Daddy Buys A Buick
by Robert Stribley
The first time I remember going to a car lot it was a small one a few miles out of Greenville down highway 123. Kudzu draped the power lines that bracketed the property and the chain-link fence that surrounded the lot. Several used cars littered the fenced-in area. In the midst of them, a small square brick building served as an office, an aging air-conditioner labored away in one of its two squat windows. I shadowed my Dad as he followed the dealer around the lot. It was hot outside and I remember the man had a dark patch on his blue cotton shirt where it stuck to his shoulder blades.
"Over here I got a coupla Chevys, coupla Buicks. Hardtop, convertible. Your pick. Got 'em in turquoise, emerald, amethyst, and candy-apple red." The dealer pointed at each one. Then shoved his hands into his pockets and forced a smile. He really looked a little exhausted.
"Huh," said Daddy. "I kinda like the turquoise." He was scratching his ear. His ears already had hairs poking out of them then. Thick brown ones. "What's that--kinda blue?"
"Yeah, kinda blue." Then dealer glanced at me. He seemed to notice me for the first time. "That your son?"
"He's a tall drink of water," the dealer said and he chuckled. At the time I had probably barely hit five foot tall, but I figured the dealer could tell I was growing like a weed for my age. "Good lookin' too," he added, "--like his father."
Momma was really happy when Daddy inherited the 50 grand from Uncle Arnold. My uncle owned a plastics company. They made plastic wrap, the kind you find stretched over frozen chicken and hamburger at your grocery store. When he died, he left $50,000 to each of his nieces and to his nephew. Actually, there were only two nieces and Daddy was the nephew. Not that Uncle Arnold was a philanthropist or anything. He just didn't have any kids of his own. And he may have left the money with his nieces and Daddy just to spite his wife. Truth be known.
"We can finally get out of this crappy trailer and into a house," Momma said at the time. She was wiping an empty butter wrapper across a cookie pan, readying it for buttermilk biscuits. "And we can finally get a nice car," she said. Daddy nodded solemnly, then frowned thoughtfully.
"We'll see," he said, and by the look in her eyes, I could tell Momma had already begun to worry.
We did get a nice car. In fact, we hit the lot the same day the money was deposited into Daddy's bank account. That was the second place we went that day--the first place being the bank.
When Daddy asked the teller for five thousand dollars "in c-notes," she widened her eyes dramatically. Then her eyes settled more naturally into a frown. Her name badge read "Janice," and her blouse was stained pretty yellow under the armpits. Her face drew an even sterner look as she watched Daddy try to stuff the bills into his well-worn black leather wallet. Daddy with his partly-combed hair, his undersized T-shirt, and his two-day beard. He wore a denim work shirt over his T-shirt to cover the marks on his arms. The marks he used to tell me he got from chicken pox when he was a kid. He glanced up at the teller and a silly grin broke out on his face. A funny little smile the likes of which I hadn't seen before. Then he looked down again and finished thoughtfully cramming the fifty bills into his wallet.
"Well," he said, and he reached behind himself, and he tried to push the wallet into the back pocket of his tight blue jeans. He paused. Then he took the wallet out and shoved it down the front of his jeans behind his belt buckle. He paused again and pulled out his wallet. He pulled out a grimy, dog-eared business card and offered it to the teller.
"Jamieson Refrigerator Repair, ma'am." She reached out gingerly for the card, her face blank and fragile. Dad nodded.
"You ever have any refrigeration problems, ma'am, you give me a call."
Daddy was always very polite.
"Say I want the turquoise with the drop-top?"
The dealer nodded his head vigorously. "Now you're really cookin' with gas."
"I say, now you're really cookin' with gas. That's a '65 Buick Skylark Grand Sport convertible. Just got it in yesterday. Seventy thou on it since the engine was rebuilt. Beautiful new paint job. Big-block 425 V-8 engine." I looked at Dad; he already looked pretty excited.
"You're kidding?" he said.
"And what'll you gimmee for the Chevy?"
"Eight hundred. That and seven K drives her off the lot." The dealer said all this quickly, without hesitating. Then he slid a hand across his belly and scratched his side.
"Tell you what. You can take her for a test drive now if you want to, or you can drive her off now and bring her back in 24 if you're not happy."
I watched Daddy narrow his eyes in thought for a second.
