Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Filled Under:

The Pickup

The red pickup sloped forward, some modification Dad must have done. The rear fenders pushed out like muscular shoulders and the step plates rolled below the doors. Farm dust lined the hood, bed, cab, and windows. The gas pedal was a footprint from the moon landing, and the gear shifter was Betty Boop. It was a 35’ Ford, and to a twelve year old, it appeared like a great structure built by a great man. Sitting in the creaky bench seat, where Dad once sat, made me feel closer to him. Ryan must have felt the same.

Spring of ’93, Ryan and I worked on Dad’s pickup for two months. Ryan wanted it to race the streets again like in ’62, when Dad was 18. But I enjoyed being near something that was once Dad’s. Something he once cared for. And I liked the prospect of having a vehicle that could transport me across Provo to where Dad lived with his new wife. Because if I could go to him, I wouldn’t have to wait for him to come to me. Something that rarely happened.

First, Ryan and I replaced the headlights. Then we put in a new battery. The driver’s side door was open. Ryan hunched beneath the steering wheel and pulled out slender wooden floorboards, flashlight in his mouth, small hand tools along the cement. He handed me the strips of lumber from the cab floor. Once they were removed, we could see the workings of the pickup. Next to the brake cylinder and the transmission, sat a small black battery resting in a steel cradle. Ryan unlatched the battery, corrosion frosting the connections, and then placed the new one inside, holding it with both hands as though it were a child on its back learning to float. The Book of Mormon and Star Trek were the two things Ryan believed in. He closed his eyes, and mumbled a prayer. All I could hear was, “let it work,” and “make it so.”

Ryan was slender, nerdy, with round glasses and broad shoulders, his movements awkward—a reflection of an overweight childhood. White sneakers complemented his modest bowl cut. He wore collared shirts, Levi 501’s, and smelled like Stetson—Dad’s old aftershave— and grease. At fifteen, he stood five seven with a heavy brow and a sharp chin, traits he received from our father. He was handy, a tinkerer, always taking apart drills or toasters and then putting them back together.

Three years Dad had been gone. During that time Ryan learned to clean a carburetor, swap a hard drive, repair a wall, hang a door, and change the headlights on a ‘35 Ford pickup. At thrift stores and yard sales he picked up record players and lawnmowers, took them home and dismantled them, his mind plotting out how they could be combined with other things. Ryan was a smart fifteen-year-old, patient enough to figure out how something works, while I accepted the fact that it did.

Before Dad left, I remember him letting Ryan and I hand him wrenches and hammers as he worked on the family Blazer. We were seven and ten. I was slow with the 7/16 socket. Ryan lost Dad’s pliers. Eventually Dad threw his tool belt across the driveway. “I don’t have time to fool around,” he said. His arms were frustrated, jaw tightly drawn. Behind the house, Ryan sulked where he could keep watching Dad, while I went angrily in the front door. I wanted Dad to take pride in me, to show me how, to smile when I grew frustrated. I wanted him to teach me. I longed to lean under a hood with my father. I wondered what I might learn about the man that he was. But Ryan’s goal was for Dad to view him as an equal. For him to say, “I’m proud of you." I think Ryan assumed that if he could fix a car, a sink, or a wall, the two would speak the same language of nuts and bolts.

Veins crisscrossed the roofs of Ryan’s hands as he attached connectors to the new battery. I sat in the passenger seat and imagined Dad sprawled beneath the pickup, his blue jeans and work boots exposed, hands tugging on some part between the front wheels. Dad spent hours working on the pickup, and I often wondered why he left it to sit and collect dust—its tires rotted and flat. Did he know it was still there, waiting for him? I felt a kinship with the pickup. Dad had abandoned both of us, and we longed for him to make us his own again.

At times Dad communicated with Ryan and I regularly, like the few months after grandpa died, or when he was impressing a new wife. But if I were to sum up the overall relationship I had with Dad in one word, it would be intermittent. When we did speak, he rarely talked about himself, and he almost never spoke of his past. I often wondered what he was like as a teen. Did he make jokes? Was he a hard worker? Was he comfortable talking to girls? Was he good in school? Was he a good Mormon? I looked at the pickup, and wondered what it knew about my fathers past.

