The Ford Granada by Brian Huba
When I was a teenager my father drove a silver 1978 Ford Granada with rust holes the size of softballs. At a time when being ‘cool’ was a gargantuan deal, the Granada was an embarrassment. I remember talking to girls outside the movie theatre on a Friday night, seeing the Granada coming across the parking lot like a smoke screen, and darting behind the bushes until the girls had gone off. In ninth grade when I had bi-weekly braces appointments that meant I had to leave school on early release, I would shrink in shame as the Granada rounded past student parking, roared to a stop outside the senior wing. “Is that your ride?” the office secretary would ask. I’d say “I don’t think so. But let me see,” then make that death-row dash from the school’s front doors, praying that nobody watched through the classroom windows, but realizing a thousand eyes were probably on me, including Rachel Sykes’s, the cheerleading captain I had a heavyweight crush on. My father kept garbage bags filled with empty beer cans on the seats, cans he always meant to recycle but never got around to. Before he backfired from the high school lot, the Hefty bags would be relocated to the trunk, to make room for me. He’d take care of that, and I’d nose dive though the open door onto the sun-cracked, maroon bucket, pull the creaky door shut, bury my head between my knees, eying the blue-collared G.E. shirts on the floor mat. My dad would climb behind the faded-rubber wheel, and say, “You feeling sick?” He’d put the car in gear with an irritated snicker, and off we went with a bang from the bad exhaust.
The Granada was in my life a little over a decade. When it r-r-r-ran, it could never be trusted, dying at red lights, submitting on the shoulder of a rural road. After that it sat at the side of the driveway like a monument in soft mud, beside the broken-down motorboat my father was perpetually fixing, and the ‘slightly used’ snowmobile he never made go. When he put some coin together, the neighborhood mechanic duct taped the “silver beast” back together, and the Granada was out of its open grave. I’d come home from school, and my mother would meet me at the house’s front door with a look that meant Oh my God, the Granada’s back. When she knew I’d read her expression right, she’d say, “Can you freakin’ believe it?” and raise both clenched fists above her head.
Before our summer vacations to New Hampshire, my father would spray paint the rust holes for the 4-hour drive to the Atlantic Ocean. Easter Sundays, he took mercy on my mother and me by parking at the far end of the church’s lot. He knew the truth: We hated the Granada. We didn’t understand the value in keeping something way past expiration. “Gotta get your money’s worth,” he’d always say. But, when church ended and the Easter pictures were posed for, he always drove straight through the gathered congregation on the way out. Check the back seat, beside the Hefty bag of Bud cans. That’s me, at 12 years old, donning a K-Mart necktie; face buried between the knees of my pleated slacks that would’ve looked oh-so cool without a rust box wrapped around them. When my uncle Jack and his blonde wife came to the house in his midnight blue Camaro with the 5-speed and mag wheels, he’d ask my father, “Steve, how come you don’t get something new?” Steve would give Jack a look like he just suggested shooting the President, then say, “What for?”
It was after one of those orthodontist appointments that my father brought me to McDonalds. I was 14 years old. He ordered his usual: three cheeseburgers, medium fry, and medium soda. We drove to a little league park behind the Mickey-D’s called West Land Hills, parked the car and got busy with the grub. My father always ate his cheeseburgers the same way. He’d set the sandwich between the front seats, carefully pull off the yellow wrapping, hold it in his hand, biting in a clockwise circle till it was finished. In fact he always did everything the same way. Kept his wallet in the same spot on the counter with his car keys. Smoked Kool Ultra 100’s in the same chair at the table. Drank his rum mixed with Ruby Red from the J-E-T-S, Jets, Jets, Jets thermos, played the same lotto numbers at the grocery store in town. He left for second-shift work at exactly 1.45P.M. Always. The. Same.
