There are whole days when I want to drive to the store for a pack of cigarettes, like the man in that cliché, and never come home. But I can’t. My truck won’t start. It’s parked in the driveway beneath a maple heavy with autumn leaves, and like the tree, it’s big and simple and old. That’s where the similarities end. It’s also finicky, maybe even spiteful, and I never know when it will run.
But there are whole days I’d like to go out on an errand and just keep going. Take the highway west, and then north. Push through the Midwest, the badlands, the prairies, the cornfields, buy a coned ice at Wall Drug, postcards at Thermopolis. I’d cross reservations and national parks, throw back cans of cheap beer at smoky interstate truck stops, sleep in motels where the floors shake and the walls moan and the beds vibrate for the price of a couple quarters. If I left I could be anyone I wanted. Change my name, create a new future, a new past. I could be a cowboy, scientist, salesman, ex-con. Let my hair grow long, wear expensive suits or paint-spattered overalls with nothing underneath, cigarettes dangling dangerously from my mouth. I can imagine it a hundred different ways down to each detail. The waitress who serves me cherry pie at the diner in Gary has blue laces in her sneakers, holes in her black stockings. Her breath smells of spearmint gum. There are vinyl stools at the bar in Eau Claire, seafoam green, brittled with age, torn at the edges and dimpled with all the asses they’ve supported. Cheyenne smells like diesel fumes. Mitchell smells like corn. Spearfish just smells.
Fact is, I’ve made my imaginary exodus so many times my imaginary tires are bald. But then, so are my real tires—and that’s where my fantasy actually meets the road.
Here’s how it would happen in the real world. A few miles outside town my truck would start making noises. I’d coast to the shoulder, parting the smoke rising like a funnel cloud from the truck's grille, watch the dashboard lights dim and flicker. Stepping out onto the empty road, I’d bang on the starter with a wrench. Check the fluid levels. Poke the belts and tell myself the tension looked OK, but what do I know? I’m no mechanic.
Turn the key. Nothing. Repeat.
You know how it ends, right? Slipping my coat on, pulling my hat down and trudging to a pay phone to call my wife. My daughter Agnes wants to be an actress, but I could teach her a thing or two about playing a part in something—I know my lines cold.
“Why do you insist on driving that piece of crap?” my wife would say, right on cue, breathing into the phone. She always sounds as if she’s in a hurry. “Where are you?”
“I like it. It’s a fine truck. It’s a lemon-colored beauty. Exit three on the old highway.”
“It doesn’t just look like a lemon, Gus. This is not a good time for me.”
“It was my father’s truck,” I’d say, and even through the phone line my wife would give me that look she gives me, that mixture of venom and fatigue, but what can she do? He was my father. I can no sooner change that now than I could when I was nine, eleven, thirteen. When I'd wait at the curb for him to pick me up in the same yellow truck, or one just like it, long after the baseball game had ended and the field had cleared, alone in my grass-stained uniform, tossing a ball into the air and catching it in my glove. That’s how my childhood passed. With me keeping time like a metronome.
When he finally arrived, he’d stop at the curb, engine idling, and push my door open. Get in, he’d say. All business. If he was ten minutes or two hours late, he was late, and we weren’t going to talk about it. My father wasn’t a talker.
But he was my father. So years later I’d call him at Christmas or Easter to ask how he was, shoveling quarters into the payphone at the end of my shift, covering one ear to hear. He’d let the answering machine pick up even though he was sitting right there next to the phone. It’s Jack. Leave a message. Beep. The message didn’t say he’d call back, and he wouldn’t. He’d just sit in front of his TV drinking and smoking and listening to his son’s voice on the machine.
I can’t change that now. But this time my wife would look around the dark stretch of road where I wait with what was once my father’s truck, pulling up behind the old rusted Ford in the minivan, looking disgusted. While she waits I’d give his truck one last crank just in case, pleading with it.
“Not while she’s watching,” I’d say. But it’s all the same. Nothing.
Running my hand along the yellow length of cab, along the bed and past the tailgate, I’d slink back and fold myself into our one working vehicle beside my wife, who has a gift for stating the obvious.
“What the hell are you doing here? This isn’t the way to the store. And what did you say you were going to buy, anyway? Cigarettes? You don’t smoke.”
She’s right, you know. But I’m thinking of taking it up.
