the girl in the office again.

Her face was replaced by Maggie’s.

Kansas, That Night
May 07, 2024