“There’s nothing wrong with the Taurus,” Dad grumbles, pulling at the frayed spot in the middle of his orange and black argyle sweater vest with one hand and digging his new cane from CVS into the concrete driveway with the other.
“But this is brand new, Dad, a brand-new Ford. And the best part is that it drives for you, so you won’t have to worry.”
Marcela and I didn’t anticipate resistance. I have no idea why not. Of course, he would be stubborn as hell about this, even if it is his eighty-fifth birthday.
“Worry what? I’m not worried, and I don’t want some damn machine driving me around.”
“It’s safer.” I run my hand across the bright yellow aluminum roof over the driver’s seat, starting to feel like a car salesman. “And you’ll never have to fill it with one tank of gas. They’ll install a charger for you right here.”
Marcela smiles beside me, looking like a car show model with her maroon nail polish matching the bow she secured onto the middle of the hood, and her shiny chestnut hair curling up against the straps of her leopard-print blouse.
“What if it malfunctions? How is that safe, huh? Takes me into a ditch or some God forsaken neighborhood? Could be those what-you-call-em hackers got to it and made it so the computer turns against me.” He shuffles two-inch reverse steps, backing away from the car.
“Come on, Dad. It’s a Ford.”
My Dad, Ronnie, has always called himself a Ford man.
“They tested these things for years. Everyone will be driving one in a year or two—riding. It’s not going to malfunction. They’re really good cars. I can show you in Consumer Reports.”
“I’ve been driving for seventy years.”
“That’s kind of the problem.”
“There’s nothing wrong with my driving.” His head twitches no, his red-veined bellicose eyes magnified behind thick glasses.
Marcela gives me a look with her arched, Lauren Bacall eyebrows.
I lean against the car with my arms crossed. “What about the traffic jam you caused on the highway ramp a couple of weeks ago? You’re lucky you didn’t get your license taken away.”
“That was the battery.” He lifts the cane like he’s going to point it at me for emphasis but only makes it to about forty-five degrees. “The car stalled due to the bad battery. I got a new battery. Problem solved. And what would this thing do about a bad battery? Change its own battery?”
“It would have alerted you way in advance of the critical point of failure.”
“Hobson really wants you to have this, Big Daddy. We both do.” Marcela steps back in her heels creating equidistance between the three of us and taps her painted nails against the hood. “We wanted to give you something you could really use. And for our peace of mind, won’t you reconsider?”
“You shouldn’t be spending your money on me. It’s too much.”
“Marcela got a deal.”
“I did. A really good one. My company partners with Ford. You wouldn’t believe the deal we got.”
“Well, the deal is, I’m keeping the Taurus. Ought to outlast me at this point.” He gazes out at nothing in particular, his eyes looking sad at the acknowledgment of his mortality, but the thick glasses tend to exaggerate his expressions.
“Dad, please. You haven’t even tried it. Let’s take a spin. Come on. Aren’t you at least curious?” I open the door.
“You can still sit in the driver’s seat, Big Daddy.” Marcela takes a couple long, high-heeled strides to stand beside me, beckoning with an enthusiastic lipstick smile revved to capacity.
“If I wanted a ride, I’d go to Six Flags. I’m not a kid. I’m a grown man, in case you haven’t noticed.” He glares at me, then at Marcela, and then at me again. “Take it back to the lot.” He turns and shuffles up the slight incline of the driveway and into the garage, past his beloved Taurus with the baseball caps facing out through the back window bearing the logos of the Cleveland Browns and his beloved golf club, and continues into the house, slamming the kitchen door.
I look at Marcela and sigh. “The color was wrong for starters.” The only color they could give us at the wholesale price was this bright almost neon yellow. I knew it wouldn’t suit him, but I was hoping he would see the practicality of it, the need for it – an extension of his capacity to continue living independently.
“The color is not the problem here. It’s Big Daddy’s pride.”
Marcela has called my Dad that for years, starting back when she was still Mark and I introduced him to my parents for the first time. Marcela was a theater major in college, before she got into tech sales in real life, and apparently “Big Daddy” is a reference to this old school, wealthy, southern gentleman who has a gay son or something in a Tennessee Williams play. She thought it was funny and never let it go, though my father’s more the working-class Midwestern variety of old school.
