Part I, wherein the son and father makes his appearance.
It was a 1979 Honda Civic, the silver weathered down to a dull, bruised gray. It had a hatchback and faded fabric seats the color of old theater curtains. In the summer months, you could catch a whiff of Oklahoma road dust and old man sweat. The wheezing thing had belonged to my grandfather, my father, my sister, and finally, me.
It amazed me to crawl into the tiny bucket seat and feel the weight of my old man’s old man still there. He had been a giant, a gnarled oak, all red dirt prairie and World War II battlefield scars. Why such a fellow would have chosen a tiny Japanese car made out of tin foil and pipe cleaners is beyond me. When so many of his fellow grizzlies were driving Ford pickups, why would he have squeezed his bulk into a motorized foot locker?
Unless, of course, that was the point.
The hillbillies who sat around his restaurant pontificating to maddening pointlessness may have paid his bills, but that didn’t earn them his respect. He made a living for his family in that two-bit town despite what they all thought of his no-account daddy. For as long as I can recall, my grandfather kept a soggy, wooden toothpick forever jammed into the corner of his mouth. Maybe it helped him hold his tongue in the company of his neighbors. The car let him thumb his nose instead.
None of this mattered to me when I was little. I just remember his lap. John Deere, semi truck, VW bus, and who knows what all else – all my earliest driving experiences found me perched on the massive trunks of my grandfather’s legs. A muscled arm sheathed in hog bristles and tree bark slung casually around my belly kept me upright. The effortlessness of his might was both a marvel and a source of great comfort. Even as a wisp of a thing, I could grip the wheel of whatever beast growled its restrained power at me, and I could surrender to the thrill of driving. As ever, the pointed end of a toothpick hovered near the back of my dopey, bobbing head. Every time I drove with him, I came out unscathed. Granddaddy never seemed to be surprised by this.
When the Honda made its way down to me, it came complete with the busted seat springs and an ancient cylinder of Grandaddy’s toothpicks still in the glove box. The problem was, the old fella kicked the bucket before he had a chance to teach me how to drive stick.
In July of my 16th year, I finished driver’s ed. My instructor came away with a heart condition and no desire to see me in the remedial lessons I doubtless required. He gave me the nod, and I hounded my mother to ferry me to the DMV. She had to take the morning off work to get me there. Twice. When I finally passed, my mom whisked me back home just ahead of the perpetual cloud of exasperation that follows working mothers everywhere. She sped off and left me standing in the driveway, keys in hand, staring at the little gray package of manually-operated freedom waiting just out of reach.
Damn. Summer day. Nothing but wide-open streets, a full tank of gas and. . . ?
Get to it, girl. A car wasn’t the only thing your granddaddy left you.
I marched up the block and knocked on a neighbor’s door. Glory be! Marco was home. So what if he was three years older? And already a college man? And couldn’t care less about a dingbat teenager from his old neighborhood? Marco’s mama had raised all three of her big, Italian boys to be courteous, and I was hungry enough to take full advantage of his mandatory chivalry. He sighed and followed me back down the block.
Whiplash, teary hysterics, a fried clutch, and several dozen unrepeatable four-letter words later, I jolted and screeched up to Marco’s curb and deposited him home. He went tumbling out the door before I had even come to a complete stop. “It’s just a see-saw,” he called to me from the safe remove of the sidewalk. “Remember, easy does it. You’ll be fine.” Neither his forced smile nor his hoarse voice echoed the confidence of his words.
It was okay. I didn’t care if I had to stall and jerk along the highways for next hundred years. I settled myself into the easy grip of the caved-in seat and took the wheel. I worked the pedals and got the thing moving. In the glove box, Grandaddy’s toothpicks rolled right along with me.