Neil Aldridge, Sr., was shipped to Vietnam days after Vivian discovered she was pregnant with me. He wasn’t fazed by death the way my mother had been during his deployment, perhaps because he’d made it out alive and hadn’t seen what she had on the evening news. He returned two years later to a woman who’d learned to provide for herself and a child who knew no other comfort than his mother.
Lambasted and under-appreciated, my father made it his mission to be there for me and my mother. So, he left the army to work for Uncle Sam in another capacity. Nobody would ever thank him for delivering their mail, but he knew that it would pay the bills, allow him to be home every night for supper with his family, and that it would never pull him from home again.
My dad and I spent countless nights in the cramped garage working on his ‘82 gold Trans Am to the tune of his favorite rock station blaring through tinny speakers. He’d bought the car after one of his meltdowns—one I shouldn’t have heard—about not being able to both afford the house and enjoy his life. He’d always been happy to come home, but when his workdays began bleeding into one another, and his existence became a series of hellish days in the blistering sun or formidable snow, pinned together by a mere five hours’ rest, my mother suggested he treat himself.
In my father’s book, a “treat” was a bowl of black cherry ice cream or a night out at the movies. But when he realized that my mother meant something more lavish, he hooted incredulously. If he could barely afford food on the table, what made her think they could manage a monthly car payment? But my mother knew he was the type of man to squirrel away emergency cash in his grandfather’s old cigar boxes, which he hid under the mattress. Of course, their life insurance policies would’ve taken care of those expenses, but my father could never be too careful. Yet my mother managed to convince him to enjoy the fruits of his labor.
When my mother finally dragged him to the local dealership, he tormented himself over the endless options. He’d researched the Trans Am to death, but then another car caught his eye, and then another. It was years until he drove home with the “right one”—at least he said it was. He’d thought about it too much, built up what it would be like to finally get behind the wheel of the car that looked like Kit from Knight Rider. It was the only new car he’d ever owned, but he never enjoyed it the way he intended to.
He taught me everything he could under the hood of that car. A lesson on how to change the oil would really be a lecture on why you could never trust mechanics—or anyone for that matter—to do their job correctly. A tire rotation demonstration was a cautionary tale on maintaining all the important things in life—your health, your teeth, the engine, the paint. My cheeks burned with shame for things I hadn’t yet done, and resentment lurched in my gut with each often-repeated soliloquy. Had it not been for Pink Floyd and The Eagles crooning in the background, I never would’ve made it.
I’d tune him out and think about the latest M*A*SH* episode, a show Dad deemed “garbage,” or Charlie’s Angels, which I cautiously watched on nights when Mom was waitressing and when Dad was out in the garage. “Neil,” he’d grumble. “You need to learn to take care of the things. Be proud of what you do, and earn what you have. Why bother having nice things—hell, why bother having anything at all—if you don’t take care of what you already have?” When he’d inevitably discover I hadn’t been listening, he’d launch into a tirade on why I’d never make anything of myself if I kept on daydreaming.
We took the Trans Am out on Saturday nights in good weather for burgers while Mom worked. He’d take off the T-roof and roll down the windows so we could feel the summer breeze in our scalps and the sun on our cheeks. He revved the engine at red lights, eliciting appreciative whistles from passersby. Sometimes he risked turning the radio up loud enough for us to hear the music amidst the whipping wind and grumbling engine. The motor vibrated our cores when we crawled to a stop, and the thick stench of burning fuel antagonized headaches that pulsed in my eye sockets, but I never felt closer to my dad than on those nights.
When I got older, he talked me through the process of driving a stick: shift into first; rev the engine; slowly release the clutch . . . Before starting the car, he’d ask me to tell him what to do first. I knew the first step, but his steady gaze scrambled my brain waves, causing me to second-guess myself and answer incorrectly. As we rolled off the driveway and gave it the gas, the engine muffled his lecture. Perhaps these are my favorite memories because I couldn’t quite hear him.
