Hwy 10 and A World Away from the Schoenberg Road

Matt Matthews

Matt Matthews

This story was accepted as part of the call for submissions for The American Road, in coordination with the Broad Art Museum's exhibit Interstates of Mind.

I don't know how Cary and me scored a ride home with two of the prettiest girls at Hampton High, but we did. They were stranded at an out-of-conference football game in Petersburg and Cary and I looked groomed and trustworthy in our letter jackets, his for marching band, mine for tennis. We were nerds, of course. He wore black birth-control glasses and my zits shone like cinnamon Red Hots. But we were sober. And, the clincher: Cary had the keys to his parents' pea-green Ford Pinto. To my amazement, even to this day, they asked us for a ride.
They were seniors, and while they were only one year older than we were, they were women and we were boys. I tingled just being in the same car with them. Though I knew it couldn't last, I felt like I was on the brink of something that was until that moment not even imaginable.
Our ears were still ringing with the fight song and cheers we and our classmates had hollered nonstop for four quarters. We were the mighty red and white, and we zealously bore testimony to the world that YOU CAN'T CRUSH A CRAB.
Becky's long, strawberry hair was pulled back behind her diminutive ears. Kim wore red, red lipstick that she refreshed before she climbed into the back seat. Becky's was a reserved, freckled beauty, and Kim radiated heat. The scent of night air and wood smoke clung to us, along with clean rain, damp wool, and hints of faraway, exotic perfume.
I sat up front with my head cork-screwed around gawking at them, chatting them up like Gomer Pyle. We all chirped inanely about the game and school. We were hoarse from cheering, and tired, and wet. It had drizzled and was cold outside, but we were cozy in Cary's woebegone Pinto whooshing through puddles around tight, winding curves. My folks back home were probably getting ready to watch the 11 o'clock news. I might get home by the end of Andy Roberts' weather forecast. Curfew was midnight, but they were forgiving, and if this special delivery took longer than expected, so be it. Nothing in the cosmos mattered more.
Route 10, a two-lane highway, snaked from Petersburg along the James River through woods and rural fields planted with cotton and peanuts. The wet asphalt was new and black and slick. The white reflective paint on the center line was so bright it flashed like tubes of fluorescent lights as we blurred past, creating the impression of great speed, an urgent string of Morse Code dashes that stretched all the way past Smithfield to the James River Bridge at the eastern mouth of the Hampton Roads. When a covey of leaves from the branches smacked against our windshield as we shot past, we screamed with delight. They stuck to the windshield and obscured our view, adding an edge of danger. The impotent wipers batted them away after three or four pathetic swipes.
Soon we fell silent. I sat back in my seat, and the girls leaned forward craning their necks between me and Cary. I could feel their moist breath, could smell their mint gum. We watched the twisting, black road and the falling, wet leaves that burned in our high beams. I daydreamed about, but held out no hope for, a good night kiss from either of these sweet girls. This would not be the dramatic beginning of a budding romance, though I would be forever devoted to the lines of Becky's slender, milky neck, and Kim's tousled, blonde hair. After that night, Cary and I would never talk about our crushed hopes. We would tell ourselves nonchalantly that it was just a ride home from a football game. No big deal. We were glad to serve two needy, albeit gorgeous, upperclassmen. We would not run out of gas, stranding ourselves on a romantic overlook on the James River. Nor would we fall in love with these girls any more than we already had. And they would not fall in love with us. If they remembered who we were on Monday at school, we'd call that victory.
My contentment, nevertheless, bordered on serenity. I knew that one day I'd be in the driver's seat. One day I'd get the girl and she'd be sitting up front next to me, drawing lazy circles on my neck with her warm fingers. "I wasn't who I would be," writes Deb Olin Unferth in her memoir Revolution. "More of me was coming." Generally, I am impatient and almost always insecure, but in those moments on Route 10, I was content to wait. I had not arrived, but I was on my way.
My father, a WWII prisoner of war, was on his way, too. He may have always heard the distant blasts from the battle on the Belgium-German border where he was captured in snow along the Schoenberg Road into St. Vith, but he wasn't always that young man with freezing feet bent under a heavy battle pack. He grew up. He didn't fight that fear, that cold, that noise every night. There were brighter, warmer dawns. He was freed from captivity on April 13th 1945. Truce had been declared. He got to come home. Every day he got up and looked around. He took stock. He married, raised a family, held jobs, maintained lifelong friendships, paid bills. There were gardens to weed, grandfather clocks to make, footstools to sell, steaks to grill, a son to teach to play tennis and to sail. Merry go rounds. Grandchildren. Friends. Chats with the mailman. Watching the harbor from the waterfront. Listening to the waves. Dad did the bravest thing any man can do: he lived in the moment.
I am Billy Boy's boy. Sometimes I see him looking at me in the rearview mirror. He's in the back seat. I'm driving, watching my speed, taking the bright curves close to the shoulder. Keep it between the ditches, I can hear him saying from the back seat. Keep ‘er on the road. When I was sixteen on the way home from an out-of-town football game, there was more of me coming. Now, halfway to one hundred, there still is.


Matt Matthews is from Hampton, Virginia, and lives and writes in Champaign, Illinois. He memoir One Thousand Miles: Following My Father's WWII Footsteps was published by Avenida Books. His novel Mercy Creek (Hub City Press: 2011) won the South Carolina First Novel Prize.

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