Ryan pulled away from the frame, knuckles grease black, and said, “Turn on the lights.” He stepped back as I flipped the light switch. The headlights flared on. For the first time, this sleeping monster resembled a working machine. And in that moment, I didn’t discover anything new about Dad. I didn’t understand why he cheated on Mom, or why he left, or his addictions to alcohol and Vicodin. But there was a strange familiarity in retracing Dad’s accomplishments. Fixing those headlights felt like finding Dad's boot-print in the dirt or an outline of his hand in grease, some signifier that proved, without a doubt, that Dad had once been there.

I was twelve-years-old. Hair grew near my cheekbones and heavily along the chin and jaw line. I wanted to build a car, get a job, have sex, fall in love, and beat the hell out of Jason Taylor. Dad never told me how to talk to girls. He never showed me how to tie a tie, shave, or throw a punch. And he never taught me how to change oil or sparkplugs, or how to crank down a bolt so it wouldn’t budge. While thinking about the world, I got scared by how big it was, and wondered if Dad could somehow make it feel a little smaller. I often asked myself: how will I ever make it without Dad to teach me? I gazed at the amber light shining from the pickup, and longed for Dad to have taught me how to fix the headlights. Instead, I had Ryan’s simple, awkward, instructions.

Ryan’s eyes drifted along the hood. Then he looked at me, his face rich with desire for Dad to have seen his accomplishment and say, “nice work” or “great job” or something fatherly. Instead he had my smiling face sticking out the doorframe.

The shop was a small, 1200 square foot, wooden barn with a corrugated steel roof and a cement floor that sat on my grandmothers’ farm. In his late teens, Dad used the shop to work on the 35’ Ford. The pickup still sat in the shop, on a cement slab, surrounded by rolls of chicken wire and old lumber. An engine hoist hung from the rafters, and Dad’s red and black toolbox sat on coasters below the south window. From the shop’s bay doors, I could see Mom’s tan and yellow house at the end of Grandma’s north field. South was Grandma’s red brick house nestled in a crop of alfalfa.

Inside, the shop resembled a studio apartment, and smelled like grease and sawdust. There was sheet rock, a wood burning stove, a phone line, electricity, and a refrigerator, all remnants of Dad. Ryan and I added things we found at yard sales and thrift stores: a TV and VCR sat on cinderblocks and lumber. Orange banana chairs and a 7-foot yellow sofa rested a top a ten-by-ten patch of red carpet. After Dad left, Grandma told Ryan and I we could use the shop. “It’ll give you a place to be boys,” she said. What she really gave us was a middle ground. A place that was not home where Mom cried herself to sleep most nights, or school where no 12 or 15 year old wants to be, or church where Dad was once an elder in our Mormon congregation. The shop was where Ryan and I could watch Star Trek, work on Dad’s pickup, or sleep. A place where we could get away from the home phone that sat silently waiting for Dad’s call.

Ryan decorated the shop with light up action phasers, models of the USS Enterprise, and Klingon Figurines. When not working on the pickup, Ryan and I sat on the sofa and watched VHS tapes of Star Trek; his blue eyes foggy, his sharp chin rolling side to side, and me slouching into the sofa, my hands behind my head. Exploring space was dangerous, life altering, and more important then the heartache we felt when thinking about Dad. He was our final frontier, an endless struggle that would never be fully explored, and Ryan and I could spend the rest of our lives trying to understand our estranged father.