What little enjoyment I found on our weekly rides was squandered by excessive caution. I’d watch his knuckles turn white as we merged onto the main road and dodged every car that gunned it around us. He’d park all the way in the back of the lot, replace the T-roof panels, and carefully cover the car, and he’d stare at it through the window of the fast food joint until we finished eating. He forbade me to bring the rest of my soda or—God forbid—ice cream into the car. He’d inspect every inch of the paint for dings and chips before we left the restaurant and then again when we got home, covering the car over until the next outing.
Wanting to hear something other than the importance of using damp rags to dry down the paint job, I once asked about his time in Vietnam. He clammed up, said I was too young to understand what he’d seen. So I envisioned him running from the jungle with a machine gun slung over his right shoulder and a dying man over his left, mud smeared across his cheeks, and a dirtied helmet on his head. I dreamed of my father jumping from jets into the jungle and rescuing screaming women and children who’d been abandoned by their country. I pictured him this way until he finally told me on my sixteenth birthday—the day he said he’d considered me a man—how he’d thrown a bomb into a bush full of unsuspecting soldiers and watched their arms and legs rain down on him. It was only then that I realized that of all the things that’d disappointed him, he’d topped the list, though I’d became a close second.
When I came home with Bs and Cs in junior high, he berated my lack of dedication until I marched to my room and locked myself away to cry. When I told my mother I hated him, she told me it was all because he loved me—because he wanted the world for me, because he wanted to make me into a man the world could be proud of—an honest one, a noble one, one without blood on his hands.
I’d begun changing tires and servicing the car by myself at thirteen to prove my responsibility, but he always found something to nitpick. He’d say I hadn’t spent enough time checking the tires or that I’d left a mess where I poured in the oil. He’d tell me to be more prudent if he found a dull portion of paint after hours waxing it. He threatened to never teach me to drive a stick if I kept forgetting to close the garage door while I mowed the lawn.
I put my dreams of driving the Trans Am behind me when I left for college. It didn’t matter then anyway—there was no way he’d let me drive the car into the city, let alone keep the car there while pursuing my forensics degree. And the fact that I wasn’t around to maintain it further solidified the fact that I didn’t deserve the car, and, thus, he never taught me how to drive it. I thought he’d never give it to me, but he did. Well, Mom handed me the keys after he died.
When I finally sat behind the wheel, I couldn’t remember what he’d recited every Saturday night. I’d always imagined doing donuts in the abandoned A&S parking lot. I dreamed of hitting eighty on the expressway. I wanted to feel the rumble of the driver’s seat and be looked at the way those drivers looked at Dad when he revved the engine. I wanted the bite of burning fuel in my lungs and the power of the engine under my foot. But when I started the car, it lurched forward before it sputtered and stalled. I tried again, rolling to the edge of the driveway before it died again. I checked the owner’s manual in the glovebox, but no such directions existed. I was left with a car from a man who’d never taught me to drive it because, at twenty-four, he still hadn’t deemed me good enough.
I thought about how much work we’d put into it over the years, how meticulous he’d been. The odometer, reading just under forty thousand miles, betrayed just how little it had paid off. I remembered how he’d considered selling it one summer to buy a boat, but nobody ever called when he’d parked it up at the corner. But I also recalled how he’d look at the car each time he lifted the cover.
And then I sold it.
Mom never knew how to drive a stick, but she never forgave me.
While she would’ve had me garage it and allow the quarter-century I wasted trying to please my father haunt me for the rest of my life, I saw a full semester’s tuition at McAllister collecting dust beneath the car cover. When I learned my wife had lost her mother, I assumed she, too, had been chasing impossible expectations. I thought I knew her pain, that she was haunted by some disapproving phantom who laughed at her every move. But when she spoke of her mom with the deepest love and admiration, I felt robbed. I couldn’t get sentimental the way she did. I couldn’t think of my dad without feeling bitter, without remembering how he warily accepted my decision to pursue forensic science (the police academy would’ve been more honorable, he said. It would’ve paid the bills, too).
I couldn’t decide what was worse—never experiencing my father’s unconditional love or having had and lost it. Had my father loved me the way Elizabeth loved Anna, perhaps I would’ve kept and maintained that car the way my father would’ve had he lived to see the twenty-first century.
Kristen Roedel is an American literature PhD student at Stony Brook University and creative writing professor at St. Joseph’s College.