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 later life, but it sure as hell hasn’t been a bad second choice. Use your imagination.

Now I’m meeting the boy in Atlanta, at the airport. He’s done operating. We’re going to spend the night and 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 because who she is and what she does impacts the kids, same as I do.

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 just bury it in the sandbox.”

“Thought about it,” he says and 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 open the tailgate of a big black Yukon and take his bag.

“What the fuck?” he asks. “Where’s the Olds?”

“In your pocket,” I tell him as I toss his bag in. “Sold the rest to a doctor last year.”

“Well holy shit,” he says. “Holy fucking shit.”

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 restaurant in Virginia on the Potomac. We stand out on the deck with drinks and look at the water while waiting for our table. Without saying a word he pulls that silver skull from his pocket and holds it up. We both smile as he chunks it high and far out over the river and watch it fall.

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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 that border the roadway reflect in the glossy clear coat on the midnight blue hood of the 442, painted after almost thirty years when my son turned sixteen. The boy drove it for eighteen months until he’d saved enough at his various jobs to buy the truck he’d always wanted and have it lifted and modified proper. He just enlisted, intent on becoming a Ranger so he wanted to be the one driving down to the gulf for this long weekend before he has to report. The girl never wanted to drive it but made me teach her how the Hurst shifter works.

“Just in case,” she had said.

“In case of what?” I asked, laughing.

“I don’t know,” she admitted. “I just want to know how it works.”

But she didn’t care about how it worked. She wanted to know how I work, wanted to know me and how my son knows me.

We cut the music off south of Birmingham and put the windows down to catch some airflow. It’s still just warm enough and the moving air whips through making talking difficult, which is fine. We said all we had to say for now the first hour and a half and talked ourselves out. My phone beeps and I check it. Email. Wife’s lawyer finally sent the divorce papers. My son hits my shoulder and I look up. I’m keeping this down. Can he see it in my fucking posture?

“Read that shit later,” he said. “We got nothing but time.”

My heart is broken for these kids. They’d made it through some bad years with the wife and assumed nothing but blue skies ahead. For some reason, I had, too, but the family is gone, exploded. I hate that they’ve lost that. That we’ve all lost that. What most people don’t understand is that when a family fails, over the long run there is usually no “better” solution. There is simply swapping one set of difficulties for another and it changes everything. 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 bursts into tears which only breaks my heart more. A vicious circle.

My wife thinks the boy enlisted as some kind of reaction or something. She doesn’t know he’d been talking to me about it for a year and had asked me to keep it between us for now. Not sure why he hasn’t told her the truth. He’s a good boy, ready to conquer the world. Just out of high school and doesn’t really know the real education is just beginning.

My daughter just wants to finish school. This should be her final year if she keeps the momentum going. Dean’s list, all that. The boys she’s brought home every now and then have said and done all the right things. The ones she’s brought home. She talks to me about some of them but I don’t know what I don’t know. Not sure I want to know and pretty sure I’ll never know. But I am happy she’s in the Olds with us, her red, white, and blue toenail polish upon on the seat next to my son on his way to basic in a few weeks. It’s a memory I immediately know is one I will have as long as I have a memory, and I put the phone in the glove box and settle back into the seat, thinking about flags and family as the warm air flows through the car and I drift off to sleep.

When I wake up the air is salty. I sit up 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. They have the oldest house on the beach, almost a shack, really, compared to all of the new construction, but we’ve helped them keep it up as well.

We keep fishing gear there and the gulf always feeds us. Whiting. Pompano. The occasional flounder. We’ve been coming here near twenty years, but never without her until now.

“Some things never change,” my son says as he pulls into the slanted driveway and makes the tricky move in tight space to roll perfectly into the parking space under the porch on stilts. I watch him expertly turn the wheel and guide it back. We all get out and they start unloading the trunk. I take a deep breath and just watch.

I marvel at the both of them. I know I’ve accomplished something here but I’m not sure what anymore. I know that will change, that my compass is just spinning right now. For now, we’re together, the three of us, and that’s enough. I’ve kept them together all these years and kept the Olds together, too, and they all three look good. Everything looks good except that old, chipped suicide knob.

That old thing is starting to look out of place.

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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 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. I’ll leave out the part where we were listening to her on the baby monitor while we did it. He wouldn’t understand.

