By Gabriela Frank
I was nineteen the first time I drove a stick shift, sometime after 1 a.m. during my first summer break from college. Details like these are carved grooves on the record of my memory while others, like the names of the boys that Nickie and I partied with or where they lived, are as smoky as our teenage dreams of adulthood. Within that boozy nebula, I recall a moment of clarity when one of the boys pressed Nickie’s car keys into my hand as the party closed down. At first he spoke in slow motion, like we were suspended underwater, then his words crackled with clarity in my ears.
“Your friend’s sick,” he said, nodding over to Nickie who dove for the shrubs. Her behind, clad in jean shorts, looked back at me. “She said you’re gonna have to drive home,” he insisted, the keys were slick with his sweat.
I shook my head. “No way. I don’t know how to drive stick.” Sobriety suddenly cut through my pleasant buzz. Nickie lunged again to fertilize the bushes, tiny bits of gravel embedding themselves in the soft white flesh of her knees as I walked over to pull her mousy brown hair back.
The boy who hosted the party came padding outside, shirtless and in flip-flops, triggering the motion-sensor floodlights. “What are they still doing here?” he demanded, nodding at us.
“She doesn’t know how to drive stick,” one guy complained, rolling his eyes.
“Well, someone’s gotta teach her. I’m gonna pass out,” he shrugged, staggering back into the house. Nickie dropped back on her heels, a halo of sick about her. What could I do? This was a decade before we discovered cabs, not that I had the cash to pay for one anyway. Calling my grandmother to pick us up was out of the question. Nickie dabbed away the slimy ropes of vomit from her mouth, looking up like a pathetic spaniel from her crouch, her sandy curls plastered with perspiration.
The nicer guy offered to teach me to drive Nickie’s white pick-up. It might have been an old Toyota, but it was impossible to tell. The gearshift and the steering wheel were free of logos after so many years of use, but her truck meant freedom for us that summer. We didn’t care what it looked like, just that it could move. Inhaling deeply, I pictured myself manning the gearshift while needles of fear pricked the skin between my fingers. I followed the boy into the cab of Nickie’s truck, attempting to appear nonchalant. After all, I had seen my father do it a thousand times. As he went through the shifting motions with the engine off, I silently cursed my father for not teaching me to drive his most prized possession, a crimson 1976 Pontiac Firebird Trans AM.
Enamored with its ruby glamour, I had begged him to let me drive it since I was five. He bought The Bird, as we called it, before we moved to Arizona in 1980, driving southwest from Detroit. He happily stashed me with my mother in her maroon Grand Prix as he hopped into the Trans AM to tear up the highways alone, leaving us behind at our sensible sixty-five miles per hour. A Smokey and the Bandit devotee, he fantasized about running block for a semi hauling bootlegged beer rather than leading a family caravan across the country.
My father has always been attracted to machines; as a teen, he tinkered with them incessantly. He dropped out of tech college to join my grandfather’s trucking business so that he could alternate between his two loves: driving semis and serving as a mechanic on the rigs. Engines were the only things that made sense to him. Their parts and ailments were visible and he knew how to fix them when they broke—the opposite of his family. Appealing, too, was the solitary life of truck driving. Short runs provided days of glorious silence that didn’t send him too far from home. He checked in by pay phone on the road between Michigan and Ohio, but was otherwise free to listen to country western music or talk on the CB without the interruption of a wife or toddler. He lived life on his terms, if only a few days a week.
The Bird was the pinnacle of all the cars he ever owned, or would. Its seductively molded body held buttery, undulating leather bucket seats that lusciously cupped passengers in a red embrace. A brilliantly emblazoned fiery bird decal spread its wings across the hood, as if to suggest that the car could take flight. Four vents—the lungs of the beast—gulped draughts of air, allowing The Bird to charge ahead boldly when he tensed the pedal to the floor.
Growing up, I loved driving with him, though we didn’t speak. We had a quiet communion because I tacitly kept it that way. He was focused on the road and I knew better than to press my luck. On weekends when he announced a trip to the hardware store or to see my grandparents in Sun City, I jumped at the chance to accompany him, if only to go somewhere, anywhere, with my father in that car.
I liked watching him change lanes and accelerate, the force thrusting me back in my seat like my mom’s Royal typewriter hitting a hard return. He wore aviator sunglasses that obscured his eyes, but I could see his jaw set as he approached turns, the corners of his lips curling upward. He and The Bird were synchronized like a pair of dancers who knew each other’s bodies intimately. He raised his eyebrows when he checked the rearview mirror for a pass, a sense of thrill translated into deft movements as he shifted from third to forth in precise flicks of his wrist, the ballet of his foot with the gas and the clutch, almost like a machine himself.
He shrugged it off, but his actions confessed delight at controlling a powerful car so expertly, toeing the line between safety and danger. It would have been easy to open her up, rev the engine past 100, take screaming corners and burn rubber, but he always chose not to. He caged the energy of that car in addition to his own. Something in him enjoyed the potency of his own restraint.