Dad’s driving has been going downhill ever since my mother died three years ago. I’m guessing it’s a combination of his eyesight suffering macular degeneration due to type 2 diabetes, decreased mobility, and maybe some brain entropy, too. His eyes were a little better when he took his last driving test a few years ago, but even so I have no idea how he passed the DMV exam. He’s been going to the same place for fifty years, so maybe he’s memorized the eye chart by now, although given the cracks in his memory of late, that would be a small miracle, too. He hasn’t killed or injured any one yet, though that’s really a matter of luck. Highlights of casualties to date include a few marigolds and pansies, a green party candidate sign in a neighbor’s front yard (though for all we know that could’ve been on purpose), and most recently an inflatable Uncle Sam Fourth of July lawn decoration. I keep getting calls from his disgruntled neighbors worried their child will be next.
Mark—Marcela—and I have been doing everything we can to keep him off the streets, offering to run errands on the weekends and to take him to doctor’s appointments and go into work late, but he insists, stubborn as always, taking some strange pride in being behind the wheel. So, for his birthday, we made arrangements to get him a Ford Future, their latest self-driving electric model. It was more than we wanted to spend originally, but Marcella had a connection and managed to get a deal because her company makes an app that a few car companies, including Ford, buy and install in their fleets. We thought it would be perfect.
Now the car sits in our driveway with the big bow on the hood wilted and drooping from weeks of rain. We’ve been trying to think of a way to convince him, dragging our heels on taking it back. Meanwhile, Marcela’s had bigger concerns, planning her long-awaited surgery for her final transition. There’s a lot going on for both of us.
I stop by Dad’s after work one Tuesday to try and convince him that he’s putting harmless children at risk.
“Well, look what the cat dragged in.” He’s at the kitchen table in his tattered terrycloth bathrobe at half past six in the evening with a half-empty bag of pretzels. This isn’t like him.
“How you holding up, Dad?”
“Me? Just fine. How are you holding up?”
“Fine, Dad.” I lean over the table with my hands on the back of a chair, looking for clues in the array of objects on the table of what might be going on with him, but it just looks like a mess of newspapers, bills, magazines, a calendar, his daily pill box, and a spy novel paperback.
“To what honor do I owe this visitation?” He looks blankly back at me like we’re in some adolescent staring contest.
“I thought we could have a talk.”
“Oh, boy.” He shivers his head and shoulders and then pops a pretzel stick into his mouth. Chewing, he holds the open end of the bag up toward me.
He starts wheeze coughing, presumably from a bit of pretzel down the wrong pipe. I go to the sink and fill a glass from the dry rack with water. When I set it beside him, he ignores it and pulls himself up with his cane. “A talk, huh? Sounds like I’d better make us a couple of drinks.”
“Need some help?”
“No, I don’t need your goddamn help, and yes, I took my medication today, thank you very much Nurse Hobson. Go have a seat in the family room. I’ll be in in a minute.”
“It’s not a sin to ask for help, you know.” I go into the den where the TV blasts an obnoxious news channel. I switch it off with the remote and sit in the chair that’s not Dad’s.
Wadded tissues litter the beige carpet around his La-Z-Boy. It’s hard to tell if they’ve accumulated over time or just from today. He comes in cradling two glasses of clinking ice and whiskey in one hand while navigating his cane with the other. I debate whether to get up and take one before they fly from his shaking claw and risk censure, or wait and see if he manages miraculously.
He makes it across the carpet and holds my drink out. “That’ll cure what ails you,” he says before waddling back across the carpet to his chair.
“What ails you, Dad? Didn’t manage to get dressed today?”
“Eh.” He swats the air and sits with a heaving sigh. “Little cold is all.”
“Taking your meds?”
“Told you I’m taking ‘em. What’re you, deaf? Now, what’s doing?”
“About the car—”
“I got a call from Mrs. Farquhar.”
“That whining piece of—”
“Their garbage was knocked over at the curb and spilled into their front yard.”
“What’s that got to do with me?”
“She watched you backing out of your driveway and into their bins. That’s what.”
