Pushcart XLII: Bret Anthony Johnston, “Dixon” from VQR, Summer 2016

A star-smeared night, the usual briny and humid haze of the brush country in August, and Dixon was hauling twenty cases of stolen toys up from the Rio Grande valley. They were in the bed of his truck under a blue tarp. He took care to drive the speed limit and flash his blinker. If the border patrol at the Sarita checkpoint asked, he’d claim a delivery mix-up. If the guards were white, he’d blame it on Mexicans.
The toys had been slated for Dairy Queen kids’ meals, a promotion for a book series called Pegaterrestrials in which the characters were half alien and half winged horse, but that morning the office phone rang and a collectibles dealer had offered three grand for the lot. Dixon was forty-two and he’d managed the franchise outside Harlingen for four years. He knew he’d be fired, maybe arrested, too, but he also knew better than to give himself time to reconsider….

Complete story available online at VQR

Dixon isn’t a bad guy, not at all. He’s a father who’d turn himself into a Pegaterrestrial to save his daughter. His intentions are great; he just falls a little short in the execution. If wishes were horses, beggars would ride – or, as in this case, fly. And he’d get his fifteen-year-old into the drug rehab program she needs.

It’s a story that walks an interesting line between comedy and tragedy. An out-of-control teenager, a family on the brink of financial and legal disaster, against a guy named Cornbread who runs an outfit selling bootleg fast-food toys at flea markets. A wife and mother who focuses on what she can do for her husband and daughter: making “real food”, tuna fish, for dinner, instead of the ubiquitous free Blizzards that flow through the house like water. A guy in a humid, miserable landscape, who sees nothing but the light at the end of the tunnel, and is constitutionally unable to consider that it might be an oncoming train.

I’ve read somewhere that the motivation of all fiction is to show change, or the impossibility of change. Given the final lines, this story’s job is the latter. Somehow, that makes it sadder, funnier, and much more real.

But I think something else this story does is more important. If I read one summary of Dixon – he’s a Texan ready to blame everything on Mexicans; he’s a thief, and a toy thief at that; he gave his daughter a shotgun for her 12th birthday – I’d put him in a category, and not a nice category. This story takes him out of a category and turns him into a person. I can feel great compassion for him, maybe laugh at him a little, definitely frown on some of his decisions, but really feel for his dilemma, one many parents face: how do you save a child gone wrong? His views on Mexicans, on guns, on pretty much anything else, fade beside that. Seeing him as a person, even a flawed person, closes the gap between us, make it possible for us to connect, at least a little.

This is what fiction can do for all of us: remind us that the people we put in categories, the people we yell at on Twitter, are people, with fears, dreams, and foibles. They could be people we might like, if we met them in stories. And maybe the next time I hear of someone who gave a rifle to his 12 year old, instead of putting him in a category, I’ll remember Dixon, and see a person.

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