Sometimes I say, ‘It’s something from my father.’ Sometimes, ‘It’s one hefty hunk of memory.’ And sometimes, ‘It’s a ‘68 Mustang convertible,’ or ‘It’s shining, red vengeance,’ or even, ‘It’s the anchor that holds this whole house in place. If it wasn’t right there, everything would’ve floated up into the sky long ago.’ And then, sometimes, all I say is: ‘It’s art.’ Men always try to lift it and never succeed. Women mostly touch it tentatively with the backs of their hands, as if taking the temperature of a sick kid. And if one of those women goes and touches it with the palm of her hand, if she runs her fingers along the side, and says something like, ‘It’s cold,’ or ‘That feels nice,’ I take it as a sign to try and get her in to bed.
That people always ask about my block of crumpled steel does me good. It always calms me to know that, in this confusing world of ours, there’s at least one thing it’s safe to expect. Also it saves me from a lot of other questions like, ‘So what do you do for a living?’, ’How’d you get that gnarly scar under your eye?’ or ‘How old are you, again?’ Though I’d never said.
I work in the cafeteria at Lincoln High School, the scar is from a car accident, and I’m forty-six years old. Not one of those facts is a secret. Nevertheless, I’d much prefer to be asked about my compact-and-compacted block. Because through it I inevitably arrive at any subject I want: from Robert Fucking Kennedy – who was murdered in the year that produced the crushed Mustang I keep in my living room – to the bullshit that is contemporary art. The block never fails to get me to those topics or to anything in between. Like how Dad would take me and my brother for a spin when he’d show up to visit us at foster care. Or to how it took eight people to load that thing into my truck, and how the shocks on the pickup nearly gave way under all that weight. I can also wend my way along that line of inquiry until it reaches my dear departed mother who died when I was a baby because my father was driving drunk in another car, gray in colour and less cool all around, a car he immediately upgraded to a Mustang with the insurance money that came his way. Everything’s really dependent on where I want to turn up. A conversation is like a tunnel dug under the prison floor that you patiently and painstakingly scoop out with a spoon. It has one purpose: to get you away from where you are right now. And when you dig yourself a tunnel, there’s always a target on the other side: empathy that will lead to a fuck; male intimacy that will mix most excellently with a bottle of whiskey; something that will reestablish your great value as a tenant to the landlord who’s come to raise the rent. Every tunnel has its own direction, but the spoon – at least in my case – is always the same spoon: a convertible red ’68 Mustang with white racing stripes that has been compacted down to the size of a minibar and sits in my living room.
Janet works with me in the cafeteria. She’s always at the register, because management trusts her. But even there she’s close enough to the food so that her hair smells like a bowl of minestrone soup. Janet’s a single mom, raising twins on her own. She’s a good mom, exactly how I love to imagine my mother must have been. When I see Janet with her kids, I sometimes try and picture what would’ve happened if in that crash, forty-five years back, my father was the one who’d died and my mother came out of it alive. What would have come out of me and my brother today? Would I still land in a cafeteria kitchen and would my brother still be locked up in a maximum-security wing of a New Jersey prison? What’s for sure is that I wouldn’t have a crushed Mustang sitting on my living room floor.
Janet is maybe the first woman to stay over at my place and not ask about the red block. After the sex, I make us iced coffees. And while we’re drinking them, I try to insert my crushed-up Mustang into the conversation. I start out by resting my cup of coffee on the car. I wait for her to ask. When that doesn’t work I try to ease her there by way of a story. I hesitate a little, wondering which story to tell. I could go with the one about how, when I first got the block home, it stank, and how I started to suspect that they’d somehow crushed up a dead cat inside. Or there’s the one where a couple of thieves break into the house, and finding nothing worth taking, try to make off with the cube. Apparently one of them really digs in there trying to lift it, and from the extremes of exertion, he herniates a disc in his spine. In the end, I settle on the story of my father. Something less funny and more personal. I tell her how I searched for him across all of Ohio, and how right when I discover he’s dead – and would you expect it to turn out any different – his last friend mentions the car exactly as they’re towing it to the scrap yard. I tell her how I show up there five minutes too late, and because of that, the sole possession I inherit from my father is not a breathtaking classic car but the hunk of crumpled steel in my living room.
‘Did you love him?’ Janet asks. She dips her finger in the iced coffee and licks it. Something about how she does it, I don’t know why, disgusts me. That’s what I’m thinking while I’m trying to dodge having to answer. I honestly don’t have a lot of feelings in regards to my father – and the few that there are, are uniformly negative. And wrestling with my father issues while we’re sipping iced coffees buck naked in the living room is as much of a turnoff as it sounds. But instead of answering, I propose that next time she comes to crash at my place for the weekend she should bring the twins along. ‘Are you sure?’ she asks. Janet lives with her mother and it’s no big deal to leave the kids with her mom and come on her own. ‘Absolutely,’ I tell her, ‘it’ll be fun.’ She doesn’t show it, but I can feel that she’s happy. And instead of talking about all the shit that my brother and I had to eat before Dad did us a favour and disappeared from our lives, Janet and I fuck right there in the living room while she’s leaning on the crushed Mustang and I’m behind. The smarter choice.
