“You have to know what they are,” my father told me as I turned his car onto the road. “You have to know what they’re like. Because ask yourself this. Ask yourself who signs up to be a cop. Ask yourself who wants to bully his own people. You want to be a hero? Go be a Marine, get your ass shipped off to who knows where. You want to serve your community? Go put out fires. No. Cops like power, and they like control. And you’ve got to let them feel like they’ve got it, regardless of what they really are. Because they do.”
“Jesus, son,” my father hissed through his teeth. “Listen: you do exactly what a cop says when they say it and you do it with a smile. Don’t look at me like that, I’m giving you the truth.”
My father sat in the passenger seat of his brand new Acura Legend, his eyes flicking up and back the empty nighttime roads as I made a right on red. It was my first time driving my father’s new car, stacked as it was with floor-to-ceiling leather and wood panelling and softly glowing dashboard lights. Having just turned 15, it was one of the first times I had driven a car at all. This was Christmas break, and the main drag of my grandmother’s two-stoplight town was black and silent, the roads dusted at the edges with salt.
The car, I had decided, was beautiful—both elegant and powerful in a way that surpassed my father. The car seemed beyond him even as it raised him in my estimation and affected my understanding that he was in fact capable of this car, capable of buying it, owning it and driving it. That my father could have this car, or would even want to have it, told me more about him than I had previously known.
I kept the glowing green arm of the dial right on the nose of 25 as we eased down a small side-street.
“Now if you ever get pulled,” he said, “you turn the car off, and you get out. You get out and you walk to the cop, and you meet him in the middle, right between your two cars so you can talk to him like a man, face-to-face.” My father looked out the window, rubbing his bottom lip. “None of this standing-over-you, flashlight-in-your-face bullshit,” he said. “You let him know that you expect to be treated like a man. And if he wants to give you a ticket, fine. But you take it from him standing up.”
“That doesn’t sound right,” I said.
My father turned on me, suddenly furious. “That’s what my daddy told me and I saw him do it,” he said, which seemed beyond debate.
I shrugged, and I spun the wheel again. It spun like it wanted to spin, the car carving a simple line in the road, the relationship between my fingers and the tires unobstructed and direct.
This was a Japanese car, back when such a thing had an obscurely exotic feel—a smooth V-6, not a piece of shit Ford or backwoods Chevy but the finest machine the Japs had ever put out, although my father had begun to dial back calling them “the Japs” once he’d been accused by a few co-workers of buying a rice-burner.
“He couldn’t stand them,” my father said. “My daddy just couldn’t stand the police. And I’ll tell you what it was. It was that he knew them,” he said, his voice rising. “He’d known them growing up. Knew them and he knew their daddies. Had worked with them. Saw them every damned day. And he knew the lot of them were a bunch of no-account hillbilly fools!” By now he was nearly shouting, jamming his finger in the air to emphasize his point. Then he pulled himself up short. For a few moments the car hummed quietly beneath us, the darkened storefronts outside ticking by one-by-one until, finally, my father pulled his finger into his fist. The anger drained away from his face, and he sat back in the seat.
He was a younger man than I am now, his salt-and-pepper hair combed up high off his forehead, his body squat and strong. The Naval Academy ring he always wore, a tremendous gold piece embedded with a green stone the color of a nighttime jungle, lent a weight to his pronouncements that they otherwise lacked outside the confines of his car. Indeed in everyday life my father was a quiet man. He was deferential and pleasant. It was only inside his vehicle that he found space for a genuine expression of his otherwise-closeted self, as though he had beaten a retreat back into privacy from something in the outside world that had scalded him and driven him away.
“Turns nice, doesn’t it,” he said.
“It’s pretty,” he said quietly. “It’s a pretty car.”
“Well,” he said. “Your mother won’t drive it. She thinks the seats are too hard. She told me to take it back.”
“Are yougoing to?”
He frowned, he shrugged, and he flipped the fingers of his hand out straight beside his face in an indication of something that would perhaps be familiar to no one other than myself.
