Saturday, September 24, 2011
The Silver Beast: Part II
When Steve said, “Nice day, ain’t it?” the yuppie turned his nose, legged it fast from that green garbage can, the same way someone would when a hobo begs change. I watched my father stand there, button-down flannel and jeans, his few hairs flying every which way, mountain-man style. He shook his head with disgust, the only defense mechanism I ever saw him exhibit habitually. When he came back to the car, sat behind that faded-rubber wheel, he was silent. It was awkward. He’d been in such a good mood before the yuppie’s snub.
I so rarely spent time with the man without my mother playing buffer. But here we were. He’d been humiliated, and I no longer felt embarrassed for sitting prisoner in Rusty Jones’s worst nightmare. For a second I forgot the anger and fear I had for him. For a second we were together, father and son, and nothing else mattered. I felt embarrassed for him, and from that feeling surged a sense of loyalty and anger. This was my father and what just happened wasn’t right, even at 14, I knew that.
I’ll never forget what he said to me after that. He looked at me, and said, “Don’t ever judge somebody by the way they look or what they drive.” I said I wouldn’t, and he started the car, and homeward we were. It was the first piece of perfect advice he’d ever given me. It was the first time I felt he talked directly to me, mano a mano. I no longer wanted to avoid him. I wanted to penetrate that invisible field forever.
By the time we hit the highway, he’d forgotten the whole thing. He was singing the words to a rock/pop song on the radio. The song said, “There's winners and there's losers/But they ain't no big deal/'Cause the simple man baby pays the thrills, the bills.” He beat that faded-rubber wheel with his hands, sang out loud, and I’d never seen that side of him. I’ll never forget that yuppie in the park; that piece of advice, or my father singing those words as long as I live. That day lives like an island in our relationship, separate of the dynamic that otherwise existed. It was the greatest day we had together, because it marks our closest moment, even if the circumstance was less than ideal. And I wonder if it would’ve happened that way without the Granada.
The Granada hung around a few more years. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it sat driveway duty. When it hit 200,000 miles, Steve made us pose for a picture with the car, both my mother and I holding 100 Grand candy bars close together. By the time I graduated high school, it was gone, to the afterlife of Art Dell’s Junkyard. I was sad to see it go.
I wish I could say my attitude about the silver beast changed after that day in the park. I wish I could say I was never as embarrassed about climbing inside and backfiring from the high school lot. I wish I could say I borrowed it when I was sixteen to pick Rachel Sykes up for a Saturday night date, and made her hold the Hefty bag of beer cans while I drove, and she loved it. But I can’t say that because it never happened. I was a typical teenager: short sighted, self involved, stupid. No way the Granada was ever gonna cut snuff in my world.
I guess the lesson of that day at West Land Hills wasn’t learned till much later.
Fast forward thirteen years and I’m sleeping late on a snowy Saturday morning, a few days after the New Year, 2009. I’d heard my cell phone ring from the other room a few times, but ignored it. Finally after the fifth call, I stumbled from bed to see who it was. It was my mother calling, and she was crying, and asking me if I was ready, “Really ready” for what she had to say. My mother’s a dramatic woman and we had a family dog that had been sick, so naturally I assumed. When the line went silent, I thought she’d disconnected. I went to redial, and she said, “Steve’s dead.” Just like that. He’d gotten out of bed at 6A.M., gone downstairs, made a cup of tea, sat in his TV chair, the same chair he always sat in, and died; a massive heart attack. He was 54.
He’d been complaining of exhaustion, working overtime that weekend to secure a future vacation day from his union. But there would be no vacation day. By noon he was in the morgue, arrangements were underway, and the house was filled with friends and family. Two days later his wake brought out 700 of Albany’s finest, passing the casket, and telling me how great of guy my father was. I remembered when I was a teenager and I was sure he wasn’t a man I could look up to. I remembered being embarrassed by his balding head, and rust-filled Granada; how everyone thought I was poor when they saw it. But on that night, I met the man that everyone else already knew, the “great guy,” regardless of what he drove or the jeans he wore.
The material things mean nothing in the real world. Just ask the ones who stood two hours in a snow storm to say farewell to a man who never cared about flash. I was beginning to understand what Steve was trying to teach me when he said, “Don’t ever judge somebody by the way they look or what they drive.”
A few weeks later, I learned it some more. It was a Monday afternoon and I was with my mother when an insurance examiner called. He’d said my father had built several life policies that nobody knew about. He’d been shrewd with his savings, uncompromising in his vision for a bigger, better future, a day when motorboats and snowmobiles ran. It was the future he’d wanted for his family. It was the future he figured on a second-shift laborer’s job while driving a rusty Granada. The insurance man told my mother her mortgage was satisfied, and it was time for her to retire a few years ahead of schedule, since lacking money would no longer be a problem. His gift to her was the simple: all financial worries dashed, a promise to prolong her life as long as possible.
The other day I was driving with the sun roof down, and Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses” came on. I recognized those lyrics, and remembered the day I ate McDonald’s with Steve in the Granada, and he told me about his dismissed dream of having go carts and being Mr. Fun. I remembered the way that yuppie snubbed my father over a green garbage can. I remembered on the highway how Steve sang that verse with such vigor. When the song made that same part, I hit the steering wheel of my "nice" car, and said, “There's winners and there's losers/But they ain't no big deal/'Cause the simple man baby pays the thrills, the bills.” I thought of the silver 1978 Ford Granada with rust holes the size of soft balls. And, for the first time, I knew what the song said was true, I knew there were winners and losers in life, and I finally knew the difference between the two.