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Release the Clutch photo

Dying made my father restless. He never wanted to sit, he didn’t want to talk, he just wanted to drive his truck. “Going for a drive,” he would say after breakfast. When he got home, he napped. Then lunch and, before he had even finished chewing his last bite of sandwich, he would stand up from the couch and grab his keys and wallet from the small credenza by the front door again. “Where are you going?” Mom would ask.

“Gonna drive out to Fillmore.”

“But Sis is here,” she’d say, and he would look over at me for permission. His eyes were a dusty pale green, unexpected, the color of oxidized copper. 

“It’s OK. Go ahead.”

Mom couldn’t understand the driving, or why he wanted to be alone out there instead of with us when we knew he had so little time left. But then, when he couldn’t drive himself anymore, he asked us to take him—out on the 101, along the beach and the silvery waves, sometimes a dolphin out there jumping. Back through the sawdust foothills. Around Lake Casitas, and past Johnny Cash’s old house. Maybe past the oil fields where he used to work. He didn’t talk much, only occasionally asking that we go a little farther, that we take the long way around.

I never believed I would die, until he died. Now I know I will.

* * *

He had a tattoo of the Playboy bunny logo on his right forearm. It’s not a lie, but it’s the least true thing I could tell you about him. That silly, startled rabbit with a bow tie. I often wondered, but never asked, if it embarrassed him. He loved Creedence Clearwater Revival and Buffalo Springfield. When I hear that music, I can see him—left arm hanging out the open window of his turquoise El Camino. Freckles. Aviator sunglasses. Idling there in the parking lot behind the high school, gunning the engine, just waiting for me to hop in. The muscle memory of it—pressing the button with my thumb, swinging the door out, the weight of it, slipping inside, then using my whole body to slam it shut—is still in my limbs. And a smell that is something like dust, tobacco, metal. The cool, stiff leather of the seats pressing into the back of my legs.

An El Camino is a station wagon that someone decided to turn into a truck. It’s low to the ground and long. It shouldn’t be cool, but show me a cooler automobile. It looks mean, like it could slice you open. It snarls. It says don’t fuck with me, I’ve seen things. I’ve seen a boy grow up in a shack in the mountains, slick his hair back and roll cigarettes up in the sleeve of his white t-shirt, race cars, lay irrigation lines all summer in the alfalfa fields, ship off to Vietnam (never speak of it), come back and make a life near the ocean.

* * *

My kids believe in reincarnation. It’s an attractive proposition to them. My daughter sees it as a series of endless opportunities to try on different occupations. “I’m going to be a teacher,” she says, “but in my next life, I think I’ll be a zoologist.” One of my sons hopes he’ll come back as a bullfrog, the other says he wants to come back as a boy and he wants me to be his mom, over and over again, this same life, again and again, forever. I don’t know what I believe in as far as the afterlife is concerned. I know I want more of the breeze than this one life could ever give me, but I don’t want to come back if my dad isn’t my dad and my boy isn’t my boy. If he’s someone else’s boy, it’s not worth it. I don’t want it. My heart breaks to think of it.

When I was 17, my dad decided to teach me how to drive a stick shift. He loved old cars, loved the lines of them and their beauty, but also loved their speed and power. He could take an engine apart and put it back together. He bought and sold pieces of classic cars at local swap meets. He did those sorts of things for fun, and to be the child of a man like that meant that one day you would learn how to drive a stick.

He took me to a road that cut through farmland, just below the foothills; a road that was mostly straight, mostly deserted, flanked on either side by acres and acres of avocado trees. We stood in the middle of that road in front of that shimmering turquoise El Camino. He dangled the keys over my open palm and then dropped them, like we were in a movie. I was terrible, but he coached me. He said I would be able to feel when the gears needed to change, when I should ease up on the gas and press down on the clutch. It was simply a feeling. But I couldn’t feel it. I’d accelerate, and at some point he would say, gently, “Almost. Not yet. OK, now.” It was so much to take in. There were so many variables; my senses were overwhelmed. On my last lap, I didn’t see the beige minivan turning out of the driveway at the end of the road, and I drove, slowly, in first gear, right into the side of it.

He wasn’t angry. The damage was minimal and only cosmetic. Later he would say something vague but kind to me about trying it another time. But I never drove that car again while he was alive.

“What is it like to have a dad?” my son Isaac asks me. He’s six. It’s bedtime and I’m sandwiched between him and his twin brother, Simon, in their double bed. They have two moms, a situation they seem exceptionally satisfied with most of the time. But they observe their friends’ dads, tall and bearded—a foreign species—and they’re naturally curious.

“That’s a hard question to answer,” I say. “Dads are all different. I only know what it was like to have my dad.”