I recall the force of hot air blowing through my hair when we drove, pushed through the open windows in strong staccato blasts as I closed my eyes and held onto the panic bar. I pretended it was my steering wheel, my hands turning over each other in sync with my father’s as we took corners together. I liked how the seats stuck to the back of my thighs under the unrelenting swelter of the Phoenix sun, knowing that I would have to peel my skin gently away from the upholstery so that it wouldn’t chafe when I got out.
Besides doing math homework together when he started night school, which usually ended with me in tears, the only activities my father and I shared involved The Bird, the car serving as a touchstone between us. In my early teens I washed and waxed it; later, I helped with oil changes and handed him tools while he tinkered. It was the only time he didn’t chase me from the room. “Can’t you just leave your mother and I alone?!” he demanded most evenings. Somewhere between dinner and bedtime, being together proved a bit too much for him to take. To trick him into spending time with me, I expressed interest in how engines worked. Though the mechanics were interesting, I let his words wash over me without retaining many facts. A boy my age would have hung on every tidbit of information while I cared more about having a conversation—any conversation—with my father.
The Beach Boys played in the background as he leaned under the dusty hood one Sunday afternoon. A series of metallic click-click-click sounds echoed in our open garage as he used his ratcheting wrench. I tiptoed nearer to the beat of “Help Me Rhonda,” hoping to insert my presence before he could shoo me from his workspace. During breakfast, he had snapped at me for interrupting his hard-earned silence with chatter on his only day off. Alone with his car, he seemed more serene.
He didn’t acknowledge my presence as I neared, just kept working. After a few moments, I dared to ask, “What’s that?” as I leaned over the other side, pointing.
“Watch yourself,” he snarled without looking up. “It’s a socket wrench.”
“What does it do?”
“It tightens nuts and bolts,” he said, making it click-click-click again, working methodically from one bolt to the next. The skin on his neck was patchy and red; whether due to frustration at my intrusion or simply the sweltering heat was unclear.
“Can I try?”
“Yeah. Be careful where you put your hands. The engine’s hot and you don’t want to burn yourself. Here. Come over on my side.” I leaned in next to his wiry frame, barely able to reach the wrench handle with the span of my twelve-year-old arm. His worn gray flannel shirt brushed against me, scratchy and tired, just like him. “Now, torque the wrench like this,“ he directed, moving the handle with my soft pink hand underneath his callused one, making it click-click-click. “Then pull it back tight.” I was careful and obedient, two key ingredients for winning his approval. The series of vibrating clicks felt satisfying in my hand as I moved the cool metal handle back and forth, the physical sensation even more melodious than the punctuating sound. My father nodded, checking the tightness of my work. “That’s good. Now do the next one.”
We went on this way until the job was done, then he gave me a series of stinging pats on the back. Surprised at his force, I bristled. “Ow!” I shouted, recoiling. Under my T-shirt I could feel his red handprints rising on my skin.
“What’s the matter?” he snapped, his brow darkening. “I’m just trying to be affectionate.”
“That hurt!” I barked. “You’re too rough!” My body curled into a protective ball in the corner as he loomed toward me, not knowing what would happen next. Without thinking, I dropped his expensive socket wrench, which clattered on the concrete.
“Jesus,” he sighed, swooping up the wrench and tossing it angrily onto the workbench. “If you’re so damned sensitive, then get the hell out of here and leave me alone. You’re just like your mother.”
As I grew older, driving The Bird became akin to the search for the Holy Grail. The more he pushed me away, the more I pressed to drive his car, to no avail. My friends were learning to operate their parents’ vehicles, many of them manual transmissions, so I redoubled my efforts, using their examples to build my case. Each afternoon, I prayed that my father would pull over to the side of the road and offer to pass down his legacy of knowledge. Instead, it was my mother who curbed her Pontiac Grand Prix and let me drive home from school, making me swear not to tell my father. We practiced in secret for weeks so that I could get good before taking a test run with him.
Our first time out, he lectured me on turn signals. “You can’t hit the blinker as you’re turning; you do it before. You’re signaling your intention, not the act itself,” he said, shaking his head like I was a lost cause.
Rather than teaching me to drive on The Bird, he bought me an old truck, an automatic: a 1972 wide-bed Chevy, ochre yellow. It was beat up and rusted, even though it takes a lot to rust a car in Arizona. The Beast, that monstrous thing, was the antithesis of The Bird. The clunky behemoth barely fit into parking spaces, even the super-sized ones in Phoenix. The damned eyesore was solid as a tank; it could run into a transformer and still come out the winner. Next to The Bird, its outdated ugliness seemed an insult, right down to the black plastic knobs and cataract-covered odometer.
Despite the freedom of my own wheels, his gift did not end my lobbying. My father attempted to placate my thirst for The Bird with this sorry replacement, but I had none of it. Finally, at the end of his rope, he flat-out refused, lecturing me on what teenagers like me wanted to do in a car like his: race it and wrap it around a telephone pole. I protested: I was a straight-A student without a blemish that suggested any such behavior, but my arguments fell on his hardened ears.
Eventually, I gave up.