I watch him blink behind his glasses. “That busybody don’t know where to put the cans. They’re not supposed to go there. They’re supposed to go on the other side of the mailbox.”
“It doesn’t matter, Dad. You knocked them over. She’s asking me what if it had been her granddaughter. What am I supposed to tell her? She thinks you should have your license revoked.”
“Tell that busybody bitch to mind her own business.”
“I think it’s her business at this point. You know, Mom would tell you to take the car. The one from Marcela and me. Mom would think it was a good idea.”
He mumbles something indecipherable. I know I’m pulling a hand grenade, an apt metaphor for my mother if you knew her, but I need to get through to him.
“We still have it, Dad. Right in our driveway. It’s still yours.”
“Mark put you up to this?”
“I put me up to this. Marcela supports me one hundred per cent. It would mean a lot to her for you to take it. She had a big hand in the discounted price. It would make her feel included.”
“Just like a woman.” He takes a frowning sip of whisky.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means nothing. It means what it means.”
“Try and remember to say ‘Marcela.’”
“It’s just a habit.”
“I get it. It took me time, too. She just gets—it’s important.”
He starts wheeze coughing again. It’s hard not to interpret this as disapproval, but he throws me for a loop after the hacking subsides.
“You know, tell you the truth, I’d rather my son be married to a Marcela anyway. Believe you me. In fact, I was thinking, why don’t we go to the club for Thanksgiving this year? Finally, I can bring my son and his wife.”
I bite my upper lip and silently count to ten slowly. Years back, when I first came out, these types of comments triggered half-hour arguments followed by periods of silence between my parents and me. We’d gone in circles for decades. I’d gotten used to swallowing my pride, and they had mostly learned what not to say. In general, we talked a lot about the weather, but Dad’s declining mental state seems to be loosening his tongue.
“Now don’t get all quiet and pissy. It’s just, you know how the guys at the club are, and now we can go and not get a lot of hard looks from across the room. Admit it. You must feel pretty good to be walking around with a woman on your arm after all the crap you surely had to take for years on years.”
Yeah, like from him. I take a deep breath. I nip my whiskey.
“No, actually, I don’t feel good about it.”
“Not even a little?”
He isn’t letting go.
“It’s not exactly what I signed up for.” I’m surprised that this comes out of my mouth. The booze and the whole situation must be going to my head.
“What? You don’t think she looks like the real deal? Tell you the truth, if I didn’t know, I’d never’ve known.”
“Dad, it’s not—. I don’t care what people think. I just…”
“Say it, Hob. I ain’t gonna talk. Who you gonna tell if not your old man?”
I swill what’s left in my glass. Strangely enough, I realize he’s the only person I can admit this to. “It’s just … I don’t know how to explain it exactly.”
“Let me get you another.”
He yanks himself up with surprising dexterity and shuffles across the carpet to the sideboard in the kitchen. I hear the ice dispenser motor reeling and a few cubes dropping against wet glass.
I debate whether to have this conversation or invent another one to avoid it. I should’ve had it with my therapist already, but I guess I’ve been feeling guilty. Dad scoots back in with the two refills and hands me one. He seems a little more agile, but what if he’s overconfident?
“So, seems you didn’t come over to talk about the weather after all. Time for a man-to-man.” He sits leaning forward, magnified eyes now bright with attention.
“I came over to talk about the car.”
He looks at me like he’s called my bluff in a poker game, lips curling down into unshaven wrinkles on one side. “Now what’s this trouble about you and your wife?”
“That’s just it. I’m a cis gay man.”
He guffaws. “All those times, you got on my case about calling you a sissy—”
“No, Dad. Cis. C-I-S. It means that I identify as male.”
“Well, thank God for small blessings.”
“Whereas Marcela is trans and identifies female, as it turns out.”
“So you’ve told me many times.” He looks off to one side grinding his teeth, thinking who knows what offensive thing, but the sliver of space makes it easier for me to say it.
“The thing is, I don’t want to be married to a woman. I’m a gay man. I married a man. I want to be married to a man—”
“Ok, ok. I get it.” He cuts me off like he can’t bear to hear anymore, still gazing off into the distance.
“I know it’s not something you can understand. I don’t know why I brought it up.”
