Stories Inspired by Dad: The Old Car
It was asking for it.
Most summer days, Mike could round up a group of kids to play with. Practically every house on his street was bursting with children, ripe for a game of baseball, a dip in the river, a dash through the sprinklers. Unofficially, Mike was the manager of these activities. He’d find the right people, make the plans, and determine where they would play. And the kids in his neighborhood listened to him.
But some summer days in Texas were so oppressively hot that not even Mike could coerce the children outside. He’d bang on the neighbors’ doors only to be greeted by a glaring parent who would crack the door just wide enough to tell Mike to go away. Mike wandered from house to house, even as sweat slicked his long red hair to his forehead and cheeks. The heat didn’t bother Mike, but that didn’t mean he could inject the others with his same resilience.
It was one of these abnormally warm days (the temperature blistered around 100°F by 10 a.m.), and Mike had finally given up on the local crew. He meandered back to his parents’ house as the sun splashed more freckles on his arms. He sat on the bottom step of his front porch without even bothering to move into the scant shadow of the roof. He wiped the sweat from his brow with his forearm and looked around.
Mike lived in an unkempt yet quiet neighborhood in the Houston suburb of Pasadena. He lived on Boykin Street, which took one sharp elbow curve where Mike’s family’s house sat. The small blue house held Mike as well as his dad, step-mom and two siblings. Mike was the middle child; and like the other kids on the block, there wasn’t a chance of getting his brother and sister outside on a day like that day.
Cars lined Mike’s street — old, beat up cars that his friends’ parents drove to work every day. They frequently backfired and broke down right there on the street.
Mike’s dad was a skilled mechanic who never refused a quick fix for his neighbors. His generosity had earned him the favor of the families on the block, for he had at one point or another assisted each of them in some way. So the adults usually forgave Mike and his friends for their mischief, although they might not have offered such leniency to others.
Looking left, Mike saw the pavement turn to liquid — the way it appears to on days like this one. A tumbleweed drifted across the dark asphalt and caught on a barbed-wire fence, and Mike recalled a western film he had watched with his dad the other night.
Then a silhouette appeared out of the haze, just like in the film.
The figure drew nearer, and Mike soon made out who it was: his friend Randy Boykin, who shared his surname with the street on which he and Mike lived. There was no apparent connection between the name of the street and Randy’s family — it was just a funny coincidence that every newcomer on the street felt obliged to point out.
Randy shuffled slowly toward Mike with his head down and his eyes squinting, trying to avoid the bright sunlight. He too was already drenched in sweat and his skin was turning red as he wordlessly walked through Mike’s yard and sat on the step with him.
“You got anything to drink?” Randy asked without saying hello.
“I think Dad’s got some iced tea,” Mike said.
The two stood up and walked back inside. Randy exclaimed joyously as the cool air of the overhead fan hit him in the face. Just past the entrance hall, the living room looked dark to the two boys as their eyes adjusted to the indoors.
They walked through the hall and into the kitchen, where Mike opened the refrigerator and extracted a large glass jug of fresh iced tea. He pinched a lemon wedge floating among the ice and squeezed it until the juice dripped into the brown liquid. Then he lifted the tea to his lips and drank heartily. Randy watched anxiously until Mike passed the jug his way, then Randy indulged in the drink himself.
When the boys had had their fill, Mike replaced the jug in the fridge and turned to Randy.
“What do you wanna do? I’m bored.”
“I don’t know, man. It’s so hot out.”
“I don’t care, dude. I don’t wanna just sit around.”
Mike looked around. His baseball bat, glove and ball were leaning against the wall opposite the kitchen door. Baseball was always his fallback plan, so he suggested it to Randy.
“Let’s just go throw the ball around,” he said.
Randy agreed and said he’d go grab his glove from his house. Mike sat down on the living room couch and kicked his feet up as Randy walked out to the porch and closed the front door.
Satisfied that he wouldn’t spend the day aimlessly hoping for something to do, Mike crossed his hands behind his head and closed his eyes. He felt the cool fan air sweep across his face and smiled.
Mike was on the precipice of sleep when Randy returned, baseball glove on his hand. He opened the front door and smacked Mike on the head with his glove.
“Get up! You said you wanted to go do something.”
“All right, all right. I’m up. Let’s go,” Mike said.
He gathered his baseball gear from the floor and led the way out the back door, toward the field where Mike’s crew often gathered for pick-up, endless games of baseball. The two walked down the creaking porch steps and across the lawn of dying, yellow grass.
At the edge of the property was a makeshift fence Mike’s father had constructed of fallen elms the neighborhood lost in a tropical storm a few years prior. Mike and Randy hopped the fence and began walking through the brittle weeds of the empty field behind Mike’s family home.
The field was large — or at least it seemed large to Mike and Randy. A few steps into the field and they could see the baseball diamond beat into the ground by thousands of sprints around the makeshift bases. An old tire marked first base; a broken dresser drawer second and a pool floatie pinned to the ground with a railroad spike third. Home plate was just a thoroughly bare patch of land where no plant would ever grow again.
Mike started jogging toward the short stop position and tossed the ball backward to Randy. As he moved toward the spot between second and third base, a glint across the way caught his eye.
He slowed down and raised his hand above his brow to block out the sun. Out where the left field wall would be in a proper ballpark sat an old car, quiet and still. The car hadn’t been there the last time the gang had congregated for a game—someone must have dumped it there recently, Mike reasoned.
“Yo!” Randy yelled from near the first base tire. He threw the baseball to Mike, who caught it.
“Hey, come here,” Mike shouted back.
Randy gave Mike an inquisitive look, then tucked his glove in the crook of his arm and started Mike’s way.
“Wait. Grab the bat,” Mike called, seeing that Randy had set it down. Randy stopped, turned and grabbed the bat, then trotted to Mike.
“See that over there?” Mike said, pointing toward the car, when Randy reached him. “I think someone must’ve just dumped it there.”
“Yeah, guess so,” Randy replied. “So what?”
“I don’t know. Wanna go check it out?”
“It’s just an old car,” Randy said. “What, you don’t see enough of those with your dad?”
“Nah, come on. Let’s go look,” Mike said, nudging Randy with his elbow.
It wasn’t worth arguing, so Randy agreed and the two boys started walking toward the car. They walked carefully through the dusty field, looking down to watch for prairie dog holes in which they might snag their ankles.
As they approached the car, its shape became clearer. It was a very old automobile, its frame rounded and old-fashioned and its exterior rusting. Its tires were deflated, but its windows were shiny and clear.
Mike and Randy walked all the way around the car when they reached it. They looked inside at the fraying interior and touched its white hot fenders.
“Here, gimme the bat,” Mike said to Randy, and he held out his hand.
Randy chuckled. “What?”
“Hand me the bat,” Mike repeated. “Look man, someone just left it here. Let’s smash it.”
“I don’t know man.” Randy hesitated and kept holding the bat. “What if someone owns it?”
“Nobody owns it. Somebody just left it here,” Mike retorted.
“All—all right,” Randy said. He flipped the grip of the bat toward Mike and gave it to him.
Mike didn’t think twice. He lifted the bat and swung like a pro right at the shining windshield. Cracks rippled across the glass, but it didn’t shatter. He lifted the bat again, this time over his head, and brought it down hard on the weakened windshield. This time it gave, and the glass rained into the car with a beautiful tinkling sound.
Randy laughed. “All right. Give it to me. My turn.”
Mike returned the bat to Randy, who jumped up on the hood of the car. He lowered the handle of the bat to his waist and stood in a golfer’s stance.
“Fore!” he shouted, then he swung hard and knocked the driver’s side mirror clean off the car. The shiny metal mirror bounced in the brown weeds and rolled to a stop.
Mike joined Randy on the hood of the car, then he stepped over where the windshield used to be and onto the roof.
“Break one of the windows!” he urged Randy.
Randy raised the bat again and swung low. The bat collided with the driver’s window this time. Randy was slightly taller and stronger than Mike, and the window shattered on the first strike.
“Nice!” Mike exclaimed. Randy handed him back the bat, and Mike took to the roof. He brought the bat up and down on the reddish metal until it looked as pocked as if it had sat outside in Texas’ worst hailstorm.
The boys spent the next 15 minutes passing the bat back and forth, destroying the car. They were completely oblivious to the harsh heat. The sweat gushed from their necks and foreheads and landed on the metal of the car with inaudible sizzles.
When further damage was all but pointless, Mike hopped from the roof of the car and picked up the baseball. Bat still in-hand, he tossed the baseball straight in the air and gave a final swing as it came back toward the earth. It was a perfect hit, and the ball went careening in the direction of his house.
“And it’s outta here!” he shouted in his best impression of a sports announcer.
Randy laughed and lowered himself from the car as well. Sweat soaked through his shirt and his pants—he looked like he’d taken a dip in the pool.
“Jesus, I’m beat,” Randy said.
“Me too. I wish it would rain. I could go for some rain right now,” Mike said. He clapped Randy on the back and the two started walking back toward Mike’s house.
“Don’t move!” An angry voice came from behind the boys.
Mike and Randy jumped. They turned in unison toward the voice.
Standing near the taillight of the car they had just demolished was a man in denim overalls and a faded white T-shirt. Mike and Randy both recognized him—he lived in the neighborhood and had joined in some local cookouts on Boykin Street. He had been friendly then, but now he was staring at Mike and Randy with a look that conveyed anything but neighborly camaraderie.
“What the hell did you two do?” he said, advancing toward the boys.
“We just—” Randy started, but just then Mike grabbed his arm and began to run. Randy didn’t think twice; he turned with Mike and sprinted. The boys ran harder than they’d ever run. They swung their arms and paid no attention to the gopher holes in the ground. Randy tripped once, somersaulted and got right back up without missing a beat.
They were near the fence on the edge of Mike’s property, but they could hear the man’s footsteps just behind them. As Mike planted his gloved hand on the fence to catapult over it, he felt a strong hand grip the back of his T-shirt and yank with tremendous force. His feet came out from underneath him, and he fell toward the ground. His elbow landed on a sharp rock peeking out of the grubby ground and a numbing pain shot through his arm.
Randy hesitated just long enough to give the man an opportunity to seize his shirt collar as well. The man pinned them both to the ground and looked Mike in the eyes.
“What’s your name, boy? You Rusty’s kid?”
Mike didn’t know what to say. His tongue felt dry and his throat closed. He swallowed and gasped, “Yes—yes sir.”
The man stood and lifted the boys with him. He pushed Mike against the fence with Mike’s shirt still clenched in his fist. He glowered at him with dark brown eyes, and even as Mike tried to look away he couldn’t. Instead, he started crying.
“Crying’s not gonna fix anything, boy,” the man said. Randy stared on in terror. “What do you think you’re doing, beating up my car like that?”
“We didn’t know!” Mike yelled back through tears. Spittle flew from his mouth with every word.
“What do you mean you didn’t know?” the man said. “Don’t you have a tiny bit of respect for other people’s property?”
“We thought—we thought it was just a junk car!” Mike sputtered. He was fully bawling now.
“That’s my car and you’re gonna pay for it,” the man said. He then stepped over the fence and dragged the boys with him, never loosening his iron grip.
“Come on! Your parents home?” the man said, looking down at Mike.
“No!” Mike said. He tried to project confidence through his tears, but it sounded more like a plea.
“Like hell they’re not,” the man said.
The man pulled the boys along through the yard. Mike and Randy were both too scared to resist. By now they were both crying and afraid, but none of that deterred the man clasping their shirts.
Together, the three walked up the porch steps to the front door, where the man used his elbow to ring the doorbell. They waited in the heat, sweat and tears streaming down the faces of Mike and Randy. Moments later, the door opened and Mike’s step-mother stood there, smoking a cigarette and fanning herself with a piece of mail.
“Well what—what’s going on here?” she said in a thick Southern drawl.
“These two just beat the shit out of my car!” the man said. Catching himself, he lowered his voice and added, “Pardon my language, ma’am.”
“What do you mean they beat up your car?”
“They took a baseball bat to my car out in the field there!” the man said, gesturing with his chin in the direction of the car. “I just bought that thing and was gonna work with Rusty to fix it up, but now it’s all beat to hell.”
“Oh no…” Mike’s step-mother said, realizing the gravity of what her boy and his friend had done. She put out her cigarette on the side of the house then crouched down to look the boys in the face.
“Is this true?” she asked Mike with disappointment in her voice more menacing than if she had screamed at them.
Mike was resigned. He nodded but didn’t say anything. His step-mother stood up.
“You can let go of them, Mr. Lehigh. I’ll take care of this,” she said. “How much is it going to cost?”
Mr. Lehigh released the boys and stretched his hands.
“Listen, I don’t know how much it’s going to cost. I’ll have to have Rusty come take a look at it I guess. Then we’ll go from there.”
“I understand,” Mike’s step-mother said. She turned to Randy. “Do you want to call your mother, or shall I?”
Randy whimpered a bit. He couldn’t win. “You can do it,” he said.
“Fine, then,” she said. She looked back at Mr. Lehigh. “I’m really sorry about this. I don’t know what Mike was thinking.”
“We just—” Mike started, but his step-mother shushed him.
“We’ll talk about this more in a moment.”
“Sorry to meet like this,” Mr. Lehigh joked. His anger was dissipating.
“No, no. I’m sorry,” Mike’s step-mother said.
“I’ll talk to Rusty and we’ll go from there,” Mr. Lehigh said. He almost seemed ashamed of having to have the conversation.
“Sounds good. We’ll talk soon,” Mike’s step-mom said. She pulled the boys inside and closed the door as Mr. Lehigh walked down the front porch steps.
When the door closed, she turned to the boys.
“What in the world were you thinking?” she asked, but she didn’t want an answer.
Mike and Randy looked at each other. It was about to become a much longer summer than either of them had expected.