Henry saw a couple of new dings in his father’s old Lincoln. Henry didn’t like that. The large car was twenty-two years old now, and was beginning to teeter between being a classic and a jalopy. When he looked up the sloping, shady driveway, Henry saw that the garage door had been left open. The frame of the garage door had been sideswiped down to bare wood and splinters. His father’s driving wasn’t getting any better.
He heard the old front door of the house creak and saw his father staring down at him from the porch. The old man looked thinner, maybe, but even his thinness made him seem to loom over Henry. So did the fact that the porch was built up into the side of a hill. The house itself was high and gothic, constructed like the others beside it—all huge houses on narrow, deep properties. Henry couldn’t look at his father yet, so he glanced away. Henry’s own car was parked down on the street, as if it couldn’t make the short, steep climb to the Lincoln. Henry knew nothing in life came easily. He had come to ask his father, his only living relative, for money. Just this once.
“So you’re here,” his father said.
Henry nodded and looked up. All the old trees between the houses made the yard dark. In spite of the shade, Henry saw that the paint on the trim was blistering.
His father tottered just a little as he descended the porch stairs. He looked into Henry’s eyes and said, “You’re just in time to go shopping. We’ll take my car.” The old man grasped the wooden railing for support.
“I’ll drive, Dad,” Henry said.
“The fuck you will. I’m driving.”
Henry looked away and walked silently to the passenger side of the Lincoln. He was shocked by his father’s language. He found himself standing beside the bird feeder that he’d made so many years before in shop class. It still looked in pretty good shape. Under it he saw three dead birds. A blue jay and two finches.
“Probably those cats,” his father said suddenly. “They kill everything in the neighborhood. Kill, kill, kill—but they’re too full of cat food to eat them.”
“Really?” Henry asked. He didn’t know what to think.
The massive door of the Lincoln creaked when Henry opened it. He had to move some newspapers from the seat before he could sit on it. He smelled the faint scent of garbage as he sat down. He yanked closed the creaky door, and his father started the car. Without thinking, Henry reached up to the sun visor and pressed the button of the automatic garage door closer. His father smacked his hand away, and pressed the button again. “Leave it open,” the old man said, then put the car in gear and backed out into the street without looking.
Sunlight and the shadows of the trees rolled over the long front hood of the Lincoln. Henry looked at his father. His white hair stood up in the back. Like his language, his appearance had become undisciplined since Henry’s mother had died. She’d kept him in line. Her stern look and her way of saying Now, Stephen, had always made his father blink nervously and fall quiet.
Leaving the roads of the neighborhood, his father took the fast lane on the busier four-lane boulevard. He drove faster and faster, then slower, then faster and he crossed the yellow lines several times. An oncoming car blew its horn.
“Jerk,” his father shouted, even though all the windows were closed, and gestured at the driver. “Idiot!”
“Best to stay in your lane,” Henry said.
“Oh really, why?” his father snapped, and sent the car into the oncoming lane and then back with quick twists of the wheel. “Since your fiancee dumped you, and your mother died, who cares what happens to us?”
Henry flinched—another horn beeped just to their right. Henry watched as the Lincoln drifted to within inches of the car beside them.
“Baaah,” his father shouted and waved them away. Everyone inside the other car was staring in at Henry and his father. “Their fat little children and their fat big wives,” his father said as the Lincoln lunged ahead. “They take up too much of the world. You know my theory?” Henry gripped the padded doorhandle tightly. “If there’s no God, it doesn’t matter what you do because you all end up dead. Nothing matters, it will all disappear. Everyone will die. The sun will explode. Even the Parthenon will be atomized—without a trace. So when you’re alive you’re free to do anything. It doesn’t matter—everyone will all end up dead anyway and so will everyone that knew them and everyone that ever heard of them.”
Henry shrugged. Like the Lincoln, his father’s thoughts were showing signs of wearing out. He wondered how he could ever bring up the subject of money with his father.
Just in front of the supermarket his father stopped the car and said, “You get out here and I’ll park the car. You’re such a ninny, I know you don’t even want to walk ten feet.”
