Undertow

 



               As a child, my older brother and I used to swim out to this drydock about a mile away from the first set of buoys in Lake Michigan. We would fight the undertow to get back to shore. My father used to tell us how proud he was of our bravery and determination. Though, I wasn't brave or determined, just too naive to understand the dangers in things. Bravery to a twelve year old boy is just a whim of curiosity in disguise.
             I grew up searching for last minute adventures and constantly waiting for the next stupid battle I would follow my brother Adam into. These usually involved bruised knuckles, a couple of high school seniors, and an alley behind Margo's Diner. Our mother used to laugh at us. "You two are going to give me greys," she would say as she tended to our scrapes, and gave us bags of frozen peas for our black-eyes and fat-lips. Our father was never home then. When he was on leave from overseas, Adam and I would tell him our war stories. We had hopes he would tell us some of his, but he never did.
              Life was  like that for awhile-- complacent. Then our mother died in a car accident a month after Adam started his senior year of college. Our mother was going to see Adam when a car slammed into the back of her Toyota on the freeway. She was killed on impact. Our father was dishonorably discharged. The news of our mother caused his temper to get the best of him.
           Within  months, our father became a part time drunk, Adam dropped out of college, and I was fixing to start my first year at the University of Michigan, majoring in Structural Engineering. I would go home on weekends, but my father was never there. Adam always had bruises. He would laugh and tell me, "It's not the same, taking on the older guys without you Pete," but I knew better. His wounds were our father's cry for help, and Adam lied to protect the memory of the man my father used to be-- a hero.
          I graduated from college three years later-- my father didn't come to my graduation, but Adam did. He told me that our father was trying to fix the truck, and would congratulate me later. Adam and I went to the lake after the ceremony was over. "Want to race like old times, Pete?"
          I looked out to the drydock, and watched the current lull back and forth. "Maybe some other time. The current looks too strong to fight." Adam nodded, his green eyes look depleted. He wasn't ready to fight the undertow.
         Five years later, I had a corporate job in Northern Michigan, designing skyscrapers, when I'd gotten a phone call informing me my father had died of liver poisoning. I hadn't been home since I graduated from college. They were unbearable to be around-- my father was the sinking ship and Adam was going down with him. I went home to help Adam make arrangements, but I found him the same way I remembered our father-- drunk and in shambles.
         I just stared at him, I was left with the same feelings of disappointment I had when I could smell the tequila on our father's breath-- a scent that was engraved into Adam's skin. "The lawyer's coming tomorrow. Try to get it together by then," I said to my shell of a brother, but Adam just nodded and waved me off. 
           The lawyer's visit lasted about ten minutes. He handed me a thick yellow envelope, and asked me to sign a release form. Then he told me he was sorry for my loss and left. 
           I glanced at the envelope, and then at Adam who was passed out on the sofa. I threw a cushion off of the recliner at him, but he didn't move. I went into what used to be my mother's study, it was now cluttered with old uniforms and crap my father needed when he was in the military. I sat down in the olive colored leather chair and fumbled with the clasp on the envelope. I opened it, and pulled out my father's Final Will and Testament. He left me the truck, a 1974 Chevy with a faded cherry paint coat, and black leather interior that carries the pungent scent of mothballs and has holes from the cigarettes my father used to put out on the seats. The truck hasn't run since I started college. I left the will on the dusty antique desk in the study, and slammed the door behind me. 
             Adam jerked awake and groggily moaned. "Dad left you the house," I said sharply and walked out of the front door. I turned and stared at the house, it was a white acadian, with red shutters, and a mahogany porch that wrapped around it. Behind the house was a stone walkway that led from the back door to the garage. The side door was stuck, swollen from the moisture lurking in the cool air. I opened up the front door of the garage and inhaled the scent of motor oil. The neatly laid tools were surrounded by crushed beer cans and variously labeled boxes.
                The hood of the truck was already propped up. It needed a new carburetor and new v-belts; which my father had already purchased, but was never sober enough to install. The parts were stacked on top of the box labeled "photo albums." I remember doing this when I was younger-- I would hand my father tools, and then he would explain what he was doing. 
               I loosened the old v-belts. My father told me the story of how he met my mother.I pulled out the oil-coated v-belts. They first met in the third grade. I checked the pulley to see if it was spinning properly. My father laughed at my mother, who ran into him at the park trying to catch a butterfly. I then put the new v-belts on.
