Suicide Knob, 1984
Gray bondo 442
loose paper swirling in the back seat
honeysuckle and smokestacks
a second skin
Still thirty minutes away from
her tidy brick ranch with
sagging gutters and cracked roof tiles–
hair in curlers
watching the street
while slender cheesecake thighs
peel away from my black vinyl seats
and she crushes tight against my shoulder
at fifty-seven miles per hour
like I’m the strongest magnet
like I’m a superhero
that will keep her safe at any speed
Who knows the lost glory
of wide-open bench seat handjobs
on an open road at night
“Eruption” live bootleg in the speakers
I listen to the music but not to her
One sweaty hand high up her thigh,
one on that silver skull, that suicide knob
figuring both out
We see the other more clearly than we see ourselves
Suicide Knob, 1994
The Olds has been tarped a while. Never did paint it.
Sometimes I flip that tarp and get behind the wheel, one leg out the door and my foot on the dirt, and I race my after-dinner beers to that line between cold and warm while she puts the baby down.
The baby. That smell is a shiver down my spine. She’s a brand new start like the beginning or the end of the world. I know I would do anything for her or even for the sake of her but when she looks up at me I hear a loose screen door slapping its frame and I’m already crushed by all the ways she will hurt.
I lift that can and swallow more beer while it’s still cooler than it’s fixing to be. Moonlight paints the hood to where I peeled the tarp back and shines on the suicide knob, that flaking chrome skull grinning like Dirty Harry, flecks of dried teenage blood still in one eye socket from way back when I got rear-ended and broke a tooth one night after I dropped her off on my way to see a different girl.
She shows up in one of my undershirts and her flip-flops holding the baby monitor by the antenna like she might take off any second and leave it in the dirt. She sits on my outside leg, that shirt high up her thighs and puts her head on my shoulder, drops the monitor on the seat, squirms on my leg as a kind of shortcut way of saying the night is young and so are we for a little while longer. Her nipples are hard and so am I but we just sit there hearing crickets and frogs and those small breaths on the monitor all together like a roomful of ticking clocks.
“Dishwasher’s broke,” she says in her staring across the lake voice just as I’m telling myself I’m gonna swallow the last of this hot beer and fuck her good and paint this vehicle soon and see my little girl down the aisle one day, but I don’t move and she don’t move and it’s only that beer can between my legs. I told her once that love and time only meet to kill the other off but we were kids then and this ain’t bad.
She cooks good and never tells me no.
Suicide Knob, 2004
The boy pushes the wrench to me. I tell him to quit scraping it on the concrete and I reach out from under the 442 to take it. It’s the wrong one, but he’s eight. I say “thanks, buddy” and make like I’m using it for something important then push it back out. I turn my head and see him crouch down to pick it up then a loud clank as he drops it in the toolbox. Someday when this car is his I’ll tell him he was made in the back seat on a moonlit night while his sister slept in the house and I thought about running off. Thought seriously about it. I’ll leave out the part where we were listening to her on the baby monitor while we did it. Maybe I’ll leave out everything except the fact of it.
His sister is eleven now and can’t decide whether she wants to work on cars with me or trade manicures with her mom. She’s been sticking with mom more lately. Her brother tells her girls aren’t supposed to work on cars as if he was born knowing how to rile her and she was born needing to be riled.
I keep it to myself but I feel better when she chooses manicures. There’s been something off with her mom so at least I know when the girl is with her I figure she can’t be up to no good. I think that. My cousin’s wife used to carry their kids up to church and sign them in to mother’s day out then go fuck the music minister at a motel by the interstate. But I don’t fixate. Too many bills to pay for me to worry and it’s not like I haven’t had side pieces. Who has time and energy for one woman much less others you have to keep happy and secret and remember who you’re with when you wake up and it’s dark. There’s always that one-bang waitress for the twentieth time. You never have to call her and she’s always there.
“We should paint the car blue,” the boy says. I can hear him spinning the ratchet. I can’t see him but one of his favorite weekend habits is snapping on a deep plug socket and then spinning the handle as fast as he can. Once he wasn’t paying attention and the handle popped him on the cheekbone right after he said “I’m a helicopter.” He looked stunned and cried a little until I laughed and said I’d done that too. He did his best to turn that cry into a laugh and I sent him inside to get me a fresh beer but he never came out with the beer. Mama saw his swelled up cheek and kept him. Later on I told her to cut that shit out knowing there’s no way she ever would.
Blue would work. Or black. Maybe silver or gray. Saw in the paper where General Motors is shutting down Oldsmobile this month after a hundred something years, put out of business by imports and younger generations who think V8 is a shitty drink in a can. Never seen a bench seat or heard an honest-to-god four barrel carburetor open up. Dipshits who think they’re saving the planet by a lawn mower without a blade. Now I’m the one who doesn’t belong, just an old fuck with an old car.
Once I got her out from under the tarp and running proper again I took her down the highway and opened her up good out in the county. Sure blew out some carbon that day. Made those glasspacks roar like Godzilla in a shape note choir.
Sheriff passed me going the other way and never even turned. Probably glad to hear a real motor for a change. Damn good for me too cause I had beer in the cooler and one between my legs. Got to love county mounties. State cop would’ve nailed my ass.
I slide out. The boy is waiting by the driver’s door. When he was five he tried to climb up into the car while it was up on ramps and I was still underneath. I got mighty hot with him over that, more than I should’ve but I didn’t want him to have to live with that. Getting crushed or my arm torn off would’ve been bad, too.
“Can I race now, daddy?” I look over and nod and he climbs in, sits forward as far as he can, one hand tight on the Hurst shifter, the other on the suicide knob. The boy gets that serious look on his face and I smile at him. He sees me and grins back and so does that old silver skull.
