This is a text + audio chapter from my book, Brad Lee and the BIG 2K. A new episode goes live every Friday, so be sure to drop by at least once a week!
(BLB2K Episode 08 – Just Between Us Boys)
The sky was starting to darken overhead, as thunderclouds gathered and threatened to hit us with an early afternoon shower.
I stepped over a crate of ancient Pepsi bottles that were almost completely hidden by a narrow strip of crabgrass and dandelions between our house and the garage, and I watched as my father turned his head just far enough to spit past his shoulder. At the same time, he was snapping his fingers at me. That’s his thing. He’s all about non-verbal communication.
Then he pointed toward an old, thoroughly rusted BMX bicycle that had been leaning against the garage since my last year in middle school.
“Shit, Brad. I thought I told you to dump that old bike long ago.” He didn’t even look back as he instructed me to “go ahead and grab it, since we’re already here.”
I pulled the bike away from the wall and tried to roll it with me as I walked, but the chain’s links were fused solid, and I ended up struggling to lift the frame with one arm while using the other to drag it along on a flattened front wheel. I’m sure I looked like a total moron.
My father was already in the alley, watching me. He was digging around in his shirt pocket for a pack of cigarettes, and watching every move I made, as I wrestled with a useless, tangled mess of corroded steel and crumbling rubber tubes. The smirk on his face was priceless.
I wanted to say, “ hey how about giving me a hand with this shit,” but even though I’m a whole inch taller than him, he still intimidates the hell out of me. He’s a big man, with broad shoulders and thick triceps of a former athlete who likes to throw a ball around with the guys at the factory during their lunch break. Even though his days in the service were a long time ago, he still walks around with a certain kind of swagger. A guy who knows he can kick the shit out of most people, without trying too hard. Life for him is always defined in simple and straightforward terms, which is just the way he likes it.
And then there’s me. I tend to “complicate simple things,” which is something that he doesn’t like so much.
I’m pretty sure that in his mind, nothing changed much since he was playing football for the high school team. He only needed to hit the pause button when he was shipped off to war. He came back with a wife that he “rescued from that goddamn shit-hole,” used his GI money to settle down in an old suburban triple-decker, and started a family. Sure, he eventually became older, fatter, and balder, but I’m pretty sure he thinks it’s all part of his master plan anyway. Guys like him are all about feeling like they’re always in control of everything.
After tossing the bike onto a pile next to the dumpster, I took a moment to slap at rust-colored streaks that were all over my jeans and t-shirt. I’m not sure why he wanted me to come out here, but I hope nobody sees me like this. He extended a meaty forearm toward me, and waved an unlit cigarette in my face. I immediately responded by waving it away, while trying to avoid making contact with his eyes.
He snorted, and said, “Oh, please. Your mom told me she could smell smoke coming from your room, boy. She knows I don’t smoke in the house.”
My stomach did a somersault. Is this why he wanted to bring me outside? I should have been more careful. Lucky for me, my father wasn’t the one smelling the smoke. That would have been a total disaster. I always figured he was busy enough doing his own thing, hiding downstairs every night. And Mom is pretty clueless about most stuff, which means she doesn’t even know what weed is supposed to smell like.
Without looking up, I accepted the cigarette, and told him I was sorry for smoking in my room. He shrugged, which for him, is the exact opposite of smacking me on the head.
Lying directly to his face felt good, even though my heart was thumping in my ears. I tried to steady the cigarette, which was shaking between my fingers.
My father reached out to me once again, this time offering a light. “Don’t worry about it. You’re a man now.” He paused to spit again, then turned back to me. “Might as well act like one, instead of pussyfootin’ around.”
I took a deliberate, cautious drag, as he lit up another one. I couldn’t believe my luck. This day could have turned out seriously bad for me. I smiled to myself, and glanced down at his hand. He was using the same lighter from this morning, the fluorescent pink one.
“That’s not a very manly lighter,” I said, and then I immediately regretted my choice of words. Way to bring our rare moment of father-son bonding, to an abrupt and terrible halt, idiot.
Instead, he grinned and blew two long streams of smoke from his nose. “I always buy them like that. Pink’s kind of a faggot color, right? Any time the guys wanna borrow it, they always give it right back. They don’t want me to ask them why they decided to keep my gay pink lighter.”
Then he spun toward me with a surprising burst of speed, and shot a couple of fake combo jabs at my ribs. He laughed loudly while he clenched the cigarette’s filter between his yellow front teeth.
We hung out in the alley, talked, and smoked our cigarettes. My father made wisecracks about the weekend sports news, and I nodded my head, pretending to know what he was talking about. I didn’t care if it was just meaningless jabber. It was so weirdly surreal to even be talking to him like this, to pretend that he was treating me like an equal. I was perfectly okay with any topic he wanted to cover.
When we finished smoking, we walked along the alley, and made a turn onto the sidewalk that led back to the house.
He extracted a keyring from his back pocket, pointed one of the keys toward a reddish-orange car that was parked on the street, and said, “Lookit over there.”
Then, dangling the keyring between thumb and forefinger, he jingled them up and down, as if he expected the car to respond the same way a dog might, as if he were offering it a treat.
I was dumbfounded. Did my father, who had spent the last decade of my life letting me know how much I had disappointed him, actually get me a car for my birthday? It’s no secret that he isn’t thrilled with the way I turned out, but this… this was a gesture beyond my wildest expectations.
He clapped me on the back and jerked his chin towards the vehicle. “That right there is a 1977 AMC Hornet.”