After Henry got out, he paused in front of the car. Somehow, he wasn’t sure, it didn’t seem to be sitting quite level on the road. He saw his father’s grim expression through the windshield. His father looked him square in the eye, raised an eyebrow and accelerated abruptly. Henry jumped, but bounced off the front fender. It sent him spinning around. The Lincoln darted away, turning a quick right-left into a diagonal space. People had stopped and were looking at Henry.
Inside the supermarket his father pushed the shopping cart around like a bumper car. Henry lagged behind, a little embarrassed, and for the first time noticed the clothes that hung off his father a little bit, and how sometimes he was supporting himself on the pushhandle of the cart almost as if it were a rolling walker. His father loaded the cart with bags of birdseed.
When Henry noticed that his father was concerning himself only with mouse traps and ant traps and cockroach traps, he decided to help by buying some things he knew his father liked: peanut butter, jelly, olives, Cheerios. When he came back, arms full, he saw in his father’s cart three large boxes of rat poison beside the bags of birdseed.
“Do you have rats, Dad?”
His father smirked. “You don’t need rats. Works on anything.”
Henry stared back into his father’s eyes. They seemed like strangers’ eyes. He wondered if his mother would have known them. Would she have been able to call her husband back with a “Now, Stephen!”
On the way home his father missed the turn back to their neighborhood.
“Well, we’ll take the scenic route, then cut back,” he told Henry. But when he missed it again, Henry pointed halfheartedly, and they leaned away from each other, as the car rolled on. After a while even Henry was completely lost. They thundered through old industrial areas, over oily cobblestone and across abandoned railroad tracks; they sped the wrong way on one-way streets in poor neighborhoods to the amazement of the people on the sidewalks. His father never stopped for a pedestrian—a bottle bounced off the front hood, leaving a small welt. Neither dared look at the other. Henry held himself in his seat with both hands. They drove past immense mansions Henry had never imagined still existed. Then, suddenly, they were on a familiar road. His father turned from street to street as if nothing was easier.
“Almost home, Ninny,” his father said. It was getting dark. Henry took a quick peek at his father’s profile. His father was blinking his eyes, then, after a moment, his head started to fall forward, then snapped up, and he jutted his head forward a moment, then his head sagged again. Henry was sure his mother would not have known him. The car drifted loosely left and right. Henry reached over and guided the wheel with his left hand. His father suddenly noticed, snapped, “No!” and spun the wheel, pulling free Henry’s hand, the car jerking left and swerving right, while he stomped on the gas, then the brakes, then the gas. “No,” he said again. Henry glanced at the speedometer and surrendered himself to the chance of crashing there in that Lincoln with his father. He tried to study the form of each house as it passed.
After a while the car moved more steadily. Henry noticed that his father’s eyes started to flutter again. This time Henry placed his left hand lower on the wheel and guided the car through the neighborhood streets home. Getting the car up the driveway and into the garage was a little tricky, but they made it through the open door, though they did crunch a shovel, which they managed to pinch between the front bumper and the back wall of the garage. The snap, when the handle broke, woke up his father, who automatically punched the button of the door closer. Henry moved the transmission lever to park. The old man looked over at him and his sneer returned. “I tell you my theory?” he asked. Henry nodded, then his father smiled a little. “You don’t mean shit. Neither did your mother. Neither do I for that matter.”
Henry watched as his father seemed to relax. The old man settled sleepily in the seat and his foot pushed down on the accelerator. The disengaged engine turned at a medium speed. His father snored. Inside the closed garage the engine ran loudly, as Henry pulled himself out of the car. Henry looked back into the Lincoln. He thought to kiss his father, but he didn’t. Instead, he opened the side door of the garage, stepped out, and closed the door gently behind him.
Wayne Conti is a Contributing Editor of Anderbo where his stories, “Party” and “Brooklyn” also appear. “Dings” can also be heard on MyAudioUniverse.com produced in cooperation with KVMR community radio for Nevada City/Sacramento, California; Brian Bahouth – producer. Wayne has also had stories in The Brooklyn Rail, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood and Pindeldyboz. He lives and works in New York City, where he is the proprietor of Mercer Street Books & Records.