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4) HIGHWAY 61 VISITED
I drove the black bullet of my BMW up Minnesota Highway 61, one hour north of Duluth and two hours short of the Canadian border. Johnny and I flew in from San Francisco to the Twin Cities that morning, and picked up the car from an interstate driving service in Minneapolis.
Our send-off in California was bitter. Alexandra dropped us off at the curb at San Francisco International Airport. She gave Johnny a big hug and said, “I love you, John-John. Call me every night.”
“Love you too, Mom,” he said. I watched their exchange with intrigue. Although he was eager to move thousands of miles away from her, Johnny still loved his mother. What can you say? She was the best mom he’d ever had.
As for me, I wasn’t going to profess any love this morning. Alexandra faced me, her eyes vacant and cold. “Are you going to be OK without us?” I said.
“I’ll be better than OK without you,” she said, her voice dripping with its customary arrogance. “If I’m lucky, you’ll never come back.” She grabbed the door handle of her Aston Martin, jutted her chin toward the sky and said, “Go.”
That’s the way it ended. I watched her drive off, and I was jolted by an unexpected surge of glee. I felt an unfamiliar sense of freedom, like a captive hawk unhooded and released from its tether. I had no idea when I would see her again, and I wasn’t in a hurry to find out.
Ten hours later, Johnny and I were driving north on a spectacular Minnesota winter day, with the blue expanse of Lake Superior sprawling ocean-like on our right and the setting sun disappearing behind the infinite expanse of pines on our left. I detoured up Highway 61 for the novelty of the famous road, so my son could witness the world’s largest freshwater lake. The scenery was world class, but for me the highlight was spending time with Johnny uninterrupted by the distractions of a television, an Xbox, or cell phone calls. Exiled from California, Johnny had no friends except me, and I liked it that way.
He slumped in the passenger seat and stared out the side window. Despite the winter temperatures, he’d rolled down his window and the icy breeze from Highway 61 fluttered through his hair. I was in control of the music. For this occasion, it had to be Bob Dylan. I cued up “Highway 61 Revisited,” and blasted the title song though the speakers. I belted out the lyrics in a nasal twang: “Well Abe says, ‘Where do you want this killin’ done,’ God says, ‘Out on Highway 61.’” My “61” came out as a screeching “sexty-waawn,” mimicking Dylan to the best of my ability.
“Bob Dylan wrote that song about this highway?” Johnny said.
“It’s a pretty creepy lyric. And you’re screaming it out like it’s an anthem. He’s singing about killing a son?”
“It’s from the Old Testament. God told Abraham to sacrifice his only son.”
“So? Did he kill his son?”
“No. He was prepared to do it, to obey God, but at the last minute God sent an angel to stop him. Instead of killing his son, Abraham sacrificed a ram.”
Johnny shook his head. “What kind of song is that? Sorry, Dad. I can’t get into the Dylan thing. It’s so hard to listen to the guy’s voice. That screeching is pretty awful.”
“Bob Dylan is one of the most imitated vocalists of the last hundred years. He gave every singer with a less-than-perfect voice a blueprint of how to sneer and twist off syllables.”
“He’s all mumbles to me.”
“Try to get past the sound of his voice, and listen to the words. Dylan was the first songwriter to turn poetry into popular music.”
“Who cares about poetry?”
“What is rap and hip-hop music but poetry? What do Jay Z or Kanye West do but chant some simple rhymes over a drum beat?”
Johnny looked unconvinced.
“Bob Dylan changed music forever. Before Dylan, the top singers were crooners like Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, guys with silky voices who performed songs written by unknown people. Then along came Dylan, coughing out “Blowin’ in the Wind” with a voice like sandpaper on wood. He jammed his songs into your ears with that raspy nasal twang, and crossed you up with changes in inflection no one ever heard before.”
“Why would anyone ever listen to that?”
“Great songs. ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’,’ ‘Mr. Tambourine Man,’ ‘Like a Rolling Stone.’ Songs that influenced every writer that followed after him.”
“It doesn’t make sense to me. How can a guy who changed the world come out of all this?” Johnny said, waving his hands at the endless forests. “From up here in the sticks?”
“God only knows where genius is born, but education had something to do with it. Hibbing High School. The same classrooms and hallways you’ll be in tomorrow.”
I spun the steering wheel to the left as we departed Highway 61 and veered west toward the heart of the Superior National Forest. Lake County Highway 15 was a curving two-lane highway that slalomed over gentle hills and carved through wilderness untouched by 21st-Century development. It connected the two metropolises of Silver Bay and Hoyt Lakes, each with a population of about 2,000. The road was smooth and the setting was desolate. We hadn’t seen another car in ten minutes. I compressed the accelerator pedal and watched the speedometer climb. “Hang on, son. We’re going for triple digits.”
When our speed hit 100 miles per hour, I looked over at Johnny. There was no trace of fear—he was loving it.
A sudden blaze of brown fur streaked across the road as the deer jumped out of the forest 100 yards in front of our car. “Shit!” I yelled, and stomped on the brakes so hard I thought my foot would break through the floorboard. Our car fishtailed counterclockwise. The rear wheels made a skid into the dirty snow on the side of the road, and our front fender slammed into the deer’s flank. I heard the crunch of crumbling steel, and saw the deer’s white tail slide up the windshield and over the top of the car. The airbags deployed, and twin balloons of white fabric blotted out the sun. The rear of the car wracked into something solid and stopped with a resounding thump.
I reached down and turned off the ignition. My hands were shaking. We’d hit the deer broadside at 100 mph. Highway 15 was now graced with one dead deer, one smashed-up BMW, and two happy-to-be-alive Antones. I took census of my four limbs and my vital functions. I didn’t seem to be injured. I feared for Johnny. I elbowed my air bag aside, and looked over at the passenger seat. There was movement behind Johnny’s air bag. I pushed the fabric aside, and saw my son crouched forward with his head between his knees.
