I listened to the grim voicemail twice, just to make sure I heard it correctly.
“Yeah, it’s Jason … think you need to come down here.”
I’d dropped off the old Subaru at my mechanic that morning. Muffler fell off while Peter was heading out to Amity to help his aunt move hay bales. He and his uncle bungeed it up to allow him to finish work and creep back home.
Took Peter with me to meet Jason, whose handiwork had coaxed a couple extra seasons and enough extra miles from the Subaru to enable me to live up to its name – Legacy — by bequeathing it to my son when he turned 16.
With the car having endured two rear-endings, a driver’s side crumple by an eager Cub Scout Dad leaving a meeting, a deer whose dying wish was apparently to sabotage a Sunday night pizza pick-up, and, last but not least, a lovely English woman driving across the country in a rented RV who suffered from extreme overconfidence in her stateside parallel parking skills, I assumed that there wasn’t much my son could do to the car that hadn’t been already done across our 200,000+ miles together.
Boy, did I have a lot to learn.
In his first year behind the wheel, he’s learned (a.) that a teenager’s enthusiasm for testing the performance of an all-wheel drive vehicle in the snow of an empty stadium parking lot is slightly higher than that of a township police officer, (b.) that there’s an elusive, yet, irrefutable correlation between the number of mulch bags one can haul in the trunk of a suspension-shot Subaru and the speed at which one can navigate curvy dirt country roads and keep all four wheels on the road, and, um, inflated, and, perhaps most importantly, (c.) what a deductible is.
So, while Jason’s voicemail set my expectations low, I still hoped against hope that our car ninja had some tricks up his sleeve.
He met us in the shop’s office, and walked us through the garage, to where he had the patient upon on jacks. “Here … look at this,” he said. So, yeah, the muffler, but also a rusted pipe that maintained a perilous grip on the catalytic converter. “I’m afraid if I remove it, there won’t be enough left to re-attach it.” (i.e. cha-ching)
“And ….,” he continued, shining his light between the rear wheels. “Your water pump’s leaking. That’ll be next.” (chagitta,-chagitta-ching)
He did the ugly math for us.
“I didn’t want to touch anything until I talked to you.”
Knowing this day would come eventually didn’t make it any easier. I shook Jason’s hand, thanked him for keeping us on the road as long as he could, and made arrangements to pick up the car later that afternoon. Peter eased it home on its bungeed muffler, and put it to rest gingerly next to the basketball hoop in the driveway.
Given that the family’s tenuous-at-best functioning has become fully reliant on a three-car-and-driver operating system, we quickly shifted from mourning to used-car-shopping mode. This consisted of an extended deep-breathing regimen for me, and an incessant stream of texts from the 17-year-old featuring dozens of links of used vehicles whose two common-yet-incompatible denominators were (1.) cars a teenage boy would love to own, and (2.) cars whose seats the keister of the teenage boy would never touch.
We quickly admitted that getting on the same page was unlikely. Actually, getting in the same library was unlikely.
So, my wife and I had different versions of the same conversation with him at least a dozen times across a handful of days, reminding him that Karry’s first car was a white Chevy Citation; mine, a burgundy Mercury Monarch with an AM radio. I remember getting to drive a new K-Car in Driver’s Ed and thinking it fancy. Style points and status weren’t part of our early driving equations. We encouraged him to be grateful for four wheels and a seat belt.
After some internet shopping, I got him up on a Saturday morning to head out towards Moon to take a couple test drives. He may or may not have been drooling.
Me: “But first, we’re going to go down the road and have a talk.”
He: “Are we going to the cemetery again?”
OK, a bit of family context…
When he was in fifth grade and it was time for “The Talk,” I recognized it as a milestone Dad Moment. You know, like Pinewood Derby Day, only less traumatizing for Dad. Point is, I took it seriously. In retrospect, maybe a little too seriously. Technically speaking, I never even got The Talk when I was a kid. The sum total of my parental interaction on the topic consisted of my Mom passing me a pamphlet from the 1940’s titled, “Boy Meets Girl in War Time.”
Which I still consult often.
Anyway, because of that, and a myriad of other reasons that made great sense to me at the time, but which presently are elusive, I saw fit to host The Talk with Peter outdoors, close to nature, in a wide open space, on a hill over looking the city. I do recall that the fact that it was a cemetery was incidental to my choice of venue, but, in retrospect, proly shoulda thought that through a bit more.
I also recall that when we were done, we joined in a hearty chorus of SpongeBob’s “Now That We’re Men.”
Anyway … the point is (a.) apparently, sometimes my son does listen, and (b.) sometimes my son is really funny.
Where was I? Oh, yeah …
Me: No, not, the cemetery.
Instead we went to the coffee shop down the road and level set on expectations, which consisted of having the same conversation for like the 20thtime about how there was zero chance of us coming home with a Mustang , WRX or anything from the links he’d been sending us.
He gave me a pacifying nod, though I was kidding myself to believe that this latest version of The Talk had any meaningful impact on narrowing the yawning chasm between my priorities of low miles, good mileage, strong safety profile, decent price, and his priorities of Varooooom.
By the time we arrived, the all-Dad-box-checking Subaru Impreza I’d singled out was in the process of being sold. (dang it)
We test drove a Ford Fusion just to get a baseline (which checked all the Dad boxes, while violently pooping over the son’s boxes), but returned home empty-handed, and back to the drawing board.
