Memoir

The Little Kitchen With the Sad Telephone

Pinewood Derby
My mother held the telephone to her ear and sobbed. The base of the phone hung on the kitchen wall. It was the only telephone in the house. She cried and I turned the knob on the black television in our living room. Clunk! Clunk! Clunk! It was warm under the TV, but my father told me to never stick my feet under there or I’d get radiation on them. Clunk! Clunk! Clunk! Bewitched was on.

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Mikey Peterson and I rode our bikes up and down my neighbor Swede’s driveway. “I’m Evel Knievel when he jumped the buses,” Mikey said. He leaned against his sissy bar and pulled back on his ape hangers–a perfect wheelie.

“I’m Evel Knievel in his Sky Cycle, jumping the Snake River,” I said, and I jerked back on my handlebars, but the nose of my banana seat barely moved. “There’s my dad,” I said. We watched his blue pickup truck back into my driveway. “Hi, Dad. We’re playing Evel Knievel.”

“Come here, I have a job for you,” he said.  I parked my bike next to his truck. The bed was filled to the top with Coors cans. He lowered the tailgate and cans rattled to the driveway. “Smash all of these flat and put them in garbage bags and I’ll let you keep the recycling money.”

“How do I smash them?” I asked.

“Use the sledgehammer,” he said, and he went inside to sit in his chair and watch the news.

I walked to the back patio and found his sledgehammer. It was too heavy for me to carry, so I dragged it to the driveway. I positioned a beer can between my feet and hoisted the sledgehammer like that kid pulling the sword from the stone in the cartoon. I dropped the hammer between my feet. Splat! went the can, and it was as flat as the driveway. Hundreds of cans remained.

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My mother held the phone to her ear and sobbed. Clunk! Clunk! Clunk! The Monkees was on.

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My Cub Scout troop sent me home with a bag containing a block of wood, four nails, two identical stickers of the number nine in a black circle, and four plastic wheels. “We get to make a car and then we race them on this thing that looks like a Hot Wheels track but it isn’t orange and then there’s a winner but I don’t know what you get if you win,” I said.

“Well that sounds fun,” my mother said.

“Do you think Grandpa will help me make my car?”

“Maybe you should ask your dad.”

“Grandpa can make anything out of wood, right Mom?”

“He’s a very good carpenter, but I don’t think Grandpa’s feeling very good,” my mother said.

My father arrived home from work. He sat in his chair and watched the news. The hippies were protesting the war. He didn’t like the hippies. The city was going to start something called “bussing,” which meant more black kids at my school. People said the President was a liar. The news was boring.

We ate dinner at the table in our little kitchen where the phone hung on the wall. “Jimmy needs to build a Pinewood Derby car for Scouts,” my mother said.

“Oh yeah?” my father said.

“We get to make a car and then we race them on this thing that looks like a Hot Wheels track but it isn’t orange and then there’s a winner but I don’t know what you get if you win,” I said.

“We can cut it into the shape of a Ferrari,” my father said. “Put a little graphite on the axles and that sucker will fly.”

“They said the only thing we could add is some weights,” I said.

“Nobody would ever know. A little graphite and nobody could beat you.”

“How come they want us to add weights?”

“You’ll go faster,” my father said.

“No, because heavy is slower, like when I have to carry the sledgehammer,” I said.

“No, heavy is faster, like when you rode the big slide at Elitch’s with your fat ass uncle.” He was right. Uncle Buddha ripped down the slide so fast that we flew over the bumps and I almost fell off of the blanket.

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The phone rang and my mother cried. Clunk! Clunk! Clunk! I watched The Banana Splits.

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I sat on a stool and watched my dad work. He drew the swooping shape of a car on the block of wood, and then he maneuvered the block through his scroll saw. Watching his fingers so close to the moving blade scared me. The scar on his thumb was still red from where the table saw got him.

He sanded the wooden car body until it was smooth. “Do you want to paint it? Get over here, I’m not doing everything for you,” he said, and he shook a can of spray paint.

“Why does it make that noise?” I asked.

“There a marble inside the can,” he said. I didn’t understand. I thought only cereal and Cracker Jack came with toys. “Hold it about this far away. Keep your hand parallel to the plane of the wood and start and finish your passes — goddammit, you let the paint run. We’re going to have let that dry and sand it out.”

When the paint job was finished my father drilled several holes in the underside of the car. “What are those for?” I asked.

“The weights. We can add and remove these allen heads until we get her to exactly the official weight.”

“Are we going to put that stuff you said on the axles?”

“Nah, that’d be cheating. You have to play by the rules, son.”

When we were all done he let me put the number nine sticker on the car’s nose. It was cooler than a Hot Wheel.