While we sat there that day, he told me about a time when he was much younger, and wanted to start a go-cart park behind that McDonald’s. It was his dream for the kids to call him Mr. Fun. When I asked him why it never happened, he said his father, “Grandpa” refused to put up the money, it was a dumb idea. “That was a long time ago,” my father said, and he went back to his lunch. After we ate, my father FINALLY decided to clean the car’s interior. He was a packrat by nature. But sometimes enough was enough. So he backed the Granada to a green garbage can, and started filling the receptacle with old newspapers, plastic shopping bags, coffee cups, everything in between. I ate fries while he worked; all four passenger doors and the trunk popped open. As he carried another armful of crap to the garbage, a yuppie-looking guy with a pinstriped suit and stylish eye glasses, came to the can. Probably a State Worker on his 12PM break. But I didn’t know that then. I just saw the suit and got impressed. My father dropped his junk, looked at the yuppie, and said, “Nice day, ain’t it?”
Even when I was young I knew my father and I had very little in common. I wasn’t sure he was someone I could be proud of. Did I love him? Fear him? Hate him? All of the above. Growing up, I always made strategies to avoid him. If he was out back I went through the front. I hated saying happy birthday to him. One Father’s day I told him he wasn’t my dad. Why? I wanted attention. He had an invisible field around him that meant do not enter. Sometimes that field was no bigger than the kitchen, sometimes it was the size of Saturn. Steve came from a tough-guy bunch from the city of Albany. When they were teenagers, they hung by a convenience store called the Courtesy Mart, playing cards and smoking butts. As adults they worked hard, drank hard, partied hardest. College degrees were punch lines. My childhood was littered with memories of Stacky’s camp, Five Mile parties with bikers, and guys named Six Pack and Big John. My dad worked a labor job at General Electric I didn’t understand. He smoked cigarettes and drank alcohol every day, and was always frustrated about something, snapping into fits over anything from roast beef to rent money. I remember being driven to a dusty road behind Stacky’s camp, whipped by him for something I can’t recall. Whipped. I can still see the shine of those dirt specs on that back road, nobody but me, Steve, and the belt.
There was no predicting his next burst. My parents were young. They argued a lot. We lived in a basement apartment with no windows for five years before buying in the country. He didn’t like tossing ball or shooting hoops. He was bald by twenty five, a beer belly soon after. He grew a full beard and mustache, and looked like Homer Simpson the one time I saw him shaved clean. He didn’t care about material things or fancy clothes like my uncle Jack. He didn’t have a college degree or golf-club membership like his six brothers. My mother sometimes said Steve was the black sheep of his side, but that was only when they argued. I never imagined one day being like my dad. And I sure as hell would never drive a rust bucket on wheels.
When Steve said, “Nice day, ain’t it?” the yuppie turned his nose, legged it fast from that green garbage can, the same way someone would when a hobo begs change. I watched my father stand there, button-down flannel and jeans, his few hairs flying every which way, mountain-man style. He shook his head with disgust, the only defense mechanism I ever saw him exhibit habitually. When he came back to the car, sat behind that faded-rubber wheel, he was silent for a while. It was awkward. He’d been in such a good mood before the yuppie’s snub. Now I was afraid he’d burst and bring this happy day down. I so rarely spent time with the man without my mother playing buffer. But here we were. He’d been humiliated, and I no longer felt embarrassed for sitting prisoner in Rusty Jones’s worst nightmare. For a second I forgot the anger and fear I had for him. For a second we were together, father and son, and nothing else mattered. I felt embarrassed for him, and from that feeling surged a sense of loyalty and anger. This was my father and what just happened wasn’t right, even at 14, I knew that. I’ll never forget what he said to me after that wall of silence slid away. He looked at me, and said, “Don’t ever judge somebody by the way they look or what they drive.” I said I wouldn’t, and he started the car, and homeward we were. It was the first piece of perfect advice he’d ever given me. It was the first time I felt he talked directly to me, mano y mano. I no longer wanted to avoid him. I wanted to penetrate that invisible field forever.
By the time we hit the highway, he’d forgotten the whole thing. He was singing the words to a rock/pop song on the radio. The song said, “there's winners and there's losers/But they ain't no big deal/'Cause the simple man baby pays the thrills/The bills, the pills that kill.” He beat that faded-rubber wheel with his hands, sang out loud, and I’d never seen that side of him. I’ll never forget that yuppie in the park, that piece of advice, or my father singing those words as long as I live. That day lives like an island in our relationship, separate of the dynamic that otherwise existed. It was the greatest day we had together, because it marks our closest moment, even if the circumstance was less than ideal. And I wonder if it would’ve happened that way without the Granada.