My wife is a massage therapist. Each day she visits clients’ homes with a folding table and a towel steamer and touches other people’s bare skin professionally, kneading them into relaxed ecstasy. Do you ever feel like punishing yourself, just a little bit? When I get to feeling that way, I think of that image. My father always said to use the right tool for the right job, and picturing my wife at work is like a coarse-grit sandpaper that can take layers off me. It’s not that I don’t trust her. It’s just that what she calls work seems awfully intimate to me, and I don’t like to think of her connected at the hands to a steady stream of strangers’ body parts. She has the hands of a rock climber, long fingers with a wingspan and muscles you just don’t see in other people’s hands. Muscles that ripple between the knuckles like beetles fighting beneath her skin. Despite their strength, or because of it, they’re elegant hands, and if I picture those hands soothing some other guy’s sciatica I can work up a pretty good froth.
Mostly, though, I’m OK with what she does. I knew what I was getting into. She tells me it’s clinical, like a doctor, or a beautician. Also, it’s not difficult to imagine her working out her own stress on the taut backs of strangers. I’ve seen her tenderizing meat. I don’t envy the meat.
“Agnes has school tomorrow,” she tells me. We’re in the kitchen, and I’m sipping coffee and staring expectantly at the toaster. She says it as if I don’t know that children go to school every day, and not just on special occasions. It’s a pattern. “Your socks don’t match,” she’ll say. Or, “There’s spaghetti sauce on your shirt,” as if I’m not quite capable of noticing a stain the shape of Greenland mapped out on my own lapels. If I’m feeling charitable, I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and presume she’s doing it in that He’s just scattered, isn’t it adorable? sort of way Mrs. Einstein or Mrs. Edison probably did. His mind is on more important things, she’d say in a half-whispered, conspiratorial aside to whoever just witnessed a stunning act of genius idiocy. When I’m not feeling charitable—as I’m not now—I fear my wife thinks I’m an idiot.
“Of course she has school tomorrow,” I say defiantly, speaking to the toaster. “Agnes has school every day.”
“Tomorrow’s Saturday, Gus.” I can feel her glare on the back of my head, like a cold draft. “She’s got auditions for Antigone at noon. Can you take her?”
That’s the thing about turning your back on people. I’m waiting for toast, and I think, lemons to lemonade, I’ll use this knife to butter it. But before I can remove it from my back my wife twists it anew.
“Will your truck start?”
I’m no mechanic, and I’m no psychic. “Well, Honey, to be honest with you, I have no way of knowing that in advance. It is subject to the whims and wills of a fickle engine, is perhaps possessed by my father, who was himself a very serendipitous man. And like all of us—I don’t need to remind you we’re not getting any younger, Honey—the rigors of time have worn away many of its attributes, rendering it just a shadow of what it once was. But it hasn’t worked all week,” I tell her.
I mean her no disrespect. I’m trying to be funny because I don’t know what else to do.
Lying in the corner, Thurber gives me a look. It pains him to see his master belittled in his own home while waiting for his toast to pop from the toaster. When I go, you’re coming with me, I think, communicating psychically with him. We’ll tell people you’re a wolf.
My wife is a good woman. Her own father, Big Jimmy, has always been there for her. Her mother died six years ago, and Big Jimmy mourned her quickly and efficiently and got on with his life. Two weeks after the funeral he painted his house, assembling rented scaffolding and scaling it like a monkey. A month later he created a Zen rock garden in the backyard. Thurber dug a hole in the sand, buried all the smooth stones. Then Big Jimmy took a night class in hedge sculpture at the community college, and with no trial run trimmed the trees rimming his porch into a life-sized tribute to his favorite hockey players. They line up outside his house like Canadian gargoyles.
He had no need to be domestic while Margaret was still alive, but when she died he assumed her job description on top of his own—as if he’d absorbed her very essence. In some ways it feels like she’s still with us, living on through his cooking, or the way he cleans each surface he comes into contact with.
