LIFE SONGS: AUSTIN HEALEY

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My dad came to pick me up in a baby blue Austin Healey sports car.

As I watched my mom part the curtains and look out at the street, I remembered how quiet it was when he first left us. Seven months ago. Before the Austin Healey.

It had been a perfect creek day – hot enough to dry wet sneakers on the walk back home. But I didn’t go that day. Mom said to stay home and help her around the house. It was so quiet. I remember hearing the eucalyptus nuts falling on Krista’s mom’s station wagon across the street. I used to love the sound the brittle nut caps made when the car pulled away from the curb. Crunchy pop. Crunchy pop.

My dad had already packed. He was in the backyard sitting on the steps of the shed and smoking one cigarette after another. My mom was washing dishes that she’d already washed before and staring out the kitchen window at nothing. I was playing dinosaurs.

Nobody was mad. Nobody was making a big deal about it. It was quiet.

Granddad broke the silence. I heard the sound of empty paint cans and rebar and half empty slip buckets clanging off the sides of the bed of his white ’56 Chevy truck before I even saw the cloud of concrete dust, flying into the air like pesticide from a crop duster. Before I saw his sunburned face and torn-to-hell John Deere cap poking out from the airborne grime and grit.

Before he leaned over the wheel and looked out the half-opened cab window, forced a smile and pushed himself out of the driver-side door.

He came to the door, pants and t-shirt sloughing dust as his work boots hit the pavement with each step. Then he just stood there, waiting behind the screen. When mom opened it, I shot out and grabbed him around the legs and he chuckled and ruffed my hair and then backed down to the bottom of the stairs. My dad kind of pushed past my mom with his suitcase and an armful of sweaters, walked right past my Grandad and me and got into the pickup, the sprung door making a cracking sound as he closed it. Grandad kind of grunted, said he’d see me soon, and then turned to follow my dad.

He walked around to the other side of the cab, got in, and as he oofed up into the torn vinyl seat, my dad looked once at my mom then turned…and stared ahead out over the bay and beyond. Grandad, his head down, ground up the motor, then lifted his head and the pickup rattled and smoked down to the end of San Diego Street, turned in a half circle and came back down. Granddad kinda waved at me as the truck passed by. My mother turned and walked into the house, catching the screen door so it wouldn’t slam, went into the bedroom and closed the door quietly behind her.

We hadn’t talked about my Dad very much since then. But here he was. On another perfect creek day. My mom sighed and turned and looked at me and smiled and said “Your dad’s here.” Then she walked into her room and closed the door. I knew she was sad. But at the age of almost 6, I was happy to see my dad, happy to have a dad, and excited about riding in a baby blue Austin Healey convertible top roadster sports car.

I was years away remembering my father as promises never kept, embarrassments never apologized for and drinks never turned down.

I ran to the car and climbed over the passenger door into the seat covered with a ragged old bedspread. Everything smelled of oil and dirt and rubber and rust. I smiled at my dad and he smiled back at me and we zoomed off into the blue of the western sky like Sky King…for about 20 minutes. The car only actually zoomed a little. Most of the time it chugged and chuffed and jerked and made gunshot sounds that made people on the street turn and look and frown. I didn’t care. I was with my dad. He took me up into the Kensington Hills and we looked at the view of the bay and San Francisco and the Golden Gate.

Then dad told me he had a “meeting” to go to and he zoomed me back home, screeched into the driveway and lifted me up and onto the pavement. I think he watched me trot up the stairs to the front porch. I turned to wave goodbye. He was already gone. I walked across the street to see if Paulie or Krista wanted to go to the creek.

That was the day I pushed Paulie into the creek. I made him cry…just because he was wearing a baby blue T-shirt.