Sunday, March 25, 2012
My daddy had at least four cars.
The Camaro was my favorite, a beautiful glossy candy apple red with soft tan leather interior. Sitting in the back of that car, my little legs dangling from the backseat, I felt like I was riding in a limo. Luxury. That was what riding in the Camaro was all about.
My second favorite was the Ranchero. My Daddy would laugh when I told him I liked that car. I would say that I wanted to drive a Ranchero when I grew up and he’d laugh and say:
“You like that one huh?”.
It was white and looked like his pick up except it seemed to have been squished. It was as if God had placed his hand on the boxy shape of the pick up and flattened it out a little, making it look sleeker, like a shark. It had an interior that was the color of denim with some darker lines patterning it. I would sit on that bench seat and run my fingers over the textured fabric, tracing out the patterns while I waited for my Daddy to finish talking to people or load something into the truck bed.
The pick up truck was my least favorite. It was simple, boring compared to the other cars. It was the work horse of the lot. It had a leather bench with an interesting pattern embossed all over its surface. I’d run my fingers all over those patterns while we drove. It was no wonder I never looked out the windows. My daddy asked me once why I didn’t. He told me:
“Your missing all kinds of shit. I used to love looking out the windows when I was a kid. I saw everything.”
But he had to ride in the same car everyday. With four cars, I never needed to look out the window to see something that interested me, I was taken up with the variance of texture and shape within each ride. There were worlds in them for my fingers and imagination to explore.
The firebird was white. I liked the image of the bird painted on the hood in pale blue, its angular wings spread, head turned to one side. It was black leather inside. The back seats curved like shallow bowls. It wasn’t particularly comfortable, but it smelled good. Sitting in the sun on a hot summer day that car soaked up all the heat so that when you opened the car door the smell enveloped you. The black leather burned the bare flesh of legs and thighs and hands. I liked that. Like a lizard, I soaked it up, napping in the heat.
Those were the cars my Daddy drove, the cars that were parked along the edges of our long drive way and in one side of our enormous garage. There were two more cars out back, an old maroon Cadillac with fins and a white Volvo that my grandparents had driven all over Europe in the late 50’s.
Once my daddy drove my sister and me to visit the La Brea tar pits. I left some neon hued crayons we got at the museum in the back window and they melted in the hot sun. My father was furious.
My sister and the neighbor girl and I would play in the Volvo, taking turns at the wheel, enjoying road trips of our own, planning the real road trips that we would take in this car when we grew up. The interior was in pristine condition, untouched by the decades.
The thunderbird’s engine blew on I15 on a sweltering summer day. I was in the car with my sister and mother when it happened. That was its death.
My Daddy was livid. He blamed my Mother for not maintaining it. She blamed him. I was sad to see my friend die.
Each car had a distinct spirit, a personality as real to me as those of my stuffed toys. Even as a child I perceived that the death of a thunderbird was a bad, bad omen.
It wasn’t long after the thunderbird died that my Daddy had to go away to drive a truck across country.
He was gone for a long time. A year. Nearly two.
For my birthday he mailed me a stuffed ram. I remember feeling exquisite relief as the small package from my father was placed in my hands. It was wrapped in yellow paper. He hadn’t forgotten me. He’d gone away, but he remembered me.
When he came back, the cars were gone. I don’t remember where or how or exactly when the others went, but the Camaro and the Ranchero had gone away when my daddy went away. The pick up truck remained.
After he came home he shaved off his mustache. When he emerged from the bathroom with a clean shaven face, I was terrified. I couldn’t believe it was him. I wouldn’t hug him. I ran away and eyed the stranger suspiciously.
The Thunderbird had been registered to a Tom Smith. My father would explain this to me 25 years later as we neared the bend where it died. Not far from Cajalco pass, near Horse Thief canyon, we sped through the darkness towards home and he reminisced.
“I raced a guy in the thunderbird right around this bend. That car could really go.”
“I liked that car.” I told him, “I liked all those cars.”
“Yeah. I didn’t want anybody to notice any patterns. That’s why I drove different cars all the time.”
For a moment I sat in the darkness quietly trying to fathom what paranoid scheme this statement fit in with. And then it clicked.
I knew by now that my Daddy hadn’t left to drive a truck across country. He’d gone to jail because he was a drug runner.
My mother told me when I was 18. She was angry at the time for some trivial matter and tired of keeping his secret.
It made it easier when my father tried to confess to me 10 years later. His face had been full of shame.
“You remember when I was gone? I never told you, I was in prison.”
With two words uttered in a flippant tone of voice I had lifted a burden from his shoulders. He didn’t need to explain. He didn’t need to say anything else.
On I15 it clicked.
“Because you were moving drugs?”
“Right. None of those cars were actually registered in my name. That Camaro was a nice car.”
“One time a little further back a cop pulled me over for speeding. I told him it was my friend’s car, right, and he asks ’does your friend know that you borrowed it?’ I told him, ’Oh yeah.’ you know, and apologized for speeding. I told him I wasn’t used to such a smooth ride, I hadn’t realized how fast I was going. We got to talking about what a nice car it was and how it handled and the cop let me go.”
“What names were they registered to?” I wondered.
“Just names I made up. Common stuff like Tom Smith, or Bill Jones.”
My Daddy had at least four cars, none of them registered in his name. My Daddy didn’t have any cars at all. The Camaro was my favorite of all the cars my Daddy didn‘t have; a beautiful glossy candy apple red with soft tan leather interior. Everybody liked the Camaro.