Big Jimmy is a poster child for how people can change if they want to. He brings us casseroles he’s made, pies he’s baked, full-on New England boiled dinners. “I picked these for you,” he’ll say, setting a bushel of apples on the table and fishing out one of the shiny fruits to polish on his cardigan. “You don’t eat enough fruit. Nobody does. You know what they say about apples.” His name is an intentional misnomer, like Curly, or Slim. Big Jimmy has never stood an inch over five-foot-two. He’s gained some weight in the last few years, but is still fit and trim and active. A couple nights a week he’ll cook dinner for us, wash our dishes afterwards and then play cribbage with me until the day has long folded shut on itself. Around two a.m., when I start to nod off, he’ll excuse himself and walk home. When we roll out of bed the next morning he’s in our kitchen making breakfast, and the whole world smells of bacon. I could live in a world that smells of bacon. They could make me mayor.
So it’s difficult for my wife to understand my relationship with my own father.
“It was like chess. There was an offense and there was a defense. You had to figure out which you were on. There were rules of engagement, of approach. You needed to think ten or twelve moves ahead. In dealing with my father, you were limited by protocol, constrained by strategy.”
“That’s how generals talk about war,” she’d say. “Not their fathers.”
My wife is a good woman, but she’s staring at me. We’re standing in the kitchen of our small house, the toaster has popped, and she’s staring at me.
“The toaster popped.”
“There’s no toast in it, Gus. You didn’t put any bread in the toaster.”
There’s a long pause. I say nothing.
“Have you heard anything I’ve said?”
“Agnes has school tomorrow?”
“This audition is very important to her. I have to work, and can’t take her. Call a mechanic. Call a tow truck. Call an exorcist. I don’t care. But if you can’t trust that truck, and I suggest you can’t, then make other arrangements.”
What can I say? It’s not that I don’t love my wife. I do. She’s a good woman, and my daughter, Agnes, is as precious to me as my own skin. Our house is small but comfortable. We bought it when my father died. He died as he lived—asleep in his Barcalounger, Red Sox on the Trinitron, a can of Narragansett in one meaty hand and a column of cigarette smoke rising from the other. A few months later I had his house all packed and ready for sale to pay his back taxes, which would eat up most of it. All that remained was to clear out the garage, which took an entire weekend of wading through fifty years of garbage he’d never bothered to bring to the curb.
For three solid days I ate cold pizza and drank his beer, working until I couldn’t work anymore. I slept wrapped in his old hunting mackinaw on the cement floor of the garage. When I finished, the garage was empty except for my father’s truck and an old single-drawer armoire I liked and set aside to keep. In the drawer I found two cigar boxes. One was full of golf balls—my father never golfed a day in his life—and the other full of cash. Five grand, in fifties and hundreds.
I poured the golf balls into a paper bag and put them on the seat of the truck. They sat there for a long time. At some point the bag tore and the golf balls tumbled out, rolling across the floor at each turn like bilge water in a skiff. On the anniversary of my father’s death, Big Jimmy and I parked at the Salisbury reservation and drove the balls into the Atlantic, saying goodbye to my father one hook or slice at a time.
When my father died the yellow Ford was already more than ten years old, but it had low miles and was well cared-for. It was all that remained of him. The truck, the armoire I loaded into its bed and a Garcia Vega box full of money. I had a plan. Since our wedding my wife and I had been saving to get out of our cold-water flat and buy a house. We wanted to make babies and have a dog. We wanted to have Sunday dinners with her parents, and play cards with friends one night a week. We wanted to be happy like everyone else in the world. I could sell my father’s truck and use that and the five grand and whatever was left of his house after taxes for a down payment, put a sign on the Ford and an ad in the newspaper, call a Realtor that very afternoon.
Maybe I never understood my dad. I’m sure he never understood me. But it was time to say goodbye to him. He couldn’t help who he was anymore than the rest of us can. Whether he’d meant to or not, he’d left me something more than back taxes, bad memories and a garage full of shit—he'd left me something I never would have expected from my father. Hope. A cigar box full of hope. I was going to drive off into my future, return to my wife with all ties to the past cut and the path to the future mapped out. All hail the conquering hero.
But a funny thing happened when I turned the key. The truck wouldn’t start.
It was my father’s truck, and it had never given him a lick of trouble. I figured it would take a couple weeks, a month at the most, to fix it and sell it. Now my daughter is twelve, our mortgage has eighteen years left on it, you can see the road through the rusted-out holes in the bed of the old Ford, and there's no toast in my toaster.
So how can I answer my wife?
“I think I’ll go for a walk. Come on, Wondermutt.”
