If I had to doze, I dozed after the line broke between earth and sky, as a faint bruise spread slowly and we drove deeper into the purple-hearted dawn. By the time the sun began to rise, Dad and I were driving on a two-lane highway through Pennsylvania farmland, towards upstate New York’s mountains in the distance. Our family owned a wholesale bakery that over the years had grown and took Dad’s routes deeper into the north, away from the cities. He was a seasoned driver and deliveryman and the years on the job had made him accustomed to hours of solitude in the van. He enjoyed his own company, radio shows that pulled pranks on listeners, and how the day melted away while on the road for hours.
I relished summer vacations when I would tag along not really ever with the interest of being helpful, but for the joy of partaking in a long and winding road trip with him. There was a sense of endlessness to the night when I was a kid; the stretch between bedtime and 2 am – when Dad would come to wake me up – seemed everlasting. He’d walk in quietly and whisper my name, rubbing my back.
“It’s very late,” he’d say in Albanian. “Are you sure you want to come?” Like a ritual, he’d ask every time. Only once I was too tired to drag myself out of bed to get dressed. By the time day broke, I had never regretted anything more, finding myself stuck inside the house on a hot summer day.
Every time after, I would always force myself up, and as we drove through our quiet neighborhood I would think of all the poor families sleeping away the potential for adventure. To me, the night-time supplied exhilaration and whimsy. I didn’t realize then that to Dad this was a Sisyphean routine he repeated each week.
When the color cracked at the horizon and you could distinguish between earth and sky, he would turn on the radio. It would hum softly in the background as we tried to keep up with local stations, each growing fuzzy with static as we edged closer to conflicting state lines and rivaling stations. For a moment, crossing over the imaginary divide, the radio would be completely overtaken by white noise, as if we were suspended in limbo, or a no man’s land. Then, just as suddenly, it would come back to life with the distant, crackling voices, and we’d be back on the map.
Giant sprinkler systems and pesticide sprays stretched out to all corners of the fields like monstrous, shiny daddy-long-legs or modern Don Quixote giants. The higher the sun rose with the morning mist fading from the dewy farms around us, the less mysterious the world became and the allure of night would be broken. Cars would begin jamming the roads, and sometimes horses and buggies with Amish folk created long lines of impatience in the single lane behind them.
My dad, normally an impatient man himself, found humor in their quaintly oblivious existence. If it had been any modern day driver holding up the lane, he would have muttered under his breath in his unique blend of Albanian and Greek, with me understanding only half of the insults slung. There’s the distinct memory of the way he’d emphasise the ‘f’ in “fuck you,” in his English, the ‘u’ sounding more like a sigh of “ah.” “Fahk you,” he’d mumble to erratic drivers. But instead, he’d be charmed with the old school buggies and the sound of horses clopping in rhythm against the worn out pavement. His laughter rippled out and rose above the radio like air floating over our heads, and I’d be lifted.
I don’t remember what discussions we had, only his stories of having done this job for over a decade. From the beginning of our American days, when he was delivering for another business, to that current state of bustling affairs, my parents working around the clock for their own store. And from there he’d almost always take me backwards in time, reaching far into the past into the days before I was born, and those stories were always my favorite. Stories of dictatorship and endless scarcity in almost every facet of life in Albania; of his young hooligan days with his friends and how he met my mom.
The time was marked by how often we circled back to the same story, to the same that is unbelievable remarks, and by how high or low in the sky the sun was dipping.
The van smelled very faintly of coffee and cigarettes, discreetly mingling with the scent of baked goods, and fresh fruits stuffed between layers of rich cream. They slowly wafted away through Dad’s open window, but some lingered just enough to be trapped between the folds of my mind as another fond memory.
I’d stay up all night, as if waiting to be initiated into some secret club that only adults could participate. My eyelids would begin to weigh down once the world turned into the brightly lit, predictable space that I knew well. And soon, just like that, I’d be asleep. With the van rumbling around me and the farm air rolling in through the cracked windows, bringing with it a sudden chill to the small space, I’d doze in the front seat as morning faded into midday and midday into late afternoon; our road eventually curving back towards home, towards familiarity.