Mom and Dad and I are in the car, on the LA freeway, headed for some town indistinguishable from the next. Why did they bother to name these towns? You can’t tell where one ends and another begins.
Dad’s driving. Mom turns around from the passenger seat to look at me in the back. “Now remember,” she says, “if you call him Dad or Daddy, whatever, you’re going to be in trouble.”
Trouble is not good. I know she hasn’t thought of anything yet, but it’s not going to be good. “Why, Mommy?”
“This guy we’re going to see thinks my husband left me, so he doesn’t try to squeeze me on the price of the car.”
“But Dad doesn’t live with us, anyway.”
“I know but he’s around, right? He didn’t leave us in the lurch.”
“But so why is he coming with us?”
“He’s just a friend coming to check out the car, make sure it’s not a death trap.”
Death trap sounds like trouble anyway. Death trap does not sound good.
Some guy is on the radio singing only women bleed. He sings it over and over, clearly in love with his own voice. “That’s sexist,” I say. Because we’re not supposed to say only men do this or only women do that, right?
Mom scoffs and Dad says to the rearview, “he was given an award by now.”
Mom sees me looking confused. “That’s the National Organization for Women. NOW.”
So what, it can’t be sexist because they say so?
We get to the place. Dad shakes hands with the man out in front of a neat little house with a brown lawn like all the other lawns around here. Later on, people will replace these lawns with different colors of rock. White smooth rock, salt-and-pepper, regular old gray, shining sharp white rock like crystal, cinder the color of dried blood. But not yet. Right now everybody thinks the water is coming back. They’re calling it “a drought,” like there’s some other kind of normal. Mom holds her hand out to shake but the man, young with tan skin and dark hair to his shoulders, doesn’t take it, just holds up his hand in a weak salute. He doesn’t look at me which is good, because I am not saying anything just in case I slip up and call Dad something that means trouble for me. Also, is it lying if you just don’t say anything at all?
The car is in the driveway. A pinto with its bug-like shape, but I think it is beautiful: deep forest green with little winking lights deep inside the paint, like stars in the car’s interior galaxy. The man explains how it has been converted, the gas tank moved or something so that it is not a death trap. Good! That’s good. I wonder why Dad came along if it is that simple, but then the man lifts the hood and Dad and he dunk their heads under there for some time while Mom and I luxuriate in the velvety bucket seats and play with the dials of the silent radio. I was hoping for an 8-track but no dice. I try out the seatbelt that sits across where my neck and shoulder meet. It’s a good thing the Pinto is not a death trap because this seatbelt means I will not be thrown clear in the case of a devastating wreck. It seems like a tossup whether you live or die in these things, and all the things you can do to change the outcome might just make things worse. Also, I don’t care what NOW says, everybody bleeds.
I am so good about not saying Daddy or whatever and it is Daddy who pulls a wad of bills out of his 501 pocket that is faded to the shape of money. He hands it to the man and they shake again. Dad drops the hood and pulls up on it to test it is locked tight. He waves and climbs back in his Honda and pulls away. And then I get that the other reason he came along was so Mom could drive the new Pinto back with me in the passenger seat.
“Seatbelts!” Mom says, excited, and smiles at me.
“Yeah!” I say. And away we go.