It’s night. Gravel crunches under the tires of the old Dodge Ram as it rattles, just a few mph too fast, down the two lane track leading to our house. It’s years before the streetlights will be installed on Old County Road, and the truck’s headlights fan out, casting a milky glow over the chest-high weeds that grow along the ditch banks bordering the lane.
The truck’s air conditioner hasn’t worked in years, which would be a problem during the day, but the cool night air mixes sweetly with the gravel dust as it floods in the open windows. As we roll past our neighbor’s expansive back yard, the scent of freshly-cut grass and wild onions layers over the dust smell, almost canceling out the danker smells of the truck – work boots, old chip bags, spilled soda, sweat, wood shavings…the things that make up my father at 33. He shifts at the wheel, a slight rise and tilt of his tailbone, giving a second of relief to his bad left hip. The pain always gets worse when he’s irritated about something. Right now he’s irritated about something my mother has just said.
My mother sits on the passenger side, elbow on the window ledge, fingers tapping the top of the cab. She is 28, with silky brown hair and a long, straight nose that, to my five-year-old mind, just begs to be grasped between thumb and forefinger with a giggly “honk”. She is quick to smile and hug and race, and I’ve already done my fair share of trying her patience, but she’s also monumentally slow to anger. It’s no surprise that her voice bears all the marks of true patience, floating demurely alongside my father’s gruffly barked opinion, right over my head. I find myself sandwiched between the points in their argument.
“But if he loves her…”, she says.
“What does it matter if he loves her? It’s still wrong.”
“But, Butch, if she loves him and he loves her, and if he can take care of her…isn’t that all we could – ”
“How, Pat? How’s he going to take care of her? And what if they have babies, what then? They’ll be outcasts!”
“Babe, all I’m saying is that if she’s in love, and he’s good to her, I don’t care what color he is – brown, green, purple with polka dots. And it’s not going to be up to us, anyway, so you’d better get used to it.”
“If she marries a black guy, she’s out of the family, Patricia. That’s final.”
“Well, not my family.”
The truck whips into our driveway, nearly taking out the mailbox. It slows to a crawl, weaving its way down the rutted path, lined by two acres of woodland that threatens to reclaim the road, the house, and us one day. Ahead, the front porch light flickers into view. My mother grabs her purse and the bags of groceries sitting at her feet in the floorboard. She gets out of the cab before the truck’s engine sputters off, stalking towards the front porch without a backwards glance.
My father sighs deeply, turns off the headlights, then takes the keys out of the ignition. Then he just sits there for a moment. It’s just me and him. I know that something big just happened, but it doesn’t make much sense. I’m little, but they sometimes talk about me like I’m a grownup. I have a sneaking suspicion that my mother won the fight, but it doesn’t matter. There are much bigger problems on my horizon. For instance, right now, tying my shoes is looking to be an insurmountable obstacle. I squirm. I’m old enough to unbuckle my own seatbelt, but this one sticks and needs an adult to push the button. I’m waiting for him to push the button so I can go inside, too. There was Neapolitan ice cream in one of those shopping bags.
He opens the truck door and steps out. “Come on, Boo Bear.”
I make a show of kicking my legs and trying to squeeze out of the safety belt, and we both laugh. He reaches in and unbuckles it, then helps me climb out of the driver’s side, letting me hold his index finger as we walk to the house.
I love strawberry ice cream. One day I’m going to change my name to Strawberry. Wouldn’t it be funny to be named Strawberry and get married to a purple polka-dotted man? What color would our babies be, I wonder?