Bad Idea by
Todd & Jedd Hafer
Griffin Smith is making his first interstate road trip, an adventurous rite-of-passage that will take him from his Midwestern home to his freshman year at college in Southern California.
Yet this is no ordinary A to B trip, as Griffin will find his attitudes and ideas challenged by some surprising events and an unlikely band of travel companions: his best bud, who will test the limits of their friendship; his father, who will challenge his concept of manhood; his younger brother; and his father’s trophy girlfriend, who may just be too young in general.
Soon this journey begins to take random detours, as he experiences a bittersweet reunion with his biological mother, confronts a terrible betrayal, and encounters one angry coyote.
And as the states blur by, Griffin encounters life lessons that will show him the healing found in forgiveness and an unexpected model of integrity and character.
“We should totally drive!” Rhonda said, wagging a limp french fry for emphasis.
I clenched my teeth. I hate it when adults try to talk like teenagers. Rhonda does it all the time. Her efforts are particularly grating to me because she does, in fact, employ the teen vernacular, but always, always at least one season too late.
Thus, my father’s 28-year-old fiancée didn’t say “Congratulations!” when I was inducted into Quill & Scroll (the National Honor Society for high school journalists) early in my senior year. She said, “Big ups to you, G!” And when I was named Honorable Mention All-Area in track and field (small-school division), she didn’t say “Way to go!” She said, “Big respect, G-Man! You got the mad wheels, homey!”
If she says, “I’m feelin’ you, dawg,” during one more of our Dad-initiated dinnertime theological discussions, I’m going to puke on her shoes.
Fortunately for Rhonda, and all of the people at the Big Bear Diner on the night the road trip was conceived, I didn’t barf when she said, “We should totally drive!” I raised my eyes to the ceiling and said, “I don’t think we should totally drive. I don’t even think we should partially drive.”
I looked across the booth to my dad to accept the disapproving glare I knew he would be offering. I smiled at him. It was my infuriating, smug smile. I practice it in the bathroom mirror. It’s so irritating that when I see my reflection doing it, I want to punch myself in the face.
My dad didn’t hit me. That wasn’t his style. He just nibbled his bottom lip for a while before saying calmly, “I think we should give the idea due consideration rather than reject it out of hand.”
“Okay,” I said, sipping my bitter iced tea, “let’s hear why we should cram ourselves into a car and drive for, what, three or four days to Southern California, stomping on each other’s raw nerves all along the way and probably breaking down somewhere near the Kansas-Colorado border. Or maybe getting in a wreck.”
Rhonda looked at my dad, giving him her Wounded Face, all droopy eyes and puckered chin and poofed-out lower lip. You know the look.
He looked at her, then at me. “Griffin, please . . .”
“Okay, okay, okay—you’re right, you guys. Yeah, you know, now that I consider The Rhonda Eccles-Someday-To-Be-Smith Plan carefully, it’s sounding better. I mean, why would I want to enjoy a quick, economical, and stress-free flight when we could all cram into a tired old vehicle and drive? Let’s go with the option that means more time, more money, more risks, more headaches.”
Rhonda tried to smile, but she couldn’t get the corners of her tiny heart-shaped mouth to curl upward. “Well,” she said quietly, “I just thought it would be bomb to make a road trip of it. See the country. Stop at mom-and-pop diners, like the Big Bear here. Maybe spend a day in Denver—hit an amusement park or catch a Rockies game. Griff, please be more open-minded. Think of the time it would give us to kick it.”
“We talk now,” I observed.
“Yessss,” she said, drawing the word out as though it had sprung a slow leak. She wrapped her long, slender fingers around her coffee mug and took a sip. “But in the car, you wouldn’t be able to run away from the convo whenever it got too intense for you.”
I pushed my chair back from the table and popped up like a piece of toast. I was ready to wad my napkin and spike it like a football on the table before marching out of the Big Bear. Then, only a half second before the Great Napkin Spike, I realized that would be proving her point.
Rhonda was studying me. I scrolled my mind for options on saving face, because since she had unofficially joined our family, I had lost more face than Michael Jackson. But I scrolled in vain. My brain was nothing but blank screen.
Now other patrons were watching me too. I could feel their stares. An idea began to emerge. It wasn’t a good idea, but it was all I had, so I went with it. I said, with an air of dignified indignation, “Well, I’m going back to the buffet for another muffin. Would anybody else care for one?”
This is why I’ll never be a politician, a courtroom litigator, a public speaker—or a success in anything that requires more than a modicum of human interaction. I have my moments, but rarely can I think on my feet when I’m around people. Half the time, I can’t think off of ’em either. Maybe this is why track is the only sport I’m good at. All you must do is keep alternating left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot, and turn left every once in a while. I found football and basketball too taxing mentally. They say Larry Bird was a hoops legend because he could foresee plays unfolding before they actually happened. So he always executed the perfect pass, put himself in position for nearly every rebound, stole inbounds passes at will. The game didn’t take him by surprise. Not the case with me. I played organized basketball in junior high and the first two years of high school. And every time I got a jump shot swatted back in my face or ran into a hard pick, it was like a new, albeit unpleasant, experience. So I became a track man. I run the 1600 and 3200 meters—that’s the mile and two-mile for those of you still holding strong in the anti-metric resistance.
I should note that I’m also adequate in cross-country. I often panic before races, though, because many of the courses are complicated. Even after reading the maps posted near the starting line, I don’t understand where I’ll be going. And you know those diagrams at big malls, the ones that assure that YOU ARE HERE? I study them, stare at them. Then I look around the actual mall and become convinced that the diagram has no concept of where I am. The diagram is mighty presumptuous, if not outright cruel and dishonest. How can it purport to know where I am? Half the time, I don’t know that myself.
