on the page magazine

issue no. 4, summer 2001


Family Car

by Colin Berry

On their wedding day, a steaming summer afternoon in 1950, it sits at the curb of the First Presbyterian Church on Kingshighway in St. Louis: a gunmetal gray Chevrolet sedan with gleaming windows and a long chrome stripe down the side. There is something ship-like about the car, its bumpers wide enough to stand on, rear window like a porthole, fenders oddly amphibious.

From the front, the car is blunt as a bulldog, with amber running lights and a sloping hood that caps sleepy headlight eyes with silver lids. The front grille is a tangle of chrome tubes and bars. Yet at an invisible line precisely behind the back window, the sedan seems to run out of ideas: the flared rear fenders taper almost to a point below the trunk, like the back of a sitting cat; the tail lights are absurdly small. The gas cap lies beneath a small door carved abruptly out of one fender. The car's jazzy introduction seems to end in a dry military march.

The war is over: it is a year of cheerful hats and shorter dresses. Inside the church, women in the congregation fan themselves with the carefully typed programs. The church smells of sweat and perfume and baby powder, of old books and wood and candles. As the minister's voice echoes against the back wall, cars sigh past on the avenue outside. At the altar, my father wears a wool military uniform, just slightly too small. It has begun to itch in the heat. As he kneels, he can feel the car key dig into his thigh.

Later, with friends and family crowded outside and rice stuck in the hems of their clothes, my mother and father climb into the car. As they pull away from the curb, waving, the afternoon sun reflects off the windshield and frames my grandmother, standing on the church steps, in a rectangle of metallic white. She waves back at them, but even after the flash she cannot see, because just then she has started to cry.

The car is packed for the honeymoon: my mother's fine luggage, my father's khaki bags, blankets, fishing gear, a red ice chest filled with food. Books, maps, a spare tire—it all fits into the cavernous trunk of the car. They are winding through Colorado, through the passes, unsure of the mountain roads, scarcely knowing the person in the other seat. They talk in short sentences as the big engine whines.

My father is dark, ruddy, rural; in the driver's seat, he squeezes my mother's thigh and smiles at her. He has a crew cut; his front teeth have a gap between them. My mother is pink and sunburned, with a high forehead and bright, dilated eyes. There is a map in her lap, but instead she looks out the window at the peaks and valleys slowly unrolling before her. She likes the rectangular shape of this state but the curving roads make her uneasy. She is used to the grid of perpendicular city streets—north-south, east-west—of moving in straight lines and turning at right angles. When she points to something outside the window, her fingernail makes a tiny click on the glass.

My mother likes the way the car smells: sweet, warm leather and fabric mix with the darker, blacker odors of oil and gasoline, the hot smell of the radiator during rest stops, the mustiness of my father's gloves in the compartment on her side of the dashboard. The smells remind her of the city she knew in summertime, of shopping with her mother—of the department stores, of the tar bubbling on the rooftops and in the sidewalk cracks outside.

Late in the afternoon, they drive into Rocky Mountain National Park, and my mother squeals and frantically rolls up her window: a pair of elk, friendly as dogs, are approaching the car. Heart pounding, she leans back into my father's arms as the animals smear their noses against the glass. Later, she carefully cleans the long smudge and throws the Kleenex into a green trash barrel.

Still later, sitting in a canvas chair, she reads a novel in the shade at the edge of a lake while my father fishes from the shore a little way off. Occasionally, each of them looks towards the other, but never at the same time. The car says nothing, either, but only clicks as it cools, its tires and undercarriage muddy from the mountain roads.

My father is parked in front of a medical office in Boulder, waiting for my mother to come out. He wears gold-framed sunglasses, Navy issue, that wrap around his ears. In the car, he plays with knobs on the radio, admiring the gleaming chrome and black metal dashboard. The dials and switches remind him of the airplane cockpits he knew in the Navy, with their glowing gauges and graceful sliding levers. The radio stops talking and begins to play a bebop tune, and my father settles back, lights a Lucky Strike, and watches the passing college girls in their skirts. He rests hands on the steering wheel. They are broad and flat, with clean white moons rising in the nails and trimmed cuticles. He rotates his wedding ring and notices for the first time how pale the skin is underneath: the color of a fish's belly.

