G. C. Murphy’s toy department stretched down two long aisles. Bikes, Barbies and bows and arrows; jacks, jump ropes and etch-a-sketches; six-shooters, Bowie knives and Winchesters; lugers and bazookas; scooters and skates galore. That day, for some reason, I ignored them all.
A confirmed cowboys-and-Indians kind of eleven-year-old boy, I have no idea why I wound up staring at model cars. I’d never built one, probably didn’t even know anyone who built them. Surely, I sensed it would test me—and I’d get no help. Did some part of me realize building models was a bonding ritual between fathers and sons, that maybe I was trying to get my dad back? Did I think that, as soon as I gave up, he’d dash in, his taxi double-parked outside, wearing his maroon corduroy sports coat, his sleek hair Elvised back on his high forehead, mock-punch me on the chin, laugh and assemble it for me while I watched those long, yellowed fingers that manipulated steering wheel, cigarette and coffee cup so skillfully?
Not consciously. The year before, on Christmas Eve, my father got out of jail. Arrested a few months earlier for non-support, he had been released early because his wife, my mother, had signed some papers my grandparents would not have approved. Then, while Mom flounced through the apartment singing “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree” with Brenda Lee on the radio, I waited nervously, wondering which dad would appear: the happy guy smelling like Pabst Blue Ribbon and Aqua Velva who called me “Butch” and covered me with wet kisses; or the mean hillbilly who’d slapped my mom while I begged him to stop?
Neither one showed up, and while Mom had cried almost every day since, I made twice-or-thrice-daily pilgrimages to the local eateries for the greasy hamburgers, Twinkies, Lucky Strikes and Reece cups that took her mind off her absent husband. Black Beauty, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn did it for me. And the occasional gift to myself.
I knew “normal” kids didn’t buy their own Christmas presents, that parents were supposed to know what the kid wanted and get it for him. But my mom and dad never knew. When they had gotten me something, it was always wrong: cowboy boots so tight they raised blisters in minutes, Davy Crockett buckskins big enough for a kid twice my size, gun-holsters so gaudy they glittered. That’s why I was standing here in the model department looking for something really special to make up for not getting what I’d wanted the day before.
The model department? What the heck was I thinking as I stood there scanning boxes with glossy drawings of biplanes, Hollywood monsters and aircraft carriers? Who was I trying to impress when I finally chose last year’s classic Stingray? My best friend Pete played with toy soldiers, like me. Mom shared my comic books, but that’s all. I must’ve known I was on my own in this unexplored country of classic model cars.
I trudged those long blocks home dreading to confess I’d blown my Christmas bucks on a boondoggle: an impossible puzzle. My heart no doubt froze when I pulled from the box an instruction sheet that was all diagrams, no words. I had five bucks and a ton of desire riding on success (more than I knew or could say) and now it all depended on numbers and drawings, not even a voice on paper to coach me, a kid already dependent on language to survive.
I set to work, spreading trees of tiny plastic parts on the floor of my room. I got down on my knees in the lamp’s glow, five hundred percent focused, trying to make myself worthy of the parent who wasn’t there and ignoring the one who was, as she smoked and sang with Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash in the kitchen. Did I think that, if I solved the puzzle, I was going to provide Dad the very vehicle to get him home, for how could he fail to appear, to say how proud he was his Butch had built the world’s toughest model on his first try?
After two days of non-stop labor, I took the completed Corvette into the kitchen for Mom to admire. Propping up the hood to reveal the gleaming fake-chrome engine, I was boy-proud, son-proud. And my mom, bless her heart, bragged and bragged on me. I wanted her praise to give me back Christmas. But the light that shone so brightly after her first words quickly dimmed. My eyes burned; the image’s edges seared like an old photo thrown into the fire. My mother’s praise was not enough, not even close. I needed my dad’s; I wanted him to lower himself to eye level with my accomplishment, lift the hood with one black-nailed finger, say something about eight-bangers, torque and pistons; zero to eighty in eight seconds; holding ‘er in the road; getting kicks on Route 66; white-line fever, six days on the road . . . car-talk, man-to-boy talk, contact.
Forty years later, I know I needed a language I would never find in books, no matter how many I read. Now I’ve written my own stories, in which fathers sometimes speak. They curse, fight and joke; some are good, some vicious, some sad, some broken. I hope they’re all real. Though I’ve tried to make my father speak to me, he never has, not really. So I speak to him, tell him the story of how I grew up without him, half-joking that I “raised” my mom. Yes, I’ve always known he couldn’t stay—things would’ve probably been worse, not better. I’ve faced the fact I was a mama’s boy through and through, an Eddie, not a Butch.
But what if he had shown up and we had taken off in his car—not a ‘Vette, but a Chevy, a Ford, a Dodge—and we’d driven across America, gotten to know each other in close quarters? I would’ve told him everything—about homeless Huck, wise Jim and foolish Tom; about Gunsmoke and Wagon Train; about Mom crying in the dark and me wanting her to stop. Elbow propped on the open window, wind riffling his greased pompadour, a Lucky dangling from his thin lips, he would’ve listened, I know he would’ve, as we tooled down the highway, exploring new country together at seventy-five miles an hour.
about the author
West Virginia native Ed Davis recently retired from teaching writing full time at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio. He has also taught both fiction and poetry at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop, and is the author of the novels I Was So Much Older Then (Disc-Us Books, 2001) and The Measure of Everything (Plain View Press, 2005); four poetry chapbooks, including, most recently, Healing Arts (Pudding House, 2005); and many published stories and poems in anthologies and journals. His unpublished novel Running from Mercy, won the 2010 Hackney Award for the novel, and his poem “Uncle Frank and the Boy” won “Best of Show” in the 2011 poetry contest co-sponsored by Mock Turtle Zine and Antioch Writers’ Workshop. He lives with his wife and cats in the village of Yellow Springs, Ohio, where he writes, bikes, hikes and blogs on literary topics. Please visit him at http://www.davised.com.