Shoulda Had a V-8 (Oh wait, I do)

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.

For six months I had some good times in that truck. I used the couch in the back for more than sitting. I drove to Missouri to see your daddy and to begin falling in love with him. Once, driving back from the trip when I first held his hand, I got a speeding ticket that was a blessing in disguise. I'd been so busy yapping to my friend, seated next to me, that I hadn't noticed the radiator had sprung a leak, and I was this close to burning out the engine. The trooper looked at the steam pouring off the engine, handed me a hundred-dollar ticket, and told me to limp the truck to the next exit--even told me about a good garage. Turns out the mechanics knew the cop, felt bad (and laughed) about the ticket, and fixed it up for free.

Not long after that, in the spring of '89, a year before you became far more than a twinkle in my eye, I got a call at work. My Mom-mom, your Pop-pop's mom, had died. Now, it was sad, but not so much. For years, each Christmas, I'd say, "See you next year," and she'd answer, "Don't wish that on me. I'm an old lady. I'm ready." And she was.

I never made a whole lot of money at that job--I was waiting on tables then--but that night, like a miracle, I made $120. It was the only money I had to my name, and as it would turn out, if you figure in replacing the cracked distributor cap in Virginia, gas at ten miles to the gallon, and tolls on the turnpike, it cost me $119 to get to my Mom-mom's funeral.

It was a strange event. I'd never seen a corpse before, and to my great chagrin I got a horrible case of the funeral titters. I remember kneeling next to your Aunt Kitty, in front of the coffin, horrified and fascinated at my Mom-mom, who looked like a big wickless candle--seems they overstuffed her with embalming juices--and orange lipstick she'd only be caught dead in. I remember trying to be somber but noticing two flowers in the casket with a card saying they were from Aunt Barbara's dogs and how Kitty almost had to pinch me to keep me from laughing at the surreal thoughts that this invoked.

And I remember that sometime over the course of those foggy days of viewing and burial, I'd made a deal with my daddy. I told him he could have the truck. He told me he'd trade me for a '77 Dodge Aspen wagon--to this day it is the youngest car I've ever owned. And it, too, had a slant six engine.

Anyway, the day of the switch, I drove the wagon to the funeral home. And as I stood up and walked away from looking at my Mom-mom for the last time ever, I passed my father, who was standing guard at the head of her coffin. He looked at me and I looked at him. He loved his mother so much. I didn't know what to say. He spoke first. "How'd the car run on the way over?" he asked. "Fine, Daddy," I said, saved, once again, by our passion for engines.

My daddy, your Pop-pop, kept that truck for many years, Henry. Back in Tennessee, I packed the Dodge to the rafters late one night and slipped out of Knoxville into your daddy's town and life and arms and bed. You didn't come too far later. And I drove you from Missouri to New Jersey when you were four months old--not knowing until later about the carbon monoxide problem which, thank God, only gave us headaches--oh, you screamed on that trip. I snuck you in and set you on the dining room table, and in a voice I made sound like one of my sisters', I called out, "Mom..." She had no idea we were coming. And she saw you, and I still cry when I remember watching the look on her face that very first time she saw you and knew without being told just who you were.  

Before you were a year old, I sold the wagon. Hard to believe, but I got $350 for it. By then your daddy's grandma had given us a big old Buick, which got your daddy and our things to Texas (I brought you here on a plane). It broke down not long after that, and we parked it, too broke and lazy to fix it.

When your daddy left us, I sold that Buick. And then it was just me and you and the stroller and long walks to the laundry and the grocery store. One day I called my daddy, your Pop-pop. I thought I had a chance at a cheap house out in the country, I told him. But I didn't have a way into town. So your Pop-pop loaded your Mom-mom and a cooler and drove my truck back to me and then they took the bus all the way back to New Jersey, because your Mom-mom is afraid of flying.

It's not such a bad truck, Son. My biceps have benefited nicely from the manual steering. And despite how bad it must be for the environment, it's good, too--it's so hard to drive that I drive it far less than I would a new car. Sometimes the linkage slips, and I always hope that'll happen on a non-miniskirt day--I hate crawling into the engine to adjust it and end up giving a show to everyone who drives by, you know?

Plus it only has sixty-eight thousand miles on it, after all these years. No one used to believe me. But more than one mechanic, upon closer inspection that proved me right, has offered me cash and plenty of it, on the spot, for a shot to hold the title. Someone once even offered to buy just the tailgate--straightest one he said he'd ever seen. As for the shocks, well, I've been thinking, maybe I'll just start wearing curlers when I drive. It would save us money and the effect would be great and sort of explain our bouncy nature to the folks in the next lane over.

Before this year is out, probably when you start public school and I can put all that day-care money somewhere else, we'll get us a car with air conditioning and a radio and windows and locks that work. Maybe we'll even get a VW Camper, though really that's a fantasy that no longer holds me quite as tight.

But I'll never sell this old truck, Son. I might give it to Bern and Kenny. Or retire it out at Richard and Suzy's in the country--the way any old, dedicated ride should be put out to pasture. I just have to always know where it is, you know? It's sort of Freudian--oh, forget it, you don't know who Freud is and I hope you never do. But that truck is more than four wheels and an engine, honey. It's one of the very few things my daddy and I ever had in common.

Spike Gillespie is the author of the forthcoming memoir All the Wrong Men and One Perfect Boy (Simon & Schuster, August '99), a book about her misadventures with men and her great adventures with her son. You can subscribe to her free, weekly online column by writing her at [email protected]

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