Thurber hops to his feet and follows me out into the street.
There are whole days when I want to drive to the store for a pack of cigarettes and not go home. But I can’t. My truck won’t start. And I’d miss my daughter. She’s twelve years old and big for her age. She has straight hair the color of a chalkboard eraser and a smile that could calve a glacier. She speaks with animation, moves with a fluid grace and greets the world with confidence. That kid’s size seven feet are firmly planted on this earth.
If Big Jimmy has always been there for his daughter, he’s been a Fairy Godmother to mine. I spend a lot less time second-guessing my own parenting skills because I know he's picking up my slack. He takes Agnes to the movies. He works on school projects with her. Recently he began teaching her French. Together they play music, him the piano, her the recorder, and once a week they sing for the residents up at Berkley Retirement Home. Get this—then he gives her an allowance for helping him out. Saint Big Jimmy. Whatever she needs, he’s there. He taught her to ride her bike without training wheels. When she fell and loosened a tooth on her handlebars, he carried her inside and gave her a Popsicle and held her while she cried. She’s as tall as he is.
Like anything else, I begin my walk aimlessly, just wandering. Thinking about Agnes and Big Jimmy, the morning still forming around me, I realize where I’m going. It’s eight a.m., and neighbors are pulling out of their driveways, pointing their cars toward work. Thurber and I take a few left turns on side streets, wave to a few friends, Thurber marks what seems like every oak and maple in the area and then we’re in Big Jimmy’s driveway.
He’s been awake for hours. I’m sure of it.
“Come on in,” he yells from an upstairs window. His lawn is freshly mown. Thurber and I walk past a leafy Bobby Hull and Gordy Howe, who tower over us larger than life, and I note that their leaves are turning colors as autumn takes hold. Like they’re changing into their away uniforms. We go in through the garage and into the kitchen. I help myself to coffee. The morning sun shines off his waxed linoleum, the tile counter, the polished steel of his toaster.
When Big Jimmy comes downstairs, he’s wearing an old undershirt, ribbed and white and sleeveless. His bony shoulders stick out beneath the straps. There’s a blue facecloth tucked into the collar, like a bib, and he’s got a scar of shaving cream from ear to throat. The house smells like a French restaurant.
“I thought I’d catch a shave while the duck roasted,” he says. “Help yourself to some coffee.”
“I think I will,” I say, raising my mug. Big Jimmy laughs and goes to the cupboard.
“Is my daughter with you?”
“Flying solo, just me and Wondermutt.”
Thurber woofs at his nickname.
“Good,” Big Jimmy says. He pours himself a cup, adds a splash of whiskey and toasts me back. “To Agnes.”
“I’ll drink to that,” I say.
I’ve felt comfortable in this house since the first night my wife brought me home to meet her folks. More than a dozen years have passed since that veal Piccata, since I got down on one knee, looked Big Jimmy in the eyes and asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Pictures of Agnes hang on the walls. Her latest report card is on the fridge. There’s a Pendleton wool blanket we brought one winter when the pipes froze to keep the women warm while Big Jimmy and I thawed the plumbing with an electric hair dryer. My wife and I found the big oak TV cabinet at a flea market in Essex—I refinished it as a fiftieth anniversary gift, symbolically solid and heavy. We bought the TV for Christmas two years later. Big Jimmy made the coffee I’m drinking in the Illy we gave him when he turned seventy-five last fall. Even Thurber is at home on the canvas and cedar dog bed in the pantry. It feels good to be here.
He asks me what’s new. I tell him I’m thinking of taking up smoking.
“Nasty habit,” he says. “But I’ve got some smokes out in the shed. I like to have one from time to time. Been sneaking them for years. Margaret knew but pretended not to. Your wife has no idea. She’d kill me.”
Families fill a hole in our lives that nothing else can fill. As a species, it’s what we do—we rely on each other, overlooking inadequacies and eccentricities and behaviors we wouldn’t tolerate in people we’re not related to. If your family doesn’t love you, who will? And yet, I wouldn’t have been the first son to cut his old man out of his life. The year I turned eighteen I was working six days a week at the Clam Box with a couple hundred dollars in the bank and a puke-colored Datsun. And then one night, on my way to work the dinner shift—I still remember the rain drumming on my windshield, lightning over the water—I just kept going. Got on the interstate and drove to Florida, stopping only for gas and coffee. Just like that. Like it was the easiest thing in the world.
