My father no longer drives. He likes to remind everyone he could if he wanted, because he still has his license. Two years ago, he had to renew it. I called my parents the morning of his appointment. My voice a plastic smile, singsong, I said, “Sooo, call me later and let me know how your day goes,” casting the net wide, conspicuously inconspicuous.
The day came and went, as did the next, with no report. No doubt my parental units were unperplexed, marching onward, while I was apoplectic with concern, a field mouse chewing through its leg jammed under the wire jaw of the trap. Finally, I could stand the silence no further. I called my Dad.
“So how did everything go?”
“Everything is fine.”
“Soooo….you got your license renewed?”
I primed for this conversation a year and a half ago. Home for Christmas, Russ and I accompanied Dad to McDonald’s, only a couple of miles from the house. Late afternoon sunbeams, as bright as bolts of electricity, blinding, broke through the surrounding tree-line as bushy and thick as broccoli, splashing across the road. We drove into a spotlight and Dad slammed on the brakes in the middle of the road. He couldn’t see.
I was instantly reminded of a precarious situation I found myself in at the tender age of twelve. Dad came to a halt while crossing the Horace Wilkinson bridge looming over the Mississippi River. He was having a panic attack. Eighteen wheelers roared behind us, yanking their horns and hissing like perturbed geese, as Mom and Dad hopped out of the panelled van, running around the front of it like a synchronised pas de deux, switching seats. Strewn comfortably across the luggage in the very back and rubbing my eyes open with the sting of commotion, even then I was acutely aware of my unfortunate position, a potential harbinger of calamity.
Russ and I awaited the sound of screeching tires, our ears a tuning fork for imminent disaster. We sat motionless, mute in our seats, as Dad crept forward, as if deciding which square to land his Bishop on the chessboard. We finally pulled up to the drive-thru lane, and Dad shouted his order to the voice inside the intercom. As Dad looped the corner to the cashier’s window, he held up his coupon and said,” I always tell them I have a coupon, but they never take it, so I use it over and over, hee hee!” Straightening the wheels, his side mirror scraped along the red brick.
“Dad, you just hit the building!”
He chuckled without pause and said, “Oh, that happens all the time! Not a big deal. No one died. The car’s fine.”
This happens all the time?
We left McDonalds, creeping our way home, like a newly-domesticated cat outlining the furniture pushed against the walls inside a house. I noticed Dad had perfected the easiest route coming and going places. It included as many right turns as possible, making the drive not the shortest distance between two points, but the one least engaging with other drivers. Smart, I thought to myself. Still brash, but not reckless.
Dad pulled into the left turn lane at the entrance to the subdivision. As the signal changed from green to yellow, Dad hit the gas pedal, the back of my head hitting the leather rest behind it. I grabbed the handle folded inside the door, my feet pushing against the floorboard, securing my bottom in the bucket of the seat.
Inching along again on the straightaway, I said, “Dad, what the hell?!”
“What? I wanted to make the light!”
“DAD. You didn’t make the light! You ran a red one!”
“It was yellow.”
“No, it was yellow when you hit the gas. It was red when you were in the middle of the intersection, turning. YOU CAN’T DO THAT!
Holy shit, Dad!! Jesus Christ! You. Cannot. Do. That! It’s totally dangerous!”
It was like a horse leaving a stride out at the coffin on a cross-country course.
That was us.
We left a stride out at the coffin.
Russ, the stoic silent type, didn’t say a word in the back. (I don’t know how.)
“Ahhh, it’s fine. It was yellow,” Dad said.
The next day Dad reminded me to check the taillights because one was cracked. He didn’t want a cop to pull me over while driving his car. Walking around the vehicle in the garage, Russ and I noticed both corners of both bumpers were scratched and both of the taillights had a crack in them. I walked back in the house, deciding to cut the deck in two, shelving half of the conversation for later, the more difficult one about Dad’s newly-adopted rules of driving.
