published in Volume 8, Issue 1 on July 1st, 2001
That my father would wind up owning Rayís truck before the summer was over was certain. But that it would become my first vehicle, at least the first one I would be old enough to drive, was what made me anticipate so eagerly the imminent transaction. A white 1984 Datsun King Cab four wheel drive pick up with tan bucket seats, brush bumper and roll bar. I wanted that truck so much I even cherished letting the tailgate down and sitting on it while Ray was inside and the truck in the driveway because maybe someone passing by might think it was mine. Ray had been one of my fatherís closest pals, and had enough of my fatherís undependably refurbished electronics and small engine items at his house to declare it a museum. All that was missing was a plaque out front dedicating it to the sweatless ingenuity which inspired my father to steal discarded turntables and twelve inch black and white television sets from the mounds of garbage in the alleys behind middle class homes.
Never having doubted that the rest of humanity meandered around waiting for their turn to be blind-sided by him, my father didnít have friends so much as victims. He would barter, bargain, gamble, and hornswoggle even his closest companions. Maybe it was the way he was raised. Our grandma had a tavern when he was a teenager, and he told stories about stealing cases of beer and liquor and selling it out of the trunk of his muscle car in the school parking lot during football games, basketball games, or just lunch hour if someone wanted to buy. Now that may have been providing a public service in some peoplesí eyes, but Iím sure his prices soaked up the public trust. That he had a muscle car, and that he could continually steal booze, and that he could keep the muscle car and keep stealing booze unchecked after being expelled from the only Catholic high school in town was the shame. Like I said, maybe that led to bigger things.
But after high school, and after becoming an earnestly prosecutable adult, my father graduated to a more various, and less nefarious, product line: salvaged home electronics, mostly. "Boy, middle class people throw away good stuff," I can still hear him say. "And I clean it up, fix it up, and sell it back to their kids at college."
It was most likely my fatherís self-satisfying notion that there was genius imbedded in every sale that fueled him on to flea markets and swap meets in his primed Ford Econovan one winter, a used bread truck the next spring, a station wagon even before summer set in, another van through the summer because even though gas was expensive, the brute had balls, my father would say. I knew it was the air conditioning that he treasured. See, he also bought and sold cars so regularly that I wouldnít know that it was our newly acquired used car in our driveway when I came home from school. He never kept the good ones, either. But since I was about to get my license, my father was trying to keep true to his promise of buying me my first car. One day there was a decrepit Honda Civic hatchback with paint so oxidized it looked like raw terra cotta parked on the grass strip between the sidewalk and the street. I recognized it as the car which had been parked unceremoniously in the alley near my friend Frankieís house. It had sat slightly cocked into the alley for months, weeds coming up all over the passengerís side, and even sticking out to say hello from under the driverís side fender. The side-view mirrors had been snapped off, the hub caps all pilfered, and even some of the chrome lettering had been plucked away. All this I learned by walking by it looking out the corner of my eye before I started up the steps to the house. I didnít want my father to be looking out at me and think I was checking out the car, because I hoped higher than my sudden disappointment that this would not be his gift to me.
"How was school?" my father asked as soon as I walked in the door. The fact that he said anything to me most likely meant that there was something in particular he wanted to say to me, so it was a bad sign.
"Uhm, all right, I guess." I lingered at the foot of the stairs hoping he would let me retreat to my room.
"I bought a new car today," he said. New meaning not that it was new, of course, but that we had not owned it previously.
"What do you think?"
I thought it looked like there was a sculpture of a frog robot made from cat shit squatting on our lawn. What could I say? My father didnít go out of his way too much to spend time with me or talk to me, and maybe that is why he was so determined to get me my first car: because he thought it was a way, at least symbolically, to make up for things. But let me say this in my own defense: since elementary school, I never once asked the man for anything more than food. I worked a paper route for years, and then started work at Kentucky Fried Chicken the very day I turned sixteen and old enough to work, and bought my own clothes, books, razors, you name it. My step and he had three toddlers running around who took more than all the money he could bring in selling second hand junk, and I took it on myself as soon as I could not to be a burden. I didnít ask for money for movies, I didnít ask for a stereo for Christmas, I didnít ask for anything, I swear. But if he was going to give me a car that I never asked for, it was going to be one I wanted. I was in no hurry to drive, really. Odd as that may sound, I knew that once I had my license he would be sending me to those swap meets instead of going himself, telling me to cruise up and down the alleys of Rigland Heights and the subdivisions around the edges of town looking for "merchandise." I could wait. Still, what could I say?
