By Richard Clegg
It was proving to be a very bad morning—unrequited love, money owed that I didn’t have, health and vehicle collapses were involved. This was all greeted with tears, frustration, sadness and a pathetic text message to Steven who was dead now for 14 years. Does it surprise you that a waiting room in a car dealership workshop appears at this point in my tale?
The waiting room smelled of new cars. There was a TV informing me over and over again of all the tragedies in the world, about which I didn’t want to know and at this juncture, about which I didn’t care. Tragedies or inane advice about my aging skin or how to prevent rectal cancer. Italian designed display racks offered glossy Lexington Avenue brochures of U.S. designed and built cars inspired by their German or Italian brothers and sisters. “Inferior,” I thought. All this to the music of Shania Twain on the showroom sound system.
If things had been different? If I’d been as excited about brightly colored toy trucks and “rough housing” as I was about soft teddy bears and Lincoln Logs, things may well have been different. I might not be sitting here. The pure red and yellow colors were nice, but the toys were hard and angular with sharp, unpleasant-to-the-touch corners. So different from my teddy bear or the round smooth logs with which I could build things. The toys did roll and function like the real dump truck and fire engine they were meant to emulate. I wasn’t much interested. Because I was male, they were given to me with great expectations as to my enjoyment of said “hard and angular” objects. The toys were actually my mother’s doing. She had for some time then assumed the role of both Mother and Father. The idea was sweet, but how could she have known. They were set aside and I didn’t play with them.
Alone, I fantasized castles while my older brother and father worked together on the family car, a ‘49 Chevrolet Deluxe. Many an oil change, new spark plugs, tire rotation or a fuel pump installation were accomplished by them and done with what I interpreted as a strange sense of enjoyment on their part. Greasy hands and dirty Levis attested to work done and the bonding between them—to the extent my father was even capable of such a thing.
That I was not what my father had expected in a son most likely had less to do with the sadness of my childhood than the sniper fire he took in his arm and leg in Leipzig in the second World War. Today he would have most likely been given treatment for PTSD rather than being sent home to his wife to raise his two boys like all the other returning WWII vets. He didn’t want a wife. He didn’t want the two little boys. He didn’t want the responsibility and manifested this in ways that were ultimately devastating to me, the second and disappointing son.
But the tiny me didn’t understand any of those larger reasons. I just knew he didn’t touch me. He didn’t hold or cuddle me as I did my teddy bear. Basically he had little to do with me and when he did, it was a belt thrashing for some major violation that I didn’t comprehend.
If I had soiled my hands and jeans with them on such auto-related projects, I might not be so panicked by dealership service shops. I might be able to change my own oil, install new spark plugs or, at the minimum, have an interest in cars other than a means to point B from point A.
As I wandered about waiting and ruminating, I was surprised by my encounter with a mom, a stroller and a little boy just recently walking and not yet talking. My unexpected presence in his very new and wobbly world of delighted treading caused him to crash like a wind-up toy into the nearest wall. His mother and I gasped, expecting him to wail away from pain or just from surprise due to his unexpected encounter with the wall and resulting fall. He didn’t. I apologized to them both and like the men in North Africa, I squatted to his side, smiled, looked into his sweet and ageless face and asked in that tone adults reserve for toddlers, “Are you OK? Did you hurt yourself?” Not yet talking, he answered with a smile, which I interpreted as “no.” He was OK. Being childless myself, I was surprised when this innocent and accepting little soul crept for only seconds (but seemed to me like a lifetime) into some delicate region of my being. He then scampered quickly back out and about, leaving me to catch my breath.
I waited for my car to be done and for the bill. That would go on the credit card—“money owed I didn’t have.” As I paced, I glanced from the tiny male child, to the slick brochures for expensive cars, to bored faces of others waiting. Following a greater plan, my eyes were caught by and rested upon a small box of miniature brightly colored cars, buses and helicopters that were for sale. Toys. One was red; another was yellow. “Buy him a toy,” spoke a voice from that delicate just now stirred region of my being. As a loving father might have done, I agreed. Would he? Could he enter there again? If so, $4.95 was the cost of admission.
I checked with Mom first and then asked the sweet toddler which one he would like to have. He chose the blue helicopter. As I took the toy to the counter where I would eventually pay my own bill, the little one followed. With the toy in my left hand and my right hand dangling at my side, I suddenly felt him grasp my little finger. Warm and tightly. I was stunned but delighted by his innocent trust to grab the finger of a man he had never seen before. Tragically, in our culture, only a toddler who could barely walk and talk could get away with such a loving and audacious act. I bought the helicopter for him. I squatted again and replaced my finger in his hand with the blue helicopter. He looked at it, at me and smiled.
Like a frozen stick of butter you want only to soften, but have left a second or two too long in the microwave, the grasp of his warm tiny hand had melted a distant part of me that had never yet been touched in quite such a manner. I resisted picking him up and embracing him in my arms. I wish I had.
Had things been different? I could have been one hell of a father.
Gay Writes is a DiverseCity Series writing group, a program of SLCC’s Community Writing Center. The group meets the 2nd and 4th Monday of each month, 6:30-8 pm, 210 E. 400 South, Ste. 8, Salt Lake.