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Grandpa came over for dinner. He wore his shirt that looked like it was made from blue jeans with the snaps that looked like pearls. In one pocket he carried a pouch of tobacco, and in the other a pack of cigarette papers. He had a shiny silver lighter in his pants pocket that he could light by swiping it back and forth across his pant leg. It was magical.

“You want something to drink, Dad?” my mother said.

“I’ll take a beer, hon,” Grandpa said.

“Don’t have any,” my father said.

“Just a cup of tea then,” Grandpa said.

“Grandpa, guess what? I’m going to be in the Pinewood Derby.”

“You are? What’s that?”

“It’s for Cub Scouts. Me and Dad made a race car and I get to race against the other kids on this thing that looks like a Hot Wheels track only it’s not orange. Do you want to see my car?”

“You bet I do, boy.” I ran to my bedroom and got the car. “That’s a beaut,” Grandpa said. “Fangio would be proud to drive that. You made that all by yourself?”

“No, my dad helped.”

“Not too bad for an appliance repairman,” Grandpa said. My father stared at him like he was a hippie burning a draft card. We ate dinner in the little kitchen, no news on the television and no sobbing on the telephone.

When it was time to leave, Grandpa picked me up and hugged me. His face was scratchy and he smelled of loose tobacco. “When’s your race?” he asked.

“Wednesday night,” I said.

“You call me when you get home and let me know how you did.”

“I will, Grandpa. Promise.”

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My mother held the phone to her ear and sobbed. “Why do you keep doing this?” she said. “What did I do?” Clunk! Clunk! Clunk! The Mosquitoes landed on Gilligan’s Island.

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All the boys were in uniform, their yellow neckerchiefs floating behind them as they chased each other around the school gym. The fathers huddled in groups of three or four, laughing too loudly at each others’ jokes and feigning interest in dull conversations.

“If I could have your attention please,” the scoutmaster said. “Please remove your caps and face the flag for the Pledge of Allegiance.” We did as we were told, and then we ran to the huge track that stood at mid-court. It looked like a model of Elitch’s bumpy slide but without the bumps. I imagined how much faster Uncle Buddha could slide without the bumps in his way.

Eight model cars rested at the top of the hill. The green flag waved, the gate dropped, and they rolled down the track. “The winner of heat one is lane three,” the scoutmaster said into his microphone. “Congratulations, Curt.” Curt’s father slapped him five.

Eight more cars were set atop the wooden hill. The green flag waved and the gate dropped. “The winner of heat number two is….”

My car won heat three. “What’s a heat?” I asked.

“It means you’re in the finals,” my father said.

“What’s that mean?”

“Just watch the race,” he said.

The winner of heat number four was a candy apple red car that looked like it was made from a model kit. It didn’t just win, it obliterated its competition. “I guarantee you that kid didn’t build that goddamned car by himself,” my father said.

The winners of the eight preliminary races idled at the starting line. My white car stood in lane three, the red car in lane four. The green flag waved. The gate dropped.

“The winner of this year’s Pinewood Derby is…lane four! Congratulations, Kenny. Second place goes to Curt in lane eight, and our third place finisher is Jimmy in lane three. Good job, boys.” Third place. It was the greatest thing that had ever happened to me.

When we arrived home I showed my mother my trophy. She smiled and listened while I rambled on about flags and heats and race tracks that looked like amusement park slides. “Can I call Grandpa?” I asked.

“It’s pretty late. Maybe we should call tomorrow,” my mother said.

“But he wanted me to call when I got home. I promised.”

My parents looked at each other. “Well, just for a minute, okay?” she said.

We walked to the kitchen and she dialed the phone. I sat on my knees on a Naugahyde chair beside her and watched the dial spin beneath her finger. The ones stopped quickly, but the nines took forever to make their way around. She handed me the telephone and I listened to the ringing sound.

“Hello?”

“Hey, Grandpa!”

“Margie baby!”

“No, it’s Jimmy. The race–I got third place!”

“Where you at, Margie baby? Come over here and give me a piece of that ass.”

“Grandpa, it’s Jimmy.” I looked to my mother. “He’s saying weird stuff,” I said. My grandfather kept laughing and saying things I didn’t understand. My mother took the telephone from me and placed it back in its cradle. “What’s wrong with Grandpa?” I asked.

“He must have thought you were one of his friends,” my mother said.

“Goddamned worthless drunk,” my father said. “I don’t care if he’s your father, Bonnie. If I find out he’s still calling you when he’s smashed I’ll beat his ass.”

That night I took my Pinewood Derby car to bed with me. I made a bumpy slide with my knees and my blanket. Inside my white number nine race car I sailed down the hill faster than Kenny’s red car, faster than Uncle Buddha on the Elitch’s slide, faster than anyone had ever gone. And then the car leaped into the air like Evel Knievel’s Sky Cycle and I flew far, far away from the little kitchen with the sad telephone.

Categories: Memoir

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