"About the car? Itís all right, I guess."
"You want it? We can fix it up and spray it in the garage. Itís no beauty, but itíll getcha there."
"Dad, I donít want to take that car if you can sell it," I said, suddenly inspired. "I know things are tight."
"Donít worry about it," he said in an easy tone that crushed my hopes of evasion. "Letís go take a look at Ďer."
He led the way back down the bowing porch steps, down the rough cement walk, right up to the door of the thing. The window was down and he reached inside to open the door, one more item on the fix-it list. "Weíll take care of that," he said in a voice more confident than my faith in him. I knew my father could fix cars temporarily, but I didnít want my ride eroding from beneath me on First Avenue. Thatís what happened with his two-tone Chevy van. I shouldnít have even been driving with only a learner ís permit, but he had left the van at a bar overnight and didnít want to drag all the kids out. So he left her and the kids at home and drove me out there to get it in his wifeís car, then drove ahead of me home. All in all not a bad plan. But then the light at Fifty-Ninth caught me, and he slipped through. Still, the real problem was that when the light changed and I started to go again, the truck rumbled -- like it had been doing for weeks -- and shuddered, and then there was a punctuating CLUNK, and the engine just whizzed up to the red line. Being on a downhill slope, I was able to turn the corner and roll into the parking lot of a closed-down McDonaldís. There I found that the U-joint had snapped, and the drive shaft was laying next to the curb back on the avenue. My father had replaced that U-joint three weeks before.
He climbed into the shell of a car on the lawn and futzed around with a few of the knobs. "Needs a battery first," he said.
The interior was not without promise, I thought, and almost started to accept that the Civic would be my fate when I saw a new way out of ever being seen in the car: "Dad," I said, "you know I canít drive a stick."
"What? I can teach you to drive a stick in an hour."
"Iím just worried that maybe I should start with an automatic. You know Debbieís kid Mark got a stick before he was ready for it and lurched into the middle of that four-way intersection right in front of the high school, then dumped the clutch. He got hit from behind and the side."
He looked at the dash panel as if he were studying something imperative he had only just noticed. "So you donít want a stick. All right."
I stood there for a minute with neither of us talking, only spring air circulating between us, in and out of the car. Part of me thought I should tell him I had changed my mind. But I couldnít do it. Not that car. Whether I got it myself or he got it for me, my first car, unlike everything else I had, would be something I would be proud of.
My best friend Gary had a 1986 Chevy Camaro. It was basic, with the four cylinder engine, and just a white paint job. But it was a nice, clean car. Gary picked me up for school most days in the winter because we had wrestling practice together. Weíd go in to school almost two hours early and run the halls to help make weight. The Camaro was all right, but more looks than anything else. I didnít need a flashy car. Garyís dad bought it for him. He had a screen printing business with two branches.
Not a month later, I came home again to find a new truck in front of our house. From half a block away I thought maybe it was in the neighborís drive, but then it was clearly in ours, and I thought that if I was ever going to ask God for anything that would be it. The closer I got, the more I tried to suppress my elation, because I knew it could not be for me. But when I got to our driveway, I couldnít help but stop and gaze. But that was the end of the dream: for with only the screen door closed I could hear Rayís distinctive, raspy voice coming over our porch and down through the yard. Rayís truck.
"Hey, Ray," I said as I entered the living room. Ray as an affable guy. He only swore to sound tough, but he was a marshmallow with a beer belly stuffed into overworked blue jeans and bright colored t-shirts sporting the names of roofing companies or painting companies he did work for. He and my father each had a beer in their hand and empties in front of them.
"Hey, Buddy! How ya doiní?"
"Hey, kiddo, get a few of these empties out of here, would ya? Momís got the kids over at her sisters," my father said to me. I loaded an arm full of an empty six packís worth of afternoon bullshitting from the coffee table, and as I was entering the kitchen he called, "And bring us two more!"
Ray called after me, "Just one for your dad!" then I heard him make a feeble attempt to decline to my father, "Iíve gotta hit the road, before my old lady comes lookiní for me."
But my father wouldnít have any of it, saying, "Oh, shit! Your old lady knows where you are! She can come over, too. Get on the phone and call her."
"No, really, I gotta..."
"Bring us both a beer, kiddo!" my father reaffirmed.
A drinking afternoon spun out into evening, as usual, and with the cool air we three moved out onto the porch. Well, I wasnít drinking, and not part of the conversation, but I was interested in what they had to say: because they were talking about the truck. I just sat on the couch and listened to them through the screens until my step mom came home and turned the tv on. She always had the tv on and always had it on loud. So then I went out and lingered on the porch steps awhile, sitting with my Walkman on so they wouldnít think I was eavesdropping, but with the volume low enough that I could hear everything clearly.
