The last time I was behind the wheel of my father’s car, I was fifteen years old. My father, teaching me to drive, insisted I make a turn in traffic. I steered the 1961 Mercury over the curb and into the green and yellow pole that marked the bus stop on the corner. Luckily, no one was waiting for the bus, and the car was barely scratched.
Now, a month after my fifty-fourth birthday and just days after my mother’s death, I back into a narrow space at the curb, set the emergency brake, and unfasten my seat belt.
My father sits immobile, facing the front. “I believe you ought to turn your wheels to the curb so if it rolls it won’t go anywhere,” he says.
“I did, Daddy. Besides, I put it in park and set the brake,” I respond.
“Can you get out?” he asks.
“Yes, Daddy,” I say. “Can you?”
“Well, I can, but it’s going to be hard for Myra to get in over here. Don’t you think it would be better if you were to park over yonder and then she could just step in from the street without having to squeeze between these cars and step up into these tall weeds?”
He is eighty-three years old, and he has just lost the woman to whom he had been married for almost sixty-three years, his high school sweetheart, his child bride, my mother. I have come five thousand miles from my new home in Alaska to be with him, to help him through this loneliest time in his life. Mom died quietly in her sleep four days after I arrived. We have driven into town to accompany my Aunt Myra, my father’s oldest and only remaining sibling, to lunch at her favorite restaurant.
I suppress a sigh and pull out the handle that releases the brake. “I’ll park anywhere you want me to, Daddy.”
As I edge the car away from the curb, in the rearview mirror I see my uncle turn his big station wagon onto the little street and ease up behind us.
“There’s Wimpy,” I say. I pull into a driveway, back the car out, and turn in the opposite direction to park just where concrete stairs descend the bank from the apartment building to the street.
“I expect it would pay you to turn your wheels to the curb so if it rolls it won’t go anywhere,” says my father.
“I will, Daddy,” I say.
We climb out and shut our doors.
Wimpy pitches toward us, his arms raised to impart his customary hugs. I turn my head so that his lips leave a moist patch on my cheek. Always, he hugs tightly and plants a kiss as close to the mouth as his target will allow.
“Hello, sweetheart,” he says, holding me at arm’s length and looking into my eyes. “I am so sorry about your mother.
He turns and clasps one of my father’s hands in both of his. “Billy, what can I say?” His grief, both for my mother and for his wife, Elsie, who died a year before, is plain on his face. “I am just so sorry. I know what you’re going through.”
My father’s chin, so steady in my memory, trembles. “I sure do miss her,” he says.
Wimpy claps him on the back, and the three of us climb the stairs. They lag a bit behind. I slow my steps, but even so, I am already lifting Myra’s doorknocker as they come through the heavy main door of the building.
I breathe in the aroma of incinerator ashes and fried food that pervades the building, and suddenly I am a child in a scratchy dime-store mask on a Halloween foray into this labyrinth of identical corridors, staircases, landings, and front doors. I am safe in the company of my cousins in an era in which poisoned apples exist only in fairy tales. My mother, restored to life, waits at home to celebrate our haul with us when we return with our grocery store sacks brimming.
Sounds of fumbling behind the door return me to the present.
“Sounds like she’s having trouble getting out!” Wimpy jokes.
At last the door opens, and there stands Myra, handsome at eighty-eight.
“Well, Ann! Come in!” she says as she has said every time she has opened her door to find me there.
I step into the narrow foyer. Behind me, I hear the soft smack as Myra receives her kiss from Wimpy.
They follow me down the hallway and into the living room. The furniture sits just as it has sat for more than forty years. Even the African violets blooming on the radiator ledge at the window look the same as the ones I remember from childhood.
I sit on the sofa. Myra perches beside me. Wimpy and my father take the chairs opposite.
“Billy, you know I don’t drive out of town anymore. If I could get there, I’d be right out there to help you. You know that. But tell me one thing. Why would anybody want to live way out in the country like that? I can’t think why you ever decided to move way out there,” says Myra.
“Well, Myra, I’d a whole lot rather live where I do than in this little bitty apartment. If you tried living out in the country where you have some room, you’d probably like it,” says my father.
They have had this conversation perhaps a hundred times. My parents built the house to which she refers thirty years ago. It is ten miles from town.
“I know better than that,” says Myra. “Way out there where you can’t even go get your groceries without driving half the day?”
She turns to me. “Ann, I am so glad you’re going to be able to stay awhile and help your daddy. You know that I don’t drive out of town anymore or I’d be right out there to help him myself.”
She looks at my father. “I know you’re glad to have her, aren’t you, Billy?”
“I don’t know what I’d do without her,” he says. “I might not let her go back to Alaska.”
How strange it is to hear him say this. How can the man who carried me on his shoulders and whose steps I tried to match not know what he would do without me?
Wimpy says, “I expect Ron would have something to say about that.”
Myra looks at him and says, “Wimpy, do you know Ann?”
