Mike turned his new license over and over in his hands.
Over in the driver’s seat, his dad said, “You’ll wear it down to a sliver.”
Mike stopped fidgeting and got his wallet out and put the license away and struggled to put the wallet back in his back pocket.
Over in the driver’s seat, his dad said, “Well, you didn’t make that look easy.”
Mike’s hand tightened on the armrest.
Over in the driver’s seat, his dad shook his head.
Mike looked out through the windshield. He watched the traffic ahead of them, his eyes moving, stopping, moving again.
His dad said, “So what kind of car are we looking for?”
Mike shrugged. “A cheap one.”
His dad’s hands tightened on the wheel. He made a turn, all shoulders. “You could wait and save up for another year.”
Mike sighed. “I’m sick of biking around. I want a car.”
“Your mom and I have been talking. You could probably use my truck sometimes, weekend nights, like that. Your mom and I usually stay in then, so you could do that.” His dad glanced over at him.
Mike looked away. “Yeah, I’m not taking any chances with your truck. And I know Mom isn’t going to let me drive her car.”
His dad’s lips barely moved. “Damn right. Your mom works hard keeping the house up, no way in hell some kid’s going to mess up something nice she has.”
Mike blinked. “Yeah. I know.”
The truck bounced lightly up the driveway ramp of the dealership and Mike’s dad put it between the lines of a parking spot so smoothly Mike wasn’t sure how brakes and the truck’s stick shift could even be involved.
Mike’s dad switched the truck off and popped his door open and started to get out and looked over at Mike. “What?”
Mike shook his head and got out too and said, “You’re really good at a lot of things.”
His dad laughed, a soft and surprised sound. “Too much practice. I’m just old. Besides, every kid thinks that about their old man.”
Mike said “I guess” and swung the truck’s door shut and walked around and he and his dad walked towards a row of used cars.
They spent a few minutes walking between vehicles, glancing in through windows, looking at tires, Mike mostly looking at the price stickers and shaking his head and moving on. His dad mostly watched Mike.
It was one of those early afternoons unique to the Midwest, with a bright blue sky and air cold enough to make most people wear a coat. Neither Mike nor his dad wore a coat. Mike’s shirtsleeves were long but his dad’s were short. Sometimes Mike shivered. His dad did not. The scars on his dad’s arms were long, white ragged things across his tanned skin. Sometimes Mike glanced at those scars and shivered.
Mike stopped in front of a ten year old Pontiac Sunbird and looked at the sticker and peered in through the driver’s side window and whistled. “Clean.”
His dad walked slowly around the car. “Tires still have a lot of tread. No rust.” He stopped in front of Mike and shrugged. “Lots of hood for such a small car. Probably a six in there. Might be fun to drive.”
Mike glanced away and affected a deeper tone. “You’re in control of a thousand pounds of glass, metal and plastic doing sixty, so everyone else on the road expects you to pay some goddamn attention.”
His dad stepped into Mike’s line of sight. “That supposed to be me?”
Mike looked down at the ground.
His dad said, “Yeah, I said that. And you kept it in your head, didn’t you? Passed your road test in the middle of that fucked up thunderstorm. Because you kept your head.” He reached out and tapped the Sunbird’s hood. “Doesn’t mean you can’t pay attention to what the hell you’re doing AND have fun.”
Mike looked up. “Yeah?”
“Sure. Let’s find someone here who can get us some keys.” His dad started to look around the lot, blue eyes only a bit narrowed in the bright fall sunshine. “Well, shit. Here comes a winner.”
The man walking towards them was wearing a coat. A jacket, really, meant to go with a suit, but this guy was wearing it with jeans and tennis shoes. And a tie. And his hair was spiky, gravity-defying, shiny.
Mike looked at the guy heading their way and then looked at his dad. The guy in the tie was smiling ear to ear, like he was about to greet his best friends in all the world. Mike’s dad was not smiling. He had one leg slightly forward of the other, shoulders squared, jaw set so tight a muscle by his ear jumped a bit every few seconds.