"Oh, hell, Ray, whatíd you pay for the thing?"
"Well, now, if youíre looking to buy it, I canít just tell you the truth, now can I?"
"Buy it? Shit, whenís the last time you saw me with any money? Iím gonna trade you for it."
"I donít need fifty used tv sets."
"Not tv sets. Have you seen what I have back in the garage? No, no, I guess you havenít been back there for awhile. Well, letís go take a look, then. Hey, kiddo!"
I pretended to just barely hear him, turned off the Walkman, and turned, "Yeah?"
"Go unlock the garage -- and turn on the backyard lights. Come on, Ray, letís walk around to the garage. Thereís something you want waiting back there."
I ran back through the kitchen, fetched the keys, hit the switch, and rushed to have the padlock off the door before they came around. In fact, I had the lights on and cleared a few things out of the way before I even heard their drunken voices reach the gate behind the house. My father came back with his hands shielding his eyes because the floodlight mounted on the garage was angled just right so that the glare was right in your face. Ray had on a baseball cap and didnít seem bothered. When they came in, I was sweeping a small pile of dust out into the alley through the big door. I timed it that way.
"Well..." Ray said, trying to stroke my fatherís ego. "I guess you do have something new back here, donítcha?"
"Thatís old Harmonís fishing boat. Or it was. I ground all the crap off it and squirted it with some new paint. No leaks. And I took that engine apart and replaced every gasket and seal. Runs like new. Life jackets, fishfinder, anchors. Iíll even throw in a cooler of beer if we take out it together."
"Yep, thatís a good boat. Weíve been down to MacBride on Ďer and caught twice the limit of crappie. Good boat. But I know you must have something else out here if you want to trade me for that truck. Whatís under the tarp?" Ray asked.
"Kiddo!" my father said, and I removed the tarp on command.
"Hmm. Havenít seen that around. That isnít Tomís is it?"
"Nah! Tomís ainít shit next to this one. I got this puppy from an old boy down in Keokuk when I was coming back up from Missouri. Traded that old shotgun for it. He thought the engine was gone, but it was just seized up. I got her purring again in a day. Keys are right here. Start it up," he said, tossing me the keys. I straddled the snowmobile and it started on the first turn, like it was already warm.
"Yeah, yeah," Ray said, and motioned for me to cut the engine.
"Well," my father said, "whatís it gonna take?"
"Well, I dunno," Ray said, distantly. He was searching the walls of the cluttered two stall garage as if there was something in particular he remembered. Then he stopped, turned, and started moving toward my fatherís chain saw. "Isnít this that one you got last winter?"
"Yeah. But you donít need a chain saw."
"Need it more than you do. Iíve got that wood stove in my garage. I could cut up my own cords with this thing."
"Well, Iíll think about it, but Ray, I donít want to do a dirty trade on you. You know that thing has trouble."
"What trouble? We had it out in January taking care of that dead tree at Tomís place, right? Something happen to it since then?"
"No, but it acts up from time to time."
"Iíll take my chances. Always do when I trade with you."
"You know this snowmobile has good plates. I renewed them this year. And the trailer has good rubber on it. Iíll trade you the works, plus the boat, and those pistol grips you like."
"Hell, I donít even own a pistol right now."
"You got that .45 dontcha?"
"Nah, sold that to Harmonís boy. You keep those grips for when I need Ďem, and just throw in that chain saw this time around."
I sat on the snowmobile, waiting for my father to do his trademark back-breaking routine and give in on the chain saw. But they haggled for a few more minutes, my father suggesting other items Ray had expressed interest in, but Ray was dead set on the chain saw. Finally, they headed back out front, and my father told me to lock up. As I was pulling down the overhead door, I heard my father say, "Well, Iíll let you think about it for a few days." I couldnít believe he let that deal get away.
Over the next several days, I kept hoping to find the Datsun in the driveway when I came home from school, but Ray hadnít been by. I told Gary about the Datsun. "How do you know itís for you?" he asked me, as he drove. We were on the way to a movie and had just stopped at the Burger King drive-thru, so we both had our mouths full of Whoppers and shakes.
"I donít know, but heís been trying to pawn every piece of shit car he can find on me, so if he finally gets something I want, Iíll try to get it from him. Anyway, even if itís his, Iíll still get to drive it sometimes. You gotta see it."