The twins are named David and Jonathan. Their father named them that. He thought it was funny. Janet wasn’t too keen on the idea, but she gave in without a fight. After running around with them in her belly for nine months she thought it was nice to concede on that front, to give their baby daddy the feeling that the boys were also a little bit his. Not that it helped. It’s been more than five years since she heard from him last.
They’re seven years old now and total sweetie-pies. As soon as they arrive, they’re checking out the yard and discover the crooked tree. They try to climb it and fall. Try and fall. They get all bruised and scratched up but don’t cry once. I love kids who don’t cry. I was also like that. Afterwards we play a little Frisbee in the yard and Janet says that it’s hot and that it’d be better if we all go into the living room and drink something. I make us lemonade and set out the glasses on the Mustang. The twins say thanks before they take a sip. You can see that they’re well raised. David asks me about the Mustang and I tell him it’s car concentrate that I keep handy in case of emergency, you know, in case my pickup breaks down. ‘And what will you do then?’ David asks, his giant brown eyes open their widest. ‘I’ll mix the Mustang concentrate with enough water, wait until it’s ready and then I’ll drive it to work.’
‘And it won’t be wet?’ enquires Jonathan, who’s listening to the conversation.
‘A little,’ I say, ‘But, still, better a wet car than going by foot.’
At night I tell them a story before they go to bed. Janet forgot to bring their books with her so I make a story up on the spot. It’s a story about a pair of twins that, individually, are totally regular. But when they touch one another, they get super-powers. The boys love it. Kids are just crazy for the super-powers. After they fall asleep, Janet and I smoke something that Ross, the school janitor, sold her. It’s quality stuff. We, the two of us, are floating. All night, we’re just fucking and laughing, laughing and fucking.
We only wake up at noon. More correctly, Janet wakes up. And I only wake up from her screaming. I go downstairs to find the whole living room just swamped. David and Jonathan are standing next to the Mustang with the hose dragged in from the garden. Janet is yelling at them to turn off the water, and David immediately runs out into the yard. Jonathan sees me next to the stairs and says, ‘It’s busted. We used a ton of water but it wouldn’t mix.’ The little rug in the living room is totally adrift on this kind of current that’s formed, and the old records too. And I notice my stereo is giving off little bubbles from under the water like a drowning animal. It’s just stuff, I tell myself. Just things I don’t really need. ‘This one’s fucked up,’ Jonathan says, still swinging the hose. ‘They sold you a broken one at the store.’
Janet shouldn’t have slapped him, and also, what I did on my end wasn’t right. I shouldn’t have gotten involved. These ones aren’t my kids, and I definitely didn’t need to react the way I did. She’s a good mother. It’s just finding herself in this very irregular situation that put her under so much pressure. And maybe if that slap of hers just slipped out without any evil intent, maybe, you know, she could try to understand my shove. The last thing I wanted was to hurt her. I was only trying to put a little distance between her and the twins, just until she calmed down. And if there hadn’t been all that water sloshing around, she wouldn’t have slipped and got hurt.
I’ve already left five messages but she hasn’t called back. I know she’s completely fine, because her mother told me as much. Only a little blood and a few stitches. They also gave her a tetanus shot because the Mustang’s gotten rusty. After she took the twins and left, I worried. So I go to her house and her mother comes out and tells me Janet doesn’t want to see me any more, and after a long smoker’s cough, she adds that I shouldn’t take it too hard – if I give her enough time and some space, it’ll definitely pass.
Tomorrow, when I go to work, I’ll bring her a little present: hair gel or socks. She goes nuts for those weird sorts of socks, the ones with big red polka dots or with droopy ears sewn on the sides. If she doesn’t want to talk, I’ll simply leave the present – all wrapped up nice – next to the register and head into the kitchen. In the end, she’ll forgive me. And when I take her home again, I’ll tell her the whole story about the car and about my father. About all the things he did to me and my brother. How we hated him. And how when Don went to prison the one thing he asked was that I find my father and tell him to his face what a shit father he was. I’ll tell her about that night at the scrap yard. About how I enjoyed seeing the car he loved so much compacted down to a hunk of crumpled steel, totally stripped of purpose. I’ll tell her everything, and then she’ll understand. Actually, it’ll be almost everything. It’ll be everything but how when I brought my father’s car to the scrap yard in Cleveland, the old man’s carcass was still warm in the trunk. And after I’m done and Janet forgives me, she’ll bring the kids by again. And me and them, we’ll close the doors to the living room up tight. We’ll shove rags in the empty spaces after we snake through that hose. Then we’ll turn on the rusty faucet in the yard until it won’t turn any more, and we won’t shut if off until that big empty room fills up like a pool.
Photograph © Wim Hoppenbrouwers