Henry asked the other day, "Mom, when's the next time we're going to be near a wishing fountain?"
I said I wasn't sure, and asked if it was urgent. "I need to make a wish," he said, "but I can't tell you or it won't come true. Well, okay, I can tell you and it might still come true."
I waited. Did he wish his father would come back? That I would stop being cranky in the morning? That I would squeeze out a sibling?
"I really wish," he said, "that we could get a new truck."
Henry, dear child, I dig where you're coming from. But I have to let you know, our current financial situation isn't the only reason we still drive that twenty-nine-year-old, three-on-the-tree, forty-five-ton Chevy pickup with the broken front shocks and the empty gun rack and the cut-loose 283 engine. I know it's hard for a five-year-old to wrap his head around the concept "sentimental." And, in fact, sentimental isn't precisely what I'm driving at. But there is a story to this truck--many stories, in fact. Maybe it's time for you to hear some of them.
Way back in 1988, in the fall following the summer when I met your daddy on a wild-hair cross-country trip with your Aunt Paula, before I ever conceived of you in my mind or my body, I decided it was time for me to get a vehicle.
I'd had cars before: a '64 Valiant with a slant six and a push-button transmission; a '67 Dodge Dart Swinger with a straight six; a '67 Valiant (again, slant--God, I love a slant six). But the one I loved the most and lost the hardest was that '67 Volkswagen Camper, something I left behind in '86, along with the furniture and half my possessions, when I high-tailed it out of Florida and a relationship worse than anything I've ever driven before or since.
I always vowed to one day get another VW. And maybe the longing was so strong it turned genetic, cause you're always asking when we can get one of those Campers. But anyhow, I happened, for once in my life, in the fall of 1988, to have a little dough. So I called your Pop-pop, my daddy, and asked him to find me a fine German van.
I need to stop here and tell you that, as you know, I don't get along very well with your Pop-pop. And some people say I bitch about him far too much--don't I remember anything good he ever did? Okay, I do. Here are the three gifts he gave me: the gift of music, which came via the many instruments he kept around the house and the ten new 45s he bought every Friday when he got paid; a longing for the sea; and a deep, deep love of old, crappy cars.
In fact, back when he used to talk to me (and, who knows, maybe he will again someday) a lot of times all we could think to talk about was cars. He'd say, "Have you changed the oil lately?" and I'd say yes, whether I had or not, and I'd offer up details, real or fictional, just to keep the words flowing. Once, I changed an alternator, and I swear that was the longest conversation we ever had.
Anyway, let's get back to the fall of '88. I was spending two weeks alone in New Jersey, at Mom-mom and Pop-pop's beach house, walking ten miles a day, trying to figure out my life when the sun was up and write about it when the sun went down. I was lonely and happy then, confused and sad. My best friend had recently slept with the man I loved (not your daddy--I'd met him by then, but we had yet to fall in love), and the pain was still fully intact. So I sat and I thought about love and friendship gained and lost, and I waited, too, for the phone to ring and for Pop-pop to tell me he'd found me a VW.
Finally, he did call. Now, Pop-pop has never let anyone tell him what to do--not even if he's spending someone else's money--and I guess I knew going into it a Volkswagen was not his idea of a good vehicle. "Jacqueline," he said--that's what he calls me--"I got you this truck. It's a good truck. Only twenty-six thousand miles on it." Maybe he thought it was close enough to my original choice--after all, it did have a camper top and came with a couch in the back. And, just as VWs have very distinctive symbols on the front, someone had soldered to the hood of the Chevy an ornament: a God's honest Mack Truck bulldog.
I couldn't drive it at first. Three-on-the-tree is a tricky thing, and the clutch was so tight my toes kept falling asleep. But I worked at it, and I figured it out, and I took that truck and moved back to Tennessee, land of my ex-best friend and my former crush and the Smoky Mountains, and hills damn near impossible to drive on in an old truck with no power steering and a bad emergency brake. I loved that truck and I loathed it, and I knew in my heart that your Pop-pop bought it not for me, but for himself. I knew he wished it was his.