It was an easy thing for a teenage girl to do, especially when girlfriends, boyfriends and college loomed so close. Like forbidden school trips to Washington DC or foreign language classes that he said I would never use, it also meant that my father’s grasp stifled yet another desire in my life. Along with The Bird, the last remaining ground between us fell asunder. Something in my father has always prevented him from finding a balance between control and power. A short in his system distorted his perceptions of the world; the intentions and weaknesses of others loomed large and threatening in his eyes. The most obvious thing that he could do to protect me back then was to control what entered my life, his muscle car being one of those things. But it wasn’t the only one. And he couldn’t protect me from everything.
As I sat in Nickie’s truck feeling momentarily powerless, I faced the result of my father’s defenses. The things he thought he was protecting me from were the very situations that I would be confronted with, and unprepared for, throughout the rest of my life: what it means to be self-sufficient, the true nature of power, and when it’s best to simply trust in myself and let go.
When we took off, Nickie in the passenger seat and me behind the wheel, it had been three years since my mother’s death. From under my father’s shadow, I had observed and mimicked her timid ways all my life, letting him take the control he seemed to want so much. The only bold thing I had accomplished, other than navigating Nickie’s pick-up, was leaving home at eighteen without a word of warning to him. Embracing my long-delayed destiny, I found the responsiveness of driving a standard shift extremely pleasurable. I liked the hesitation between gears and the gentle mechanical lurch—the physical expression of a moment in time. When I turned the first corner, I felt my jaw set like his, a grin creeping across my face. My father must have felt the same way. With automatics, there isn’t the same anticipation; the ride is smooth rather than guttural, too perfectly controlled. Now, for the first time, a choice between power and control rested in my untested hands.
The roads were flat and easy from the stark streets of central Phoenix to the rolling lawns of Glendale where Nickie and I lived. She spat bile out of the window at intervals, emitting a rhythmic ptooey before she directed me in a lolling voice to “Shift.” If she hadn’t been so wasted I would have told her to shut up. I was doing great—I didn’t stall out once. Instead, I allowed her to believe that she inspired my movements. When lights turned green, my feet moved the pedals in and out, and the truck sped forward with an encouraging chug; when they turned red, I pulled it out of gear and coasted before applying the brake. The covenant between Nickie’s truck and me felt gentle and natural. Like my father and The Bird, we were one.
When I turned off the engine in front of Nickie’s house, I sat back with a sense of newfound self-assurance. No one else witnessed it. Nickie had passed out in her seat, which is where I left her, locked safely inside. She was too heavy for me to carry in, let alone to bed.
After years of silence following my departure from home, my father and I reconnected on the divorce from his second wife. He reported that she hadn’t gotten The Bird, though she had made away with plenty of other things, from his 401(k) on down. Things between us coasted into neutral in the years that followed, the car serving as a sibling that I felt compelled to ask about in every strained conversation. How was The Bird running these days? Was he going to get her repainted and reupholstered? Was it time to rebuild the engine?
My father had stopped working as a mechanic and took an office job, largely because cars became computerized. He complained about having to track down ghosts in the wiring, things that only other computers could diagnose and that mechanics couldn’t see. That twist wasn’t lost on me: when he could no longer identify or solve problems on sight—when cars developed brains of their own—he gave up and moved on.
It was with regret that he finally sold the old girl a few years later. He and his third wife owned a practical and gas-efficient Honda (hers) and a new, fully-loaded Chevy pick-up (his.) They no longer needed The Bird, even as a pleasure car. He was sad, I think; that car had followed him through a different life that began over thirty-five years beforehand. It was there when he and my mother married, when they bought their first house in Detroit and when they had me. It was there when he became a truck driver, a mechanic and, many years later, a college graduate. It remained faithful when we moved from our modest brick cottage in Michigan to the ranch-style home in Phoenix where I grew up. It stayed with him to its final resting place at his house with Roberta on Pershing Avenue. It would have been nice to say goodbye.
I sometimes reflect on The Bird and her relationship to the balance of power and control, especially for my father, but also for me. Upon leaving home, I became my own parent, navigating life’s risks and rewards—the gas and the clutch—with lurching starts. It took decades to develop a feel for shifting between them on my own. Turns out, that balance is trickier than it looks, especially without guidance from a practiced teacher. Even today, I wonder when, if ever, it’ll become second nature.
I wish I could express all of this to my father, but I doubt he’d understand. Over the years, his role in my life has diminished, a figure shrinking in the dust of my rearview mirror. When Roberta filed for divorce after a decade together, the latest in a string of partners who slipped away from my father, I felt something for him between pity and vindication. It seemed that everyone left him, eventually. Without a doubt, he and I struggle with a similar quest for independence and companionship, one that I’d dare say we learned from each other. Even so, without the bridge of The Bird between us, we don’t have much to discuss anymore.
Gabriela Denise Frank’s writing appears in Works (of Fiction) in Progress Journal, ARCADE and Trim Tab. In 2014, her Pushcart Prize-nominated story, “Pas de Deux,” was published in Behind the Yellow Wallpaper: New Tales of Madness. She lives and writes in Seattle. www.gabrieladenisefrank.com