Asphalt by Eric Ullerich

As of 1955, Alta Dena didn’t deliver milk in Orange County, California as supermarkets were satisfying demand. Kurt’s father insisted on driving to the dairy every Saturday. It was Saturday.

“You are goddamned lucky, son,” his father would invariably say at some point during the commute up Yorba Linda Boulevard, roughly tracking the scaffolds for the 57 freeway.

“I know dad,” Kurt responded. His mother and father had made it more than clear he should be grateful for every single morsel of food and drop of liquid from Coca-Cola to drinking fountain water.

Other than that, they drove in silence, his father puffing on a Pall Mall. Kurt looked out the side window, his finger that functioned as an all purpose weapon against the glass, flicking off the tops of telephone poles, calling in airstrikes to distant hills or directing machine gun fire towards passing vehicles. It wasn’t a long drive but bumpy through the hills and valleys of the orange groves. 

Kurt knew they were close when the asphalt turned to trail. Dirt kicked up around the sides of the Packard and rooster-tailed behind.

Shortly after, his father brought the behemoth to a stop, heaving Kurt forward then back, a familiar motion. He was able to ride it like an angry but predictable wave. He pulled the handle down, the door releasing with a chunk. Kurt slithered sideways to push it open with both feet then chased after his father into the dairy.

“How do, Mr. Gordon?” asked the owner, wearing his usual white apron.

“Just fine, Phil. How’s life treating you?”

“Oh, can’t complain,” he answered. He turned to Kurt, “Young man, you’re being a good boy?”

“Yessir,” Kurt answered promptly.

The man set a basket of milk bottles on the counter. Gordon reached into the pocket of his trousers for his billfold. Kurt always noted the way his father pulled out his money. He did it not a moment too soon, maybe a bit late. The patter had come to a halt between the two men and everyone knew what was coming next, even the cows. His father would let that beat simmer for one or two extra then he’d tilt his body to the right as if that amount of leverage was required to extract the billfold from his pocket. Then he’d tilt the wad sideways and out of the clip, palming it back into his pocket while he switched the bills to the other hand. With a lick of his thumb, the two hands came together at chest height, leaving a five dollar bill extended towards the man. Upon acceptance, the entire process devolved back into his pocket. It seemed to Kurt his father did most things similarly deliberate.

They drove home the way they came. The basket of milk sat in front of his seat within the massive well. Kurt found the rattle and tinkling of glass against glass pleasant. His father pulled the Packard into the asphalt driveway that was already starting to crack even though they’d hardly lived there. Black seams and faultiness spidered the most heavily driven sections.

“Pick it up,” Gordon told his son, gesturing at the milk. Normally, Kurt’s father would come around and grasp the basket’s wire handles with meaty hands but on this occasion his father told him to do it. The change in routine spread panic. Of all people, his father was changing things up. He wanted to cry and protest but knew that would not be well received. He remembered having his forehead smacked into the sidewalk when he’d had a tantrum about not getting ice cream from the Good Humor man same as the girl next door. He was having a rite of passage with no advance warning.

“Get the lead out.”

Kurt hoisted the six half-gallon glass jugs over the Packard’s base, setting the contraption on the driveway. His father watched him like a judge. He clamped the two cruel handles, nothing more than wire. He hoped his tightened fists would provide sufficient cushion but the handle hurt immediately. He got them to the crease in the center of his palm, thinking that’s where it would hurt the least. He stood and eased forward with tentative steps.

“That milk’s gonna spoil you don’t hurry up,” his dad said.

The bottles jangled ominously against one another, the tinkling no longer pleasant.

“Hey! Careful, Bub!”

He set them down just before the two eight inch steps that preceded the landing and front door. Usually, with a running start, he leapt them both. Kurt looked at the basket of milk then at the steps trying to figure an easier way up.

“Waiting for an engraved invitation?” his father asked him.

Kurt planned to jerk the basket onto his hip, mount the steps, set down the milk, blow and rub on his palms until the pain stopped, then carry the milk a bottle at a time to the ice-box. He realized he should have just done this from the start. He lowered the basket to the ground, removed one bottle of milk, marched it into the kitchen, then repeated five more times. Satisfied, he resigned to his room. Minutes later he heard then saw his father tapping his bedroom’s door jamb with curled index finger.

“Outside, Bub.” He followed his father back out. The basket was outside with all six milk bottles back in it. His father’s hands were on his hips.

“I’m not raising a goddamned goldbricker,” his father said. Mere days ago, his father had scolded him for carrying the “lazy-man’s load” when a butter-knife clattered onto the linoleum, having slipped from his fist full of utensils.

Kurt hoisted the basket onto his hip and mounted the first step. On the second, Kurt’s fingers uncurled. Those that didn’t break on the ground, ruptured against each other. Not one landed. Milk exploded in sheets of blue liquid, splashed down onto the asphalt and was subsumed between the cracks.

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Eric Ullerich is a retired attorney, living in Northridge, California, with three boys, one sublime wife and a minivan. He has been published in the Los Angeles Review of Los Angeles (Episode 8) , Down in the Dirt, The Legendary, Yellow Mama and Page & Spine.

Photo credit: Terri Malone


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