For years, Ryan and I could see the pickup through the shop widows as we walked along Grandma’s gravel lane. But I don’t think either of us thought about it much until after Dad left. The first thing Ryan and I did in the shop was climb inside Dad’s ‘35 Ford. We sat on the bench seat, Ryan behind the wheel. We didn’t make motor noises or screeching tire sounds, and we didn’t jerk at the knobs or push on the pedals. We didn’t talk about Dad, ask questions about what he was like in his youth, or look in the rearview mirrors to see if our faces resembled his. We just sat there, Ryan with his hands at ten and two, his slender face expressionless. I slouched a bit, my right arm resting on the door, left palm flush against the bench. Both of us sat church quiet, relishing in Dad’s past. I wondered where the pickup had been, and I wondered where Ryan and I might one day take it. The key to the pickup sat in the ignition connected to a small eight ball dangling from a thin chain. Ryan reached forward and turned the key. A sharp click sounded somewhere beneath the hood. It did not start.

Ryan and I scrounged for parts at junkyards, thrifts stores, and neighboring farms. Each find was a victory. Ryan showed me how to change spark plugs, an oil filter, and a fuel line on Dad’s old pickup. He described each step with intimate knowledge concerning the flow of gasoline, oil, and air, his soft face child like, but his blue eyes and well-trained hands revealed knowledge of machinery I’d grown to expect.

Nearly 16, Ryan was already taking drivers ed. We often talked about racing the pickup at the sand dunes south of Provo, or driving it to Wyoming to get roman candles and bottle rockets. Sometimes Ryan spoke of pulling the pickup into Dad’s driveway and honking the horn. “He’s gonna freak out,” Ryan said, “It’ll be the best thing ever.” In our fantasies, Ryan was always driving with me in the passenger seat.

Once I asked Ryan about girls and he hesitated. When meeting new people, Ryan’s eyes drifted down and to the right, the corners of his lips drawn between his teeth. If he spoke, his choppy dialog was forced, and each line ended with a low chuckle. I doubt Ryan had ever said more than two words to a girl. “Don’t worry about that yet.” He said, “Let’s just worry about getting this pickup to start. Once that happens, we won’t have to worry about talking to girls. They’ll want to talk to us.” I believed him.

In the shop, Ryan showed me how to use a drill and tie a tie. With a water bucket, Dad’s old double edge safety razor, and the pickup’s driver’s side mirror, he taught me how to shave. Ryan knew that Dad would never show me how to shave or work on an engine, because he never showed Ryan. If I needed math help, or wanted to know how to pitch a tent, build a fire, tie a bowline or a square knot, I went to Ryan. I still hoped that Dad would realize I was important. But I was aware enough to know that if I asked for Dad’s help he’d have “better shit to do,” or a “full plate that day,” or he wouldn’t pick up the phone. If Ryan didn’t know how to do something, he would figure it out, take me to the shop, and teach me. Sometimes I didn’t have to ask. His sensitivity was something special. It grew from our shared disability, like how the blind can hear a far off whisper. Each time he showed me something, the world appeared a little more manageable and I felt a little more grown up.

In March, Ryan showed me how to replace the pickup’s main belt. The left side of the hood was open, and Ryan and I hunched between the cab and the heart-shaped grille. He released the pulley with a crescent wrench, and the belt sagged with enough slack for me to remove it. Then I placed the new belt on the pulley and Ryan pulled it taut again. I told him “wow,” and “thanks,” and “this is great.” And Ryan smiled, his thick-framed glasses sliding to the end of his nose, face warm with satisfaction. We gazed at each other, and I felt comfort knowing that Ryan was there, willing to fill in the gap that Dad had left.

Now, at 28-years-old, I doubt I could change that belt. And I can’t change my own oil, fix a sink, or tie anything other than a half Windsor knot. But those moments with Ryan were about more than what I learned. I felt closer to Ryan during those two months than I ever did with Dad. We worked together, we learned from each other, and laughed. We were satisfying our yearnings for Dad. Ryan was teaching me. And I was appreciating him. Unfortunately we were too young to understand that.

We learned a lot about Dad by working on his pickup. The wire clumps held with duct tape, the finger tightened bolts on the fender, and the crazy glue holding the windshield wiper, showed that Dad was hasty. “He really did things half assed,” Ryan said.

