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  • At 18 I was a short-order cook at Howard Johnson’s in St. Louis, knocking down $1.65 an hour on the evening shift. When the restaurant closed at 1:00 a.m., I’d scrape the grill, take off my filthy apron, and drive to my parents’ house. In the morning, my father would already be at his downtown office, making sure the company’s numbers added up. I was off duty until 5:00 p.m.

    I spent each work shift filling orders–flipping burgers and dropping baskets of fries–but that long drive home belonged to me. The stores on the boulevard, even the gas station, would be closed. I’d turn onto the empty highway and roll down the windows and play the car radio any old way I pleased. The green and white highway signs glowed like animal eyes as I followed my headlights through the dark. One night an ambulance passed me, no siren, just flashing lights. I sped up a little and followed it toward the edge of town.

    Three exits remained before the highway crossed the county line. I let a thought form more completely in my head; this ambulance could be coming to my house. No, I reasoned, there are hundreds of houses out this way. Everyone was young and healthy at our house.

    The first exit came into view. Sure, I thought, you sometimes hear of a desk-bound worker like my father having a heart attack in his early forties, but what were the odds of that? I matched the ambulance’s speed as the pulsing lights glided past the ramp. Driving through the valley to the second exit, I considered each member of the family. There was no reason any of us would die young, but no reason not, and the throbbing lights whispered, “Heart attack, heart attack.” Both of us passed the second ramp. We were going to take the third exit together. I turned off the silly music. There was still time to think.

    I could not help but imagine the sorrows that might come and my mother’s great loss. I wondered who could feed the six of us. I was the oldest son, the only one working, but at that wage I might as well have been a child. I was flipping burgers and driving a car my father bought me. I had no clue what our mortgage payment was.

    At the bottom of the final ramp, I selfishly hoped the ambulance would turn away, but it did not. Still, there were dozens of houses up ahead; my father probably was not dying. But I flipped through a catalog of predictable conflicts and regrets, when parent and child outgrow the easy common ground of baseball and camping trips and the adult bonds have not yet formed. In another mile, I would turn onto my own street; unbelievably, the ambulance turned there first.

    The suspense grew as large as the dark of night. I could see our house ahead, and the bloody ambulance began to slow. My heart was throbbing like the lights, and that monster stopped five doors away from us. A new neighbor we hadn’t met. And that was that. On one particular night, we were lucky and someone else was not. So, what was I like when I was young? I was competent, I could hold down a job, I smelled like French fries, I made $1.65 an hour, and I admitted briefly once, while the red light flashed across the neighborhood, that I loved what passed for freedom but wasn’t strong enough yet to call myself adult.
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