“Now don’t get your panties in a wad.” Dad takes a swig of whiskey. “Let me think for a minute is all.” He rubs the rim of his glass with a stubby thumb.
I’m seriously regretting opening my mouth.
“When I was about your age and could barely make ends meet, your mother, rest her soul, stood right by me. When she got the cancer, I sat by her bedside night and day.” He points an index finger out from his glass toward my face. “You need to buck up, young man.”
“It’s not the same thing. Look, in bed, after the surgery, the thing is, I don’t know if—never mind.”
“I might understand a little more than you know, mister. Might’ve seen more than you think in my day. In the service. Overseas. Working the graveyard shift downtown when they’d bring in the drunks and whores.”
I take a sip, wishing this conversation would end.
“So, you wanted a man in your life. Fine. Or maybe not fine, but it is what it is. Now your spouse decides she’s a woman. Strange days—I’m not saying they aren’t, but you took a vow, son. For better or worse. In sickness and in health. That’s your wife now, you hear? Now be a man about it. You’ve got to stand by her.”
“It’s easy for you to say. Besides, you’re just happy that we might pass as what you consider a normal couple—at your club.” After all the pain of coming out in an unsupportive home, my father finally gets what he wants.
“I’ll tell you the truth once and for all, son. I just think a man’s word means something—even in this day and age.”
Dad’s ability to perform daily activities continues to decline. His memory slips on an increasingly steep slope, and he isn’t getting out as much. When he does, I inevitably get a call. I catch him in his robe on numerous occasions. He got sick enough with some kind of infection a couple of weeks ago that he even let me drive him to the doctor, but once recovered, he’s been back behind the wheel. Fortunately, still no fatalities. At our house, Marcela has been recovering from surgery, so I feel like I’m on double-caretaking duty and still trying to act like I’m working at work. When Thanksgiving rolls up on us, we don’t feel like cooking and though my Dad’s club would usually be the last place we would want to spend the holiday, there’s now the increasingly real possibility that it could be the last year Dad can get there, and, besides, it’s one of the few half-decent places we can still get a reservation.
“No turkey for you, hon?”
Dad has taken to calling Marcela that and seems to have forgotten her name, though at least he isn’t calling her Mark. Maybe he’s forgotten Mark altogether and imagines I’ve been married to a woman all along. Wouldn’t that be convenient?
“No thank you, I’m vegan, you might remember.” Marcela gives me her panicked dead-eye stare like she said the wrong thing.
“You two don’t go ‘you might remember’ me. My brain ain’t as far gone as you go talking like it is. I just thought Thanksgiving was a special occasion. Or is it we’re not supposed to acknowledge the pilgrims anymore now?”
“I’m vegan every day. Even on Thanksgiving.” Marcela smiles tightly and shakes it off with a toss of her frosted brown lochs as she cuts a green bean in half. “I’m happy with all these side dishes.” Her plate looks sadly sparse, though, with a few steamed beans and an ant pile of roasted squash. Almost everything, the waiter explained, has chicken stock or butter or cream in it. Of course.
Dad stabs another thick piece of breast from the platter in the middle of the table and shakes it off over the painted turkey on his plate. “I just thought turkey was ok for you vegetarians.”
“Let it go, Dad.”
“I guess I consider a turkey an animal.” Marcela pokes Dad on the shoulder, her brown nail polish against his tweed jacket. “That’s what they taught us in school along with how devious the pilgrims were to the Native Americans.” She’s been amazingly patient with my Dad—and Mom, too, when she was alive.
“Don’t get smart now. Back in my day, vegetarian meant no red meat. They still ate the birds and fish. Anyhow, pass the damn gravy before my food gets stone cold.”
Despite the insanity of the last few weeks, Marcela and I have devised a new plan thanks to the gaming division at her company. One of QuietRiot’s recent apps is essentially a game designed to keep kids quiet on a road trip—or even to the grocery store, assuming anyone still shops that way instead of via delivery. You input the destination, and the car provides a driving simulation environment. With a few tweaks, Marcela explained, tweaks she said she could swing with the IT department, we could pull one over on Big Daddy—or rather, make everyone happy. The car, which we were able to swap out for a neon lime, will drive him to wherever he inputs into the GPS, he’ll get there safely without harming anyone or anyone’s property, and the façade of his manhood will stay in place. He’ll think he’s actually driving.