Beneath the seat, we found cigarette butts and an empty beer can. Inside the toolbox, we found an empty bottle of whisky. Drinking and smoking is against the Mormon faith, and until Dad left, he was a practicing Mormon. He even held high office in the church. When I was 18, a year before Dad’s death, my aunt said, “your dad was a little shit. He was really good at talking his way out of trouble. He went to church on Sunday, but who knows what he did the rest of the week.” Despite stories of Dad racing cars, I never viewed him as a rebel. But he must have been like the kids at school who went to sacrament meeting, but drank and smoked the rest of the week. The cigarettes and alcohol we found proved that Dad once lived a dual lifestyle long before he met Mom.

Inside the jockey box was a folded slip of amber paper. I cannot recall who found it, but I remember Ryan opening it. The writing was pencil, smooth cursive, with feminine angles. It was addressed to Dad, and much of it was faded. But clich├ęs like, I’m sorry, try and move on, and it’s not you made it obvious that this note was how Dad had once been dumped. Ryan and I let out half nervous laughs. I thought about the cigarette butts and the beer can, and wondered if Dad had been having sex as a teen.

Ryan folded the note, and put it back. He stepped from the cab. In the bed of the pickup was a flat head screwdriver. Ryan gripped it, leaving an outline in the dust. Dad must have left it there, and knowing that made me feel like he was in the room, like 1962 and 1993 were one and the same. It was in moments like these that it felt like I was searching for Dad by following his old boot prints.

When Ryan and I watched Star Trek, sometimes I looked at the USS Enterprise boldly going where no man had gone before, and then at the pickup, and suddenly Dad seemed like a far off planet that could only be seen through a powerful telescope. But there was something about uncovering Dad’s rebellious youth, and seeing evidence of when he tried, and when he didn’t, that made him seem closer then before. There was a gritty reflection cast by the pickup that was identifiable as Dad fingerprint.

We’d been working on the pickup for seven weeks. On a Saturday in March we got it to start. I was in the cab. Ryan was under the hood. “Crank it over,” Ryan said as he pulled from the frame. I turned the key, and heard a sharp click like before. Ryan’s lips twisted, right hand nervous, fingertips rubbing together. He walked to the toolbox, and returned with a small ball peen hammer, its wooden handle grease black. Hunching beneath the hood again, Ryan banged on something with smooth calculated strokes, and then told me to try again. “The starter needed some love.” He said, ending with an awkward giggle. The pickup gasped and shook. The motor vibrated in harsh irregular thrusts, wheezing and coughing, and eventually leveled to a smooth idle.

The pickup ran for two minutes, long enough to fill the shop with exhaust, and for Ryan and me to gaze at each other with satisfaction. The tires were still flat, and the pickup was still lined with dust. We didn’t know if it would ever carry us across town, race at the sand dunes, or help us pick up girls. But we knew that it started. This was something that it could not do 7 weeks earlier. Ryan must have longed for Dad to be there, smiling with pride. Part of me wondered if Dad did know. Perhaps some unseen signal alerted him to this monumental accomplishment.

For the first time I felt like an adult. I’d fixed something tangible. Something that made a sound. I better understood the world, how it worked, and how it will work. For a twelve-year-old boy, this is a monumental feeling. And I too longed for Dad to know about it.

The pickup died abruptly. I turned the key again, but the starter struggled against the engine, willing it, but its will fading with each turn. We never got the pickup to start again. Years later, when I asked Ryan about that evening, he told me the gas was probably bad. “I filled it from a tank I found. Who knows how long it’d been sitting there. For all I know it might have been diesel. I’m surprised it started that one time.”

That same night Ryan and I watched Star Trek from 10 pm to 11. Then Ryan made a phone call from the shop to Dad. Usually he didn’t pick up. But this time he did. Ryan heard Dad’s soft chirp, and rolled his shoulders back, stuck out his chest, his chin arching higher like he’d mustered the confidence of Captain Kirk. “We started your truck today,” Ryan said. Like a telemarketer, he broke into a swift speech about the pickup, belts and wires, and the smell of exhaust. He was getting everything out before Dad hung up. Dad didn’t tell Ryan he was proud of him, he didn’t say great job or nice work. And Ryan didn’t ask him to. Mid sentence, Ryan stopped as Dad spoke angrily, accosting Ryan for calling so late when Dad had work early. He told Ryan to learn decency and respect for others, how to treat people like people. “I don’t need this shit.” Dad said, and hung up. Something drained from Ryan, his shoulders sloped, and his chin fell.