Still stunned, I couldn’t believe he would do something like this, especially after all the tension and hostility we had built up over the last few years. My eyes burned with hot tears as they welled up. Words escaped me, while I tried to think of how I could possibly thank him for not giving up on me, without sounding like a blubbering little kid. Maybe it would be best to just apologize for being such a fuck-up all these years, and then let him take it from there. Yes, that would be easier than me coming up with a clumsy speech. I wonder if it’s already got a sound system? How fast does it go? I’d better not say anything about that nasty-ass orange color. A quick paint job would take care of that. Maybe all-black with some flames on the hood. That would look fucking awesome.
But when I reached for the keys, he jerked his hand away.
“I was thinking about getting a new car,” he continued, “since the year me and your mom moved to this neighborhood and got ourselves all good and situated.” He leaned away to scan me from top to bottom, and shrugged, again. “But then you came along, and the party was over.”
That’s when the needle on the record skipped. Every muscle on my face suddenly relaxed. The tears stopped threatening to fall, and my eyes returned to their usual half-lidded position. A familiar combination of disappointment and apprehension washed over me, and my shoulders slumped, as my body resumed its regular slack posture. So much for our bonding session.
My father has never been good at showing his emotions, unless those emotions are anger, disgust, or the kind of delight that comes from witnessing a great play during a football game. Clearly, this was another thing. He was excited about showing me the car, but my involvement in this touching father-and-son moment no longer made any sense.
He didn’t seem to notice anything had changed. He pointed at the car and said, “She’s got a V-8 under the hood. A three-oh-four. That ain’t too bad.”
Well, that part made sense. He prefers his vehicles fast, and at the very least with big engines. These days he drives a Ford F250, and I couldn’t imagine him buying anything with wheels, unless it had something satisfying under the hood.
I watched him roll his eyes. “Of course I wanted a pickup, but I was gonna teach your mom how to drive, so I figured I’d bite the bullet and get something more her size. Plus it’s got a three-speed slushbox.”
Again he jabbed at my ribs. “Now that I think of it, she probably wouldn’t have been able to see over the wheel anyway. Oh well. Your mom’s happy with her little car. I saw this one in the paper for six hundred dollars, and it made me feel kinda sentimental, so I figured why the hell not!” He cackled loudly as he dug around for another cigarette.
He’s saying that the car was originally for Mom, eighteen years ago. Now it’s 1997, and today is my birthday. He really doesn’t seem interested in giving me those keys. What’s going on here?
“Anyway, you’ll get a chance to tell me how it runs, since you and me are going for a ride pretty soon.”
Finally, I turned to him and asked if the car was my birthday gift.
His face went blank for a moment, then twisted with a look of total shock.
“Your birthday gift? That’s a negative, sir.” He stepped away from me and stretched his arms out before clasping his hands behind his head. “This car is a gift to myself. Shit, I’ve earned it.”
I actually felt a wave of relief pass through me. To even consider the notion that my father would do something so uncharacteristic, so beyond any possibility, was too much for my brain to process on this day. But him being a selfish asshole? Well, that was simply the way things should be. Everything was back to normal again. I shook my head as I looked down at my feet.
“Never mind, okay? I just thought–”
“You thought I was gonna give you a damn car!”
He parked one hand on his hip while rubbing his eyes and forehead with the other hand, while whistling a single, long, low note. My cheeks burned with embarrassment. His face was red too, but it looked like he was about to cry and laugh at the same time. Then after a quick swipe across his pants leg, he extended his legendary “knife hand” towards me.
“Son, I’m gonna give you what you really need, more than anything. I’m gonna send you out into that world, so you can finally pull your head out of your ass, and become a man.”
I stood motionless, as he proceeded to deliver an inventory of reasons.
First of all, he was dismayed beyond words about how I turned out to be such a late bloomer. Then, when I finally did grow up, I turned out to look like a starting quarterback for the NFL, but instead of getting with the program, I always had my head up in the clouds. Or my nose jammed inside a comic book. Or my eyes glued to the TV, watching some bullshit about aliens and spaceships. How the hell could a guy be so smart, and still be so low on common sense anyway? He fought in vee-yet-namm with a couple of guys like me, and they were always the ones who gave the enemy plenty of target practice. Guys who read lots of books and loved to use lots of big, impressive-sounding words, but never had enough sense to know what was going on right in front of them. Bunch of fuckin’ daydreamers. All talk, no action. That’s the problem, you know. Too soft. The world is a hard place. And now, it’s time for trial by fire. Do or die!
At long last, my father’s point of view was abundantly verbalized. Today was the day I would be forced from the nest, and left to perish. Or, I would surprise everyone and give him something to brag about. Either way, my time was up here.
Putting a nice sharp point on the topic, he then gave me until lunchtime to pack up and be ready to roll out, or get rolled out by force. I wasn’t sure if I heard him right, and I could tell he knew that, because his posture suddenly shifted, making him look very impatient.
He cleared his throat, then cocked his head to the side and spit on Clam & Chunky’s front lawn again.
He squinted, as if he were distracted by something far away in the distance, before he turned back to me. His eyes locked onto mine.
Leaning in slightly, and tapping his fingernail loudly against the face of his wristwatch, he repeated very clearly that I would have more than an hour to pack a bag, which was more than enough time to ‘bug out.’
Again he pointedly stated that I needed to meet him right here, at this spot, by twelve o’clock sharp.
Then with a curt nod, he turned and walked away.
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