Dad says once he fixes his Ford Explorer, he’s gonna wrap it around a tree going one-twenty-five. I don’t believe him. That piece of shit doesn’t even touch eighty, and he knows it. I’ve watched his hair thin the last year. He’s lost weight. I’ll be trying to do my homework and then Dad starts screaming and beating on that Explorer. Says it’s torturing him, keeps breaking down on purpose. It’s conspiring with the world at large, the O’Connor Luck, he calls it. It’s why the Explorer keeps busting; it’s why his boss hasn’t promoted him at the cable company; it’s why Mom left him; it’s why we live in the trailer park next to the Tyson Chicken plant.
“At least the stereo works,” he says. “That way I can listen to whatever I want when this fucker gets to one-twenty-five.”
Chiggers eat up my ankles. Dad hasn’t mowed or told me to mow in two weeks. Ever since Mom left he’s let everything slide.
“Yeah? What would you blast?”
He pokes his head out from inside the hood like a sad Whack-A-Mole. Looks at me, squints his eyes real hard.
“No pussy shit,” he says. “I don’t want to cry. Gotta go out with a bang.”
He wipes his hands on his shirt and heads to the back seats. He pulls out a shoebox he keeps his CDs in for the stereo. He kneels over it on the gravel lot and digs through it. He throws the keepers at me like frisbees. Exile on Main St. Paranoid. Combat Rock. Pinkerton. Live Through This. Otis Redding Live at the Whisky-Go-Go. Before Mom left, she got mad at Dad for playing music too loud inside. I heard them argue about it once, Dad saying remember how they used to dance and Mom saying it isn’t like that anymore and Dad calling her a cold-hearted fucking bitch. After that if he really wanted to listen to something, he’d sit in the Explorer and blast whatever he wanted with the windows up. I heard everything he played.
He stops throwing the maybes at me. He’s got one CD in his hand and he eyeballs it like it’s the first time he’s seen it. Then he looks at me and I can’t tell if he’s crazy or happy.
“Bingo,” he says.
He stands up and opens the driver’s side door and cranks the engine. The Explorer sounds like someone with lung cancer until the engine catches. Black smoke pours out of the exhaust. The engine belt whines. Dad puts the CD in and rolls the windows down.
I’m sure the whole trailer park can hear the music. It’s before noon so Lenny, the old alcoholic with the rose bushes that stand out here, might wake up and complain. He’s done it before. Dad just turns it up louder.
He drums on the steering wheel as the song comes on. It sounds like a religious chant that we learned in music class. Harmonies that sound like something I’d hear at a church. Whoever’s singing sounds like he’s convincing himself that it’s all going to be okay. He sings about his car and his baby who makes him feel alive. Dad sings over the music so offkey that I can make him out clearly. He looks at me and smiles. He kills the engine but leaves the battery on so the song can finish.
“Your mom loved the Beach Boys,” he says. “Our first date we danced to this song at some bar, I forget which. You don’t remember the small details. But imagine how she’ll feel when she finds out this song was playing when they find me.”
He walks into the trailer, the Beach Boys still going. I watch the Explorer. The red paint is faded. The tires are thin. Rust covers the bottom, chunks missing where Dad’s stepped too hard. The frame looks like a steak knife. I want the engine to never start again. I want Dad to leave the keys in the ignition and the doors unlocked and for some junkie to come along and steal it. Along with the Beach Boys CD. I want to drive it into the creek behind the park. I want to watch it drown.
I stand up and look under the hood. It doesn’t make sense to me. Dad tried to get me into cars, learn how to fix them up. Said that’s how real men do it. He’d show me with his hands how to change a tire, how to replace a radiator or brake pads. The feeling of his calloused hands on my skin like steel wool. He had to hide his anger when I didn’t learn something right. My hands never got rough. I thought that meant I wasn’t a real man, but Mom said that every boy is different.
He comes back out, the Beach Boys still serenading the trailer park. In his hands are two cold cans of Hamm’s. He stands next to me and hands me one, doesn’t say anything. Just holds it out like an offering. Time to grow up. We open the beer and the first sip tastes like what I imagine engine oil tastes like. I hide my disgust and Dad watches me try to chug the beer down like I see men on TV do.
