The Instinct of a Churchmouse
originally published in Storgy Magazine.
We stole our first vehicle at fourteen.
It was our grandfather's '94 Chevy pickup, and Pete and I took it every night that summer without license and without permission. We'd cruise the suburbs, sometimes meeting up with girls down the road or to grab milkshakes at the 24-hour drive-thru. Anything we could think of really, and for no reason other than the freedom of it.
Though we grew up like brothers, Pete and I were cousins. He was a few months older and knew how to drive, so I rode shotgun most of the time. We weren’t bad kids, but it was a free summer, and the last before we fell into the trap of adulthood. Pete lived with our grandparents and since we were so close I’d stay over often, especially once we started taking the truck for spins. Each night we'd snag the slim, silver key off of the wall and sneak through the window out to the pickup and start the engine. We wouldn't close the doors until we were far enough down the road not to worry about excess noise.
The pickup itself was short and long like the dachshund and painted dark green. It smelled like grass clippings and the wool seats itched the backs of our legs. My grandfather, or Papa Art as we called him, loved his pickup, and he loved driving. It was also around this time that Papa's mind had began slipping. The usually sharp-minded man started forgetting small details like leaving the garage open overnight, then bigger ones, like leaving my grandmother at the grocery store——the family took notice. Because of his waning memory he carried around a notepad to jot reminders to help keep facts straight. Had you flipped through that pad you might find memos concerning doctor appointments, or sales at his favorite stores and where he had the coupons stashed. The words began to grow more and more smudged as you flipped through because Papa was left-handed, and slowly he was able to hold his hand over the words less. I admired that Papa wasn't ashamed of the contents in that notepad. What he was ashamed of was that now he had to use it, that his mind was not what it had been and never would be again.
On a late-July afternoon that summer I sat restlessly alone in my grandparent’s living room with their Chihuahua Marty flipping between the four out of two-hundred channels I liked (24, 72, 45, 23). The afternoon begged for adventure. Television had grown boring with the blue sky outside so I wandered into the kitchen to see if any snacks might do the trick. Marty followed, and as I cracked the refrigerator door the cool air hit me, and something outside the window glimmered and caught my eye. It was the pickup, parked cozily in the shade of the tree in front of the house, shined, waxed, and washed. It was the type of afternoon that felt like it could last as long as you wanted it to, especially at fourteen. On the wall hung the slim chrome key. I grabbed a soda and shut the refrigerator door to return for more channel surfing. I popped the tab and fingered through the same four channels again. 24, 72, 45, 23 then back to 24, but before I knew it I returned to the kitchen window and was eying the truck again. I knew my grandparents had taken their other vehicle (a purple Chrysler New Yorker that had a/c and leather seats) and wouldn’t be back for a few hours. I wondered if I could wait patiently for that long.
What I knew for sure was that the key was there, and it dared me to take it. It would be a fun story to tell Pete when he returned, I thought, and maybe he'd have a new respect for me and maybe I could even share the late-night driving duties with him. The screen door slammed shut behind me as Marty yapped from the porch for me to return. I didn’t. I looked around at the neighbor’s houses for witnesses as I opened the driver's side door and sat inside the pickup. I slid the key in and turned it until the engine purred. Patsy Cline played from the tape deck and I pulled the shifter down until the gear selection was in D for Drive. It was one of those old automatic shifters that stuck out from behind the steering wheel and kind of just fell into place when you pulled it south——they don't make them anymore. I let off the brake and the truck moved. I wanted to see what the pickup would do on its own; test it. It rolled a little then moved faster so I nervously smashed both feet on the brakes. That would have been the ideal moment to turn the engine off, put it in P for Park and go inside no harm done. But instead I relaxed, and let off the brake again, the pickup inched forward. I still can't explain what exactly came over me that day, and maybe there isn’t an explanation. I wasn't a bad kid, B-average and rarely the subject of punishment, but I believe that day I was tired of being bored, I was tired of being boring. Maybe the summer of passenger-side joyrides had worked me up to it, or maybe it was just a long time coming—some sort of distorted symbol of taking control. I had a lot to lose: from a learner's permit to my life, but if I learned something about driving from Papa Art, it was that being behind the wheel gave you the type of freedom that I yearned for. It was a clear day and I looked forward through the windshield. I wasn’t turning back, though I didn't quite see what was down the road either.
