New Car

I am standing behind the 1960 Chevy Biscayne in our driveway at home. The driveway is a horseshoe shape with entrance and exit off Route 83. At the top of the horseshoe one side of the Cape Cod style house faces east. A short distance from the north east corner of the house sits a one car garage, a backboard and basketball hoop bolted above the door.  The gravel drive makes it hard to dribble, but I’ve reasoned that the odd bounces sharpen my reflexes. When I play, the ball becomes coated with an orange dust that dulls its shine, its rubber hide pitted by the sharp edges of rocks. The Chevrolet is the new car my father bought with the two thousand dollars he received as an inheritance when my grandmother died. The money came from the savings Busia accumulated selling vegetables each year at a roadside stand from late summer and into fall. Sweet corn, tomatoes, onions, green beans, potatoes, cucumbers, peppers, zucchini and pumpkins, all grown on the eighteen acres of Illinois farmland she worked with her son, my uncle.

My father has never owned a new automobile. We always rode in used cars – four door sedans that looked as if he’d bought them from Chicago gangsters — dark automobiles with rounded fenders and worn cloth seats. The Biscayne is sky blue with a white top. It’s a big car, “a boat,” my mother called it when Dad pulled into the driveway the first time. The car barely fits in the garage and he’s hung a tennis ball on a string from the rafters so that when the ball touches the window at the driver’s eyelevel he knows to stop, that the front bumper will be just a couple of inches from the studs on the wall of the garage and there’ll be the same couple of inches of clearance in the back so the door can close.

Today, “the boat,” is in the driveway in front of the garage door right below the basketball hoop and net. The car is there, but I don’t want to go in and ask Dad to move it because he’s resting in the living room in his “after work” outfit of boxer shorts, V-neck T-shirt and white socks. He’s trying to cool off, lying back on his reclining chair, newspaper over his belly, snoring away.

For some reason I have to shoot baskets and I consider working my way around the front of the car but I know when the ball comes down from a shot it will eventually hit the car’s hood and there’ll be a kettle drum thump and that will wake my father and what will happen next will not sound pretty either. My father can yell as loud as thunder. His voice can shake the earth and his bite is as bad as his bark.

But the car is there — in the way. The new car is there in the driveway in front of the garage door, under the basketball hoop.

I go in the house and find my older brother lying on his bed in our attic bedroom. The window fan is on and the warm air blows his hair back from his face as he listens to a transistor radio playing rock ‘n roll. Elvis? Bobby Rydell? Fabian? I don’t know who is singing. They all sound the same to me. I’m a couple of years away from caring about music and learning the difference between teen idol voices, of having a favorite that I’ll listen to over and over.

It’s hot in the attic; the bit of wind that comes from the fan barely gives enough of a breeze to keep us dry. We sleep on top of the sheets in summer. The chirping of crickets, the June bugs tapping the screen and the moan of cars on Route 83 all get muted into a white noise by the hum of the fan’s blades.

But there’s still some hours left before dark and I want to work on my jump shot.

“You want to play basketball?” I ask Jim.

He’s bored and sits up, then shrugs his shoulders but says, “Okay.”

I go over to the window that faces the road, that looks down on the driveway and the green oasis in the middle of the horseshoe with the big pine tree and the circle of flowers my mother waters every evening.

“The car’s in front of the garage,” I say as if I’ve just noticed.

“See if Dad will move it.”

“He’s asleep in his chair.”

My brother clicks off the radio and stands up and peers out the window. “Shit,” he hisses. Then he shrugs. “We’ll have to push it back,” he says.

After he ties his gym shoes up I follow him downstairs. My mother is in the kitchen putting dishes away and she warns us not to stay out too late when the mosquitoes will be biting. We head out the kitchen door, into the backyard and out to the car.  Now the whole car moving business has become my brother’s idea. And already he has a plan. He opens the driver’s door and slides behind the steering wheel.  My brother is fourteen and I wonder where he’s learned to step onto the clutch and shift the stick on the column into neutral. It seems that Jim is always acquiring new and useful information from out of nowhere. Does that come from age? Is he keenly observant and able to transfer what he sees into action without instruction? Or is it something he’s picked up from his friends? Since he’s started high school he’s on a faster learning curve, one I understand as little as his moodiness, his frequent need to isolate, and the preference for rock ‘n roll over listening to Cub games on the radio.

Once he has the gear shift positioned where he wants it he gets out and we both stand at the front of the car, our backs to the garage. “Okay, on three,” he leans forward with his hands on the edge of the front hood. I do the same and on his count we push. The car tires crunch on the gravel but the big monster is anchored in a shallow depression and it only moves a bit and then settles back to its original position.

“It’s not level. We’ll get it rocking and then when I tell you, push hard,” he says.

He leans into the front and it wavers slightly. He pushes again rocking it back and forth. I position myself next to him and following his lead do the same. With each push we lean in harder. I get my feet against the garage door for more leverage and this time when we rock it backwards Jim grunts, “Now!” We both lean into it and the tires crunch the gravel and then the car rolls slowly, moving back, at first with the force of our bodies against the grill and then, as if it is a real boat, it’s launched and buoyant and caught in the current that takes it away from the dock.

“Shit. Shit,” Jim says and it takes me a moment to register that we are no longer pushing, that the gravel bottom does not hold the car. The Chevy moves on its own. We both race around to the back and try to grab onto the fins winged over the tail lights to stop it, but it’s too heavy and it rolls slow and steady dragging my brother on one side, me on the other, our canvas shoes grinding on the rocky bed.

The car moves straight back and not along the curve of the drive and out to the highway. But that’s only a slightly better fate because it’s cutting over the curved edge of the drive and into the lilac bushes that border the north end. The car runs into and half over the two thick bushes and then stops, the long leafy stalks bent and caught under the back bumper.

Jim surveys the damage and the anchored Biscayne. “Crap.”

We get behind it and try to work it forward. The back end is in the thick stalks of the bush and when we make our way into position mosquitoes appear from among the branches and leaves and we slap at our arms then try to push, slap again and push again. It’s no use.

“This is not good,” Jim says. He leans his back against the driver’s door and bends over to think. When it comes to telling Dad we’ve done something foolish neither of us has been blessed with brilliance. If lucky we get off with a muttered epitaph that questions our origins and reasoning powers, if unlucky we can end up first with a good lecture punctuated with obscenities and then a banishment until a punishment can be determined. Up until a few months ago it might have ended with a beating, us lying across one of the twin beds and our father scourging us with his leather belt. For some reason those have stopped. Perhaps he’s figured we’ve outgrown that kind of punishment, or that it really didn’t do any good. As experience has shown we have continued doing more foolish things. Or maybe he stopped using the strap because we hadn’t done anything to push him over the edge – like sending the car off the driveway and into the lilac bushes.

We walk around the boat as if there might be an answer on the other side. It doesn’t look so bad from the passenger side because of the turn of the driveway and how the lilac bushes are planted on the curve so that you have to be on the driver’s side to see how much of them have been crushed.  From the house it appears that the car’s backside merely hangs over the edge of the driveway and that the lilacs are snug on the back fin. But of course Dad wouldn’t slide into the car from the passenger’s side. He’d come around and there is no hiding the mess there.

“Well, we might as well get it over with,” Jim says and starts toward the back door.  I follow him, knowing we are in this one together and though he is the one who put the car in neutral, I am the one who really wanted it moved. A guilt and punishment shared is better than those suffered alone.

I follow my brother into the house and stand behind him in the living room where he stops next to the recliner where our father sleeps.  Head tilted back, mouth half open, eyes closed, the newspaper draped across his stomach, he snores softly, a wispy snort on the intake of breath. His white T-shirt holds a constellation of black dots where the welding sparks from the Harvester Plant found their way under the mask and into his overalls at work. From under the bottom edge of the paper the hem of his striped boxers stop at mid-thigh and from there his pale legs are bare down to the white crew socks at his ankles. My father is not a tall man, but he’s solid and strong and we are ever reminded that he once boxed while in the army. He has a lightning fast jab that’ll sting an arm or backside when used open-handed. Still a confession has to be made. For Dad to discover the problem later is to run a greater risk. It’s better to wake him and tell him now. It’s better not to appear as if we’re hiding anything. And it’s better to face immediate consequences, to get it over with.

I know all this, but it is my brother who acts on the knowledge. I curse our circumstance but admire his courage as he edges closer to the chair, as he quietly says, “Dad,” like a child seeking comfort during the thunder storm that has kept him awake.  At a time like this I wish I could make my own voice so small and perfect.