He tousles my hair and I shake him off because I’m too old for that. But I still like it. His callouses don’t hurt doing that.
I go over to sit on the flimsy steps and spill the rest of the beer when he’s not looking. He gets down on his back and slides over the gravel under the Explorer. Bolts tighten and he tosses tools out onto the driveway. He’s deep into it. Today’s the day he fixes everything he can, I think. He’s determined to change the O’Connor Luck forever tonight.
He crawls out from under the Explorer and wipes his hands and face with his shirt. Grease stains over it like blackened blood. He sits up and leans back on the grill of the car, smiles at me.
“The trailer’s in your mom’s name,” he says, rubbing the faded red paint of the Explorer. “Call her in the morning, buddy. I’ll be long gone.”
I sit up in bed when the sun goes down, heard Dad burping after chugging down beers.
He had given me another one at dinner and talked about mom over frozen Salisbury steaks that looked like snot. The Explorer faced toward the road like a watchdog, like it was waiting to be cranked to life and sped down the highway until it found the right tree.
“When I’m gone,” he said between chews of gooey meat, “don’t cry. I mean, sure you’re going to, but don’t make a scene, okay? This is for the best.”
“That car can’t go that fast,” I said.
“It’ll go fast enough, big guy. Don’t worry about that.”
I hear the front door creak open and slam shut. Hear his boots crunch on the gravel like snow. The rusted driver’s side door of the Explorer whines as he opens it and he closes it so gently. The engine cranks and doesn’t catch and I hear him curse and crank it again, holding it in until the engine forces itself to life.
I wait to hear the shift change, the tires squeal down the main road of the trailer park, Dad laughing like a mad-man, like some deranged Doc Brown as he guns the gas to the miles-per-hour needed to reach his goal. But all I hear is the groan of the Explorer’s engine idling, and the Beach Boys muffled over the rolled-up windows. He’s playing that song again. The high-pitched harmonies keep saying don’t worry, over and over, as if they’re assuring me everything’s going to be okay. Or him.
I wait half an hour and look at my window. The Explorer is still in the driveway. The Beach Boys are singing the same song. I hear Dad’s voice cracking trying to reach their pitch.
I slip my Chuck Taylors on and peak out the front door. Neighbors have their lights on – Dad’s blasting the Beach Boys at full volume. Really testing the last good thing the Explorer has. If that stereo blows out, I know he’ll gun down the highway.
I stand on the porch and watch him in the Explorer. Once the song ends, he reaches his finger out to the stereo and starts it over again. Someone two trailers down yells to turn that shit off, some folks have to work tomorrow. Dad can’t hear anything. I bet he can’t even hear the engine belt whining.
When I get closer to the Explorer, the Beach Boys get louder. I reach out for the passenger down and it’s not locked. I step on a rusted spot on the frame and feel it give when I hop inside. Not that it matters. Everything else on the car is falling apart. The cabin lights turn on for a second and before they turn off when I close the door, I catch a look at Dad’s eyes: wet and red. They looked like they’ve been stung by wasps.
The song ends and Dad reaches over to start it again. He leans his head back and closes his eyes and maybe he’s thinking about mom and that time they danced to the Beach Boys. He opens his eyes and looks over at me. He grabs me by the shoulder and pulls me close to him. His hands are rough but there’s love under years of callouses and for the first time in a long time I feel it. The engine idles hard that I feel the cabin shake. But then I realize it’s just Dad. He holds me tight and whispers something in my ear that I can’t hear over the Beach Boys. They sing so loud. I reach over and turn the keys to kill the engine. He doesn’t notice. The Beach Boys fade out and Dad’s grease-stained hands claw into my shoulder, as if to hold onto me forever.
COLIN BRIGHTWELL is a Kansas City, Missouri native and a graduate of the University of Mississippi's MFA program in fiction. His work has appeared in Reckon Review, BULL, Flyover Country Literary Magazine, Guilty Crime Story Magazine, PastTen Years, and Cowboy Jamboree. He currently resides in Oxford, MS.