"Why donít you just save up and buy your own car?"
"Oh, yeah! Like you did?"
"Hey, my dad just came home from work early one day and told me to come with him to pick something up. I didnít even know."
"Yeah, well, youíve seen the crap -- like that Honda, or that old Buick -- that my dad keeps getting me. I think heís just buying it to sell and try to make a profit on, but since heís got Ďem, he asks me if I want Ďem." I took a long drink from my chocolate shake and immediately wish I hadnít as an ice-cream headache set in. "I would get my own car, but I think heíd be hurt."
"No, really. Heís always talked about it, for years. He bought me my first car, though I never drove it, when I was in the seventh grade. It was a Vega. Someone had suped it up, and my dad took it out and wrecked it trying to be a stud. He just ruined the steering and suspension, and always said weíd fix it. So it sat in the garage when we lived on Seventh Avenue. It was out there for months, and I used to sit it in and I really liked that car, but then he had it towed off one day."
"How many cars has he tried to give you?"
"That one first, then a van, and the Buick and the Honda. The van was really in good shape. He shouldíve kept it for himself, for the business. I donít know why he didnít. But I was afraid to start driving in something so big -- it was an extra long van."
"So... do you hate me for the Camaro?
"What? No. Iím just glad you chauffeur me around all the time. No, I hate Kateís dad for letting her drive the Jaguar to school every Friday. Sheís a fuckiní moron, but her dadís rich, so she gets everything. I had a crush on her in the ninth grade. And I hate Martyís dad for getting her the Saab. I mean, what kind of high school girl needs a Saab?"
"No one needs a Saab! Those things are fugly!"
"Damn right! Still, they spent more on sweet sixteen birthday presents than my house is worth. Thereís something screwed up about that. Anyway, I know I canít outdo them, and Iím not trying. Iím not trying to have the newest Nikes and I donít even like the way Levis fit, so I donít care that I donít have ten pair of them like the preps. But I canít be driving some piece of shit car, too."
"Well, I hope your dad gets it for you."
"Thanks. Me too."
Finally, that weekend, Ray dropped by and stayed for dinner, and they got back into it about the truck. They didnít start talking about details of the trade at first, but my father just felt around the topic for awhile. Then, during dinner, he said, "Well, Ray, you know my boyís gonna be driving in about a month, and I got to get him something decent to drive. Iím his father, and I promised him Iíd buy him his first car, and I think heís in love with that truck. Now what do I have to do to get it for him?"
"Now, you know I paid cash money for that truck. I got it at a good price, but it was my money that I worked hard for. I got to get a fair deal."
"Ray, I treat you fair. Youíre sitting down eating dinner with my family because youíre our friend. Youíre family here, Ray. Seriously. Iím not bullshitting you. If we trade or donít trade, thatís not important. You íre family here. And I donít want you to ever think I done you wrong. So just tell me whatís fair to you, and weíll start from there."
"Well, what you offered the other night, plus the chain saw. Thatís fair to me. I could really use that chain saw, you know. The snowmobile Iíd probably just sell, to tell the truth. I donít get out into the woods much anymore. And the boat would only go out a few times a year. So I need to get something that I can use."
"A few times a year? Weíll take it out every weekend this summer. Iíll bring the bait and beer, you bring the boat and gas."
"Maybe you go fishing that often, but I donít. Anyway, if you throw in the chain saw, weíve got a deal."
"Well, how about this: Iíll give you the snowmobile with that trailer and all, and the boat with everything she needs, and Iíll get that compound bow down from my closet. How may deer have you got with a bow now?"
"Three. But I just told you I donít get out to the forest much anymore. What I could use is that saw."
That damned chain saw was holding the whole thing up. I knew my father had paid thirty five dollars for it and done a little work on it, so I couldnít figure out why it was such a sticking point. Or Ray, either. He could go to Wal-Mart and buy a new one like that for maybe a hundred dollars. It really wasnít anything so special.
But they left it like that, and Ray left about an hour later. The Datsun purred nicely as it idled in the drive, then backed out, paused, then took off down the street.
My father sold the Dodge pickup he had been driving through the spring and got an old Jeep Cherokee. It had a clean body and ran well, but he wouldnít keep it but three weeks. He never offered that one to me. After I found out that he sold it for $600 I almost told him that I would have paid him more, but it was already gone.
In the meantime, though, I was still hoping that the deal with Ray would pan out. Gary thought it was all over, but I knew my father could butter anyone up, and if he really wanted that truck, weíd get it. But it had been over a week, and Ray hadnít even been around. Gary said I should go talk to him myself.
