THINGS BEHIND THE SUN a novel
Martin Gregory believes he has one last shot at emotionally connecting with the son he adopted seventeen years ago from the only woman he ever loved. A long road trip, he believes, could be the answer. But the boy has other ideas as the two of them navigate the past and contemplate the future during a summer journey through the American West. The trip uncovers long-held secrets—both Martin's and his son's—and becomes an exploration of whether the deep emotions that brought them together in the first place are more important than what could tear them apart. Things Behind the Sun is an inspired coming-of-age story about the powerful, complicated, yet enduring bond between fathers and sons.
The odometer on the old Subaru had been stuck on 93,453 miles for as long as Martin could remember. He was unable to recall when it might have been that the digits stopped changing or where he was when he had noticed it for the first time. The car was old but ran well, and besides, Martin had come to measure his life along the coast in time rather than in distance. Still, the start of the summer road trip was just a few days away, and along with checking the tread on the tires and examining the pinging noise the car had been making whenever it was put in reverse, it seemed the right time to have someone look at the odometer, and maybe a good time to begin again to count the miles.
“Martin gave you the list of what it needs, right?” Chase asked as he stepped from the car and met Jordan at the shop’s garage entrance.
“Yeah, I have it on the worksheet,” Jordan said.
“Did you see the mileage counter? It’s screwed up.”
“I’ll take a look.”
“Martin wants to get going this Friday morning.”
“Three days,” Jordan said, thinking for a second. “Okay. As long as we don’t need any hard-to-get parts or a new odometer. Computer stuff can be tricky. If it’s not something major, I can get it rolling again right from where it stopped.”
Dirksen’s Auto Repair in Coos Bay had always been there, it seemed. Generations had run the place. Jordan took over from his father, the third Dirksen to keep the shop going. Jordan had worked there since high school—rotating tires, changing windshield wipers, and phoning customers, alerting them that their cars were ready. When computers became a big part of how automobiles worked, Jordan’s dad stopped keeping up with the new technology and considered selling. But Jordan couldn’t imagine it. He took classes on modern auto repair at the community college and helped keep the place viable through the final years of his father’s life. Throat cancer from the cigarettes, doctors said. Jordan was just 25 years old. Shortly after taking over, he hired Chase, who had just turned 16 and would come in a few days a week after school and on an occasional Saturday.
“Doesn’t matter to me if we don’t start on time,” Chase said, removing a small backpack from the car’s rear seat.
“Not too excited?” Jordan asked.
Chase shrugged and handed Jordan the keys. “Wasn’t my idea. And you know Martin.”
Just saying the words—road trip—breathed life into Martin. Trips when he was a boy with his parents from Chicago to Michigan carried good memories—stretches of highway, changing scenery, falling asleep in the backseat with the rear window cracked open. And as a teenager, there was that long spring break trip to Florida—clothes tossed around the car, empty water bottles and Lays potato chip bags on the floors, smoking cigarettes, and talking and talking about nothing and everything. And in England, a few weeks after he first arrived to teach at The Academy, there was that Sunday drive from Banbury through The Cotswolds to Swansea, the three-hour trip that took six because it deserved every extra minute. Road trips for Martin had always meant slowing down, paying attention to your own thoughts, being alone in the big world, and running away without truly running away.
“He says he wants to get to know me again,” Chase continued. “Really? What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”
“Easy, now. It could be fun, you know,” Jordan said. “Dads love this kind of stuff.”
Martin hoped he might discover something lost out on the road, a way to face what seemed to have been only a few steps behind him for such a long time. But it was different for Chase.
“Pointless, you know? Like some bad Lifetime movie where the dad takes the kid on a trip to save them both.”
