Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Vehicle

Sitting in the long bench seat of my Dad’s truck, my head against the window, I balanced my mother’s green Tupperware mixing bowl precariously next to the 7-Up can in my lap, I was sick and had to stay home from fourth grade that day. Only, for reasons unknown to me, I wasn’t home. I was running calls with my father. I sat pallid, feverish, drinking in the intensifying heat inside the truck with my skin the same way tree frogs absorb moisture through their leathery backs, while my father bandaged, scoped, and generally laid hands on colicky colts bustling from barn to the hulking, refrigerated vet-box on the bed of his truck to retrieve gloves the length of his arm used to palpate mares.

I remember the conversation I had with myself, as my flesh pan-seared on the leather seats, “Don’t throw up. Don’t throw up. Don’t throw up…” It was a short conversation. One I lost, convincingly, in the end. I didn’t make it in my mother’s mixing bowl, but in my can of 7-Up. Oh, how I dreaded telling my dad that I had puked in my 7-Up. I felt terribly guilty about that. In the grand scheme of physics and what not, there were undoubtedly puke bits in the truck, perhaps baking into the floor mats as I sat there, but I didn’t feel bad about the truck. I felt bad about defacing my father’s generosity by puking in the 7-Up he had gifted me.
My lack of remorse for the stench and liquid chunks lacing themselves into the floor mats of my father’s F350 likely stemmed from my familiarity with the truck itself, and the half a dozen blood samples rolling around the glove box on any given day. My Dad requires such huge trucks because he carries a working vet clinic in the back. That and he spends so much time in them. They act as mobile apartments. One can really spread out in there and kick back while barreling down the back roads of central Oklahoma.

If I ever wanted to spend quality time with my father, I’d have to go on calls with him. We spent afternoons at his veterinary clinic every week, but he was nearly always elbow deep in pustules or extracting something unfortunate from some creature’s intestines. I was left to my own devices, my own diversions. But in his truck, he was 2 to 6 feet away from me for 45 minute increments as we drove from one farm to the next with nothing better to do than talk to me about my soccer games or tell me stories about growing up. (My favorite being that he and his college roommate did not get along. One day, my Dad got so fed up with him he marched into their shared room and threw him out their second story window. His roommate collected himself and then marched back to their room and threw my Dad out the window. It was smooth sailing after that, apparently.)

My Dad’s trucks were the living room couches of our relationship. This is where life unfolded or it’s where we reflected on the folds. It was a comfortable agreement, he did all the driving and navigating, stopping every so often at hole-in-the-wall donut shops in forgotten towns to introduce me to the world of jelly filled pastries. And I slid from one end of the bench seat to the other as he swerved to avoid potholes the size of public pools or gunned the engine and launched the 2 ton truck down dirt roads like The General Lee. I never complained about his driving, and he never complained about having to schlep his scrawny kid around with him. Together, we reveled in the freedom of junk food and windows rolled all the way down.

When I was in the 8th grade, my Dad developed an unfortunate affinity for the El Camino. The convenience of a car, with the faculties of a truck. Not only was it smaller and a little cramped as he drove my sister and me to the private school we attended across town, it was also seriously lacking mojo. It was an exercise in humility every time we piled out of the brown spectacle and swung the wide door with a generous whine, creek, and slam. It was worse for my sister. She was in 10th grade and something like an El Camino in the family could definitely dampen your chances with the cool crowd in middle school. But her beauty and charm more than made up for any vehicular missteps. Until the day my Dad got a call from a neighbor.

We lived in a house completely ensconced in trees. We were removed from town, from society, from community…except that we had neighbors whose houses were also completely ensconced in the same trees, hidden from view. It was a planned community with a neighborhood watch sign, which was amusing to me, because we couldn’t see our neighbors, much less watch someone take their stuff.

Anyway, when you are a doctor or lawyer or car salesman, neighbors take note and tuck that information in their back pockets just in case they need a second opinion or a good deal on a Volvo.

My Dad was the neighborhood veterinarian. So, it was only natural when someone hit a deer with their truck and it lay dying in someone’s driveway, they called him to put it down. And dispose of it. Looking back, he could have handed them the number for Animal Control. But he didn’t. He slung the carcass over his shoulder and carried it to his El Camino. He positioned the deceased between his vet box and the back window. She stretched the length of the cabin, her feet sticking up grotesquely in the air, her head lolled to one side, tongue out, her dead, cold stare, watching us bedevil our father as he delivered us to school across town.

Our protests fell on deaf ears. He couldn’t understand what the big deal was. He’d drive us to school. We’d get out of the car. And go on about our day.

Kimberlyn was mutinous. I thought she might launch over me, open the driver’s side door and push my Dad out in a spectacular Charlie’s Angels move, dump the deer carcass and finish our commute on her own. I wasn’t entirely against that course of action. But before the plan could be fully developed we rolled up to school.

Us and the dead deer.

Kimberlyn refused to get out of the car. She refused to open the door, reasoning that if she kept the door closed on the reality wherein she arrived in front of hundreds of thousands of the cool people, chauffeuring an animal carcass, it couldn’t possibly be true.

I just wanted to get the hell out and pretend like nothing happened. A totally normal Tuesday. I think I did finally open the door and crawl over her.

My Dad owned another El Camino after the brown one topped a few hundred thousand miles, but eventually El Caminos became extinct and giant farm trucks fell back in his favor. Gradually, I stopped accepting invitations to go on calls with him, and gradually he stopped inviting me.

Time trundles on, doesn't it.

Next time my kids complain about...anything! I'm going to remind them, that not once, in their entire lives have I ever dropped them off at school with anything dead, expired, gooey, or disgustingly humiliating draped over the hood.

But there's still time. And I've got connections.