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Drama Creative Nonfiction

Hot Rod Heaven

by

Eldridge Stimmel

Seeing the look in my grandson’s eyes confirmed I’d made the right decision. In a world of video games, streaming movies, and the myriad other instant-gratification offerings, who would have guessed a lump of tacky plastic would top the favorites list of gifts?

The 1930s speed racer had detailed wheels with spokes like a covered wagon, grill fins on either side of the u-shaped hood, and a long stick shift on the left, just forward of the driver’s door. The over tall driver sat hunched over the steering wheel with one hand gripping the shifter. A manic, pulled-back-by-the-wind expression plastered his face and whipped his coif back. All of it the beautiful color of Bazooka Joe’s bubble gum.

I almost presented Jimmy with a twenty stuck in a card and kept the toy for myself. Seeing it brought memories flooding back. Feeling its hard curves in my hand projected a movie of my childhood in my mind.

The plastic covering the seats of my father’s non-air-conditioned Bel Aire filled the car with a musky, artificial smell. Kind of like that new car smell, but familiar and comforting. Five-year-old me held the toy car in his lap, imaging the hot Arizona wind in my hair as I plied the black ribbon of tarmac next to my dad. I looked over, catching his eye, and we shared a smile over the pleasure of the open road.

The clink of dishes and swoosh of utensils rang out from the kitchen. My German mother put together another unique meal in preparation for pop’s return from work. Breaded pork chops, boiled and spiced potato cubes, and boiling red cabbage filled the air with scents laden with calories all their own. Her call of, “Set the table for your father,” made me feel grown-up and important.

The light blue airplane made of wood and suspended from a tree in a corner of a yard fenced by tall trees transported me to the swamps and jungles Tarzan commanded on our black-and-white television.

Prairie dogs and horny toads shared my world. A bullfrog the size of watermelon sent me screaming down the road, dust and gravel flying with each fall of my young feet.

Life in the rural deserts of Arizona assailed me with other lessons, some not so great. A blurry image of gutted kittens lined up on our sidewalk hides somewhere deep in the dark and makes an occasional unexpected appearance. When I ran home to find that the neighbor’s German Shepherd had knocked down the chicken wire and killed our new ducks, I wanted the same done to him. Years later, I would understand the dog’s motivation and accept its joy at fulfilling a biological purpose. Later still, it provided me with a clear picture of perspective and turned me into an effective mediator for friends and family.

The love and support that permeated our house like the smell of Sunday dinner prompted me to tell my parents about the man who exposed himself to me under the house as a simple report of my day. That unthinking openness saved me, and others, I hope, from something terrible.

Today, I feel the pain of the opposite edge of memory's blade. My parents filled my life with everything I needed and most of what I wanted while denying themselves some of the simple pleasures. They rarely ate out or spent time on their own until my brother and I had lives and jobs of our own. I repaid their sacrifice with a selfish lack of gratitude. Intellectually, I understand that all kids feel this way from time to time, but it still hurts.

No one told me about my father’s increasing dementia until near the end. I didn’t recognize a problem until my mother told me during a phone call to ignore his comments about the other German women in the house.

At the beginning of a workweek in February, my brother left a message that dad had fallen and had to go to the hospital. The middle of the week saw drunken messages that made half sense and left me confused. I left work on Friday and turned on my phone to hear the message, “Your father is dead.”

I had avoided calling. My mother wanted me to move back to Kentucky and help take care of my father. I found this out from my brother in a roundabout way, too. Something along the lines of, “Maybe you could move to Ashland and help mom.” I knew I would, but issues with depression and the sudden weight of new responsibility left me needing a few days to get used to the idea. What grown man likes the idea of moving home and having his mother pay his rent and bills while he babysat the deadly decline of the strongest man he ever knew.

To make it worse, my father hadn’t died at the time of my brother’s proclamation. I piled into the car and drove like hell through a horrid snowstorm to reach the hills of northeastern Kentucky. Somewhere in the torture of snowbound Illinois, my father left us. My mother said, “He’s gone. You can turn around.”

The whole thing painted me as a bad person and an uncaring son and left me cursing God, my brother, and a family that had lost its limited ability to communicate effectively at the worst of times. Every day I fight the urge to drive to my brother’s and beat him until my hands break. With a long history in MMA and Krav Maga, I could make it happen. But no easy way out for me.

Thanks to the influence of the greatest man in my life, I know it would do no good. And I don’t sit pristine and blameless. My brother did mention my father had suffered a subdural hematoma in the fall. Although my days as a paramedic rested on the other side of a few burned bridges and far in my distant past, a minute or two of unselfish thought would have rekindled my knowledge of head injuries.

I almost took the Pepto-Bismol-colored car and driver away from my grandson. Did the good memories outweigh or even balance the bad? In the end, my experiences didn’t matter. I couldn’t control what memories took root in Jimmy’s subconscious. I could only fill his mind with good ones and make sure he knew how to handle the others.

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September 28, 2020 21:14

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3 comments

Ella Brady
15:39 Oct 04, 2020

This is a lovely interpretation of the prompt. I especially liked the end: "Did the good memories outweigh or even balance the bad? In the end, my experiences didn’t matter. I couldn’t control what memories took root in Jimmy’s subconscious. I could only fill his mind with good ones and make sure he knew how to handle the others." There's a slight nitpick at the start -"over tall" should really be "too tall" - other then that I don't think there's anything to improve upon. Would you mind reading one of my stories and giving feedback?

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ELDRIDGE STIMMEL
22:53 Oct 04, 2020

Thanks. I tried to use the "over tall" artfully. Good to know it doesn't play well. :) Murder your darlings, they say.

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Ari Berri
16:23 Dec 10, 2020

Awesome story! Nice use of the prompt!

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