Independence Day

I put on my tie and pinned my Winn-Dixie name badge to my shirt with irritation. Once again–humiliatingly–I was being driven to work. I had the money to buy a car, thanks to months of bagging groceries, swabbing restrooms and rounding up shopping carts in the broiling sun. But still, no car, I was driven to work like a little kid.

It was Pop. For some reason, he was frustratingly picky about used cars; and worse, he wouldn’t even let me borrow one of the family cars. The road called, but my wings were clipped.

We’d been to every used car lot in South Florida, and it was always the same. The sales guy would come out, beaming, hand extended; Pop would curtly cut through the niceties and tell the guy exactly what we were looking for. My toes curled as the sales guy’s smile became a little fixed.

Pop was a mechanical engineer and did all his own maintenance stuff on our cars. He knew exactly what to look for so as the sales guy tried to get him to feel the “ice-cold air” or check out the sound system, Pop completely ignored him. He’d be lifting the cap on this, rubbing his finger under that, getting on his back on the hot Florida parking lot to inspect something underneath the chassis. Sometimes he’d even bring out a little voltmeter he had to check something. The sales guy quickly sized things up, and he and I would stand together off to one side, quietly making small talk, both hoping the car passed Pop’s rigid examination.

But of course, none did. The slightest thing was a deal breaker: A frayed belt, a little oil around the pan nut, a strange noise, a worn brake pedal…any was enough to scratch that car.

Having no car was particularly galling after a long day at Winn Dixie. When the floors were all mopped, trash emptied, aisles blocked, and the registers counted out, there was a nightly ritual. The manager would turn a blind eye as we helped ourselves to some cold drinks and convened in the parking lot.

We sat on the hoods of kids’ cars and with the smell of night-blooming jasmine and the mournful toot of the 10:45 FEC freight train, we’d trade jokes, listen to the radio, look up at the stars. The Winn Dixie Breakfast Club. But instead of having my own hood to sit on, I’d have to call for a ride home and then just sorta stand around. And just as I was getting up my nerve to ask out one of the cashiers, here came Pop in his VW with his Big Band tunes. Everybody looked at me as I got in with Glenn Miller playing.

As I finished knotting my tie on this particular day, I bristled. Neither car was being used…why couldn’t I borrow one? I appealed to Mom and I must have picked the right day because she took pity on me. We had three acres and Pop was off in the distance on the riding mower. Mom picked her way through the knee-high weeds to talk to him. I couldn’t hear what they were saying but Pop’s hands were up in the air and he looked mad; Mom was holding out her hands imploringly.

Finally, she turned and came back smiling. Pop, with his straw hat, hot and sweaty, continued his mowing, glowering at me. She handed me the keys to the Plymouth. “OK honey, I talked your dad into it…please…PLEASE…drive carefully.” This stung a bit: Under their watchful eye, I was exceedingly careful, no sense in giving them any ammunition. Not one speeding ticket, not a single accident, not even any close calls. But who cared. I was about to solo.

I got in and moved the seat back. I turned the engine on, moved the dial from the news station to the rock channel, and adjusted the mirror.  So what if it was the Brady Bunch station wagon…at least I’d have my own hood to sit on tonight. I put it in reverse, tapped the gas…and with a sickening crunch backed into the fender of his VW, which was parked in my blind spot. My stomach dropped as I got out to inspect the damage. The VW’s big balloon fender was completely caved in and the tail light on the Plymouth was busted. Bits of metal and shards of orange and red plastic littered the driveway.

Pop threw the mower into neutral and came running across the back yard, yelling. Mom intercepted him, hands up in the air again, this time waving; more words, more placating gestures. I was driven to Winn Dixie in a stony silence. I snuck a sideways glance and saw Pop’s temples moving as he ground his teeth. Even Glenn Miller didn’t make an appearance.

That was Saturday. The next day after church, we tried a little no-name used car lot in North Boca with a very modest inventory. I didn’t know what to expect but I was pretty sure Pop wasn’t going to be doing any undercarriage inspections in his good clothes. The sales guy didn’t even have a chance to come out and do his thing before Pop was hurriedly walking the line, glancing at each car in rapid succession, running his fingertip over the hoods.

I looked around. Like the Charlie Brown Christmas tree, my eye was drawn a little import at the far end of the lot, sitting humbly among big domestic pickups, station wagons, muscle cars…I felt it, it was the one. Pop’s inspection was uncharacteristically brief. Papers were signed, handshakes exchanged, keys handed over.

I found my Winn-Dixie name tag the other day in a box of old junk. I turned it over in my hands, a little red-and-white plastic thing with a safety clip and my name on it. The years fell away and with starting clarity I remembered myself in that moment, in that car lot, sitting in my own car: The stereo was playing, my hands were on the wheel, the road beckoned.

Elation, exhilaration, exultation.

I don’t think I’ll ever feel that free again.

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