Why that night? I couldn’t tell you, even after all this time. There was no catalyst or trigger, just a cumulative restlessness that had been building for years. A nagging sense of something bigger that I needed to be a part of. Why not? Nothing tied me down, no college, no girlfriend, no house, just a job dredging clams in flour and dropping them into hot fat for three bucks an hour, and an old man who craned his neck around me to see the TV.
Freedom. Right? Two years later I looked up and realized I was boiling crabs at a Clearwater dive, sleeping in an efficiency apartment above the storeroom, and my Datsun needed shocks and tires. Progress. When I called my old man from the payphone to ask if I could come home, I got the machine. Screw it, I said, that’s not a “no.”
When I look at Big Jimmy, I can see my wife and daughter in his features. That’s not surprising. But what does surprise me is that I see bits of myself, too. That’s how it is. We come and go in this world and leave traces of ourselves everywhere. As we pass by those bits others have left, we absorb them into our skin, into ourselves, until we’re all mixed up and diluted. But if we start to frequent certain places and spend enough time there, we get more and more traces of the same people. They start to take root.
That makes me think of my father’s truck. Which reminds me why I’ve come to see Big Jimmy.
“Hey, can I borrow your car tomorrow?”
“Sure, Gus, sure. For Agnes’s audition. Noon, is it? I’ll pick you up at eleven. We’ll get some lunch. Cheer from the bleachers. You know, you really should get rid of that truck. Get your wife off your back.”
“Actually, Jimmy, I was hoping I could just borrow your car. I thought Agnes and I could spend some time together,” I say nervously, looking into my coffee. “Sort of a father-daughter thing, you know?”
If I expected jealousy or hurt, I don’t get it. What I get instead is a look of pride.
“Why, that’s a great idea, Gussy. A great idea. I’ll drink to that,” Big Jimmy says, and refills his mug. “I’ll come to your house, stay there while you’re gone. Bake some bread. Clean out your storm gutters.”
We shake hands.
Later, I wonder if he was joking about the gutters.
My daughter wants to be an actress. She’s twelve years old. By then I’d wanted to be a firefighter, a dinosaur wrangler and a private eye. When my friends went off to college, I fried seafood for gas money. Now I refinish furniture. Most weekends I drive around the state, hitting yard sales and antique stores and estate closures, buying it cheap and wrapping it in blankets and loading it into the back of my father’s truck.
Old furniture sits in our garage like patients in a hospital waiting room. Drying fans recirculate the air, laden with chemical scents and particles of dust, and there’s a fridge full of beer and paint thinner. Not bad work, if you can get it.
One at a time, I move a piece onto the drop cloth. Ask it what hurts. When I’m good and sure I know, I begin to treat it. Strip its old scars. Raise its dents, fill its cracks and holes. Undoing history, reversing time. I’ve developed a sense of feel for their stories. The mahogany coffee table ringed with cocktail glasses, the cherry nightstand with fingernail scratches down the side, the dented lowboy. End tables painted gaudy hues by children, stickered over, stained and chipped and finally abandoned. The varnish comes off, layers shed as if they were molting.
It's as much psychological as cosmetic. If furniture had souls, I’d be setting them free. The pieces tell their stories in measured tones under the lights and fans of my shop, and then they are free. I restore more than their finish—I restore their pride. Their dignity. Their hope.
It’s difficult for me to fathom that what I do to calm myself could also be a means of support. But my wife touches people for a living. It’s a confused world. Things happen.
A few years ago I bought a nicked up chest of Canadian rock maple drawers for twenty-five dollars and spent a weekend restoring them. When I priced them at a hundred bucks, they didn’t sell. Weeks passed. People looked. Nobody bought. And then I added a zero to the price tag just for fun. There it was, one thousand dollars, in clear, black numbers. The drawers sold that afternoon. I thought it was a fluke. So I experimented with my stock, knocking the prices up to extremes, and laughed myself tired as each piece left the shop in a steady stream, adopted like a well-behaved child into a happy home. It became almost a game for me after that, pushing the limits with the price structure and stretching to see what ridiculous new heights I could reach before I became a joke.