I assumed Dad would be blown away. That he would show interest in us because we had done something that interested him. But nothing happened. Our relationship was still the same.

The next week, Dad came to the shop. He was weary. His boot heals scraped the cement. Black whiskers sprouted along his neck. Thick square glasses sat on the tip of his glistening nose. It was one of his skinny times, when his addictions to Vicodin and Alcohol could be seen in the ropy muscles along his forearms, the stark ridges of his jaw line, and the way his Wrangler jeans hung loosely from the belt like navy drapes. His eyes shifted, searching, a look I later realized meant he needed money. He didn’t comment on the sofa, the banana chairs, or the TV. “Hello,” he said, and then went to the pickup. He looked inside the widow, and then kicked one of the flat tires with his work boot. Ryan approached Dad. Stood next to him. For the first time I noticed that Ryan was an inch taller than Dad. From a distance, he appeared older too.

Dad sized Ryan up, crows’ feet framing his eyes. Then he looked under the hood, his thinning black hair falling forward, and examined the new belt, wires, and hoses.
“You got her to start?” Dad asked.
Ryan nodded.
“That’s great” Dad said. “It looks nice in here. I didn’t think it ever would start again.” Dad pinched Ryan’s shoulder. Ryan’s eyes softened, his legs slightly trembling. This was the moment Ryan longed for. He must have assumed things were changing. Perhaps Dad and Ryan would keep working on the pickup: together. Or maybe they would find some other project now that Ryan had proven himself.

As I watch from beside the yellow sofa, I wondered where I fit in. Would Dad take me along too? Would he teach me? Would he show me how the world worked? I remember feeling hopeful. I wanted to tell Dad about my involvement. But before I did, I noticed a man in the doorway. He was in old jeans and a flannel shirt, his brown hair parted to the side. Dad approached him with a lazy confident swagger. They shook hands, and Dad showed him the work Ryan and I had done.

“My boy here changed some things out. Says he got her to start last week. Real mechanic just like his old man.”
Both men laughed, and Ryan forced a smile, his face between pride and loss as Dad and the stranger negotiated. Ryan inched towards the sofa, eyes searching for a place to hide.

I wanted to wave my arms at Dad, or put my hand over his mouth. I wanted to tell him that this is not the way I imagined it. I don’t know why I retrace this old hurt, over and over in my mind, like this moment can tell me who I am now, or was, or might have been. Or like it could answer these same questions about my father or my brother. Because it never does, and I doubt that it ever will, and yet I know that my mind will drift back to the painful memory of Dad and the man going back and forth and finally settling on twelve hundred dollars.

It sounded like a significant amount of money. But now I know it is almost nothing. Sometimes I think about the note, the cigarette buts, and the moon print gas pedal. I wonder if Dad knew how much of his past was in the pickup, and how many hours Ryan and I spent trying to better understand him through it. And then I think about twelve hundred dollars, and wish he had asked for more. But what would have been an adequate price? Dad probably spent the money on Vicoden and alcohol, and when I think about his funeral seven years later, it feels like selling the pickup was one of many negotiations he made with his own demise.

The stranger backed a yellow car trailer into the shop, and Dad helped him push the pickup along a steel ramp and strap it down with heavy chains. The payment, a green check, stuck out of Dad’s breast pocket.

Ryan and I watched as the pickup was towed along Grandma’s gravel driveway, and then north on Airport Road. I remember a giant distance, as if the void between my father and me had grown in an instant. It felt like Dad had left me once again. I assume Ryan felt the same. The pickup turned east, onto Center Street, and out of sight. I thought about it traveling across town. But Ryan was not driving. And I was not in the passenger seat.