“Ok, so, we’re giving into your refusal to accept our gift of the self-driving car on one condition.”
He stares at his plate for a moment and I wonder if he’s forgotten the whole thing, but then he says, “I didn’t know I was at the mercy of your approval stamps.”
“Come on, Dad. A little give and take, please.”
“What’s the condition?”
“You keep driving—”
“I intend to.”
“But you accept this other new Ford we got you—for an amazing price—with built-in GPS, just so you can just have some help with directions and get all the safety features that come with cars from this decade.”
“I don’t need directions.”
“It’s a brand-new Ford. We got a deal on it with the trade-in of the self-driving one. And it’s green.”
“The silver Taurus is fine.”
“The Taurus is old and going to break down any day. Listen, it’s the new car or we start looking into care facilities so you don’t have to go anywhere and I can stop getting calls from the neighbors.”
“You can’t decide that.”
“Just take the car. It’s in the parking lot waiting for you.” I picked up Dad in my car and brought him to the club. Marcela took the updated Ford Future so we could surprise him with it after the meal.
“Please, Big Daddy,” Marcela ventures. “It means so much to Hobson. Let him do this.”
Dad slugs a quarter glass of ice tea. “I’ll pay you for it.”
“You can pay for half.” Marcela gives me the raised eyebrows to say this might be the best we can do. “Just half of what was already an amazing deal. The other half is a gift.”
“Fine.” Dad pushes his mash potatoes around.
“Let’s celebrate with some coffee and pie.” I breathe a sigh of relief. “What do you say?”
Dad lays his fork on his plate and doesn’t look up. I realize I’ve been talking to him like he’s a child again—something Marcela has been pointing out.
“There’s one more thing,” Marcela says.
I was hoping we could fill in the details later.
“Whoa. Now what. You said one condition.” Dad sits back and clumsily wipes at his mouth with the gold-colored napkin as the waiter clears plates.
“It’s part of the other one, just part of the car,” Marcela sings. “It won’t run unless you enter the place where you’re going. It’s one of the safety features, imbedded in the app I sell to the car companies, so don’t complain. There’s no way around it, just like the automatic seatbelts. But it’s easy. You hit the button or just say the place you’re going, and then it tells you where to turn.”
“What’s happened to this country?”
After dessert, we go out into the unseasonably humid afternoon and lead Dad to the car. He almost seems excited. It’s a new Ford, after all. We hand him the fob and watch him climb into the “driver’s” seat.
I show him the input screen on the dash as a soothing female voice comes through the speakers: “Select destination.”
“It’s already set up with most of the places you go. Just tap HOME in this case. You’ve also got THE CLUB, PUBLIX, WALMART, HOME DEPOT, or you input an address or search for the name of a place. Or say it with a clear voice.”
He taps HOME, and the car makes a chiming sound. He chuckles and looks like a kid on his birthday.
Marcela leans down and pecks him on the cheek. “Thank you for the meal, Big Daddy. Get home safe now.”
Dad pulls the car door shut and looks around for the window button.
I’m so relieved, I get choked up and wrap an arm around Marcela for stability. I wipe my face on her sweatered shoulder. She’s the one who pulled this off, after all.
“Always was a Ford man, you know.” Dad has managed to lower the window and looks us over, grinning big with his hands on the wheel.
“I know it, Dad.”
“Always was, but I was wrong about something.”
“It’s ok, Dad. I’m glad you like the car.”
“No, no. About you. Wrong about you, son. It does mean something to you after all, doesn’t it?”
“Being a man.” He looks at me, the red flesh under his eyes turned out, the eyes probably seeing a blurry version of my face—blurred enough to fill in how he wants to see me, I hope. “Well, gotta go.”
The window hums up. Dad thinks he puts the car in reverse, though he could put it in drive, neutral, low gear, it really doesn’t matter. The car drives him off.
I wonder if he was really fooled or just finally gave in. As we head across the parking lot, I take Marcela’s hand.