              I labeled and removed the vacuum hoses and linkage throttle from the carburetor. My father told me that my mother refused to marry him twice because she wanted him to know that she didn't need him. Then I used the crimper tools to remove the fuel line. It turned out that my mother was right, she didn't need him, but he needed her. I loosened the mounting nuts from the manifold studs and removed the old carburetor. My father used alcohol to fight the undertow, but lost.
               I couldn't remember what gauge wrench would secure the new carburetor onto the manifold gasket. I remembered my dad making a pool reference when he showed me how to do this, "Think of the eight ball, if you play it right-- you'll win every game, but if you forget about it-- you're playing to lose." I grabbed the eight gauge wrench. I then reconnected the hoses, fuel line, and throttle linkage.
                I went to start the truck, turning the key-- with oil dripping from my fingers. It sputtered and then stalled, but I tried again. It sputtered in long drawls, and then roared to life, humming in smooth rhythms.
I pulled the truck out of the garage, drove it around the house, and onto the driveway. The brakes squeaked. The truck needed new brake pads. 
             Adam came outside, he looked lifeless. "Let's take a ride, Pete." 
           "Can't, the truck needs new brake pads," I said as Adam snatched the keys from my hand.
           "Pick them up in town."
            "Why do you want to go into town?" I asked as I took the keys from him. 
            "Let me drive, Pete." 
            We just stood there staring at each other. I noticed the window of our parent's old bedroom was broken. Adam finally caved. 
           "Fine, you drive. Just get in the damn truck Peter," Adam said as he slammed the passenger side door. I scrunched my nose as the engine sounded low putters. 
           "Where to?" I asked Adam.
           "The Corner Market and then Margo's Diner."
          "Can we stop at Margo's first? I'm starving."
          "No, I need to stop at the Corner Market before it closes," Adam said as we turned off the main road.
          "Why?" I asked.
           "Because the house is dry." I knew what he meant by "dry"-- it meant the house was out of the poison Adam needed for his liver.
          "You don't need that-- it's a waste."
          Adam clenched his jaw and sighed, "It's my money to waste, Pete."
          I stared at him, and then the truck started to bellow. It let out a long death rattle before it slowed and then stalled five miles out of town on a vacant road. I popped the hood and got out of the truck to see the damage. The engine was smoking, the truck had overheated. I opened the driver's door and grabbed a small beat-up tool box from the back of the cab. "No point in staying in the truck. We're going to be here for awhile. I think the radiator is busted," I said. Adam muttered something inaudible, but got out of the truck and slammed his door. 
          I grabbed a wrench out of the bag and went to turn the radiator cap, but it was too hot. "Shit," I muttered and dropped the wrench.           "We have to wait until it cools before I can actually see what the problem is. Maybe you should call for a tow?" I asked Adam, but he just shook his head.
         "There's no signal. We have to wait it out."
         We both sat on the ground with our backs against the truck. I noticed Adam had a half sleeve of an angel catching butterflies on his right forearm. "When did you get a tattoo?" I asked Adam, trying to kill time.
            "Last year, right before Christmas, to cover up the cigarette burns Dad left when I became his ashtray," Adam said callously.
            I just looked at him, "You're becoming Dad, you know. Soon enough, you're going to be the one to get dragged under." 
           "You don't get it, Pete.You weren't there," Adam said as he got up and walked across the road.I followed him, and he continued                  "Dad drank, and every time he did he relived the idea that he could have been Mom's hero. That he could have saved her from her accident.In his delusion, he was the hero and I was the obstacle he had to beat down-- he beat me down."
           "You could have stopped him. You could have left."
           Adam just shook his head and laughed, "The son of a bitch left me the house. He left me with the one thing that resembled him before he died-- a rancid mess."
           "He left me the truck, I think it will cost more to fix than it's worth," I said as thunder rumbled in the background.
           "It's pointless to fix that truck, Pete," Adam said as he walked towards the truck and began rummaging through the toolbox, dark clouds were covering the sun.
            "Why?" I asked.
          "Because it's Dad. It has its days where it'll run good, and then it has its days where it will sputter out. It's a choice of innovation or destruction." Adam pulled a tire iron out of the tool box and fumbled with it in his hands. The sky broke, and it began to pour. Adam started to swing the tire iron at the truck. I went to stop him, but then I thought better of it. I grabbed a wrench out of the bag and swung. We dented the panels and bashed out the windows. The rain came down harder, I eventually stopped, but Adam kept swinging. It was his turn to fight the undertow, and lose.

 

by Lily Hauge