This is how cute I think I am: Before I go driving with my 15-year-old daughter, Poppy, I burn a CD of songs loosely related to piloting an automobile. The playlist runs the gamut from “Sober Driver” by Dengue Fever to one of Poppy’s favorites: Arcade Fire’s “Keep the Car Running.”
Whenever we begin these weekend jaunts (which vary from repetitive loops on Siringo Road to stop-and-go errands during which I introduce Poppy as my chauffeur), I feel proud. After all, I am the parent who is participating in this coming-of-age ritual (a task her mother cannot stomach) even though Poppy’s driver’s ed instruction was shite, she won’t need a driving test to receive her license and our state’s fatality rate is 30 percent above the national average. I tell myself that Poppy is just like every other young driver and that I should just chill out even though she cannot successfully park in an empty lot and hugs the curb tighter than a camel’s ass in a sandstorm.
Sitting shotgun with Miss Poppy, I feel my teeth clamp together, so I return to the driving CD, whose songs have become playful. The Beastie Boys’ “Car Thief” sounds like nothing more than a nursery rhyme for heads, and the “Car Salesman” bit from the Jerky Boys almost makes me laugh. I tell Poppy to follow Old Santa Fe Trail toward Mountain Cloud Zen Center, and I try to go all namaste on my own candy ass and enjoy the allure of the snow sparkling in bursts between juniper bushes and white-tipped mountains taking over the windshield no matter which direction my daughter steers me.
Just after the abandoned former dictator’s school, I ask Poppy to turn, and it happens. “Wreck on the Highway” by Bruce Springsteen fills the cabin, and we are now facing Old Las Vegas Highway, a road that took the lives of two of my former students, Kate Klein and Alyssa Trouw. A road that I swore Poppy would avoid. I don’t believe in signs or fate or that everything happens for a reason, but behind my sunglasses, I well up because I miss those girls, only a year older than Poppy when they left and because, like the speaker in the song, “Sometimes I sit up in the darkness/and I watch my baby as she sleeps” and because all the wrecks I’ve witnessed or participated in scroll across my mind like a relentlessly grim banner: ruptured radiators, shattered windshields, blood bubbles. And yet those goddamn beautiful mountains like fat lightning rods for the sun’s white rays won’t let me tell Poppy to pull over so I can take the wheel or grab a bottle at the gas station to gulp in front of the Patriots game.
We approach the patch of dirt near the highway that people call Sticks and Stones, where we once haggled for a crooked Christmas tree. Mark and Keira live across the street, their dog recently mauled by a runaway pit bull. I almost tell Poppy to slow down so we can swing by for a visit, but I’ll just spook her with my last-minute request, so I keep quiet and think of how the bull terrier’s owner did the right thing by paying for the vet and putting her pet down—and how Mark and Keira got a new puppy from the breeder and the girls named it Pepper. My teeth unclench a bit as I recall Cora’s smile when she uttered those two syllables—”Pep-per”—and I cannot help but remember the way my daughter said her own name when she was Cora’s age: “Pop-py.”
“Dad,” my driver says, annoyed, “which way?”
We are at an intersection of a major highway, a minor highway and an ancient road. “Wherever you want, darling,” I say and try not to close my eyes.