We could not have been more honored to publish Welcome Wagoner Vito Aiuto’s short story in this most recent issue of The Mockingbird. And behold, it comes just in time for Christmas! Order one today!

Matthew Cusick

Matthew Cusick

The wide dirty sky hung above the interstate. The pulsing wipers and the broken stereo. Jon Eddy drives out early in the morning, still dark, the back of the car packed with Christmas gifts and decorations and candies in two brown paper grocery bags; he’s hoping to bring his son something that speaks of Christmas because Christmas has come and gone and it’s not snowing, it’s dully raining from cast iron clouds and he’s driving two hours across the state to pick up his son who lives with his mother, Jon Eddy’s wife, who filed for divorce at the end of November. So it doesn’t feel like Christmas, but he feels obliged to try. He very much wants to try to make something happen for his son.

The divorce was his fault, twice: The first time because about a year prior—and this was as inexplicable to him then as it was now—he’d taken to going out a few times a week and driving from bar to bar, getting drunk and waiting for something destructive and mean to happen.

Then one night it did, and when the bourbon wore off in the early morning, and his hand was curled around the hip of a woman who was not his wife, he woke with a jolt into his new life, the life where his home was stripped to the studs, the lumber blackened, the wind screaming through. For a moment—it was more like about five minutes—his heart raced and he couldn’t swallow. He thought he might throw up or suffocate. But as he walked from that strange apartment out to his car, he gathered himself. He thought: This is where I live now.

And the second time because he wouldn’t come back. She sent him letters, but he wouldn’t open them. She stood on the porch for hours. He lowered the blinds and hunkered down.

I wish I didn’t have to do this. He’s my son. I don’t mind the drive, I want to be with him. But I don’t want to be doing this.

What don’t you want to do?

I just don’t want to be doing this at all.

They had arranged by email to meet at a gas station halfway between where he was living now and where they used to live together. He arrives first, parks in front of the building where a uniformed attendant sits behind safety glass. The attendant sits on a high stool with what Jon Eddy presumes to be a microphone hanging before him, although the attendant never speaks to any of the people who come to the window to pay.

Natalie arrives a few minutes later. She pulls her car face-to-face with Jon Eddy’s car. She does not look at him. But he looks at her. It’s not that she’s an accusation. It is that she is his wife with her freckled cheeks and her clear eyes and her refusal to reassume her shyness around him. This woman who continues to unrelentingly exist in the world.

She gets out of her car and he gets out of his. Jon Eddy goes around to the back of his car, opens the door and then steps away at a polite distance. Natalie walks the boy over by the hand—he’s just turned four—and buckles him into the back, says something Jon Eddy cannot hear. She kisses him on the forehead, pulls back and looks in his eyes. The boy smiles, then breaks into laughter. She laughs, too. She kisses him again—this time she holds it longer—then shuts the door.

Natalie walks back and Jon Eddy comes back from where he’d been to stand before her. She stares at him. No smile, of course. But no frown either. He has no idea what she’s thinking. He thinks she must hate him. But she’s not hating him. She’s not thinking anything.

Which feels strange for her. She only knows she has to be there and so she is there, like when you’re told at the hospital where to go and what to do: Take this form to the third floor…Come back on Thursday…Drink plenty of liquids…But she’d always been filled with some kind of desire when she saw him. When they met in college: I want him to see me. And once they married: I want to please him. And when he began to disappear: I want him to change, I want him to come back. But now he stands before her and where has he gone? All she feels is blank and lost, her heart running through the house looking for the keys, rifling through coat pockets, lifting newspapers and magazines, couch cushions, opening drawers she’s never kept her keys in but when you’ve run out of places to look, what do you do? And isn’t it the case that all the time you’ve been looking the keys were in your purse where you keep them, or even right there in your hand? But when she looks down at her own hands they are empty, cracked and red.

She says, “Take care of him.” She nods as if he’d made a reply, then adds, “I hope you guys have a good time. Tell your mom I said, ‘Hello.’ Tell your sister, too.” He remembers how often she does that, tells someone to tell someone else Hello and I’m Thinking of Them, and he’d always hated it. “Will your brother be there?”

His older brother, sodden with drugs and perennially breaking everyone’s heart. “I don’t think so.” He really has no idea. He never talked to his brother anymore, and his mother hadn’t said one way or the other.

There’s no good way to say goodbye, so when they’ve stood there in silence long enough for Jon Eddy to feel it—he hopes that she’ll tell them how this should go, but if she knows, she’s not letting on—he says, “Well, goodbye,” and begins to back away slowly, still facing her. He’s waiting for her to reciprocate, but she doesn’t speak; she just raises her hand. Not really a wave, just her hand raised quietly up for a moment. So he turns and heads to his car.