A knot of something like fear clutches at my gullet. She said something similar two years ago at my parents’ sixtieth wedding anniversary party. She commented on what a sweet person my cousin Lynne is and asked me whether I knew her.
Before Wimpy can answer, my father says, “Certainly he knows Ann. He’s known her since she was born. What’s wrong with you?”
“Well, Billy, for a second there I couldn’t think how he would know Ron’s name,” says Myra, the tremor in her voice betraying her. “I just got confused for a minute. I know he knows Ann.”
“Do you even know who Ann is?” my father says.
Myra pulls herself up straighter and says, “Why, yes, I know who Ann is.”
Wimpy stands and stretches. “If we leave now, we ought to get there just about the time they open. That way we’ll avoid the rush,” he says.
We proceed together down the hallway, through Myra’s door, and out of the building. Once again I adjust my pace to allow them to keep up.
On the concrete stairs, Myra pauses on each step to turn her body and feel for the next step with one foot before committing herself to step down. She leans heavily on the rail. Halfway down, she says, “Wimpy, let Billy drive. He thinks he knows a better way to go.”
“I don’t think it, Myra. I know it. If you all go the way you said you do, you’re going way out of your way. It’s a whole lot shorter if you go down to Swift Avenue and take it across Campus Drive and on out that way,” says my father.
As he talks, he places a hand under Myra’s elbow and steadies her as she climbs down the last two steps. The bank that rises from the street will not allow the back door of the car to open fully, so she has to stand at the rear of the car while my father opens it as far as it will go. I suggest that she get in on the other side, the street side. She sees the wisdom in my suggestion, and I am the one left to turn sideways and squeeze between the door and the frame.
“Next time, if you’ll park on the other side, it will make it easier to get in,” Myra comments.
“I expect you’re right,” my father concedes. “I wasn’t thinking about Wimpy being with us. I was trying to make it easy for you to get in the front.”
My father readjusts the seat and the mirrors and steers the car toward Swift Avenue and his better route to the restaurant. He switches on the radio and says, “Ann likes to listen to this station. Doris liked it too.”
The music the station plays could be piped directly from the 1960s. The opening strains of “My Girl” fill the car, and the barrier between now and then thins to a gauzy scrim that feels as if it will disappear altogether if only I concentrate hard enough. I lose myself, letting the music take me back to a time when my high school cronies and I cruised these streets, from one drive-in restaurant to the next, listening to this tune. Even now, the Temptations tease, they are there, just over the next rise, waiting to share a Sirloiner with cheese and sauce, a shake, and some fries.
And then—can it be coincidence?—the tweedly-tweedly-dee intro of “Rockin’ Robin” blares from the speakers, and I am undone.
One summer day, in the era before air conditioning, I played ball with Clancy, the family’s German shepherd, in our back yard. My father and brother stood on ladders, scraping curls of paint from the outside of our house in preparation for a fresh coat. The sound of my mother singing along to the radio while she clattered pots and pans in the kitchen drifted through the open windows. The song was “Rockin’ Robin.” All was right with the world. Forever after, when I look back on my childhood, it is this scene that I remember.
In the last Mother’s Day card I would ever send to her, not long after she was taken from my parents’ home to the emergency room of the hospital and from there to a nursing home, I reminded my mother of this scene. The progress of her disease was more rapid than we could comprehend, and as it was with so many of the things we did for her in those last weeks of her life, the card arrived too late. By the time it came, she was unable to read it or even to pick it up. My father read it to her, and that evening, at our daily telephone consultation, he reported that he believed she might have smiled.
I am the last to leave the car when we arrive at the restaurant. While the others climb out, I hang back, pretending to adjust the strap on my sandal while I surreptitiously wipe a tear from my cheek and compose myself. Wimpy, gallant as he has always been, opens the door for me and holds it while I get out.
We make our halting way into the restaurant, where the hostess comes immediately to us and informs us that Janice, Myra’s favorite waitress, is out sick.
“Oh, no,” Myra says. “Is she still suffering from her bronchitis?”
“Yes, she just can’t shake it,” the hostess replies. She promises to put us in Alton’s section and asks whether a booth is okay. Myra nods, and the hostess leads us through a welter of tables to a booth by a window.
Wimpy slides in on one side of the booth, and Myra sits beside him. My father and I sit facing them.
“I usually get a combination plate,” says Wimpy, glancing at the menu the hostess has handed him. “You can get any two selections on it that you want, and it comes with slaw and hush puppies. I like the flounder and the shrimp the best, but you get anything you want. My treat.”
“Well now, Wimpy, you don’t need to do that. It’s a nice thing, but we don’t expect it,” says my father.
“I want to,” says Wimpy, and it is settled.
The waiter, presumably Alton, steps up to the table and asks if we are ready to order.
“Hunh?” says my father.
“I said, ‘may I take your order?’” the waiter repeats.
“Oh,” says my father. “These shrimp here.” He points to the menu. “Are they the popcorn shrimp or are they the regular kind?”