I think the root of the problem lay in the fact that every four years, from about the time he was 60 until the day he died, my mother’s father would buy a new Cadillac. My grandfather was a large and rich and rangy man, with a long face and a straw Panama hat that he wore cocked in such a way that made wearing other hats in other ways seem childish and ill-considered. He always bought a black Cadillac, and he always bought it from the Chevrolet dealership outside of town run by a man who had cut my grandfather’s grass as a child. When my mother told this story, as she often did, she was at pains to emphasize, with deep solemnity, that her father paid with cash. Her daddy paid for cars in cash. It was the sort of ringing axiom that transcended meaning, insisted upon as it was before I understood how cars were bought at all, and that it might be considered unusual to pay for cars in cash, unusual to do so every four years, and certainly unusual to do so for Cadillacs. But those cars were silky, wide and low-slung. As a child I’d watch my grandfather ease his long frame behind the steering wheel and drop a little Nat King Cole on the tape deck, a little Ink Spots. He’d ease the thing out into the street like it was a yacht backing out from the slip and then he’d roll down the window and hit the back roads at an even 65 that felt as easy as shit through a goose. That was my mother’s father, little like my father’s father, and less so still like mine.
So when my parents returned from our own local dealership in moods of poorly concealed rage I can’t say I was surprised. I was huddled over my homework in the kitchen when my mother threw open the back door and strode across the room, stack heels ka-thunking on the linoleum, head held high as she slammed the door behind her. It was a look and a walk that she would adopt when in the midst of an important decision, when deeply and fully involved in the task at hand. In later years I would come to align this sort of behavior in others with something like righteous indignation, with fury and a promise of hot revenge, but in my mother and on this day I knew only that she had tagged along with my father to go out to the dealership and pick up the Legend. My mother had insisted on going because she wanted to get out of the house. Because she wanted to see the car for herself. Because she didn’t believe my father would get a good deal. Because she didn’t believe my father would be able to handle himself with the salesmen. Because my father was not her own.
A few moments later my father pushed open the door, and he stepped into the kitchen. He stood by the refrigerator and slowly unzipped his blue windbreaker over his round belly and as he did so he shook his head, and he whispered to himself. I stepped past him and looked out into the garage where I saw two cars, the bodies of two cars, the engines still ticking in the half-light of the overhead lamp. It took longer than I thought it would for me to identify them, to recognize them for what they had always been.
“You didn’t get the Legend,” I said.
I walked back to the table and sat, and I watched as my father looked around the room, struggling feebly with the zipper at the bottom of his jacket.
“Your mother,” he said. He pulled at the thing. He put his chin to his chest and he pulled again and then pulled the other way and then finally yanked out the zipper with a sound like the tearing of a wet rag, ripping it completely away from the jacket. He threw the jacket off one shoulder, then the other, and then he pulled it around in front of him and grabbed at it with both hands and balled it up to the size of a grapefruit and he hurled it against the chair. Then he stood there, looking at the thing, daring it to move. The jacket obeyed him for an instant (and then another) before it slowly, almost teasingly unwadded itself, and slumped lifeless to the floor.
My father took a deep breath. Never once looking at me, he put a hand on his knee and he leaned down, picked the jacket up off the ground with his fingers, and held it out before him. He ran a flat hand down across it, smoothing the material, then he folded it over his arm. Folded it again into thirds. He folded this into a neat rectangle which he lay with exaggerated purpose over the back of the chair. He placed his two hands on the chair and leaned forward, looked down at his shoes, and pushed out a long breath.
“Your mother,” he said, standing back up. “Enjoys that a little too much.”
“Speaking,” he said, “with the dealer.”
“She walked out.”
“She didn’t like the numbers we’d settled on. So.”
My mother came back into the kitchen on slippered feet, her scarf and earrings gone, her lipstick faded, the blush on her cheeks rubbed out. She was now a good deal less radiant, a little more human, perhaps even fallible, and yet that humanity remained limned by just the faintest line of a white rage that was, even as I watched, fading away like cooling coals. She walked past my father and began to clean off the kitchen table, placing papers, mail, various stacks of nonsense on the kneewall.
