Joyland

New York |

Q&A

by Megan Cummins

edited by Kyle Lucia Wu

For a short time I dated a tow-truck driver and on weekends I would ride around with him as he impounded illegally parked cars. I find myself telling this story at a reading I give in the city, just after I published my book. The story gets too long and the audience looks as though they regret coming. As I speak a few of them flip the book over, maybe to see who published such a bad storyteller, or to check my author photo to make sure I’m not an imposter. Whenever I talk to a group of people I have a feeling they think I’m the least articulate writer they’ve ever met, and as I squint into the crowd I suspect my story is unwelcome to them right now.

I tell the anecdote in response to a question from an audience member. “What feelings went into writing this book?” she said, and as I stared at her serious face I realized she wasn’t joking. She really wanted to know. I couldn’t recall all my feelings, and the longer the silence extended the more I thought I may have never had a feeling before in my life. That was when I stuttered my way into the anecdote.

Each passing moment is an opportunity for me to stop talking, an opportunity I glide right past.

“I was already pregnant when I met the tow-truck driver,” I say, “and by the time I lost the baby he would be gone.”

I didn’t tell the driver I was pregnant because in general we didn’t have conversations. We were smart in different ways—I read novels, he read weather maps and predicted storms—and we didn’t have a lot in common, though we both liked driving the quiet early morning roads underneath the sunrise. Tridents of light striking the cars we towed. Their owners sleeping somewhere. In particular I liked the motion of riding in a big truck, how high above the road we loomed, like no accident could really hurt me. I also had this idea I would publish an exposé about this towing company. The police chief owned the company and it was Newark police that ordered the cars towed. I would eventually decide not to get involved because I didn’t want to make enemies of the police. There was one who was my friend, a mounted officer who let me pet his horse whenever he rode down my street and I happened to be outside. The horse was named Bullet, a name that disappointed me because it seemed too obvious.

I wasn’t just dating the driver because of the article I wanted to write. I genuinely liked him, however wrong we were for each other. His smile took up his whole face, but he only smiled when the world gave him reason to. This reminded me of my father, who was a similar type of friendly curmudgeon, though my father probably wouldn’t have liked the tow-truck driver because he was older than I was, and because my father, who’d spent many nights in the drunk tank, didn’t trust anyone who did the bidding of the police. He would think I was wasting my time. His own marriage had failed—each pill he popped ground down my mother’s patience—but he would probably want me to be married by now. He was a traditionalist, in addition to being a drug addict.

My friends began to gossip about me when they found out I was spending my Saturday mornings with a man I wouldn’t let them meet. I didn’t talk much with the driver, and never mentioned my friends or my father, because I cried a lot back then and didn’t want to cry in front of him. I liked crying but didn’t like to interpret how my crying made other people feel.

I’d chosen to have the baby even though the doctors said it would be high-risk and looked at me like I was crazy for wanting to go through with it. They didn’t seem surprised when I lost it four months in and seemed to think I shouldn’t have been surprised either, though I might have been projecting by this point. Generally I like my doctors but right then I wanted to hate them.

The child was still growing inside me, a beautiful doomed thing, during my days with the driver. Maybe that’s why I still think of him so much. If I’d known I would lose the baby I might’ve told him I was pregnant. Or told my friends. I did tell my father, during one of the imagined conversations I sometimes had with him, but I can’t say if he heard me. He’d needed me before he died. He’d even written me an email to tell me he was lonely, and I ignored him, so maybe it was his turn to ignore me. In a way I thought of my baby as a second chance at taking care of someone, which wasn’t a healthy thing to think.

My father would have been a good grandfather, I include as an afterthought.

“So that was it,” I say to the audience in the bookstore. “That was one of the feelings that made me write this book. It’s the feeling that life is always on the brink of never being the same again, and sometimes pieces of our lives fall off the edge, but some things, good and bad, we carry with us after the crash. And those things make us who we are. And then you find something or someone that helps you survive and persevere. For me it was trying to write this book with hope.

“I mean,” I add, “there is friendship and hope in this book. Right?”

I sound desperate by now. I know I should stop talking, let the audience go, release their attention before they’re forced to stumble through the rows of chairs, coats in hand, trying to sneak out quietly while pretending they had to leave early all along.

“Does that answer your question?” I ask.

The woman who asked the question nods. Silence inflates in the room, a giant suffocating balloon. No one has any other questions, and it’s time for me to thank the audience for coming and let them disperse to bars to laugh about how awkward I was, how I used the reading as an excuse to share my emotions. Or to forget about the reading entirely and immediately. But I hold onto the silence. There’s a feeling I was hoping for, one I didn’t get tonight. I’m searching faces for someone who might give it to me. Tonight is a night my father would’ve been proud of me. The book is a baby in one sense or another, and I’m yearning to glimpse the glow of that pride in someone’s eyes. I can’t find it anywhere, and it’s not because the people here despise me, as I worry they do, but simply because none of them is my father. And the longer I look the less likely it seems that I’ll find him.