I figured I would go around the block first as my foot moved to the accelerator. I could feel the pickup now, it was natural and easier to control than the driving games down at the arcade. I pulled up to the end of the road and made my first complete stop. I knew to do that much. In fact, I knew a lot of the rules of the road, at least the ones written in the law books, and even though no one was anywhere near me I flipped on the turn signal just in case. There was no room for error, so I looked left, then right, then to my rear and side mirrors, then left again. The truck did most of the work as I made the left turn and rolled on down the neighborhood street. I'm sure I looked cool at that moment because I remember feeling that way. Patsy never sounded sweeter than she did on that day, and the only thing better would have been if the windows were down and a breeze was blowing through my hair. So, I reached for the handle. My eyes shifted between my mirrors, the speedometer, and the road as I rolled down the glass. That's when the sound of Ms. Cline drowned in the grind of the moving green pickup truck against a parked white car.
The squeaking and cracking of two vehicles rubbing against each other will stay with me forever; bone-chilling. I didn't get out of the truck, but I didn't freak out either, not yet. Freaking out would have been forfeit. I went into survival mode, my body took over and my mind was back riding shotgun. Before a thought could be collected, the shifter moved into R for Reverse, then D for Drive and the pickup peeled away from the scene. (Later I find out that this was called a hit-and-run, and it was also in the law books).
The truck went to the end the road. Took a left, then another and was back onto my grandparent's street. I pulled under the tree shade and pushed the shifter into P for Park. I hopped out to check the damage, scratching my itchy legs. A few white streaks ran along the front bumper, but thankfully there was no serious damage. I rushed inside and grabbed a wet cloth to wipe away the white marks and after a few scrubs the bumper looked good, I thought. Only a few unnoticeable scratches remaining. I went back inside, Marty was still barking as I hid the rag in the dirty laundry and sat back in the recliner to once again to flip through the channels and pretend nothing had happened. I couldn't tell you one program on because I was scared down into the deep marrow of my skeleton and my adrenaline fired on all cylinders. I tried to pretend nothing had happened but I was twisted like a dirty dish rag inside. In that moment I felt less brave than when I’d started, I had no plan to admit the crime to my grandfather, or my parents, and especially not Pete. I could lose everything I had coming, including the rest of a beautiful summer.
This had to be my secret, I decided.
I stayed glued to that chair until my grandparents returned. My grandmother came inside and asked me to go help Papa bring in groceries while she started supper. I walked out, and that's when I saw my Papa Art for the first time from the far end of innocence, like a custom Norman Rockwell commission he leaned against his truck with one arm, sleeves loosely rolled and the sun heading down beyond the mountains behind him. He wore a cap cocked softly atop his head and carried his normal sense of Americana about him which radiated at that moment as he looked at the exact spot I had hit the parked white car. Wiping the marks off hadn’t done much good, there were still scratches on the truck that had become more visible as the daylight changed. I grabbed some grocery bags from the Chrysler as my Papa walked inside without word.
Later that evening the whole family sat around the dinner table, my grandfather still quiet as forks and knives clickety clacked against plates and everyone around him talked and ate. No one suspected that I had anything to do with it, I hadn't caused any trouble in the past so I kept quiet, using my good reputation like a milksop. As my grandfather thought himself through theories of what had happened to the bumper I noticed my mother and aunts having a separate conversation with their eyes. They motioned to each other as if they knew what had happened——they had no clue, but with Papa’s declining memory, they didn’t need much evidence to support their theories.
Papa was frustrated at himself because he knew his mind was not what it once was, regardless of what happened with the truck——the pickup was only physical evidence of it. Even though the collision wasn’t his fault he questioned himself, and I let him do so by not speaking up. Papa had already struggled with coming to terms with memory loss. He wondered if maybe he had hit that car and just couldn’t remember. It all showed in his eyes as everyone ate casserole around him, everyone except him and me.
The next day, by family vote, Papa Art's truck keys were officially taken from him, and with little fight (except from Pete, who knew Papa still had enough capacity to drive). Papa's favorite freedom, driving, had been robbed from him by none other than his own grandson. The man I was supposed to become that summer had driven off that day, and the man I did become placed that slim chrome key in his pocket to gear up for a driver’s permit. It wasn’t an easy decision on my family’s part, but he gave in. He tried as hard as he could to not let it anger him, especially in front of Pete and me, but he never drove again after that day.
I never took the pickup with Pete again either. It didn't feel right, though I never told Pete why. That summer was supposed to be one all teens have that blurs adolescence and adulthood. When responsibility is just around the corner and you're stupid enough to run towards it. Papa's notepad continued to be his best tool in the time that followed, up until his notes became illegible, left-handed scratch.
Nowadays when I drive to Papa Art’s resting place I thank him for being a man for both of us because I had to learn how it was done the hard way. And I learned too late.