But like I said, things happen. The Globe sent a reporter to the showroom and a feature ran in Sunday’s paper. I was an artist, they said. A miracle-worker. It became trendy to own furniture I’d refinished. People began driving out from all over New England. I began signing the pieces on their flawless underbellies.
It can’t last. I know that. While it does, I’m a rat in a blissful maze.
I get to work in my garage, listening to the game on WEEI, working entirely with my hands, which frees up my mind for other things. Still, at the end of a day, I can’t provide much of an accounting for what those other things are. I am lightheaded and malleable at those moments. And forgetful, I suppose. Chances are, I think a lot about my daughter. She wants to be an actress. Big Jimmy and I built her a little stage in her bedroom, with draw-curtains and track lighting. We mounted old stereo speakers on the wall and bought a microphone at Radio Shack. She writes and performs plays for us, works for hours perfecting a scene.
How did I get so lucky with Agnes? Most days it seems as though she’s raising herself. I’ll bet her mother doesn’t think so. I’ll bet Big Jimmy doesn’t think so. What can I tell you? If a bookshelf needs only a good polish to keep its shine, why strip it down to bare wood? It’s doing fine. My own father never fixed a thing that wasn’t broken. He never found anything he thought was broken, either. We are products both of the worlds we reject and of those we seek out and adopt. I love my daughter, and I can’t imagine wanting to change a thing.
Saturday morning we leave for her audition in Big Jimmy’s car. I tried my truck with a hopeful twist of the keys, but it didn’t start. I can’t walk past it without giving it a try. It’s like driving by the scene of a car wreck and not sneaking a peek.
We stop at Papa Gino’s for lunch, and Agnes orders vegetarian pizza. We sit at the counter, and after we’ve finished eating she looks up at me and says:
“Mom thinks there’s something wrong with you.”
I take this in with a cock of my head. I scratch my cheek. Try to look bewildered and surprised.
“She said that?”
“No. I mean, yes, but not to me. I heard her talking to Big Jimmy about it.”
“Hmmmm. What do you think, Honey? Is there something wrong with me?”
She takes a straw from the counter and peels one end of the paper wrapping. Puts that end in her mouth, and aims the other end at me.
“I think you’re absentminded. You’re a space cadet, Dad. You forget things all the time. And you’re always losing things.” She blows into the straw with her twelve-year-old lips, and the paper hits me square between the eyes. Despite myself, I flinch.
“I haven’t lost you yet.”
My daughter grimaces. And then she looks at me soberly.
“Or Mom,” she says. “Yet.”
Later, we drive with the top down and the early October air engulfing us. The radio is on and Agnes is singing along. I can’t remember any words, even the songs I like. No matter. I’m content to listen.
I drop her outside the school auditorium before her audition. It’s not even worth asking if she’ll let me go in with her. Part of being a father is making sure she knows I want to go. The other part is not going if she doesn’t want me to.
Agnes is wearing a summer dress with a sweater over it and carries a small pink backpack. She comes around to the driver’s side and leans in my window.
“Be back in two hours, okay, Dad?”
“Okay, Honey. Break a leg.”
“Want to see something?” she asks. I nod. She opens her backpack. Her mother has packed her a lunch, a sandwich and some carrots, a baggie of cookies, a juice box.
“Didn’t she know I was taking you for pizza?”
That’s my daughter out there, half-in, half-out of her grandfather’s car. My flesh and blood. She’s the hand on which I’m betting my entire future, the hope of all civilization to come. How can I be responsible for such a formidable thing as this? She leans in further and kisses me on the cheek. With a big, girlish hand, she brushes a stray hair out of my eyes, and then shrugs.
“Dad. It’s in case you forgot.”
For a moment, I feel eighteen again. No place to be, nothing pressing awaiting me, and I can just drive around getting used to Big Jimmy’s car. It’s low to the ground, powerful, designed for performance and reliability. If I need to be someplace, it will get me there. The finish is flawless, the dashboard ergonomic and sleek. It’s less than a year old and I feel like I’m in a TV commercial. My clothes feel inadequate, all paint stains and frayed threads, and I'm not handsome or stylish enough to drive this car.
There are whole days when I want to go to the store for a pack of cigarettes and never go home. It’s not that I’m unhappy, or even dissatisfied. It’s just that sometimes I feel like it might be a while before anyone even noticed I was gone. When they did, it would be a momentary distraction. A wrinkle.
