Speed Trap – Kevin Kearney

My mom spent every afternoon playing video slots at the Roadside Tavern. She’d be there for hours, her eyes glued to the screen and a sweaty cranberry-vodka resting on the console. When I was younger I’d join her, sitting on her lap or at a nearby table, trying to entertain myself with some crayons and a placemat. By the time I was eight, I’d successfully convinced her to leave me at home with the TV. By the time I was 17, I’d followed my dad’s example and left town, heading for the first place that’d have me.

The few neighbors we had growing up called where we lived a “small town,” but that never felt right: it was a speed trap disguised as a community. When people talk about their small towns, they mention their schools, libraries, and parks. For us, there was the Roadside, a gas station, and a convenience store. That was it. It was so small it was practically invisible.

After I moved on, Mom called every few weeks, usually from her spot at the Roadside. “I’ve just been wanting to catch up,” she’d say, and in the background I’d hear the unmistakable crank of her pulling the slot machine’s handle.

I was her only kid, so when she died I was left as the executor of the estate. I returned home and buried myself in the paperwork, bewildered by the fact that even though a coroner had pronounced her dead the state still viewed her accounts as very much alive. On one of those afternoons the owner of the Roadside came by the house, shook my hand all firm and proper, and told me how much Mom meant to his staff. “She was an institution,” he said, and I thanked him, not knowing what else to say. Eventually he got to the point. “The reason I came to see you is we were hoping to hold a service for her.” It was clear he was reeling from the loss in a way that just wasn’t possible for me. All I remembered was the nail-polish stink of vodka and the terrible sound of her beloved machine.

“What do you need from me?” I asked. I hoped it didn’t sound cold. I was aiming for compassionate.

“It’d mean a lot if…” He paused and took a deep breath, I suppose to stop himself from crying. “It would mean a lot if you could be there, maybe say a few words.”

I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to do much of anything, frankly, but I didn’t know how to say “no.” After he left, I stared at the pile of overdraft notices on the desk and told myself I had done the right thing.

The service was that Sunday at the Roadside. There were pictures of her everywhere in the bar, though they all were all the same: Mom, with drink in hand, sitting in front of that slot machine. Someone had arranged them chronologically, and I traced the evolution of the lines on her face, the way her skin sagged slowly over time.

The owner introduced me to the two dozen or so people one-by-one with pride, like I was his grandson back home for the weekend. Everyone gave me hugs, said they were sorry for my loss, and offered to buy my next drink. I kept checking my watch, praying that somehow it’d be over soon.

After an eternity, the owner was clinking a pint glass. That was my cue. The Roadside fell quiet and I cleared my throat, staring at the remarks I’d written the night before. “My mom loved this place,” I said, reading from an index card. “I don’t know that there was anywhere she enjoyed more. I have a lot of memories of her sitting back there at the slot machine, and in all of them she’s got an undeniable smile on her face.” They didn’t want to hear about what she was like when she returned home. They didn’t want to know about all the debts I’d spent the last week trying to settle. Even I didn’t want all that. I just wanted to go home. “So, I want to thank you all for making a place for her. I know that she’s looking down on us right now. And I know that she’s still smiling.”
Glasses were raised. Some of the waitresses dabbed their eyes with cocktail napkins. The owner put his arm around me and told me how proud he was. I was surprised at how much hearing that affected me. I wasn’t even sure of his last name.

“You think we could get a picture?” His arm was still wrapped around my shoulder, and I realized he was walking me across the room.

“Sure,” I said. It sounded like the final obligation. There would be a few flashes, maybe a few more tears, but then I would shake some hands and see myself out the door.

“We thought it might be nice to get you in your mom’s old spot.” I could feel every eye in the Roadside following us as he sat me down in front of the slot machine. A message on the screen urged me to purchase a few credits. It felt like a taunt.

I forced a smile and tried to imagine how comforting the silence of my car would sound. A few of the kitchen staff snapped photos, but one of the waitresses suggested that it felt incomplete. She ran to the bar and came back with a cranberry-vodka in a sweaty glass, just like mom would’ve wanted. The waitress handed it to me and leaned into my ear. “Pull the lever,” she said. When I looked at her, confused, she grew stern. “Hold the drink in your left hand and pull the lever with your right.”

“I’d rather not,” I said. I thought I’d said it low enough so only she would hear, but everyone else must’ve realized what was happening because they all began shouting their own demands.

“Big sips from the glass now!”

“Your eyes should be wandering the bar as you drink. You want to know what’s going on.”

“Slouch down! She was always slouching!”

I told myself that I was imagining things, that I was actually back at the desk grinding through her estate, that it was all just a nightmare my anxiety had concocted to shake me back to work.

The owner crouched down next to me. “Son, we’re just trying to get the picture as accurate as possible. If you can help us out, it’ll make things move faster. Maybe it’d help to get into character a bit. She used to complain about things at home,” he said. “You think you could do some of that?”

My dad was a smart man even if he’d never said anything worth remembering ー he knew that it would always end this way if you weren’t absolutely careful. He knew if you didn’t close your eyes after you left, if you didn’t pretend the past was just some hazy dream, then you’d eventually find your way back.

I grabbed the handle of my mother’s machine and felt the brittle floorboards of the Roadside Tavern shake with joy as I pulled down. For the first time since I’d arrived home, I felt relieved. I leaned back in the chair, settling into the well-worn leather, and watched as the slots blurred into an oddly familiar nothing.