Jon Eddy settles into the driver’s seat, adjusts the mirror to place Adam’s face in the center. It’s stopped raining. He has it fixed in his mind that he will not smoke with his son in the car. He has anticipated being consumed with a desire to do so, but as he pulls on to the highway he realizes he does not want to smoke. He can wait. And for a moment he even feels nauseated at the thought of the smell and feel of smoking—he thinks maybe he might never smoke again. But he knows that’s not true.

And now they’re on the road, together. What to say, what to say? Jon Eddy keeps hanging the beginnings of sentences out in to the air with no clear idea of where they will land. “Well, it’s…” “So, are you…?”

“Daddy, what is this?” Adam has pulled one of the grocery bags full of Christmas stuff close enough that he can rummage through it; he’s removed from the bag a little mechanical Santa Claus attached to a plastic chain that could be hung from the ceiling. When you flipped the switch Santa shimmied up and down.

“Yeah, it’s a toy. But you don’t really play with it, you look at it. We’ll hang it up when we get to Nana’s house. You hang it up and then he climbs up and down.”

“Like to a chimney?” He’s turning it over and over in his hand, studying it.

“Yeah, sorta like that. So, are you excited for Christmas?”

He doesn’t look up. “We already had Christmas.” Then he does look up and he is surprised.

“I know, but we’re going to have another Christmas at Nana’s house. I know Christmas already happened, but we’re going to have a Christmas party at Nana’s house to celebrate that it has already happened. It’s two Christmases. And Nana will be there and Aunt Maggie and cousin Katie, and probably some other people, too.”

“Will Bella be there?” Bella, his mother’s fat black Labrador.

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure.”

Adam puts the Santa down next to his car seat and starts to hunt around again in the grocery bag. The bare trees at the side of the road rush by, a thin forest, no forest at all. Jon Eddy reaches down to the broken stereo more than once. He imagines that if he could turn some music on, some Christmas music from one of those radio stations that just plays Christmas music, that it would fill the car up, in a way. But then he realizes it’s past Christmas and even if his radio did work, all those stations would have stopped playing Christmas music by now. You can hear Christmas music for weeks and weeks and weeks before Christmas, but as soon as it’s over? Bang: it’s over.

He looks back and Adam is wearing a Santa Claus hat with reindeer antlers sprouting from the sides. He is smiling.

“Daddy, can I wear this?”

“Yeah, sure. Of course. I got it for you.” He knows the hat makes no sense whatsoever—why would a Santa Claus hat have reindeer antlers sprouting out of it?—but it was in the drugstore where he had gathered all of the stuff in the bag, and there hadn’t been much else there. Adam is swinging his head back and forth and the antlers are waving. He likes the hat.

In the weeks after he cheated on Natalie he had tried very hard to say and do as many things as he could that would be so senseless and horrible that there’d just be no going back. He had tried to smash every last bit of what he hadn’t initially destroyed.

And now he wonders: is anything left?

Individual words scroll down over his mind: Recover. Compensate. Salvage. But that was only the first question. Then there was the actually going back and trying to say and do other things.


He is pretty sure his son is a quiet kid, though it is hard to tell since he’d never had another child, and he hadn’t even been seeing Adam much lately; they weren’t to the point of having any regular visitation schedule yet. He was scared of his son, truth be told, his son with all that silence. And maybe it’s nothing now but everyone knows how that silence can grow inside. Jon Eddy knows it’s already growing.

“Daddy, can I have one of these?”

Now he has a cardboard box with two rows of candy canes lined up like rifles in a gun rack and he’s holding it above his head with both hands.

“Yes, you can… ” At that Adam plops it into his lap and begins to work the shrink wrap around the box. But it is not coming easily, not really coming at all, and then there’s the plastic around each individual candy cane. Jon Eddy keeps his eyes on the road and reaches back, “Let me see it, bud. Hand it here a sec?” His hand hangs in the air for a long moment; he keeps reaching out. It’s not there. He glances back in the mirror and his son is still working on it.

“Adam, hand it to me, I’ll get it for you.” He meets eyes with his son in the mirror. Adam hands it to him, a concession. Jon Eddy steers with his knees while he works open the package.

What words come to mind?

Lazy. Weak. Someone who’s mostly interested in avoiding trouble.

I don’t think it’s helpful to say those things about yourself.

I know, but I can’t think of anything else.