"Sure. 'Cause I know you're gonna be happy with her."
Daddy nodded his head thoughtfully, his bottom lip curling down as he pursed his mouth. The dealer and I waited for his answer.
"You got a deal, man," he said. And that big, unfamiliar grin spread over his face again. He held out his hand to shake the dealer's.
The next thing I know, Daddy's written the man a check and we're driving off the lot in a big-block Buick with the top down, Van Halen blaring out of the speakers.
"Now we're really cookin' with gas," Daddy said as we hit the highway onramp at 75 miles per hour. He turned to me. "Wanna go to the mall?"
We used to go to the mall and just look around. We never bought anything except maybe for some French fries with ketchup and a Coke. Maybe a slice of pizza from time to time. But I nodded my head, and Daddy smiled at me and accelerated on down the highway.
We didn't go to the food court at the mall; we went to the game room. There was a pretty chubby kid wearing a purple-and-orange-striped T-shirt sitting on a stool behind the counter. He was staring down, squeezing a zit on his arm.
"Gimme ten dollars worth of quarters," Daddy said as he foraged around in his wallet for something less than a hundred-dollar bill. "Please," he added. The kid looked up from his freshly disgorged pimple and took the crumpled ten Dad found in his pocket. Then he fished around for the quarters, put them in a little brown paper sack and handed them over. Daddy took them over to one of the machines. It was flashing all sorts of lights and had "Try Your Luck!" stenciled in big red letters on the side.
"Ever played one of these, son?"
I shook my head.
"No?" he said. "Well, you put your quarter in here, then you can move the arm. Kinda like a robot arm. See the claw there? Watch this." He mashed a button and the claw fell down into a pile of stuffed toys. It grabbed a little pink teddy bear by the head and started pulling it upwards. But as it moved towards the front of the machine, the teddy bear fell back down among the other toys.
"Huh. Well, if you grab it just right, it'll stay on there. Then it'll drop down into that little chute right there, and you get to keep the toy."
"Oh," I said.
"Now you stay here while I'm gonna go run a few errands for about half an hour, an hour, and I'll come back and pick you up, OK?" Then I must've made a face because he said, "What's the matter?"
"I wanna go with you."
He looked at me. He looked away. He looked at me. He scratched the inside of his nose with his thumb. He smiled.
"You don't have to play that game. You can play Centipede if you want, or whatever."
I just looked at him, my eyes a little wide.
"Why don't you just stay here for half an hour or so, OK?"
I just looked at him.
He raised his eyebrows and sighed.
"OK," he said, scratching at his jaw line now. "I'll tell you what. You can come."
I smiled and relaxed my widened eyes.
We started to leave and a little kid with straight blonde hair and a grimy blue Star Trek T-shirt came in.
"Here," Daddy said and he gave the kid the bag of quarters. "Go play Pac-Man or something."
We were driving off from the mall and Daddy says something to me the likes of which he'd never said before.
He said, "Sometimes a man does a thing, he don't tell everybody he done it."
Then he looked over at me. I was already looking at him.
I nodded. But I wasn't really sure. He just looked at me for a second.
"You know--you go see a friend you're not supposed to 'cause he's a bit crazy or something--good guy, but a little bit crazy--you wouldn't want your Momma to worry. Would you?"
I shook my head.
"Well, we're gonna go see an old friend of mine. And he's a good guy and all, but you're Momma don't like him too much. I mean he and your Momma don't get along too well, you know? So we can't tell Momma about our little visit, OK?" He took his eyes off the road again to lock onto mine. He looked like he wanted to say something else, so I waited.
"'Cause she'll just worry herself," he said eventually. His face was pretty serious. "Understand?" he said, his voice about as firm as I ever heard him get. "We don't wanna worry her unnecessarily."
"OK," was all I said, but I felt kind of weird.
"You know how mothers get," he said. "They worry."
Daddy went quiet for a while, his eyes frowning as he scratched at his head. Then I watched his boot press down on the accelerator. The Buick leapt forward.
"Yee-hah!" he whooped, and he turned to grin at me.
