Running on Empty

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June 21, 2020 by The Citron Review

by Marlene Olin


The summer after eighth grade, Dad’s bookie got busted. My parents panicked. Dad thought what little good luck he had finally ran out. We packed our bags in the middle of night. Dad grabbed his flask of Canadian Club. Mom her stash of tranquilizers. Then we flew the coop.

Living on the edge was nothing new. Dad’s stamina at the craps and black jack tables was legendary. We traveled from Miami to Nassau every month and made pilgrimages to Vegas at least twice a year. When he was home, he’d watch television for hours placing bets on every baseball and football game. We were the first on our block to own a color TV, and this monolith, this Stonehenge with antennae, was circled by multiple black and white sets. 

Like most of my friends’ fathers, Dad never played ball with his kids or helped with housework. Back in the 50’s, this was standard fare. But by the age of forty, his health was a mess. He had barely survived a major coronary. Plus a bad knee from his stint in the Navy gave him endless pain. He couldn’t bowl and he couldn’t golf. There were days when he barely walked. Mom used to say that everyone’s entitled to a hobby. My father’s hobby was gambling with money we didn’t have. 

In a blink, we bolted. My nineteen-year-old brother quit a summer job he never started. We missed my sister’s high school graduation. I hugged my best friend a long and tearful goodbye. Then all five of us piled into our silver Lincoln Continental, the kind with rear doors that opened the wrong way, and drove from Miami to Carlsbad’s Caverns, up to Disneyland in California, across the map to the World’s Fair in New York and home again. By my calculations, our spontaneous six-week trip covered over seven thousand miles. 

Since I was the youngest, I was stuck in the middle of the back seat. My sister was seventeen and suffering through a horrendous adolescence. She was overweight and sullen. And since her hair was scouring pad frizzy, she never went anywhere without her wig. When it wasn’t on my sister, that wig stayed perched on a Styrofoam head. I hated that head. My sister and I shared a bedroom, and that head stared at me from our bureau each night. And when the head was traveling, it lived in the world’s largest patent leather case. White. Like a refrigerator. For seven thousand miles, that case sat crammed between my legs.

I-95 and interstate expressways were in their infancy, so traveling cross-country was slow-going. Even though our car was littered with road maps, we often got lost. Sometimes we had trouble finding cities; sometimes we lost an entire state. “You sure this isn’t Oklahoma?” my father would bellow. “This sure looks like Oklahoma to me!” 

Route 66 steered you through towns so small they had distinct odors. “This place smells like a septic tank,” we’d all agree. Then we’d keep on driving. We ate soft vanilla ice cream at Stuckeys, salt water taffy at Howard Johnson’s and gained ten pounds apiece. During the day, the radio stations played mostly static. Instead, Burma Shave signs kept us company. Eager for a distraction, we’d shout the corny slogans: Nobody knows the stubble I’ve seen. Don’t leave safety to mere chance. That’s why belts are sold with pants.

When night arrived, there were no lampposts, no neon sentinels hovering in the asphalt. Only the stars and the moon shone. Sometimes we felt so isolated we just followed the taillights ahead of us. We figured somebody somewhere knew the way. 

Of course, Dad still craved an adrenaline rush. Whenever we were down to a quarter of a tank, my brother would beg Dad to fill her up. Then my father would counter with a typical reply.

“Gas? You saying we need gas? Betcha five dollars we make it to the next station.”

This was a no-win situation for my brother. If we hit empty, my father wasn’t the one to do the walking. Whenever the roads became really desolate, whenever you didn’t see a person or a building for miles around, Dad would up the ante another ten bucks. My poor brother was and is the kind of guy who likes life served simple. No drama and no risk. And there was nothing that made my father happier than torturing him.

I had never spent so much time with my family before. Now we all slept in one room and took turns sharing one toilet. The motels were far from fancy. Signs blinked through the slit in the curtains and miniature golf carpeting lined the floors. Mom and Dad squeezed into one double bed, my sister and I in another, and my brother took a cot. 

I still have the scrapbook I made that summer. Every now and then I open it up and thumb through the pages. I finger the envelope filled with salt from the Great Salt Lake and smell the jelly-stained menu from Knott’s Berry Farm. Not a city or a rest stop passed without me filching a keepsake. Postcards. Matchbooks. A receipt. A ticket stub. 

Not many years later, my father died. Looking back, that trip was our last best thing. I never knew we were on the lam. There were no GPS devices, no apps for finding shortcuts, no trip advisors handing out advice. It was just the five of us laughing and talking, singing and joking, seeing America one town at a time. 


Marlene Olin was born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan. Her short stories have been published or are forthcoming in journals such as The Massachusetts Review, Catapult, The American Literary Review, and Arts and Letters. She is the recipient of both the 2015 Rick Demarinis Fiction Award and the 2018 So To Speak Fiction Prize.


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