Jon Eddy pulls a candy cane from the box and jerks the wrapping down like a banana peel, careful not to break it, careful to keep the bottom half covered so it won’t get Adam’s fingers sticky. Though he knows it will, at least a little. He hands it back across the seat.

“Just lick this because candy canes are a candy that you just suck on it and taste it, you don’t, like, crunch it.”

He cuts him off. “I know about these, Daddy.”

And apparently he does know about them because he puts the top half in his mouth and gently tugs at it. He is still watching his father. But then, politely, he looks aside out the window, the precise gesture that when the person sitting next to you on a plane does it, means, I would like to stop talking with you now. Jon Eddy is delighted. His son is four years old and he already knows that move! He puts his eyes back on the road and rubs the tip of his index finger hard into his temple.

I deserve to be sent to Hell.

What do you mean when you say,“Hell”?

I don’t know. I just know that’s the word for it: Hell.

But what is it? What would happen there?

I don’t know. The only thing that comes to mind is that I could be Whipped there. Like, Whipped with some kind of—I don’t know what it would be. Whatever you Whip someone with. And it would be done publicly so everyone would see.

So who would see?

So everybody would see! Everyone, but especially the people I’ve, you know. Hurt.


Yeah, I mean, of course her. Of course, Natalie. But the thing is, before I could even get to her—I’m not saying what I did to her and Adam isn’t just about the worst thing I’ve ever done, I know it is. But it’s everyone, going back to when I was a kid, and in middle school, and in high school… Everybody I made fun of, girls I took advantage of. And my parents. Like, how I really didn’t give a shit in school and I didn’t pay attention and they were always like genuinely trying to help me to do better, and it wasn’t that I was doing badly because I didn’t have the tools. I did. I totally could have done better. But I was always just about…myself. It wasn’t just that…You know what I’m talking about.


I’m just an essentially bad person, and it’s everything. There are just certain things that I know I should be, like… punished.

What things do you have in mind?

Well, that’s what bothers me, too, because the stuff I’d like to be Whipped for—the stuff I think about the most—see, those aren’t the worst things I’ve done. Like the really bad shit, I know that’s the worst stuff I’ve done and I know that’s the stuff I should really suffer for. But what I really want to be Whipped for is sometimes this kind of weird, incidental stuff that…Like when I was in high school, I was at this fall festival walking with my friends on the sidewalk behind the food trucks, and we all had caramel apples. And I made this really crude joke—which, by the way, wasn’t even true—what I said—about this girl who was in the class below me. And as soon as I said it I looked up and that girl’s mom was right in front of me, and she was just staring at me.

She heard you?

Yeah. She did. She didn’t say anything. She just stared at me. And I have been thinking about her staring at me probably twice a day ever since that day. That was twelve years ago. And I would like to be able to just set that right, you know? I’d like her to see me be absolutely punished in a way that she would stop staring at me.

But…You’ve done far worse things than that. Things you really don’t think that much about being Whipped for.

No, I know. I agree! And I know that this like extravagant regret I feel about that has a lot more to do with me being exposed as the kind of person who easily and naturally says hurtful things and false things in order to get attention. Some joke to get a laugh. And it bothers me that it’s those little things I’m always thinking about, and not the other stuff that I know is way, way worse.

It does bother you. That discrepancy.

Yeah, it does. But I wish it bothered me more.

Right. But you could look at it like this, that even though sometimes you want to be Whipped for the wrong reasons, one thing is that: you could be Whipped for that, too. For the discrepancy itself.

Yeah, I was thinking the same thing.

Jon Eddy thinks: It could be for everything. The Whipping. And everyone. And it would be for so long and so hard that everyone who was there to see it—even the people he’d hurt the worst—all of them would finally begin to rise from their folding chairs and start walking towards the front. He sees them now beginning to walk more briskly, waving towards the authorities, their voices rising: “OK, that’s enough. You need to stop it, now. No, now. No, no… ” He hears them shouting and some are screaming for it to end, their voices breaking for the horror of it, the severity of the Whipping he is getting. Everyone seeing beyond any uncertainty that the Whipping is definitely enough, and they’d rush the stage to stop it.

So then all the people who were watching would come and stop it?

No, no. You can’t stop something like that just because people are clamoring for it. The people watching are part of it, but you can’t just… No way, it’s not like that at all, because most people don’t have any idea. There’d have to be guards at the stage to keep the crowd from interfering.

The guards would keep the people back while the Whipping continued?

Right. I wouldn’t want people to be able to interfere or stop just because they—it couldn’t stop until it was really over.

How would you know when it was over?