“They’ll call back,” she said to the work under her hands.
“Yes ma'am,” my father said.
“They’ll call back,” she said.
They called back.
When he asked me to come with him to help pick up the car, I knew that the offer implied that my mother would not be joining us and, in which case, I agreed. It was never clear to me how the car was finally bought, how a number was settled on. I had, and still have, no idea how my parents spoke to one another, an ignorance that has not served me well in later life. These conversations, and everything else pertaining to their relationship, were to me elements of a larger drama of the civilized world with which—given the simmering bitterness it had instilled in my own father—I never desired nor expected to engage.
It was late by the time we got to the dealership. The place sat up on a hill in the middle of an otherwise gray and empty field, the inside of it lit up like a birthday cake. Huge overhead fluorescents shone down on the white-tiled floor and ten-foot windows hung on three walls like black mirrors looking blindly onto the road below. Every so often someone—staff, dealers, mechanics—would walk quickly through the showroom, sheets of paper in their hands, faces set, like figures passing through a train station in the middle of the night. Doors would open and shut around corners. Steps. Doors. Silence.
While my father met with the salesman (a man, his age, balding), I found myself down a side hallway studying a small wooden plaque hung with little brass plates. Highest Grossing Salesman, it said. Leesburg Honda. A door clicked shut somewhere behind me. I turned. Nothing.
I turned back to the plaque and leaned in close. Michael Branson, it said. 1980. Michael Branson, 1981, 1982. Kalim Mansour, 1983. Ah. A usurper. A wandering Arab. Wandering in and taking out Branson. Taking out the three-peat champ. Got to wonder about the office politics there. What was it like for Kalim? Out here. In 1983. Michelle Simpson, 1984. Simpson, 1985. Kalim Mansour, 86. Look out Michelle. Here he comes. He’s up off the mat. A man like Mansour isn’t going to fold. Isn’t going to fade. Isn’t going to just turn his face to the wall. Not after beating Branson. That prick Branson. Do you have any idea what Mansour’s been through? Before he even got out here? This is the end of the line for Kalim Mansour. This is his last stand. Simpson, 87. Damn. Mansour, 88. Simpson, 89. Mansour, 90. Mansour, 91. Cheryl Winston, 92. Cheryl Winston, 93.
I checked back over the list, picturing the salesmen as their names would have them. I imagined them moving back and forth in that empty and well-lit place, stomping around the desks with their smiles and grudges and suits and scarves. I stared at the empty space, not yet filled, for 1994. For 95, 96, 97. Empty spaces to hold the same acts yet to be registered, acknowledged and displayed. And those acts would be so registered, and in perpetuity, out into a time that had not yet come and yet was no different from this one. Was its double, or its echo. Out and out, for as long as people wanted cars. Forever.
I turned as a woman passed me in the hall. She was older and well-dressed.
“Excuse me,” I said.
The woman stopped and turned and faced me. She was a big woman: big bones, wide shoulders, a head full of frosted hair. I watched her face register something like surprise and then—was it amusement? Curiosity? Something for which I had no word, and in that moment I didn’t want to stop and consider it because to do so would’ve frozen the question in my throat.
“What happened,” I turned back to the plaque, “to Kalim Mansour?”
The woman looked to the plaque and then back to me, her face moving from incomprehension to indifference and then back again to that first and curious smirk.
“You really want to know?” she said.
She squinted up her eyes in the darkened hallway and leaned in to look at the plates. “Kalim,” she said, mouthing the name slowly. “How many times?”
“Six,” I said without looking.
She stood back up to her full height and looked down over her shoulder. “Come on,” she said. Then she moved past me and opened the office door next to the plaque and walked inside, leaving the door open behind her.
I looked down the darkened hallway, listening hard for anything, for my father or for the salesman my father was with. I looked back into the office. The angle was such that I couldn’t see the woman or where she had gone. I looked back at the plaque, a dark and mute square of wood and tin.