And then everyone would smooth out the fabric and get on with their lives.
Agnes would be fine, I’m sure of it. She’s an object in motion. Physics alone would keep her from coming to rest. Momentum. My wife, too, would go about her business, peppering strangers’ backs with her knotty fists. She’d clean out the garage and park the minivan inside, and move to the middle of our bed at night. Big Jimmy would mow our lawn, keep our fridge full. Keep moss from growing on the roof. Life would continue almost unchanged.
Maybe some day I’d come back to visit and someone would squint at me for a long time, and ask, “Didn’t I used to know you?” That’s the world for you. But until then, life would carry on undisturbed. Slap a coat of varnish on it and it might even look a little brighter around here than before I left.
By the time I drive past my father’s old house, my legs are cramped in Big Jimmy’s Miata. I can’t figure out how to move the seat back, and I’m starting to feel ridiculous in this convertible. And just like that, I’m nostalgic for my father’s truck, all sharp angles and upright posture. It’s ugly and it breaks down a lot but you can throw a thousand pounds of concrete in the back or drive it into a brick wall and it wouldn’t make a heck of a lot of difference.
I drop Big Jimmy’s car off at home. Thurber and I climb into the old Ford, which starts right up on the first try, purring beneath me. Jimmy is up on a ladder along the eaves of my roof. He’s cleaning my gutters. He waves, and I wave back. When I pull out into the road, a golf ball rolls across the floorboards.
Minutes later I’m downtown again, circling a block, and it takes me a minute to understand why. There’s a Cumberland Farms on the corner. I come around again with my foot on the brake pedal, and my dad’s truck finds its own way into a parking space. The engine sounds steady and confident. I leave it running just the same.
Inside the store I glance around nervously, darting like a small fish separated from its school.
“Can I buy a pack of cigarettes, please?” I ask the kid behind the counter. Just saying the words makes me feel reckless. I half-hope I see someone I know.
“What kind, sir?”
“Yeah. You know. What kind.”
No. No, I don’t know. I know nothing about cigarettes. An endless stream of magazine ads runs through my head, and though I’ve come a long way, baby, I lean toward the Old West and head for Marlboro country. I don’t think I’ve ever held a pack before. I’m surprised at its lightness. The box feels like a rigid tumor in my shirt pocket.
I’m almost forty years old. Soon my daughter will be sitting on the curb outside her school, waiting for me to pull up in my father’s old truck. I have an unlit cigarette in my mouth, and it feels foreign, intrusive, but I think I could get used to it. Nosing the truck up the on-ramp, I’m on the highway and I give the Ford a little gas. It surges as if I’d dug spurs into its flank. As if it’s gotten a taste of freedom. I shift the rear-view mirror and glance at my reflection, cigarette in my mouth—the tilt of the jaw, the patches of gray moving like a squall across my temples, bags like bruises beneath the eyes. I am driving my father’s truck and there’s a cigarette in my mouth and I realize I look like my father, and it all feels surprisingly comfortable, as if I’d tried on one of his old suits and found for the first time in my life that it fits.
That’s when I realize I have to get rid of the truck. It's the first time I’ve had such a thought, and though it comes as a surprise, it’s as comforting as it is sudden. The world is full of trucks for sale. Why have I held on to this one so stubbornly? Why have I held on for so long?
“What do you say, Wondermutt? Think you’d look good in a new truck?” Thurber lifts his heavy head and I swear to God he smiles. A stream of slobber hangs from his black lips turned inside out by the wind.
I take the next exit and turn south, toward Route One and the car dealerships. I imagine myself walking the lot with the salesman, inspecting the latest models.
“What are you looking for?” he’ll ask. He’ll be a younger guy in a dark suit with jewelry that shines in the sunlight, pomade in his hair. Nonchalantly, I’ll exhale smoke for dramatic effect.
“Something reliable,” I’ll say. “Something that will run when I need it to. Something that will take me where I want to go.”
Or maybe we’ll stroll the lot together and I’ll pick out a nice, shiny model with a cap on the bed to keep things dry. Thurber will hop up on the tailgate and I’ll know that’s the one. That’s the truck. The dealer and I will haggle over the price. He’ll bring out two coffees in Styrofoam cups and hand one to me. We’ll stare each other down a bit. He'll offer me a cigarette.