I’d say probably some judge would have to rule on it. And the full consent of all the people. Everyone. There’d be an official process. Like maybe a petition would have to be circulated, and then a judge, and it’d be a process—I mean, days or weeks, I guess—in which the proper papers would have to be filed. It’d have to be reviewed.

And all that time, the Whipping would continue?

Oh, yeah. For sure.

 And Jon Eddy imagines that after a time the Whipping would cease to hurt, it would cease to cause anything like physical pain, but the enormity of it would transport him to another country, another universe, a place where suffering wasn’t one citizen among many, or the pouring black rain that came down every night without fail, or even the mother tongue, but a place where suffering was the everything: the air and the ideas and the excuses and the spirits and the furniture and in his hair and eyes and the blood inside of his body and there’d be no escape from the anger and the wrath and the horror. The Whipping would have to be like that. That would be Hell.

So once the papers were filed, and the judge had ruled, and everyone had agreed that finally it was enough, then they’d stop, and they’d unstrap me from the board…

The board?

Yeah. I’d have to be on something. I was thinking it would be a board that I’d be strapped on.


So they’d undo these thick leather restraints from around my wrists and waist and ankles. Of course there’d be no way I’d be able to walk at this point. I mean, I wouldn’t be able to walk or talk or anything like that, it might be years and years before any of that.

I would expect so, yes.

But then. You know, then. Once it was over. I know I’d be wrecked and ruined and destroyed. But then, you know: I think I’d finally be happy.

In the rearview mirror, still Adam’s face. He is staring at his dad, his lips pursed together and his eyes hard and determined. And now with his mouth slowly opening wide, he closes his eyes and arches his head out in an animal gesture to his left to gulp air that does not come, cannot come. How long does it take Jon Eddy to register that his son is choking? Not long really, maybe two full seconds. (What’s he doing? Is he pretending to be a dinosaur? Will he roar like a lion? ) But then he does realize, and what can be done? What decisive and lavish thing can a father do when his child is being dragged away like this? If it was a car bearing down on him in a parking lot he could shove his son aside and intercept the hit. If it was an abductor in the mall who had his son by the hand, briskly striding him to the bank of glass doors, he could run them down and batter the man under a hundred blows, fix his hands around the man’s neck and squeeze until all the life in him had boiled dry. But now it is someone else’s unseen hand around his son’s neck. It is his son who cannot breathe and Jon Eddy cannot think of a sufficient sacrifice to stave off what is happening in the back of his car.

He jams the brakes hard but does not lock them up, pulling the car towards the berm. The car behind him is not prepared for what Jon Eddy does and gently clips their car on the left bumper, sending them into a skid, the tires angrily digging in, now releasing into a slow spin, still easing towards the side of the road. The car behind them continues on. The bag of goodies lifts into the air, Santa Claus on his chain lifts into the air, and all of it comes raining down on the front seat and on the dash and under the windshield—candy canes, several DVDs, a bag of Hershey Kisses, a snow globe (which, being plastic, does not break). Jon Eddy has stopped trying to keep control of the car because there’s no control to be had. There’s nothing happening in his mind except a current of fear that has filled his entire body. He’s just waiting for the car to stop so he can get out and take Adam in his arms and do something. Not fear of the accident, mind you. Do something. And it takes such a long time for the car to stop. Then they are stopped and they are resting in the shallow grassy ditch, tipped up slightly towards the sky, facing the wrong way with the cars flying past them. He can see some of the cars are braking now, faces turned towards them out their windows. His engine is still running. Jon Eddy gets out of his car and runs around the front towards Adam’s door.

When he arrives Adam’s face is mottled blue and purple and red. His eyes are watering, wide and terrified. Jon Eddy undoes his son’s seatbelt and lifts him out of the car, tries to stand him up in the disheveled grass so he can thump him on his back, but Adam’s knees buckle and he cannot firmly stand, so Jon Eddy curls one arm around his son’s chest, holding him erect, and begins to pound his back with the heel of his hand. Nothing, and Adam is beginning to go limp. Now voices from behind them.

“Sir, are you OK?” He turns and looks and it is a woman in her mid-fifties, parted graying hair, stylish navy blue coat, striding towards them through the grass. “Is that child choking? Sir? You have to give him the Heimlich.”

Now another voice from behind, an older man in weathered Carhartt coveralls and a ball cap: “He’s not old enough to do the Heimlich.” For a second Jon Eddy thinks the man is saying that he, Jon Eddy, is not mature enough to perform such a serious procedure on his son, and he is angry at the suggestion. But he is also ashamed as he suspects the man is probably correct.