Eventually we came to a street in a neighborhood I hadn't seen before. Barnes Avenue. It was a long street lined with pecan trees on either side. All the lots on it were pretty small, and most of the houses looked like they'd been there for years. We pulled up to a powder-blue weatherboard house and Daddy punched the horn twice. After a few seconds the wire door to the house opened and a man about Daddy's age stepped out. He had wild, curly red hair and wore oxblood-colored corduroys which were a little thin about his bony knees.
"Yo, Bennie!" my father yelled.
"Marty!" the man said to my father, and he came down the steps to our new car. "Long time no see." His little blue eyes flicked back and forth across the Buick. "Nice wheels, man."
"Just bought 'em, man. Paid cash. I had a run-in with good luck." Daddy kind of faltered then. "Well, my uncle died actually," he said, and his voice trailed off reverently.
Bennie just stood there for a moment, his bare white toes wiggling at the ends of his feet like worms escaping from an overturned tin can. "So then, what can I do you for?" he said eventually.
Daddy stared at the ground for a second. Then he looked up. "Been so long, just came by to see yah, really," he said. He chuckled. "Nice place you got here."
"Thanks," said Bennie.
Daddy cleared his throat and looked at me out the corner of his eye. "Actually," he said, looking back at Bennie, "I was kinda wondering if you're still in the business."
Bennie laughed at that. "Yeah, Marty. Old habits die hard. Come on in."
Daddy smiled that silly new grin of his and said OK, kind of softly. Then he looked back at me and paused.
"This is my old friend Bennie from high school, Michael. You wanna come in and meet him, or you wanna wait out here in the car?"
I shrugged my shoulders. Daddy was looking at me again. Like he was deciding something really important. Pondering. Suddenly, he smiled that smile again, which I guess wasn't new, but more like reborn--he probably smiled like that when he asked Momma to marry him--and he said, "Come on in."
We walked up the cracked concrete steps to Bennie's creaky wooden house. Daddy's hand rested warm and familiar on my skinny shoulders. And he kept laughing a funny little laugh under his breath: "Ah, heh, heh, heh." And then he'd give a little sigh. "Ah, heh, heh, heh." And a sigh.
"You know, I got the good, potent stuff I always got for my friends--and I got the cheap shit. Whaddya want?"
Daddy flicked his eyes at me. "I want the good stuff, man."
He and Bennie were standing in the hall, and I was exploring the living room. Bennie's carpet was thinning like the knees of his trousers. His sofa looked brownish, but it was probably originally cream. "The Nutty Professor" was turned down on a black-and-white television in the corner, but I ignored it and was thumbing through Bennie's record collection instead. Clapton, ELO, Yes. Most of it was stashed in a couple of old green milk crates with "Winn-Dixie" stamped on the side.
Out in the hall, Daddy and Bennie were trying to speak softly. I was pretending not to listen.
"You want the good stuff, it's gonna cost yah," said Bennie, suddenly all business. Daddy looked a little hurt. He also looked a little frightened.
"I know, I know," he said and he took out his wallet.
He glanced over his shoulder at me, then back at Bennie. Then he held out his wallet and cracked it open ever so slightly under Bennie's nose. Bennie peered down at the hundred-dollar bills stuffed into Daddy's wallet. His freckled face lapsed into a grin, screwing up tight like a dried-out sea sponge.
"You got yourself a deal, man." And he and Daddy moved further down the hall.
I sat down on the sofa and watched Jerry Lewis turn from an awkward professor into a debonair nightclub singer.
A few minutes later Daddy and I sat back in the vinyl-covered seats of the Buick. I had seen him stuff the plastic sandwich bag full of weed into the waist of his jeans and pull his T-shirt over it. His wallet lay on the dashboard.
I remember he threw a silly smile at me again as he put the car in reverse and backed out of Bennie's dirt driveway.
"See yah later, man!" he yelled.
Bennie waved kind of weakly without replying, his hand dropping quickly back to his side. Then he turned and stepped back into his sagging house.
Daddy pulled out onto the highway again and accelerated eagerly. He looked over at me.
"Nice guy, huh?" he said. "We went to high school together."
He shifted and pulled some old scratched-up sunglasses from his back pocket. They had orange lenses. He unfolded them and slipped them on.
"Now we're really cookin' with gas," he said as he turned back to me. He winked. "Wanna go to McDonalds?"
"Sure," I said. Then I sat back, closed my eyes, and tried to imagine living in our new house.
© 2002 Robert Stribley