By Jerry Williams
When I was twelve years old, during the summer months when I was off from school, my father used to get me to ride around in his truck with him. The truck was a hospital-gown blue, three-quarter-ton Ford automatic with a wide bench seat, heaping ashtray, and a loaded .38 Smith & Wesson in the glove box. I guess he had a permit for the gun, but if it ever looked like the police might pull us over, he made me transfer it from the glove box to the seat between us, and with one hand he emptied the bullets onto the cracked vinyl and laid the gun across his thigh, evidently trying to impress me with his intricate knowledge of Ohio gun laws.
As soon as we climbed into the truck, before even putting the key in the ignition, he would push the dashboard cigarette lighter in, wait for it to pop out, and light the first of many Winstons on the burning coil. It didn’t take long for the cab to fill up with smoke, and though we hardly spoke during these excursions, I allowed myself to say, “Could you please roll down your window a little bit?” and he would, but only after I asked.
As a rule, we listened to Merle Haggard eight-track tapes. Haggard’s songs were tedious, even by country music standards. His nasal voice and chronic flag-waving caused the speakers to buzz inconsolably. Although the Ford seemed huge to me as I slumped against the passenger door, far from the driver, the smoke and the Haggard made the atmosphere inside the cab nauseating. I wanted to return home as soon as possible, but I was undoubtedly being tested. If I was impatient and complained, I might get punished, so I kept silent. My father had instilled fear in my sisters and me, beginning when we were little, with a savage and accurate belt. A perilous, bestial air surrounded him, like around a dog that ought to be put down by its owner.
My father ran a construction company, and we drove from job site to job site so he could assure himself that the work progressed on schedule. His company wasn’t large, but he ordinarily had several projects going at once—a church, a furniture store, swimming pools—and the business afforded him a good living. He always told me to wait in the truck, and I would wait while he strode over to the foreman. I watched them talk, neither combative nor friendly, in the bright afternoon sun, my father in his wingtips and the foreman in his boots. Their conference provided a calm reprieve from suffocation and the boneheaded groans of Merle Haggard. After a short time my father would return, start the engine, and we’d proceed to the next site. He kept me in the dark about the number of stops he planned to make, so I was never sure the mission had ended until we drove past Judge Winters’ big green house, turned right on Sheffield Street, and came to rest in our slanted driveway.
I didn’t know why he wanted me to ride with him on his route. I didn’t know what, if anything, he was trying to show me. We were not the kind of family that prepared for the future because, as I would learn, everything was retractable, everything could be taken back. It’s surprising to think that maybe he wanted me to observe his life so I could choose to inherit it or not. I found the monotony of the job repellent; I wanted something different. Years later, I realized that his main reason for taking me with him was to shield him against my mother’s suspicion that he was cheating on her.
I remember once we parked in a strange driveway, and he got out and disappeared into the house. The day went from warm to blazing; I rolled the windows down, and two or three bees flew into the cab of the truck. I shooed them away. Then five more fluttered in and skimmed angrily along the windshield. I jumped out of the truck and saw a beehive stuck to a tree right next to where we’d parked. I chased all the bees out of the cab, rolled the windows back up, and shut myself inside. Though I’d never been in a sauna, I thought, It feels like a sauna in here. I took my shirt off and sat there in my shorts. My sweat flowed along grooves in the seat and dampened the dirty floorboard.
I learned a lot about spitefulness in the two hours I waited for my father to come out of the house. He told me to stay in the truck—I would damn well stay in the truck. But I made sure to mop up the sweat with my shirt so he wouldn’t be angry with me for making him feel guilty. When he finally got behind the wheel with his thick bricklayer forearms and bulging gut, he turned the gaze I could never meet upon my thin percolating body and said, “Aw, it’s good for you,” and I knew he wasn’t mad at me. Maybe he was thanking me, in advance, for keeping quiet.
My parents separated, temporarily, when I was fifteen—my father forced my mother out of the house at gunpoint. One night she had come home late from a baby shower and found him sitting in his La-Z-Boy recliner, drunk, with the .38 across his thigh. He told her to get the hell out. She woke my sisters, and they all spilled into the front yard. While I slept peacefully, my mother was begging my father not to shoot her in the back as she loaded my sisters into her car and drove away. They moved in with my grandmother and waited for him to re-holster his weapon, which took about three months. I stayed at home. Since I played basketball—my father’s only legitimate passion—I was exempt from family hysteria. When I started high school, he no longer expected me to ride around in the truck with him and he stopped using his belt as a weapon. As long as I stayed on the basketball team, he left me alone.
During that period, the two of us lived in the house on Sheffield like unfamiliar roommates working different shifts. He was either at work or at his girlfriend’s; I went to school or practice. I got the impression that he wanted to keep me happy in case a war broke out and he needed an ally, so every Friday when I came home from school a fifty-dollar bill lay on the kitchen table—no note or anything, just the fifty. I wouldn’t see him for the entire weekend; I had the place to myself. If my mother stopped by to check on me, I gave her the brush-off like he told me to, but I wasn’t officially taking sides.
