by Kimberly Beer
A trail of dust whips up from the drive, momentarily obscuring the sun. Within the brown cloud I see Claire’s red sedan moving rapidly toward me.
The car stops in front of the house and she steps out. “Hey, Bill,” she says smoothing her skirt. She brings the cigarette in her hand up to her mouth and takes a long inhale followed by a smoke filled exhale.
“Morning, Claire,” I say watching the cloud of dust, still lingering, as it floats over the rows of cars in the yard.
“Have you eaten breakfast?”
“Did my father eat?”
“Yep.” I then add, “Have you eaten?” The question comes out smug and full of poison. I mean it that way.
With a jerk of her head, she swishes her blond hair behind her shoulders and looks out toward the yard. She stares trancelike for a long moment at a black cow grazing between the fence and a ‘52 Chevy pickup with three flat tires. “I thought you sold all the cows.”
“Where is my father?”
“Inside watching one of his stories.”
She sits down on the porch facing the yard and lights a cigarette. “Has there been any change?”
“He’s better. He tried to take the spoon out of my hand this morning.” I leave out that he spilled the cereal all over the floor in the process.
“Oh, really?” She gets up, drops the cigarette on the ground and grinds it under her black pump . “I’m going in now.” She starts toward the door. I get up and open it for her. “Has Kristen been by?”
I shake my head. “Is she supposed to be here?” Claire bites her upper lip and fidgets with her necklace.
A suspicious sensation begins to run through my body as I wonder what my daughter and Jim’s daughter are up to. “Do you two have plans?” I ask hoping that the answer will be a shopping trip or some such equally mundane thing.
“You want me to bring you something from the kitchen?” Claire says walking into the house.
“I’m fine.” I sit back down and run my hands through the bib of my overalls. Through the window screen I hear banging cabinet doors. Another trail of dust begins to rise from the drive. I watch it float out over the cars and add yet another layer of grime to already dulling paint.
I shift my gaze toward a Model A rotting under a walnut tree. Stalks of Jimpson weeds grow out through the open engine compartment, their white flowers contrasting with the rust. Forty years ago Jim and I bought her at a farm auction for two dollars. We were young friends then and felt it our duty to reincarnate such bargains. Life has a way of interrupting such duties with wives and children and crops to plant. We parked her in Jim’s heifer pasture with a promise of someday getting back to her and having no idea what we had started. Turns out she was just the first. Slowly a garden of cars grew out of the pasture fertilized by the Model A’s decay. Twenty years after we stood in the rain bidding against old man Furr to win her for our own, we opened Packwood and Burns Salavage Yard. And then two months ago Jim had a stroke.
“Hello, Daddy,” Krissy calls to me through the open window of her car as she pulls in behind Claire’s sedan. My youngest daughter pulls off her sunglasses and tosses them haphazardly in the passenger seat. “How’s it going?” she says as she gets out of the car.
“All right, I guess.”
“Good.” She comes toward me and kisses my forehead. “How’s Jim today?”
“Better. Claire’s inside with him now.”
“I know.” She turns her eyes down to the pealing boards beneath her sandaled feet. “Opps, I almost forgot,” she says looking up. “I brought you something.” She pats me on the knee and then jogs back to the car. She begins to dig around in the back seat.
The screen door bangs and Claire steps out onto the porch. “I thought I heard a car.”
“The calvary has arrived,” I say.
Claire walks across the porch and sits on the railing. “Hi, Kristen,” she calls waving a slender hand in the air.
Krissy pulls a brown paper sack from out of the backseat and slams the car door shut, putting her whole body into the motion “Hey, Claire.” She bounds back onto the porch and for a moment I see the little girl that used to beg me to take her for a ride in anything with a motor. She places the bag on my lap. I look at the bag and then at her. “Open it,” she says flopping down in Jim’s rocker. I open the bag. Inside there is a model 55 Chevy, paints, glue and sandpaper. “Just like the one you rebuilt for Jim’s sixtieth birthday. Well, except smaller. Remember?”
“I remember,” I say. I look at Claire. She fingers the cross around her neck and looks away.
“Remember, Claire? Daddy painted it red and white. . .”
“I remember, Krissy.” Claire gets up from the railing and moves to the porch swing.
“Thank you, honey.” I say to Krissy as I roll the top of the bag down and set it next to my chair.
Claire gets up again. “Kristen, come help me finish the dishes.”
Krissy gets up and dutifully follows her. She stops momentarily by my chair and picks up the bag. “I’ll put this in your bedroom.” She looks into my eyes and her brows close in on her forehead. “I love you, Daddy,” she says stepping through the door which Claire is holding open for her. Whispering pours through the screen behind me. It must be worse than I thought.
I take my pocket watch out. One o’clock. Jim’s show is over. I get up and go inside. The whispering stops momentarily and Claire appears in the kitchen doorway. “Time for some fresh air,” I say to Jim as I grab the wheelchair handles. Claire disappears back into the kitchen.
I push Jim out onto the front porch and park him next to my rocker. “The baldy heifer calved this morning. I sat right here and watched it. I almost woke you up to come watch, too,” I tell him. “Look,” I say pointing to the far corner of the field, “She’s up there by the Ford trucks.” I reach over, grip his hand and I feel a tightening around my fingers. I adjust the blanket covering his legs.