Chase would be away from his friends and the girl from English class, and he would miss out on summer money working at the garage. Yes, the job could be boring, but he loved being around cars; he savored the smell of grease and engine oil. Most days he did the work of a porter, wiping down the dashboards and vacuuming the interiors after the cars had been repaired, moving vehicles in and out of the work bays. But it was all worth it when Jordan allowed him to deliver a car for the first time to a customer at their home, navigating a black Jeep Wrangler with the top down through the streets of Coos Bay. When he started at Dirksen’s, Chase had only his learning permit. But Jordan liked Chase and let him drive by himself anyway. Jordan turned Chase on to 80s punk—The Ramones and White Lung, a punk band from Vancouver. Jordan said the singer sounded like the bastard child of Patti Smith and Stevie Nicks, a line he stole from an article in Rolling Stone. Jordan would blast
“Down the Monster” over the speakers in the garage. A couple of times, Jordan bought Chase and his friends sixes of beer, and he knew about the weed, but all the kids in Coos Bay did that. It was legal, yes, but not for Chase, not for his friends.
“At least you get to drive, right?” Jordan asked.
“I better,” Chase said.
“Know where you’re going?”
“I have some ideas.”
“That’s a real road trip, right?”
Martin had taught Chase how to drive. Actually, Chase mostly figured it out himself under Martin’s watch. Even before he got his license, Martin allowed Chase to pull the Subaru in and out of the driveway of their home on his own. After a time, Chase took the car to school, and there was that evening when he drove by himself to get pizza at the place down by the RV superstore on Ocean Boulevard. And now and then, Martin offered him the wheel when they took the dogs to the beach at Cape Arago. It wasn’t long before Martin realized Chase could handle the old car with a palpable self-confidence, impressed at how he pulled off parallel parking on his first attempt, and could push it a bit without fear along Seven Devil’s Road near Charleston. Chase understood cars, paid attention to the details. It was Chase who reminded Martin about the malfunctioning odometer.
“When do you want me to pick up the dogs?” Jordan asked. Lucy and Stan were Chase’s pets, two mutts Martin had saved from the shelter a few years ago, one black, one tan, probably lab mixes.
“Drop them off when we leave? At your place?” Chase asked.
“That’ll work,” Jordan said. He noticed a small scratch on the car’s hood and wiped his hand across it. “You have a starting point destination?”
“Arizona sounds cool,” Chase said. “Don’t really know what Martin is thinking. But he’s going with me, so, there’s that.”
“You guys are gonna end up killing each other,” Jordan smirked.
“Martin kill me or me kill Martin?”
Chase hadn’t always called Martin by his name. The change came the day a girl at school wrote a story about her adoption and read it in front of everyone in a freshman English class. Chase knew his own story; Martin had never kept it from him—the long-ago love between his mother and Martin, her will to stay alive until he was born, her wish that Martin would care for her boy. Still, Martin hadn’t told Chase everything. Not yet. Martin believed he had been doing the right thing all these years, offering up Chase’s own adoption story a chapter at a time. But for Chase, resentment was always at the edges of each reveal. And on the day the girl told her story in class, that bitterness was reawakened. On the walk home that day Chase decided to stop calling Martin Dad.
Jordan sat behind the wheel and turned the ignition. “You’ve got to go along 101. A must,” he said.
“Maybe? That’s one of the best drives in America,” Jordan said through the open driver’s side window.
Chase lifted his bicycle from the Subaru’s payload. “We’ll see,” he said.
“Sure,” Jordan said, sensing Chase’s hesitancy to talk any more about it. “See you in the morning. Can you start a bit earlier? Like 7 or so? Busy day tomorrow.”
“Yep,” Chase said, swinging his leg over the bike’s seat and spinning the pedals in reverse.
“Tell your dad I’ll call him as soon as it’s done. Hopefully it’ll be ready when he wants.” Jordan put the car in drive and slowly pulled inside the bay.
Chase nodded and turned the bike to the street, waving over his shoulder as he pedaled toward the trail along the park. When he reached the large patch of evergreens, Chase slipped the bike deep into the trees and leaned it against the biggest trunk. He reached in his backpack to find a small tin that had once held spearmint Altoids. Inside was the joint he had saved, the one the girl from English class had given him. The afternoon sun was low and glinting off the trees’ needles, golden and emerald mixing as one. Seagulls gathered near a park bench in the distance, picking at an empty McDonald’s bag and what remained of the bun of a Big Mac. Chase inhaled once and then again, holding the smoke deep as he settled on the pine straw. When the back of his head touched earth, he let out a long slow puff, smelling of skunk and black pepper, and it was then that he knew that he would be ready for whatever was to come.