The Granada hung around a few more years. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it sat driveway duty. When it hit 200,000 miles, Steve made us all pose for a picture with the car, both my mother and I holding 100 Grand candy bars close together. By the time I graduated high school, it was gone, to the afterlife of Art Dell’s Junkyard. I was sad to see it go. I wish I could say my attitude about the “silver beast” changed after that day in the park. I wish I could say I was never as embarrassed about climbing inside and backfiring from the high school lot. I wish I could say I borrowed it when I was sixteen to pick Rachel Sykes up for a Saturday-night date, and made her hold the Hefty bag of beer cans while I drove, and she loved it. But I can’t say that because it never happened. I was a typical teenager: short sighted, self involved, stupid. No way the Granada was ever gonna cut snuff in my world.
I guess the lesson of that day at West Land Hills wasn’t learned till much later.
Fast forward thirteen years and I’m sleeping late on a snowy Saturday morning, a few days after the New Year, 2009. I’d heard my cell phone ring from the other room a few times, but ignored it. Finally after the fifth call, I stumbled from bed, past the wall that displayed my college degrees and teaching licenses, to see who was so determined. It was my mother calling, and she was crying, and asking me if I was ready, “Really ready” for what she had to say. My mother’s a dramatic woman and we had a family dog that was closing in on Rainbow Bridge, so naturally I assumed. When the line went silent, I thought she’d disconnected. I went to redial, and she said, “Steve’s dead.” Just like that. He’d gotten out of bed at 6A.M., gone downstairs, made a cup of tea, sat in his TV chair, the same chair he always sat in, and died. It was from a massive heart attach. He was 54. He’d been complaining of exhaustion, working overtime that weekend to secure a future vacation day from his union. But there would be no vacation day. By noon he was in the morgue, arrangements were underway, and the house was filled with friends and family. Two days later his wake brought out 700 of Albany’s finest, passing the casket, and telling me how great of guy my father was. I remembered when I was a teenager and I was sure he wasn’t a man I could look up to. I remembered being embarrassed by his balding head, and beer belly, and rust-filled Granada; how everyone thought I was so poor when they saw it. But on that night, I met the man that everyone else already knew, the “great guy,” regardless of what he drove or the jeans he wore. The material things mean nothing in the real world. Just ask the ones who stood two hours in a snow storm to say farewell to a man who never cared about flash. I was beginning to understand what Steve was trying to teach me that day when he said, “Don’t ever judge somebody by the way they look or what they drive.”
A few weeks later, I learned it some more. It was a Monday afternoon and I was with my mother when an insurance examiner called. He’d said my father had built several life policies that nobody knew about. He’d been shrewd with his savings, uncompromising in his vision for a bigger, better future, a day when motorboats and snowmobiles ran. It was the future he’d wanted for his family. It was the future he figured on a second-shift laborer’s job while driving a rusty Granada for ten years. The insurance man told my mother her mortgage was satisfied, and it was time for her to retire a few years ahead of schedule, since lacking money would no longer be a problem. His gift to her was the simple, easy existence she always wanted, all financial worries dashed, and a promise to prolong her life as long as possible.
The other day I was driving with the sun roof down, and Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses” came on the radio. I recognized those rock/pop lyrics, and remembered the day I ate McDonald’s with Steve in the old Granada, and he told me about his dismissed dream of having go carts and being Mr. Fun. I remembered the way that yuppie snubbed my father over a green garbage can. I remembered on the highway how Steve sang that verse with such vigor. When the song made that same part, I hit the leather steering wheel of my overpriced car, and said, “There's winners and there's losers/But they ain't no big deal/'Cause the simple man baby pays the thrills/The bills, the pills that kill.” I thought of the silver 1978 Ford Granada with rust holes the size of soft balls. And, for the first time, I knew what the song said was true, I knew there were winners and losers in life, and I finally knew the difference between the two.