Claire and Krissy come back out onto the porch. “Bill, we need to talk,” Claire says walking behind Jim’s chair and releasing the brake. “I’m gonna take him back in now.”
“No,” I say putting my hand on the near wheel. Claire stops but does not take her hands off the wheelchair. “He has a right to hear what you have to say.”
Krissy sits on the porch swing. “Really, Dad, I don’t think he can understand anything we’re saying anyway. But just in case. . .”
“Watch it, missy,” I say to her. Her head tilts down and she scoots quietly back into the swing.
“Just in case, I’m taking him back in,” Claire says. She pushes on the chair, but I hold firm. “Oh, forget it.” She lets go and walks over in front of me. “We’re . . . Melissa and I, have decided to take father to a nursing home. We just can’t be here all the time. And Kristen and I think the strain is too much for you. . .”
“I don’t think so,” I say.
“He will get the best of care. . .”
“I will not allow you to do this to your father. I made a promise.”
Krissy shifts around in her chair. “Daddy, please. It’s really for the best. You can come live with Bob and me. You won’t be lonely, I promise. Charlie would love to get to know his grandaddy better and Bob could use your know how at the garage. When I told them, they both got all excited. Bob fixed up the. . .”
“Krissy, I lived under the same roof with you for twenty years. I served my time.”
“I have Power of Attorney,” Claire says fixing her gaze on my eyes. “And I’ve sold the farm.”
“You did what?”
“You have no choice. The Windwood van will be here to pick him up in the morning.” Claire turns toward the door and opens it. “I’m going to pack for him,” she says and slams the door shut. I look to Krissy.
“They needed the money really bad and Clyde Mitchell’s been on her case since Jim’s stroke. Really, Daddy, he can’t get no more use out of this farm. I’m not sure he even knows where he is.”
“He knows where he is. Do you?”
She stands up and walks to the door. “You know this wasn’t easy for Claire. She has agonized over it for two months now.” She opens the door. “I’m gonna go help her pack for him.” The door shuts quietly behind her.
I look over to Jim and take his hand again. “Don’t worry. I won’t let them break our pact. You remember the pact, don’t you?” Jim squeezes my hand. I take the handkerchief out of his bib pocket and wipe the trail of saliva off his chin. “It’s lunch time. Bologna sound good?” I get up. “Cheese and mustard, right?” I smile at him. “I’ll be right back.”
From the kitchen I hear Claire and Krissy in the bedroom opening and shutting drawers. Claire makes short, hiccuping sounds and Krissy cooes in response. I make two bologna sandwiches. I cut the one with cheese and mustard into tiny pieces.
As I come out from the kitchen, Claire whips past me. She deposits a small suitcase by the door as she exits. Krissy follows close behind with a Model A hood ornament in her hand. “I’ll bring over some boxes in the morning for your stuff. I’ll be here at eight. Claire has to work.” She holds up the ornament. “I thought Jim might like to have this to look at in his new room.” Outside, Claire revs the engine of her car. “I’m parked behind her.” She points toward the door. “I love you.”
While Jim is watching the 10 o’clock news I go to the yard. I walk down every row, carefully looking over each car. I stop at a 66 Impala in the far west corner and climb up on the hood. I look out at the hundreds of shadows and wonder what Clyde Mitchell intends to do with them. I sit down on the hood, lean back against the windshield and look off toward the east. Just over the hill is the house I shared for fifty years with my family. I imagine Krissy there, getting ready for bed and telling Bob all about her day.
“I’m sorry, Kristen,” I say as I get down off the hood and walk back to the barn.
Inside the barn, I pull the cover off the 55 Chevy. I open the hood and check the oil. Full and fresh. I close the hood gently and then walk to the driver’s door. I wonder whether Clyde will be more upset when he finds the 55 gone than Claire at the disappearance of her father. I open the door and slide into the seat. Okay, girl. Time to fulfill that promise. I turn the key and the engine sputters to life. I shift the transmission into reverse. The car jerks beneath me and I back her out into the drive. The sound of her engine is deep and full of promise — restored.
I leave the engine on as I go in the house. I take a piece of paper out of the desk in my room and write Krissy a note. On the dresser is the brown paper bag with the model car inside. I cram a few clothes in on top of the model and go back to the living room where Jim is watching TV. “Are you ready?” I say putting my hand on Jim’s shoulder. His head moves slightly. “Let’s get out of here then.” I set the paper bag in his lap and push him toward the door, stopping momentarily to pick up his bag. “It was very thoughtful of Claire to pack for you,” I say as we go through the door. On the other side, I stop and impale the note on the nail to the left of the door.
I pick Jim up and place him in the passenger’s seat. “Where do you want to go,” I ask, flipping open the glove compartment. Bills tumble out onto the floorboard. “Somewhere with warm winters, I hope.” I close the glove box and buckle Jim’s seat belt. After putting his wheelchair in the trunk, I get in the driver’s seat. I look out over the yard one last time.
“Any regrets?” I ask putting my hand on Jim’s arm.
Jim draws in his cheeks and then shakily moves his hand toward the gear shift and pushes it into first. The transmission grinds and then locks in. “No regre’ss,” he says and then lets his body relax into the seat. I put my foot on the gas. As we begin to pick up speed, I look in the rearview mirror. A cloud of dust rises from behind us, swallowing the rows of cars and then the moon.