Spent a couple hours the next day resuming our search. Found a promising 2015 Hyundai Veloster (5-star safety rating, low miles, decent mileage, priced to sell) on CarGurus, though Peter’s response, despite the styling, was room temperature. A little more personality than the Ford Fusion, but no Hyundais were on his Fantasy Draft board. The dealership happened to be an hour a way in the town I grew up in. We made plans to visit the next Monday.
We pulled into the lot, picked out the car from the online ad, walked in the office and asked if we could take a test drive. The receptionist said she’d get someone to go out with us, and made a call over the lot’s loudspeaker. I see “our guy” walking across the lot. An older, heavier set gentleman wearing the dealership’s Hyundai blue polo shirt. From a distance he looked like a used car salesman, I thought. He grabbed a plate and the keys. Shook our hands, introduced himself as Kerry.
So, the boy forgot to bring his license (he’s soooo seventeen sometimes), so I ended up doing the test drive while he rode shotgun. The sales guy began giving me directions. I told him I was from Uniontown, and knew the roads pretty well.
He asked me my last name. The conversation then took a sharp left.
“You related to Kenny?”
My brother, I said.
“No way. I grew up on 7thStreet (literally right down the road from our house),” he said. He told me his last name, which didn’t initially ring a bell.
“So, Laurie is your sister?” he asked. “She was in my class.”
My three sisters and brother are all 10-15 years older than me. Their childhoods are an endless source of mystery and curiosity for me.
“We used to play basketball in your driveway all the time.”
“Yeah, that tiny driveway,” he recalled, conjuring the memory crisp. “There was a full court up at the junior high, but for whatever reason, we always played at your house.”
The fact that we had a tiny driveway, just wide enough to let a car pass into the garage, did not get in the way of it getting a heckuva lot of neighborhood action when I was growing up. I had no idea it provided the same public service for the generation before me.
“Everybody used to play there,” Kerry said, going back decades, recalling friends by name. Reserving reverent tones for those who went on to play varsity.
I beamed from the front seat, remembering the same held very much true when I was young. I remember feeling so honored when older kids would play serious games between our driveway walls. There was maybe but five feet in front of the hoop, so virtually all the action took place on the right wing and corner, which made the action a 50-50 mix of basketball and deck hockey. The corner of one wall caused me a few stitches on my 16thbirthday in a titanic tilt with my older brother.
Kerry then asked about my parents, both of whom have passed.
“Aww. I’m sorry to hear that,” he said.
“Your mom was so nice.”
He stayed with his memories for a bit.
“She used to bring us out lemonade in the summertime. She’d come out on the porch with a tray … ‘You boys must be getting thirsty,’ she’d say.”
It’s been a few years since Mom’s passing, and to hear someone not just remember her, but remember her through the eyes of his childhood ….
I’m wiping a couple tears from my eyes as I write this, and not for the first time as I’ve recalled the moment.
I’m pretty sure that’s exactly how she would want to be remembered. Mom always said that the sound of kids playing was music.
So, needless to say, we were no longer test-driver and used car salesman.
We were neighbors re-visiting the streets of our youth.
The dealership honored the online price, the Carfax report was clean, so we shook hands, signed the papers, and my son had his first car, though I reminded him (and have many times since) that it’s a family car that we’re letting him drive (and pay the insurance on).
Peter was pleased, but I could tell he was still warming up to the vehicle itself. I thought the car was a pretty healthy compromise between my non-negotiables and his fantasies. But, compromise usually makes more sense to a Dad’s brain than a teenager’s.
Even though he didn’t have his license with him, he was going to have to follow me home. We took an otherwise law-abiding drive along Route 40, the country’s first National Road (you can look it up).
By the time he pulled it in our driveway, though, his disposition had done a 180.
He maneuvered past the old Subaru, lying in state, past the old basketball hoop in our too-small-driveway, nestled his not-technically-his new car under our backyard deck, got out of the car, and flipped his smile to full hi-beam.
“I think I love it.”
He insisted on driving me to dinner that night, and I picked a spot about 15 miles from town … to give us some time on the interstate.
On the drive home after the meal, the summer sun was starting to dip. He insisted on windows down. He’d mastered the Bluetooth in short order, and wanted me to hear a couple songs he’d been digging on. “Check this out,” he said, and proceeded to fill the car with his favorite anthems.
Mom was right, I thought to myself.
The sound of children is music.
So, a week after giving the old Subaru last rights, I found myself riding shotgun on our 17-year-old’s maiden voyage under a fading summer’s fading sun, present at the moment his ears first caught the bliss of hearing his music blasted through his speakers for the first time, with the windows down.
Nothing but life and interstate wide open in front of him.
And for that brief, beautiful moment, the chasm … closed.
Between the priorities of a Dad and the dreams of a 17 year old.
Between a 2015 Veloster blasting a Spotify playlist and a 1980 Monarch with an AM radio.
Between talks in a cemetery and a coffee shop.
Between a used car salesman and a kid from down the street.
Between the narrow walls of a neighborhood’s tiniest basketball court and the generations that played there.
Between missing your Mom and remembering the taste of cold lemonade on a hot summer day.
Between being in the drivers’ seat and letting go and just enjoying the ride.