“It’s a good story,” her voice called out.
I walked into the office.
“Do you have a girlfriend?” she asked.
The woman was sitting behind a long dark desk scattered with papers, contracts, Post-Its, carbon sheets, yellow and white and pink. Her red coffee mug sat cold on a corner. Reading glasses lay by an obsidian paperweight. A Diet Coke. The woman was leaning back in her chair, smiling.
“What’s wrong?” she said.
I sputtered out a laugh. I adjusted my seat.
“A boy like you I’m sure has a girlfriend,” she said. “Even if you don’t call it that. They probably don’t call it that anymore.” She reached for the coffee cup and took a noisy sip. “You probably get lots of attention. Lots of little girls following you around.”
“No,” I said. “Not really.”
“Well,” she said. “It’s not your looks. So what’s the problem?”
“C'mon,” she said, sitting forward, still smiling. She put down the cup and folded her hands on her desk as though this moment were a scene of negotiation, or contest. “Look,” she said. “Maybe I can help. I used to be a girl myself, a long time ago.”
“Girls can be tough.”
“Ha!” I laughed again, and I looked around the office.
She leaned a little further forward and she squinted up her eyes. She was old to me, but younger than my mother. Nothing like her at all. Not a girl, not a mother. Another creature altogether. “Let me tell you a little secret,” she said.
“Let me tell you what girls do.”
“I thought you were going to tell me about Kalim Mansour.”
The woman’s lips drew back into a smile both wide and false. She grabbed a pen off her desk and sat back and began clicking the button with her thumb.
“Kalim, Kalim,” she said slowly, shaking her head at me as though that name were mine. She looked back at the cup where it sat and then back to me. “You know,” she said, “he could’ve used some of this too.”
“Some of what?”
“I mean it’s all tied up together,” she said. She crossed her legs and picked up the cup and took another sip and looked up at the ceiling. “Men that are,” she sighed. “Unsettled.”
“Men are unsettled?”
“Kalim was unsettled?”
“What was it that unsettled him?”
“It's—.” The woman stopped, and her face closed up like a fist. Only her eyes moved, and I could tell those eyes were judging not so much me as this moment in which we sat, gauging the seconds of its time as she let them tick off in silence.
Then it was over. “Look,” she said, and she leaned over her desk again, bringing us back to that negotiation I couldn’t place. “It’s simple,” she said. “Here’s what it is. As plain as I can make it. You get this straight and they’ll be eating out of your hand. This is the secret to the whole thing. It’s that a girl,” she said, “just wants to be a girl.”
“What does a boy want?” I asked.
“What does any boy want?”
“What did Kalim want?”
“Kalim wanted to sell cars.”
“What did you want?”
The woman raised her chin and a different smile passed her face, one that wasn’t false but true, and behind it hung another face altogether that I hadn’t yet seen and then all of it was gone. The cup, the sip, the cup returned. When the woman spoke again she did so slowly, as though she were speaking to someone from another country, another world. “A girl,” she said, “wants to be a girl, to a boy. You know how to be a boy, don’t you?”
“I think so,” I said.
Her chin fell down into a nod, and she continued nodding slowly at me, or rather at us, at what we two were together. And whatever we were was something that stretched beyond where she and I were sitting and into something larger and much more uncertain, something the end of which remained occluded, darkened, impossible to mark. Then she reached down to her glasses, and put them on.
“Hey,” my father said from the doorway.
“Hey,” I said.
My father stood there, framed by the door and the dark hallway behind him. His hands were in his pockets, his feet set wide beneath him. He flicked his eyes to the woman and then to me. He looked at my hands and my face, as though to check the status of an invisible circle around my chair, testing whether that circle had been breached. By me, or by anyone else. After a few moments he jerked his head out to the hallway.
“We’re all set,” he said. “Let’s go.”
As he turned and left the doorway the woman lowered her head, and her hands moved to the papers in front of her.
