The black gleaming car sat in the driveway of a quaint three-bedroom hovel on the south end of Pomona, California, across the street from a large complex, which was the ghost of a General Dynamics building. “GD,” as it was called, was a manufacturer for military industrial might in that area during the 60s and 70s. The tidy bedroom community called Westmont, located 30-minutes east of L.A. in the San Gabriel Valley, was a neighborhood built for the thousands of workers who put in time designing and creating defense technology for a modern era. It had come to be occupied by blue collars in the 80s, and more pleasant struggles.
My Pops, a fabricator at Lockheed, sat in the shadow of a huge palm tree on a wooden stool dug into the ground next to cobblestone on which the Chevy Monte Carlo sat idle, seemingly moaning from the gentle swipes of a chamois cloth being rubbed along its flanks and bumpers. The car creaked from the pressure being applied to it by a 6-foot-3, nearly 300-pound man pushing methodically against its frame.
Pops’ arms waved back and forth, ala the Karate Kid, wiping away the last water droplets left behind from the recent scrub down. He could see his own reflection elongated and distorted by the curved panels, his short-sleeved black-and-gold Dashiki shirt blurred into a kaleidoscope which changed shape with each of his dedicated movements. His chocolate-hued long muscular arms grew larger and smaller in the mirror images on the side of the car as he started to apply the first coat of wax.
Pops loved the car he dubbed Mercy, but that was an understatement. No one could mistake its name. There it was in plain view, embossed in gold lettering on blue vanity license plates. While Pops rubbed off the first coat of wax, and began to apply a second coat, his wife, who wanted to avoid the occasional swarms of flies around the house, talked to him through the screen in the window. It bubbled out from the shape of her head, from the number of times she pressed her face to it.
“Are you almost done?” she asked. “I need to go to Market Basket.”
At first, he ignored her question. He averted her eyes in the reflection, and kept both arms in motion, even though most of the wax had fallen in white flecks to the ground. It pleased him to see the effect of the polish, like he could see another earth and sky, the blues and greens appeared that much richer in another world where he lived each Saturday morning, if the weather obliged. His wife, my mother, insisted on an answer, and that he stop what he was doing to talk to her. He cut her off before she could speak again.
“Yeeeeesss, Lupe… You can use Flo to go to the store. Just get me some ice cream,” Pops said, using his best light-hearted voice. Yet, he couldn’t control the sarcastic lilt, failing in his attempt to be funny.
He could feel her hard stare but didn’t dare fully engage her. Hearing her sigh was a clear signal the simple conversation could escalate into an argument to ruin the day—a replay of one they might have had last week, or the week before. He tried not to remember, then got up from his stool, kicking it over, and moved to the rear of the car, using it to block her sight. Yet, he realized, he was still within earshot.
“You said this was my car,” his wife said. “You gave it to me. You said it was mine to use whenever I wanted. That means it’s as good as mine!”
Her voice grew louder, and he knew that Flo, although reliable was not how Lupe liked to travel. She was his queen, and the metallic green 1972 Chrysler Satellite Sebring, a so-called muscle car, appeared more like a tank to her, when she compared it with the appropriate carriage, the cleaner, curvier lines of the 1981 Monte Carlo, nearly new, less than a year old. In her mind, she’d rather go in class than fast. In his mind, it was all about her driving the shinier penny. This was a big deal to her frugal ways, when she had spent her hard-earned counselor’s paycheck on second-hand fashions from LeRoy’s thrift store for back-to-school shopping.
“I’m almost done,” Pops said. “Give me more time, and I can take you.”
Her face already had gone from the window. She had shut it with a loud ‘thud.’ The screen appeared to have stretched even more. In a way, he felt she was still there. Pops took a few more steps down the driveway, away from the green stucco house, to gauge where she might emerge, from the front door or the back. She might be trying to sneak down the driveway. The red wooden gate to the garage was open, and he wasn’t sure. Though, he felt, using his keen observation skills, his giraffe-like gaze, one he had perfected in the Army, he was sure he would catch her in her approach.
Flo sat on the curb. Her bath was next. Pops brushed off his black shorts and watched as the white flakes of the wax wafted toward the wet driveway, and rivulets of water were slowly pulled by gravity, and where his large sandaled feet picked where to stand his ground, ready for his wife when she came out.
Five minutes had passed, five minutes he could have used to finish buffing out the last few streaks of wax. He thought she would have come out by now. If she was patient with him, he was almost sure she’d enjoy the vanilla scent air freshener that he dabbed onto the air vents, and the meticulously vacuumed interior. He had even brushed out the lamb-skin seat covers. Already decided, he planned to head her off at the pass. He dropped the chamois cloth to the ground, then took the white handkerchief in his pocket to dab his neck and forehead. He wanted to be fully prepared to hear all about his shortcomings as a man, who in mom’s opinion, “loved to rub Mercy’s ass” more than hers. Whether that was true or not, Pops had no comment. In an awkward public relation’s response, he said, “I can neither confirm nor deny that fact.”
His wife, my dear mother, took it as an admission of guilt. In his better days, he charmed her into forgetting those shortcomings by buying a box of Church’s Chicken for us kids. Upon entering the front door, he held the ignition key from a keychain that linked a cursive metal cutout of the word, Mercy, ready to drop it into her hand but only as a last resort. While he was scouting the bedroom, he heard the car’s engine start, unmistakably Mercy’s purr, and The Staple Singers heavenly voices boomed from her speakers. He ran from out of the bedroom to the window where they began their late morning exchange. He popped open the window and leaned his tall frame over, craning his bearded face down, to talk through the bubble screen.
Mom rolled down the driver’s side power window. Their silence said enough, and the music spoke for them, the thump of bass and blaring horns: “Oh! Oh! Mercy! (I’ll take you there).” Dark sunglasses might have covered her eyes, but he could still feel the heat coming through them. After a long pause, during which she had gunned the engine several times, she finally said, “Gotcha! I gotchaaaa!” She slipped the gearshift into reverse and held her pinky out from a balled fist to wave it at him. In so many words, the gesture was code for “fuck you very much.” Other couples, their friends, might have had similar ways of communicating on such important topics. Theirs didn’t matter compared to the style with which my parents displayed. This was the closest translation I could come up with in my barely tested high school brain.
She flattened the gas petal to the floor, and the Monte Carlo flew onto the road, bucking as she rolled the gearshift into Drive. By that time, Pops’ enormous frame blocked the front door, conceding the loss. His wife slowed passing Flo, letting him get one last glimpse of her, and her pinky-finger salute. “Damn it, Lupe,” he said, muttering under his breath. Then as he watched his gleaming pride go down the street, he couldn’t help but chuckle. There was nothing he could do or say, except respond in the usual way, when his wife had outdone him. He kept his grin, rubbing a handkerchief on his neck and forehead, getting in the last word: “Mercy!”