When my father went away for the weekend, he drove the Cadillac and left the pickup in the garage. By now the truck had over a hundred thousand miles on it—but it had never been in a wreck, the engine was clean, the tires were good. If nothing else, the man took care of his vehicles. Without much effort, I located a spare set of keys in my parents’ bedroom. I can’t remember the first time I took the truck. I must have started out cautiously, letting the engine idle in the driveway, an eight-track of Neil Young’s Harvest in the tape player, later working my way up to minor tours of the neighborhood. I’d watched my father drive and he put me behind the wheel a few times, so it came easily to me. I wasn’t scared of having an accident or being arrested for driving without a license. Sometimes you mistake desperation for courage. I wasn’t worried about my father finding out. He had his own problems: his marriage was failing, his girlfriend had grown tired of waiting for him to get a divorce, and a harsh Midwestern recession was hurting his business. I think he knew I was borrowing the truck; he simply never confronted me about it.
I started driving everywhere, all over town. I rounded up the friends I could trust not to turn me in, and we headed out to the mall, the YMCA, Rolandia Golf Course. We would drive to parties and park three or four blocks from the house and walk up to the front door like we’d arrived on foot. If somebody had an errand to run, he gave me a call. No destination seemed too far, and I always had money for beer and pizza. I felt notorious, not popular. Sometimes I’d cruise around for hours by myself, seduced by the freedom of willful locomotion. But it was more than that, more than just hauling myself to a movie whenever I wanted to. If the division of my family depressed or worried me, all I had to do to soothe my mind was log another fifty miles on the Ford. Not even the portable cement mixer my father often left on board could deter me. In fact, the presence of this monstrosity guaranteed my safe passage past the suspicious eyes of the police.
I had sex for the first time in my father’s truck. Julie Palermo and I parked near her house in the Ford. I popped in an eight-track of Dire Straits’ Making Movies and left the heat on low. It was after midnight. We’d been drinking. The edgy brown leaves of late autumn scraped across the windshield as we lay on the bench seat—my jeans around my ankles and her skirt above her waist— surprisingly comfortable in the spacious cab. I was on top of her, using the floorboard for leverage. I buried my face in her neck. We could hardly look at each other; I was sliding in and out like I was supposed to, with no condom— we employed the pull-out-and-pray method. I must not have wanted Julie to see what was about to happen, because I suddenly flung the passenger door open, halting the sweet pandemonium, jumped out of the truck, and spilled my seed in somebody’s front yard. I zipped up my pants and stood there for a minute, shivering. Bailing out seemed to be a natural part of the process.
I drove Julie home so she wouldn’t get in trouble. I, meanwhile, had nothing to worry about. It was Saturday night, and my father wouldn’t be back till the following afternoon.
Eventually my family reconvened in the house on Sheffield, and my trucking days ran out. My father broke up with his girlfriend and tried going to church. A year or two later everything would hit the fan again—he carried out a kind of scorched-earth policy, going broke (he said) so my mother wouldn’t get anything in the divorce settlement. The truck eventually ended up in a repo lot.
In the meantime, I hung onto the spare keys, and sometimes I’d sit in the driveway with my cousin Ken, a tall redhead, listening to Harvest while our parents played pinochle over at his house. Ken didn’t believe me when I told him I’d been sneaking the truck out, so one night to convince him, I went into a macho trance and started revving the engine. He shouted something, but I couldn’t hear him above the music and the ferocity of the Ford’s V-8. I turned on the headlights, illuminating the clean white garage door, and somehow the gearshift accidentally slipped into Drive. The tires burned and there was this exquisite pause as they gained purchase. We pitched forward like an armored tank disgorged from a giant catapult. The pickup slammed into the garage door, splitting wood and crumpling metal. I stamped on the brake pedal with both feet so we wouldn’t hit the back wall. I heard a headlight pop, it sounded like a gunshot. When we came to a stop, the truck was wearing the garage door like a mortarboard and we were inches from the wall.
Unharmed but utterly demoralized, Ken and I climbed out and surveyed the damage. Apart from the broken headlight and a crease in the hood, the truck seemed intact. But the garage door, having been torn off at the hinges and nearly broken in half, looked ready for the scrap heap.
“You’re dead,” Ken said.
For the same reason you shouldn’t pull the knife out of a stabbing victim, we decided that trying to free the pickup would do more harm than good. We moped into the house to wait for my parents to come home. Already trying to distance himself from me, Ken kept saying how dead I was and how I’d never be allowed to get my driver’s license in a month when I turned sixteen.
But I figured I wouldn’t even get yelled at. Considering the punishments I’d suffered for much smaller offenses, my father would have to kill me to be consistent; but he craved disciples, not martyrs, so he appointed my mother to deal with any serious transgressions. When my parents got home, my mother sat me down on my bed and gravely informed me that driving the truck through the garage door was a bad thing and that I shouldn’t count on obtaining a license any time soon. I kept my head down. I wish I could have told her then to get out before it was too late, to escape before the house exploded and we scattered like shrapnel across a continent of resentment. Years later, when I told my mother about all my joy rides in the truck, I suppose I wanted to get a rise out of her, and to make her shoulder some responsibility for my actions, but she just wrinkled her forehead and nodded.
A week after I turned sixteen, my punishment was rescinded, and I used my sister’s Toyota Celica to pass the driving test. I knew better than to borrow the truck. I never drove it again.
Jerry Williams’ second collection of poems, Admission, is due out from Carnegie Mellon University Press in 2009. The Overlook Press is bringing out an anthology he edited, It’s Not You, It’s Me: The Poetry of Breakup and Divorce, on Valentine’s Day, 2010. Currently he lives in the Bronx and teaches creative writing at Marymount Manhattan College.
Originally appeared in NOR 5