* * *

When Mom had cancer and we took her to the hospital to have a piece of her colon removed, he paced the hallways for the length of her surgery. I sat in the waiting room. When they finally wheeled her out and into her recovery room it was already dark. A nurse stepped out to speak to us. “There’s a couch in there that pulls out. One of you can stay,” she said. I looked to him. I was 24. I thought that he should be with her, but he looked everywhere except at me. “It’s OK,” I said to him. “I’ll stay with her tonight. You can go.” He nodded. I watched from the window of her room. I saw the headlights of his truck illuminate the parking lot, then swing out over the strawberry fields, then along the road leading to the freeway, and out of sight. I was confused then. Now, older and with three kids of my own, I understand: Fear is the underside of love.

The last time I took him for a drive I considered telling him things: that he was a good dad, that he’d saved my life when I was in a fog of postpartum anxiety and not sleeping and he came and held the babies. But to say anything like that to him was to acknowledge he was dying, which felt impossible, which felt cruel. I exited the freeway just north of Ventura, and we drove along the beach. I slowed down. The sun was relentless. A man grabbed a surfboard off the top of his car and jogged across the road in front of us. Out our open windows we could hear the delighted screams of children jumping into the whitewash—that shock of cold, the exhilarating pain and pleasure of one of those crystal waves breaking on you, knocking you back, stealing your breath.

* * *

When I was six, he took me camping—just the two of us. He drove us up a winding road into the Tehachapi Mountains. We found a spot near a small lake, and he parked there. We wandered around, threw rocks into the water, and when it got dark, we crawled into the back of his truck. He had a camper shell and he’d made a warm nest for us with old quilts and pillows. He wasn’t typically responsible for me and didn’t know what to do to entertain me in the absence of my mother’s direction. But he had a box of Oreo cookies that he pulled out of a bag. He smiled and handed it to me. We slowly, happily, ate half the box together. Then, sometime shortly after that, an unexpected thunderstorm rolled in. It began to pour, and the relentless sound of the rain, each drop like a gunshot on the aluminum shell, paired with the increasingly explosive thunder, terrified me. He didn’t hesitate. It was a two-hour drive in the dark, down a mountain, in the pouring rain. “Do you want to go?” he asked. I nodded and he drove me home to my bed.

My mom got a dog a few months after he died, a huge loping thing that is part poodle, part golden retriever. There are moments when I’m convinced that he’s my father come back to take care of her. When we visit her, the dog chases his tail and makes the kids laugh so hard Isaac almost pees himself. The dog follows me around relentlessly. When I sit on the couch, he puts his face in my face, like he has something to tell me, something important. I push him away. He comes back, licks me. At night while we watch a movie, he puts his head in my lap, falls asleep for a moment, like he knows me. But the dog always returns to my mom, checks on her. Where is she? He’s always looking for her. He’s so large, he can’t sit in her lap, but he throws the front half of his body onto her. He turns his head and looks at me as if to say, “She’s OK. I’ll take care of her.” He has my father’s long face, his mournful eyes.

* * *

Chevy stopped making the El Camino in 1987, in favor of larger, more powerful pickup trucks. The versions manufactured in the late 70s and early 80s are chunky and squat, lacking the smooth swoop from the cab to the bed, the shark-like angles of the front grill. The most beautiful El Camino is a 1965 El Camino. His sits in my mom’s garage now, draped in a brown cover to protect it from dust and the meddlesome cat who sleeps there most nights. When we visit, I take photos of it. I ache to drive it. I consider having the silhouette of it tattooed on my forearm. We took it out on the road a few days after he died. Drove it the back way from Ventura to Santa Paula, and when we were out of town, far from houses and pedestrians, Mom said “It’s OK. Go ahead.” I pushed the gas pedal down as far as it would go and the truck let out a long, low, angry growl. I could feel the vibration of it in my chest, in my teeth. We were screaming. We were flying, the lemon trees out the window a blur of green and explosions of yellow, the road just an illusion of permanence below us. Our shadows could barely keep up.

I am astounded to have discovered that death is real. Like washing my face in the shower, running my fingers along the ridges of my forehead, and remembering my skull, my skeleton, isn’t hypothetical. The skin is so thin there. Or, when I was 8-months pregnant with our boys, thinking about how they were coming, any day they’d be with us, and our life would change. And then looking down at my gigantic stomach and seeing it undulate as they adjusted their positions inside of me. They weren’t future tense, they were present.

Yesterday, Simon asked me to make him a small army of origami frogs. It was 4pm and I was still working. I thought about saying no, but instead I closed my laptop and spent the next 30 minutes sitting at the kitchen table, cutting paper, and folding it just so. Sometimes he sat next to me, sometimes he danced around behind me in the late winter sunshine coming through our back window. I assembled 10 frogs. He lined them up according to size, examined them, tested their jumping ability. Satisfied, he gave each frog a name, and then wandered off in search of other entertainment. Tomorrow or the next day, with one smooth motion, I’ll brush all of these frogs off the kitchen table and into the recycling bin. Simon won’t ask about them. But maybe when he’s 40, for no reason, he’ll suddenly remember my freckled hands in the sunlight, folding frogs, the way I remember my dad driving me down that mountain and all the way home.

 

image: David Wright


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