“You never told me what happened,” I said, standing.
“To Kalim Mansour.”
She raised her head. No change of expression. As though a stranger had just walked into her office unannounced.
“Get the fuck out of here, kid,” she said, and her eyes turned back to her desk.
I clicked the blinker up and took another turn back onto the main drag of the empty town. My father had been quiet for a while and I looked down at the speedometer, noticing, for the first time, how far over the needle could run.
“Bet it doesn’t really go to 160,” I said.
He glanced over. “It might,” he said quietly. “There’s no place you could test it.” He pulled on his bottom lip. “And you see that’s the thing. Where in hell are you going to get a chance to run it that fast? You or I? It’s for show,” he said, his voice rising again. “And they go and they build the car for it. They sell us precisely what we don’t need, and they sure as shit charge us for more than we could ever possibly use.” He looked back out the window. “They’re happy to take it,” he said after a moment. “We’re happy to give it, I guess.”
I rubbed my thumb over the stitching on the gearshift and I looked at the radio dial, at the climate control, at the chain of black and empty warehouses that ran along the road at the edges of the town before it all opened up into fields and forest.
“Your granddaddy’s first planes flew just about that fast.”
“They did,” my father said, inhaling deeply and relaxing back into the seat. “When my dad started flying, it must’ve been, ‘42? '43? These little BT-9s. Wouldn’t go more than 150 tops.”
“How fast were the bombers?”
“The…” His eyes narrowed out the windshield. “You’re talking about the Douglases,” he said. “They didn’t go more than 220, I don’t think. And that might sound slow but those things were built to dive. Climb up into the sun and drop like a hawk.” As he continued to speak about his own father the sound of my father’s voice slowly evened out into something patient and plain. “The amazing thing,” he said, “was how they got those planes to take off from the decks they had on the carriers back then. 820 feet on the deck of the Yorktown. You’re taking a three-ton prop plane carrying a two-ton payload. Plus gasoline. A quarter of the time it wasn’t enough to even make it back. More than once he had to ditch it.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Yessir. Battle of the Philippines. They sent him out to chase the Japanese carriers on retreat, out past his range. On the way home he had to ditch over the water in the middle of the night. Ditch the plane and parachute out and tread water and wait for the Yorktown to show. Just floating out there with the sharks.”
“Did Nana know where he was?” I asked.
“Did—.” My father’s face crinkled up at the question. “Well. No. Well she knew he was in the Pacific. Pacific theater. But there’s no way she could've…” He gathered himself and tried again. “No one woman knew more than any other,” he said, “about where they all were.”
The town and its lights had fallen away and we were out now in the frozen country, nothing but blacktop between us and the next town fifteen miles west. I leaned on the gas.
“But I think about that a great deal,” my father said. “What that night must’ve been for him. I think about if the water was cold. I think about if it was choppy. I think that if you’re alone in the dark and wet to the bone and no one’s out there you’ve got to start to think that maybe nobody’s coming. That maybe you’ve been cut loose. Been left behind.”
When I saw the red and blue lights jumping on the fields around us I at first believed that it was a trick my father had somehow organized, something he had rigged for me as a test or a game. Or perhaps the lights were for someone else—another car pulled up ahead or an emergency in the next town that demanded immediate attention. But after a few moments it was obvious to both of us that we were the emergency, that we were the ones getting pulled, that the cop coming up fast was out here on the road tonight for us.
I looked down at the speedometer, which as we’d talked I’d seemed to have run up to over 85. Then I looked at the rearview and then over at my father. His eyes were narrow on the road in front of us, his face set in deep concentration.
“Alright,” he said quietly. He said it as though this moment were both expected and inevitable—was part of something larger which had now come to pass.
I thought about the car underneath us. I thought about the V6. I thought that if this thing ran as fast as a plane that it could get us away from a yokel cop. That I could jam the accelerator into the floor and it would just be me and my father blasting out into the dark. That thought ran down my leg, and it coalesced there like another skin on the sole of my foot where it lay tensed above the gas.