"I canít promise him my dadís stuff." We were eating in the car again. Taco Bell. I wasnít sure where we were heading, and we didnít seem to be in any hurry. Gary took a bite of his taco even though the light had just turned green. No one was behind us.
"No, but your dad already promised him everything but the chain saw. Maybe you can just get him a different one, or pay him some cash instead."
"I donít know."
"You know where he lives? Whereís he live?"
Down by Quaker Fields."
"All right, letís go. Letís see if heís home."
So Gary turned and took us toward Quaker Fields, and we cruised slowly down a few streets until I recognized Rayís Chevy in the drive. The Datsun wasnít there. Still, I got out and rang the bell. Ray came to the door looking like he had been taking a nap. He was squinting, looking confused.
"Who is ... Well, hell.. What are you doiní down here?"
"My friend Gary drove me by. Say, if you have a minute..."
"Sure. Whatís up?" Now that he knew who I was he seemed more lucid. Gary turned off the engine, but waited in the car. Ray and I stood on the stoop, sounds from a radio from somewhere in the back of his house coming to the screen.
"Yeah, I was wondering about that Datsun. Have you still got it?"
"Oh, the Datsun. Yeah, itís in the garage."
"Well, I know you and my dad were talking about trading for it, and I thought maybe I could throw in some cash instead of that chain saw you want."
"Bud, I know you mean well, but if your dad wants the truck, heíll have to cough up that chain saw."
"I donít know how much he wants it, but I was hoping to end up with it, you know. I have a part-time job, and I could pay you a couple hundred dollars now, or pay you every two weeks when I get paid, or whatever."
"Oh. Well, hell," he said, looking down. "Iím sorry, Bud, but this is just something between your father and me. If he wants it bad enough, he knows what I want for it."
We stood without talking for a moment, and I could tell he wanted the next words to be something like, "Sure, Ray, I understand. Well, you have a good evening." But I didnít quite understand. "Ray," I said, "Iíll pay you more than the saw is worth."
"Bud, you know my boy in college up in Minnesota? I think Iím gonna wait until he comes home for the summer, and let him take the truck back up with him."
"Well, but I mean what if you get the boat and the snowmobile and I pay you. Thatís what I meant."
"Bud, my boy could use this truck. I know you need something soon, too, but you canít expect me to rob from my own kid to give to you. Your dad will find you something."
I looked at him and I did not recognize the rosy nosed affable man who drank with my father, ate at our house. Moreover, I could see that he did not recognize me as someone trying to negotiate. He only saw me as my fatherís son, a possession of sorts. I stepped heavily down from the stoop and walked back out to the Camaro, which Gary started as I approached. Ray called behind me, "See you later."
My father wasnít home when Gary dropped me off. When I heard him come in, I went downstairs from my room, and waited until he was done talking to his wife and relaxed, watching tv before I said anything. "I saw Ray today," I said.
"He stop by?" he said in a tired voice, which didnít so much mean that he had worked that day, but that he hadnít made enough money.
"No, I was out that way with Gary, so we dropped in at his place. Just for a minute."
"How is Ray?" he asked, indifferently.
"All right, you know. We talked about that Datsun a little bit. I think you still might be able to get it away from him if you threw in that chain saw. He said itís just sitting in the garage now."
"That so? Well, I donít really care about that Datsun anymore."
And then I really went out on a limb: "Well, I was sort of hoping that if we could get it, that it could be my first truck."
For the first time, my father started to pay attention to me. He looked away from the tv to read my face. He saw what I quickly tried to hide: that I was desperately in need of that truck.
"Ray was never gonna trade that truck."
"I donít know. I think he just really wants that chain saw..."
"No. What Ray really wanted was to win. He was just trying to get me to agree to his terms. I donít do that. I deal on my terms. He said he wanted the chain saw, but I didnít want to give him the chain saw. I woní t give him the chain saw. Even if I had agreed to the saw, he would have just backed out of the deal, saying he needed to think about it, then never bringing it up again."
"But he might have traded for the saw."
"All right, he might have. But itís finished. Iím not thinking about that anymore."
I felt some of my hope escape before I could round it up again. "So, would you have traded if he had taken what you offered?"
"Of course. Iíd have been a fool not to. I could sell that truck for a thousand dollars profit in a weekend."
"But I thought maybe I could have it. You even told Ray it was going to be my truck."
"I told Ray that because he likes you, and it might have tipped the scales. But I couldnít give that truck to you. You canít drive a stick, remember?"