Just then my mother emerges from the building and before she even gets to the car he knows she is pregnant. He leans across the seat to open her door and for a moment sees himself reflected in the chrome ribs of the radio, twenty of him, all in aviator glasses, all with crewcuts, all with pregnant wives.

When her contractions come regularly they load up the car and start toward the hospital. It is January, and Boulder's pre-dawn streets are walled with snow. My mother is panicked. Twice on their street the heavy car gets stuck, and he pushes as she rocks it out, her belly grazing the wide black steering wheel. They shout back and forth to each other, their voices carried in steam that floats away on the chill of night. Once, while my father is pushing her, the car's tires catch a patch of sand and spray him with small stones. He can feel each tiny pebble sting his skin, and he squints his eyes and winces to protect himself. The streetlights shine down on the gray car as the tires whine and wail in the icy ruts like a pair of crying children.

One night after my second sister is born, my parents drive the car to Flagstaff mountain, an overlook above town. Through the windshield, the plains of the front range unfold below them: from Cheyenne to Colorado Springs, grids of tiny lights alternate with neat rows of farmland. Patchworked squares stitched with threads of highway. They have hired a baby-sitter tonight, but as they sit in the car it occurs to my mother that they are talking about the things they always talk about: diapers, doctors, car payments, house payments. Baby shoes. Money.

Around them, late-model cars gleam under the darkening Colorado sky, the college kids around them laughing and calling to each other. The radio plays something with a guitar and lonely vocal; my mother lights a cigarette. The moon rises. They talk more, their voices becoming tight and angular. They sit silently for a while. The radio chases a filament of melody. Somewhere a few cars away a girl giggles.

At one point, my father puts his arm around her. She feels stiff and jumpy, her shoulders tight, her face turned away. But slowly she leans into him. He can feel her thaw, her tension lift with each breath. Eventually she leans her head onto his shoulder. Her hair smells of castile soap and lemon. For a long moment they stay that way, heads together, watching tiny events unfold on the plains below.

When he does repairs on it, the car seems to swallow my father. Dressed in coveralls and a cloth cap, he can almost disappear inside the great steel hood. He loves the motor's simplicity, its straightforwardness, how the simple act of replacing one part can make it run perfectly again. He loves its warmth just after running, its clicks and hisses, its warm fluid smells. He imagines himself as a dentist, opening its mouth to clean carbon from its teeth. Sitting behind the wheel, feeling the pressure of the starter button under his fingertip, my father talks gently to the car, waiting patiently for the engine to turn over. It seems to trust him.

Yet in the night, with the children sleeping in the next room, my mother winces as he moves above her in the dark, his eyes closed, the smell of gasoline still on his hands, grease under his fingernails.

The car is in the parking lot of a neighborhood grocery store on a Thursday morning in early autumn. I am standing on its passenger seat, two years old, holding onto the door frame as my mother tips the carry-out boy. He glances down at the money, thanks her. She smiles back and, without looking, slams the heavy door on my hand.

For a split second nothing happens: my own reflection, eyes wide and mouth open like an uncorked bottle, stares back at me in the glass. I can smell the heavy paper of the bags in the back seat, the bread and bananas and soap inside; I hear a fly buzz near the back window; I see dog hair on the seat. Then all at once the pain rockets through me, as though my fingers have just caught fire. Before I can even bring my hand to my mouth, blood pulses from my knuckles in four thin crimson lines. Finally the tears come, exploding hot and fluid.

That night I lie in bed, my bandaged hand beating time to my heart, and hear them fighting downstairs through the floors and walls of the house. I can make out no words, only the angry topography of their quarrel, my mother's high jagged outbursts and the low tones of my father's responses. At one point a door slams and the gray car starts up, dies, and starts again, then backs crazily down the driveway and charges down the street. The house is quiet then, seeming to exhale, settling down to sleep.

My sister and her friends are moving fast in the car, circling the grandstands on the fairgrounds at the north end of Main Street to drive past a carload of boys again. A bottle clinks against another on the floor of the back seat. A Beatles song is on the radio. As she corners the car around the last steel beam that supports the stands, my sister feels a tug and hears a screech. Drunk, she thinks it is the sound of the midnight whistle that signals a shift change at the turkey plant.

