One July morning back in the early ‘80s my father appeared in brand-new sweats and running shoes. Without a word to anyone he headed outside and trotted off down our drive. I followed him as far as the gate. As soon as he disappeared into the neighbor’s filbert orchard, my oldest brother Jeff showed up in the front yard shirtless and wearing nylon shorts and Nikes with tube socks. He planned on outdoing our father. Specifically, he was going to sprint, not jog, the newest side street near our house called Sun Ridge, aptly named for its half-mile uphill climb.
“I’ll take it pretty much at full speed,” Jeff told me, rising on the front lawn from a deep stretch. Coming down the hill, he had something special in mind; “I’m taking it backwards,” he said. “It’s better for your coccyx.”
He gave no reply; only sprinted away. This was something I just had to see. I climbed up to my tree fort where I kept an old pair of K-Mart binoculars. I sighted over the expanse of a hayfield to a short vacant stretch of Sun Ridge, near the bottom. Soon, he loped into view, fast as Superman racing a train. Then I lost him to houses. I kept the binoculars on that spot until later there he was, coming back down in reverse. He took our long gravel drive backwards as well, not even looking over his shoulder. I met him out front and he showed me his thigh muscles, bulging like Popeye’s after a slew of streamlined spinach, “Check ‘em out,” he said, winded and smiling. He pointed out his triceps and biceps, turned to show me his calves, making them go up and down like swollen pistons.
“Wow!” I said, glad that I wore pants and hiding my skinny arms behind my back; “Wonder what Dad’s look like.”
“See for yourself,” he said, and trudging up the drive just now was the man himself, slumped like an old gray dog tossed by the sea, his cheeks a pair of smashed ketchup packets. Passing by, he limply waved, unable to even speak. His calves were buried beneath his baggy, gray sweats.
As the youngest, I spent a great deal of time taking note of things. This father-son antagonism seemed a given ever since I could remember, and Jeff’s running style was not the only thing that set him apart. The first of three sons, he was also the only blonde among us, spurring the occasional, “He’s adopted!” As he grew, so did these differences. Where Dad’s hair was unstyled and flat, Jeff feathered his blonde locks constantly with a big comb he left in his back pocket. Dad’s medium build was formed by his life as a piano salesman and the regular consumption of steak and ale, but Jeff lifted weights five days a week. After showering, he stood in a towel at the mirror, flexing until he was dry. I wished I looked one-tenth as good. Then, to make matters worse, he donned what was indisputably cutting-edge—wide-legged painter pants, a shirt that was either sleeveless, cut in half to expose carved abdominal rock, or made of nothing but mesh. Sometimes all three stylistic innovations were employed at once. On his feet he wore leather Nike high tops, unlaced because apparently he just didn’t have the time.
But he did tie them when he made the varsity basketball team. I went to several of his games, and I noticed, sitting alone high up in the stands, that whenever he or one of his teammates scored with any kind of decisiveness, he turned to the opponent most at fault and placed his outspread hand over his own face in a quick gesture. Showered and still sweating, he drove me home afterward in the family wagon, taking turns and straightaways at Andretti-like speeds. The usual farmlands and berry fields we passed were plunged now in darkness; the occasional sunken drive or Douglas fir loomed on the roadside. Jeff and I were lit only by the instrument panel. I asked him about the hand-over-face gesture, “Because,” he said, and I looked just in time to see him roll his eyes and smirk. As though for emphasis, he pushed play on his huge silver boombox, which he kept on the seat between us, cranking the AC/DC. Travelling through dark, rural Oregon in our family’s wagon, I was then left trying to decipher my brother’s actions to lyrics like, Forget the hearse ’cause I’ll never die and, I’m a powder load, watch me explode.
After secretly doing pushups and sit ups every night for two weeks, I told Jeff about it with pride.
He put his thumb and forefinger around my wrist, tips touching with room to spare, and laughed in my face, “Which concentration camp are you from?”
When I started high school, I went to work part-time at the family music store—more reason for Jeff’s ridicule.