“Are you all right?” I said.
Johnny was hyperventilating—a violent wind entered and exited his gaping mouth. Blood dripped from the right side of his chin. “Are you nuts, Dad?” he screamed. “You almost killed me. That was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen.”
I was reeling. What kind of father was I? I’d almost offed us both. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t think…”
You didn’t think? Do you ever think? Oh, what the hell am I doing up here?” Johnny buried his face in his hands and wailed, “Everybody I know is in California. My mother is thousands of miles away. I’m up here in the woods with you, stuck in a ditch in outer Mongolia. We’re going to freeze to death and die right here. I should never have left home.”
I didn’t know what to say. I started to reach out toward my son to comfort him, but Johnny grew more agitated, turned away, and wrestled with the airbag until he found the door latch. He pushed the door ajar, and burst out into the sub-freezing air outside.
I opened my own door and twisted my way out of the car. The right front quarter of the vehicle was buckled like an accordion. The deer lay mangled on the roadside at the rear of the car, its glassy eyes staring skyward into the void. Blood seeped from its ears, nose, and mouth. Its thorax was buckled, concave and deformed.
What a waste.
Behind me, Johnny said. “Dead deer. Totaled car. Stranded in the middle of nowhere. Great job, Dad.”
“It all happened so fast…”
“No. You were driving like a maniac, and now we’re stuck. We’re so stuck. There’s no people in these woods but lumberjacks. Lumberjacks who would be hunting this deer if you hadn’t killed it.” Johnny shook his head. He stuck out his jaw, square and resolute. “I’m done. I changed my mind. I want to go home.”
I’d heard enough. “No. We’re going to Hibbing,” I barked. “It’s what you and I decided to do. Together, that’s what you and I decided.”
“It’s too late for that. I’m pulling rank on you. We’re in Minnesota, and we’re staying in Minnesota.” I walked back to the driver’s door, unsheathed a small Swiss Army knife from my key chain, stabbed the point of the blade into the airbag, and slashed a 10-inch gouge in the material. I squeezed the remainder of the air out, compressed the bag into a dense lump the size of a basketball, and stuffed it back into its housing inside the steering wheel. I repeated the same treatment on the passenger airbag, and pushed the deflated fabric back into the dashboard.
“Get in,” I commanded.
“You don’t understand, Dad. What’s the point of getting into this wreck of a car, marooned ass-end first in a snow bank?”
I ignored his sky-is-falling attitude, and pushed the ignition button. The engine sprang to life. I floored the accelerator pedal, and listened to the roar of the motor echo off the virgin pines around us.
“Get in,” I repeated.
Johnny looked both ways on the deserted highway, and his shoulders slumped. He climbed into the passenger seat, with a look of hopeless resignation etched on his face. We were miles from the nearest town, and the deformed car was our only hope to limp out of the wilderness. I shifted the transmission into Drive and wondered if the right front tire would move within the mangled fender. With a lurch, the BMW rolled forward out of the snow bank. Lucky us. I whistled through my teeth and turned the automobile back onto Highway 15 for the last leg of our trip toward Hibbing.
I vowed that the next time I saw God, I’d run a little slower. Abraham sacrificed a ram instead of killing his son.
I settled for a deer.
Published in September 2017: The second edition of THE DOCTOR AND MR. DYLAN, Dr. Novak’s debut novel, a medical-legal mystery which blends the science and practice of anesthesiology with unforgettable characters, a page-turning plot, and the legacy of Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan.
In this debut thriller, tragedies strike an anesthesiologist as he tries to start a new life with his son.
Dr. Nico Antone, an anesthesiologist at Stanford University, is married to Alexandra, a high-powered real estate agent obsessed with money. Their son, Johnny, an 11th-grader with immense potential, struggles to get the grades he’ll need to attend an Ivy League college. After a screaming match with Alexandra, Nico moves himself and Johnny from Palo Alto, California, to his frozen childhood home of Hibbing, Minnesota. The move should help Johnny improve his grades and thus seem more attractive to universities, but Nico loves the freedom from his wife, too. Hibbing also happens to be the hometown of music icon Bob Dylan. Joining the hospital staff, Nico runs afoul of a grouchy nurse anesthetist calling himself Bobby Dylan, who plays Dylan songs twice a week in a bar called Heaven’s Door. As Nico and Johnny settle in, their lives turn around; they even start dating the gorgeous mother/daughter pair of Lena and Echo Johnson. However, when Johnny accidentally impregnates Echo, the lives of the Hibbing transplants start to implode. In true page-turner fashion, first-time novelist Novak gets started by killing soulless Alexandra, which accelerates the downfall of his underdog protagonist now accused of murder. Dialogue is pitch-perfect, and the insults hurled between Nico and his wife are as hilarious as they are hurtful: “Are you my husband, Nico? Or my dependent?” The author’s medical expertise proves central to the plot, and there are a few grisly moments, as when “dark blood percolated” from a patient’s nostrils “like coffee grounds.” Bob Dylan details add quirkiness to what might otherwise be a chilly revenge tale; we’re told, for instance, that Dylan taught “every singer with a less-than-perfect voice…how to sneer and twist off syllables.” Courtroom scenes toward the end crackle with energy, though one scene involving a snowmobile ties up a certain plot thread too neatly. By the end, Nico has rolled with a great many punches.
Nuanced characterization and crafty details help this debut soar.
Click on the image below to reach the Amazon link to The Doctor and Mr. Dylan:
Learn more about Rick Novak’s fiction writing at ricknovak.com by clicking on the picture below: