Three cars remained in the driveway, cultivating a world in rot. Their flattened tires spilled down across the concrete, baked to a cragged barren surface. This black desert landscape was full of life — invasive Jersey Fresh tomato vines crawling up the rubber walls, bay sand embedded in the threads, glass twinkling in the sun. Survivor of Many Offensives, Builder, Black Sheep, First (and Only) of His Name, Father to Three, Husband, Brother, Grandfather (to be) and survived by all, including these, his armada of rust (but they didn’t put that in the obituary).
Not the sentimental hoarder type, Mom wanted to clear the driveway and revive the garden since church hadn’t exactly inspired the spirit-haunted distraction the old chaplain promised. And anyhow she didn’t want the neighbors thinking her a poor old widow that kept a shrine room to her dead husband, like leaving the slippers just so beside the bed as he left them the morning of the attack. So she divided the spoils among us three: I, the oldest, naturally took the heaviest of those burdens, three unflipped economy vehicles, do whatever the hell you want with ’em, the Toyota actually runs.
Nick and I drove that once blue ’92 Camry back to New York and he congratulated me on the new whip. “You might have inherited the Ding Dong Dealership, but you know I got all the cool shit,” including Dad’s crucifix-made-weed-stash and a stack of Playboys that Mom pretended to ignore through its 30-year black-plastic-wrapped subscription. (I laughed a little thinking how she might receive the renewal notice in a few weeks and call him a dead prick or something.) We hit a Garden State deficit-sized pothole on the Parkway that sent his Skittles and Wawa iced tea flying all over the car and he cursed the Governor, the goddamned purpose of tolls, public infrastructure, something about a rat’s ass and all things holy including Jesus himself just like Dad. I felt a little moved by it actually and submitted a weepy, shaky voice fuckin’ A, man for good measure. “The Sultan of Swing” was on the radio and I cranked it up through the two speakers that worked. We drove on to New York, bumping along on that shockless frame, ever wondering what that “A” stood for anyway.
Goodnight, now it’s time to go home
And he makes it fast with one more thing
Now spring’s here, only two vehicles remain with their tomato vines ripening then rotting wide open for the fruit flies and a skinnier Rudy the Dog. Mom’s garden is finally coming together and she doesn’t bother with church anymore. Meanwhile, the Camry sat in a downtown Brooklyn garage, across the river from our apartment, awkwardly alongside luxury vehicles and vanity plates for four months like a public school kid who snuck into the Preppies’ homecoming – four months we hoped to fill with family visits to nature, Storm King, emergency diaper runs at the new Target, weekend getaways to Cape May to visit nonna... But after a billing blow-up in which I was called a badman thief in thick patois (seeing right through my “forgetting” the car rent), we drove it one more time to Chinatown. For a week I battled my neighborhood’s parking bullies, experts in the waiting game of opposite-side street sweeper rules. (I was called other names.)
A call came one afternoon, a response to an inquiry for donating used cars to veterans in need. “Yes, yes,” I said, “the vehicle is still available. It’s so cool you called me back. You know my Dad was a survivor of the Tet Offensive!” A long silence suggested the caller wasn’t impressed, but she’d send a representative from the VVA in Philadelphia that afternoon to pick up the Camry and leave a tax form for that sweet, sweet deduction. If I timed it right, the tow truck would arrive just before the street sweeper stormed down the block, kicking up dust and a mad rush of angry Cantonese retirees in minivans. And, sure, I’d feel good about it too, my “commitment to those who served” and all.
Waiting, I caught the tail-end of an interview in which a woman was saying, “…and we do it this way because we can’t in real life. Here, we’re all going to the same place, and it’s not a good one.” Odd, I thought. A reformed (or better, ex) Catholic, I assumed the “same place” people took a more agnostic view of the afterlife, neither good nor bad given its no-thing-at-all state of, well, literal nothingness. In that moment, I surfed a bigwave of guilt and regret for donating the car and wished I could call Tracy from Philly’s VVA back to tell her, “Hi, me again – the son of the Tet Offensive survivor. Remember me? Yeah, about the car…” But it was too late. Time to make some veteran’s day with a beautiful once blue ’92 Toyota Camry, no shocks, two speakers and a Hoffa-sized trunk.
Jimmy, the VVA’s driver, spoke in a thick northeast Philly accent like my Mom. I could hear his Eagles Super Bowl Champions VII tattoo under his cliche striped mechanic’s long-sleeve with the little name-patch on its breast: Jimmy. “You might wanna check the car again for any personal effects.” In the glove compartment, I flipped up the manual to find an old a cassette of Steely Dan’s Can’t Buy a Thrill. The album opens with a song called “Do It Again” that my Dad used to play at full blast through long rides at night, my child-mind remembering only the scary thunderstorm drives, his joyous singing at odds with the chaos around us. I could hear him through that cassette:
You go back, Jack, do it again, wheels turning ’round n ’round
But I left it, closed the compartment and handed the keys over to Jimmy. “All yours, buddy.”
I hoped the next guy had a falsetto.