“Learning business from Dad!” he said, taking off his McDonald’s assistant manager clip-on tie. “He wouldn’t know what six figures were if they slapped him in the face.”
I kept following him around. The Christmas before, Jeff had given me two books, one by Lee Iacocca and the other by the CEO of IBM. I couldn’t reach page ten of either, but I told him now that I loved them and was reading both constantly. “I’m really beefing up on them,” I said.
“What books?” he said, transitioned fully from work to date mode: dressed in wide-legged jeans and a red muscle shirt, he walked around feathering his blonde hair with his big comb.
“Christmas,” I said. “The two business books?”
“Oh, yeah. Good,” he said. I followed him into the bathroom where he began slapping on the Old Spice, “So when do you plan on resigning?”
“Quitting the family business. You may as well stitch yourself to Dad’s side and be done with it if you can’t see that.” He grabbed his keys off the counter, perfumed to the hilt and his hair feathered perfectly. At the door he turned and looked directly at me for the first time in days. “Bye,” he said. “I’m going to go get some now, and you, you have to stay home with these people.”
And get some he did, judging by the fight he had with my dad the next morning at dawn. Jeff hadn’t come home, nor did he call. From my room upstairs, I heard my father issue ultimatums and decrees that sounded like they were ripped off from all the After School Specials I’d ever seen.
“As long as you’re living under this roof, mister, you’ll do as I say,” he said. “You have to set a good example for your brothers. I mean, when I was your age I wouldn’t dream of such behavior. And look, you’ve worried your mother sick.”
Jeff’s replies came nearly in monotone, like he knew they wouldn’t be heard, let alone considered: “I’m over 18.” “I’m an adult now.” “I’m old enough to make my own decisions.”
Then Dad got technical. “Look, you’re driving around in a car that’s not yours. So you have to abide the curfew. That’s just how it is, Jeff.”
“Okay,” Jeff said. “Fine.”
A week later Jeff’s new car arrived, dragged up our long gravel drive by a tow truck.
But it wasn’t just any car, it was a Datsun 510, a square sedan that in those days was being “tricked out” with fat tires, tinted windows, and lowered to within an inch of the ground. The effect of seeing such a thing coming at you on the street evoked a mixture of trepidation and awe.
The tow truck dropped it off where it sat on blocks on our concrete slab right beneath the basketball hoop. My dad and I went out to have a look. It was stripped down to nothing much more than the frame.
“Where are the tires?” I asked. “And the wheels?”
Jeff responded like I was an idiot. “They’re on order,” he said. “Along with the steering wheel and the engine.”
“There’s no engine?” my dad said.
“It has to be custom built. The factory motors were made for old people.”
“Well,” Dad said, heading back in now that the show was over. “You might be old by the time she’s ready to drive.”
His derision only fueled my brother. He worked more hours at McDonalds so he could afford more primer and pay off the tires and wheels sooner. When they arrived he lovingly put them on, the chrome spokes sparkling among the black tires and gray primer. After winter passed, the engine arrived, rebuilt by some homespun Datsun genius, who delivered it in his own Ford truck. With the aid of a flatbed crane the engine was successfully “dropped.” But still it would not start. Individual parts had to be ordered and waited for, each one’s arrival heralded as the final remedy, one after another after another. The long stall elicited comments from my dad like, “The car that wasn’t to be,” and even a semi-demand the thing literally be “put to pasture.”
But one day it finally did start. I happened to be home from work faking sick. I turned off the TV and ran outside when I heard what I thought was a fleet of Mack trucks starting up. The enormous sound of his new car made me forget I was wearing one of his old muscle shirts, my arms like two pencils poking though an envelope. His Datsun had two exhaust pipes but apparently little to no muffler. I walked through the grey smoke and a sea of strewn bolts and wrenches and black rags to find Jeff at the wheel, all the windows open. He revved the gas, up and down, and looked at me.
“Get in,” he said.
I felt the springs in the vinyl seat under me as we trundled slowly down our drive, the gravel knocking loudly at our feet. He turned out onto the main road with caution.