His sister is eleven now and can’t decide whether she wants to work on cars with me or get manicures with her mom. She’s been sticking with mom more lately. Her brother tells her girls aren’t supposed to work on cars.

I keep it to myself but I feel better when the girl chooses manicures. There’s been something off with her mom so at least I know when my daughter is with her I figure she can’t be up to something. I think that, anyway. 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. But too many bills to pay for me to worry and it’s not like I haven’t had my side pieces though it’s been a while. I got these kids and jobs and life and who has time and energy for one woman much less others you have to keep happy and secret. The sometimes one-bang waitress is enough.

“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 holding it by a deep plug socket and then spinning the handle. Once he wasn’t paying attention and the handle popped him on the cheekbone. He looked stunned until I laughed at him. Then he laughed too 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 inside, babied him.

Blue would work. Or black. Silver or dark 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’ve never felt the power and glory of a properly tuned V8 and four-barrel carb, never seen a bench seat. Dipshits who think they’re saving the planet by driving a beefed-up lawn mower. Shits turning crazy and even with all my time in this life these jackasses act like 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 way out in the county. Sure blew some carbon off the pistons that day. Made those glasspacks roar like Godzilla singing bass in a shape note choir.

Sheriff’s car had passed me going the other way and never even turned. Probably an old-school hell raiser just 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. State trooper 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 don’t fancy gettin’ crushed. We both been patient ever since.

“You good?” he asks me. I look over and nod and he climbs in, sits forward as far as he can, one hand tight on the Hurst shifter, one twisting the suicide knob. The boy gets that serious look on his face and I smile at him. He sees me and grins back, both the kid and the worn silver skull, still grinning like the love child of Terminator and Dirty Harry.

Sometimes I catch him picking at the flaking chrome.

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Suicide Knob, 1994

The Olds has been tarped a while. Never did paint it.

Sometimes I flip the tarp and sit behind the wheel, one leg outside, my foot on the dirt, and race my after-dinner beers to that line between lukewarm and still cold while she puts the baby down.

The baby. That smell sends a shiver down my spine. She’s a brand new start, one of the only fresh starts there ever was, real and true. I know I would do anything for her but when she looks up at me I hear a loose screen door slapping its frame during a summer storm, and I’m already crushed by all the ways she will hurt.

I drink my warming beer. Moonlight paints the hood to where I peeled the tarp back and shines on the suicide knob, that old cheap chrome skull that grins at me like Dirty Harry, flecks of dried blood still in one eye socket when I got rear-ended and busted my head, broke my tooth after I dropped her off one night on my way to see another girl.

She shows up in one of my undershirts and her flip-flops, nothing else, holding the baby monitor loosely by the antenna like she could drop it any second and run away. She sits on my outside leg, the shirt rising high up those softening thighs as she puts her head on my shoulder, drops the monitor on the seat, squirms on my leg and confirms she’s not wearing any panties.

“Dishwasher’s broke,” she says in her going to sleep voice just as I’m telling myself I’m gonna finish this beer and fuck her good and paint this vehicle proper soon and see my little girl down the aisle one day but I don’t move, don’t even lift the beer.

Her nipples are hard and now so am I. We listen to those small, deep breaths crackling in the monitor. Love and time have nothing to do with each other except in liking to kill the other off but this ain’t hard.

She cooks good and never tells me no.

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Suicide Knob, 1984

1
Gray bondo 442 rushing 
windows down, tiny
twisters rustling notebooksloose paper swirling
flying at us like messages we can’t understand,
baptized by the sweet and sour always smell of
honeysuckle and smokestacks, always on the breeze,
our second skin someday shed.
2
A tidy brick ranch with
sagging gutters and cracked roof tiles–
well-lit
well past curfew,
a single chainsmoker
behind sagging mini-blinds
watches the street, the bloated figure
striped and segmented, rings on
a scarred, split tree.
3
Slender, glistening cheesecake thighs
stick to black vinyl. She
crushes into my shoulder
at fifty-seven miles per hour,
like I’m a magnet that will keep her
from flying out the window at any speed.
4
Who knows the lost glory of bench seat handjobs
on an open road
at night?
5
Van Halen “Eruption” live,
always live while
glass packs add crazy percussive bass.
I listen. I marvel.
We see each other more clearly than we see ourselves.
6
One sweaty hand high up her thigh,
one on that silver skull, that suicide knob slick with sweat,
fingering both as it were the first time and last time looking
everything and nothing right in the eye.
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