The woman does not break stride. “Yes, he is old enough. Sir?” More insistent now. “Go behind him and do the Heimlich.” She stops short of them, not quite close enough to touch. She is still talking though, and it feels to Jon Eddy as if she is speaking to him over the telephone, long distance. Long distance, like when he was young and long distance really meant something and you counted the minutes when you were talking long distance, a precious commodity, a treat and a gift. His mother’s mother would call their house long distance late at night from Switzerland where she had moved with her second husband, a doctor who’d retreated there as a tax exile. Don’t talk too long, it’s long distance.

“Hi, Gramma. I miss you.”

“I’m going to see you soon, honey.”

“I love you, Gram.”

“He’s gonna break that kid’s ribs is what he’s gonna do.”

Now the older man has his ball cap in one hand and he is rubbing his bald head with the other: he’s talking to a younger man beside him who might have been with him before, or maybe not. There’s quite a little crowd assembled now and it’s hard to tell who was with who before. But they’re all together now.

But Jon Eddy is alone with his son and he is behind him doing what he thinks—what he hopes—is the Heimlich. He remembers you’re to ball your fist and hang on to it with the other hand. You put it below the breastbone and you jerk upwards. He’s thinking there’s some additional or different instruction for when it’s done to a child. But if there is he can’t remember it now or else he never knew.

The woman again: “Five thrusts, up. And you have to do it hard.”

Jon Eddy starts to thrust, but what is hard with nothing to compare it to? He doesn’t want to hurt him, but he will if he needs to. Fives times. Nothing.

“OK, hit him on his back again, do that five times, too. You need to… ” Jon Eddy wants the woman to remain calm. If she stays calm, that means this thing isn’t too far gone. He’s looking in his mind for any suitable narrative for this event, and one is where this woman is a bulwark, a bright beacon that sees him through to safety. Let her be the hero of the story, he thinks. She’s the rock and she sees us through this. Us. But now she’s kneading her thin, white hands in front of her chest while she talks. She’s beginning to fray.

And now there are cows strolling across the field towards them, coming to gather around whatever had gathered the others. Jon Eddy is trying to rap his son’s back, but he has to hold him up to do it, and he’s having trouble managing it. And now a voice cries out—he thinks it is the younger man next to the ball cap man—“Have you checked inside his mouth, his throat?”

No, he hasn’t done that yet, checked the airway, and all of a sudden he can see the pencil-drawn pictures on the laminated poster of the instructions for how to help a choking victim. The first picture is the person choking: someone holding their own throat. Now he’s sure that one of the other pictures is someone checking the choking person’s throat, sweeping it with his fingers, and he hasn’t done that yet.

So much to do! The instructions are simple. But where have they gone?

He turns Adam over and eases him down on to the wet grass, then slides his hand underneath the back of his neck. He’s never done this before; he’s just going by how he’s seen it done on TV. It all seems terribly unfair. His son feels gone even now. And then to wrest open his mouth and pull down the tongue.

But look! There it is! A piece of candy cane peeking out from the back of his throat, the top just barely beginning to curve up and over like a little periscope. And now swinging his leg over Adam he is on top of him and holding down his jaw with one hand as he reaches past his lips with the other—his hand is so large—and feels for the piece of candy cane. And then he does feel it, but he can’t grasp it. He tries again and it slips. He tries once more and quite distinctly feels his index finger push it down and away and gone forever.

Adam bucks once under him, draws in a short rattling breath, and then another, and then he begins to gag. There hadn’t been any sound before, but now there are lots of scary sounds and Adam looks as panicked as he was in the back of the car, drawing in startled and ill-fitting breaths. His eyes are open. He reaches up for Jon Eddy’s neck and clamps down tight and when Jon Eddy begins to stand, Adam is clinging to him like a frightened monkey.

“Let me see you, bud. Lean back, buddy, I want to see you.” But he cannot pry him away.

The woman walks behind him, presumably to look at Adam, and Jon Eddy cannot hear what she is saying. But now she comes back around. “He needs to go to an emergency room. He may have inhaled it.”

Someone says, “We already called 911 for you, there’s an ambulance coming.”

Jon Eddy starts to walk away with his son and then stops. He doesn’t have anywhere to go. He walks farther up the embankment towards the road, then turns and sees the people below. They’re all staring up at him. He looks at the field beyond them and it is quaking, the trees and the power lines and the barns are moving to and fro. All the birds of the air have fled. His heart is beating wildly upon the fragile walls of his heart. He hears a siren like the sound of a trumpet, the blare of a trumpet, the alarm of a sudden war.