Seatbelts were nonexistent. The floors were bare metal. Only the speedometer worked. It felt so low in there I imagined trailing my finger out the open window like I was in a canoe. The stick shift came out of the floor almost as long as one in a school bus. The spring wind pouring in over our faces and through our hair carried the scent of cut grass and ripe blackberries.
Satisfied the thing would not explode, Jeff got more and more daring, even dangerous. He accelerated on the corners, G-forcing me into the door or his shoulder, making me grin most of the way out of the country toward Portland. The engine’s noise made it impossible to be heard unless we yelled into the wind. Everywhere we went people looked at us, eyes following this primered brute grumbling low to the ground in the full sun.
“There’s the island!” Jeff roared an inch from my temple. “I’m gonna do it!”
About a half mile ahead the road split. A median strip shaped like an elongated diamond stretched between the two lanes for about a block before they met again on the other side. After this point, tall trees were of the past, and the city lay ahead. Having been behind slow drivers our whole lives, we’d often joked about passing them on the left by going around the island. If a car came the other way, though, and was not seen due to the weather or the island’s few spindly trees, there would be certain death. But judging by the look on Jeff’s face now, this was just the risk he was willing to take.
He pulled over on the shoulder to let a station wagon pass. When it did, he accelerated until he was right on its tail.
“No way,” I said, more to myself than to him, though I saw him smile.
He was within a foot of the wagon’s bumper going about 30—I could see its two gray-haired occupants—and he scoped the distance for anyone coming. At the island’s battered and rusted guard rail, the wagon tapped its brakes like they always do, and before I could say anything Jeff cranked the wheel and entered the oncoming lane, and around we went. I screamed into the wind, the countryside flying by. The wagon was out of view until I glimpsed it through the island’s weeds, parallel with us, if not ahead. No one was coming the other direction and then we were nearly to the other side going 60 when the face-like grill of a step van—its driver flipping us the double bird—skidded its brakes just in time for Jeff to lurch into the correct lane. The gray hairs were five lengths behind, mouths agape.
Jeff turned to me, eyes off the road, and yelled, “What were you saying?”
He saved the best for last, though. Running yellows and weaving between cars in the two lanes going into town, I knew where we were headed—I went there after school and every Saturday when I wasn’t acting sick. When our family’s music store came into view, he slowed down. He let regular cars pass without paying them a look, his eyes straight ahead, downshifting until the speedometer bounced at nothing. Even at those speeds it was laughable to attempt a conversation without shouting, so I didn’t ask any questions. I was puzzled more when he hit the hazards and came to a complete stop in the middle of the street, smack-dab in front of our father’s business, the proprietor’s blue mini-van parked neatly in its allotted space.
Polished pianos in the showroom windows glared in the sun like silver eyes. Jeff left the Datsun in first gear with the clutch in, car after car passing by annoyed, while pressing the gas pedal, decibel by decibel. The buildings between us ricocheted the grinding bleat until the pedal was all the way to the floor and I could not hear myself yelling. Then, at the very last second anyone within a mile could stand it, he popped the clutch and we rocketed forth with a hellish squeal, his arms and face flexing as he struggled to stay in the lane, rumbling and shimmying down the road for half a block of screaming terror.
I spun in my seat, eager to see the reaction from our father, but saw only bluish clouds. Eventually, Jeff regained control and spent a moment just coasting in disbelief. Then he appeared to get an idea, checked all directions and suddenly yanked the wheel in a U-turn. Sailing past the store the other way, he pressed the clutch in and revved the gas. In the storefront windows there we were—cheaters of death behind black glass—and we laughed as loud as we ever have, our lungs full of tire smoke.
As we drove back home the loudness of the car and rushing wind made it impossible to speak our thoughts. I couldn’t say what Jeff’s were. I knew we’d done something significant together, though, something bigger than words. I settled in for the ride, my puny wrists and the sticks they were connected to exposed for all to see, and smiled as I imagined our father leaving later that day. He would stand in his cracked parking space, detect a whiff of burning rubber in the air and finally see, there on the road, two dark streaks bolting away from home.