Luckily, at a mall I can always find some low-rise-jeans-wearing Mall Girls to lead me to the Food Court, and in cross-country I can follow the other runners. If I’d ever lead a race, I’d be in trouble, but this was never a problem in four years of high school, so there’s no chance it will be a problem in college. Assuming I can even make the team. Sure, I did receive one of Lewis College’s supposedly prestigious Scholar/Athlete scholarships, but I suspect it was part of some Be Kind to Kansas White Boys quota system. I’m not convinced I won’t fold like a beach chair during my first college race—or first final exam.
Anyway, I give Rhonda credit (or in Rhonda-speak, “mad props”) for not snort-laughing at my pathetic muffin excuse. She said she could “totally go for another blueberry” and smiled at me as I left the table.
When I returned, she waited as I carefully peeled the pale yellow corrugated paper away from my muffin, then hers, being careful not to break off the stumps. I hate when that happens. Destroys the integrity of the muffin.
“Before you dis the driving idea,” Rhonda said after buttering her muffin, “there’s something you should know.”
I looked at her and arched my eyebrows.
“I talked to Cole yesterday. He’s totally down with the plan. We can drop him off at Boulder on the way to So-Cal. Think of the time you guys will have together. You’ll really be able to kick it, ya know.”
I nodded toward my little brother. “What about Colby?”
“Yeah,” he said, wiping chocolate milk from his upper lip with his shirtsleeve. “What about me?”
“You’ll stay at Aunt Nicole’s crib in Topeka, my little dude,” Rhonda said cheerfully.
Colby crinkled his nose. “Crib? I’m not a stinkin’ baby! I’m five. I won’t sleep in a crib!”
“Her house,” I clarified for Colby. “‘Crib’ is what they call houses back in da ’hood where Rhonda is from. Rural Wisconsin.”
“Oh,” Colby said.
I looked to Dad for a scowl again, but he was busy patting Rhonda’s hand and whispering reassurance to her.
“I’m just kidding, Rhonda,” I said without looking at her. “Don’t get all sentimental. Hey, it was a good idea to call Cole. And if he’s ‘down widdit,’ so am I.”
Rhonda’s eyes were moist, but now they were shining-hopeful moist, not somber-moist. “So it’s a road trip then?” she said.
I sighed. It sounded like one of my dad’s sighs. Too long and too loud. Heaven help me. “Sure,” I said, “why not.”
I was quiet on the drive home. All I could think of was how I was going to talk Cole out of the trip. First, of course, I’d need to find something to calm myself down so I wouldn’t go Rant City on him. He tends to shut down when I do that. I hoped I hadn’t exhausted my supply of vodka, that I still had a bottle or two tucked away in my sock drawer. Otherwise I’d have to resort to NyQuil and Peppermint Artificial Flavoring again. And let me tell you, that’s a rough way to get yourself mellow. (Of course, it does provide the side benefits of the clearest nasal passages and freshest breath in town.)
“What kind of Midwest mojo did Rhonda use on you?” I asked Cole as soon as I heard his flat “Hullo?” on the other end of the phone line. “A road trip with my dad and his cliché? I mean, this is a joke, right?”
I watched the seconds morph by on my LCD watch. After eighteen of them passed, Cole said, “You need to relax, dude. The trip will be cool. It’s more time together before we have to go our separate ways. And it’s a real road trip—not just some one-day, there-and-back thing. We’ve always talked about doing something like this, remember? To be honest, I thought you’d be all over this thing.”
“But this isn’t a normal thing, Sharp. This isn’t going to St. Louis to see the Cardinals at Busch, before they tore it down, with a bunch of guys from school. There is a bona fide adult in the equation—one-point-five if you count Rhonda. So it’s no longer a road trip; it’s a chaperoned ordeal. You understand that there will be no hard music on the CD player? No Hatebreed. No Gwar. Dad listens to only classical and old-school rock. And Rhonda likes those guys who are like twenty years old but sing like sixty-year-old opera stars. That crap freaks me out, man. And there will be no mooning busloads of girls’ volleyball teams along the way.”
“It’s not volleyball season yet,” Cole said. This was no attempt at a snappy retort on his part. The way he said it, he was just pointing out a fact, such as, “Augusta is the capital of Maine.”
I sensed I was losing the argument. “You won’t be able belch in the car, or swear. My dad ‘abhors profanity.’ You know that.” I wondered if I sounded as shrill and desperate as I felt.
“His ride, his rules. Besides, you like old-school rock, and it’s kinda starting to grow on me.”
“Okay, but consider this: Before we go, my dad will make us circle up and hold hands while he blesses the stupid SUV before the trip. And since we’ll probably have to rent one of those small trailers to haul all our stuff, he’ll probably get on a roll and bless that, too: ‘Father God, please bless this little U-Haul and all of its contents.’ Those words probably have never been uttered in the history of the English language. And he’ll make a plea for ‘traveling mercies.’ Traveling mercies! That sounds like the name of a really bad folk-rock group. Are you understanding how all of this is going to go down?”
“Praying for our trip—I’m cool with that.”
“Did you hear me say we’ll have to hold hands?”
“Dude, I would hold hands with Rhonda any day. She’s a fly honey.”
“What about me? Or my dad?”
“The team held hands in football huddles all the time. It’s only a problem if you’re insecure in your masculinity.”
I did my involuntary Dad-sigh again. “Okay, man. I guess it’s
on, then.” It’s on, then? I wagged my head in disbelief. That
was something Rhonda would say. I don’t talk like that.
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