“They’re pretty good size,” says the waiter.
“How many of ‘em do you get?” asks my father.
“It depends on how big they are,” the waiter answers.
“That’s what I just asked you,” says my father.
“Billy, if you get the combination plate, you’ll get four or five of ‘em along with whatever else you order,” Myra says.
“Hunh?” says my father. “I can’t hear you over all this noise.”
There is in the restaurant the usual hum of conversation and clatter of silverware. Somewhere on the other end of the long room a baby wails.
“Four or five!” Myra says in a louder voice.
“You don’t have to holler,” says my father. He looks at me and says, “You go ahead and order first. I didn’t mean to jump in front of you.”
I order a combination plate with shrimp and flounder. Wimpy and Myra follow suit. My father gives in and places his order for the same.
As soon as Alton is out of earshot, Myra says, “It’s just not the same when Janice isn’t here. She’s the one that always waits on us.”
Wimpy drives sixty miles from Greensboro every Friday to take her to lunch here. They established this ritual soon after Elsie died two years ago. Our having been invited to come along is a rare honor and a recognition of our bereavement.
Wimpy suddenly looks up, his eyes shining. “Billy, do you remember the time we borrowed that old Model A Ford from that girl’s father—what was her name—and went up to Ocean View Beach in Virginia?”
“It was Rosalyn Brooks’s daddy, and we didn’t borrow it. He made us pay him to use it. Don’t you remember?”
“Yeah. That’s right. We put all our money together and just barely had enough, and then he made us pay for the car, and we didn’t know it, but the brakes on it were bad.”
Myra joins in with, “I remember. Harley drove and I spent the whole two hundred miles stomping the floor board trying to help him put on brakes.” There is a girlish lilt in her voice that I don’t remember hearing before, even in my earliest memories of her.
“Rosalyn Brooks was a girl I dated before I met your mama,” my father says to me, “ and her daddy had an old Model A. I believe it was a ’28, wasn’t it, Wimpy?”
“I think that’s right,” says Wimpy, an impish smile playing around his lips. “It was me and Elsie, and Myra and Harley, and your daddy and Rosalyn Brooks.” He chuckles. “The people that owned the guesthouse made us pay for the rooms in advance. We barely had enough money left to eat off of.”
“Wait a minute,” I say. “Let me get this straight.” I look at my father. “You took a girl you weren’t married to to the beach and stayed in a guesthouse? Wasn’t this back in the thirties?”
“Well, the girls stayed in one room, and Wimpy and Harley and I stayed in another. Besides, Myra and Harley were married,” he says as if that fact alone explains the rest. “So, anyway,” he goes on, “we’d buy two dozen deviled crabs from a little cart that came around selling them six for a quarter, and that would be our food for the day.”
“And then,” Myra continues, remembrance lighting her eyes, “and then we were getting tired of crabs, so we decided to drive up to a little store and see if we could find something else we could afford to eat….”
Wimpy, chortling, picks up the narrative in mid-sentence. “And we came up behind an old panel truck stopped at a stop sign. This time I was driving, and when I put on brakes to stop, nothing happened. That car just kept right on rolling until it rolled smack into the back of that truck.”
“You hit the truck?” I say.
“Rolled smack into the back of it!” repeats Wimpy, clearly delighted.
“But wait! You haven’t heard the best part!” Myra says to me, the pitch and volume of her voice rising with excitement. “It turned out to be a pie truck. The back of it was full of pies, and when we bumped it, the doors came open and pies came tumbling out.” She gazes upward as she speaks, as if she can still see the pies coming toward her, tumbling end over end through the air. “There were pies all over our windshield and some on the ground, and….”
“And darned if the man driving the truck didn’t make us pay for ‘em!” Wimpy says. He lets out one short belly laugh.
I look around the table and see, looking out of wrinkled faces, a band of carefree, mischievous scamps that I never knew existed. Tears of glee glisten on their cheeks.
“Were the vehicles damaged?” I ask.
“Naa,” my father says. “We didn’t hit that hard. We just messed up a bunch of his pies.”
“So did you eat the pies?” I wonder.
“We had to!” says Myra. “We didn’t have anything else to eat. ”
“We’d already rented the rooms for a week, so we felt like we had to stay that long, ” explains Wimpy, “and it took what little money we had left to pay for the pies. We barely had enough to buy gas to get us back home at the end of the week.”
“I believe we did find some corn flakes on sale and bought a couple of boxes of them to go with the pies, didn’t we?” says my father.
“Didn’t we what?” Myra asks, poking at a shrimp on her plate.
And as fast as it came, the magic is over.
“Myra, I wish you wouldn’t do me that way. It makes it awful hard to talk to you. Didn’t we buy some corn flakes—that’s what,” snaps my father.
“When?” says Myra, turning the shrimp, skewered on the tines of her fork, in a slow circle in front of her.
“Never mind,” my father retorts.
“What?” Myra says. “I can’t hear you.”