“Fuck.” Mike blurted it out, caught himself just as he started saying it, turned it into a whisper at once.
The salesman stopped in front of Mike’s dad and stuck out a hand. His voice was a radio voice, deep and clear. “Afternoon, sir. Looking over the Sunbird here?”
Mike’s dad looked at the hand like it was responsible for every awful thing that had ever been. He did not shake it. “Yeah. Get the keys?”
The salesman kept the hand right where it was and his smile got a bit bigger. “Sure thing. My name’s Garth. You are?”
Mike’s dad kept his own hands at his sides, curled into loose fists. “Jesus Christ. I can hear you dialing it up to eleven.”
Garth the salesman glanced at Mike and then looked back at Mike’s dad. The hand dropped but the smile didn’t. “I beg your pardon?”
Mike’s dad grunted. “The gladhanding bullshit. I can hear you dialing it up to eleven, in your head.”
The smile actually got even wider. “Guess I’m just in a good mood, beautiful day, I recently got married, just a lot going right for me lately. Mr. ?”
Mike’s dad said, “Kurt.”
Garth widened his eyes. “Wow, appropriate, huh? All right, Kurt, let’s see about getting you some keys.” He started to turn in the direction of the sales building.
Mike’s dad said, “That’s funny.”
Garth checked his stride. “Sorry?”
“What you said about my name. That’s funny.” He didn’t look like someone who had just found something funny.
Garth the salesman’s hands went palm-up. “I don’t know how we got off to such a rough start here.”
Mike’s dad blinked. “So don’t think about it and get the goddamn keys.”
Garth looked Kurt over. “Look, I know the reputation people in my line of work have. I get it. Especially with guys like you.”
The air was cold, the sunlight so bright and full it pressed the cold close to the skin.
Mike’s dad said, low and even, “Guys like me?”
Garth the salesman glanced over at Mike. “Old man’s kind of got a temper, huh?” Mike just stared at the salesman. His expression was all pity. Garth looked back at Mike’s dad and said, “Maybe I should get someone else to work with you.”
Mike saw his dad raise his eyebrows. “Anyone in there going to be able to work with a guy like me?”
Garth sighed. “I didn’t mean anything by that.”
Mike’s dad took three long quick strides and ended up about nose to nose with Garth. “Bullshit. You meant something by it, all right.”
Garth leaned back, paling. “I’m going to get someone else to work with you.” The backs of his legs were up against the bumper of sedan. He shifted his weight like he was going to slip out between the car and Mike’s dad.
Who leaned in. “What did you mean, guys like me?”
Mike stepped a bit to the side, to keep them both in view.
Garth leaned back even more, about to slip and stumble over the sedan behind him, completely off balance. “I don’t know, nothing, Jesus, maybe the scars, shit, I don’t know.”
Mike’s dad said, “I got these scars when I was younger than you are now. Most from crawling through rice paddies full of barbed wire and mines, trying to not get my legs blown off. Couple from when my old man used me to break a glass coffee table.”
Garth said, “Oh God, you’re one of those crazy old Viet Nam guys.”
Mike said, “Oh, wow. Shit.”
The salesman tried to squirm away. Mike watched his dad reach out with those long scarred arms and get a hold of the suit jacket and yank one way and then another and then another and then Garth the salesman went to the ground, his head smacking down hard onto the parking lot asphalt. Garth wailed.
Mike’s dad shook his head. “I’ll find someone to get me the keys.” He pushed Garth back down with a boot as the salesman started to try and get up. “No. You stay there. Down there. Where you belong.”
Mike’s eyes were huge.
Garth lay there, holding the back of his head, wincing. Tears rolled down his face.
Mike’s dad strode towards the sales building. He slowed, looked over his shoulder at Mike. “Come on. We’re going to get the keys, take that Sunbird for a spin.”
Mike looked down at Garth.
Mike’s dad said, “He’ll be fine. Long as he stays there.”
Mike said, half to Garth the salesman and half to his dad, “Yeah.”
Mike walked away from the crying, bleeding salesman and caught up to his old man, and they walked to the sales building, to get some keys.