Sometimes I catch him picking at the flaking chrome.
Suicide Knob, 2014
My daughter’s bare feet rest on the seat back between my son who’s driving and me riding shotgun. It’s a Tuesday in early Fall and the interstate south of Montgomery is wide open, practically deserted. I sip my water and watch the trees along the roadway reflect in the glossy clear coat on the midnight blue hood of the 442. Finally painted her after almost thirty years when my son turned sixteen. Everything’s cherry now except that old, chipped suicide knob. The boy drove it for eighteen months and never took it off. Then once he’d saved enough at his various jobs, he bought the truck he’d always wanted. He’s headed for basic training in a few weeks so he wanted to be the one driving down to the Gulf one more time for this long weekend before he has to report. The girl never wanted to drive it but made me teach her then just complained about how the Hurst shifter works but she was talking to me so I never cared. She comes back to me more now.
“I want to drive for a while,” she says.
“No one wants to hear you complain about the shift,” my son says.
“I still need to be able to drive it,” she says. “Just in case.”
“In case of what?” he asks, laughing. “You just want to be the cool girl who knows how to do everything.”
But she never cared about how it worked or about being the cool girl. She just wanted to know me, and to understand how my son knows me.
We cut the music off and put the windows down to catch some airflow. It’s still just warm enough and the air whips through making talking difficult which is fine by me. We said most of what we had to say the first hour and a half. Talked ourselves out. My phone beeps and I check it. Email. Wife’s lawyer finally sending the papers. My son hits my shoulder and I look up. I’m pushing this down. Deep.
“Read that shit later,” he said. “We got nothing but time.”
Can he see it in my fucking posture?
My heart is broken for these kids. They’d made it through some bad years and assumed nothing but blue skies ahead. But the world doesn’t quit spinning out of spite or pity. It keeps pushing the future at you. If my daughter sees me the least bit shaky, she cries or gets angry.
When I wake up the air is salty and see we are winding down the peninsula to our neighbor’s beach house. That neighbor couple is older than me. The boy and I have always helped them out with their vehicles and big projects, and they’ve always given us some time at the beach in their old shack. We’ve helped keep that up, too.
We keep fishing gear there and the gulf always feeds us. Whiting. Redfish. Pompano. The occasional flounder. We’ve been coming here near twenty years but were never just three before. I wonder if my wife knows what she’s missing or what she’s giving up.
“Home sweet home away from home,” my son says right on cue. He parks in the shade under the house and pops the trunk. We get out and I stretch. The gulf tide laps the shore forty yards away and I can see the setting sun on the dark shiny trunk lid.
Suicide Knob, 2024
I left town after the divorce, intending to make it back one day, but the boy stayed deployed most of the year, every year, and the girl married her college boyfriend right after graduation. He is a successful college basketball coach and they moved every few years as he kept winning and better job offers came in. So the 442 and I got to see most of the country together and alone.
It wasn’t my first choice for this part of my life, but it sure as hell hasn’t been a bad second choice. Use your imagination.
I’m meeting the boy in Atlanta, at the airport. He’s done contracting, done operating. We’re going to spend the night then road trip up to Boston where my daughter and son-in-law just brought my third grandson into the world. My ex moved there so I might run into her. Haven’t seen her since the last birth. She started gaining weight and I think drinking a lot after the divorce and probably hasn’t stopped. It’s impossible not to care at all, but I don’t care much. Besides, I’ve got a year left, maybe two. The kids don’t know but I will tell them this week. I’ve been putting it off since the first tests came back positive four months ago. I’ve been waiting for the right time but there isn’t one. When we were teenagers everything was about pushing through today to get to what’s next. There was always something else down the road and getting there took forever. Now there’s just Forever. Capital F.
People are pouring off that steep escalator between the two baggage claims but I see him immediately. He walks with purpose and no presumption and the crowd just parts for him. The truth is that I’m just glad he’s alive because he and his sister are my favorite people.
We hug and walk to the parking deck. I pull the key fob and hit the unlock button, and the car beeps. My son smiles, pulls that old suicide knob out of his pocket and holds it up.
“This thing has seen four continents,” he says.
I laugh. “Can’t believe you didn’t lose it in the sandbox.”
He hands it to me.
“No,” I say. “It’s yours. Do what you want with it.”
He says, “Are you sure?” I say I definitely am and he closes it in his fist, shoves it in his pocket. He’s looking around for the 442.
“Here,” I say as I point my key gadget at a shiny black Yukon and take his bag as the locks pop.
“What the fuck?” he asks. “Where’s the Olds?”
“In your pocket,” I tell him and toss his bag in. “Sold the rest last year. A doctor who had one when he was sixteen.”
“Well…shit,” he says.
Two days later we stop off in the District of Columbia for a couple days to take a driving break and to see some of his operator buddies. On our last night there we go for dinner at a crab house on the water in Maryland. We wait for our table out on the old deck, standing at the railing and looking out over the water and watching the sun set.
The boy pulls the suicide knob from his pocket.
“You don’t want this back?” he asks. “You’re sure.”
“It’s all yours.”
Without saying a word he cocks his arm back and throws it far and high over the water. I watch the long arc it makes. I remember how heavy it was and how I raised a blood blister with the pliers when I first clamped it on the wheel of the Olds. I remember the half-grin, half grimace and how she thought it was cool and used to call it The Terminator. I remember how my mom hated it and my dad never said anything about it at all. I remember how it fascinated my son every time he got in the car. I remember because I taught him to drive. I remember and so does he.