A minute later she is out of the car, running her hand along the long straight gouge that now runs the length of the back fender. As the blistered gray paint flakes off with her fingernail, she can feel the car still running, its choppy idle like a winded horse. Its headlights shine into the labyrinth of girders and beams under the grandstands. Someone flicks a cigarette into the shadows. Tiny sparks bounce into the wind. The boys are nowhere to be seen.

The car is parked in the driveway. My brother and I sit in the front seat and he explains the gears to me: toward and down for first, away and up for second, straight down for third; toward and up for reverse; always push the clutch in first. He has just started driving. I concentrate on listening, flattered that he is paying attention to me. While he practices the gears, I poke around in the glove compartment: mittens, maps, a tire pressure gauge, a tiny light bulb. I click a flashlight on and off. He jabs the lighter in, waits, then touches its glowing tip to the plastic end of the stick shift, where a plume of bitter smoke curls.

While he pretends to drive, I pretend to look out the window, pointing out imaginary landmarks as they pass. Then he curses at something in the road and honks the horn furiously and we both laugh until my mother's angry face appears at a window of the house.

My father is away on a business trip when I go with my mother to the police station to pick up my brother. I sit in the station lobby looking at some pamphlets while she talks quietly to someone through a thick window. She signs some papers and hands them through the bottom. In a few minutes a door opens. When my brother comes out, I expect for a second to see him shackled or in striped clothes, but he looks just the same as ever: a T-shirt and jeans, shifting on his feet, grinning sheepishly. A policeman talks to Mom for a while, makes hand gestures. They both look at my brother. Once, he glances up at me and winks. He has just totaled his Dodge van.

On the way home, no one talks and we all look out our windows at the passing night. When we pull into the driveway, the headlights brush over the gray car, twenty years old now, sitting by the garage. It is rusted, its chrome peeling in strips, the long scar still on its rear fender, the back bumper lopsided. It barely runs. It could be a creature in a museum, grade-school children circling it in hushed awe.

Late that night, we sit around the kitchen table and they talk about restoring the old car. They say nothing about the accident, nor about my father's absence, but talk instead about its status as a collector's item. They settle on some plan, and in my head the car has come alive again, its grille polished and gleaming, tires black, the big engine healthy and roaring. That night I dream of riding in it, the four of us waving proudly, in a parade.

My hatchback is in the shop, so I borrow the car when I meet Lori Walsh at the pool around sunset. Our routine is the same: drink a beer or two, then park behind the golf course and begin to undress each other. She is tiny—a gymnast—and in the big old car everything is much easier. She straddles me in the front seat, and for a moment I can see the back of her head, curiously, in the rear-view mirror. As I drive her home the car smells of sex and summer. There is a Trojan wrapper on the floor.

Later, when I get home, I can see from the street that my parents' bedroom light is on. I heave the old car into the driveway and sit listening to it cool. An early autumn wind buffets the car. Sitting in the windy dark, my body feels in motion, like I'm being driven somewhere. I recall being very young, nearly asleep in the back seat, feeling its low roar and gentle movements, a huge, safe ship invisibly steering my family and me toward home.

Inside, on my way upstairs, I glance into their bedroom. They are both asleep: my father on his side, snoring, my mother slumped in a half-sitting position, reading glasses at an angle, chin on her chest, her book fallen into her lap. I shut off their light and go to bed.

The morning of the weekend I leave for college, my father is washing the old car in the driveway. My own car is parked on the street, loaded with clothes, a stereo, furniture for my dorm room. My mother busies herself in the kitchen, washing dishes as I finish breakfast. She sees me to the door like a guest; we say good-bye. In the yard, I talk to my father for a few minutes while he's soaping up the car, then get into mine and drive it slowly away.

After I leave she calls to him and he goes to her in the kitchen. For a long time they stand with their arms around each other, not speaking, wondering which of them is holding up the other. My father feels the soft flesh of my mother's arms over his; she sees the tufts of fine hair growing in his ears, the capillaries branching under his eyes and on his nose. Outside on the driveway, the soap drips off the old gray car, its windows beginning to streak in the morning sun.

Colin Berry lives in Northern California. He is a regular contributor to NPR's "All Things Considered," Print, Wired, and other publications. Colin received an MA in creative writing from San Francisco State University. His first memoir, "Shattered," appeared in the siblings issue of On the Page.

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