“Dad,” I said. “Both taillights are cracked and the bumper is scratched, too.”
“Yeah, I think someone backed in to me. I don’t know what happened. One day I walked out and they were just like that.
I haven’t hit anything,” he added.
That you know of, I thought.
One afternoon last summer, Dad called me.
“Funny thing happened today,” he said.
“Oh yeah? What’s that?”
“I hit the curb,” he said.
“These damn curbs!
You know they cause a lot of accidents…
Because they are so upright!
There’s no room on the road, the curb is right there.
They flip cars, you know!”
I listened, chewing on the words like a stale slice of beef jerky. I commiserated, and said I was glad it wasn’t worse than it was, and I was relieved he was okay. Two weeks passed before he brought the incident up again.
“The craziest thing happened,” he said over the phone. “Did I tell you my tire hit the curb?”
“You might have mentioned it, but what happened?”
“One minute I was on the road and the next minute I jumped the curb!
Oh God. Here it comes. The truth. I braced for it.
Have you seen our curbs?”
“Yep, I’ve seen them.”
“They’re so upright!”
“It’s so dangerous!”
“They are for sure.”
“Cars flip all the time on that main road! Did you know that?!”
“Yep. I did know that.”
“They’re so bad! Dangerous!”
“You’re right. They are dangerous.”
“You’re right. They are.
That must have been so scary.”
“It was scary! I don’t know what happened. I creeped over a little, and boom, my wheels jumped the curb, before I knew what happened!”
“Oh my God! Then what did you do?”
“Well, I righted it back on the road.”
“I’m glad you didn’t overcorrect. That would be easy to do in the situation.”
“No, I didn’t do that. I got back on the road.”
“Is the car okay?”
Your mother says I scratched the side of it, but I don’t know what she’s talking about.
I don’t see anything there.
I think your mother is making it up.”
Last week, my phone vibrated when Mom sent me a text. It included a photo.
*“Did you have an accident?,” she asked.
“No, I didn’t have an accident.”
“Well I just received a notification saying Dad’s car had an accident.”
Fifteen hundred miles away, and I still can’t get away with anything.
This past March, I drove Dad’s car back to DC. His days behind the wheel came to an end. (“I still could if I wanted to! I’ve got a legal driver’s license!”) The passenger side of his car is scratched and creased like the waist of an aluminium soda can pinched between the thumb and forefinger.
“They’re adding points to Dad’s license,” Mom said. “You’ve got to get the title changed into your name and update the insurance on the car.”
This was the third phone call with Mom, after the third notification my parents received in their mail. Since taking possession of the car, I’ve gotten a speeding ticket (by speed camera), dashed through tolls unpaid (forgetting I didn’t have the pass in that car), and cracked the windshield so badly it needed immediate replacement. Who did they notify each time? The address on record for the grey 2013 Toyota Highlander:
It isn’t as if I haven’t tried to register the car here, but the DMV is open by appointment only, and all of the appointment slots are already taken. It’s been this way since…March. The inefficiency of this particular government service is…still…astounding.
“Well, I’m not sure points matter, at this point,” I said, knowing full well that, ironically, that wasn’t the point, but merely a diversion, a thin consolation.
“Ahh, well. Could be a lot worse, Mom.”
It was all I could think of to say.
This morning, I learned of a friend’s death. She died on Thursday, while I was celebrating the birthday of another dear friend. We weren’t close, but went to college together, and we lost track after graduation, “we” being “me,” like I did with most everyone, too busy spending all of my time looking between a horse’s ears. Cancer took her away from this world in seven months.
What do I remember about her? She was so beautiful, she was stunning, but never knew it. Her heart was so open, so generous and loving and kind, I marvelled even then how she moved through the world so effortlessly, without being reduced to a pile of rubble with all of the pain and hardship that surrounds us. But she did. While someone is celebrating their best day, elsewhere it is someone’s worst, come to fruition. The world lost a good one last week.